Insights into the Gita: What Different Translations Tell Us

Insights into the Gita: What Different Translations Tell Us

Voice of the Infinite: Teachings of the Bhagavad Gita

Rolf Sovik, PsyD

The Bhagavad Gita inspires a deeply personal search for peace. Part history, part mythology, and part allegory, its teachings have the power to galvanize our spiritual life. This very fact supplies us with an incentive to read the Gita carefully, reflecting on its words and their meanings—our focus in this second post in the series.

The first post concluded with Arjuna’s appeal to Krishna for help. Unable to overcome painful visions of war, Arjuna has collapsed onto the seat of his chariot in despair. He grieves over the enormous loss of life, the dissolution of families, and the destruction of long-held traditions that will surely be the outcome of the approaching battle. Now, at this moment of crisis, he turns toward Krishna for guidance. What shall he do? And how can his actions lead him to find peace within himself?

The Concept of Dharma

Before looking at Arjuna’s inner struggle as seen through several Gita translations, it might be helpful to understand the meaning of the word dharma. This word, found in many verses of the Gita, represents an important and rather complex concept. It refers to recognizing and doing what is ours to do, our natural duty, at every level and layer of life. In the case of Arjuna, an accomplished warrior about to go to battle, dharma requires him to ask, “Should I fight?” This query is one of the essential questions of the Gita, and of life itself. Each of us has an acquired identity. Given the nature of that identity, and the shaping we continue to apply to it, how are we to recognize what is wise and what is true for us at any given moment in time? In the Gita, Arjuna temporarily responds to this complex question by first resolving “I will not fight.” Certainty, however, remains elusive, and Arjuna’s inner doubt soon leads to a return of sorrow and helplessness.

Understanding Arjuna’s Struggle: Differences in Translation

The importance of a careful reading of the Gita is magnified by the fact that most of us are reading English translations. Sanskrit, the language of the Gita, is a language known for the richness of its vocabulary and for its layered meanings. So, in the transition from Sanskrit to English, we are challenged to look for meanings that nourish our sensibility and understanding as well as our spirit. And, as you will soon see, when a translation seems less than satisfying to you, another translation of the same verse may provide just the meaning that brings the verse into focus for you.

Below are seven different translations of verse 2:7 of the Gita, a verse in which Arjuna has reached the edge of despair and calls out to Krishna for guidance and instruction. In reaching his emotional limits, Arjuna also reflects our own. These seven versions capture various aspects of Arjuna’s struggle. Each version adds something to our understanding—a nuance, a clarification, an emotional tone. The translations bring Arjuna’s heart, mind, and spirit into view. By carefully exploring the small but distinctive differences among the various translations, we have an opportunity to sink more deeply into Arjuna’s psyche and understand the sources of his inner conflict.

Sanskrit is a language known for the richness of its vocabulary and for its layered meanings.

Following the translations of verse 2:7, you will find a concise explanation of its themes, and an even more focused comparison of the words each translator has chosen. Here are the translations:

Translation 1

My heart contaminated by the taint of helplessness, my mind confounded about dharma, I ask Thee: Tell me what is absolutely good. I am Thy pupil. Instruct me, who have sought Thy grace.
—Alladi Mahadeva Sastry, The Bhagavad Gita with the Commentary of Sri Sankaracharya

Translation 2

My natural disposition is vitiated by a sense of pity, and my mind is in utter confusion regarding my duty. Lord, I beg Thee: tell me with certainty what will lead to my good. I am Thy disciple. Instruct me, who have taken refuge in Thee.
—Swami Tapasyananda, Srimad Bhagavad Gita

Translation 3

My true nature subdued by the fault of miserableness, my mind deluded as to the righteous conduct, I ask you: whatever is definitely better, do tell me that. I am your disciple surrendering to you. Do teach me and guide me.
—Swami Rama, Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita

Translation 4

My will is paralyzed, and I am utterly confused. Tell me which is the better path for me. Let me be your disciple. I have fallen at your feet; give me instruction.
—Eknath Easwaran, The Bhagavad Gita

Translation 5

My compassion is an error that harms my very being. I ask you because my understanding of duty [dharma] is confused. What would be better? Tell me unambiguously. I am your student. You are my refuge. Teach me!
—Rev. Stephanie Rutt, An Ordinary Life Transformed

Translation 6

With my own being overcome by pity-weakness, I whose mind is confused as to my duty, ask thee which should be preferable, for certain? Tell that to me, thy pupil. Correct me, thy suppliant.
—Winthrop Sargeant, The Bhagavad Gita

Translation 7

My very being is afflicted by a piteous weakness of spirit. My thoughts on dharma are completely bewildered. I ask you, tell me what is definitely better for me! I am your student—instruct me, for I have offered myself unto you.
—Graham M. Schweig, Bhagavad Gita

As you can see, although these seven translations are of the same verse (BG 2:7), the interpretations they offer differ from one another. We can examine these differences more carefully by dividing the original verse into two parts: In the first part, Arjuna expresses his doubt and confusion. He is racked by uncertainty. In the second part of the verse, Arjuna surrenders to Krishna and asks for his guidance.

Part 1
  • I feel helpless.
  • I have lost my composure.
  • I am confused about what I should do (what is my dharma?).
Part 2
  • I surrender to you. Please be my teacher and guide me.
  • Tell me what is good for me (what is my dharma?).
A Closer Look

We can gain a deeper understanding of Arjuna’s inner conflict by dividing the first part of verse 2:7 into three columns. The translations are numbered the same as before. Note the differences in the seven translations.

Afflicted Self Problem of Afflicted Self Source of Affliction
1. my heart is contaminated by the taint of helplessness
2. my natural disposition is vitiated by a sense of pity
3. my true nature is subdued by the fault of miserableness
4. my will is paralyzed
5. my very being is harmed by the error of my compassion
6. my own being is overcome by pity-weakness
7. my very being is afflicted by a piteous weakness of spirit

A key to understanding this verse is the Sanskrit word karpanya. Its essential meaning is “pity.” “My natural disposition,” says Arjuna, “is vitiated by a sense of pity” (No. 2). In translation No. 6, Arjuna describes himself as “overcome by pity-weakness.” And “a piteous weakness of spirit” afflicts Arjuna in translation No. 7.

But despite these variations, more than half the translations (Nos. 1, 3, 4, and 5) offer different sources of affliction altogether. These are “helplessness,” “miserableness,” the absence of any source at all, and finally, in a particularly meaningful insight (No. 5), Arjuna says of himself, “My compassion is an error that harms my very being.” Arjuna’s error is that he has substituted pity for wisdom. The cause of this error is Arjuna’s attachment to family, to teachers, to ancestors, and even to social order. He is bewildered regarding what is a genuine source of happiness and what is not. And he is forgetful regarding the true nature of body, mind, and Self.

Though his cousins are blinded by greed and seek their own ends, Arjuna sees no moral good in killing them, even though they would kill him. The destructive consequences he envisions of fighting against his teachers and relatives have amplified his fears and doubt, and magnified his confusion.

Krishna’s Response

One might expect the Lord of Life to offer comforting words in response to Arjuna’s crisis. But although he smiles at Arjuna (BG 2:10), creating an impression of confidence, Krishna’s words are less than sentimental: “Abandon this littleness and weakness of the heart and rise,” he admonishes (BG 2:3). In verse 2:11, he strengthens his advice, seizing on Arjuna’s failure to discriminate between wisdom and pity: “You are grieving about those over whom one should not grieve, and yet you are speaking words of pretended wisdom. The wise do not grieve about those who are yet breathing nor about those who have ceased to breathe.”

“My compassion is an error that harms my very being.”

The depth of Krishna’s advice needs time to mature. It is worked out over the next 30 verses of chapter 2 of the Gita. Something exists in every human life, Krishna says, that is invisible before life begins and again invisible when life ends. In between these unmanifest stages of being is a period of manifestation—a period in which a timeless and all-pervasive spirit permeates body and mind. To look outward, as Arjuna has been doing, is to see the manifest aspect of beings. To look inward is to engage in a search for happiness and truth, a search aimed at the discovery of an enduring Self. Thus, having twice struggled against Krishna’s advice, Arjuna now becomes fully engaged in a dialogue—an interchange pointing to knowledge of the Self.

Be sure to join us in the next blog post (read all of chapter 2 of the Gita before then, if you’d like) to explore Krishna’s fundamental teachings about the nature of karma. Until then, here are words of encouragement from Krishna: “Belonging to the immeasurable, imperishable, eternal owner of the body, these bodies are said to be perishable; therefore fight, O Descendant of Bharata” (BG 2:18).

[Translations in last section taken from Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Rama.]

About the Author

Rolf Sovik, PsyD

President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute, Rolf Sovik, PsyD, began his study of yoga and meditation in 1972. He is a student of H.H. Swami Rama and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, and under their guidance has explored the teachings of the Himalayan tradition. He holds degrees in philosophy, music, Eastern Studies, and Clinical Psychology. He is currently a resident of the Himalayan Institute where he lives with his wife, Mary Gail. Read Rolf’s articles on yoga wisdom and spirituality in the Himalayan Institute Wisdom Library.