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on January 7, 2002
I really like Stephen Mitchell's work, but it's important to know what you're getting.
What you're ordinarily _not_ getting is a straight-up translation of the source text; you're getting Mitchell's attempt to render the source text into a fine English poem that expresses the spiritual insights he wants it to express. (Examples: his excellent interpretive renderings of the Psalms and the Tao Te Ching. They are excellent interpretive renderings; they are _not_ translations.)
Even when the translation _is_ straightforward, he tends to chop the text to bits and just keep the parts he agrees with. (Examples: his translation of the book of Genesis, which includes the entire text but relegates the "spiritually suspect" parts to an appendix, and his rendering of the book of Job, which includes some terrific translation but omits the speech of Elihu and the poem in praise of wisdom.)
And now he's done the Bhagavad Gita. Has he translated it, or has he interpretively rendered it?
Well, the first point to make is that he _has_ included the entire text and limited himself to offering commentary on the parts he doesn't agree with. (Incidentally, I tend to disagree with the same parts and I understand that there have been Hindu scholars who have at least raised the same questions that Mitchell does.) This point alone means that Mitchell's Gita is a landmark: he hasn't chopped up the text in order to leave out the "spiritually inferior" portions.
So how good is his translation? Well, Mitchell says his own Sanskrit is "rudimentary," but that doesn't mean (as some reviewers seem to think) that he doesn't know any at all. (This is a bit different from his Tao Te Ching, in which he admits that he just doesn't read Chinese.) And this _is_ called a "new translation" rather than a "new interpretation."
But I don't know any Sanskrit at all, so I've just done some short comparisons with other translations. Based on spot-checks against the versions of Barbara Stoller Miller and Juan Mascaro, it looks to me as though Mitchell has stayed pretty close to the source. This is of course not an expert opinion of any kind and I'm prepared to be corrected by anyone who knows better. (And it may not even be much of a test, as Miller's translation in particular was one of the handful Mitchell consulted in preparing his own.)
Either way, what Mitchell is up to here is what he's up to nearly everywhere: he uses the traditional text as a medium to convey his own spiritual insights. And it's pretty clear from the get-go that he regards Lao-Tzu (i.e., _his_ Lao-Tzu) as spiritually superior to the author(s) of the Gita. Some readers may well agree with this evaluation (and I may be one of them; you guess). But all readers should be aware that Mitchell isn't trying to present a reverent discussion of the teachings of the Gita; he's sifting through it to see what parts of it measure up to his own Buddhist-Taoist-Jewish insights.
I am _not_ criticizing this enterprise; far from it. I tend to agree with many of Mitchell's insights, I really really really enjoy his poetic renderings, and on the whole I even admire his chutzpah (although in other books I've seen reason to criticize some of his scholarship). And in the present work he does, for example, raise (and to some extent answer) deep questions about the limits of nonviolence.
But, y'know, caveat emptor and all that. If you buy this book, buy it as Stephen Mitchell's work, not as an introduction to Hinduism through one of its central sacred texts. It's not really fair to describe this as a "boutique" Gita, but on the other hand it _is_ primarily a vehicle for Mitchell himself. I think that, like all of Mitchell's stuff, it's well worth reading and owning, but it depends on what you're looking for.
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on December 18, 2001
To take a representative example of one of Mitchell's translation mistakes, at BhG. 2.47 Mitchell translates the Sanskrit word adhikara as "right," as in "action is your right." While adhikara certainly means this in modern Hindi, the discourse on human rights so prevalent since the European Enlightenment was quite absent when the Gita was written in Sanskrit in the period between the 4th century BCE an the 4th century CE. We find better translations of this word in other recent translations of the Gita (e.g., Zaehner: "business," Sargeant: "jurisdiction"). Zaehner's edition also has the advantage of emphasizing the Sanskrit word te, "your," which is repeated again in the second line of the verse. The point is that for Arjuna, as a Ksatriya (warrior-caste), it is HIS job to act. And it is not simply a right, but an obligation.
As for Mitchell's introduction, which is orientalist in the worst sense of the word, I think others on Amazon have said enough. Thankfully, in 20 years Mitchell's boutique translation of the Gita will be out of print and lost in the sands of time, while the translations of more scrupulous scholars will continue to inspire young readers to learn more about India's philosophies.
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on January 23, 2003
I am mesmerized as I read this book and find within it the common thread that joins all the great holy books of the world. It is beautifully put together and written in such a fashion that it is a pleasure read. I was concerned about another reviewer's comments about this being an "interpretation" rather than a "translation" of the Gita, and so I sat down and compared several chapters of this book to the translation by Sir Edwin Arnold is a more standard treatment of this text. I found that Stephen Mitchell's version was much more readable and understandable, and yet did not take anything away from the authenticity of the actual text. For anyone wishing to take a slightly different path leading to the nearness to God, I highly recommend picking up this book.
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on September 17, 2003
I've been reading the Bhagavad Gita for almost 30 years. I compared this translation with several I have at home and was surprise with the quality and how the translator used poetry conveying in a precise manner the meaning of the Gita.
Some people complained in other reviews that the "translation cannot be a good one since the translator is not a religious person himself" (how do they know? just because he is not a HareKrishna or other religious group member?). Another reader accused him of trying to make an easy buck with this translation (Have you ever tried to translate the Gita in a poem form? Do you have any idea of the amount of work involved?) I really don't care about it.
This book is a good translation and a good poem.
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on March 22, 2001
The BHAGAVAD GITA "is a great religious poem," Ghandi wrote. "The deeper you dive into it, the richer the meanings you get" (p. 220). I was new to "The Gita," and I should have looked before I leaped into this edition.
I am not qualified to compare Mitchell's translation to any of the other two hundred English translations of the of The Gita published since it was written nearly two thousand years ago, nor am I qualified to discuss The Gita's path of self realization. But to me, it seems like this translation rarely goes more than ankle deep into The Gita's teachings. It is nevertheless a worthwhile book in at least two respects. It confronts its reader with the important question, "How should I live an authentic life?" It also shows that The Gita is intended to include all paths and all people, excluding no one from the boat of wisdom carrying us across "the sea of all sin" (4.36). Krishna says, "However men try to reach me,/ I return their love with my love;/ whatever path they may travel,/ it leads to me in the end" (4.11).
In his Introduction, Mitchell writes that The Gita can be read as an "instruction manual for spiritual practice," and as a "guide to peace of heart" (p. 23). The Gita tells us, "Though the unwise cling to their actions,/ watching for results, the wise/ are free from attachments, and act/ for the well-being of the whole world" (3.25). Although the path to self realization is not well defined in Mitchell's translation, reading any Gita is better than reading no Gita. As for me, I'm ready now to dive into a more meaningful Gita. Any recommendations?
G. Merritt
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on February 17, 2001
This is an English translation of a Hindu Poem written in Sanskrit which probably dates from 500 BC. The basis of the dating is the failure of the work to refer to Buddhism that has developed after.
The poem is basically the exposition of religious doctrine. The setting is a mythical battle. Two armies are drawn up to fight each other. Arjuna who is either the leader or champion of one army in a chariot takes up a position between the armies so that he can start firing arrows at the other side. The Hindu god Krishna drives his chariot. Arjuna is rendered powerless as he is eaten up by a moral crisis. As the other army contains so many of his relatives victory in battle can bring no honor for him. The honor would be eaten up by the moral evil of killing those who he should revere and protect. He turns to Krishna and asks for advice.
Krishna indicates to Arjuna that his role is to be a warrior. He should carry out his duty honorably and by doing so he acts morally. Krishna then explains that although Arjuna may kill people in battle he cannot destroy them. An explanation then occurs about the Hindu schema of the universe with the importance of reincarnation.
What then happens is an explanation of the Hindu religious scheme. The Gods exist to receive sacrifice and to receive prayer. They in turn have an obligation to intervene in the affairs of men providing rain and sunshine. The aim of men is to seek freedom from passion and the world. The poem is interesting as it sees the means of doing this as not simple or schematic but diverse.
When you consider the poem was written five hundred years before the Christian era the thing that strikes you about it is the clarity of the exposition and the sophistication of the dialogue. The sorts of works that were being read in the west at this time were the Iliad and the Odyssey. The sorts of people portrayed in the Iliad were by comparison bad tempered country helots.
The book is very short, god knows how good the translation was who speaks Sanskrit but it is an easy thing to read and a fascinating glimpse into a complex religious system of tremendous antiquity.
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on April 27, 2001
One of the things that irritated me about his particular "translation" was the fact that Mitchell admits in the book that he has a knowledge of only "rudimentary Sanskrit". If this is true, then I cannot have much faith in his "tranlsation". Still, to anyone who has read any of the other recent translations, there will be little of surprise here. Although Mitchell may not know Sanskrit, he apparently has relied on someone who does in order to get this "translation of a translation". One of the things that he mentions in this book that I agree with is that the first 12 chapers of the Gita and the last 6 chapters were written by different authors. In the first two thirds of the book, we see a kind, loving Krishna accepting all who try to reach him in any way they are able . . . even the sinful are seen as having a divine spark at their heart. This seems more in keeping with the earlier, Upanishadic tradition of advaita. The latter part of the book seems to have been written by some Samkhya philosopher bent upon classifyng everything according to the doctrine of the three Gunas. The latter part of the book is boring, repetitive, and seems to be on a considerably lower level than the rest of the book. Instead of the universal Krishna, we now have the angry god casting down the "evil" men again and again into infamy and who regards certain people as inherently demonic -- a stark contrast form the beginning chapters. Also of not is Gandhi's essay of Ahimsa and his view of how the Gita does not actually condone violence, but makes use of a war in order to present its message more clearly. Gandhi is not totally convincing in this, but it does provide a good counterpoint to those who use it as an excuse for violence and oppression in the name of god. Mitchell aslo quotes Thoreau in mentioning that Krishna's exhortations of Arjuna to fight are usually illogical and inconvincing. Although not a scholarly work, the introductory and concluding commentary do bring up some important points.
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on October 24, 2000
I realize I'm bias, because Stephen Mitchell is our author and a dear friend as well. But, as the editorial director of the imprint that publishes him, I simply had to share my experience of reading this translation. I have tried to embrace the GITA so many times in so many translations over the years, as I knew how much it had to offer--but I was always left cold, with the feeling that it was for someone else, not me. The experience of reading Stephen's version was one of coming home. I have read and re-read Stephen's version many times simply for inspiration and insight when I'm confused or too attached to a particular situation in my life. He has truly given the gift of the GITA to us all.
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on June 21, 2001
Although Mitchell has writing talent, he obviously hasn't taken the teachings of the Gita to heart. The Gita must be understood from one who understands its truths, who lives his life by its truths. Mitchell may be able to write nice poetry based on the Gita, but without the devotional attitude Lord Krishna recommends, his poetry is a disservice to humanity and useless gibberish. Though pleasant to read, it is ultimately misleading. For a much better introduction to the Gita, try Carl Woodham's Bhagavad-gita, The Song Divine. Written by one who has practiced the principles of the Gita for over 35 years, its spiritual truths shine through.
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on October 4, 2000
If Miller rates this book behind the Tao Te Ching and others as "a distant third" in spirituality, then he misses the whole point of the Gita. Houston Smith accurately called this a wonder poetic version. Note, he left out any commentary on the real essence of the work--it is a spiritual work. It is far more than just poetry. I still think the best edition of the "Gita," and I have seen many, is Edgerton's, from long ago--it is the most faithful to the spiritual teachings of the "Gita." If you want good poetry, then this is perhaps better, but not as faithful to the true meaning of the Gita.
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