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This volume which comprises Gandhi's wisely succinct Gujarati translation of and commentary on the Gita, the central statement of his religious faith, introduced by the 134 page thickly detailed commentary of his intimate associate and English translator, Mahadev Desai, deserves a wider audience. There are a number of important reasons for my claim.
1) As we stand facing the distinct possibility of nuclear holocaust, we need to carefully examine and marshal all forces for peace in the coming days. Gandhi was the most powerful and influential voice for peace in the previous century. The Gandhian model of non-violent resistance has become the archetype of the most advanced impulse to the creation of world-wide peace and justice, a new era of peace and justice, to which we all, no matter how desperately, must adhere. To this point, Jack Kennedy, with characteristic prescience, once mused: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable". Any directives which might be garnered from Gandhiji's personal reflections on the very source of his inspiration would sensibly be viewed in light of their potential value regarding our present situation. The immediate value of the manuscript, then, lies far beyond its interest as a mere historical artifact.
2) The book brings together, in examination by both translators, the two streams of Gandhi's yogic practice: bhakti (devotion) yoga and karma (action) yoga. Not surprisingly, these are the two forms of yoga most accessible and relevant to our contemporary lives. Although I feel that, in living, we tend to engage, in some way, all four basic yogic approaches (bhakti, karma, jnana, and raja), however unconsciously or falteringly, one cannot deny the strength of the observation that bhakti is for us, who seemingly are here to bear witness at the end of the kalpa, the most appropriate yoga, if for no other reason than that our individual and collective memory of the holy name is the precious possession that no amount of pain, suffering, corruption, disease, or misguided government policies can ever take away. If, as is commonly claimed, "Love is the answer", then the path of devotion to the highest idea, or ideal, is the one that's going to get us there. The Gita is the seminal testament of bhakti. In these pages, we find that Gandhiji, regarded as one of history's great karma-yogins, a figure who intricately wrought high ideals of ascetic or religious morality and universal love within rigorous perimeters of a determined agenda of social action, considered himself primarily a bhakti - a devotee of Krishna. The point is crucial. This powerfully direct articulation of the slokas penned in the deep isolation of a prison cell has its impetus in devotion.
Again, the Gita is the prerequisite manual for action. The text is often famously read as an explanation of the divine maxim found at II:47: "Action alone is thy province, never the fruits thereof; let not thy motive be the fruit of action, nor shouldst thou desire to avoid action". The commentary here shows us how Gandhi construed this injunction in shaping his campaign for freedom: "There should be no selfish purpose behind our actions. And to be detached from the fruits of actions is not to be ignorant of them or disown them. To be detached is never to abandon action, because the contemplated result may not follow. On the contrary, it is proof of the immovable faith in the certainty of the contemplated result following in due course." (Young India, 15/3/28) What concept could be more signal for the Gandhian project or, in its larger manifestation, the impulse for world peace?
3) As is well known, the influx of bhakti into the West over the past half-century has been notable. Although his impact has not been nearly as immediate or far ranging as that of Gandhi, the facts force the most skeptical critic of ISKCON to admit that, whatever else he may or may not have been, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was one of the most spectacularly successful missionaries of any era. The story of the unlikely and sudden emergence of "Krishna consciousness" in late 20th century America into an endowed, enduring, and truly international movement of recognizable effect within the span of less than a decade - really less than half a decade - from radically inauspicious and indigent beginnings (Prabhupada arrived alone, unknown, and virtually penniless in New York in 1968) is mind-boggling. As Prabhupada's translation of the Gita, Bhagavad-gita As It Is, is far and away the most widely read version, with at the least many millions of copies in print in hundreds of translations, it is incumbent to compare Gandhi's reading in some small way to what has become, by vox populi, if by credence of no other, the standard.
As a matter of fairness, one ought first note that, while the initial goal of the two interpreters was at core identical, to bring the message of the Gita to a much wider readership as soon as possible, the two versions diverge in the larger intention. According to Desai, ". . . the Anasaktiyoga was written mainly for the Gujarati reading public, and especially the unsophisticated and even unlettered section of that public. Secondly, he wanted the book to be made available to the poorest in the country and, therefore, as small in size and as cheap as possible. These two ends necessarily limited the scope both of Gandhiji's introduction and notes. He studiously avoided all things that would make the little book in any way difficult for the unlettered reader, and deliberately
Kept out of his regard the studious or the curious who would need help on certain points in which the readers he had in view would not be interested". I find his approach refreshing. As compared with other translators, Gandhi renders the slokas with a spare elegance and simplicity, a reserve, which, to my sense, enhances their innate power.
Prabhupada indicates a much grander scheme: "I have tried to present the Bhagavad-gita as it is, without any adulteration. Before my presentation ... almost all English editions were introduced to fulfill someone's personal ambition. But our attempt, in presenting the Bhagava-gita As It Is, is to present the mission of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krsna. Our business is to present the will of Krsna, not that of any mundane speculator like the politician, philosopher, or scientist, for they have very little knowledge of Krsna, despite all their other knowledge ... The Krsna consciousness movement is essential in human society, for it offers the highest perfection of life. How this is so is explained fully in the Bhagavad-gita".
Let's examine the difference in light of one sloka, 10:36. Prabhupada's translation: "I am also the gambling of cheats, and of the splendid I am the splendor. I am victory, I am adventure, and I am the strength of the strong". Now Desai's English version of Gandhi's translation goes: "Of deceivers I am the dice-play; of the splendid, the splendor; I am victory, I am resolution, I am the goodness of the good".
Now, each translation has apparent virtues. The comprehensive nature of Prabhupada's project is as categorical as his devotion. What is of concern is the comparison to Gandhi's intent to give a bare-bones rendering of the text. In the commentary, Desai observes: "Bhide Shastri translates: `I am the gamble of the deceivers'". If we reflect on this idea which Gandhi preserves in his street allusion to `dice-play', we see the sloka develop in three stages: First, the Supreme manifests as "the gamble of deceivers or frauds"; then, as "the splendor of the splendid, victory, resolution" or, according to Prabhupada "ad - venture" or "venture to - ward"; finally, as "the goodness of the good". Now, for the last line of the sloka Prabhupad transliterates the original Sanskrit thusly: sattvam sattvavatam aham. While I'm certain there are devotees who could justify Prabhupad's translation, I personally have never read elsewhere a translation of sattva as `strong'. `Pure', yes, and `good', as Gandhiji has it - but "strong"? The commentary, which Prabupada then gives, is an attempt to justify what appears to be an interpretation of the text rather than a literal translation. One could translate the verse as "the purity of the pure", but Gandhi's minimalist version seems sufficient.
What occurs to me is that the three successive images correspond precisely to the progression of the three gunas of prakriti (manifestation of the Divine as nature) in the Samkhya philosophy with which we well know from the text the writers of the Gita were extensively involved: tamas, rajas, and sattvic. The allusion here seems evident, when the literal, rather than interpretive translation is presented.
I hope I have made clear the strengths of Gandhi's Anasakti-yoga, as the text is known, for the benefits of reading it are innumerable. Please do. My advice is to read the text of the Gita first, and then turn to Desai's erudite, very educated, and lengthy commentary which precedes the text. Desai's education was a product of the colonialism of the Raj, and he manages to make best use of his wide reading, despite the impress of the peculiar admiration of mimicry which that venerable system for better or worse produced.