Considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest spiritual scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of God” has been translated many times. Now Swami Asokananda, president of the Integral Yoga Institute and a monk since 1973, as well as the teacher of the IYI’s Gita study group, is working on a new translation and commentary. Kathleen Kraft sat down with him recently in his modest office to learn about his project.
Kathleen Kraft: What prompted you to embark on a new translation?
Swami Asokananda: I was studying and teaching the Yoga Sutras in the early 70’s through the mid 80’s when a new president came to the IYI and decided to take over the Sutras class. So I thought about what I should do instead, and I started studying the Bhagavad Gita.
What I found was that when I was really struggling in my life, brought to my knees by various situations, it was so helpful. I started working on the book about ten years ago during one of these particularly difficult times. I thought I had a love and depth for it but when I began translating it, I saw that what I had learned before was kind of superficial. The process of translating and writing clarified my own thinking.
It was also very useful for teaching in the study group, and from that experience, I decided to structure the work as a daily reading (or possibly two since the Gita is 700 verses) for 365 days, and at the end of the day there will be a blank page with a question that the reader can use to explore what he or she has learned. This would be done year after year so one can see the evolution of their understanding. It’s about what you feel and how you engage with the story.
KK: Do you engage with the reader in the actual commentary?
SA: The commentary is more my take on it, but coming up with the right question at the end of my thought is where I elicit that probing into one’s own thoughts.
KK: Are there other translations/commentaries that use that method of inquiry?
SA: No, I haven’t seen anything like it.
KK: 700 verses—will all of them be in your translation?
SA: I’m considering that right now. There’s a lot of Vedic mythology in it that is hard for people to apply to their lives, so I have to think about those verses because I want everything that goes into this book to be very pertinent. I want to keep it to the essence.
KK: Tell us about the nuts and bolts of the translation process.
SA: I’ve narrowed it down now, but I take about ten to twelve translations and see how each translator does it. Then I’ll look at the Sanskrit from a few different translations, and I’ll look at each word, and how it was translated. Some put the commentary in the translation—but I’m not doing that; my commentary is separate.
I modify a little bit in the translation, and that process is so much fun for me. I’m looking at every word and thinking about what it means to me, which is why it takes me about a year to do a chapter! I try to come at the commentary from my unique place, and I feel confident that I’m saying something that hasn’t been said before; it’s authentic from my experience. I also include some personal vignettes.
KK: How has your leading of the Gita study group impacted the process?
SA: Tremendously. People make me see what’s interesting. The group doesn’t want to talk pure philosophy. They’re struggling and they want to know what can I do to lead a more peaceful, happy or fulfilled life, so it keeps me honest in a way. People will ask, “What does this have to with me?”
KK: What does it have to do with you? Krishna says to Arjuna that he is behind everything he does, that in a way it is not even Arjuna who is doing it. Do you feel that way about your life and this work?
SA: That’s a profound question. Mostly I move around thinking that this bodymind is me. Occasionally I can see that the real me is not doing anything. The bodymind has its own destiny, karmas to fulfill, and then there’s the me who is not doing anything, is not affected. I am trying to get to the place where this bodymind is acting in such a way that it is not creating any karma. But whoever is doing is creating karma. Right now I’m fulfilling my destiny and you’re fulfilling yours, and then there’s the one consciousness observing everything. It’s such an elevated place; it’s hard to think about it, let alone experience it. I think we can get a taste of it, but it’s rare.
One of the nice things about the way I’m living my life is that I work on the translation and commentary first thing in the morning for an hour before meditation here which starts at 6am —that’s why it’s taking me so long. It really puts me in an amazing place so then I go to meditation as this vibratory consciousness is operating through me. It impacts my meditation and my life, so it’s seeping in gradually.
KK: The writing of this book is really your dharma.
SA: I thought about that a lot when I started because there are so many wonderful translations and commentaries, but this one is different. I’m a kid from Queens who grew up in this culture and is trying to live the spiritual life as fully as possible. Whenever I don’t doubt myself it feels like my dharma. And I enjoy it so much! I feel like a fish in water. Even if my computer crashed and everything was lost, I still would have had been fulfilled. That’s the teaching of the Gita: it’s not the result; it’s the action itself.