A New English Translation
Harmony Books 2000
Stephen Mitchell is widely known for his ability to make ancient masterpieces thrillingly new, to step in where many have tried before and create versions that are definitive for our time. He now brings to the Bhagavad Gita his gift for breathing new life into sacred texts.
The Bhagavad Gita is universally acknowledged as one of the world’s literary and spiritual masterpieces. It is the core text of the Hindu tradition and has been treasured by American writers from Emerson and Thoreau to T. S. Eliot, who called it the greatest philosophical poem after the Divine Comedy. There have been more than two hundred English translations of the Gita, including many competent literal versions, but not one of them is a superlative literary text in its own right.
Now all that has changed. Stephen Mitchell’s Bhagavad Gita sings with the clarity, the vigor, and the intensity of the original Sanskrit. It will, as William Arrowsmith said of Mitchell’s translation of The Sonnets to Orpheus, “instantly make every other rendering obsolete.”
Chapter 9: The Secret of Life
The Blessed Lord said:
Because you trust me, Arjuna,
I will tell you what wisdom is,
the secret of life: know it
and be free of suffering, forever.
This is the supreme wisdom,
the knowing beyond all knowing,
experienced directly, in a flash,
eternal, and a joy to practice.
Those who are without faith
in my teaching, cannot attain me;
they endlessly return to this world,
shuttling from death to death.
I permeate all the universe
in my unmanifest form.
All beings exist within me,
yet I am so inconceivably
vast, so beyond existence,
that though they are brought forth
and sustained by my limitless power,
I am not confined within them.
Just as the all-moving wind
wherever it goes, always
remains in the vastness of space,
all beings remain within me.
They are gathered back into my womb
at the end of the cosmic cycle —
a hundred fifty thousand
billion of your earthly years —
and as a new cycle begins
I send them forth once again,
pouring from my abundance
the myriad forms of life.
These actions do not bind me, Arjuna.
I stand apart from them all,
indifferent to their outcome,
Under my guidance, Nature
brings forth all beings, all things
animate or inanimate,
and sets the whole universe in motion.
Foolish people despise me
in the human form that I take,
blind to my true nature
as the Lord of all life and death.
Their hopes and actions are vain,
their knowledge is sheer delusion;
turning from the light, they fall
into cruelty, selfishness, greed.
But the truly wise, Arjuna,
who dive deep into themselves,
fearless, one-pointed, know me
as the inexhaustible source.
Always chanting my praise,
steadfast in their devotion,
they make their lives an unending
hymn to my endless love.
Others, on the path of knowledge,
know me as the many, the One;
behind the faces of a million
gods, they can see my face.
I am the ritual and the worship,
the medicine and the mantra,
the butter burnt in the fire,
and I am the flames that consume it.
I am the father of the universe
and its mother, essence and goal
of all knowledge, the refiner, the sacred
Öm, and the threefold Vedas.
I am the beginning and the end,
origin and dissolution,
refuge, home, true lover,
womb and imperishable seed.
I am the heat of the sun,
I hold back the rain and release it;
I am death, and the deathless,
and all that is or is not.
The righteous who follow the scriptures
strictly, who drink the soma
and are purified of their sins,
who pray to be taken to heaven —
they reach the world of the gods
and enjoy an indescribable
bliss, although after eons
of those vast and glorious pleasures,
when their merit is spent, they fall back
into the mortal world;
impelled by desire, they achieve
only what will pass away.
But to those who meditate on me
undistracted, and worship me
everywhere, always, I will bring
a reward that never can be lost.
Arjuna, all those who worship
other gods, with deep faith,
are really worshiping me,
even though they don’t know it.
For I am the only object
and the only enjoyer of worship;
and they fall back because they cannot
know me as I truly am.
Worshiping the gods, men go
to the gods; worshiping spirits,
to the spirits; worshiping me,
they come to me in the end.
Any offering — a leaf,
a flower or fruit, a cup
of water — I will accept it
if given with a loving heart.
Whatever you do, Arjuna,
do it as an offering to me —
whatever you say or eat
or pray or enjoy or suffer.
In this way you will be freed
from all the results of your actions,
good or harmful; unfettered,
untroubled, you will come to me.
I am the same to all beings;
I favor none and reject none.
But those who worship me, live
within me and I live in them.
Even the heartless criminal,
if he loves me with all his heart,
will certainly grow into sainthood
as he moves toward me on this path.
Quickly that man becomes pure,
his heart finds eternal peace.
Arjuna, no one who truly
loves me will ever be lost.
All those who love and trust me,
even the lowest of the low —
prostitutes, beggars, slaves —
will attain the ultimate goal.
How much easier then for ordinary
people, or for those with pure hearts.
In this sad, vanishing world
turn to me, and find freedom.
Concentrate your mind on me,
fill your heart with my presence,
love me, serve me, worship me,
and you will attain me at last.
“The Gita is a love song to reality, a hymn in praise of everything excellent and beautiful and brave.” Time and again Mitchell’s rendition evokes just that… It is a moving text, poignant, beautiful, haunting.
—Los Angeles Times
Mitchell must by now be accounted one of our generation’s heroic translators, having taken on the Book of Job, the Tao Te Ching, and Genesis and done so much to popularize Rilke in English. Now he applies his considerable skill and sympathy to one of the most noted sacred texts of Asia, the Bhagavad Gita, and the results are very happy… Highly recommended.
As Mitchell notes in his excellent introduction, the Gita is not just one of the core texts of Hindu religious philosophy; it has been a key work in the development of American literature as well… Mitchell has the uncanny ability to usher originals into an English of beauty and resonance without making them all sound alike. His Gita is dazzling without ostentation… This is a handsome and expertly translated version of one of the world’s most important religious poems.
Few events in publishing these days can be called joyous and historically significant, but the appearance of Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of the ancient Hindu holy book the Bhagavad Gita is such an occasion… He has created a verse translation of the Gita that moves more quickly and is more accessible than the previous translations… [This is] the perfect book to delve into whenever you feel a need to enter… a world in which we are eternal, radiant, and loved.
On the list of the greatest spiritual books of all time, the Bhagavad Gita resides permanently in the top echelon…. In this titular translation, Stephen Mitchell’s rhythms are faultless, making music of this ancient “Song of the Blessed One.”
—Brian Bruya, for Amazon.com
Mitchell must by now be accounted one of our generation’s heroic translators, having taken on the Book of Job, the Tao Te Ching, and Genesis and done so much to popularize Rilke in English. Now he applies his considerable skill and sympathy to one of the most noted sacred texts of Asia, the Bhagavad Gita, and the results are very happy. He works in free-verse quatrains of about three beats per line, and his language flows with great naturalness. Inevitably, this text will remain both ancient and foreign to many modern readers, but Mitchell’s work goes a long way to making these words…[drive] away your ignorance and delusion. Highly recommended.
Thoreau said of this Indian masterpiece that “in comparison, our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial,” while Gandhi claimed that those who meditated upon it would “derive fresh joy and new meanings from it every day.” The sixth book of the epic Mahabharata, the Gita is one of Asia’s most renowned spiritual texts. Mitchell, whose translation of the Tao Te Ching has been extraordinarily popular, offers a direct, clean translation of the Gita that reads like a series of pithy epigrams of advice and comfort… Mitchell clarifies meaning without sacrificing beauty and emotional resonance. Recommended for libraries whose patrons show strong interest in non-Western religious traditions.