How to know exactly what the Bhagavad Gita text says

The Gita is a book of practical mystical instruction. Though there are descriptions of the world-scheme, it is not an argued metaphysical treatise. The text is in beautiful but simple Sanskrit verse, easy to memorize, and arousing devotion, energy, intuition, and finally peace, in the memorizer.

To know exactly what the Gita text says, read the 1913 ‘The Bhagavad Gita’ by Franklin Edgerton, a great scholar who made a special study of this text. He set himself (for the sake of students of Sanskrit) to follow the exact pattern of the original verses, so that each line of the English corresponds to that line of the Sanskrit. In spite of some oddities of English construction, the translation still reads reasonably. In its own terms, it is a masterpiece. Students are recommended to get the 1972 paperback edition (which omits the Sanskrit). Readers should note that he translated the then little-known word ‘yoga’ as ‘discipline’.

For a modern looser version in attractive English, there is ‘The Bhagavad Gita’ translated by Juan Mascaro (Penguin Classics).

To learn by heart some key passages of a holy text is one form of the yoga practice of memory. Edwin Arnold’s old verse translation ‘The Song Celestial ‘is not only beautiful but easily, memorized.

My “Realization of the Supreme Self” gives the main points of Gita practice presented by Sankara, the earliest and greatest commentator. Specific applications to present-day life are mostly from teachings of the late Hari Prasad Shastri, who also exemplified them in his own life. He was a Sanskrit scholar, author the standard translation of the Ramayana epic.

Dr. Shastri himself published a small book, ‘Teachings From The Bhagavad Gita’, giving some of the important verses with his own comments to them.

The rendering of Gita verses here is as direct as possible, and in the light of Sankara’s understanding of them. Poetic conventions are omitted. For instance, in this type of Sanskrit verse, it was common to use names and epithets to identify speaker and spoken-to: ‘O best of men’ might correspond to a conventional ‘Good Sir’ in English. They have mostly been left out, as adding nothing to the instruction. It is however worth knowing that the personal name Krsna means Dark, and Arjuna means Bright. What is dark because it is as yet unknown (as Sankara explains), teaches the Bright which thinks all is clear to it.

The reader must expect unpoetic diction, as he would in a training manual. Take verses II.51 and 52 as an example.

It reads in Edgerton:

When the jungle of delusion Thy mentality shall get across,
Then thou shalt come to aversion
Towards what has been heard and is to be heard (in the Vedas).
Averse to traditional lore (‘heard’ in the Veda)
When shall stand motionless
Thy mentality, immovable in concentration,
Then thou shalt attain discipline.

Edgerton carefully brings out the nuance that this ‘hearing’ refers to the Vedic texts, many of them ceremonial… But there is an added nuance for the student f yoga practice. These holy texts have been studied with reverence. Some of them are quoted, and others paraphrased, in the Gita itself. Where does this ‘aversion’ come from?

The word in verse 51 is ‘nirvedam’, whose meaning ranges from indifference to loathing. In 52 it is ‘vi-pratipanna’ which can mean turning from, but also has a sense of being driven to distraction. There is a point when what was taken as good in itself is found to be illusory. If the first commandment endorsed by Christ, namely to love God, is dropped off, the second commandment, to love the neighbour, does not lead to peace. It may be vigorously pursued, but it does not relieve the inner aridity.

Spiritual experience suggests: ‘when your mind gets sick of what has been heard…’ and so Dr. Shastri sometimes gave it.

In general, the renderings here are not poetical (which often requires context for meaning and effect) but terse and practical. It is the sort of things found in a training manual, which would prefer ‘closed eyes’ to veile’d lids’… But readers are urged to read the whole poem, in its original form, to engage the whole personality.


There are some Sanskrit words which are not translatable: for instance, samadhi is a meditation state for which we have no English word. In music, technical terms are internationally understood in the original Italian. As Yoga becomes accepted, the few technical terms can best remain in internationally standard Sanskrit spelling. Otherwise Germans will spell Krischna, French Krichna, and the Japanese Kirishina.

It will thus be desirable to adopt the standard system of transliteration. It involves a few extra dots. To learn them is important for a practiser who wishes to use mantra, in which correct pronunciation has an effect on physical energy as well as mental. For the ordinary reader, it means that he can follow easily the wonderful line-by-line literal translation of the Gita by Edgerton.


The teacher in the Gita is Krsna. This can sound like Krishna, as in modern Hindi. But the sound of ‘r’ is more like the ‘ur’ in ‘church’. (In Europe the same vowel is found in Czech: the Czech word for throat is ‘krk’. So for millions in the West, this ‘vocalic r’ sound is easy.)

The dot under the ‘s’ makes it into ‘sh’. After getting the r, the tongue is already in position for the s and for the ‘n’. They are made naturally.

The short ‘a’, as at the end of Krsna, is the commonest sound in Sanskrit. It is not a Continental ‘a’, but nearer to the short English vowel in ‘punch’ or ‘pun’. Everyone studying Sanskrit is told this, and nearly everyone forgets it The Victorians were also right to spell the common Indian name Hari as Hurry.

After getting to know the few rules, the words will be sounded reasonably well. Once familiar, they can be read from a script without the dots, just as we now read correctly the French word facade printed without the cedilla under the ‘c’.

Dots under the ‘t’, ‘d’ and ‘n’, and an occasional ‘m’, indicate distinctions hardly perceptible to Europeans. The tick above ‘s’ makes it into a light ‘sh’. It comes repeatedly here in the name Sankara, which has also a dot above the ‘n’ of no audible effect..

To sum up:

like ‘ur’ in church alike the ‘u’ in pun alike ‘a’ in Pa ilike ‘ee’ in knee s’sh’as in gash slight ‘sh’ as in shilling

olike Italian ‘o’: To Anglo-saxon ears, it hasls1

some ‘aw’ in it. always long as in Ohmls3 e’ay’ as in day: always long. Vedanta is Vedd-anta, but always Vaydanta.


Adhayatma: relating to self, individual and finally cosmic

Abhyasa: regular long-sustained practice

Bhima the terrible one’; brother of Arjuna

Bhisma noble general opposing Arjuna’s side

Drona noble master archer

Guna: fundamental element of nature.

There are three: sattva (light, truth) , rajas (passion-struggle), tamas (darkness, inertia)

Jnana Knowledge

jnana-nistha: establishment in Knowledge

jnana-yoga: method of establishment in Knowledge

karma: ‘action’, including its distant effects

Karna: heroic half-brother of Arjuna, now opposing hi

Krsna: partially concealed incarnation of God, who has volunteered to be Arjuna’s charioteer

Nistha: taking one’s stand on, being established in

PanIni: grammarian who standardized Sanskrit about 400 BC

Patanjali: author of the Yoga Sutras pranayama control of vital currents, initially through manipulating breath

Samadhi: one-pointed meditation where all associations vanish and meditation object alone shines out

Samskara: dynamic latent impression left by action or intense thought

Sanjaya: sees the battle with divine vision and reports it

Vairagya:serene detachment

Vasudeva: another name of Krsna

Yoga: literally ‘method’. Spiritual methods to attain Knowledge and then Freedom

© Trevor Leggett

Similar Posts