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Re: ARTICLE : Bhagwad Gita Commentary

Posted By H. Krishna Susarla (susarla.krishna@tumora.swmed.edu)
Wed, 22 Jan 1997 22:13:07 +0000 (GMT)

I had meant to get an answer to this thread sooner.

Someone asked about Gita commentaries other than Prabhupada's, to which
Randy made a list of such commentaries and said that they were not
acceptable, because the commentators introduced their own ideas or
something like that. He then said that he thought Prabhupada's translation
was the best among them, to which Rajan asked why this was so.

I'm not interested in participating in the heated exchanges that have so
far dominated this thread. I just thought I would give my impressions,
since I think the question was a reasonable one.

I will say for starters that I am not as well read as Randy, so I cannot
claim to have read all or even most of the commentaries he listed. Nor am I
a serious student of Sanskrit; I have at best a superficial understanding
of the language. But here are my impressions, for whatever they are worth.

My first Bhagavad-Gita was an English translation of a commentary by Shri
Shankaraachaarya done by A.G. Warrier, an Indologist. After that, I
obtained Swami Chinmayananda's _The Holy Geeta_ and also another English
translation of the Gita done by Barbara Stole Miller, a Columbia

The Miller version does not even have a commentary, so I would not
particularly recommend that edition for study. Miller's approach is
unacceptable because her Indological bias is very obvious. She makes it
pretty clear that she considers Krishna to be some Dravidian tribal god,
and not the Supreme Lord described in the Gita itself. Obviously, such
ideas are simply based on unfounded speculation.

The Shankaraachaarya commentary translated by Warrier is extremely dry and
difficult to read. However, I will say this for it: If someone wants to
know what Shankara's position is, this commentary is certainly a good
resource. It includes the devanagari of the verses and commentary, followed
by Warrier's translation of both the verses and the commentary.

That leaves me with Chinmayananda's _Holy Geeta_ and Prabhupada's
_Bhagavad-Gita As It Is_. I will describe why I like Prabhupada's
translation/commentaries better.

The first and most obvious thing that struck me about Prabhupada's
commentary is its scholarly look. His Gita was the first that I had seen
which included the original devanagari, the Roman transliteration, a
word-for-word translation of each verse, the translation itself, and an
elaborate purport. This gives a skeptic greater avenue for questioning the
translation than any other edition I had seen up to that point.

The second thing I liked about _Bhagavad-Gita As It Is_ was the quality of
the commentaries. Unlike Chinmayananda's version, Srila Prabhupada quotes
frequently from other scriptures to give supporting evidence. Examples of
other scriptures which he quotes are: Bhaagavata Puraana, Varaaha Puraana,
Padma Puraana, Katha Upanishad, Svetaashvatara Upanishad, Brihad-aaranyaka
Upanishad etc just to name a few. In most cases, he gives the Sanskrit and
verse numbers so that, again, you can play the skeptic and check each one,
thus satisfying yourself. This approach of quoting other scriptures, in
addition to lending credibility to the purports he writes, also shows
consistency between the different branches of the Vedic literature. If the
Vedas are to be accepted as scripture, then they must be consistent in
purpose; anyone who claims to be a follower of Vedanta should at least
accept this principle.

Another significant difference between the two commentaries is the mood of
the translator. In the very beginning of the preface to _Bhagavad-Gita As
It Is_, Srila Prabhupada writes, "If I have any credit in this connection,
it does not belong to me personally, but it is due to my eternal spiritual
master, His Divine Grace Om Vishnupaada Paramahamsa Parivraajakaacaarya 108
Shrii Shriimad Bhaktisiddhaanta Sarasvatii Gosvaamii Maharaaja
Prabhupaada." Then, just before the first chapter begins, Srila Prabhupada
lists his paramparaa, a listing of gurus through whom the teachings have
been transmitted. In this way, Srila Prabhupada credits the aachaaryas in
his line, even those who differ in some points of philosophy. He also
emphasizes the idea of hearing spiritual knowledge through paramparaa, a
very logical concept which all schools of Vedic philosophy more or less
accept, but which Chinmayananda and other commentators barely touch upon.

In contrast to Srila Prabhupada's humble mood, Chinmayananda comes across
to me as being someone who is very interested in fighting an uphill battle
against prejudiced attitudes towards Hinduism. His writings very often
strike me as catering to a certain mindset very often present in modern day
Hindus which involves West worshipping and denigration of traditional
values. This is a problem because Chinmayananda often sugar coats some of
the Gita's teachings so that they will be palatable to Western minds and
especially Westernized Hindus. For example, read what he has to say in
commenting on verse 9.32, the controversial sloka which states that women,
vaishyas, and shudras are of sinful birth (something which is likely to
offend feminists everywhere):

"To condemn women, traders and workers as individuals of inferior births is
equivalent to accepting that religion has an effective influence only upon
a mere handful of members of our society.... Therefore, we have to
understand the true implications of His words as He uses them here."

"Religion is not a technique for developing the physical body... Thus these
terms, as used in this stanza, are to be understood as indicating some
special qualities of the human mind-and-intellect, manifested in varying
degrees in different individuals, at different times."

"The "feminine-minds" (striyah) are those that have a larger share of deep
affections and binding attachments."

"So too, there are people, who have a "commercial attitude" in all their
thoughts and actions and who live in their mental life as traders,..." etc

"When we have understood that these terms, familiar in that age, are
borrowed by Krishna to indicate special types of mind-intellect-equipments,
we have understood the stanza rightly, without pulling down the entire
Geeta from its well-merited pedestal of dignity as a Scripture of Man."

Note the discrete attempt to sugar coat Lord Krishna's words: The word for
women (striyah) doesn't really mean women here; it just indicates people
with a certain feminine mindset. In similar manner, Chinmayananda explains
away other references to people of "sinful birth," thus satisfying people
who have been brought up with Western, egalitarian notions of society.
While this may seem okay to most of us, it is not a very sincere attitude
in dealing with the scripture. If we start to reinterpret the scripture
according to our tastes, that we can't honestly claim that the scriptures
are authoritative.

Now contrast this with Prabhupada's purport to the same verse (the only
reason I am posting it in its entirety is because an online edition is
available - see http://www.prabhupada.com/~btg/gita/):

"It is clearly declared here by the Supreme Lord that in devotional service
there is no distinction between the lower and higher classes of people. In
the material conception of life there are such divisions, but for a person
engaged in transcendental devotional service to the Lord there are not.
Everyone is eligible for the supreme destination. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam
(2.4.18) it is stated that even the lowest, who are called candalas
(dog-eaters), can be purified by association with a pure devotee. Therefore
devotional service and the guidance of a pure devotee are so strong that
there is no discrimination between the lower and higher classes of men;
anyone can take to it. The most simple man taking shelter of the pure
devotee can be purified by proper guidance. According to the different
modes of material nature, men are classified in the mode of goodness
(brahmanas), the mode of passion (ksatriyas, or administrators), the mixed
modes of passion and ignorance (vaisyas, or merchants), and the mode of
ignorance (sudras, or workers). Those lower than them are called candalas,
and they are born in sinful families. Generally, the association of those
born in sinful families is not accepted by the higher classes. But the
process of devotional service is so strong that the pure devotee of the
Supreme Lord can enable people of all the lower classes to attain the
highest perfection of life. This is possible only when one takes shelter of
Krsna. As indicated here by the word vyapasritya, one has to take shelter
completely of Krsna. Then one can become much greater than great jnanis and

Now note Srila Prabhupada's approach. Taking the literal understanding of
the verse, he acknowledges that inequality exists at the level of the
material world. However, in the very beginning, he points out that in
devotional service, such distinctions are nonexistent, and quotes the
Bhaagavatam to support this. For him, there is no need to insist (whether
implictly or explictly) on some artificial equality at the level of the
material world, because any transcendentalist knows that inequality (which
nobody likes) will always exist here. Nevertheless, in our original
spiritual position, such inequality is nonexistent. As stated in the Gita
itself, people get a body according to the kind of consciousness they have.
So it is no accident that a person gets a man's body or a woman's body. It
is far better then, to acknowledge the differences rather than ignore them.

Naturally, people are not going to like what Srila Prabhupada is implictly
implying, which is that men and women are not equal in the material world.
But what we like or dislike is besides the point; if Bhagavad-Gita is
scripture then it must have the authority to override our objections,
seeing as how we are simply imperfect, finite living beings.

Chinmaya's attempt to reach out to secularized minds manifests itself
elsewhere. For example, in his commentary on verse 2.12, he writes "It is
this conclusion of the Hindu philosophers that has given them the most
satisfactory THEORY OF REINCARNATION....." He quotes various Western
thinkers (Virgil, Ovid, Josephus, etc) and prophets in other religions to
support this contention, showing that there is no need to be ashamed of
this belief. Then in three other instances in the same commentary, he

Anyone who accepts the Vedas as apaurusheya would certainly not refer to
reincarnation as a theory, but as a fact. This may be picky on my part, but
my impression is that Chinmayananda's wording is selected for a specific
target audience -- namely, those who are embarassed about their Hinduism.
Unlike Chinmayananda, Prabhupada, in the same commentary, does not bother
trying to explain the logic of something so obvious that it ought to be
accepted without much concern. Instead, he comments on the verse to bring
out a major philosophical point -- the eternal individuality of God and the
living entities, a major point of contention between the traditions
Prabhupada and Chinmayananda represent. First, Prabhupada says that all
living entities and God are eternally individual, and that this is the
purport of na tv evaaham jaatu naasam... Then, he quotes the Katha
Upanishad to support this. Finally, he deals with various contradictory
theories held by advaitins, and logically disproves each one. This is an
example of the scholarly approach I was referring to earlier. Rather than
allowing any ambiguity in one's conception of the Absolute Truth, Srila
Prabhupada makes it *very* clear which of the two views he accepts, and
proceeds to refute opposing views.

There are a number of other differences I would like to comment on, but I
am running out of time and will have to save this for later. I want to make
it clear that I am not trying to pick on Chinmayananda in particular. Even
though I am convinced of the authoritativeness of Prabhupada's commentary,
I have never ceased to challenge myself by examining key verses in other
Gitas. Without exception, I have found most of them to contain the same
errors which are found in Chinmayananda's, so I am using him as an example.
The other points I will touch on in future posts are: 1) inaccuracies in
translations and 2) commentary contradicting the translation.

warm regards,

-- Krishna Susarla

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