Krishna and Arjuna

December 31 2009

Review of Juan Mascaró, translation and Introduction, The Bhagavad Gita, Penguin Classics, 1962.

The Gita, part of the Mahabharata, one of the two Hindu epics (along with the earlier Ramayana), was composed early in the Christian era or late in the pre-Christian and was first translated into English by Charles Wilkins in 1785.

Namaste’s negative review of Mascaró on Amazon (“biblification”) sounds penetrating. Even I had questioned Mascaró’s translation of “dharmakshetra” or field of dharma as “field of truth” when I compared the first page on Amazon with the newer Penguin translation there by Laurie L Patton. Both are available, among many others. The square brackets here are mine.

The Bhagavad Gita has been translated repeatedly into English and other modern languages, and it is improbable that Mr. Mascaró’s translation will be the last. The Gita is one of the supreme religious poems. It deals with crucial spiritual problems, and its treatment of them is profound. This is why successive students of the Gita constantly discover new depths of meaning in it.

Translations inspired by such new insights are not superfluous, even if they have had predecessors, and the present translation is welcome because it is illuminating. It is sensitive and at the same time straightforward. Moreover, Mr. Mascaró, in his preface, has managed to put the Gita in its setting in the history of Indian religion, philosophy and literature.

Like the Gospels, the Gita resorts to paradox, and this for the same purpose. The reader is to be shocked into opening his heart and mind to teachings to which he might otherwise have been obtuse because of their difficulty or just because of their sheer novelty.

The poem opens on what is ostensibly a literal battlefield. The hero Arjuna is in revolt at the prospect of killing opponents, who are his kinsmen, in order to win a kingdom for himself, and he seeks counsel from his charioteer, who is Almighty God, incarnate as Krishna [an avatar of the supreme deity Vishnu]. God tells Arjuna that it is his duty to fight. He will be doing no wrong so long as he is spiritually detached from what he is doing; and, even if he kills an opponent’s body, it is impossible to kill his soul.

In giving this counsel, God seems to be preaching moral irresponsibility as an anodyne for a human being’s moral scruples. This is shocking enough to move the reader to look below the surface; and, at every subsequent stage of spiritual exploration, the poem opens the way for the reader to go deeper.

The issue is between renunciation and detachment on the one side and un-self-seeking dedicated action on the other. Arjuna, in his spiritual travail, asks Krishna which of the two is the higher path. Krishna’s answer is that “both renunciation and holy work are a path to the Supreme, but better than the surrender [abandonment] of work is the Yoga of holy work”. Action is unavoidable, and “no work stains a man who is pure, who is in harmony, whose soul is one with the soul of all.”

This is Saint Augustine’s “Love God and then do what you like.” If one does truly love God one will, no doubt, do what God likes. But is God’s will invariably good when judged by human moral standards?

Christianity assumes that the answer to this question can only be in the affirmative. This Christian assumption is impugned by some, at any rate, of the aspects of God in the Old Testament, and Hindu minds do not flinch, as Christian minds do, from facing the hard truth that, if God is omnipotent, he must be the author of all the evil in the universe, besides being the author of all the good in it. When Krishna, at Arjuna’s importunate request, gives this human being a momentary vision of his supreme self, the divine glory is not only terrifying but horrifying. “In a vision,” Arjuna exclaims, “I have seen what no man has seen before; I rejoice in exultation, and yet my heart trembles with fear. … Show me again thine own human form. … When I see thy gentle human face, Krishna, I return to my own nature, and my heart has peace.”

The reason why Arjuna’s heart again has peace is because now again, as usual, he is not having to face the nature of ultimate reality. Is God purely good? Ought a human being to obey God’s commands unquestioningly? Is it in his power to disobey them, supposing that his conscience tells him that he ought to? These agonising questions are not answered in the Gita. Perhaps they are beyond human powers of understanding. The Gita at least presents them with incomparable force and clarity.

Krishna’s name means dark, and he is usually shown with dark, often blue, skin

Hindu Testament, The Observer, April 15 1962

6 Responses to “Krishna and Arjuna”

  1. mukth Mukh Says:


    I wanted to know the horses it is suppose to be five here only four, is that have any meaning to it


    • davidderrick Says:

      Dear mukth Mukh

      Thank you for the question! I can’t tell you the answer now, since I am in no way an expert. But I have seen pictures with four as well as five horses.

      Could there be two different versions of the story?

  2. Ezek1eL Says:

    Hello David, whats that flying in air? “Hanuman”??
    Correct me if i am wrong but he is in Ramayana and not in Mahabharata!

  3. davidderrick Says:

    The Bhagavad Gita is the book you will find in Indian hotel rooms, where in the West you would find a Gideon Bible.

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