Little India: Overseas Indian, NRI, Asian Indian, Indian American

New York Times Book Review of ‘Godsong’ Falls Short of Expectations

Parul Sehgal is a talented book review editor at the New York Times. I look forward to her reviews which for the most part are revealing and insightful. Her lucid and free flowing writing also makes her reviews pleasant reads.

Hence it was a disappointment to find her recent review of Amit Majumdar’s verse translation of the Bhagavad Gita ‘Godsong’ (In ‘Godsong,’ a New Poem That’s 2,000 Years Old) lacking the usual depth and critical approach that I normally expect from her reviews.

Ms. Sehgal starts off her review with a slew of well-known names – from Himmler to Thoreau to Whitman to Gandhi – to show how the Gita (as the Bhagavad Gita is commonly referred to in India) appealed to a broad swath of people that included both high minded people and unscrupulous characters.

A quick question that comes to mind is whether we still need to throw-in big names to affirm Gita’s legacy. It would seem that a work which has been serving as a spiritual guide to millions of Indians for more than two thousand years, and has had more than 300 translations in the English language alone does hardly require any big-name association to reinforce its lasting influence and appeal.

At the same time, the big-name association would have made perfect sense had Sehgal shown how the Gita actually influenced some of these personalities beyond just a cursory citation such as that Whitman kept a copy of it “under his pillow,” Thoreau “took it with him to Walden Pond” or Emerson found it to be resonating with the “voice of an old intelligence.”

Sehgal could have alluded how the Gita informed Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Emerson had termed Leaves of Grass as “a remarkable mixture of the Bhagavad Gita and the New York Herald.” Aside from Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s Passage to India is also resplendent with imageries of soul and reincarnation specifically expressed in the Gita.

As for Thoreau, Sehgal could have mentioned that Thoreau’s Walden mirrored the essence of the Gita. As Paul Friedrich, the renowned poet and anthropologist writes, “the Gita is indeed ‘within’ Walden; someone familiar with both texts can open the latter at random to any page and find or at least have intimations of the underlying, discursive presence of the Gita within.” Steven Schroeder in his review of Paul Friedrich’s “Gita in Walden” observes that “the narrative of the Gita, which moves Arjuna from paralysis to engagement” informed Thoreau’s activism. I would say that Thoreau’s Gita-inspired activism found expression not only in his vigorous defense of John Brown’s anti-slavery stance as Schroeder points out, but also in his opposition to the Mexican War, and refusal to pay taxes to an ‘unjust’ government. The core of Thoreau’s well-known essay “Civil Disobedience” involved the idea that a person with a conscience had to act against all sorts of injustice, the same rationale articulated by Krishna in inducing Arjuna to partake in war.

Emerson also went beyond a simple praise of the Gita. According to his own journal, the inspiration for his poem the ‘Brahma” came to him after he read the Upanishads and the second discourse of the Bhagavad Gita where concepts of immortality and eternity of the soul form an important element of Krishna’s dialog with Arjuna.

By referring to the Bhagavad Gita as simply a chapter of the Mahabharata, Sehgal also shortchanges the overall context of the work. The Gita not only builds upon the path of knowledge which forms the core of the Upanishads, but also adds new avenues to salvation via path of action or devotion. The genius of the Gita is in its democratization of spiritual paths in accordance with one’s choice, preference or capability. In providing spiritual choices, it freed the masses from the grip of the Brahmins as the sole repository and mediator of knowledge and wisdom. This explains the Gita’s appeal to millions of rank and file ordinary masses in India beyond the confines of just the elites.

Sehgal tends to minimize the role of the first English translation of the work in 1785 by simply mentioning it as the work of a merchant of the East India Company with a preponderance of Bible-sounding ‘thees’ and ‘thous.’ Yet Charles Wilkins’ was a pioneering work for that time. The translation propelled awareness of the Gita in both the English and non-English speaking world, and had a cascading effect leading to its translation in various other languages. Following his work on the Gita, Wilkins would go on to translate other Indian classics. He was a co-founder of Asiatic Society and a trailblazer in the field of Indology. In the minimum, Wilkins deserved mentioning by name.

Another omission in the review was any reference to the huge corpus of English translations of the Gita that have followed since Wilkins’ translation. We are not given any indication of how the book under review compares with works of well-known authors such as Edwin Arnold, Christopher Isherwood and others.

The review also informs us that the author of ‘Godsong’ took a ‘crash course’ in Sanskrit in preparation for his translation. As one who studied Sanskrit for several years, I find it hard to comprehend how a ‘crash course’ in this classical language could provide someone with the wherewithal to translate a complex and multifaceted work such as the Gita. It’s equivalent to thinking that someone could simply take a crash course in Latin and produce a “ravishing” translation of either Virgil’s Aeneid or Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s almost certain that the translator had either read or had access to various works of translation of the Gita. A probing question for the review would have been to ask him if there were any specific translation of the Gita that he particularly admired or that served as an inspiration for him.

In my opinion these gaps in the review should in no way be perceived as a criticism of ‘Godsong.’ It appears to be a product of painstaking work conducive to poetic sensibilities of our times. If the selected excerpts from the work presented in the review are any indication, it should be an important addition to the body of existing works on the Gita.