In ‘Godsong,’ a New Poem That’s 2,000 Years Old

CreditSonny Figueroa/The New York Times

Imagine, if you can, a book beloved by Simone Weil and Steve Bannon. An apologia for war embraced as a classic of pacifism. A holy book admired by scientists.

Thoreau took it with him to Walden Pond. Himmler carried a copy in his pocket. Whitman supposedly kept his under his pillow as he lay dying. Gandhi declared it to be his guide — as did his assassin, Nathuram Godse, who carried it with him to the gallows.

The Bhagavad Gita, composed between 400 B.C. and A.D. 200 and newly translated by the poet Amit Majmudar in “Godsong,” is the most enigmatic of religious texts, a masterpiece of moral ambiguity. Its 700 verses are a philosophical interlude nestled in the blood-soaked Sanskrit epic “The Mahabharata.” The story begins when Prince Arjuna — after Hamlet, literature’s greatest ditherer — balks from battle. His family is at war with each other, he is obligated to fight, but how can he? How can he kill his own kin? The god Krishna, disguised as his charioteer, incites him to action, explaining that it is Arjuna’s divine duty, as a member of the warrior caste. Along the way the poem offers a compendium of Hindu metaphysics of the era — the obligation to one’s duty (dharma), the imperative to work without care for reward — and the thicket of elliptical, contradictory remarks on violence that have found it such unlikely devotees.

When Krishna reveals his true identity, the awe-struck Arjuna asks him the question we might pose to the Bhagavad Gita itself: “If you are so many ways at once, who are you, really?”

Majmudar, who lives in Ohio and is a radiologist as well as a writer, had been familiar with the Gita (as it is commonly called) since childhood but was surprised by a sudden surge of religious feeling later in life. “It is an incongruity I hide from the other rich, bespectacled Indian doctors of my cohort, entering middle age like me, trying to stay fit like me, suburban and Midwestern like me,” he writes.


Amit MajmudarCreditAmi Buch Majmudar

To love the Gita is apparently to be seized by a desire to translate it. There have been countless retellings and at least 300 English versions since it was first translated in 1785 by a merchant with the East India Company — who made it sound like a Hindu Bible, full of “thee” and “thou.”

Majmudar embarked on a crash course in Sanskrit to create “Godsong.” Each word became its own research project, the radiologist turned translator peering past the surface of language in search of the inner workings of the text.

The translation is ravishing and faithful, marked by what Nabokov once called “the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.”

Majmudar has a gift for imagery (“Krishna fanned and shivered the universe like a peacock”) but he writes for the ear above all, retaining the traditional couplets and meter of the shloka structure. He remembers the Gita was intended to be sung (“Godsong” is a literal translation of “Bhagavad Gita”).

For Emerson, the glory of the Gita was its voice: “large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.” Majmudar’s Krishna commands the same awe, but he feels closer to us. The Gita, as Majmudar points out, “imagined a relationship in which the soul and God are equals. It’s a relationship mostly missing from every other scripture: friendship.” We encounter a more human Krishna, who can turn querulous or even insecure as he makes his revelations: “Since you aren’t scoffing / I’ll proclaim to you the utmost secret.”

This can, on occasion, go too far. A feeling of intimacy with the divine is one thing, to have Krishna sounding like a teenage vampire from “Twilight” another: “Hear me out again. My highest word, / the secret of all secrets: / I love you. Hard.”

The verses of the Gita are traditionally accompanied by commentaries. Majmudar uses this space to discuss his faith and his translation decisions, as well as to make a curious assertion: “I prefer to let my Gita float free of history or geography,” he writes. “Historical quibbling isn’t just irrelevant when it comes to scripture; it’s a buzz kill.”

This is strange — not least because the religious concepts in the Gita, like karma and dharma, are not static, as historians like Wendy Doniger have pointed out; they emerged at “particular moments in Indian history, for particular reasons, and then continue to be alive — which is to say, to change.” It’s especially odd given that Majmudar engages passionately with historical quibbling when it comes to issues of translation. What he doesn’t want to discuss, it seems, is historical quibbling when it comes to social issues. What he doesn’t want to discuss is caste.

He does reckon with it, though — briefly, defensively. He claims the text mentions “differences but no inequalities. In other words, Krishna introduced differences among people; human beings attached relative values to these differences, introducing inequality.” This is rather strenuous special pleading. The Gita may argue for the essential equality of all beings but even in Majmudar’s own translation it also includes passages that regard intercaste marriage and mingling with explicit horror: “The women once corrupted, Krishna / The colors pour together … codes of caste, eternal / family laws — obliterated.”

“Fault envelops all / Endeavors, as smoke does fire,” the Gita tells us. These are quibbles of my own, but they can hardly be helped. “Godsong” reveals how beautifully this 2,000-year-old book lends itself to the careful, loving work of translation. It’s impossible not to wonder what the even more loving work of scrutiny might bring to bear.

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