BOOK REVIEW: The Bhagavad-Gita translated by Barbara Stoler Miller

For me, The Bhagavad-Gita ticks off two items on my reading checklist: It knocks a book off The Western Canon (under the “Ancient India (Sanskrit)” section), & it expands my knowledge of other religions.

Now, I’m not very religious.  In fact, my general cynical nature extends to giving the stink eye towards religion.  🤨

Still, cynical armor has a weak spot – I don’t think religion is bad, in & of itself.  Organized religion, on the other hand, usually isn’t so great.

Too often, leaders focus their energy & ire on specific passages, but ignore others completely.

That leads to a lot of bad stuff happening in the name of G-d. 

Then again, as far as I know, Hinduism hasn’t led to a lot of wars or genocide.

Some narrative & religious spoilers.  Don’t read if you don’t wanna learn about Hinduism!

Out of all the religious texts I’ve read, this was the most engaging.  It’s written in the style of an epic poem, with structured, unrhymed verses.

The editors & translators of this version are very straightforward about the changes & choices they made, which I appreciated.

Barbara Stoler Miller explained how her translation changed the shape of the poetic structure & some of her word choices.

She also pointed out the repetition in verses stemming from the text’s original oral tradition.

The book is a narrative between a prince, Arjuna, & his charioteer who is the physical embodiment of the G-d, Krishna.  Arjuna doesn’t want to take part in a huge war against his family, while Krishna tries to show Arjuna it’s the right choice.

Another way this text differs from other religious texts – in addition to being easier to read, comprehend, & more poetic – is there’s less focus on punishment. 

True, The Gita (as it’s often called) does consider reincarnation as a “punishment.”  However, there’s no mention of Hell or eternal damnation.

In fact, The Gita doesn’t declare anyone or anything as innately evil or good.  It says that every creature has both “divine” & “demonic” elements in it. 

But there must be balance to everything.  When one outweighs the other, it indicates where the creature will end up when it’s reincarnated. 

  • Divine creatures will end up in “divine wombs,” surrounded by divine people. 
  • Demonic creatures will end up in “demonic wombs,” surrounded by demonic people.

It does sound like a recipe for the person to reincarnate into a negative situation again.   But I’m sure that some “demonic” creatures managed to “divine” their way upwards again & vice-versa.

A part of Hinduism that The Bhagavad-Gita explains multiple times is the triad of nature.  These 3 elements come up in the foods people eat, the way people make sacrifices, & their lives overall:

  • Lucidity – This element is untainted, but binds people to attachment (which, according to Krishna, is bad).  Lucidity is good.  It addicts a person to joy.  Chances are good that a lucid person will reincarnate upwards & eventually join with Krishna’s eternal spirit & discontinue the reincarnation cycle.
  • Passion – This element is born of emotion, attachment, & craving.  It can be either good or bad, depending on how much a person gives in to it.  Passion can addict a person to action, but make them greedy with feelings of want constantly.  People who live passionate lives will end up reincarnated into the same sort of life as they just lived – neither better nor worse.
  • Dark inertia – This element is born of ignorance.  Dark inertia binds the soul to negligence, ignorance, & sleep.  In short, it’s laziness.  When a person becomes addicted to this element, they’ll reincarnate downwards.

Final Score:

4 out of 5 stars!  This wasn’t the type of religious text where I’d read a paragraph & retain nothing.  My mind didn’t wander, nor was it boring.

I found it wasn’t preachy at all.  Krishna, while speaking to Arjuna, was trying to uplift & encourage him to action. 

The poetic nature of the text made it easy to read, even though it covered some heady topics.  I’d encourage people to expand their religious knowledge with this version of The Bhagavad-Gita.  Barbara Stoler Miller did a wonderful job.

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