"Bhagavad Gita As It Is" -- A Review

In the Upanishads, the sacred Vedanta texts of yore, one finds in more than one place the well known metaphor of a blind person leading other blind people astray, to illustrate what happens when an incompetent, styling himself a learned man, attempts to teach others what he knows not himself. This metaphor is very apt to describe Prabhupada's translation and purport for the Bhagavad Gita. For while he claims that his translation and purports follow a "disciplic succession" (see bottom of Prabhupada's Introduction) of traditional commentaries and understanding of the work deriving from the dualistic school of Vedanta of Madhva (number 5 on Prabhupada's claimed list of succession), they in fact show a great divergence and opposition to the traditional understanding found in the latter's works.

In fact, given the evidence, it is far more correct to say that Prabhupada's interpretations derive from Shankara's than from Madhva's. For instance, in explaining XI-47, Shankara clearly says `tvadanyena tvattaH anyena kenachit.h na dR^ishhTapUrvam.h' -- none other than you had ever seen this (Universal Form of Krishna) before.

Prabhupada follows suit by saying, in translation: "The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: My dear Arjuna, happily have I shown you, by My internal potency, this supreme universal form within the material world. No one before you has ever seen this primal form, unlimited and full of glaring effulgence."

Here's what Madhva says in explaining XI-47 in the gItA-tAtparya: there he anticipates the mistaken exposition, and explains the correct interpretation of `tvad.h anyena na dR^ishhTapUrvam.h' --

  mayA prasannena tavA.arjunedaM  | 
     rUpaM paraM darshitamAtmayogAt.h  | 
  tejomayaM vishvamanantamAdyam.h  | 
     yanme tvadanyena na dR^ishhTapUrvam.h  || 47 || 

  tAtparya -- 

 `vishvanAmA sa bhagavAn.h yataH pUrNaguNaH' iti pAdme  | 
 `tvadanyena na dR^ishhTapUrvaM' ityanena tenaivendrasharIreNa 
  dR^ishhTamiti j~nAyate  |  tvadanyeneti tvadavarApexayA  | 
  tairapi tadvanna dR^ishhTamityeva  | 

 `vishvarUpaM prathamato brahmA.apashyachchaturmukhaH  | 
  tachchhatAMshena rudrastu tachchhatAMshena vAsavaH  | 
  yathendreNa purA dR^ishhTumapashyat.h so.arjuno.api san.h  | 
  tadanye kramayogena tachchhatAMshAdidarshanaH  ||' 

  -- iti brahmANDe  || 47 ||

 "He, the Lord, is called Vishva, for being of complete attributes," 
  says the Padma.  By `tvadanyena na dR^ishhTapUrvaM' is
  indicated the fact that you (Arjuna) alone, in the body of Indra, 
  had seen it before.  By `tvadanyena', people lower than you are 
  indicated.  That they did not see as you saw, thus only. 

 "The vishva-rUpa was first seen by the Chaturmukha-Brahma; 
  a hundredth of that by Rudra, and a hundredth of that by the 
  deities; as had been seen by Indra previously, so too was seen by 
  Arjuna; other than he, according to worth, was seen a hundredth, 
  and so forth,"  says the Brahmanda.
Therefore, Madhva's reading of `tvadanyena na dR^ishhTapUrvaM' is to say, "they, the people less than you in worth, did not see as you did." This is stated by Sri Raghavendra as:
   tvadanyena na dR^ishhTapUrvamityasya tvatto.adhamairadR^ishhTa- 
   pUrvamityarthaH  |  tairapi svayogyatAnurodhena dR^ishhTatve.api 
   arjunavanna dR^ishhTamityadR^ishhTatvoktiH  |  tathA tvayA tu 
   indrasharIreNa dR^ishhTapUrvamityapi tvadanyeneti visheshhaNAllabhyate  | 

   By saying `tvadanyena na dR^ishhTapUrvaM', that it had never been 
   seen by people lower than you in worth, thus is the meaning.  While 
   even such people had seen according to their worth, they had not 
   seen as Arjuna did (i.e., did not have the same grasp), so 
   [by his standard], non-sight is stated.  Also, by you (Arjuna), this 
   had been seen previously through the body of Indra -- for that reason, 
   too, "none other than you," such a qualification applies. 
Therefore, Madhva says, as clarified by his commentator, that "none other than you had seen this" means "none who were less than you ever saw as you did," and also that "it was none other than you, who saw this previously [as Indra]."

While followers of Prabhupada may have any number of objections against this interpretation, it is important to remember that our purpose here is only to establish an irreconcilable difference in this matter between Madhva and Prabhupada, and that is achieved. Egregious as Prabhupada's error in this instance is, it is not the only one; his explanation of the Bhâgavata's `kR^ishhNastu bhagavAn.h svayam.h' is radically opposed to what Madhva has said in his commentary on Bhagavad Gita X-41 and elsewhere. It is clear that Prabhupada lied through his teeth in claiming that his purports followed a "disciplic succession" as claimed.

In addition, Prabhupada's lack of understanding of even the most basic facts of science and astronomy is manifest, so much so that one wonders if he ever passed high school. Consider for instance what he says under X-21: "There are fifty varieties of winds blowing in space," and later, "It appears from this verse that the moon is one of the stars; therefore the stars that twinkle in the sky also reflect the light of the sun. The theory that there are many suns within the universe is not accepted by Vedic literature. The sun is one, and as by the reflection of the sun the moon illuminates, so also do the stars. Since Bhagavad-gita indicates herein that the moon is one of the stars, the twinkling stars are not suns but are similar to the moon." Incidentally, Madhva reads the verse to say that the moon is not like the stars, so Prabhupada's grand delusion that he is in accordance with a "disciplic succession" of understanding "Vedic literature" cannot be taken seriously.

In all, a very poor work, which is to be read and understood only for what it most certainly is not -- a qualified, balanced representation of the meaning of the Bhagavad Gita. It is indeed a travesty that it is often taken seriously by those believing it to have the sanction of Madhva.

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This review is due to Shrisha Rao..


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Created February 19, 1999, last modified May 31, 2004.