David Buchta on the Bhagavad Gītā.

Last year Asymptote featured Nina Perrotta’s interview with David Buchta of Brown University about teaching and translating the Bhagavad Gītā. It’s full of good things; here are a few excerpts:

NP: Could you talk a little about the Sanskrit-to-English translation challenges of the Gītā in particular?

DB: A big question I’ve seen with translations of the Gītā is “What do you do with the word yoga?” There’s a recent translation by Gavin Flood, where he focuses on how this word, particularly as it comes up in the Gītā, pairs up with another word, sāṅkhya. He translates sāṅkhya as “theory” and yoga as “practice.” I think there’s something insightful in this. Now, there’s obviously something really simplistic about those translations, but I’ve been studying this stuff for years, and seeing it that way, I thought, “That’s a nice way of thinking about it!” Of course, you need to go and explain what you mean by it.

A lot of translators would leave the word yoga untranslated, because if you think about what yoga means and how it’s used in the Gītā, and the range of meanings of various things that were called yoga in that intellectual and philosophical context, there isn’t anything similar that you could really point to in English. But there’s a problem with leaving the word untranslated, because it’s now an English loanword. It means something totally different as an English loanword than what it meant in the Bhagavad Gītā.

A third approach is to use an etymologically based translation of the word yoga. It’s related to this verb meaning “to connect” or “to yoke” in English, so some people will bring in this notion of joining or connecting. They’ll come up with a translation based on the etymology of the word. But there’s a big problem with that that I can turn back to in a bit.

NP: What are some of the things that yoga meant in the Gītā?

DB: Typically, in a context like the Gītā, the word yoga meant something like a spiritual practice (which is why “practice” isn’t a particularly bad translation for it), a path that led to the goal of some level of self-awareness, self-realization, enlightenment. In the Gītā, one of the main ways in which yoga is presented is more specifically called karma-yoga, which is essentially the practice of “detached action.” Totally different from doing “hot yoga” (I’m using scare quotes) and twisting your body into pretzels. […]

NP: Can we circle back to the pitfalls of taking an etymological approach to translating the Gītā?

DB: The same school of thought that developed the idea that the Veda has no author—and I should note that the Gītā is not universally recognized in that category of literature, though there were claims that came close to seeing it in those terms—, authors from this school of thought also had this fundamental interpretative principle that the conventional meaning of a word supersedes or overrides the etymological meaning of a word.

One of my favorite things to give to students is this this old scholarly paper by Franklin Edgerton, “Etymology and Interpretation,” that explains this idea in just ten pages. It opens with how one loses patience when one encounters stereotypes of the “impractical and illogical Hindu mind” (he uses scare quotes) because one finds some of the most hard-nosed, logical, rigorous, thoughtful writing in Sanskrit. There’s this great line at the end where he says, “Since everyone uses language, unfortunately almost everyone thinks he [or she] knows what it is.” I love it. […]

There’s a translation of the Gītā that translates any word connected to the verb root kr̥, meaning to do, to make, or to act, as some word in English that’s related to the word “act.” And this translator was not able to maintain consistency, and there were times that their attempts at keeping consistency were to the detriment of their translation. I don’t think that approach is particularly productive. I do love the insight of this simplistic translation of “theory” versus “practice,” but I kind of think you need to leave the word yoga untranslated and have a footnote telling you, “By the way, this has nothing to do with lululemon pants or anything.”

That Edgerton article is really excellent; here it is, for those with JSTOR access. I love the discussion of desultory and the very final sentence (after the “great line at the end” quoted above): “These remarks may be considered in one sense a plea for the necessity of studying historical linguistics, in order, among other purposes, to know how to avoid the misuse of it.” Thanks, Bathrobe!


  1. Mongol-Tatar Yoga…

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  2. Now you’ve made me think of Mongol-Tatar Yoda.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Mongol-Tatar Yoga

    It’s been conclusively shown that the conquerors of Rus did not, in fact, introduce compulsory alien stretching régimes, or even any unpleasant bending. It’s a myth.

    Mongol-Tatar yodelling, alas, was very real. Whole tracts of Eurasia have yet to recover from the devastation that it wrought.

  4. – I never liked the Pechenegs and, of course, the Volga Bulgars
    I never liked the Romans, Fryazins and the unreasonable Khazars
    But most of all I have never loved the Mongol-Tatars, mama
    Well tell me, why would anyone love the Mongol-Tatars?

    – The Mongol-Tatars are terribly scary, lustful, insidious too
    The Mongol-Tatars are more terrible than anything the Christian world has ever seen
    The Mongol-Tatars will get drunk on kumis with ayran and go on rampage, mama,
    And the fact that they, like, are not prone to alcohol is a blatant lie …

    – I don’t trust anyone, I don’t ask for anything, and I’m not afraid of anyone
    I used to be an atheist, but now I pray for specific reason
    I’m worried about the impending Mongol-Tatar yoke, mama
    And this is why I am singing the Mongol-Tatar blues …

  5. David Eddyshaw says


  6. Stu Clayton says

    Typically, in a context like the Gītā, the word yoga meant something like a spiritual practice (which is why “practice” isn’t a particularly bad translation for it), a path that led to the goal of some level of self-awareness, self-realization, enlightenment.

    This is the subject of Sloterdijk’s Du mußt dein Leben ändern. And of Hadot’s Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique. And of many another goody this side of waffling piety. (I got to Hadot only by way of a Sloterdijk mention.)

    David Eddyshaw is good on this too, passim (you have to know what to look for). He works by well-chosen anecdote, sparing you the DIDACTICS.

  7. John Cowan says

    No, one of his distant relatives: A. Pushpin.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    David Eddyshaw is good on this too

    Busted. I am the original inspiration for Mr Natural. I was hoping my indirection about Zarathustra would work. I’d have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for …

  9. There are these poems where you can tell seven stories all at once. It just depends on how the words are interpreted, whether the same sequence of syllables is broken into two words or three words, for example.

    A great example arguing against the translatability of poetry.

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