Since it was first published in 1944, the Swami Prabhavananda/Christopher Isherwood Bhagavad Gita, with an introduction by Aldous Huxley, has become one of the most widely read English translations of the Hindu classic, having sold over one million copies. Many American college and university students first encountered this translation as a required text assigned for comparative religion and philosophy courses. This usage can arguably be attributed to the very purpose of this translation: to bring the message of the Gita to those in the West who may know little or nothing about Vedanta philosophy, while still communicating the full spiritual scope and teachings of the scripture in a form written for English speakers by a collaboration between a master of Vedanta and one of the great English language authors of the 20th century.
For many spiritual seekers in the 1950s, 60s and 70s (including me), this book was a major influence that changed the direction of our lives. In reading and hearing personal accounts of, “How I came to Vedanta”, this particular book stands out as very common route.
I first ran across it when I was 19 and living in Berkeley in 1966. My roommate was taking a course on Eastern Philosophy at UC and the Prabhavananda/Isherwood Gita was a required textbook. I read it and was struck by the simple teachings that just rang out as Truth. The book methodically expressed a deep philosophy about the purpose of life and a way of living, which fully resonated with the simple, but incomplete personal philosophy I had developed, through my life experiences.
In high school I was attracted to the writing of Aldous Huxley, and was intrigued that he wrote the introduction to the Gita, where he further clarified and described a philosophy that seemed more practical and fruitful than anything else I had explored. It wasn’t until three years later that I came to find out about Vedanta centers and swamis being in the United States. Through friends I met Swami Prabhavananda, became a member of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, and received personal instructions for my spiritual life.
History of the Gita and How the Translation Came About
Through Swami Prabhavananda’s early association with Sri Sarada Devi and the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, he developed a deep personal understanding of the spirituality of India. His college studies broadened his outlook to include Western Philosophy and other religions, in which he found expressions of the Perennial Philosophy, the belief that the same spiritual Truths are expressed through the mystical branches of all of the world’s religions through various practices and beliefs.
To translate the Gita, Swami reached out to his disciple Christopher Isherwood, an acclaimed English prose author, to assist on the translation. Together they created what Time Magazine called:
…a distinguished literary work. The translators have presented a version of the great dialogue that makes it easily understandable to the common reader.
On the historical significance of the Gita itself, Swami P wrote in his Spiritual Heritage of India (also used as a college textbook):
…in the course of its long history, reaching far back into an unrecorded past, Indian religion has had its share of sects and doctrines, of reformations, and revivals, it has nevertheless preserved at its core, unchanged, four fundamental ideas. These may be very simply expressed:
God can be realized;
to realize God is the supreme goal of human existence;
and God can be realized in many ways.
The first systematic attempt to harmonize the many doctrines of Hinduism is to be found in the teachings of the Bhagavad-Gītā—the Bible of the Hindus. By the time of the Epics many schools of thought, with varied ideas of God and the Godhead, as well as varied paths, called yogas, had come into existence. These were all incorporated in the teachings of the Gita like “pearls in a necklace.”
The path, [the Gita] assures us, matters little; it is the goal that is supreme. And what is the goal? It is only once again — to realize God.
The Gita is only few chapters of the 6th book of the Hindu epic poem, The Mahabharata, and dates from the 6th to the 2nd Century BC. It’s generally accepted that the Gita was added to the Mahabharata, and some scholars, including Swami P, believe that the Gita had existed as a stand-alone text for some time prior to that.
First English Translation
In the 18th Century, Sir Charles Wilkins went to India to work for the East India Company as a printer and writer. In 1785, he published the first English translation of the Bhagavad Gita. It proved to be a major influence on Romantic literature and the European perception of Vedanta philosophy.
The Gita and other Hindu texts have influenced historic American thinkers, including Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who had copies of the Gita and Upanishads in their libraries. Note that Jefferson, Adams, Vivekananda, and Prabhavananda all left the body on the 4th of July – Jefferson and Adams in the very same year, within hours of each other.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, a leader of the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century received a copy of the Wilkins English translation. In his essay titled Immortality, he paraphrases the Gita:
The soul is not born, it does not die; it was not produced from anyone; unborn, eternal, it is not slain, though the body is slain.
Henry David Thoreau was an American author, poet, philosopher, and also a member of the Transcendentalist movement. He is best known for his book Walden, which is about living simply in nature. He wrote,
In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous… philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita, in comparison with which, our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.
Prabhavananda – Isherwood Translation
How did the Prabhavananda – Isherwood Gita come about? Here are Swami P’s own words:
Once I was away for a rest in Palm Springs. I had a Gita translation with me. When I read the twelfth chapter, I felt that the meaning had not been brought out; I saw deeper meaning in it. So I started to translate, and then Chris [Isherwood] helped me.
I translated and Chris edited. When Peggy Kiskadden came, she read what we had done and could not understand it. Then we went to Aldous [Huxley]. Chris read aloud, and Aldous listened. Aldous said,
No, that is not right yet. Forget that Krishna is speaking to the Hindus in Sanskrit. Forget that this is a translation. Think that Krishna is speaking to an American audience in English.
Swami goes on to say, “…Chris rewrote the whole eleventh chapter of the Gita following Tennyson, I think. He produced the book in a week. He was inspired.”
We will see that Huxley’s advice reinforces the instructions about the Gita from Swami P’s own guru, Swami Brahmananda, the spiritual son of Sri Ramakrishna, and also from Swami Turiyananda, another monastic disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. Both had a powerful and loving influence on the spiritual growth of the young Prabhavananda. Upon opening the Gita, the first thing we see is Swami P’s dedication:
“To the memory of SWAMI TURIYANANDA who was regarded by his master SRI RAMAKRISHNA as a perfect embodiment of that renunciation which is taught in the BHAGAVAD-GITA.”
Swami P had asked Swami Turiyananda to teach him how to study the Gita. Turiyananda advised him to take one verse at a time, meditate on its meaning, and live the verse for a week before going on to the next verse. In that way he was to study the entire Gita.
People have wondered why Swami P’s translation didn’t include the traditional commentaries, which are commonly found in almost all other translations. Swami Yogeshananda of Trabuco had an entry in his monk’s notebook where Swami P describes Swami Brahmananda’s advice about how to approach the Gita.
In our monasteries, both in India and in the West, the Bhagavad Gita is, of course, a principal text for pedagogy and study. Swami Brahmananda, first President of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, said to some of that early group of young men, “Let your first reading of the Gita be without commentary.”
Swami Saradananda says in his book The Essence of the Gita:
It is not necessary for you to study all those commentaries. Your minds are not yet influenced by any particular philosophy and they are, so to speak, still fresh. It is enough to understand the meaning as it reveals itself to you spontaneously.
Swami P explains that they consulted the writings of three of the greatest commentators, but wishing to avoid bulky and distracting footnotes that interrupt the flow of the story, they incorporated any required explanations within the text itself.
Both Swami Turiyananda and Maharaj instilled in Swami P that the Gita is a vital, even interactive life companion, to be embraced by the individual’s whole and constant being. These ideas are expressed in the Prabhavananda – Isherwood Translators’ Preface:
…the Gita is a gospel. Its essential message is timeless. In words that belong to no one language, race or epoch, incarnate God speaks to man, His friend. Here, the translator must forget all about Vedanta philosophy and Sanskrit terms; all about India and the West, Krishna and Arjuna, past and future. He must aim at the utmost simplicity.
…Extremely literal translations of the Gita already exist. We have aimed, rather, at an interpretation. Here is one of the greatest religious documents of the world; let us not approach it too pedantically, as an archaic text which must be jealously preserved by university professors. It has something to say, urgently, to every one of us.
It must be emphasized that while Isherwood was an accomplished author, he was neither a Sanskrit scholar nor a spiritual adept.
Here is how he described the division of functions:
The swami’s English was fluent and his knowledge of Sanskrit equally good… At that time, I knew no Sanskrit whatsoever; even today I … could easily write down my little vocabulary on one side of a postcard. My share of the collaboration was therefore secondary. Prabhavananda told me the meaning of a phrase; we then considered how its meaning could best be conveyed in English.
He also described the pains-taking rigors of the work as:
…the slow, thorough-going process of translating a text — considering all the significance of each word and often spending a day on three or four verses.
Introduction by Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley wrote the lengthy introduction, reporting that, “The Bhagavad Gita is perhaps the most systematic scriptural statement of the Perennial Philosophy.” Huxley gives us an overview of the Perennial Philosophy and how it is expressed through the various religions of the world, throughout history. He also argues for, “The Minimum Working Hypothesis” – a basic set of assumptions to adopt while seeking to realize Ultimate Truth through a spiritual life:
First: the phenomenal world of matter and of individualized consciousness – the world of things and animals and men and even gods – is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being, and apart from which they would be nonexistent.
Second: human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.
Third: man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.
Fourth: man’s life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground.
Much of the introduction was later published in Vedanta and the West as a stand-alone essay titled, The Minimum Working Hypothesis, where Huxley added a fifth clause, “That there is a Law or Dharma which must be obeyed, a Tao or Way which must be followed, if men are to achieve their final end”.
Essays Included in the Book
The Gita and the Mahabharata
In the section titled The Gita and the Mahabharata, Swami P introduces us to what is considered to be the longest poem in the world – the epic story of the ancient kings of India, including the lives of the five Pandava brothers. Swami summarizes the history of the Pandavas; their trials, heroic victories, and spiritual growth to give a full and proper setting for who the main characters are, and the events leading up to the coming war. After all, the Gita is only Chapters 25 through 42 of the 6th book of the Mahabharata, out of a total of 18 books. The Gita recounts a single episode in the lives of the brothers; the battlefield dialog between Sri Krishna and one of the brothers: Arjuna, the warrior.
The Gita and War by Christopher Isherwood
The Prabhavananda/Isherwood translation of the Bhagavad Gita was published in 1944, a time when some of the fiercest battles of WWII were being fought. Ironically, both Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood were Conscientious Objectors, and yet they contributed to a book where God, in the form of Sri Krishna, urges a warrior to do battle. Isherwood explains that the Gita is neither pro- nor anti-war, and explains that a person should perform what their personal duty is; their Dharma. In the case of Arjuna, the righteous act was to do battle in a righteous war. For someone else, whose duty was not to fight, or if the war not righteous, to fight would have been spiritually damaging.
On a spiritual level, the Gita is about the war going on within each of us. Making the right choices, doing your duty, without attachment to the results.
Despite there being numerous English translations of the Gita available, this one gained prominence in intellectual circles, academia, and religious institutions as an accessible explanation of the Vedanta philosophy. Here are a few reviews from the time it was published:
Time Magazine wrote:
To preserve the everlasting simplicity of the Gita’s words, Isherwood and his teacher have collaborated on this latest translation, designed to bring its message closer to ‘the ordinary, perplexed men and women of today.’ The result is a distinguished literary work. The translators have presented a version of the great dialogue that makes it easily understandable to the common reader.
The New York Times reported:
Mr. Isherwood has devoted his fine literary gift to a new translation of ‘Bhagavad-Gita,’ working with Swami Prabhavananda. The little book is a self-contained one. A complete stranger to the Hindu gospel can pick it up and in one or two evenings follow the great poem from its terrific beginning to its sublime end.
And here’s a recent consumer review from Amazon, which demonstrates the purpose of this translation, and one the authors would be proud of:
Finally, I found the right translation for me. This version of the Gita has just the right amount of technical terms and just the right amount of general English verbiage. I have read other translations that do not even use Atman and Tamas, instead they make single-word English translations (e.g. “Self” and “inertia”). But, I don’t think those single words are quite right; those translations actually confused me. Understanding the full meaning of words like Prakriti and Sattwa (and others) are important to understanding the Gita. On the other hand, this version does not go too far the other way either. Enough is translated into plain English that I could understand the meaning of the fundamental terms. If you have never read the Bhagavad Gita, this is the translation for you. If you have read another translation, but were frustrated, you didn’t really see what was so special about it, then try this translation.
I am not here to tell you what the Gita will mean to you. That is for you to figure out. I am here to tell you that this is the best English translation I have found to understand the Gita, and figure out what it means to you.
To end with, here is a short recording of Christopher Isherwood reading from the Gita:
Dharmadas (Jon Monday) has been a member of the Vedanta Society of Southern California for nearly 50 years. Since the early 1970s he has been recording audio and video of Swamis of the Ramakrishna Order. After retiring from the Music and Video Game businesses, he and his wife Urvasi (Anna Monday) have continued videotaping at Vedanta Centers in Southern California, making many new and archival recordings available at www.VedantaVideo.com. Email him at email@example.com.
This gives us fascinating background information on a Vedantic classic. In “My Guru and His Disciple,” Isherwood gives us additional insights in chapter ten, pp. 147-149. When Mrs. Kiskadden revealed that she thought the translation was clunky and Huxley had agreed, Isherwood suddenly realized what had to be done, went back to his room, and in a burst of inspiration produced a new version of 1: 20-23: “Krishna the changeless,” etc. He writes: “What had I actually done, during that half hour? I had turned a passage of creaky antiquated pose into some lines of verse which were alliterated and heavily stressed in imitation of an Old English epic….The prose had dragged its feet. The verse was brisk and catchy.” On p. 153, Isherwood records that Swami P “even hinted that I had been divinely inspired.” As indeed he probably was.
This is only one of the many reasons why “My Guru and His Disciple” ought to be required reading for every serious American Vedantist. It is indispensable to an understanding of the unfolding of Vedanta in the U.S. We may wince at some of the more lurid episodes (all mercifully few and short), but its greatest virtue is its unflinching honesty. Chris is the Everyman who is pulled in two different directions, toward the world and toward the Higher Bird, by conflicting elements in his own nature. We all have this struggle, though in varying terms, and we all have to deal with it in our own way. Chris’s book is a valuable account of how one devotee dealt with it.