As Mitchell notes in his excellent introduction, the Gita is not just one of the core texts of Hindu religious philosophy; it has been a key work in the development of American literature as well. Emerson called it “the first of books.” Beside it, Thoreau said, “even our Shakespeare seems sometimes youthfully green and practical merely,” and it has influenced such unlikely bedfellows as T.S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg. A didactic poem embedded in the massive Indian epic Mahabharata, the Gita takes the form of a discussion between the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna, “eternal Creator, infinite Lord,” in the moments before a great battle. Krishna teaches Arjuna his central creed: “Abandoning all desires, / acting without craving, free / from all thoughts of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, / that man finds utter peace.” Mitchell, whose popular translations run the gamut from Rilke and Neruda to Tao Te Ching and Genesis, has the good translator’s uncanny ability to usher originals into an English of beauty and resonance without making them all sound alike. His Gita, rendered simply and rhythmically in a loose trimeter line, is dazzling without ostentation. Mark for example Krishna’s description of his own eternal nature: “I am the taste in water, / the light in the moon and sun, / the sacred syllable Om / in the Vedas, the sound in air.” Mitchell admirably makes no attempt to smooth over the poem’s contradictions, such as the anticlimax of its dogmatic final chapters, or the fact that the poem’s exhortations to detachment are couched in the language of war. In fact, he even includes Gandhi’s famous meditation on the Gita, in which the work emerges from its pugnacious context as the quintessential lecture on nonviolence.
A handsome and expertly translated version of one of the world’s most important religious poems.