Julian Curtis Lee Mickunas
Best Greater Upanishads
B-Gita translations are Sivananda,
Annie Besant, Swami Nikhilananda, Ann Stanford, and some others. NOT
Penguin's Juan Mascaro version, which turns it
into Mascaro-poetry, smearing/distorting/covering up
technical language in order to make it sound pretty as he pleases in
English. Not Stoller-Miller, which is polluted by a feminist attitude.
(These are the most common versions in the west, oddly.) Avoid any
like Edwin Arnold. Here the author turns the Gita into his fanciful
art-creation and vehicle for his own mind. You should find at least 5
translations, preferring older Indian translators and
commentators. Generally the most accurate and least Marxism-rotted
Gitas were published prior to 1965.
Then when you see several
verses that are almost exactly alike, you know you are reading an
unbiased, largely accurate translation. A basic test is that the word
"brahmacharya," "chastity" or "celibacy" should appear in verse 6:14.
The bulk of translations by Sanskrit scholars or native Indians say: "Firm
in the vow of brahmacharya" in verse
in the vow of
a brahmachari." Bad translations replace this with vague
"sense-restraint." (Genuine sense restraint and reversal is a very
difficult yogic attainment called pratyahara and is a final fruit
of meditation.) Or broad and
terms like "self-control" are found there. (There are an infinite
variety of ways one could practice "self-control" -- from giving up
Mozart to renouncing restaurants -- and most of these are of little
significance or immediate yogic value.)
vague euphemisms are used there, like Mascaro's "vow of holiness."
(Most westerners now would not even think of sexual chastity
reading "vow of holiness," though at least half of our ancestors might
have.) The handling of this verse is a good way to
tell hard gitas from flaky gitas, old teachers from new dissemblers.
Then if any commentary following
that verse presents "brahmacharya" as a broad, general
word, saying that it does not refer particularly to sexual chastity --
you know you
have a flaky gita commentator.
test any Bhagavad-Gita by how it handles the word
"brahmacharya" and the teaching of
morality/chastity in general. Modern westerners and lust-oriented males
(most "spiritual" writers nowadays) are the most
likely to obscure it, because it bothers them. Interestingly, two
female translators mentioned, Annie Besant and the scholar Ann
Stanford, did not dumb down brahmacharya. Stanford, a Sanskrit
scholar, translated it straight into English. Her verse is:
"Firm in the vow of chastity." The Besant Gita preserves many of the
terms, more than most, with
helpful footnotes to explain them.
Some of these books, and good translations in general, are best found
in USED bookstores or the used
book sections of larger stores. Many religious texts published by the
Theosophical Society prior to 1960 are highly reliable
and agenda-free. Theosophists at that time were
content with the
thrill of posing a religious challenge to Christianity. They still
prided themselves with presenting the texts accurately, wide-eyed at
the new information, and were not trying to change it. Only later did
similar "liberal" religious trends (and Marxist elements) in America
begin to filter out morally conservative and
content. Old Theosophical texts are often very good, and the Besant
Gita is one example.
best English version of the Upanishads I've read so far is the series "Eight Upanishads,"
translated by Swami Gambhirananda,
published originally by Advaita Ashrama in India. I have a Second
Edition published in 1966. There is another version done by a Swami Nikhilananda,
an Indian based in New York City during the 40s and 50s, but
translations are well superior because they do not have Swami N's
anti-yoga or anti-God agenda. (A fanatical non-dualist, Swami N.
continually disses the knowable God, half of Brahman, i.e. Saguna
Brahman.) Go for the Gambhirananda
version! It's two volumes and easily available. Here's an Amazon link to get a copy.
I spent a lot of time reading the Nikhilananda version and as I did, an
uneasy feeling grew in me.
Upanishads are like the gem mine of religion, and they cover or
touch almost every aspect of Divine religion itself, by whatever name,
Divine religion that leads to Divine knowledge and experience. The
Upanishads cover both the "dualistic" approach to the Creative Power,
and the "non-dualistic" view. The non-dualistic view is propounded most
heavily in the Mandukya Upanishad which includes a section called the
Gaudapada Karika. Basically, the non-dualist rejects or devalues any
conception of God having any particular describable attributes. They
call that God Brahman. The closest thing to an "attribute" usually
allowed for Brahman is "pure consciousness." Swami Nikhilandanda, on
the other hand, wants to shoplift "bliss" for his Brahman in an effort
to give it some attractiveness.
In the non-dualist view, all phenomena, all "perceivables," and even
all functions are separate from Brahman, although sometimes they use
language such as "they inhere in Brahman." Brahman is pure potential
and inconceivable. ("Brahma," easily mixed up with "Brahman," is a
dualistic God-concept and has a function: creatorship.) Even the
function of "creator" is denied for Brahman in the non-dualist view.
the end the non-dualist says that all perceivables, including superior
powers from the policeman to a knowable God -- are non-different from
Brahman. They are pure consciousness, only. Just as we can understand
that the things experienced in nightly dreams are only
consciousness, the same principle is used to explain the grosser waking
it is true, also, that out of Brahman deities arise, having
functions and attributes. For example, Brahma or the creator-God is
said to manifest a universe for 4.3 billion years, then it folds up
again into a "night of Brahman," similar to the way that we unmanifest
the world nightly in sleep. Just as the housemaid or the garden is only
Brahman (Pure Consciousness), these lofty and mighty Gods have the same
status to the non-dualist.
hard-core non-dualist negates or
downplays any knowable form of God with attributes, affirming and
admiring only a non-dual Brahman. Brahman is non-dual because in the
state of Brahman there is no "other," no second thing to perceive or
know. The Upanishads state that each of us merges in Brahman
nightly in the state of deep, dreamless sleep, knowing "no other." In
this state the pure consciousness is covered by a thin layer of
nescience. The higher state is more conscious, has no layer of
nescience, is sought by the yogi, and is called the state of turiya. Turiya
underlays all the other states.
the hard-core dualist often trashes the knowable,
describable forms of Brahman. However, non-dualistic Vedanta
has two terms:
Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahamn. Nirguna Brahman is the pure
consciousness without attributes or form; Saguna Brahman is
God-with-attributes and form. In the philosophy
the two have metaphysical equality. There is debate about what
be assigned to which. We see non-dualists continually sneaking in
attributes to dress up
their Brahman. They slip up often, pilfering things
like bliss, immutability,
or Lordship to dress up their "attributeless" Brahman.
Behind much "non-dualist" prickery, sniffery, and pomposity I
sense a mere emotional reaction to religionists, perhaps church people
(worshipers of Saguna Brahman) who irritated them in youth.
Perhaps their desire to negate religion is fostered by the
occasional fashionable atheism that crops up in the Marxist
press. Some it seems, and I designate Swami Nikhilananda as among them,
have no love for the people. They want to give them a religion
that can let them view themselves as superior to "ordinary"
religionists, but which is basically unworkable both for them and
"Bliss" is an attribute that, in particular, even hard-core
non-dualists like to grab for assignment to
Brahman rather than The Lord (Nirguna Brahman). That is absurd, because
ordinary men and yogis are blissful. How much more
The Lord Isvara who they experience as knowable inner Aum, light, and
itself. In reality bliss
pertains to both Nirguna and Saguna Brahman. However, the
forms of bliss
humans crave and want immediately pertain more to Saguna Brahman --
Isvara. God is a blissful God. And the sort of bliss human beings crave
is the bliss of the dualistic levels of consciousness "beneath"
Brahman. They seek the "juicier" and jazzier bliss, a
bliss, that they experience sometimes in life and often in the dream
state (called taijasa in
Vedanta). That realm, in all its levels up to the highest heaven, is
the realm of the knowable God, Isvara ("The Lord.") It exists
the state between waking and turiya. It is the bliss of that
intermediate region that gets a yogi weepy-drunk after he passes
through it, even for the briefest moment, on his way down from
nirvikalpa samadhi (turiya). That "dualistic" bliss is what human
beings seek, not so much
the exceedingly high-pitched bliss of the turiya (Brahman) state. A
fanatical or yoga-dissing non-dualist cannot direct people to that
bliss or that
there is no way that non-dualists will ever manage to stamp out Saguna
Brahman, whether experienced or simply believed (sought*) by
masses -- even if the effort were intelligent.
Believing, or shradda/faith, is a manifestation of seeking. We have
faith in that which we subconsciously know exists, and faith is the
first ground of seeking for it. One must have faith enough to try a
hypothesis, test, or experiment. As God-seeking through meditation
moves forward, God is soon no longer a mere theory or hypothesis but a
known. "Atheists" are simply people who have made a personal law
against the possibility of finding out anything heretofore unknown,
usually based on neurosis which is based on resentment and a vendetta
against their fellows who have offended them at some past time.
Though the non-dualist displays equivocation and dual-mindedness by
often ascribing characteristics to Brahman, on the other hand we find
him fiercely negating characteristics. So even things like prana
underlying matter that yogis can feel, feed upon, and direct -- or the
very space in which creation unfolds (akasa), are
denied by the non-dualist as another "evolute," or,
"ignorance." Meanwhile, the seeker of the knowable God-with-attributes
gets both; both understanding of the Brahman/Shiva viewpoint plus the
God-bliss that feeds the mind and world.
non-dualist viewpoint is difficult to understand, a difficult view
in which to become established. Another ancient scripture called the
Yoga-Vasistha is written to help aspirants understand it and become
established in it. It does this primarily through illustrations,
stories, and metaphors -- with a great deal of repetition. However, one
notable thing about the Yoga-Vasistha is that it lovingly affirms both
views throughout: The Sage Vasistha repeatedly speaks of the knowable
God (or various deities, potencies) as real and existent. He makes no
denial of their reality, whether the cycling Brahma of 4.3
years or Isvara, the original Person and father of humanity and Time,
knowable as inner Aum, etc. Vasistha continually speaks of the outer
reality while also directing the reader to Brahman, or "pure
consciousness." The Yoga-Vasistha is, in other words,
religion-affirming while teaching non-dualism. That is, it affirms the
value of the dualistic religions.
The truth is that the knower of Isvara (Yoga's word for the knowable
God, or "the Lord") comes to know both
states: The blissful and upgraded outer life, and the blissful state of
non-duality. That is because the Lord -- and this is affirmed in the
Bhagavad-Gita -- is Himself enlightened and knows both states. In very
fact, each one of us already goes through the two states because of our
experience of deep, dreamless sleep! Also, all aspirants pursuing the
dualistic Lord (Isvara, Brahma, God) will come to know both
experiences: Samadhi in which world-manifestation disappears, and the
"lower" samadhi which is blissful and in which world-manifestation
upgrades. There is no lack of attainment for the lover of the knowable
This explanation was all given as background to relate my impressions
about the Nikhilananda Upanishad versions cited above. As I said, I got
an uneasy feeling from them the more I read them, and finally checked
into the author and found out he was living in Marxist New York City as
he wrote them. Having been a reader of the generous and loving words of
Sage Vasistha for many years (in the Yoga-Vasistha), I found it odd
that the swami was so aggressive in negating all forms of dualistic
religion. Even Sankara, the great lion of non-dualism was not so
severe, or seemingly neurotic, in negating the knowable God. The text
was so perverse that even in sections ostensibly to explain Isvara (the
knowable Lord), the name Isvara would not be used. In sections designed
to explain Saguna Brahman (knowable God), "saguna" quickly disappeared
and the swami preferred to only reference "Brahman."
I also got the impression that the swami was not a developed yogi. He
missed many clear references to inner light (bindu),
to say about them. He gave no indication of knowing about Aum as inner
divine sound, failing to mention that religious reality
even in verses referring to it. He missed all cues regarding
"bhakti" or "devotion" whether in connection to Saguna Brahman or
Nirguna. Yet he was supposed to be giving an explication on the
Upanishads, which deal with the grand panoply of Hindu religion. I
noticed, also, that he often substituted "self control" or "sense
restraint" for chastity or brahmacharya. (Not always, admittedly. He
did make some clear chastity statements.)
In very fact, Nikhilananda negates meditation and the practices for
stilling mind while stumbling over them constantly in the text. But
Gambhirananda version affirms
them. What a difference in text! The New York swami appears to be a
proponent of the view that
enlightenment (samadhi, the vision of the Self, and the rest) can come
about merely through attitude, or maintaining the right attitudinal
posture. This frees him from the difficulty of renunciation and
meditation practice. To illustrate the stark difference in how the two
authors translate, compare some verses side-by-side:
these Yogis, fearlessness,the removal of misery, knowledge (of the
Self), and everlasting peace are dependent on the control of the mind."
Gaudapada Karika III.40
Nikhilananda of New York
[who are ignorant of Non-duality] depend on the control of the
mind for attaining fearlessness, the destruction of misery, Self-Knowledge, and imperishable
The bracketed bit
was written that way by the swami.
Upanishads clearly advocate meditation throughout. Swami manages to
lose the idea in his volumes. Here the New York swami twists meditation
into something only the "ignorant," those not entertaining the
non-dualist "view of creation," must "depend" on. The dissing of
meditation by the New Yorker becomes all the more absurd as the very
next six verses, 41 through 46, clearly advocate meditation or mental
Just as the ocean can be emptied with the help of the tip of a blade of
Kusa grass that can hold just a drop, so also can the control of the
mind be brought about by absence of depression."
With the help of that proper process one should bring under discipline
the mind that remains dispersed amidst objects of desire and enjoyment;
and one should bring it under control even when it is in full peace in
Constantly remembering that everything is full of misery, one should
withdraw the mind from the enjoyment arising out of desire..."
44. "...one should bring the dispersed mind into tranquility again. One should not disturb the mind established in equipose."
45. "When the mind, established in steadiness, wants to issue out, one should concentrate it with diligence."
When the mind does not become lost nor scattered, when it is motionless
and does not appear in the form of objects, then it becomes Brahman."
Those were the Gambhirananda version. The
swami's versions of the above verses simply feature more chicanery
minimizing and obscuring the clear value that the Upanishads give
Another verse comparison of the two authors:
"The intelligent man gives up
happiness and sorrow by developing concentration
of mind on the Self and thereby meditating on the
old Deity who is inscrutable, lodged inaccessibly, located in the
intellect, and seated in the midst of misery."
Katha, Chapter 2, v. 12.
wise man who, by means of concentration
on the Self,
realizes that ancient, effulgent One, who is hard to be seen,
unmanifest, hidden, and who dwells in the buddhi and rests in the body
-- he, indeed, leaves joy and sorrow far behind."
Ibid. Bold emphasis added by me.
Gambhirananda mentions meditation twice, once directly
("meditating") and even a second time clearly as "concentration of
mind." Nikhilananda can't find the word "meditation" and blurs the practical and technical
"concentration of mind" into a less conceivable "concentration on the Self." In the following verses the words "medium" and "support" refer to the
medium is the best; this medium is the supreme (and the inferior)
Brahman. Meditating on this medium, one becomes adorable in the world
Katha, Chapter 2, v. 17. Parens in the original.
is the best support; this is the highest support. Whosoever knows this
support is adored in the world of Brahman."
Bold emphasis added by me in both.
on" is generalized as "knows." Do all who merely "know the word Om"
(everybody's knows the word) get "adored in the world of Brahman"? The
same happens below, plus more tricks:
letter (Om), indeed, is (the inferior) Brahman (Hiranyagarbha); and
this letter is, indeed, the supreme Brahman. Anybody, who, (while)
meditating on this letter, wants any of the two, to him comes that."
Bold emphasis added by me.
syllable Om is indeed Brahman. This syllable is the Highest. Whosoever
knows this syllable obtains all he desires."
Swami N. generalized "meditating" into a
bland "knows." Again, everybody's heard of the word "Aum." Do people "obtain all desires" by simply knowing the word Om?
But Swami N. pulled another trick, too, something he
does throughout his widely-published translation. That is, he
Brahman, the knowable God-with-form, creator of the universe, which is
similar to the Christian concept of God and is very strong in Hinduism.
case he actually edited Him out.
The verse by Gambhirananda above labors to point out that Aum constitutes both
Saguna ("the inferior") and
Nirguna Brahman. ("the supreme"). Then it repeats this specification, again
explicitly stating both aspects of God
are obtained by meditation on Aum.
Nikhilananda, who regularly dunks references to Saguna
Brahman/Isvara in the Upanishads, jettisons all that. His version reduces it to a
about "Brahman" alone. Realize that it's this New York
habit, throughout his four volumes, to use the word
"Brahman" as shorthand for the attributeless Nirguna Brahman
while specifying "Saguna Brahman" when he is forced to mention
So in this one verse the New York swami effectively edits out both
the meditation idea, and The Lord.
Gambhirananda version, by contrast, clearly and repeatedly affirms
meditation, and "monasticism" (seclusion, austerities, meditation) as
the sure path to know Brahman.
And it makes no apologies or obfuscations about the knowable God. More
examples from Gambhirananda:
Mundaka III.42 "With the
help of that
proper process one should bring
under discipline the mind that remains
dispersed amidst objects of desire and enjoyment."
and pure Self
within the body, that the monks with (habitual effort and) attenuated
blemishes see, is attainable through truth, concentration,
knowledge, and continence, practiced constantly."
III.4 "This Self
attained by one devoid of strength, nor through delusion, nor through
knowledge unassociated with monasticism."
Nikhilananda versions of these above verses again,submerge the
meditation idea, sometimes completely removing all traces -- not even a
watered down synonym
or substitute for words appearing in other translations! Nikhilananda
tries to present a practice-less
the posture that all is necessary is an intellectual affirmation that
the exterior world is nothing but Brahman, and that's his only
"discipline." You could call it an ersatz "attitudinal yoga," religion
reduced down to intellectualism, a mere philosophical attitude. But
this leaves quantities of Upanishadic text, much
involving yogic processes, with no explanations. His texts and
view-on-yoga fall far short of the yoga of the masters who propounded
scriptures. "Attitudinal" yoga or "viewpoint" yoga, if it can even be
called yoga, involves none of the rigor of meditation discipline,
austerities for bodily detachment, or the uncovering of Purusha by
stages through meditation experience. Though the swami gives occasional
lip service to things like chastity (he would have been nailed back in
1959 had he not done so), he is basically presenting a yoga without
asceticism, without real technique, and without real inner
It is a "philosopher's
yoga" only, and it seeks to discount the knowable God-conceptions
(Isvara, Saguna Brahman) that make up the bulk of Hinduism and which
also, incidentally, resonate with Christian ideas.
I read the Nikhilananda material I got the strong impression that
his intention was to avoid presenting Vedanta in a way that would
strengthen or affirm Christian ideas and Christian religion. In fact,
the Upanishads are loaded with ideas that affirm and strengthen
Christian ideas. They give tremendous elucidation and depth to
Christian ideas that have become nebulous or weakly pursued by
Christians. The swami was making sure that the Christian west could not
take ideas in the Upanishads and get new life for Christianity, though
this is easily possible. In fact, he was trying to avoid stimulating
religious development in the west, at all. He wanted to only present
the 'unperceivable, indescribable Brahamn.'
truth is that it is Saguna Brahman, and directing human beings the
knowable truth of Saguna Brahman, is the root of human religion. Any
guru, saint, or story of same -- is nothing but Saguna Brahman. Human
joy or bliss is an attribute of Saguna Brahman, the knowable Lord. So
is inner Aum and jyoti (light) known by the celibate and devotional
yogi. These are all Saguna Brahman. Miraculous power and all healing
are a trait of Saguna Brahman. The creation is the product of the
Creatorship of Saguna Brahman.
the Swami's presentation, quite unlike the Bhagavad-Gita and the
Yoga-Vasistha which affirms both definitions of Brahman, seemed to me
as though it was ridden with an anti-religion Marxist agenda. Those
philosophical currents were certainly rife in New York City when the
swami lived there.
to the good part. When I began to study the Gambhirananda
version ("Eight Upanishads") I was delighted. First, the translations
are much more direct and serviceable and I was surprised to find that
they were different than Nikhilananda's. I had thought I was
getting a pretty straightforward, dry, rendering of the Sanskrit from
Nikhilananda, but such was not the case. The New York swami was clearly
slanting the verses. Even better, the commentary in the Gambhirananda
version was often more lucid and direct, with none of the distraction
Nikhilananda's effort to dress down Saguna Brahman.
All that said, some of Swami N's translations are actually very good.
In some cases, Swami N. does a better job than Swami G. in giving
clarity to verses. Thus it is good to consult both versions, and
additional translators as well.
point is that most translators have agendas for good or ill, and it
takes skill to perceive what their agenda is. In the case of
Nikhilananda, if you can keep in mind that the Swami is clueless about
yoga, isn't interested in meditation, and that he wants to trash
Nirguna Brahman -- his text is still frequently valuable. He knows a
great deal about
the many Hindu philosophical ideas. In particular, he is good for
getting understanding the difficult
non-dualist point-of-view. But he is an embarrassing
bull-in-the-china-shop whenever the knowable God comes up in the Upanishads.
this should serve to emphasize to brothers and Brothers that they
should never be contented acquiring just one translation of any
scripture. They should not stop until they have studied a few, and they
should learn to identify agendas and distortions by translators and
commentators. It has been demonstrated that if you do not do this, you
could end up with erroneous or unfortunate ideas, or
confusion, right off the bat.
The Ashtavakra Gita
scripture that presents the non-dualistic point-of-view is the
Ashtavakra Gita. Like the Yoga-Vasistha, the book is purported to be
the words of a mythic Hindu personage, in this case the ancient king,
Janaka. The text is brief, and delightful. The one I have is translated
by Hari Prasad Shastri, and published by Shanti Sadan, London.