The Best Bhagavad-Gitas
Julian Curtis Lee Mickunas
Best 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 rhyming Gitas 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 containing 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 6:14 (or "firm in the vow of a brahmachari." Bad translations replace this with vague terms like "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 nebulous 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.)
Or vague euphemisms are used there, like Mascaro's "vow of holiness." (Most westerners now would not even think of sexual chastity upon 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.

So 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 Gita's technical 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  Christian-positive content. Old Theosophical texts are often very good, and the Besant Gita is one example.

The Best Greater Upanishads
The 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 the Gambhirananda 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.

The 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.

In 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 world.

Thus 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.

The 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.
So 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 attributes can 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 others.

"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 even ordinary men and yogis are blissful. How much more The Lord Isvara who they experience as knowable inner Aum, light, and bliss (ananda) 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 -- God, 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 dualistic 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 in 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 God. Thus there is no way that non-dualists will ever manage to stamp out Saguna Brahman, whether experienced or simply believed (sought*) by the 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 -- the fundamental life-force 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.
The 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 billion 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 God.

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), with nothing 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:

Swami Gambhirananda
"For all 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
"Yogis [who are ignorant of Non-duality] depend on the control of the mind for attaining fearlessness, the destruction of misery, Self-Knowledge, and imperishable peace."
Gaudapada Karika III.40
The bracketed bit was written that way by the swami.
Gambhirananda's 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 concentration:

41. 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."
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 one should bring it under control even when it is in full peace in sleep..."
43. Constantly remembering that everything is full of misery, one should withdraw the mind from the enjoyment arising out of desire..."
44. " 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."
46. 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 to meditation.

 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."
First Katha, Chapter 2, v. 12. 

"The 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 word Om:

"This medium is the best; this medium is the supreme (and the inferior) Brahman. Meditating on this medium, one becomes adorable in the world of Brahman."
First Katha, Chapter 2, v. 17. Parens in the original.

"This 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.

"Meditating 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:

"This 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."
Ibid, verse 16
Bold emphasis added by me.

"This syllable Om is indeed Brahman. This syllable is the Highest. Whosoever knows this syllable obtains all he desires."
Ibid, verse 16

Again 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 marginalizes Saguna 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. In this 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 statement about  "Brahman" alone. Realize that it's this New York teacher's 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 Him. So in this one verse the New York swami effectively edits out both the meditation idea, and The Lord.

The Gambhirananda version, by contrast, clearly and repeatedly affirms asceticism, 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."
III.5 "The bright and pure Self within the body, that the monks with (habitual effort and) attenuated blemishes see, is attainable through truth, concentration, complete knowledge, and continence, practiced constantly."
III.4 "This Self is not attained by one devoid of strength, nor through delusion, nor through knowledge unassociated with monasticism."

 The 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 religion.

Nikhilananda takes 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 these 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 unfoldment. 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.

As 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.'

The 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.

So 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.

Now 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 of 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.

The 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.

All 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
Another 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.

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