Today is Gīta Jayanti and so everything else takes the second fiddle, including ekādaśī. After all, Bhagavad Gīta is like a Hindu Bible, the most famous and indisputable text for the whole of Hinduism. It’s not an equivalent in any other sense, though.
Ontologically, Śrīmad Bhāgavatam would be closer to the Bible in scope and purpose, or rather the other way around – Bible would be like Bhāgavatam for mlecchas. No one knows how Bible was composed, both Gīta and Bhāgavatam describe their appearance and circumstances surrounding it in great detail. Skeptics can still call it mythology but no one can deny that they fit perfectly in the overall narrative and there’s absolutely nothing there that can be dismissed outright.
Skeptics might question the numbers related to the battle of Kurukṣetra but who can go as far as doubt that some sort of a battle really happened there? If there was a battle, what’s the problem with motivational speeches given there?
Skeptics can rightfully point to “magic” deployed by Sañjaya to relate what Kṛsṇa was saying to Arjuna while being in the tent of Dhṛtarāṣṭra miles away but we can let this argument go because it’s not how Gīta was related but what was said there that’s important. So what if there were other witnesses who memorized Kṛṣṇa’s instructions and wrote them down later?
It would matter to us because we accept infallibility of the śāstra and our ācāryas so we take description of Sañjaya in deep mediation being able to hear Kṛṣṇa’s words literally but it wouldn’t matter to skeptics as long as they agree on the content. Let them think whatever they want as long as they have a reason to take Kṛṣṇa’s instructions seriously. Let them take their baby steps, we don’t mind.
Here they would have a reason to contest exact wording, though. For us Gīta is sacred down to every syllable but this is actually what I wanted to discuss today.
First, there ARE differences in Gīta manuscripts yet they are all remarkably close to each other despite being separated by centuries. My words have little weight here, however, I haven’t seen neither the manuscripts nor descriptions of them. Scholars say that there are differences in about 10% of Mahābhārata lines, I think it’s safe to guess that Gīta wasn’t untouched, too. The oldest Gīta manuscript is dated 15th century, most modern editions are printed from manuscripts coming from the 18th and 19th.
Gīta is not śruti, it’s smṛti, so variations are acceptable as long as the meaning is the same, shouldn’t bother us that much.
What’s more important is what we consider as “Gīta”. On the occasion of Gīta Jayanti Hindus all over the world set up public Gīta recitations and ISCKON is no different. One can find audio recordings of such recitation on the internet and listen to them. What happens, however, is that it doesn’t register with those who don’t know Sanskrit, just goes into one ear and out of the other.
The sound might be transcendental, if you are lucky to hear Gīta from devotees, but if you don’t understand the words it doesn’t engage mind and intelligence. I hope it still acts on the soul itself but that would be ajñāta sukṛti, not engaging our minds in devotional service. Kṛṣṇa says that those who listen to Gīta perform a sacrifice but if our minds are not engaged then what is the value of our hearing?
To actually hear Bhagavad Gita and engage ourselves in proper śravaṇam we need to hear it from a spiritual master in the language we can understand. For many of us it’s English but any other language is fine, too.
Simply hearing Gīta or reading translations does not bring any spiritual realization, it’s been done for centuries with zero effect, that’s why we insist on “Bhagavad Gīta As It Is”, the first Gīta spoken in English. Well, written, but there’s little practical difference here. To speak Gīta one must represent a proper disciplic succession and Śrīla Prabhupāda was the first ever devotee to do so in English language. That’s why it’s spiritually potent while numerous other renditions are spiritually sterile.
Consider various other options. What if Śrīla Prabupāda published only Sanskrit verses transliterated into English alphabet without translations and purports? Would it have ANY effect? No. The spiritual power comes from him speaking actual English words.
What if Prabhupāda didn’t write translations but only purports? Would it have any effect? Yes, why not? He wrote plenty of books explaining the same things Kṛṣṇa said in Gīta and they touched people’s hearts all the same. He often quoted Sanskrit verses and provided not direct translations but explanations as relevant to the topic at hand and it worked.
Do translations have any special status? I don’t think so. There’s no such thing as “translation” anyway, it’s all only interpretation of Sanskrit words in the language of the listener. Sanskrit words can’t be replaced, their full meaning can never be disclosed in any other language, they have no equivalents, so every translation is just one possible interpretation of original meaning. Devotional interpretations stand out, of course, as closest to Kṛṣṇa’s actual intention.
Point is, as long as guru stays faithful to Kṛṣṇa’s teachings everything he says will have spiritual power.
Consider translations of our books, too. There’s no difference in potency between our editions of Bhagavad Gīta in all available languages, German, Spanish, Russian translations are equally powerful even though Prabhupāda didn’t speak or write in any of those languages.
There are numerous agents even between Śrīla Prabhupāda and readers of his English books. Everyone who works at BBT is contributing to the medium. Cover art, illustrations, fonts, quality of the paper – everything matters, everything contributes to overall perception. They can’t print white on white, for example, it would be unreadable. Likewise, they can’t have pages stuck together. Awesome illustrations add to the effect, too.
All of that is presentation by our collective “guru” who makes sure that Bhagavad Gīta manifests in our minds and touches our hearts. Śrīla Prabhupāda stays at the core of this presentation but, when reading books, he talks to us through their medium and through the medium of devotees who publish them.
That’s why popular criticism of BBT edits misses the point – every devotee who, through his service, leaves an impact on the book does so legitimately. Bhagavad Gīta is not a dead snapshot of history, it’s alive and it lives on the tongues of the devotees who bring it to us. We need their input, without it Gīta would never reach us at all.
Of course there’s a matter of faithful representation but it’s about representing devotion, not a collection of letters and words. Devotees who keep working on Gīta despite mountains of criticism and offenses against them deserve all respect and admiration. They KNOW the meaning of it, they realized it in their lives, they are fully authorized to speak it on behalf of Śrīla Prabhupāda and, ultimately, Kṛṣṇa. They do not make SPIRITUAL mistakes, the external form of their presentation being of less importance.
That’s why I suggest that on the day of Gīta Jayanti we should also contemplate when and how Bhagavad Gīta appears in our personal lives, which is the real advent, non-different from Kṛṣṇa speaking on the field of Kurukṣetra. Five thousand years and distance in space have no spiritual significance whatsoever, neither Gīta nor Kṛṣṇa are bound by such material considerations, they are not part of this material world to restrict them this way.
We should also remember our acintya-bheda-abheda tattva philosophy that tells us to see unity of all spiritual manifestations even though they appear as different. At the same time there’s no problem with celebrating them separately. Today is Kṛṣṇa’s day, He started it all, so He deserves a special tribute which, I hope we all have done one way or another.