In defense of Srila Prabhupada

By Thomas J. Hopkins, Ph.D, Professor, Department of Religious Studies, Franklin and Marshall College, USA (A Response to: ‘His Divine Grace and the Revised Bhagavad-Gita’ by Joseph Vekerdi)

I have read the English translation of Joseph Vekerdi’s essay in Life and Literature entitled ‘His Divine Grace and the Revised Bhagavad-Gita’. I must say that I find it disappointing as a scholarly statement on Prabhupada’s translation, the Gita itself and the Hindu tradition as a whole. I have no doubt that Vekerdi is a competent Indologist in some area of study, but he is clearly outside his field of competence in this essay.

Vekerdi’s critique of Prabhupada’s translation can be divided into two categories: his criticism of how certain verses are translated and his denial that Prabhupada represents ‘traditional Indian Hindu religiousness’. Although Vekerdi’s most serious error is in the latter category, I will begin with his critique of specific translations .He fortunately gives only a few examples, because each represents a complex pattern of misunderstanding.

Dharmaksetre kuruksetre

Vekerdi devotes two full paragraphs to his critique of Prabhupada’s translation of the first two Sanskrit words in the Gita: dharmaksetre kuruksetre, which Prabhupada translates as ‘in the place of pilgrimage at Kuruksetra’. There is no issue with the translation of kuruksetra, literally ‘the field of the Kurus’, but Vekerdi strongly criticises the translation of dharmaksetra as ‘the place of pilgrimage’. As Vekerdi says, it is true that ‘the meaning of the term “dharma” is not “pilgrimage”‘ ,but that is not the point. Prabhupada certainly knows that, as does everyone who has ever studied Sanskrit and quite a few who haven’t. A literal translation of dharmaksetra would thus be ‘the field of dharma’, or ‘the place of law / truth / duty / justice/virtue / morality’ (to use only a few of the possible translations of the multi-faceted term dharma).

Prabhupada could obviously have translated dharmaksetra literally, as most translators do; the preferred English translation by most Hindu translators is ‘the sacred soil’ (cited by Vekerdi) or ‘the holy plain’ (as in Swami Vireswarananda’s translation of Srimad Bhagavad-Gita with Sridhara Swami’s commentary), although Radhakrishnan translates it more literally as ‘the field of righteousness’. Prabhupada’s point is more subtle, however, and seems to have been totally missed by Vekerdi.

Prabhupada explains in his Purport to the Gita 1.1 that dharma-ksetra has the meaning of ‘a place where religious rituals are performed’, and that this is significant because Dhrtarastra- to whom the battle scene is being described by Sanjaya – knows this and fears the outcome of the impending battle in such a holy place that would ‘influence Arjuna and the sons of Pandu favourably, because by nature they were all virtuous’. What Prabhupada does not reveal in his Purport, and no doubt believed that he need not say to anyone who was familiar with the Mahabharata or Hindu culture, is that Kuruksetra had already been praised by the sage Pulastya earlier in the Mahabharata (Critical Edition, 3.81) as a ‘much-lauded’ pilgrimage site to which anyone who goes in a spirit of faith ‘obtains the fruit of a Royal Consecration and Horse Sacrifice’ (3.81.6). Kuruksetra has thus been presented as a sacred pilgrimage site in the Mahabharata narrative in Book Six (6.23-40 in the Critical Edition) long before the appearance of the Gita, and its identity as an already-famous place of pilgrimage is taken for granted by the narrator.[1]

Given this background, and the fact that Kuruksetra was a sacred site known as dharmaksetra as early as the Vedic Brahmanas (Kane, op. cit., p. 680), Prabhupada stands clearly within the tradition when he translates dharmaksetra as ‘the place of pilgrimage’ to identify the sacred ritual centre Kuruksetra as the scene of the coming battle. What is surprising is that an Indologist such as Joseph Vekerdi knows nothing of this tradition, as evidenced by his authoritatively stated claim that ‘there has never been a pilgrimage site at Kuruksetra’. The Mahabharata and Puranas clearly state otherwise, Hindus know otherwise, and it is the Indian Hindu tradition that Prabhupada assumes in his translation.

Gita 4.28

Vekerdi’s second textual criticism, chosen (in his own words) ‘at random’, is the translation of Gita 4.28. Here he quotes only the first half of the Sanskrit sloka, dravyayajnas tapoyajnayogayajnas tathapare, which he translates as ‘Some sacrifice their possessions, others sacrifice by austerities or by practising yoga’ .He then quotes Prabhupada’s translation of the entire verse, which says that ‘having accepted strict vows, some become enlightened by sacrificing their possessions, and others by performing severe austerities, by practising the yoga of eight-fold mysticism, or by studying the Vedas to advance in transcendental knowledge’. This translation, Vekerdi claims, has been ‘made up’ by Prabhupada from the ‘one line’ of Sanskrit that Vekerdi has quoted. It is obvious, however, that Prabhupada’s translation is based on both lines of the Sanskrit sloka, not just the one Vekerdi quotes: the phrase ‘having accepted strict vows’ translates the term samsita-vratah in the second half of the sloka, while the phrase ‘studying the Vedas to advance in transcendental knowledge’ translates svadhyaya-jnana-yajnas, also in the second half of the sloka.

If we look at the whole Sanskrit verse, and not just the half-verse quoted by Vekerdi, we can see clearly that Prabhupada has not ‘made up’ his translation; he has simply translated the full verse as it appears in the Gita and not just the first half that Vekerdi quotes.

The only thing that Prabhupada adds to a strictly literal translation is the phrase ‘of eight-fold mysticism’ to qualify the term yoga in yoga-yajnas and distinguish it from other meanings of yoga in the Gita. As Prabhupada makes clear in his Purport on this verse, he interprets the term in this way so that it may be used in reference to ‘different kinds of mystic yogas like the Patanjali system (for merging into the existence of the Absolute), hatha-yoga or astanga-yoga (for particular perfections)’. A glance at various commentaries on this verse such as those of Sridhara Swami, Sankara or others that are found in Robert N. Minor’s Bhagavad-Gita: An Exegetical Commentary, indicates that the term yoga-yajnas is given different meanings by different commentators. Prabhupada is simply clarifying what he takes to be the meaning with reference to the commentary tradition, not ‘making up’ something that is not there. Vekerdi does not seem to understand that any Hindu translator or commentator works within an established tradition of commentaries, and positions himself in relation to what others have said. Prabhupada is doing no more than that as he makes clear in his Purport.

Jnana

Vekerdi’s next criticism is Prabhupada’s translation of jnana as ‘transcendental knowledge’, claiming that it changes the word ‘knowledge’ (jnana) to something else. However, the English word ‘knowledge’ has many possible meanings, as I suspect the Hungarian equivalent does also, while the Sanskrit term jnana has a very specific meaning: knowledge of the unchanging reality of Brahman or atman. To avoid confusion, Prabhupada thus translates jnana consistently as ‘transcendental knowledge’ to distinguish it from other more mundane kinds of knowledge. Far from being devious, as Vekerdi implies, this is nothing more than using a translation that comes closest to the meaning of jnana in its Hindu context.

Knowledge and cognition

Vekerdi next claims that Prabhupada ‘changes … the epistemological technical term “knowledge and cognition”(jnana-vijnana) to “absolute truth”‘. The term jnana-vijnana appears twice in the Gita, in 3.41 and 6.8, both as compounds: jnana-vijnana-nasanam in 3.41 and jnana-vijnana-trptatmain 6.8. In both cases, Prabhupada translates jnana as ‘knowledge ‘in this compound form and vijnana as ‘self-realisation’ (3.41)or ‘realisation’ (6.8). Again, however, Prabhupada is clearly responding to an issue posed by earlier commentaries. As Robert Minor says, ‘the variety of interpretations of commentators on the distinction between jnana and vijnana is great’, and he then illustrates this by citing the various interpretations of commentators from the classical views of Sankara and Ramanuja to a host of modern scholars.[2]

As one might expect, Prabhupada’s translations of the terms come closest to the meanings given by the Vaisnava devotional scholar Ramanuja, who refers to jnana as ‘knowledge of the nature of the self’ and vijnana as ‘a deeper discrimination of the self (atma-viveka)’. In a situation where there is no certain meaning of the terms established by a consensus of commentaries, Prabhupada is giving his own best interpretation based on the commentator whose authority he most trusts; the explanation of his translation is given openly in his Purports to the two verses so there is no confusion about what he means.

Vekerdi again seems to know nothing about the commentary tradition on the issues involved, but instead considers jnana-vijnana to be a ‘technical term in epistemology’ meaning ‘knowledge and cognition’. This assumption that there is a single meaning of the terms either together or separately, ignores the long debate over the meaning of both terms in Hindu as well as Buddhist philosophy, and it places their assumed meaning entirely outside the context of the Gita in the field of epistemology. If anything is certain, it is that the Gita does not use the term jnana-vijnana as a ‘technical term in epistemology’ since it predates the rise of philosophical schools with a precise technical terminology for concepts in epistemology or any other area of philosophical discourse.

Sarvam idam

Much the same problem appears in Vekerdi’s assumption that sarvam idam in 2.17 represents the ‘important pantheistic concept “universe”‘, which he claims Prabhupada changes to ‘the whole body’ in his translation. This verse is part of Krsna’s teaching about the difference between the dehin (the indestructible ’embodied one’, later identified with the atman or ‘self’) and the perishable deha or ‘body’ in which it appears in the world. Verse 2.17 explains that ‘that’ (tat) by which ‘all ‘this’ (sarvamidam) is pervaded should be known as ‘imperishable’ (avinasi). Commentators in all ages have struggled with the meanings of and /or references to the terms tat and sarvam idam, as Minor’s survey of commentaries makes clear (op. cit., pp. 41-3).The all-pervading tat clearly refers to the imperishable and indestructible dehin, but commentators disagree about whether tat refers to the neuter Brahman (Sankara’s position)or to the ‘category of individual selves’ (Ramanuja’s position). Similarly, some take sarvam idam to mean “this universe”, while others such as Sridhara Swami and Prabhupada take it to mean the body or bodies which the atman or ‘self’ (the embodied dehin) pervades.

The issue here is not whose view of this verse is right or wrong; if that could be known with certainty, there would not have been a thousand years of debate between commentators. Rather, it is that Prabhupada stands in a long tradition of interpretation that shapes his translation of sarvam idam as ‘the entire body’ in contrast to Sankara’s (and Vekerdi’s) monistic or ‘pantheistic’ interpretation of the term. This is not a ‘distortion’ of the meaning, as Vekerdi claims, but instead a choice of one traditional interpretation over another. This choice, moreover, is entirely consistent with the less ambiguous meaning of the following verse, which says that ‘these bodies’ (ime deha) of the ’embodied’ (saririnah) are said to ‘come to an end’ (antavanta). Whatever one says about Prabhupada’s translation, he clearly does not stand alone in his reading of its meaning, which is not inconsistent with the Gita’s self-evident meaning in other verses.

Conclusion

This is the sum total of Vekerdi’s textual critique of Prabhupada’s translation. He claims that these are ‘random’ examples; if so, he is remarkably unlucky in his choices. Not a single criticism that he makes stands up to scrutiny and he reveals in the process a lack of knowledge of Hindu religion, the Gita and the commentarial tradition that one would not expect from a trained Indologist.

However, if this speaks for Vekerdi’s textual criticisms, it does even more so for his final paragraph. He claims, for example, that the organisation of the Hare Krishna movement is alien to ‘Indian religiousness’, a statement that reveals a total ignorance of all the devotional movements in India from Sri Vaisnavism and Saiva Siddhanta to Caitanya’s Gaudiya Vaishnavism and the modern Krishna Consciousness movement started by Bhaktivinoda Thakura in Bengalin the nineteenth century. Contrary to what Vekerdi says, it is simply an historical fact that the ‘Hare Krishna’ movement, as he calls it, started in India as a purely Indian outgrowth of the earlier Caitanya movement in Bengal. Prabhupada represented the third generation of that movement in India as the disciple of Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s son Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, and he did not come to America until he was seventy years old after a lifetime of devotional service and translation work in India.

It is true that many of Prabhupada’s own early disciples were American, but quite a few of these have become accomplished Sanskritists or Bengali specialists to a degree that has won them acceptance as equals by Brahmans in India, not only for their scholarship but for their purity of devotion and practice. One can hardly imagine how, as Vekerdi claims, this ‘serves the cultural expansion of America’ in Europe or anywhere else. Moreover, Prabhupada himself was adamantly opposed to drugs and sexual promiscuity, and he enforced this opposition within his movement. Whatever Vekerdi may think of ‘American spirit’ in general (which he seems to believe is some monolithic cultural position), he can certainly not claim that the Krishna Consciousness movement presents a ‘spirit’ that is ‘to the liking of those who propose drugs for the young and organise homosexual clubs instead of nursery schools in the name of “difference”‘. The ‘difference’ the Krishna Consciousness Movement represents is another thing that Vekerdi seemingly does not understand: ‘traditional Indian Hindu religiousness’ that is not ‘destructive’ as he claims but rather a means of purifying the body and mind for service to the Lord.

Originally published in ISKCON Communication Journal, 3.2 Book Reviews: Justice, Courtesy and Love

July/December 1995

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