Dr. Schweig’s brand new book, Bhagavad Gita: The Beloved Lord’s Secret Love Song
is described by Huston Smith (the internationally recognized authority on world religion) as a “beautiful and accessible translation of the Gita.” In this interview, Dr. Schweig explains that while the Gita is about divine yearning, “at a deeper level, it is a song issuing forth from the heart of God. It is the secret call of the divinity for all souls to love him, to take the journey to him, to be blissfully united with him.”
IYM: What is the Gita’s relationship to Yoga?
GS: The Gita is the book on Yoga par excellence. The narrator himself calls Krishna’s teachings, and the whole dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, “the supreme secret of Yoga” (18.75). Yoga, in its ultimate form, is the natural outpouring of hearts to one another, the human heart and the divine heart: this is the supreme secret of Yoga. We learn in the Gita that the divinity practices his Yoga through his amazing manifestations, one of which is his full presence within the inner region of our hearts. Humans, on the other hand, are to practice a Yoga that allows them to enter fully into the heart of divinity. When you realize you are drowning yourself in Krishna’s heart, you are not cognizant of your individuality, though you remain an individual. You lose yourself completely to gain yourself fully. For the Gita, Yoga is the mutual loving embrace between humanity and divinity—this is the supreme Yoga.
IYM: Gita means song. Why a song?
GS: Most wondrously, we learn in the Gita that the heart of God passionately desires to connect with the hearts of humans, and he expresses this through a “gita,” a song of love that he keeps secret. It is not a song in the lyrical sense, but it is a song coming from the divine heart to us. As I say in the introduction to the book, “It is a song issuing forth from the heart of God. It is the secret call of the divinity for all souls to love him, to take the journey to him, to be blissfully united with him.” Our Yoga is ultimately meant to hear this secret song.
IYM: You reference three secrets in the text. What are these?
GS: The supreme secret is revealed as having three layers and is most fully described in the 18th chapter: the secret, the greater secret, and the greatest secret of all, and these correspond to how we should act in the outer world of conflict, what we should expect to find in the inner world of transcendence, and finally in the innermost world of the heart, respectively. The great secret is that we should act out of love. We should act in the way in this world that best expresses our heart. This is said in verses 1-49. The greater secret is revealed in verses 50-63. Krishna tells Arjuna to know him as Brahman and as the Purusha, embracing him from within one’s own heart. A running theme throughout the Gita is the instruction to experience one’s self as it is embraced by Brahman and Purusha. The greatest secret of all comes in verses 64-66 in which Krishna reveals his own heart’s divine passion: “You are so much loved by me!” Here the divine heart so passionately desires the love of the human heart and is inviting the human heart to embrace his.
IYM: Why keep this a secret?
GS: The greatest impoverishment in the world is the impoverishment of the human heart. If the heart would be nurtured it would take care of all other impoverishments. Krishna keeps his love a secret simply because we are just not ready to hear it. If we would hear it, we would be filled with his love. He’s already embracing us with all his numerous manifestations, but we may not respond. He is therefore a passive lover at this point, an eternally patient lover. It is important to note that Krishna is not a judgmental deity or a god of punishment, condemnation or guilt. He doesn’t want an atmosphere of obligatory love: I love you and if you don’t love me you go to hell for eternity. He waits for us forever. His love is so beautiful and perfect because it’s unconditional and he wants our love to be just as unconditional. It’s therefore the secret call of the divinity.
IYM: That sounds exactly like Gurudev! He always said that kind of “love” is not love, it’s business!
GS: Yes! In the West we have an obligatory, a pressured love. What Gurudev is talking about and what Krishna is addressing is a special kind of love. The way I translate bhakti is “the offering of love,” an offering of the heart. It’s active and dynamic, not passive. Right now Krishna is actively offering us his embrace as the antaryamin (“The Indweller”) within our hearts. Thus the Gita is a scriptural love letter. What’s important in any relationship is balance. Without balance, a relationship cannot grow. I can love someone and say you are my best friend but that is not balanced because you haven’t decided if you want to be my best friend. When balance is achieved in any relationship, relationships are nourished and the love within them grows. Otherwise they become stuck in their unbalanced state. When we rise to the level of unconditional loving in relation to the divine, there is Yoga and an eternal fullness of hearts.
IYM: Could you give us a sense of how the greatest secret is translated from the Sanskrit?
GS: In Sanskrit, you don’t have bold italic or double underscoring, nor do we have things like smiley faces. So let’s see how Krishna expresses this divine yearning so emphatically. As I just mentioned, the greatest secret of all is most dramatically announced in verse 64 of Chapter Eighteen:
shrinu me paramam vacahah|
ishto ’si me dridham iti
tato vakshyami te hitam|
Hear still further
the greatest secret of all,
my supreme message:
“You are so much loved by me!”
Therefore I shall speak
for your well-being.
Sarva-guhyatamam: “the greatest secret of all.” There is no other way to translate this. The most secret thing. It’s unquestionably a superlative. Shrinu me: “listen to me.” Listen to my supreme word, paramam vacahah: “my supreme message.” Can you get more emphatic than that? He doesn’t anywhere else in the Gita. Yet he further expresses emphasis has he places his secret in quotation marks. Ishto ‘si me dridham iti: “You are so much desired by me!” Most immediately, “You are loved.” The word ishtah expresses that it is a desired, passionate love, a longing. “I need you!” These are verses worth having on one’s dying breath. This is a secret to be discovered by the devotee. It’s a direct message from Krishna to our hearts and ultimately has to be received by the heart of a devotee. Krishna is embracing us constantly and in so many ways and eternally waiting for us. He will always be there for us. He offers his unconditional love. He gives himself and the highest part of himself. As I spoke above, the beauty of the Gita is that Krishna demonstrates his love, kindness and patience throughout and in his very teachings. This is so poignantly expressed in the very notion that he’s not at all a jealous god; he states that if we want to worship other divinities he will help us:
Whoever, with faith,
has offered love
to whatever form that
person desires to worship—
Upon every such person,
I bestow this
IYM: We don’t tend to think of the Gita as being so universal! I’m reminded of Gurudev’s saying “Truth is one, paths are many.”
GS: Yes, he quotes the Rig Veda here. Gurudev always struck me as the most understanding and encouraging Guru! He powerfully impacted me in the early days. Yes, Krishna is very open and generous. There are many philosophical arguments people get into about the Gita and whether it is about Karma, Jnana, or Bhakti Yoga. It’s not an issue of which one of these is correct. Krishna is saying that we attain a “Yoga” with the divine by “acting” out of love for the divine; by “knowing” the heart of the divine; and by “offering our hearts” to the divine. These three primary ways are all ultimately constituent processes in the highest form of Yoga.
IYM: Apart from the challenge of translation, how do you present the Gita in your book?
GS: Each verse is worthy of endless contemplation, a veritable meditation. Therefore, the translated verses are meant to stand on their own. I present the verses so that if one reads nothing but the verses, one can get through with a reasonable amount of understanding. There are also footnotes that allow the reader to appreciate the verses without having to leave the page for further consultation. However, with anything beautiful, it deserves a frame. Since the verses of the Gita are exquisite, I give them a frame in the form of introductory words that provide the unseasoned reader with just enough of what they need so they may dive into the depth of the Gita’s message. Then, I continue to frame it with a section that follows the verses, called textual illuminations, where I go deeper. Following this section, I present the English transliteration of every verse and instructions on how to recite the verses accurately and beautifully. Then, I have a twenty-four page index to the verses. If they want more of a cross-reference to the verses or footnotes there is the index to which the reader can refer. It’s unusual to find an index so nuanced and detailed for the Gita’s verses.
IYM: Can you talk a little about the Karma Yoga of the Gita in the context of Bhakti Yoga?
GS: The whole message of the Gita is embedded in the question: how should we act in this world of conflict? I translate the word karma as action. It comes from the Sanskrit root to act or to perform. In the Gita we see God is acting out of love for us and it is natural that we act out of love for him. The very first verse of the Gita poses the question: “How did they act?” The word “act” is a seed, a bija, a key to the whole text. It’s not what we do on our own battlefields of life; rather, it’s how we act—this has ethical, moral, emotional and spiritual implications. The question is not about seeking a business report, a news summary; the Gita is all about the issues of right action, proper action. How should we act? The short answer is that we should act from the heart—that’s the highest way to act. The achievement of the heart is the only thing that we can take with us at the time of death. We can transcend death by living fully within and acting through the depths of our hearts.
These are subtle themes in the Gita. The soul is something that is dynamic, that ultimately offers itself. When one is in love, one’s attention is dynamically and actively focused on a single object. This is action or karma that constitutes a Yoga in the bhakti of the Gita.
IYM: What was your goal in doing this new translation?
GS: After reading and teaching the Gita countless times and contemplating its verses for over 37 years in both translations and in the original Sanskrit, a few years ago I was struck, after speaking to a colleague of mine, how much there is a need, despite the dozens of available translations, for a precise and beautiful translation of this sacred masterpiece. I started with the assumption that the Sanskrit author was not impoverished, and thus my translation was to be literal, and a very precise translation. But, I didn’t stop there—I had to go deeper to see how each verse could begin to resonate, to sing. I looked at each verse as a special jewel that if you polished long enough it would start to glow. I attempted to do this with every verse. That is how I wound up spending day and night on the verses. They became an obsession.
I wanted the reader to be able to experience this text as if they could read it in the original language, to get some sense of the beauty of the original and the philosophical power of its words and phrases. Each verse projects its very own special drama, with its own play on words if you can preserve them—which is what I tried to do. Most translators don’t bother to preserve this, but are more concerned about transmitting meaning. But I found, as with all poetry, that one can’t divorce what the language does from the meaning. Very few try to incorporate the poetic sense and beauty of the text—a sense of the literary motifs, structures, and repetitions. Very few try to convey the sense of the philosophical power through the literary quality of the translation. If you can bring out something special that’s embedded in the original but is not necessarily quite so available to the ordinary eye, it’s possible that the soul of these verses can be presented in a powerful and compelling way, amazingly, through the translation itself. The very gifts of these verses await us now. How much do we absorb them? That’s a matter of how ready we are to receive the secret love song.
An Interview with Graham M. Schweig, Ph.D.
Dr. Graham Schweig received his doctorate in Comparative Religion from Harvard University, and is a specialist in the philosophy and history of Yoga, bhakti devotional traditions of India, and love mysticism in world religions. He is currently Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Indic Studies Program at Christopher Newport University and Visiting Associate Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Virginia. He is the author of numerous articles and books including, Dance of Divine Love (Princeton, 2005) and Bhagavad Gita: The Beloved Lord’s Secret Love Song (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007). For Graham’s lecture and Yoga workshop schedule, please visit his website at: www.grahamschweig.com.