Mani Rao on Her Now-More-Than-Ever Version of the Bhagavad Gita


Steve Bradbury

Mani Rao is one of the most admired English-language poets to have appeared in East-Asia this last decade or so. The author of eight volumes of poetry, the Indian-born poet and former long-term resident of Hong Kong has recently turned her enviably eloquent command of the Queen's English to the task of translating the Bhagavad Gita. Her lucid, passionate and richly provocative version of this Sanskrit poetic masterpiece, which was recently published by Autumn Hill Books, revitalizes one of the great classics of Hindu philosophy. In the following interview, which is only hours old, Rao, who is currently pursuing a degree in religious studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, converses on this and other subjects of mutual interest and shares with us some favorite passages from both the Gita and her most recent volume of poetry, Ghostmasters.

Born and raised in India, worked in Hong Kong, did graduate work in the States—what do you say when people ask you, “Where do you come from?” or “Where do you feel most at home?”
I feel at home anywhere! I do often say I am from Hong Kong. Is that because the Indian part is so evident in my face? I guess it is also because I was in Hong Kong well over a decade, and feel I really spread my wings there. I migrated to Hong Kong when I was 27 (in 1993) . . . . My favorite reading in my late teens and twenties, though, was French and European literature in translation, so there is all that influence. And I had a home in New Zealand all the while that I was in Hong Kong, for I was married to a New Zealander and we had a house in Waiheke. In the USA, I relate most to Iowa, where I lived, at three different times, a few months each time. I enjoyed Las Vegas. I like Atlanta, where I am now working on my PhD.
Photograph by Gareth Jones
In Hong Kong you worked at Star TV in their marketing department and were quite successful, I understand. What made you give that all up for translation and religious studies?
I had a wonderful time in my career, but after some twenty years, I had reached burn-out. On top of that—to cut a long story short—I had become disillusioned with love, money and success. I was reading spiritual literature, and re-learning Sanskrit and enjoying its world. As I got deeper into it, it became my field of study. I approach it as a writer. The world is an old word . . . all religious texts are poetry.

And what better poet to translate the Bhagavad Gita? What distinguishes the Gita from other Hindu scripture?
It just so happened – historically – that the Gita came to find popular use as a text with ideas and beliefs that have come to represent Hinduism. It is not about rituals, it is semi-philosophical. It is short, and in a nutshell (700 verses), explains a bunch of concepts somewhat methodically. It is containable in a pocket-sized edition the size of the Bible. There is no action, no change of scene, the entire text is really a monolog posing as a dialog. There is one presiding deity, who is the speaker. Compare that to other semi-philosophical Indian spiritual texts: the Upanishads, of which there are over a hundred (with thirteen considered primary), or the Brahmasutras, which are terse and even incomprehensible without ample commentary. And older religious texts such as the Vedas require scholarly study.
The Gita is one the most translated books on Earth. Why another version? Why now?
Translating the Gita was for me, first, a way to engage with the text. That said, my translation answers, and is specifically aimed to answer, a void in Gita translations. I felt compelled out of dissatisfaction with previous translations, saw a disparity between them and my experience of the original as a poem.
What was lacking in these earlier versions?
In themselves, they may be successful – lucid, eloquent, accurate – and they serve their objectives well, but previous translations – whether prose (whether prosaic or poetic) or verse (both metrical and free) – tend to translate a line with a line, and a word with a word. So they do not quite work as poems in the target language. They may look like poems on the page but their line breaks are not telling, and they do not sound like poems. And they do not work with the space on the page, or the rhythm of language and sound-texture. In addition to communicating, I aim to show the Gita as a poem of some artistry, and make it a spoken-word experience. Language is material – I follow the commands of rhythm, and use wordplay. I follow the order of the original, but I am flexible with what I consider a unit – a word, a line, a stanza, or an entire section. This gives me the flexibility to ensure the meaning is well served too. At the same time, I compose a poem.
Which explains your subtitle,“a translation of a poem.”
My experience of the Gita is as a poem. In Sanskrit, it can be chanted and read aloud. Its verses have a lively internal symmetry, a light alliterative touch, and assonant word pairings that help clarify meaning – it is highly functional word-play. It is this poetics beyond the outer stanzaic structure, that I find exciting, and what I found missing in previous translations. Mind you, the Gita is not a text that can be exhausted, nor does one translation replace another. Previous translations and commentaries form a tradition in Gita translations.
I love the absence of capitalization and the way you've formatted the text, with short, one-to-three beat lines, each with their own respectful space. It invites you to pause for breath and encourages reflection.
I stress the informal, intimate, relaxed, conversational nature of the teaching – against the idea of a weighty, scriptural text. Not capitalizing creates the flexibility to work with space on the page, and to let meaning be read forwards and backwards – vertically and horizontally. Sanskrit has flexible syntax, so you can read every verse closely, linking different words to each other.
Most translators tend to naturalize foreign words, but you leave many Sanskrit words and all the names completely untranslated, which is very engaging to hear when you perform your version aloud, but a bit intimidating to encounter on the printed page. You also forego footnotes and opt instead for the discrete explanatory gloss. What prompted this approach?
Names are names, and Dhritarashtra need be no more daunting than Bradbury.
If it's unpronounceable, it is still visually recognizable, so I don't think it's a problem. As for terms, I explain them the first time they occur; after that, I treat them as part of the language. I respect the reader's grasp, and attention. I imagine the reader is attentive – and even if he or she only has a fraction of the attention Arjuna must have had, with everything at stake – there should be no problem. You read the explanation of a new term the way you find out the meaning of a new word in a dictionary, and the next time you encounter the term you simply recall what you have learned. Surely, Krishna would not refer Arjuna to footnotes, he would explain a concept patiently . . . I use no footnotes, I include explanations as a part of the translation. Another idea: why not skim over the Sanskrit word the way you might do if you're reading a gripping novel, and it will start to make sense the second and third time you read it. Context and texture is a big part of communication anyway.
Yours is the most colloquial version of the Gita I've ever seen, and the language is as contemporary as it gets. If you hadn't already published it, I would have suggested the title, Gita Now. Why the move to the colloquial?
In the Gita, Krishna is giving divine but friendly advice to Arjuna – it is a one-on-one conversation – a relaxed speech – a spoken word poem – imagine your favorite elder brother talking to you, telling you about life and all. When you read the Gita, you hear several shifts in Krishna's tone and voice – he's patient, mocking, assertive… I can picture him rolling his eyes, arching an eyebrow, puffing his chest… These nuances, I felt, could be better conveyed using the facility and sensibility of contemporary poetry. And the Sanskrit of the Gita is simple, not ornate or intricate.
But it's in fixed meter, no?
The Sanskrit Gita is metrical, mostly in the “anushtubh” meter, a quatrain with eight syllables a line – but this meter is most identified with speech. This is one of the elements I deliberated over, when I defined, for myself, what Gideon-Toury calls “expectancy norms”– i.e., what must my translation feature, over and above fidelity to meaning? These included following natural speech rhythms, an informal tone, and clear and communicative language. The reader, same as Arjuna, must feel relaxed in the presence of the text and feel its immediacy, feel it here and now. Krishna takes the teaching to Arjuna, I take the text to the reader.
I heard your Gita, which was originally published in the States by Autumn Hill Books, was picked up by Penguin India.
Yes, I just got the proofs with the cover they designed. It will be out this year in India, I'm looking forward to it.
Do you mind if I post that also, so y/our readers in India can anticipate that? I also want to feature some highlights from your translation and a few personal favorites from Ghostmasters.
Not at all; it would be my pleasure.

from BHAGAVAD GITA, translated by Mani Rao    


4.05   krishna:
            many my past lives
            yours too

            i know them
            you don't

4.06                              although
            i am      birthless deathless
            god of all

            by my creativity
            i direct my own nature &
            lo      here i wholly am . . . .

7.05 . . .

            my other nature is
            the ultimate it
            supports the forms of life  is the

7.06-7.11                           womb of beings

                                        everyone! get that

                               I AM

                                                    the origin
                                                    the end of
                                        the entire universe

        there's no thing higher

            it's all strung on me
            pearls on a string

        water's flavor        light in moon sun      om in all vedas
                                                                sound in etheric space

                                            spunk in humans
            the nice fragrance on earth
                                                        sun's brilliance
                                    life in all living
                                    penance in ascetics

                know me            ancient            timeless seed
                               intelligence of the intelligent
                                  radiance of the radiant

                               strength of the strong
                                                     who are desire & passion free
                                     the love in beings
                                                    that isn't inappropriate . . . .

13.07-11   & true knowledge
               is this:
                        absence of pride hypocrisy
                        nonviolence patience rightness
                        attention to the teacher
                        self control purity constancy
                                         birth death ageing sickness pain imperfections
                                         in mind
                        desirelessness for sense objects
                        “i am the doer” ism
                                         unclinging to home spouse kids etcetera
                                         whatever happens
                                         whether you like it or not
                        unwandering devotion in me            united
                        wandering to places of sol
                                         uncomfortable in crowds
                        always aware of the spiritual
                                         seeing the purpose
                                         of realization

                everything else is
                ignorance . . . .
Three poems from Ghostmasters, Mani Rao's newest collection of poetry:    


If everything is impermanent why do you want it

I don't want anything for ever

You will disappoint everyone
Then you will be free


Red September path covered in kisses
Autumn abandon

Abandoning what you ask as your teeth strip and gnaw my flesh
Bruise-clouds flambéed for days
Stained as if I had gone berserk in a perfumery
Trying on too much


You are the spheres

We know the nip
Your sniffer dogs

You have us hemmed in breath stitch

The black & white photo of Mani Rao was taken by Andy Short, that of Mani climbing the dune, by Paul Schollmeier.

All poems and translations copyright © 2010 by Mani Rao. Her version of the Bhagavad Gita is available from Autumn Hill Books. Visit www.manirao.com for more of her writing.