Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Q&A: What books should a new western traditonal Gaudiya Vaishnava read?

Q: Can someone tell me which translations that are in English of Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavatam and Chaitanya Charitamrta does a traditional Gaudiya Vaishnava use? I realize that many disciples of Ananta das Babaji came from Iskcon and so still have the translations of BVSP to use, but what translations would be recommended for the brand new generation of GV's? Also, what is actually the recommendation of which books to read? Is it these three mentioned and in addition a book similar to Bhaktirasamrta Sindhu, or some other book that outlines the preliminary stages to the devotional path?

A: There is still a long way to go until we have carefully translated, definitive translations of all the core Gaudiya Vaishnava texts. The current selection of translations on the market often calls for a number of footnotes on the credits and shortcomings of the works to go along with the recommendation.

Below is a list of titles I consider essential reading for a Gaudiya Vaishnava, who wishes to be well acquainted with the theological foundations of his tradition – alphabetically listed. Notes on currently available editions, whether partial or complete, have been included.

Bhagavad-gita with Vishwanath Chakravarti’s and Baladeva Vidyabhushan’s commentaries – A classic text outlining the philosophical foundations of all Vaishnava-traditions.

Availability: Bhanu Swami has recently published an edition of Vishwanath Chakravarti’s commentary. BV Narayana Maharaja has published an edition with Vishwanath Chakravati’s and Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s commentaries. Of the two, the latter includes anvaya (“word-for-word”), as does A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s, whose well-known edition includes a commentary of his own, using Baladeva’s tika as the foundation. Aside this, there are many contemporary commentaries.

Rupa Goswami’s Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu with the commentaries of Jiva Goswami and Viswanath Chakravarti – The definitive work on devotion in practice and the nature of the perfection sought for.

Availability: David Habermann has published a complete edition in cooperation with Srivatsa Goswami of Chaitanya Prema Samsthan. Some notes from the commentaries have been included. B.V. Narayana Maharaja has published an edition of Vishwanath Chakravarti’s Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu-bindu, a summary of Rupa’s work, which is also very useful.

Jiva Goswami’s Bhakti-sandarbha – A thorough and systematic delineation of the theology of devotion in practice.

Availability: Kusakratha Das has presented a complete translation of the text. Satya Narayana Das of Jiva Institute has recently published the first volume (of three) of the text, including Devanagari-text, transliteration and translation, making a vast improvement over Kusakratha’s edition that is regrettably not a very accurate representation of the original.

Sanatana Goswami’s Brihad-bhagavatamrita with his own commentary, an exploration of bhakti-siddhanta in the form of a narrative, supplemented with Rupa Goswami’s Laghu-bhagavatamrita, a concice thesis of the above.

Availability: Gopiparanadhana Das and BBT have presented a fine edition of the text in three volumes, including a translation of most of the tika, re-worded for smoother reading. Other translations, without a commentary, float around as e-texts. Kusakratha Das has published an edition of Laghu-bhagavatamrita that is being re-published.

Vrindavan Das Thakur’s Chaitanya Bhagavata – A voluminous biography narrating Sri Chaitanya’s years in Navadvipa.

Availability: Bhumipati Das and Pundarika Vidyanidhi Das are publishing a multi-volume edition of the work with the original text and Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s commentary. Sarvabhavana Das has published a one-volume edition. BV Puri Maharaja has published an edition that appears to be a polished version of an early draft of Sarvabhavana’s work.

Krishnadas Kaviraja’s Chaitanya Caritamrita – A wonderful blend of biographical narrative and philosophy, focusing on Sri Chaitanya’s later years.

Availability: Edward Dimock has published an edition of Chaitanya Caritamrita with aid from Radha Govindanath’s famous commentary in his translation. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami has published an edition with his own commentaries, drawing from Bhaktivinoda’s and Bhaktisiddhanta’s. Unlike Dimock’s, his multi-volume edition includes both the original Bengali text as well as synonyms. Dimock’s edition appears to be a more literal representation of the original.

Dhyanachandra Goswami’s Gaura-govindarchana-smarana-paddhati – An outline of the specific practices a sadhaka is to undertake in the course of his day-to-day bhajan.

Availability: Haricarana Das has translated the work. It was once available as an e-text, and is currently being re-edited and published in cooperation with the Blazing Sapphire Press.

Krishnadas Kaviraja’s Govinda-lilamrita – A voluminous narration describing the eight-fold daily pastimes of Radha and Krishna.

Availability: Advaitadas has published an edition with Rasbihari Lal & Sons. While the language of the translation could flow better, it is a fair representation of the original. Gadadhara Prana Das has also published an edition, and while his language certainly flows colorful, it would benefit from splitting elaborations into footnotes.

Gopala Bhatta Goswami’s Hari-bhakti-vilasa with Sanatana Goswami’s commentary – On matters of sadachar and rules for worship.

Availability: Rasbihari Lal & Sons are currently publishing a five-volume edition of the work with the first two volumes (ch. 1-10) currently available. While certainly helpful, the works could benefit from a translator who would translate directly from Sanskrit. Bhrigumuni Das has published a work called “Dearest to Vishnu”, a faithful presentation of chapters 12-16 dealing with Ekadashi.

Vishwanath Chakravarti’s Madhurya Kadambini – A comprehensive work outlining the course of a sadhaka’s progress towards the perfection.

Availability: Sri Krishna Chaitanya Shastra Mandir has published an edition including the original Sanskrit text and Ananta Das Babaji Maharaja’s elaborate commentary. Sarvabhavana Das and Dina Bandhu Das have both published translations of the text.

Narottama Das Thakur’s Prema-bhakti-chandrika – A beautiful outline of all that’s essential on the path of bhakti.

Availability: Sri Krishna Chaitanya Shastra Mandir has published an edition including Ananta Das Babaji Maharaja’s elaborate commentary, the English edition is currently available in manuscript form. Isvara Das has published an edition that could benefit from more accuracy. The included Bengali script is riddled with mistakes.

Srimad Bhagavatam with Sanatana Goswami’s, Jiva Goswami’s and Vishwanath Chakravarti’s commentaries – The vast garden in which the seed of our tradition of bhakti-rasa was planted.

Availability: A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami has published translations of cantos 1-10/1 with the original Sanskrit text, transliteration and synonyms. His followers have published cantos 10/2-12 in the same style, often including translations of passages from earlier tikas in their commentary. Gita Press has published a complete translation of the text, which is, a few blunders aside, generally fine. Bhanu Swami has recently translated Vishwanath Chakravarti’s commentaries on the 10th canto.

Rupa Goswami’s Upadeshamrita from Stava-mala – A concise, yet essential work offering instructions to a sadhaka who seeks progress in his practices.

Availability: BV Narayana Maharaja has presented a translation of the work with three commentaries, by Radha Ramana Das Goswami, Bhaktivinoda Thakur and Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. While the translations at times drift a bit aside from the original, the edition is useful.

Rupa Goswami’s Ujjvala-nilamani– The post-graduate study of Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, an extensive study of the nuances of madhura-bhakti-rasa.

Availability: Puri Maharaj of Gaudiya Math has published an edition which is far from being definitive, but helpful nonetheless. BV Narayana Maharaja is rumored to be preparing an elaborate edition with a commentary.

Raghunath Das Goswami’s Vilapa-kusumanjali– The zenith of aspirations on the path of raga, a heart crying out for Sri Radha’s service.

Availability: Ananta Das Babaji Maharaja has published an edition with elaborate commentaries, currently available in manuscript form. Availability is generally restricted, on the author’s request, to initiated traditional Gaudiya Vaishnavas.

Additionally, there is a rich tradition of Pada-kavya in our tradition – thousands and thousands of poems have been written over the centuries by early and modern pada-kavis alike, compositions that are instrumental in entering the world of bhakti-rasa.

Availability: BBT has published a song-book called Songs of Vaishnava Acharyas, Dasarath Suta Das has published a song-book called More Songs of Vaishnava Acharyas. BV Narayana Maharaja has published a song-book called Gaudiya Giti Guccha. Countless individual padas have been translated and are available online.

There are dozens of other titles that could justifiably be included in this list, such as select short works from Rupa Goswami's Stava-mala and Raghunath Das Goswami's Stavavali, or from among Baladeva's voluminous works.

To ensure that there is no room for misunderstandings or misinterpretations, consultation with devotees familiar with the works is recommended, and basic knowledge of Bengali and Sanskrit languages is very helpful. The Gaudiya Grantha Mandira offers a large repository of Sanskrit texts that may be used to supplement editions without the original text included.

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Q: But I notice that a good number of the works you mentioned are works done by and commented by IGM figures, such as the referral you gave for Bhagavad Gita and Srimad Bhagavatam. In some cases, I guess not only the commentaries, but also the verse translation may not be considered accurate by a Traditional Gaudiya Vaishnava. In the case of the various bonafide siddha pranali lines, do they use translations of these texts that are made by people in their own lineage, but are in Hindi or Bengali? In that case, it shouldn't be too hard for an English translation to come fairly soon.

A: The Gaudiya tradition is very cross-lineage in its approach as far as general themes such as these are concerned. I haven't heard anyone expressing concerns over reading translations from those outside one's own parampara. In fact, it is quite common that one may have an instructing guru from a different lineage - this was the case with my Param-guru, whose first siksha-guru, Sri Krishna Chaitanya Das Babaji, was from Shyamananda-parivar, and whose vesh-guru, Pandit Advaita Das Babaji, was of Advaita-parivar. The stress on diksha-parampara must not be taken out of proportion and context.

Yes - accuracy is a great concern with many, if not most, translations currently available on the market. So much so that I personally refuse to accept any scriptural references as evidence unless accompanied by the original text. How many times have I come across "evidence" that was practically unrecognizable as a translation of the original!

Practically all important Gaudiya Vaishnava texts have been translated to Bengali, most are available in Hindi as well. Goofs in translations, however, are not the privilege of ISKCON and Gaudiya Math publications - as long as one does not familiarize himself with the original language of the text, one will have to live with a degree of uncertainty over the exact and precise meaning of the text.

To accurately translate Sanskrit-texts, I do not consider a mere translation from a Hindi or Bengali translation to be adequate. The translation must be verified against the original Sanskrit, so much can change in translations of translations. The original translator may have found some passages hard to understand, or may have felt a need to explain something more elaborately than the original for ease of reading. The translator of translation, then, will in his turn do the same - how far will the text evolve from the original?

Many works published from ISKCON and Gaudiya Math contain translations or commentaries that we would not consider accurate or tasteful. Regardless, they are helpful, and have therefore been mentioned. I rarely read contemporary commentaries from IGM-sources, aside occasional peeks as a matter of curiosity, or if the work contains a substantial amount of references from earlier sources.

It is a fact that these works should all be soon translated into English, and indeed wiht some volunteer effort, it could easily be accomplished. Sadly, few have come forward to offer their services, even if in return for limited financial compensation. Our society in the West is still in a budding state, and resources for abundant financing of such projects just aren't there.

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