Vancouver scholar pens first decolonized English translation of ancient Indian scripture

The Bhagavad Gita, which was written more than 5,000 years ago, is considered the ultimate guide on how to navigate life’s struggles and dilemmas and find meaning within existence.

Hindu scholar and linguist Jeffrey Armstrong spent 10 years translating and decolonizing the the Bhagavad Gita after he realized previous western versions had distorted concepts that do not exist in Sanskrit or Indian cultures. His book The Bhagavad Gita Comes Alive: A Radical Translation was released this week on Amazon to mark Diwali celebrations.

A new English translation of the ancient Indian scripture Bhagavad Gita could be the closest to the original because it doesn’t include western or Christian distortions.

Vancouver scholar and yoga teacher Jeffrey Armstrong spent 10 years translating and decolonizing the text, which was written more than 5,000 years ago, using English words to describe a Sanskrit word in its true form.

Some of the Christian or western words typically used in the translation of the Gita that Armstrong removes include: God, heaven, hell, soul and sin.

The word “soul,” for example, is defined as the essence of a human being with one life, he explained. But the Sanskrit word, “atma,” means immortal being with no beginning or end.

There are 701 verses in the Bhagavad Gita, which is considered a guide on how to navigate life’s struggles and dilemmas. It has been translated into English hundreds of times.

His book, called The Bhagavad Gita Comes Alive: A Radical Translation,was released this week just ahead of Diwali celebrations.

Although he has been working on this book for a decade, Armstrong’s passion for understanding the Sanskrit language began 50 years ago when his yoga guru asked him to proofread his translations. Even as a young university student, he began to see that much of the meaning of the Gita was lost in western translation, so he decided he wanted to “clean it up.”

“I took out the inappropriate colonizing words because they are not helpful or necessary anymore,” he said. “For Hindu children many of their English books say bad things about their culture. It’s a residue from colonization.”

Armstrong’s version can also help yogis deepen their practice and provide more clarity than previous translations.

“It’s the ultimate guide to life’s struggles and dilemmas,” said Armstrong, who is also vice-chairman of the Vedic Friends Association and a scholar with the British Board of Dharmic Scholars.

Another example of a word that was mistranslated is Dharma, which doesn’t mean religion, he said. It means using everything correctly according to its place in nature.

Sin is another word that doesn’t work, he said. The Christian concept is that people are born sinners and need to find Jesus, while in the Gita it’s more of a philosophy about working with or against the laws of nature.

“When Christianity colonized the world they didn’t really take an interest in the cultures they wanted to take things from,” he said Saturday. “All the translations were twisted in that direction. So every English version of the Gita has all the Christian terminology — Lord, God, sin, angels, devils and so on. But none of that is appropriate to the meaning of the Bhagavad Gita, which is an entirely different worldview.”

Another problematic translation is “Bhagavan” translated as “God.”

The Sanskrit word “hutum” is used to describe the smoke from a fire that metaphorically carries offerings of gratitude. It was later translated into German and then Dutch, and later became the English word ‘God’, he explained.

“So the Christian word for the supreme being is actually a Sanskrit word and they don’t even know. And even more ironic is that it is the smoke arising from a pagan fire sacrifice.”

However, Bhagavan is broken down into meaning Bhaga, or the six most beautiful things in life which are beauty, wealth, strength, wisdom (knowledge), fame and generosity, meaning the circulation of wealth to promote well-being in all living beings. Then ‘van’, which means one who possesses those things to an unlimited degree.

“Bhagavan is the definition of the supreme being … so Bhagavan is the correct word and if you use ‘God’, you miss the whole conversation about those six beautiful things that really are the definition. You are moving closer to beauty and truth.”

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