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  • The Philosophy of the Bhagavad Gītā: A Contemporary Introduction by Keya Maitra
  • Malcolm Keating (bio)
The Philosophy of the Bhagavad Gītā: A Contemporary Introduction. By Keya Maitra. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. Pp. xii + 204. Paperback $24.95, isbn 978-1-350-04019-9


As Richard Davis notes in his recent The Bhagavad Gītā: A Biography, this important text has by now been translated over three hundred times in English alone.1 Given this embarrassment of riches, and the relative poverty for other crucial works of South Asian philosophy, why would anyone translate the Gītā yet again? In the introduction to her new translation, Philosophy of the Bhagavad Gītā: A Contemporary Introduction, Keya Maitra gives an important, primarily pedagogical rationale: she hopes that her book will introduce new readers to the text, philosophically. She aims to facilitate philosophical engagement without too many cognitively-taxing Sanskrit terms or too much religio-historical context, whle also remaining faithful to the text, so as to encourage cross-cultural engagement that does not overlook the text's situatedness. This balancing act aims for a text that "stand[s] on its own" and can be a suitable text for the "Western reader" in the philosophy classroom (p. 1). By "Western," Maitra has in mind English-speakers for whom the characters of the Gītā (and by extension, the Mahābhārata) are not background knowledge, and the classrooms she's envisioning are those where Anglo-European analytic philosophy would be a natural contrast.

Maitra's book is excellent insofar as it makes an explicitly philosophical introduction and translation available to the discipline, something which is crucial if we are to bring philosophies from outside of the Anglo-European canon into the undergraduate classroom. The translation is well-suited for philosophy classrooms, is fluid, accessible, and opens up the text for genuine engagement. At the same time, the results of her comparative aspirations are more mixed, sometimes obscuring more than illuminating. Still, Maitra largely succeeds in her goal to present the text intelligibly to students and instructors from an Anglo-European context, without entirely subsuming it into its categories, and while being historically sensitive. I commend it as a translation for philosophy classrooms, especially those taught by instructors from within the broadly analytic tradition wishing to expand their curriculum.

The publication of a new philosophical translation of such a seminal Sanskrit text presents an opportunity to reflect on broader questions about teaching cross-cultural philosophy through translation. First, there is the muchremarked upon "double bind" that challenges philosophy instructors. As Amy Olberding puts it, this is the charge to "Show us something we have not seen before, but be sure it looks well and truly familiar to us too."2 While I think that Maitra's book does not entirely escape the double bind, as it often positions itself explicitly in conversation with the default "Western" categories, it does do more than simple comparison. Second, since it has been almost forty years since Larson surveyed English translations of the Gītā, this substantive review article is an opportunity to reflect on Maitra's work in comparison to some of the more popular translations presently used in philosophy classrooms.3 Thus I have selected three passages for close reading which are also discussed in Larson so that philosophy instructors will have accessible points of comparison. Section 1 takes up the book's introduction and supplemental materials. In Section 2, I discuss Maitra's translation in comparison with existing translations. And in Section 3, I conclude with reflections on Maitra's effort in light of the pedagogical double bind present in the philosophy undergraduate classroom.

Introducing and Approaching the Bhagavad Gītā

Maitra has designed her book with several sections to facilitate its use in a philosophy classroom. It opens with a lengthy 33-page introduction to the Gītā, its context, and major concepts. Each chapter of the Gītā opens with a short summary and concludes with a "Philosopher's Corner," a short essay that raises questions about the preceding chapter and makes connections mostly to Anglo-European philosophy (with some connections to Chinese philosophy, too). She concludes the...