In 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral set out to overcome a great obstacle: the Arab, Turkish and Italian monopoly of the Indian spice trade. The Portuguese had little choice but to take a detour – as often one must do to get round an obstacle – and in doing so, the great mariner inadvertently encountered the very large land mass that would come to be known as Brazil. As one of the infinite results of that encounter, almost 500 years later, Gloria Arieira also took a detour: she left her native Brazil in search of India – but not for spices. At that time, she probably had no idea why a girl from Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s would cast aside all that her family and society had prepared her for in order to go to India to study Sanskrit and Vedānta, just as I had no real idea why I left my native Chicago for Rio de Janeiro in the 1990s to become a teacher and translator. Then, I unintentionally took yet another detour and discovered India via an unusual route: there I was sitting on the floor in front of Gloria Arieira in a studio in Copacabana to study the Bhagavadgῑtā. I still cannot believe it. Even today it seems odd to me. India had been the furthest thing on my mind when I came to Brazil so many years ago.
It is not necessary, however, to take a major detour in life and go to another country in order for you discover that you are not exactly the author of your own story. As you are about to learn in the pages ahead, while you may employ your free will to choose your actions, under no circumstances do you decide upon the results of your actions. The results are delivered to you according to an infallible order that you do not control. This concept is very difficult to explain – not to mention accept – therefore, here in one of the greatest stories ever told, our hero Arjuna asks, and our guide Kṛṣṇa explains, again and again, in an attempt to overcome a great obstacle on this voyage: words.
Words are limitations that can facilitate us as much as they can represent great obstacles. You set sail – just like Cabral did, because at some point one must stop deliberating and must make a choice – and maybe everything runs smoothly until you encounter a barrier like the word ‘consciousness’. What does one do? Before you lies one of the most elusive words consigned to language, and it may very well be described as the purpose of life just to discover its meaning. Do you really know what it means? I am not sure I do yet, but I began contemplating it years ago under the careful guidance of Gloria Arieira in Portuguese – which I found a bit easier because the language offered fewer options for this word; in English, I saw some confusing detours signs pointing me in the direction of synonyms such as ‘awareness’ and ‘mindfulness’. There was no choice but to stop and begin a process of contemplation, which is exactly part of the process of Vedānta: the discovery of the true Self, which is pure ‘Consciousness’, the illumination that allows one to see even one’s own intellect at work. This ‘awareness’ can come in what is apparently some of the most inopportune moments, such as in the middle of a battlefield, which is exactly where a warrior by the name of Arjuna finally encountered the words to ask the right questions to overcome the anguish of indecision. It was a defining moment. Not surprisingly, it is in these moments that the teacher always appears: for Arjuna, it was Kṛṣṇa ; and as for me, I am fortunate enough to have had Gloria Arieira by my side patiently monitoring my understanding of such concepts as I translated the voice of her knowledge into English. This knowledge of Vedānta is transformational; I am forever indebted to Gloria Arieira. Thus, when the opportunity arose to translate her Portuguese version of the Bhagavadgῑtā into English, I saw a chance not only to show my gratitude, but also an opportunity to invite people along on a voyage, navigating around such elusive words and contemplating their meanings, as well as to be ‘mindful’ of the words we did not translate, because the Sanskrit words simply do not have any equivalent and must be elaborated in order to deliver their meaning. Among such choices, we have included dharma, sannyāsa, sannyāsin, brahman, ātman, brāhmana, yoga, yogin, and samsāra. These terms will be explained by Gloria throughout the course of this text.
Rāgas and dveṣas are Sanskrit antonyms that are paramount to understanding the human dilemma of bondage to the material world filled with things that one likes and dislikes – as these two words have often been translated. However, as I learned from Gloria, this concept is much more than one liking chocolate and disliking eggplant. I despised eggplant, and then later acquired a taste for it. Dealing with one’s own tastes, however, is often not so easy – not to mention dealing with other people’s tastes. Therefore, here in this Gῑtā, I have decided to remain with the Portuguese-equivalent words with which I learned this concept: tastes and aversions, because likes and dislikes simply did not seem to cover the constant duality of objects in this world that leads one astray from self-knowledge by distracting one with the endless search for pleasure and avoidance of pain, as well as the acceptance of the tastes and aversions one has and does not control – despite all efforts.
Struck by what was about to unfold in the middle of the battlefield, Arjuna asks which way of life is best: one of action or one of renunciation. Much of the Gῑtā is dedicated to describing this bifurcation of life, both of which lead to the self-knowledge that is the final liberation from human suffering. In Sanskrit, these two paths have two specific names: karmayoga and sannyāsa. The Sanskrit grammar allows for corresponding parts of speech to describe individuals on these paths – karmayogin and sannyāsin. Portuguese’s Latin grammar could often mirror the geometry of its ancient Sanskrit ancestor. English, however, can be quite unruly: its huge lexicon can break off into a plethora of apparent synonyms that are actually quite different in meaning and often carry strong connotations. It left me with heavily charged words like actor/agent and renouncer/renunciant that I found either too vague or disagreeable for the contemporary English ear.
As previously mentioned, there is a final objective of human life, which is called mokṣa in Sanskrit. At the end of the Gῑtā, Arjuna declares that he has understood the meaning of this word. There are those that have dedicated their lives to comprehending its meaning. Gloria chose the Portuguese-equivalent word of ‘liberation’ for her public in Brazil. My choice in English was a little more complicated with words like ‘freedom’. As far as I can see, both terms are equally appropriate; even so, I imagined Arjuna pounding his fist, demanding freedom (from bondage); then I imagined him imploring for liberation (to be what he had always been). The latter term somehow seemed wider and arrived in my ear more generously. I had to make the call; I hoisted my sail and moved on to continue my voyage between the two more distant places on the globe, India and Brazil.
I shall not dare assume to know why the author of my story sent me to Brazil, but I like to think that if there is one reason why I had come to Brazil, it was probably to discover India, and lend what little help I can to Gloria.
It should be so simple.
Just as it was for Arjuna, for Gloria, and for Pedro Alvares Cabral, all paths are part of a journey to discover the Self – just as they are for each and every one of us – especially when chosen inadvertently.
— Translator’s Note by Ricky Toledano from The Bhagavadgῑtā: the dialogue between Śri Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna, published by MOTILAL BANARSIDASS