Author of The Bhagavad Gita Comes Alive, Jeffrey Armstrong says it’s Time for Dharmacracy

Jeffrey Armstrong or Kavindra Rishi as he is known has brought out a new translation of Gita - The Bhagavad Gita Comes Alive - A Radical Translation. He dedicates it “Shrila Vyasa Deva who originally compiled the Bhagavad Gita, to Adi Shankaracharya who restored it, to Ramanuja Acharya who revived it, to Madhwacharya who reawakened it and to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who revealed it to Bhaktivinode Thakur who envisioned it going out to the world and to Bhaktivedanta Swami who delivered it to the world.”

In a quote by eminent scholar David Frawley, he says that the Bhagavad Gita is India’s most “mistranslated book, subject to every possible misinterpretation.” He adds that it has been assaulted with inappropriate terminologies, dichotomies, and theologies of western thought that cannot properly capture the essence of the Gita.

In this interview with CSP, Kavindra Rishi shows a deep understanding and abiding respect for Indian Knowledge Systems. He has worked on this translation for over a decade, but his immersion in India goes back much further.  Video:

We have earlier spoken about the importance of Sanskrit. Is it a tool only to access our texts or is it also an important way of thinking? What are the two roles the language plays?

To give you an example, a few hundred years ago an educated person in Europe knew Latin in addition to their spoken language. Latin is the basis of French, Portugese, Spanish, Italian and the ‘so-called’ Roman languages. Latin is more precise, and scientific grammatically and in terms of its roots, structure and usage and is considered an intelligent language and a more scientific language. In fact, at one time English dumped a thousand Latin words into itself to make the language (English) smarter.

Latin was preceded by Greek and both of them were preceeded by Sanskrit. So, if someone wants to be a linguist and a scholar and be as well informed as you could be, having the most specific vocabulary even for apparently abstract concepts, it cannot be in English. One would have to learn Sanskrit. Any of us coming in from an  outside culture, like myself, have done this and have learned a Sanskrit vocabulary. This is part of the translation issue we are discussing: “how do you bring this very precise Sanskrit language with its very exacting meanings, into a vague and imprecise language like English?”

What language should we educate ourselves in? What role does Sanskrit play in a modern context with so many computer science students using it as a utility language for scientific engineering?

This is because of the precision I was talking about. In most regards, this engineering use is an inevitable exploitation of Sanskrit for purposes that was not its original intention. It is being used for material and scientific tasks because of its precision in making machines and in programming in the logic that computers use.

In fact, I worked in Silicon Valley for years and one of the things I learned was that the binary mathematical system - the basis of computers - is originally from the Rig Veda. So, all of these advanced mathematical capabilities came from the Veda though they are unacknowledged by the Western civilization, just as Sanskrit is the mother and backbone of Latin and Greek.

We are not going to get everyone to learn Sanskrit right away but if they learn a vocabulary of about one or two hundred Sanskrit words that describe the important Vedic concepts that don’t exist in English, this will begin the process of Sanskrit being recognized as having meanings about reality that no other word in any language can describe. We have hundreds and millions of non-Indian would-be-yogis which we did not have fifty years ago. People are trying to learn subjects that are beyond their own cultures. They are doing asanas, some pranayama, a mantra or two. So, what they also need is the vocabulary that English does not have, and eventually this will create the recognition that certain very profound and essential concepts can only be spoken in Sanskrit.

So what they also need is the vocabulary that English does not have and eventually this will create the recognition that certain very profound concepts can only be spoken in Sanskrit.

Why did you choose the Bhagavad Gita and how many of these 108 essential Sanskrit words come from your translation of Bhagavad Gita?

I would say most of them. A good example is the word religion which is not a correct translation of the Sanskrit word dharma. If somebody in the West talks about the ‘Hindu religion’ then the Hindu practitioner should correct them. The word religion comes from Latin ‘religare’ and means “to be bound by a book of rules”. So, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are religions. There are only three religions in the world, and they each have a book, and that book gives them the rules to obey and it is mandatory to obey those rules.The Catholic Church is a good example of this. Even the priests did not know Latin during the medieval times, but practitioners had a book of rules that everyone had to follow.

The word dharma is from the Sanskrit root (dhatu) ‘dri’ and the root of ‘dri’ is ‘ri’ and refers to the laws of nature. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam do not have any of this understanding. They do not even have a concept like that. So, the word dharma and karma came from the sanskrit “ritam” or the laws of nature both within and beyond matter. Another example is that mere ‘material cause and effect’ is not a true definition of karma. Karma does not just mean cause and effect. It means ‘cause and effect from life to life.’ There is no concept of ‘life to life’ in the three Abrahamic religions and thus no doctrine or understanding of karma.

[truncated JA describes dharma ‘dri, karma, karana]

Vedic practitioners are a dharma culture. We are trying to cooperate with nature but not just through a book of rules but in every possible way. Thus, Sanskrit defines both Sva-dharma and Sanatana Dharma. Sva or “ones own” dharma pertains to a particular person’s embodiment and the path of action that comes from that particular body. While Sanatan Dharma is something always true and thus goes beyond both matter and embodiment.

So, this deeper way of looking at reality is quite different than merely following a book of rules, which is not the definition of dharma. There are many more of these distinctions and by failing to make them, the Hindu community finds it difficult to describe their culture to their children, to their neighbours and to the world around them. Instead, they go silent or use several words like God, angel, lord, hell, heaven, soul, many gods and so on. Since everyone else seems to be using these words Hindus follow that example and thus, they also avoid Sanskrit terms and so are not able to explain their own culture and continue to use colonizing language. Even the best translations of the Gita and so far, all translated Sanskrit texts have fallen into this linguistic trap.

When did you become interested in importing Sanskrit into English, and concerned about the accuracy of the sentiment and philosophy? When did you start seeing this disparity between the two languages and the impact it is having on the way people approach Sanatana Dharma?

During the 60’s, the awareness of gurus and acharyas coming from Bharat to the West was an entirely new thing. For those of us in that generation, if we were curious and dissatisfied with the answers given in our own culture, we began to seek Gurus and to learn from them. So, I went into the ashram for five years from 23 to 28 as a Brahmachari, sleeping on the floor, etc. and serving my guru. I was one of his editors helping to edit the books that he was bringing into English from Sanskrit. And eventually, I took Sanskrit from a Pandit from India. His name was Ramanath Sharma and he had memorized the 4000 grammatical rules of the Ashtadhyayi of Panini. He was truly Pandita. I am not Pandita (smiles)

So gradually this became my path. When you come in from the outside, you must examine everything and, in a way, you have to translate or carry it across into your language. Eventually I realized that some concepts simply do not have an English equivalent, and this led me gradually to study Sanskrit and English etymology and linguistics and finally I saw the deeper problems and the lack of precision in English with subtle concepts described in the Vedic culture.

How do you distinguish between academic study and spiritual immersion?

.First of all, not everyone is meant to be a scholar. That is what the varnas are. The varnas are not a caste system. They are based on skills. I have renamed them from Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudras to professor, protector, producer, and provider, to undo the colonizing “caste system” frame The British used to denigrate Vedic civilization.

These abilities are not merely determined from your genetics or your birth in a family. Rather when you are educated as you grow up your svadharma, your real abilities start to emerge. The Vedas are clear on this and so is the Gita; you can be of many different temperaments but have the essential internal experience of being the atma or grasp the meaning of Bhagavan or Paramatma or similar concepts.

This is exactly why I am working to bring a couple of hundred Sanskrit vocabulary words to the Western world. But unfortunately, the Hindu community was not taught that way because they have simply been trying to survive and are still recovering from colonization. Thus, it would not be fair to ask them “why haven't you done this”, for they would say - ‘I have been busy doing business, building a life and taking care of my family’. Some of those who came in from outside like my self saw these problems. But we also had the essential experience. We are obviously an example of this Gita verse -

bahunam janmanam ante

jnanavan mam prapadyate

vasudevah sarvam iti

sa mahatma su-durlabhah –

Chapter 7 verse 19. - Bhagavad Gita

बहुनां जन्मनामन्ते ज्ञानवान्मां प्रपद्यते|

वासुदेवः सर्वमिति स महात्मा सुदुर्लभः|| [Ch 7.19]

From a previous life - After many births, pursuing jnana and understanding clearly, then one comes to “Vasudeva sarvam iti”. To know Vasudava - is not just intellectual but rather is a direct experience. Few non-Hindu Yoga practitioners had formal initiations. Of those who were initiated, the process touched some of us temporarily but some of us adopted it as our whole life. I did. At age 23, I made that commitment and I have not changed that commitment one bit. I just kept studying, practicing, and growing as I learned from Vedic gurus and acharyas.

You also talk about past birth carryovers. How does one realize that this is something as a gift or a transition from where we left. How do you get that inner awareness?

One of the subjects that I studied and pursued (after I finished 5 years in the Ashram) was Jyotish or Vedic Astrology. I found a guru who taught me Jyotish. I have been a practicing Jyotish since then. So, the concept of course is that the atma is immortal - cannot be cut, cannot die cannot be burnt.

dehino 'smin yatha dehe

kaumaram yauvanam jara

tatha dehantara-praptir-

dhiras tatra na muhyati


देहिनोऽस्मिन्यथा देहे कौमारं यौवनं जरा|

तथा देहान्तरप्राप्तिर्धीरस्तत्र न मुह्यति|| [Ch 2.13]

The atma is simply changing clothes from body to body. It is probably the case that during the process of colonization, the karma of many people from England was to be reborn with brown skin as Hindus. They are the ones who do not care about their tradition and so the karmas from their previous life show up in that way. Then there is another group who have memories from many lifetimes as a yogi. When they take birth, they continue their yoga from where they left off. This karmic pattern is present in Jyotish - in the horoscope, where you can see the varna (what the person’s best skills will be) and this has nothing to do with what their parents' varna is. It has to do with where the grahas are in their rasi chakra. From the horoscope, the astrologer can predict the Ayurvedic body type - the dosha of the client without seeing them. See my book God/Goddess the Astrologer, Souls Karma & Reincarnation which I wrote 23 years ago (I don’t use the word God anymore). It’s a description of how the astrologer can predict the dosha of a client without seeing them.

So, in the educational system of ancient Bharat, the teachers used Jyotish as a guide to possible tendencies and abilities of the students and they worked hand in hand with Ayurvedic Vaidyas to tailor their diet and lifestyle in an appropriate way for their health and well being and every family knew about this the same way families knew that the spices, chutneys and foods were relevant to each person’s body type.

  Do you think a person who wants to immerse himself in the Indian culture should be exposed to all branches of Indian Knowledge Systems?

It is important to remember that if Abrahamic religions are the people of book, then the Vedic culture dharma culture are people of a library. Veda Vyasa wrote down all the Vedas so they would not get lost and eventually the Ashtadhyayi of Panini solidified the rules of Sanskrit grammar to a point of perfection. Just because Vyasadeva brought down the whole Vedic library into written form, this does not mean that everyone should learn all the subjects. If someone goes to college, they do not get a PhD in every subject.But they would have a general curriculum of subjects they should know and would share a common vocabulary of several hundred words and definitions in common with the entire Vedic culture. For some people that would be sufficient for them to stay Dharmic and live their life in a particular way that is moving toward moksha. Gradually they would learn new words, concepts and practices and thus progress in their Vedic learning gradually. Only certain people according to their nature would become advanced scholars of the many subjects in the Veda. Because no one person would know all of it anyway. This is the reason we have such respect for Vedic pundits and acharyas because they embody some of the subjects from Vedic library. Thus, I call Hindus the people of a library.

How important is it for you to keep your Sadhana alive?

First, yoga does not mean just the ashtanga yoga. It also means bhakti yoga, jnana yoga, karma yoga and all the different forms of yogic practice. Regarding sadhana, the yoga sutras, in the second pada-first verse says,

tapasya svādhyāya-iśvarapraṇidhān kriyā-yogaḥ ॥1॥

One of the three activities of yoga is tapasya or the daily activities which transform us from a lesser version of ourselves to a higher and more perfect one that is connected to our atma and to the Paramatma and Ishas. In my two-hour long sadhana every morning, I chant mantras, accompanied by asana, pranayama and other practices. Then I continue performing tapasya all day through the chanting mantras and study of Vedic Shastras. I am vegetarian and free of intoxicants and other such tamasic habits.

[Truncated… JA describes tapasya, devas, and isvarapranidhan]

In these difficult times where people are mentally and physically down, the mind is also in turmoil, and the body has various afflictions, how does Bhagavad Gita help to rebalance our lives and what according to you would be its core message?

Earlier, you asked me where I began. I began my university days with a study of Psychology and getting a degree in that as well as Poetry and Literature. From the Psychology degree, I observed the human condition and the various methods of trying to rectify them. You could say that it is the study of the manas. If you are familiar with Sigmund Freud and anyone who has studied Psychology is, Sigmund Freud invented the word Psychoanalysis and the word ‘psycho’ comes from the Greek goddess Psyche (Psychae) and Psyche is supposedly present when the butterflies fly around flowers. Analysis means to analyze and to remove what should not be there. The translation that Freud gave to Psychoanalysis was “freeing the butterfly”. The butterfly is the atma, but he could not say freeing the atma or freeing the soul and thus get into religious waters and get into trouble with Christianity. So, he said freeing the butterfly as a metaphor. But that is exactly what the Bhagavad Gita says - you are the atma. If you forget that, you get lost in other self definitions.

We are at a historical moment that resembles the Mahabharat. Both sides of democracy hate each other. They are saying despicable things of each other. People don’t have great character. What we need at this time is “Dharmocracy”, a term I recently created. Dharmocracy as a Vedic world view means to: “use everything according to its true nature with a sustainable view of Mother Earth and our relationship with all of living-entities. This perspective which rests upon the basic truths of Bhagavad Gita – the gunas, doshas, atma, Paramatma and a relationship with the devas. The 14 lokas gives us a cosmology, all of this is what gives us a greater world view.

The Bhagavad Gita is the summary statement so that the everyday a person can have access to the self definitional statements that they need to not get lost without having to be a scholar and read the whole Vedas. This version that I have just completed The Bhagavad Gita Comes Alive: A Radical Translation is just the 701 verses of Bhagavad Gita with no explanations. Just as the conversation originally took place, I left a 100 or so Sanskrit words in the verses - I did not translate them into English. Instead, there is a clear definition in the glossary which helps the reader to know how to use that word. I took out all Christian, colonizing words and used clear and unambiguous English statements, without twisted meanings, to illuminate the translation. You can now read the whole book beginning to end as if you were listening to a real conversation.