When Amit Majmudar was young, he was searching for the truth.
Instead, he found many, all contained in one “song of multiplicities”: the Bhagavad Gita. A Hindu scripture composed between 400 B.C. and 200 A.D., the Gita has inspired many heroes and antiheroes throughout the ages (think Gandhi and Himmler) with its striking beauty and its moral ambiguity. There is indeed, something for everyone inside.
Born to a secularized Hindu family, religion was not of particular importance to Majmudar growing up in Ohio. Literature filled that void, and he found his “Gods in the library”—the Gita being one of them. While Majmudar eventually became a radiologist, he forged a simultaneous path as a poet and novelist, receiving the honor of being named Ohio’s first poet laureate in 2015.
Godsong is Majmudar’s latest endeavor: a verse translation of the Bhagavad Gita with commentary. It showcases Majmudar’s talent for imagery, musiciality, and his ability to make complex concepts relatable and relevant to a modern audience who need its wisdom now more than ever.
PressureLife: The Bhagavad Gita is over 2,000 years old, but through your translation, the text reads as immediate as ever. The setting is one of civil war: cousins are about to wage war with cousins and our protagonist, Arjuna, is filled with existential dread over the proposition. How can Godsong offer the modern reader guidance in these tumultuous times?
Amit Majmudar: I think that Godsong is the antidote to fanaticism. It offers such a pluralistic way of looking at religion and human beings, and so many ways of joining yourself to the divine, that it is hard to regard other human beings as unredeemable or “benighted” in the way so many of us, in our polarized times, tend to do.
PL: You grew up in the Cleveland area, graduated from the University of Akron and NEOMED, completed your medical residency at University Hospitals, and currently live outside of Columbus. How has Ohio shaped you?
AM: I think Ohio, or the places in Ohio I have lived, have offered me physical safety and peace and access to books. That, in the end, is what a writer needs to flourish. Happening artistic scenes, interesting acquaintances and cliques—these are unnecessary and sometimes counterproductive.
PL: In a 2013 opinion piece for The New York Times titled “Am I an ‘Immigrant Writer’?” you said, “Readers don’t want the differences to estrange them — for all their curiosity, they actually want the differences to disappear. They want to recognize themselves.” What were the challenges of making the characters in Godsong relatable to a modern, Western audience? Is Arjuna an ideal protagonist for today?
AM: I think the characters are so timeless that I didn’t really have to do anything to make them relatable. We can all imagine how heartrending it must be to go to war, particularly a civil war. It is a metaphor and poem that, unlike many a Shakespeare production, needs no relocation in geography or time, no modern dress to make real and “now.”
PL: In Godsong, you say that the “We go to a religion to meet a God. We don’t actually want to know the truth the way we know facts. We want to know the truth the way we know a loved one, personally and intimately.” What does the form of the Godsong, as a conversation between friends, reveal about essence of the divine?
AM: I think that it tells us that it is closer and more personal than we think it is, if we open ourselves up to that way of conceiving of it. We often get tricked into thinking the universe is vast and impersonal. It has that aspect. But it also has a personal manifestation that can be understood and engaged with as such. The inner universe of the heart is also [the] universe that the divine is pleased to pervade and communicate.
PL: You used the literal translation of the Bhagavad Gita, godsong, as your translation’s title. It’s original intention was to be sung. How did you you honor that intention through your translation?
AM: I am afraid I didn’t! There’s no way to convey the musicality and singability of the Gita in English. There’s no actual equivalent in English language literature that I can point to, or I would have used it as a model. My first translation attempt, way back in 2011, attempted to replicate the Sanskrit meters syllable for syllable. That was misguided.
PL: A key concept expressed in Godsong is devotional worship. To translate this text, word by word, from its original Sanskrit is as much a feat of commitment as a creative achievement.
Was this personal act of devotion a way of giving back to a book that gave so much to you?
AM: Absolutely! That summarizes it nicely. But to be completely honest, the project was also self-serving! I wanted to learn it and engage with it more deeply.
PL: If there is one thing you hope readers will take away from Godsong, what is it?
AM: The one thing I hope that readers take away from Godsong is that the Bhagavad Gita is worth additional study. I hope to coax people into making a lifelong study of the poem, just as I am engaged in myself. My book is an introduction above all—I present the concepts fairly simply and don’t go into long digressions about them. I hope readers will seek out other translations and commentaries and other works of wisdom. I myself am writing a more in-depth Gita as we speak, a new alliterative verse translation with an extensive, passage by passage exegesis. It will be the “advanced course” to follow up this introductory one. I don’t know how long it will take me, but I do a little more work on it every week.