Interview with Isaac Bentwich, MD,
The translator of Gita: A Timeless Guide for Our Time
“When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I turn to the Gita.”
Isaac Bentwich M.D. is a longtime practitioner and teacher of Yoga and Meditation. Trained as a physician and a scientist, he has founded three life-science technology companies, leading revolutions in medicine, genomics, and environment conservation, and he now heads Innovation Center at Technion, recognized as one of the top-ten innovative universities in the world. The vision and innovations that underlie the companies he founded, came through periods of silent meditation retreats at the foothills of the Himalayas and in the Galilee. His path is one of reverence to the Wisdom teachings that shine through different traditions and religions. The study and practice of Gita's Wisdom teachings has profoundly touched his life, and he is passionate about sharing this with others. His work on this translation of the Gita spanned twelve years.
The Bhagavad Gita, often referred to as the Gita, is a 700-verse Sanskrit scripture that is part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, is a dialogue between a disciple and master. The disciple, Indian prince Arjuna, is called to fight a defensive battle against vicious family members who are out to kill him. Shaken by the moral dilemma, he seeks the counsel of his teacher and friend, Krishna, who is also God incarnate. With this dramatic battlefield backdrop, the master leads the prince from the worldly starting point of the prince’s despondency to a captivating, brilliantly clear account of the meaning of life, the source of suffering, and the paths to happiness and self-fulfillment.
Cathedral Of The Soul: Why do you think that the Bhagavad Gita has been such a revered spiritual text for over two and a half millennia? What makes it timeless?
Isaac Bentwich M.D.: The Gita (formally Bhagavad Gita, meaning Divine Song) is one of the world’s most trusted guides for happiness, meditation, and inner spiritual growth. It eloquently captures not only the core of Indian philosophy but also the spiritual essence of all religions and schools of inner development. Aldus Huxley called this common essence “ the ‘Perennial Philosophy.’ It sounds like a tall order but is accurate. Strikingly, the Gita is further unique in that it manages to capture and convey these deepest truths: (i) through a simple, direct, eye-level dialogue, (ii) in a melodious poetic form, which speaks to one’s intuition and heart, and helps avoid over-intellectualization, and (iii) while retaining a pragmatic, down-to-earth approach. Gita is suitable for living in the world, here and now. Across centuries, across continents and cultures, these unique aspects of the Gita have made it relevant and uplifting for countless spiritual seekers and have inspired and captivated some of the world’s greatest creative minds: scientists, thought-leaders, poets, and spiritual teachers.
Cathedral Of The Soul: What is the history of the Gita?
Isaac Bentwich M.D.: The Gita is dated around 500 BC and is broadly recognized as the highest scripture of Indian philosophy. As an example, Yogananda — a recognized master pioneer who brought yoga, meditation and Indian philosophy to the West — says “Gita is India’s scripture of scriptures, the most beloved scripture of India, the one book that all masters depend upon.” Alongside the Bible and Koran, it is one of the world’s most printed and read books. It is Comprising merely 700 verses, in song format, it is recognized as capturing the essence of all of the voluminous scriptures of India — the Vedas, Upanishads, and Mahabharata (over 110,000 verses combined). Though technically a part of the Mahabharata, a colossal Hindu epic, it is considered independent of it. It was first translated into English in 1785 (Wilkins) and later in 1885 (Sir Arnold), with well over a hundred translations to English to date and hundreds of commentaries. Presently there is no other translation of the Gita has recreated in English the melodious meter and rhyme of its Sanskrit original.
Cathedral Of The Soul: Who are some of the famous people who have embraced the Gita?
Isaac Bentwich M.D.: The Gita has captivated and inspired many of the world’s greatest creative minds — scientists, thinkers, musicians, poets, and spiritual teachers—From Beethoven to Leonard Cohen, George Harrison, John Coltrane, and Philip Glass — Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Barack Obama and Deepak Chopra — to Carl Jung to Robert Oppenheimer (‘father’ of the atomic bomb), Bohr and Schrodinger (Nobel laureates, founders of quantum physics), and Emmerson, Thoreau and T.S. Elliot, J.D. Salinger — to Shirley MacLaine, Will Smith, Jim Carrey, Hugh Jackman and Julia Roberts. Beethoven scribbled one of its verses in his diary. Nelson Mandela said Gita’s poetic verses of wisdom helped him survive prison. Thoreau said in comparison to the Gita, “our Shakespeare sometimes seems youthfully green.” Oppenheimer quoted a passage from the Gita when seeing the first Atomic detonation, and said (by whom?)the Gita is “the most beautiful philosophical song existing in any known tongue.” And Gandhi, who considered the Gita as the very center of his life and the key to his achievements, said, “Today the Gita is not only my Bible or my Koran. It is more than that; it is my Mother. When I am in difficulty or distress, I seek refuge in Her
Cathedral Of The Soul: Why do you think the Gita has inspired so many musicians and artists?
Isaac Bentwich, M.D: A fascinating aspect of the Gita, is that it does not only address life’s most profound questions — the meaning of life, and the paths to happiness — but it also does so in a poem format, of mesmerizing melodiousness. And so, many of the world’s greatest musicians, poets, thinkers, and creative minds – have found it a source of inspiration. John Coltrane recorded it. George Harrison sang it. Philip Glass composed it. Will Smith “is lovin’ it.” Leonard Cohen lived it. Emerson admired it at Waldon Pond. Thoreau said in comparison to the Gita, “our Shakespeare sometimes seems youthfully green.” Beethoven scribbled one of its verses in his diary. And Gandhi said: "Nothing delights me so much as the music of the Gita.” As mentioned above, though well over a hundred translations of the Gita to English exist, the current translation is the first and only one that recreates in English the unique meter and rhyme of the Sanskrit original and its mesmerizing melodiousness. I believe this special melodiousness is key to obtaining the full benefit from the Gita. Remember – it is called Bhagavad Gita, literally meaning a song of the divine; not ‘text’ or ‘discourse,’ or ‘lectures’ of the divine. Gita’s special song format, its magical melodiousness helps us ‘listen with our heart’ not just with analyze with our brain. This avoiding of over-intellectualization is key because Gita’s most profound truths can only be realized intuitively.
Cathedral Of The Soul: What inspired you to translate the Gita?
Isaac Bentwich, M.D: Translating the Gita was something that grew out of my practice. I first met the Gita at a yoga teacher’s training course, some thirty-four years ago, and … I hated it! The translated text was so thickly wrapped with mythology and foreign terminology that I didn’t relate to it at all. Gradually, though, I did fall completely in love with the Gita, and once you do, its timeless truths do shine in all their glory. And so, the Gita became an indispensable source of light and guidance in my life, and I grew passionate about sharing this with others. I started re-writing favorite verses, for my sadhana, my spiritual practice, trying to capture their essence while carefully peeling away layers of mythology, terminology, and historical context. As I did so, I started hearing the music, the mesmerizing music of these pearls of wisdom. And so began a slow process of re-crafting the verses while re-creating the original meter of the Sanskrit; and then re-crafting them again in gender-neutral form, to have them speak directly to men and women alike. This process spanned twelve years and filled my life with light.
Cathedral Of The Soul: What are the main points of the Gita?
Isaac Bentwich, M.D: There are three main points: Our daily struggles in life are ‘battlefields,’ just like that of Gita’s prince, which provide us an opportunity to grow spiritually.Wisdom and happiness are within us and do not depend on any external guru, teacher, or religion. Gita’s dialogue between master and disciple is our dialogue with the inner voice of our soul.
"This inner Truth, the Gita tells us, is a light shining within, which not only dispels the darkness of our Ignorance but also lights up the world around us"
Cathedral Of The Soul: How has Gita influenced social & civil rights?
Isaac Bentwich, M.D: The Gita, while obscure to many, has had a profound effect on social and civil rights movements around the world. Gandhi considered the Gita the very center of his civil rights movement. “If we could change ourselves,” he said, “the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.” Martin Luther King was inspired by its teaching of non-violence, and Nelson Mandela said its poetic verses of wisdom helped him survive prison. Interestingly, Gandhi called his movement Satyagraha, ‘holding onto Truth,’ because connecting with your Inner-Self, as the Gita teaches — beyond your ego, your thoughts and your beliefs — is connecting with a unifying Truth which underlies diversity. Non-violence was the means of this powerful movement, but connecting with one's inner-Truth was its beating heart and 'secret-fuel.' The more you connect with this Truth, this Inner-Self — the more you can you see your aggressor, without aggressive-response arising un-invited in your heart. No longer merely suppressing your aggression, in response to wrongs done to you, but is firmly rooted in the unshakable Knowing of the brotherhood that unites us, aggressor and aggrieved alike. This inner Truth, the Gita tells us, is a light shining within, which not only dispels the darkness of our Ignorance but also lights up the world around us: “But when Inner-Self’s light dispels Ignorance,Then from within, this Wisdom-light shines; Radiant sun, lighting all that surrounds us, And all around us, we behold the Divine.”
Liane Buck: How does the Gita relate to #MeToo revelations of sexual abuse by prominent yoga teachers?
Isaac Bentwich, M.D: Today, Gita’s wisdom seems more relevant than ever. Recent #MeToo revelations, yet again, of power and sexual abuse by prominent yoga teachers, are devastating. We turn to yoga seeking not only a relaxed, well-toned body but also a safe, uplifting environment, where we can grow spiritually. And so, such betrayal of trust, and of yogic values, tears at the very fabric of what yoga is for us. Gita offers a firm foundation on which we can safely ‘build’ our yoga practice. As students, as seekers, it provides an unequivocal, crystal clear description of the conduct, and motivation of a teacher worthy of our trust. It also constantly reminds us that ultimately, our spiritual growth and our happiness are within and do not depend on any teacher, guru, or religion. As teachers, it keeps us humble, disciplined, and committed. In awe of the lofty yogini/yogi ideal that the Gita so beautifully describes, and working together, with our students and yoga community, as we pursue our spiritual journeys.
Liane Buck: What does the Gita have to offer about business ethics so lacking today?
Isaac Bentwich M.D.: The Gita offers powerful antidotes for the rampant materialism and flawed business ethics that are plaguing our society today. It teaches us to view our journey through life as a journey of spiritual growth. The ‘trick’ — says the Gita — is to be active in the world, while training ourselves to be firmly rooted in knowing that our happiness does not lay outside and does not depends on any external achievement or gain. Our real ‘battle,’ the Gita reminds us, is not with external challenges or foes, but an inner battle of the soul, between our higher divine nature, and our lower egotistical tendencies and desires, which we must learn to restrain. As the Gita poetically puts it: “Therefore, let your Divine-nature, Inner-Self, Restrain your mind, Prince, your lower human one; Then smite your elusive enemy, desire! Within, not without – the real battle is won.”
Liane Buck: What is your message to readers who have never heard of the Gita?
Isaac Bentwich, M.D: The Gita is a powerful guide for happiness, meditation, and inner-growth, one that’s written specifically for ordinary people like you and me and you, who are living and working in this crazy, troubled, beautiful world of ours. If you are seeking happiness and fulfillment in your life through inner-growth — you are welcome to the Gita! It is a magical little book that captures the deepest truths of all spiritual paths and all religions and conveys them in a simple, practical way that we can all understand and relate to. As you read and meditate on its verses, their poetic form lets them pleasantly ‘roll around’ in your mind, ‘doing their thing.’ Gradually, they help bring about changes in the way you view and act in the world. Empowering you to do good in the world, and to be transformed in the process; to change the world around you, by first changing the world within.
Liane Buck: Do you have any stories of the battle that people can relate to?
Isaac Bentwich M.D.: Reading the Gita, I found it related to different battles my life had taken me through. It has taken me back to memories, still vivid, of battlefields I’ve experienced, as a young officer and tank-commander, witnessing the senseless horrors of war and the devastation of losing loved friends. It related to other more civil ‘battlefields’ I’ve experienced as a medical doctor, fighting death; the triumph of saving a life, and the bitter taste of defeat. And to yet more mundane ‘battles’ of daily life — those in parenting, in relationships, in boardrooms, and silent meditation retreats. We all live through these ‘daily battlefields of life’ and hence can easily relate to Gita’s ‘wisdom at the battlefield’ metaphor.
Isaac Bentwich M.D. is a medical doctor trained in Western and Ayurvedic medicine, a longtime teacher of yoga and meditation, and author of Gita: A Timeless Guide for Our Times (Harmonia, June 2019).
Bentwich lives in Israel. For more information, http://www.newgita.com/