BG 4.11

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    Sunil Sharma

    Hi Ashish

    In your blog post The Problem of Evil you translate BG 4.11 as “As they approach Me, in the same way, I love or worship them”. It is a very beautiful translation and explains the important nuance that you have further described in the post. But I wanted to know if you can please explain Shrila Prabhupada’s translation to this verse? Like how do we truly appreciate his translation to this verse?

    Ashish Dalela

    Prabhupada often took liberties with the translations. For example, he translates yoga-kṣhemaṁ vahāmyaham in BG 9.22 as “I provide what they lack and preserve what they already possess”. This is his realization. In one sentence he has summarized his personal life experience in a way that he might not have explicitly told others. The literal translation is: “I personally carry the wellness of yoga”.

    Everyone who sincerely practices devotion to Krishna realizes that they have many shortcomings. We struggle to overcome them. But almost all such attempts, without devotion to Krishna, remain flawed. For example, devotees sometimes respond harshly to those who show their ego. Then, because this harshness is contrary to their gentle nature, they regret having spoken harshly. But they also know that if they behaved kindly, then people will not respect them, and by implication the knowledge that they are presenting. A gentle person is considered weak by egoistic people. So, a devotee regrets harshness and he regrets the misinterpretation of kindness. However, as we progress in devotion, Krishna gives the devotee the discrimination on when to be harsh and when to be kind. It is not always harshness and not always kindness. This is an example of how Krishna preserves what we have and provides what we lack. He gives us the discrimination on how to behave when.

    Now, we can contrast this to “I personally carry the wellness of yoga”. Does it mean that Krishna will do what we have to do? No. We have to do our best. But often, if we are not able to act the best due to our shortcomings, then Krishna helps us overcome that shortcoming. If that shortcoming is not overcome, then the wellness of yoga is impacted. For example, if a person is needlessly harsh, then they cannot teach anyone. But if they are overtly kind, then they will never reprimand anyone, and everyone will take them and their teachings with a fistful of salt.

    So, “I personally carry the wellness of yoga” is Krishna’s statement, and Prabhupada explains it as “I provide what they lack and preserve what they already possess”. Why is this explanation required? It is needed because most people will interpret it as “Krishna is responsible for the wellness of my yoga”. So, if I deviate from the path, then it is Krishna’s responsibility. If I have failed in my duties, then it must be that Krishna has not done His duty of protecting the wellness of my yoga.

    Hidden in this translation is the idea that God helps those who help themselves. How does He help? He preserves what we have, and provides what we lack. He will give us opportunities if we don’t have them. He will give us abilities if we are lacking. But that will happen only if we have struggled, failed, realized our shortcomings, and asked for His help. Asking for help quickly or demanding help without doing anything is sure to lead to more entitlement and pride. Therefore, God only helps some people. This is His way of ensuring the wellness of yoga.

    In this way, Prabhupada sometimes took liberties in translations, to explain his understanding and realizations. These liberties are not “interpretations”. They are explanations of how to understand them, and how not to misunderstand them (e.g., that Krishna is responsible for my failures). These are Prabhupada’s realizations.

    Now, onto BG 4.11. The term pat means “to fall”. When prefixed by pra- it means “moving towards”. When suffixed by –ante it means “ending with”. So, prapadyante means “to move toward (Me) ending with surrender”. This takes significance in the context of the later statement that “Everyone follows My path, knowingly or unknowingly”. Thus, Krishna acknowledges that even those who are not explicitly worshipping Him are still on a path toward Him. How? Because He will make them suffer in a way that will slowly change their false ideologies and desires.

    In this translation, Prabhupada has added the words “knowingly or unknowingly”. They are not in verse Sanskrit. What is following knowingly? If we surrender to Krishna lovingly. What is following unknowingly? If we decry Krishna. This is the beauty of Vedic philosophy that even atheists are on the path to God. How? This phase of atheism (in which they vent their anger) is temporary. After a while, they will be exhausted. Then suffering begins. Their atheistic friends abandon them, and they are left to suffer alone. In that loneliness, they cry for help. When they have nowhere to turn to, they turn again to God, as the option of last resort.

    So, Krishna calls such atheists the “worst of mankind”. But He also says: They are following My path. Even atheists are not eternally condemned. They are accepted as being on the path to God. But that is not the path of the devotees seeking God.

    So, when Prabhupada writes “knowingly or unknowingly” he is referring to the knowing path of devotees and the unknowing path of materialists and atheists. They are on a longer path, but even that path leads to the same destination over time. You can contrast this idea to that in Abrahamic religions where atheists and apostates are sent to eternal hell. But Krishna says they are also coming to Me, but they have unknowingly taken a path of hatred and anger that also leads to Me.

    With this background, we can understand the initial part of the verse: “In whatever way people surrender unto Me, I reciprocate accordingly”. As noted above, this surrender is the ante or the end goal. But, if we take the literal translation “to move toward (Me) ending with surrender” the verse can be seen as endorsing many paths to God, including atheism. Factually, Krishna accepts that even atheists are on a path toward Him. However, He qualifies it by saying “I reciprocate accordingly”, which means that all paths are not the same. If we turn to the atheistic path, then Krishna will reciprocate harshly to correct us, but we will eventually go back to Him.

    So, He is not condemning anyone to eternal hell. But He is also not saying that atheists and devotees are equal. “I reciprocate accordingly” means devotees will be treated kindly and atheists harshly. But there is kindness even in the harshness. That kindness manifests in the fact that the harshness is minimized to the least amount of harsness required to correct a person. It is not eternal damnation.

    Finally, the term bhaja means worship or devotion. Krishna is loving even toward the atheists but in a different way. That means He never stops loving anyone. He remains benevolent. But His love is expressed differently than toward the devotees. This is just like a mother may punish or reward a child, and they are both expressions of love. A child may not understand how punishment is also love. But when the child grows up, and he is intelligent, then he may realize that it was love.

    So, there are many nuances in this verse: (1) God is always benevolent, (2) even the atheists are on the path to God, (3) the paths and the interim results for atheists and devotees are different but the final result is the same, and (4) you can choose the path toward the same goal, and God will reciprocate based on your choice.

    I translated this verse a little differently as “them certainly in the same way I love or worship” to illustrate the contrast to Abrahamic religions: God doesn’t hate you even if you hate Him. Rather, He still loves you, so you can say that He is omnibenevolent. But that love is not expressed in the same way. So, you cannot be treated on par with devotees. The existence of suffering in this world is not due to God’s hatred toward the fallen soul. It is love to correct the soul and take it back.

    This nuance isn’t felt in “In whatever way people surrender unto Me, I reciprocate accordingly” because one can interpret it as follows: Since I hate God, therefore, God hates me back. And since God hates me, hence, He is not benevolent. This is one of the alternative tracks for the problem of evil. It accepts that we disobey God, and argues that because God condemns us due to our hate, hence, He is not loving. Since loving is a defining trait of God, hence, God must not exist.

    Therefore, a comprehensive answer requires us to say that even when we hate God, God does not hate us back. He is still loving and caring because He knows that we are on the path to Him. We may not know that we are on the path to Him, hence Prabhupada adds “knowingly or unknowingly” to the translation of BG 4.11.

    These are not contradictions. But it is very difficult (impossible?) to unpack the meanings in each Sanskrit phoneme into a coherent English sentence. We are forced to ignore some meanings to make the sentence coherent or add words to make that meaning explicit. If we ignore some part of the verse, then people might say that it was not properly translated. If we add words, then people might say that it is deviating from Sanskrit. But if we do a full and literal translation, then almost nobody will be able to understand the unusual English sentence.

    Hence, some simplifications are often made to help people understand something instead of nothing. Just because one translation says X doesn’t mean that Y is false. The truth is: It is both X and Y because both meanings are present in Sanskrit. But we could not convert that Sanskrit into a proper English sentence. So, we made a choice based on context to emphasize one meaning over another.

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