Some observations on the translation of Sva-likhita-jivani
I am feeling a bit blissful today. I am going to escape to a holiday in Barsana, and if Radharani is merciful, I will spend it in the proximity of Binode Bihari Baba and his merry band of bairagi bhajananandis. Oh how I have looked forward to this day! There is a lot of preeti for me in Barsana.
In my crazy life... what kind of crazy... I guess I have been talking a lot about my crazy in the past few weeks. But, today, I am diving deeply into a project that I have been meaning to do for a long time: I am finally getting into revising the current available English translation of Bhaktivinoda Thakur's Jivani. I cannot tell you all how much I feel guru-kripa raining down on me as I read this book with care.
So let me take care to thank two Ukrainian devotees, Hanna Chaikovska (Anu Krishna Dasi) and Muraliswara Das, who have been continuously pressuring me into doing this task after exacting my promises, and without whose insistence and strong desire, I would probably still be giving my attention elsewhere.
I first met Anu at Jiva where she came for some courses. She is a very energetic and talented young woman who is doing a lot of good work in publishing in the Russian language. We agreed that this needed to be done, and so now I am doing it.
Murali had translated the current available edition of the Jivani into Russian, but had had some very justified misgivings about the document that are also noted in KDA’s edit with question marks and parenthetical insertions, which mostly came as a result of Shukavak’s mistranslations and awkward syntax. [I am sure Shukavak, whom I knew in Toronto days, or his PhD advisor, Joseph O’Connell, will take too much exception to this critique. Our early work is our early work.] And, not knowing Bengali, there was no way that KDA could really do anything more than note some of the confusing portions and occasionally guess at the intent.
Nevertheless...and I remind you that I am rarely a translator of the first draft of a book. I think I must be a bit of a coward, since I mostly spend my time editing other people’s work. It is easier to scrutinize someone else's work than going out on a limb with a first draft and having others scrutinze one’s own work in the way that I am doing here. [Even though, bhagavan jane, but I also pray for an editor!]
At any rate, seeing both the original printed edition alongside Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s handwritten manuscript has made the whole project very evocative in many ways. It has been more of a challenge than I expected. There are many words that seem to have fallen out of usage and are not found in the dictionaries, even the good ones -- place names I can’t find on the map, people who may or may not be well known and need to be researched, proper spellings of Bengali place and person names. Time limits me from doing a lot of that research, but perhaps there is someone capable and knowledgeable about [or interest in] 19th century Bengal who would like to do a bit of a research-assistantship on this, I would appreciate it also. [Just throwing it out there. You never know which prayers will be answered.]
Just like I am now trying to be a Brajabasi, there was a time when I was trying to be a Nabadwip basi, by the grace of my Guru-barga. Going back to Dwadash mandir the last couple of years has certainly resulted in me getting a very nice jolt of Guru-kripa and Gauda-desh kripa, and I guess my Gurudeva did not abandon me after all, but grabbed me by the hair and engaged me in this service to my Guru Dham.
Having spent time in Ula-Birnagar, both in its 1970's incarnation as well as the present day, I feel a kind of organic connection to the Thakur’s recounting of his childhood in that village. Here, listen to how he describes the concluding portion of the first five years of his childhood:
“In those days there was no misery at all in Ula. There were fourteen hundred good brahmin families, and many kayastha and baidya families also. The Mustaufi Mahashay family was the town's principal glory. There was no shortage of food in the village. One could get on with very little in those days. Everybody was very happy; people had enough to eat and spent their time in singing, making music, and conversing with each other.  You could not count the number of big-bellied brahmins there were. Almost everybody loved telling jokes, could speak sweetly and was skilled in discrimination. Nearly everyone was expert in the fine arts of song and playing the tampura. Groups of people would gather in one place to make music and sing together, elsewhere they would be playing dice or chess.
That village was a very happy place. If anybody was in need they could go to the home of Mustaufi Mahashay and get whatever they required without any difficulty. Medicine, oil and ghee were aplenty. The village was so large that it took 56 constables to watch over it. The good people of Ulagram did not know the need of finding work in order to eat. What a happy time it was!
Things start going bad soon thereafter, though. Without understanding Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s very interesting life, would we really be able to appreciate his bhakti? This is a good question.
The current English translation has apparently undergone a couple of incarnations. The original is from Shukavak’s very important book, A Hindu and Modernity, which everyone interested in Vaishnava history really should read. Best, of course, to read it with a wider insight into the times and mores of 19th century Bengal, but even for that, this book represents a nice introduction to that world from the non-Bengali Western devotee/researcher perspective.
The second editor, KDA, whose identity I do not know, makes a number of critiques of Shukavak’s edition, even while admitting that he does not know Bengali. The basis of his criticism is that Shukavak has taken a too objective, too clinical a look at Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s life, without giving it the theological slant to the work that would be appropriate from the devotional perspective. His judgment is that Shukavak’s translation is “potentially calamitous.”
KDA inquires into the kinds of questions that I had been trying to deal with in my response to Rocana’s doubts about the Sva-likhita-jivani. In this connection, KDA quotes Srila Prabhupada, who had given the appropriate explanation in response to one of his curious devotee’s queries:
"Regarding your questions, 'I read in a book sent from India that Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur was sent directly by Lord Chaitanya from the spiritual sky. I am not sure if that book was bona fide. Is the above true? Someone, a Godbrother, brought up that he had heard that Srila Bhaktivinoda was at one time an impersonalist. Was he ever?'
“Yes, what you have heard is alright. Just like Arjuna is constant companion of Krishna, as it is confirmed in the 4th chapter, Krishna says that both Arjuna and He appeared many times on this world, but he had forgotten his past appearances and Krishna did not. Krishna is like the sun, and maya is just like darkness. Where Krishna is present there cannot be any darkness of maya. So as Arjuna although always in the presence of Krishna as eternal companion in friendship, still he had some illusion in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, and Krishna had to dissipate that darkness by the teachings of Bhagavad-gita.
“The purport is, sometimes even a liberated person like Arjuna plays the part of a conditioned soul in order to play some important part. Similarly, Bhaktivinoda Thakura for sometimes was associating with the impersonalists. And then he exhibited himself in his true colour as pure devotee, exactly in the same way as Arjuna exhibited in the beginning as a conditioned soul, and then as a liberated soul. So there is nothing to be misunderstood in this connection. Krishna and his devotees sometimes play like that, as much as Lord Buddha, although an incarnation of Krishna, preached the philosophy of voidism. These things are conducted in terms of place, audience, time etc.
“In the Chaitanya Charitamrita it is said that the activities of a Vaishnava cannot be understood by the greatest scholar... So there is no doubt about it that Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura is eternal energy of Lord Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. And whatever he did was just to suit the time, place, circumstances, and etc. There is no contradiction in his activities."I like this answer myself, though my perspective on it is quite likely to differ from KDA's. If we understand the whole thing from a rasika perspective, from the perspective of narrative, history and myth, then the human aspect takes precedence over the divine aspect, and indeed, the divine aspect really only manifests through the drama of the human.
Think of the automythology concept of which I have also written on my blog. What is the story of your life that you were writing, and what is the story that God wrote, and what is the final edit? The final edit comes when you think you have gotten a little ray of the sun of the mercy that God intended for you and thus for everyone. The final edit is the best rasa edit.
Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s writing is quick. He is someone who writes a lot and he writes quickly. Nowadays we can type and record our thoughts rapidly, even still finding it difficult to keep up with the speed of the mind, but think of a man whose thoughts are rapid but can only write by hand.
He himself writes clinically, not literarily, primarily sticking to unadorned listing of events, with only the occasional foray into any rhetorical attempts at producing emotion. Mostly it is just the bare facts. His brothers’ deaths are passed over in one sentence. All his four brothers died from one cause or another. The family riches were squandered, the town decimated by the plague with nearly all his close relatives dying, the village turned into a crematorium of sorts. That is the beginning of your story.