16 May 2021

Bhagavad Gita Epic in Bahasa Malaysia

Locals can enjoy the ancient story in the national language, A. Azim Idris writes.

FOR centuries, the famous Sanskrit literary work Bhagavad Gita can be read in 75 languages, except Bahasa Malaysia. But now, the ancient Hindu manuscript has finally been retold in the national language. 

Thanks to Shah Alam-based writer Uthaya Sankar SB, the Bhagavad Gita: Dialog Arjuna dan Krishna di Kurukshetra is now available for locals wanting to discover the profound messages contained in a significant portion of the Mahabharata epic. 

For the uninitiated, the Bhagavad Gita, or The Song of God, is regarded as the most popular text in Hinduism. And although the world's oldest religion does not have a particular dogmatic scripture, the Gita is viewed as a summary of all Hindu scriptures. 

Briefly put, the Gita chronicles a conversation between Lord Krishna – who is the avatar of deity Vishnu – and his friend Arjuna. The era of this conversation is almost pre-historic, a setting some 5,000 years ago in the north Indian city of Kurukshetra. 

The story takes place amid a power struggle between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas and Pandavas, which culminated in the great Mahabharata War. It was during this time that Krishna imparted Arjuna with trails of wisdom, answering the latter's questions about a host of things, including war, family, the soul, rebirth, truth, the afterlife, and the concept of Karma. 

[Watch video of the interview]

Uthaya explains that being part of the Mahabharata epic, the Gita is a standalone dialogue or a major plot within an even larger plot. 

Although there is a Bahasa Indonesia version, the Gita was never available specifically in Bahasa Malaysia up until now. Uthaya also insists that his “version” was not a mere translation, but a re-telling of what transpired during Krishna and Arjuna's exchanges. 

What’s more, he explains, the Gita consumed by Tamil readers were usually accompanied by commentaries explaining the texts of the story, which is told in the poetic shloka form. 

Overall, the Gita contained 701 shlokas, which locals here could view as pantun, or poetic verses. 

“What’s usually done is that people will take these poems and add their commentaries. But what I have done is to take the shlokas and retold it as a story,” he told The Vibes when met recently. 

“I consciously chose to write in Bahasa because everybody will be able to read my work.”

Objections Before Book Was Published  

The first edition of the book went to press early this month [May 2021], but Uthaya said his re-telling of Gita had created a mild stir even before the book was published. 

The majority of the Indian community, however, has been supportive and encouraging of his initiative. 

Since early March, he had received a sprinkling of negative feedback for translating the work, especially from among a handful of community members. 

“They said: ‘how can you translate Tamil text into Malay?’, which is factually wrong because the original Bhagavad Gita or Mahabharata, or even the Ramayana, were written in Sanskrit,” he said. 

He was also chided by those who reckoned that he had based his book on commentaries of other groups, which was untrue. Instead, his work was based on English and Bahasa Indonesia translations, as well as those in Tamil, Malayalam, and the original Sanskrit. 

“I’ve read all that and understand the story and ensured that in my re-telling all the 701 shlokas are included,” said Uthaya. 

“It’s not just a re-telling or the gist of the story. In the book, I make notes on each chapter and each verse so that the reader can always refer to the original text in any language.”

He added that his book also furnished readers with background explanation into certain esoteric characters and terms. 

Not A Preachy Text  

And despite the book being closely related to Hinduism, Uthaya said he did it in Bahasa Malaysia and in a way that all can enjoy its contents without compromising their faith. 

“When I wrote the Bhagavad Gita, I ensured that it is not a preachy sort of text so that a Muslim, Christian or anyone who is a non-Hindu believer can still enjoy it as a story.”

Uthaya, who has published dozens of book in Bahasa Malaysia for more than two decades, said his latest book stretched over 208 pages and was not printed by any publisher. 

“I rely on social capital. Half of my printing costs are covered by donations received from advance buyers.”

He said those who donated more than RM50 had their names listed in the book as a sign of appreciation. 

The book can be bought through his blog site [here]. 

Uthaya, who recently completed his Masters in University Malaya, said that the text is only available in hardcopy and not as an e-book. 

However, he said he would consider turning the Gita into an audiobook, which he narrates and would be accessible to the visually impaired.

[Interview conducted by A. Azim Idris on 15 April 2021 and published in The Vibes on 15 May 2021. Click here for a short video.]