The value of this venerable edition of India's "Song of the Blessed Lord" lies primarily in the extensive, chapter-by-chapter interpretation of the Gita by the late Harvard University scholar and professor Franklin Edgerton that follows his translation. His comments, written over sixty years ago for inclusion in the Harvard University Press's "Oriental Series"--a multi-volume attempt to bring the sacred and philosophic writings of the East to the West--cover 90 pages and amount to the best secular interpretation of the Gita that I have read. His translation of the Gita itself however is far from the most agreeable since it is largely denotative and does not attempt to bring the poetry and the spirituality of the Gita to English speakers. In the original publication of this book (as Volumes 38 and 39 in the above-mentioned "Oriental Series"), a poetic translation by Sir Edwin Arnold was included. It is sadly absent from this volume.
Furthermore, many of Edgerton's ideas about the religious value of the Gita will not sit well with Hindus. Personally, I find his strictly profane and philosophic critique illuminating and a nice counterbalance to other interpretations. For those new to the Gita I would recommend reading some other translation along with this one so as to simultaneously get the feel of the poetry and spirituality along with a literal translation. I especially recommend these four:
Bolle, Kees W. Bhagavadgita, The: A New Translation (1979)
Easwaran, Eknath. Bhagavad Gita, The (1985; 2000)
Mitchell, Stephen. Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (2000)
Nikhilananda, Swami. Bhagavad Gita, The: Translated from the Sanskrit, with Notes, Comments, and Introduction by Swami Nikhilananda (1944; 6th printing 1979)
(See my reviews at Amazon.)
One thing that must be said to the reader about to embark upon a first-time reading of the Gita is simply this: Do NOT take the words in a literal sense. Although Arjuna sits before a great field of battle as he examines his doubts about the value of proceeding and as he listens to Krishna urge him on, do not think that this is a work about "Krishna's Counsel in Time of War " as one academic has it. What is in doubt is how to live one's life and what to think of, and how to face death. This is what Krishna (as Arjuna's charioteer) is at pains to explain to the young "strong-armed slayer of the foe." Furthermore, it is good to realize that Krishna's argument, as beautiful and insightful as it is, is not a rationally coherent one in the Western sense of argument. Instead Krishna considers various points of view and compares them as guides on how to live and how to die. He presents four of the five traditional yogas: jnana yoga, karma yoga, bhakti yoga and raja yoga. Tantric yoga, or the so-called "left-handed path," is not presented in the Gita.
(Note, by the way, that Edgerton is one of those old-fashioned translators who makes a point of not using the word "yoga." "Discipline" is used instead. Thus instead of the "Yoga of Action" in Chapter III we have the "Discipline of Action." This bit of silliness is explained in part because when Edgerton wrote his translation the word "yoga" was still quite exotic and not very well understood by English-speaking readers.)
Another thing to understand is that Krishna's central message of renunciation (seemingly ironic since he is advising Arjuna to fight) is not easily appreciated without some extensive study and practice. A central idea, shared by Buddhists, is that we do not exist in the way we think we do, that we are not "alive" and conscious as the individuals that we think we are--and therefore we "do not die" and cannot be either slayer or slain. This also takes some considerable study and insight to appreciate, especially for those of us brought up in the Western tradition influenced by the three great religions of the Middle East.
Finally it is counterproductive to concern oneself with the apparent contradictions in Krishna's counsel. As Edgerton explains (referring to the early Upanishads, upon which the Gita is based): Claims to "an absolute and complete truth about man and the universe...are to be understood as tentative, not final" and such claims may find contradiction in "an adjoining passage." Edgerton adds that this "trait of intellectual fluidity or tentativeness" is also found in the Gita. (p. 109)
I would add that the expression in the Gita is primarily symbolic, as it is in all venerable religious works, and that one must read (and study!) between the lines to fully appreciate what is being said.
One final point. Edgerton asserts that the early Hindu thinkers "sought to control the most fundamental and universal powers by knowing them." He adds that the Sanskrit word "vidya" means both "knowledge" and "magic." Consequently there is the idea in the Gita that knowledge is indeed magic that allows the knower to overcome the infirmities of this world. On a personal level I am convinced--at least for myself--that knowledge of who we really are does in fact conquer death, and it is literally true, as Krishna's says, that we do not die.