I (Gyandev) have a great love for the Mahabharata, the longest epic (poem or otherwise) in world literature. I’m especially fond of the small bit of it that’s called the Bhagavad Gita, which is the central scripture of Yoga. Many, many people have commented on and written novels about this great scripture over the centuries. Below are some of my favorites.
The Gita has been translated countless times, and commentaries abound. I have encountered some fine treatments, and I am most partial to the translation and commentary of my own teachers, Paramhansa Yogananda and Swami Kriyananda, so I‘ll share those with you here:
- The Bhagavad Gita, Swami Kriyananda, Crystal Clarity, Publishers—This translation brings the Gita to life for Western and Eastern readers alike. It’s almost a commentary within a translation.
- The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita Explained by Paramhansa Yogananda, Swami Kriyananda, Crystal Clarity, Publishers (available in both book and audiobook format)—You can read the Gita without a commentary, but you’ll miss a lot if you do. This commentary is highly accessible, yet very deep.
- A Concise Bhagavad Gita, Nayaswami Gyandev, WaysToFreedom.com—Even a great translation can be challenging to follow in some places. This booklet summarizes groups of verses, using plain English (usually), in an effort to help you avoid the “can’t see the forest for the trees” problem. We use it when we teach The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita program at The Expanding Light Retreat.
- Bhagavad Gita commentaries of Paramhansa Yogananda, East-West magazine, 1932–34—Unfortunately, these are not publicly available at this time. But they will be someday. Stay tuned.
- God Talks with Arjuna, Paramhansa Yogananda, Self-Realization Fellowship—This exhaustive commentary has more of Yogananda’s detailed commentaries than any other source at this time. (It’s also somewhat exhausting because of tedious additions made by editors.) I suggest that you start with The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita (see above); then if you want more, try this one.
Mahabharata and Srimad Bhagavatam
Literal translations of these great but lengthy scriptures can be extremely tedious. Fortunately, there are other ways to explore them, ways that are enjoyable, inspiring, and—I’m a stickler for this—true to the original. This is scripture, after all, so it’s not unreasonable to ask for fidelity. It’s fine—and great, if done well—when an author fills in blanks in the stories (and blanks abound); that can give more life to the tale and add depth to the characters. But I do lament when an author changes a story in a significant way. Why do that? The original stories are so fabulous as they are. All of this is why I recommend the resources below.
- Mahabharata, Kamala Subramaniam, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan—This is the best book form I’ve seen. It’s a condensation that’s not too long (in most places, anyway), and not too short.
- Srimad Bhagavatam, Kamala Subramaniam, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan—This is the best book form I’ve seen. It, too, is a condensation: not too long (in most places, anyway), and not too short.
- Mahabharata, Kamala Chandrakant et al, Amar Chitra Katha—A hardbound, three-volume set of comic books? Yes, and it’s meticulously faithful to the original. It’s not just for young readers. I highly recommend it, not only for its illustrations, but for the entire package.
- Guide to the Mahabharata and Life of Sri Krishna, Gyandev McCord, WaysToFreedom.com—Here’s an aid to navigating the often-convoluted tales in the Mahabharata and Srimad Bhagavatam. It’s an updated and expanded—and prettier—version of a booklet I wrote in the mid-1990’s.
- The Palace of Illusions, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Anchor Books—This novel is a first-person narrative of the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s point of view, and it’s a creative, appealing tack by a fine writer. Divakaruni changes a few events (unnecessarily, IMO), but at least not drastically. Unfortunately, with the exception of Krishna (whom she shrouds in mystery), the spiritual dimension of this story is largely missing from the novel. Still, I applaud Divakaruni for bringing to life the feminine perspective, which is so lacking in the original scripture. It’s an engaging, enjoyable read.
- Krishnavatara, K.M. Munshi, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan—This seven-novel series chronicles the life of Krishna up until shortly before the Bhagavad Gita took place. (The author died before completing his series.) Munshi’s storytelling is engaging, and he does a thought-provoking job of filling in gaps in the original story. Especially enjoyable are his explorations of the many levels of political intrigue that the scriptures themselves don’t touch, but “you just know” must have been there. And his characterization of Bhima will make you wriggle your toes with delight. He does change quite a few of the “facts” given in the scriptures, but at least he doesn’t change the main ones. Though tedious in a few spots, this series is a winner.
- Bhima: Lone Warrior, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Harper Perennial—This novel is a first-person narrative of the Mahabharata from Bhima’s point of view. It’s an appealing tale by a fine writer who enjoys painting scenery as well as telling a story. Nair’s tale is faithful to the overall story of the Mahabharata, although as with all authors who take on the task of retelling the Mahabharata from a particular character’s point of view, he takes liberties with smaller aspects. One aspect of his portrayal of Bhima is that Bhima’s brothers regularly call him “Blockhead,” which seems a bit heavy-handed to me, especially since neither this book nor the Mahabharata itself gives evidence that Bhima was a blockhead. Impulsive, yes. Not always totally rational, yes. But blockhead, no. Anyway, it’s enjoyable.
- Karna’s Wife: The Outcast’s Queen, Kavita Kané, Rupa Publications—Here’s another window onto the Mahabharata, with a female author telling the story from the point of view of Uruvi, Karna’s second wife (invented by the author, for the Mahabharata makes no reference to her, although it does mention Karna’s first wife, Vrushali, who is also a character in this book). The book is rather an emotional maelstrom, albeit an interesting one. (There were times when I felt emotionally bludgeoned, but hey, the Mahabharata itself is full of emotion.) Even though female characters are rarely involved in any action (in this book as well as in the actual Mahabharata), the author gives one the feeling of deep involvement via reports given by the various characters. Her tale is faithful to the overall story of the Mahabharata, although I was disappointed that she characterized Draupadi as secretly in love with Karna—utterly unnecessary and, to my mind, preposterous. My other disappointment was that my copy of the book was missing the last 10 pages! Well, the story had been told by that time, but still, it’s a disappointment. If you read the book, please tell me the ending, as I don’t plan to buy another copy for a mere 10 pages.
- Mahabharat, B.R. Chopra & Ravi Chopra, B.R. Films—This 94-episode video series (in Hindi with English subtitles) is the most popular television series in Indian history. The casting is near-perfect, and the intrigues of the story are done very well. If you’re a Mahabharata aficionado, you need to see this. It also explores parts of Krishna’s life that the Mahabharata does not; those parts are from the Srimad Bhagavatam. There have been other film versions, but those that I have seen fall very flat. This is the one. (BTW, “Mahabharat” is the Hindi spelling of the Sanskrit “Mahabharata.”) It’s free on YouTube, but really, get the DVD set, because the YouTube version gets blurry if you enlarge it to a reasonable size. (Make sure you’re getting the NTSC version if you live in North America.)
- The Mahabharata, Gyandev McCord—For more than 25 years, I have been telling this story to audiences all over North America. It has been enthusiastically received, and I have heard countless requests that I record it. That has not yet happened, but it will—and soon, I hope. The recorded version will include some juicy parts that I just don’t have time for in the live storytelling experience. If you want to be on an email list to be notified when the recording is available, please contact me.