The best Mahabharata poems, plays, and novels

Sohini Sarah Pillai Author Of Many Mahābhāratas
By Sohini Sarah Pillai

Who am I?

I’m Assistant Professor of Religion at Kalamazoo College and my research focuses on the Mahabharata, an epic narrative tradition from South Asia. As an Indian-American kid growing up in suburban Boston, my first introduction to the Mahabharata tradition was from the stories my grandmother told me when she would visit from Chennai and from the Mahabharata comics that she would bring me. Many years later, my friend and colleague Nell Shapiro Hawley (Preceptor of Sanskrit at Harvard University) and I began to work on a project that would eventually become our edited volume, Many Mahābhāratas. I’m excited to share some of my own personal favorite Mahabharatas with you here.


I co-edited...

Many Mahābhāratas

By Nell Shapiro Hawley (editor), Sohini Sarah Pillai (editor),

Book cover of Many Mahābhāratas

What is my book about?

Many Mahābhāratas is an introduction to the spectacular and long-lived diversity of Mahabharata literature in South Asia. This diversity begins with the Sanskrit Mahabharata, an ancient and massive epic that tells the story of the five Pandava princes and the devastating battle they wage with their one hundred paternal cousins, the Kauravas. The Sanskrit Mahabharata, however, is just one of countless Mahabharatas that have been produced in South Asia during the past two thousand years.

The many Mahabharatas of this edited volume come from the first century to the twenty-first and are composed in ten different languages. Readers dive into classical dramas, premodern vernacular poems, regional performance traditions, commentaries, graphic novels, political essays, short stories, and contemporary theater productions—all of them Mahabharatas.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling

By Carole Satyamurti,

Book cover of Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling

Why this book?

Considered to be the longest poem in the world, the Sanskrit Mahabharata is comprised of around 1.8 million words (for comparison: the combined length of the seven Harry Potter books is barely 1.1 million words). At 928 pages, Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling is by no means a short book, but it does make the massive Sanskrit epic very accessible for general readers. While the Sanskrit Mahabharata is primarily composed in couplets called shlokas, Carole Satyamurti’s masterful retelling is in blank verse, which is the meter of my two favorite English epics: John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Jack Mitchell’s The Odyssey of Star Wars. I also especially love the way Satyamurti presents Karna, the secret elder brother of Pandavas and one of the greatest tragic heroes in world literature. 

Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling

By Carole Satyamurti,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mahabharata as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Mahabharata, originally composed some two thousand years ago is an epic masterpiece, "a hundred times more interesting" than the Iliad and the Odyssey (Wendy Doniger), it is a timeless work that evokes a world of myth, passion and warfare while exploring eternal questions of duty, love and spiritual freedom. A seminal Hindu text, it is one of the most important and influential works in the history of world civilisation.

This new English retelling, innovatively composed in blank verse, covers all the books of the Mahabharata. It masterfully captures the beauty, excitement and profundity of the original Sanskrit poem as…


The Palace of Illusions

By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni,

Book cover of The Palace of Illusions

Why this book?

I first read this novel the summer before I started college and nearly fourteen years later, The Palace of Illusions remains one of my favorite Mahabharatas. This book is narrated by Draupadi, the shared wife of the five Pandava brothers. In the Sanskrit Mahabharata, Draupadi is an eloquent, headstrong, and intelligent heroine. While Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Draupadi is just as compelling as her epic counterpart, Divakaruni shows us aspects of Draupadi’s life that are absent from the Sanskrit Mahabharata, such as her childhood in her father’s palace and her relationships with her siblings Dhristadyumna and Sikhandi. Also, although The Palace of Illusions is set in ancient India, this novel sensitively addresses pertinent social issues in contemporary South Asia including transphobia and colorism.

The Palace of Illusions

By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Palace of Illusions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Palace of Illusions takes us back to a time that is half-history, half-myth, and wholly magical; narrated by Panchaali, the wife of the five Pandava brothers, we are -- finally -- given a woman's take on the timeless tale that is the Mahabharata

Tracing Panchaali's life -- from fiery birth and lonely childhood, where her beloved brother is her only true companion; through her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna; to marriage, motherhood and Panchaali's secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husbands' most dangerous enemy -- The Palace of Illusions is a deeply human novel about…


How the Nagas Were Pleased & The Shattered Thighs

By Harsha, Bhasa, Andrew Skilton (translator)

Book cover of How the Nagas Were Pleased & The Shattered Thighs

Why this book?

The Urubhanga or the Shattered Thighs is one of six Sanskrit Mahabharata dramas that are attributed to the playwright Bhasa (ca. 200 CE). There are two things about the Shattered Thighs that I find particularly fascinating. The first is that the hero of the play is Duryodhana, the leader of the one hundred Kauravas who is usually seen as the villain of the Mahabharata tradition. The second is that the Shattered Thighs violates one of the central rules of Sanskrit dramas by (spoiler alert!) depicting the central hero of the play physically dying on stage. There are multiple English translations of the Shattered Thighs, but I recommend the one by Andrew Skilton because it includes detailed endnotes that are helpful for non-specialist readers. 

How the Nagas Were Pleased & The Shattered Thighs

By Harsha, Bhasa, Andrew Skilton (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How the Nagas Were Pleased & The Shattered Thighs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Two tragic plays that break the rules: both show the hero dying on stage, a scenario forbidden in Sanskrit dramaturgy. King Harsha's play, composed in the seventh century, re-examines the Buddhist tale of a magician prince who makes the ultimate sacrifice to save a hostage snake (naga). The Shattered Thighs, attributed to Bhasa, the illustrious predecessor to ancient Kali*dasa, transforms a crucial episode of the Maha*bharata war. As he dies from a foul blow to the legs delivered in his duel with Bhima, Duryodhana's character is inverted, depicted as a noble and gracious exemplar amidst the wreckage of the fearsome…


Panchali's Pledge

By Subramania Bharati, Usha Rajagopalan (translator),

Book cover of Panchali's Pledge

Why this book?

As you may have been able to tell from this list, I have a special fondness for Mahabharatas that revolve around women, especially Draupadi. One of these Mahabharatas is Subramania Bharati’s magnificent Tamil poem, Pancali Sapatam or Panchali's Pledge. Subramania Bharati was a poet and Indian independence activist and he began to write Panchali's Pledge in 1912 while he was living in hiding from the British. Thus, it is unsurprising that Panchali's Pledge is a powerful allegory for the anti-colonial struggle against the British Raj in twentieth-century South Asia with Draupadi being depicted as the personification of the Indian nation. Like Andrew Skilton’s translation of the Shattered Thighs, Usha Rajagopalan’s translation of Panchali's Pledge contains a number of useful endnotes for readers who may be unfamiliar with the Mahabharata tradition. 

Panchali's Pledge

By Subramania Bharati, Usha Rajagopalan (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Panchali's Pledge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Honoured at a public function when he was a mere boy of eleven with the title 'Bharati' (one blessed by Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning), C. Subramania Bharati (1882-1921) is renowned as the herald of the renaissance in Tamil literature. The simplicity and lyricism that marked his poetry reflect a clear shift in sensibility and craft from the classical tradition, which had adhered to strictures of style, imagery and language for over 2000 years. Panchali's Pledge is the English translation of Bharati's seminal work, Panchali Sabadham, which reimagines the pivotal Game of Dice incident in the Mahabharata, where coerced into…

Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata

By Karthika Naïr,

Book cover of Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata

Why this book?

I noted above that the Sanskrit Mahabharata is known as the longest poem in the world, so it shouldn’t come as any shock that the Mahabharata tradition is filled with a ginormous cast of characters. One of the reasons why I love Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata is because Karthika Naïr uses this beautiful collection of poems to give voices to characters whose voices are only briefly or never heard in the Sanskrit Mahabharata. Many of these characters are women. They include Hidimbi (a demoness who marries the second-eldest Pandava brother Bhima), Ulupi (a snake princess who weds the middle Pandava brother Arjuna), Dusshala (the sole sister of the one hundred Kaurava brothers), Vrishali (the wife of the tragic hero Karna), and Bhanumati (the wife of Duryodhana).

Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata

By Karthika Naïr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Until the Lions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The title of this book comes from the African proverb - "until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter". In this poetic reimagining, Nair writes, for the first time, the history of the women in the Mahabharata, the longest poem ever written and one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Sanskrit, poetry, and India?

6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Sanskrit, poetry, and India.

Sanskrit Explore 14 books about Sanskrit
Poetry Explore 241 books about poetry
India Explore 307 books about India

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Thirteen Plays of Bhasa, Parva, and Bhima Lone Warrior if you like this list.