The best Sanskrit books

2 authors have picked their favorite books about Sanskrit and why they recommend each book.

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Thirteen Plays of Bhasa

By A.C. Woolner (translator), Lakshman Sarup (translator),

Book cover of Thirteen Plays of Bhasa

Bhasa, the ancient Indian poet and dramatist, who lived two thousand two hundred years ago, was perhaps the first one to think of an alternative ending to Mahabharata in his play, Pancharatra. His Oorubhanga was the first play to be sympathetic to Duryodhana, the antagonist of Mahabharata. In Pratihna- Yaugandharayanam, one of the classical Sanskrit plays in this collection, a wooden elephant in which soldiers hide is used, making us wonder whether the Trojan horse was inspired by this ancient play or vice versa. No one has reimagined Mahabharata more boldly than this dramatist of antiquity.


Who am I?

Anand Neelakantan is an Indian author, columnist, screenwriter, television personality, and motivational speaker. He has authored eight fiction books in English and one in Malayalam. His debut work Asura, The Tale of the Vanquished is based on the Indian epics of Ramayana. His next book series was Ajaya-Roll of the Dice, Ajaya – Rise of Kali based on the two books on the epic Mahabharata told from Kaurava perspective. Anand's books voice the suppressed party or the defeated party. In his fifth book Vanara, the legend of Baali, Sugreeva, and Tara also follow the same pattern of expressing the defeated side.


I wrote...

Asura: Tale of the Vanquished: The Story of Ravana and His People

By Anand Neelakantan,

Book cover of Asura: Tale of the Vanquished: The Story of Ravana and His People

What is my book about?

The story of the Ramayana had been told innumerable times. The enthralling story of Rama, the incarnation of God, who slew Ravana, the evil demon of darkness, is known to every Indian. And in the pages of history, as always, it is the version told by the victors, that lives on. The voice of the vanquished remains lost in silence. But what if Ravana and his people had a different story to tell?

The story of the Ravanayana had never been told. Asura is the epic tale of the vanquished Asura people, a story that has been cherished by the oppressed outcastes of India for 3000 years. Until now, no Asura has dared to tell the tale. But perhaps the time has come for the dead and the defeated to speak.

The Bhagavad Gītā

By Winthrop Sargeant (translator),

Book cover of The Bhagavad Gītā

Bhagavad Gītā. This is an indispensable primary source for yoga philosophy and practice, and there are many translations: by Edgerton, Easwaran Eknath, Van Buitenen, Sargeant, A. Mahadeva Sastri, H. Maheshwari, Mascaro, and others.

Unfortunately, the Gītā has been used for political ends, but I daresay it transcends politics. It continues the traditions of meditation of older Upanishads—jñāna-yoga, the “yoga of knowledge”—and introduces karma-yoga, the “yoga of action,” with principles that can be applied in practically every endeavor of life. No longer does practice require seclusion. Although the context is a battle, Krishna, the yoga teacher, urges ahiṃsā, “non-injury,” and other yogic values that can be put into play in practically anything that you do. Bhakti-yoga, the “yoga of devotion and love,” is a third broad type of practice laid out in the Gītā. Eliade disparages bhakti as yoga for the masses but surely it…


Who am I?

As a professional sanskritist and academic, I have travelled to India well more than twenty times, for fellowships, conferences, and (fortunately) months of study with a traditional Sanskrit pundit, the great N.S. Ramanuja Tatacharya. But my first trip was when I was twenty, dropping out of college and travelling from a kibbutz in Israel to India (overland no less, after a flight from Tel Aviv to Istanbul in 1971) where I was graciously admitted into a yoga-ashram school. There I began learning Sanskrit as well as various yoga techniques. I stayed that time for two years. “All life is yoga,” says Sri Aurobindo, and I have long wished my life to be that since “yoga” is for me practically a synonym for “right living.”


I wrote...

Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy

By Stephen H. Phillips,

Book cover of Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy

What is my book about?

In discussing yoga's fundamental commitments, Phillips explores traditional teachings of hatha yoga, karma yoga, bhakti yoga, and tantra, and shows how such core concepts as self-monitoring consciousness, karma, non-harmfulness (ahimsa), reincarnation, and the powers of consciousness relate to modern practice. He outlines values implicit in bhakti yoga and the tantric yoga of beauty and art and explains the occult psychologies of koshas, skandhas, and chakras. His book incorporates original translations from the early Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutra (the entire text), the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and seminal tantric writings of the tenth-century Kashmiri Shaivite, Abhinava Gupta.

A remarkable exploration of yoga's conceptual legacy, Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth crystallizes ideas about self and reality that unite the many incarnations of yoga.

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

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. 


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.

Until the Lions

By Karthika Naïr,

Book cover of Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata

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).


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.

Yoga

By Mircea Eliade, Willard R. Trask (translator),

Book cover of Yoga: Immortality and Freedom

This book provides a historical overview of yoga philosophy and psychology and is a great introduction to the study of yoga. It was originally written in French by Mircea Eliade, who became the dean of Religious Studies all over the world, for decades training graduate students at the University of Chicago. The book is now a little dated on certain topics such as tantra and the yogic practices of Buddhism. Nevertheless, it stands as the preëminent classic in the field of yoga studies. It has a bouncy but elegant style and has been a favorite in the courses I have taught on yoga at the University of Texas at Austin.

While a student in India in his early twenties, Eliade had an affair with the daughter of his Sanskrit teacher, the renowned and august scholar, Surendranath Dasgupta. There is apparently a novel by Eliade in Romanian about this and another…


Who am I?

As a professional sanskritist and academic, I have travelled to India well more than twenty times, for fellowships, conferences, and (fortunately) months of study with a traditional Sanskrit pundit, the great N.S. Ramanuja Tatacharya. But my first trip was when I was twenty, dropping out of college and travelling from a kibbutz in Israel to India (overland no less, after a flight from Tel Aviv to Istanbul in 1971) where I was graciously admitted into a yoga-ashram school. There I began learning Sanskrit as well as various yoga techniques. I stayed that time for two years. “All life is yoga,” says Sri Aurobindo, and I have long wished my life to be that since “yoga” is for me practically a synonym for “right living.”


I wrote...

Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy

By Stephen H. Phillips,

Book cover of Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy

What is my book about?

In discussing yoga's fundamental commitments, Phillips explores traditional teachings of hatha yoga, karma yoga, bhakti yoga, and tantra, and shows how such core concepts as self-monitoring consciousness, karma, non-harmfulness (ahimsa), reincarnation, and the powers of consciousness relate to modern practice. He outlines values implicit in bhakti yoga and the tantric yoga of beauty and art and explains the occult psychologies of koshas, skandhas, and chakras. His book incorporates original translations from the early Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutra (the entire text), the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and seminal tantric writings of the tenth-century Kashmiri Shaivite, Abhinava Gupta.

A remarkable exploration of yoga's conceptual legacy, Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth crystallizes ideas about self and reality that unite the many incarnations of yoga.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

By Sri Swami Satchidananda,

Book cover of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

We cannot understand what yoga is without studying The Yoga Sutras. The Sutras are the first documented text of yoga that describes how the mind works and how it gets in our way of seeing clearly. The Sutras tell us how to alter our thought patterns so we connect to the moment, see what’s really happening, and suffer less. They are the manual for the study and practice of yoga — ancient but still useful, concentrated, and meditative. They are a resource I come back to again and again and feel like an advice column from somewhere celestial. I’m partial to this translation because it was used in my teacher training, and after reading others, I find it the most down-to-earth while still honoring the tradition.


Who am I?

The physical practice of yoga transformed my relationship to my body, but the philosophy of yoga changed my life. When I began to study the Sutras, my mind became calmer; I had a greater capacity to listen and be patient in my relationships, and my quality of life improved. As I studied philosophy more, my perspective shifted from lack and blame to abundance and self-awareness. Knowing there is more to yoga than just the physical practice, I find it important to honor the tradition the way it was intended: as a whole system for the mind, body, and spirit to reduce the suffering of all beings.


I wrote...

YOGA's YAMAS and NIYAMAS: 10 Principles for Peace & Purpose

By Courtney Seiberling,

Book cover of YOGA's YAMAS and NIYAMAS: 10 Principles for Peace & Purpose

What is my book about?

The Yamas and Niyamas are yoga's ethical principles about how to treat others and how to take care of ourselves. In the West, yoga is known as a form of exercise, but the Yoga Sutras explain it as a system to manage the mind using the Yamas and Niyamas, breathwork, postures, and various stages of meditation. My book explains each Yama and Niyama in a relatable way and then offers a physical practice, consideration, mantra, journal prompt, and personal account of how I applied each one to real life.

Mahabharata

By Carole Satyamurti,

Book cover of Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling

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. 


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 Palace of Illusions

By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni,

Book cover of The Palace of Illusions

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.


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.

Maya

By C.W. Huntington Jr.,

Book cover of Maya: A Novel

Sometimes fiction speaks truer than facts. This adventure set in India in the 1970s brings to life what it means to balance yogic ideas with a Western mindset. It's a mixture of hippie idealism, academic disillusionment, and searches for meaning as things fall apart. Beautifully written and wise, it evokes the common ground between yoga and Buddhism—particularly on causes of suffering and how to transcend it. 


Who am I?

I've been studying yoga in various forms since my first trip to India in the 1990s. I began as a curious tourist, attending the world's biggest human gathering (the Kumbh Mela). After working as a foreign correspondent—initially for Reuters then The New York Times—I returned to university, earning a master's degree in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation. I've since taught courses at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, on yoga teacher trainings, and via my website. The Truth of Yoga is the book I wish I'd found when I started exploring.


I wrote...

The Truth of Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide to Yoga's History, Texts, Philosophy, and Practices

By Daniel Simpson,

Book cover of The Truth of Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide to Yoga's History, Texts, Philosophy, and Practices

What is my book about?

Yoga is globally popular, but also often misunderstood. For example, the word “yoga” does not always mean union. In fact, in perhaps the discipline’s most famous text—the Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali—its aim is described as separation: isolating consciousness from everything else. And yoga is not five thousand years old, as is commonly claimed; the earliest evidence of systematic practice dates back about twenty-five hundred years. The Truth of Yoga is a clear, concise, and accessible guide to how yoga evolved. Combining scholarly knowledge with quotations from texts, it highlights ways to keep traditions alive in the twenty-first century.

Translating Wisdom

By Shankar Nair,

Book cover of Translating Wisdom

The findings in this book have opened my eyes to a truly unique moment in the history of cross-cultural translation and non-Western philosophy by showing how pre-modern Indian metaphysical teachings in Sanskrit were refashioned by the Persian Sufi philosophical tradition in early modern South Asia. I particularly recommend Translating Wisdom because it clearly points to an alternative quest for wisdom for those who wish to escape the stranglehold of Anglo-American and European epistemic systems.


Who am I?

I am a Professor of Islamic Thought and Global Philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Perpetually drawn to ideas and concepts that seek to explain the underlying nature of things, I predictably read and write books on such topics as consciousness, self-awareness, mysticism, God, philosophy of religion, metaphysical poetry, and virtue ethics. The titles listed here are in my own area of expertise (Sufi philosophy). Intellectually rigorous and spiritually informed, they each represent perfect points of entry into Sufism, which is an ocean without a shore.  


I wrote...

The Essence of Reality: A Defense of Philosophical Sufism

By Ayn al-Quḍāt, Mohammed Rustom (translator),

Book cover of The Essence of Reality: A Defense of Philosophical Sufism

What is my book about?

The Essence of Reality was written over the course of just three days in 1120 by a scholar who was twenty-four years old. The text, like its author ‘Ayn al-Qudat, is remarkable for many reasons, not least of which is that it is the earliest philosophical exposition of mysticism in the Islamic intellectual tradition and by far one of the most cogently argued cases for mystical knowledge in world literature. In conversation with the work of the philosophers Avicenna and al-Ghazali, the book takes readers on a philosophical journey, with lucid expositions of the flux-like nature of existence, the meaning of divine presence, the spiritual path, and how the awakened Sufi philosopher transcends conventional ways of knowing and being.

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