On reading the Mahabharata

In February I started reading the Mahābhārata, from the beginning, in English translation. Although I have long been familiar with the story and have enjoyed the Hindi TV version and extracts in Sanskrit and English, I decided it was time I got to know the text better in its entirety. Since it is roughly four times as long as the Bible, this is an endeavor that will take me some time. However, I have made a good start, just having finished Book 5.

There are, broadly speaking, three translations of the Mahābhārata available, though two of these are incomplete. The only complete translation is that of Kisari Mohan Ganguli (originally 12 vols, 1884-99, reprinted later in 3 vols), and this is based on the so-called ‘vulgate’ edition on which Nīlakaṇṭha wrote a commentary in the seventeenth-century. The Clay Sanskrit Library (CSL) version, which is also based on the vulgate, contains Books 2 and 3, part of Book 4, Books 5 and 6, the first half of Book 7, Books 8 to 11, and part of Book 12, by various translators. The University of Chicago Press series, which includes Books 1 to 5 translated by J.A.B. van Buitenen (3 vols, 1973-78) and Book 11 and the first part of Book 12 translated by James Fitzgerald (2003), is based on the Critical Edition. In addition to these, there are a few translations of individual sections, most notably of course the Bhagavad Gītā, which forms part of Book 6 and has been translated numerous times, and Will Johnson’s translation of Book 10 (OUP, 1998).

I have begun with van Buitenen’s three volumes, and very much enjoyed his style. Although he sometimes makes an odd vocabulary choice – his translation of kṣatriya as ‘baron’ has been widely commented on, and I found myself grinning each time he described someone as a ‘nitwit’ – the overall effect is of a very readable text. My next steps are less easy, and so I have made myself a little summary of the options available for each book. In case anyone else out there wants to take themselves on a similar tour of the great epic, I provide the list here:

1. Ādi Parvan (Book of the Beginning)

Van Buitenen vol. 1

2. Sabhā Parvan (Book of the Assembly Hall)

Van Buitenen vol. 2

(Alternative: Wilmot in CSL)

3. Vana Parvan / Araṇyaka Parvan (Book of the Forest)

Van Buitenen vol. 2

(Alternative for part 4: Johnson in CSL)

4. Virāṭa Parvan (Book of Virāṭa)

Van Buitenen vol. 3

(Alternative: Garbutt in CSL)

5. Udyoga Parvan (Book of the Effort)

Van Buitenen vol. 3

(Alternative: Garbutt, 2 vols, in CSL)

6. Bhīṣma Parvan (Book of Bhīṣma)

Cherniak, 2 vols, in CSL

7. Droṇa Parvan (Book of Droṇa)


(Alternative: parts 1 & 2 of four, Pilikian in CSL)

8. Karṇa Parvan (Book of Karṇa)

Bowles, 2 vols, in CSL

9. Śalya Parvan (Book of Śalya)

Meiland, 2 vols, in CSL

10. Sauptika Parvan (Book of Sleeping Warriors)

Johnson for OUP

(Alternative: Crosby in CSL)

11. Strī Parvan (Book of the Women)

Fitzgerald vol. 1

(Alternative: Crosby in CSL)

12. Śānti Parvan (Book of Peace)

part 1: Fitzgerald vol. 1

remainder: Ganguli

(Alternative for part 3 of 5: Wynne in CSL)

13. Anuśāsana Parvan (Book of Instructions)


14. Aśvamedhika Parvan (Book of the Horse Sacrifice)


15. Āśramavāsika Parvan (Book of Hermitage-Dwelling)


16. Mausala Parvan (Book of the Clubs)


17. Mahāprasthānika Parvan (Book of the Great Departure)


18. Svārgārohaṇa Parvan (Book of the Ascent to Heaven)



About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
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5 Responses to On reading the Mahabharata

  1. Nancy Gandhi says:

    What a coincidence! A few months ago I also began a project to read the entire Mahabharata. I’m just finishing The Book of the Effort (U. of Chicago), and am about to continue with the CSL translations. I also love the word ‘nitwit’, and van Buitenan’s introductions, and readable translations. I look forward to reading more about your progress.

    • Great to hear of another person trying the same! I found the war books pretty hard going, and am now somewhere near the end (I hope!) of the Shanti Parvan, which just goes on forever… I think I am on the home straight now!
      I found most of the CSL volumes good, and certainly enjoyed their portability. All credit to Ganguli for actually doing the whole thing, but I find reading his translations much harder. If only the Chicago series would expand!
      Anyhow, best of luck!

  2. Naomi,
    I own the van Buitenen books, and am reprinting the Ganguli translation on Create Space.
    There are four volumes currently available, one more in review, and I’m working on Book Six (The Book Of Bhishma) now. My edition will have almost 300 full page illustrations from a Hindi translation of the book:
    I am working on cleaning up Ganguli’s language a bit. If you don’t know the meaning of “welkin”, “horripliated”, or “ecomniasts” my version doesn’t require you to. I’ve also changed “eth” words like “behoveth” to “behooves”, etc. I have not changed “kshatriya” to “baron”.
    It’s quite a project but I’m enjoying it.

    • Thanks for sharing this – it sounds like a very worthwhile project, especially while we await the other volumes of what van Buitenen started… I am now a mere 450 pages from the end of Ganguli, and have got used to his style a little more. The (free electronic) edition I have is riddled with typos, though, which doesn’t help. I’m sure your edition will be a great improvement.

      • Naomi,

        I’m using the free Project Gutenberg version as the basis for my text and I’m fixing variant spellings and typos as I find them. There are a few places where there should be a word and all there is is “eth”. I guess what word is missing. Generally it is apparent from the context what should be there. I have done transcribing for PG myself and their policy is to faithfully reproduce variant spellings. The typos might have been in the original books too. On a project this huge they could have snuck in.

        I’m not a Sanskrit scholar but I do have three years in the Hare Krishna movement thirty years ago to recommend me. I’m currently working on Book Six which has some 450 footnotes. I’m finally getting a chance to read the Bhagavad Gita in context.

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