Which is the best Mahabharata book to read? For this vast epic with mammoth popularity followed by overwhelming reading choices, this is an often asked question. Hence, here is a compilation of various handpicked titles from seven different genres or categories.
Enjoy the list & take your pick!
Mahabharata Books & the Problem of Plenty
There is no Indian individual who’d hear the word Mahabharata for the first time. And then, there is no Indian individual who’d know of all the variations-retelling-transcreations-translations of Mahabharata that ever existed.
For the epic which has been a part of traditions like Shruti & Smriti, multiple variation beings written with authors’ perspective is all obvious. And due to this reason, none of the existing text can have a verbatim attribution to Jaya (earliest name of the epic). And this again led to the myriad options lying before readers with an obvious question – which Mahabharata should I read or which is the best book available? Hence, I compiled a list with reviews of those which is a worthy read within given category.
Read on …
Complete,Unabridged & Reference Edition
An Introduction :
What is found everywhere will be found here too, and what is to be not found in this book cannot be found anywhere else …
Above is the very notion that is ascribed with the tale of Mahabharata itself. This also goes true with such types of editions, reading which is nothing but a scriptural marathon. Whereas there is a glut of abridged editions available everywhere, their unabridged counterparts are quite numbered. Hence, I’ve included all the famous works on the list. These may well be considered as a reference or library material which draws the attention of serious readers or researchers.
Mammoth, exhaustive and unquestionable – Peace!
1. Pune Edition or BORI Edition or Critical Edition
Title : Pune Edition or BORI Edition
Author : Board of Scholars
Language : Sanskrit
Publisher : Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute
A pioneering effort produced by the various board of scholars which is now an ultimate and most authoritative source of reference related to the epic. Inclusive of Harivamsha (in later years), this is now a final destination for various scholars, authors, and researchers related to scripture. As an endeavor of Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), saying this a Mother Edition will not be an overstatement. This particular edition includes everything that has been found in the manuscripts and vintage writings but hearsays don’t find any space (for e.g. Draupadi being disrobed after the game of dice and Krishna playing savior finds no mention). Hence, the critical edition is deprived of few interpolations which got added over the centuries as its feature. But, it is indeed attributed as a master edition from where many modern retelling and transcreation draws it umbilical cord with.
Full text can be accessed here
2. The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa by Kisari Mohan Ganguli (18 Vols)
Title : The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa Translated into English Prose
Author : Kisari Mohan Ganguli
Language : English
Publisher : Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Buy From : AmazonIN | AmazonUS
Monumental piece of work in the history of Indian literature (and world literature also) which by all means qualifies as a national treasure. Also known as P C Roy’s Mahabharata till few decades ago, this has been a pioneering effort which has neither been paralleled nor been bettered. Apart from BORI/PUNE edition, this also serves as a reference material for many translations or retellings for many of the contemporary releases today. Kisari Mohan Ganguly now lives as a name for the achievement and contribution to the epic. The language may seem to be archaic at few places as it dates back to nineteenth century, but speaks volumes of Ganguly’s scholastic brilliance and the way each parvas have been dealt with great detail. Truly a vintage classic.
The work is now in public domain & Complete Text PDF can be downloaded here …
3. The Mahabharata by Bibek Debroy (10 Vols)
Will begin with a salute to Bengal! What Vaishampayana did to Vyasa back then in Dwapar Yug (telling it to Janmejaya and then bringing Mahabharata to the knowledge of common people) is what Kisari Mohan Ganguli, P Lal & Manmath Nath Dutt did it in Kaliyug by bringing Mahabharata to masses with all the herculean effort involved. Continuing the contribution of his literary predecessors from the same land, Bibek Debroy is yet another Mahabharata transcreater (translator will be un understatement) with distinction who has done a commendable job by making BORI edition readable to common people. Extended to 10 splendid volumes, this particular edition will always sit in Top 10 list of any popular Mahabharata compilation. A collector’s delight with never-let-you-down content, this again is a Magnum Opus in itself!
Read the complete review at Mahabharata.info
4. The Complete Mahabharata by Ramesh Menon (12 Vol)
For all those resentments colligated with K M Ganguli’s version with archaic English as discerning fact for modern readers, Ramesh Menon (with a pool of authors) has simplified the text to the starters comfort with great magnanimity. Hence, it is a direct derivative or transcreation of Ganguli’s work to make an easy read keeping contemporary readership in mind. I’ll just produce a small comparison while leaving it on readers to pick their own preference.
Ganguli’s Text : Om! Having bowed down to Narayana and Nara, the most exalted male being, and also to the goddess Saraswati, must the word Jaya be uttered.
Menon’s Text : Aum! I bow down to Narayana and Nara, the most exalted Purusha, and to the Devi Saraswati, and utter the word Jaya.
So, apart from simplified English, few words have also been reverted to Sanskrit which may interest Indian readers whom author presumes might be well aware of its meaning.
5. Mahabharata from Gita Press (6 Vols.)
Title : Mahabharat
Author : Shri Ramnarayandutt Shastri Pandey
Language : Sanskrit-Hindi
Publisher : Gita Press
Buy From : GitaPressBookShop
No scriptural compilation or reference can be complete without the one from stable of Gita Press. This is the only version in my knowledge which imbibes Neelkhanth Chaturdhar’s commentary in majority, some southern influences and few lent from BORI edition making it fuller text overcoming the stated discrepancies of each. Precisely speaking, the corpus contains more than a lac Shlokas comprising 86600 North Indian commentaries, 6584 Southern recension & 7032 ‘uvachas’ with Hindi translation (verse by verse) of the same.
Note: More references for serious readers & Mahabharata enthusiasts can be found here
Comprehensive or Multi-Volume Edition
An Introduction: Given that Mahabharata is a mammoth epic, confining them to a single volume of work is next to impossible. And for those who don’t want to miss a word or event, multi-volume editions are the way to go for. Majority of them indeed are abridged works albeit it gives author enough ink and paper to pen them all.
6. Sankshipt Mahabharat from Gita Press
Title : Sankshipt Mahabharat (2 Volumes)
Author : –
Language : Hindi
Publisher : Gita Press
Buy From : GitaPressBookShop
Going through them makes you feel like as if grandparents are telling the tale in Technicolor (for the simple language it adheres to with little or no literary embellishments)! For those who may take its 6 Vol counterpart by the same publisher bulky and limited for scholastic reference, this might come as a good story teller with most of the events inked in this Sankshipt edition. Gita Press books are also known for its offerings with cheapest price tag & this again makes it irresistible to have one (2 mega hardbound volumes for the price its comes for is more than a philanthropic activity than book selling business). But don’t expect any literary embellishments or the tone of modern retellings. They are simple and within the premises typical of Hindu wisdom. Still, highly recommended!
7. Mahabharata – A Modern Rendering by Ramesh Menon
I simply ordered this because it appeared into the search results with convincing introductory lines – and a flat 50% discount! And it was worth every penny when I leafed through the pages. An English equivalent to Gita Press’ two volume sets, Ramesh Menon’s work draws its inspiration from Kamala Subramaniyam and Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s texts. Again, a must have edition for who can’t afford exhaustive version but also don’t want to compromise with super-condensed editions.
8. Mahasamar by Narendra Kohli
The greatest irony with the epic which originates from India is that there is very little or no work being written & published in Hindi which extends to multiple volumes. Though there are several works being penned as single book, but none ventured into as hefty as this one. Thus, Mahasamar is the only saving grace for Hindi lovers. And I too agree with the fact that it is Hindi (along with few other Indian languages) which does full justice to the Sanskrit translation and come closest to the essences soaked in original prose. Initially published in 8 Volumes, the new Silver Jubilee edition also packs a bonus addition named ‘Anushangik’ dealing with contradictions and inconsistencies eclipsing the epic. A very interesting revelations and rational thoughts are poured in 9th volume which has also baffled me at times (like how Shantanu who was neither a sage nor mystique can grant a boon of death-by-will to his son, why Kunti would ask distributing the daily bhiksha to her sons leading to Draupadi’s marriage with each, etc). A Collectible that is worth it!
*Mahasamar though spans upto 8-9 Volumes, I’ve chosen to shift it in multivolume edition than unabridged or comprehensive edition.
Beginner, Introductory & Abridged Edition
An Introduction : While multi volume may be a bulky read to do with and varying degree of patience in each reader may be a discerning fact, abridged editions are to the rescue. They are not authoritative by any means, but many a time would satiate the curiosity of first time readers or serve as an introductory text to the realm of great Indian epic.
9. Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik
Was an instant bestseller when released and continues to be! Unconventional style of storytelling, anecdotal snippets & spellbinding sketches are the prominent USPs of this masterpiece. Though it pronounces itself an illustrated version, I chose to shift this in this category for two reasons – it is moderately illustrated and you have to read it for yourself to know the story where visuals are just interestingly complementary. If I have to pick only top five from the any best Mahabharata books list, this will certainly be one of them!
10. The Mahabharata (Penguin Classics) by John D Smith
A highly acclaimed work popular with both eastern and western readers. Mahabharata though is an eastern classic but have found similar interest and enthusiasm among western counterparts. Thus there are many brilliant works from other hemisphere too. Though concise in approach, J D Smith’s edition remains faithful to original text and footnotes with many events & narration are added bliss. A modern classic in mythological domain!
11. Mahabharata by C Rajagopalachari
A concise classic written by a statesman adhering to the general plot. Very basic in treatment but is mostly recommended to the one who will be reading the epic for first time. Rajaji’s other title like Ramayan & Bhagwad Geeta completes the tri-series which is more than enough to introduce anybody into the arena of this great epic with global readership.
12. Bal Mahabharat Katha from NCERT
Title : Bal Mahaharat Katha
Author : –
Language : Hindi
Publisher : NCERT
Yes, it’s a text book!
The simplicity it adheres to and the elementary highlights with which the story goes makes it a worthy mention here. Coming from the press of NCERT, this is the cheapest yet simplest variant of Mahabharata that money could buy.
Download NCERT Mahabharata Ebook from here
13. Mahabharat by Suryakant Tripathi Nirala
An edition of Mahabharata that comes from the golden era of Hindi literature. The storyline though may seem to be generic, but is a breeze to read as it comes from the pen of a literary giant who is one of the most revered faces of Hindi literature.
14. Mahabharat by Kamala Subramaniam
This retains the spirit and atmosphere of the epic by all possible means. The author also takes the liberty of her own embellishments (by free translation than direct) to bestow dramatic intensity or flow wherever needed but again tries to remain faithful to the original text as much as possible. While many of the acclaimed editions are plagued with literal translation which takes away the essence of Sanskritized emotions, Kamala Subramaniam takes this to her account very seriously. Hence, she leaves it as it is. For e.g. if a woman is to be referred as ‘Madagajgaamini’ then literal translations like ‘O woman with the gait of elephant in her rut’ may sound both theatrical and awkward. So, she would let Arjuna to be addressed as ‘Bhatarshabha’ than ‘O Bull of the Bharat Race’! Her language and flow are neither archaic nor too modern to take away the classical beauty. As for the content, the mini grandeur has first 9 parvas as separate chapters, and after Shalya Parva, they are all in a consolidated form. Kamala Subramaniyam is one of the best things that happened to Indian epics in modern times (in context of her readworthy trilogy of Ramayana, Srimad Bhagavatam & Mahabharata she penned down).
15. Mayamahal & Dharmyuddh (Mahabharat Katha) by Neelabh
Honestly put, I had very little expectation from it when it popped out while browsing through the ‘new release’ section of an online book store. But being a Mahabharata collector, I couldn’t resist it and ordered straight away without giving it a second thought as if my shelf was waiting for yet another worthy addition. Was still skeptical though. I was more than happy that my prejudices were minced apart when I leafed through the introductory pages. The only glitch is that the book is unnecessarily bifurcated into 2 volumes* though each one is acceptably slim (I don’t know if this was economics playing on behalf of its publisher or author did it for the sake of categorization – but the fact can be overlooked). This is not going to disappoint either first time readers or any other Mahabharata lover like me.
*have put it into this section than ‘Multivolume editon’ because of the stated reason.
Illustrated & Graphic Edition
An Introduction: They have their own inviting charm at any bookshelf and finds their readership with children and adults alike. Also a page turner with visual shots to reader’s delight, any graphic book or illustrated edition is potent story teller. Many titles here can also be referred as children edition.
16. Mahabharata (3 Vol) from Amar Chitra Katha
A masterpiece, a prized possession, a collector’s delight and above all, a racy visual odyssey with typical ACK flavor. Though a comic by genre, but will catch the fancy of adults too. The plot is very basic with ‘virtuous Pandvas & their evil siblings’ like approach, this tells the story in black and white than pushing children towards the gray shades of it. This the best a parent can buy for their children interested in epic which enjoys undisputable supremacy.
17. Mahabharata from Om Books International
Lustrous, vivid, rich & colorful will be the best word to define this book which comes in a coffee table format. Visually striking with loads of colors spilled over glossy pages with story going in parallel is the major attraction. Story again is very general but majority of illustrated editions have this never-mind limitation. If you are pondering over a gift related to the epic for someone, look no further than this!
18. Adi Parva – Churning of The Ocean by Amruta Patil
From waterproof binding to spellbinding hand-drawn graphics inside, this is an exotic piece by Amruta Patil. The illustrations are being done with modern brushes and a form of art that is visually striking. Adi Parva is a good starter if publisher/author/illustrator has any further plans for remaining Parva’s release. A keepsake indeed.
19. The Puffin Mahabharata by Namita Gokhale
What Jaya (by Devdutt Pattanaik) is to adults is Puffin Mahabharata is to children. But adults have an advantage to pick the both! Glistening content, colored pictures (by illustrator Suddhasattawa Basu.) & hardbound cover with bright yellow background will catch the interest of any children at the first sight itself willing to take a dip into this timeless epic. Spanning upto 200 pages, this endearing tale and presentation maybe called as an exhaustive treatment in children’s context. One of the best illustrated editions for children who’d like to take a plunge into the fascinating tale with complementary visuals. Parents, do them a favor – you both will be happy reading this!
Mahabharata with a Single Central Character or Perspective Retelling
An Introduction: Each character of Mahabharata have their own swarm of admirers. And these admirers would like to read & know more about their favorite hero (or anti-hero) of the epic. And there is no dearth of titles that comes dedicated to given individuals either. Many a time, they are nothing but Mahabharata being re-told with their lenses reserving the majority of events (both known and lesser known) to them only. This is also known as a point-of-view retelling and may have biased flavor depending upon author, character and the overall perspective taken to construct a mythical tapestry.
20. Mrityunjaya by Shivaji Sawant
One of the widely acclaimed book in its category and most respected among Karna admirers Mrityunjay is all about Karna tryst with his destiny. What makes this version unique against other one is the type of narration it sports. Sometime it is Shon (Karna’s brother) speaking for him, then Karna Himself, then Krishna and his wife Vrushali too. Each speaks of the event where they have been a central character and narrates the story of Karna being a sutradhar.
21. The Great Golden Sacrifice of the Mahabharata by Maggi Lidchi-Grassi
Arjuna, one of the most admired characters of Mahabharata takes up the narration here. Being a sutradhara, he begins with childhood and takes up the journey till the end. The book is divided into 3 major parts, each relating to his different but discrete phases of life. Bulky, exhaustive but elevating, ‘Great Golden Sacrifice of the Mahabharata’ steals the show as Mahabharata retold.
22. The Palace of Illusion by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Popular but not perfect, though one of its kind. Written and based on Draupadi’s dwelling with destiny, The Palace of Illusion has feminist tone questioning various instances which has been unfair to her. Passive questions raised within the book many a time will invite you to read them once again and this is where the author excels as a storyteller. This also went on becoming international bestseller.
23. Bhima – Lone Warrior by M T Vasudevan Nair
A remarkable and very much acknowledged work from South, ‘Bhima – Lone Warrior’ is a story of Mahabharata from one of the most loved character from the epic – the mighty Bhima. The story unfolds with Swargarohan Parva (Mahaprasthanam) where incidents are told in the flashback. Those characters which might have got ignored in the original text meet full justice here (not sure if that is retelling or researched work). A book not to be missed, especially Bhima admirers.
24. Urubhanga or Urubhangam by Bhas
A mythological piece of work that belongs to classical era. This I remember as the only play or work of literature in olden times that sees a villain (Duryodhana) with humility and projects it as the protagonist. I consider it as a precursor of modern writing which has now started to take up with evil counterparts with human qualities and heroic deeds. A re-imagined version of Mahabharata which is seeing an upward trend now.
The book is also available as Bhasa’s omnibus under Penguin Classics – The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays.
25. Yajnaseni (Draupadi) by Pratibha Ray
Pratibha Ray has written it with great audacity which is a mythological biography of Mahabharata’s most enigmatic character – Draupadi (Yajnaseni). This also deals with a Karna, Arjuna, Yudhisthira, Krishna etc with feminist but honest pen voicing a predicament of woman and the afflictions she underwent. The sacrifices of a vulnerable queen and the eventual hardships she met despite of having a supernatural birth (born from fire, thus Yajnaseni) sees a vivid portrayal in this unputdownable work.
Inspirations, Adaptations & Essays
An Introduction: They won’t tell you the story of the epic right from Adi Parva to Swargarohan Parva but will take the teachings or essence of Mahabharata as their foundation. Simply put, such books can be formally called as it-relates-to-Mahabharata types. Many a time, they are critical analysis over logical background or plain essays.
26. The Difficulty of Being Good by Gurcharan Das
Widely acclaimed piece of Gurcharan Das who has authored many other books based on India with this being his maiden venture into a writing which inherits essence of Mythology with practical aspects. The central theme of the whole book banks upon the practice of Dharma where Yudhisthira is mostly quoted as a cardinal figure. To each his own, Dharma is moreover explained as a matter of subjective treatment with entities left to ponder over the same.
27. Parva by S L Bhyrappa
One of the most celebrated writers hailing from south, Bhyrappa gives an anthropological & sociological treatment to the epic. Told in new light with vivid portrayal of each, the novel examines the lives of central characters as social mortals. A must read for Mahabharata enthusiasts.
*it is more than an introductory read, hence, I haven’t put it in beginner or abridged section.
28. Yuganta – The End of an Epoch by Irawati Karve
While her contemporaries were still busy writing Mahabharata as an epic (both abridged or unabridged), Irawati Karve penned a distinct piece which still remains one of the finest work written over the epic. Touted as one of the most celebrated book on Mahabharata, Yuganta is a logical (and perhaps rational too) approach to deal with different key characters in epic with their merits and morals. Mini book with major message.
29. Rashmi Rathi & Kurukshetra by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar
Apart from his various exemplary works and literary creations, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar is best remembered for his epic poems Rashmi Rathi (based on Karna’s life) & Kurukshetra (war & its mayhem). These titles remain one of the most famous works of Hindi language, let alone Mahabharata. Sits proudly on Hindi shelves.
30. The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor
Of all his works, this for me remains his best literary masterpiece so far. Tharoor, who is an eloquent orator, great writer (and could have become a good statesman too, but …) induces an out of the box treatment to the mythological tale. A recast of epic characters meeting modern India faces that hails from a period of Indian uprising (and thereafter) is both interesting and entertaining. A work of genius who successfully drags wisdom & mythology into the court of satire. This 20th century Mahabharata can’t be missed. Simply put, Tharoor lets the epic marry Indian political history.
31. Locks, Mahabharata and Mathematics – An Exploration of Unexpected Parallels by V Raghunathan
An interesting book which tries to draw parallel between three topics which are radically different from each other. For example, author talks about Rajasthani padlocks which has a feature of opening only when all the FIVE keys are available (a measure to manage joint family’s treasury with no one taking over other), then he discusses FIVE Pandavas whose strength lied in their unity and their triumph would have been next to impossible if anyone went missing. In terms of Mathematics, he goes on explaining 5 simultaneous equations in context of her marital rights observed with each Pandavas separately. Few assertions made by the author may sound too farfetched for a reader, but then again, it is both the pros and con of the book at the same time! This book is an out of the box treatment to the source of classic wisdom.
32. Vyasparva by Durga Bhagwat
Yet another Marathi Classic which was later translated to Hindi and other languages, Vyasparva by Durga Bhagwat is also a recipient of Jnanpeeth award. A collection of essays and her studies based on Mahabharata, Vyasparva is yet another critical dissection of the epic after Yuganta by Irawati Karve.
Incomplete but Famous Edition
An Introduction: Incomplete but famous or vice versa – both is true with them. These are works that were going great but was terminated due to many unfortunate reasons. Since Mahabharata is a story so vast, even a part of it, that too with great literary effort and accuracy is worth going through it. They may be incomplete, but still enjoys the supremacy of popular impressions.
33. Mahabharata (15 Vol. Set) from Clay Sanskrit Library
Primarily based on Neelkantha’s commentary, an otherwise excellent project never met its completion. Slated to span upto 32 exhaustive volumes, the project was unfortunately terminated when it reached almost half of its totality. Its major attraction is that renowned Sanskrit scholars & translators were deployed for the task. If completed, this could have been one of the most authoritative resources in the premises of unabridged translations.
34. Mahabharata by J.A.B. van Buitenen
Only a third could be completed by its writer. Later attempts were made to complete the project but still remain unfinished. I wonder if the modern efforts will keep up with scholarly & rigorous strokes that Buitenen did. One of the most famous and critically acclaimed translations of Mahabharata, this still sits as modern classic.
35. Krishnavatar by K M Munshi
Unfortunately truncated at seventh volume following the demise of author, Munshi Ji’s Krishnavatar is a great medley spun around various events of Mahabharata revolving around Krishna. Incomplete when taken as a collective work, but each volume tells the discrete story which won’t let readers disappointed for absence of further volumes.
Worthy Mention (Other Good Reads)
Mahabharata by William Buck
Rise of Kali & Roll of the Dice (Duryodhana’s Mahabharat) by Anand Neelkanthan
The Mahabharata by Meera Uberoi
The Mahabharata by R K Narayan
Marvels and Mysteries of the Mahabharata by Abhijit Basu
The Mahabharata by Manmath Nath Dutt – A vintage edition which boasts of literal English translation from original Sanskrit text.
The Mahabharata of Vyasa (18 Vols) by P Lal – A transcreation of Mahabharata from Sanskrit.
End note :
1. This list will be perpetually edited & updated as and when required.
2. For the purpose of uniformity, while writing book info, the word ‘author’ has been used everywhere even though it may refer to a translator or a board of scholars. Similarly, the name of publishers may vary in some cases as few old editions were later picked by new publishing houses.
3. This Best Mahabharata Books review haven’t been written with any endorsement from publishers or authors alike. Above are the books that I personally own either in print or as an ebook (except few which has been sourced from online materials & references) & felt like sharing the best of them.
4. The compilation needs to justify the word BEST. Hence, I had to maintain the flavor which goes with ‘chosen one’ than ‘include all’ approach. For later, you can refer to Mahabharata Resources which maintains a good list of almost every known & discovered titles. I reiterate, this is not a COMPLETE LIST but the select one.
Share your favorite version in the comment section or do let me know if I’ve missed anything in this compilation.