William Buck’s retelling.

This was my introduction to the Mahabharata; I read it in the early 1980s and was enthralled. And I believe that it is still the best access to the story. Buck’s prose is lyrical and evocative. A surprising amount of the detail is intact, including all the best teaching stories and subplots, yet the action never flags. If it has a fault, it is that it comes off as too romantic, too whimsical. The hardcover edition has wonderful illustrations.

Mahabharata, by William Buck, University of California Press, 1973

Peter Brooks’ dramatic realization.

The production was originally staged in an abandoned quarry outside of Avignon, with a cast that included actors from 18 different countries. The cast stayed pretty much intact as the production moved around Europe, then to the states, then to Australia and India. Many of them learned English for the U.S. production. I saw it in three successive nights at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Majestic Theater, an enormous cavernous space that the action swelled to fill completely. It was the most magnificent and memorable theater I have experienced. The action at the BAM Majestic was filmed and edited into a six hour set of videotapes and a 3-hour movie that was released in the early '90's. I haven’t seen the movie, but the videotape is a little disappointing. Brook and Carrière were just barely able to get the story told in nine hours, and cutting another three hours leaves the finished product a little breathless; also, of course, the video box fails completely to capture the broad sweep of the action. Jean-Claude Carrière’s script reads well in English translation. If you’re accustomed to reading scripts, it might be better to start with this than with the shortened videotape or the mutilated movie.

The Mahabharata, by Jean-Claude Carrière, translated from the French by Peter Brook, Harper & Row, 1987

The Mahabharata, a Film by Peter Brook, in three parts - The Game of Dice, Exile in the Forest, The War - Parabola Video Library

Chakravarthi Narasimhan’s plot summary.

This is essentially a précis of the epic story. Wherever possible, Narasimhan has used the actual words of the Mahabharata to advance the story. And he has covered the main action of the story completely, in slightly mannered but graceful English prose, in a little more than 200 pages. But he has cut virtually everything tangential to the main action, leaving us with a story that feels a little too skeletal to carry its universal burden.

The Mahabharata, an English Version Based on Selected Verses, by Chakravarthi V. Narasimhan, Columbia University Press, 1965

J.A.B. van Buitenen’s translation.

Buitenen died before he was quite half-way through with his translation of the complete text of the epic. The three thick volumes he completed, along with his translation of the Bhagavad-gita, carry the story up to the very verge of the great war. As a translator, Buitenen is most concerned with accuracy and completeness of meaning, and the style is frequently mannered and awkward; Buitenen’s attempt to convey a sense of Sanskrit poetic meter in English blank verse fails miserably and consistently. But all of the lively, exotic detail is here, and the ebullience of the story comes through the syntactical pecadillos and grabs our attention. The best thing about Buitenen’s work is the critical apparatus - long, cogent and interesting introductions, to the work as a whole and to each of the six books that he made it through, and fascinating and detailed notes. (The notes to the first two books hold the most detail; toward the end, the magnitude of the task he had assumed must have overwhelmed van Buitenen, and the notes get skimpy.) It’s all a rich feast; my copies of the three volumes are dog-eared and falling apart from much reading, and it has all been for my pleasure and profit.

The Mahabharata, translated and edited by J.A.B. van Buitenen, The University of Chicago Press, three volumes, 1973-1977

A multitude of Bhagavad-gita translations.

The Bhagavad-Gita is the section of the Mahabharata in which Krishna and Arjuna take their chariot between the gathered armies and Krishna teaches Arjuna about action and release. It was the first part of the story to reach Westerners, it inspired Thoreau and Emerson among many others, and it has evoked hundreds of translations. There must be a couple dozen English translations, many of these currently in print. These three are the ones I like best.

Barbara Stoler Miller’s good introduction and afterword (about varied Western responses to the Bhagavad-Gita) and the glossary of key terms would make this a good book to have even if the translation weren’t very good. Miller’s translation is very good, but the breaking up of the words into vaguely rhythmic four-line stanzas seems more like a dissembling of prose than like poetry. Her consistent use of specific English words for Sanskrit terms (e.g. "duty" for dharma, "discipline" for yoga, "liberation" for moksa, etc.) is generally helpful to understanding, but you have to let your old meaning set go tentative and pick up the different meanings of the Sanskrit concept from the varying contexts in which the English word is used.

Eknath Easwaran simply adopts the Sanskrit terms into English. Easwaran’s own prose is naturally graceful, and his translation is mostly forceful and clear. Diana Morrison’s introductions to each chapter are sermonettes, annoyingly new age soft and fuzzy at the edges, but they are easy to ignore.

Buitenen’s translation of the Bhagavad-Gita was completed before he started in on the complete epic. The translation here is even closer to literal than it is in the longer work. The actual Sanskrit text, transliterated into Roman script, is presented on facing pages. The long introduction gets fiercely combatative about some pretty esoteric points of argument having to do with the role of the Bhagavad-Gita in the development of the Samkhya school of philosophy, and the notes are devoted to philological minutiae. All in all, a translation for scholars. To the extent that I have become something of a scholar myself, I have enjoyed this one.

The Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War, translated by Barbara Stoler Miller, Bantam Books, 1986

The Bhagavad-Gita, translated with a general introduction by Eknath Easwaran, with chapter introductions by Diana Morrison, Nilgiri Press, 1985

The Bhagavadgita in the Mahabharata, text & translation by J.A.B. van Buitenen, University of Chicago Press, 1981