Reader's Digest Condensed Books Presents...
April 7, 2005 11:59 AM   Subscribe

My book club wants to read the Ramayana and Mahabharatha. What's a good condensed english translation?

Price is important, but so is striking the right balance between brevity and detail. We're all rather busy, so we try to go for shorter works. We're planning on reading the Ramayana one month and the Mahabharatha the next. We're in Ohio.

Here's one, which has the benefit of being $8 and 352 pages.

I see the Mahabharata on Gutenberg in many forms -- do any fit my criteria? The Wikipedia links above connect to several more online copies, are any of these great?

Any other versions, in print or online, that you'd recommend? I don't think I can tackle the whole Mahabharatha right now - is there even a single authoritative version?
posted by sohcahtoa to Writing & Language (15 answers total)
I've read the Rajagopalachari version of Mahabharata and found it pretty entertaining. If nothing else, pick this one. It's 440 pages and Powell's is selling it for 6 bucks at Amazon.
posted by Gyan at 12:11 PM on April 7, 2005

This comic was how I was originally introduced to the story as a child. The books are a bit dense, and a "cheat sheet" like the comic can help understand the basics of the story before delving into the philosophic aspects of Rama.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 12:11 PM on April 7, 2005

I'm no scholar of these mighty works, but I LOVED the highly-regarded William Buck translations/abridgments just as fantastic reads. In fact, they're two of my all-time favorite books in any genre.

Buck is a "mysterious figure who died almost immediately after translating two ancient texts..." For some reason, this little factoid has always added to my appreciation of these great books.
posted by dpcoffin at 12:26 PM on April 7, 2005

Narayan's Ramayana is generally considered to be the strongest translation, I think.
Anyone interested in information on the debates, and why there isn't really one authoritative Ramayana telling, should check out:
Many Ramayanas and Questioning Ramayanas . These are both edited by Paula Richman who is one of the leading Western experts on the Ramayana, and happens tobe based in Ohio (like you).

I've heard the comics highly recommended. There's also an Indian TV soap version of the Mahabharata that was broadcast, although I believe it went on for years so probably wouldn't suit your bookgroup....
posted by cushie at 12:55 PM on April 7, 2005

I was going to post a Mahabharata edition question some time in the future, but I suppose people who have answers for this question might be able to answer mine. What about completed unabridged translations? Is the only one available Kisari Mohan Ganguly's? Not that I'd use the one at (I prefer reading out of a book and would use my university's library). I also know there's also the Van Buitenen et al. translation, but that doesn't seem to be completed. Any others I'm unaware of?

Sorry to hijack the question, but I'm also interested in the answers concerning the abridged versions. And good username, sohcahtoa. Takes me back to math class in high school.
posted by Gnatcho at 1:04 PM on April 7, 2005

I'll have to check when I get home and post again later, but my copy of the Ramayana is about 7" tall and bright pink.

Oh gosh, what did I just say? It is 7" and pink, I swear! Like, hot pink, with disguised Ravana approaching Sita on the cover (at least I think it's them, and not nursemaid Manthara poisoning the ear of Queen Kaikeyi). Some university press, I think.

What an unhelpful AskMe answer. I'll follow up with the details. It's an enjoyable translation of one of humankind's greatest stories. I hope your book club gets as much out of it as I have (an abiding understanding of true love, that is, plus an appreciation for the world's idiosyncrasies and synchronicities, not to mention a knowledge of dragon-people and their habits).

Seven inches and pink. Sheesh.
posted by breezeway at 1:14 PM on April 7, 2005

The versions told by Krishna Dharma are great, though not exactly condensed (i.e. the Mahabharata is about 1000 pages, but really easy to read, and very, very entertaining, the same with his Ramayana)

I would get those. One Amazon reviewer says "His talented story-telling has made the usually choppy, stilted versions written by people for whom English is a second language look like amateur works. This retelling of Mahabharata is so enthralling, it is hard to put it down!", and I couldn't have said it better.
posted by Quartermass at 1:45 PM on April 7, 2005

A complaint about the Krishna Dharma version at Amazon, is that the suspense and thrill is taken out. Like another reviewer says, "However, Dharma himself admits that this is no scholarly translation. I recommend that you also read other abridgements as well to get a full scope of the story. While the action in this version is well articulated, some of the inbetween discussions and descriptions seem to be a bit drawn-out. I say this in comparison with other versions. For instance, absolutely way too much forshadowing is given. The entire plot of the story is blatantly given away repeatedly. "This will happen." And it does.".

What's your take on this, Quartermass?
posted by Gyan at 1:52 PM on April 7, 2005

Another vote for the Amar Chitra Katha comic books. They are actually fairly scholarly. Apparently, they have a 42 issue retelling of the Mahabharata that they've reprinted in hardcover.

According to the Times of India, someone is even doing a thesis on them.
posted by QIbHom at 2:16 PM on April 7, 2005

What's your take on this, Quartermass?

I read that too, and I thought that this reviewer had a point (to an extent), but I didn't notice it when I was reading it. I think it is kind of an exaggeration.

That being said, the Dharma version Mahabharata is the only version I have read, so I have never compared it to other versions, but I found it enthralling, and wanted to re-read it as soon as I was finished, which is the strongest recommendation I can give.
posted by Quartermass at 2:59 PM on April 7, 2005

Narayan's Ramayana (linked above) is the one I remember reading. I liked it but I am glad that it's not my only exposure to the Ramayana. It is short enough that it could be coupled with the comics mentioned for a more satisfying Ramayana reading experience. I don't know if there are any Ramayana texts that come with notes on alternate versions but that would be cool if there was. I find it interesting to learn a little bit about the differences in versions from various religions and countries.
posted by PY at 5:05 PM on April 7, 2005

However, Dharma himself admits that this is no scholarly translation.

Is there even a close to complete non-scholarly one? What there is of the van Buitenen/University of Chicago translation is well over a thousand pages and that's supposedly only a small piece of the whole thing. Aren't these other English Mahabharatha translations just selective retellings?
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 6:26 PM on April 7, 2005

That came out kind of snotty. I really didn't mean it to be.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 6:28 PM on April 7, 2005

The hot pink, 7" Ramayana I remembered is the William Buck version, University of California Press. And it's Manthara and Kaikeyi on the cover. Sorry for the memory lapse.

It's beautiful and true.
posted by breezeway at 6:53 AM on April 8, 2005

Thanks, all of you, for the advice and links
posted by sohcahtoa at 7:01 AM on April 10, 2005

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