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I know very little about Hinduism but was advised, based on doing a bit of research, to read the Mahabharata as a starting point.

I picked up the Penguin Classics version (approximately 900 pages) and I'm only about 20 pages in and feeling very confused.

There are so many names, historical places, customs and traditions already mentioned that I am having to research something every single line to understand as the Mahabharata isn't really self-contained.

Can anyone offer me advice on how to approach the book and perhaps what I should already know before going into reading it and perhaps any prior materials that I should study?

  • You should start with gita and brahma sutras, but with a commentary from an acharya. rather than mahabharata – Anubhav Jha Mar 31 '18 at 16:13
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    Since you have no background in Hinduism you need to start with a beginner's book. Then you can ramp up. Mahabharata is about the worst starting point. Read this answer: hinduism.stackexchange.com/questions/16692/… – Pradip Gangopadhyay Mar 31 '18 at 16:20
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    Nothing wrong in reading Mahabharata you but you can also read Ramayana which is relatively less complex and easily available online – Rakesh Joshi Mar 31 '18 at 17:01
  • @AnubhavJha whats there to read in brahma sutra bhashya ? How to criticize other sects ? – Rakesh Joshi Mar 31 '18 at 17:02
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    I agree with @Pradip Gangopadhyay that the Mahabharata is far too complicated for a beginner. Moreover it is not really any "introduction to Hinduism", being much more about politics and ethics than religion or devotion, although its central figure is a Great God. Some say Mahabharata should be read after the Ramayana. We who have been brought up with the great epics from childhood often don't understand how difficult and confusing they could appear to a non-Indian. If you are determined to read the Mahabharata then Wikipedia gives reliable information about the many characters and events. – English Student Mar 31 '18 at 17:06
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Extract from my own earlier comment under your question:

(...) the Mahabharata is far too complicated for a beginner. Moreover it is not really any "introduction to Hinduism", being much more about politics and ethics than religion or devotion, although its central figure is a Great God. Some say Mahabharata should be read after the Ramayana. We who have been brought up with the great epics from childhood often don't understand how difficult and confusing they could appear to a non-Indian.

The Mahabharata can be read multiple times in at least 3 layers, which in order of increasing complexity are:

Layer 1: the basic story line. Who is related to whom? What were the main events? What was the time sequence? What was the result? If you are determined to read the Mahabharata then Wikipedia gives reliable information about the many characters and events. The very famous Mahabharata by C.Rajagopalachari (around 450 pages in newer editions) also gives a clear, detailed and yet concise presentation that would be good to understand for a beginner.

Layer 2: this is the political and ethical reading. Once we are familiar with the events we can try to grasp the moral, ethical and real-world political dilemmas faced by the protagonists. The geopolitical tensions of Ancient India are fascinating. Even more fascinating and poignant is the constant struggle of most of the major characters to "do the right thing", and their frequent failure to rise up to their own very high expectations of "right thought and right action."

We can try to put ourself in the place of the main characters and try to understand their motivations, also attempt to apply the prevailing moral code or Dharma as they would have done, so we can see how the code was either upheld or broken in each incident, and what were the consequences. I have been reading various versions of the great epic for 34 of my 38 years and am still at this layer. The Mahabharata is full of great personalities and intriguing ethical problems which are its most important features, IMHO.

Layer 3: the highest is the spiritual layer and this is mainly concerned with the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna's eternal message to us through the Mahabharata. Great minds all over the world have pondered the intricacies of these verses and tried to understand Man's relation to the Godhead. But it is precisely because the spiritual layer is the highest layer, that we would not usually recommend the Mahabharata to a beginner as an "introduction to Hinduism." Since I am not sure what to recommend myself, I direct you to @Pradip Gangopadhyay's excellent answer to a related question:

https://hinduism.stackexchange.com/a/16694/14868

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Best Approach for Mahabharata is that:

  • It has given a Great Bhagvatgeeta which is used still as a great philosophy book in the world.
  • It has given us best example to never lose courage. Pandavas were almost lost everything and they fought back and after they achieved what he desired.
  • If you know you are on the right and religious way, then never lose hope because God is always with you. Lord Krishna was always with Pandavas because he was in a religious way.
  • Best example for me. Duryodhana said once:

enter image description here

Which means, I know what is dharma (=righteousness), yet I cannot get myself to follow it! I know what is adharma, yet I cannot retire from it! O Lord of the senses! You dwelt in my heart and I will do as you impel me to do.

Duryodhana Could not change his activities but If I will found myself going into wrong way, then I would definitely change my activities.

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Mahabharata is a multi-layered book not just politics and ethics. You will have to get the "context" first. It is complemented/supplemented with other Puranas and upanishads.

Finding a proper acharya or a traditional Guru is the best bet.

Else, start with this thought:

When society is filled with people with extra-ordinary power but "depleted" consciousness (power with no responsibility) what would the "leader" with power and evolved consciousness do (power with responsibility) do for the good of humanity (raising the consciousness of people) ? What is the pathway to super-consciousness ?

Problem with most english translations I came across is lack of context when translated. Many-a-times leading to "opposite"/"unintended" effect. I had the luxury of a Guru and culture to set the context.

You can start with

  1. Amar Chitra Katha Comics on Mahabharata (meant for young children but useful for all who are new)

  2. Bibek Debroy's translation I found were the best (very limited opinion and commentary on the actual text), start with his translation on Bhagavad Gita

These are very sophisticated and layered texts I would advice you to not form strong opinions immediately, enjoy the read first and wait for it to sink in.

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If someone told you to start with Mahābhārata, I think they were pulling your leg. You will have to take notes just to follow the plots.


The Bhagavad Gītā is often where Westerners will start. It is, in fact, the most read portion of the Mahabharata. However, even this can be somewhat difficult without an understanding of the culture and time for whom it was initially written. On the other hand, reading it will give you a much better understanding of the culture.

You will learn key astika (Hindu) concepts such as mokṣa, or liberation—as well as the interplay of the three guṇāḥ (qualities), namely constructive harmony, passionate confusion, and destructive chaos.

You will also see the multiple ways one can practice Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). The Gita synthesizes Jñāna yoga, intellectual self awareness ("know thyself"); Bhaktí yoga, practicing loving devotion (worship); and Kárma yoga, working or acting without expectation of personal gain (selfless action). Through these one can liberate oneself. It doesn't claim there is a solitary path to liberation, but some paths are easier to trod for you than for me and vice versa.

Perhaps the key concept you will learn is dhárma, which I hesitate to define here. In fact, the story begins with Prince Arjuna feeling conflict between dharma to his country and people as a warrior-leader and dharma to his kin whom he faces on the battlefield. The majority of the text that follows has śrī Kṛṣṇa advising and answering the queries of Arjuna. We learn that living our dharma not only brings us closer to God—however one wants to define that—and our own liberation, but can also inspire others to live their dharma.

Because it is important, but doesn't come up in many translations, you may also want to look into the concept of līlā (play) before reading. Regardless, all of the above concepts will come up in one way or another in the Gita and will make it much easier to understand other South Asian texts, such as the rest of the Mahabharata. That's why it's such a great introduction!


I recommend the translation by Winthrop Sargeant. SUNY made a pocket version of his translation which I often carry in my purse. I am a big fan of writing in texts as it helps me connect the content to other things I have learned. And, as I grow over time, it is interesting to see how my metaphors in my notes change. Along the same lines, during your first read through dog-ear anything that went right over your head and then you can later search for a different translation of that section and see if that clarifies anything.

I also highly recommend starting with a version that lacks commentary. This allows you to form your own thoughts about the text. Later, you can see what others have said. But your first time with anything only happens once, so see what clicks for you without commentary.

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    With due respect to your personal experience ((and I really appreciate this advice: "I [...] recommend starting with a version that lacks commentary. This allows you to form your own thoughts about the text. Later, you can see what others have said. But your first time with anything only happens once, so see what clicks for you without commentary")) could you clarify in the answer how starting with the Bhagavad Gita would be helpful for an OP who self-describedly knows very little about Hinduism? – English Student Apr 1 '18 at 1:30
  • @EnglishStudent Is this better? I hope I don't overly influence OPs interpretation of the texts by going into so much detail. – Rubellite Yakṣī Apr 5 '18 at 16:47
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    Very nice and relevant explanation clarifies your message very well, thanks @Rubellite Fae. OP will definitely benefit from the detail in this answer, while approaching the reading of the texts, and I am sure it won't overly influence their interpretation. – English Student Apr 5 '18 at 17:56
  • You are most welcome @Rubellite Fae. – English Student Apr 5 '18 at 18:41
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    You could base that second answer on how you approached the Mahabharata and what you learned in the process, @Rubellite Yaksi. That will certainly help others who are thinking of reading the Mahabharata. – English Student May 3 '18 at 12:51
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There is a short introduction to the Mahābhārata by the indologist van Buitenen:

  • van Buitenen, J.A.B. (Ed.): The Mahābhārata. Translated and Edited. Chicago 1973 (Book I-V)

van Buitenen's introduction to the Mahābhārata is contained in book I.

The most gentle introduction I know are the comics editions of the Mahābhārata, e.g.

  • Pai, Anant , Kadam, Dilip , Chandrakant, Kamala. Mahābhārata, 3 Vol. Amar Chitra Katha, 1998

In addition on youtube you can find the Mahābhārata as film and also selected clips.

  • Indians like me who were children in the 1980's will agree that those Amar Chitra Katha comics were a vibrant, accurate and wonderful introduction to the vast and complex universe of the Mahabharata. The national TV serial of the late 80's also created a very strong visual and technical impression. Even today when I think of the major characters of the epic in whatever context, it is the TV actors and scenes, or the comic book pages that I visualise. Are the Hindi episodes available with subtitles for non-Indian viewers? – English Student Apr 5 '18 at 18:00
  • van Buitenen's translation is "out of place" in many places, it tries too hard to map it to "western" thought with opposite effect, it gives a feel of orthodox rigidity where as it a source of dynamism. Maybe since the english speaking mainstream has evolved ... book feels out of place – Akhil Apr 5 '18 at 20:32
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The Mahabharata is vastly intricate and complex, but everyone was a beginner at some point. As a beginner, like a person who vaguely knows the basics of swimming, do you jump into the middle of the ocean, or do you try a small safe pond until you are more confident in your skill? "The myths of the Hindus and Buddhists by Ananda Coomaraswamy and Sister Nivedita is a delite! A story version of the Ramayana (92 pages) and 100 pages for the MHB. A painless way to get the basics and enjoy the stories. Another excellent choice is "Hinhuism" scriptures and practice by Prabha Duneja. This also gets into Hindu customs. It has an idex and condensed lineage tree, Find and Copy a list of story characters to refer to when the names confuse you. Eventually you can handle the 800 page versions with joy and no frustration. Each author has his own emphasis-- some omit something, and embellish something else so each becomes a beloved child with it's own personality. (I couldn't single out one favorite). Most have the Gita in it, but if so inspired, you can get The Bhagavad Gita on it's own, with a verse in Sanskrit, translation and discussion. (Krishna's guidance to Arjuna -on the battlefield and wisdom for all of us. Blessings, jojo .

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