Here are 3 ancient works of wisdom that are unparalleled in the profundity with which they look at human life and the wider existence. They are India’s lofty heritage, yet they are universal in nature i.e. beyond religion, race, nationality or other identities.
(Note that many other great works – for instance, the Upanishads – are not included here for the sake of keeping the list short and only including works deemed to be more accessible for most people.)
1] Bhagavad Gita
This ancient fount of wisdom that has inspired and illumined seekers for millennia is perhaps the most widely known Hindu text. Even many great Western minds through history have proclaimed their awe of this book:
When I read the Bhagavad Gita and reflect on how God created the universe, everything else seems so superfluous. – Albert Einstein
I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad Gita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.– Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Bhagavad Gita is the most systematic statement of spiritual evolution of endowing value to mankind. It is one of the most clear and comprehensive summaries of perennial philosophy ever revealed; hence its enduring value is subject not only to India but to all of humanity. – Aldous Huxley
The Bhagavad Gita or ‘Song of the Lord’ was spoken by Lord Krishna to Arjuna during the great Mahabharata War (around 5,000 years ago). In approximately 700 verses (shlokas) in Sanskrit, the sage Ved Vyasa compiled the dialogue between Arjuna, the questioner and Sri Krishna, the Lord and Arjuna’s guru and friend.
Arjuna gives voice to the deepest questions concerning human beings and their existence. Every earnest seeker will resonate with his doubts and questions.
In a concise yet powerful way, Sri Krishna explains the different paths of yoga, reveals the workings of nature, the operation of the three gunas (qualities in man and generally in nature) and the secrets of Creation and the Creator. He explains man’s purpose on Earth and how he can rise above the suffering of the world through practical methods of yoga.
There are many translations and commentaries of this Sanskrit text. Some recommended ones:-
- IIT Kanpur Gita website: an impressive free resource of commentaries on the Gita’s verses by different sages and philosophers including Adi Shankaracharya, Swami Sivananda, Ramanuja, Swami Chinmayananda and many more. The main (mool) shlokas can also be read in many different Indian languages. Unfortunately the website does not as yet have direct English translations and transliterations of the verses. Read free.
- bhagavadgita.us website: in addition to commentaries of a number of different sages and scholars, this website also gives English translation and transliteration of verses. Read free.
- God Talks with Arjuna by Parmahansa Yogananda: an interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata (as relevant to the former) from a subtler perspective and in the context of Kriya yoga. Parmahansa Yogananda was a Kriya yoga master (particularly well known in the West) in the lineage of Mahaavatar Babaji. Buy book.
- Bhagavad Gita by Sri Aurobindo: an exposition of the spiritual philosophy and method of self-discipline of the Bhagavad Gita by Sri Aurobindo, a spiritual master of the 20th century. Buy book.
Read related articles: Our Arjuna Moments and Bhagavad Gita: the essence of India and its profound message for the world
2] Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
For anyone serious about exploring yoga as a spiritual process, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is both an indispensable guidebook and an unparalleled repository of knowledge.
Patanjali (also known as the father of modern yoga) was a great sage (‘Maharishi’) and philosopher, considered to also have had one of the most prodigious intellects that any human being has ever possessed. His brilliance shone in areas like astronomy, mathematics and music.
In just 195 sutras (literally ‘thread’ but here, verses) each sutra being usually a single line or couplet, Patanjali has said everything that can be said about yoga as a spiritual possibility. In fact, many commentators state that the Yoga Sutras contain everything worth knowing about human life and beyond. According to Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev,
Someone who is exploring his consciousness, if he is in a certain state of experience, if he just reads one sutra, it will be explosive. You are not required to read the whole book. If you read one sutra and make it true with your life, that’s enough. It will realize you. (read more)
The now famous definition of yoga as “chitta vritti nirodha” i.e. the stopping of the fluctuations of the mind, is from this text. Also the description of yoga as ‘ashtanga’ i.e. having 8 limbs (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi) has been described by Patanjali.
Maharishi Patanjali was not the originator of the yogic wisdom contained in his Yoga Sutras, but he was a compiler of the knowledge which had also already been realised by sages and yogis before him and which had become too diversified and complex. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are undated, but estimated by modern scholars, to have been written somewhere between 500 and 200 B.C.
According to Parmahansa Yogananda (in his book, Autobiography of a Yogi),
“[Patanjali’s] short and masterly work, Yoga Sutras, forms one of the six systems of Hindu philosophy. In contradistinction to Western philosophies, all six Hindu systems embody not only theoretical teachings but practical ones also. After pursuing every conceivable ontological inquiry, the Hindu systems formulate six definite disciplines aimed at the permanent removal of suffering and the attainment of timeless bliss. The later Upanishads uphold the Yoga Sutras, among the six systems, as containing the most efficacious methods for achieving direct perception of truth. Through the practical techniques of yoga, man leaves behind forever the barren realms of speculation and cognizes in experience the veritable Essence.”
Recommended translations and commentaries:
- Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras by Swami Vivekananda: Read free online/pdf or buy book.
- Selected excerpts and commentaries by Parmahansa Yogananda: read free online
- Commentaries by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (Art of Living Foundation): See website with YouTube videos of explanations or buy book
Read related article: “And now, yoga” ~ Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: Introduction
3] Yoga Vasishtha
This great work of the sage Valmiki is also known as the Vasishtha Maha Ramayana and contains the Vedantic teachings of the great sage Vasishtha to his disciple prince Lord Sri Rama (who is believed to have lived around 7,000 years ago). At age 16, Lord Rama began to display dispassion (vairagya) and disillusionment towards worldly life, realising its inherent impermanence. Sage Vasishtha explained to Sri Rama’s worried father, King Dasharath, that Rama was displaying the characteristics of one who is ready for spiritual enlightenment and he thus commenced his guidance to Sri Rama over several days, which forms the Yoga Vasishtha.
The Yoga Vasishtha is essentially a jnana yoga scripture of a dialogue between guru and disciple, running over 29,000 shlokas and containing many intricately woven tales used by sage Vasishtha to guide his young disciple.
Sri Ramakrishna Parmahansa said of the book that “it is fried in the butter of knowledge and steeped in the honey of love.” At one time, the Yoga Vasishtha was one of the most widely read books in India and profoundly influenced the country’s philosophical thought.
Swami Sivananda called this work:
“…the earliest work in Sanskrit on Vedanta of the highest order […] It is the crest-jewel of all the works on Vedanta. It is a masterpiece. A study of the book raises a man to the lofty heights of divine splendour and bliss. It is really a vast store of wisdom. Those who practise Atma Chintana or Brahma Abhyasa or Vedantic meditation will find a priceless treasure in this marvellous book. He who studies the book with great interest and one-pointedness of mind cannot go without attaining Self-realisation. The practical hints on Sadhana are unique. Even the most worldly-minded man will become dispassionate and will attain peace of mind, solace and consolation.”
Read more of Swami Sivananda on the Yoga Vasishtha
Recommended translation: The Supreme Yoga: Yoga Vasistha by Swami Venkatesananda, a disciple of Swami Sivananda.
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