Friday, April 23, 2021

On Best English Translations of The Upanishads

"In the whole world there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. It has been the solace of my life, it will be the solace of my death." ~Arthur Schopenhauer

"As we study the philosophy of the Upanishads, the impression grows on us that the attainment of this path is not exactly the simplest of tasks. Our Western superciliousness in the face of these Indian insights is a mark of our barbarian nature, which has not the remotest inkling of their extraordinary depth and astonishing psychological accuracy." ~Carl Jung 

"The only solution to this conflict insofar as any is available to us at all lies in the ancient wisdom of the Upanishad." ~Erwin Schrödinger

I am writing this for you and me. I wish to reread the Upanishads again. The last time I did so was in 2013. In doing the research this time around on the various translations available, I thought I'd place the results here so I can remember what I discovered and so others will have a starting point for their own research. For this post, I am dividing the translations into Missionary, Poetic, and Academic.


Here's the thing about translations of The Upanishads one has to consider when it comes to many of them: they are missionary documents. They are meant to spread the word. You shall know them by their Swami. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, but it is a fact. 

The best-sellers include Swami Prabhavanada (with Frederick Manchester). Prabhavanada was a monk of the Ramakrishna Order who founded the Vedanta Society of Southern California in 1930. The Upanishads: Breath from the Eternal includes Isha, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taiittiriya (selected), Aitreya, Chandogya (selected), Brihadaranyaka (selected), Swetasvatara, Kaivalya. Small paperback. Also available in different formats including Kindle.

There is also Swami Nikhilananda who founded the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York, a branch of Ramakrishna Mission, which comes under the umbrella of Ramakrishna Order. The Upanishads in 4 volumes. General Introduction. Introduction to each Upanishad. Notes included within text. Volume 1 includes Katha, Isa, Kena, and Mundaka. Volume 2 includes Svetasvatara, Prasna, and Mandukya. Volume 3 includes Aitareya and Brihadaranyaka. Volume 4 includes Taittiriya and Chhandogya. Hardcovers. Also an abridged one-volume, The Principal Upanishads, hardcover or paperback is available.

And there is Swami Gambhirananda who was the 11th President of the Ramakrishna Mission. Eight Upanishads, with the Commentary of Sankaracarya. In 2 volumes. Each verse has the Devanagri Sanskrit, with English translation and commentary, with further commentary by Sankaracarya. Also included is an Index to texts in Devanagri Sanskrit. Volume One covers the Isa, Kena, Katha, and Taittiriya. Volume Two covers the Aitareya, Mundaka, Mandukya, Karika. Individual volumes are available at a reasonable cost. Two volume set is also available in Kindle.

I like to consider these three translations Ramakrishna LA, New York, and India. The LA is like a story or screenplay assisted by the writer-journalist. The New York is more intellectual with footnotes. And the India includes Devangiri Sanskrit and commentary by their saint Shankara.

On a different path, there is Swami Chinmayananda who helped found Chinmaya Mission. He is noted for his spiritual commentaries. Because of this, his translations have been published as individual volumes. They include: Mandukya Upanisad with Gaudapada's Karikaka (the Kārikā is a concise explanation, in verse form of the doctrines in Mandukya Upanishad, the earliest extant systematic treatise on Advaita Vedānta); Aitareya Upanishad; Taittiriya Upanisad; Isavasya Upanisad as well as others. Includes Sanskrit, Devanagari, and word-for word translation on some, if not all. Some, if not all, are available on Kindle for lesser price.

Another holy man is Sri Aurobindo who helped found Aurobindo Ashram whose mission involved the Life Divine application of Integral Yoga. Aurobindo's The Upanishads is a collection of Sri Aurobindo's final translations of and commentaries on every Upanishad or other Vedantic text he worked on. There is also a small voulume on the Isha Upanishad with translation, commentary and original text. Furthermore, there is a very inexpensive Kindle edition of his final translations of and commentaries on the Isha and Kena, his final translations of the Mundaka and Katha Upanishads, and a commentary on part of the Taittiriya Upanishad.

Even the recent more academic translation by Vernon Katz (doctorate from Oxford University) and Thomas Egenes (doctorate from the University of Virginia) is inspired by their work with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation. It may be unfair classifying them here but I do not see this as academic.

Sivananda Saraswati was the founder of the Divine Life Society. The ten upanishads covered in this book are Yogasara, Vedantasara, Siva-jnanamitra, Advaitamrita, Svarupabodha, Brahmarahasya, Brahmanubhava, Vicharabindu, Jyotirbindu and Anadabindu. Also commentary.

Finally in this grouping, there is Radhakrishnan, not a spiritual leader per se, but a strong defender of Hinduism and the second President of India. The book includes Sanskrit originals, verse by verse commentaries and English translations of some of the main Upanisads. The book has 2 Appendices, which give the perspectives of Edmond Holmes and Rabindranath Tagore on the Upanisads.


All of these translations have their excellent qualities but their biases as well. I have not read all of them and do not know Sanskrit so judging them is impossible in the end. I have sampled many of them though, especially when attempting my own transcreation of the Kena. I found many to be subservient to Shankara's interpretation, who was THE holy man of Advaita Vedanta in the 8th century. But I walked away feeling Aurobindo's may be the most honest attempt at a independent translation.

Still there's something for everyone here. Prabhavanada has the unencumbered stories. Nikhilananda has the notes. Gambhirananda has Shankara's commentaries. Chinmayananda offers the Mandukya Upanisad with Gaudapada's Karikaka. Aurobindo has a more independent and intellectual approach. Katz and Egenses have a the transcendental meditator's point of view with contemporary language. Sivananda offers some unusual translations. Radhakrishnan has a public figure's viewpoint.


I did not include Eknath Easwaran in the previous category but maybe should have since he founded the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation and Nilgiri Press, based in northern California  But his translation feels to be more a poetic attempt though. And he deals with abridgment.

Then there's W.B. Yeats' poetic prose rendition. Yet even that was translated with Shri Purohit Swami, disciple of Bhagwan Shri Hamsa. Yeats knew of the Upanishads from his long-time theosphist friend, George William Russell and wished to understand them better. Upon meeting Shri Purohit Swami he proposed that the two of them of them translate the ancient text as though the original was written in common English.

Another poetic version is by Alan Jacobs, the poet not the critic, and chairman of the Ramona Maharshi Foundation in the UK. This was the first copy I read. With joy. It's a free verse transcreation/translation abridgment with commentary.


Max Muller’s 1879/1884 versions, volume 1 & 15 of the Sacred Books of The East, were the first full English translations of the main Upanishads. 19th century scholar. Maybe a bit Victorian in its language.

Robert Ernest Hume published his Thirteen Principal Upanishads in 1921. He too was a missionary, but a Christian one. Yale PhD.

Two 21st century translations include Patrick Olivelle (pub. Oxford, actually 1996 but close enough). Olivelle was the Chair, Department of Asian Studies, and Director, Center for Asian Studies, at the University of Texas at Austin, and Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Religion. His translation includes an extensive bibliography and end notes. 

And the other is by Valerie Roebuck (pub Penguin).  Also introduction and end notes. Valerie Roebuck is a Buddhist, practicing and teaching meditation in the Samatha tradition. She is an honorary research fellow of the University of Manchester.


I have this theory on translations. It's based on triangulation. or trilateration. It's not as scientific, but it involves reading and comparing 3 respected translations, if available, and understanding the actual gist is somewhere in the middle.

So in this respect, I want to look at 1 missionary, 1 poetic, and 1 academic. Olivelle will be my academic. Yeats will be my poetic. I have the Prabhavananda and Gambhirananda (as well as the Jacobs) from my last excursion to this territory in 2013, but I'm thinking the Nikhilananda may be the one now.

Appendix 1. The Mandukya Upanishad.

As previously mentioned, the Mandukya Upanishad is considered the earliest extant systematic treatise on Advaita Vedanta, and Gaudapada's Karikaka a concise explanation of the Madukya in verse form. Besides Chinmayananda's translation, Mandukya Upanisad with Gaudapada's Karikaka, mentioned above there are three other stand-alone versions worth mentioning here. There's Gambhirananda's Mandukya Upanisad With the Commentary of Sankaracarya, which is included in the 2nd volume of his Eight Upanishads, There is a combination of these two by Nikhilananda: Mandukya Upanishad With Gaudapada's Karika and Shankara's Commentary. And there is the Mandukya Upanishad and Gaudapada's Karika by James Swartz, an American disciple of Chinmayananda.

Appendix 2. The Bargain Basement.

These are some worldly bargains considering infinity. Some of these may be available someplace else at similarly low prices. I will try to keep this current.

The Ten Principal Upanishads by Yeats is $2.00 on Kindle.


Aurobindo's final translations of and commentaries on the Isha and Kena, his final translations of the Mundaka and Katha Upanishads, and a commentary on part of the Taittiriya Upanishad. This is $2.99 on Kindle.

As for paperbacks, the Prabhavanada is $6.95 for mass maket pb.

And Olivelle's Oxford 512 page state-of-academic-study paperback is $8.97.

Considering the foundational importance of the literature, the variety of the types of translation available, the combination of media, and the quality of the work involved, that's not a bad collection for under $21.

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