The books listed here include a variety of well-translated primary texts, along with some useful secondary studies and commentaries, arranged by category:
There are, of course, a great many other valuable translations, studies, and explanations of Indian philosophies, and much subjects which are not covered here at all. This list reflects my own interests, experiences, and preferences, as well as my sense of which books will be valuable and accessible to a wide readership.
I follow the spelling and transliteration conventions of each book listed, which means that the list as a whole is not consistent.
Sāṃkhya & Yoga
Discipline of Freedom: The Yoga Sutra Attributed to Patanjali,
translated by Barbara Stoler Miller (Bantam, 1998).
- There are many, many translations of Patañjali’s Yogasūtra. This one is very accessible, offering a short explanation by the translator after each group of sūtras.
Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and
Commentary, with Insights
from the Traditional Commentators,
by Edwin F. Bryant (North Point Press, 2009).
- Where Miller’s translation of Patañjali (above) was a nice short introduction, this edition goes deep in depth. Bryant offers many pages of commentary on each and every sūtra, drawing upon the insights of centuries of traditional Sanskrit commentaries (which are frequently quoted). The introduction also provides a very solid overview of the basic philosophical views of Sāṃkhya and Yoga.
- Chapter 8 of Richard King’s Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought (see below) provides another excellent summary of the basic systematic thought of these two schools.
Nyāya & Vaiśeṣika
Nyāya-sūtra: Selections with Early Commenaries,
translated by Matthew Dasti and Stephen Phillips (Hackett, 2017).
- The translators do an excellent job of arranging the sūtras according to nine basic philosophical topics, including extensive passages from three of the most important classical commentaries, along with the sūtras themselves.
- A solid overview for a motivated general reader, written by a master of these philosophical systems, is found in Karl Potter’s Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies (see below).
An Essay on Classical
Indian Theories of Knowledge,
- This is a much more challenging introduction, intended for readers with some expertise in philosophy, but assuming no special background or training in Indian thought. Matilal was trained in Indian philosophy by traditional pandits in India, and in 20th century analytic philosophy at Oxford, and both sides of that erudition are on display in this work. Much more than any of the other books on this list, this one is aimed primarily at a scholarly/academic audience.
- The Foundations of Buddhism, by Rupert Gethin (Oxford, 1998).
- This is a very solid survey of the development of Buddhist thought in India (and a few references beyond), which balances accessibility with depth and subtlety.
- In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, edited and translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Wisdom Publications, 2005).
- The volume collects important selections from the Pali Canon, the earliest layer of stories and narratives of the historical Buddha’s teachings, arranged by topic.
- For the later traditions of Indian Buddhism (introduced in their basics by Gethin, above), Matilal’s Perception (cited above) is deep and rigorous, but challenging.
- Śāntideva, The Bodhicaryāvatāra, translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (Oxford World’s Classics, 1995).
- This is a classic guide to ethics in the Madhyamaka tradition of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, by an 8th century scholar-monk. After passionately laying out the Madhyamaka view of suffering, Śāntideva shows how to cultivate the six perfections (virtues) of the supremely enlightened person. This translation, made directly from the Sanskrit text, is my personal favorite.
- Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, translated by the Padmakara Translation Group, (Shambhala Classics, 2006).
- This is an alternative translation of the same text by Śāntideva, made from the classical Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit original. It has the advantage of lining up cleanly with the Dalai Lama’s commentary (below).
- Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, For the Benefit of All Beings: A Commentary on The Way of the Bodhisattva, translated by the Padmakara Translation Group, (Shambhala Classics, 2009).
- Not strictly an Indian text, this is a commentary by the current Dalai Lama on Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra (cited in two versions above). It’s the transcript of teachings given by the Dalai Lama to an American audience, explaining Śāntideva’s text chapter by chapter, and doing a wonderful job of showing the relevance of the text for a contemporary audience. Whenever a numbered verse appears, the Dalai Lama is quoting that verse from Śāntideva (although the translation may differ, and in some chapters, the numbering gets off by one place). This is best read alongside Śāntideva’s text: one chapter from both books, then the next chapter from both, etc.
- Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought, by Richard King (Georgetown University Press, 1999).
- This is hands-down the best introductory textbook to Indian philosophy available in English. Skip chapters 1 and 2 (which are focused on justifying the relevance of Indian philosophy to western academics), and go straight to the meat of the book. Chapters 3 and 4 give basic summaries of the different schools of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy in India. Chapters 5–9 are organized by topic, showing the major contributions of several different schools to each subject.
- Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies, by Karl H. Potter (Prentice Hall, 1963; variously reprinted).
- Now long out of print, but available through many academic libraries, or on the used book market. Far more than most other American scholars before or since, Potter understood the systematic nature of the Indian philosophical systems, and displays that here in a way that is still unsurpassed. If you want to know what it means to adopt each of these worldviews, and why someone might be motivated to do so, this is the place to look.
The items in this section are not quite what we would think of as “philosophical treatises;” they combine interesting philosophical content which a good deal of poetic and literary flair.
- The Bhagavad-Gita, translated by Barbara Stoler Miller (Bantam, 1986).
- The most well-known of Indian religious and philosophical writings, Sāṃkhya and Vedānta ideas are both on full display for those who are ready to look. While there are literally hundreds of translations, Miller’s is particularly clear, balancing accuracy with a poetic touch.
- The Bhagavad Gītā, translated by Winthrop Sargeant (SUNY Press, 1993; Excelsior Editions, 2009).
- For those who want to dive closely into the text, Winthrop Sargeant takes you carefully word by word. Each verse gets its own page. After quoting the text in the original Sanskrit, Sargeant glosses each individual word, before giving a fluid English translation, giving access to the original text even to readers who don’t know the language. Clearly a labor of love.
- Ashvaghosha, Life of the Buddha, translated by Patrick Olivelle (Clay Sanskrit Library, 2008).
- A famous Indian poem, telling the life story of the Buddha. Olivelle gives a masterful translation of the first half of the poem (from the Buddha’s birth and early life, through his temptation on the night of his enlightenment) based on the surviving Sanskrit text, followed by a summary of the second half, which now survives only in Chinese translation.
- Jayanta Bhaṭṭa, Much Ado About Religion, translated by Csaba Dezső (Clay Sanskrit Library, 2005).
- This is a play in four acts, written by a Nyāya philosopher of the 10th century. We see a young brahmin scholar debating with members of various other philosophical schools, as the young man himself tries to work out the scope and limits for when we should (or should not) tolerate differences of philosophical doctrine and religious practice.