Hinduism in India is more than just a religion: it is the culture and identity of most Indians; it is India itself. But it can be difficult to understand Hinduism and all its many dimensions. After all, there are countless views and sects that differ on the most fundamental issues. This list of the best books on Hinduism is intended to help you understand this highly complex, diverse religion – and thus to arrive at a deeper understanding of India herself.
The Best Books on Hinduism – Hindu Scriptures
While Christianity and Islam know only one holy scripture, there are numerous in Hinduism. They are among the oldest books in the world and contain all the wealth of Indian wisdom. They represent the beginnings of Indian and human thought and are like an eternally flowing fountain: There seems to be no end for the wisdom that springs from the ancient Hindu scriptures.
Veda means something like “sacred knowledge”. The Veda is divided into four parts, which were written down at different times. The Rig Veda is the oldest: it was created more than 3,000 years ago! Thus it is one the oldest writings of mankind. The Vedas were passed on from father to son, from guru (teacher) to disciple, in an oral tradition, long before they were ever put on paper. They contain the chants of the Rishishs (“seers”), the great spiritual sages of ancient India. In the Vedas there are hymns to Agni, Indra and other Hindu gods. The central theme, however, is Soma: a drink unknown to us today, which was drunk as a ritual sacrifice. Soma is said to have enabled people to get in contact with God, even to have been God himself. Most researchers believe that Soma was a psychedelic substance like psilocybin containing mushrooms (magic mushrooms).
The Vedas are the foundation on which Hinduism and Indian culture in general were built, and thus among the most important books of Hinduism.
The Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita (the “Song of God”) is perhaps the most famous scripture of Hinduism. It tells an episode from the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata: Prince Arjuna is in his war chariot, looking at the opposing army. At his side is Krishna, an avatar (incarnation) of the god Vishnu. The conversation between the two is int he form of questions and answers between teacher and desciple.
Arjuna does not want to go into battle, he does not want to shed unnecessary blood. But Krishna encourages him to fulfill his duty as a warrior. Besides, Krishna says that there is no death, no murderers and no victims anyway: for the soul is imperishable.
in God who inspires to fight? This may sound strange at first. But one must not take the actions of the Bhagavad Gita literally. It is written in the Upanishads:
“The body is the chariot, reason the charioteers, and thinking the reins. The senses are the horses, the objects the paths.”
The Bhagavad Gita is – more than anything else – a guide that helps us to live a good, religious life. The Gita also introduces the paths of Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Jnana Yoga. More about the four paths of Yoga here.
For Gandhi, the Gita played a very important role. He said:
When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I run to the Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me, and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow.
The word Upanishad means “sitting with the teacher”.
The Upanishads were written down between 700 and 200 B.C., but were passed down orally much earlier. They record the conversations between guru and disciple, husband and wife, between death and life, and give insight into the deepest wisdom and highest teachings of Hinduism.
Especially popular is the Katha Upanishad. In it death speaks as a teacher to a young man who wants to know the mystery of life and death. The Katha Upanishad contains explanations of the central concepts of Indian thought such as Atman, Brahman and Karma.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said about the Upanishads:
It is the most rewarding and uplifting reading there is […] in the world: it has been the comfort of my life and will be the comfort of my death.
Book on and about Hindu Saints
The Gospel of Ramakrishna
Ramakrishna is considered one of the most perfected saints of India. He lived in West Bengal in the 19th century. Already at an early age he felt attracted to God. He lived for several years in the temple complex of Dakshineshwar, where he worshipped the deity Kali (the goddess of death and destruction). He began to have spiritual experiences, which are called Samadhi in India.
After realizing God through the path of Kali worship, he decided to find him through other paths. For he was convinced that God is like a sea to which different rivers lead. He began to live as a Muslim: He fasted, prayed, visited mosques, read the Koran. Later he transformed himself into a Christian. Regarding his experiments with the three great world religions, Ramakrishna said: “I have practiced all the religious customs: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and I have also walked the paths of the different sects of Hinduism, and I have found that it is the same God to whom they all aspire, though in different ways.”
Ramakrishna’s view of the different world religions is summarized in one of his most beautiful sentences:
Man should be Christian in mercy, Muslim in the exact observation of the external customs, and Hindu in the all-embracing compassion towards all living creatures.
The Gospel of Ramakrishna was compiled by Mahendranath Gupta, one of his desciples. It contains teachings, parables and explanations of the great Hindu saint. These are often composed in a very simple language, behind which deep wisdom is hidden. The Gospel of Ramakrishna is therefore one of the best books about Hinduism and spirituality in general.
Ramana Maharshi: Be As You Are
Ramana Maharshi is another important saint of India. As a schoolboy, he left home and family to live in the caves of Arunchala, a mountain in southern India that is revered as holy. There he attained mukti (liberation, enlightenment). For the rest of his life he was never to leave the mountain again. Over the years, more and more people gathered around him. They saw in Ramana Maharshi a great saint and sage. He spoke very little, often remaining silent for long periods of time. But when he did speak, his words had a tremendous effect on the listeners.
In Be As You Are, the great sage answers the questions of seekers from all over the world: What is reality? When will suffering cease? What is meditation? What can I contribute to world peace?
Be As You Are is a book that you can pick up again and again, in which you can read a few pages or sentences over and over again – and each time you will discover a new jewel, a new truth in it. It is recommended for all those who are in search of the I and thus in search of God
Yogananda: Autobiography of a Yogi
Steve Jobs was a big fan of this book, which is one of the most famous books about Hinduism. It was written by Yogananda. He was one of the personalities who first introduced Hinduism to the West. Yogananda lived in the 19th century and spoke at lectures in Europe and America, including at the Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston. He was an important exponent of Kriya Yoga, a form of Raja Yoga. His autobiography, published in 1946, is what first introduced many people in the Western world to Indian thought and Indian spirituality. He tells of his childhood, his early years and experiences as a yogi, he explains the basic ideas of Hinduism and describes his meetings with such important figures as Gandhi, the poet and Nobel Prize winner Tagore and Ramana Maharshi.
Ram Dass: Be Here Now
Ram Dass offers a Western, more precisely an American perspective on Hinduism. Under the name Richard Alpert he was a highly respected Harvard professor. In the 1960s he experimented with LSD. The spiritual experiences he had under the influence of the psychedelic substance led him to India. He hoped to find explanations for his LSD experiences from the great Hindu masters. Be Here Now tells the crazy story of his time in India and especially with Neem Karoli Baba, his Guru. Neem Karoli Baba was a simple man who owned nothing more than a cloth and a blanket. He was worshipped by numerous Indians, later also by some Westerners, and is in one of the most famous Hindu saints of the last century. He himself summarized his teachings as follows:
Love everybody and tell the truth.
Be Here Now was considered the hippie bible par excellence and is partly responsible for the fact that today the West is so enthusiastic about yoga, meditation and Indian spirituality. Be Here Now is full of beautiful illustrations. It explains the basics of Hinduism, recounts some of the legends that arose around Neem Karoli, and also includes a section with practical tips for a spiritual life, e.g. about nutrition, meditation or life in a community. Be Here Now is so interesting because it offers a western and thus a familiar perspective on Hinduism and India. One of the best books on Hinduism!
The Best Books on Yoga
You don’t learn yoga from books – you have to practice yoga, live it. It should be noted that there is not only Hatha Yoga, the Yoga of the body: Karma Yoga is the Yoga of action, Bhakti Yoga is the Yoga of love and devotion. More about the Four Paths of Yoga here.
B. K. S. Iyengar: Light on Yoga
A true classic of yoga literature, and certainly one of the best books on yoga. It was written by B. K. S. Iyengar. He is regarded as one of the greatest yoga masters in the world and as the founder of Iyengar Yoga, a type of Hatha Yoga that places special emphasis on the precise execution of the asanas (exercises). In Light on Yoga, you will find explanations and instructions for over 200 yoga asanas, as well as 600 pictures of the master himself demonstrating the exercises. Light on Yoga has been called the “Bible of Modern Yoga” and is highly recommended for all yogis: especially for Iyengar practitioners, but also for anyone else who wants to learn more about yoga and the philosophy behind it.
2,100 Yoga Asanas
Suitable for both beginners and advanced yogis. This book contains 2,100 of the most important yoga asanas (poses). They are clearly explained and the book also provides information about their effects on body and psyche. This makes 2,100 Asanas – The Complete Yoga Poses the perfect manual for all yogis – because it is practical, very informative and explains in simple language topics that are highly complex and multi-layered. Without a doubt the one of the best book on Yoga!
The Best Books on Hinduism
- The Vedas
- The Upanishads
- The Bhagavad Gita
- The Gospel of Ramakrishna
- Be As You Are
- Autobiography of a Yogi
- Be Here Now
- Light on Yoga
- 2,100 Asanas
If you want to understand Hinduism and thus India better, you will get a good start with this list of the best books about Hinduism. Of course, one must also know that Hinduism is not a literary genre, but a living religion. So books play only a minor role; what really counts is the way you live your life, the wisdom and knowledge that is not found in books – but only in your own heart. In the Bhagavad Gita it is written:
Just as a reservoir is of little use when the whole countryside is flooded, scriptures are of little use to the illumined man or woman, who sees the Lord everywhere.