Vedanta means the end of the Veda or the final knowledge, although the texts cover the full range. It is the last of the 6 systems of Indian philosophy aka the darshanas.
They generally consider the primary texts of Vedanta to be the Brahma Sutra, Upanishad(s), and Bhagavad Gita.
I recommend various books but because of their depth, these are particularly challenging to find good translations of.
An excellent reference work has the Sanskrit, transliteration, and translation, with commentary on both the translation and meaning. But this can bog down the work and create a massive text. If the translator isn’t fluent in both languages, more so. It becomes a lot of excess for those just wanting to read the work itself.
Ideally, the translation is by someone living the topic and versed in the tradition without being burdened by it. That becomes rare indeed. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi not only spread an effortless practice around the world but he brought out an understanding that cut through a lot of mistakes of the dark age that have dramatically slowed evolution. Concepts like controlling the mind, renouncing the world, and killing the ego are seen as required to become enlightened.
I’ve studied with him and got a grad degree based on his approach. This approach has held up well as the stages have unfolded.
I’ve looked at many translations over the years but rarely found them as insightful and often found issues that cast a shadow over the entire text. How is personal control going to lead to liberation from the person? How is the mind going to figure out what is beyond itself?
The Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita (Song of God) is the core of the Mahabharata, the story of Krishna’s life. While overall, it’s a Purana (story), this Gita has the core teachings of Krishna to prince Arjuna.
Something of this story is even told in the Yoga Vasishtha, thousands of years before the Mahabharata took place. We could say it was key in human history.
As a westerner, the setting on a battlefield may take you aback. But it’s a powerful place to illustrate the dramas of life and the nature of karma and dharma.
The translation I recommend is that of Maharishi. They’ve only published the first 6 of 18 chapters but this includes key teachings. Maharishi sometimes repeatedly mentions Transcendental Meditation, but this is to emphasize transcending to prepare the ground so we can embody enlightenment.
Maharishi has translated all 18 chapters and commented on most of it (I’ve seen drafts) but he passed in 2008. The organization is taking a long time to publish the rest.
The Brahma Sutra
The Brahma Sutra of Badarayana is the core text of Vedanta. Most translators have seen the Brahma Sutra as intellectual arguments for nonduality. While commentaries on the text like Shankara’s certainly are, the sutras themselves are a list of recognition’s by the resolute intellect, not intellectual arguments.
Prior to awakening, the intellect associates with the mind and looks out and divides. Yes, no, right, wrong, etc. After, it becomes associated with unchanging being and becomes resolute. With the Unity shift, the intellect begins a series of recognition’s of the Self; this is the Self, and this is also the Self, and so on. These progressively unite all in what the Brahma Sutra calls the aggregate. I use the term wholeness or oneness.
Maharishi has translated the Brahma Sutra and that would be an invaluable edition for those in unfolding Unity stage of development. However, again this has not been released yet.
Maharishi worked with Dr. Vernon Katz on this translation; the seer and the academic. Vernon has released some of their conversations on points related to the translation. Called Conversations with Maharishi, Volume 1 and 2, the first covers the late 60s when they sat together for longer blocks of time. The second, the early 70s where the conversations were more spread out as the organization grew and demanded more of Maharishi’s attention. The second also includes a glossary of the verses mentioned in the 2 books. This is just excerpts, but it’s a better translation than anything else I’ve seen.
When the translator has lived what the text is describing, the words carry so much more.
These are delightful stories and verses of deep teachings, often seen as the essence of Vedic thought. They’re focused on Atman (the cosmic Self) and Brahman (the Great). Each Upanishad is associated with one of the four core Vedas.
The Upanishad are often the first Vedic literature to be read by westerners. They’ve had a profound impact on many, including the American Transcendentalists (Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson), the German philosopher Schopenhauer, and physicists Schrodinger and Bohr.
One of the later Upanishad (Muktika) lists 108 of them but many more have been added since. The earliest ones are considered Mukhya or principal but it varies how many (and sometimes which) are included in that. Adi Shankara commented on 11 and mentioned 4 others in his Brahma Sutra commentary, leading some to consider this 15 to be primary. The Muktika lists 13 mukhya, adding one different from the first 12 listed below. Others only consider the first 10 to be principal.
Upanishad from the same Veda usually have the same opening and closing verses. For example, the opening verse of Upanishad(s) from Shukla Yajur-Veda is the verse I used on This and That.
The best translation I’m aware of is The Upanishads, A New Translation by Vernon Katz and Thomas Egenes. Both are Vedic academics who’ve studied with Maharishi, although they’re not seers. Vernon worked with Maharishi on the Gita and Brahma Sutra above. Thomas wrote the Yoga Sutra translation I recommend and was my Sanskrit professor in grad school.
Their first volume published in 2015 covers the 9 shorter principal Upanishad (1-9 below). They plan another volume with the longer ones (probably 10-12).
If you’d like a lighter read, All Love Flows To The Self by Kumuda Reddy and Thomas and Linda Egenes is a beautiful compilation of some stories from the Upanishad.
15 Principal Upanishad (Veda)*
1 Isha (Shukla Yajur)
2 Kena (Sama)
3 Katha (Krishna Yajur)
4 Prashna (Atharva)
5 Mundaka (Atharva)
6 Maanduukya (Atharva)
7 Aitareya (Rik)
8 Taittriiya (Krishna Yajur)
9 Shvetaashvatara (Krishna Yajur)
10 Chhaandogya (Sama)
11 Brihadaaranyaka (Shukla Yajur)
12 Kaushitaki (brahmana) (Rik)
13 Jaabaala (Shukla Yajur)
14 Mahaanaaraayana (Atharva)
15 Paingala (Shukla Yajur)
* the first 9 are in the Katz-Egenes book mentioned above. Shukla is white, Krishna is black. Rik, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva are the 4 principle Vedas. In the transliteration, I double the letters for the long vowels to avoid accents.