(ca. 400 B.c.-ca. 400 a.d.)
The Mahabharata is one of India’s two great literary epics; the other is the ramayana (see valmiki, maharshi). It consists of a series of verses originally composed for oral recitation; most of the verses are couplets containing 32 syllables. As a whole, the Mahabharata contains no fewer than 73,000 verses, and some editions contain as many as 100,000, making it eight times longer than homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined.
The Mahabharata may be based on actual events from the eighth or ninth century b.c. It seems to have come into existence around the fourth century b.c., the same time as the Ramayana. Numerous copyists and reciters added to it and modified it over time until it reached its current form, around or before a.d. 400. It now contains 18 major books, each divided into a number of chapters. The text also breaks down into 100 minor books.
The Mahabharata has exercised an extraordinary influence over Indian literature and culture. kalidasa’s plays drew inspiration from it, as did the works of many other writers. Painters and sculptors depicted scenes from it, and a cult grew around its heroine, Draupadi. In the middle ages, knowledge of the Mahabharata spread as far as Java and Bali. More recently, Indian comic books have retold the epic story.
As scholar Bruce Sullivan has noted, the Ma-habharata represents the “desire to conserve and preserve for everyone the wisdom enunciated by a dharma-knowing sage.” (Dharma involves the way things should be and the way one should behave.) Thus, the epic holds a significant place in the history of Indian thought. Editor and translator J. A. B. van Buitenen points out that the Ma-habharata contains a large number of philosophical chapters that are among the oldest documents for more or less systematic “Hindu” thought. Likewise, the history of Indian law cannot be properly understood without the epic, where the law is the single greatest concern.
The Mahabharata’s importance is demonstrated by the fact that the bhagavad gita, which has become a key text in Hinduism, is only a small part of the great epic. In the end, however, the highest praise for the Mahabharata comes from the epic itself:
Once one has heard this story so worthy of being heard[,] no other story will please him: it will sound harsh as the crow sounds to one after hearing the cuckoo sing…. No story is found on earth that does not rest on this epic…. Whatever is found here may be found somewhere else, but what is not found here is found nowhere!
The Mahabharata’s plot is complex. In essence, it tells of a bitter and bloody conflict between two sets of cousins, the Pandava brothers and the Dharatarastra brothers. Both wish to rule Kuruk-setra, a kingdom in northern India.
The trouble begins when King vicitravirya dies without heirs. His half brother Krsna Dvaipayana, also called Krsna Vyasa, fathers sons on the king’s two widows and a maidservant. The first son, Dhartarastra, is blind. As a result, the second son, Pandu, becomes king. After Pandu has ruled for some time, however, he finds it necessary to retire to the forest. Dhartarastra now rules the kingdom.
Pandu has five sons, while Dhartarastra has 100. The eldest Pandava, Yudhisthira, was born before any of his Dharatarastra cousins and therefore claims the throne. Unfortunately, one of the Dharatarastras, Duryodhana, wants to become king himself. He tries to kill Yudhisthira and the other Pandavas.
After two assassination attempts have failed, and the Pandavas have acquired allies, Duryodhana agrees to divide the kingdom with his cousins. The Pandavas travel to their part of the kingdom and found a new capital city. Seeing them prosper, Duryodhana’s jealousy gets the better of him again. He challenges Yudhisthira to a dice game during a ritual intended to consecrate the latter as king. The game is rigged; Yudhisthira loses his brothers’ freedom, his own freedom, and the Pandavas’ common wife, Draupadi. He also loses a rematch. The Pandavas agree to spend 12 years in exile and live in disguise for a 13 th year.
When the 13 years have passed, the Pandavas and their allies return to the capital to claim the throne for Yudhisthira. Duryodhana refuses to yield. A war ensues that lasts for 18 days and takes in the entire world. Duryodhana and most of the Dharatarastras perish, as do the Pandavas’ relatives, allies, and unborn children. The five Pandavas, however, survive, and Yudhisthira takes the throne. Years later, his descendant hears this story, the Mahabharata, recited by a disciple of Krsna Vyasa.
Krsna Vyasa, the grandfather of the Pandavas and Dharatarastras, is an important figure in Hindu tradition. According to legend, he composed not only the purana but also the Mahab-harata, which he dictated to the god Ganesh. He appears in the Mahabharata as a wise and powerful man. Ironically, as Sullivan points out, he is also partly responsible for the bloody war between his grandchildren. He deliberately made his son Dharatarastra blind and thus complicated the line of succession; he supervised the ritual during which Yudhisthira lost everything in a dice game; and he failed in his attempts to pacify his grandchildren and prevent the war.
Yet it seems the war was unavoidable. Indeed, the inevitability of fate is a theme of the Mahabharata. Dharatarastra says, “My old age, the destruction of all my relatives, and the death of my friends and allies happened because of fate.” Time, says the Mahabharata, is merciless and inescapable:
[Time] brought the Pandava and [Dharataras-tra] armies together in that place and there destroyed them… . Time ripens the creatures. Time rots them. . . . Whatever beings there were in the past will be in the future, whatever are busy now, they are all the creatures of Time— know it, and do not lose your sense.
In keeping with its theme of time, the Mahab-harata depicts the war between the Dharatarastras and Pandavas as the end of one stage of history and the beginning of another. Characters are described as incarnations of either gods or demons, battling each other in human form. Van Buitenen argues that this mythical imagery is a late addition to the epic and cheapens its story. sullivan, in contrast, believes that “the conflict between the gods and demons” is a central theme of the epic, just as the conflict between gods and giants is a central theme in Norse mythology (see mythology, norse).
English Versions of the Mahabharata
Carriere, Jean-Claude. The Mahabharata: A Play Based Upon the Indian Classic Epic. Translated by Peter Brook. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
The Mahabharata. 3 vols. Translated and edited by J. A. B. van Buitenen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973-78. The Mahabharata. Translated and edited by William Buck. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Works about the Mahabharata
Chaitanya, Krishna. The Mahabharata: A Literary Study. New Delhi: Clarion Books; Flushing, N.Y.: Asia Book Corp. of America, 1985.
Gonzalez Reimann, Luis. The Mahabharata and the Yugas: India’s Great Epic Poem and the Hindu System of World Ages. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.
Matilal, Bimal Krishna. Moral Dilemmas in the Mahabharata. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1989.
Sullivan, Bruce M. Krsna Dvaipayana Vyasa and the Mahabharata: A New Interpretation. New York: E.J. Brill, 1990.