About The Epic

History or Mythology


Evolution of the Epic

About the Epic


Mahabharata and Ramayana are the two epics of ancient India. While Ramayana is hailed as the oldest expic in the world, Mahabharata takes credit as the longest and the most complex epic in the world. In it's today's form, Mahabharata consists of over 100,000 śloka (each shloka is a couplet), and long prose passages. With about 1.8 million words in total, the Mahābhārata is roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, or about four times the length of the Rāmāyaṇa


Contents of the Epic


In simple words, the epic Mahabharata is a story of dynastic struggle for the throne of Hastinapur which was the capital of the Kuru kingdom. The crux of Mahabharata is indeed the tale of Kauravas and Pandavas; the cousing brothers, whose hostility towards each other led to the greatest war fought in ancient India, in which the Pandavas are ultimately victorious. But in its entirety, Mahaharata is much more than the story of Pandavas and Kauravas. In the build up to the main story, the epic takes us through multiple directly and remotely connected stories that paints a multi-coloured picture of the actual geo-politcal and cultural system that existed during that period. The epic also includes details on the principles and rules that defined the responsibilites and rights of the hierarchically seggregated communities. The epic encompasses the Bhagavat Gita, one of the most admired philosophical and theological work in the world. It takes us through a period when the core value system of Indian civilization and the priciples of righteousness and justice was rewritten. It describes the advanced warfare techniques and weapons that were used during that period and also describes in detail the architecture and literature that flourished in pre-historic India.


The epic describes the Guru-shishya parampara, which traces all great teachers and their students of the Vedic times. It lists down a long lineage of Kings from different dynasties that ruled over different regions of ancient India for Centuries. It gives a very good account of the culture and values of ancient India. It presents us a very good picture of the political, economical and religious system that existed in ancient India and gives a good account of the power struggle that was existing in pre-historic India, before the rest of the world was smart enough to create a harmonic communal system. In a nut-shell, Mahabharata is a complete educational package that aids to travel deep into and understand pre-histori Indian civilization; just that all these details are bundled around the story of the Kuru clan.


The Style of the Epic


The ancient indian religeous works are classfied as Sruthi and Smrithi. Smritis are usually attributed to an author, traditionally written down but constantly revised, in contrast to Srutis (the Vedic literature) which were considered authorless, that were transmitted verbally across the generations and fixed. Both the epics Ramayana and Mahbharata (along with the puranas, upavedas, Bhasyas etc) are classified as Smriti. Mahabharata employs the story within a story structure, otherwise known as frametales, popular in many Indian religious and non-religious works. It is first recited at Takshashila by the sage Vaishampayana, a disciple of Vyasa, to the King Janamejaya who is the great-grandson of the Paṇḍava prince Arjuna. The story is then recited again by a professional storyteller named Ugrashrava Sauti, many years later, to an assemblage of sages lead by Shaunaka performing the 12-year sacrifice in the Naimisha Forest.


Mahabharata is often compared to a huge tree with branches emerging from numerous uneven points, and roots running deep in all directions. True to this comparison, Mahabharata indeed has thousands of stories embedded within its framework. Though the entire sequence of the epic is structured around the main story of the Pandavas and Kauravas, it pauses and takes diversion throughout its recital to tell numerous related stories. The text has been described by some early 20th-century western Indologists as unstructured and chaotic. Hermann Oldenberg supposed that the original poem must once have carried an immense "tragic force" but dismissed the full text as a "horrible chaos." Moritz Winternitz (Geschichte der indischen Literatur 1909) considered that "only unpoetical theologists and clumsy scribes" could have lumped the parts of disparate origin into an unordered whole.


Evolution of the Epic


Mahābhārata started as an orally-transmitted tale of the charioteer bards. It is generally agreed that "Unlike the Vedas, which have to be preserved letter-perfect, the epic was a popular work whose reciters would inevitably conform to changes in language and style. As a result Mahabharata went through numerous changes and additions over centuries to become the epic that we know today. The story of the Kuru clan and the heroics of the warriors were composed as poems and sung by the charioteer bards of different kingdoms and warriors to glorify the heroes who fell in the war (or who survived the war). The glorification got updated over a period with the integration of different versions of renditions carried forward by the lineage of singers/composers who oriented towards one of the 2 sides during the war. The result is that unlike most other tales where the victors define history, Mahabharata tells the heroics as well as the evils of both the sides. But indeed it's hard to say, if the original shorter version told the same tale as we know today. Vishnu Sukthankar, editor of the first great critical edition of the Mahābhārata, commented: "It is useless to think of reconstructing a fluid text in a literally original shape, on the basis of an archetype and a stemma codicum. What then is possible? Our objective can only be to reconstruct the oldest form of the text which it is possible to reach on the basis of the manuscript material available." That manuscript evidence is somewhat late, given its material composition and the climate of India, but it is very extensive.


The Mahabharata itself distinguishes a core portion of 24,000 verses: the Bharata proper, as opposed to additional secondary material, while the Ashvalayana Gṛhyasutra makes a similar distinction. At least three redactions of the text are commonly recognized: Jaya with 8,800 verses attributed to Vyasa, Bharata with 24,000 verses as recited by Vaiśampayana, and finally the Mahabharata as recited by Ugrashrava Sauti with over 100,000 verses. However, some scholars, such as John Brockington, argue that Jaya and Bharata refer to the same text, and ascribe the theory of Jaya with 8,800 verses to a misreading of a verse in Adiparvan. The addition of the latest parts may be dated by the absence of the Anushasana-parva and the Virata parva from the "Spitzer manuscript" (though it's not clear on whether they are missing from the Spitzer manuscript or they were simply not preserved).


Historical references


Research on the Mahabharata has put an enormous effort into recognizing and dating layers within the text. Some elements of the present Mahabharata can be traced back to Vedic times. The background to the Mahabharata suggests the origin of the epic occurs "after the very early Vedic period" and before "the first Indian 'empire' was to rise in the third century B.C. The earliest surviving components of this dynamic text are believed to be no older than the earliest 'external' references we have to the epic, which may include an allusion in Panini's 4th century BCE grammar Aṣṭadhyayi. The oldest surviving Sanskrit text dates to the Kushan Period (200 CE). It is estimated that the Sanskrit text probably reached something of a "final form" by the early Gupta period (about the 4th century CE). There were three versions of the epic, beginning with Manu (1.1.27), Astika (1.3, sub-parva 5) or Vasu (1.57), respectively. These versions would correspond to the addition of one and then another 'frame' settings of dialogues. The Vasu version would omit the frame settings and begin with the account of the birth of Vyasa. The astika version would add the sarpasattra and ashvamedha material from Brahmanical literature, introduce the name Mahābhārata, and identify Vyasa as the work's author.


The earliest known references to the Mahabharata and its core Bharata date to the Ashtadhyayi of Pāṇini (4th century BCE) and in the Ashvalayana Gruhyasutra. This may mean the core 24,000 verses, known as the Bharata, as well as an early version of the extended Mahabharata, were composed by the 4th century BCE.


Several stories within the Mahabharata took on separate identities of their own in Classical Sanskrit literature. For instance, Abhijnanashakuntala by the renowned Sanskrit poet Kalidasa (c. 400 CE), believed to have lived in the era of the Gupta dynasty, is based on a story that is the precursor to the Mahabharata. Urubhaṅga, a Sanskrit play written by Bhasa who is believed to have lived before Kalidasa, is based on the slaying of Duryodhana by the splitting of his thighs by Bhima.


The copper-plate inscription of the Maharaja Sharvanatha (533–534 CE) from Khoh (Satna District, Madhya Pradesh) describes the Mahabharata as a "collection of 100,000 verses" (shata-sahasri saṃhita). So the final version of Mahabharata as we know today was already completed before 533 CE.


Authorship: Did Sage Vyasa compose the entire Mahabharata?


Traditionally, the authorship of the Mahabharata is attributed to Vyasa, who himself is part of the Epic's storyline. Vyasa described it as being itihāsa which literally translates to 'history'. The first section of the Mahabharata states that it was Gaṇesha who wrote down the text to Vyasa's dictation. According to the Mahabharata itself, the tale is extended from a shorter version of 24,000 verses called simply Bharata.


. There have been many attempts to unravel its historical growth and compositional layers. The oldest preserved parts of the text are thought to be not much older than around 400 BCE, though the origins of the epic probably fall between the 8th and 9th centuries BCE. The text probably reached its final form by the early Gupta period (c. 4th century CE). The title may be translated as "the great tale of the Bharata dynasty". The expansion of epic from the 24,000 Bharata to 100,000 verse Mahabharata was not done by a single author, but instead it's an evolution with contribution from people across generations and geographies who added more details and stories to the actual storyline of Bharata, as well as added new chapters and related tales from other Smrithi textures that existed in ancient India to make the epic unbelievably compled. Going by Mahabharata itself which starts with the preface of the 12-year sacrifice at Namisha forest by Saunaka, where the story was recited by Ugrashrava Sauti, one of the chairoteer bards, and he recites the story of Janameya's snake sacrifice where Vaisampayana tells the Story of Mahabharata which was composed and taught to him by Sage Vyasa. So this version of Mahabharata with all the above storylines includes an original story (may be from Vyasa), addtions by Vaisampayana, and tales by Ugrashrava to include the story of Parikshit and Visampayana, and finally by another unknown author who included the story of Ugrashrava and Saunaka's sacrifice to set the context. It's a prima facie evidence that the epic in its entirety is not composed by a single author, and it went through additions and modifications over time. So the question is did Sage Vyasa, a single person, compose the 24,000 verse Bharata or the 8,800 verse Jaya. It's hard to say authoritatively one way or the other. All we could have are speculations and arguments. All that we could believe is that the story originated after a great battle, may be from a sigle source named Vyasa or by multiple poets and got attributed to Vyasa at some point down the line, and the story was retold again and again by the chairoteer bards who were professional story tellers of the time and who added their own appreciation for different characters in the epic with adjectives and exaggerations that made the whole epic look unbelievable and finally made it look like just an imaginative story.


Critical Editions


Between 1919 and 1966, scholars at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, compared the various manuscripts of the epic from India and abroad and produced the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, on 13,000 pages in 19 volumes, followed by the Harivamsha in another two volumes and six index volumes. This is the text that is usually used in current Mahabharata studies for reference. This work is sometimes called the "Pune" or "Poona" edition of the Mahabharata.


The first complete English translation was the Victorian prose version by Kisari Mohan Ganguli (with contributions from Charu chandra Mookherji and Professor Krishna Kamal Bhattacharya), published between 1883 and 1896. Kisari Mohan Ganguli's version was based on northern recenssion and Calcutta transcripts. Most critics consider the translation by Ganguli to be faithful to the original text. With no addition of author's opinions and with no orientiation towards any specific character in the epic, Ganguli's version looks a lot authentic and gives an unbiased translation of the sanskirt version of the orginal epic (in its latest known form with 100,000 Shlokas). The complete text of Ganguli's translation is in the public domain and is available online @ http://www.sacred-texts.com.


An early poetry translation by Romesh Chunder Dutt and published in 1898 condenses the main themes of the Mahabharata into English verse. A later poetic transcreation of the full epic into English done by the poet P. La was published by Writers Workshop. Culcutta (2005-2010). The P. Lal translation is a non-rhyming verse-by-verse rendering, and is the only edition in any language to include all slokas in all recensions of the work (not just those in the Critical Edition).


Many condensed versions, abridgements and novelistic prose retellings of the complete epic have been published in English, including works by Ramesh Menon, William Buck, R. K. Narayan, C. Rajagopalachari, K. M. Munshi, Krishna Dharma, Romesh C. Dutt, Bharadvaja Sarma, John D. Smith and Sharon Maas.

The Critical Edition of Mahabharat by BORI(Bhadarkar Oriental Research Institute) was translated to English by Bibek Debroy making it the only unabridged translation of the BORI version of the epic. As the critical edition by BORI is a collection that contains none of the regional embellishments that you might find elsewhere, Bibek Debroy's tranlsation is probably a good reference for anyone looking for an unabridged version. Kishori Mohan Ganguly’s (KMG) version in English is also unabridged but BORI is more researched, with many unnecessary later interpolations weeded out. I myself haven't read Bibek Debory's book as it was published pretty recently (concluding in 2014), but it's on the list now.



Email: princevenus@mahabharata-research.com