Mahabharata is the grand epic in which Sage Vyasa [व्यास] has revealed everything about the world [“व्यासोच्छिष्टम् जगत् सर्वम्”]. Legend says that this book was written by Lord Ganesh while Sage Vyasa [व्यास] was narrating it. Vedic literature is in a very ancient language and full of descriptions of sacrifices and other rituals. Mahabharata however is in simple and easy Sanskrut language so it is quite understandable by common people. While narrating the Great War between Kauravas [कौरव] and Pandavas [पाण्डव], it also tells us about the social, cultural and historical backgrounds of that time. On account of this, Mahabharata has a great literary importance. It has been and being studied by many Indian as well as foreign scholars. Mahabharat is famous as fifth Veda. The world famous Bhagvadgeeta”[भगवद्गीता] is part of the Mahabharata.

The Story of the Kauravas [कौरव] and the Pandavas[पाण्डव] is the main subject; along with this, this epic also throws light upon the cultural, political and religious aspects of life. Many epics, poems, plays were written based on this epic in later times. Overall one lakh verses are in this epic so it is also known as ‘Shatsahasri Samhita’ [शतसाहस्रीसम्हिता]. In early times Mahabharata used to be referred as history. But today it is revered as a source of knowledge. The main part written by Sage Vyasa [व्यास] was of historic kind. Vaishampayana’s [वैशम्पायन] edition was like Puran [पुराण] and Sauti [सौती] gave it the form of religious science.

All four objectives of life namely Dharma [धर्म], Arth [अर्थ], Kama [काम], Moksha [मोक्ष] can easily be achieved with the knowledge of this book. That is why it is accorded the status of the fifth Veda. Since ancient times many references to Pandavas[पाण्डव] bravery can be found in Sanskrut literature. In Atharvaveda Parikshit Aakhyan[परिक्षित आख्यान] can be found. Sage Vyasa [व्यास] may have collected all these references and then written this epic with his own poetic excellence. Three stages of Mahabharata’s development can be stated they are-:

  • Jay- Goddess Saraswati [सरस्वती] is invoked first and reading of epic Jay is also mentioned. The name Jay [जय] is mentioned in starting verse of every Chapter [पर्व]. And the eighteenth chapter states that ‘this is the history named Jay [जय]’. So there is no doubt that Jay [जय] was the original name of Mahabharata. Prof. Macdonald thinks that there were 8800 verses in the original version of Mahabharata. But he has concluded this from the number of Kootshlokas [कूटश्लोक] i.e. riddles in Mahabharata. The name Jay [जय] indicates that this book describes the battle between Kaurav[कौरव] and Pandavas[पाण्डव] which ended in Pandava’s [पाण्डव] victory.  This first stage of Mahabharata starts from the Uparinchakhyan [उपरिञ्चाख्यान] which contains 8800 verses. Sage Vyasa[व्यास] taught this to his disciple Vaishampayana.
  • Bharat- This is the name of the second stage of Mahabharata. In this part there are only descriptions of battles, there are no stories or tales in it. This edition starts from Aastikakhyana [आस्तिकाख्यान]. There are 24,000 verses in this edition. Vaishampayana [वैशम्पायन] recited this at Jayanmejaya’s [जयनमेजय] sacrifice.
  • Mahabharata- This is the final stage of Mahabharata. This part contains one lakh verses; this number is attained after joining verse from Mahabharata and Harivansh[हरिवम्श] together. Sauti [सौती] told this to Shaunak [शौनक]. At this time the verse number reached 100000. This edition starts with Manvakhyan [मन्वाख्यान].

Story of Mahabharata

The story of Mahabharata is very ancient. Its roots can be found in Vedic literature. The Kuru [कुरु] and Panchal [पाञ्चाल] dynasties are mentioned in Yajurveda [यजुर्वेद]. The names Dhrutrashtra [धृतराष्ट्र] and Vichitraveerya [विचित्रवीर्य] are mentioned in Kathak samhita [काठकसम्हिता]. The main story of Mahabharata is about the battle between Kauravas [कौरव] and Pandavas [पाण्डव].

  • There are a total of eighteen Parvas [पर्व] i.e. chapters in Mahabharata. In the first Aadi Parva [आदि पर्व] the birth of Kauravas [कौरव] and Pandavas [पाण्डव], rivalry between them, Draupadi’s [द्रौपदी] wedding with Pandavas [पाण्डव] and pandavas[पाण्डव] becoming Kings are described. Also the envy of Duryodhana[दुर्योधन] for the Pandavas [पाण्डव] is described.
  • In Sabha Parva [सभापर्व] the consequences of Duryodhana’s [दुर्योधन] envy leading the Pandavas[पाण्डव] to their defeat in Dyuta [द्युत] i.e. gambling and their exile for 13 years is explained.
  • In Vanaparva[वनपर्व] description of Pandava’s [पाण्डव] exile for 12 years can be found.
  • In Viratparva[विराटपर्व], Pandavas[पाण्डव] came out from their Adnyatvasa[अज्ञातवास] i.e. remaining incognito, in which they were supposed to live one year by disguising their real identities. And after that they tried to settle things between themselves and Duryodhana [दुर्योधन] through Lord Krushna[कृष्ण], this part of the story described here.
  • The description of the battle starts from Bheeshma Parva[भीष्मपर्व] and it continues through the next three chapters which are DronParva [द्रोणपर्व], KarnaParva [कर्णपर्व] and ShalyaParva [शल्यपर्व].
  • In this war, almost all soldiers and chariots and horses and elephants and foot soldiers for Pandavas [पाण्डव]and Kauravas[कौरव] died {the no. is tentatively around 38 lakhs in all} along with all main warriors. Only Pandava’s[पाण्डव] sons were alive, who were killed by Ashwathama [अश्वत्थामा] son of Dronacharya [द्रोणाचार्य] while they were asleep. This is narrated in Sauptik Parva [सौप्तिकपर्व].
  • The obsequies of kauravas[कौरव] are narrated in Stree Parva [स्त्रीपर्व].
  • Conciliation and advice given to Pandavas [पाण्डव] is in Shanti Parva [शान्तिपर्व].
  • Ashwamedh [अश्वमेध] sacrifice in AshwamedhikParva [आश्वमेधिकपर्व].
  • In the last chapters crowning of the grandson of Arjun [अर्जुन] Parikshit [परीक्षित] as king of Hastinapur [हस्तिनापुर] is narrated. In Last SwargarohanParva [स्वर्गारोहणपर्व] Pandava’s[पाण्डव] journey to heaven is described.

Arrangement of Mahabharata

The story of Mahabharata is divided into 18 chapters known as ‘Parva’ [पर्व]. Names of them are as follows.

  1. Aadi [आदि],2. Sabha [सभा], 3. VanA [वन] 4.Virat [विराट] 5. Udyog [उद्योग], 6.Bheeshma [भीष्म] 7.Drona [द्रोण] 8.Karna [कर्ण] 9.Shalya [शल्य], 10. Sauptik [सौप्तिक], 11.Stree [स्त्री], 12. Shanti [शान्ति], 13.Anushasan [अनुशासन] 14.Aashwamedhik [आश्वमेधिक] 15. Aashramvasi [आश्रमवासी], 16. Mausal [मौसल], 17. Mahaprasthanik [महाप्रस्थानिक] and 18. Swargarohan [स्वर्गारोहण].

Each Parva[पर्व] has many sub chapters and many verses in it. Other than these some sub-stories from Mahabharata are also famous like Shakuntalopakhyan [शकुन्तलोपाख्यान], Matsyopakhyan [मत्स्योपाख्यान], Nalopakhyan [नलोपाख्यान]Gangavataran [गङ्गावतरण] Satyawan –Savitri [सत्यवान-सावित्री] story etc. Many of these are in VanAParva [वनपर्व]. In Mahabharata, advice and morals are five times more than the story content. So this book is more like a journal for various human experiences and life. One more reason for such descriptive nature of Mahabharata is that at the time of Mahabharata, Buddhism had become very powerful. Buddhists had turned legends like Rama to Bodhisattva. So Vedic Aryans wanted to preserve the purity and idols in their religion somewhere. Outcome of their effort of preserving their religion is Mahabharata. The important thing which Sauti [सौती] wanted to achieve through Mahabharata was preserving Vedic Religion and its importance.

Treasure of Human experiences

Mahabharata is not only the history of ancient India but it is also a very nice collection of ancient lifestyle, social and religious reflections of that era. The great goal of life and the worst fall both are there in this book. Greed of Duryodhan [दुर्योधन], Draupadi’s [द्रौपदी] determination, Yudhishthira’s [युधिष्ठिर] truthfulness and his fondness for gambling all these are very nicely arranged in Mahabharata. That human thoughts and emotions are secondary in terms of one’s duty is well proved by Mahabharata. Every man is tested at the time of calamity; sorrow makes him strong morally and leads him on to the right path is told by Mahabharata. So Draupadi[द्रौपदी] is told in Vanparva [वनपर्व] that “A person never gets happiness only by happy things, but oh! Virtuous one, happiness is obtained by sorrows”

[सुखम् सुखेनैव न जातु लभ्ये।दुःखेन साध्वि लभते सुखानि।।]

Importance of literature is based upon the reflection of human life and the experiences in it. Mahabharata is full of such references.  It is said about Mahabharata that whatever is in this epic, we can see its manifestation in the whole world and whichever is not mentioned in this book can rarely be seen anywhere on this earth.

[“यदिहास्ति तदन्यत्र यन्नहास्ति न तत्क्वचित्।“]

The Mahabharat also explains the worthlessness of physical pleasures and guides people towards the path of liberation.

Literary value of Mahabharata

While Ramayana is an example of ancient poetry, Mahabharata is an example of ancient history, Puran [पुराण] and Aakhyan [आख्यान] literature. Mahabharata is in Shlok [श्लोक] i.e. Anushtubh [अनुष्टुभ] meter, Upajati [उपजाति] and Vamshstha [वम्शस्थ] meters are also used. The language is full of ancient words and proverbs. Grammar rules are not followed. Phrases like ‘KrushnaUvach’ [कृष्णः उवाच],’ BhagvanUvach’ [भगवान् उवाच] come before the verse. In Ramayana those were part of the verse.   In Mahabharata only one verse is in ShardulvikriditVrutta [शार्दूलविक्रीडित]. In Aadi [आदि] Karna[कर्ण] and Drona[द्रोण] Parva[पर्व] some verses can be found in Drutvilmbit [द्रुतविलम्बित], Ruchira [रुचिर], Praharshini [प्रहर्षिणी], Malini [मालिनी] and Vasnt-tilaka [वसन्ततिलका] vrutta [वृत्त]. The language is a mixture of new and ancient. Language of Bhagvadgeeta [भगवद्गीता] seems to be ancient; on the other side Anugeeta’s [अनुगीता] language is new. But the language is very simple, sweet and easy to understand. Antiquity and novelty of language can be seen as the creation of this book was in three stages by Vyasa [व्यास], Vaishampayana [वैशम्पायन] and Sauti [सौती].

‘Peace’ is a prominent sentiment of this epic. Sentiment of bravery is inbuilt. Characters in Mahabharata seem like real. The Ideal and truthful king Yudhishthir [युधिष्ठिर], the great warrior Arjun [अर्जुन], mighty Bheem [भीम], obedient Nakul [नकुल] and Sahdev [सहदेव], virtuous Draupadi [द्रौपदी] – all of them put forward a very good example of following the paths of truth and duty which lead them to heaven. Along with these, Bheeshma [भीष्म], Drutrashtra [धृतराष्ट्र], Duryodhan [दुर्योधन], Karna[कर्ण], Dronacharya [द्रोणाचार्य] are also very impressive characters in Mahabharata. If one wishes to be happy and contented in life then he must follow religion and fulfill all his duties which leads to fulfillment of Artha [अर्थ] and Kaam [काम], this is the main moral of Mahabharata.

Editions of Mahabharata

This epic has two editions south Indian and North Indian, both are different in terms of verse numbers, order of chapters and stories. Hand written scripts of both editions can be found everywhere in India and in Europe. The Bhandarkar [भाण्डारकर] oriental research library, Pune, India has created one edition of Mahabharata which is created after the study of South and North editions and handwritten scripts from the Guajarati, Tamil, Telugu and Bengali editions.

Commentaries on Mahabharat

Among many available commentaries SarvadnyaNarayana’s [सर्वज्ञ नारायण] Commentary is very ancient which belongs to 14th century. Arjun Mishra’s [अर्जुन मिश्र] commentary is in Kolkata edition. Neelkantha [नीलकण्ठ] has two editions south Indian and North Indian, both are different in terms of verse numbers, order of chapters and stories. Maharashtra was from 16th century, his commentary is most famous. Arjun Mishra[अर्जुन मिश्र] must have been senior to him.

Dateline- Mahabharata

As is common to to many other Sanskrut literary works, timeframe of Mahabharata is subject to difference of opinion among scholars. As it has been developed in three stages we cannot fix it in a specific timeframe. The original Mahabharata was known to Panini, and Panini’s time is 5th-6th century B.C. In Aashwalayana Guhyasutra [आश्वलायन गुह्यसूत्र] {5th century B.C.}, Bharat and Mahabharat are clearly mentioned. In Baudhayana Dhrmasutra [बौधायन धर्मसूत्र]{4th century B.C.} also Mahabharata is mentioned. This Sutra [सूत्र] contains some part of “VishnuSahasraNama”[विष्णुसहस्रनाम]. In Shanti Parva [शान्तिपर्व] Buddha is not mentioned as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu [विष्णू]. Bhagvad Geeta[भगवद्गीता], some part from BheeshmaParva [भीष्मपर्व] and ShantiParva[शान्तिपर्व] established Lord Krushna[कृष्ण] as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. In the original Mahabharata, Brahma [ब्रह्मा] was the greatest God. According to Pali [पाली] literature this situation was in 5th century. Many scholars say that according to some astrological proofs original Mahabharata must have been written after 5th century.

According to ancient Indian tradition Mahabharata was created in 3200 B.C. and modern scholars are trying to drag it as much as possible by them before 5th -6th century. According to Lt. Chintamanrao Vaidya [चिन्तामणराव वैद्य] today’s Mahabharata must have been created before 300 B.C. As the social details mentioned in that when the number of vegetarians were increasing, Shaiv [शैव] {i.e. followers of Lord Shiva} and Vaishnava [वैष्णव] {i.e. followers of Lord Vishnu} groups were formed and the sciences of grammar, Vedanta [वेदान्त] and Nyaya [न्याय] had already been established and being studied. But afterwards in the 2nd century there must have been some additions to Mahabharata e.g. Roman coins “denarius” are mentioned in Harivansh [हरिवम्श]. And the names of zodiac signs also refer to 2nd century B.C.

From an inscription in the ancient city of Kamboj [काम्बोज] which is from 6th century A.D. the editions of Ramayana and Mahabharata were given to the temple over there.  In Java, Tibet and Bali, Mahabharata reached before 6th century and was translated in their local languages. From the metallic inscriptions from 4th and 5th century sayings from Mahabharata are mentioned it proves that at that time Mahabharata was authorized as Smruti [स्मृति] or Religious guide.

With the study of Chinese literature, and north Indian Buddhist literature we can state that today’s Mahabharata was created many centuries before 5th century. Dion Chrysostom’s direct proof says that Mahabharata was known in south India before 50 A.D.{C.V. Vaidya –“Mahabharata,a Criticism”} Ashwaghosh [अश्वघोष] {1st century} has mentioned one verse from Harivansh [हरिवम्श] in his work Vajrasoochi [वज्रसूची]. According to these and many other proofs we can say that today’s Mahabharata was created between 3rdcentury B.C to start of 1st century A.D. Original Mahabharata must have been created before 5th century B.C.

Harivansh

It is said that like Uttarkanda[उत्तरकाण्ड] of Ramayana, Harivansh[हरिवम्श] is attached to Mahabharata afterwards and it is part of today’s Mahabharata. It contains 16374 verses and is divided in three parts. In the first part, Lord Krushna’s [कृष्ण] ancestors are described, in the second part Krushna’s [कृष्ण] life is described and in the third, importance of Kali [कलि] is told.

Thus the legends of Ramayana and Mahabharata are being followed in India since centuries. The impact of these two has remained intact even after multiple generations. They have been read through centuries but still they make us think, guide us even in the 21st century.  Here are few lines which explain the greatness of Mahabharata in short -: “Oh King of India! Mahabharata is indeed the best science of all, and the key of it as I would say is, the study of this book leads us towards liberation”.

भारतम् सर्वशास्त्राणामुत्तमम् भरतर्षभ।

भारतात् प्राप्यते मोक्षस्तत्त्वमेतत् ब्रवीमि तत्।।

References

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