Mahabharata, deserves the adjective ‘maha’ – great– for many reasons. No other literature can be compared with it. It defies every kind of literary criticism and is above review or summary. It has an encyclopedic nature accommodating (nearly) every kind of ancient thinking. This is not just “Indian thought” but also the accepted wisdom one finds elsewhere in the world. That is why the Mahabharata [Mbh.] rightfully claims that all other [thoughts] philosophies, whatever the origin, will be found within and encompassed by this unusually comprehensive book.
‘yad ihasti tad anyatra yan nehasti na tat kvacit (whatever is here is also elsewhere; whatever is not here is extant nowhere. (Adi ch. 65. )…. 1
A common problem regarding quoting or translating Mbh is the fact that it was not recorded in one uniform script (devanagari), but in many regional scripts. Therefore,
The transcription of the original in the local scripts led to the separation of tradition or sealing of border between two traditions of the manuscripts. Then it became the property of the particular linguistic or social groups, so that additions or interpolations carried out in it were not know to the other….2
In light of this, I will make most of my points from Dutt’s translation3. However, I will also use what I deem as important from a variety of scholars who, in referring to other recessions, may have used different slokas.
In my opinion, it is safe to say, because of the encyclopedic nature of Mbh., there were other stories and thoughts added to the original work. The big question is: which one is the initial story? About the origin, you can see in the below quote that Kane points out various possibilities. 4
…The Adiparva [63.89-90] states that Vyasa taught the four pupils viz. Sumantu, Jaimini, Paila, Vaisampayanand to Suka his own son and these five promulgated separate five versions of the story. The Santiparva [chap.327. 26-33 and 349.10-12] repeats the same story about the five pupils of Vyasa. The extant Mahabharata is supposed to be the one that Vaisampayana narrated to Janamejaya, son of Pariksit, the latter being the grand-son of Arjuna and son of Abhimanyu. It is said in Adi [1.9-10] that Sauti heard the story narrated to Janamejaya and told it to Saunaka and other sages. Thus there are [acc. to the epic itself] three stages, viz.  Vyasa first transmitted the epic to five pupils;  these five including Vaisampayana composed separate works and Vaisampayana narrated it to Janamejaya, and  Sakti who heard the recital by Vaisampayana narrated [p.351] it to Saunaka and others. Therefore, the author for the extant Mahabharata is Sauti and Vyasa is only connected with it mediately….5
Tracing the original story of Mbh is like finding the original trunk of a grand Banyan tree which spreads over several acres of land. (There is a Banyan tree in The Theosophical Society of Adayar at Chennai which fits this description). The best way to understand Mbh. is to see it as an important religious cum secular scripture in which learned scholars, Brahmins and others convey their thoughts. About this Kane says:
…a few words must be said about the present text of the Mahabharata. There are three elements in it, viz. the bare story of the Pandava brothers and their cousins [usually referred to as Kauravas], the upakhyanas [abounding in the Vanaparva and scattered about in other parvans also] concerning gods, sages, brahmanas, kings and others and didactic matter insisting on doing one’s duties and the role of dharma as in Udyoga 148.16 ‘yato dharmastato jayah‘ and in Kuntii’s last message to Yudhisthira in Asramavasikaparva 17.21… and philosophy [Sankhya, Yoga, Vedanta]. There was, therefore, great scope at all times for adding stories and didactic matters. Thus the Mahabharata became very much inflated by additions made at different times. Anyone could add a story by saying ‘atrapyudaharantiimam itihasam puratanam’. In the Anusasanaparvan alone in 25 chapters stories are introduced with these words, apart from several stories introduced in a different manner…Two examples may be cited about Rama story being interpolated by devotees and enthusiasts. In chap. 74 of the Anusasana, apart from the evil results of the killing of a cow, the merit issuing from the gifts of cows or gold is praised and the chapter is wound up [verses 11-14] by Bhiisma who says that he learnt all this from his Upadhyaya to whom it came from the sages, to whom Laksmana imparted the story in the forest which Rama had heard from his father Dasaratha who learnt it from Indra. Another similar example occurs in Chap. 137 of the same parvan, which names numerous great men of the past that achieved highest worlds by making gifts of various kinds, among whom Rama [in verse 14], son of Dasaratha, is mentioned as having reached inexhaustible worlds by offerings in yajnas.
Not only were tales interpolated but there are several repetitions in the Mahabharata. A few examples may be noted. There is in Santi [Chap. 227] an enlarged version of [p.362] the brief dialogue between Indra and Bali in chap. 223; chap. 175 [dialogue between father and son] is practically the same as chap. 277. Salya 38. 39-45 are the same as Vanaparva 83. 116-121. The Sodasarajakiiya occurs twice, once in the Dronaparva [chap. 55-71] and again in the Santiparva chap. 29. The story of Astiika occurs twice, in Adi 13ff. and in chap. 48ff. again.6
Though in general both Mbh. and Ramayana are referred as the Two Great Epics, yet Kane points out the difference between them as ‘itihasa’ (Mbh.) and ‘kavya’:
…the Mahabharata claims to be itihasa [history] as stated above, while the Ramayana is a kavya as expressly stated in the Ramayana itself several times and as comparatively early and famous poets like Kalidasa often say. Therefore, it was possible for Valmiki to give free rein to his imagination, while in the Mahabharata some restraint had to be observed, since what was being put forward was dubbed itihasa. 7
Doniger’s clarification on this point is important to note:
Actually, the Mahabharata refers to itself as a “conversation” or “tale” (akhyana) more often than an itihasa, and occasionally as a poem (kavya), just like the Ramayana, but it is usually called an itihasa. The philosopher Abhinavagupta says that itihasa is just another form of kavya, and by that definition, the Mahabharata is kavya too. 8
One is always curious to know about the actual historical proofs for Mbh, at least for the Great War that was supposedly fought at Kurushetra. Several attempts were made in the past and also recent times to confirm that the present Kurushetra in Haryana as the exact place where the Great War took place. But, as we are more interested in knowing what Mbh says than its historical authenticity, we can safely leave that matter to the scholars and others interested in that point. 9 However, one cannot think that an epic as great as this could have come into existence on mere fictional or mythological characters. Historically, several of the kings—at least their dynasties—were known to subsist in ancient India. According to Kane, ‘…The descendants of the Pandava heroes viz. Partiksit and Janamejaya are well-known in the Vedic age. The Sat. Br. XIII. 4.5 and Ait. Br. 35. 1 mentions Pariksita Janamejaya as a performer of Asvamedha. Dasaratha, Rama and their descendants are not spoken of in these ancient works.’10
On the whole, the traditional view has gained strength through the failure of modern criticism regarding the origin and development of the Mahabharata. Thus, many scholars today accept the view that the Mahabharata underwent two major recensions: it began as Jaya, a poem about the victory of the Pandavas over the Kauravas, of about 7000 slokas. This is supposed to have been the work of Vyasa ….It was augmented to about three times its former length in the Bharata by Vaisampayana, who recited it at the snake sacrifice of Janamejaya. The Suuta, who heard it there, related it as Mahabharata of 100,000 verses to the assembly of sages in the Naimisa forest during the sacrifice performed by Saunaka.
The present edition of the Mahabharata itself speaks of three beginnings: manvadi, beginning from Manu, corresponding to the first twelve parvans (“chapters”) of the present work; astikadi, beginning with Astika, comprising parvans 13 to 53; uparicaradi, from parvan 54 onward.11
Traditionally, it is believed that Mbh contained one lakh slokas, which was only the condensed version. The original is said to have had 60 lakh verses:
44. The great race of the Bharatas is its topic. Hence it is called Bharata. And because of its grave meaning as also of the Bharatas being its topic, it is called Mahabharata. 45. He who is versed in interpretations of this great work becomes purged of every sin. Such a man lives in virtue, profit and pleasure, and acquires liberation also. 46. That which is in this is elsewhere. That which does not occur here occurs nowhere else. This history is known by the name of Jaya. It should be heard by every one desirous of liberation. … 48. … The powerful Island-born Krishna[Vyasa] who will not have to come back, and who is liberation incarnate, made an abstract of the Bharata, moved by the desire of helping the cause of virtue. 49. He made another compilation consisting of sixty lakhs of verses. 50. Thirty lakhs of these were placed in the region of the celestials. In the region of the Pitris, fifteen lakhs, it should be known, are current; while in that of the Yakshas fourteen lakhs are current. 51-52. One lakh is current among human beings. Narada recited the Mahabharat to the gods; Asita-Devala to the Pitris; Shuka to the Rakshasas and the Yakshas; and Vaishampayana to human beings. This history is sacred, and of deep significance, and considered as equal to the Vedas. [Sauti to Shaunaka].12
Considering my limitations, and the multi-faceted nature of Mbh, I will attempt to share what I feel are some important and interesting thoughts.
Though Mbh. belongs to Smriti, yet it is equally claimed as ‘Veda’. But this claim, I think was because of its authority on common people’s life and the continuity of Vedic thoughts13 and myths. 14 Another reason could be that as Vyasa is claimed to be the author of both Vedas and Mbh., its claims as Veda gained importance. Mbh. itself claims its equality with Veda and according to Gonda even Upanishads endorses this view. 15 Pandy states that Brahmins also used Mbh. to popularize their thoughts and practices both by inserting them as well as giving equal status to Mbh:
…The Brahmanas [Brahmins], who were the custodians of literature, utilized the epics, as they became popular, for propagation of their culture and religion. So, many religious and ceremonial elements which did not originally belong to it, entered the huge body of the Mahabharata and it became a reference book for the Hindu religion. The Mahabharata was regarded as a Samhita as early as before the fifth century A.D. [Buhler and Kirste, contrib. To the history of the Mahabharata. Siteungsher wien, 1892. 4-27]…. 16
Date of Mbh.
In a country where time is cyclical, fixing a conclusive date for the scripture holds little or no meaning. Though sincere scholars, without prejudice, attempted to fix a relative time period for the scriptures, common people have no concern about it. So, here too, we need not invest a lot of time concerning that. However, as writing was done much later, the following points given by Klostermaier, quoting E.W. Hopkins (The Great Epic of India: Its Character and Origin, Chap. IV, p. 397) will help us have a better understanding of the date of Mbh:
1. Bharata (Kuru) lays, perhaps combined into one, but with no evidence of an epic before 400 B.C.E.
2. A Mahabharata tale with Pandu heroes, songs, and legends combined by the Puranic diaskeuaste with Krsna as a demigod (no evidence yet of Krsna’s supremacy) between 400 and 200 B.C.E.
3. The Epic was remade with Krsna as all-god under the inclusion of a mass of Puranic materials between 200 B.C.E. and C.E.100-200.
4. The last books were added and the present division of Parvans finalized before C.E. 400. 17
Conversation between the Characters:
Regarding the persons mentioned and who said what to whom (from Dutt), it goes beyond this paper to include all of them. Actually the entire Mbh is the story told by Vaisampayana to Janamejaya–the son of Pariksit and the grandson of Abhimanyu (great grandson of Arjuna). Other characters will often enter the dialogue addressing still others. For example, Vaisampayana mentions the conversation between Yudhisthira and Bhishma. When Yudhishthira asks a particular question to Bhishma, the latter will quote another conversation which took place between Manu and Suvarna. In that conversation Manu quotes the discussion between Shukra and Vali. Tracing the original discussions which took place between characters in the Mbh will includes a multitude of people. Therefore, I have restricted the conversation to only two people when referring to one specific verse, not tracing all those purported to be involved in the original conversation(s).
As we noted above, Mbh. along with Ramayana is called the two great epics of India. There is a Ramayana also within in Mbh. I don’t remember finding any mention or reference about Mbh. in Ramayana. However, as Mbh. claims that all kinds of teaching one could find in it, it is natural for us to find not only the story of Ramayana in Mbh. but also several of its teaching. So precise comparison of the two epics given by Doniger will help us to understand the relationship between them:
The Ramayana tells of a war against foreigners and people of another species, with clear demarcations of forces of good triumphing over evil; the Mahabharata is about a bitter civil war with no winners. The Ramayana doesn’t usually problematize dharma; the Mahabharata does, constantly. Where the Ramayana is triumphalist, the Mahabharata is tragic. Where the Ramayana is affirmative, the Mahabharata is interrogative. Rama is said to be the perfect man, and his flaws are largely papered over, while the flaws of Mahabharata heroes are what the whole thing is about….
But we cannot say that the Ramayana came first, when people still believed (p.302) in dharma, and then the Mahabharata came along and deconstructed it. Nor can we say that the Mahabharata first looked the disaster square in the eyes and showed what a mess it was, and then after that the Ramayana flinched and cleaned it up…. Both views exist simultaneously and in conversation: The Ramayana says, “There is a perfect man, and his name is Rama,” and the Mahabharata says, “not really; dharma is so subtle that even Yudhishthira cannot always fulfill it.” Or, if you prefer, the Mahabharata says, “Dharma is subtle,” and the Ramayana replies, “Yes, but not so subtle that it cannot be mastered by a perfect man like Rama.” 18
Concerning the topic of abbreviations: I will try to expand those the authors used in the text within parenthesis (). However, I will not be using all the abbreviations of other authors in the same way I have done with Kane. Regarding the spelling of characters, they are as it is in Dutt. But those in the quotations are the original by the authors.
My aim is to present the Mbh by topic. I have arranged the verses according to my understanding and assessment. For example, all the verses that I have collected under ‘virtue’ could also be under ‘dharma.’ At the same time, all the verses related to ‘virtue’ need not be related to ‘dharma’ only, but also with ‘character.’ In the same way, all the verses under ‘dharma’ could go under various headings like ‘duty,’ order,’ virtue,’ etc., as ‘dharma’ has various meanings. Above all, Dutt translated according to his understanding of a particular word in a verse in that particular context. I have arranged the meaning of words in accordance with Dutt’s work. In lieu of this, I expect there to be disagreement about my organization of Mbh. I have done this mainly for my need to refer to the verses on that particular topic.
Once the project of arranging Mbh slokas into various categories was complete, I considered sharing my views on Badrinath’s book: Chaturvedi Badrinath, The Mahabharata: An Inquiry in the Human Condition,New Delhi, Orient Longman, 2007. This is an interesting book which helps one to understand the views of Mbh. from Bandrinath’s point of view. At the same time, because I have some questions on his interpretation, I decided to limit myself only to Dutt’s Mbh. for arranging the slokas on topic wise.
Dayanand Bharati. Gurukulam,August 21, 2011
1 M.N.[Manmatha Nath] Dutt, Mahabharata,Delhi, Parimala Publications, 7 vols. Vol. I. 1988. p.1
2. ibid. Forward by the Publisher. p.2
3. Dutt, ibid.
4. Kane, P. V, History of Dharmasastra, Five volumes, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, 1968-77 (1930-62), Adi 1.52 , Vol. I, Part. I, 32. The Two Epics, p. 350
5. ibid. pp.351-52.
6. ibid.pp.362 -63.
7. ibid. pp.356-57.
8. Wendy Doniger, The Hindus An Alternative History,New Delhi, Penguin /Viking. 2009, notes. P. 302
9. …The Bodo natives of Assamare known to regard such Epic characters as Bhaagadatta, Rukma, Babhruvahana, Baanaasura as their ancestors. Significantly most of the these characters are described as asura Kings in the Mahaabhaarata as well as in the Puraanas. The fact of Bodos claiming kinship relation with the asuras pointedly affirms the semi-historical base and content of the Epic, which in keeping with the epic literary tradition was presented in a mythical garb.
The close cultural affinity which the Epics and the Puraanas could evoke amongst tribes is manifest from the way the people of the north-east of India can even recall having participated in the Mahaabhaarata war [K.S.Singh, ‘The Mahaabhaarata: An Anthropological Perspective’, The Mahaabhaarata in the Tribal and Folk Traditions of India,p.1; W.L. Smith, Raamaayana Traditions in Eastern India, New Delhi, 1995.]. It appears to be a clear case of Epic tradition becoming so deeply ingrained in the tribal psyche and permeating the collective memory that it almost became a source of reinforcing and even resuscitating group identity [B.R. Sharma, ‘Tribal Myth and Legend and Their Role in Development in Himachal Pradesh’, Tribal Development Appraisal and Alternative, ed., S.K.Gupta, V.P.Sharma, and N.K. Sharda, New Delhi, 1998,p. 426].
Another Mahaabhaarata character who is found to be extremely popular and worshipped as a major deity in Himachal Pradesh is Bhiima’s wife Hidimbaa, whose temples can be found in many villages of the region [B.R.Sharma, ‘Impact of the Mahaabhaarata on Folk and Tribal Culture of Himachal Pradesh’, The Mahaabhaarata in the Tribal and Folk Traditions of India, pp.34, 38]. Though there are some tribes such as the Kawaras of Madhya Pradesh who claim descent from the Kauravas [K.S.Singh, ‘The Mahaabhaarata: An Anthropological Perspective’, The Mahaabhaarata in the Tribal and Folk Traditions of India,p. 3], it was Bhiima, the strongest amongst the Paandavas who gained maximum popularity with the pre-literate groups. For example, the Darrang Kacharis of the north-east consider themselves as Bhiim-ni-fa, i.e., the children of Bhiima [ibid., p.2]. Bhimasena is the presiding deity of the (p.196) Bidri festival celebrated by the Gonds, who also make his effigies and build shrines known as Bhiimasena Mandir.— Vijay Nath, Puraanas and Acculturation: A Historico-Anthropological Perspective, Munshirma Manoharlal, New Delhi, 2001, pp.196-7
10. Kane, op. cit. Vol.I. Part.I. 32. The Two Epics. p. 371.
11. Klaus K. Klostermaier, A SURVEY OF HINDUISM, Munshiram Manoharlal,New Delhi,1990, p.76
12. Dutt. Op. cit. SWARGAROHANIKA PARVA. VOL. 7.Ch.V. p. 556
13. …Thus the ‘orthodox’ religions of later times claim to be the continuation of the Veda or even represent themselves to be the Vedic past unchanged or purified and adapted to the needs of ensuing generations. The ‘redactor’ of the Veda is considered to have compiled also the post-Vedic, early ‘Hinduist’, Mahabharata, that Encyclopaedia of Hinduism which is styled the fifth Veda beside the four ancient corpora. [caturo vedaan sarvaan aakhyaanapancamaan, mss. Of the Mbh. 3,55,8 cr. ed.] “The man who recites this Mahabharata should be regarded as skilled in the Vedas” [1,56,26, cr. ed.]….. — J. Gonda, Change and Continuity in Indian Religion, Munshiram Manoharlal,New Delhi, (1965) 1985, p.10
14. …Much of the imagery of the myth as it appears in the Mahaabhaarata is Vedic….— Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology,University ofCalifornia Press,Berkeley. Paperback Edition, (1976) 1980, p. 180
15. …Chaandyoga Upanishad. 7,1,2 where the itihaasa-puraanam i.e. “the legendary traditions and ancient lore” are given the name of the fifth Veda: … atharvanam caturtham, itihaasapuraanam pancamam….— Gonda, op. cit. p.10
16. Rajbali Pandey, Hindu Samskaras: Socio-Religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments, Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, (Second Revised Edition, 1969), Reprint, 1987 p.9
17. Klaus K. Klostermaier, MYTHOLOGIES AND PHILOSOPHIES OF SALVATION IN THE THEISTIC TRADITIONS OF INDIA, Published for the Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion/Corporation Canadienne des Sciences Religieuses by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1984,—notes, 104, pp.320-21
18. Wendy Doniger, The Hindus An Alternative History, op. cit. pp.302-03