Authority and influence

Mbh’s influence

Though common people has reverence for Vedas, when it comes to the practical life, except for the Vedic mantras, which are still used for important samskars (particularly among the Twice born), yet its influence is not much.  But when it comes to Epics (Ramayana and Mbh.) they play an important role in various ways.  Hardly a Hindu home is left in India in which some kind of knowledge about the teachings and stories of the Epics is not found.  Rarely one can find the name of Vedic gods and characters to Hindus, but the names of many characters of the Epics are used by Hindus of all kinds of walk.

As the access to Veda is denied for every one, yet the stories of Epics were a household event from time in memorial.  And in this modern time of Printed and Electronic media, the influence of the Epics are so great that we need to go in length about it.  However one interesting point regarding Mbh. is that, though its story was recited for public in katha form in the past, in general we won’t find a copy of the epics in Hindu homes, particularly Mbh.  As far as my knowledge goes, generally reading of Mbh. is also not encouraged at home, considering its tragic theme and cruelty of war.  But the reason given for this by Doniger is bit strange and gives an uncomfortable feeling, particularly the two words that she uses: ‘holocaust and genocide’:

…the Mahabharata, when converted from its oral to its written form, has potentially inauspicious magic (particularly since it tells of a great holocaust and genocide).  For that reason, to this day many people fear to keep complete written texts of it inside their houses.— Wendy Doniger, The Hindus An Alternative History,New Delhi, Penguin/Viking. 2009, Notes. P. 220

I am a great fan of her writing and much benefited by her books. And giving all respect to her as a scholar yet I cannot understand how the war between cousins over their property (kingdom or right to rule) could be termed as ‘holocaust and genocide’?  Though I may not know the technical meaning of these two words, from a common understating, for me holocaust and genocide took place to eradicate one group of people based on their ethnic, religious or racial identity.  For example the way Jews were killed by the Nazis in the past and the current civil war in Lybia and Yemen and also to some extent in Afghanistan can come under the preview of holocaust and genocide.  But in Mbh. the two cousins never tried to get rid of the other for such reasons.  Whatever might be the reason for her to use such words, yet as an Indian I find it difficult to accept such reading on the war on Mbh.

Mbh.’s authority:

Though Veda is considered as the authoritative for all Hindu schools of thoughts, yet we all know that is more a claim than a fact.  In common life of Hindus, mostly first it is the particularly family tradition and then that of community, sect and region held more authoritative than any particular scripture.  However unlike the Veda, the way Smritis had influence and authority is more remarkable and even pan-Indian.  Like Puranas, Mbh. also claimed its own authority on several areas and it is also claimed as the Fifth Veda.  Though orthodox tradition never accepted this view1, yet it was said in the context of struggling to maintain their position and authority in the field of rituals.  Mbh. itself claims this authority and even insists that it not only equal to Veda2 but even more authority than that of Veda:

…In time gone by, the celestials met together and placed the four Vedas on one side and this Bharata on the other side of a scale, and then Bharata weighed heavier. (1.268-69).—Dutt. Ch. 1.268-69. ADI PARVA p.10

Like any other scriptures, Mbh. also bestows blessing on those who hear, recite and make gift of it:

Here occurs a sloka.  ‘This [Maha] Bharat is equal to the Vedas.  It is holy and good.  It gives wealth, fame and life.  Therefore, it should be heard by men with great attention.’ [Vaishampayana to Janamejaya]  (95:89)—ibid. ADI PARVA p.141

And in Swargarohanika ParvaCh.VI. There is a long list of fruits for the recitation and listening of each Parana of Mbh.  One fruit is enough to show what the other entire fruits one can get:

34. … At the eighth Parana he acquires the fruits of the Rajasuya sacrifice… 36. He is served by most beautiful women whose faces are more charming than the moon.  He hears the music of the garlands that encircle their waists and the Nupuras encircling their ankles. 37. Sleeping with his head resting on the laps of women of great beauty he awakes greatly refreshed…. [Vaishampayana to Janamejaya].3 — ibid. SWARGAROHANIKA PARVA. VOL. 7. Ch. VI. P. 558

And going along with the common practice of Hindus giving reverence to the very book itself, which is worshipped as god, Mbh. says that:

75-76. Having finished all the Parvas, one versed in the scriptures, dressing himself in white wearing garlands, decked with ornaments, and properly purified, should place a copy of the Mahabharata on an auspicious spot and cover it with a piece of silken cloth and adore it, according to due rites, with scents and garlands, offering each at a time. 77. Indeed, O king, the several volumes of this work should be adored by one with devotion and apt mind.  Offerings should be made to them of various kinds of food and garlands and drinks and various auspicious articles of enjoyment. [Vaishampayana to Janamejaya]. — ibid. SWARGAROHANIKA PARVA. VOL. 7. Ch. VI. P. 559.

Though such reverence is given to Mbh., as already noted, we cannot find a copy of it in most of the homes of Hindus and also won’t be read at home.  This shows how the ‘change and continuity’4 of orthodoxy and tradition is claimed and maintained at the same time remain flexible in common practice of life.  It is interesting to note that as Gonda points out this claim as the fifth Veda is accepted by Veda itself:

…ChaandU. 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….—— Change and Continuity in Indian Religion, J. Gonda, Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, (1965) 1985, p.10

Dayanand Bharati, Gurukulam.August 22, 2011.


1. …In the case of the Mahabharata, it simply classed itself as the “fifth Veda.”  For Mimasakas, this was nonsense.  The Mahabharata was not a Veda because it was manifestly human in origin and concerned itself with human events—all very interesting, no doubt, but inadmissible as evidence for the definitive understanding of ritual acts.  The point, of course, is that Vedic evidence is apauruseya—nonhuman—and so wonderfully free of human fallibilities.— Michael Willis, The Archaeology of Hindu Ritual:Temples and the establishment of the Gods,Cambridge, 2009. p. 211 (For Mimamsakas objection to the authority of Mbh, refer Wills p. 210 ff.  All is in the context of growing influence and importance ofTemples and rituals related with it.)

2. 52. This history is sacred, and of deep significance, and considered as equal to the Vedas. [Sauti to Shaunaka].— ibid. SWARGAROHANIKA PARVA. VOL. 7.Ch.V. p. 556

3. In order to avoid the misunderstanding that I am only quoting this verse to undermine Mbh. here I am giving other benefits given in this chapter:

30-31. At the fourthParanahe acquires the fruits of the Vajapeya sacrifice.  At the fifth, he acquires twice those fruits.  Ascending a celestial car which resembles the rising sun or a blazing fire, and with the deities for his companions, he goes to the celestial region and sports happily for myriads of years in the abode of Indra.—p. 558

41-43. Reaching the tenth Parana and pleasing Brahmanas, he acquires a car which tinkles with innumerable bells, which is decked with flags and banners, which is equipt wit a seat made of precious gems, which has many arches made of lapis lazuli which has a net work of gold all round, which has turrents made of corals. Which is adorned with Gandharvas and Apsaras expert in singing, and which is fit for the residence of the Righteous.—p. 558

4. …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.]….. — Change and Continuity in Indian Religion, J. Gonda, Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, (1965) 1985, p.10