The Mahabharata is a significant source of knowledge regarding the evolution of Hinduism between 400 BCE and 200 CE. It is considered by Hindus as a text that encompasses both dharma Hindu moral law and itihasa which is also known as history literally "that's what happened". The Mahabharata, which took its current form around 400 CE, comprises a vast amount of didactic and mythological material, centred around a central heroic narrative that depicts the struggle for supremacy between two groups of relatives, the Kauravas descendants of Guru's son, Dhritarashtra and the Pandavas descendants of Pandu.
It is divided into 18 sections or parvans, along with an addendum named Harivamsa Genealogy of the God Hari, or Vishnu. Although it is improbable that any individual composed the poem, the authorship is traditionally attributed to the sage Vyasa, who emerges in the work as the grandfather of the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The date and historicity of the war that is the central event of the Mahabharata are subjects of much debate.
The Story Begins “Mahabharata”
The narrative commences with the visual impairment of Dhritarashtra the elder of two princes, which results in his younger brother Pandu being chosen as the king on their father's demise. A curse prevents Pandu from siring offspring, and therefore, his wife Kunti requests the gods to father children in his name. They also encounter their cousin Krishna, who remains their ally and companion in the future.
The dispute culminates in a sequence of grand battles on the Kurukshetra field situated north of Delhi, in the state of Haryana. All the Kauravas are destroyed, and on the triumphant side only the five Pandava brothers and Krishna stay alive. Krishna breathes his last when a huntsman, mistaking him for a deer, shoots him in his sole susceptible spot - his foot. The five brothers, accompanied by Draupadi and a dog who joins them Dharma, Yudhisththira’s father in disguise, embark on a journey to Indra’s paradise. One by one, they succumb on the path, and only Yudhisthira reaches the gateway of heaven. After facing further trials of his faithfulness and steadfastness, he is eventually reunited with his brothers and Draupadi, along with his adversaries, the Kauravas, to relish eternal happiness.
Can Mahabharata Actually Be Treated As Literal History ?
As per the historians who specialise in Early India, the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic, can be a reliable historical source if one can accurately determine its internal chronology. The composition of the Mahabharata has been broadly dated between 400 BCE and 400 CE, but some experts propose a much shorter period of only 150 years, from the mid-second century BCE to the year zero. Others believe that it could have been written over a millennium. Without a doubt, a meticulously researched analysis of the Mahabharata can provide insights into political and social structures during the extensive period from 500 BCE to around 500 CE. However, it is a far more challenging task to trace physical evidence for specific events or structures mentioned in the epic, such as the "house of wax." Archaeology is still not a central discipline in most universities, and it could be more productive to allocate resources to establish "world-class" archaeology departments in select universities.
Around 65 years ago, between the years 1950 and 1952, BB Lal, who worked for the ASI, conducted excavations at the location of Hastinapura which is approximately 18 km away from Meerut. These excavations uncovered various objects that were used in everyday life, such as pots used for cooking, eating, and storing, toys made out of terracotta, glass bangles, iron nails, and mud houses that belonged to ordinary people. Dwarka has also been the site of several excavations, starting from 1963 when ZD Ansari and MS Mate from Deccan College, Pune, discovered archaeological remains that were dated between approximately the first century BCE and the tenth century CE.
Similar to the Hastinapura excavations, the objects that were found at Dwarka were also everyday items, such as pots, shells and glass bangles. In the years 1979-80, SR Rao from the ASI conducted excavations in the forecourt of the Dwarkadhish temple and found remains of a Vishnu temple that dated back to the ninth century CE. However, Alok Tripathi, who is a marine archaeologist that used to work for the ASI and now works at Assam University, Silchar, has concluded that there is no evidence that identifies Dwarka as the ancient Dvaraka or Dvaravati of the Mahabharata or that dates this site to the mid-second millennium BCE. Additionally, the Marine Archaeology Centre of the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa carried out some offshore excavations between the years 1983-1994 and 1997-2002, which led to the discovery of numerous stone anchors that were dated from approximately the seventh to the 17th centuries CE.
The Evolution Of Epic
Over time, the Mahabharata evolved through many additions and alterations to become the epic we know today. The story of the Kuru clan and its warriors was composed as poetry and sung by charioteer bards from various kingdoms to glorify fallen or surviving heroes. This glorification was updated over time through the integration of different versions of the story carried forward by the lineage of singers and composers who supported one side or the other during the war. The result is that, unlike most tales, the Mahabharata tells both the heroics and the evils of both sides. However, it is difficult to say whether the original, shorter version told the same story as the one we know today. Vishnu Sukthankar, editor of the first critical edition of the Mahabharata, commented that it is impossible to reconstruct the original text in its exact form based on available manuscript evidence. While the manuscript evidence is extensive, it is also somewhat late due to the material composition and climate of India.
The Mahabharata itself consists of a core portion of 24,000 verses known as the Bharata proper, as well as additional secondary material. The Ashvalayana Gṛhyasutra makes a similar distinction. Scholars generally recognize at least three redactions of the text: Jaya with 8,800 verses attributed to Vyasa, Bharata with 24,000 verses recited by Vaisampayana, and the Mahabharata as recited by Ugrasrava Sauti with over 100,000 verses. However, some scholars like John Brockington, said that Jaya and Bharata refer to the same text, and that the theory of Jaya with 8,800 verses has an impact on a misreading of a verse in Adiparvam. The latest parts of the text can be dated by the absence of the Anushasana-parva and the Virata parva from the "Spitzer manuscript."
Conclusion And Teaching Of Mahabharata
The Mahabharata is renowned as the most extensive epic poem globally, often dubbed as "the most extended poem ever written." Its comprehensive version comprises approximately 100,000 loka, or more than 200,000 individual poem lines (with each sloka being a couplet), accompanied by long prose portions. The Mahabharata is almost ten times lengthier than the combined Iliad and Odyssey or approximately four times lengthier than the Ramayaa, with a total of 1.8 million words.