The Mahabharata is one of the great pieces of literature ever written, and I am incredibly amazed at the stories in the book.
It is ten times the size of the Iliad and Odyssey combined, and along with Ramayana is one of the two great Indian epics. It is considered, ‘itihaas’, which is translated as history, but it is more accurate to translate it as ‘this is indeed what happened’. Obviously, they didn’t actually build palaces that ran miles high or have magical weapons, but according to Dr. Debroy, one gets the sense that there is truth to the incidents, and some of them really happened.
The story was probably written over a 1,000 years by multiple authors, and was perhaps crystallized between 800 BCE and 400 BCE. The Mahabharata itself states that it was written by Krishna Dvaipayana Vedavyasa. The completed book has about 90,000 shlokas, and it is said that Krishna Dvaipayana Vedavyasa taught it to his disciple Vaishampayana.
The story is recited by Vaishampayana to King Janmajeya who is Pariskhit’s son. Parikshit in turn was Abhimanyu’s son and was bitten by a snake, and Janmajeya wants to know why Parikshit was bitten by the snake.
Dr. Debroy’s translation is based on the critical edition by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) in Pune which started a translation in 1919 and completed it in 1966. This is known to be the critical edition in Sanskrit and since it is written by a board of scholars and researchers, Dr. Debroy has taken it as the basis for his book.
He points out that some popular beliefs have been removed from the critical edition because this is a scholarly work. For instance, it is said that Vedavyasa dictated the story to Ganesha who wrote it down. Ganesha had one condition that Vedavyasa wouldn’t stop in the telling of the story, and Vedavyasa threw in the counter condition that Ganesha would understand each verse before he wrote it down. As a result Vedavyasa threw in some cryptic verses to flummox Ganesha and give himself time to think.
Another interesting thing that Dr. Debroy notes is that while today the term Aryas are used to point out ethnicity, it was used to denote those who spoke Sanskrit in the olden days, and Mlecchas were those who didn’t speak Sanskrit, and he found verses spoken by Vidura one of the harder ones to translate perhaps because he was a Mleccha.
He also talks about dating the Kurukshetra war, and tells the reader that there is no dispute on the fact that Mahapadma Nanda ascended the throne in 382 BCE, and the Puranas have genealogical lists which state that 1,050 years have elapsed since the death of Pariskhit and Mahapadma Nanda’s ascension so the Kurukshetra war happend around 1400 BCE, also worthwhile to note that archaeological data has been used to bring forward the date of the Kurukshetra war to 900 BCE.
Popular belief has it that Ramayana happened before Mahabharata, and it is consistent with the fact that Rama was Vishnu’s seventh reincarnation while Krishna was Vishnu’s eighth reincarnation, and that the Ramayana took place in the Treta yuga while the Mahabharata took place in the Dvapara yuga, what’s more, there is a summary of the Ramayana in the Mahabharata.
However, Dr. Debroy states that the society described in Mahabharata is more primitive than the society described in Ramayana and the war itself is much more genteel and civilized in the Ramayana. Even the geographical knowledge is much more limited both towards the east and the south in the Mahabharata when compared to the Ramayana. Dr. Debroy says that there is a plausible hypothesis that the earliest versions of the Mahabharata were written before the earliest versions of the Ramayana, and there were a lot of embellishments later on. To such an extent that the original story only contained Yudhisthara and Bhima, and even Arjun was a later addition to show the the supremacy of Lord Indra. He says that Draupadi loved Arjun a little more than all the other brothers and as a result was denied admission into heaven. But throughout the story, she falls into trouble several times, and at all times calls on Bhima and never Arjuna.
Finally, the Mahabharata is incredibly complex, and shows all human emotions possible, and the text itself states that what is not found in the Mahabharata will not be found anywhere else. So far, this is incredibly true, and I am really looking forward to finish this great epic this year!