A short introduction to the Mahābhārata, India’s Great Epic

by Maximilian Mehner, M.A. (Philipps University Marburg, Germany)

glimpses of greatness

  • title: Mahābhārata ‘great [story] of the descendants of Bharata’
  • length:
    • main text: 160 000 verse lines + 1 100 lines of prose
    • appendix Harivaṃśa: 32 000 verse lines
  • ambition:

    धर्मे चार्थे च कामे च मोक्षे च भरतर्षभ ।
    यदिहास्ति तदन्यत्र यन्नेहास्ति न तत्क्वचित् ॥

    dharme cārthe ca kāme ca mokṣe ca bharatarṣabha /
    yad ihāsti tad anyatra yan nehāsti na tat kvacit // 1,56.33 / 18,5.38

    “Bull among Bhāratas, whatever is here, on [1] Law [​dharma​], on [2] Profit, on [3] Pleasure, and on [4] Salvation, that is found elsewhere. But what is not here is nowhere else.” (Translation Buitenen)

time frame

after 2 000 BCE Indo-Aryan migration into the Punjab
1400–900 BCE early Vedic age (Ṛgveda), diffusion East along the Gangetic Plain
900–600 BCE late Vedic age (Upaniṣads)
563–483 / 420–350 BCE life time of Buddha
~ 350 BCE Pāṇini (grammarian)
327–325 BCE Indian Campaign of Alexander the Great
268–233 BCE Aśoka rules almost entire subcontinent, promotes Buddhism
~ 150 BCE Puṣyamitra, promotes Vedic religion
   
375–413 CE Candragupta II, classical age of Sanskrit poetry
606–647 CE Harṣa of Kanauj, late classical age

indications and estimates

after 2 000 BCE Indo-Aryan migration into the Punjab
1400–900 BCE early Vedic age (Ṛgveda), diffusion East along the Gangetic Plain
900–600 BCE late Vedic age (Upaniṣads)
~ 600 BCE two late Vedic texts mention the terms bhārata and mahābhārata
563–483 / 420–350 BCE life time of Buddha
before 400 BCE oral origns of the Mahābhārata? successive layering since?
~ 350 BCE Pāṇini (grammarian) mentions names of three protagonists
327–325 BCE Indian Campaign of Alexander the Great
268–233 BCE Aśoka rules almost entire subcontinent, promotes Buddhism
~ 150 BCE Puṣyamitra, promotes Vedic religion
  historic events reflected in the text up to this date (Witzel 2005)
  written archetype by single author or committee? (Hiltebeitl 2001)
   
~ 200 CE Spitzer manuscript with list of books (parvan)
375–413 CE Candragupta II, classical age of Sanskrit poetry
  final redaction? Under Gupta patronage? (Fitzgerald 2018)
606–647 CE Harṣa of Kanauj, late classical age
  late final redaction? (Witzel 2005)
~ 1300 CE oldest manuscript utilized by Critical Edition

geography

Figure 1: Georg v. Simsons adaptation (Mahābhārata 2011, p. 799) of Schwartzberg’s Historical atlas of South Asia.

main agenda: dharma

Dharma is the differentiated “custom” and “propriety” which constitutes the Aryan form of life, which upholds the identity of the ārya and distinguishes him from the mleccha [‘foreigner’, MM], and which also legitimizes the privileged position of Brahmins as the teachers and guardians of the dharma.

[…]

In traditional Hinduism, dharma is primarily and essentially the varṇāśramadharma, the “order of the castes and the stages of life” which breaks down into countless specific rules and cannot at all be derived from a general principle of behavior.

Halbfass 1988: India and Europe, pp. 320.

reception: some milestones

~ 1000 CE partial or complete translation into Old Javanese
~ 1585 translation into Persian under Akbar (r. 1556–1605, Mughal Empire) as Razm-nāmah
1933–1972 Critical Edition (Poona)
1985 stage adaptation by Peter Brook, later adapted as tv series and movie
1988–1990 94-episode Hindi tv series (B.R. Films)
2013–2014 267-episode Hindi tv series (Swastik Productions)