Composition of the

The Mahābhārata, the great epic of India, is a monumental Sanskrit poem, composed for a popular audience, that records ancient Indian political, ethical, mythological, and philosophical thought.

Summary of Event

Called the great epic of India, the Mahābhārata (The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, 1887-1896) is composed in Sanskrit, the chief classical language of ancient India, and is seemingly the longest single poem extant in any language. In its shortest version, the poem consists of more than 74,000 stanzas, divided into sections of varying length. The main poetic meter of the Mahābhārata is the anuṣṭubh stanza, which consists of thirty-two syllables divided into quarters of eight syllables each. Other meters also occur, most prominently the triṣṭubh, used for especially lyrical passages, with its four eleven-syllable lines.

Certain features of the poem—most prominently the use of formulaic repetitions with slight variations—suggest an origin in ancient oral tradition. Such orality is described many times in the poem itself: During the intervals between the performances of elaborate rituals, for example, a bard (sūta) is asked to tell a story of ancient gods or kings, and he does so at length. Alternatively, such a bard appears at the court of a king, where he is honored as a sage and asked to tell stories, both for entertainment and for edification. According to the poem, the bards recited from memory, and the poem makes little reference to writing, except in one very late passage tacked on to the beginning of the text. The legendary bard of the entire Mahābhārata is said to be Vyāsa, a name that means “the arranger,” indicating, perhaps, that he was an ancient editor or redactor.

Extant are two main manuscript traditions, associated with north and south India. The standard edition of the Sanskrit text, the multivolume Critical Edition (published at Poona, India, 1927-1966), has based its text on a collation of manuscripts from all over India, north and south. None of these manuscripts, however, dates to anywhere close to the time of the poem’s composition. India’s climate has led to a loss of fragile handwritten books: The oldest manuscript of Book 1, for instance, is dated 1511 c.e.

The variations among manuscripts and other features of the text—for instance, contradictions in the story line—have led many researchers to conclude that the extant poem is the product of a long period of historical development, with some sections older than others. The poem’s complex overlay of diverse features suggests a composite authorship, stretching over centuries and carried out in different locales. Such a theory would account for the many long sections that interrupt the story with religious and philosophical teachings, most notably the Santi-parvan, more than 15,000 stanzas in length. These didactic sections are filled with narratives, anecdotes, and parables meant to illustrate the teachings. This is a traditional mode of religious instruction in India—a mixture of storytelling and sermon.

The peculiar dating of the work in a range from 400 b.c.e. to 400 c.e. reflects its gradual composition. It has proved difficult, however, to distinguish these different historical layers because the style of the poem is uniform, with some minor exceptions. One example of such an exception to this stylistic uniformity is the Pauṣya-parvan, a chapter occurring in the first major book of the epic. This section is composed in prose rather than verse. However, it is debatable whether that peculiarity should be taken as a sign of greater or lesser antiquity. Sometimes episodes within the poem are told two or more times, a short version immediately followed by a longer version. Is the longer version a later expansion, or is the shorter version a summary of an earlier longer text? Also problematic are the first two chapters of the epic, which describe the contents and extent of the entire Mahābhārata, but whose enumerations do not precisely fit any available version of the epic. As research continues, it is possible that computer-aided studies of meter and other stylistic features may provide objective evidence to determine the history of the text. Modern scholarly work, however, has cast some doubt on both the orality of the poem and its dating: The Mahābhārata, according to scholar Alf Hiltebeitel, was composed in the range 150 b.c.e.-1 c.e. and was originally a written text.

The title Mahābhārata means “the narrative of the great war of the Bhāratas,” the latter a dynasty of northern India that gives modern India its official name Bharat. The epic’s central narrative records in great detail a succession dispute between two branches of this dynasty and the resultant war said to involve most of the ruling families of known India. A large part of the poem (books 6-9) describes in copious violent detail an eighteen-day battle that ends with the tragic deaths of most participants. The historicity of this war and the poem’s political details have proved difficult to confirm. The war is thus legendary—fictional, though with a historical core.

The Mahābhārata displays features known from national epics elsewhere: genealogies and tales of ancestors; descriptions of the youth and adventures of important heroes; embassies, debates, and parleys before the decisive battle; the involvement of deities and related mythological digressions; descriptions of weapons and battle tactics; and taunts and the issuing of challenges. Religious episodes, such as legends of saints and the description of pilgrimage sites, occur frequently.

In some of its sections, such as one narrating a great cattle raid, the Mahābhārata foregrounds a culture like that of other archaic Indo-Europeans—nomadic cattle-herders. However, the text also refers to city-dwellers and slash-and-burn agriculturalists.

Kṛṣṇa (or Krishna) figures both as an important deity and as a human character in the epic, the friend of the great hero Arjuna, one of the Pāṇḍava brothers. Kṛṣṇa relates the most famous episode of the Mahābhārata, the Bhagavadgītā (c. 200 b.c.e.-200 c.e.; The Bhagavad Gita, 1785), literally, “the mystic teaching sung by the Lord.”It is a matter of debate among scholars whether Kṛṣṇa was originally part of the epic story. He appears sometimes as a human figure, a ruler of a people of western India, and a political ally of the Pāṇḍava brothers. However, at key moments in the story, he reveals himself a divine, a deity dwelling on Earth for a time. In fact, passages in book 1 of the epic describe how most of the central figures are either incarnations of various deities or alternatively the sons of deities by mortal mothers. The villains of the story, the Kauravas, are described as incarnations of demons, the mythical enemies of the gods. No attempt is made to harmonize these various ideas. Historically minded readers thus could conclude that they are seeing different interpretations of the story—some theological, some legendary—layered one on the other by different authors writing sometimes centuries apart.

Among studies of the epic are attempts to interpret the poem in its entirety. One prominent scholar who advanced such a theory about the Mahābhārata was Georges Dumézil. For him, the epic had its origin in myths stemming from a prehistoric Indo-European tradition. The heroes are thus not only incarnations or sons of deities but also “transposed” from divine figures that existed in Indo-European myth: Beneath the epic as it exists is a very archaic mythology. So, for example, the epic hero Arjuna mirrors an Indo-European sky-god, who appears under the name Indra in the oldest stratum of Indian mythology and as Zeus in ancient Greece. Myth has become epic; an epic myth was once current in traditions from Iceland and Ireland to Iran and India.


The immense influence of the Mahābhārata ranges from the arts—poetry, drama, sculpture—to philosophy, religion, and political science. India’s most renowned classical dramatist, Kālidāsa (c. 340-c. 400 c.e.), based his admired play Abhijnānaśākuntala (c. 45
or c. 395 c.e. (Śakuntalā: Or, The Lost Ring, 1789) on a version of a story first recorded in the Mahābhārata. The epic’s vast treasure trove of narratives has always been a source book for India’s storytellers, who have continued to produce versions of the epic and its parts, both written and oral (the latter often in the form of tales told to children). There exist translations in most of India’s regional languages as well as novelizations, adaptations, and dramatizations in English and other languages. Today, film, television, and graphic narratives (comic books) also keep the story of the five brothers and their adventures alive in the consciousness of Indian audiences.

J. A. B. van Buitenen’s translation of the Mahābhārata (3 vols., 1973-1978) is incomplete, covering only the first five books. The Peter Brook-directed stage play (script by Jean-Claude Carriére, 1985) and subsequent film, which aimed to universalize the story by using an international cast, have been widely viewed in the West. As a significant episode in the Mahābhārata, The Bhagavad Gita (first translated into English by Charles Wilkins) remains the best-known and most widely translated religious text from India.

Further Reading

  • Brockington, John. The Sanskrit Epics. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1998. A basic reference work on the epics written in Sanskrit.
  • Buitenen, J. A. B. van, trans. The Mahābhārata. 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973-1978. A scholarly and readable modern translation. Contains valuable introductions to each book.
  • Carrière, Jean-Claude. The Mahābhārata: A Play Based upon the Indian Classic Epic. Translated from the French by Peter Brook. New York: Harper & Row, 1987. An admired dramatic rendition.
  • Dumézil, Georges. The Destiny of the Warrior. Translated by Alf Hiltebeitel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970. Sees the epic’s origins residing in prehistoric Indo-European myth.
  • Hiltebeitel, Alf. Rethinking the Mahābhārata: A Reader’s Guide to the Education of the Dharma King. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Argues for a different interpretation of the epic’s provenance and dating.
  • Sharma, Arvind, ed. Essays on the Mahābhārata. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1991. Scholarly essays on a variety of topics concerning the Mahābhārata.
  • Van Nooten, Barend A. The Mahābhārata: Attributed to Kṛṣṇa Dvaipayaṇa Vyāsa. New York: Twayne, 1971. An accessible account of the epic; includes a plot summary.
  • Williams, David, ed. Peter Brook and the Mahābhārata: Critical Perspectives. London: Routledge, 1991. Contains much information on the epic and its modern adaptation.

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