In its present form in Sanskrit, The Mahabharata runs to some 200,000 verses in couplets (slokas), in eighteen sections or books, although there is credible evidence to assume that earlier versions were considerably less extensive. About one-third to one-quarter of the whole relates to the central story, that of a civil war between two great royal houses of India. The Mahabharata is a massive collection of fascinating heroic and mythological legends, sermonlike essays, worldly and spiritual advice, material constituting codes of law, popular apothegms and proverbs, and moral tales for the edification of its audience. The Mahabharata is a history of prehistoric times and a compendium of materials that throw light on the religious, social, political, ethical, and moral ideals and practices of the people of ancient India.
Western readers who pick up The Mahabharata for the first time are often puzzled by the seemingly amorphous nature of this collection. Unlike Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.) or Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), which have a clear narrative focus, The Mahabharata is a rambling account of a war between two factions of Indians, interspersed among a number of treatises that seem only tangentially related to the story. While plot features parallel Western epics and world folk literature (the reluctant warrior, the descent into the underworld, the battles in which gods take part), Western readers may sense that this work is essentially different from those to which they may be more accustomed.
The Western reader may find it helpful to note analogues between The Mahabharata and Western literature to compare cultural concepts and assumptions. The Mahabharata and the Bible share a similar format. The story of Savitri and the story of Ruth have much in common. The polyandry of Princess Draupadi with the Pandavas is reflected in some of the marriages of the Old Testament. The richest source of analogues to The Mahabharata is found in Greek mythology. The bow-and-arrow feat of strength for the hand of Princess Draupadi is mirrored in the test of Penelope’s suitors. The twelve-year exile and wandering of the Pandavas has its parallel in the Odyssey, just as the battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is echoed in the Iliad.
The Mahabharata is classified as a heroic epic to distinguish it from the literary epic and the mock epic. In some formal respects, it does not follow the pattern of the Western epic. Whereas the Greek heroic epic contains twenty-four books and the English literary epic has twelve, The Mahabharata consists of eighteen books. The number eighteen does not appear to be arbitrary. The Bhagavad Gita section of The Mahabharata, for example, is a microcosm of the greater work, and is divided into eighteen chapters. Additionally, the war in which Duryodhana and his forces are defeated lasts eighteen days. Also, while most Western heroic epics are nationalistic, The Mahabharata is concerned with a story of conflict primarily for high moral purpose, a struggle between good and evil.
The Mahabharata is an accretion of texts from different periods by different hands, assembled perhaps by the person known as Vyasa (“the arranger”). While it lacks the relatively concise plotting one finds in works by Homer and Vergil, The Mahabharata is nevertheless carefully constructed to move readers from one point of understanding about human nature to another. There is coherence, too, in the general movement in the poem from an emphasis on action toward a celebration of the principle of Samkhya, or renunciation of materialism in favor of a higher spiritual dimension, the attainment of which may provide humans eternal peace.
The Mahabharata is a frame story in which various narrators or characters within narratives relate additional stories or discourse on topics such as the proper role of people in society, right behavior for those in authority, or the best course for one to follow in leading a fulfilling life. While they may be read simply as accounts of heroic actions by larger-than-life characters from a bygone era, the individual episodes have long been considered fables intended to vivify for readers a number of important moral, philosophical, and religious doctrines. For example, the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas may be taken as an allegory of the eternal struggle between good and evil. The struggles of the warrior Arjuna (who shares some affinities with his Western cousin Achilles) can be interpreted as an example of the trials people must go through to discern their proper social and political roles. The adventures of Yudhishthira, whose story concludes the epic, are intended to illustrate the virtues of justice and renunciation of material values.
The frame story is probably based upon a historical event: a war between two neighboring peoples, the Kurus and the Panchalas, who inhabited the west and east points of the Madhyadesa (the “middle land” between the Ganges and the Jumna) respectively, with the war ending in the overthrow of the Kuru Dynasty. The Mahabharata, however, is best construed on more than one level. For example, the Bhagavad Gita is, in one sense, simply a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. The circumstances and setting—the impending battle, Arjuna’s ethical reservations, and the question-answer format—are devices to dramatize Krishna’s ethical and metaphysical sermon. On another, allegorical level of interpretation, the Bhagavad Gita is about good striving for supremacy over evil: Arjuna is the individual soul, and Krishna is the eternal Supreme Spirit that resides in each heart. Arjuna’s chariot stands for the mortal body. King Dhritarashtra’s blindness represents ignorance, and his hundred sons are the evil tendencies of humankind. The battle, then, becomes a perennial one between the power of good and the power of evil, and the warrior who heeds the advice of the Supreme Spirit speaking from within will succeed physically in battle and spiritually in attaining the highest good.
While the aggregated collection may seem only loosely tied together, individual sections of The Mahabharata are often quite carefully structured and contain some of the most inspiring passages in all of literature. Certainly in Western countries the most widely read section of the poem has been the Bhagavad Gita, a treatise on Eastern religious theory and practice presented in the form of a dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer, Krishna. The circumstances under which this dialogue takes place are relevant to the story of the war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The aim of the discussion is to persuade a despondent Arjuna to take up arms for his people. Since God is doing the persuading, Arjuna listens. The context is often forgotten, however, by readers who become fascinated with the philosophical and religious dimensions of this important section. In the course of this conversation, Arjuna is asked to confront significant moral questions: Should one take up arms in a bloody war even for a just cause? To what end is this action, or any action, justified? The answers are designed to raise the warrior’s level of consciousness so that he becomes aware of the limited vision of life possessed by any individual. His mystical experience, told in highly charged poetic language that suggests the possibility of attaining a more profound understanding of human nature than most people reach, has attracted Western readers for over two centuries.
The Mahabharata contains many popular tales; one is that of Savitri, whose love for her husband and devotion to her father-in-law triumph over Yama, the god of death. In this legend, a woman has a prominent role as a heroine. This tale gives evidence of the high place women held in ancient Indian culture. The Mahabharata also provides ethical guidance and in time became an authoritative treatise on dharma (truth, duty, righteousness), teaching of the divine origin of Brahman institutions, including the caste system.
In an appendix to The Mahabharata, called the Harivamsa, there is a genealogy of the god Hari (Vishnu), of whom Krishna was the eighth avatar. If considered as an anthology, The Mahabharata is structurally comparable to the Bible. Although there is no Bible, as such, in Hinduism, there is still a great quantity of sacred literature, including The Mahabharata and the Vedas (c. 1000-500 b.c.e.), the Upanishads (c. 900 b.c.e.), and the Ramayana (c. 500 b.c.e.). To the pious Hindu, the most familiar is the Bhagavad Gita.
The Bhagavad Gita is what is most familiar to Western literature as well. From the earliest English translations in the eighteenth century, the work has exerted strong influence on diverse figures, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe(who was also enamored with the section of The Mahabharata dealing with the exploits of Sakuntala), Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Matthew Arnold.
The Bhagavad Gita is, however, only a part of a work whose impact on Eastern literatures has been great. Buddhist and Sanskrit writings, as well as works in Asian countries outside India, have also been influenced by the stories and the philosophy contained in The Mahabharata. Two philosophical principles that emerge from the story have universal applicability. First, the work dramatizes the notion that human existence in its material form seems confining, and that a spiritual dimension exists, imprisoned in one’s body, waiting for the liberating effect that can come only when one reaches a higher state of consciousness—and eventually through what humankind usually calls death. Second, and equally important, is the lesson that one achieves dignity, power, and esteem only through suffering. This concept, vividly dramatized in the story of the heroes and heroines in this Indian epic and so closely akin to the philosophy that informs Western tragedy, links The Mahabharata with great works of world literature.