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...
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