Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 941
Although not exclusively a religious work, the Mahabharata is considered by many to be the fifth of the Vedas—the other four are sacred texts of Hinduism designed to teach proper moral and ethical conduct. It has a prominent position in Indian literature and enjoys great religious and cultural significance for many Hindus. Critical interpretations of the work, particularly from European and American commentators, have varied. Philo M. Buck, in The Golden Thread (1931), called it "chiefly a celebration of war ... its ideal, the princely warrior, and emperor." Other commentators suggest that the work is not so one-sided. They point out that the work contains expressions of regret for the violence and destruction of armed conflict. Further, some critics point out that while the great battle is the climax of the Mahabharata, it is only a small part of a vast, multi-part narrative. For its Indian audience, the sacred text the Bhagavad Gita, sung by Krishna to Arjuna before the war, holds much greater significance than the details of the battle itself. In fact, the war is generally interpreted more as a metaphysical struggle between good and evil than as the actual physical encounter of two armies.
Synthetic versus Analytic
The two main lines of critical thought concerning the Mahabharata have focused on whether this massive poem is artistically unified and coherent or riddled with inconsistencies that invalidate any possible coherence. The first group is known as the synthetic camp. Common among Indian scholars, the synthetic stance contends that the Mahabharata is thematically unified and presents a clear statement on the effects of proper adherence to the rules of personal and sacred duty (dharma), and the negative results of abusing dharmic responsibilities. Many non-Indian critics, however, approach the poem analytically, examining its constituent parts without perceiving any such unity. This is termed the analytic approach. Moriz Winternitz, in A History of lndian Literature (1926), for example, calls the Mahabharata "not one poetic production at all, but rather a whole literature." He also describes the work a "monstrosity," full of repeated and slightly changed material. Winternitz and other analytic critics argue that because of its growth over the years and the addition of sometime irrelevant tales, legends, local myths, and didactic (or lesson-teaching) material, the Mahabharata is self-contradictory rather than unified.
Stylistic criticism of the Mahabharata largely reflects the division between synthetic and analytic critics. The analytics have concentrated on what they see as flaws in the poem, including inconsistencies in the text, its loose structure, and occasional repetitiveness. According to the synthetics, however, many of these traits can be explained by the fact that the Mahabharata existed for centuries as part of an oral tradition. Not written down, but repeated by poets and sages for the entertainment and spiritual enlightenment of their listeners, the poem inevitably changed greatly over time. As new scenes and stories were added or retold, they were sometimes altered slightly by different speakers. In addition, oral literature commonly relies on stock phrases that appear over and over again. The synthetics argue that overall the simplicity and purity of the Sanskrit language shines through in the Mahabharata. They praise the work for its poetic beauty.
Myth and Symbolism
Mythological interpretations have occupied a significant portion of modern criticism of the Mahabharata. Reflections on good and evil in the work, however, have been superseded by more complex readings aimed at discovering the meaning of the poem in relation to the cultural conditions found in India during the era between the Aryan conquest of the Indian subcontinent and prior to the advent of Buddhism there. Thus, the simple conflict between the powers of light and darkness is significant, but only part of the mythological picture of the poem. Other critics have examined the nature of the Hindu gods as literary figures and in comparison to western mythological systems, such as those of the ancient Greeks or medieval Scandinavians. Georges Dumezil, for instance, has employed a system of comparative mythology to describe similarities between the destruction of the great battle in the Mahabharata and the Norse myth of Ragnorak, or the end of the world. Joseph Campbell has outlined the poem's relation to other mythological systems and evaluated the symbolic conflict between truth and ignorance in the work. In addition to these comparative approaches, most scholars agree that the Mahabharata is primarily a collection and synthesis of hundreds of years of Hindu thought and spirituality.
The importance of the Mahabharata (and its companion piece, the Ramayana) is almost unparalleled by that of any other literary work in India and elsewhere in Asia where Hinduism predominates. Likewise, as the highest form of the purana, or "ancient tale,'' it is considered a work of art of the first magnitude, as well as an enlightening treatise on ethics, morality, and human behavior. In other parts of the world, in particular Europe and America, its influence has been much more diffuse. Some of its constituent stories, such as those of Nala and Savitri, are known, but the narrative as a whole has been somewhat neglected. Prose translations and abridgments of the poem, including the readable rendition of the poem in English by William Buck, have increased its accessibility to other cultures than that of its origin. Many commentators see the Mahabharata as a valuable historical and sociological document concerning Indian life in the period around 1000 BC. Thus, the poem has helped scholars to trace the impact of Aryan culture—with its social hierarchy and new philosophical ideas—on the indigenous peoples of the Indus River Valley three thousand years ago, and to outline the development of Hindu thought in the centuries since.
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