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The Mahabharata (Devanagari: महाभारत, phonetically Mahābhārata - see note), sometimes just called Bharata, is one of the great mythological and religious epics of India. Indeed, it is the longest single literary work in world and is hailed as not only one of the greatest epics, but literary accomplishments of humanity. It is traditionally attributed to Vyasa, who places himself as one of the characters within the epic. The title may be translated as "Great India" (bhārata means the son/progeny of Bharata, the king believed to have founded the kingdom of Bhāratavarsha, in present day India). The work is part of the Hindu Smriti. The full version contains more than 100,000 verses, making it around four times longer than the Bible and seven times longer than the Iliad and Odyssey.

Table of contents
1 What The Mahabharata Contains
2 The Structure Of The Mahabharata
3 External Links

What The Mahabharata Contains

Legend (and the testimony of the first section of the Mahabharata) says that it was Lord Ganesh (the elephant-headed god of the Hindus) who, at the behest of Vyasa, wrote the epic down on manuscript. He is said to have agreed, but only on condition that Vyasa never pause in his recitation. In the course of writing, Ganesh's pen failed, and he broke off one of his tusks in the rush to keep writing. It is said that Mahabharata was so profound, that even Lord Ganesh, the god of wisdom, was pressed to contemplation by Vyasa's words. One quotation from the beginning of the Mahabharata is a fit summary of its scope and grandeur: "What is found here, can be found elsewhere. What is not found here, will not be found elsewhere."

The Mahabharata is thought to have been derived from what was originally a much shorter work, called Jaya (Victory). While the dating of these is unclear, the events of the story may be reliably placed in Vedic India around 1400 BCE. From this early beginning, the story was developed in its present form during the establishment of Classical Hinduism, from which modern Hinduism was developed.

Like much of other early Indian literature, it was often transmitted by oral means through the generations. This made it easier for additional episodes and stories to be interpolated within it. It also resulted in regional variations developing. However, the variation has in most cases been in the new additions, and not in the original story. Hastinapura and the immediately surrounding kingdoms are based in the Doab, the region of the upper Ganga (Ganges when anglicized) and Yamuna rivers, to the north of present-day New Delhi. Much of the rest of northern India also features in the story.

The core story of the work is that of a dynastic struggle for the throne of Hastinapura, the kingdom of the Kuru clan. The two cousin branches of the family that participate in the struggle are the Kauravas, the elder branch of the family, and the Pandavas, the younger branch. The struggle culminates in the great battle at Kurukshetra, and the Pandavas are victorious in the end. The Mahabharata itself ends with the death of Krishna, and the subsequent end of his dynasty, and ascent of the Pandava brothers to Heaven, one with God, the achievement of the primary goal of Hindu life. It also marks the beginning of the Hindu age of Kali (Kali Yuga). Through the steady breakdown of truths of which the eighteen-day war of Kurukshetra, the clash of hundreds of thousands of men, elephants and horses, consisted. This is the fourth and final age of mankind, where the great values and noble ideas that humanity represented have crumbled, and man is speedily heading toward the complete dissolution of right action, morality and virtue in general.

To represent the central war of the Mahabharata as a fight between 'good' and 'evil' is woefully off-base. Some of the history's most noble and revered figures end up fighting on the side of the Kauravas, due to allegiances formed prior to the conflict. One of the most poignant stories is that of Karna, the noble warrior whose immense powers failed him during the battle because he had lied, so many years before, to his Guru about who he was. Another is Bhishma, the sage who had renounced his kingdom and become celibate for the sake of his father's love of a fisherwoman, who had the gods' boon to choose his time of death. He ended up dying on a bed of arrows laid by Arjuna, the Pandava brother whose army had fought against Bhishma's side. These are just some examples of the thousands of stories and huge depth of complex psychological and literary lore that are found in the Mahabharata. Today, there is not one Indian who does not know the main stories of the Mahabharata. They are commonly told to children, at religious functions, or just around the house. Someone who is very strong and fond of food can be alluded to as being like 'Bhima,' one of the five Pandava brothers whose strength, size and loyalty are legendary. Yudishtira, the eldest Pandava, is known never to have told a single lie in his life, and thus gained great power from it. It was only in the middle of the war, at a critical juncture, that to save his army from defeat at the hands of his own teacher, Drona, a general of fabulous power, he lied. Having told the one lie of his life to his former teacher that Drona's son had been killed, Yudishtira's chariot, which had early floated above the ground, immediately sank into the mud. Yudishtira is commonly known in India as the paragon of integrity, fallen for his one lapse.

There is much more to the work than just the central dynastic struggle. It branches off into thousands of other stories that act as moral fables and tracking of the lineages of revered Hindu figures of old. The thousands of tangents interconnect in a complex fabric of karmic destiny, the intercession of Gods on behalf of devotees (anirudh-divine grace) and both the human and cosmic condition. The Mahabharata stands for a single momumental work on the nature of man and his thought.

The Mahabharata claims to contain the essence and sum of all the Vedas and other Hindu scriptures. It does include large amounts of interpolated Hindu mythology, cosmological stories of the gods and goddesses, and philosophical parables aimed at students of Hindu philosophy. The Mahabharatha claims that those who do not read it shall find their spiritual and yogic quests remain unfulfilled.

In its scope, the Mahabharata is more than simply a story of kings and princes, sages and wisemen, demons and gods; its author, Vyasa, says that one of it aims at elucidating the four goals of life: kama (pleasure), artha (wealth), dharma (duty) and moksha (salvation). The story culminates in moksha, believed by Hindus to be the ultimate goal of human beings. The principle of Karma (which says that every cause has an effect, and vice versa) is amply demonstrated, and the story often delves into the former lives of the characters to show consequence and the ultimate triumph of dharma (order of the universe). To this very day, anyone in India, and even Thailand, Bhutan, Indonesia and other such South-Eastern countries, as well as any scholar of the great literary and religious works of the world, is thoroughly familiar with the Mahabharata. It is an active part in the lives of Hindus everywhere, playing the role of great poetry, moral and religious instruction, and pure brilliance of narrative thrill. The Mahabharata is a massive work, and is truly one of the world's greatest epics and religious works.


The Structure Of The Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is written in eighteen parvas (chapters or books) which are:

  1. Adiparva - Introduction, birth and upbringing of the princes. (Adi = first).
  2. Sabhaparva - Life at the court, the game of dice, and the exile of the. Pandavas. Maya Danava erects the palace and court (sabha), at Indraprastha
  3. Aranyakaparva (also Vanaparva, Aranyaparva) - The twelve years in exile in the forest (aranya) .
  4. Virataparva - The year in exile spent at the court of Virata.
  5. Udyogaparva - Preparations for war.
  6. Bhishmaparva - The first part of the great battle, with Bhishma as commander for the Kauravas.
  7. Dronaparva - The battle continues, with Drona as commander.
  8. Karnaparva - The battle again, with Karna as commander.
  9. Salyaparva - The last part of the battle, with Salya as commander.
  10. Sauptikaparva - How Ashvattama and the remaining Kauravas killed the Pandava army in their sleep (Sauptika).
  11. Striparva - Gandhari and the other women lament the dead (stri = woman)
  12. Shantiparva - The crowning of Yudhisthira, and his instructions from Bhishma (shanti = peace).
  13. Anushasanaparva - The final instructions of Bhishma (anushasana = instruction).
  14. Ashvamedhikaparva - The royal ceremony or ashvameda conducted by Yudhisthira.
  15. Ashramavasikaparva - Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti leave for an ashram, and eventual death in the forest.
  16. Mausalaparva - The infighting between the Yadavas with maces (mausala).
  17. Mahaprasthanikaparva - The first part of the path to death of Yudhisthira and his brothers (mahaprasthana = death).
  18. Svargarohanaparva - The Pandavas return to the spiritual world (svarga = heaven).

There also exists an appendix of 16,375 verses, the Harivamsaparva.

Among the principal works and stories that are included in the Mahabharata are the following. These can all be found as separate works.

  1. Bhagavad Gita (Krishna instructs and teaches Arjuna. Bhishmaparva.)
  2. Damayanti (or Nala and Damayanti, a love story. Aranyakaparva.)
  3. Krishnavatara (the story of Krishna, which is woven through many chapters of the story)
  4. Rama (an abbreviated version of the Ramayana. Aranyakaparva.)
  5. Rsyasrnga (also written as Rishyashringa, the one horned boy and rishi. Aranyakaparva.)

During the 20th century, scholars have used the earliest existing copies of the work in their regional variations, to develop a composite reference work known as the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata. This project was completed in 1966 at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune.

See also: Ramayana

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