The Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is a very, very long poem.  The text was composed between 1000, BCE, and 200, BCE, which, of course, means that it is the product of many, many authors, and it expresses the worldviews of many, many different times and cultures.  Its authors embedded in the poem’s long, long story endless diversions and insertions having to do with politics, jurisprudence, philosophy, theology, etiquette, math, natural science, animal husbandry, and on an on and on.  The poem misses few opportunities to wander off into belabored treatises on ancillary topics.  The Mahabharata itself claims that there is nothing in existence that is not in the Mahabharata.

The central characters of the poem are regarded by many in India as divine, or, at least, more than mere mortals.  For many, the lives of the Mahabharata’s people provide models for virtuous living, and guides for proper conduct in a complicated world.  Many in India, consequently, regard the Mahabharata and its content as sacred.  Among other things, this poem gives us the first literary portrait of Krishna.  In one of the late additions to the poem, the Bhagavad Gita, the Krishna character articulates a religious outlook that still provides the foundation for Hinduism.  Because of the poem’s fundamentally religious character, traditional theatre forms in India—the forms that see themselves as instruments of spiritual truth—regard the Mahabharata as one of only a few suitable sources of stories.

For good reasons, it isn’t especially fair to the Mahabharata to compare the poem with other epics.  There’s no epic quite like the Mahabharata, and not only because the Mahabharata exceeds all other epics in length (by far).  Given the manner of its composition and transmission, the length of time over which it was composed, the number of authors who contributed to it, the sanctity with which so many people have viewed it and still do view it, the Mahabharata stands quite apart from other epic poems.  Still, a few comparisons can help those to whom the Mahabharata is completely new.

As in Homer’s Iliad, the central story of the Mahabharata concerns a battle between two armies.  Much of the latter part of the poem narrates the events of a climactic battle between these two armies, and, like the Iliad, the Mahabharata’s account of this enormous battle often focuses on duels between individual warriors.  Also, like the Iliad, the Mahabharata is suspected of transmitting the events of an actual, historical battle, taking place some time prior to 1000, BCE (though, as with the Iliad, the physical evidence of such an event is limited).  Like the Iliad, the Mahabharata is composed in verse.  The fact that Sanskrit is related to Greek (both are part of the so-called Indo-European language family) accounts for the fact that the verse of both the Mahabharata and the Iliad is based on sequences of long and short syllables.  If one is familiar with these aspects of Homer’s Iliad, one can appreciate some of the fundamental qualities of the Mahabharata.

On the other hand, the Mahabharata is quite different from any of the other epic poems you may have encountered, including the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Vergil’s Aeneid.  For one thing, the Mahabharata is longer.  Longer than all three of these classical epics put together.  For another thing, these other epic poems are the product of unified authorship.  Vergil, alone, produced every line of the Aeneid.  Even if many individuals contributed to the composition of Homer’s works, the written epics that we have today seem to have been set down by a single author.  As a consequence of their unified authorship, these epics offer distinct, linear narratives in verse that conforms consistently to a particular form (the ‘dactylic hexameter’ line).  Because of its multitudinous authorship, the Mahabharata does not have the kind of unity that prevails in these western epics.  Part of the reason for the Mahabharata’s length is its tendency to follow almost any narrative thread that presents itself, however far it may lead away from the poem’s central story.  The Mahabharata offers a succession of disparate, even competing, worldviews, philosophies, and political positions.  And while the verse in the Mahabharata follows consistent rules of prosody, there is no single formula like epic dactylic hexameter governing the length and rhythm of each line.

The Mahabharata is unique in many other ways, too.  Even while we recognize the points of intersection among epic poems of the first millenium, BCE, we should resist the inclination to think of the characters, conflicts, and cultures of the Mahabharata’s world as analogous to elements of Homer’s or Vergil’s poems.  The Mahabharata has its own personality—one that is rooted deeply in the Indian subcontinent.

The Mahabharata’s significance to theatrical performance of all sorts in India cannot be underestimated.  The poem has been adapted into several television serials that have been popular in India in ways that exceed the dreams of contemporary television dramas from California.  Almost every other medium has given us another look at the epic, including stage, film, radio, and comic books.  In addition to inspiring straightforward adaptations, parts of the Mahabharata have animated transmogrifications of all sorts.  Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel, for instance, uses characters and stories from the Mahabharata to spin a fable of India’s move to independence in the twentieth century.  Elements of the Mahabharata have lent themselves to gangster movies set in modern Mumbai.  Poets such as Rabindranath Tagore have elaborated episodes of the Mahabharata (extending, incidentally, the length of the original).


Further Reading

Smith, John D., ed., trans.  The Mahabharata. New York: Penguin, 2009.