Mahābhārata and its Place in Indian Culture - Part 1

The culture of Greater India has its roots in śruti, smṛti, itihāsa, and purāṇa. Śruti means ‘Vedas.’ The Upaniṣads, which form a part of the Vedas, are the basis of Vedānta and other darśanas. Smṛti refers to dharma-śāstras. Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata are together called ‘itihāsa.’ Matysa-purāṇa, Kūrma-purāṇa, Brahmāṇḍa-purāṇa, and other such literary works fall under the category of ‘purāṇa.’ The Purāṇas primarily deal with the importance and divinity of the deities such as Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva. Itihāsa, on the other hand, contains the valorous deeds of heroes such as Rāma, Kṛṣṇa, Bhīma, and Arjuna. In addition to these, Itihāsa is interspersed with Vedic and Purāṇic stories, which act as sources for the teachings of dharma and nīti.

The Bhārata is an ancient text. It is likely that it’s been over two thousand years since it was composed. Just as several tributaries join a great river, there have been several story segments that have been appended to the Bhārata, thus making it the Mahā-bhārata. The word ‘Mahā-bhārata’ means ‘Great Bhārata.’ A work as big as the Mahābhārata has never existed before in any of the civilizations around the world. It is not merely huge in its quantity but is profound in its content as well. It is as divine as the Vedas and is thus classified as the fifth Veda. The dharma taught in the Vedas is retold in the Mahābhārata. Several stories and sub-stories that occur in the Vedas are found in the Mahābhārata as well.

The Mahābhārata is the story of the heroes belonging to the Bhārata lineage (that descended from King Bharata) and the major portion of it tells us the story of the Kauravas and the Pāṇḍavas. There is no Indian who does not know at least a few bits of the story. Even women and children who might be illiterate have heard this story here and there. They would have gathered different parts of the story by listening to Purāṇas, ritualistic songs, and by seeing bayalāṭa (outdoor dramas). Even today the number of people who have heard the story of the Mahābhārata is more than the number of people who have read it. The main reason for its proliferation is the dharma-śraddhā of the people and the captivating story of the epic. It is, in the words of Kumāravyāsa, the ‘ಪರಮವೇದದ ಸಾರ’ (the distilled essence of the divine Vedas). Thus, it helps a man here and hereafter.

How did our ancients preserve such a huge work? It is likely that paurāṇikas (bards, raconteurs, storytellers) memorized the story and retold it for centuries together. The Vedas have, after all, come down to us in an oral tradition. Several works of śāstra have been passed on from generation to generation through oral tradition and the power of memory. If our ancestors hadn’t taken so much of interest and put in such a great deal of effort for preserving them, it wouldn’t have come down to us in such a pristine form. Is the process of writing an easy one? Engraving a hundred thousand ślokas on tāḻa-patras (barks of trees) quoting from memory is not an easy task at all. Now that we have printing houses around, we can’t even imagine the kind of difficulties the first scribes would have encountered. Just as we have to be grateful to the people who first wrote down the epic, we should be equally grateful to our ancestors who passed it down in the oral tradition. It is easy to raze down a temple but to raise it up is difficult; it is all the more difficult to make it a sustained environment performing the rituals and gain spiritual merit.

It is said that a sage by name Vaiśampāyana narrated the story of the Mahābhārata to King Janamejaya while he was performing the sarpa-yāga (a ‘sacrifice’ of snakes). He had heard the story from his teacher Vyāsa. It is for this reason that Vyāsa is deemed to be the original author of the epic. Sage Vyāsa is a highly revered ṛṣi in Greater India. It is said that he reorganized the Vedas and gave them the form that we see it in today. This, in itself, was an extremely challenging task. In addition to the reclassification of the Vedas, he has composed a profound work such as the Mahābhārata. We can only estimate what could have been his calibre. Even if a person accomplishes a minute portion of what Vyāsa accomplished, he will gain immense fame and prosperity today. Neither Vyāsa nor Vaiśampāyana propagated the story with a desire of acquiring wealth or fame. Sūta-purāṇika, who heard the story narrated by Vaiśampāyana during the sarpa-yāga, retold the same in Naimiṣāraṇya (the Naimiṣa forest) to Śaunaka and other ṛṣis. This is the version that has come down to us today. We gather this from the introductory segments of the Mahābhārata.

The aforementioned King Janamejaya is the great-grandson of the Pāṇḍavas. Abhimanyu was Arjuna’s son; Parīkṣit was Abhimanyu’s son; Janamejaya was Parīkṣit’s son. Once when Parīkṣit was out in the forest hunting he came across a ṛṣi who was deep in tapas; he mischievously garlanded the ṛṣi with a snake. The ṛṣi’s son who saw this, cursed Parīkṣit that he would meet his death by a snakebite. Though Parīkṣit took several precautions, he finally died, stung by a snake. To avenge his father’s death, Parīkṣit’s son Janamejaya pledged to eliminate all snakes and performed the sarpa-yāga. Innumerable snakes died in the yajña. In the middle of the ritual, however, a brāhmaṇa by name Āstīka came and requested the yajña to be stopped. Janamejaya accordingly stopped it. There were several sages who had gathered to perform the yajña. Each narrated a story. The story of the Mahābhārata too was narrated in this manner back then. Because it was the story of his ancestors Janamejaya paid great attention to it and listened with curiosity.

The Mahābhārata written in Sanskrit language is in the form of verses. A verse is a small poem of four lines.

नारायणं नमस्कृत्य

नरं चैव नरोत्तमम् ।

देवीं सरस्वतीं व्यासं

ततो जयमुदीरयेत् ॥

This is an example of a śloka. It occurs in the beginning of the Mahābhārata and is considered the māṅgala-śloka (benedictory verse). The Kannada language too employed several classes of prosody in its vast literature. It is strange however that the format of the śloka never got adapted by the Kannada poets. It is in the nature of the Sanskrit language to render itself seamlessly to form a śloka; it’s as easy as drinking water. Just as ṣaṭpadi and sāṅgatya come naturally to the Kannada language, a śloka is eigen to Sanskrit. Nāraṇappa of Gadag (Kumāravyāsa) wrote his Mahābhārata in a meter called bhāminī-ṣaṭpadi. A Jain poet composed an epic called Bharateśavaibhava in a meter called sāṅgatya. [Note: This is not a retelling of the Epic Mahābhārata; it is a saga of a Jain prince by name Bharata (totally unrelated to the Bharata of the Epic)].

As mentioned earlier, the epic is largely in the form of ślokas in Sanskrit. The ślokas come as part of conversations. There are poems or verses in other metrical patterns too. Some prose passages are scattered around the epic. In some it would not be wrong to call it a padya-grantha, a purely versified text. Today we have the tendency to write prose more than poetry. There are instances where stories are orally transmitted in the form of songs but are written down as prose. A few, however, have experimented how a story would appear when written down in the form of a poem. Much of the ancient literature of India – Vedas, śāstras, and even the thesaurus – were composed in the form of verses. This aided in easy retention of the text.

To be continued…

This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada article "ಮಹಾಭಾರತ ಮತ್ತು ಭಾರತೀಯ ಸಂಸ್ಕೃತಿಯಲ್ಲಿ ಅದರ ಸ್ಥಾನ"
Hari Ravikumar and Arjun Bharadwaj published in a serialized form. The original article appears as a part of the anthology "ಭಾಷಣಗಳು ಮತ್ತು ಲೇಖನಗಳು"


The original Kannada article is available for free online reading here. To read other works of Prof. Krishna Shastri, click here.



Prof. A R Krishna Sastri was a journalist, scholar, polyglot, and a pioneer of the modern Kannada renaissance, who founded the literary journal Prabuddha Karnāṭaka. His Vacana-bhārata and Kathāmṛta are classics of Kannada literature while his Saṃskṛta-nāṭaka and Bankimacandra are of unrivalled scholarship.



Hari is a writer, translator, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, Carnatic music, education pedagogy design, and literature. He has worked on books like The New Bhagavad-Gita, Your Dharma and Mine, Srishti, and Foggy Fool's Farrago.


Arjun is a poet, translator, engineer, and musician. He is a polyglot, well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, Hindi, English, Greek, and German. He currently serves as Assistant Professor at Amrita Darshanam - International Centre for Spiritual Studies at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Bangalore. He research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature.