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A History of Sanskrit Literature by MacDonell

Are divided into subordinate parvans


Sanskrit

epic poetry falls into two main classes. That which comprises old stories goes by the name of Itihasa, "legend," Akhyana, "narrative," or Purana, "ancient tale," while the other is called Kavya or artificial epic. The Mahabharata is the chief and oldest representative of the former group, the Ramayana of the latter. Both these great epics are composed in the same form of the cloka metre as that employed in classical Sanskrit poetry. The Mahabharata, however, also contains, as remnants of an older phase, archaic verses in the upajati and vamcastha (developments of the Vedic trishtubh and jagati) metres, besides preserving some old prose stories in what is otherwise an entirely metrical work. It further differs from the sister epic in introducing speeches with words, such as "Brihadacva spake," which do not form part of the verse, and which may be survivals of prose narrative connecting old epic songs. The Ramayana, again, is, in the main, the work of a single poet, homogeneous in plan and execution, composed in the east of India. The Mahabharata, arising in the western half of the country, is a congeries of parts, the only unity about which is the connectedness of the epic cycle with which they deal; its epic kernel, moreover, which forms only about one-fifth of the whole work, has become so overgrown with didactic matter, that in its final shape it is not an epic at all, but an encyclopaedia of moral teaching.

The Mahabharata, which in its present

form consists of over 100,000 clokas, equal to about eight times as much as the Iliad and Odyssey put together, is by far the longest poem known to literary history. It is a conglomerate of epic and didactic matter divided into eighteen books called parvan, with a nineteenth, the Harivamca, as a supplement. The books vary very considerably in length, the twelfth being the longest, with nearly 14,000, the seventeenth the shortest, with only 312 clokas. All the eighteen books, excepting the eighth and the last three, are divided into subordinate parvans; each book is also cut up into chapters (adhyayas).

No European edition of the whole epic has yet been undertaken. This remains one of the great tasks reserved for the future of Sanskrit philology, and can only be accomplished by the collaboration of several scholars. There are complete MSS. of the Mahabharata in London, Oxford, Paris, and Berlin, besides many others in different parts of India; while the number of MSS. containing only parts of the poem can hardly be counted.

Three main editions of the epic have appeared in India. The editio princeps, including the Harivamca, but without any commentary, was published in four volumes at Calcutta in 1834-39. Another and better edition, which has subsequently been reproduced several times, was printed at Bombay in 1863. This edition, though not including the supplementary book, contains the commentary of Nilakantha. These two editions do not on the whole differ considerably. Being derived from a common source, they represent one and the same recension. The Bombay edition, however, generally has the better readings. It contains about 200 clokas more than the Calcutta edition, but these additions are of no importance.

A third edition, printed in Telugu characters, was published in four volumes at Madras in 1855-60. It includes the Harivamca and extracts from Nilakantha's commentary. This edition represents a distinct South Indian recension, which seems to differ from that of the North about as much as the three recensions of the Ramayana do from one another. Both recensions are of about equal length, omissions in the first being compensated by others in the second. Sometimes one has the better text, sometimes the other.


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