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A History of Sanskrit Literature by MacDonell

A smriti or work of sacred tradition


The

epic kernel of the Mahabharata or the "Great Battle of the descendants of Bharata," consisting of about 20,000 clokas, describes the eighteen days' fight between Duryodhana, leader of the Kurus, and Yudhishthira, chief of the Pandus, who were cousins, both descended from King Bharata, son of Cakuntala. Within this narrative frame has come to be included a vast number of old legends about gods, kings, and sages; accounts of cosmogony and theogony; disquisitions on philosophy, law, religion, and the duties of the military caste. These lengthy and heterogeneous interpolations render it very difficult to follow the thread of the narrative. Entire works are sometimes inserted to illustrate a particular statement. Thus, while the two armies are drawn up prepared for battle, a whole philosophical poem, in eighteen cantos, the Bhagavadgita is recited to the hero Arjuna, who hesitates to advance and fight against his kin. Hence the Mahabharata claims to be not only a heroic poem (kavya), but a compendium teaching, in accordance with the Veda, the fourfold end of human existence (spiritual merit, wealth, pleasure, and salvation), a smriti or work of sacred tradition, which expounds the whole duty of man, and is intended for the religious instruction of all Hindus. Thus, in one (I. lxii. 35) of many similar passages, it makes the statement about itself that "this collection of all sacred texts, in which the greatness of cows and Brahmans is exalted, must be listened to by virtuous-minded
men." Its title, Karshna Veda, or "Veda of Krishna" (a form of Vishnu), the occurrence of a famous invocation of Narayana and Nara (names of Vishnu) and Sarasvati (Vishnu's wife) at the beginning of each of its larger sections, and the prevalence of Vishnuite doctrines throughout the work, prove it to have been a smriti of the ancient Vishnuite sect of the Bhagavatas.

Thus it is clear that the Mahabharata in its present shape contains an epic nucleus, that it favours the worship of Vishnu, and that it has become a comprehensive didactic work. We further find in Book I. the direct statements that the poem at one time contained 24,000 clokas before the episodes (upakhyana) were added, that it originally consisted of only 8800 clokas, and that it has three beginnings. These data render it probable that the epic underwent three stages of development from the time it first assumed definite shape; and this conclusion is corroborated by various internal and external arguments.

There can be little doubt that the original kernel of the epic has as a historical background an ancient conflict between the two neighbouring tribes of the Kurus and Panchalas, who finally coalesced into a single people. In the Yajurvedas these two tribes already appear united, and in the Kathaka King Dhritarashtra Vaichitravirya, one of the chief figures of the Mahabharata, is mentioned as a well-known person. Hence the historical germ of the great epic is to be traced to a very early period, which cannot well be later than the tenth century B.C. Old songs about the ancient feud and the heroes who played a part in it, must have been handed down by word of mouth and recited in popular assemblies or at great public sacrifices.

These disconnected battle-songs were, we must assume, worked up by some poetic genius into a comparatively short epic, describing the tragic fate of the Kuru race, who, with justice and virtue on their side, perished through the treachery of the victorious sons of Pandu, with Krishna at their head. To the period of this original epic doubtless belong the traces the Mahabharata has preserved unchanged of the heroic spirit and the customs of ancient times, so different from the later state of things which the Mahabharata as a whole reflects. To this period also belongs the figure of Brahma as the highest god. The evidence of Pali literature shows that Brahma already occupied that position in Buddha's time. We may, then, perhaps assume that the original form of our epic came into being about the fifth century B.C. The oldest evidence we have for the existence of the Mahabharata in some shape or other is to be found in Acvalayana's Grihya Sutra, where a Bharata and Mahabharata are mentioned. This would also point to about the fifth century B.C.


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