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A History of Sanskrit Literature by MacDonell

When the Mahabharata attributes its origin to Vyasa


the next stage, in which the epic, handed down by rhapsodists, swelled to a length of about 20,000 clokas, belongs the representation of the victorious Pandus in a favourable light, and the introduction on a level with Brahma of the two other great gods, Civa, and especially Vishnu, of whom Krishna appears as an incarnation.

We gather from the account of Megasthenes that about 300 B.C., these two gods were already prominent, and the people were divided into Civaites and Vishnuites. Moreover, the Yavanas or Greeks are mentioned in the Mahabharata as allies of the Kurus, and even the Cakas (Scythians) and Pahlavas (Parthians) are named along with them; Hindu temples are also referred to as well as Buddhist relic mounds. Thus an extension of the original epic must have taken place after 300 B.C. and by the beginning of our era.

The Brahmans knew how to utilise the great influence of the old epic tradition by gradually incorporating didactic matter calculated to impress upon the people, and especially on kings, the doctrines of the priestly caste. It thus at last assumed the character of a vast treatise on duty (dharma), in which the divine origin and immutability of Brahman institutions, the eternity of the caste system, and the subordination of all to the priests, are laid down. When the Mahabharata attributes its origin to Vyasa, it implies a belief in a final redaction, for the name simply means "Arranger."

Dahlmann has recently put forward the theory that the great epic was a didactic work from the very outset; this view, however, appears to be quite irreconcilable with the data of the poem, and is not likely to find any support among scholars.

What evidence have we as to when the Mahabharata attained to the form in which we possess it? There is an inscription in a land grant dating from 462 A.D. or at the latest 532 A.D., which proves incontrovertibly that the epic about 500 A.D. was practically of exactly the same length as it is stated to have in the survey of contents (anukramanika) given in Book I., and as it actually has now; for it contains the following words: "It has been declared in the Mahabharata, the compilation embracing 100,000 verses, by the highest sage, Vyasa, the Vyasa of the Vedas, the son of Paracara." This quotation at the same time proves that the epic at that date included the very long 12th and 13th, as well as the extensive supplementary book, the Harivamca, without any one of which it would have been impossible to speak even approximately of 100,000 verses. There are also several land grants, dated between 450 and 500 A.D., and found in various parts of India, which quote the Mahabharata as an authority teaching the rewards of pious donors and the punishments of impious despoilers. This shows that in the middle of the fifth century it already possessed the same character as at present, that of a Smriti or Dharmacastra. It is only reasonable to suppose that it had acquired this character at least a century earlier, or by about 350 A.D. Further research in the writings of the Northern Buddhists and their dated Chinese translations will probably enable us to put this date back by some centuries. We are already justified in considering it likely that the great epic had become a didactic compendium before the beginning of our era. In any case, the present state of our knowledge entirely disproves the suggestions put forward by Prof. Holtzmann in his work on the Mahabharata, that the epic was turned into a Dharmacastra by the Brahmans after 900 A.D., and that whole books were added at this late period.

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