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1. Introduction

Srimath RAmAyaNA and MahA BharathA are two great epics (ithihAsAs) that are like two resplendent pillars of the Hindu dharmA and culture. Of these two, MahA BharathA is a mighty monumental work that enshrines the essence of DharmA in all its aspects. All the four purushArthAs are expounded elaborately in this great work. "Whatever is here may be found elsewhere, but whatever is not here is not to be found anywhere". This praise is not an exaggeration, but a statement of fact.

The theme of MahA BhArathA: The MahA BharathA presents in one place the internal as well as external nature of our culture, the aspirations of humanity and the achievements and goals of life in an inimitable way. It contains the wisdom of the VedhAs, VedhAngAs, and all SAsthrAs and one can easily get to know the quintessence of all of the above through a study of this epic.

The loftiness of MahA BhArahtA: This has been the source text to all poets that flourished further in Bharatha desam. MahA BhArathA has been assigned a lofty place, which is equal to the vEdhAs and is called the panchama (fifth) vEdhA because its subject matter in the ultimate analysis is the same as that of the vEdhAs.

2. The date of MahA BhArathA

MahA BhArathA has been studied intensively by various scholars. From those studies, Professor Sukthankar has published what is considered as one of the authentic version of the epic based on the careful study of the many rescensions of MahA BhArathA. His work is considered by some as a significant landmark in the study of this epic. It is the opinion of some scholars that the present day MahA BhAratham went through three stages known as "JayA, BharathA and MahA BhArathA". It has been pointed out that a number of stories were added to the original poem during the successive centuries (from 400 B.C to 400 A.D)leading upto its final form consisting of one lakh slOkams. Tradition recognizes the whole work as one integrated piece.

3. The three stages of the evolution of MahA BhArathA

The core of the MahA BhArathA ideals with the defeat in the battle of KauravAs at the hands of the PAndavAs. Later on, the entire story of "the BharathA race" came to be associated with this in all its elaboration. The epic was called "JayA" because it describes the story of the victory of the PAndavAs over the KauravAs. It was called "BharathA" since it dealt with the lives of the people of the BharathA race. It was called MahA BharathA or IthihAsA, since it recorded the chronicles of the monarchs of those times. First stage was the JayA stage. This consisted of 8800 slOkAs and related to the main theme of the work, namely, the feud between KauravAs and the PANdavAs. This portion contains poetic descriptions relevant to such a narration.

The second stage Of "BharathA" evolved with the addition of the greatness of the personages involved in the family war. At this stage, the epic had 24,000 sOkams. It contained the description of the glory of personages like BhIshmA, DhrONA, the stories relating to the birth of the KauravAs and the PANdavAs, their education and upbringinging, the virtues of the royal class, the troubles and travails of the PANdavAs during their period of exile and particularly the one year of living incognito in the court of VirAtA, the efforts made to prevent the great war, the teaching of KrishNA to ArjunA, the description of the war that lasted for eighteen days and the final victory gained by the PANdavAs. All of these topics relating directly to the main theme were perhaps added on in the second stage known as BharathA with 24,000 slOkams. During the third and final stage, a number of upAkhyAnAs (other stories and anecdotes) were added on to this great work to make it, "MahA BhArathA". The size swelled upto 100,000 slOkams. In this form, MahA BhArathA became an encyclopedia of Knowledge and wisdom of humanity. The VishNu SahasranAmam, AnugIthA, Bhishma-sthavam, GajEndhra Moksham et al were added. Long and elaborate stories of DushyanthA and SakunthalA, SAvithri-SatyavAn, YayAthi, RAmA, MathsyOpAkhyAnA, Shibi chakravarthy, the story of NaLa-Dhamayanthi have been added as major upAkhyAnams and the bulk of these constitutes nearly one fourth of this great work.

In the northern rescension of MahA BhAratham, there are 82136 stanzas and the southern rescension has 96586 stanzas. The description of the war is another significant feature of this work and this comprises one fifth of MahA BhAratham. Finally, the teaching about DharmA occupies the most prominent place in this ithihAsam. The ShAnthi parvam is totally devoted to the teaching on DharmA. The teachings about Bhagavadh GitA, RAja dharmA, Apath dharmA, Moksha dharmA, the dhArmic teachings housed in AnusAsAsana parvA constiture together one third of MahA BhAratham. In addition to the 18 parvAs of MahA Bharatham, there is another parvA known as Hari vamsam, which is considered a "khila or anubhandA or an addition to the main text". This has a lot of focus on DharmA and contains 317 cantos and more than 16,000 stanzas.

4. The structure of MahA BhAratham

There are 18 parvAs in MB. These are : (1) Adhi parvA (2) SabhA parvA (3) Vana parvA (4) VirAt parvA (5) UdhyOga parvA (6) Bhishma parvA (7) DhrONa parvA (8) Karna parvA (9) Shalya parvA (10) Soupthika parvA (11) Sthree parvA (12) ShAnthi parvA (13) AnusAsana parvA (14) AsvamEdhika parvA (15) AsramavAsi parvA (16) Mousala parvA (17) MahAprasthAnika parvA and (18) SvargArOhaNa parvA.

It is not clear when this kind of division into parvAs took place. The parvAs are of different length and there is no uniformity regarding their size. The shortest is MahAprasthAnika parvA containing only 120 stanzas, whereas the longest is ShAnthi parvA. The combination of ShAnthi parvA and AnushAsana parvA yields 21,000 stanzas. The themes of Individual Chapters of MB: The Adhi parvA gives an elaborate description of the lunar race and the birth of the PaNDavAs. The SabhA parvA deals with the game of dice to which YudhishtirA was invited. The Vana parvA deals with the experiences of the PaNDavAs in the forest and the VirAta parvA narrates their stay in VirAta nagaram in cognito. In UdhyOga parvA, Lord KrishNA goes to HasthinApuri as a messenger of peace. BhIshma parvA houses Srimadh Bhagavath GitA, the commencement of the war, BhIshmA's participation in it and the defeat of BhIshmA. DhrONa parvA narrates the death of Abhimanyu and the death of DhrONA himself. KarNa parvA is devoted to the war that was waged by KarNA and his death. Shalya parvA deals with the role played by ShalyA and the death of DuryOdhanA. Souptika parva dscribes the slaying by AsvatthAman of the children of PANDavAs, while they were sleeping. Sthree parvA is full of lamentataions of the bereaved women. The teaching of the DharmA to YudhishtrA by BhIshmAchAryAl is the subject matter of ShAnthi parvA. Anushasasana parvA has accounts of the stories relating to morals and righteousness. The performance of AsvamEdha YAgam is described in AsvamEdha parvA. The AsramavAsi parvA narrates how DhritarashtrA retires into the woods for performance of penance and Mausala parvA narrates the destruction of the YAdhavAs. MahAprasthAnika parvA describes how the PANDavAs set out on their final journey through the HimAlAyAs and the SvargArOhaNa parvA describes how they ascended to heaven.

5. The tradition of authorship

According to tradition Sage VyAsA is the author of MahA BhAratham. He is the son of ParAsarA, who gave us VishNu purAnam and Sathyavathi. He was a contemproary to the events that happened in MahA BhAratham. The traditional salutation to VyAsA is: "I bow down to VyAsA, the son of ParAsarA, the grandson of Sakthi, the great grandson of VasishTA, the father of Sukha Brahmam of pure mind and who is full of the power of Tapas." The Message of MahA BhAratham: Its message to humanity is in three directions: (1) The empirical (2) The Moral and (3) The Metaphysical. At the empirical, worldly level, it gives a real picture of the terrible war between the great heroes of the times that was devastating. At the moral level, it points out that the war is an eternal one that is forever fought between the good and the evil forces, between dharmA and adharmA, between the Asuric and daivA ( satthvA) forces and assesses the ethics of such a conflict. At the metaphysical level, it points out that the embodied one has to strive incessantly to go beyond these dualities of life destroying the darkness of delusion with the sword of knowledge under the guidance of the internal controller, our Supreme Lord, KrishNA.

Credits: Sri N.S. Anantha RangAchAr

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