The longest-known epic poem, the Mahabharata, was not so long once upon a time. It also had humble beginnings – it started out as an orally-transmitted tale of the charioteer bards. But what began as the story of the great Bharata war, ended up being a primer in moral values. By using the dramatic story of the fratricidal war, lessons are given on the four aspects of purushārtha, or the meaning of human existence: dharma (law), artha (money), kāma (pleasure) and moksha (liberation).

A charioteer’s tale

The original story of the Bharata war was probably composed by charioteer-bards known as sutas, who generally accompanied the king’s entourage to the battlefield, and composed poems eulogising their feats in war. These poems were transmitted orally. Several lines in the epic such as, “Eight hundred bejewelled sutas… praised him”, and “Singers, gāyanas, those skilled in tales… dancers and reciters… stood praising him, as did the sutas”, attest to the fact that the story of the Bharata war was once an orally circulated composition of the sutas.

From the fifth century BCE, the Brahmins caught hold of the orally-transmitted poem and committed it to the written word. This was the time when from the numerous chiefdoms, 16 kingdoms were gaining prominence. Two of these kingdoms were Kuru and Panchala, around which the story revolves. Perhaps these emerging kingdoms wanted their history to be recorded? The Mahabharata refers to itself as itihāsa. The literal meaning of itihāsa is “thus it was”, and has been extended to mean history in the modern age. Thus, the Kuru and Panchala kingdoms treated the Bharata war as their itihāsa and wanted there to be a record of it.

The Brahmins, however, could not write the narrative of the bards as it is. Edward Hopkins in his book, The Great Epic of India: Its Character and Origin, explained why:

“The story in its details was so abhorrent to the writers of the epic that they make every effort to whitewash the heroes, at one time explaining that what they did would have been wicked if it had not been done by divinely inspired heroes; at another frankly stating that the heroes did wrong. It is not then probable that had the writers intended to write a moral tale they would have built on such a material. Hence, the tale existed as such before it became the nucleus of a sermon.”

Therefore, the Brahmins added huge didactic portions in order to explain the “abhorrent details”. This explains why the Mahabharata as we know it today has two sections – the dramatic narrative and the sermonising didactic. These didactic sections were inserted into the story at different points of time. Its authors tried to match various parts of the narrative with the Brahmanical values prevalent at the time.

This constant working and reworking of the text gave rise to several inconsistencies in the narrative. Arjuna’s failure to maintain celibacy when sent into exile is one one of the most glaring instances. When the Pāndavas lost their kingdom to the Kauravas in a game of dice, they were sent on 13 years of exile, and Arjuna had vowed to remain celibate for the first 12 years. However, Arjuna not only married Ulupi, the beautiful water nymph, but also lived with her for three years. After this, no mention is made of Arjuna’s celibacy until Krishna approaches the subject of Subhadra, to which Arjuna replies, “how can a wood wanderer fall in love?”

Furthermore, practices, such as Draupadi’s polyandry and Bhishma’s attempted parricide, which did not have Brahmanical sanction, merited several justifications too.

Draupadi’s polyandry

Drupada, the king of Panchala, organised a competition whereby the man who could string a bow and hit a moving target would win his daughter’s hand in marriage. Arjuna, being an ace archer, won the competition and married Draupadi. Yet, Draupadi eventually ended up as the wife of all five Pandavas. This polyandrous alliance merited three different explanations in later additions to the epic:

  1. Post Arjuna’s marriage to Draupadi, the Pandavas returned to their mother and exclaimed that they had got something for her. Kunti, without even seeing what had been brought to her, ordered that the brothers share whatever had been brought. On seeing Draupadi, Kunti realised her mistake, but her command could not be violated. Thus, Draupadi is shared by all the five brothers.
  2. Drupada protested at such an immoral union, but the sage (and also the compiler of the epic) Vyasa explained to him that Pandavas were the reincarnation of Indra, and Draupadi had been reborn as Indra’s wife. Thus, their union was meant to be.
  3. In another instance, Vyasa explained that a young woman had prayed to Lord Shiva for a husband a total of five times. That woman was reborn as Draupadi, and thus received five husbands, one for each one of her prayers.

Furthermore, the epic stressed that Draupadi’s virginity was restored each month (post her menses) so that after willing conjugal sex with one of the Pandavas, she could be a virgin for the next Pandava. A host of explanations were thus offered by the epic’s authors with the idea that Draupadi’s polyandry was an aberration.

However, Wendy Doniger, in her book, The Hindus, points out that Draupadi’s was not the only polyandrous marriage. Several other polyandrous unions exist in the epic: Satyawati (two partners, Shantanu and Vyasa’s father), Ambika as well as Ambalika (Vichitravirya and Vyasa), Kunti (Pandu, Surya, Dharma, Vayu and Indra) and finally Madri (Pandu and the two Ashwins). These polyandrous unions point to the fact that when the charioteer bards versified the Bharata war, polyandry was the custom as it is even now in parts of the Himalayas. But when the epic was being written, polyandry had lost Brahmanical sanction. Similarly, Draupadi’s chastity was stressed upon so as to avoid sankara (literally, mixing; in this context, mixing of patrilineage), a word that is also used for the deplorable mixing of varnas, or varnasankara. Draupadi’s polyandry being central to the narrative of the epic could not be weeded out. Hence, several explanations were offered to explain it away.

Bhishma parricide

Much like Draupadi’s polyandry, Bhishma’s parricide evoked much censure from the Mahabharata’s many authors. Accordingly, a chain of parricides was constructed in order to justify this ghastly act. Bhishma had tried to kill his preceptor, or guru, Rama Jamadagnya, also known as Parshurama. Since one’s preceptor is equivalent to one’s father, the act was one of attempted parricide. In order to expiate for his sins, Bhishma then has to be the voluntary victim of an attempted parricide by his grandson, Arjuna. Counseled by his wife, Ulupi, Arjuna decides to pay for his sin by being the victim of an attempted parricide by his son Babhruvahana.

In order to censure one parricidal act, the Brahmanical authors of the epic, constructed two others not only to show parricide as a sinful act but also to convey the message of karma – one reaps what one sows. Similarly, for the fratricide that lies at the heart of the epic (Pandavas and Kauravas were brothers), a sermon on dharma and performance of caste duties was added as a didactic section.

Krishna and dharma

Between 200 BCE and 200 CE, the Bhagavad Gita, a huge didactic text (providing justifications for fratricide, among other things) was added to the epic. This was a time when the Puranas were being written and Vaishnavism was becoming popular. Apart from replacing the expensive Vedic yajnas with the simple Puranic pūja, the Puranas also carried out a process of assimilating several deities of the low tradition with the deities of the high tradition. One such deity of the “low tradition” was Krishna, of the Vrishni tribe. Like other deities of the “low tradition” like Jagannath of Puri, Krishna was made one of Vishnu’s 10 avatars. Krishna’s cult grew quickly and as a result he was made a central figure in the epic. Similarly, between 200 and 400 CE, didactic sections akin to the Manusmriti were also added. This is when Dharma becomes a central concept in the epic.

Dynamic text

Thus, what started out at 10,000 verses in the fifth century BCE, stood at 100,000 verses in 400 CE. Yet, the epic continued to be a dynamic text, travelling to various parts of the subcontinent and developing several regional variations. VS Sukthankar, a Sanskritist, and his team of scholars began in 1919 the arduous task of preparing a critical edition of the Mahabharata. This entailed collecting various manuscripts of the epic and selecting verses common to most versions of the epic. The critical edition ran into 13,000 pages and the project took a total of 47 years to complete. However, the didactic portions of the text are so inextricably linked to the narrative portions, that Sukthankar himself remarked how “useless an exercise it was to reconstruct a fluid text in its original form”. The team could, therefore, only reconstruct the oldest known form of the epic, which had been so thoroughly reworked by Brahmanical authors that dharma took centrestage and the narrative of the sutas was just the frame.