The venerable epic of the Mahabharata ranks first among classics of Indian literature. The legend of the war of the Mahabharata in India finds its exact parallel in the legend of the Trojan war in Europe. Each became the great central point to which the nations of the Middle Ages referred their history. To have shared ancestrally in the fame of Kurukshetra or of Troy was for nations the patent of nobility and ancient descent The remotest peoples of Eastern and Southern India and the late invaders of the North-West alike claimed a place in the story of the Mahabharata, even as the royal houses of Western Europe traced their origin to Trojan heroes. Until the close of the sixteenth century no historian of France or Britain doubted that the kings of these countries were descended from the Trojan Francus or Brutus, both of whom were in reality eponymous heroes like Yadu and his brothers in the Puranas. Milton in his History of England (1670) repeats the story of Brutus at length and in detail; but a chance phrase—' they who first devis'd to bring us from some noble ancestor'—shows that historians were beginning to recognise the origin of such legends. And so far as the Mahabharata associates most of the nations of India with the great war it has been 'devis'd' in the same manner and for the same purpose. A nucleus of fact has been encrusted with the legendary accretions of ages.
The orthodox legend ascribes it to the sage Vyasa, who, according to Brahman chronology, compiled the inspired hymns into the four Vedas, over five thousand years ago (3001 BC, the outset of the Iron Age of Kaliyuga). But one beauty of Sanskrit is that every word discloses its ancient origin in spite of mediaeval fictions, and Vyasa means simply the 'arranger,' from the verb 'to fit together.' No fewer than twenty-eight Vyasas, incarnations of Brahma and Vishnu, came down in successive astronomical eras to arrange and promulgate the Vedas on earth. Many of the legends in the Mahabharata are of Vedic antiquity, and the main story deals with a period towards the end of dwaapara yuga (the penultimate age among the four ages in a mahaayuga), with the end of the Mahabharat War coming in 3138 BC [by some accounts], before the outset of the Iron Age of Kaliyuga in 3001 BC.
But its compilation into its present literary form seems to have taken place several centuries later. Panini makes no clear allusion to it (350 BC). The inquisitive Greek ambassador and historian, Megasthenes, does not appear to have heard of it during his stay in India, 300 BC. Dion Chrysostomos supplies the earliest external evidence of the existence of the Mahabharata, circa 75 AD. The arrangement of its vast mass of legends must probably have covered a long period. Indeed, the present poem bears traces of three separate eras of compilation; during which its collection of primitive folk-tales grew (as stated by itself) from 8800 slokas or couplets, into a cyclopaedia of Indian mythology and legendary lore extending over eighteen books and 220,000 lines. The twenty-four books of Homer's Iliad comprise only 15,693 lines; and the twelve books of Virgil's AEneid, only 9868.
The central story of the Mahabharata occupies scarcely one-fourth of the whole, or about 50,000 lines. It narrates a prehistoric struggle between two families of the Lunar race for a patch of country near Delhi. The virtuous Pandava clan, led by Arjuna, wages war with the power-hungry Kauravas, led by Arjuna's half-brothers, Karna and Duryodhana. Although the Lord Krishna, the 8th avatar (incarnation) of Lord Vishnu cannot intervene, he provides advice for both clans on protecting dharma, the order of the universe. These families, alike descended from the royal Bharata, consisted of two brotherhoods, cousins to each other, and both brought up under the same roof. The five Pandavas were the miraculously born sons of King Pandu, who, smitten by a curse, resigned the sovereignty to his brother Darita-rashtra, and retired to a hermitage in the Himalayas, where he died. The ruins of his capital, Hastinapura, or the 'Elephant City,' are pointed out beside a deserted bed of the Ganges, 57 miles north-east of Delhi, at this day.
His brother ruled in his stead, and to him one hundred sons were born, who took the name of the Kauravas from an ancestor, Kuru. Dhrita-rashtra acted as a faithful guardian to his five nephews, the Pandavas, and chose the eldest of them as heir to the family kingdom. His own sons resented this act of supercession; and so arose the quarrel between the hundred Kauravas and the five Pandavas which forms the main story of the Mahabharata.
The hundred Kauravas forced their father to send away their cousins into the forest, and there they treacherously burned down the hut in which the five Pandavas dwelt. The latter escaped, and wandered in the disguise of Brahmans to the court of King Draupada, who had proclaimed a swayamvara, or maiden's-choice, at which his daughter would take the victor as her husband. Arjuna, one of the Pandavas, bent the mighty bow which had defied the strength of all the rival chiefs, and so obtained the fair princess, Draupada, who became the common wife of the five brethren. Their uncle, the good Dhrita-rashtra, recalled them to his capital, and gave them one-half of the family territory, reserving the other half for his own sons.
The Pandava brethren hived off to a new settlement, Indra-prastha, afterwards Delhi; clearing the jungle, and driving out the Nagas or forest peoples. For a time peace reigned; but the Kauravas tempted Yudishthira, 'firm in fight,' the eldest of the Pandavas, to a gambling match, at which he lost his kingdom, his brothers, himself, and last of all, his wife. Their father, however, forced his sons to restore their wicked gains to their cousins. But Yudishthira was again seduced by the Kauravas to stake his kingdom at dice, again lost it, and had to retire with his wife and brethren into exile for twelve years.
Their banishment ended, the five Pandavas returned at the" head of an army to win back their kingdom. Many battles followed, gods and divine heroes joining in the struggle, until at last all the hundred Kauravas were slain, and of the friends and kindred of the Pandavas only the five brethren remained. Their uncle, Dhrita-rashtra, made over to them the whole kingdom ; and for a long time the Pandavas ruled gloriously, celebrating the asiva-medha, or 'great horse sacrifice,' in token of their holding imperial sway. But their uncle, old and blind, ever taunted them with the slaughter of his hundred sons, until at last he crept away with his few surviving ministers, his aged wife, and his sister-in-law, the mother of the Pandavas, to a hermitage, where the worn-out band perished in a forest fire.
The five brethren, smitten by remorse, gave up their kingdom; and taking their wife, Draupadi, and a faithful dog, they departed to the Himalayas to seek the heaven of Indra on Mount Meru. One by one the sorrowful pilgrims died upon the road, until only the eldest brother, Yudishahira, and the dog reached the gate of heaven. Indra invited him to enter, but he refused if his lost wife and brethren were not also admitted. The prayer was granted, but he still declined unless his faithful dog might come in with him. This could not be allowed, and Yudishahira, after a glimpse of heaven, was thrust down to hell, where he found many of his old comrades in anguish. He resolved to share their sufferings rather than to enjoy paradise alone. But having triumphed in this crowning trial, the whole scene was revealed to be maya or illusion, and the reunited band entered into heaven, where they rest for ever with Indra.
Even this story, which forms merely the nucleus of the Mahabharata, is evidently the growth of far distant ages. For example, the two last books, the 17th and 18th, which narrate 'the Great Journey' and 'the Ascent to Heaven,' are the product of a very different epoch of thought from the early ones, which portray the actual life of courts and camps in ancient India. The swayam-vara or husband-choosing of Draupadf is a genuine relic of the warrior-age of the Aryans in Hindustan. Her position as the common wife of the five brethren preserves a trace of even more primitive institutions The institutions still represented by the polyandry of the Nairs Draupadi and other hill tribes, and by domestic customs which are survivals of polyandry among the Hinduized low-castes all over India.
The remainder consists of later additions; some of them are legends of the early Aryan settlements in the Middle Land, tacked on to the central story; others are mythological episodes, theological discourses, and philosophic disquisitions, intended to teach the military caste its duties, especially its duty of reverence to the Brahmans. Taken as a whole, the Mahabharata may be said to form the cyclopaedia of the Heroic Age in Northern India, with the struggle of the Pandavas and Kauravas as its original nucleus; and the submission of the military power to priestly domination as its later and didactic design.
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