MAHABHARATA (from the Sanskrit mahat—changed to mand—great, and Bhdrata) is the natne of one of the two great epic poems of ahment India. For the other, see the article RktivAN'A. As its main story relates to the contest between two rival families, botlt descendants of a king, Bharata, the word Maltabhfirata probably implies " the great history of the descendants of Bharata;" for another explanation of the word, which connects it with bhdra, weight, was obviously invented merely to convey an idea of the enormous extent of this poem. According to this explanation, it would mean the " very -weighty (poem)," because, "when weighed, it was found to be heavier than all the four Vedas together with their mystical writings." However devoid of grammatical value this popular account of the word Mahabliftrata may be, it does not exaggerate the bulk of this epos, which, in its present condition, consists of upwards of 100,000 verses, each containing 32 syllables; while, if a tradtition, reported in the introduction to the work itself, could be trusted, it was fortnerly known in other recensions of a, still greater extent. In its actual shape, it is divided into 18 parvans or books, the Hurivansa (q.v.) being considered as a supplementary part of it. That this huge composition was not the work of one single individual, but a production of successive ages, clearly results from the multifariousness of its contents, from the difference of style which characterizes its-various parts, and even from the contradictions which disturb its har mony. Hindu tradition ascribes it to Vydsa; but as Vyasa means " the distributer or arranger;" and as the same individual is also the reputed compiler of the Vedas, Purilnas, and several other works, it is obvious that no historical value can be assig-ned to this generic name. The contents of the Mahabharata may be distinguished into the leading story and the episodical matter connected with it. The former is probably founded on real events in the oldest history of India, though in the epic narrative it will be difficult to disentangle the reality from the fiction. The story comprises the contest of the cele brated families called the Kauravas and Pandavas, ending in the victory of the latter, and in the establishment of their rule over the northern part of India. Kuru. a descend ant of Bharata, had two sons, Dhritarilshtra and Plindu. The sons of the former, com monly called the Kauravas, were a hundred in number, the eldest of them being Duryo dhana; those of Findu—the Pdndavas—were five, Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva. Pandu having resigned his throne, Dhritarilshtra, though blind, assumed the government, and ultimately divided his kingdom between his sons and the sons of Pfindu. The former, however, coveting the territory allotted to the Pandu princes, endeavored to get possession of it. A game of dice was the means by which they bound over their cousins to relinquish their kingdom, promising, how ever, to restore it to them if they passed twelve years in the forests, and a thirteenth year in such disguises as to escape detection. This promise was faithfully kept by the Pan da,vas; but the term of their banishment having expired, the Kuru princes refused to redeem their word. A war ensued. ending in the complete destruction of the Kauravas.
These are the meager outlines of the leading story of the Maha.bharata, where, as may be inferred, Duryodhana and his brothers are pictured as the type of all conceivable wick 'eduess, and the Pandu princes as paragons of virtue and heroism. That the latter are the incarnations of sundry deities—that the gods'take an active part in the development of the plot, in short, that Hindu niythology is always interwoven with these stirring avents of semi-historical Hindu antiquities, requires no further remark to any one but slightly acquainted with Hindu poetry. It is necessary, however, to observe that out of the 100,000 verses which constitute the great epos, barely a fourth part is taken up by this narrative; all the rest is episodical. The matter thus, as it were, incidentilly linked with the main story-, !nay be distributed under three principal heads, passing over such minor additions as fables, genealogical lists, geographical enumerations, and the like. One category of such episodes comprises narratives relating, to the ancient or mythical hystory of India, as, for instance, the episodes of Nala and Sakuntala; at second is more strictly mythological, comprising cosmogony aud theogony; a third is didactic or doomatic—it refers to law, religion, morals, and philosophy, as in the case of the cele braed Blia,gavaclgita, and the pnncipal portions of the 12th and 13th books. By means of this episodical matter, which at various periods, and often without regard to cousistency-, was superadded to the original structure of the work, the Maliabharata gradually becanie a collection of all that was needed to be known by an educated Hindu; in favt, it became the encyclopredia of India. " There is no narrative on earth," the Mahabliarata says of itself, " that is not founded on this epos The twice-born, though knowing the four Vedas and their supplementary sciences, has no wisdom unless lie knows this great epos. . . . . It is the great manual of all that is moral, useful, and agreeable." Yet it should be noticed that the Brahmanic authors of the great epos intended it especially as an encyclo pmdia, for the Kshattriya or tnilitary caste; for it is chiefly the history, the interests, the religion, and the duties of the second caste which are taught in it, always, of course, with a view of establishin,, the superiority of the Bralimamc caste. Sectarian religion is for this reason not empltiasized in the Maliabliarata, though the later sectarian works (see Pula:NA) have largely drawn, for their purposes, on the mythological material afforded them by the great epic work. The text of the Maliabliarata has been published in Calcutta in four quarto volumes (1834-39), to which is added a fifth volume, contain ing a table of contents. Two other editions are in the course of publication at Bombay. The best researches on the Mahabharata are' those of Lassen, in his Zeitschrift far cZie Eunde des Morgenlandes (1837, ff.), and in his Indische Alterthvmskunde. A sort of analy sis of the leading story of the Mahabharata (not of the episedes) is given in Eichhoff's Fade Herolgue des Indiens (Paris, 1860), mad by Prof. 3fonier Williams (Indian Epic Poetry, London, 1863). See also Talboys Wheeler's History of India (1867).