Mahabharata [key], classical Sanskrit epic of India, probably composed between 200 b.c. and a.d. 200. The Mahabharata, comprising more than 90,000 couplets, usually of 32 syllables, is the longest single poem in world literature. The 18-book work is traditionally ascribed to the ancient sage Vyasa, but it was undoubtedly composed by a number of bardic poets and later revised by priests, who interpolated many long passages on theology, morals, and statecraft. It is the foremost source concerning classical Indian civilization and Hindu ideals. While there are many subplots and irrelevant tales, the Mahabharata is primarily the fabulous account of a dynastic struggle and great civil war in the kingdom of Kurukshetra, which in the 9th cent. b.c. encompassed the region around modern Delhi. The throne of Kurukshetra fell to the prince Dhritarashtra, but he was blind and therefore, according to custom, not eligible to rule. Pandu, his younger brother, became king instead, but he renounced the throne and retired as a hermit to the Himalayas; Dhritarashtra then became king. When the five sons of Pandu, the Pandavas, came of age, the eldest, Yuddhisthira, demanded the throne from his uncle, Dhritarashtra. However, the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra, the Kauravas, treacherously plotted against the Pandavas, the rightful heirs. The five brothers were eventually driven from the kingdom by the Kauravas, and in hiding as soldiers of fortune they married in common the Princess Draupadi. Dhritarashtra subsequently renounced the throne and divided the kingdom between the Pandavas and his own sons. The Kauravas, jealous and not content with the territorial settlement, challenged the Pandavas to a great dice match, at which they won the entire kingdom by devious means. After 12 years of wandering in exile and an additional year of living in disguise the Pandavas returned with their friend Krishna to reclaim the kingdom, but the Kauravas refused to abdicate and a great battle ensued. Before the battle began, Krishna preached the exalted Bhagavad-Gita. The forces engaged, and after three weeks of fighting, the Pandavas won. Yuddhisthira, the eldest, ascended the throne. After a long and peaceful reign he and his brothers abdicated and with their wife Draupadi set out for the Himalayas, where they entered the blissful City of the Gods. The philosophy set forth throughout the work emphasizes social duty and ascetic principles. Its theology is enormously complex. The other great Sanskrit epic is the Ramayana.
See translations of the Mahabharata by M. N. Dutt (8 vol., 1895–1905, repr. 1960), P. Lal (1980), J. A. B. van Buitenen (3 vol., 1973–78); study by R. K. Sharma (1964).
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