Lecture 2: The Mahakavya of the Mahabharata

Speaker: Dr Saroj Deshpande

It is traditional for a Sanskrit lecturer to lay down the Anubandha Chatushthaya (parameters of the lecture) at the beginning of the lecture. Thus, let me quickly cover what I will not talk about:

What I will not talk about

I will not talk about The three stages of the Mahabharata. The differences in the three stages are not discernible, what we have is the complete Mahabharata.

I will not talk about how the Critical Edition was prepared. Dr Bahulkar has already covered this in Lecture 1.

I will not touch on whether the Mahabharata is history or not. We can say definitively that the Kuru clan existed. The places mentioned in the epic are still there. How much of the epic is hearsay and how much is historicity, no one can tell. Any writer, knowingly or unknowingly, reflects the socio-cultural ethos of their time in the work. For example, in Kalidasa, we find the values espoused by the Manusmriti all the time. The compilation period of the Mahabharata is thought to be 300-400 BC to 300-400 AD, which is a very long time! In this period, we saw:

  • The advent of Buddhism and the parallel decline of the Vedic religion. Followed by this, we also saw the decline of the Buddhist religion and the revival of the Vedic religion in this same time period. This period goes all the way to the Gupta period, which is called the Suvarnayuga of the Vedic religion. However, we don’t see any Buddhist values reflected in the Mahabharata!
  • We know that trade flourished in this period, but traders (Vaishyas) are almost non-existent in the Mahabharata!
  • During this period, Alexander’s invasion took place. There is no hint about this in the texts either.

This is why I am hesitant to accept it as history. I do not wish to debate this point in this lecture!

When I started reading the Critical Edition, I realized that there are things in it that are not known to us at all, and there are not things in it which we have been told about since childhood. Hence, my request to you is to approach this Mahabharata reading with a clean slate. Keep your traditional knowledge behind.

Having said this, let’s get started with the Mahakavya of the Mahabharata

War is central to the Mahabharata

A third of the book is devoted to war! Another third is the main plot of the Mahabharata, concerning all the central characters. The final third are the Upakhyana’s (sub stories), some of which are related to the main story and some of which are not.

The Rules of Heirdom

I tried to understand why Duryodhana was always so opposed to Yudhishthira as the rightful heir. Who was the rightful heir? The Arthashastra says this about the rules of heirdom:

If there is a ruling king, then the heirship continues to his descendants for at least four generations.

By this logic, Duryodhana should have been the king. The exception is if the person under consideration is ill-trained. (Note: The word is specifically ill-trained, not rude, cruel or anything else). Duryodhana was very thoroughly trained and there are references about how he was a good king and was well-loved in the Mahabharata.

We know that no one was from the Kuru lineage. Dhritarashtra and Pandu were born to Vyasa through niyoga. So the lineage was Kashiraja's blood and Vyasa’s blood.

Since this was a patriarchal society, the patriarchy goes to Vichitraveerya and therefore Dhritarashtra becomes the king, after Pandu. In the case of Yudhishthira, the lineage is one more step removed because of the niyoga of Kunti with Dharma.

What is the definition of a Mahakavya?

Bhamaha says that a Mahakavya is “a vast epic about great people”. Vishvanatha says “वाक्यं रसात्मकं काव्यम्” meaning “a text following the principles of homogeneity”. By these definitions, the Upanishadas are small kavyas inside a big kavya.