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(məhä'bär`ətə), 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 KrishnaKrishna
[Sanskrit,=black], one of the most popular deities in Hinduism, the eighth avatar, or incarnation of Vishnu. Krishna appears in the Mahabharata epic as a prince of the Yadava tribe and the friend and counselor of the Pandava princes.
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 to reclaim the kingdom, but the Kauravas refused to abdicate and a great battle ensued. Before the battle began, Krishna preached the exalted Bhagavad-GitaBhagavad-Gita
[Skt.,=song of the Lord], Sanskrit poem incorporated into the Mahabharata, one of the greatest religious classics of Hinduism. The Gita (as it is often called) consists of a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna on the eve of the great battle of
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. 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 RamayanaRamayana
[story of Rama], classical Sanskrit epic of India, probably composed in the 3d cent. B.C. Based on numerous legends, it is traditionally the work of Valmiki, one of the minor characters.
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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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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the epic of the peoples of India.

The Mahabharata is based on oral stories and legends that existed among the tribes and peoples of northwestern and northern India. Its origins date to the second half of the second millennium B.C. It acquired its present form by the middle of the first millennium A.D. It is believed that the first Mahabharata legend was written in Prakrits and only later was translated into Sanskrit.

The central theme of the Mahabharata deals with the battle of two families and their allies for control of Hastinapura (present-day Delhi) and is narrated by the epic’s legendary author, Vyasa, and by the main characters of the narrative. The Mahabharata consists of 18 books, several introductory epic stories, which are very loosely related to the main subject, and many tales and legends chiefly of a folkloric character, for example, “The Saga of Shakuntala,” “The Legend of Rama,” “The Saga of Matsya,” “The Story of King Shiva,” “The Tale of Nala,” “The Saga of Savitri,” and the philosophical poem of later origin, the Bhagavad-Gita.

The Mahabharata is a rich source of subjects and images that have been reworked in the national literatures of India, Indonesia, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Mongolia. In each of the national literatures the subjects of the Mahabharata were interpreted in accordance with the era and the specific national environment. In Europe the Mahabharata became well known at the end of the 18th century, when the Bhagavad-Gita appeared in English, German, and Russian. Until 1948 complete translations of the epic existed only in English. Between 1950 and 1967 a translation of three books of the Mahabharata by V. I. Kal’ianov was published in Russian. The most important parts of the epic were published in a translation by B. L. Smirnov. Significant contributions to the study of the Mahabharata were made by the European scholars F. Bopp, L. Schroder, C. Lassen, S. Sörensen, and G. Bühler, as well as by the Indian scholars who compiled a critical edition of the Mahabharata (V. S. Sukthankar and others).


The Mahabharata: For the First Time Critically, vols. 1-18. Edited by V. S. Sukthankar. Poona, 1933-66.
In Russian translation:
Nal’ i Damaianti. Translated by V. A. Zhukovskii. Moscow, 1958.
Makhabkharata, books 1-2, 4. Moscow-Leningrad, 1950-67.
Makhabharata, vols. 1-7. Introductory article and notes of B. L. Smirnov. Ashkhabad, 1955-63.
Makhabkharata, ili Skazanie o Velikoi bitve potomkov Bharaty: Drevneindiiskii epos. Literaturnoe izlozhenie E. N. Temkina i V. G. Ermana. Moscow, 1963.


Grintser, P. A. Makhabkharata i Ramaiana. Moscow, 1970.
Serebriakov, I. D. Ocherki drevneindiiskoi literatury. Moscow, 1971. Pages 69-84.
Sukthankar, V. S. On the Meaning of the Mahabharata. Bombay, 1957.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Indian epic poem of the struggle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. [Indian Lit.: Mahabharata]
See: Epic


epic poem of Ancient India runs to some 200,000 verses. [Hindu Lit.: Benét, 620]


lengthy narrative poem about the great war supposed to have taken place in India about 1400 B.C. [Sanskrit Lit.: Haydn & Fuller, 451]
See: War


long Sanskrit epic poem on theology and morals. [Indian Lit.: Mahabharata]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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