A little over a year ago, I embarked on a kind of religious quest. I decided to read the entire Bible and write a report on each book. It took me about six months, and you can read the whole thing HERE. Immediately after, I began reading the Qur’an, surah by surah, and wrote a book report on that, which you can read HERE. Having finished that, I have decided to read The Mahabharata, one of the central texts of Hinduism, and write a book report on what I find. I recently purchased the abridged Penguin edition of The Mahabharata. Even in abridged form, this book is a daunting 791 pages!
The Mahabharata is often described as the longest poem ever written—over 100,000 lines! The translator of my version, John D. Smith, writes: “a complete version would require at least another four volumes the size of this one.” By my math, that would be nearly 4,000 pages! This abridged translation is an amalgam of summary and direct translation—meant to give the overall arc of this ancient epic of India.
Hinduism is different from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in that it does not have one central text. The main/classic scriptures of Hinduism include the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, The Mahabharata (which includes the famous Bhagvad-Gita), and the Ramayana. Thus, someone could literally spend their whole life reading Hindu scriptures. The Mahabharata, the subject of this project, came after the Vedas, which are some of the oldest religious writings in the world—some of them pre-dating the Bible and the Qur’an by centuries. The Mahabharata came later. Scholars today generally agree that The Mahabharata was composed over several centuries, stretching roughly from 400 B.C.E. to 400 C.E. Interestingly, this overlaps the composition and compilation of some of the Bible, particularly the New Testament.
So, what is The Mahabharata? It is an epic poem which tells the story of a great war between two groups of relatives: the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Unlike the Vedas, which were composed by the priestly class of Indians (the Brahmins), the Mahabharata is a product of the social class below the Brahmins: the kings and warriors (the Ksatriyas). Over the centuries, the Brahmins added some elements to the text. But, at its heart, The Mahabharata is a story about the conflict between kings and warriors.
But it is also about the gods. Translator John D. Smith explains the central conflict. It is about “the eternal battle between gods and demons played out as a human conflict between two sets of cousins, the hundred sons of Dhrtarastra (the Kauravas) led by the wicked Duryodhana, and the five sons of Pandu (the Pandavas).” Put more simply: the “bad guy” Kauravas are incarnations of demons and the “good guy” Pandavas are incarnations of gods. And they go to war.
The Mahabharata consists of 18 books (or parvans), which may roughly be divided into three main sections: “The first five books recount the events that led up to the great war at Kuruksetra; Books 6-10 describe the course of that war and the night-time massacre that followed it; Books 11-18 tell of the war’s long aftermath.”
This is the overall plot of the Mahabharata but, at a deeper level, it is about the Hindu concept of dharma. Put simply, dharma “is what it is right for that person to do.” Dharma is one’s purpose in life. Smith explains it in this way: “Only by performing ones own dharma can one hope to improve one’s station in life at the next rebirth.” Characters, in seeking to perform their dharma, encounter various crises which hi-light fundamental questions about the purpose of human existence.