Three Stage Evolution of Mahabharata – jayam, bharatam, mahabharatam

Mahabharata (via Wikipedia)
Mahabharata (via Wikipedia)

There are clues in Mahabharata which tells us about how the itihaas grew to become the longest poem with over a lakh verses. Mahabharata is divided into 18 parvas with Harivamsha as the 19th. The core of it — around 24, 000 — verses are about the war between the Pandavas and Kauravas. Besides this, there are tales of gods, kings, sages, discourses on philosophy, religion, law and various asramas of life. We know that Vyasa was the composer who taught it to Vaisampayana who then narrated it to Janamejaya at his sarpa yagna. Ugrasravas, the suta, then narrated it to others at Namisharanyam. Recently I read a book — A short history of Sanskrit Literature — which elaborates on a theory on how Mahabaharatam came to be.
Here are three verses from Mahabharata which refers to three different lengths

  • This verse refers to the first stage that has over 8000 verses
    Mahabharata - Reference to ashtau shloka sahasrani or 8000 shlokas
    Mahabharata – Reference to ashtau shloka sahasrani or 8000 shlokas
  • This is the reference to the 24,000 verses
    Mahabharata - chatur vimshati sahasrim - or 24,000 verses
    Mahabharata – chatur vimshati sahasrim – or 24,000 verses
  • This is the reference to the third stage that has over a lakh verses.
    Mahabharata - shata sahasram or 100, 000 shlokas
    Mahabharata – shata sahasram or 100, 000 shlokas

It is not just that the number of verses increased; the name of the itihaas changed as well. The very first line in adi parvam refers to it as jayam.

नारायणं नमस्कृत्य नरं चैव नरॊत्तमम
देवीं सरस्वतीं चैव ततॊ जयम उदीरयेत

Then it became bharatam and finally mahabharatam. Was it because it passed through three people — Vyasa, Vaisampayana, and Ugrasravas?

A short history of Sanskrit Literature, by TK Ramachandra Aiyar
A short history of Sanskrit Literature, by TK Ramachandra Aiyar

The author of the book, T. K. Ramachandra Aiyar, thinks that the core of Mahabharata is the rivalry of Kurus and Panchalas. Their enemosity is historic. They quaralled for a long time and finally there was a union. The Yajurveda — which was composed in a nearby region — mentions this. The Kathaka Samhita, though speaks of a dispute between Vaka Dalbhya from Panchala and a Dritharashtra who is the son of a Vichitravirya, a Kuru. Over time, the kingdoms split again and engaged in constant rivalry. By the time of Mahabharata, the Kuru and Panchala kingdom were separate.
Prior to the war, there was a turn of events which caused the annexation of Northern Panchala by the Kurus. This is the incident, where Drona defeats Drupada using Arjuna. This event upset the balance of poweer between the two kingdoms. The Kurus were defeated in the war and the Panchalas won along with the Pandavas. (Here is an interesting explanation about the Mahabharata war, not as a rivalry between Kauravas and Pandavas, but as a war between Kurus and Panchalas).
With this background, here is the theory on what might have happened. The defeat of the Kurus would have resulted in various songs glorifying the victory of the Pandavas and their allies. Sutas would have sung this in various assemblies. This would have been Jayam. By the second stage, when it reaches 24,000 verses, the life of Pandavas was elaborated. Krishna was represented as an incarnation of Vishnu and Shiva and Vishnu become more prominent than Brahma. The epic became popular all over bharatavarsha and other additions like the stories of gods and sages were added and it became a treatise on dharmashastra. This was the third stage.
The book became an authority on dharma dealing with religion, law and morality. It was accorded the status of the 5th veda. There are land grants dating between 462 CE and 532 CE, which talks about the one-lakh verse Mahabharatam compiled by Vyasa. There are numerous literary evidence from Sanskrit authors on the stature of Mahabharata. From Ujjayini to Khamboja, the ithihaas was read in temples. It became a national epic.

Mahabharata Date based on Archaeology

Ganesha writing Mahabharata (Rajasthan, 17th century) (via Wikipedia)
Ganesha writing Mahabharata (Rajasthan, 17th century) (via Wikipedia)

The dating of Mahabharata is a contentious topic. There are some who believe such exercises in general are waste of time and one should focus on the message of the epic. There are others who believe it to be a fictional narrative and hence not worth dating. Among those interested in finding a date, there are many camps; some depend on puranic genealogies, others look at astronomical data,  others use Aryan Invasion/Migration etc. as their base and finally some who look at archaeological data. Sometimes each of these groups are fixated by their technique and ignore the others. But whatever be the technique — textual analysis or astronomical analysis — it has to reconcile with what archaeology has found on the ground.
Among the dates proposed for Mahabharata, there are a few major ones. To keep this in context, remember that the Mature Harappan Period was from 2500 – 1900 BCE.

  1. 1000 BCE – This is the date that fits into the Aryan Invasion/Migration narrative. But that date has support from other sources as well.
  2. 1924 BCE – Based on Puranic genealogy
  3. 2449 BCE – Based on a statement by Varahamihira in 505 CE
  4. 3067 BCE – Based on astronomical data
  5. 3137 BCE – Mentioned by Aryabhata and the Aihole inscription.

As the dates are pushed back into the Early Harappan period, it also has to reconcile with the material goods present during that period. It also has to explain various other references that are present in the text. For example, the text mentions Yavanas and the White Huns who obviously did not exist in the 3rd millennium BCE. We also have to look at the type and size of the houses from that period and the food and animals that were present.
Archaeology of Mahabharata
The places mentioned in Mahabharata still bear the same name; there is no other Hastinapura or Kurukshetra or Ahichchhatra. In the 1950s, archaeologists excavated various sites related to the Mahabharata and from that data we have an understanding of that period. These excavations were initially done when Nehru was setting the country down the path of poverty and C14 dating was not available. After his grandson had run the country to ground, C14 dating was applied and the dates did not vary much.
Archaeology of Hastinapura revealed five distinct layers of occupation with  dates ranging from pre-1200 BCE to the 11th and 15th centuries CE.

  • Period I (2000 – 1500 BCE). This was the oldest settlement layer found in Hastinapura. People of this period used something known as Ochre Colored Pottery. The tools they used included harpoons, antennae swords, and spear heads. Some anthropomorphic figures were also found.
  • Period II (~1100 – 900 BCE): We don’t know why the Period I settlement was abandoned, but the next settlers who came half a millennia later used pottery known as Painted Grey Ware. No huge palaces were discovered, but houses which had up to thirteen rooms and an open courtyard were found. There was also the transition to iron age with small nails, tongs, axes, arrowheads, spearheads and daggers. People spent their time cattle-breeding and farming eating rice, wheat and barley. They had domesticated various animals including the horse. Eventually, this settlement came to end due to floods from Ganga.
  • Period III (~ 6th century BCE):  Hastinapura was occupied once again, this time by people who used an advanced pottery type called Northern Black Polished Ware. This was the time of Buddha, Mahavira and the Mahajanapadas. The towns were properly planned with excellent drainage systems and wells. Due to the flourishing trade, there were lots of coins and weights. But this settlement too had a disastrous end with a great fire.
  • Period IV (2nd century BCE to third century CE) Like before, a new settlement started and from the coins of that period (imitation coins of the Kushans, from Mathura, and Yahudeyas), the occupation date can be said to be between second century BCE to third century CE). There is no evidence on how this settlement came to an end. The next layer starts during the Islamic period and is not relevant to the dating of Mahabharata.

With this data, not based on astronomy or linguistics, but on what was present in the region, an archaeologist can attempt to date the Mahabharata. If any of the events in Mahabharata really happened, then a post-Buddha date can be ignored because historical records from that period are available. This leaves two dates: either the events happened in the 2000 – 1500 BCE period which was immediately after the Mature Harappan period or it happened after 1100 BCE. There is a problem with the earlier date because Mathura, Indraprastha, Kurukshetra, Kampilya and various other places mentioned in the epic did not exist at that time. Dwaraka had settlements from the Harappan period, but then none of the sites associated with Krishna such as Mathura had anyone living there. This is the problem that people who push for an earlier date fail to address.
That leaves only the 1100 – 900 BCE date open and during that period Painted Grey Ware was  found in most of the sites associated with the epic suggesting habitation. There is another pieces of evidence as well. Puranic texts mention that when Hastinapura was destroyed by floods, people moved to Kaushambi. Archaeology revealed not only the floods, but also the settlement of Kausambi at a later date than the settlement of Hastinapura. This happened around 800 BCE according to the data from Kaushambi,  and since the flood happened during the time of the fifth descendant of Parikshit, the war could have happened around 900 BCE.
This 900 BCE date is based on archaeology and other ways of analyzing the text and astronomical data reveal other dates. If archaeology suggests a date of 900 BCE, how do we reconcile the fact that astronomical data suggests an earlier date? There are some clues from a similar exercise conducted on the Odyssey but is that a good explanation.? Though we don’t have a convincing explanation for how the authors of Mahabharata came up with data from an earlier period, but we do have an explanation for how they knew about Yavanas and Huns. Originally the text had 8,800 verses and later it was expanded to 24,000 verses; now it has more than 100,000 verses. All this expansion happened over a long period of time extending up to the Gupta period in the 4th century CE and contemporary art, architecture, and weapons entered the epic.
There is one final point to consider. Archaeology based on Mahabharata was conducted during the post-Independence period. Maybe more excavations might reveal new surprises. For example, archaeology around Magadha revealed that the place was developed around the second millennium BCE and Painted Grey Ware was found there. Still we don’t have older dates from other sites to push back the date of the epic.

  1. The Mahabharata and the Sindhu-Sarasvati Tradition by Subhash Kak
  2. This is how an archaeologist looks at the historicity of the Mahabharata by B.B. Lal from Mahabharata: The End of an Era (Yuganta) Editor: Ajay Mitra Shastri

Magadha and Mahabharata : Archaeological indications from Rajgir Area

Recently ASI archaeologist B.R. Mani made a presentation titled Magadha and Mahabharata : Archaeological indications from Rajgir Area (via Carlos Aramayo)  at the International Seminar on Mahabharata held in New Delhi in April 2012. The presentation slides are colored in such a way that humans cannot read it. Fortunately, there is a transcript which tells us that there is a connection between tradition and archaeology.
This was a place known both in Ramayana and Mahabharata. There are some structures named after Jarasandha, who ruled the place during the time of Mahabharata. Archaeological excavations done by ASI has shown that the place was developed around the second millennium BCE since Painted Grey Ware was found there. PGW is a very fine, smooth and even colored pottery with a think fabric. The people who made these artifacts knew sophisticated firing techniques and how to maintain uniform high temperatures in a kiln.
The slides also talk about archaeology in Ghorakatora and lists the articles found there. It then makes the claim that if Mahabharata happened around 1400 BCE, then there is evidence of cultural development dating to that period. When Mahabharata happened is a different discussion and so the take away is that the history of the Gangetic plains is getting updated with new data.