In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mahābhārata

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • The Critical Edition
  • English Translations
  • Medieval Sanskrit Commentaries
  • Bhārgava Theory
  • Comparative Work
  • Other Mahābhārata Traditions

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Hinduism Mahābhārata
Simon Brodbeck
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 January 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0033


The Mahābhārata is a vast array of narrative traditions in all varieties of media. It is also—and perhaps was originally—a massive (traditionally 100,000-verse) text in Sanskrit, mostly in the anuṣṭubh śloka meter, and often is categorized, along with the Rāmāyaṇa, as a Sanskrit “epic.” Presenting itself in eighteen books (parvans), this text tells the well-framed story of the deepening conflict between the Pāṇḍavas and their cousins the Kauravas over the kingship of their ancestral realm; it tells of the eighteen-day war at Kurukshetra, which settles the matter in favor of the Pāṇḍavas thanks in no small measure to the tactical advice of Krishna (Kṛṣṇa) Vāsudeva (that is, Lord Vishnu [Viṣṇu] in disguise); and it tells of the aftermath of war, in which the new king Yudhiṣṭhira receives extensive teachings, principally in matters of government and soteriology. The text includes dozens of subsidiary tales told by one character to another for purposes of entertainment or edification, and it also includes, just before the beginning of the war, the famous Bhagavad Gita.

General Overviews

Dahlmann 1895 and Hopkins 1994 are classic studies of the Sanskrit text in the synthetic (holistic) and the analytic (text-historical) modes, respectively. These are the two basic modes of approach into which work in the field has tended to be polarized. Brockington 1998 is a comprehensive survey in the analytic mode (treating the Mahābhārata in tandem with the Rāmāyaṇa), whereas Sukthankar 1957, Hiltebeitel 2001, and Biardeau 2002 apply varying types of synthetic views at varying levels of detail. Kosambi 1964 is a short ethnohistorical essay on the text and its context. Fitzgerald 2004 is perhaps the best short overview of the Mahābhārata, accessible to those with little background in the subject.

  • Biardeau, Madeleine. Le Mahābhārata: Un récit fondateur du brahmanisme et son interprétation. 2 vols. Paris: Seuil, 2002.

    This massive study follows the Pāṇḍava narrative in the “vulgate” edition, with summary then commentary of each episode. Biardeau presents the text as a Brahmanic riposte to Buddhism by way of what she calls a bhakti “swerve” (écart). Rather neglects the text’s didactic portions and frames.

  • Brockington, John L. The Sanskrit Epics. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998.

    An evenhanded philological manual of the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa as Sanskrit texts and as objects of scholarship, with chapters also on the Harivaṃśa and on the texts’ influence and cultural significance.

  • Dahlmann, Joseph. Das Mahābhārata als Epos und Rechtsbuch: Ein Problem aus Altindiens Cultur-und Literaturgeschichte. Berlin: Felix L. Dames, 1895.

    A frequently maligned but increasingly influential classic viewing the text as a meditation on dharma produced by a single author.

  • Fitzgerald, James L. “Mahābhārata.” In The Hindu World. Edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene R. Thursby, 52–74. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    Draws on a deep engagement with the Mahābhārata’s framing myth of the descent of the gods (as the Pāṇḍavas and their associates) to defeat demonic forces who are oppressing earth.

  • Hiltebeitel, Alf. Rethinking the Mahābhārata: A Reader’s Guide to the Education of the Dharma King. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

    Approaches the Pune Mahābhārata suggestively as a literary work, with particular emphasis on its myths of authorship. Imagines it historically, as a text written over several generations by committee. Subtitle is slightly misleading.

  • Hopkins, E. Washburn. The Great Epic of India: Its Character and Origin. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1994.

    An in-depth study surveying the text’s philosophy and meter and supplying the canonical analytic view of its production over a protracted period. Originally published in 1901.

  • Kosambi, D. D. “The Autochthonous Element in the Mahābhārata.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 81.1 (1964): 31–44.

    An essay focusing especially on the nagas (snakes) and exploring the possible historical context of the text’s production in terms of changing patterns of land usage in a specific locality.

  • Sukthankar, Vishnu Sitaram. On the Meaning of the Mahābhārata. Bombay, India: Asiatic Society of Bombay, 1957.

    A series of swan song lectures published posthumously, providing an engaging holistic analysis. The first lecture is “The Mahābhārata and Its Critics” (here E. Washburn Hopkins comes in for some criticism), and the other three analyze the story on the mundane, the ethical, and the metaphysical (that is, allegorical) planes.

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