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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Volumes
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • The Critical Edition
  • Other Classical Mahabharatas
  • Sanskrit Poetics
  • Theories on the Composition of the Mahabharata
  • English Translations
  • English Abridgments
  • Critical Reception of the Brook Mahabharata
  • Oral Vernacular Traditions
  • Regional Styles of Theater and Dance
  • Visual Arts
  • Southeast Asia

Hinduism Mahābhārata in Hindu Tradition
Pamela Lothspeich
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0076


Epic tale, Hindu scripture, philosophical treatise, and national history, the Mahabharata (“the great Bharata”) is India’s most massive repository of knowledge about Hindu thought and life in classical India. Given that there are so many versions of the Mahabharata (oral, textual, and performative), the work is best understood as narrative tradition rather than a discrete text. At around 100,000 verses in Sanskrit, it is one of the world’s longest (and oldest) epics. As a whole the work straddles the Vedic and classical periods, giving insight into a tumultuous period of religious debate and cultural synthesis. The main narrative of the Mahabharata (which includes the Bhagavad Gita) recounts the bitter conflict between the hundred sons of the blind king Dhritarashtra (the mostly nefarious Kauravas) and their cousins, the five sons of the pale king Pandu (the mostly noble Pandavas). Ultimately this conflict escalates into a devastating war that pits family against family, guru against disciple, and friend against friend. Although the Pandavas triumph in the end, they pay dearly, as nearly all of their loved ones perish in the war. Basic themes in the Mahabharata—a grave injustice against the heroine, an unjust exile of the heroes, and a cataclysmic war against a villainous enemy—are ones found in the other major epic of India, the Ramayana. However, the scope of the Mahabharata is much broader and its narrative structure more complex. It is also much more philosophical. The Mahabharata in all of its multifarious forms and relevant scholarship are considered here, not merely the Sanskrit Mahabharata.

General Overviews

Few are the scholars intrepid and skilled enough to maintain a sustained, pathbreaking investigation into the entire Mahabharata. The most helpful scholarship of the late 20th and early 21st centuries tends to come from those engaged with large translation projects of classical Mahabharatas or long-term studies of “lived” Mahabharatas (folk literature and theater). That is the case with Brockington 1998, Buitenen 1973, Fitzgerald 2004, and Hiltebeitel 2001, insightful introductions to the Mahabharata covering much of the same ground (dating, authorship, historical expansion, cultural significance, and the central story) but with somewhat different analyses, styles, and foci. Many consider Brockington 1998 the best comprehensive treatment of both epics, but it is massive at around six hundred pages and full of epic minutiae and citations that will be forbidding to the casual reader. The great contribution of Brockington 1998 is that it brings together much scholarly thinking on the Mahabharata and Ramayana and considers them together rather than in isolation. The introduction to Brockington 1998 and Buitenen 1973 and Fitzgerald 2004 would all be very much at home on an undergraduate syllabus: all are first-rate, and reasonably accessible introductions to the epic, but of these only Fitzgerald 2004 seriously considers female contributions to what is, admittedly, a male-centric epic. However, Dhand 2008, placed here rather than under a peripheral heading like “women” or “gender” farther down, refreshingly prioritizes female characters and points of view in the epic, in a textual study on the ideological workings of sexuality and desire—concerns for all of humanity—in the Mahabharata. Like Dhand 2008, Brodbeck 2009 offers an overview of the Mahabharata by tracking another of its central concerns, maintaining familial lineage, focusing on its preoccupation with male descent. Hiltebeitel 2001 is a bit more challenging than most introductions, but advanced students will find it a rewarding read and perhaps a segue to the author’s four other excellent monographs on the Mahabharata. At around 150 pages, the overview in the pocket-size van Nooten 1971 is much more manageable than Brockington 1998. While it will strike some scholars as dated, van Nooten 1971 is still a useful text for a general readership. With a straightforward style, it explains difficult concepts, for example, the epic’s narrative frames, in plain English. Sukthankar 1957, by the chief architect of the critical edition working during and after the last stages of British rule, gives a fascinating view of what the Mahabharata means, philosophically and religiously, to the author and to many Indians.

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

    This is one of the most useful books for serious students of the Mahabharata by an eminent authority on the subject. It covers a wide array of topics, for example, the relationship between Vedic and epic literature, the history of Mahabharata studies, epic language and metrics, flora and fauna in the epic, Vishnu and Shiva, and Sankhya and Yoga.

  • Brodbeck, Simon Pearce. The Mahabharata Patriline: Gender, Culture, and the Royal Hereditary. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009.

    Unraveling the various crises of fertility and the paralyzing fear of illegitimacy in the Mahabharata, Brodbeck traces and interprets the male lineages laid out in Book 1 and developed through the rest of the epic, sorting out questions of patriliny, patrilocy, and patriarchy, albeit sometimes in a disjointed manner.

  • Buitenen, J. A. B. van. The Mahābhārata. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.

    The introduction (pp. 1–16) is one of the best short overviews of the Mahabharata, appropriately at the head of the English critical edition (Sukthankar, et al. 1933–1971, cited under the Critical Edition). It summarizes the main story and covers much familiar ground: the dating of the epic, its growth and development, its reception by Western scholars, its framing devices, and its metrics. This work is suitable for a student pursuing serious study of the epic.

  • Dhand, Arti. Woman as Fire, Woman as Sage: Sexual Ideology in the Mahabharata. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008.

    Taking up concerns that are of central importance to the epic and human existence, Dhand uses a philological reading to affectively unpack how gender is constructed in the Mahabharata, and, what is more, how the ideologies of pativratā dharma and renunciation enshrined in the work continue to impact the lives of real Hindu women today.

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

    This is a stellar introduction to the Mahabharata that will please many different readers. More than many others, Fitzgerald effectively responds to the basic question: What exactly is the Mahabharata? And further, how did it come about? He particularly excels in showing how the Mahabharata, a “library of ‘Hinduism,’” relates to earlier Vedic literature and yet captures new developments within Hinduism.

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

    This study, informed by classic Indology and performance studies, examines the critically reconstituted Mahabharata in Sanskrit, revisiting vexing problems like dating and authorship (arguing for a small body of authors and a relatively compressed period of composition), and considering the role of the framing devices and characters in Yudhishthira’s orbit, especially Vyasa and various sages, to suggest in a meandering fashion the epic’s inherent order. Building on the work of Madeleine Biardeau, he also argues for the text having originated as written literature.

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

    Based on a series of lectures, here the esteemed general editor of the critical edition shares his thoughts about the Mahabharata, which he describes as “an inexhaustible mine for the investigation of the religion, mythology, legend, philosophy, law, custom, and political and social institutions of ancient India” (Sukthankar, et al. 1933–1971, Vol. 1, p. iii, cited under the Critical Edition). Sukthankar’s ideas about the authorship and formation of the epic have been seminal.

  • van Nooten, Barend A. The “Mahābhārata”: Attributed to Kṛṣṇa Dvaipāyaṇa Vyāsa. New York: Twayne, 1971.

    Van Nooten intended this to be a guide for the nonspecialist. After a lengthy summary of the story, he discusses the epic’s structure; religious, philosophical, and ethical issues; dissemination of the epic; and modern iterations of the epic (now sorely out of date). Chapter 6, “The Spread of the Mahabharata” (across geographic borders and sectarian lines), is among the most illuminating.

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