The importance of Mahabharata in Our knowledge tradition and nationhood

  • By B S Harishankar
  • September 25 2019


Scholar and author Manoj Das (2018) narrates his experience of visiting Vyas Gumpha (Cave of Vyasa), off Badrinath, where Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa dictated the Mahabharata to his scribe, Ganesha. This was sometime in the early 1970s, when the impact of Chinese aggression was yet to be neutralized (This road is a Himalayan blunder, The New Indian Express, June 28, 2018).


Not only the Himalayan region, but the banks of Saraswati, Yamuna and Ganga are studded with sites associated with Mahabharata. Archaeological excavations are expanding the horizons of Vyasa’s epic, providing us a perception of Greater India, bonded by cultural ethos. In the intellectual tradition which emerged specifically on the shores of these three major river systems, knowledge has been constituted, stored and maintained in the framework of the oral culture that thrived in the past.


A.K. Ramanujan in Is There an Indian Way of Thinking - An Informal Essay (1989) argues that Indian thought is characterized by contradiction, hypocrisy, inconsistency and context-sensitivity. He contends that Indians have no philosophy, only religion, no positive sciences, not even a psychology. He says scholars have often discussed Indian texts like Mahabharata as if they were loose leaf files, ragbag encyclopedias. Ramanujan does not present any evidence or reference to substantiate his claims.


A.L. Basham in The Wonder that was India (1954) highlights the intellectual tradition of Ganga Yamuna doab, the core region of Mahabharata. In early India, an oral tradition was maintained, especially in Ganga Yamuna Saraswati region, for comprehending, examining and preserving knowledge traditions. Prof. Kapil Kapoor argues that the oral texts were constituted to facilitate memorization as they had to be stored in the mind and transmitted orally, from the Rg Veda dialogues to Upanishadic narratives of Naciketa and Satyakāma, to Mahābhārata. He contends that the inherited learning not only endures in the traditional centres, but vibrates in the mechanisms of transmitting the tradition, such as katha pravachan and other popular cultural and social practices.


Mahabharata is a brilliant example of this oral tradition down the ages. Sage Vaisampayana, disciple of Vyasa, recites Mahabharata for the first time to King Janamejaya at his sarpasatra in Takshasila, modern Pakistan. Later at Naimisaranya, on the banks of the Gomti river near Lucknow, it is narrated by Ugrasravas, showing how the epic was stored, memorized and transmitted orally during different periods in history. During a conclave of sages headed by Saunaka, at Naimisaranya, Ugrasrava Sauti, son of Lomaharsana, again narrates the entire Mahabharata.


Basham highlights that, “throughout the Later Vedic Period, the Kurus and the Panchalas were the greatest and most civilized of the Indian people”. The Brahmana texts theoretically appended to one of the Vedas are important in the pre-Mahabharata era. The Brahmana literature is referred as reflecting the intellectual life in early India, and emerged in the Kuru Panchala region. Major Brahmana texts that refer to the Kuru Panchalas are the Aitareya Brahmana which belong to Rig Veda; Jaiminiya (or Talavakara) Brahmana of the Sama Veda; Shatapatha belonging  to the Shukla Yajur Veda; the late Gopatha Brahmana belonging to Atharva Veda; and the Panchavimsa and Taittiriya. 


We find the scholarly importance of Kuru Panchala region in Upanishad literature, which is the cream of the Indian intellectual tradition. The Upanishad texts mainly deal with broad themes such as epistemology, cognition and cosmography. In the context of the Mahabharata, we examine two early and important Upanishads.


The Chhandogya Upanishad which belongs to the Sama Veda refers to Kuru country and assembly of Panchalas. It mentions for the first time the intellectual hermit, Krishna, Devakiputra, as a student of rsi Ghora. Other intellectual icons mentioned in Chhandogya include Aitareya Mahidasa, Silaka Salavatya, Caikitayana Dalbhya, Pravahana Jaivali, Atidhanvan Saunaka, Haridrumata Gautama and Asvapati Kaikeya.


The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad presents the comprehensive intellectual discussion that takes place between the intellectual icons of Kuru Panchala region who assembled at Videha in the court of Janaka. They included Yajnavalkya, Jaaratkarava Aartabhaga, Bhujjyu Lahyayani, Usasta Chakrayana, Kahola Kusitakeya, Gargi Vacaknavi, Uddalaka Aruni and Vidagdha Sakalya. The Kausitaki Upanishad also refers to the intellectual tradition of Kuru Panchala people.


Among the various schools of Indian philosophy, the Sankhya school of Kapila tremendously influenced the Mahabharata. Sankhya is also the oldest philosophical system of the world dealing with cosmology. In the Mokshadharma portion of the Mahabharata, various names of ancient teachers of Sankhya are associated with these developing traditions, such as Kapila, Asuri, Bhrrgu, Yajnavalkya, Sanatkumara, Vasishta, Suka, Asita, Devala, Vyasa, Janaka and Panchasikha.


It was in this context that the intellectual tradition of the Mahabharata had its genesis. The Bhagavad Gita became the cream of this intellectual tradition. Devakiputra Krishna of Chhandogya Upanishad unfolds into the towering icon in Vyasa’s epic and imparts Gita. Along with the Upanishad schools, the Samkhya and Yoga systems have been effectively churned and integrated in the Gita. The text attains equal status along with Upanishads and Brahmavidya in Prasthanatraya tradition. According to Wilhem Halbfass (1990), although the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel did not do justice to Indian philosophy, he perceived Bhagavad Gita as a most representative, quintessential religious poem.                                                                                                                      


When A.K. Ramanujan raises questions on the existence of an Indian way of thinking, he refuses to mention or discuss the multiple schools of thought in India, integrated in the Mahabharata. Ramanujan is widely admired and adored only by left intellectuals.


Western scholars, especially Marxists such as Perry Anderson (The Indian Ideology, 2017), argue that the idea of a subcontinental unity stretching back six thousand years is a myth. He comes down heavily on Mahatma Gandhi for emphasizing in Hind Swaraj (1909) that “India was one undivided land made by nature” and “We were one nation before they came to India”. Anderson vehemently criticizes Jawaharlal Nehru for remarking in The Discovery of India (1946) that there was something unique about the antiquity of the subcontinent and its tremendous impress of oneness, making its inhabitants throughout these ages distinctively Indian. Anderson fails to understand the crux of the issue: it was not political invasions and religious proselytization but knowledge traditions that culturally integrated India as a nation.


Alexander Cunningham (1871) discusses the ancient geography of the lost Saraswati and Ganga plains in the context of the Mahabharata. S.M. Bharadwaj (1973) presents the distribution of sacred sites in the Mahabharata. In his archaeological geography of the Ganga plains, Dilip Chakrabarti (2007) assesses the probable antiquity of the sacredness of the Uttarakhand Himalayas in painted grey ware/Mahabharata context.


The sacred land of Kurukshetra is highlighted between Sarasvati and Drishadvati rivers. The historical importance of the Kuru Panchala region, the centre of Vyasa’s epic located between the Ganga and Yamuna, and the importance of Sarasvati river in the Mahabharata context is crucial in historical studies. Kurukshetra is also discussed as the sacred land between Sarasvati and Drishadvati rivers in the plains west of Ganga and Jamuna. The boundaries of Kurukshetra are given in Taittiriya Aranyaka and are discussed in geo-cultural context. The Tirtha Yatra section of Vana Parva is among the most important repositories of geographical information in the Mahabharata. Vana Parva describes Kurukshetra as a sacred spot which lies to the south of the Sarasvati and the north of the Drishadvati.


The second urbanization in India in the Ganga plains and numerous Painted Grey Ware (PGW) sites associated with Mahabharata has considerably altered our understanding and perception on the historicity of the epic tradition. PGW was first identified at Ahicchatra in Bareilly district of UP, and its full significance in Mahabharata context was understood after extensive excavations at Hastinapur. From Lakhiyo Pir in Sind to Sravasti in Uttar Pradesh,   the PGW sites extend about 1,400 km, and from Gharinda in Punjab to Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh, about 900 km, a span which compares with that of the Indus Sarasvati Civilization. It stretches from Himalayan foothills in the north to Malwa Plateau in central India, and from Bahawalpur region of Pakistan in northwest to Kaushambi near Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. But the dense concentration of PGW is found in the Indo Gangetic divide, Sutlej basin and Upper Ganga plains.


It was PGW which brought the Ganga Valley to the threshold of the second urbanization associated with iron in south Asia. It was first discovered in 1940-44 at Ahichhatra in the lowest levels and was tentatively assigned pre 300 BC date along with other enigmatic wares and no separate horizon was assigned to it. However, its full importance was realized in 1952-53 after the excavation by B.B. Lal at Hastinapur and the explorations that followed reported many sites yielding Painted Grey Ware in Punjab, Haryana, north Rajasthan, western Uttar Pradesh i.e. in the Indo-Gangetic Plain and Upper Ganga Plain. In the 1980s, nearly 450 PGW sites were discovered, and the distribution area comprised Indo Gangetic divide, Sarasvati/ Ghaggar basin, Ravi Sutlej basin, and the entire Ganga Yamuna doab. By the early 1990s as many as 650 sites of this culture were reported. Currently nearly 1200 PGW sites have been discovered.


Vyasa’s Mahabharata depicted India as a single nation. Sri Aurobindo rightly observed in 1919-1921: “The Mahabharata especially is not only the story of the Bharatas, the epic of an early event which had become a national tradition but on a vast scale the epic of the soul and religious and ethical mind and social and political ideals and culture and life of India. It is said popularly of it and with a certain measure of truth that whatever is in India is in the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is the creation and expression not of a single individual mind, but of the mind of a nation; it is the poem of itself written by a whole people”. (“Foundations of Indian Culture” SABCL, Vol 14, pages 282-293)


Sister Nivedita observes (Complete Works, Vol. IV) that “the foreign reader is struck by two features of Mahabharata. Its unity in complexity; and its constant efforts to impress on its hearers the idea of a single centralized India, with a heroic tradition of her own as formative and uniting impulse. She emphasizes that in Hindu literature, there is no second work which can be called “national” in the same sense as the Mahabharata”.


Jawaharlal Nehru in The Discovery of India (1946) agreed with Sister Nivedita that the fundamental idea of India as Bharatavarsha became primarily enshrined in Vyasa’s great epic. Nehru observed: “In the Mahabharata a very definite attempt has been made to emphasize the fundamental unity of India, or Bharatavarsha as it was called, from Bharat, the legendary founder of the race”.


S. Radhakrishnan in Indian Philosophy (1996) said, “Mahabharata became a national epic with tales from different parts of the country worked into a single whole. By bringing together the social and religious ideas of the different peoples assembled on the soil of India, it tried to impress on the minds of men, the fundamental unity of the Bharatvarsha”.


The living traditions of the Mahabharata continue to flourish in the rituals, ballads and dances of Rajasthan, Punjab, Garhwal, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Orissa, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.


First published in and here


To read all articles by author


Also read

1. Reclaiming the Mahabharata for India’s 21st century manifestation

2. For Commentary on the Holy Gita

3. Pictures of Kurukshetra

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