We all know that Mahabharat happens to be world longest “maha-kavyaa” or “super poetry”. How many verses does Mahabharata contain ? It seems the Mahabharata had 95,000 thousand verses. Also Mahabharata has an appendix which is called “Harivansham”. Harivansham was supposed to be around half the size of Mahabharata and it was continuously growing. For example it also contains references to Queen Victoria.
As it turns out there is no “single copy” of original Mahabharata available as such. An effort to do so was taken up by Bhandarkar Institute of Oriental Research in Pune (BORI). BORI happens to be an extremely reputed institute in this field however not known to many Indians. I lived next to this great institution for many months but did not know that it was an internationally well recognized institute. BORI started the Mahabharata compilation project in 1919 and completed it in 1970s. They collected all the manuscripts and different versions of Mahabharata available across the world and created what is called “Critical Edition”. This edition of Mahabharata is the most authentic version available so far. This version has around 90,000 verses both Mahabharat and Harivansham combined.
Scholars such as Prof. Bibek Debroy makes an very interesting point. Technically it is a very common and general belief Ramayana is based on a period much earlier than Mahabharata. The reasoning given to support this is that description of war is much more primitive. For example Rama fights with Monkey army who too use Maces and their main weapon. However as Prof. Debroy points out. There are some discrepancies. For example even though the war methods in Ramayana are primitive, the geographical understanding of India in Ramayana is much better than Mahabharata. Also, in Ramayana life of virtues and the king’s ability to govern and administer is given great importance. Where as in Mahabharata it is totally missing. Concepts like governance etc. generally come later in civilization’s evolution. Mahabharata’s war is mixture of both primitiveness as well as modernity. For example Bheema using a mace and drinking Dusshasan’s blood is something unimaginable in Ramayan’s time. When Ravana was lying almost dead, Rama asked Laxman to learn what is called “Ravan-niti” from Ravana. On the other hand, Pandava’s victory was much more brutal. Not just Krishna used all tricks to ensure the victory of Pandavas but even the other side stooped so low as to kill the enemy’s children in sleep.
So, there is enough scope to believe that the original story of Mahabharat had originated much before Rama. However it was not really significant. As time progressed it evolved into much greater epic. There is enough evidence to suggest this possibility. Among all the 5 sons of Pandu, Arjuna seems to be the hero. He is the stud, womanizer, brave and hero in the battle. But the Strongest man is Bheema. Arjuna supposed to have won Panchali in the Swayamvar. At the end Panchali dies, we are told that she loved Arjuna the most. But in the middle of the epic, when she is being disrobed, she requests Bheema for help. It is bheema who swears the horrible revenge. During “agyat vasa” she asks Bheema to kill Keechaka and not Arjuna. If we contrast Bheema and Arjuna. Bheema seems much more primitive where as Arjuna is sophisticated. Arjuna is very close friend of Krishna where as Krishna-Bheema association is not much talked about. Bheema uses Mace which is a much older weapon where as Arjuna is an expert in more sophisticated warfare which involved superpowers. At the end of the battle, Bheema kills Dhuryodhana in an ordinary battle of strength. So can we say that Bheema was the real hero of old Mahabharata where as Arjuna was added much later ? May be or may not be but Prof. Debroy does seem to think on those lines.
Whatever might be the truth there are few things that do stand out. In Ramayana we basically see 3-4 races. Rama is supposed to be Chandravarshiya. Then there are Vanars (Monkeys), Rakshasas (Demons) and we also see minor references to forest dwellers (like Shabari). In Mahabhrata we see a much greater diversity. The political map too is almost clear. Yadavs are persecuted by almost everyone. It is Krishna who smartly unites them, builds strategic alliances through wars and marriages and establishes a kingdom. The Kuru vanshis seem to be the most prosperous ones ruling the central part of Indian (now Delhi). Gandhar is today’s eastern Afganistan. It was home to Gandhari. One of Arjuna’s love interests in Ulupi. She is from Northeastern India which is divided in several states but then it was referred as “Mani Nam”. There are clear references to Magadhaa kingdom and Bong kingdom (Begal). These people too seem to be different from Kuru Race. Kurus and Magadha is separated by deadly forest called “Nymisharanyaa” where the Nagas lived. There are also references to people living beyond the Himalayas (Chinese) as “Parantgan.”
A lot of this diversity is not part of the original story. Some of it came later. For example the story of Ulupi is a later addition to the Mahabharata.
What fascinates me is this. While Mahabhrata is not just about the war, war is certainly one major part of it. This war is also of a very high scale. Even if we ignore the exaggerated numbers of participants (5 million soldiers not including animals). It is fair to assume that almost every kingdom seem to have participated in this war. So the fascinating part is that a war of this scale affects many lives. Not just of the leaders but soldiers, their families, those who are economically dependent on the war and so on. While there are many meta-stories about the war itself there aren’t many stories about after effects of the war. Did the war affect the trade ? Did the war led to deterioration of the overall governance of the country? How did Indians dealt with the post-war scars ?
Both WW1 and WW2 had a great impact on humanity’s contribution to art, science and our general understanding of our own existence. But there are very few books who deal with how Mahabharat affected Indian subcontinent. If we cant find any hard evidence I do feel that a post-war Indian subcontient can be a rock-bed for a great fantasy novel.