Mahabharata – Text and Textuality by Indrajit Bandyopadhyay

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Mahabharata – Text and Textuality
by Indrajit Bandyopadhyay

[1] All English Transliteration used in this paper has been taken from ‘The  Machine-readable Text of the Mahaabhaarata’ Based on the Poona Critical Edition,    Produced by MuneoTokunaga, Kyoto, Japan
[2] All English Translations used in this Paper have been taken from Translation into English Prose from the Original Sanskrit Text by Kisari Mohan Ganguli [1883-1896], Scanned at, 2003
[3] “Janamejaya's Sattra and Ritual Structure”; C. Z. Minkowski; Source: Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 109, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1989), pp. 401- 420 Published by: American Oriental Society
[5] “Janamejaya's Sattra and Ritual Structure”; C. Z. Minkowski; Source: Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 109, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1989), pp. 401- 420 Published by: American Oriental Society
[6] “Literature and Feminism”; Pam Morris; Oxford, Blackwell (1993)
[7] “Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art”; Julia Kristeva; New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.
[8] “ Epic traditions in the contemporary world: the poetics of community” ; Margaret H Beissinger; Published: University of California Press,  1999
[9] “Culture and power in Benaras: community, performance, and environment, 1800-1980”; Sandria B Freitag,; University of California Press,  1989
[10] “Many Ra¯ma¯yan?as: the diversity of a narrative tradition in South Asia”; Paula Richman; Published: University of California Press, 1991    
[11] Alfred Richard Orage (born January 22, 1873, Dacre, Yorkshire, England - died November 6, 1934, London) was a British intellectual, now best known for editing the magazine ‘The New Age’

 Ekta Kapoor’s new packaging of Mahabharata - ’Kahaani humaaray Mahabharat ki’- on channel 9X is both heart-rending and heart-warming. Heart-rending, because the steady commercialization and addition of ’new flavors’ has only managed to add a new feather to the ’Saas-Bahu’ soap-Cap; and heart-warming, because notwithstanding the expected shallowness, and lack of research and quality, the very airing of the serial and its popular rating speaks volumes of the timeless appeal of Mahabharata to the mass and academia alike.

Earlier B.R.Chopra’s serialization of the Mahabharata in Hindi (The 94-episode series that originally ran from 1988 to 1990) and Peter Brook’s 1989 epic film in English based on Jean-Claude Carrière's nine-hour stage adaptation, though falling much short of even basic understanding of the Epic, managed to generate much interest in the Epic.

It is only too natural that litterateurs and performing artists of different ages and places would feel the urge of retelling Mahabharata; retelling itself being sanctioned in Mahabharata.    

Mahabharata Retelling whether in performing art or Literary renderings naturally assume the role of an important media of enabling conceptualizing of the actual Text and assumes the role of filter as well, to let the reader extract the essence of the actual Text without distorting it.

Herein lies the immense responsibility of the re-tellers, because it is through these retellings that Indians, non-Indians or Indians living abroad get acquaintance of India’s past, which is, undoubtedly, a matter of great significance given India’s emerging and evolving role in today’s globalized political and cultural space.

The present paper seeks to address two fundamental questions.  

  • Can Mahabharata be really called a ‘story’ or ‘narrative’?
  • Or, can Mahabharata be really Retold as a ‘story’ or ‘narrative’?

Mahabharata is History, and also a historic and historical Text.

The name ‘Itihasa-Purana’ and ‘Pancham-Veda’ is attested by Chhandogya Upanishad (900 B.C at the latest, and which also mentions Devaki-Putra Krishna as a historical character), and as ‘Itihaasa-Veda’ in Kautilya’s Arthashashtra (400-300 B.C).

Reference to Mahabharata is found directly in Asvalayana Grihya Sutra and indirectly in Satapath Brahmana, Atharva Veda, Manu-samhita, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

Bankim chandra in his ‘Krishna Charitra’ (1st Khanda 7th Parichhed) refers to Panini’s Astadhayi to show that the name ‘Mahabharata’ was in existence before Panini (600 B.C)–

6.2.38 mahAn vrIhyaparAhNagR^ishhTiishhvAsajAbAla-

The present Mahabharata in Sanskrit (henceforth referred to as the Text) has at least four major recensions, the Northern and the Southern ones being the most accepted of all.

Let us now see some unique aspects of Mahabharata as a Text, and some unique characteristics of its Textuality.

First, Mahabharata has no fixed title. It has three titles – Jaya, Bharata and Mahabharata – often used alternatively or contextually.  

 According to one myth, the Mahabharata weighed heavier than the four Vedas, hence the title ‘Mahabharata’ –


According to another legend, ‘The history of the exalted birth of the Bharata princes is called the Mahabharata.’[2]


The same information is again found in the Swargarohana Parva (18.5)

Twice it is mentioned that Vyasa’s composition is called Jaya.

Once Vaishampayana says, ‘This history is called Jaya. It should be heard by those desirous of victory.’


Again in Swargarohana parva, Sauti says -

jayo nametihasoyam srotavyo jayamichhata (Svargarohana Parva 5.46)

Yet again, ‘This history is known by the name of Jaya. It should be heard by everyone desirous of emancipation.’

jayo nametihasoyam srotavyo moksamicchate (Swargarohana Parva 5.51)

Secondly, it is recorded in the Mahabharata that Vyasa created two versions – an abridged and another extended version-


He first wrote Bharata of 24000 slokas


Then he created an extended version of one lakh slokas-


Thirdly, Vyasa created, what we may regard, ‘contextual text’.

The legend goes, Vyasa wrote this one lakh slokas for mankind, and created another corpus of 59 lakh slokas of which 30 lakh slokas were for Devaloka, 15 lakh for Pitriloka and 14 lakh for Rakshashas/Yakshas and Gandharvaloka.

Whatever be the exaggeration, the fact is that, if we take the Devas, Pitris, Mankind and Rakshasha/Yakshas/Gandharvas as representing a hierarchy from ‘elite’ to ‘subaltern’, that means Vyasa’s creation was contextual to each ‘class’.

Fourthly, the legend goes, Vyasa chose different narrators for his ‘contextual texts.’

Vyasa’s own son Suka, disciples and friends were entrusted with the different contextual versions. ‘Narada recited them to the Devas, Devala to the Pitris, and Suka published them to the Gandharvas, Yakshas, and Rakshasas: and in this world they were recited by Vaisampayana, one of the disciples of Vyasa, a man of just principles and the first among all those acquainted with the Vedas.


Fifthly, Vyasa’s creation was both oral and written and he allowed the two to run parallel.  

 Even in his lifetime, Vyasa renounced any authority over his own creation, and took care to ensure that his disciples or anyone could not monopolize the Text.

Sauti (son of Vyasa’s Suta disciple Lomaharshana) attests to this – ‘Poets have told it before, poets are telling it now. Other poets shall tell this history on earth in the future’ -


Sixthly, Mahabharata cannot be fixated into a single genre or discourse.

The Text calls itself

‘Itihasa-Purana (0010012041/.itihaasa.puraaNaabhyaam.vedam.samupabRmhayet./)’, 
‘Fifth Veda (0010570741/.vedaan.adhyaapayaam.aasa.mahaa.bhaarata.pancamaan./)’, 
‘Karshneya Veda (0010012051/.kaarSNam.vedam.imam.vidvaan.zraavayitvaa.artham.aznute./)’, 
‘Kavya’, ‘Akhyaana’, ‘Katha’, and ‘Vyasa-mataam’ (Vyasa’s opinion/view etc).  

According to one Legend, Vyasa’s own opinion about his creation was as follows –

"O divine Brahma, by me a poem (Kavya) hath been composed which is greatly respected. The mystery of the Veda, and what other subjects have been explained by me; the various rituals of the Upanishads with the Angas; the compilation of the Puranas and history formed by me and named after the three divisions of time, past, present, and future; the determination of the nature of decay, fear, disease, existence, and non-existence, a description of creeds and of the various modes of life; rule for the four castes, and the import of all the Puranas; an account of asceticism and of the duties of a religious student; the dimensions of the sun and moon, the planets, constellations, and stars, together with the duration of the four ages; the Rik, Sama and Yajur Vedas; also the Adhyatma; the sciences called Nyaya, Orthoephy and Treatment of diseases; charity and Pasupatadharma; birth celestial and human, for particular purposes; also a description of places of pilgrimage and other holy places of rivers, mountains, forests, the ocean, of heavenly cities and the kalpas; the art of war; the different kinds of nations and languages: the nature of the manners of the people; and the all-pervading spirit;--all these have been represented.’

When Lomaharshana’s son Ugrashrava Sauti arrives at Naimisharanya at the beginning of the text he refers to Vyasa’s creation as ‘vividhaah.kathaah ‘ -


It is interesting to note that the Rishis who were Vyasa’s contemporary refer to Vyasa’s creation by various names.

The Rishis’ call the Text ‘puraaNam (Purana)’, ‘aakhyaana.variSThasya (best of Akhyanas or narratives)’, ‘itihaasa (history)’, ‘puNyaam.grantha (holy Book)’, and ‘samhitaam (collection).’

Sauti also calls the Text Vyasa’s ‘matam’ -


Later, on Janamejaya’s first question, Vaishampayana also uses the word ‘matam’ –


It is interesting to note that Vaishampayana also uses the word ‘vyaakhyaatam’, which suggests Vyasa is not only composer but also interpreter of his Text. It is an interesting commentary on the process of Vyasa’s poetic creation.

Now, as per Monier-Williams, the word ‘matam’ has its root in ‘mana’ and means ‘thought, believed, imagined, supposed, understood, regarded or considered as, taken or passing for’ etc.  Given the fact that Mahabharata is ‘Itihasa’ (iti-ha-asa, 'so indeed it was'), the very word ‘matam’ deconstructs the term, and what we get is a free-play of Textuality and discourse intended by the author and his contemporary narrators.

Seventhly, Vyasa handed over his creation to five of his disciples (including his son Suka) and renounced his authorship so that all of them published separate Samhitas.


The present Mahabharata is the only extant Samhita of Vaishampayana. Jaimini’s Samhita survives through only one Parva – the Aswamedha Parva.

We have seen that Vyasa permitted the oral version to be sung by Sautis (lower-class Kshatriyas acting as bards). Thus, using modern parlance, we may say that Vyasa in his very lifetime relinquished ‘copyright’ over his creation and allowed its flow through six different independent channels.

The historicity of this fact is attested by the Asvalayana Grihya Sutra, which mentions all four disciples of Vyasa with exception of Suka –

3.4/.sumantu.jaimini.vaizampaayana.paila.suutra.bhaaSya. bhaarata.mahaa.bhaarata.dharma.aacaaryaa.

According to this reference, Jaimini is the author of ‘Bharata’, and Vaishampayana is the author of ‘Mahabharata.’

What compels our wonder is here is an author who makes himself ‘dead’ thousands of years before the theory ‘author is dead’ evolved.

Eighty, Vyasa is not the direct narrator of the present Mahabharata text. Vaishampayana is the ‘core’ narrator, who narrates on Vyasa’s instruction to Janmejaya and in Vyasa’s presence. Thus Vyasa makes himself ‘dead’ in his very presence and witness. In a sense, Vyasa is thus ‘Post-Post-Modern’. That creates a unique paradox. If we consider ‘the author is dead’, we make Vyasa ‘alive’ in the text, for we follow what he intends!

Ninthly, Vaishampayana does not narrate Vyasa’s Bharata exactly, because what we get is a rather interactive Mahabharata through Vaishampayana-Janamejaya dialogue. Vaishampayana narrates according to Janamejaya’s questions. Naturally Vyasa’s plot gets modified, and this happens in Vyasa’s very presence.

C. Z. Minkowski notes, ‘Janamejaya is depicted as an active, participatory audience. Interested by something Vaisampayana has said, he will often prompt the direction of the story. …..Often Vaisampayana narrates a shorter version of a story, and only provides an expanded version at Janamejaya's request. …..In this way, although Vaisampayana promises to proclaim Vyasa's entire composition…he accomplishes his task only with the help of interruptions by his audience.’[3]

Vyasa adheres to tradition and also goes one step ahead of tradition. Here is an author who is present in his absence, and absent in his presence!

Tenthly, Vaishampayana-Janamejaya dialogue is reported to us by multiple named-Sautis and anonymous redactors, and the final narrator or redactor is unidentifiable. Thus Mahabharata has no final author, or Mahabharata has a nameless author.

The model is thus ‘narrator within narrator’, or ‘frame within frame’. It is an interactive text within interactive text, and the whole structure thus stands on the strength of Memory.

Every successive narrator renders what he has heard from his preceding narrator. That leaves us in a paradoxical situation.

Unless we assume, every successive narrator is truthful to his predecessor, the Text does not exist; and if we assume so, the successive narrator does not exist, for his existence becomes unnecessary. Since, both Mahabharata and its Narrators historically exist, the Text exists and does not exist at the same time, much like Schroedinger's Cat.[4]

Eleventh, though Vyasa is ‘dead’ as an author, he is alive because the present structure of Mahabharata has been sanctioned by him. Besides, he is also present as a character in all the ‘frames’ and narratives.

C. Z. Minkowski notes, “Vyasa is a transcendent figure in the epic. He is everywhere acknowledged as the author, but nowhere tells the great story. He is the only person in the epic able to appear in any level of embedding. He talks to Janamejaya, Dhrtarastra, Yudhisthira, and others, entering and leaving the frames as he pleases. What makes this possible synchronically is his brahminical attainment. He is represented both at the beginning and end of the epic as the paragon of Vedic, brahminical Rsi-hood. The Mahabharata asserts that he "saw" the epic with divine sight while fixed in a state of omniscience and mastery (18.5.32-34). Thus through having Vyasa as author, the epic's status is raised to that of ‘apauruseyatva’.”[5]

Mahabharata is thus an autobiography, yet not so, because there is no first person narrative, besides, we cannot determine for certain whether Vyasa himself included the plots involving him, or his disciples did so.

Twelfth, Vyasa has not exercised his authority to define the boundary of the Text. It is a unique Text in the history of literature where the reader has been granted the Freedom to read the text depending on his disposition and volition.

It is sanctioned in the Mahabharata – ‘Some read the Bharata beginning with the initial mantra (invocation), others with the story of Astika, others with Uparichara, while some Brahmanas study the whole’ -


The reader is also given the Freedom to choose his own purpose of reading the Text. Sauti says, ‘Men of learning display their various knowledge of the institutes in commenting on the composition. Some are skilful in explaining it, while others, in remembering its contents’ -


In the brief discussion above, it becomes evident that Textuality and Intertextuality of Mahabharata is unique.

In his glossary titled “Literature and Feminism”, Pam Morris defines Intertextuality as -

‘A term introduced by Julia Kristeva to replace ‘dialogism’ (used by Mikhail Bakhtin), which retains largely the same sense. Both terms refer to the interactive meeting (dialogue) of two or more meaning systems or ‘texts’ within a single, apparently discrete, word, utterance or text. As well as the writer’s conscious meaning, there is the ‘texts’ of the unconscious, and other prior usages (‘texts’) also remain active within the writer’s usage – hence all writing and utterances are a dialogic interaction of several voices, an Intertextuality.’[6]

For Julia Kristeva “the notion of Intertextuality replaces the notion of Intersubjectivity”[7] when we realize that meaning is not transferred directly from writer to reader but instead is mediated through, or filtered by, ‘codes’ imparted to the writer and reader by other texts.

In Mahabharata, the ‘other texts’ is Mahabharata itself.

And here, the Intertextuality is even of a higher order because of the ‘Free-Play’ of Intertextuality or ‘Intertextuality of Intertextuality’, as we get a text not directly of the author or from the author or by the author, and the Text itself is an indeterminate fusion of Written Text, Oral Text and also Interpreted Text. The authorship or ‘voice’ of Vyasa is sanctioned by the poets/narrators who retell his text, and whose ‘voices’ in turn gain sanction by the very act of sanctioning Vyasa.       

Again the very nature of sanctioning is indeterminate as the poets/narrators exist both synchronically and diachronically, so that every poet/narrator sanctions the previous and/or simultaneous poet/narrator, in fact, ‘has to sanction’, for sanctioning his own existence.

Thus every event narrated in Mahabharata is tentative because represented through the consciousness and memory of a ‘witness’ mostly dependant on his ears than the eye.

For example, the entire battle scenes, which are generally considered ‘central’ to the ‘narrative’, are in fact, reported by Sanjaya to Dhritarashtra, who is blind. Sanjaya himself hears more than sees, and then reports to Dhritarashtra, always with the consciousness that he is speaking to a blind man. Sanjaya’s narrative is also interactive because he answers what is asked. The Bhagavadgita, through which Krishna brings light to Arjuna’s dark mind, is in fact, a lighted drama taking place on the dark canvas of Dhritarashtra’s consciousness! Can we say, then, the war happened as it is described? Can we say, again, the war has been authentically described as was intended by Vyasa?

There is thus a constant sliding away from the ‘reality’ as reality is always tinged with qualities of the speakers’ memory and the conditioning factors of ‘Sthana-Kala-Patraveda.’

Objective events are filtered through subjective consciousness, and the result is sprouting up of multiple perspectives and interpretations on the same event. Different conflicting information on the same event is found at different places and times of the narrative so that the text becomes almost a satire on human memory…or a tribute to human memory, depending on what we choose…again indeterminate!

Even the seed of ‘metafiction’ is to be found in the Text because though admitting itself to be a ‘Grantha’ and expressing itself through ‘words’, it points out the limitations of ‘Grantha’, and the ‘failure’ of words to reach the truth.

In Shanti-parva Vashishtha tells king Janaka –


‘That person who bears in his understanding merely the texts of the Vedas and the other scriptures without being conversant with the true sense or meaning of those texts, bears them fruitlessly. Indeed, one who holds the contents of a work in memory without comprehending their meaning is said to bear a useless burden. He, however, who is conversant with the true meaning of a treatise, is said to have studied that treatise to purpose.’

This critique of the nature of Text, voiced by a narrator (creating a Text) applies equally to himself!

The Mahabharata text is thus a text of no-text, which becomes an assertion through negation, thereby exemplifying ‘Moksha-dharma’ or ‘Nibrritti-marga’ through ‘Neti-Neti’ – another unique blend of form and content achieved by Vyasa in his Mahabharata.

Sukthankar, the editor of the Critical Edition of Mahabharata, a project of Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), wrote that the "essential fact in  Mahabharata  textual criticism is that the  Mahabharata  is not and never was a fixed rigid text, but is fluctuating epic tradition. . . . ‘

What wonders a post-modern reader is the cross-genre Intertextuality of Mahabharata text, thousands of years before post-modern intellectuals started sweating over such concepts like ‘cross-genre’ and ‘Intertextuality’. In fact, Vyasa himself provides various theories of ‘interpretation’ to a post-modern reader.

Margaret H Beissinger rightly says, ‘There are many Mahabharatas, not just one, and that is why I refer to “Mahabharata” and not to "the Mahabharata." I want to insist that books are just one part of this tradition; that they have no ontological or epistemological precedence; that Mahabharata is not only a book but also a political model, a bedtime story, a tradition of dance, a dramatic spectacle, and much more.[8]

Coming back to our original questions, we must remember that the participatory role of the ‘hearer’ is an important aspect in the tradition of Purana-Katha.

Sandria B Freitag notes, “While the term katha is often understood to mean simply ‘a story,’ this translation tends to overly nominalize a word that retains a strong sense of its verb root. In India a ‘story’ is, first and foremost, something that is told, and the Sanskrit root ‘kath’ from which the noun is derived, means ‘to converse with, tell, relate, narrate, speak about, explain’ (Monier-Williams 1899:247). Katha might thus better be translated a ‘telling’ or ‘narration’; it signifies a performance and suggests a milieu. To tell a story means that there must necessarily be someone to hear it, and in Hindu performance traditions the role of the ‘hearer’ (shrota) is generally a participatory rather than a passive one.”[9]

Given the fact that re-tellers of Mahabharata universally attempt to render a narrative of the Text, or try to tell stories from the Mahabharata, whose Textuality, as we have discussed above defies mimesis, let us question the validity of the question itself.

Paula Richman observes, “In India and in Southeast Asia, no one ever reads the Ramayana or the Mahabharata for the first time. The stories are there, ‘always already.’"[10]

At a time, when the contemporary Indian academia (perhaps programmed with a deep-rooted colonial mentality) is happy to rely heavily and thrive on second-hand intellectual exports of their Western brethren and finds no time to look at what we have ‘always already’, or fears, perhaps, of some political labeling, it is high time within that time we recollect what A.R.Orage[11] once said - ‘Realisation of the inexhaustible significance of the Mahabharata would be the initiation of a modern Renaissance.’

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