We have observed that the Mahabharata is a picture of all the great systems of Hindu Philosophy and Religion in Story form. But it is generally believed that the Epic is a historical or quasi-historical work, a poetic narrative of the great kings and heroes of ancient India, who actually lived and ruled in the land, and have left behind them names that are still current in the country. The same is said to be the character of the Ramayana too the "Story" of the wanderings of Rama; and Rama and Krshna are the two favourite deities of the Hindus today, and many great and famous cities are still associated with their birth and scenes of activity Ayodhya, Mathura, Indraprastha, Dwarka, and the rest: Had they never actually lived and ruled, how, it might be asked, could cities and countries have been associated with their life? For in the Mahabharata are mentioned almost all the names of the provinces of India current to this day from Gandhara or Kandhar in the north to Madra or Madras and Lanka or Ceylon in the south, and from Sindhu or Sind in the west to Vanga or Bengal in the east.
But if, in spite of all this, the Mahabharata is really a picture of systems of Philosophy and Religion, the explanation is not far to seek. It is probable that a number of these names were current in the country before the composition of th Epic, and were utilized for purposes of the narrative; but, as we have pointed out, the ancients conceived of India as a picture of the whole universe, and some of the names must have been deliberately coined to convey ideas of Philosophy. For instance, the name Manasa, literally "of Manas" or the Mind, given to a lake, might also refer to the character of the Mind. In the same manner Dwarka, the name of a city, might also have its literal meaning as "a body with gates," referring to the human frame with its organs of the senses the eyes, ears, nostrils, etc., which are described as gates in the Sacred Books. This association of names of places with ideas, events, and individuals is not peculiar to the ancients alone; and many names of places, institutions, and even countries have been changed from time to time in more recent history to perpetuate the memory of ideas, actions, and men.
Thoughts and Things: Again, the ancients did not regard Thoughts as altogether different from Things. They held, even as modern Science is coming to believe, that all Matter is created out of the Mind; and so to them an Idea was as living a form of life as material things perceptible to the senses. This too is the essence of all Art, from Architecture to Painting and Poetry to change the abstract into concrete and the individual into the universal form; and it is to this that we owe all poetic devices and figures of speech. The Mahabharata, as a picture of Philosophy, contains only a more general application of this method to systems of thought and the great creative energies of life; and the images drawn are so human and true because ideas are conceived as real, living forms of flesh and blood, with human thoughts and human sympathies, and the actions of real, living men. Castes, customs, institutions and laws, as well as systems of Philosophy and Religion have all been rendered in the light of the great problems of life, and India becomes a miniature of the whole universe.
The History of Philosophy and Religion: But the Story of the Epic may be regarded as truly historical in the larger sense of the term. History is not a mere narrative of heroes and kings, or an account of their deeds of victory and war. It is not a mere description of the rise and fall of states, or the institutions and associations of men grouped together for social and political ends. We have begun to recognize that, much more than this, History is a record of movements of thought, resulting in actions and the establishment of institutions. In the social, economic, and political world parties, institutions, and organizations are formed on the basis of ideas and opinions, policies and principles; and it is these that make history and shape the actions of men and it is in this sense that the Mahabharata may be said to be a History, dealing with the rise and fall of systems of Philosophy and Religion in the Kingdoms of Thought; and it is a matter of common knowledge that Religion has played a most important part in shaping the history of the world.
The rise and fall of these systems of Philosophy and Religion, and the story of their triumph and disgrace is the one great fact of early Indian history with which all students of the subject are familiar. We know how for a time the religions of Vishnu and Siva prevailed; how they were overthrown by the religion of Buddha; and how the former triumphed in the end once more and this is exactly the course of the Story of the Mahabharata. We see how Buddhism prevails at first; then Man, born in Jainism, rises first to Buddhism, and then to Saivism and Vaisnavism, and succeeds in overthrowing Buddhism and Jainism everywhere.
Then we are told of great Princes in the past Asoka, Kaniska, and Harsa who were converted from Hinduism to Buddhism, and vice versa and who held great Councils of learned and religious men from all over the land to discuss the principles and practices of their systems of thought and the Gambling Match and the great Battle of Kurukshetra may be said to correspond to these great assemblies, where mighty "battles" of thought were fought by rival systems, and many kingdoms of Mind and Faith were lost and won. In this sense also the Mahabharata may be said to be a historical work.
Again, it is possible that a great and terrible War took place in India in the past, carrying away millions of men and spreading havoc around; and this might have suggested the theme of a universal conflict of Thought to a great Poet and sage of those days. All war is, at its root, a conflict of thought, emotion and interest, associated with the actions of men bursting out at intervals into the strife of nations. Such a great war probably took place in India in the past, changing the whole course of its history. That would probably account for the Dark Ages of India, when the whole country, falling from the height of power, sank into dust before the attack of the foreigner the Greek, the Hun, and the Muslim from the mountains of the north.
There is also another sense in which the Epic may be regarded as historical. Wherever there are great systems of Philosophy and Religion, we have their teachers too, and it is probable that such great heroes and sages lived in India in the past. But in course of time their ordinary work-a-day life was forgotten, and they came to be idealized in their own teachings and deeds. Such is the idea of Buddha and Christ and the incarnations of Vishnu; but, if ever real men were associated with their ideas, the accounts that we have of them in the Sacred Books relate not so much to their actual life, as to the idealized conception of the form of God they personify.
Finally, the Story of the Mahabharata, as a picture of different systems of thought, is an account of the universal history of Man or the human race. We have seen how in the Ascending Scale of thought, culminating in Vedanta, we proclaim the victory of unceasing Action as a Sacrifice; but in the Descending Scale Man comes to believe that the Soul is a mere spectator of the work of Nature or Prakrti, and Knowledge or the renunciation of Action is his goal. This in brief, is the history of each individual being as well as the whole human race. When we are young and strong and in full possession of our powers, we engage in actions, win victories and make conquests, and never seem to tire. But when we grow old, when our strength declines, and the spirit grows faint, we take life more quietly, and wish to become mere spectators of its play. This completes the whole cycle of existence, from youth to age and decay, of individuals, nations, and the whole human race. Vedanta and Vaisnavism correspond to action, life and success; while Buddhism and Jainism to the decline of life when we fear that the end is come.
This is the essential character of the Mahabharata, and everything else is subordinated to this one idea, viz., a picture of all systems of Philosophy and Religion in Story-form. It is said to be an "Itihasa," which is usually understood to mean "a history"; but, according to the ancient method of Letter-analysis, it signifies "a progress from the Philosophy of Nature to that of God ;" and this, as we have pointed out, agrees with our idea of the Epic as a picture of all systems of Philosophy, from the pure Sankhya, with its belief in Nature as the sole creator of life, to Vedanta, holding that it is God alone who creates.
The Date and Author of the Epic: Another problem of the Epic relates to its date and authorship. It is said to have been originally composed by Vyasa, and recited by Vaisampayana at the great Snake- Sacrifice held by Janamejaya, the son of Pariksit, the grandson of Arjuna; and thereafter narrated to the Rishis by Souti. The original is said to consist of six million verses, out of which only a lakh or a hundred thousand are believed to be current among men. That is the Mahabharata we know, an abstract of the original work. Souti is said to have known 8,800 verses; Suka, the son of Vyasa, an equal number, and Sanjaya, who narrated the Bhagavad Gita to king Dhritarashtra, an equal number too.
We have observed that the Mahabharata is a picture of the progress of Man from Sankhya-Nyaya or Jainism to Vedanta, and this account of its author and reciters expresses the idea of its subject-matter and range. We shall see in the course of these pages what these names signify and then we shall understand how they express the character and scope of the Epic, and are not names of persons in the ordinary sense of the term.
The Mahabharata, according to competent scholars, bears, in its different parts, the stamp of different authorship, and they believe that these parts have been composed at different times. We have observed that it is a Story of the conflict of systems of thought between Jainism and Buddhism; Buddhism and Saivism; Saivism and Jainism; and Vaisnavism; on the one hand and Buddhism and Jainism combined on the other and the Philosophy of these is to be traced back to the Vedas; and so the Mahabharata is said to be the fifth or last of the Vedas. If, therefore, the Epic is really a picture of systems of Philosophy and Religion composed in a certain well-understood Story- form, there is nothing strange in its different parts having been composed at different times. The subject being vast and the method elaborate, it is natural that it should require collaboration. Indeed, it would appear to be the work not of a single scholar or poet, but of a great school of thought which seems to have flourished in India in the past. The Vedas contain the essence of all systems of Hindu Philosophy and Religion, and they are explained in different ways in the Brahmanas and the Upanishads; and the same idea is expressed in the Puranas and Epics in Story-form. The subject-matter is the same, only the form of expression is changed from time to time; and those who adopted it knew what it implied. Hence the fact that different portions of the Mahabharata have been composed at different times, does not in any way militate against its unity of design or execution. It points all the more clearly to its having been planned in a scientific manner, where every addition is a new point of view explained and a new acquisition of thought. Indeed, it may be regarded as an Encyclopaedia of all Science, Philosophy and Religion of the Hindus of the past; and, like all modern words of this kind, required the collaboration of many minds, with each new addition of knowledge from time to time. But the central idea is the same, and it is with this that we shall deal in these pages.