Monday, May 04, 2020

1000-600 BCE : The great Mahabharata War

1000-600 BCE

Aryans increasingly creates chiefdoms across the northern Indian plains. These typically consists of King's palace, surrounded by a handful of villages, then grazing lands for King's herd of cows and horses - beyond these it was typically rivers or forests. Kings were called vishampati or gopati - meaning protector of people and cows. The word King is loosely used here since the chiefs were not quite comparable to our present day understanding of the word King. Many would say the first King ever in India was in Magadha post 600 BC by the name of Bimbisara or even later during the Mauryan empire (Chandragupta Maurya, 230 BC). At best they were large chiefs - something akin to a chief of villages.

However, it might be noted that during the 1000-600 times also Magadha was a relatively large, prosperous kingdom due to the fertile lands between Ganges and river Son. While Magadha was growing in clout, further up in North Western plains two families entered a feud. Cousins named Pandavas, 5 in number (from their father Pandu) and Kauravas (sons of Dhritarashtra, younger brother of Pandu) , far more numerous than Pandavas, engaged in a war for ownership of their hereditary land. Many chiefdoms in Northern India took sides - some due to relationships, some due to political exigencies and some others to avenge past sins done unto them.

This war paved way for what would, in a few thousand years, become the largest epic that mankind has ever seen - the great Mahabharata, totaling over 100,000 verses (called also Shat sahasra samhita - literally, combination of 100,000 verses) - over 4 times the combined length of Iliad and Odyssey, and four times the length of the second largest Indian epic named Ramayana (which is a fantasy written by author named Valmiki in poem form - regarded by many as Aadi Kavya, the first poem). 

I'll explore the Epic in more detail when we come to 300 BC since that is when it started taking its current form, written down in modern Sanskrit. Suffice to say, this time period marked the ground work of the epic. Though it is the seed of the epic, during these times, it was little more than 8000 verses and was named Jaya. It was sung by suta, class - a group of people who used to follow the warrior classes in war and provide entertainment at the end of the war day post sunset. They used to sing songs in praise of war heroes. Jaya originated among the Suta class as a war victory song, in the memory of this large Kuru war which was subsequently won by Pandavas.

Subsequently it became Bharata, story of the Bharata clan and then around 300 BC - 300 AD time period it became the 100,000 verses strong Mahabharata, which added onto the core story various branches, clan details, family genealogies, philosophy, etc. From a short victory song, it became the master epic as we know it today over many centuries, probably compiled by various learned men, probably all from the family of Vyasa. (meaning- editor or compiler in Sanskrit) Likely a clan which was responsible for updating the archive named Mahabharata.

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