Exploring the Mahābhārata
Affiliation: Cardiff University

This paper takes up the form, content and historical contexts of the Sanskrit Mahābhārata from the period just before the commencement of the Common Era to the present day. The paper explores the historical origins of the Mahābhārata in order to explain some features of its ongoing role in the creation and maintenance of religious knowledge in, and indeed beyond, South Asia. It will show that the Mahābhārata was a creative response to a crisis in Brahminical culture around the beginning of the common era. The text, as a consequence of its internal diversity, has survived and prospered since that time as a critical tool for the ongoing sustainability of Hindu traditions as a cohesive religious ideology. It will suggest that this is the case because, more than any other text before it, the Mahābhārata marks the imaginative ‘coming into being’ of both South Asia and ‘Hinduism’. The paper will explore how the Mahābhārata presents Brahmin-centred religious ideologies that co-opt new ideas (chiefly of the Buddhists and Jains, but reflecting also the ‘gnostic’ turn within the Vedic sacrificial system that is typified in the Upaniṣads), but also presents them as having a hoary Vedic antiquity. However, even as it does this, the Mahābhārata foregrounds the vagaries and the moral and practical aporia of human existence. The paper will suggest that this combination of the questioning and the doctrinaire has made the Mahābhārata a crucial intellectual resource for Hindus from its point of origin to the present time.