What is the background of the Mahabharata?
The Indian epic, the Mahabharata, is eight times as long as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined. Its authorship is attributed to the Indian “Homer,” Vyasa, the famous sage (rishi), otherwise known as “Krishna Dvaipayana,” suggesting a connection with Krishna and, therefore, Vishnu. As noted earlier, it is said that it was the elephant-headed god Ganesha, a son of Shiva, who dictated the epic to Vyasa.
Another tradition has it that Vyasa was the begetter of the first Indians, the Bharatas, the ancestors of both warring families in the epic. Thus, the title Maha-bharata (Great Bharatas). In fact, the creation of the epic was gradual, reaching back to stories of ancient “Aryan” tribal warfare. Much of the epic was transcribed by brahmins in the fifth century B.C.E., and additions were made as late as 500 C.E.
The theological context for the epic is the fact that the goddess in her form as Earth is being oppressed by demons and humans. There is a need for sacrifice in order for prosperity to be restored. Vishnu and other gods play significant roles. Vishnu, as Krishna, be-friends the Pandava brothers, who, themselves, are bona fide heroes in that they have been fathered by gods. Yudhishthira, the Pandava king, is fathered by the personified Dharma (duty and proper order). Arjuna, the central figure of the Bhagavadgita section of the Mahabharata, is fathered by Indra, his brother and fellow warrior hero Bhima by Vayu (Wind). The twins, Nakula and Sahadeva, are fathered by the divine twins, the Ashvins, representing social welfare. The Pandavas share a single wife, Draupadi, an incarnation of Sri-Lakshmi, who is Prosperity. The Pandavas as a whole embody the drive for dharma. The epic concerns the struggle between the Pandavas and their hundred Kaurava cousins, led by the particularly arrogant Duryodhana and assisted by Karna, the son of Surya, the sun god. The Kauravas represent the opposite of dharma, or adharma. The war between the families in the larger theological context will be a cleansing sacrifice that will end one age and usher in a new one. It will relieve Earth’s burden. It is this that Krishna, as Arjuna’s charioteer, will make clear in the Bhagavadgita.