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May 29, 2020
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How Mahabharata got its name?

The majesty of mahabharata

The Mahabharata is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Ramayana. Besides its epic narrative of the Kurukshetra War and the fates of the Kaurava and the Pandava princes, the Mahabharata contains much philosophical and devotional material, such as a discussion of the four “goals of life” or purusharthas (12.161). Among the principal works and stories that are a part of the Mahabharata are the Bhagavad Gita, the story of Damayanti, an abbreviated version of the Ramayana, and the Rishyasringa, often considered as works in their own right.

Historical context

Traditionally, the authorship of the Mahabharata is attributed to Vyasa. There have been many attempts to unravel its historical growth and compositional layers. The oldest preserved parts of the text are thought to be not much older than around 400 BCE, though the origins of the epic probably fall between the 8th and 9th centuries BCE. The text probably reached its final form by the early Gupta period (c. 4th century). The title may be translated as “the great tale of the Bhārata dynasty”. According to the Mahabharata itself, the tale is extended from a shorter version of 24,000 verses called simply Bhārata.

How long is it?

The Mahabharata is the longest Sanskrit epic. Its longest version consists of over 100,000 shloka or over 200,000 individual verse lines (each shloka is a couplet), and long prose passages. About 1.8 million words in total, the Mahabharata is roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, or about four times the length of the Ramayana.

What’s in the name?

It is recorded in the Sanskrit text of this epic that at one time in history, all the gods wanted to know the value of this epic in terms of weight against the 4 Vedas. This estimation was perhaps prompted due to the popularity and significance attached to this epic. As it happened, it was found out that the single epic out-weighted all the 4 Vedas.

Meaning of weight

Now, this weight has got its meaning in Sanskrit as “Bhaar–भार. Because it was heavy than the Vedas, it was called “Very heavy”, which meant “महाभार in Sanskrit. This is how the epic itself explains it got its name.

So, when they found out that it is weighing more than the 4 Vedas combined, they named it as Mahabharata.

English Translation of this Sanskrit Sloka

In the past, all the gods assembled and put all the 4 Vedas on one side of a balance and put it on the other side of the balance. When mysteriously, it weighed more than the 4 Vedas, it came to be known as “Mahabharata–महाभारत in the world.


There are many speculations and guesses about the meaning of name but this one is like a literal meaning. It is authentic because it comes from the epic itself and is not given by some people.

Who wrote it?

The epic is traditionally ascribed to the sage Vyasa, who is also a major character in the epic. Vyasa described it as being itihāsa (history). He also describes the Guru-shishya parampara, which traces all great teachers and their students of the Vedic times.

Who scribed it?

The first section of the Mahabharata states that it was Ganesha who wrote down the text to Vyasa’s dictation. Ganesha is said to have agreed to write it only if Vyasa never paused in his recitation. Vyasa agrees on condition that Ganesha takes the time to understand what was said before writing it down.

How Ganesha got one of his names?

It is also believed that to scribe the text, Lord Ganesha broke off one of his tusks. From there, he got his name “Ekdanta”, which literally means having one tooth. Vakratunda also means ‘the one whose one limb is broken’, which points to the broken tooth itself.

Historical references

The earliest known references to the Mahabharata and its core Bharata date to the Ashtadhyayi (sutra 6.2.38) of Pāini (fl. 4th century BCE) and in the Ashvalayana Grhyasutra (3.4.4). This may suggest that the core 24,000 verses, known as the Bharata, as well as an early version of the extended Mahabharata, were composed by the 4th century BCE.


A report by the Greek writer Dio Chrysostom (c. 40 – c. 120 CE) about Homer’s poetry being sung even in India seems to imply that the Iliad had been translated into Sanskrit. However, scholars have, in general, taken this as evidence for the existence of a Mahabharata at this date, whose episodes Dio or his sources identify with the story of the Iliad.

Historical context

The historicity of the Kurukshetra War is unclear. Many historians estimate the date of the Kurukshetra war to Iron Age India of the 10th century BCE. The setting of the epic has a historical precedent in Iron Age (Vedic) India, where the Kuru kingdom was the center of political power during roughly 1200 to 800 BCE. A dynastic conflict of the period could have been the inspiration for the Jaya, the foundation on which the Mahabharata corpus was built, with a climactic battle eventually coming to be viewed as an epochal event.

Puranic literature

Puranic literature presents genealogical lists associated with the Mahabharata narrative. The evidence of the Puranas is of two kinds. Of the first kind, there is the direct statement that there were 1015 (or 1050) years between the birth of Parikshit (Arjuna’s grandson) and the accession of Mahapadma Nanda, commonly dated to 382 BCE, which would yield an estimate of about 1400 BCE for the Bharata battle. However, this would imply improbably long reigns on average for the kings listed in the genealogies. Of the second kind are analyses of parallel genealogies in the Puranas between the times of Adhisimakrishna (Parikshit’s great-grandson) and Mahapadma Nanda. Pargiter accordingly estimated 26 generations by averaging 10 different dynastic lists and, assuming 18 years for the average duration of a reign, arrived at an estimate of 850 BCE for Adhisimakrishna, and thus approximately 950 BCE for the Bharata battle.

B. B. Lal

B. B. Lal used the same approach with a more conservative assumption of the average reign to estimate a date of 836 BCE, and correlated this with archaeological evidence from Painted Grey Ware sites, the association being strong between PGW artifacts and places mentioned in the epic.


Attempts to date the events using methods of archaeoastronomy have produced, depending on which passages are chosen and how they are interpreted, estimates ranging from the late 4th to the mid-2nd millennium BCE. The late 4th millennium date has a precedent in the calculation of the Kaliyuga epoch, based on planetary conjunctions, by Aryabhata (6th century). His date of February 18 3102 BCE has become widespread in Indian tradition (for example, the Aihole inscription of Pulikeshi II, dated to Saka 556 = 634 CE, claims that 3735 years have elapsed since the Bharata battle. Another traditional school of astronomers and historians, represented by Vriddha-Garga, Varahamihira (author of the Brhatsamhita) and Kalhana (author of the Rajatarangini), place the Bharata war 653 years after the Kaliyuga epoch, corresponding to 2449 BCE.

Cultural influence

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains to Arjuna his duties as a warrior and prince and elaborates on different Yogic and Vedantic philosophies, with examples and analogies. This has led to the Gita often being described as a concise guide to Hindu philosophy and a practical, self-contained guide to life. In more modern times, Swami Vivekananda, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi and many others used the text to help inspire the Indian independence movement.

It is vast

Without doubt, there is something for everybody if the seeker is genuine is his approach. Mahabharata is like a mother who gives something to all the children.

Share your thoughts

I would be interested to know your take on this epic and how you feel it has influenced your life. Share your thoughts openly please.

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