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The endless journey — the beginning and the milestones

यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिः भवति भारत, 
अभि-उत्थानम् अधर्मस्य तदा आत्मानं सृजामि अहम् । 
परित्राणाय साधूनां विनाशाय च दुस्-कृताम्, 
धर्म-संस्थापन-अर्थाय सम्भवामि युगे युगे ।

— Bhagwat Gita

Whenever there is a decline in righteousness, whenever there  is a rise is evil practices, O Bharat, I myself incarnate. To protect the good, to destroy the evils, to establish the righteousness, I incarnate again, and again, in every era.

To redeem his pledge, over 5000 years ago, Krishna incarnated and Krishna led that great war at Kurukshetra that can truly be considered as the first ever world war in known civilization. And with that great war manifested the greatest tale of the history.

The Origin

The original author of this narrative is Ved Vyas. It is said that Vighnaharta Lord Ganesha, himself penned down the narrative of Vedvyas. At that point Ved Vyas called it Jaya, which comprised 8000 slokas

The great event was narrated for the first time by Ved Vyas’ disciple Vaipanyadas to King Janmeja. King Janmeja was the son of Parikshit who was the grandson of Arjuna. Did you realize it was over half a century between the end of the war and its first ever narration? After that, the grand tale was preserved and propagated using the tradition of shruti-smriti  for centuries. And after thousands of years, when it was compiled and written, it was done across the country and beyond rather than at one place.

Over the time, more details and explanations were added to the story, and the story grew in epic proportion. The original narration Jaya composed of 8000 sloka but was expanded by Vyasji later to 24000 sloka which was named Bharat. And by the time Bharat grew to Mahabharat, it had become a gigantic collection of 84000 slokas.

The Expansion

As I already mentioned, the compilation of the grand epic wasn’t done by a particular person or place, rather was done not only in a different part of India, but beyond in different languages. If we talk about 19th century over a thousand manuscripts existed in Sanskrit, Devnagri, Nepali, Maithili, Tamil, Malayalam, Bengali, Arbi, Parsian, Urdu and other languages. While the core incidents in all these are exactly same, endorsing the authenticity of the incident that happened over 5000 years ago, there are variation in the narration of the minor episodes, that while is natural in shruti tradition, often becomes a ground for disagreement and controversies among the followers of the epic. To add to the vow, is numerous fictional narratives where creative authors have exercised their freedom of expressions and imagination to add multitudes of stories, often altering the actual sequence of events to such an extent that they often represent a contrary tale. In an age where apart from so many variations of original epic, there are so many more baseless narratives propagated via fictional books, or cinema or TV shows, that we seem to have a Lost Epic.

In this series, we shall talk among many such stories and incidents to restore the original authentic tale of the great epic, and try to weed out the fake narratives. I will try to explain those incidents with proper references and commonsense logic.

The Ancients

Before we begin our grand journey to the world of Mahabharat, let us try to understand what are those versions which are considered ancient and trust worthy — 

First based on regional basis, we divide the Mahabharat editions as northern and southern recitation. Northern recitations comprise Nepali, Bengali, Maithili, and Kasmiri versions. Southern recitation includes Malayalam and Tamil versions.

One of the greatest efforts made in unifying the northern recitation was done by 17th century scholar Neelkanth Chaturdhar. He mostly relied on the commentary of Devbodh’s Kashmiri Mahabharat and Arjun Mishra’s commentary on Bengali version, and compiled his own commentary, which is referred as Neelkantha Mahabharat. This version has been in print since the early 19th century and is often referred as Bombay Edition. Apart from this, other reputable publications include Sharda edition and Calcutta edition. The Dakshinayata is often published and referred as Madras edition.

Neelkantha’s edition became even more famous, when based on this the first ever English translation of Mahabharat was done by Mr Kisari Mohan Ganguli between 1883-1896. This edition is popularly known as KMG Mahabharata and is reputed for his nearly honest and accurate translation of Neelkantha edition. Being honest and accurate, it is not called the critical edition.

Apart from the complete translation, many reputed scholars have produced abridged versions of the story, maintaining its core elements honestly. One of the most prominent among them is the Mahabharat by Sri Rajgopalachari, which is based on Dakshinayat. In his self defined aim, Sri Rajgopalachari aimed at weeding out interpolations and myths and presenting an unbiased version. While this story doesn’t cover the entire Mahabharat comprehensively, it is well acclaimed for its accuracy and adherence to the original story.

In search of authenticity

Let us know talk about the authenticity. Among various recitations and commentaries there are variations in the incidents. At times slokas are different and other times some incidents are completely missing or narrated quite differently. Then how do we decide which one is authentic? To collate and bring out a critical edition Mahabharata, Bhandarkar Research Oriental Institute constituted Project Mahabharat. The team researched and compared 1259 different manuscripts in an attempt to segregate authentic incidents and non-authentic interpolations. Many episodes are removed, and BORI critical edition of Mahabharat was a born comparison of 89000 slokas. How long did the project run? Well, the project started in 1919 and ended in 1966. 

You may be wondering how BORI decided about the authenticity. They applied various different techniques.

  • First, few incidents appeared in only one or few of thousands of different episodes and the deemed interpolation.
  • Then they also cross verified the incident based on the general personality and temperament of the people involved.
  • They also verified if a particular incident is cross referred elsewhere or not. The reasoning is, if you add a particular incident somewhere, it may contrast with some other narrative elsewhere in the epic. Also, an important incident would be remembered or talked about at a different place or time in the epic.

This approach enhanced the credibility of BORI edition. However, they did something else as well. They also weeded out or modified a few narrative which appeared not inline with contemporary scientific understanding to make it more acceptable. This last decision is often the cause of criticism of BORI edition.

BORI analysed 1259 manuscript for over forty years to bring out the critical edition of Mahabharata, weeding out interpolation. It consists of 89000 shlokas.

BORI edition is originally in Sanskrit and the credit of its translation to English goes to Mr Bibek Debroy.

So should we should consider BORI as the only absolute and ultimate reference? Well, BORI is considered as authentic for most part of India. However, it must be understood that it is neither the original nor the only version available. It is based on references and, at times, amended the content to bring out critical editions. There are places where it has gone almost shallow by removing the details. In that case, we must look at the alternative variations. Another source of repute is the publication by Gita Press. Gita press has considered Neelkanth Commentary and BORI as its base to bring out an edition which while following the ancient also considers the recommendation of the critical. 

Mahabharata from Geeta Press

Geeta Press, Gorakhpur is one of India’s leading publication for books based on India’s ancient Shruti, Smriti tradions and is well reputed and trust worthy. They have reputed sanskrit scholars.

They have released Mahabharata with translations in many Indian languages alongside original Sanskrit shlokas. While they take Neelkantha as its base recitation, they have also followed BORI critical editions and southern recitations as references. This makes their work both ancient and authentic. The entire Mahabahrata comparises of six volumes of about 1500 pages each.

A word about fables

Let us also talk about what should not be the basis for debating authenticity — the popular TV Shows, movies and novels should not and cannot be treated as authentic as they have liberally played with the original facts mentioned in the epic. In this series we shall talk about those popular distortions as well as for the majority of people, they are the first and most popular source for the epic.

So here is what I would recommend — 

  • If you want to know the trusted story in short, start with Mahabharat with Sri Rajagopalachari. The edition has followed the original epic in the true sense, though not comprehensively. It would be a great start.
  • If you want to read in details, there is the translation of Neelkantha commentary by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, referred as KMG. It is freely available on web and you can find the link in the description below.
  • If you are interested in the critical edition by BORI, the original Sanskrit text is available on web to read. Again, I will include the link in the description below. 
  • You may also read the Englisher translation of BORI by Mr Bibek Debroy. While it is not available freely, it can be purchased on amazon.
  • I would also and highly recommend you check out Gita Press version which is highly revered for its authentic translations and is as accurate as it gets.
  • Apart from all the above source, there will be one exclusive source for you — well, you guessed it. Your own favourite Storian! Here in our channel, I will keep on bringing various important sections of the grand epic, trying to contradict interpolations with proper references. 

Please post your request for a section of our epic where you need me to clarify your doubts and stay with me in this series on Storian. You can follow this series in Hindi or English on channel links given below as we discuss the greatest epic of all time. And if you like to read my epic fiction, The Accursed God, which is based on Mahabharata.

Here we discuss the Origin of the grand epic Mahabharata, its origin, its compilations, narrations and reasons of interpolations. We further discuss the evolution of the critical edition and conclude by recommending the most trusted sources of Mahabharata. In the links sections, we are including the references of trusted sources of Mahabharat and our channel details.

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