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The Mahābhārata has existed in various forms for well over two thousand years:

  • First, starting in the middle of the first millennium BCE, it existed in the form of popular stories of Gods, kings, and seers retained, retold, and improved by priests living in shrines, ascetics living in retreats or wandering about, and by traveling bards, minstrels, dance-troupes, etc.
  • Later, after about 350 CE, it came to be a unified, sacred text of 100,000 stanzas written in Sanskrit, distributed throughout India by kings and wealthy patrons, and declaimed from temples.
  • Even after it became a famous Sanskrit writing it continued to exist in various performance media in many different local genres of dance and theater throughout India and then Southeast Asia.
  • Finally, it came to exist, in numerous literary and popular transformations in many of the non-Sanskrit vernacular languages of India and Southeast Asia, which (with the exception of Tamil, a language that had developed a classical literature in the first millennium BCE) began developing recorded literatures shortly after 1000 CE.

The Mahābhārata was one of the two most important factors that created the "Hindu" culture of India (the other was the other all-India epic, the Rāmāyaṇa, pronounced approximately as Raa-MEYE-a-na), and the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa still exert tremendous cultural influence throughout India and Southeast Asia.