Is Mahabharata About Bharat or India?

The mace battle of Duryodhana and Bhima

The mace battle of Duryodhana and Bhima

by Jayaram V

Question: What is the epic Mahabharata all about? What is the true meaning of Mahabharata? Is it about Bharat or India?

Mahabharata (Mahabharat) is one of the oldest, and the longest epic of the world, whose origin dates back to about 2500 BCE or earlier. "Maha" means great. “Bharata” means of the Bharatas or the descendants of the Bharatas. Thus literally, Mahabharata means the saga of the great Bharatas. It’s a historical narrative about the antecedents, family lineage, births, succession, family disputes, intrigues, romances, valor, adventures and battles of the Pandavas and Kauravas, with God as the witness and the lead player.

In Hindu literature, it is categorized as a historical work (itihas) along with the Ramayana. Both are deeply interwoven into the collective consciousness of India and unite its people, across a wide spectrum of social cultural and religious diversity. The Mahabharata is a voluminous work consisting of 18 divisions (parvas), which was probably composed by many people over a long time. The Bhagavadgita forms a part of it. Because of the name Bharat, some people erroneously think that it refers to the modern equivalent of India or Bharat. The truth is that it is NOT the history of India or a country but the history of a group of people who lived in antiquity and were known as Bharatas.

In the very beginning of the epic Mahabharata, sage Sauti, son of sage Suta, stated that the country where the Mahabharata war happened was known as Samanta-Panchaka (probably a reference to the land of the five rivers or five kingdoms). It was the land where Parashurama annihilated the Kshatriyas and where the soil was soaked with the blood of the fallen Kshatriyas who succumbed to his wrath. The Mahabharata war took place in the interval time between Dwapara and Kali Yugas, between the armies of Pandavas and Kauravas, in which 18 akshauhinis of soldiers participated. An akshauhini consists of 21,870 chariots, the same number of elephants, 65,610 horsemen and 109,350 foot-soldiers.

The nation of India 1

It is true that India as a nation emerged only after the British occupied a large part of India. The British occupation and their oppressive and racially discriminatory policies resulted in the rise of Indian nationalism, which in turn led to freedom struggle and India’s independence in 1947. Until then, India was a conglomeration of numerous Hindu and Muslim kingdoms and small principalities.

During the expansion of the British rule in the 18th and 19th centuries, the country was largely under the namesake rule of a declining Mughal dynasty. Large tracts of the land between Agra and Mysore were under the control of the Marathas and several other independent rulers. Bahadurshah Jafar was the last Mughal emperor who was dethroned by the British after the war of independence in 1857, after which India became a part of the British empire.

Even at the time of independence, the British declared about 600 princely states as independent territories and gave them a choice to join either India or Pakistan or stay independent. Almost all of them voluntarily agreed to join the Indian republic, while a few had to be persuaded or pressured to do so. Thus, Indian nationalism is a modern phenomenon, just as the nationalistic sentiments in many countries in the world.

The idea of India

However, long before the emergence of India as a modern nation, the idea of a country or a geographical entity with shared culture, history, religious values and brotherhood existed in the Indian subcontinent for at least three or four thousand years. It existed in the past under different names such as Bharat, Aryavarta, Vedabhoomi, Jambudvipa, Dharmabhumi, Hindustan, etc. The name India was derived from the Greek word, Indos (fourth century BCE), which eventually morphed into India. In medieval period, Muslim invaders from Persia and Central Asia looked upon the whole subcontinent as Hindustan. Chines travelers such as Fahien and Hiuen Tsang, who visited India about 1200 years ago, looked upon it as the land of the Buddha and a sacred land.

While for long the native people in ancient times identified themselves by their castes, religions, gods, languages or regions, people in foreign lands such as the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Mongols, and later Europeans saw the entire Indian subcontinent as a distinct geographical entity and its people representing a distinct culture and ethnicity. For the European nations, India was the land of the fabled wealth, where rivers of gold flowed. They wanted to find an easy route to the country to trade with it and profit from it.

Vasco da Gama did not arrive at the Indian shores, looking for a sea route to the Malabar coast but to India. Columbus found a sea route to the new world in search of a shortcut to India and China. Long before India became independent, the ocean south of the subcontinent was known to the world as Indian ocean. Thus, one can see that the idea of India as a distinct land mass surrounded by an ocean on three sides and the Himalayas in the north existed since long before it translated into a reality.

Mahabharata is the tale of the Bharatas

It would be unfair to superimpose our values and knowledge upon an ancient world and try to interpret its history from a modern standpoint as if it is an uninterrupted continuation of our history, ignoring the developments that happened over thousands of years. To understand their history and do justice to the ancient people, we must interpret it in a historical context only without putting ourselves at the center of it or forming an emotional attachment to them. From this perspective, we have to acknowledge that the epic Mahabharat is primarily not about the land mass called Bharat or a country that is now India. It is about the legendary (maha) tale of the Bharatas who lived in the northwestern region and fought a great war.

The name Bharata or Bharat is a reference to the Rigvedic tribe named Bharatas. We do not know much about their historicity. They were probably called Aryas (noble warriors) who lived in the Punjab region about four or five thousand years ago. The hymns of the seventh Mandala of Rigveda (hymns 18, 33 and 83.4–8) state that they participated in the Battle of the Ten Kings (Dasaraja Yuddh), which was fought between King Sudas of Tristu-Bharatas on one side and a group of Puru Bharatas in alliance with several other tribes on the other. In that battle King Sudas emerged victorious. His victory proved historic, because it led to the consolidation of the Tristu-Bharatas in the Kurukshetra area.

The Kurus who eventually rose to power in that area were the descendants of the same Bharatas. They claimed Bharata as their ancestor and regarded the land they ruled as Bharata. The Puranas and the epic also affirm that Bharata was an ancestor of both Pandavas and Kauravas. Thus, we can safely conclude that the name Mahabharata is primarily a reference to the history and the ancestry of the Pandavas and Kauravas and the battle that took place between them rather than to the country called Bharat or India. Even if it refers to the land, it consisted of only the northwestern region of the subcontinent where the Bharatas ruled.

From the above, it is evident that the epic Mahabharata is essentially a history (itihasa) of the Bharatas, who fought an apocalyptic war and heralded the end of one epoch (Dwapara) and the beginning of another (Kaliyuga). The event was witnessed by Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He participated in the war as a guide and mentor for the Pandavas, but did not fight.

It is also incorrect to say that all Indians descended from the Bharatas only. They may have the blood of the Bharatas, but they also descended from numerous tribes, races and ancestral groups, who lived in the Indian subcontinent or came from outside. Even in the Rigvedic times, more than a dozen tribes lived in India. Since the ancient times, India has been a great melting pot of diverse cultures, groups, religions, ideas, philosophies and peoples, while the diversity of its population is derived from multiple sources and from almost every racial group of the ancient world. Please check the explanatory note below.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Explanatory Note

1. According the Constitution of India, which is the longest written constitution in the world, the country is officially known as India in English and Bharat in Hindi and other native languages. Although this article is written in English, we have used both names alternatively. While the name India was commonly and officially used during the British occupation to refer to the entire Indian subcontinent both in the country and outside, the name Bharat became popular only after the rise of Indian nationalism in the 19th century. The country could have been named Hindustan, which had been widely used by Muslim rulers since the medieval times. However, the name Bharat was chosen because it had secular flavor. Even today, the country is known to the world as India, while Bharat is used by the nationalists who have a distaste for English names. The name Bharat was derived from the legendary king, Bharat, who figures in both Hindu and Jain literature as the progenitor of the Bharatas. They are mentioned as a tribe in the Rigveda, the Puranas and the Mahabharata, who lived in the northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent along with several other tribes. Although some prefer to claim that all Indians originated from the Bharatas, it is not true. India was pluralistic since the Indus times, besides facing many mass migrations and foreign invasions, which contributed to its rich diversity. For example, the Scythians (Sakas) ruled large parts of India between 200 BCE and 200 ADE. The Saka Kshatraps ruled from Takshasila, Mathura, Maharashtra and Ujjain as their capitals. The most famous of them was Rudradaman, who ruled from Ujjain. His empire extended from Sindh to Gujarat, Western Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and parts of Karnataka and Konkan.

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