Maha-bharata (from the Sans. mahat — changed to mahâ — great, and Bhârata, a famous Hindu prince) is the name of a great epic poem of ancient India. As its main story relates to the contest between two rival families. both descendants of a king, Bharata, the title probably implies "the great history of the descendants of Bharata." In its present shape the poem consists of upwards of 100,000 verses, each containing 32 syllables. and is divided into 18 parvans or books. That this huge composition was not the work of one single individual, but a production of successive ages, clearly appears from the multifariousness of its contents, from the difference of style which characterizes its various parts, and even from the contradictions which disturb its harmony. Hindu tradition ascribes it to Vsyasa; but as Vyvsa means "the distributer or arranger," and as the same individual is also the reputed compiler of the Vedas, Puranas, and several other works, it is obvious that no historical value can be assigned to this generic name.
The contents of the poem may be distinguished into the leading story and the episodical matter connected with it. The former is probably founded on real events in the oldest history of India, though in the epic narrative it will be difficult to disentangle the reality from the fiction. The story (which covers about one fourth of the whole poem) comprises the contest of the celebrated families called the Kauravas and Pandavas, ending in the victory of the latter, and in the establishment of their rule over the northern part of India. Of course no unimportant part is assigned in the contest to the deities, and, consequently, Hindu mythology is pretty extensively interwoven with these events of semi-historical Hindu antiquity. This episodical matter, as it were, incidentally linked with the main story, may be distributed under three principal heads. One category of such episodes comprises narratives relating to the ancient or mythical history of India, as, for instance, the episodes of Nala and Sakuntala; a second is more strictly mythological, comprising cosmogony and theogony; a third is didactic or dogmatic — it refers to law, religion, morals, and philosophy, as in the case of the celebrated Bhagavadgits, and the principal portions of the 12th and 13th books. By means of this episodical matter, which at various periods, and often without regard to consistency, was superadded to the original structure of the work, the Mahabharata gradually became a collection of all that was needed to be known by an educated Hindu; in fact, it became the encyclopaedia of India, notwithstanding that the Brahmanic authors themselves intended it mainly for the Kshattriya, or military caste, whose history, interests, religion, and deities it specially dwells upon. The text of the Mahabharata has been published at Calcutta (5 vols. 4to, 1834-1839. Vol. 5 is a table of contents). Two other editions are in course of publication at Bombay. The best researches on it are those by Lassen, in his Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Moagenlandes (1837 sq.), and in his Indische Altermthumskunde. A sort of analysis of the leading story of the Mahabharata (not of the episodes) has lately been given by F. G. Eichhoff (Poesie Heroique des Indiens, Paris, 1860), and by Professor Monier Williams (Indian Epic Poetry, London, 1863). See also Schack, Stimmen von Ganges (Berl. 1856); Chambers, Cyclop. s.v.