chapter  3
23 Pages


ByJames L. Fitzgerald

The Mahåbhårata is a tradition of religious epic that has lived in numerous differentcultural niches-some oral, some written, some Sanskrit, some vernacular-in South and Southeast Asia for over two thousand years. From its very beginnings the Mahåbhårata has played a fundamental role as a sacred “scripture” in defining the Hindu world. Countless times it has been, and still is, dramatized by actors, puppets, and dancers for the entertainment or edification of audiences or as part of rituals or festivals (Hiltebeitel 1988-91; Sax 1991a). It has been declaimed in Sanskrit in temples and has been repeatedly translated into the vernaculars of South Asia. Some parts of it have been and are often chanted in congregational liturgies, in Sanskrit or a vernacular, sometimes with audiences chanting refrains. Lessons have often been drawn from it by learned expositors before live audiences ( pravacana), and it has often been the object of devoted private reading and study. In the 1990s it was broadcast serially throughout India on television, and vast portions of the population of India watched it regularly and eagerly. In spite of the tremendous extent and variety of this tradition, or rather because of it, the description of the Mahåbhårata in this chapter is based only on the most accessible, and the single most important, subtradition of the larger phenomenon, the written Sanskrit text of the epic.