Historians considered several elements to analyse the Mahabharata:
1. Language and content : The Mahabharata is written in Sanskrit. However, the Sanskrit used in the Mahabharata is far simpler than that of the Vedas, or of the prashastis. Therefore, it was probably widely understood.
Historians usually classify the contents of the present text under two broad heads – sections that contain stories, designated as the narrative, and sections that contain prescriptions about social norms, designated as didactic. This division is by no means watertight – the didactic sections include stories, and the narrative often contains a social message. The historians give considerations to the kind of texts-whether meant for chanting rituals or telling stories. They find out the author and the ideas that shaped the text.
They study the intended audience for the text. They find out the possible date of the text. They find out the place where the text was composed. They study the content of the text and understand their historical significance. The historians agree that the Mahabharata was meant to be dramatic.
2. Author(s) and dates : The original story was probably composed by charioteer-bards known as sutas who generally accompanied Kshatriya warriors to the battlefield and composed poems celebrating their victories and other achievements. Then from the fifth century BCE, the Brahmanas took over the story and began to commit it to writing.
During the period of c. 200 and 400 CE, large didactic sections resembling the Manusmriti were added. With these additions, a text which initially perhaps had less than 10,000 verses grew to comprise about 100,000 verses. This enormous composition is traditionally attributed to a sage named Vyasa.
Efforts of V.S. Sukthankar and His Team
One of the most ambitious projects of scholarship began in 1919, under the leadership of a noted Indian Sanskritist, V.S. Sukthankar. A team comprising dozens of scholars initiated the task of preparing a critical edition of the Mahabharata.
Initially, it meant collecting Sanskrit manuscripts of the text, written in a variety of scripts, from different parts of the country. The team worked out a method of comparing verses from each manuscript. They selected the verses that appeared common to most versions and published these in several volumes, running into over 13,000 pages. The project took 47 years to complete.
The manuscripts were found from Kashmir and Nepal and Tamil Nadu. Also evident were enormous regional variations in the ways in which the text had been transmitted over the centuries. These variations were documented in footnotes and appendices to the main text. Taken together, more than half the 13,000 pages are devoted to these variations.
In a sense, these variations are reflective of the complex processes that shaped early (and later) social histories – through dialogues between dominant traditions and resilient local ideas and practices. These dialogues are characterised by moments of conflict as well as consensus. When issues of social history were explored, the belief that everything that was laid down in these texts was actually practiced was not always true and that they were also questioned and occasionally even rejected.