When one learns that the Mahabharata is the longest epic in the world containing about 100,000 shlokas (couplets), it’s quite natural to wonder – who wrote the epic Mahabharata? This question has two answers: a short answer, and a longer, more nuanced answer. 

The short answer is that The Mahabharata was composed (rather than written) by Maharishi Veda Vyasa to guide people in living Their lives according to the four purusharthas (correct goals) of dharma (that which sustains), artha (abundance), kama (pleasure), and moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death).

 The Mahabharata is part of the literature known as itihasa. The meaning of itihasa is – so indeed it was. Two epics from ancient India are classified as itihasas: Ramayana and Mahabharata. Both these compositions have a historical core that has been complemented with mythical tales to guide people to live wholesome lives and pursue correct goals by making a correct effort.

It is stated in the Mahabharata that it contains all human stories, and consequently, the core message of the narratives in the Mahabharata may be found elsewhere, but if it’s not found in the Mahabharata then it’s unlikely to be found anywhere else. Thus the Mahabharata becomes a philosophical guide, written in story form for correctly navigating our collective human experience.

Read on to find out the longer and more nuanced answer to – who wrote the epic Mahabharata.

Who Wrote the Epic Mahabharata?

Many scholars of the Mahabharata believe that Maharishi Vyasa’s composition – the Mahabharata –initially consisted of about 24,000 shlokas (couplets), to which poets and sages added more content over centuries, expanding the size to 100,000 shlokas. 

In the sections below, We’ll find out more about the oral storytelling tradition of ancient India, how the Mahabharata expanded from 24,000 to 100,000 shlokas, and some fact-checking about the story of Ganesh ji writing The Mahabharata as Vyass narrated it to him.

Oral Storytelling Tradition in Ancient India

Similar to most indigenous cultures, stories in ancient India were not written. They were usually composed by sages and bards. These stories were narrated sometimes by sages, but more often, they were performed and narrated by traveling bards. Finally, these stories were transmitted from generation to generation through the oral tradition, which means they were memorized and not written.

The complete unabridged Mahabharata, as we know it right now, was composed by Maharishi Veda Vyasa and further propagated by a bard called Ugrasrava Sauti. There’s a good chance it might have been propagated by other bards as well. 

Let’s look at the details in the following sections.

Originally Composed by Maharishi Veda Vyasa

The correct way to answer the question, “who wrote the epic Mahabharata?” would be to say that the epic Mahabharata was originally composed by Maharishi Veda Vyasa. After composing the epic, Vyasa taught it to his son Suka. Then he taught it to Rishi Vaishampayan and several other disciples. At some point of time after that, King Janamejaya conducted a yagna called the sarpa satra or snake sacrifice. During this event, the king requested Vyasa to tell him about his ancestors, and why they fought such a devastating battle on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Maharishi Veda Vyasa agreed and asked his disciple Rishi Vaishampayana to narrate the composition. 

The sarpa satra was a big event and many rishis, ascetics, and bards were present, including a bard called Ugrasrava Sauti. Sometime after the sarpa satra, Sauti traveled to the Naimisha Forest where he narrated the Mahabharata to a group of ascetics who had gathered for a twelve-year yagna conducted by a rishi called Saunak Kalapati.

If we examine the structure of the unabridged Mahabharata, it begins with Ugrasrava Sauti going to Naimisha forest to meet a group of ascetics. The ascetics were excited about the prospect of hearing interesting stories from Sauti. When the latter asked them what they wanted to hear, the ascetics asked Sauti to narrate the Mahabharata. Santi began with Parashurama’s story, summaries of the Mahabharata, benefits of reading the Mahabharata, and creation stories of the universe, followed by stories of several sages and kings. It’s only after this preamble consisting of several introductory stories, that Sauti began narrating the Mahabharata that Vaishampayana narrated during Janamejaya’s sarpa satra. So we see two layers out here, with Sauti’s stories being added to Vyasa’s composition. 

However, what we have today as Vyasa’s composition narrated by Rishi Vaishampayana at the sarpa satra, might be much larger than Vyasa’s original composition.

Some people believe that Vyasa’s original composition consisted of 8800 verses that were expanded to 24,000 verses by Vaishampayana, which then were expanded to 100,000 verses by several poets over many centuries. Other scholars think that Maharishi Vyasa composed 24,000 verses that were expanded to 100,000 verses by other poets across several centuries. At this point, we don’t know who is correct, but we do know with a fair amount of certainty that Veda Vyasa’s original composition did not exceed 24,000 verses and that the remaining verses were indeed added over time.

Most of these additions were made to explain various nuances of dharma and to accommodate the epic to the changing needs of people as society evolved. However, some changes might also have been motivated by the politics and ideologies of various kings who ruled over this land at different points in time. Many historians believe that changes and additions were made to the Mahabharata up to the Gupta Era which spanned from the 4th century CE to the 6th century CE. 

Ganeshji as the Scribe of the Mahabharata

Certain translations of the Mahabharata have a story of Ganesh ji writing the Mahabharata as it was narrated by Veda Vyasa. Kisari Mohan Ganguly’s translation of the Mahabharata has this episode and so does Prof. P. Lal’s translation, but Bibek Debroy’s translation of the Mahabharata Critical Edition does not include this incident. 

The story goes as follows: after composing the Mahabharata, Maharishi Veda Vyasa was in search of someone who could write it for him. Brahmadeva suggested that he ask Ganesh ji to help him write the composition. Ganesh ji agreed to write on the condition that his pen should not stop until the entire composition was complete. This meant that Veda Vyasa would have to narrate such a long composition without taking a single break. However, Vyasa ji made a counter condition. He said that Ganesh ji should not write anything without understanding it perfectly. If Ganesh ji did not understand a shloka, he would have to stop writing till he understood. Ganesh ji agreed and the writing began. 

From time to time, Veda Vyasa would insert exceptionally difficult shlokas which even Ganesh ji could not understand immediately and had to pause for some time to think about their meaning. This gave Veda Vyasa some time to rest while speaking. These difficult shlokas are known as sandhis and some people believe that the sandhis are those points in the Mahabharata where various threads of thought come together in a sort of intellectual reconciliation.  

Contemporary Translators and Indian Regional Language Translations of the Mahabharata

The Mahabharata became one of the most popular vehicles, in India, to transmit the essence of the Eternal Divine, life lessons for humans, and guidance for wholesome living. As a result, it has been translated into several local Indian languages over the centuries.

Gita Press has created an excellent Hindi translation based on Neelkantha Chaturdhara’s widely acclaimed Sanskrit commentary of the Mahabharata called Bhāratabhāvadīpa. This commentary has a strong Advaita Vedanta perspective.

One of the first English translations of the Mahabharata was created by Kisari Mohan Ganguli who acknowledges the influence of Neelkantha ji’s commentary on his work.

There are several Bengali translations of the Mahabharata, out of which Sri Aurobindo has praised the translation by Kaliprasanna Singha

The Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute of India (B.O.R.I.) took on the massive task of analyzing over a thousand versions of the Mahabharata. Based on certain guidelines developed by their scholars, they created a critical edition of the Mahabharata that has the shlokas present in the most consistent versions of the Mahabharata. These are likely the shlokas that have been transmitted most accurately over centuries of narrations. The Mahabharata Critical Edition in Sanskrit can be downloaded from the Sanskritdocuments website. If you’re looking for an English translation of the Mahabharata Critical Edition, then we recommend Bibek Debroy’s excellent 10-volume set. The Hindi translation of the Mahabharata Critical Edition was done by S. D. Satwalekar and can be downloaded from the Internet Archive website. 

A Kannada translation of the Mahabharata can be downloaded from here. A very well-written but non-canonical version of the Mahabharata was created by Kumar Vyasa in Kannada.

There are several Tamil translations of the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata Saram published by Sri Ramakrishna Math is a a condensed Tamil version of a little over 1000 pages.

A Marathi translation of the Mahabharata is available here for free download. 

This condensed translation of Mahabharata in Gujarati explores the topics of dharma and human nature.

The above, by no means, covers the entire range of Mahabharata translations available to us, however, we hope this list helps you get started in your journey with the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata Full Story

As we discussed earlier, Maharishi Vyasa composed the Mahabharata as an upadesha (teaching, especially spiritual guidance) based on history and complemented with stories. Historically, storytelling has always been one of the best tools for instruction because our brains are wired for stories. The genius of Maharishi Vyasa was to combine history with stories and weave the narrative with instances of dilemma through which he showed us which decisions and mindsets are conducive to sustaining the whole (dharmic) and which decisions and mindsets are harmful to the whole (adharmic).

The Mahabharata story is the story of the victory of dharma over adharma. Dharma, in this context, means ‘that which sustains the individual, the collective, and the Earth,’ while adharma is the opposite – that which does not sustain all of these and causes eventual disintegration.

In the Mahabharata, we are informed that the seeds of disintegration in the current cycle of four yugas were sown in Satya Yuga when the asuras were defeated by the devas and pushed out of heaven. These mighty asuras, being power-hungry, reincarnated on Earth in royal lineages. Over time, these asuras, in the form of humans, became very powerful. Possessed with a cruel beat of mind, they began to create suffering and mayhem on Earth. All life on Earth suffered greatly because of them,  and consequently, Mother Earth also found herself crushed under the weight of the suffering of innocent life forms.

Mother Earth’s plight was alleviated by Brahma Deva’s plan where he asked the devatas, gandharvas, apsaras, yakshas, yakshinis, and various other celestial beings to be born as humans and defeat the forces that were causing suffering.

This conflict between these two opposing forces eventually led to a large-scale battle. The Kauravas and many who fought on their side were asuras in human incarnation, while the Pandavas and many who fought on their side were the celestials Brahmadeva had asked to be born on Earth and alleviate the suffering of her inhabitants.

The discord that eventually led to the battle, began in the Kuru kingdom which had the city of Hastinapura as its capital. There’s a long history to the kuru lineage which is narrated in detail in the unabridged Mahabharata, however, for now, we’ll begin with the generation of three royals: Dhritarashtra, Pandu, and Vidura. Dhritarashtra was the eldest among the three, and according to popular custom, the rightful heir to the throne. However, he was blind. Because of this, his younger brother, Pandu, was crowned the king. After conquering various kingdoms, Pandu went to the forest, with his wives, to rejuvenate. In the forest, he was cursed by a rishi that he (Pandu) would lose his life the moment he embraced his wife in union. The curse meant that he would have to abstain and would not be able to have children. Disheartened by the curse, Pandu gave up the kingdom to his elder brother, Dhritarashtra, and retired to the forest for good with his two wives: Kunti and Madri.

Despite the curse, Pandu was still able to have children because his older wife, Kunti, had been given a mantra as a boon by a rishi in her childhood. According to the rishi’s boon, Kunti could use the mantra to call any devata (celestial being) and have a child with him. Using the mantra, she had three children from three devatas: the devata of dharma, vayu (wind), and Indradeva ( the king of heaven). Kunti also taught the mantra to Madri, who had twins through the twin devatas called Ashwini Kumaras. Kunti’s three children, in order of age, were Yudhishthira, Bhima, and Arjuna, while Madri’s twins were named Nakula and Sahadeva. Meanwhile, in Hastinapura, King Dhritarashtra also had a hundred sons and one daughter with his wife Gandhari.

Pandu died a few years after the children were born. Following Pandu’s death, his elder wife Kunti returned to the palace in Hastinapur along with their five little children. Most people in Hastinapura were happy to see Kunti and the Pandavas, but some weren’t, especially the king, Dhritarashtra, and his eldest son – Duryodhana. 

Duryodhana made several attempts to harm the Pandavas, including attempts to kill Blima, and an abhorable attempt to burn his aunt Kunti and the five Pandavas by sending them to live in an inflammable house. Fortunately, they escaped and went into hiding in the nearby forests to stay safe. After a few years, the princess of the Panchala kingdom (Draupadi) married all five Pandavas. Following the marriage, they returned to their capital city of Hastinapura. 

The elders, in Hastinapura, decided to divide the kingdom into two parts: one for Dhritarashtra’s sons and the other for Pandu’s sons, to avoid conflict. While dividing the kingdom, Dhritarashtra cunningly kept the better part of the kingdom for himself and his sons and gave the unproductive, arid part to the Pandavas.

The Pandavas silently took what they got and worked hard to turn the arid land into a prosperous kingdom. They also expanded the borders of their kingdom and conducted a Rajasuya yagna, at the end of which, Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava brother, was crowned the emperor of the larger land of Bharat. 

The prosperity of the Pandavas made Duryodhana jealous. Consequently, he planned to grab his cousins’ kingdom in a deceitful game of dice. Much wrong was done in that game. The Pandavas lost everything including themselves. Draupadi, their wife was also put up as stake and was lost to the Kauravas, who insulted Draupadi and tried to disrobe her. This incident enraged Bhima and he vowed to avenge Draupadi’s humiliation. Concerned about the consequences of what had occurred, the king, Dhritarashtra, returned the Pandavas’ kingdom back to them. Duryodhana, however, immediately planned another game of dice in which he deceitfully sent the Pandavas on a thirteen-year exile.

The rules of the exile were such that the Pandavas would have to spend the first twelve years in exile and the final year in disguise without being identified. If they succeeded they would get their kingdom back but if the disguise was exposed, then they would have to spend another thirteen years in exile with the same rules. The Pandavas did succeed but Duryodhana refused to return the kingdom to them. They tried various ways to reconcile peacefully with Duryodhana but the latter was adamant. Let alone the kingdom, he refused to part with even five villages to the Pandavas.

Finally, left with no other option, the Pandavas had to go to war to get their kingdom back. A massive battle was fought in which all the kings of the land of Bharat got involved, siding either with the Pandavas or Kauravas. The Pandavas won the battle, but there was an immense amount of destruction. All the warriors, except for seven on the side of the Pandavas and three on the side of the Kauravas, perished by the end of the battle.

Yudhishthira was crowned the king of Hastinapura after the war. He revived the war-destroyed kingdom back to a state of prosperity and joy through virtue and correct policy. After a few decades, he crowned Arjuna’s grandson, Parikshit, as the next king and all the Pandavas and Draupadi went for the final pilgrimage of their life to the sacred Himalayas. Draupadi and the four younger Pandava brothers perished when ascending the Himalayas, while Yudhishthira was able to enter heaven in his human body. Eventually, they all reunited in heaven.

This is a short form of the Mahabharata full story. You can also think of it as the Mahabharata summary. However, please keep in mind that the unabridged Mahabharata has eighteen parvas (sections) and runs into several thousands of pages.

The Mahabharata pdf

Nowadays, we often search the Internet for phrases such as the Mahabharata PDF download for free. However, in ancient India, stories were told and propagated orally. This style of storytelling was common to indigenous cultures around the world. After the printing revolution began in the 15th century, printed works gradually gained in popularity, and now, many people prefer electronically distributed books.

The story of the Mahabharata is available in several forms including PDF, paper books, eBooks, audiobooks, website content, etc.

If you want to read an authoritative unabridged translation, then we would suggest Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s English translation of the Mahabharata. click here to download a free PDF of Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s Mahabharata translation

If you’d like to begin with a shorter, abridged version of the Mahabharata, then we suggest the excellent condensed version of the Mahabharata by Rajagopalachari which is also available as a free PDF download.

Please check out the Mahabharata PDF page for more details and options for downloading Mahabharata PDFs in different languages.