India is the land where history and myth get intertwined in such a way that you cannot say which is which. One of India's gift to the world of literature is her majestic epical wonder "Mahabharata", attributed to some one(might be one person or many) called Vyasa or Vyas (Ved Vyas) which literally means one who dissected 'Veda'(religious and philosophical writings of Hindu religion). Research on this great epic revealed that many appendage had been done to the original text , before it became whole.
Mahabharata's impact on Indian psyche is so profound that people consumed every word of it as such. Characters were being worshipped as role models, like modern day Bollywood stars. As the generations passed by, line which divides the story and reality started blurring. Stories told and retold, appended stories that were not present at the beginning happened, kind of regional versions. Many dynasties and empires came and gone everyone tried to leave their own mark on the epic. Akbar the great ordered translations of Mahabharat to Persian, then English translations, translations into regional languages, into other religions etc. Contradictions started to surface. But Mahabharata, world's largest epic; engulfed it all like a hungry Anaconda having its meal. Indians are not strangers to contradictions; we are a country of contradicting views, cultures, beliefs and stories. Indians were always been story telling people. Whether its philosophy or literature we always did used the medium of stories. But nothing ever matched Mahabharata. It was a miracle; such a vast plot which has many sub plots even the sub plots has sub plots. One would get a geographical map of Indian subcontinent of those times from the story.
But today's Hindu hardliners started to take the story a little too much seriously. Their childish logic of argument that all the places in the story are real so people should also be real, kind of baffles me. Even our modern day writers small ones to big, they all base their story-lines on real places, so that people can easily relate. So, definitely some one of VedVyas's calibre would have to be a master in portraying places and people.
Famous scenes from the Epic
Left:Arjuna & Krishna in their Chariot
Right:Krishna forced to break his vow not to take weapon, by Bheeshm and attack him.
Now to the point Why i think Mahabharata, the epic is a magnificent and magnanimous effort by Maharishi Vyasa is that, he gives us clues at the beginning that all those characters are more or less fiction.
The story unveils itself from the mouth of sage Vaishampayana(disciple of Vyasa) at the palace of King Janamejaya, son of Parikshith. He tells this story at a "yagna"(kind of big offering) at the king's place. Now everyone knows that back in those times nothing goes forward without backing from ruler class. And we are all well aware of the existence of flatterers in all courts. Sages are very much dependant on ruler class for their costly yagnas, land for putting up an "Ashram", teaching, food etc. So it wouldn't be a good idea to tell a king who wants to hear good and great about him and his ancestors that he was from a humble beginning like any other man. Throughout human history kings tried to relate their birth with heavenly beings, from the Egyptian Pharaohs to Romans to Chinese, humans think the same. We would like to think ourselves as beings of higher purpose.
In actual if you looked at the family tree, the acclaimed "Kuru vansh"(Kuru clan) ended with King "Vichithravirya", who deceased at a very young age before having any successors. And what more could possibly give pride and joy to a king when he was to told that he belongs to the great Kuru vansh. Now the sage couldn't possibly change the fatherhood of King Parikshit to King Janamejaya. Both were Kings, but Parikshit's parents or their parentage are kind of blurred. So there lies in the chance to improvise for a master story teller and that's what he did with great mastery. The real story were said to be written down by Ganpathi (people believe he is the same Elephant god Ganpatahi) another disciple of Vyas, who himself narrated the story to him. At the time Vaishampayana retold it at the court of King Janamejaya many appendages had already been done. Here actually, the real author or his disciples tried to fictionalise the historic events. The historical events and fictional elements are so well interwoven that we weren't able to perceive which is which.
The three pillar characters - Vidur, Dhritrashtra- father of "Kauravas", and Pandu-father of "Pandavas" were all from Vyasa's parentage. The only exception is "Bheeshm", who is of super human origin (Like Achilles, he has goddess Ganga(river Ganges) as his mother). Super human origins are understandable because great men are supposed to have born from great beings, earthly human beings couldn't conceive such greatness, that would be the underlying logic for this super humanity. Here it is too obvious to any observant eye that the author not only made himself a character but also become the creator of the entire characters, as it should be, both symbolically and literally. You can see in the below rectangle that the author himself had intercourse with the wives(Ambika & Ambalika) of dead king "Vichithravirya" and their maid servant(Sudri).
Now, one would ask, if so? Then why the maid servant? I would like to say , that would be a writer's freedom of choice, maybe he wanted someone good and wise for a minister, yet didn't maligned by the proudness of his own royal lineage.
In Mahabharata the writer (one or many) tried to proclaim that I am the creator of this story, focus on what i am trying to convey, not on the medium (story). It has drama, action, romance everything and it has a message too. It gives a wide-angled view of then societal structure. Views and moralities upheld by that society. Its the biggest script India had ever produced and will probably would never again, infusing both imagination and reality. The line dividing reality and story is so fuzzy that after thousands of years, we aren’t able to reach a common meeting point about how much is story and how much is imagination. May be that's the great thing about epics, one would never understand which is which. Its the same with homer's Iliad and Odyssey. And we will never know for sure which one influenced the other? May be some things are better left to our imagination.