Hermann Oldenberg supposed that the original poem must once have carried an immense "tragic force" but dismissed the full text as a "horrible chaos." The background to the Mahābhārata suggests the origin of the epic occurs "after the very early Vedic period" and before "the first Indian 'empire' was to rise in the third century B.

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This sarpasattra material was often considered an independent tale added to a version of the Mahābhārata by "thematic attraction" (Minkowski 1991), and considered to have a particularly close connection to Vedic (Brahmana) literature.

The Pañcavimśa Brahmana (at 25.15.3) enumerates the officiant priests of a sarpasattra among whom the names Dhṛtarāṣtra and Janamejaya, two main characters of the Mahābhārata's sarpasattra, as well as Takṣaka, the name of a snake in the Mahābhārata, occur.

The Mahābhārata itself (1.1.61) distinguishes a core portion of 24,000 verses: the Bhārata proper, as opposed to additional secondary material, while the Aśvalāyana Gṛhyasūtra (3.4.4) makes a similar distinction.

At least three redactions of the text are commonly recognized: Jaya (Victory) with 8,800 verses attributed to Vyāsa, Bhārata with 24,000 verses as recited by Vaiśampāyana, and finally the Mahābhārata as recited by Ugraśrava Sauti with over 100,000 verses.

The Vasu version would omit the frame settings and begin with the account of the birth of Vyasa.

The astika version would add the sarpasattra and aśvamedha material from Brahmanical literature, introduce the name Mahābhārata, and identify Vyāsa as the work's author.

Urubhaṅga, a Sanskrit play written by Bhāsa who is believed to have lived before Kālidāsa, is based on the slaying of Duryodhana by the splitting of his thighs by Bhīma.

The copper-plate inscription of the Maharaja Sharvanatha (533–534 CE) from Khoh (Satna District, Madhya Pradesh) describes the Mahābhārata as a "collection of 100,000 verses" (śata-sahasri saṃhitā).

The earliest known references to the Mahābhārata and its core Bhārata date to the Aṣṭādhyāyī (sutra 6.2.38) of Pāṇini (fl.

4th century BCE) and in the Aśvalāyana Gṛhyasūtra (3.4.4). 120 CE) about Homer's poetry being sung even in India seems to imply that the Iliad had been translated into Sanskrit.

The epic employs the story within a story structure, otherwise known as frametales, popular in many Indian religious and non-religious works.