The Mahabharata is acknowledged as being the largest of the world epics, and the largest work of literature created before the advent of the printing press. It contains close to 100,000 verses (*1), and a full copy of the Mahabharata is thousands of pages long. Yet it was not always so.
The Mahabharata itself claims to have been considerably shorter initially (*2), and the work was called the “Jaya”. This was the work of Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa (better known simply as Veda Vyasa). The epic was then enlarged considerably, incorporating more material and was about 100,000 verses when recited by Ugrashravas, the son of Lomaharshana. The Mahabharata contains a huge number of different stories unrelated to the central theme of the struggle between the Pandavas and Kauravas. These stories are typically brought in during conversations between characters, sometimes spanning for hundreds of pages. It is held that these side stories were incorporated into the epic in order to preserve them within the compilation of a respected and valued literature. The Mahabharata also contains a huge number of lengthy dialogues, some important, some less so between characters, once again sometimes extending into hundreds of verses. The largest dialogue is between Bhishma and Yudhishthira.
The original epic would obviously not have contained all of these stories and dialogues and have been a much more descriptive narrative of the events as they were. The expansion of the Mahabharata enabled a huge mass of stories of India as well as ethical, philosophical and spiritual treatise to be incorporated into what was to become the greatest epic of the Hindu people. It was popularised throughout every city, town and village by singers, bards and actors to become the common medium of cultural education to the people. As a result, every Hindu down to youngest child had an idea of even the more complicated ideas and concepts of Hindu spirituality such as the paths of yoga, the concept of the supreme all pervading soul, the idea of dharma as playing your part in the cosmic order. These ideas were subconsciously imbibed into all the people through familiarity with the epics.
But despite the fact that the expansion of the Mahabharata as the great epic of the Indian people has in many ways been a valuable and beneficial tool in the cultural life of the Indian people – it has made it difficult (although perhaps not impossible) to discern which aspects are historical. For example – in early Hindu civilisation, the Sarasvati River (in Haryana and Rajisthan) was the main river that Hindu civilisation was centered around and drew sustenance from. But later on the river dried up, and the Sindhu (Indus) and later the Ganga became the major rivers. Some parts of the Mahabharata, the older portions, speak of the Sarasvati, but there are portions which appear to have no memory of Sarasvati river. Sri Aurobindo believed that a careful literary analysis could enable us to separate the earlier and later portions of the epic. The epic is believed to have reached its final form as late as 300-400 AD, yet portions can be shown, through astrological methods, to perhaps stretch back longer than 5,000 years.
I guess that for many centuries or even millennia, Hindus were less bothered about actual mundane historical facts than we are today, having now imbibed a thoroughly Western outlook. Traditionally, Hindus of the past have looked for the sacred and transcendental interacting with human events, and have had less interest in the mundane material facts of history.
(*1) The critical “Pune Edition” prepared by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute was slightly shorter at 89,000+ verses. This edition was prepared with painstaking efforts of scholars for about five decades consulting 1,259 manuscripts, and parts of the Mahabharata which were not common across the manuscripts were disregarded.
(*2) Some Indologists have asserted, using an interpretation of a certain verse, that the original Jaya was 8,800 verses. However others, including Sri Aurobindo, have criticised this interpretation of the said verse, and hold that as per the Mahabharata itself, its original length was in the region of 24,000 verses. The writer of this article feels that more weight should be given to the latter viewpoint.