List of Mahabharata tribes

by Laxman Burdak | 19,468 words

This content is based mainly on Ch. V of book by Sandhya Jain: Adi Deo Arya Devata - A Panoramic View of Tribal-Hindu Cultural Interface, Rupa & Co, 7/16, Ansari Road Daryaganj, New Delhi, 2004...


The Mahabharata Epitomizes The Indian Genre Of historical literature, known as Itihasa. It is the country's most famous history and epic poem. Yet it is far more than an ordinary narrative of events leading up to a great war, and encompasses both a philosophy of life as well as a code of conduct. The German Indologist Hermann Oldenberg observed:

"In the Mahabharata breathe the united soul of India and the individual souls of her people." The Mahabharata itself states that that which is not found here cannot be found elsewhere, so comprehensive is its treatment of dharma and the philosophy of life.

Two of the most popular prayers of the Hindus, the Vishnu Sahasranama (revealed by a dying Bhishma to Yudhisthira) and the Bhagvata Gita (enunciated by Krishna to a distraught Arjuna on the battlefield, on the very eve of the war), come down to us from the Mahabharata,


Author of Mahabharata

The epic has traditionally been attributed to Vyasa, son of the sage Parasara and scion of the priestly Vasistha family, which was connected with the royal lineage of the Bharata. Vyasa is beieved to have attempted a cultural fusion of the diverse elements inhabiting the subbcontinent by incorporating the popular legends, royal eulogies and relgious poetry of the different regions, thus binding them in a geographical and cultural unity. The bard Gustavo (one who has an astonishing capacity to hear) was the first to publicly recite the epic at the sacrifice of the chancellor Saunaka (I.1.1).

The cultural material of the epic renders it an indivisible and organic whole that is intrinsic to the understanding of the Indian ethos. The Mahabharata provides a panoramic view of the society, politics and culture of the subcontinent. The present chapter is concerned with its census-like enumeration of tribes and the knowledge it reveals about their geographical location, physical and material qualities, and moral spiritual) fiber.


Dating of Mahabharata

Scholars generally concur that the Mahabharata cannot be dated with accuracy. However, the era from 1000 BC to 500 AD, during which the country's social and political institutions underwent considerable change and upheaval, is normally accepted for dating the epic There is also a view that the epic's core story hails from a much earlier period. The cultural material in Books XII and XIII possibly belong to the pre-Buddha era, while the ethnographically material (Which includes several names that remain untraced to this day ) is very ancient. K.C. Mishra believes that the list of tribes cataloged in connection with the Great War may therefore belong to a tradition prior to the Buddha. The period from 1000 BC to 500 BC broadly tallies with the age of the janapadas, wherein tiny tribal oligarchies vied for supremacy among themselves; the Mahabharata reflects the society and ethnography of thls peeriod, and depicts the thrus towards strong centralized political authority though a noteworthy political integration of a large part of the country was not achieved until the rise of Mauryas.

The Vedas, Brahmanas and Puranas mention tribes of different periods. The Rigveda discusses three categories of people, namely, Arya, Dasa and Asuras The Rig Vedic Aryas comprised several tribes, which increased in number over a period of time. Some tribes listed in the Rig Veda retain their names down to the present, such as the Yadu, Puru, Shiva, among others, while others changed their names following division and migration to new lands. The famous Dasarajna yuddha (RV VII.18) probably recalls an intra-tribal feud. Brahmana literature also depicts early Indian ethnography. The Bhuvanakosa chapters of the Puranas deal with the ethnography of ancient India, and are also included in the Epic (VI.I-13).

While the Rig Veda shows little knowledge of the region outside the Saptasindhu, the epics and Puranas tend to use geographical names, such as Sindhu, Panchala, Matsya (RV 7.18.9), Chedi, Kashi, Koshala, and so on. Yet it is only in the janapada period that the land and people become closely intermeshed. The Mahabharata speaks not only of Arya peoples, but of all beings. It speaks of Deva, Danava, Gandhara, Yaksha, Rakshasa, Naga, and other groups, though scholars are not certain if these were really a class of people who played a role in the events narrated in the epic, or constitute the remnants of an antique tradition that was incorporated into the story.

The Mahabharata ethnographers classified the natives of the land into three broad categories, namely, Arya, Mleccha (alien) and Misra (mixed). The theory of a single pure racial type in India no longer enjoys academic credibility, and it is also now accepted that there was no Aryan race but an Aryan language and culture. The same is true of the Dravidas. The term Arya as used in the Mahabharata denotes a way of life, and cannot be used to delineate racial strains in the ancient Indian tribes.


Aryanization of native tribes

The incorporation of native tribes into Arya culture began at a very early stage. From the new evidence coming to light about tribal kingdoms in the Gupta and post-Gupta period, and their impulse towards cultural homogenization within their region through acceptance of the Sanskrit language and Brahmin priests and officers, we can surmise that this trend was most likely the result of a natural socio-cultural-political evolution rather than external stimuli. What makes the Mahabharata of special interest is the fact that it reveals a stage when the earliest tribal (kinship) grouping submitted to a larger regional national identity under the pressure of the emergence of some powerful Kshatriya kingdoms. The epic thus reflects a decline in tribal culture and transition to states.

The simplest definition of a tribe is a group of clans claiming common descent and united for a common purpose, such as war or sacrifice; it constitutes the oldest form of social organization and generally originates in a specific territory. The earliest terms used for such an organized human group in the Rig Veda were jana and vis. Zimmer regarded vis as identical with the tribe and different from grama which, he felt, represented a clan and was midway between family (kula) and tribe (vis). A.C. Das believed that an aggregation of Vedic families formed a gotra, a group, of gotras constituted a gosthi, and gosthis became a grama. A number of gramas formed a vis, (district) and an aggregate of the latter formed a jana (tribe). The word vis implies settlers and marks a change from the nomadic state; it was probably an early form of the janapada, the term used in later Vedic texts.

By the time of the Arthasastra, the word janapada (foothold of a tribe) connoted an administrative unit such as a district, country or state, which suggests that the older tribal settlers had merged into a much wider peasantry. The term rashtra, though Kautilya is not explicit about its usage, probably suggests a distinction between lands cultivated by the state (sita) and private lands (rashtra). Sita lands were managed by the state agriculture department under an officer called sitadhyaksha. Kosambi observes that at one time rashtra signified small tribal oligarchies which paid tributes (bali) to the sovereign of the janapada, which Greek visitors described as the free cities in India. In later periods, the distinction between rashtra and sita land disappeared and the former came to signify country or nation. Thus, the janapadas were the last stage in the evolution of an ancient tribal organization. However, a janapada was not merely an area with a single authority for all inhabitants, but also denoted a cultural Unit.

Help me keep this site Ad-Free

For over a decade, this site has never bothered you with ads. I want to keep it that way. But I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased truth, wisdom and knowledge.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: