According to this article by Alf Hiltebeitel, the Mahabharata has "three interwoven frame stories" (page 4). What he calls the "outermost" frame is Vyasa's recounting of the story to five of his disciples. An inner "generational frame" has one of those disciples (Vaisampayana) reciting the epic at King Janamejaya's snake sacrifice. In the third frame, which Hiltebeitel calls the ""outer" cosmological frame", a bard (Ugrasravas) who was present at the snake sacrifice relates the story he heard there to the rishis of the Naimisa forest.

My question is, how exactly does this interlocking frame structure work? I see how Ugrasravas's narration frames Vaisampayana's (which is why the former is called the "outer" frame and the latter the "inner") because it recounts Vaisampayana's narration and naturally takes place at some point after the snake sacrifice. But how is Vyasa's narration - the first narration - the "outermost"? I would've thought that Hiltebeitel would have called it the innermost.

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When Alf Hiltebeitel speaks of the outermost frame, he means the narrator who invokes Nara, Nārāyaṇa, and Saraswatī in the very first verse, then introduces Ugraśravas in the second. This neutral narrative voice crops up throughout the epic, including as the speaker of tags like सूत उवाच, sūta uvāca, "the charioteer said". Ugraśravas credits Vyāsa as the composer of the epic he is reciting. Hiltebeitel argues, therefore, that the outermost narrator must be identified with Vyāsa. But Hiltebeitel's view is not accepted by all scholars, and whether it is correct is open to debate.


The MBh begins with an unnamed narrator bowing to Nara, Nārāyaṇa, and Saraswatī, then introducing Ugraśravas, who tells the rest of the story:

नारायणं नमस्कृत्य नरं चैव नरोत्तमम्
देवीं सरस्वतीं चैव ततो जयमुदीरयेत्
लॊमहर्षणपुत्र उग्रश्रवाः सूतः पौराणिकॊ नैमिषारण्ये शौनकस्य कुलपतेर दवादशवार्षिके सत्रे

nārāyaṇaṃ namaskṛtya naraṃ caiva narottamam
devīṃ sarasvatīṃ caiva tato jayam udīrayet
lomaharṣaṇaputra ugraśravāḥ sūtaḥ paurāṇiko naimiṣāraṇye śaunakasya kulapater dvādaśavārṣike satre

After bowing to Narayana and Nara the perfect man, and also to the goddess Saraswati, the Jaya must be recited. At the twelve-year-long sacrifice the patriarch Śaunaka conducted in the Naimiṣa forest, the son of Lomaharṣaṇa, Ugraśravas, the charioteer, adept in the Purāṇas, ...

This is the outermost voice of the epic. Hiltebeitel identifies this voice with that of Vyāsa Dvaipāyana, depicted within the text as composing the epic and teaching it to his students:

इदं द्वैपायनः पूर्वं पुत्रमध्यापयच्छुकम्
ततोऽन्येभ्योऽनुरूपेभ्यः शिष्येभ्यः प्रददौ प्रभुः (I.i.63)

idaṃ dvaipāyanaḥ pūrvaṃ putram adhyāpayacchukam
tato'nyebhyo'nurūpebhyaḥ śiṣyebhyaḥ pradadau prabhuḥ

This Dvaipāyana first taught to his son, then to other worthy disciples.

Vyāsa is also a character within the story: crucially, he is the biological father of Dhrtarāṣṭra and Pāṇḍu, the half-brothers whose sons are the belligerents in the internecine war that forms the main action of the epic.

From a narratological perspective, the neutral introductory voice would be the outermost frame. Within that would be a second frame, Ugraśravas's narration to Śaunaka and his companions in the forest. Ugraśravas is retelling a story that he heard from Vyāsa's disciple Vaiśampāyan, so Vaiśampāyan's is a third frame. Vyāsa's composing the epic and teaching it to Vaiśampāyana would then be the fourth, innermost frame. Why, then, does Hiltebeitel identify Vyāsa with the outermost rather than the innermost of the Mahābhārata's frames? And why does he count three, rather than four, frames?

To answer this question it is necessary to understand the context for his 2004 article. Hiltebeitel is responding to the arguments critics have made about his 2001 book Rethinking the Mahābhārata: A Reader's Guide to the Education of the Dharma King. The claim regarding narrative frames is not a new one made in this article, but a restatement of one he had originally made in that work. The bulk of his article is an engagement with James L. Fitzgerald's 2003 review of the book.

Hiltebeitel and Fitzgerald agree that the Mahābhārata was composed during the Gupta era, roughly 300–350 CE. But they have one major points of disagreement. Hiltebeitel sees the work as composed by a committee in written form over a couple of generations during this period. Fitzgerald believes that while the work was indeed written down during this time frame, it has its origins as as oral narrative that reached definitive form between three and six hundred years earlier, and that it retains traces of its prior circulation as such. For example, Fitzgerald believes, as do most other scholars, that substantial portions of the epic, such as the Bhagavad Gītā, are later interpolations into the original oral text.

Hiltebeitel's view has been called synchronic, Fitzgerald's diachronic. That is, Hiltebeitel believes that the MBh as we have it is a unified work that was composed in writing during a fairly short time frame, whereas Fitzgerald believes that what we have represents a rewritten version of written-down oral narratives which were in turn augmented in later centuries by interpolations. Fitzgerald contrasts those who hold a "conviction of the text's unity" against those who "do not believe in the text's oneness":

though I am convinced that the MBh definitely has a diachronic developmental history, the larger discourse of ancient Indian studies should be grateful for the work of scholars like Biardeau and Hiltebeitel, whose conviction of the text's unity has led them to many profound insights into the MBh over the years, insights which those of us do not believe in the text's oneness would likely never have achieved. (p. 812)

Fitzgerald's article describes the problems with the synchronic stance he sees in Hiltebeitel's 2001 book; the article you're asking about is Hiltebeitel's response describing what he sees as problems with Fitzgerald's diachronic point of view.

In this context, it should hopefully be easy to see why the role of the MBh's narrative frames is so crucial. They would be interpreted very differently depending on whether the MBh is seen as a unified whole, or as a composite work. Hiltebeitel describes these "three interwoven frame stories" as follows:

the "outermost" authorial frame in which Vyasa recites the MBh to his five disciples, including his son Śuka; the "inner" generational frame in which the Pāṇḍava's great grandson Janamejaya performs the snake sacrifice at which he (along with Vyāsa and Śuka) hears the MBh from Vaiśampāyana, one of the four initial disciples to have learned it from Vyāsa in the first place; and the "outer" cosmological frame in which the Rṣis of the Naimiṣa Forest hear the MBh from the bard Ugraśravas who had also heard it at Janamejaya's snake sacrifice. (p. 206)

Seeing the MBh as a unified work, Hiltebeitel claims that these narrative frames are poetic devices:

  • The neutral voice that introduces the epic and keeps it going is the authorial frame, because it represents Vyāsa narrating the MBh to five of his disciples.
  • Hiltebeitel believes that the composition of the MBh took about a couple of generations, and Vaiśampāyan, as Vyāsa's disciple, is the second generation. So Vaiśampāyan's recitation is the generational frame.
  • Finally, Ugraśravas's recitation is the cosmological frame, because it takes place in the Naimiṣa Forest, which Hiltebeitel identifies as a locus where stories "transcend time and defy ordinary conceptions of space" (quoted in Fitzgerald p. 809, n. 28). He also sees this level of the narrative as representing the committee as it composed the MBh.

For Hiltebeitel, the Vyāsa who composes the epic and plays a part in the story is also the outermost narrator, the one who invokes the gods and recites the entire epic to us, the reader. Since Hiltebeitel views the epic as a unified whole composed by committee in a relatively short time frame and handed down to us more or less unchanged, the various narrative frames cannot be mere artifacts of a long developmental process in which the story was told and retold several times.

Nor can the somewhat inconsistent roles Vyāsa plays as author, participant, præceptor, and narrator be left unreconciled. Since the composing committee has chosen to attribute its work to an author Vyāsa, the outermost frame that contains the epic must represent him. Further, every appearance of Vyāsa in the epic must be a deliberate artistic choice on the part of the composers that symbolically represents some aspect of the text's composition. For example, the story of how Vyāsa's son Śuka attains salvation and leaves his father mourning must allegorically represent the relationship of author to text. Fitzgerald finds this "rather forced" (p. 815), and says it "highlights an extravagance of Hiltebeitel's hermeneutic method" (p. 817).

As Fitzgerald's article demonstrates, Hiltebeitel's calling the outermost voice of the MBh that of Vyasa is problematic. It rests on a somewhat circular argument: Vyāsa must be the outermost narrative voice, because the text is unified; the text is unified because of the role Vyāsa plays as narrator. This seems unconvincing. The multiple narrative voices of the MBh seem to me to be just of a piece with the way the text has circulated, and continues to circulate: as stories endlessly retold by any number of narrators. The identification of the outermost voice with that of Vyāsa himself seems unnecessary and unjustified.

References (All links live as of April 5, 2023)

Fitzgerald, James L. “The Many Voices of the Mahābhārata.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 123, no. 4, 2003, pp. 803–18. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3589969.

Hiltebeitel, Alf. “More Rethinking the Mahābhārata: Toward a Politics of Bhakti.” Indo-Iranian Journal, vol. 47, no. 3/4, 2004, pp. 203–27. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24663613.

Hiltebeitel, Alf. Rethinking the Mahābhārata: A Reader's Guide to the Education of the Dharma King. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001.

The Mahabharata. Book 1, Adi Parva, Chapter 1. Internet Sacred Texts Archive.

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