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The epic is composed by Vyasa, who is one of the major dynastic characters within the epic. The first section of the Mahabharata states that it was Lord Ganesh (the elephant-headed god of the Hindus) who, at the behest of Vyasa, wrote the epic down on manuscript. Lord Ganesh is said to have agreed, but only on condition that Vyasa never pause in his recitation. Vyasa then put a counter-condition that Ganesh understand whatever he recited, before writing it down.

In this way Vyasa could get some respite from continuously speaking by saying a verse which was difficult to understand. This situation also serves as a popular variation on the stories of how Ganesh's right tusk was broken (a traditional part of Ganesh imagery). This version attributes it to the fact that, in the rush of writing, the great elephant-headed divinity's pen failed, and he snapped off his tusk as a replacement in order that the transcription not be interrupted.

The Mahabharata is thought to have been derived from what was originally a much shorter work, called Jaya (Sanskrit for Victory). The dating of the events of this story is unclear. Some people find the events to be reliably placed in Vedic India (see Kuru). Scholars have studied the astronomical events described in the Mahabharata (such as eclipses) and have claimed to have dated it to around 1478 BCE or alternatively 3106 BCE. Linguistically, the language of the Mahabharata is classified as "Epic" Sanskrit, the oldest stratum post-dating late Vedic Sanskrit, dating to perhaps the 4th century BCE. Other estimates place it between 200 BCE and 200 CE. However, it is significant to realize that the debate about dating the 'events' of the Mahabharata is secondary to the importance of the text in Classical Sanskrit literature and culture.

Like much of other early Indian literature, it was often transmitted by oral means through the generations. This made it easier for additional episodes and stories to be interpolated within it. It also resulted in regional variations developing. However, the variation has in most cases been in the new additions, and not in the original story.

Many scholars in recent times have viewed Ramayana as an ethnically-induced conflict between the indigenous conquered Dravidian peoples and the established Indo-Aryan peoples; hence the text favoring the Aryan's over the Dravidians. Hence, The Mahabharata can be seen as a civil war between the Indo-Aryan kings.