Why does the epic refer to a multiplicity of origins? Why does it introduce multiple beginnings—not just from Manu or Āstīka or Uparicara onward, but also from the story of Bhīṣma’s birth or the bheda narrative forward? Why does it duplicate the outermost beginning using the same opening phrase both times? Why does Śaunaka ask Ugraśravas to narrate the ancient lore in its entirety (purāṇam akhilaṁ; 1.5.1) and does this include the material previously narrated to the sages? Or does the first beginning enclose the second, with Ugraśravas self- consciously narrating the story of an earlier visit to the Naimiṣa?
if Āstīka replaces Vaiśaṁpāyana as narrator in the “Āstīka-version,” where did Āstīka hear this story from? And if he arrives at the sarpasatra while it is in progress and begins narrating the Mahābhārata to Janamejaya, where are we to locate Vaiśaṁpāyana’s narration to Janamejaya? What happens to the Vaiśaṁpāyana-Janamejaya dialogical level? Does Āstīka’s narration refer to the “original” “Vasu-version” and, if so, is this the version containing Vaiśaṁpāyana’s narration to Janamejaya? Where and when did this narration occur, if not at the sarpasatra? And if Āstīka knows of this narration, why would he repeat the same narrative to Janamejaya (albeit with additions to make it longer)? Why does the king wish to hear the story twice?
If one sets aside these text-historical prejudices for a moment and considers the text itself, it becomes clear that the text is not deficient with respect to structure but, rather, carefully and purposefully constructed. The entire Mahābhārata is arranged in 18 chapters, the Bhagavadgītā and the Nārāyaṇīya also feature 18 chapters, 18 armies encounter each other in the Mahābhārata battle, and the battle itself lasts 18 days. Further, the Anugītā is composed of 36 (18 x 2) chapters, the Pāṇḍavas are exiled for 12 years, and Arjuna must spend 12 years alone for intruding on Yudhiṣṭhira and Draupadī in their private quarters. These numeric equivalences are, of course, only the most visible sign of careful composition or redaction, but they hint at an interest in symmetry that can also be found, for example, in the stories of Ruru and Jaratkāru. Symmetry, doubling, and repetition are crucial elements in a narrative based on a cyclical understanding of time. Thus, rather than excising one of the two beginnings as a “repetition,” I argue that we must examine the text itself for clues on how to read the double beginning.