A great Indian Epic from somewhere around 3000 BCE in sanskrit by Vyasadeva, a mystic in the Himalayas. It is the story of five brothers, the pandavas, the five sons of Pandu. It should be noted that Vyasadeva is also known for having compiled the Vedas. A possible decendant of the main characters of the epic, as with many stories, much of it is probably based (possibly loosly) on real past events.

The, possibly more well known, bhagavad gita is actually part of this epic, and only a small part at that.

In the 1999 edition of the epic, as assembled by Krishna Dharma (a vaishnava priest), the introduction contains a most interesting quote

"In the realm of dharma, artha, kama, and moksha, (ethics, economic development, pleasure, and liberation), whatever is found in this epic may be found elsewhere, but what is not found here will be impossible to find" (Mahabharata, Adi Parva 56.33)

Whether this is a profound statement about the spiritual nature of the epic and of life, or is just a reference to the fact that the epic is very long (said edition, which is addmittedly abridged to make it easier for new readers, is over 900 pages of a full size hardcover book) is hard to say. Perhaps it means both.

The Mahabharata is an epic that tells the story of a conflict in Kurujangala, a kingdom of northern India. Details of religious rites, myths, stories within stories, law, and philosphical musings are interspersed with the main plot, which follows the fortunes of the ruling family of Kurujangala, the Bharatas, and the causes of their disastrous civil war.

It was probably written down between 200 BC and 200 AD. The events of the epic happened at some point around 1500 BC.

A really short outline of the plot

The narration, or frame story

Vaisampayana is telling the story to King Janamejaya, a Bharata, during a horse sacrifice. Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, is the scribe recording the tale.


The River Ganges marries the Bharata King Santanu- ruler of Kurujangala. She kills their seven sons, who are incarnations of the Vasus. He stops her from killing their eighth son, Bhishma.

Satyavati, daughter of a fisherman, has a son, Vyasa, by a wandering sage. Vyasa is the author of the whole epic. Satyavati marries King Santanu - their son is Vicitravirya. Bhishma renounces his right to the throne and swears never to marry; he will defend Vicitravirya and his heirs.

Bhishma negotiates to get wives for Vicitravirya: Amba, Ambika and Ambalika. Amba refuses. Vicitravirya dies young. Ambika and Ambalika have children by Vyasa: Dhritarastra and Pandu.

Dhritarastra is blind and so the second son, Pandu, is king.

Meanwhile, in a kingdom not far away, the teenage and unmarried princess Kunti tries out a mantra that calls the Sun to be her lover, and has a child by him, Karna, who she sets adrift on a river. Karna was born wearing armor and earrings that are part of his body. King Pandu marries Kunti and another wife, Madri.

The curse

Pandu abdicates and goes to live in the forest with his two wives. He shoots a pair of mating deer and is cursed to die if he has sex. Kunti uses her mantra with the god Dharma, and their son is Yudisthira; with Vayu, the Wind, resulting in Bhima; and with Indra, resulting in Arjuna.

Madri borrows the mantra and has twin sons, Nakula and Sahadeva, with the twin gods the Asvins. Pandu dies trying to have sex with Madri, who also dies.

The cousins grow up

King Dhritarastra marries Gandhari, who blindfolds herself for life when she hears that her husband-to-be is blind. They have a hundred sons- the oldest is Duryodhana- and one daughter. Dhritarastra has another son, Yuyutsu, with a maidservant. The sons of Dhritarastra as referred to as the Kauravas, or Kurus.

The Pandus and Kunti come back to live at the palace at the capital city of Hastinapura. They are taught in weapons mastery by Drona and Kripa. The cousins compete in everything. Duryodhana befriends Karna and makes him a prince; though the secret of his birth is not known, Karna is proud and mighty in battle and feats of arms.

The burning, and the forest

Dhritarastra sends his sons and the Pandus (with their mother) to separate parts of the kingdom. Duryodhana plots to kill the Pandus by preparing a highly flammable house for them in Varanavata. The Pandus escape.

Draupadi, the daughter of King Drupada, holds a swayamvara (a sort of contest where she chooses a husband). Arjuna wins an archery contest and her hand in marriage. When he brings her back to his mother and brothers, she chooses to marry all of the 5 brothers.

Krishna and Balarama befriend the Pandus. Arjuna marries Krishna's sister Subhadra, carrying her off in his chariot with the family's tacit consent.

Dhritarastra gives half the kingdom to the Pandus.

Krishna and Arjuna meet Agni, who gives the bow Gandiva to Arjuna and the discus Sudarsana to Krishna. Agni burns the forest of Kaurava. Arjuna rescues the asura Maya from the burning.

Maya builds a magnificent palace for the Pandus, and they found their city of Indraprastha in the land cleared by the forest's burning. Duryodhana is insulted and jealous, and challenges Yudisthira to a game of dice.

The game of dice

Yudisthira gambles away all his possessions, his kingdom, his brothers, and then himself, losing them all to Duryodhana (who is coached by his uncle on his mother's side, Sakuni). Finally, Yudisthira gambles away Draupadi.

Draupadi is dragged out into the public hall despite being half-dressed and menstruating. As she is stripped of her clothes, her sari unrolls endlessly so that she is not exposed. She makes a legal argument that since Yudisthira gambled himself away, he did not have the right to bet her freedom (presumably since slaves can't own property/other slaves/wives).

The exile

The Pandus, Draupadi and Kunti go into a 13 year exile. Twelve years must be spent in the wild and the last year spent in disguise in a city.

Arjuna wanders alone in the hills. He meets Siva and ends up in the heavenly court of his father Indra. A celestial nymph, Urvasi, curses him to spend a year as a woman.

The others go to Mount Kailasa. Bhima meets his half-brother, Hanuman the monkey god. He confronts Vaishravana, lord of wealth, and gets lotus flowers for Draupadi.

Duryodhana and Karna are captured by Gandharavas at a lake. Arjuna rescues them from an iron net. The Dhritarastras and Karna are resentful at this humiliation.

King Jasdratha abducts Draupadi, but she is rescued by Arjuna.

Yudisthira rescues his brothers from death at a lake which is an avatar of Dharma.

The year in disguise

The Pandus live in disguise in King Virata's court in Matsya. Yudisthira is a minstrel, Bhima is a cook, Arjuna is in disguise as a female or a eunuch dancing teacher, Nakula and Sahadeva are herdsman, and Draupadi is a lady-in-waiting and hairdresser to the queen.

Indra, in disguise, gets Karna to cut off his armor. Duryodhana and his cohorts raid Virata's land, and are defeated by the Pandus. Uttarah, King Virata's daughter, marries Arjuna.

The 13 year exile is complete. All along, King Dhritarastra tries to persuade his son Duryodhana to make peace with the Pandus. Duryodhana, in his anger and pride, refuses. War is imminent.

The battle of Kurukshetra

Everyone takes sides, agonizing over their conflicting loyalties and duties. Arjuna and Krishna discuss duty at length; he does not want to fight his uncles and cousins and former teachers, but he must. These verses are the Bhagavad Gita.

Bhishma is laid low by many arrows, but does not die yet since he has the power to control his own time of death.

Bhima tricks Drona, distracting him with a half-lie.

Dhristadyumna, Draupadi's brother, kills Drona.

Karna and Arjuna fight. Karna's chariot wheel sticks in the mud and he is defeated.

Yudisthira defeats Salya.

Nakula and Sahadeva kill Sakuni.

Abhimanyu, Arjuna's son by Subhadra, kills many, but dies.

Sanjaya is reporting all of the details of battle to Dhritarastra.

Duryodhana is wounded by arrows and hides at the bottom of a lake.

Duhsahana dies. Bhima defeats Duryodhana in a dramatic battle with maces and clubs.

Aswatthaman, Drona's son, raids the Pandu camp at night, killing Sikhandin, Drishtadyumna, and most of the Pancalas.

Aswatthaman threatens to destroy the entire universe but Arjuna manages to defeat his magic. Aswatthaman then regrets his actions and gives the jewel from his forehead to Arjuna.

The aftermath of the battle

Dhritarastra and Gandhari go to the battlefield with Yuyutsu. He makes peace with the Pandus. When he embraces Bhima, he squeezes him in a deadly rib-cracking embrace as his anger gets the better of him -- but fortunately he was actually embracing an iron statue of Bhima.

Bhishma, the great-uncle of the Pandus, dies by his own will after making lots of speeches.

Yudisthira is overcome with grief and despair. He realizes too late that Karna was his older brother. Draupadi comforts him.

Yudisthira is made king in Hastinapura with Dhritarastra's blessing.

Uttarah gives birth to Parakshita, Arjuna's son. Parakshita was stillborn, but brought back to life. Parakshita is the father of Janemejaya (the King of the Bharatas who is listening to this whole story).

After 15 years, Dhritarastra goes into the forest to be a hermit.

Everyone dies.

Versions of the Mahabharata published in English:
  • Mahabharata (NY, London: Meridian, 1987). William Buck. Very condensed and very readable.
  • The Mahabharata, Vols. 1-3, J.A.B. Von Buitenen. This version is unfinished, though it runs to thousands of pages. It is definitely worth reading!
  • The Mahabharata (NY: Columbia University Press, 1965). Narasimhan, Chakarabarthi.
  • The Mahabarata A play by Jean-Claude Carrière, Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne. I have seen the videotape of the play -- about 6 hours long and very interesting.
  • The Mahbharata, Kamala Subramaniam (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, India, 1997, 650pp.)

For my money the better of the two classic Indian verse-epics, the other is the Ramayana. At over 220,000 lines (arranged in couplets), the Mahabharata weighs in at four times the length of the Ramayana, and every chapter is packed with happenings, many with the dramatic force to wake the somnolent peanut gallery. The Mahabharata is devoid of the idealized characters in the Ramayana, its heroes are mercifully flawed and often bring their own doom upon their heads. Its villains are family, and it deals with thorny issues of duty, faith and morality. All in all a rip-roaring read, often compared to the Iliad.

Another factor in the Mahabharata's favor is that it has a bigger, more bloody battle at the end (on the plains of Kurukshetra). Just prior to the battle, one of the gems of Vedic philosophy is woven into the tale as Krishna and Arjuna have a dialogue on the necessity of war, the true path, action vs. inaction and the meaning of life. That's the Bhagavad Gita as related by Krishna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra to Arjuna. Arjuna hesitates as he considers the prospect of massacring his cousins, teachers, elders and friends in battle, Krishna convinces him of the righteousness of his path.

The structure of the Mahabharata as we now know it was likely nailed down in the 4th century AD. It probably started as an oral tale, oft repeated, ever-lengthened, a growing thing unto itself. It relates events that are said to have occurred around 1500 BC, but such dates are always suspect. The Mahabharata is far more self-referential than a story crafted mellenia before post modernism has any right to be. Ganesha (the elephant headed son of Shiva and Parvati, and great lover of literature) is said to have written down the Mahabharata as it was related to him by Ved Vyas. The story is a behemoth, with thousands of distinct characters.

The Mahabharata is more deeply woven into the fabric of Indian culture than any other story. It's influence is everywhere. It has contributed a fair number of well-beloved gods/incarnations to the Hindu pantheon, chief among them is Krishna. The frequency of common sayings in most Indian languages which are derived from the Mahabharata is comparable to the idiomatic use of phrases from the King James Version in English. Names of characters from the Mahabharata are an unending source of names for the seemingly endless numbers of Indian children born each year.

The tale (skipping some preliminaries), runs something like this. A long time ago, in a land not so far away, there dwelt two half-brothers, both princes of the realm. Pandav/Pandu (the younger) marries Kunti and Madri, and has 5 sons (the five, later to be six, Pandavs/Pandus). The three by Kunti are powerful type casts, each an incarnation of a different quality. Dhritarashtra (the blind, vaccilating, elder brother) weds Gandhari, who makes up for quality with quantity and has a 100 sons and one daughter (the Kurus/Kaurava).

The Kurus and the Pandavs aren't particularly enthralled with each other. The question of succession lays bare the animosity between the two camps. On a gamble (with loaded dice no less), Yudishtra manages to gamble away their kingdom, his brothers and Draupadi too. Draupadi is shamed by the Kurus in public (saved from being stirpped naked before all by the deus ex machina in person of Krishna). Eventually, the Pandavs head off into exile for 13 years.

Here we have the requisite rustic and pastoral episodes intermixed with tales of the Pandavs wandering through remote forests. At the end of their exile, the Pandavs return to reclaim their kingdom. But the Kurus aren't going to give it up without a fight.

Now we have the immense battle on the plains of Kurukshetra, which is described in much detail. Unsurprisingly, the Pandavs win.

The primary characters (no, I'm not going to list all the Kuru brothers):

  • Karan: Kunti's eldest son, the progeny of the Sun-god Surya, born out of wedlock, abandoned by his mother, raised by adoptive parents of low-caste, scorned by all, superior in skill and learning to all, the one who sacrifices life. The most conflicted, difficult, important character in the epic.
  • Yudhistira: the righteous, also called Dharmaputra (son of Dharma). His claim to fame is that he cannot tell a lie.
  • Arjuna: the brave. Lion-hearted archer, ever fearless, yet racked by his own sense of right (see the painful convincing job Krishna has to do in the Gita).
  • Bhima: the strong. Carries a mace, marries a demon, perhaps serves as inspiration for Mr. T.
  • Nakula/Sahadeva: The two sons of Madri, generic good guys.
  • Draupadi: Panchali, or wife to all five Pandavs. Polyandry wasn't common but there was a misunderstanding with Kunti, and the righteous Pandavs could never bear to disobey their mother, even when she spoke out of context. There are other women that the brothers marry at various points of the epic.
  • Krishna: incarnation of Vishnu, irrepressible ever-youthful thief of curd and milk, lover of beauty, the blue-skinned and haloed, ostensibly the central character in the epic, especially if you believe the entire story is simply a vehicle for understanding the Gita. He is also the inspiration for the Hare Krishna Society, whose members can be seen dancing through airports all over the world in their orange robes when they aren't standing at the street corner handing out copies of the Gita.
  • Bhishma: uncle to both the Kurus and the Pandavs, forced by a vow made to his father he sides with the Kurus.
  • Drona: acharya (teacher) to both the Kurus and Pandavs, Arjuna is his great favourite yet he fights with the Kurus drive by a sense of duty.
  • Duryodhana: eldest of the Kurus, the one whose ambition and unrequited pride drive the story.
  • Sakuni: the evil scheming uncle who tears the Kurus and Pandavs apart.

There are many ways to read the Mahabharata. The Kurus and the Pandavs are sometimes said to represent forces that exist in each society and individual, and the Mahabharat is an allegory for a inner war between right and wrong. Others claim the story is a history of the Aryan conquest of much of Eurasia. I prefer to believe that the story was a vehicle to both educate and entertain the masses in camps and villages through the ages, invented by thinkers of great imagination and polished over the centuries.

A great sense of righting a wrong runs through the entire text. It rails, confronts and lays bare the terrible legacy and injustice of the caste system in the stories of Eklavya and Karan. It demonstrates how the good can be taken advantage of by the devious. It makes a compelling case for immersing oneself into the world as opposed to asceticism. Due to its complexity and range, it hasn't been successfully co-opted by the nationalist, fascist, aryan-supremacy crowd that is ascendant in India at the moment (unlike the Ramayana).

All in all, one of those things you've got to read before life releases you from its grip.

There is another writeup in this node that has a better plot-outline and good references

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