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.)