In Hinduism, the Mahābhārata is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Rāmāyaṇa. With more than 74,000 verses, plus long prose passages, or some 1.8 million words in total, it is the longest epic poem in the world (roughly 10 times the size of the Iliad and Odyssey taken together) and continuous recitation would take close to two weeks.
The title may be translated as “The Great Tale of the Bharata Dynasty.” Traditionally, the Mahabharata is ascribed to the Rishi Vyasa. Due to its immense length, scholars have a long history of attempting to unravel its historical growth and layers of composition. In its final form, it is assumed to have been completed between the third and fifth centuries C.E., with its central core (consisting of only a fraction of the full 1.8 million words) going back as far as 500 B.C.E.
The Mahabharata is of immense religious and philosophical importance in India. It is considered to be part of the Hindu itihasas, literally “that which happened,” or sacred history. In particular, the Mahabharata is famous for including Hinduism’s most widely read scripture today, known as the Bhagavadgita.
With its vast philosophical depth and sheer magnitude, a consummate embodiment of the ethos of not only India but of Hinduism and Vedic tradition, the Mahabharata’s scope and grandeur is best summarized by one quotation from the beginning of its first parva (section): “What is found here, may be found elsewhere. What is not found here, will not be found elsewhere.”
In its scope, the Mahabharata is more than simply a story of kings and princes, sages and wise men, demons and gods; its legendary author, Vyasa, said that one of its aims is elucidating the four Purusarthas (goals of life): Kama(pleasure), artha (wealth), dharma (duty), and moksha (liberation). The story culminates in moksha, believed by many Hindus to be the ultimate goal of human beings. Karma and dharma also play an integral role in the Mahabharata.
The Mahabharata includes large amounts of Hindu mythology, cosmological stories of the gods and goddesses, and philosophical parables aimed at students of Hindu philosophy. Among the principal works and stories that are a part of the Mahabharata are the following (often considered isolated as works in their own right):
- Bhagavadgita (Krishna instructs and teaches Arjuna. Anusasanaparva.)
- Damayanti (or Nala and Damayanti, a love story. Aranyakaparva.)
- Krishnavatara (the story of Krishna, the Krishna Leela, which is woven through many chapters of the story)
- Rama (an abbreviated version of the Ramayana. Aranyakaparva.)
- Rishyasringa (also written as Rshyashrnga, the horned boy and rishi. Aranyakaparva.)
- Vishnu sahasranama (the most famous hymn to Vishnu, which describes His 1000 names; Anushasanaparva.)
Textual history and organization
It is undisputed that the full length of the Mahabharata has accreted over a long period. The Mahabharata itself (1.1.61) distinguishes a core portion of 24,000 verses, the Bharata proper, as opposed to additional “secondary” material, and the Ashvalayana Grhyasutra (3.4.4) makes a similar distinction. Not unlike the field of Homeric studies, research on the Mahabharata has put an enormous effort into recognizing and dating various layers within the text.
The first testimony of the existence of the full text is the copper-plate Inscription of the Maharaja Sharvanatha (533–534 C.E.) from Khoh (Satna District, Madhya Pradesh), describing the Mahabharata as a “collection of 100,000 verses” (shatasahasri samhita). The redaction of this large body of text was carried out after formal principles, emphasizing the numbers 18 and 12. The addition of the latest parts may be dated by the absence of the Anushasana-parva from MS Spitzer, the oldest surviving Sanskrit philosophical manuscript dated to ca. 200 C.E., that contains among other things a list of the books in the Mahabharata. From this evidence, it is likely that the redaction into 18 books took place in the third or fourth century C.E. An alternative division into 20 parvas appears to have co-existed for some time. The division into 100 sub-parvas (mentioned in Mbh. 1.2.70) is older, and most parvas are named after one of their constituent sub-parvas. The Harivamsha consists of the final two of the 100 sub-parvas, and was considered an appendix (khila) to the Mahabharata proper by the redactors of the 18 parvas.
The 18 division into parvas is as follows:
|Introduction, birth, and upbringing of the princes
|Life at the court, the game of dice, and the exile of the Pandavas. Maya Danava erects the palace and court (sabha), at Indraprastha.
|Aranyaka-parva (also Vanaparva, Aranyaparva)
|The twelve years in exile in the forest (aranya)
|The year in exile spent at the court of Virata
|Preparations for war
|The first part of the great battle, with Bhishma as commander for the Kauravas
|The battle continues, with Drona as commander.
|The battle again, with Karna as commander
|The last part of the battle, with Shalya as commander
|How Ashvattama and the remaining Kauravas killed the Pandava army in their sleep (Sauptika).
|Gandhari and the other women (stri) lament the dead.
|The crowning of Yudhisthira, and his instructions from Bhishma
|The final instructions (anusasana) from Bhishma
|The royal ceremony of the ashvamedha conducted by Yudhisthira
|Dhritarashtra, Gandhari, and Kunti leave for an ashram, and eventual death in the forest.
|The infighting between the Yadavas with maces (mausala)
|The first part of the path to death (mahaprasthana “great journey”) of Yudhisthira and his brothers
|The Pandavas return to the spiritual world (svarga).
|Life of Krishna
According to Mbh. 1.1.50, there were three versions of the epic, beginning with Manu (1.1.27), Astika (1.3, sub-parva 5), and Vasu (1.57), respectively. These versions probably correspond to the addition of one and then another “frame” setting of dialogues. The Vasu version corresponds to the oldest, without frame settings, beginning with the account of the birth of Vyasa. The Astika version adds the Sarpasattra and Ashvamedha material from Brahmanical literature and introduces the name Mahabharata and identifies Vyasa as the work’s author. The redactors of these additions were probably Pancharatrin scholars who according to Oberlies (1998) likely retained control over the text until its final redaction in the third or fourth century C.E. Mention of the Hunas in the Bhishma-parva appears to imply that the compilation of the text was still ongoing in 400 C.E.
The Adi-parva is dedicated to the snake sacrifice (sarpasattra) of Jayamejaya, explaining its motivation, detailing why all snakes in existence were intended to be destroyed, and why in spite of this, there are still snakes in existence. This sarpasattra material was often considered an independent tale added to a version of the Mahabharata by “thematic attraction” (Minkowski 1991), and considered to have a particularly close connection to Vedic (Brahmana literature), in particular the Panchavimsha Brahmana which describes the Sarpasattra as originally performed by snakes, among which are snakes named Dhrtarashtra and Janamejaya, two main characters of the Mahabharata’s sarpasattra, and Takshaka, the name of a snake also in the Mahabharata. The Shatapatha Brahmana gives an account of an Ashvamedha (the horse sacrifice) performed by Janamejaya Parikshita.
The historicity of the events of the story is unclear. Many historians believe it to be a work of fiction. The epic’s setting certainly has a historical precedent in Vedic India, where the Kuru kingdom was the center of political power in the late second and early first millennia B.C.E.
Ancient Indian scholars have calculated chronologies for the Mahabharata war, comparable to the Hellenistic attempts at a chronology of Greek mythology, the fifth-century mathematician Aryabhatta arriving at an approximate date for the Kurukshetra battle of 3100 B.C.E. Contentious and disputable attempts to date the events of the Mahabharata with the help of archaeoastronomy have claimed dates in the sixth millennium B.C.E.
According to the Puranas, there is a time gap of 1,015 or 1,500 years between Parikshit’s birth during the Mahabharata war and the coronation of king Mahapadma Nanda (ca. 364–382 B.C.E.).
The epic employs the “tale-within-a-tale” structure popular in many Indian religious and secular works. It is recited to King Janamejaya by Vaishampayana, a disciple of Vyasa.
The core story of the work is that of a dynastic struggle for the throne of Hastinapura, the kingdom ruled by the Kuru clan. The two collateral branches of the family that participate in the struggle are the Kauravas, the elder branch of the family, and the Pandavas, the younger branch.
The struggle culminates leading to the Great Battle of Kurukshetra, and the Pandavas are ultimately victorious. The Mahabharata itself ends with the death of Krishna, the subsequent end of his dynasty, and the ascent of the Pandava brothers to Heaven. It also marks the beginning of the Hindu age of Kali (Kali Yuga), the fourth and final age of mankind, where great values and noble ideas have crumbled, and man is speedily heading toward the complete dissolution of right action, morality, and virtue. Some of the noblest and most revered figures in the Mahabharata end up fighting on the side of the Kauravas, due to conflicts of their dharma, or duty. For example, Bhishma had vowed to always protect the king of Hastinapura, whoever he may be. Thus, he was required to fight on the side of evil knowing that his Pandavas would end up victorious only with his death.
The epic is traditionally ascribed to Maha Rishi Veda Vyasa, who is one of the major dynastic characters within the epic. The first section of the Mahabharata states that it was Ganesha who, at the behest of Vyasa, fixed the text in manuscript form. Lord Ganesha is said to have agreed, but only on the condition that Vyasa never pauses in his recitation. Vyasa then put a counter-condition that Ganesha understand whatever he recited, before writing it down. In this way, Vyasa could get some respite from continuously speaking by saying a verse that was difficult to understand. This situation also serves as a popular variation in the stories of how Ganesha’s right tusk was broken (a traditional part of Ganesha 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.
An important character in the Mahabharata is Bhishma, the son of Shantanu (the king of Hastinapur) and the goddess Ganga. It is said that Shantanu wanted to marry Satyavati, the daughter of a fisherman, but the fisherman would not agree to the marriage since he was not assured of the status of his daughter’s offspring in the royal family. So the fisherman asked Shantanu to promise that his grandson should ascend to the throne of Hastinapur. In order to please his father, Bhishma vowed to become a lifelong celibate, so that Satyavati’s son could be the king. Such a vow was unheard of amongst warrior dynasties, thus inspiring the name Bhishma—”the person of the terrible oath.” It was because of this oath that Bhishma fought against the Pandavas in spite of supporting them ideologically. Bhishma realized that as long as he was alive, the Pandavas would not be able to overcome the Kauravas. Therefore he told Yudhisthira the secret of his death.
Satyavati’s sons died young and her grandson Pandu ascended to the throne because his elder brother Dhritarashtra was blind. However, Pandu was cursed by a sage (whom he accidentally killed while he was in union with his wife), saying that he could never engage in sexual congress with any woman. He retired to the forest along with his two wives. Using a magical spell to summon the gods Dharmaraja, Vayu, and Indra, his elder queen Kunti gives birth to three sons, Yudhishthira, Bhima, and Arjuna through their respective “fathers.” His younger queen, Madri, bears the twins Nakula and Sahadeva through the Ashwini twins. Pandu and Madri cannot resist temptation, and die in the forest and Kunti returns to Hastinapura with her sons. The rivalry between the Pandavas and the Kauravas starts in childhood itself. Dhritarashtra’s sons, the Kauravas, led by the eldest Duryodhana, detest their cousins. However, they were the favorite of their teacher Drona and (the Pandavas) grow up to be exceptional. Each one of the Pandavas is said to have one exceptional strength or virtue: Yudhishthira is the wisest and most virtuous, Arjuna the bravest warrior, Bhima the strongest, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva are endowed with exceptional beauty.
When the princes come of age, a tournament is held to display the strength and specialties of the princes of Hastinapur. When Arjuna was hailed as a master of archery, a young man challenges him to a duel. He declares his name is Karna, and that he is the son of the charioteer. When asked to prove that he is of royal birth, which is the criterion for joining the tournament, Duryodhana, spotting a potential ally, jumps over to his side and gives Karna his kingdom of Angawardana. Karna is forever grateful for this act and he becomes Duryodhana’s closest friend and plays a crucial role in the upcoming war.
Meanwhile, Duryodhana plots to get rid of the Pandavas and tries to kill them secretly by burning their palace which is made of lac. However, the Pandavas are warned and escape from the palace. They live in hiding for some time. In the course of this exile, Arjuna wins the hand of the Panchala princess Draupadi. When he returns with his bride, Arjuna goes to his mother to show her his prize, exclaiming, “Mother, see what I have won!” Kunti, not noticing the princess, tells Arjuna that whatever he has won must be shared with his brothers. To ensure that their mother never utters a falsehood even by mistake, the brothers take her as a common wife. All of the Pandavas love Draupadi dearly. In some interpretations, Draupadi alternates months or years with each brother. At this juncture, they also meet Krishna, a close friend of Draupadi, who would become their lifelong ally and guide.
Duryodhana, who now has a friend in the warrior Karna, resigns himself to the coming back of the Pandavas with their new royal ally. Soon they conquer the whole of India and its adjoining regions and Yudhishthira is crowned the emperor. This proves too much for Duryodhana who feels death would be better than watching one’s foes prosper. His maternal uncle Shakuni, convinced that however brave his nephew may be, he was no match for his cousins, decides to use a ruse to destroy the Pandavas. He forces Dhritarashtra to invite the Pandavas for a game of dice in which he wins everything from Yudhishthira, including himself, his brothers, and Draupadi through the use of a trick. The jubilant Kauravas insult them in their helpless state and even try to disrobe Draupadi in front of the entire court. Her honor is saved by the grace of Krishna. When the elders intervene and Dhritarashtra has to restore everything to the Pandavas, Shakuni forces another game of dice which he again wins. The Pandavas are required to go into exile for 13 years, and in the thirteenth year, they must remain hidden. If discovered by the Kauravas, they will be forced into exile for another 13 years.
The battle at Kurukshetra
When the Pandavas after many hardships and exile request at least five villages for the five brothers from their vast kingdom, Duryodhana refuses to give in. Krishna goes to broker peace but fails. War is inevitable. The two sides summon vast armies to their aid and line up at Kurukshetra for a war. The kingdoms of Dwaraka, Kasi, Kekaya, Magadha, Matsya, Chedi, Pandya, the Yadus of Mathura, and some other clans like the Parama Kambojas from Transoxiana were allied with the Pandavas; the allies of the Kauravas comprised the kings of Pragjyotisha, Anga, Kekaya (Kekaya brothers who were enemies of the Kekeya brothers on the Pandava side), Sindhudesa (including Sindhus, Sauviras, and Sivis), Mahishmati, Avanti in Madhyadesa, Madras, Gandharas, Bahlikas, Kambojas (with Yavanas, Sakas, Tusharas, etc.), and many others. Seeing himself facing grandsire Bhishma and his teacher Drona on Duryodhana’s side due to their vow to serve the state of Hastinapur, Arjuna is heartbroken at the idea of killing them. Krishna, who has chosen to drive Arjuna’s chariot, wakes him up to his call of duty in the famous Bhagavadgita section of the epic. Though initially sticking to chivalrous notions of warfare, the Kauravas and Pandavas soon descended into dishonorable warfare. At the end of 18 days of slaughter, only the Pandavas and Krishna survive with a few old warriors from the Kaurava side.