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The Mahabharata (Devanagari: महाभारत, phonetically Mahābhārata - see note), sometimes just called Bharata, is the great religious and philosophical epic of India. It is a keystone text of Hinduism. It is the second longest literary work in the world (after the Tibetan tale of Gesar). Although it is hailed as one of the greatest literary accomplishments of humanity, it is also still in the hearts and minds of Indians today. The title may be translated as "Great India" (bhārata means the son/progeny of Bharata, the king believed to have founded the kingdom of Bhāratavarsha, in present day India; "Bharat" has equal status as the official name of India in all Indian governments today and is still commonly used). The work is part of the Hindu itihaas, literally 'that which happened,' along with the Puranas and Ramayana. The full version contains more than 100,000 verses, making it around four times longer than the Bible and seven times longer than the Iliad and Odyssey.


Primary purport

With its vast philosophical depth and sheer magnitude, a consummate embodiment of the ethos of not only grand 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 wisemen, demons and gods; its author, Vyasa, says that one of its aims is elucidating the four goals of life: kama (pleasure), artha (wealth), dharma (duty) and moksha (salvation). The story culminates in moksha, believed by Hindus to be the ultimate goal of human beings. Karma and dharma play an integral role in the Mahabharata.

Background and history

The epic is said to have been told by Vyasa, who places himself as 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 left 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 (Victory). The dating of the events of this story is unclear. Very few people find the events to be reliably placed in Vedic India around 1400 BCE. Scholars have studied the astronomical activities described in the Mahabharata (like eclipses) and have claimed to have dated it to around 3100 BCE. Shalya who fought on the side of Kauravas against Pandavas was the 50th Generation descending from Lava and Kusha of the Ramayana. As such some scholars approximate Mahabharatha to have occurred some 1000 years after Ramayana. From this early beginning, the story was developed in its present form during the establishment of Classical Hinduism , from which modern Hinduism was developed. However, it is significant to realize that the debate about dating the 'events' of the Mahabharata are 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.

The Mahabharata, the epic story

The core story of the work is that of a dynastic struggle for the throne of Hastinapura, the kingdom of the Kuru clan. Hastinapura and the immediately surrounding kingdoms are based in the Doab, the region of the upper Ganga (Ganges when anglicized) and Yamuna rivers, to the north of present-day New Delhi. The two cousin 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 in the great battle at Kurukshetra, and the Pandavas are victorious in the end. The Mahabharata itself ends with the death of Krishna, and the subsequent end of his dynasty, and ascent of the Pandava brothers to Heaven, one with God, the achievement of the primary goal of Hindu life. It also marks the beginning of the Hindu age of Kali (Kali Yuga), through the steady breakdown of truths of which the eighteen-day war of Kurukshetra, the clash of hundreds of thousands of men, elephants and horses, consisted. This is the fourth and final age of mankind, where the great values and noble ideas that humanity represented have crumbled, and man is speedily heading toward the complete dissolution of right action, morality and virtue in general.

Some of the history's most noble and revered figures end up fighting on the side of the Kauravas, due to allegiances formed prior to the conflict.


A list of short descriptions of some of the characters and stories:

  • Karna, the noble warrior whose immense powers failed him during the battle because of the two curses laiden upon him by his Guru and a Sage.
  • Bhishma, the grandsire who had renounced his kingdom and become celibate for the sake of his father's love of a fisherwoman and had the gods' boon to choose his time of death. He ended up dying on a bed of arrows laid by his most favorite Arjuna, the Pandava brother whose army had fought against Bhishma's side.
  • Bhima is one of the five Pandava brothers whose strength, size, and loyalty is legendary.
  • Yudishtira, the eldest Pandava, is known never to have told a single lie in his life, and was thus known as Dharmaputra. Nearing the final days of the war, Drona, a general of fabulous power was wreaking havoc amongst the Pandava ranks. None could defeat him. In desperation a plan was hatched to inform Drona that his son Asswatthama had been killed. Krishna, the author of the plan reasoned that Drona would lose the will to live on hearing this terrible news and would throw down his weapons.
    Bhima, one of the Pandava brothers brought his mace down on the head of a huge war elephant called Asswatthama and it fell dead. Going near the division commanded by Drona, he roared, "I have killed Asswatthama"
    Drona on hearing these words asked Yudhishtira if this was true, thinking that Yudhishtira would not utter an untruth, even for the kingship of the three worlds. Yudhishtira stood trembling in horror of what he was about to do, but within himself also was the desire to win. "Let it be my sin", he said to himself and hardened his heart and said aloud: "Yes, it is true that Asswatthama has been killed." But, as he was saying it, he felt again the disgrace of it and added in a low and tremulous voice, "Asswatthama, the elephant" - words which were however drowned in the din and unheard by Drona.
    When the words of untruth came out of Yudhishtira's mouth, the wheels of his chariot, which until then always stood and moved four inches above the ground, came down and touched the common road of mankind. Yudishtira is commonly known in India as the paragon of integrity, fallen for his one lapse.
    Drona on hearing that his son had been slain sat on the floor of his chariot in yogic meditation. At this moment, Dhrishtadyumna (Brother-in-law of the Pandavas) climbed into the chariot with drawn sword and heedless of the cries of horror and deprecation from all around, fulfilled his destiny as the slayer of Drona by sweeping off the old warriors head. And the soul of the son of Bharadwaja issued out in a visible blaze of light and mounted heavenwards. - Paraphrased from C Rajagopalachari's translation of the Mahabharata


The Mahabharata is written in eighteen parvas (chapters or books) which are:

  1. Adiparva - Introduction, birth and upbringing of the princes. (Adi = first).
  2. Sabhaparva - Life at the court, the game of dice, and the exile of the Pandavas. Maya Danava erects the palace and court (sabha), at Indraprastha .
  3. Aranyakaparva (also Vanaparva, Aranyaparva) - The twelve years in exile in the forest (aranya).
  4. Virataparva - The year in exile spent at the court of Virata.
  5. Udyogaparva - Preparations for war.
  6. Bhishmaparva - The first part of the great battle, with Bhishma as commander for the Kauravas.
  7. Dronaparva - The battle continues, with Drona as commander.
  8. Karnaparva - The battle again, with Karna as commander.
  9. Shalyaparva - The last part of the battle, with Shalya as commander.
  10. Sauptikaparva - How Ashvattama and the remaining Kauravas killed the Pandava army in their sleep (Sauptika).
  11. Striparva - Gandhari and the other women lament the dead (stri = woman).
  12. Shantiparva - The crowning of Yudhisthira, and his instructions from Bhishma (shanti = peace).
  13. Anushasanaparva - The final instructions of Bhishma (anushasana = instruction).
  14. Ashvamedhikaparva - The royal ceremony or ashvameda conducted by Yudhisthira.
  15. Ashramavasikaparva - Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti leave for an ashram, and eventual death in the forest.
  16. Mausalaparva - The infighting between the Yadavas with maces (mausala).
  17. Mahaprasthanikaparva - The first part of the path to death of Yudhisthira and his brothers (mahaprasthana, the great journey = death).
  18. Svargarohanaparva - The Pandavas return to the spiritual world (svarga = heaven).

There also exists an appendix of 16,375 verses, the Harivamsaparva , which focuses specifically on the life of Lord Krishna.

Among the principal works and stories that are a part of the Mahabharata are the following. They are often isolated and presented as works complete in and of themselves.

  1. Bhagavad Gita (Krishna instructs and teaches Arjuna. Bhishmaparva.)
  2. Damayanti (or Nala and Damayanti, a love story. Aranyakaparva.)
  3. Krishnavatara (the story of Krishna, the Krishna Leela, which is woven through many chapters of the story)
  4. Rama (an abbreviated version of the Ramayana. Aranyakaparva.)
  5. Rishyasringa (also written as Rshyashrnga, the horned boy and rishi. Aranyakaparva.)
  6. Vishnu sahasranama (the most famous hymn to Vishnu, which describes His 1000 names; Anushasanaparva.)

During the 20th century, scholars have used the earliest existing copies of the work in their regional variations, to develop a composite reference work known as the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata. This project was completed in 1966 at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune.

Modern Mahabharata

The Mahabharata claims to contain the essence and sum of all the Vedas and other Hindu scriptures. It does include large amounts of interpolated Hindu mythology, cosmological stories of the gods and goddesses, and philosophical parables aimed at students of Hindu philosophy. The stories are commonly told to children, at religious functions, or around the house. The Mahabharata claims that those who do not read it shall find their spiritual and yogic quests remain unfulfilled.

In the late 1980s, the Mahabharata was televised and shown on India's national TV (Doordarshan). It was immensely popular, so much so that streets were deserted when it was telecast and even Cabinet meetings were re-scheduled so that Ministers could watch it. The Mahabarata is arguably familiar to the vast majority of Hindus living in the Indian subcontinent, if not abroad.

The epic was also the basis for the 1989 film, The Mahabharata, directed by Peter Brook.

See also: Ramayana

External links

Last updated: 06-01-2005 23:16:01
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