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MAHABHARATA. [Source: Dowson's Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology] 'The great (war of the) Bharatas.' The great epic poem of the Hindus, probably the longest in the world. It is divided into eighteen parvas or books, and contains about 220,000 lines. The poem has been subjected to much modification and has received numerous comparatively modern additions, but many of its legends and stories are of Vedic character and of great antiquity. They seem to have long existed in a scattered state, and to have been brought together at different times. Upon them have been founded many of the poems and dramas of later days, and among them is the story of Rama, upon which the Ramayana itself may have been based.

According to Hindu authorities, they were finally arranged and reduced to writing by a Brahman or Brahmans. There is a good deal of mystery about this, for the poem is attributed to a divine source. The reputed author was Krishna Dwaipayana, the Vyasa, or arranger, of the Vedas. He is said to have taught the poem to his pupil Vaisampayana, who afterwards recited it at a festival to King Janamejaya.

The leading subject of the poem is the great war between the Kauravas and Pandavas, who were descendants, through Bharata, from Puru, the great ancestor of one branch of the Lunar race. The object of the great struggle was the kingdom whose capital was Hastinapura (elephant city), the ruins of which are traceable fifty-seven miles north-east of Delhi, on an old bed of the Ganges.

Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa is not only the author of the poem, but the source from whom the chief actors sprung. He was the son of the Rishi Parasara by a nymph named Satyavati, who had a son called Santavana, better known as Bhishma. In his old age Santanu wished to marry again, but the hereditary rights of the Bhishma were an obstacle to his obtaining a desirable match. To gratify his father's desire, Bhishma divested himself of all rights of succession, and Santanu then married Satyavati. She bore him two sons, the elder of whom, Chitrangada, succeeded to the throne, but was soon killed in battle by a Gandharva king who bore the same name. Vichitravirya, the younger, succeeded, but died childless, leaving two widows, named Ambika and Ambalika, daughters of a king of Kasi.

Satyavati then called on Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa to fulfill the law, and raise up seed to his half-brother. Vyasa had lived the life of an anchorite in the woods, and his severe austerities had made him terrible in appearance. The two widows were so frightened at him that the elder one closed her eyes, and so gave birth to a blind son, who received the name of Dhritarashtra; and the younger turned so pale that her son was called Pandu, 'the pale.' Satyavati wished for a child without blemish, but the elder widow shrank from a second association with Vyasa, and made a slave girl take her place. From this girl was born a son who was named Vidura.

These children were brought up by their uncle Bhishma, who acted as regent. When they became of age, Dhritarashtra was deemed incapable of reigning in consequence of his blindness, and Pandu came to the throne. The name Pandu has suggested a suspicion of leprosy, and either through that, or in consequence of a curse, as the poem states, he retired to the forest, and Dhritarashtra became king.

Pandu had two wives, Kunti or Pritha, daughter of Sura, king of the Surasenas, and Madri, sister of the king of the Madras ; but either through disease or the curse passed upon him, he did not consort with his wives. He retired into solitude in the Himalaya mountains, and there he died; his wives, who accompanied him having borne five sons. The paternity of these children is attributed to different gods, but Pandu acknowledged them, and they received their patronymic of Pandava. Kunti was the mother of the three elder sons, and Madri of the two younger. Yudhishthira (firm in flight), the eldest, was son of Dharma, the judge of the dead, and is considered a pattern of manly firmness, justice, and integrity. Bhima or Bhimasena (the terrible), the second, was son of Vayu, the god of the wind. He was noted for his strength, daring, and brute courage; but he was coarse, choleric, and given to vaunting. He was such a great eater that he was called Vrikodara, 'wolf's belly.' Arjuna (the bright or silvery), the third, was son of Indra, the god of the sky. He is the most prominent character, if not the hero, of the poem. He was brave as the bravest, high-minded, generous, tender-hearted, and chivalric in his notions of honour. Nakula and Sahadeva, the fourth and fifth sons, were the twin children of Madri by the Aswini Kumaras, the twin sons of Surya, the sun. They were brave, spirited, and amiable, but they do not occupy such prominent positions as their elder brothers.

Dhritarashtra, who reigned at Hastinapura, was blind. By his wife Gandhari he had a hundred sons, and one daughter named Duhsala. This numerous offspring was owing to a blessing from Vyasa, and was produced in a marvelous way. From their ancestor Kuru these princes were known as the Kauravas. The eldest of them, Duryodhana (hard to subdue), was their leader, and was a bold, crafty, malicious man, an embodiment of all that is bad in a prince.

While the Pandu princes were yet children, they, on the death of their father, were brought to Dhritarashtra, and presented to him as his nephews. He took charge of them, showed them great kindness, and had them educated with his own sons. Differences and dislikes soon arose, and the juvenile emulation and rivalry of the princes ripened into bitter hatred on the part of the Kauravas. This broke into an open flame when Dhritarashtra nominated Yudhishthira as his Yuvaraja or heir-apparent.

The jealousy and the opposition of his sons to this act was so great that Dhritarashtra sent the Pandavas away to Varanavata, where they dwelt in retirement. While they were living there Duryodhana plotted to destroy his cousins by setting fire to their house, which he had caused to be made very combustible. All the five brothers were for a time supposed to have perished in the fire, but they had received timely warning from Vidura, and they escaped to the forest, where they dressed and lived in disguise as Brahmans upon alms.

While the Pandavas were living in the forest they heard that Draupada, king of the Panchalas, had proclaimed a swayamvara, at which his daughter Draupadi was to select her husband from among the princely and warlike suitors. They went there, still disguised as Brahmans. Arjuna bent the mighty bow which had defied the strength of the Kauravas and all other competitors, and the Pandavas were victorious over every opponent. They threw off their disguise, and Draupadi was won by Arjuna. The brothers then conducted Draupadi to their home. On their arrival they told their mother Kunti that they had made a great acquisition, and she unwittingly directed them to share it among them. The mother's command could not be evaded, and Vyasa confirmed her direction; so Draupadi became the wife in common of the five brothers, and it was arranged that she should dwell for two days in the house of each of the five brothers in succession. This marriage has been justified by a piece of special pleading, which contends that the five princes were all portions of one deity, and therefore only one distinct person, to whom a woman might lawfully be married.

This public appearance made known the existence of the Pandavas. Their uncle Dhritarashtra recalled them to his court and divided his kingdom between his own sons and them. His sons received Hastinpura, and the chief city given to his nephews was Indraprastha on the river Yamuna, close to the modern Delhi , where the name still survives. The close proximity of Hastinapura and Indraprastha shows that the territory of Dhritarashtra must have been of very moderate extent.

The reign of Yudhishthira was a pattern of justice and wisdom. Having conquered many countries, he announced his intention of performing the Rajasuya sacrifice, thus setting up a claim to universal dominion, or at least to be a king over kings. This excited still more the hatred and envy of the sons of Dhritarashtra, who induced their father to invite the Pandavas to Hastinapura.

The Kauravas had laid their plot, and insidiously prevailed upon Yudhishthira to gamble. His opponent was Sakuni, uncle of the Kaurava princes, a great gambler and a cheat. Yudhishthira lost his all: his wealth, his palace, his kingdom, his brothers, himself, and last of all, their wife. Draupadi was brought into the assembly as a slave, and when she rushed out she was dragged back again by her hair by Duhsasana, an insult for which Bhima vowed to drink his blood. Duryodhana also insulted her by seating her upon his thigh, and Bhima vowed that he would smash that thigh. Both these vows he afterwards performed.

Through the interference and commands of Dhritarashtra the possessions of Yudhishthira were restored to him. But he was once more tempted to play, upon the condition that if he lost he and his brothers should pass twelve years in the forest, and should remain incognito during the thirteenth year. He was again the loser, and retired with his brothers and wife into exile.

In the thirteenth year they entered the service of the king of Virata in disguise - Yudhishthira as a Brahman skillful as a gamester; Bhima as a cook; Arjuna as a eunuch and teacher of music and dancing; Nakula as a horse-trainer; and Sahadeva as a herdsman. Draupadi also took service as an attendant and needlewoman of the queen, Sudeshna. The five princes each assumed two names, one for use among themselves and one for public use. Yudhishthira was Jaya in private, Kanka in public; Bhima was Jayanta and Ballava; Arjuna was Vijaya and Brihannala; Nakula was Jayasena and Granthika; Sahadeva was Jayadbala and Arishtanemi, a Vaisya. The beauty of Draupadi attracted Kichaka, brother of the queen, and the chief man in the kingdom. He endeavoured to seduce her, and Bhima killed him. The relatives of Kichaka were about to burn Draupadi on his funeral pile, but Bhima appeared as a wild Gandharva to rescue her.

The brothers grew in favour, and rendered great assistance to the king of Trigartta and the Kauravas. The time of exile being expired, the princes made themselves known, and Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna, received Uttara, the king's daughter, in marriage.

The Pandavas now determined to attempt the recovery of their kingdom. The king of Virata became their firm ally, and preparations for war began. Allies were sought on all sides. Krishna and Balarama, being relatives of both parties, were reluctant to fight. Krishna conceded to Arjuna and Duryodhana the choice of himself unarmed or of a large army. Arjuna chose Krishna and Duryodhana joyfully accepted the army. Krishna agreed to act as charioteer of his especial friend Arjuna. It was in this capacity that he is represented to have spoken the divine song Bhagavad-gita, when the rival armies were drawn up for battle at Kurukshetra, a plain north of Delhi.

Many battles follow. The army of Duryodhana is commanded in succession by his great-uncle Bhishma, Drona his military preceptor, Karna, king of Anga, and Salya, king of Madra and brother of Madri. Bhishma was wounded by Arjuna, but survived for a time. All the others fell in succession, and at length only three of the Kuru warriors - Kripa, Aswatthaman, and Kritavarma - were left alive with Duryodhana. Bhima and Duryodhana fought in single combat with maces, and Duryodhana had his thigh broken and was mortally wounded.

The three surviving Kauravas fell by night upon the camp of the Pandavas and destroyed five children of the Pandavas, and all the army except the five brothers themselves. These five boys were sons of Draupadi, one by each of the five brothers. Yudhishthira's son was Prativindhya, Bhima's was Srutasoma, Arjuna's was Srutakirtti, Nakula's was Satanika, and Sahadeva's was Srutakarman.

Yudhishthira and his brothers then went to Hastinapura, and after a reconciliation with Dhritarashtra, Yudhishthira was crowned there. But he was greatly depressed and troubled at the loss of kindred and friends. Soon after he was seated on the throne, the Aswamedha sacrifice was performed with great ceremony, and the Pandavas lived in peace and prosperity.

The old blind king Dhritarashtra could not forget or forgive the loss of his sons, and mourned especially for Duryodhana. Bitter reproaches and taunts passed between him and Bhima; at length he, with his wife Gandhari, with Kunti, mother of the Pandavas, and with some of his ministers, retired to a hermitage in the woods, where, after two years' residence, they perished in a forest fire.

Deep sorrow and remorse seized upon the Pandavas, and after a while Yudhishthira abdicated his throne and departed with his brothers to the Himalayas, in order to reach the heaven of Indra on Mount Meru. A dog followed them from Hastinapura.

The story of this journey is full of grandeur and tenderness, and has been most effectively rendered into English by Professor Goldstucker. Sins and moral defects now prove fatal to the pilgrims. First fell Draupadi: "too great was her love for Arjuna." Next Sahadeva: "he esteemed none equal to himself." Then Nakula: "ever was the thought in his heart, There is none equal in beauty to me." Arjuna's turn came next: "In one day I could destroy all my enemies." "Such was Arjuna's boast, and he falls, for he fulfilled it not." When Bhima fell he inquired the reason of his fall, and he was told, "When thou gazedst on thy foe, thou hast cursed him with thy breath; therefore thou fallest today."

Yudishthira went on alone with the dog until he reached the gate of heaven. He was invited by Indra to enter, but he refused unless his brothers and Draupadi were also received. "Not even into thy heaven would I enter if they were not there." He is assured that they were already there, and is again told to enter "wearing his body of flesh." He again refuses unless, in the words of Pope, "admitted to that equal sky, his faithful dog should bear him company." Indra expostulates in vain. "Never, come weal or come woe, will I abandon yon faithful dog."

He is at length admitted, but to his dismay he finds there Duryodhana and his enemies, but not his brothers or Draupadi. He refuses to remain in heaven without them, and is conducted to the jaws of hell, where he beholds terrific sights and hears wailings of grief and anguish. He recoils, but well-known voices implore him to remain and assuage their sufferings. He triumphs in this crowning trial, and resolves to share the fate of his friends in hell rather than abide with their foes in heaven. Having endured this supreme test, the whole is shown to be the effect of maya or illusion, and he and his brothers and friends dwell with Indra in full content of heart forever.

List of books with contents:

1. Adiparva, 'Introductory book.' Describes the genealogy of the two families, the birth and nurture of Dhritarashtra and Pandu, their marriages, the births of the hundred sons of the former and the five of the latter, the enmity and rivalry between the young princes of the two branches, and the winning of Draupadi at the swayamvara.

2. Sabhaparva, 'Assembly book.' The assembly of the princes at Hastinapura when Yudhishthira lost his kingdom and the Pandavas had to retire into exile.

3. Vanaparva, ' Forest chapter.' The life of the Pandavas in the Kamyaka forest. This book is one of the longest and contains many episodes: among them the story of Nala, and an outline of the story of the Ramayana.

4. Virataparva, 'Virata chapter.' Adventures of the Pandavas in the thirteenth year of their exile, while they were in the service of King Virata.

5. Udyogaparva, 'Effort book.' The preparations of both sides for war.

6. Bhishmaparva, 'Book of Bhishma.' The battles fought while Bhishma commanded the Kaurava army.

7. Dronaparva, 'The Book of Drona.' Drona's command of the Kaurava army.

8. Karnaparva, 'Book of Karna.' Karna's command and his death at the hand of Arjuna.

9. Salyaparva, 'Salya's command, in which Duryodhana is mortally wounded and only three Kauravas are left alive.

10. Sauptikaparva, 'Nocturnal book.' The night attack of the three surviving Kauravas on the Pandava camp.

11. Striparva, 'Book of the women.' The lamentations of Queen Gandhari and the women over the slain.

12. Santiparva, 'Book of consolation.' A long and diffuse didactic discourse by Bhisma on the morals and duties of kings, intended to assuage the grief of Yudhishthira.

13. Anusasanaparva, 'Book of precepts.' A continuation of Bhishma's discourses and his death.

14. Aswamedhikaparva, 'Book of the Aswamedha.' Yudhishthira's performance of the horse sacrifice.

15. Asramaparva, 'Book of the hermitage.' The retirement of Dhritarashtra, Gandhari, and Kunti to a hermitage in the woods, and their death in a forest fire.

16. Mausalparva, 'Book of the clubs.' The death of Krishna and Balarama, the submersion of Dwaraka by the sea, and the mutual destruction of the Yadavas in a fight with clubs (musala) of miraculous origin.

17. Mahaprasthanikaparva, 'Book of the great journey.' Yudishthira's abdication of the throne, and his departure with his brothers towards the Himalayas on their way to Indra's heaven on Mount Meru.

18. Swargarohanaparva, 'Book of the ascent to heaven.' Entrance into heaven of Yudishthira and his brothers, and of their wife Draupadi.

Modern Languages MLLL-4993. Indian Epics. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. The textual material made available at this website is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one. No claims are made regarding the status of images used at this website; if you own the copyright privileges to any of these images and believe your copyright privileges have been violated, please contact the webmaster. Page last updated: October 16, 2007 12:22 PM