Mahabharata is the longest Sanskrit epic of ancient India the
other being the Ramayana. Its longest version consists of over
100,000 shloka or over 200,000 individual verse lines (each
shloka is a couplet), and long prose passages. About 1.8
million words in total, the Mahabharata is about ten times the
length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, or about four
times the length of the Ramayana. W. J. Johnson has compared
the importance of the Mahabharata to world civilization to
that of the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, the works of
Homer, Greek drama, or the Qur'an.
Besides its epic narrative of the Kurukshetra War and the
fates of the Kaurava and the Pandavaprinces, the Mahabharata
contains a lot of philosophical and devotional material, such
as a discussion of the four "goals of life" or purusharthas
The main works and stories that are a part of the Mahabharata
are the Bhagavad Gita, the story of Damayanti, an abbreviated
version of the Ramayana, and the Rishyasringa are often
believed as works in their own right.
Traditionally, the authorship of the Mahabharata is attributed
to Vyasa. There have been many attempts to unravel its
historical growth and compositional layers. The oldest
preserved parts of the text are thought to be not much older
than around 400 BCE, though the origins of the epic probably
fall between the 8th and 9th centuries BCE. The text probably
reached its final form by the early Gupta period (c. 4th
century).. According to the Mahabharata itself, the tale is
extended from a shorter version of 24,000 verses called simply
Accretion and redaction
Research on the Mahabharata has put an enormous effort into
recognizing and dating layers within the text. Some elements
of the present Mahabharata can be traced back to Vedic times.
The background to the Mahabharata suggests the origin of the
epic occurs "after the very early Vedic period" and before
"the first Indian 'empire' was to rise in the third century
Textual history and structure
epic is traditionally ascribed to the sage Vyasa, who is also a
major character in the epic. Vyasa described it as being itihāsa
(history). He also explains the Guru-shishya parampara, which
traces all great teachers and their students of the Vedic times.
The first section of the Mahabharata states that it was Ganesha
who wrote down the text to Vyasa's dictation. Ganesha is said to
have agreed to write it only if Vyasa never paused in his
recitation. Vyasa agrees on condition that Ganesha takes the
time to understand what was said before writing it down.
The epic employs the story within a story structure, otherwise
known as frame tales, popular in many Indian religious and
non-religious works. It is narrated by the sage Vaisampayana, a
believer of Vyasa, to the King Janamejaya who is the
great-grandson of the Pandava prince Arjuna. The story is then
narrated again by a professional storyteller named Ugrasrava
Sauti, many years later, to an assembly of sages performing the
12-year sacrifice for the king Saunaka Kulapati in the Naimisha
The text has been described by some early 20th-century western
Indologists as unstructured and chaotic. Hermann Olden berg
supposed that the original poem must once have carried an
immense "tragic force" but dismissed the full text as a
"horrible chaos." Moritz Winternitz (Geschichte der indischen
Literatur 1909) considered that "only unpoetical theologists and
awkward scribes" could have lumped the parts of dissimilar
origin into an unordered whole.
historicity of the Kurukshetra War is unclear. Many historians
estimate the date of the Kurukshetra war to Iron Age India of
the 10th century BCE. The setting of the epic has a historical
precedent in Iron Age (Vedic) India, where the Kuru kingdom was
the center of political power during about 1200 to 800 BCE. A
dynastic conflict of the period could have been the motivation
for the Jaya, the foundation on which the Mahabharata corpus was
built, with a climactic battle ultimately coming to be viewed as
an epochal event.
Puranic literature presents genealogical lists related with the
Mahabharata narrative. The evidence of the Puranas is of two
kinds. Of the first kind, there is the direct statement that
there were 1015 (or 1050) years between the birth of Parikshit (Arjuna's
grandson) and the accession of Mahapadma Nanda, commonly dated
to 382 BCE, which would yield an estimate of about 1400 BCE for
the Bharata battle. However, this would imply unusually long
reigns on average for the kings listed in the genealogies. Of
the second kind are analyses of parallel genealogies in the
Puranas between the times of Adhisimakrishna (Parikshit's
great-grandson) and Mahapadma Nanda. Pargiter accordingly
estimated 26 generations by averaging 10 different dynastic
lists and, assuming 18 years for the average duration of a
reign, arrived at an estimate of 850 BCE for Adhisimakrishna,
and thus approximately 950 BCE for the Bharata battle.
The Pandava and Kaurava Princes
When Vichitravirya dies at a young age without any heirs,
Satyavati asks her first son Vyasa to father children with
the widows. The eldest, Ambika, shuts her eyes when she
sees him, and so her son Dhritarashtra is born blind.
Ambalika turns pale and bloodless upon seeing him, and
thus her son Pandu is born pale and unhealthy . Due to the
physical challenges of the first two children, Satyavati
asks Vyasa to try once again. However, Ambika and Ambalika
send their maid instead, to Vyasa's room. Vyasa fathers a
third son, Vidura, by the maid. He is born healthy and
grows up to be one of the wisest characters in the
Mahabharata. He serves as Prime Minister (Mahamantri or
Mahatma) to King Pandu and King Dhritarashtra.
When the princes grow up, Dhritarashtra is about to be
crowned king by Bhishma when Vidura intervenes and uses
his knowledge of politics to declare that a blind person
cannot be king. This is because a blind man cannot control
and protect his subjects. The throne is then given to
Pandu because of Dhritarashtra's blindness. Pandu marries
twice, to Kunti and Madri. Dhritarashtra marries Gandhari,
a princess from Gandhara, who blindfolds herself so that
she may feel the pain that her husband feels.
Her brother Shakuni is enraged by this and vows to take
revenge on the Kuru family. One day, when Pandu is
relaxing in the forest, he hears the sound of a wild
animal. He shoots an arrow in the direction of the sound.
Pandu then retires to the forest along with his two wives,
and his brother Dhritarashtra rules thereafter, despite
Pandu's older queen Kunti, however, had been given a boon
by Sage Durvasa that she could invoke any god using a
special mantra. Kunti uses this boon to ask Dharma the god
of justice, Vayu the god of the wind, and Indra the lord
of the heavens for sons. She gives birth to three sons,
Yudhisthira, Bhima, and Arjuna, through these gods. Kunti
shares her mantra with the younger queen Madri, who bears
the twins Nakula and Sahadeva through the Ashwini twins.
Kunti raises the five brothers, who are from then on
usually referred to as the Pandava brothers.
Dhritarashtra has a hundred sons through Gandhari, all
born after the birth of Yudhishtira. These are the Kaurava
brothers, the eldest being Duryodhana, and the second
Dushasana. Other Kaurava brothers were Vikarna and Sukarna.
The rivalry and enmity between them and the Pandava
brothers, from their youth and into manhood, leads to the
The end of the Pandavas
"seeing" the carnage, Gandhari who had lost all her sons, curses
Krishna to be a witness to a similar extinction of his family,
though celestial and capable of stopping the war, he had not
done so. Krishna accepts the nuisance, which bears fruit 36
years later. The Pandavas who had ruled their kingdom meanwhile,
decide to relinquish everything. Clad in skins and rags they
retire to the Himalaya and climb towards heaven in their bodily
form. A stray dog travels with them. One by one the brothers and
Draupadi fall on their way. As each one stumbles, Yudhisthira
gives the rest the reason for their fall. Only the virtuous
Yudhisthira, who had tried everything to prevent the carnage,
and the dog remain. The dog discloses himself to be the god Yama
(also known as Yama Dharmaraja), and then takes him to the
underworld where he sees his siblings and wife.
After explaining the nature of the test, Yama takes Yudhishthira
back to heaven and clarifies that it was necessary to expose him
to the underworld because (Rajyante narakam dhruvam) any ruler
has to visit the underworld at least once. Yama then assures him
that his siblings and wife would join him in heaven after they
had been exposed to the underworld for measures of time
according to their vices.
Arjuna's grandson Parikshit rules after them and dies bitten by
a snake. His furious son, Janamejaya, decides to perform a snake
sacrifice (sarpasattra) in order to destroy the snakes. It is at
this sacrifice that the tale of his ancestors is narrated to
The older generations
Janamejaya's ancestor Shantanu, the king of Hastinapura, has a
short-lived marriage with the goddess Ganga and has a son,
Devavrata (later to be called Bhishma, a great warrior), who
becomes the heir apparent. Many years later, when King Shantanu
goes hunting, he sees Satyavati, the daughter of the chief of
fisherman, and asks her father for her hand. Her father declines
to consent to the marriage unless Shantanu promises to make any
future son of Satyavati the king upon his death. To resolve his
father's dilemma, Devavrata agrees to surrender his right to the
throne. As the fisherman is not sure about the prince's children
honouring the promise, Devavrata also takes a promise of
lifelong celibacy to guarantee his father's promise.
Shantanu has two sons by Satyavati, Chitrāngada and
Vichitravirya. Upon Shantanu's death, Chitrangada becomes king.
He lives a very short ordinary life and dies. Vichitravirya, the
younger son, rules Hastinapura.
Meanwhile, the King of Kāśī arranges a swayamvara for his three
daughters, neglecting to invite the royal family of Hastinapur.
In order to arrange the marriage of young Vichitravirya, Bhishma
attends the swayamvara of the three princesses Amba, Ambika and
Ambalika, uninvited, and proceeds to kidnap them. Ambika and
Ambalika consent to be married to Vichitravirya.
The oldest princess Amba, however, informs Bhishma that she
wants to marry king of Shalva whom Bhishma defeated at their
swayamvara. Bhishma lets her leave to marry king of Shalva, but
Shalva declines to marry her, still smarting at his
embarrassment at the hands of Bhishma. Amba then returns to
marry Bhishma but he declines due to his promise of celibacy.
Amba becomes furious and becomes Bhishma's bitter enemy, holding
him responsible for her troubles. Later she is reborn to King
Drupada as Shikhandi (or Shikhandini) and causes Bhishma's fall,
with the help of Arjuna, in the battle of Kurukshetra.
The battle at Kurukshetra
two sides summon vast armies to their help and line up at
Kurukshetra for a war.. Before war being declared, Balarama had
expressed his unhappiness at the developing conflict and left to
go on pilgrimage; thus he does not take part in the battle
itself. Krishna takes part in a non-combatant role, as
charioteer for Arjuna.
Before the battle, Arjuna, seeing himself facing his great
grandfather Bhishma and his teacher Drona on the other side, has
doubts about the battle and he fails to lift his Gāndeeva bow.
Krishna wakes him up to his call of duty in the famous Bhagavad
Gita section of the epic.
Though initially sticking to courteous notions of warfare, both
sides soon adopt dishonourable methods. At the end of the 18-day
battle, only the Pandavas, Satyaki, Kripa,
Ashwatthama,Kritavarma, Yuyutsu and Krishna survive.
The dice game
Shakuni, Duryodhana's uncle, now arranges a dice game, playing
against Yudhishtira with loaded dice. Yudhishtira loses all his
wealth, then his kingdom. He then even gambles his brothers,
himself, and finally his wife into servitude. The thrilled
Kauravas insult the Pandavas in their helpless state and even
try to undress Draupadi in front of the whole court, but her
honour is saved by Krishna who amazingly creates lengths of
cloth to replace the ones being removed.
Dhritarashtra, Bhishma, and the other elders are amazed at the
situation, but Duryodhana is obstinate that there is no place
for two crown princes in Hastinapura. Against his wishes
Dhritarashtra orders for another dice game. The Pandavas are
necessary to go into exile for 12 years, and in the 13th year
must remain hidden. If discovered by the Kauravas, they will be
forced into exile for another 12 years.
Exile and return
Pandavas spend thirteen years in exile; many adventures occur
during this time. They also prepare alliances for a possible
future conflict. They spend their final year in disguise in the
court of Virata, and are discovered just after the end of the
At the end of their exile, they try to negotiate a return to
Indraprastha. However, this fails, as Duryodhana objects that
they were discovered while in hiding, and that no return of
their kingdom was agreed. War becomes inevitable.
Lakshagraha (The House of Lac)
After the deaths of their mother (Madri) and father (Pandu),
the Pandavas and their mother Kunti return to the palace of
Hastinapur. Yudhisthira is made Crown Prince by
Dhritarashtra, under substantial pressure from his kingdom.
Dhritarashtra wanted his own son Duryodhana to become king
and lets his desire get in the way of preserving justice.
Shakuni, Duryodhana and Dusasana plan to get rid of the
Pandavas. Shakuni calls the architect Purochana to build a
palace out of flammable materials like lac and ghee. He then
arranges for the Pandavas and the Queen Mother Kunti to stay
there, with the purpose of setting it alight. However, the
Pandavas are warned by their wise uncle, Vidura, who sends
them a miner to dig a tunnel. They are able to escape to
safety and go into hiding. Back at Hastinapur, the Pandavas
and Kunti are presumed dead.
Marriage to Draupadi.
Arjuna marries Krishna's sister, Subhadra. Yudhishtira
wishes to establish his position as king; he seeks Krishna's
advice. Krishna advises him, and after due preparation and
the elimination of some opposition, Yudhishthira carries out
therājasūya yagna ceremony; he is thus recognised as
pre-eminent among kings.
The Pandavas have a new palace built for them, by Maya the
Danava. They invite their Kaurava cousins to Indraprastha.
Duryodhana walks round the palace, and mistakes a lustrous
floor for water, and will not step in. After being told of
his error, he then sees a pond, and assumes it is not water
and falls in. Draupadi laughs at him and ridicules him by
saying that this is because of his blind father Dhritrashtra.
He then decides to avenge his humiliation.
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 Pandava and the Kaurava. Although the Kaurava
is the senior branch of the family, Duryodhana, the eldest
Kaurava, is younger than Yudhisthira, the eldest Pandava. Both
Yudhisthira and Duryodhana claim to be first in line to inherit
The struggle concludes in the great battle of Kurukshetra, in
which the Pandavas are finally successful. The battle produces
complex conflicts of kinship and friendship, instances of family
loyalty and duty taking precedence over what is right, as well
as the converse.
The Mahabharata itself ends with the death of Krishna, and the
successive end of his dynasty and ascent of the Pandava brothers
to heaven. It also marks the beginning of the Hindu age of Kali
Yuga, the fourth and final age of mankind, in which great values
and noble ideas have collapsed, and man is heading towards the
complete dissolution of right action, morality and virtue.
The Mahabharata offers one of the first instances of theorizing
about "Just war", illustrating many of the standards that would
be disputed later across the world. In the story, one of five
brothers asks if the suffering caused by war can ever be
justified. A long discussion ensues between the siblings,
establishing criteria like proportionality (chariots cannot
attack cavalry, only other chariots, no attacking people in
distress), just means (no poisoned or barbed arrows), just cause
(no attacking out of rage), and fair treatment of captives and