The Mahabharata (pronounced muh-hah-BAHR-ruh-tuh) consists of a collection of legends and tales revolving around the great Bharata War between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, two branches of an ancient Indian dynasty. The stories—which involve gods and heroes —contain elements of myth, philosophy, and religious teachings. A section of the epic called the Bhagavad Gita (Song of God) is one of the most important religious texts of Hinduism.
The Mahabharata is set in the kingdom of Kurukshetra (pronounced khuh-rook-SHAY-truh) on the northern plains of India along the Ganges River. The opening parvans (books) explain the ancestry of the major characters and provide background for the central conflict of the work. That conflict begins when the rightful heir to the throne of Kurukshetra, a blind prince named Dhritarashtra (pronounced dree-tuh-RAHSH-truh), is passed over in favor of his younger brother Pandu (pronounced PAN-doo). Instead of taking the throne, however, Pandu goes to the Himalaya mountains to live as a hermit, leaving Dhritarashtra on the throne after all.
Before Pandu left Kurukshetra, his two wives gave birth to five sons, who became known as the Pandavas (pronounced PAHN-duh-vuhz). They lived at the royal court with their cousins, the one hundred sons of Dhritarashtra known as the Kauravas (pronounced KOW-ruh-vuhz).
When the Pandavas came of age, the eldest, Yudhisthira (pronounced yoo-DIS-thuh-ruh), demanded the throne from his uncle, claiming that he was the rightful heir. A feud broke out between the two branches of the family, and the Kauravas eventually forced the Pandavas into exile in the forest.
While in exile, the Pandavas entered a tournament to win the hand of a beautiful princess named Draupadi (pronounced DROW-puh-dee). The Kauravas also entered the contest, but the Pandava brother Arjuna (pronounced AHR-juh-nuh) won the princess, who became the common wife of all five Pandavas.
After the tournament, King Dhritarashtra called the Pandavas back to his court and divided the kingdom among them and his own sons. Unhappy with this settlement, the Kauravas challenged the Pandavas to a game of dice and won back the entire kingdom by cheating. Once again, the Pandavas were forced into exile.
After many years of wandering, the Pandavas returned to reclaim the kingdom, but the Kauravas refused to give up control and both sides prepared for war. The god Krishna (pronounced KRISH-nuh) supported the Pandavas. Although he took no part in the fighting, he served as charioteer for the Pandava brother Arjuna and gave him advice. Their conversations prior to batde make up the section of the Mahabharata known as the Bhagavad Gita.
The Pandavas and Kauravas met in a series of battles on the plains of Kurukshetra. In the end, the Pandavas emerged victorious after killing all their cousins. The Pandavas gained the kingdom, and the oldest brother, Yudhisthira, took the throne.
The Pandavas ruled peacefully, although their uncle Dhritarashtra mourned the loss of his sons and frequently quarreled with his nephews. Dhritarashtra eventually went to live in the forest and died there. Some time later, Yudhisthira gave up the throne and went with his brothers and their wife, Draupadi, to live on Mount Meru, the abode of the god Indra (pronounced IN-druh).
The conflict between the Pandavas and Kauravas makes up only a portion of the Mahabharata. The work includes many other tales about deities and heroes and covers an enormous range of topics. The stories present complex philosophical ideas that form the basis of the Hindu faith—codes of conduct, social duties, and religious principles.
The Mahabharata in Context
One of the major epics of India and the longest poem in the world, the Mahabharata is a sacred Hindu text. Although tradition holds that an ancient sage, or wise man, called Vyasa (pronounced vee-YAH-sah) authored the Mahabharata, it was almost certainly composed by a number of different poets and then collected into a single work sometime between 400 bce and 200 ce. The epic reached its present form about two hundred years later. It contains nearly one hundred thousand verses and is divided into eighteen books called parvans. The work reflects Hindu beliefs about the historical rulers of a region of northern India, and also provides details about worship and codes of conduct in ancient Hindu culture.
Key Themes and Symbols
The main theme of the Mahabharata is the idea of sacred duty. Every character in the epic is born into a particular social group, or caste, that must follow the duty prescribed to it by sacred law. The characters who perform their sacred duty are rewarded, while those who do not are punished. This is the great lesson that Lord Krishna gives Arjuna when he begins to doubt his role in the battle. Obeying one's sacred duty is a key pillar of the Hindu religion.
The Mahabharata in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
The Mahabharata is immensely popular in India and throughout Southeast Asia. The work inspired many ancient works of art, such as Indian miniature paintings and the elaborate sculptures of the ancient temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thorn in Cambodia. Today the Mahabharata remains an important Hindu epic and continues to serve as the foundation for Hindu religious faith and mythology.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
In the Mahabharata, Draupadi is married to five brothers at the same time. Many modern cultures have laws prohibiting marriage to more than one person at a time. What purpose do you think laws such as this serve? How does a society benefit from limiting marriage to a single person? Should a woman be allowed to marry two or more men if all the participants agree? Why or why not?