views updated Jun 27 2018


MAHĀBHĀRATA . Hindu India's national epic takes its name from Bharata, an ancestor of the central family of heroes. It is the story of his descendants, the Bhāratas or Kurus. The Mahābhārata (Great story of the Bhāratas) is a massive encyclopedic text. In one famous verse it claims to contain everything. It is said to consist of 100,000 verses, although no known recension comes to quite that number. The text is also known as Jaya (Victory), a reference to its concern with the victory of dharma over adharma as assured by Ka, who as the incarnation of Viu guides the main action of the story. The text is further called the Kāraveda (Veda of Ka), a reference whose ambiguity may be intended since the text not only is concerned with this Ka but is alleged to have been written by Ka Dvaipāyana, the "island-born Ka," whose more familiar name is Vyāsa. Finally, it is called the "fifth Veda," indicating the importance that the epic's brahman poets attached to its prolongation of the Vedic heritage. The epic is a smti ("traditional") rather than śruti ("revealed") text, but its reputed author, Vyāsa, is the very person whom epic and classical mythology credits with the "division" of the Vedas into four.

The actual composition of the epic seems to have been carried out between about 500 bce to 400 ce. The authors, however, probably drew on older bardic traditions with roots in Aryan lore of much greater antiquity. The central story is set in the area of the Ganges-Yamunā doab, and recalls tribal kingdoms that had settled in and around that area, after earlier residence in the Punjab, from about 1000 to 500 bce. It is sometimes assumed that the Painted Gray Ware culture of this period provided the historical setting for a real war, of which the text of the Mahābhārata is but an embellished account. More likely, if the Painted Gray Ware peoples transmitted an early version of the story, it was as part of their mythology, for the epic has an Indo-European mythological structure.

Scholarly work since the 1940s, initiated by Stig Wikander and Georges Dumézil, has shown that the text is essentially mythological, though not denying that it integrates much "didactic" material, particularly in its postwar books. It prolongs the Vedic heritage by correlating the epic story and its leading characters with Vedic, and in some cases para-Vedic and Indo-European, mythological figures and narrative (particularly eschatological) themes. More recent work has focused on the epic's treatment of the war as a "sacrifice of battle," relating the narrative to Indian sacrificial traditions, particularly from the Brāhmaas. Most notably, Madeleine Biardeau has shown that the treatment of Vedic mythology and Brahmanic sacrifice in the epic forms part of a bhakti rereading of the Vedic revelation (śruti ). From this perspective the epic is the first and grandest monument of bhakti, focused on Ka as the avatāra (incarnation) of Viu.

The main story begins when Viu and other gods descend or in some way assume human forms to relieve the burden of the goddess Earth, who is oppressed by demons. Following a succession crisis in the Lunar (i.e., Bhārata) dynasty, which rules India's "middle region," demons (asura s) infiltrate the royal lineages of the other kingdoms. In this situation two groups of cousins are born into the central lineage, each with its own succession claims: the five sons of King Pāu (the Pāavas) and the hundred sons (the Kauravas) of Pāu's older brother, Dhtarāra, who is prevented by blindness from ruling. The Pāavas are actually sons of gods, and their birth is part of the divine plan to rescue Earth. By means of a mantra their mothers (Kuntī, the senior wife of Pāu, and Mādrī, the junior wife) had invoked deities to sire them, thus circumventing a curse that would have caused Pāu's death had he had sexual relations with his wives. Thus, with Kuntī, the god Dharma sired Yudhihira, Vāyu sired Bhīma, and Indra sired Arjuna; with Mādrī, the twin Aśvins sired the twins Nakula and Sahadeva.

Following the interpretation of Wikander and Dumézil, these groups of gods and heroes may be seen to represent a hierarchical axis within the Vedic (and Indo-European) pantheon that further evokes the order of the upper three Aryan classes (vara s) and, more archaically, what Dumézil has called the three functions: (1) religious sovereignty and law (Dharma and Yudhihira), (2) warfare (Vāyu and Bhīma, Indra and Arjuna), and (3) economic welfare and service (the Aśvins and the twins). While the Pāavas thus represent the nucleus of social and divine hierarchy and the principle of dharma, their hundred cousinsincarnations of rākasa s (disruptive goblins), except for the eldest, Duryodhana, who is an incarnation of the asura Kali (Discord), the demon of the kaliyuga represent undifferentiated chaos and adharma.

During their youth the two groups of cousins vie with each other and form alliances that continue into the war. Thus Kara, son of Kuntī and the sun god Sūrya (Kuntī had first tried out her mantra with Sūrya before marriage, and then abandoned the son), allies with Duryodhana. At the Pāavas' polyandric wedding with Draupadī (incarnation of Śrī, goddess of prosperity), they ally themselves with Draupadī's brother Dhadyumna, the incarnation of Agni (Fire), who will lead their army. It is also at the marriage of Draupadī that the Pāavas first meet their cousin Ka (who is Kuntī's brother's son) and consolidate their relation with him.

For a brief period the two parties divide the kingdom; the Kauravas retain the ancestral throne at Hāstinapura, while the Pāavas build a new palace at Indraprastha. But when Yudhihira performs a Rājasūya sacrifice to lay claim to universal sovereignty, Duryodhana is inconsolable until his friends suggest he invite the Pāavas to a dice match and win their wealth at gambling. At the dice match Yudhihira gambles away everything; the last stakes are his brothers, himself, and finally Draupadī. Duryodhana then orders his vilest brother, Duśāsana, to drag Draupadī into the assembly hall, and when she protests, Kara commands Duśāsana to disrobe her. But Duśāsana is unsuccessful, for new saris keep descending upon Draupadīaccording to most versions, thanks to her prayer to Kato keep her covered. When Draupadī is thus miraculously saved, Dhtarāra grants her husbands their freedom and returns their weapons, which the Pāavas will use in the war to fulfill their vows to destroy Draupadī's offenders.

In a second gambling match the Pāavas lose again, and together with Draupadī they are exiled for thirteen years. The last year must be spent incognito if they are to get back their kingdom. They adopt disguises and escape detection, yet when the thirteen years are over Duryodhana refuses to return the Pāavas' half of the kingdom. But the brothers have spent their exile in pilgrimage and penance (Arjuna in particular has done tapas to get weapons from Śiva). Their last year in exile has the character of a dīkśā (consecration preparatory to a sacrifice), and they have thus prepared themselves for the sacrifice of battle.

As the war looms, Ka's role becomes increasingly central. Although he serves as the Pāavas' peace ambassador and is himself sworn to noncombatancy, he actually prepares both sides for war. Then, just before the first day's battle, as Arjuna's charioteer he "sings" the Bhagavadgītā, thus convincing Arjuna of his duty to fight. The eighteen-day war on the plain of Kuruketra (an ancient sacrificial terrain) then follows, in which all the divine and demonic forces converge in a vast holocaust that has been variously interpreted as a sacrifice or as the end of the universe (pralaya ). By leading the Pāavas to victory, Ka as avatāra achieves his task of relieving Earth's burden and renovating the dharma at the juncture between the dvāpara and kaliyuga s, the latter of which is our present age.

See Also

Arjuna; Bhagavadgītā; Epics; Indo-European Religions, overview article; Ka; Kuruketra.


The most accessible full translation is that by P. C. Roy and K. M. Ganguli, The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, 12 vols. (18841896), 2d ed. (Calcutta, 1970). A partial translation by J. A. B. van Buitenen, The Mahābhārata, 3 vols. (Chicago, 19731978), covers five of the epic's eighteen books and is now being continued by several translators. C. V. Narasimhan's The Mahābhārata (New York, 1965) is the best abridgment.

Early work on the Mahābhārata culminates and is best summarized in E. Washburn Hopkins's The Great Epic of India (1901; reprint, Calcutta, 1969) and Epic Mythology (1915; reprint, New York, 1969). Stig Wikander's "Pāava-sagan och Mahābhāratas mytiska forutsattningar," Religion och Bibel 6 (1947): 2739, can also be read in French in Georges Dumézil's Jupiter Mars Quirinus, vol. 4, Explication de textes indiens et latins (Paris, 1948). Dumézil's own most comprehensive treatment of the Mahābhārata can be found in his Mythe et épopée, vol. 1, L'idéologie des trois fonctions dans les épopées des peuples indo-européens (Paris, 1968).

Other works that develop various views in connection with Indo-European and Indian myth and ritual include Madeleine Biardeau's "Études de mythologie hindoue, Chap. II, Bhakti et avatāra," Bulletin de l'École Française d'Extrême Orient 63 (1976): 111263 and 65 (1978): 87238; Alf Hiltebeitel's The Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the "Mahābhārata" (Ithaca, N.Y., 1976); Heino Gehrts's Mahābhārata: Das Geschehen und seine Bedeutung (Bonn, 1975); and Jacques Scheuer's Śiva dans le Mahābhārata (Paris, 1982). See also Vishnu S. Sukthankar's On the Meaning of the Mahābhārata (Bombay, 1957), which emphasizes the epic's reliance upon Upanisadic formulations, and B. B. Lal's "Excavation at Hastināpura and Other Explorations in the Upper Gangā and Sutlej Basins, 195052," Ancient India 10/11 (1954/55): 5151, which discusses epic place names in relation to Painted Gray Ware.

New Sources

Hiltebeitel, Alf. Rethinking the Mahabharata: A Reader's Guide to the Education of the Dharma King. Chicago, 2001.

Alf Hiltebeitel (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 18 2018


MAHĀBHĀRATA The Mahābhārata describes itself as "sprung from the oceanic mind" (1.53.34) of its author Vyāsa, and to be his "entire thought" (1.1.23; 1.55.2) in a text of a hundred thousand couplets (1.56.13). Although no version reaches that number, when the Mahābhārata describes texts of that size it denotes the originary vastness (see 12.322.36). Indeed, the Mahābhārata mentions a "treatise" (shāstra) of 100,000 chapters (12.59.29) that undergoes four abridgments. To describe its magnitude, many cite a verse that claims, "Whatever is here may be found elsewhere; what is not here does not exist anywhere" (1.56.33; 18.5.38). Some take it to indicate that by the time the Mahābhārata reached its "extant" mass, it would have grown from oral origins into a massive "encyclopedia" that had agglutinated for centuries. Many such scholars also cite another verse in support of this theory, which says that Vyāsa "composed a Bhārata-collection (saṃhitā) of twenty-four thousand couplets without the subtales (upākhyānair vinā); so much is called Bhārata by the wise" (1.1.61). Although a hundred-thousand verse Bhārata is also mentioned (12.331.2), translators have tried to help the developmental argument along by adding that Vyāsa composed this shorter version "first" (van Buitenen, I, p. 22) or "originally" (Ganguli, I, p. 6). But the verse says nothing about anything coming first. Since "without" implies a subtraction, and since the passage describes Vyāsa's afterthoughts, the twenty-four thousand verse Bhārata would probably be a digest or abridgment (Shulman, p. 25) that knowers of the Mahābhārata could consult or cite for purposes of oral performance from a written text. Another passage tells that the divine seers once gathered to weigh the "Bhārata" on a scale against the four Vedas; when the "Bhārata" proved heavier in both size and weight, the seers dubbed it the "Mahābhārata" (1.1.208-9), thereby providing a double "etymology" (nirukta) for one and the same text. Yet despite nothing surviving of this shorter Bhārata, scholars have used it to argue for an originally oral bardic and heroic story that would have lacked not only subtales but frame stories (narratives that contextualize the main narrative), tales about the author both in the frames and elsewhere, didactic additions, and devotional passages with "divinized" heroes.

New developments have complicated this profile. These include the completion of the Pune Critical Edition, along with wider recognition of Mahābhārata's design; intertextual studies positioning the Mahābhārata in relation to both Indo-European and Indian texts; genre study, including the history of kāvya (Sanskrit "poetry" composed according to classical aesthetic norms); and debate on the likely period of the Mahābhārata's composition in written form. Similar developments apply to the Rāmāyaṇa.

A signal result of the Pune Critical Edition of the Mahābhārata is its establishment of a textual "archetype." There remains debate as to whether this archetype takes us back to the text's first composition, or to a later redaction that would put a final stamp on centuries of cumulative growth. This essay favors the first option. In either case, this archetype includes a design of eighteen Books, or parvans, nearly all of the epic's hundred "little books," or upaparvans (the list of these at 1.2.30–70 problematically includes parts of the Harivaṃsha as the last two), its often adroit chapter (adhyāya) breaks, and its subtales, or upākhyānas. The latter present a topic whose significance has yet to be appreciated.

The Whole and the Parts

As observed, the upākhyānas are precisely the units mentioned as omitted in the "Bhārata." Upākhyānas must first be considered among the multigenre terms by which the Mahābhārata characterizes itself and its components. The epic's two most frequent self-descriptions are "narrative" (ākhyāna) fourteen times and "history" (itihāsa) eight times. But it also twice calls itself a work of "ancient lore" (purāṇa), a "collection" (saṃhitā), a "fifth Veda," the "Veda that pertains to Kishna" (Kārshṇa Veda, probably referring to Vyāsa as Krishna Dvaipāyana), and a "great knowledge" (mahaj-jñāna). And once it calls itself a "story" (kathā), a "treatise" (shāstra; indeed, a dharmashāstra, arthashāstra, and mokshashāstra [1.56.21]), an upanishad, an "adventure" (carita), a "victory" (jaya), and, surprisingly, a "subtale" (upakhyāna: 1.2.236)! In addition, while not calling itself one, it is also a "dialogue" (saṃvāda), for it sustains the dialogical interlacing of each of its three dialogical frames, not to mention the multiple dialogues that the frame narrators and other narrators report.

Indeed, most of these terms are used doubly. The more "didactic" (veda, saṃhitā, upanishad, and shāstra) not only describe the Mahābhārata as a whole, but refer to sources outside of it that the epic's narrators cite as authoritative and sometimes quote in part or digest—particularly the many shāstras, or "treatises," mentioned in Book 12. But the more "narrative" terms (saṃvāda, ākhyāna, itihāsa, purāṇa, carita, kathā, and upākhyāna) can also be cited as authoritative tales. In this way the Mahābhārata sustains itself as a multigenre work in both its multiple self-designations for the whole and in the interreferentiality between the whole and its parts. This contrasts with the Rāmāyaṇa, whose poet composes his work under the single-genre title of kāvya (poem). The Mahābhārata is not called a kāvya until a famous interpolation in which the god Brahmā appears to Vyāsa to pronounce on the genre question. Says Vyāsa, "I have created this highly venerated kāvya in which I have proclaimed the secret of the Vedas and other topics" (Pune Critical Edition 1, App. I, lines 13–14), to which Brahmā replies, "I know that since your birth you have truthfully given voice to the brahman. You have called this a kāvya, and therefore a kāvya it shall be. No poets (kavayo) are equal to the excellence of this kāvya" (lines 33–35). In a later interpolation, Brahmā then recommends that Gaṇesha be Vyāsa's scribe (1, App. I, from line 36).

One striking thing about the epic's self-descriptive "narrative" terms—that is, the terms themselves, even though the genres they describe all develop, change, and overlap by classical times—is that they are all but one Vedic. Indeed, the Vedic resonances of three of them—ākhyāna, itihāsa, and saṃvāda—are so strong that a century ago they were at the heart of debates over an "ākhyāna theory" of the origins of Vedic poetry. But even carita (Rig Veda 1.110.2) and kāvya (Rig Veda 8.79.1) have Vedic usages. The one non-Vedic term is upākhyāna, which may have been given first life in the Mahābhārata.

To distinguish upākhyāna from ākhyāna, there would be an analogy between the usages of ākhyāna: upākhyāna and parvan: upa-parvan. In both cases, upa- implies "subordinate" and "lesser" (as in upa-purāṇa for the "lesser purāṇas"), and denotes ways of breaking the Mahābhārata down by terms that relate its whole to its parts. But ākhyāna and upākhyāna are also frequently used interchangeably (as are the other "narrative" terms mentioned above). Sometimes, especially in the Parvasaṃgraha—the "Summaries of the Books" that forms the epic's second upaparvan—it would seem that metrical fit decides which of the two terms was used (e.g., at 1.2.124–125). But the first usage of ākhyāna to self-describe a sub-narrative in passing may suggest a useful distinction. The first ākhyāna narrated in its entirety, "the great Āstīka ākhyāna" (1.13.4), is the oft-interrupted āstīkaparvan (1.13–53). Like the oft-interrupted Mahā-Bhārata-ākhyāna, it brims with substories of its own. It is delivered by the bard Ugrashravas to the seers of the Naimisha Forest as the main introductory piece to entertain that audience in the epic's outer frame. In contrast, upākhyāna designates major uninterrupted subtales told to rapt audiences usually composed of the epic's heroes and heroines, or, alternately, of one or another of its frame audiences.

There are sixty-seven narratives that the Mahābhārata calls upākhyānas in one or more of three contexts: in their traditional titles (which are usually mentioned in the colophons), in the Parvasaṃgraha, or in passing. Fifty-six of these are addressed to main heroes and heroines. Of these, forty-nine are told primarily to the eldest of the five Pāṇḍava brothers, Yudhisthṭhira; forty-eight of these to him and his five brothers together; and forty-four of these also to their wife-in-common Draupadī (all of these, once they are in the forest). On the Kaurava side, three are addressed to the chief villain Duryodhana and two to his great ally Karṇa, who is secretly the Pāṇḍavas' real eldest brother. Adding one narrated to the Pāṇḍavas' father Pāṇḍu by his wife Kuntī (the only upākhyāna spoken by a woman), which bears on the Pāṇḍavas' birth, and one addressed to Draupadī's father by Vyāsa that explains the legitimacay of their polyandrous marriage to her, one finds that all fifty-six concern the larger Pāṇḍava-Kaurava household to which all these listeners (if we can include the Pāṇḍavas' father-in-law) belong, and of which Yudhishṭira is clearly the chief listener. Of the rest, ten are told by Vyāsa's disciple Vaishampāyana to King Janamejaya, the Pāṇḍavas' great-grandson, as the chief listener of the epic's inner frame; and one is told by Ugrashravas to the Naimisha Forest sages who listen from the outer frame.

Another statistical approach to the upākhyānas is to think about volume and proportion. Taking the Mahābhārata's own numbers, on the face of it, if the epic has 100,000 couplets (1.56.13) and Vyāsa composed a version of it in 24,000 couplets "without the upākhyānas," the upākhyānas should constitute 76 percent of the whole. That proportion is nowhere near the present case. Calculating from the roughly 73,900 couplets in the Critical Edition (Van Nooten, p. 50; Brockington, p. 4), the full total for the sixty-seven upākhyānas is 10,521 couplets or 13.87 percent; and if one adds certain sequels to four of the upākhyānas totaling 780 verses to reach the most generous count of 11,031 verses, one could say that, at most, 14.93 percent of the Mahābhārata is composed of upākhyāna material. While we are nowhere near 76 percent, these proportions are not insignificant. Moreover, one can get a bit closer to 76 percent if one keeps in mind the interchangeability of the epic's terms for narrative units and calculates from the totality of its substory material. According to Barbara Gombach, "nearly fifty percent" of the Mahābhārata is "represented by ancillary stories," with Books 1, 3, 12, and 13 cited as the four in which "the stories cluster more densely" than in the other Books (2000, I, pp. 5 and 24). Gombach (I, pp. 194, 225) gives 68 percent for the ancillary stories in the Shāntiparvan (Book 12), which has fourteen upākhyānas; 65 percent for the Anushāsanaparvan (Book 13), with eleven upākhyānas; 55 percent for the āraṇyakaparvan (Book 3), with twenty-one upākhyānas; and 44 percent for the ādiparvan (Book 1), with eleven upākhyānas. Of other Books that contain more than one upākhyāna, the āshvamedhika- (Book 14) with two, Shalya- (Book 9) with two, and Udyoga-parvan (Book 5) with three are comprised of 54, 28, and 17 percent ancillary story material respectively—but still, nothing near 76 percent.

Fifty-seven of the sixty-seven upākhyānas thus appear in parvans 1, 3, 12, and 13 where "stories cluster" most densely. There are, however, two major differences in the ways that upākhyānas are presented in the two early Books from the two later ones. Whereas Books 1 and 3 provide multiple narrators for their thirty-two upākhyānas, all but three of the twenty-five upākhyānas in Books 12 and 13 are spoken by one narrator, Bhīshma. And whereas Books 1 and especially 3 show a tendency to cluster their upākhyānas (two in a row told by Vaishampāyana and three in a row by the Gandharva Chitraratha in Book 1; nine, five, and two in a row by rishis whom the Pāṇḍavas encounter while pilgrimaging in Book 3), in Bhīshma's run of 450 adhyāyas in Books 12 and 13, he tends to present his twenty-one upākhyānas there only intermittently. Yet there is one run, from the end of Book 12 through the first third of Book 13, where he concentrates nine of them. These two books run together the totality of Bhīshma's postwar instructions to Yudhishṭhira in four consecutive upaparvans, which James Fitzgerald calls "four large anthologies" (2004, pp. 79–80). Both books abound in dialogues (saṃvādas) and "ancient accounts" (itihāsam purātanam). Why then does Bhīshma start telling upākhyānas—or, perhaps better, resume telling them (he has already told the Ambā and Vishva-Upākhyānas)—only in the Anushāsanaparvan? This question will be taken up in the synopsis.

The upākhyānas' content should also be important. But they are too varied to summarize fruitfully. It does not seem possible to break the sixty-seven down by their primary personages into less than ten categories: seventeen about leading lights of the great Brahman lineages, fifteen about heroic kings of varied dynasties, eleven about animals (some divine), seven about gods and demons, four (including the first two) about early kings of the main dynasty, four about women, three about the inviolability of worthy Brahmans and hurdles to attaining that status, three about revelations concerning Krishna, two about current background to the epic's main events, and one about the Pāṇḍavas as part of the main story. From this, the only useful generalization would seem to be that all this content is represented as being of interest to the rapt audiences that listen these tales. But this leads to an important point. Regarding the most famous of all the Mahābhārata's upākhyānas, the Nala-Upākhyāna, Fitzgerald regards "Nala" and some other non-upākhyāna stories as "good examples of passages that do exhibit an inventive freedom suggestive of 'fiction'" (2003, p. 207). More pointedly, Gombach credits Madeleine Biardeau's study of "Nala" as a "case for regarding this upākhyāna as a story composed in and for the epic to deepen its symbolic resonances" (2000, I, p. 73). "Nala" is what Biardeau now calls one of Book 3's three "mirror stories" (2002, I, pp. 412–413): stories that reflect on their listeners' (the main heroes and heroine's) current trials. But once one admits that one story is composed to fit one or another feature of the epic's wider surroundings, the principle cannot be easily shut off, as shall often be implied in the synopsis.

In any case, to summarize the Mahābhārata, it should not be enough to tell its main story, especially with the suggestion that its main story would have been the original "Bhārata." Even though it must require shortcuts, one owes it to this grand text to attempt to block out the main story against the backdrop of its archetypal design, which includes its frame stories, upaparvans, upākhyānas, and the enigma of the author.

The Mahābhārata, Book by Book

Of the Mahābhārata's eighteen books, only the first nine and Books 12-14 will be summarized in any detail. That takes one to the end of the fighting of the Mahābhārata war and the last Books to include upākhyānas.

Book 1, the ādi Parvan or "Book of Beginnings," comprised of nineteen upaparvans, takes the first five to introduce the three frames: how Vyāsa recited the epic to his five Brahman disciples, first to his son Shuka and then to the other four, including Vaishampāyana (1.1.63); how Vaishampāyana recited it at Vyāsa's bidding to Janamejaya at his snake sacrifice so that he could hear the story of his ancestors; and how Ugrashravas, who overheard Vaishampāyana's narration, brought it to Shaunaka and the other seers of the Naimisha Forest. Upaparvan six, "The Descent of the First Generations," then takes one through the birth of Vyāsa (son of the seer Parāshara and the ferryboat girl Satyavatī) and the descent of the gods to rescue the goddess Earth (who seeks their aid in ridding her of oppressive demons) to an account of the origins of gods, demons, and other beings.

Upaparvan seven begins with the epic's first two upākhyānas, on Shakuntalā and Yayāti, to take us into the genealogy of the early Lunar Dynasty and down to the youths of the main heroes, with heightened attention given to the second generation before them: beginning with the third upākhyāna about Mahābhīsha, a royal sage residing in heaven whose boldness with the heavenly river Gaṅgā leads to their marriage on earth, he as King Shāntanu; Bhīshma's birth as their ninth and sole surviving son, and Gaṅgā's departure once Shāntanu asks why she drowned the first eight; Shāntanu's second marriage to Satyavatī, now a fisher-princess, upon her father's obtaining Bhīshma's double vow to renounce kingship and women, for which Shāntanu gives Bhīshma the boon to be able to choose his moment of death; Bhīshma's abduction of three sisters, two of whom become brides for Shāntanu and Satyavatī's second son, who dies soon after becoming king, leaving the two as widows, and the third, the unwedded Ambā, with thoughts of revenge against Bhīshma; Satyavatī's determination to save the line by getting the two widowed queens pregnant, first by asking Bhīshma, who refuses to break his vow of celibacy, and then, admitting her premarital affair, recalling her first son Vyāsa; Vyāsa's unions with the two widowed sisters, cursing the first to bear a blind son because she had closed her eyes at his hideous ascetic ugliness and the second to bear a pale son because she had blanched; the births of the blind Dhritarāshṭra, the pale Pāṇdu, plus a third son, Vidura, sired with the first widow's low caste maidservant. The fourth upākhyāna, named after the sage Aṇimāndavya, then tells how Vidura came to suffer a low caste human birth because this sage cursed the god Dharma (lord of postmortem punishments and thus tantamount in this debut to Yama, god of the dead) to undergo such a birth after the sage learned that he had been impaled "unjustly" as Dharma's punishment for a childhood sin in his previous life. Then comes the marriage of Dhritarashṭra to Gāndhārī and the birth of their sons, the hundred Kauravas, incarnate demons headed by Duryodhana; the marriages of Pāṇḍu to Kuntī and Mādrī and, after Kuntī tells the eventually impotent Pāṇḍu upākhyāna five about a queen made pregnant by her husband Vyushitashva even after he was dead, she reveals the means that make possible the birth of the five Pāṇḍavas as sons of gods—Yudhishṭhira of Dharma, Bhīma of the Wind god, Arjuna of Indra (all sons of Kuntī), and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva sired by the Ashvin twins with Mādrī. The young cousins then begin their early lives up to their initiations in weapons, to which they are introduced, via Bhīshma, to the Brahman guru Droṇa, and continue on to the friendships and rivalries they form with others who receive Droṇa's martial training, notably Ashvatthāman (Droṇa's son) and Karṇa (born from Kuntī's premarital union with the Sun god), both of whom will ally with the Kauravas; and the Vrishṇis and Andhakas (1.122.46)—unnamed for now, but among whom one cannot exclude Krishna and Sātyaki who will join the Pāṇḍavas and Kritavarman who joins the Kauravas.

Upaparvans 8 to 11 then tell how the Pāndavas must hide in the forest after Duryodhana tries to kill them. There Bhīma marries a Rākshasī (demoness) who bears him a Rākshasa son, Ghaṭotkaca, who goes off with his mother to the wilds but remains available for filial tasks. At Vyāsa's prompting, the Pāṇḍavas then live in a village for a while disguised as Brahmans, and then, upon another appearance of Vyāsa, make their way to Pañcāla, where Vyāsa tells them they will meet their destined bride (1.157). On the way, the Gandharva Citraratha challenges Arjuna and is defeated, and upon being shown mercy by Yudhishṭhira, tells the Pāṇḍavas they are vulnerable without keeping a priest and holy fires, and then relates the upākhyānas of Tapatī, Vasishtha, and Aurva—stories about one of their ancestresses and two Brahmans, which prepare them for forthcoming adventures while imparting some positive and negative information on sexuality. Upaparvan 12 then tells how the Pāṇḍavas, still disguised as Brahmans, marry Draupadī. Arjuna wins her in an archery contest, and then all five find the pretext to marry her jointly in some mistaken yet irreversible words of Kuntī. Both Krishna and Vyāsa sanction the marriage, the latter by telling Draupadī's father Drupada the ninth upākhyāna (so called in the Parvasaṃgraha) about the "Five Former Indras," which reveals that Draupadī is the goddess Shrī incarnate and that the Pāṇḍavas were all former husbands of hers as previous Indras, making the marriage virtually monogamous. After some amends are made between the two camps, and the Pāṇḍavas are given the Khāṇḍava Tract in which to found their own half of the kingdom (upaparvans 13–15), the seer Nārada arrives at their new capital, Indraprastha, to tell the tenth upākhyāna (so called in the Parvasaṃgraha) of "Sunda and Upasunda" about two demonic brothers who kill each other over a woman, thereby warning the Pāṇḍavas to regulate their time with Draupadī and providing them a reverse mirror story of their own situation (upaparvan 16)—and the very rule that will send Arjuna into a period of exile in which he will marry three other women, including Krishna's sister Subhadrā(upaparvans 17–18). Finally, upaparvan 19 tells how Arjuna and Krishna's burning of the Khāṇḍava Forest satisfies the fire god Agni and reveals their former identities as the great rishis Nara and Nārāyaṇa. The conflagration clears the ground for the construction of Indraprastha, and leads into the narration of upākhyāana eleven about four precocious birds reminiscent of the Vedas, who escape the blaze.

Book 2, the Sabhāparvan, or "Book of the Assembly Hall(s)," takes seven of its nine upaparvans to tell how the great audience hall at Indraprastha was built; how Nārada convinced Yudhishṭhira to assert paramountcy there by performing a Rājasūya (royal consecration) sacrifice, and the obstacles that entailed—most notably, at Krishna's urging, the killing of Jarāsandha, a rival for paramountcy as king of Magadha who had forced Krishna's people to flee from Mathura to Dvārakā, and Krishna's killing of his obstreperous cousin Shishupāla. Its last two upaparvans then enter the epic's dark heart, describing events that occur in the Kaurava assembly hall at Hāstinapura: how Duryodhana, spurred to jealousy, plotted with his maternal uncle Shakuni to challenge Yudhishṭhira to a "friendly dice match"; how Shakuni, playing for Duryodhana, won everything, leaving Draupadī to be the last wager after Yudhishṭhira had bet himself; how Draupadī, knowing this, asked if Yudhishṭhira had bet himself before betting her, setting the court to debate this question as one of dharma while Yudhishṭhira, the son of Dharma, kept silent "as if he were mad"; how Duhshāsana, second oldest of the hundred Kauravas, tried to disrobe Draupadī, and was frustrated when Krishna miraculously multiplied her saris; how Dhritarāshṭra then terminated the unresolved debate by offering Draupadī three boons, of which she said two were enough: her husbands' freedom and the return of their weapons; how Duryodhana, grumbling at this result, invited the Pāṇḍavas to a return match with a one-throw winner-take-all stake—that the loser undertake twelve years of forest exile followed by one year incognito as the condition of recovering their half of the kingdom; and how, having lost again, the Pāṇḍavas made vows of revenge and departed with Draupadī for the forest.

Book 3, the Araṇyakaparvan, or "Book of Forest Teachings," then comprises sixteen upaparvans and tells twenty-one upākhyānas. After a transitional upaparvan 29, in which Krishna tells Book 3's first upākhyāna—the Saubhavadha-Upākhyāna (3.1–23)—to explain his absence from the dice match, the most notable upaparvans are the second through fourth and the last three. The first series tells of the Pāṇḍavas' forest-entering encounter with the monstrous Rākshasa Kirmīra, killed by Bhīma; Arjuna's encounter with Shiva on Mount Kailasa to obtain divine weapons; and Arjuna's further adventures in the heaven of his father Indra (upaparvans 30–32). Then, after many wanderings, the last three upaparvans, 42–44, tell how Draupadī was abducted by the Kauravas' brother-in-law Jayadratha, how Karṇa gave his natural-born golden armor and earrings to Indra in exchange for an "unfailing dart" that he can only use once, and how, in closing, Yudhishṭhira saved his brothers' lives by answering a yaksha's (goblin's) questions (an upākhyāna according to the Parvasaṃgraha). Between these episodes, seers tell the Pāṇḍavas and Draupadī numerous stories, many billed as upākhyānas. Most are told to edify them on their pilgrim routes. Thus nine are told during the "Tour of the Sacred Fords" (upaparvan 33) to the group (minus Arjuna)—eight of these by their traveling companion, the seer Lomasha. The best known of these are the first three: the Agastya-, Rishyashriṅga-, and Kārtavīrya-Upākhyānas. And the next six are later narrated by the ageless sage Mārkaṇḍeya to the reassembled Pāṇḍavas and Draupadī in upaparvan 37.

But the second and last two upākhyānas stand out as what Biardeau calls "mirror stories": the Nala-Upākhyāna—the love story about Nala and Damayantī told by the seer Brihadashva while Arjuna is visiting Shiva and Indra, and Draupadī misses this favorite of her husbands; the Rāma-Upakhyāna, the Mahābhārata's main Rāma story focused on Sītā's abduction and told to all five Pāṇḍavas and Draupadī by Mārkaṇḍeya just after Draupadī's abduction; and the Sāvitrī-Upākhyāna—the story of a heroine who saved her husband from Yama, death, as told by Mārkaṇḍeya just after the Rāma-Upākhyāna when Yudhishṭhira asks, having already heard about Sītā (and perhaps slighting her), if there ever was a woman as devoted to her husband(s) as Draupadī. The book ends as it began with the encounter of a monster, who, appearing first as a speaking crane, for the moment "kills" the four youngest Pāṇḍavas by a lake where they have gone to slake their thirst. But whereas the first monster was a Rākshasa, this crane turns into a one-eyed yaksha before he reveals himself, after questioning Yudhisṭhira, to be Yudhishṭhira's father Dharma in disguise. Gratified at his son's subtle answers to his puzzling questions, Dharma revives Dharmarāja Yudhishṭhira's brothers and gives him the boon of "the heart of the dice"—something that had saved Nala in the Nala-Upākhyāna and is now a cue to Yudhishṭhira not only to remember that story but to disguise himself as a dice-master in Book 4.

Book 4, the Virāṭaparvan or "Book of Virāṭa," has four upaparvans (45–48). The first tells how Yudhishṭhira chooses the kingdom of Matsya (Fish) for the Pāṇḍavas and Draupadī's thirteenth year of living incognito, how each chooses a disguise, and how they fool the Matsya king Virāṭa with these topsy-turvy identities when they enter his capital: Yudhishṭhira as a Brahman dice-master, Bhīma a cook, Draupadī a chambermaid-hairdresser, Arjuna an impotent dance master dressed in skirts, and the twins as handlers of horses and cattle. The other three upaparvans tell how Bhīma kills Kīcaka, the Matsya queen's brother, who had abused Draupadī; how the effeminate looking Arjuna, first driving the young Matsya prince Uttara's chariot and then reversing charioteer/warrior roles with him, singlehandedly defeats a raid on the kingdom by the leading Kauravas; and how Arjuna refuses the thankful Virāṭa's offer of his daughter Uttarā to him in marriage and arranges instead that she marry his son with Subhadrā, Abhimanyu, an incarnation of the splendor of the moon, who is destined to carry the genealogical thread of the lunar dynasty forward to Janamejaya.

Book 5, the Udyogaparvan or "Book of the Effort," a book of surprising symmetries and asymmetries, comprises eleven upaparvans, the front nine of which occur as efforts are made by messengers from both sides to state terms for peace or war even while everyone prepares for the latter. The initial Upaparvan 49 also traces how both sides try to secure the alliance of certain asymmetrically mutual kinsmen. Arjuna and Duryodhana come to Dvārakā to seek aide from Krishna, Arjuna's mother's brother's son and also his wife Subhadrā's brother. Krishna says bafflingly that his relation to each is equal, but since he saw Arjuna first he gives him the first choice of two options: Krishna as a noncombatant charioteer, or a whole army division composed of Krishna's Gopā Nārāyaṇa warriors. Arjuna chooses Krishna, and Duryodhana departs content (5.7). Then Shalya, king of Madra and brother of the twins' mother Mādrī, sets out to join the Pāṇḍavas but has his mind turned after he finds elegant way-stations along his route prepared for him by Duryodhana. Traveling on, he tells Yudhishṭhira that he has just allied with Duryodhana, and Yudhishṭhira, fore-seeing that Shalya will be Karṇa's charioteer, asks him to destroy Karṇa's confidence in combat. Telling Yudhishṭhira that even Indra had ups and downs, Shalya consoles him with Book 5's first upākhyāna, a cycle of three ultimately triumphant Indra stories called the Indravijaya-Upākhyāna. Before this upaparvan is over, the Pāṇḍavas have seven army divisions and the Kauravas eleven.

As negotiations continue through the next eight upaparvans, events come to center on the lengthy sixth, upaparvan 54, titled "The Coming of the Lord," in which Krishna as divine messenger comes as the Pāṇḍavas' last negotiator with the Kauravas while a host of celestial seers descends to watch the proceedings and tell stories: one of them an upākhyāna told as a warning to Duryodhana by by Rāma Jāmadagnya about how the arrogant King Dambhodbhava was humbled by Nara and Nārāyaṇa. When arbitrations break down, Duryodhana tries to capture Krishna, who displays a divine and heroic host emanating from his body while bestowing on some in the court the "divine eye" to see it. Then Krishna quits the court. Upaparvan 55 then begins with the beautiful scenes in which Karṇa, even learning that he is Kuntī's firstborn son, resists the double temptations offered by Krishna and Kuntī to break his friendship with Duryodhana and side with the Pāṇḍavas. The negotiations end in upaparvan 58 with a last abusive message delivered to the Pāṇḍavas by Shakuni's son Ulūka (Duryodhana's mother's brother's son, who thus has the same relation to Duryodhana that Krishna has to Arjuna). Then, after all the armies have gathered and their heroes been evaluated by Bhīshma, Book 5 closes with upaparvan 60, the Ambā-Upākhyāna-Parvan, most of which, from its beginning, comprises Book 5's third upākhyāna, the Ambā-Upākhyāna, in which Bhīshma tells Duryodhana how Ambā, determined to destroy him, came to be reborn as Draupadī's brother Shikhaṇḍin, and why he will not fight Shikhaṇḍin because he was formerly a woman. Book 5 thus has one upākhyāna in its first upaparvan, leaving its listener Yudhishṭhira with a fateful secret about Karṇa that will advantage Yudhishṭhira in the war, and another in its last upaparvan leaving its listener Duryodhana with a fateful secret about Bhīshma that will disadvantage Duryodhana in the war.

Books 6 through 9 span the war's actual fighting through eighteen days at Kurukshetra, the Field of the Kurus. Each of the four war books is named after the marshal who leads the Kaurava army and is slain by the book's end. Although various side- and background-narratives are told in these books, only five of them are called upākhyā.

Book 6, the Bhāshmaparvan, contains five upaparvans (60–64). In the first, on Bhīshma's consecration as marshal, Vyāsa gives the Kaurava court bard Saṃjaya the "divine eye" with which to see the war in its entirety and report on it to Dhritarāshṭra, and promises that Saṃjaya will survive the war to do so. Then, after two upaparvans on cosmological matters, the fourth (63) includes the Bhagavad Gītā: just before the war, Saṃjaya reports how Krishna tells Arjuna various legal, philosophical, and divinely ordained reasons why Arjuna cannot renounce his duty to fight, and provides the disciplines (yogas) whereby Arjuna can perform action without desire for its fruits. The bulk of Book 6 is then the "Parvan on the Death of Bhīshma" (64), which begins when Yudhishṭhira crosses the battlefield to take leave of his elders Bhīshma, Droṇa, the Brahman Kripa, and Shalya. Early in the fighting Bhīshma pauses to tell Duryodhana the Vishva-Upākhyāna, revealing mysteries about Krishna. After ten days of fighting, Bhīshma falls at the hands of Arjuna and Shikhaṇḍin. So filled with arrows that no part of his body touches the ground, Bhīshma makes this his "bed of arrows" and uses the boon his father gave him to postpone his death for fifty-eight days until the winter solstice.

Book 7, the Droṇaparvan, contains eight upaparvans (65–72) and covers the war's next five days. Its train of deaths is fraught with sacrificial symbolism and deepens a theological current, especially in an overture and coda that balance the mutual impact of Krishna and Shiva. Early in the first upaparvan, in what Gombach calls "a surprising turn" (2000, II, p. 174), Dhritarāshṭra composes himself to hear about the killing of Droṇa by recounting to Saṃjaya the "divine feats" of Krishna, including that he saw Krishna's theophany in his own court in Book 5. Then, as Upaparvan 66 takes us from the eleventh into the twelfth day of battle, a group of sworn warriors that includes Krishna's Gopa Nārāyaṇas detains Arjuna at the southern end of the battlefield while Droṇa attacks Yudhishṭhira. Later that same day, Arjuna directs Krishna toward King Bhagadatta of Prāgjyotisha, who uses mantras to change his elephant hook into a Vaishṇava weapon, which Krishna intercepts on his chest before it hits Arjuna, turning it into flowers.

Upaparvan 67 then describes day thirteen, in which the chief event is the entrapment and killing of Abhimanyu in a circular array from which Jayadratha, thanks to a boon from Shiva, is able to block his exit. Arjuna then vows to kill Jayadratha on day fourteen or commit suicide, and Krishna helps him fulfill this incautious vow just before sunset by making it seem the sun has already set: Jayadratha raises his head to look at the atmospherics and loses it (upaparvans 68–69). Fighting continues deep into the night, and Krishna connives to get Karṇa to exhaust the one-use "unfailing dart" he got from Indra. Krishna prods Ghaṭotkaca to use his prodigious night-fighting powers as a Rākshasa against Karṇa, drawing Karṇa to use up the dart. And at Ghaṭotkaca's titanic fall Krishna does a little dance of joy, explaining that the dart can no longer spell Arjuna's death (upaparvan 70). Then, on day fifteen, Droṇa is killed by Dhrishṭadyumna, another brother of Draupadī, after he lays down his weapons, convinced that Yudhishṭhira could not have lied when he told Droṇa that his son Ashvatthāman had been killed (upaparvan 71).

Upaparvan 72 then closes Book 7 with a kind of theological coda on Shiva. While the Pāṇḍava ranks betray shame and blame over the foul means used to kill Droṇa, Ashvatthāman vows revenge with a Nārāyan weapon Droṇa had given him, which must never be used against anyone abandoning their chariots. Krishna gets everyone to dismount and the weapon is neutralized. After using up another weapon against Arjuna and Krishna, Ashvatthāman flees but suddenly sees Vyāsa standing before him. Vyāsa explains why the weapons failed: Arjuna and Krishna are the two eternal seers Nara and Nārāyaṇa. Moreover, Shiva and Krishna worship each other. Vyāsa also knows Ashvatthāman's previous lives in which he pleased Shiva and was his devotee. Ashvatthāman bows to Shiva and acknowledges Krishna. Vyāsa then "arrives by chance" before Arjuna, who questions him about the fiery being he has seen preceding him in battle and killing foes. Vyāsa reveals this to be Shiva, recites a hymn to him, and goes "as he came." As Gombach observes (2000, I, pp. 216–219), the Droṇaparvan is notable for its ancillary stories involving Shiva, of which there are two more (7.69.49–71; 119.1–28). Jayadratha's blocking of Abhimanyu is also enabled by a boon from Shiva.

Surprisingly, Book 8, the Karṇaparvan, is an upaparvan in itself, number 73. By the end of day fifteen the Kauravas regroup, and make Karṇa marshal that night. After minor skirmishes on day sixteen end with the Kauravas demoralized, Karṇa promises to kill Arjuna on the seventeenth, and Arjuna likewise promises Yudhishṭhira—by now obsessed about Karṇa—that he will kill Karṇa. Karṇa requests Shalya as his charioteer, since he regards Shalya as the only match for Krishna's charioteering, and Duryodhana tells Karṇa and Shalya an upākhyāna about how Brahmā came to be Shiva's charioteer in the conquest of Tripura, the "Triple City" of the demons. Shalya agrees, on the condition that he can say what he pleases, and engages Karṇa in a duel of insults that includes still another upākhyāna in which he compares Karṇa to a crow challenging a gander (probably as part of fulfilling his promise to Yudhishthira to undermine Karṇa's confidence). As the day wears on, Bhīma drinks Duhshāsana's blood, fulfilling a vow he had made at Draupadī's disrobing, and Arjuna, prompted by Krishna, finally beheads Karṇa at sunset.

Book 9, the Shalyaparvan, usually has four upaparvans (74–77). Shalya is quickly slain in upaparvan 74 by Yudhishṭhira, who marvelously changes from mild to fierce. Duryodhana rallies his forces briefly. But when he is unable to find his remaining allies, he tells Saṃjaya to tell his father he has entered a lake. He does this by solidifying the waters with his māyā, or power of illusion. This is the Dvaipāyana Lake (29.53) one that bears the name of the author.

Upaparvan 76 begins with Duryodhana recuperating in the lake. The three Kaurava survivors, Ashvatthāman, Kripa, and Kritavarman, learn his whereabouts and implore him to come out and renew the fight, which Duryodhana says he will do tomorrow. Some hunters overhear and tell the Pāṇḍavas. Krishna urges Yudhishṭhira to force Duryodhana out of the lake by counteracting Duryodhana's māyā with his own. But Yudhishṭhira, "as if smiling" (when dealing with Krishna, Yudhishṭhira, unlike Arjuna, tends to have a mind of his own), only scolds Duryodhana for retreating from battle. Duryodhana says he is resting and will come out to fight tomorrow, adding that, with his brothers gone, he has no desire to rule and would offer the earth to Yudhishṭhira. Boldly replying that Duryodhana no longer has the earth to offer, Yudhishthira goads him into making a challenge to duel one Pāṇḍava. And to Krishna's dismay, he also offers Duryodhana the choice of both foe and weapon. Duryodhana breaks up through the solidified waters shouldering his iron mace, and returns the challenge to the Pāṇḍavas to choose which one will fight him. Alarmed at the predicament, Krishna says Bhīma is the only possible choice, and that it will be Bhīma's might versus Duryodhana's skill. As the two begin to taunt each other, Krishna's brother Balarāma, who trained them both, has neared Kurukshetra on his forty-two-day pilgrimage up the Sarasvati River, and hurries to see the duel between his disciples. From this point, the rest of upaparvan 76 is a flashback in which Vaishampāyana describes the pilgrimage while supplying stories, including two upākhyānas (one so called only in passing, at 9.42.28) relevant to sites along the way.

Once Balarāma arrives, the narrative returns to Saṃjaya with upaparvan 77, "The Battle of the Bludgeons." When the going gets tough, Krishna prompts Arjuna to signal Bhīma to strike Duryodhana's thighs. Shattering both thighs and driving Duryodhana to the ground, the savagely indignant Bhīma also kicks his head with his left foot. Yudhishṭhira tells Bhīma to desist. Balarāma wants him punished for breaking the rules of mace-fighting. But Krishna tells Balarāma the Pāṇḍavas are "our natural friends" (59.13), reminds him of all the vows and debts that Bhīma has just fulfilled, and urges him to recall that "the Kali Age has arrived" (21). Seeing Krishna and the Pāṇḍavas celebrate, Duryodhana denounces Krishna for his dodgy tactics, and hearing Krishna rebuke him in turn, proclaims himself to have lived a glorious life—words met by a rain of celestial flowers. Krishna then justifies his tactics by the argument of divine precedence. While the Pāṇḍavas visit the forlorn Kaurava camp, Duryodhana sends a final message through Saṃjaya to his parents and his three surviving allies. When the three see him in his grim plight, Duryodhana asks Kripa to consecrate Ashvatthāman as his (fifth) marshal, and the three leave to hatch their plot.

Book 10, the Sauptikaparvan or "Book of the Night Raid," tells how Ashvatthāman (possessed by Shiva), Kripa, and Kritavarman massacre the sleeping remnant of the Pāṇḍava army in their camp, which the Pāṇḍavas have vacated at Krishna's recommendation. They kill all the remaining Matsyas and kinsmen of Draupadī, as well as her children. Book 11, the Strīparvan or "Book of the Women," treats the women's lamentations for the slain warriors.

Books 12, the Shāntiparvan or "Book of the Peace," begins to tell how Yudhishṭhira, beset by grief over all the warriors slain so that he could rule, is persuaded by his family, counselors (including Krishna, Nārada, and Vyāsa), and Bhīshma to give up his guiltridden aspirations to renunciation and accept his royal duties. In its early going, Krishna contributes three upākhyānas. At the capital, he recites two in a row: first, a string of sixteen vignettes about ancient kings whose deaths were also lamented, and then a death-and-revival tale about a boy named "Excretor of Gold" that briefly lightens Yudhishṭhira's mood. On the way to joining Bhīshma at Kurukshetra, he then describes Rāma Jāmadagnya's twenty-one massacres of the Kshatriyas there, answering Yudhishṭhira's curiosity about how the warrior class kept regenerating. For the rest, ten upākhyānas are dispersed through Bhīshma's multigenre instructions in the three anthologies on Rājadharma, "laws for kings," Āpaddharma, "law for times of distress," and Mokshadharma, "norms concerning liberation" (upaparvans 84-86). Bhīshma's Shāntiparvan upākhyānas are noteworthy for the long dryspells between them. There are never two in a row; in the Mokshadharma one finds intervals of as many as sixtyfour (12.194-257) and seventy-six (12.264-339) adhyāyas between them. Yet there is a striking pattern. Four of these upākhyānas confront the Dharma King Yudhishṭhira with "puzzle pieces" about dharma in which lead characters are either his own father, the god Dharma, in disguise, or figures who bear the word dharman/dharma in their names. Moreover, one such tale occurs as the last upākhyāna in each anthology. Thus Dharma himself appears disguised in the Sumitra-Upākhyāna or Rishabha Gita near the end of the Rājadharma; a magnificent crane bears the name Rājadharman in "The Story of the Ungrateful Brahman" (Kritaghna-Upākhyāna) that ends the Āpaddharma; and, after Dharma appears in another disguise in the Jāpaka-Upākhyāna, the Mokshadharma's first upākhyāna, that sub-parvan ends with the story of a questioning Brahman named Dharmaraṇya, "Forest of Dharma," who, like Yudhishṭhira at this juncture, has questions about the best practice to pursue toward gaining heaven—which turns out to be eating only what is gleaned after grains and other food have been harvested (Uñchavritti-Upākhyāna). Since Book 3 ends with an episode (an upākhyāna, according to the Parvasaṃgraha) where Dharma appears disguised as a crane and a yaksha, it would appear that one strain of the epic's upākhyānas carries a major subcurrent through such puzzle pieces, especially in that they frequently punctuate the ends of major units. Moreover, with one such story ending the Shāntiparvan, we have reached the juncture mentioned earlier where Bhīshma is launching his only concentrated stretch of upākhyānas.

Book 13, the Anushāsanaparvan or "Book of the Further Instructions," begins with Bhīshma's fourth anthology: his closing instructions to Yudhishṭhira on Dānadharma, "the law of the gift" (upaparvan 87). Here we must consider Fitzgerald's hypothesis that the four anthologies demonstrate decreasing "tautness" and increasing relaxation as the result of "a progressive loosening of editorial integration" (2004, pp. 147–148) over centuries, from the second century b.c. down to the fourth-to-fifth century a.d. (p. 114). Fitzgerald's point is buttressed by the general impression scholars have had that the Anushāsanaparvan is loose and late. R. N. Dandekar, the Critical Edition editor of this last-to-be-completed parvan, perhaps puts it best:

The scope and nature of the contents of this parvan were such that literally any topic under the sun could be broached and discussed in it. . . . This has resulted in poor Yudhishṭhira being represented as putting to his grandsire some of the most elementary questions—often without rhyme or reason. Not infrequently, these questions serve as mere excuses for introducing a legend or a doctrine fancied by the redactor, no matter if it has already occurred in an earlier part of the Epic, not once but several times (1966, xlvii).

No doubt Dandekar had the Bhangāshvana-Upākhyāna principally in mind, in which Yudhishṭhira, indeed quite out of the blue, asks, "In the act of coition, who derives the greater pleasure—man or woman" (13.12.1; Dandekar 1966, p. lix), and thereby launches Bhīshma into a tale that makes the case that the luckier ones are women. But Yudhishṭhira is hardly a simpleton. He is portrayed throughout as having an underlying guilelessness that sustains him. The four anthologies repeatedly reinforce this trope, but nowhere more pivotally than in the transition from Book 12 to 13, which marks Yudhishṭhira's revived interest in stories. He begins Book 13 stating that he is unable to regain peace of mind, even after Book 12, "out of the conviction that he alone had been responsible for the tragic catastrophe of the war," and that he feels "particularly unhappy at the pitiable condition" of Bhīshma (Dandekar 1966, pp. lvii–lviii). But once Bhīshma tells him the opening "Dialogue (Saṃvāda) Between Death, Gautamī, and Others," Yudhishṭhira replies, "O grandsire, wisest of men, you who are learned in all the treatises, I have listened to this great narrative (ākhyāna), O foremost of the intelligent. I desire to hear a little more narrated by you in connection with dharma, O king. You are able to narrate it to me. Tell me if any householder has ever succeeded in conquering Mrityu (Death) by the practice of dharma" (13.2.1-3). This appeal launches Book 13's first upākhyāna, the Sudarshana-Upākhyāna, on how, by following the "the law of treating guests" (atithidharma), Death may indeed be overcome, a tale that reveals that the divine guest through whom a householder can overcome Death by showing him full hospitality—even to the point of offering him his wife—is Dharma himself. This would be a clever, beautiful, and relieving revelation to Dharma's son Yudhishṭhira, who, just after hearing the Mokshadharma on "the norms of liberation," which he knows cannot really be for him if he is to rule, hears a story that points the way to understanding how he can still overcome death by cultivating the generosity of a gifting royal householder.

Why is Bhīshma unbottled at this juncture? Granted that the Dānadharmaparvan is relatively loose and likely late, to the point of including entries down to "the last moment," it need be no later than its literary unfolding within the Mahābhārata's primary archetypal design. The four anthologies get more and more relaxed from one to the next because the interlocutors do as well. In the Dānadharma, they are at last beginning to enjoy themselves, to put the war behind them, to treasure the dwindling light of leisure they still have to raise questions and delight in stories on the bank of the Gaṅgā before Gaṇgā's son Bhīshma puts his learned life behind him. Cutting away for Vaishampāyana to describe the scene to Janamejaya, we hear, amid praise of the Gaṅgā, how forty-five celestial seers arrive to tell stories (kathās) "related to Bhīshma" (13.27.10), stories that cheer one and all—even at the seers' parting, when Yudhishṭhira touches Bhīshma's feet with his head "at the end of a story (kathānte)" (13.27.17) and returns to his questioning, which leads Bhīshma to tell him the Mataṅga-Upākhyāna. This anticipatory theme of not ending at the end of a story, of keeping the story going with a new story, comes up again when Bhīshma winds up the Vipula-Upākhyāna by telling how Mārkaṇḍeya had formerly told it to him "in the interval of a story (kathāntare) on Gaṅgā's bank" (13.43.17). It is as if living in ongoing stories alongside the salvific river is a main current in Yudhishṭhira's atonement, and that after the relative dialogical stringency of the three anthologies of the Shāntiparvan, it is good to get back to upākhyānas in "The Book of the Further Instruction." This bears further on the matter raised by Dandekar of returning to stories "no matter if" they have "already occurred." When Bhīshma Gan and Yudhishṭhira return to such stories—most notably the Vishvāmitra-Upākhyāna (13.3–4) with its familiar cast of revolving characters (Vishvāmitra, Vasishtha, Jamadagni, Rm̄a Jāmadagnya, etc.)—it is from a new and different angle and, as always with any story, from the pleasure of hearing it again.

Book 13 then closes with a short upaparvan 88, describing Bhīshma's final ascent to heaven from his bed of arrows, attended by has celestial mother Gaṅgā.

With Book 14, the Āshvamedhikaparvan or "Book of the Horse Sacrifice," Yudhishṭhira, grieving once again over Bhīshma's demise and his guilt over the war, agrees to perform a sin-cleansing Horse Sacrifice at Vyāsa and Krishna's bidding. While the Pāṇḍavas prepare for it, Krishna wants to see his people in Dvārakā, and on the way he meets the sage Uttaṅka for the multistoried Uttaṅka-Upākhyāna. Arjuna then has many adventures guarding the horse. But immediately upon the rite's completion an angry half-golden blue-eyed mongoose appears from his hole to disparage the grand ceremony as inferior to the practice of gleaning. With this incident comes the Mahabharata's final upākhāana: this time a double puzzle story that reveals the mongoose to have been Dharma in disguise, and before that a mysterious guest who tested the anger of the rishi Jamadagni. It addresses the question of whether a king's giving to Brahmans and others in sacrifice is comparable to the gleaner's "pure gift" (shuddha dāna; 14.93.57), done with devotion and faith and without anger, to Dharma, that ever-demanding guest. Again, a major unit ends with an upākhyāna puzzle piece on this theme.

Book 15, the Āshrāmavāsikaparvan, or "Book of the Residence in the Hermitage," tells of the final days of the Pāṇḍavas' elders Dhritarāshṭra, Gāndhārī, Vidura, and Kuntī at a hermitage. Book 16, the Mausalaparvan, or "Book of the Iron Clubs," tells of the final days of Krishna's people in Dvārakā, including Krishna and Balarāma.

Book 17, the Mahāprasthānikaparvan, or "Book of the Great Departure," describes the final journey of the Pāṇḍavas and Draupadī. Book 18, the Svargārohaṇaparvan, or "Book of the Ascent to Heaven," describes how Yudhishṭhira gets to heaven in his own body after one last test by his father Dharma in the disguise of a dog, and what he finds in heaven and in hell, before he gets back to heaven.

The Essence of the Subtales

There is one other reference to the epic's upākhyānas that is yet to be plumbed. It occurs toward the end of Book 12 in the highly devotional Nārāyaṇīya (which includes the upākhyāna narrated by Ugrashravas to the Naimisha Forest rishis about Vishnu's manifestation as the Horse's Head). This takes us back where we began: to the "oceanic mind" of the author, and also to the Āstīkaparvan substory called "The Churning of the Ocean" (1.15–17). One should also recall that Duryodhana finds his last relief in an otherwise unheard of Dvaipāyana Lake.

About one-third of the way through the Nārāyaṇīya, itself an eighteen-chapter epitome of the Mahābhārata (although the Critical Edition splits a chapter and makes it nineteen), Bhīshma says that the story he has just told Yudhishṭhira about Nārada's journey to "White Island" (Shvetadvīpa)—an island somewhere on the northern shore of the milky ocean—is a "narrative (ākhyānam) coming from a seer-based transmission (ārsheyam pāramparyāgatam) that should not be given" to anyone who is not a devotee of Vishnu (12.326.113), and, moreover, that it is the "essence" of all the "other upākhyānas" he has transmitted:

Of those hundreds of other virtuous subtales (anyāni . . . upākhyānaśatāni . . . dharmyāndi) that are heard from me, king, this is raised up (or extracted, ladled out: uddhtaḥ ) as their essence (sāro); just as nectar was raised up by the gods and demons, having churned (the ocean), even so this nectar of story (kathāmritam) was formerly raised up by the sages. (12.326.114–115)

Hearing this, Yudhishṭhira and all the Pāṇḍavas become Nārāyana devotees. This suggests that one could count the "White Island" story as a sixty-eighth upākhyāna. More than that, Bhīshma holds that it is the essence of them all. He has also used ākhyāna and upākhyāna interchangeably with each other and with kathā, story. And when he speaks of the "hundreds of other virtuous upākhyānas that are heard from me," he probably implies not only those he has just told Yudhishṭhira in the Shāntiparvan, but all the others he has told or will tell elsewhere, and those which have been recited by others, which Bhīshma, given his heavenly and earthly sources, would be likely to know.

Still within the Nārāyaṇīya, just after its next major narrative, Shaunaka (correcting the Critical Edition, which makes the speaker Vaishampāyana) says to the bard (sauti) Ugrashravas:

O Sauti, very great is the narrative (ākhyāna) recited by you, having heard which, the sages are all gone to the highest wonder..Surely having churned the supreme ocean of knowledge by this hundred thousand (verse) Bhārata narrative (akhyāna) with the churning of your thought—as butter from milk, as sandal from Mount Malaya, and as Āraṇyaka (forest instruction) from the Vedas, as nectar from herbs—so is this supreme nectar of story (kathāmritam) . . . raised up [as] spoken by you, which rests on the story (kathā) of Nārāyaṇa. (12.331.1–4)

Although Shaunaka commends Ugrashravas for "having churned the supreme ocean of knowledge by this hundred thousand (verse) Bhārata-ākhyāna with the churning of your thought" (that is, Ugrashravas's thought), we must remember that Ugrashravas is only said to be transmitting the Mahābhārata to the Naimisha Forest rishis as the "entire thought" of Vyāsa (1.1.23). This suggests that the full hundred thousand verses—with the upākhyānas included—of the Bhārata-ākhyāna were churned first by Vyāsa before they were rechurned by Ugrashravas, with Vaishampāyana, their intermediary, having also delivered Vyāsa's "entire thought" (1.55.2) at Janamejaya's snake sacrifice, where Ugrashravas overheard it.

Then, still within the Mokshadharma anthology of the Shāntiparvan, before these two passages but leading up to the story of Shuka (12.310–320), there is a third passage that uses the same metaphor and similes. It occurs within Bhīshma's account of the lengthy instruction that Vyāsa gives to his firstborn son Shuka (12.224–246), who is not only one of Vyāsa's five disciples (Vaishampāyana being another) to have first heard the Mahābhārata from him, but the son who will obtain liberation before the Mahābhārata—despite Shuka's having heard it—can have fully happened. Says Vyāsa,

Untraditional and unprecedented, the secret of all the Vedas, this treatise (shāstra), of which everyone can convince himself, is instruction for my son (putrānuśāsanam). By churning the wealth that is contained in all the narratives (ākhyn̄as) about dharma and all the narratives about truth, as also the ten thousand Rigvedic verses, this nectar has been raised—like butter from curds and fire from wood, as also the knowledge of the wise, even has this been raised for the sake of my son (putrahetoḥ samuddhritam). (12.238.13–15)

The churning metaphor thus finds Vyāsa at its bottom, since he would be the first to use it—before Bhīshma or Ugrashravas. Indeed, Shuka is born when Vyāsa sees a nymph and ejaculates his semen onto his churning fire-sticks (12.311.1-10). Vyāsa's instruction to Shuka would also be churned up from all the ākhyānas—presumably of the Mahābhārata, which would imply as well the upākhyānas and likewise imply that this "treatise" for his son epitomizes the Mahābhārata itself. Shuka's agenda of seeking liberation (moksha) is set here, and he attains moksha toward the end of Book 12 as a boy, soon after he is born, and just before the Nārāyaṇīya and Bhīshma's grand run of upākhyānas from Book 12 into Book 13. Taking the passage literally, it seems to say that Vyāsa churned all the Mahābhārata's narratives about dharma and truth for the sake of Shuka'a liberation, the very thing that Yudhishṭhira, shortly after hearing that story, accepts that he must do without, while asking for further stories.

These churning passages are hightened reflections on at least two of the purposes of narrative within the Mahābhārata's overall grand design: that it all rests on Nārāyaṇa, and that its essence is liberating instruction on both truth and dharma. They would seem to reflect the exuberant overview from within on the part of those who were involved in the production of the earliest totality of this work.

Alf Hiltebeitel

See alsoRāmāyaṇa ; Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata Paintings


Biardeau, Madeleine. "Nala et Damayantī: Héros épiques." Part 1. Indo-Iranian Journal 27 (1984): 247–274.

——. "Nala et Damayantī: Héros épiques." Part 2. Indo-Iranian Journal 28 (1985): 1–34.

——. Le Mahābhārata: Un récit fondateur du brahmanisme et son interprétation. 2 vols. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2002.

Brockington, John L. The Sanskrit Epics. Handbuch der Orientalistik, Zweite Abteilung, Indien, vol. 12, edited by J. Bronkhorst. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1998.

Dandekar, R. N, ed. Anuśāsanaparvan. Introduction and apparatus. Vol. 17 of Mahābhārata: Critical Edition, edited by V. S. Sukthankar et al. 24 vols. with Harivaśa. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1966.

Fitzgerald, James L. "The Many Voices of the Mahābhārata." Review of Hiltebeitel, 2001. Journal of the American Oriental Society 123, no. 4 (2003): 803–818.

Fitzgerald, James L., trans. and ed. The Mahābhārata, vol. 7: 11, The Book of the Women; 12, The Book of Peace, Part One. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

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Gombach, Barbara. "Ancillary Stories in the Sanskrit Mahābhārata." Ph.D. diss., 2 parts, Columbia University, 2000.

Hiltebeitel, Alf. The Education of Yudhihṭhira: A Reader's Guide to the Education of the Dharma King. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Shulman, David. The Wisdom of Poets: Studies in Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001.

van Buitenen, J. A. B. The Mahābhārata , vols. I: 1. The Book of Beginnings; II: 2. The Book of the Assembly Hall; 3. The Book of the Forest; III: 4. The Book of Virata; 5. The Book of the Effort. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973, 1975, 1978.

Van Nooten, Barend A. The Mahābhārata. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971.


views updated May 18 2018

Mahābhārata. A great epic of India. It comprises 100,000 verses (in all, seven times the Iliad plus the Odyssey in length), divided into eighteen books, supplemented by a nineteenth, the Harivaṃśa. The epic recounts the events before, during, and after the great battle for kingship fought at Kurukṣetra between the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas, branches of the Kuru lineage and descendants of Bharata (whence the Skt., Mahābhārata, ‘the great [tale of] Bharata's descendants’). Also included is didactic material of encyclopaedic proportions (particularly in books 12 and 13, the Śānti- and Anuśāsanaparvans), along with elaborate genealogies and much myth and legend (especially in books 1 and 3).

The Mahābhārata in its present form grew up over a long period of time, c.400 BCE–400 CE. The action of the Mahābhārata proceeds at several levels at once. First is the typically Indo-European heroic tale of the battle of good against evil. From this point of view, the Kurukṣetra war is visualized as a gigantic sacrifice conducted by semi-divine epic heroes. Mixed with this semi-mythical material is consideration of the human-centred issue of the decline of dharma at the onset of the Kaliyuga, the present degenerate age of history. One high point of human uncertainty in the epic is the episode of the Bhagavad-gītā, in which the Pāṇḍava hero Arjuna casts down his weapons before the war begins, dismayed at the prospect of having to fight against his relatives and elders on the other side. In the Bhagavad-gītā and throughout the Mahābhārata, it is a ‘Hindu’ element, revolving particularly around the character of the god Viṣṇu, incarnate as Kṛṣṇa, and his alliance with the Pāṇḍavas, which resolves the tension. The stage production by Peter Brook (1985) was filmed in 1989.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Mahabharata (Sanskrit, ‘Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty’) Poem of almost 100,000 couplets, written between c.400 bc and 200. One of India's two major Sanskrit epics (the other is the Ramayana), the verse incorporates the Bhagavad Gita (‘Song of the Lord’). It is important both as literature and as Hindu religious instruction.


views updated May 29 2018

Mahabharata one of the two great Sanskrit epics of the Hindus (the other is the Ramayana), that evolved over centuries, existing in its present form since c.400 ad. Probably the longest single poem in the world, it describes the civil war waged between the five Pandava brothers and their one hundred stepbrothers at Kuruksetra near modern Delhi; the numerous interpolated episodes include the Bhagavadgita.