Son of Kunti by the god Indra, Arjuna is, next to Karna, the greatest warrior in the poem and one of the five heroes of the Mahabharata. Trained by the military expert Drona from a young age, this Pandava prince is skilled in archery, able to string and release dozens of arrows with deadly accuracy in mere seconds. A gallant warrior, Arjuna is called Vijaya, or "victor" and Dhanamjaya, or "winner of wealth." Although an unconquerable fighter at the start of the great battle, Arjuna experiences an intense feeling of self-doubt and loses his resolution to fight when he sees his kinsmen lined up against him. His courage is restored by Krishna, who sings to him the Bhagavad Gita, or the "Song of the Lord." With these words the divine Krishna convinces Arjuna that death is merely an illusion, that souls are immortal and return, reincarnated, to the earth after a period in heaven.
Arjuna's exploits include his journey to Indra's heaven—where his father, the king of the gods, advises him—and his discovery of magical weapons to aid the Pandavas in the war against the Kauravas. He also draws King Drupada's bow at Draupadi's svayamvara, or ceremony of self-choice, winning her as wife for himself and his brothers. He defends the town of Matsya from the attacking forces of Duryodhana, and slays Karna during the climactic moment of the great war. Near the end of the poem, he ascends to heaven with his brothers and wife, after a brief time of...
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Karna, "the archer-king," is son of Surya, god of the sun, and Kunti. A magnificent warrior, Karna is born with natural armor attached to his skin, making him nearly invincible in battle. Because she is unmarried when she gives birth to him, Kunti sends him adrift on a river, hoping that he will be found by worthy parents. He is adopted and raised by Adhiratha, a charioteer, and travels to the imperial capital of Hastinapura when he grows up. Duryodhana, who has been looking for a warrior skilled enough to defeat his enemy Arjuna, makes Karna king of Anga. Thus, Karna fights on the side of the Kauravas against his own half-brothers, the Pandavas, in the great war.
Karna is a tragic figure in the Mahabharata. He remains true to his dharma, or sacred duty as a warrior, even when it causes him great personal sorrow to do so. Once he swears to fight his brothers, he never rescinds his vow. He also deeply regrets the fact that his mother will not acknowledge him publically as another of her sons. When the god Indra, Arjuna's father, requests his armor, Karna gives it to him, even though he knows this will put him at a great disadvantage on the battlefield. In return for this sacrifice, Karna asks for a weapon of incredible power, a magical dart that will assure the destruction of any enemy, but may be used only once. The Pandavas force the use of this weapon against them early, so that it will no longer be a threat to the Pandavas. Without his...
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The earthly manifestation of the Hindu god Vishnu (the Preserver), Krishna is chief of the Yadavas, a race hailing from the ancient city of Dwaraka in western India. A physical incarnation, or avatar, of the god in mortal form, Krishna is the binding force and spiritual center of the Mahabharata. His name means "dark," and Krishna is usually represented as having dark blue skin. Though mortal in the poem, he is able to reveal his divine form to those around him. Possessing the wisdom of the all-pervasive Vishnu who is said to "repose in truth, truth in him," Krishna is infallible. During the great war, however, he refuses to fight on either side. Instead he offers himself, unarmed, or ten thousand of his Yadava warriors. Arjuna chooses the former, while Duryodhana happily takes the latter.
Krishna is sometimes called Krishna Vyasa Dvaipayana and credited with composing the Mahabharata, yet in the poem he is Arjuna's friend and charioteer, a character separate from the poet and seer Vyasa. As Arjuna's companion, Krishna is present throughout the work, though he makes his divine presence known most effectively when he sings the "Song of the Lord," the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna's song serves to dispel Arjuna's doubts about the war. Krishna imparts his wisdom to the warrior and destroys his fear, informing him that death is an illusion, a moment of passage between one existence and the next. Krishna tells Arjuna that he must fight with...
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Son of Pandu's first wife Kunti by Dharma (the god of justice), Yudhishthira is the oldest of the five Pandava brothers and is destined to be king of Kurujangala. Noble and aloof, he is the foremost example of the Hindu warrior who follows the precepts of dharma, or sacred duty. Seldom perturbed, Yudhishthira is courageous, strong, prudent, and patient. His name means "firm in battle," a quality which he displays near the end of the great war, as he forsakes his otherwise tranquil exterior and savagely attacks the Kaurava general, Salya. He also demonstrates his courage and propriety by dropping his weapons and armor prior to the battle, and asking the permission of Bhishma, Drona, and Kripa to fight them.
Yudhishthira's most notable traits, apart from his detachment, are his taste for gambling and inability to refuse a challenge. (This last is related to his code of conduct as a warrior, and therefore is not regarded as a flaw). Duryodhana and Sakuni exploit these qualities of Yudhishthira's character by inviting him to take part in a game of dice. Yudhishthira agrees and, due to their cheating, loses first his kingdom of Indraprastha, then—because he will not stop gambling even though he is losing—goes on to lose his brothers, their shared wife Draupadi, and himself, thus setting the stage for the great battle.
After the war, Yudhishthira, now king, feels a great responsibility for the near total destruction of his people. He...
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Arjuna's son by Subhadra, Abhimanyu is killed in the great war by Duhsasana after his chariot is cut off from the main Pandava force by King Jayadratha. He fathers one son, Parikshit, by his wife Uttarah.
A charioteer from the kingdom of Anga, Adhiratha adopts and raises Karna after finding him floating in the Ganges river.
The eldest princess of Banaras, Amba is abducted by Bhishma along with her sisters Ambika and Ambalika to serve as wives for Vichitravirya. She refuses, and instead flees west to be with her true love, the King of Salwa. She later throws herself into a flaming pyre in order to be reincarnated as Sikhandin.
The second of Vichitravirya's wives, Ambalika is impregnated by the poet Vyasa. Frightened by Vyasa's appearance, she turns pale, and gives birth to a pale-skinned son whom she names Pandu, meaning "white," "pale," or "pale yellow."
Though married to Vichitravirya, Ambika's son Dhritarashtra is fathered by the poet Vyasa. She reacts to Vyasa's frightful appearance by closing her eyes, and her son Dhritarashtra is born blind.
The learned son of a Naga and a hermit, Astika asks King Janamejaya to stop the snake sacrifice on behalf of his people.
Son of Drona, Aswatthaman is a mighty warrior who fights with the Kaurava army. After the death of his father during the war, Aswatthaman gives way to an almost uncontrollable anger and thirst for revenge. He employs the magical weapon of Narayana, which is capable of killing the entire Pandava army. Krishna counteracts its force, however, by telling the Pandavas to drop their weapons and turn their thoughts from war, rendering them immune to its power. After the Narayana fails, Aswatthaman is demoralized and believes the Kauravas will lose. Following their defeat, he unleashes an incredible weapon, taught to him by his father. Called the Brahmasira, it even has the power to destroy the world. Stopped by Arjuna with the help of Krishna, Aswatthaman nevertheless cannot fully control the weapon and launches it into the womb of Uttarah, killing her unborn son Abhimanyu (though Krishna later restores the child's life). Aswatthaman was born with a blue jewel affixed to the middle of his forehead, which he relinquishes to Arjuna after his final defeat.
Twin gods known as "the harbingers of dawn," the Aswins father Nakula and Sahadeva by Madri, Pandu's second wife.
Krishna's brother, Balarama teaches the art of mace warfare to both Bhima and Duryodhana. He is appalled when Bhima fights unfairly by striking Duryodhana below the navel with his mace. At his death a huge snake with a thousand heads comes out of his mouth.
A legendary king called Chakravarti or "Universal Emperor," Bharata gives his name to the people that are the subject of the Mahabharata.
Son of Kunti by Vayu and one of the five Pandava princes, Bhima possesses incredible strength. He is a rash, impulsive warrior who often fights with a huge mace, standing in sharp contrast to his elder brother, Yudhishthira, who embodies nobility, patience, and wise judgment. Among his epithets are "Bhimaparakrama," or "he who has a terrible valor." Representing unchecked power, Bhima is the source of incredible carnage throughout the Mahabharata. He kills countless Rakshasas, Kaurava soldiers, even armored elephants. His violence often has a higher purpose, however. He consistently defends the honor of his wife, Draupadi, although his measures are typically extreme. Bhima crushes Kichaka to death when the general pursues his wife. He vows revenge against Duhsasana for his affront to Draupadi by publicly disrobing her. Some interpretations of Bhima's character find that he goes too far when he kills Duhsasana and drinks his blood as he swore to; however, other commentators note that in so doing, Bhima was avenging a terrible wrong and fulfilling a vow he had sworn to carry out. Bhima exemplifies heedless but well-intentioned action, and after expiating his sins in hell, he ascends to heaven.
Although Bhishma fathers no children of his own, he is more than any other figure in the Mahabharata the patriarch of the Bharata people. His name means "awe-inspiring," and this son of Santanu and the goddess Ganga is an emblem of the wise warrior. Renouncing his right to the throne, he agrees to remain celibate so that his father might marry Satyavati. Instead of ruling, Bhishma seeks to strengthen his race through wise action. In exchange for giving up his future rights to kingship, Santanu grants him a blessing, that he will never die until he so chooses. During the great war, Bhishma is selected by Duryodhana as the first general of the Kaurava army. His skill as a military commander is unparalleled, and he leads his forces to many early victories. Bhishma, however, will not fight Sikhandin, who was born a woman but later changed sex. After nine days of battle the Pandavas learn this fact and send Sikhandin against Bhishma. Bhishma is not immediately killed by Sikhandin. After the hostilities have ended, Bhishma speaks to King Yudhishthira, counseling him on ethics, law, morality, kingship, and philosophy. After he has finished, his soul departs for heaven.
Santanu's eldest son by Satyavati, Chitrangada dies in battle before marrying or producing a son.
Chitraratha is king of the Gandharvas, powerful supernatural creatures who are the heavenly musicians. A friend of Arjuna, he imprisons Duryodhana and his entourage in an iron net until Arjuna arrives and frees them.
God of justice, truth, and righteousness, Dharma fathers Yudhishthira and tests his son's worthiness on several occasions in the Mahabharata. Dharma disguises his true identity while on earth, taking the form of a crane or a dog. It is in the form of a dog that he accompanies his son Yudhishthira on his final journey before his death; Yudhishthira proves his righteousness one last time through his kindness to his animal companion over the difficult journey.
Dhrishtadyumna is the son of King Drupada, brother of Draupadi, and the general of the Pandava army. Born with armor and a sword from a fire Drupada built for the god Shiva, Dhrishtadyumna fights valiantly in the great war, but shamefully slays Drona while his opponent kneels, unarmed. This act is one of revenge for his father's death, but is considered cowardly according to the dharma of war. As a form of poetic justice, Dhrishtadyumna is likewise killed unheroically, as he sleeps in his tent, by Aswatthaman.
King of Kurujangala for most of the Mahabharata, Dhritarashtra's name means "he who supports the kingdom." This is somewhat ironic, however, considering that he lacks the will to stop the great war, though by his own admission he possesses the strength to do so. Dhritarashtra is the eldest grandson of Santanu. Blind from birth, he ascends to the throne after the abdication of his younger brother Pandu. He marries Gandhari, who bears him one hundred sons, the Kauravas, who are the antagonists of the poem and represent the forces of evil and chaos. Dhritarashtra's primary failing is not malice, however, it is, appropriately, blindness—his inability to see clearly the events that are unfolding and to stop them. Dhritarashtra does exhibit kindness on occasion, though it sometimes has detrimental effects. He offers aid to Draupadi after the game of dice in which Yudhishthira loses her, as well as his kingdom, his brothers, and himself. She asks that her husbands be set free, and he grants this wish. Unfortunately, this action opens the way for the future revenge of the Pandavas. Following the war, Dhritarashtra laments the destruction of his sons and steps down from his throne.
Daughter of King Drupada of Panchala, Draupadi marries all five of the Pandava princes. Born of a fire that Drupada built in honor of Shiva, Draupadi is brave, pure, noble, and beautiful. Her strength of character is equal to that of her five husbands, and from her comes the most resolute feminine perspective in the Mahabharata. Because of her great beauty, Draupadi is frequently abused or abducted by men who desire her. Thus, she must constantly be protected by her husbands from such individuals as King Jayadratha, General Kichaka, and Prince Duhsasana. Despite these continual assaults on her character and person, however, Draupadi maintains her poise, balance, and dignity throughout the poem.
A Brahmin and military man, Drona teaches the Bharata princes the art of warfare. His star pupil is Arjuna, whom he teaches—along with his own son, Aswatthaman—the most deadly techniques of war. His name means "bucket." According to the story of his birth, Drona was conceived when his father saw a heavenly Apsara and his seed fell into a bowl of water. A respected figure in the Kuru court, Drona acts as an advisor to Dhritarashtra and serves as general of the Kaurava army after the elimination of Bhishma. A formidable warrior and commander who obeys the rules and codes of martial conflict, Drona slays King Drupada during the great battle. When he hears the untruth that his son is dead he throws down his weapons in anguish and is slain by the king's son, Dhrishtadyumna.
Drupada is king of Panchala. Motivated by revenge for Drona's attack on, and occupation of, his kingdom, Drupada fights on behalf of the Pandavas during the great war. In a dream King Drupada hears Shiva tell him that he will be given a son and a daughter, born of fire. He builds this fire in honor of the god, and from the flames step Dhrishtadyumna and Draupadi. During the war, Drupada is slain by Drona, but his death is avenged by his son.
Duhsala is the sole daughter of Dhritarashtra and Gandhari.
The second son of Dhritarashtra, Duhsasana forcefully attempts to publicly disrobe Draupadi after she is lost to the Kauravas in a game of dice. Cunning, evil, and fearless in battle, Duhsasana often taunts his opponents. His remarks and actions earn him the disdain of the Pandavas, especially Bhima, who vows to avenge his insult to Draupadi by drinking his blood. When Duhsasana attacks Bhima during the great war, Bhima fulfills this promise and slays the Kaurava prince.
Eldest son of Dhritarashtra, Prince Duryodhana plays the role of chief antagonist in the Mahabharata. His name means "difficult to conquer," and his intelligence, determination, strength, and military skill make him a worthy opponent, equal to any of the five Pandavas. A wicked, powerful man, Duryodhana often scorns good advice. Ruled by ambition, his primary motivation is a lust for power, leading to his absolute refusal to split the kingdom of Kurujangala with his cousin Yudhishthira, and prompting the great...
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