The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Among the descendants of King Bharata (after whose name India was called Bharata-varsha, land of the Bharatas) there are two successors to the throne of Hastinapura. Of these, the elder, Dhritarashtra, is blind and gives over the reins of government to his younger brother, Pandu. Pandu grows weary of his duties and retires to hunt and enjoy himself. Again, Dhritarashtra takes control, aided by the advice and example of his wise old uncle, Bhishma. Upon Pandu’s death, his five sons are put under the care of his younger brother, who has one hundred sons of his own.

At first the king’s household is peaceful and free from strife, but gradually it becomes apparent that Pandu’s sons are far more capable of ruling than any of Dhritarashtra’s heirs. Of the Pandavas, the name given to the five descendants of Pandu, all are remarkably able, but the oldest, Yudhishthira, is judged most promising and therefore is chosen heir-apparent to the throne of the old blind king. To this selection of their cousin as the future king, the king’s own sons take violent exception. Accordingly, they persuade their father to allow the Pandavas to leave the court and live by themselves. From a trap set by the unscrupulous Duryodhana, leader of the king’s sons, the five brothers escape to the forest with their mother. There they spend some time in rustic exile.

In the meantime, King Drupada has announced that the hand of his daughter, Princess Draupadi, will be given to the hero surpassing all others in a feat of strength and skill, and he has invited throngs of noblemen to compete for his daughter’s hand. In disguise, the Pandavas set out for King Drupada’s court.

More than two weeks are spent in celebrating the approaching nuptials of the princess before the trial of strength that will reveal the man worthy of taking the lovely princess as his wife. The test is to grasp a mighty bow, fit an arrow, bend the bow, and hit a metal target with the arrow. Contestant after contestant fails in the effort to bend the huge bow. Finally, Arjuna, third of the sons of Pandu, comes forward and performs the feat with little effort to win the hand of the princess. In curious fashion, Princess Draupadi becomes the wife of all five of the brothers. At this time, also, the Pandavas meet their cousin on their mother’s side, Krishna of Dvaraka. This renowned Yadava nobleman they accept as their special counselor and friend, and to him they owe much of their future success and power.

Hoping to avert dissension after his death, King Dhritarashtra decides to divide his kingdom into two parts, giving his hundred sons, the Kauravas, one portion and the Pandavas the other. Thus, Dhritarashtra’s sons rule in Hastinapur and the five sons of Pandu in Indraprastha. The dying king’s attempt to settle affairs of government amicably results in peace and prosperity for a brief period. Then the wily Duryodhana, leader of the Kauravas, sets another trap for the Pandavas. On this occasion he entices Yudhishthira, the oldest of the brothers, into a game of skill at dice. When the latter loses, the penalty is that the five brothers are to leave the court and spend the next twelve years in the forest. At the end of that time they are to have their kingdom and holdings once again if they can pass another year in disguise, without having anyone recognize them.

The twelve-year period of rustication is one of many romantic and heroic adventures. All five brothers are concerned in stirring events; Arjuna, in particular, travels far and long, visits the sacred stream of the Ganges, is courted by several noble ladies, and finally marries Subhadra, sister of Krishna.

When the long time of exile is over, the Pandavas and Kauravas engage in a war of heroes. Great armies are assembled; mountains of supplies are brought together. Just before the fighting begins, Krishna steps forth and sings the divine song, the Bhagavad Gita, in which he sets forth such theological truths as the indestructibility of the soul, the necessity to defend the faith, and other fundamental precepts of the theology of Brahma. By means of this song Arjuna is relieved of his doubts concerning the need to make his trial by battle.

The war lasts for some eighteen consecutive days, each day marked by fierce battles, single combats, and bloody attacks. Death and destruction are everywhere—the battlefields are strewn with broken bodies and ruined weapons and chariots. The outcome is the annihilation of all the pretensions of the Kauravas and their allies to rule over the kingdom. Finally, Yudhishthira ascends the throne amid great celebrations, the payment of rich tribute, and the ceremonial horse sacrifice.

Later, the death of their spiritual and military counselor, Krishna, leads the five brothers to realize their weariness with earthly pomp and striving. Accordingly, Yudhishthira gives up his duties as ruler. The five brothers then band together, clothe themselves as hermits, and set out for Mount Meru, the dwelling place of the gods on high. They are accompanied by their wife, Draupadi, and a dog that joins them on their journey. As they proceed, one after the other drops by the way and perishes. At last only Yudhishthira and the faithful dog remain to reach the portals of heaven. When the dog is refused admission to that holy place, Yudhishthira declines to enter without his canine companion. Then the truth is revealed—the dog is in reality the god of justice himself, sent to test Yudhishthira’s constancy.

Yudhishthira is not content in heaven, for he soon realizes that his brothers and Draupadi have been required to descend to the lower regions and there expiate their mortal sins. Lonely and disconsolate, he decides to join them until all can be united in heaven. After he spends some time in that realm of suffering and torture, the gods take pity on him. Along with his brothers and Draupadi, he is transported back to heaven, where all dwell in perpetual happiness.

Mahabharata Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Kurukshetra

Kurukshetra. Plain of the Kurus (another name for the Bharatas); the battlefield on which the two factions meet. Just before the battle, Krishna outlines a philosophy of life and theological truths to Arjuna—a long commentary that is often printed separately as the Bhagavad Gita (song of the lord), a sacred Hindu religious text. Considering Krishna’s spiritual message, the plain might be seen as the battlefield of life, on which one’s nobler self must fight against one’s baser self.

Hastinapur

Hastinapur. Capital of the Bharata Kingdom in which the five Pandavas and one hundred Kauravas grow up together and site of the inheritance over which they fight.

Indraprastha

Indraprastha. Capital of the Pandavas’ part of the Bharata Kingdom after King Dhritarashtra divide the kingdom in an attempt to prevent civil war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.

Assembly hall

Assembly hall. Grand hall built especially for the occasion of a dice game, in which the Pandavas lose everything and agree to go into exile in a forest.

Kingdom of Matsya

Kingdom of Matsya. King Virata’s court, at which the Pandavas spend the thirteenth year of their exile incognito. The Kauravas’ invasion of Matsya during the last year of the Pandavas’ exile precipitates the latter’s involvement in the struggle and the consequent premature revelation of Arjuna’s true identity and the Kauravas’ subsequent refusal to return the kingdom as promised.

Indra’s heaven

Indra’s heaven. Final resting place for brave warriors who die in battle; one of many heavens mentioned in the epic. During the Pandavas’ exile in the forest, Arjuna departs to find divine weapons and eventually visits Indra’s heaven for years while learning to use the weapons. At the end of the epic, Yudhishthera realizes that all is illusion, including heaven and hell.

*Ganges River

*Ganges River (GAN-jeez). River in the northeast part of the Indian subcontinent that Hindus consider to be sacred. In the epic, the Ganges is a river goddess, Bhishma’s mother.

Mahabharata Historical Context

Scholars locate the historical setting of the Mahabharata in a vast area of northern India sometime around 1000 BC. The poem features...

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Mahabharata Literary Style

Narrative Technique—Frame Stories
The complex structure of the Mahabharata exists in part due to its shape as a series...

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Mahabharata Compare and Contrast

1000 BC (the period in which the Mahabharata
is set): Three thousand years ago the region which is today known as India...

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Mahabharata Topics for Further Study

Who writes history? Much of Indian history prior to the entrance of Muslims into the region in the 11th century exists only in literary form,...

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Mahabharata Media Adaptations

The Mahabharata was adapted as a full-length stage play by Jean-Claude Carriere and premiered in Avignon, France in 1985. Peter...

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Mahabharata What Do I Read Next?

The hero of Virgil's Aeneid, the Trojan warrior Aeneas, departs from the Trojan War and wanders for seven years in the Mediterranean...

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Mahabharata Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources for Further Study
Buck, Philo M. "Kama, Karma, and Nirvana," in The Golden Thread, The Macmillan Company, 1931,...

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Mahabharata Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Goldman, Robert P. Gods, Priests, and Warriors: The Bhrgus of the “Mahabharata.” New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. Analysis of the literary and mythic significance of the tales of the priestly clan known as the Bhrgus, of Bhargavas, whose exploits make up a substantial portion of the text of the Mahabharata. Explores the relationship of the epic to historical events which may have inspired it.

Hiltebeitel, Alf. The Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the “Mahabharata.” Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976. Focuses on the role of the Indian god Krishna in the epic; explains the structure of the work and elucidates its relationship to Indian myth and history.

Hopkins, Edward Washburn. The Great Epic of India. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902. Detailed analysis of the Mahabharata’s organization, its textual history, and its technical qualities. Still exceptionally helpful for understanding the complexity of the story and themes.

Narasimhan, Chakravarthi V. Introduction to The Mahabharata. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965. Outlines the plot of this complex, rambling work. Highlights the human qualities of the epic heroes and notes the underlying emphasis on the necessity for peace to bring about happiness.

Van Nooten, Barend A. The Mahabharata. New York: Twayne, 1971. Excellent guidebook to the epic. Includes a detailed summary of the story; explains its mythology, and examines the literary history of the work. Assesses the impact of the Mahabharata on modern India and on the West.