Mahabharata Summary

The Mahabharata is an ancient Indian epic about two families who vie for the throne of Hastinapura. These families, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, disagree about the proper line of succession.

  • The Kaurava family attempts to claim the throne. However, despite being the senior family, their eldest member is younger than the eldest member of the Pandavas, who cite this as a reason for the Pandavas to inherit the throne instead.

  • Much of the epic details the marriages, births, and deaths within these two families.

  • The conflict culminates in the battle of Kurukshetra. The Pandavas defeat the Kauravas and ascend the throne.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3831

Adi-Parva, First Book: The Origins of the Families
The story opens as Sauti, a storyteller returning from the snake sacrifice of King Janamejaya, approaches several wise men, or rishis, in the forest of Naimisha. He relates to them the Mahabharata as he has heard it from Vaisampayana, a disciple of the poet Vyasa. Sauti begins by recounting the death of King Parikshit of the Bharatas at the hands of Takshaka, a Naga, or snake-man. King Janamejaya, Parikshit's son and successor, had held the snake sacrifice in order to avenge the death of his father, but the ceremony was stopped by the intervention of the learned Naga, Astika. Sauti then recounts the origins of the Bharatas (also known as the Kurus), a race descended from the great King Bharata of Kurujangala.

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Sauti quotes the story as told by Vaisampayana at the sacrifice. Vaisampayana describes the origins of Santanu, a descendent of Bharata loved by Ganga, the goddess of the Ganges river. She and King Santanu have a child called Bhishma. Later Santanu falls in love with Satyavati, a beautiful woman born from a fish. Long ago Satyavati had given birth to the poet Vyasa, but now she agrees to marry Santanu on the condition that her future son by Santanu would become king. Santanu tells his son Bhishma of this wish, and Bhishma forsakes his right to the throne. The two then marry, and Satyavati bears two sons, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Chitrangada, the elder, becomes king after Santanu retires to the forest. But the new king is killed in battle before he can produce an heir and the young Vichitravirya takes his place. Bhishma, in an attempt to continue the royal line, abducts three princesses from a neighboring kingdom. Two of them, Ambika and Ambalika, agree to marry Vichitravirya, while the third, Amba, departs to be with her true love. But the young king dies of consumption before siring any children, so Bhishma asks his half-brother Vyasa to father children by Vichitravirya's wives.

When Vyasa approaches Ambika she closes her eyes, and thus her son Dhritarashtra is born blind. When her sister Ambalika sees Vyasa she turns pale with fright and her son, Pandu (meaning "pale"), is born with very light skin. Although Dhritarashtra is older, Bhishma makes Pandu king because his brother cannot see. Pandu marries Princess Kunti, who chooses him at her svayamvara, the ceremony of self-choice. Pandu also takes a second wife, Madri. He reigns as king of Kurujangala, living in the city of Hastinapura for several years and then retires to the Himalayas with Kunti and Madri. One day while out hunting, Pandu shoots a deer that curses him, foretelling that he will die while making love to one of his wives. The formerly sexually insatible Pandu avoids sexual contact with his wives, and encourages them to bear him sons from unions with the gods. His wife Kunti summons Dharma, the god of justice, who fathers Yudhishthira. Then she gives birth to Bhima by Vayu, the god of the wind, and Arjuna by Indra, the king of the gods. Madri also uses Kunti's mantra, evoking the gods called the Aswins, who give her twin sons, Nakula and Sahadeva. Meanwhile, Dhritarashtra has become king and marries Gandhari, who choses to live with her eyes blindfolded when she learns that her husband is blind. As Vyasa had prophesied, Gandhari gives birth to one hundred sons and one daughter—all of whom come from a single ball of flesh that lies in her womb for two years. Called the Kauravas, the eldest son is Duryodhana, the second boy is Duhsasana, while the sole daughter is called Duhsala.

Several years later, Pandu gives in to desire and embraces Madri. He dies instantly, according to the prophecy, as does Madri, from fear. Pandu's sons, known as the five Pandavas, return with Pandu's widow Kunti to Hastinapura. They are welcomed by King Dhritarashtra, and raised with his own sons. All are instructed in the military arts by the tutors Kripa and Drona, as is Drona's son Aswatthaman. The Bharata princes excel at warfare, but Drona's star pupil is Arjuna. Adept with a bow, Arjuna's skills are unparalleled, until one day an even greater warrior arrives. This is Karna. The son of Kunti and Surya (the sun god), Karna was born with golden armor attached to his skin. But Kunti, young and unmarried, set her son adrift on a river to be found and raised by suitable parents. He was adopted by Adhiratha, a charioteer. None of the Pandavas realize that Karna is their brother, and the armored warrior bests them all in martial feats. Kripa, however, questions Karna's presence, noting that he is not a prince. Duryodhana is impressed with Karna—and more importantly, he has been looking for a warrior who could defeat Arjuna. Duryodhana and Karna become friends, but according to traditions of obligation, Karna is indebted to Duryodhana for his kingship and hence owes the prince a great favor. Led into battle by Drona, the Pandavas attack the nearby kingdom ruled by Drupada, and Drona seizes one half of the king's lands.

The Pandavas return to Hastinapura and Yudhishthira becomes heir to the throne of Kurujangala. Jealous and fearing the loss of his future throne, Duryodhana hatches a plot to destroy the five and acquire the kingdom for himself. While his cousins and Kunti are visiting the town of Varanavata, they are to stay in a special house constructed by one of Duryodhana's henchmen which he plans to have burned. Before the Pandavas leave, however, Vidura warns Yudhishthira of the planned trap. Bhima plans an escape route by digging a tunnel under the house through which they escape. Kunti and the five Pandavas are thought to have perished in the flames. They actually flee into the forest.

While traveling in the wilderness, Bhima happens upon Hidimba, the beautiful sister of a Rakshasa, or forest-demon, Hidimba-asur. Bhima falls in love with her and kills her brother as the fiend is about to kill the Pandavas and Kunti. Hidimba bears Bhima a son, Ghatotkacha, "the pot-headed." The five brothers, disguised as Brahmins (religious men), and their mother continue to wander through the forest. Bhima slays another Rakshasa, Vaka, saving the people in the village of Ekachakra. Hearing of the upcoming svayamvara of King Drapada's daughter, Draupadi, the Pandavas set out for his kingdom. Arjuna, still in disguise, succeeds in the king's test of skill with a bow, and wins the beautiful Draupadi as his wife. Fulfilling a prophecy, Draupadi marries not just Arjun but all five of the brothers. Dhritarashtra hears that the Pandavas are alive and consults his advisors. Bhishma, Drona, and Vidura suggest that the kingdom be divided. Yudhishthira becomes king and the Pandavas construct the splendid city of Indraprastha.

Yudhisthira's rule at Indraprastha is peaceful for more than a decade. Meanwhile Arjuna leaves his brother's kingdom for twelve years. He visits the wise and mighty Krishna in the city of Dwaraka. There he falls in love with Subhadra, Krishna's sister, and embarks on several adventures.

Sabha-Parva, "Assembly Book": The Game of Dice
Back in Hastinapura, Duryodhana is still powerfully jealous of the five Padavas and their growing power and wealth. He consults his uncle, Sakuni, asking him how he might defeat the Pandavas. Sakuni points out that Yudhishthira has a weakness for gambling, and if challenged to play at dice will not decline. Duryodhana invites the Pandavas to Hastinapura, and offers the challenge, which Yudhishthira accepts, playing against the cunning Sakuni in place of Duryodhana. But Sakuni cheats at the game, and soon the Kauravas win Yudhishthira's wealth and kingdom, and also his four brothers, their wife Draupadi, and Yudhishthira himself.

The Kauravas have Draupadi brought forcibly before them. She is in traditional monthly seclusion, so it is especially offensive that her privacy is thus violated. Compounding the insult to her honor, Duhsasana humiliates her and attempts to strip off her clothing. Bhima, enraged by this treatment of his wife, vows that he will kill Duhsasana and drink his blood. King Dhritarashtra rebukes his sons for their behavior and offers to grant Draupadi any wish to make up for the wrong done to her. She asks that Yudhishthira and his brothers, whose freedom has been forfeited in the dice game, be set free. The king does this. As the Pandavas and their wife turn to leave, the Kauravas, hoping to thwart their future vengeance, suggest a final gambling match. The losers of this final throw of the dice must spend twelve years in forest exile, and a thirteenth year living in disguise in a foreign kingdom. The Pandavas agree; but Sakuni cheats again and they lose.

Vana-Parva, "Forest Book": Exile in the Forest
The five Pandavas—Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva—and their wife Draupadi depart for the Kamyaka forest. While there, under the advice of Vyasa, Arjuna leaves the others and goes in search of weapons to aid them when they return and seek to avenge themselves against the Kauravas. He encounters Shiva, god of destruction, who gives him a weapon called Pasupata. Later, Arjuna's father, Indra, appears and takes his son up to heaven. There Arjuna meets a heavenly dancer, or Apsara, named Urvasi. Because Arjuna resists her amorous advances, she curses him so that he must spend one year of his life as a eunuch.

Back in the forest, Yudhishthira meets the rishi Vrihadaswa. The seer relates the story of Nala and Damayanti to comfort the grief-stricken king. Soon Arjuna returns from Indra's heaven. He recounts his adventures to his brothers and Draupadi. Meanwhile, Duryodhana and Sakuni plan an expedition to the forest, hoping to taunt their exiled cousins. While there, the Kauravas engage the army of the powerful Chitraratha, king of the Gandharvas, who imprisons them. Arjuna, armed with magical weapons, arrives and frees his cousin. Duryodhana, shamed by this turn of events, seeks to starve himself in the forest instead of returning, humiliated, to Hastinapura. Rebuking his hastiness, however, his brother Duhsasana dissuades him. Later, Jayadratha, king of Sindhu sees Draupadi in the forest and instantly falls in love with her. He abducts her while the Pandavas are away hunting. When they return, the brothers track down Draupadi and Jayadratha. Yudhishthira decides to spare the unscrupulous king's life and lets him go. Soon another rishi, called Markandeya, appears. He relates the tale of the princess Savitri to the Pandavas.

Elsewhere, Indra endeavors to win Karna's armor from him. Though warned by his father of this plot, Karna allows Indra, disguised as a Brahmin, to remove his natural protection. In exchange he asks that the god give him a powerful dart. Guaranteed to kill any enemy, the weapon may be used only once. Back in the forest, Nakula happens upon a magical lake. Though forbidden to drink the water by an unseen voice, he disobeys and falls dead. Sahadeva, Arjuna, and Bhima follow and do the same; all are killed. Lastly Yudhishthira walks to the lake. Seeing the dead bodies of his brothers, he hears the same warning. Then the voice asks him to answer its questions. Yudhishthira does this satisfactorily, and the voice reveals itself to be his father, Dharma. The god of justice, finding Yudhishthira truly worthy, then brings his brothers back to life.

Virata-Parva, "Book of Virata": The Thirteenth Year of Exile
During their final year of exile the Pandavas travel to the city of Matsya in the kingdom of King Virata. Each takes a disguise. Yudhishthira becomes Kanka, a Brahman and dice-player. Bhima takes the name of Vallabha, claiming to be a cook formerly in the service of King Yudhishthira. Draupadi assumes the identity of Sairindhri, a serving-maid in the employment of Virata's queen. Sahadeva calls himself Tantripala, a cowherd and talented astrologer. Nakula disguises himself as Granthika, a horse-keeper. Arjuna invokes Urvasi's curse, becoming the eunuch Vrihannala, the singing and dancing instructor of Virata's daughter. One day toward the end of the last year of exile Kichaka, Virata's general, happens to see Draupadi. Enthralled by her beauty, he desires her as his wife. Draupadi refuses, but Kichaka will not yield. She asks for Bhima's aid, and he kills the general, crushing him to death. Back in Hastinapura, Duryodhana hears of Kichaka's demise and launches an invasion against Virata's kingdom. Arjuna, with the assistance of Virata's son, Uttara, as his charioteer and armed with his magical Gandiva bow, defeats the attacking Kauravas. Soon after, at the end of the thirteenth year, the Pandavas disclose their true identities. King Virata offers his daughter to Arjuna in marriage. Arjuna accepts the princess as a fitting wife for his son, Abhimanyu.

Udyoga-Parva, "Effort Book": The Preparations for War
Eager for the return to his kingdom, Yudhishthira asks Krishna to travel to Hastinapura and secure Indraprastha from the Kauravas. Overriding the opinions of Dhritarashtra's other advisors, Duryodhana refuses to give away half of Kurujangala and war soon appears inevitable. Arjuna and Duryodhana both travel to Dwaraka to seek Krishna's aid in the upcoming hostilities. Krishna offers a choice, himself—as an advisor, not a warrior—or ten thousand of his Yadava troops. Arjuna selects Krishna, while Duryodhana is pleased with the soldiers, despite the fact that he was not allowed to choose first. Both princes depart, and back in Kurujangala further preparations for battle are made. At a grand assembly, Krishna, the avatar or physical manifestation of the mighty god Vishnu, reveals his divine form. Undaunted, the Kauravas continue to marshal their forces for war. Bhishma, forced to lead their army as a general, reveals that he will not fight against Sikhandin, a warrior of the Pandava forces. According to legend, Sikhandin's soul was reincarnated from the princess Amba, who is fated to be the cause of Bhishma's destruction.

Bhishma Parva, "Book of Bhishma": The Battle Under Bhishma's Command
In order that he might relate the events of the battle to Dhritarashtra, Vyasa grants Sanjaya the power of heavenly sight, allowing him to see all things. On the first day, the armies gather on the vast Kurukshetra plain. Arjuna, viewing the assembled warriors—including his cousins, uncles, and grandfather—hesitates, unwilling to fight his kin. To dismiss his fears Krishna sings the Bhagavad Gita, or "Song of the Lord." In it, Krishna assures Arjuna that all souls are immortal, and that death is only a temporary state between incarnations. Strengthened by these words, Arjuna prepares to engage his foes. Before the conflict, however, Yudhishthira removes his armor and puts down his weapons. He moves toward Bhishma and asks his permission to fight. Yudhishthira does the same to Drona, Kripa, and Salya. For nine days the Kauravas and Pandavas wage war. Each day both forces align themselves in different formations and clash; many die in the carnage. Each night the warriors retire to their camps, while Rahshasas and ghouls feast on the decaying bodies of the slain. In the evening of the ninth day of battle, the five Pandavas and Krishna travel to Bhishma's tent and ask him how he will die. They learn that he will not fight the warrior who was once a woman, Sikhandin. The following day Sikhandin, with the help of Arjuna, shoots Bhishma with his arrows. Soon, the general is pierced by Pandava arrows. Bhishma remains alive, however, and waits for the appropriate time of his death.

Drona Parva, "Book of Drona": Drona's Command and Death
Drona accepts Duryodhana's invitation to become the new general of the Kaurava army and vows to take Yudhishthira alive, thereby ending the war. In order to accomplish this goal, Arjuna must be lured away from his eldest brother; a task to be undertaken by Susarman and the five brothers of Trigartas. On the day of battle, Arjuna defeats the warriors from Trigarta and thwarts Drona's plan. Elsewhere Arjuna's son, Abhimanyu, cut off from the main Pandava force by King Jayadratha, is slain by Duhsasana. That night Arjuna vows his revenge on Jayadratha. This he does the following day—despite the intervention of Karna—and Jayadratha lies dead. The battle continues into the night as Bhima's demon son, Ghatotkacha, draws his power from the darkness and fights for the Pandavas. But Karna intercedes, ending Ghatotkacha's destruction of the Kaurava forces by slaying him with his magical dart.

On the twelfth day of battle, Krishna devises a ploy to eliminate Drona. Bhima kills an elephant called Aswatthaman—the same name as Drona's son—and cries, "Aswatthaman is dead." Drona asks the usually honest Yudhishthira if this is true. The Pandava prince carries on with the lie in order to win the war. Overcome with despair, Drona ceases to fight. Dhrishtadyumna, seeing he is undefended, ends Drona's life, but Aswatthaman, still alive, is hungry for revenge. He uses the weapon of Narayana, which will kill all of those who do not immediately drop their weapons and turn their thoughts from war. Before the Pandavas are killed, the wise Krishna informs them of this defense and the warriors survive, preventing Aswatthaman's vengeance.

Karna Parva, "Book of Karna": Karna's Command and Death
Following the death of Drona, Karna takes command of the Kaurava army. During that day of battle, Duhsasana attacks Bhima. Initially wounding him, Bhima retaliates by hurling his mace at the attacker. The Pandava prince then tears open Duhsasana's chest and drinks his blood—as he swore he would—thereby avenging the humiliation of Draupadi. Later, Karna and Arjuna battle. When Karna's chariot wheel sinks into the earth he calls to Arjuna to stay his arrows until he might raise it. He claims that to kill him in such an undefended position would be cowardly. Arjuna refuses to listen and beheads the mighty warrior.

Salya Parva, "Book of Salya": The Defeat of Salya and Duryodhana
With Karna gone, Salya takes command of Duryodhana's army. Bhima first engages the king of the Madras, but the conflict ends in a stalemate. Then Yudhishthira, usually mild rather than savage, pursues Salya. Flanked by his brothers, Nakula and Sahadeva, the eldest Pandava kills Salya and defeats his warriors. Duryodhana, seeing virtually his entire army destroyed, flees into the forest and seeks refuge at the bottom of a lake. Turning the water solid by means of a magical spell, Duryodhana stays hidden until the three remaining Kaurava warriors, Kripa, Aswatthaman, and Kritavarman arrive. They urge Duryodhana to defeat Yudhishthira or die in battle. Some nearby hunters hear this conversation and inform the Pandavas of their cousin's whereabouts. Yudhishthira then arrives at the lake and challenges Duryodhana to fight any of the five Pandavas with the weapon of his choice. If he wins he will be king. According to his choice, Duryodhana and Bhima battle with maces. The conflict continues and Bhima realizes that to win he must fight a deceiver with deception. He breaks Duryodhana's thighs with his mace, outraging Balarama as he watches the match. Krishna's brother calls Bhima an unfair fighter for attacking below the waist, and leaves for Dwaraka. Still, Bhima is victorious, though Duryodhana upbraids him for his treachery. Later the eldest son of Dhritarashtra sends a message, making Aswatthaman his new general.

Sauptika-Parva, "Sleeping Book": The Destruction of the Pandava Army at Night
Aswatthaman, with the aid of a powerful weapon from Shiva, enters the Pandava camp and slays Dhrishtadyumna, Sikhadin, and the rest of the Pandava force in their sleep. Only the seven Pandavas not at the camp—the five brothers, Krishna, and Satyaki—survive the slaughter. When the seven catch up to Aswatthaman, he attempts to use the Brahmasira weapon, an implement of war so powerful that it is capable of destroying the entire world. Arjuna counteracts it with is own Brahma weapon, then withdraws it. But Aswatthaman is unable to stop his attack, and unintentionally redirects it toward the womb of Abhimanyu's wife, Uttarah, killing her unborn child. Krishna, however, restores the baby's life.

Stri-Parva, "Eleventh Book": The Lament of the Wives
The widows of the Kaurava and Pandava warriors, along with Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, visit the battlefield to mourn and number the dead. Meanwhile, Yuyutsu and Sanjaya build pyres and perform funeral rites.

Shanti Parva, "Book of Consolation'': Bhishma's Discourse
A grieving Yudhishthira speaks to Bhishma, who tells him the ways of kings, the origins of all things, and the duties of humankind.

Anusasana Parva, "Book of Precepts": The End of Bhishma's Discourse and his Death
Bhishma continues to tell Yudhishthira of the duties of kings, of the gods, and of the nature of life in this world. He then bids his friends goodbye and his soul ascends to heaven.

Aswamedha-Parva, "Fourteenth Book": Yudhishthira's Horse Sacrifice
Yudhisthira sacrifices a horse in order to purify the sins of the combatants in this war.

Asramavasika-Parva, "Hermitage Book": Dhritarashtra's Retirement
Dhritarashtra officially grants the kingdom of Kurujangala to Yudhishthira and departs for the forest, accompanied by Gandhari and Kunti. Vyasa and the Pandavas travel to their hermitage, and the rishi raises the souls of all the fallen warriors from the Ganges river so that the dead might visit the living for one night. Several years after the visit, the Pandavas hear news that Dhritarashtra and the two queens have been killed in a great forest fire.

Mausala-Parva, "Book of the Clubs": The Death of Krishna and the Yadavas
Thirty-six years after the end of the great battle, evil portents prophesy the destruction of Dwaraka—Krishna's city—in a mighty flood. Another curse tells of Krishna, incensed by an argument, picking up a handful of grass, which then became a club, and killing all of his people, the Yadavas. When Arjuna arrives to investigate, he finds that these stories are true and that Balarama and Krishna have died. Arjuna's former companion, Krishna, lies slain by an arrow that pierced his foot—the only vulnerable portion of his body—when a hunter mistook him for a deer.

Mahaprasthanika-Parva, "The Book of the Great Journey": The Five Pandavas Ascend Mount Meru
Hearing of the Yadava's destruction, Yudhishthira forsakes his throne and makes Parikshit, Arjuna's grandson, king. Yudhishthira, his four brothers, Draupadi, and his dog walk north on their way to Mount Meru, the entranceway to Indra's heaven. First Draupadi, then Sahadeva, then Nakula, then Arjuna, and finally Bhima, all fall dead. Indra appears in his chariot to escort Yudhishthira to heaven, but demands that he leave his dog behind. Yudhishthira refuses to abandon the devoted animal. Instantly the dog transforms into Dharma, god of righteousness, praises his son, and the former king ascends to heaven.

Swargarohana-Parva, "Book of the Ascent to Heaven": The Five Brothers and Draupadi Arrive in Heaven
Yudhishthira finds Duryodhana in heaven. He is there because he obeyed the dharma of the warrior and died on the battlefield. Yudhishthira asks to see his brothers and wife and is informed that they are in hell, serving penance for their sins. Soon cleansed, they join Yudhishthira. At this point Janamejaya's ceremony of the snake sacrifice ends, thus closing Vaisampayana's narrative. Soon after, Sauti finishes his retelling of the Mahabharata.

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