Mahabharata Summary

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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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Summary

(Epics for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 3,831 words.)