Mahabharata Summary

Mahabharata Summary

In the Mahabharata, two families vie for the throne of Hastinapura. These families, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, disagree about the proper line of succession. Most of the epic tale concerns the war between them, which culminates in the great battle of Kurukshetra. In the end, the Pandavas are victorious.

  • When it comes time for a new king to ascend to the throne, the Kaurava, the senior of the two families, attempts to claim the throne. Their eldest member, however, is younger than the eldest member of the Pandavas, who cite this as reason for them to inherit the throne.

  • Much of the epic details the marriages, births, and deaths of these two families, and even before the battle begins it's clear that these struggles have caused the world to be as dark and troubled as it is today.

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


(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 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....

(The entire section is 3831 words.)