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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 spiritual cleansing in hell.


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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 armor or secret weapon, Karna cannot overpower Arjuna when the two meet in battle, and Arjuna defeats him.


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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...

(This entire section contains 284 words.)

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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 detachment, without desire, according to the dictates of dharma, his sacred duty. Krishna dies long after the end of the great war. Accidentally shot in the foot (the only place where he is not invulnerable) by a deer hunter, he dies unheroically.


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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 performs a horse sacrifice to absolve the sins of all those who took part in the hostilities. After many years of rule he abdicates his throne to Arjuna's grandson, Parikshit, and sets out northward towards Mount Meru, "the world mountain,'' with his brothers and Draupadi. On the way all but Yudhishthira fall dead. He survives the journey to the mountain, never forsaking his faithful dog—Dharma in disguise. Later he is joined by his companions in heaven.

Other Characters

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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.

The Aswins
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.

ChitrasenaSee Chitraratha

Danvir-KarnaSee Karna

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 war that is the subject of the poem.

Highly opportunistic, Duryodhana seizes a chance for conquest whenever possible. He attacks King Virata's kingdom when he hears that General Kichaka has been killed—though his plans are thwarted by Arjuna. When the tide of battle turns, Duryodhana flees rather than fight and perhaps die with honor. Duryodhana is sometimes called "suryodhana," or "good fighter." While he frequently employs deception to defeat his enemies, in his final battle with Bhima, Duryodhana fights fairly and it is the Pandava prince who cheats by striking him in the thighs. Although driven by malice and pride, Duryodhana behaves generously on occasion—but usually with an ulterior motive. For example, Duryodhana disregards Karna's apparently low birth and lack of rank to make him king of Anga—but this is primarily so that Karna will he in his debt.

Queen and wife of Dhritarashtra, Gandhari is the former princess of Gandhara. When she learns that her future husband is blind, she blindfolds herself and never removes the veil from her eyes. Her pregnancy by Dhritarashtra lasts for two years. She expels a ball of flesh from her womb. Vyasa orders that the ball be separated into one hundred and one portions, and each piece placed in a jar. Eventually Duryodhana, Duhsasana, ninety-eight more sons, and one daughter emerge from the jars. During the great battle, Gandhari observes that victory will be on the side of dharma, meaning that the Pandavas will win the war.

Son of the gods Shiva and Devi, Ganesha is the elephant-headed god of writers and merchants. He appears, summoned by the great god Brahma, to record Vyasa's poem, the Mahabharata.

Known as the goddess of the river, Ganga is the divine manifestation of the Ganges river, which flows through north-central and eastern India, emptying into the Indian Ocean. In heaven, eight Vasu gods (attendants of Indra) are cursed to be born on earth. They request that Ganga be their mother, and she agrees. King Santanu falls in love with Ganga while she is on earth and asks her to be his queen. She accepts on the condition that he promise never to ask who she is or to question her actions. He does this for seven years. Each year for seven years she bears a son (each with a cursed Vasu soul) and drowns him in the Ganges. On the eighth year, after the birth of the final child, Santanu stops her from killing the boy. Ganga then reveals her identity and leaves Santanu with his son, Bhishma.

Ghatotkacha is a powerful demon born to Bhima and Hidimba. His name means "pot-headed" because his head was said to be shaped like a water pot. Although he never leaves the forest where he was bom, Ghatotkacha takes part in the great war on the side of the Pandavas. Initially causing great destruction and striking fear in the hearts of the entire Kaurava army, Ghatotkacha's attacks are stopped by Karna, who kills him with a magical dart.

Endowed with incredible strength and the ability to speak, Hanuman is a magical monkey who plays a significant part in the epic poem, the Ramayana. He also appears briefly in the Mahabharata: Bhima encounters Hanuman on his travels through the Kamyaka forest. Hanuman imparts some of his vast wisdom to the Pandava prince.

Hidimba is a Rakshasa, or forest-demon.

Hidimba-asur is a Rakshasa, or forest demon. She and her brothers ambush the five Pandavas and their wife Draupadi. Eventually she and Bhima fall in love and have a son, Ghatotkacha.

The king of the gods and of thunder and rain, Indra rules in heaven. He fathers the hero Arjuna. Later Indra assists his son by disguising himself as a Brahmin and requesting Karna's natural armor as a boon, thus rendering Karna no longer invincible in war. Indra also transports Arjuna to heaven for twelve years, and advises him on a variety of matters.

Great-grandson of Arjuna, King Janamejaya rules Kurujangala as the story opens. In order to avenge the death of his father, Parikshit, at the hands of a Naga (snake-man), Janamejaya holds a snake sacrifice, during which the Mahabharata is recited by Vaisampayana.

The king of Sindhu, Jayadratha carries off Draupadi while the five Pandavas are away hunting in the Kamyaka forest. Though Arjuna, Bhima, and Yudhishthira track him down, they spare his life. During the war, however, Jayadratha once again invokes Arjuna's wrath by outmaneuvering his son, Abhimanyu, indirectly causing the young warrior's death. Bold and resourceful, Jayadratha represents one of the Pandavas most troublesome foes. He is motivated by a desire for personal gain, rather than hatred or vengeance.

Kali is the god of misfortune. In the famous tale of King Nala, Kali inhabits Nala's body in an attempt to thwart the king's love for Damayanti and gain the beautiful princess for himself.

Virata's general, Kichaka sees Draupadi disguised as a serving maid and attempts to win her for his wife. Though Draupadi refuses him and attempts to warn him of the vengeance of her husbands, Kichaka is resolute in his passions and refuses to give up. Unlike Jayadratha, who in a similar situation sees his life spared by the restraint of Yudhishthira, Kichaka faces Bhima and is killed for his presumptuousness. Pompous and vain, Kichaka is nevertheless a respected general whose death prompts Duryodhana to launch an invasion of Virata's kingdom.

Found on a doorstep as a child by a Kuru soldier, Kripa rises to a position of immense respect in the court of Dhritarashtra. He serves as war tutor of the Bharata princes and advisor to the king. His name means "compassion," and though he follows the dharma of the warrior, Kripa practices restraint in his decisions and remains alive (one of only three Kauravas to do so) at the end of the war.

KripacharyaSee Kripa

Kripa's twin sister. Found as a child with her brother by a Kuru soldier, Kripi later marries Drona.

A Yadava warrior, Kritavarman fights for the Kauravas under Krishna's orders. He is one of the three surviving members of the defeated Kaurava army.

Kunti is the first wife of King Pandu. Known for her hospitality, Kunti welcomes the hermit Durvasas into her palace. In return the ascetic rewards her with a powerful mantra that allows her to summon any god to sire a son with her. Prior to her marriage with Pandu, she tests the spell by calling Surya, god of the sun, who impregnates her with her son Karna. Being without a husband, she blesses the child and sends him adrift on a river. Later, after her marriage and discovery that Pandu cannot have children of his own, she calls down the gods Dharma, Vayu, and Indra. Each of them father a son with her. These three—Yudhishthira, Bhima, and Arjuna—are the heroes of the Mahabharata.

A legendary king, Kuru gives his name to the Bharata people.

Second wife of Pandu and daughter of the king of Madras, Madri uses Kunti's mantra to summon the fleet-footed gods, the Aswins. From them she bears the fourth and five Pandava brothers, the twins Nakula and Sahadeva.

A sage, or rishi, Markandeya recites the tale of "Savitri" to comfort Yudhishthira after the abduction of Draupadi by King Jayadratha. (See Savitri.)

Twin brother of Sahadeva. The twins are the sons of Pandu's second wife Madri by the Aswins, gods called the "harbingers of dawn." A mighty warrior, fleet of foot, Nakula accompanies his brothers throughout the Mahabharata, although both twins play a secondary role to the sons of Kunti: Yudhishthira, Bhima, and Arjuna.

King Nala is the protagonist of "Nala and Damayanti," a tale told to Yudhishthira by Vrihadaswa. According to the story, the god Kali, jealous of King Nala and his love for Damayanti, possesses the king's body. Kali then forces him to lose his kingdom in a game of dice and to desert his love. Eventually, Nala breaks free from Kali's hold on him and recovers both his throne and Damayanti. This tale parallels that of Yudhishthira's situation, and its happy ending foreshadows the similar resolution of the epic plot.

Grandson of Santanu and primogenitor in name of the Pandavas, Pandu is crowned king of Kurujangala because his elder brother, Dhritarashtra, was born blind. His name means "white, "yellow-white," or "pale," denoting the nature of his physical complexion.

Pandu is sexually insatible until he is told that his next act of physical love with his wives, Kunti and Madri, will certainly kill him. He is nevertheless regarded as the father of Arjuna, Yudhishthira, Bhima, Nakula, and Sahadeva—all of whom are born from unions between his wives and various gods. After the birth of his five sons, Pandu gives in to temptation, carnally embraces his wife Madri, and dies in her arms.

Son of Abhimanyu and Uttarah, and grandson of Arjuna, Parikshit succeeds Yudhishthira as king of Kurujangala following the former's abdication and departure for the holy Mount Meru. After ruling peacefully for sixty years, Parikshit, in a fit of rage over his unsuccessful hunting, shoots an innocent Naga. The snake-man then curses the king to die in one week. Despite efforts to alter his fate, Parikshit is poisoned and killed by the Naga prince Takshaka.

ParikshitaSee Parikshit

Twin brother of Nakula. The twins are the sons of Pandu's second wife Madri by the Aswins, gods called the "harbingers of dawn." Amighty warrior, fleet of foot, Sahadeva accompanies his brothers throughout the Mahabharata, although both twins play a secondary role to the sons of Kunti: Yudhishthira, Bhima, and Arjuna.

Uncle of the Kaurava princes, Sakuni cheats at dice to help them win Yudhishthira's kingdom of Indraprastha. He later falls in the great battle, slain by Nakula and Sahadeva. A sly and largely evil figure, Sakuni serves as a contrast to such men as Kripa and Vidura, who represent wisdom, restraint, and forthrightness.

King of the Madras, Salya fights with the Kauravas and leads their army after Karna's death. While his generalship is superb, Salya is slain by the inspired warcraft of Yudhishthira.

Dhritarashtra's charioteer, Sanjaya reports the events of the great war to his king after Vyasa blesses him with heavenly sight and magical protection in battle.

King of Kurujangala, Santanu is grandfather of Dhritarashtra and Pandu. The patriarch of the Bharatas, he falls in love with Ganga and then Satyavati, producing sons by both; though of them only Bhishma takes part in the main action of the poem. Santanu leaves his throne to Pandu in his old age and retires to the forest to die.

A Yadava who fights for the Pandavas, Satyaki is one of seven warriors from the Pandava army—the others being the five brothers and Krishna—to survive the great battle.

Wife of Santanu, Satyavati was born of royalty, but lived her early life as a fisherwoman who sometimes ferried travelers across the Yamuna river. According to legend, her father was King Uparichara of Chedi. One day while dreaming of his queen, his seed fell on a leaf. Carried by a hawk, the leaf eventually fell in the river and was swallowed by a fish. Inside the fish's belly the girl grew until she was rescued by a fisherman who adopted her. Though beautiful, she smelled of fish until Parashara, a minstrel, happened upon her. Convincing her to make love to him, Parashara removed the odor of fish and replaced it with that of flowers. Later, Satyavati gave birth to the poet Vyasa, the ostensible author of the Mahabharata. Still later, King Santanu sees Satyavati and, captivated by her beauty and scent, he makes her his queen. He promises her that their son will be the future king of Kurujangala.

The name Sauti means "bard" or "storyteller." Sauti quotes Vaisampayana's recitation of the Mahabharata to a group of sages, or rishis, at the opening of the poem.

Savitri is the main character of a tale of the same name recounted by Markandeya to Yudhishthira. After falling in love with and marrying Satyavan, Savitri learns that her husband has only one year to live. As the time of his death approaches, she waits by his side and sees Yama, the god of death, arrive to take Satyavan's soul. He catches the soul in his noose and begins to walk off. Savitri follows the god and begs him to restore her husband's life. He refuses, offering to grant any other wish, but she is steadfast. Finally, Yama suggests that he return Saryavan's soul in exchange for half of Savitri's remaining days. She agrees and the two live together happily for 400 years.

ShakuniSee Sakuni

Called "the Destroyer," Shiva is a deity of stature equal to Vishnu, the Preserver, and Brahma, the Creator. In the course of the Mahabharata, Shiva provides a powerful weapon to Arjuna for his use in the war against the Kauravas.

A warrior in the Pandava army, Sikhandin is responsible for Bhishma's death in battle. His soul was reincarnated from that of the princess Amba and Sikhandin was originally born a woman. He later exchanges sexes with a Rakshasa in order to fight in the great war.

Krishna's sister, Subhadra marries Arjuna and bears him the son Abhimanyu.

God of the sun, Surya fathers Karna and warns his son that Indra will ask for his natural armor. In exchange, the sun god tells him that he must demand a mighty weapon of war, which Karna does.

King of Trigarta (The Land of the Three Castles), Susarman leads an attack on Arjuna to lure him away from Yudhishthira during the great war. Though valiant, he and his kinsmen are slaughtered by the mighty Pandava bowman.

Prince of the Nagas, a race of snake-men, Takshaka kills King Parikshit to avenge the murder of an innocent Naga. He takes the form of a small copper beetle in order to achieve entry to Parikshit's guarded dwelling and commit the act.

A beautiful heavenly dancer called an Apsara, Urvasi curses Arjuna to live for one year as a eunuch after he rejects her offers of love.

King Virata's son, Uttara—along with Arjuna—repels Duryodhana's invasion of Matsya. Later, Uttara and Virata's forces fight for the Pandavas in the great war.

King Virata's daughter, Uttarah marries Abhimanyu and gives birth to Parikshit.

Sage and disciple of Vyasa, Vaisampayana recites the Mahabharata at the snake sacrifice of King Janamejaya.

The Rakshasa called Vaka terrorizes the town of Ekachakra by eating a cartload of food and one human sacrifice each year until Bhima slays the demon.

God of the wind, Vayu fathers the mighty Pandava prince Bhima.

Second son of King Santanu, Vichitravirya has two wives, Ambika and Ambalika—secured for him by Bhishma. He dies of consumption at a young age, however, before producing an heir. Vichitravirya's ironic name means "colorful virility."

Sage and uncle-advisor of both the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Vidura is the son of Vyasa and Shudra, a slave girl. He is representative of honor and wisdom in the poem. Duty-bound to serve his king and country, his first allegience is to the Dhritrashtra and his sons.

King of Matsya, Virata admits the disguised Pandavas and Draupadi into his court during their thirteenth year of exile. After they defend his kingdom from the attacking forces of Duryodhana, Virata offers his daughter Uttarah and support in the great battle with the Kauravas.

A rishi, or sage, Vrihadaswa tells the tale of Nala and Damayanti to Yudhishthira. (See Nala.)

The poet attributed with composing the Mahabharata, Vyasa's name means "arranger" or "compiler"—thus appropriate to his role in creating the encyclopedic poem. Vyasa also appears in the work as the son of Satyavati from a union prior to her marriage with King Santanu. His father was the rishi Parashara, and like him Vyasa is a powerful sage and seer. His powers include the ability to prophesy the future—he knows, for example, that Queen Gandhari will bear one hundred sons—as well as greater magics. He also grants Dhritarashtra's charioteer, Sanjaya, with the ability to see all the events of the great battle, day and night, and with divine protection so that he might report the war to his king. In addition to his role as a man of knowledge, Vyasa fathers the kings Pandu and Dhritarashtra by the former wives of his half-brother, Vichitravirya. Vyasa's frightening appearance, his "ugliness, grim visage, foul body, terrible odor," as Joseph Campbell quotes in his The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology, 1962, upsets the two women, Ambika and Ambalika. The first closes her eyes and produces the blind Dhritarashtra, the second turns pale, producing the light-skinned Pandu.

The god of the dead, Yama appears in Markandeya's tale of Savitri. (See Savitri.)

Son of Dhritarashtra and a slave girl, Yuyutsu defects from the Kaurava to the Pandava army moments before the great battle begins.




Critical Essays