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The Poem

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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...

(This entire section contains 1022 words.)

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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.

Places Discussed

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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. 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. 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.

Historical Context

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Scholars locate the historical setting of the Mahabharata in a vast area of northern India sometime around 1000 BC. The poem features the classical Indo-Aryan civilization—a culture that represents a mix of two groups: the indigenous Indus valley peoples and the Aryans. The latter group invaded the Indus region and subsequently assimilated elements of the Indus society as part of their own.

Indus Valley Civilization
Archealogical evidence has uncovered a somewhat mysterious Bronze Age culture that existed along the Indus river in what is today Pakistan, a nation situated to the immediate west of modern India. Contemporary with the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations, the Indus Valley culture thrived between about 2500 and 1500 BC. Largely agricultural, the Indus peoples seem to have had a relatively complex society and advanced material culture. They lived in mud-brick dwellings, produced art and pottery, lived under a loosely democratic form of government, and offered women an equitable status in relation to that of men. Other aspects of their social organization remain a mystery to archaeologists, though they worshipped and sacrificed to many gods, including Indra and Agni, both of whom appear in the Mahabharata. Their belief system also seems to have been an early form of the Vedic religion. Its precepts were later organized and written down by the Aryans as the Vedas, the early sacred texts of the Hindu religion.

Aryan Culture
By around 1500 BC the warlike Aryans (a northern tribe whose name means "noble" in Sanskrit) had begun to invade the Indus valley, subjugating and later assimilating many of the indigenous peoples they found there. With their skills in iron metallurgy, the Aryans brought the Indian subcontinent under their rule and created a highly advanced civilization along the valleys of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, the geographical location of the Mahabharata. In contrast to the Indus peoples, the Aryans were militaristic, with a strongly patriarchal, or male-dominated, society. Their culture was organized along a strict hierarchy that eventually developed into the caste system—a social design in which priests and warriors occupied positions of authority and power. By the 5th century BC, the Aryan civilization in India had become an advanced feudal aristocracy, made up of several constituent states. Kingship and court life had grown increasingly important. Meanwhile, stable institutions, professional occupations, a trade economy, and a rich tradition of Sanskrit literature had developed.

The Caste System
The rigid system of social hierarchy developed by the Aryans was based on hereditary class divisions called castes. Justified by religious and cultural means, the caste system has become a recognizable part of Hindu culture that survives today, though in a very different form. Within the Aryan system, individuals were classified into four varnas, or "classes." At the top of the hierarchy were the Brahmins or priests. Though lacking political power, the Brahmins had created the system, and therefore placed themselves in positions of respect above the rest of society. They performed sacrifices and other religious ceremonies, and relied on the generosity of the lower castes for their economic survival. They were also teachers, instructing younger members of the Kshatriya or warrior class in particular, as Drona and Kripacharya do in the Mahabharata. Brahmins often appear in the Mahabharata as hermits or ascetics, individuals who have sacrificed material wealth and human desires in order to attain religious enlightenment. The Brahmins were typically the source of great awe and respect in classical Indian civilization. Below the Brahmins in the caste system were the Kshatriyas, or warriors. These individuals made up the ruling class of Aryan society. Including kings, princes, and the remainder of the social aristocracy, nearly all of the significant individuals in the Mahabharata are members of the Kshatriya caste. Beneath the warriors were the Vaisyas, merchants, farmers and other non-aristocratic individuals. Still further below the Vaisyas were the Sudhras. Laborers and servants to the higher classes, the Sudhras also included slaves. Outside the system were the Untouchables. These individuals were considered without caste. This group included social exiles, religious outcasts, and Dravidians (the aboriginal inhabitants of India). The caste system required that individuals never marry outside their caste. Likewise, many occupations were unavailable to members of a particular caste. Sometimes the restrictions of caste could be overcome, however. Prince Duryodhana, for example, makes Karna—whom he believes is the son of a charioteer—the King of Anga. In the context of the story, however, this is intended to demonstrate the temporal power of the prince rather than the possibility of moving to a higher caste, which did not in fact exist. Individuals were caste-bound throughout their lives—although a good person could look forward to being reborn as a member of a higher caste.

Out of the tradition of the Vedic religion that flourished in the Indus River Valley came the major world religion called Hinduism. The term "hindu'' comes from the word "sindu," or river—specifically the Indus River. Those who practiced the religion, which today is prominent in India, parts of Africa and southeast Asia, and other parts of the world, worship a large number, or pantheon, of gods. Among the most popular are Shiva and Vishnu, both of whom appear in the Mahabharata—Vishnu as an earthly manifestation of Krishna. The sacred texts of Hinduism include the four Vedas and the Upanishads, a collection of ancient wisdom and ethical writings. Among the other great Hindu texts are several non-sacred, or secular works. These include the eighteen puranas or "ancient tales," the most important of which are the Mahabharata, specifically the section of Krishna's speech to Arjuna known as the Bhagavad Gita, and the Ramayana. Dramatized in these works are the key ideas of Hinduism. To begin with, the religion teaches a cyclic conception of the universe. Over vast periods of time the universe is created and destroyed, endlessly. Likewise, human life flows in cycles. The human soul, according to Hindu doctrine, is immortal and might experience countless lifetimes on earth. This process is called samsara, which means reincarnation or transmigration of the soul. The form that the soul will take in succeeding lifetimes is ruled by the dictates of karma. Karma, sometimes characterized as "the fatality of the act" is, simply put, the workings of a cosmic law of retribution. According to karma, good actions in this lifetime will be rewarded in the next, and evil deeds will be punished. Those who are predominately good might be reincarnated into a higher caste, those who are evil might be born into a lower one, or even as a lower form of life, such as an animal. Heaven, in this system, still exists but only as a temporary stage where souls wait before being reborn. Eventually an end to the cycles of death and rebirth might be achieved, however, if one can attain moksa, or release from worldly desires, and learn to no longer differentiate between the individual soul (atman) and the universal soul (Brahman).

Literary Style

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Narrative Technique—Frame Stories
The complex structure of the Mahabharata exists in part due to its shape as a series of stories and narratives nested one within another. It opens with the first of two frame stories, which act as introductions, leading the reader toward the heart of the poem, the epic story of the great battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The reader first encounters the tale of Sauti, a bard or storyteller, who recounts what he has heard of the Mahabharata to several listeners in the forest. Sauti quotes the sage Vaisampayana, who has learned the poem from his master, Vyasa, the author of the work. Vaisampayana's tale thus comprises the second frame story. He recites most of the Mahabharata at the snake sacrifice of King Janamejaya. Within the main plot of the poem several more sages, or rishis, such as Markandeya and Vrihadaswa, recount legends, folktales, or popular stories that illustrate a moral or theme somehow relevant to the main plot. Occasionally Sauti surfaces within the narrative to make an observation, as does Vaisampayana, but these intrusions are generally brief. Overall, this structure allows for the many breaks in narrative flow and chronology, repeated accounts of events from different points of view, and lengthy digressions that mark this massive poem.

Sanskrit Literature and Versification
The Mahabharata represents one of the finest examples of classical Sanskrit poetry. Like Latin, classical Sanskrit is no longer a living, spoken language though a modern form of the language is a curricular requirement in many schools. The language of the work also differs somewhat from the Vedic tongue, a precursor of Sanskrit in which several holy texts of Hinduism, including the sacred Vedas and the Upanishads, were written. The subject of much scholarly study and several translations, the Mahabharata, while often referred to as an epic, is more specifically a purana, or "ancient tale" in verse. Originally written as one extended poem, the work eventually grew as more scenes, stories, and other material—including writings on ethics, law, philosophy, history, and religion—were added. The basic unit of the poem is the epic sloka, two verse lines with alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. Other meters are also employed throughout, all of which adhere to the strict and formal rules of poetics that typify classical Sanskrit verse.

Language and Style
Several stylistic elements of the Mahabharata indicate that the poem was once repeated verbally as part of an oral tradition rather than written down. These include: repeated words and phrases, the use of cliches, and some stereotypical descriptions, such as those found in the many battle scenes in the poem. Overall, however, the language of the work is said to be simple and restrained. In many cases the narrative downplays the more grisly elements of war. Yet much of the Mahabharata's imagery is also vivid and highly evocative. Metaphors and similes—comparisons designed to describe one thing by invoking another—are common in the text, and are especially used to portray the superhuman qualities and feats of the poem's heroes. Exaggeration is also used in typical mythic fashion to underscore the grandeur and scope of the events being described. Arjuna, for example, can unleash dozens of arrows in a second, and during the war these the arrows launched by all the combatants can block out the sun.

Much of the story is delivered in dialogue—conversation—or individual speeches. Sometimes a character's thoughts are rendered in soliloquy, as if spoken even though no one else is present. Additionally, the poet employs the classic epic device of foreshadowing, by mentioning or alluding to future events before they occur. Thus, Gandhari observes that the Pandavas will win the war, because dharma is on their side, long before the battle has ended. Finally, many characters are depicted with epithets, symbolic names that describe some significant or interesting characteristic, or have allegorical names. Duryodhana's name, for instance, means "hard to conquer."

Compare and Contrast

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1000 BC (the period in which the Mahabharata
is set): Three thousand years ago the region which is today known as India was ruled by feudal kings and princes, people upon whom figures such as Yudhishthira, Duryodhana, Virata, and Salya were based. The princes often battled one another for land, prestige, or wealth, and governed according to a system much like that of Medieval Europe.

Late twentieth century: India is made up of several states. It is a federal, secular republic, not unlike the United States of America, and in fact is the largest democracy in the world. Important figures and institutions in the Indian government include the president, prime minister, and two houses of parliament.

1000 BC: The caste system, a strict hereditary organization of social classes, defined classical Indian society. Warriors ruled and offered gifts and reverence to priests, or Brahmins. Most Indians engaged in agriculture as farmers; slavery was prevalent and these individuals served the higher social classes.

Late twentieth century: Slavery has been outlawed in India for more than a century and a half. The caste system still exists to a degree, but social mobility has become a reality. India is a still-developing country, but the growth of capitalism has been tremendous in the twentieth century. India is a modern, industrializing nation.

1000 BC: Classical Indian society was highly patriarchal, or male-dominated; women played a subordinate role in most aspects of life. Like Draupadi, Gandhari, and Kunti, they were wives and mothers first. At this time a women's value resided primarily in her ability to produce sons, her subservience to her husband, and her personal beauty.

Today: Educational opportunities and democracy have greatly increased the status of and standard of living for women in India. Although women still occupy a secondary role in many areas of society, restrictions on them are beginning to loosen. Between 1966 and 1977, and again from 1980 to 1984 a woman, Indira Gandhi, governed India as prime minister. Many avenues of employment, however, are still very difficult for women to enter.

1000 BC: The practice of polygamy, several wives for one husband, was common, especially among men of great wealth and power. Polyandry, several husbands for one wife, like that of Draupadi and the five Pandavas, was quite rare. This example in the Mahabharata, therefore, should not be interpreted as the norm in classical Indian society.

Late twentieth century: The practices of polygamy and polyandry are virtually unknown in modern India.

1000 BC: War between tribes or kingdoms was a common fact of everyday life. Warriors were among the most esteemed members of society.

Late twentieth century: Armed conflict involves modern India as it does the rest of the world. The reasons for these conflicts are varied, but many hostilities derive from religious differences or territorial disputes. Since the late 1940s, India and the Muslim nation of Pakistan have struggled over a disputed area of land in the Kashmir region; antagonism between the countries persists. In 1974 India surprised many of its neighbors and the world community when it tested an atomic bomb.

Media Adaptations

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The Mahabharata was adapted as a full-length stage play by Jean-Claude Carriere and premiered in Avignon, France in 1985. Peter Brook's English translation of Carriere's play toured in 1987-88 with an international cast. Brook later directed a five-and-a-half-hour film version of the Mahabharata, televised worldwide in 1989; available on videocassette from The Parabola Video Library.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources for Further Study
Buck, Philo M. "Kama, Karma, and Nirvana," in The Golden Thread, The Macmillan Company, 1931, pp. 186-211. Investigates the cultural and religious backgrounds of the Mahabharata.

Buck, William, reteller. Mahabharata, University of California Press, 1973, 417 p. A highly readable prose adaptation and abridgment of the epic poem. Although Buck makes some minor adjustments and interpolations in the story, his translation is vivid and compelling.

Campbell, Joseph. "The Indian Golden Age," in The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology, 1962. Reprint by Penguin Books, 1976, pp 321-70. Discusses the nature of Vyasa, the mythical author of the Mahabharata, and the symbolic conflict between the forces of light and darkness in the work.

Murdoch, John. The Mahabharata: An English Abridgment with Introduction, Notes, and Review, 1898. Reprint by Asian Educational Services, 1987, 160 p. Offers comprehensive prose outlines of both the story and secondary material within the Mahabharata. Additionally includes background historical and cultural information, as well as critical commentary on the work.

Stone, Charles. "Historical Suggestions in the Ancient Hindu Epic, the Mahabharata," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. II, 1885. Reprint by Kraus Reprint, 1971, pp. 272-92. Overview of the historical contexts surrounding the composition of Mahabharata.

Sukthankar, V. S. On the Meaning of the Mahabharata, The Asiatic Society of Bombay, 1957, 146 p. Interprets the Mahabharata on three levels: the mundane, the ethical, and the transcendental.

Tharoor, Shashi. The Great Indian Novel, Arcade Publishing, 1989. Modern retelling of the Mahabharata with a cast of characters and events drawn from twentieth-century Indian political and cultural life.

Van Buitenen, J. A. B. Introduction to The Mahabharata: The Books of the Beginning, Vol. I, edited and translated by J. A. B. van Buitenen, The University of Chicago Press, 1973, pp. xiii-xlviii. Analyzes the narrative structure of the Mahabharata as an intricate, but cohesive, whole.

Van Nooten, Barend A. The Mahabharata, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1971, 153 p. Full-length study of the Mahabharata, including chapters on its narrative structure, language, influence, and critical history.

_______, "The Sanskrit Epics" in Heroic Epic and Saga: An Introduction to the World's Great Folk Epics, Felix J. Oinas, Indiana University Press, 1978, pp. 49-75. Examines the narrative structure and language of the Mahabharata and another great Indian epic, the Ramayana.

Winternitz, Moriz. "The Popular Epics and the Puranas," in his A History of Indian Literature, Vol I, translated by S. Ketkar, revised edition, 1926. Reprint by University of Calcutta, 1962, pp. 273-416. Surveys the range of stories and legends as well as non-fictional matter included in the text of the Mahabharata.

Wolpert, Stanley. "North Indian Conquest and Unification (ca 1000-450 BC)," in his A New History of India, third edition, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 37-54. Explores the period of Indian history, culture, and philosophy reflected in the Mahabharata.

Zaehner, R.C. Introduction to Hinduism, second edition, Oxford University Press, 1966, pp. 1-13. Zaehner provides an overview of Hinduism and notes its relation to the Mahabharata.


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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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide