The (Devanāgarī: महाभारत) is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the . The epic is part of the Hindu itihāsa, the word in itself literally means "history", and forms an important part of Hindu mythology.
It is of immense importance to the culture in the Indian subcontinent, and is a major text of Hinduism. Its discussion of human goals (artha or purpose, kāma or pleasure, dharma or duty, and moksha or liberation) takes place in a long-standing tradition, attempting to explain the relationship of the individual to society and the world (the nature of the 'Self') and the workings of karma.
The title may be translated as "the great tale of the Bhārata Dynasty", according to the Mahābhārata's own testimony extended from a shorter version simply called Bhārata of 24,000 verses.
Traditionally, Hindus ascribe the authorship of the Mahābhārata to Vyasa. Its philological study has a long history of attempts to unravel its historical growth and composition layers. Its earliest layers probably date back to the late Vedic period (ca. 8th c. BC) and it probably reached its final form by the time the Gupta period began (ca. 4th c. AD).
With more than 74,000 verses, long prose passages, and about 1.8 million words in total, the Mahābhārata is one of the longest epic poems in the world. It is roughly ten times the size of the Iliad and Odyssey combined, and about four times the size of the Ramayana. Including the , the Mahabharata has a total length of more than 90,000 verses.
The epic is traditionally ascribed to Vyasa, who is also one of the major dynastic characters within the epic. The first section of the Mahabharata states that it was Ganesha who, at the request of Vyasa, wrote down the text to Vyasa's dictation. Ganesha is said to have agreed to write it only on condition that Vyasa never pause in his recitation. Vyasa agreed, providing that Ganesha took the time to understand what was said before writing it down. The epic employs the story within a story structure, otherwise known as frametales, popular in many Indian religious and secular works.
It is recited to the King Janamejaya who is the great-grandson of Arjuna, by Vaisampayana, a disciple of Vyasa. The recitation of Vaisampayana to Janamejaya is then recited again by a professional story teller named Ugrasrava Sauti, many years later, to an assemblage of sages.
It is usually thought that the full length of the Mahabharata has accreted over a long period. The Mahabharata itself (1.1.61) distinguishes a core portion of 24,000 verses, the Bharata proper, as opposed to additional secondary material, while the Ashvalayana Grhyasutra (3.4.4) makes a similar distinction. According to the Adi-parva of the Mahabharata (shlokas 81, 101-102), the text was originally 8,800 verses when it was composed by Vyasa and was known as the Jaya (Victory), which later became 24,000 verses in the Bharata recited by Vaisampayana, and finally over 90,000 verses in the Mahabharata recited by Ugrasrava Sauti.
As with the field of Homeric studies, research on the Mahabharata has put an enormous effort into recognizing and dating various layers within the text. The state of the text has struck early 20th century Indologists as "chaotic" or "unordered".
The earliest known references to the Mahabharata and its core Bharata date back to the Ashtadhyayi (sutra 6.2.38) of Pāṇini (fl. 4th century BC), and in the Ashvalayana Grhyasutra (3.4.4). This may suggest that the core 24,000 verses, known as the Bharata, as well as an early version of the extended Mahabharata, were composed by the 4th century BC. Parts of the Jaya's original 8,800 verses possibly may date back as far as the 9th-8th century BC.
The Greek writer Dio Chrysostom (ca. 40-120) reported, "it is said that Homer's poetry is sung even in India, where they have translated it into their own speech and tongue. The result is that...the people of India...are not unacquainted with the sufferings of Priam, the laments and wailings of Andromache and Hecuba, and the valor of both Achilles and Hector: so remarkable has been the spell of one man's poetry! Despite the passage's evident face-value meaning—that the Iliad had been translated into Sanskrit—some scholars have supposed that the report reflects the existence of a Mahabharata at this date, whose episodes Dio or his sources syncretistically identify with the story of the Iliad. Christian Lassen, in his Indische Alterthumskunde, supposed that the reference is ultimately to Dhritarashtra's sorrows, the laments of Gandhari and Draupadi, and the valor of Arjuna and Suyodhana or Karna. This interpretation, endorsed in such standard references as Albrecht Weber's History of Indian Literature, has often been repeated without specific reference to what Dio's text says.
Later, the copper-plate inscription of the Maharaja Sharvanatha (533-534) from Khoh (Satna District, Madhya Pradesh) describes the Mahabharata as a "collection of 100,000 verses" (shatasahasri samhita). The redaction of this large body of text was carried out after formal principles, emphasizing the numbers 18 and 12. The addition of the latest parts may be dated by the absence of the Anushasana-parva from MS Spitzer, the oldest surviving Sanskrit philosophical manuscript dated to the first century, that contains among other things a list of the books in the Mahabharata. From this evidence, it is likely that the redaction into 18 books took place in the first century. An alternative division into 20 parvas appears to have co-existed for some time. The division into 100 sub-parvas (mentioned in Mbh. 1.2.70) is older, and most parvas are named after one of their constituent sub-parvas. The Harivamsa consists of the final two of the 100 sub-parvas, and was considered an appendix (khila) to the Mahabharata proper by the redactors of the 18 parvas.
|1||Adi Parva (The Book of the Beginning)||1-19||How the Mahabharata came to be narrated by Sauti to the assembled rishis at Naimisharanya. The recital of the Mahabharata at the Sarpasatra of Janamejaya by Vaishampayana at Takṣaśilā. The history of the Bharata race is told in detail and the parva also traces history of the Bhrigu race. The birth and early life of the Kuru princes. (adi means first)|
|2||Sabha Parva (The Book of the Assembly Hall)||20-28||Maya Danava erects the palace and court (sabha), at Indraprastha. Life at the court, Yudhishthira's Rajasuya Yajna, the game of dice, and the eventual exile of the Pandavas.|
|3||Aranyaka-parva (also Vana-parva, Aranya-parva) (The Book of the Forest)||29-44||The twelve years of exile in the forest (aranya).|
|4||Virata-parva (The Book of Virata)||45-48||The year in incognito spent at the court of Virata.|
|5||Udyoga-parva (The Book of the Effort)||49-59||Preparations for war and efforts to bring about peace between the Kurus and the Pandavas which eventually fail (udyoga means effort or work).|
|6||Bhishma-parva (The Book of Bhishma)||60-64||The first part of the great battle, with Bhishma as commander for the Kauravas and his fall on the bed of arrows.|
|7||Drona-parva (The Book of Drona)||65-72||The battle continues, with Drona as commander. This is the major book of the war. Most of the great warriors on both sides are dead by the end of this book.|
|8||Karna-parva (The Book of Karna)||73||The battle again, with Karna as commander.|
|9||Shalya-parva (The Book of Shalya)||74-77||The last day of the battle, with Shalya as commander. Also told in detail is the pilgrimage of Balarama to the fords of the river Saraswati and the mace fight between Bheema and Duryodhana which ends the war.|
|10||Sauptika-parva (The Book of the Sleeping Warriors)||78-80||Ashvattama, Kripa and Kritavarma kill the remaining Pandava army in their sleep (sauptika). Only 7 warriors remain on the Pandava side and 3 on the Kaurava side.|
|11||Stri-parva (The Book of the Women)||81-85||Gandhari, Kunti and the women (stri) of the Kurus and Pandavas lament the dead.|
|12||Shanti-parva (The Book of Peace)||86-88||The crowning of Yudhisthira as king of Hastinapura, and instructions from Bhishma for the newly anointed king on society, economics and politics. This is the longest book of the Mahabharata (shanti means peace).|
|13||Anushasana-parva (The Book of the Instructions)||89-90||The final instructions (anushasana) from Bhishma.|
|14||Ashvamedhika-parva (The Book of the Horse Sacrifice)||91-92||The royal ceremony of the Ashvamedha (Horse sacrifice) conducted by Yudhisthira. The world conquest by Arjuna. The Anugita is told by Krishna to Arjuna.|
|15||Ashramavasika-parva (The Book of the Hermitage)||93-95||The eventual deaths of Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti in a forest fire when they are living in a hermitage in the Himalayas. Vidura predeceases them and Sanjaya on Dhritarashtra's bidding goes to live in the higher Himalayas.|
|16||Mausala-parva (The Book of the Clubs)||96||The infighting between the Yadavas with maces (mausala) and the eventual destruction of the Yadavas.|
|17||Mahaprasthanika-parva (The Book of the Great Journey)||97||The great journey of Yudhisthira and his brothers across the whole country and finally their ascent of the great Himalayas where each Pandava falls except for Yudhishthira.|
|18||Svargarohana-parva (The Book of the Ascent to Heaven)||98||Yudhishthira's final test and the return of the Pandavas to the spiritual world (svarga).|
|khila||Harivamsa-parva (The Book of the Genealogy of Hari)||99-100||Life of Krishna which is not covered in the 18 parvas of the Mahabharata.|
The Adi-parva includes the snake sacrifice (sarpasattra) of Janamejaya, explaining its motivation, detailing why all snakes in existence were intended to be destroyed, and why in spite of this, there are still snakes in existence. This sarpasattra material was often considered an independent tale added to a version of the Mahabharata by "thematic attraction" (Minkowski 1991), and considered to have particularly close connection to Vedic (Brahmana) literature, in particular the Panchavimsha Brahmana which describes the Sarpasattra as originally performed by snakes, among which are snakes named Dhrtarashtra and Janamejaya, two main characters of the Mahabharata's sarpasattra, and Takshaka, the name of a snake also in the Mahabharata. The Shatapatha Brahmana gives an account of an Ashvamedha performed by Janamejaya Parikshita.
According to what one character says at Mbh. 1.1.50, there were three versions of the epic, beginning with Manu (1.1.27), Astika (1.3, sub-parva 5) or Vasu (1.57), respectively. These versions would correspond to the addition of one and then another 'frame' settings of dialogues. The Vasu version would omit the frame settings and begin with the account of the birth of Vyasa. The Astika version would add the Sarpasattra and Ashvamedha material from Brahmanical literature, introduce the name Mahabharata, and identify Vyasa as the work's author. The redactors of these additions were probably Pancharatrin scholars who according to Oberlies (1998) likely retained control over the text until its final redaction. Mention of the Huna in the Bhishma-parva however appears to imply that this parva may have been edited around the 4th century.
Regardless of the historicity of the Kurukshetra War in particular, the general setting of the epic certainly does have a historical precedent in Iron Age (Vedic) India, where the Kuru kingdom was the center of political power during roughly 1200 to 800 BC. A dynastic conflict of the period could have been the inspiration for the Jaya, the core on which the Mahabharata corpus was built, with a climactic battle eventually coming to be viewed as an epochal event.
Pauranic literature presents genealogical lists associated with the Mahabharata narrative. The evidence of the Puranas is of two kinds. Of the first kind, there is the direct statement that there were 1015 (or 1050) years between the birth of Parikshita (Arjuna's grandson) and the accession of Mahapadma Nanda, commonly dated to 382 B.C., which would yield an estimate of about 1400 B.C. for the Bharata battle. However, this would imply improbably long reigns on average for the kings listed in the genealogies. Of the second kind are analyses of parallel genealogies in the Puranas between the times of Adhisimakrishna (Parikshita's great-grandson) and Mahapadma Nanda. Pargiter accordingly estimated 26 generations by averaging 10 different dynastic lists and, assuming 18 years for the average duration of a reign, arrived at an estimate of 850 B.C. for Adhisimakrishna, and thus approximately 950 B.C. for the Bharata battle.
B. B. Lal used the same approach with a more conservative assumption of the average reign to estimate a date of 836 B.C., and correlated this with archaeological evidence from Painted Grey Ware sites, the association being strong between PGW artifacts and places mentioned in the epic.
Attempts to date the events using methods of archaeoastronomy have produced, depending on which passages are chosen and how they are interpreted, estimates ranging from the late 4th to the mid 2nd millennium B.C. The late 4th millennium date has a precedent in the calculation of the Kaliyuga epoch, based on planetary conjunctions, by Aryabhata (6th century). His date of February 18th 3102 B.C. has become widespread in Indian tradition (for example, the Aihole inscription of Pulikeshi II, dated to Saka 556 = 634 A.D., claims that 3735 years have elapsed since the Bharata battle.) Another traditional school of astronomers and historians, represented by Vriddha-Garga, Varahamihira (author of the Brhatsamhita) and Kalhana (author of the Rajatarangini), place the Bharata war 653 years after the Kaliyuga epoch, corresponding to 2449 B.C.
The struggle culminates in the great battle of Kurukshetra, in which the Pandavas are ultimately victorious. The battle produces complex conflicts of kinship and friendship, instances of family loyalty and duty taking precedence over what is right, as well as the converse.
The Mahabharata itself ends with the death of Krishna, and the subsequent end of his dynasty, and ascent of the Pandava brothers to heaven. It also marks the beginning of the Hindu age of Kali (Kali Yuga), the fourth and final age of mankind, where the great values and noble ideas have crumbled, and man is heading toward the complete dissolution of right action, morality and virtue.
Many years later, when the king goes hunting, he sees Satyavati, the daughter of a fisherman and asks her father for her hand. Her father refuses to consent to the marriage unless Shantanu promises to make any future son of Satyavati the king upon his death. To solve the king's dilemma, Devavrata agrees not to take the throne. As the fisherman is not sure about the prince's children honouring the promise, Devavrata also takes a vow of lifelong celibacy to guarantee his father's promise. Shantanu has two sons by Satyavati, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Upon Shantanu's death, Chitrangada becomes king. He lived a very short uneventful life and dies. Vichitravirya, the younger son, rules Hastinapura. In order to arrange the marriage of the young Vichitravirya, Bhishma goes to Kāśī for a swayamvara of the three princesses Amba, Ambika and Ambalika. He abducts them on account of his strength, rather than their will. Ambika and Ambalika consent to be married to Vichtravirya. Amba informs Bhishma she wished to marry Shalvaraj (king of Shalva) whom Bhishma defeated at their swayamvar. Bhishma lets her leave but Shalvaraj refuses to marry her, smarthing at his humiliation under Bhishma. Amba then returns to marry Vichtravirya but he refuses. Finally, she asks Bhishma to marry her but he proclaims he cannot marry her because of his vow of celibacy. Amba then becomes enraged and becomes Bhishma's bitter enemy, holding him responsible for her plight.
Dhritarashtra marries Gandhari, a princess from Gandhara, who blindfolds herself when she finds she has been married to a blind man. Pandu takes the throne because of Dhritarashtra's blindness. Pandu marries twice, to Kunti and Madri. Pandu is however cursed by sage Kindama that if he engages in a sexual act, he will die. He then retires to the forest along with his two wives, and his brother rules thereafter, despite his blindness.
Pandu's older queen Kunti however, asks the gods Dharma, Vayu, and Indra for sons, by using a boon granted by Durvasa. She gives birth to three sons Yudhishtira, Bhima, and Arjuna through these gods. Kunti shares her boon with the younger queen Madri, who bears the twins Nakula and Sahadeva through the Ashwini twins. However Pandu and Madri, indulge in sex and Pandu dies. Madri dies on his funeral pyre out of remorse. Kunti raises the five brothers, who are from then usually referred to as the Pandava brothers.
Dhritarashtra has a hundred sons through Gandhari, all born after the birth of Yudhishtira. These are the Kaurava brothers, the eldest being Duryodhana, and the second Dushasana. The rivalry and enmity between them and the Pandava brothers, from their youth and into manhood leads to the Kurushetra war.
Shortly after this, Arjuna kidnaps and then marries Krishna's sister, Subhadra. Yudhishtira wishes to establish his position as king; he seeks Krishna's advice. Krishna advises him, and after due preparation and the elimination of some opposition, Yudhishthira carries out the rājasūya yagna ceremony; he is thus recognised as pre-eminent among kings.
The Pandavas have a new palace built for them, by Maya the Danava. They invite their Kaurava cousins to Indraprastha. Duryodhana walks round the palace, and mistakes a glossy floor for water, and will not step in. After being told of his error, he then sees a pond, and assumes it is not water and falls in. Draupadi laughs at him, and he is humiliated.
Dhritarashtra, Bhishma, and the other elders are aghast at the situation, but Duryodhana is adamant that there is no place for two crown princes in Hastinapura. Against his wishes Dhritarashtra orders for another dice game. The Pandavas are required to go into exile for 13 years, and for the 13th year must remain hidden. If discovered by the Kauravas, they will be forced into exile for another 12 years.
At the end of their exile, they try to negotiate a return to Indraprastha. However, this fails, as Duryodhana objects that they were discovered while in hiding, and that no return of their kingdom was agreed. War becomes inevitable.
The two sides summon vast armies to their help, and line up at Kurukshetra for a war. The Kingdoms of Panchala, Dwaraka, Kasi, Kekaya, Magadha, Matsya, Chedi, Pandya and the Yadus of Mathura and some other clans like the Parama Kambojas were allied with the Pandavas. The allies of the Kauravas included the kings of Pragjyotisha, Anga, Kekaya, Sindhudesa (including Sindhus, Sauviras and Sivis), Mahishmati, Avanti in Madhyadesa, Madra, Gandhara, Bahlikas, Kambojas and many others. Prior to war being declared, Balarama, had expressed his unhappiness at the developing conflict, and left to go on pilgrimage, thus he does not take part in the battle itself. Krishna takes part in a non-combatant role, as charioteer for Arjuna.
Before the battle, Arjuna, seeing himself facing great-uncle Bhishma and his teacher Drona on the other side, has doubts about the battle and he fails to lift his Gandiva bow. Krishna wakes him up to his call of duty in the famous Bhagavad Gita section of the epic.
Though initially sticking to chivalrous notions of warfare, both sides soon adopt dishonourable tactics. At the end of the 18-day battle, only the Pandavas, Satyaki, Kripa, Ashwathama, Kritavarma and Krishna survive.
The Pandavas who had ruled their kingdom meanwhile, decide to renounce everything. Clad in skins and rags they retire to the Himalaya and climb towards heaven in their bodily form. A stray dog travels with them. One by one the brothers and Draupadi fall on their way. As each one stumbles, Yudhishitra gives the rest the reason for their fall (Draupadi was partial to Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva were vain and proud of their looks, Bhima and Arjuna were proud of their strength and archery skills, respectively). Only the virtuous Yudhisthira who had tried everything to prevent the carnage and the dog remain. The dog reveals himself to be the god Yama (also known as Yama Dharmaraja), and then takes him to the underworld where he sees his siblings and wife. After explaining the nature of the test, Dharma takes Yudhishtira back to heaven and explains that it was necessary to expose him to the underworld for the one lie he had said during his entire life. Dharma then assures him that his siblings and wife would join him in heaven after they had been exposed to the underworld for measures of time according to their vices.
Arjuna's grandson Parikshita rules after them and dies bitten by a snake. His furious son, Janamejaya, decides to perform a snake sacrifice (sarpasttra) in order to destroy the snakes. It is at this sacrifice that the tale of his ancestors is narrated to him.
The eminent Hindi poet, also hailed as Rashtrakavi Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar' has written epic-poetry on various themes of Mahabharata like Kurukshetra, Rashmirathi and many others which are known for their elegance and musical rhythm.
The Kannada novelist S.L. Bhyrappa wrote a novel in Kannada (now translated to most Indian languages and English) titled Parva, giving a new interpretation to the story of Mahabharata. He tried to understand the social and ethical practices in these regions and correlate them with the story of Mahabharata.
In the late 1980s, the Mahabharata TV series was televised and shown on India's national television (Doordarshan). The series was written by Dr. Rahi Masoom Reza and directed by B. R. Chopra and his son Ravi Chopra. The concept was by Pt. Narendra Sharma.
Many film versions of the epic exist, dating from 1920..
Among literary reinterpretations of the Mahabharata the most famous is arguably Sashi Tharoor's major work entitled "The Great Indian Novel", an involved literary, philosophical, and political novel which superimposes the major moments of post-Independence India in the 20th century onto the driving events of the Mahabharata epic. An acclaimed book, "The Great Indian Novel" also contemporized well-known characters of the epic into equally well-known politicians of the modern era (e.g. Indira Gandhi as the villainous Duryodhana).
Mahabharata was also reinterpreted by Shyam Benegal in Kalyug. Kalyug is a modern-day replaying of the Mahabharata, with the Pandava industrial family being locked in a titanic battle with their Kaurava rivals. But the times are different from the original Mahabharat's, and external forces impinge on feudal values causing disconcerting results.
Maha·bhárata II: The Great Hall: 588 pp, Paul Wilmot, 2006, ISBN 978-0-8147-9406-7
Maha·bhárata III: The Forest (volume four of four): 374 pp, William J. Johnson, 2005, ISBN 978-0-8147-4278-5
Maha·bhárata IV: Viráta: 516 pp, Kathleen Garbutt, 2007, ISBN 978-0-8147-3183-3
Maha·bhárata V: Preparations for War (volume one of two): 450 pp, Kathleen Garbutt, 2008, ISBN 978-0-8147-3191-8
Maha·bhárata V: Preparations for War (volume two of two): forthcoming
Maha·bhárata VI: Bhishma (volume one of two): forthcoming
Maha·bhárata VII: Drona (volume one of four): 473 pp, Vaughan Pilikian, 2006, ISBN 978-0-8147-6723-8
Maha·bhárata VIII: Karna (volume one of two): 604 pp, Adam Bowles, 2007, ISBN 978-0-8147-9981-9
Maha·bhárata VIII: Karna (volume two of two): 450 pp, Adam Bowles, 2008, ISBN 978-0-8147-9995-6
Maha·bhárata IX: Shalya (volume one of two): 371 pp, Justin Meiland, 2005, ISBN 978-0-8147-5706-2
Maha·bhárata IX: Shalya (volume two of two): 470 pp, Justin Meiland, 2007, ISBN 978-0-8147-5737-6
Key to Symbols
The birth order of siblings is correctly shown in the family tree (from left to right), except for Vyasa and Bhishma whose birth order is not described, and Vichitravirya who was born after them. The fact that Ambika and Ambalika are sisters is not shown in the family tree. The birth of Duryodhana took place after the birth of Karna and Yudhishtira, but before the birth of the remaining Pandava brothers.
Some siblings of the characters shown here have been left out for clarity; these include Chitrangada, the eldest brother of Vichitravirya. Vidura, half-brother to Dhritarashtra and Pandu. The family tree continues through the descendants Arjuna, and these have also not been shown here.