The Mahabharata (Devanāgarī: Mahābhārata) is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Rāmāyaṇa. The epic is part of the Hindu itihāsa (literally "history"), and forms an important part of Hindu mythology.
It is of immense importance to culture in the Indian subcontinent, and is a major text of Hinduism. Its discussion of human goals (dharma or duty, artha or purpose, kāma, pleasure or desire 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 Mahabharata's own testimony it is extended from a shorter version simply called Bhārata of 24,000 verses.
Traditionally, the authorship of the Mahabharata is attributed to Vyasa. There have been many attempts to unravel its historical growth and composition layers. Its earliest layers probably date back to the late Vedic period (ca. 8th c. BCE)and it probably reached its final form by the time the Gupta period began (ca. 4th c. CE).
With about one hundred thousand verses, long prose passages, and about 1.8 million words in total, the Mahabharata is the longest epic poem in the world. It is roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined,roughly five times longer than Dante's Divine Comedy, and about four times the length of the Ramayana. Including the Harivaṃśa, the Mahabharata has a total length of more than 90,000 verses.
Besides its epic narrative of the Kurukshetra War and the fates of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, the Mahabharata contains much philosophical and devotional material, such as the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita (6.25-42) which has a very high level of philosophical and religious content, or a discussion of the four "goals of life" or purusharthas (12.161). The latter are enumerated as dharma (right action), artha (purpose), kama (pleasure), and moksha (liberation).
Beside being rich with philosophical and religious jewels , the epic also reveals complexity of human relationship in various dimensions which can be related even with the modern complexity of the human relationships.
The Mahabharata claims all-inclusiveness at the beginning of its first parva ("book"): "What is found here, may be found elsewhere. What is not found here, will not be found elsewhere." Among the principal works and stories that are a part of the Mahabharata are the following (often considered isolated as works in their own right):
* the Bhagavad Gita in book 6 (Bhishmaparva): Krishna advises and teaches Arjuna when he is ridden with doubt.
* the story of Damayanti, sometimes called (Nala and Damayanti) in book 3 (Aranyakaparva), a love story.
* An abbreviated version of the Ramayana, in book 3 (Aranyakaparva)
* Rishyasringa, the horned boy and rishi, in book 3 (Aranyakaparva)
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, provided 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 distinguishes a core portion of 24,000 verses, the Bharata proper, as opposed to additional secondary material, while the Ashvalayana Grhyasutra 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 been described by some early 20th century Indologists as unstructured and chaotic. Hermann Oldenberg (1922) supposed that the original poem must once have carried an immense "tragic force", but dismissed the full text as a "horrible chaos."
The earliest known references to the Mahabharata and its core Bharata date back to the Ashtadhyayi of Pāṇini (fl. 4th century BCE), and in the Ashvalayana Grhyasutra . 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 BCE. Parts of the Jaya's original 8,800 verses possibly may date back as far as the 9th-8th century BCE.
The Greek writer Dio Chrysostom 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 Duryodhana 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 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.
Parva title sub-parvas contents
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 Vana Parva also Aranyaka-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, since Bheema kills Duryodhana by smashing him on the thighs with a mace.
10 Sauptika Parva (The Book of the Sleeping Warriors) 78-80 Ashvattama, Kripa and Kritavarma kill the remaining Pandava army in their sleep. 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 Yudhisthira.
18 Svargarohana Parva (The Book of the Ascent to Heaven) 98 Yudhisthira'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 Parikshit.
The historicity of the Kurukshetra War is unclear. Inasmuch as it does have a historical precedent, it would best fit into the context of Iron Age India of the 10th century BCE or so.
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 BCE. 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 Parikshit (Arjuna's grandson) and the accession of Mahapadma Nanda, commonly dated to 382 BCE, which would yield an estimate of about 1400 BCE 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 (Parikshit'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 BCE for Adhisimakrishna, and thus approximately 950 BCE 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 BCE, 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 BCE.] 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 18 3102 BCE has become widespread in Indian tradition (for example, the Aihole inscription of Pulikeshi II, dated to Saka 556 = 634 CE, 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 BCE.
Scholars have noted parallels between the Mahabharata, the The Rape of the Sabine Women in Roman mythology, and the Æsir–Vanir War in Norse mythology, providing support for a Proto-Indo-European "war of the functions". Regarding these parallels, J. P. Mallory states:
Basically, the parallels concern the presence of first-(Magico-juridicial) and second-(warrior) function representatives on the victorious side of a war that ultimately subdues and incorporates third function characters, for example, the Sabine women or the Norse Vanir. Indeed, the Iliad itself has been examined in a similar light. The ultimate structure of the myth, then, is that the three part Proto-Indo-European society were fused only after a war between the first two against the third.
The core story of the work is that of a dynastic struggle for the throne of Hastinapura, the kingdom ruled by the Kuru clan. The two collateral branches of the family that participate in the struggle are the Kaurava and the Pandava. Although the Kaurava is the senior branch of the family, Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, is younger than Yudhisthira, the eldest Pandava. Both Duryodhana and Yudhisthira claim to the first in line to inherit the throne.
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.
Janamejaya's ancestor Shantanu, the king of Hastinapura has a short-lived marriage with the goddess Ganga and has a son, Devavrata (later to be called Bhishma), who becomes the heir apparent.
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. Meanwhile, The King of Kāśī arranges a swayamvara for his three daughters. However, he does not invite the royal family of Hastinapur. 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, uninvited. He abducts them on account of his strength, rather than their will in his anger. Ambika and Ambalika consent to be married to Vichtravirya. The oldest princess Amba, informs Bhishma she wished to marry Shalvaraj (king of Shalva) whom Bhishma defeated at their swayamvar. Bhishma lets her leave and marry Shalvaraj but Shalvaraj refuses to marry her, smarting at his humiliation under Bhishma. Amba then returns to marry Bhishma but he refuses due to his vow of celibacy. Amba then becomes enraged and becomes Bhishma's bitter enemy, holding him responsible for her plight. Later she is reborn to King Drupada as Shikhandi (or Shikhandini) and causes Bhishma's fall with help of Arjuna in the battle of Kurukshetra.
When Vichitravirya dies young without any heirs, Satyavati asks her first son Vyasa to father children on the widows. The elder, Ambika, shuts her eyes when she sees him and her son Dhritarashtra is born blind. Ambalika turns pale and bloodless, and her son Pandu is born pale and unhealthy (the term Pandu may also mean 'jaundiced'. Due to the physical challenges of the first two children, Satyavati askes Vyasa to try once again. However, Ambika and Ambalika send their maid instead, to Vyasa's room. Vyasa fathers a third son Vidura, by the maid. He is born healthy and grows up to be one of the wisest characters in the Mahabharat. He serves as Prime Minister (Mahamantri or Mahatma) to King Pandu and King Dhritarashtra.
When the princes grow up, Dhritarashtra is about to be crowned king by Bhishma. However, Vidura intervenes and uses his knowledge of politics to come to the conclusion that a blind person cannot be the king. This is because a blind man cannot keep control and protection of his subjects. The throne is given to Pandu because of Dhritarashtra's blindness. Pandu marries twice, to Kunti and Madri. Dhritarashtra marries Gandhari, a princess from Gandhara, who blindfolds herself so that she may feel the pain that her husband feels. Her brother Shakuni is enraged by this and vows to take revenge on the Kuru family. One day, when Pandu is relaxing in the forest, he hears the sound of a wild animal. He shoots an arrow in the direction of the sound. However the arrow hits sage Kindama. The sage curses him that if he engages in a sexual act, he will die. Pandu then retires to the forest along with his two wives, and his brother Dhritarashtra rules thereafter, despite his blindness.
After the deaths of their mother (Madri) and father (Pandu); the Pandavas and their mother Kunti come back to the palace of Hastinapur. Yudhistir is made Crown Prince by Dhritrastra, under considerable pressure from his kingdom. Dhritrastra wanted his own son Duryodhana to become king and lets his ambition get in the way of preserving justice. Shakuni, Duryodhana and Dusasana plot to get rid of the Pandavas. Shakuni calls the architect Purvanchan and makes him build a palace out of flammable materials like lac and ghee. He then arranges for the Pandavas and the Queen Mother Kunti to stay there, with the intention of setting it alight. However, the Pandavas are warned by their wise uncle, Vidura, who sends them a miner to dig a tunnel. They are able to escape to safety and go into hiding. Back at Hastinapur, the Pandavas and Kunti are assumed dead.
During the course of their hiding the Pandavas learn of a swayamvara which is taking place for the hand of the Pāñcāla princess Draupadī. The Pandavas enter the competition in disguise as Brahmins. The task is to string a mighty steel bow and shoot a target on the ceiling, which is the eye of a moving artificial fish, while looking at its reflection in oil below. Most of the princes fail, many being unable to lift the bow. Arjuna succeeds however. The Pandavas return home and inform their mother that Arjuna has won a competition and to look at what they have brought back. Without looking, Kunti asks them to share whatever it is Arjuna has won among themselves. Thus Draupadi ends up being the wife of all five brothers.
After the wedding, the Pandava brothers are invited back to Hastinapura. The Kuru family elders and relatives negotiate and broker a split of the kingdom, with the Pandavas obtaining a new territory. Yudhishtira has a new capital built for this territory at Indraprastha. Neither the Pandava nor Kaurava sides are happy with the arrangement however.
Shortly after this, Arjuna elopes with 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 ridicules him by saying that this is because of his blind father Dhritrashtra. He then decides to avenge his humiliation.
Shakuni, Duryodhana's uncle, now arranges a dice game, playing against Yudhishtira with loaded dice. Yudhishtira loses all his wealth, then his kingdom. He then even gambles his brothers, himself, and finally his wife into servitude. The jubilant Kauravas insult the Pandavas in their helpless state and even try to disrobe Draupadi in front of the entire court, but her honour is saved by Krishna who miraculously creates lengths of cloth to replace the ones being removed.
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 12 years, and in the 13th year must remain hidden. If discovered by the Kauravas, they will be forced into exile for another 12 years.
The Pandavas spend thirteen years in exile; many adventures occur during this time. They also prepare alliances for a possible future conflict. They spend their final year in disguise in the court of Virata, and are discovered just after the end of the year.
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 his great grandfather Bhishma and his teacher Drona on the other side, has doubts about the battle and he fails to lift his Gāndeeva 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, Yuyutsu and Krishna survive.
After "seeing" the carnage, Gandhari who had lost all her sons, curses Krishna to be a witness to a similar annihilation of his family, for though divine and capable of stopping the war, he had not done so. Krishna accepts the curse, which bears fruit 36 years later.
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, Yama takes Yudhishtira back to heaven and explains that it was necessary to expose him to the underworld because (Rajyante narakam dhruvam) any ruler has to visit the underworld at least once. Yama 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 Parikshit 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.