History of Literature


Eastern Literature

South Asian Literature



The Churning of the Ocean
The Avatars of Vishnu
Shiva and His Family
Rama and Sita
"Hymns of the Samaveda"
The Ramayan of Valmiki  (BOOK I, BOOK II, BOOK III, BOOK IV, BOOK V, BOOK VI)
Illustrations by Raja Ravi Varma

Mahabharata, (Sanskrit: “Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty”)one of the two Sanskrit great epic poems of ancient India (the other being the Ramayana). The Mahabharata is an important source of information on the development of Hinduism between 400 bce and 200 ce and is regarded by Hindus as both a text about dharma (Hindu moral law) and a history (itihasa, literally “that’s what happened”). Appearing in its present form about 400 ce, the Mahabharata consists of a mass of mythological and didactic material arranged around a central heroic narrative that tells of the struggle for sovereignty between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas (sons of Dhritarashtra, the descendant of Kuru) and the Pandavas (sons of Pandu). The poem is made up of almost 100,000 couplets—about seven times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined—divided into 18 parvans, or sections, plus a supplement titled Harivamsha (“Genealogy of the God Hari”; i.e., of Vishnu). Although it is unlikely that any single person wrote the poem, its authorship is traditionally ascribed to the sage Vyasa, who appears in the work as the grandfather of the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The traditional date for the war that is the central event of the Mahabharata is 1302 bce, but most historians assign it a later date.

The story begins when the blindness of Dhritarashtra, the elder of two princes, causes him to be passed over in favour of his brother Pandu as king on their father’s death. A curse prevents Pandu from fathering children, however, and his wife Kunti asks the gods to father children in Pandu’s name. As a result, Dharma fathers Yudhishtira, the Wind fathers Bhima, Indra fathers Arjuna, and the Ashvins (twins) father Nakula and Sahadeva (also twins; born to Pandu’s second wife, Madri). The enmity and jealousy that develops between the cousins forces the Pandavas to leave the kingdom when their father dies. During their exile the five jointly marry Draupadi (who is born out of a sacrificial fire and whom Arjuna wins by shooting an arrow through a row of targets) and meet their cousin Krishna, who remains their friend and companion thereafter. Although the Pandavas return to the kingdom, they are again exiled to the forest, this time for 12 years, when Yudhishthira loses everything in a game of dice with Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas.

The feud culminates in a series of great battles on the field of Kurukshetra (north of Delhi, in Haryana state). All the Kauravas are annihilated, and, on the victorious side, only the five Pandava brothers and Krishna survive. Krishna dies when a hunter, who mistakes him for a deer, shoots him in his one vulnerable spot—his foot—and the five brothers, along with Draupadi and a dog who joins them (the god Dharma, Yudhisththira’s father, in disguise), set out for Indra’s heaven. One by one they fall on the way, and Yudhisthira alone reaches the gate of heaven. After further tests of his faithfulness and constancy, he is finally reunited with his brothers and Draupadi, as well as with his enemies, the Kauravas, to enjoy perpetual bliss.

The central plot constitutes little more than one fifth of the total work. The remainder of the poem addresses a wide range of myths and legends, including the romance of Damayanti and her husband Nala (who gambles away his kingdom just as Yudhishthira gambles away his) and the legend of Savitri, whose devotion to her dead husband persuades Yama, the god of death, to restore him to life. The poem also contains descriptions of places of pilgrimages.

Along with its basic plot and accounts of numerous myths, the Mahabharata reveals the evolution of Hinduism and its relations with other religions during its composition. The period during which the epic took shape was one of transition from Vedic sacrifice to sectarian Hinduism, as well as a time of interaction—sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile—with Buddhism and Jainism. Different sections of the poem express varying beliefs, often in creative tension. Some sections, such as the Narayaniya (a part of book 13), the Bhagavadgita (book 6), the Anugita (book 14), and the Harivamsha, are important sources of early Vaishnava theology, in which Krishna is an avatar of the god Vishnu. Above all, the Mahabharata is an exposition of dharma (codes of conduct), including the proper conduct of a king, of a warrior, of an individual living in times of calamity, and of a person seeking to attain freedom from rebirth. The poem repeatedly demonstrates that the conflicting codes of dharma are so “subtle” that, in some situations, the hero cannot help but violate them in some respect, no matter what choice he makes.

The Mahabharata story has been retold in written and oral Sanskrit and vernacular versions throughout South and Southeast Asia. Its various incidents have been portrayed in stone, notably in sculptured reliefs at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom in Cambodia, and in Indian miniature paintings.

Wendy Doniger






From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Mahābhārata (Devanāgarī: महाभारत) 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 (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 it is extended from a shorter version simply called Bhārata of 24,000 verses.

Traditionally, the authorship of the Mahābhārata 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. BC) and it probably reached its final form by the time the Gupta period began (ca. 4th c. CE).

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, roughly five times longer than Dante's Divine Comedy, and about four times the size 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), 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).

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)

Textual history and structure
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 (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 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 (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 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 (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.

The 18 parvas

The division into 18 parvas is as follows:

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 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.

Historical context

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 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.

The Older generations
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. 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, smarting 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. 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.

The Pandava and Kaurava princes
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 (the term Pandu may also mean 'jaundiced' ). Vyasa fathers a third son Vidura, by a serving maid.

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 Kurukshetra war.

Lākṣagṛha (The House of Lac)
Duryodhana plots to get rid of the Pandavas. He has a palace built of flammable materials (mostly Lac), and arranges for them to stay there, with the intention of setting it alight. However, the Pandavas are warned by their uncle, Vidura, who sends them a miner to dig a tunnel. They are able to escape to safety and go into hiding, but after leaving others behind, whose bodies are mistaken for them. The Pandavas and Kunti go into hiding.

Marriage to Draupadi
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 calls him blind son of a blind father. He then decides to avenge his humiliation.

The dice game
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.

Exile and return
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 at or 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 battle at Kurukshetra
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.

The end of the Pandavas
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 for the one lie he had said during his entire life. 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 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.

Versions, translations, and derivative works
Many regional versions of the work developed over time, mostly differing only in minor details, or with verses or subsidiary stories being added. These include some versions from outside the Indian subcontinent, such as the Kakawin Bharatayuddha from Java. The plays of the Tamil street theatre, terukkuttu, use themes from the Tamil language versions of Mahabharata, focusing on Draupadi.[23]

Critical Edition
Between 1919 and 1966, scholars at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, compared the various manuscripts of the epic from India and abroad and produced the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, on 13,000 pages in 19 volumes, followed by the Harivamsha in another two volumes and six index volumes. This is the text that is usually used in current Mahabharata studies for reference.[24] This work is sometimes called the 'Pune' or 'Poona' edition of the Mahabharata.

Modern interpretations

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..

In the West, a well known presentation of the epic is Peter Brook's nine hour play premiered in Avignon in 1985 and its five hour movie version The Mahabharata (1989).

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.

Western interpretations of the Mahabharata include William Buck's Mahabharata and Elizabeth Seeger's Five Sons of King Pandu.

"Mahabharta" is also reinterpreted by "Narendra Kohli" an acclaimed Indian writer, in quite a realistic fashion. The book is in eight parts & tries to take a view on events in a matter-of-fact way.




Тyре of work: Poem
Author: Unknown
Type of plot: Heroic epic
Time of plot: Remote antiquity
Locale: Ancient India
First transcribed: Fifth century B.C.(?)


This tremendous poetic effort is one of two national epics of the Hindu people, the second being the Ramayana. It is both a history of prehistoric times and a compendium of materials that throws light on the religious, social, political, ethical, and moral ideals and practices of an old and memorable people.


Principal Characters

Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahad-eva, King Pandu's five sons, known as the Pandavas. When Yudhishthira, the most capable of the brothers, is named heir apparent, their cousins, the Kauravas, take exception, and the Pandavas are forced into exile. In disguise, Arjuna wins the hand of Princess Draupadi, who becomes the wife of all five. Finally, after many heroic and romantic adventures, the Pandavas and the Kauravas engage in a mighty war of heroes, and Yudhishthira becomes king. Later, weary of earthly pomp, the Pandavas, with Draupadi, renounce the world and set out for the dwelling place of the gods on high.
King Pandu, father of the Pandavas.
Kind Dhritarashtra, the brother of King Pandu and father of the Kauravas.
Draupadi, a princess whose hand is won by Arjuna in a trial of strength. In a mysterious fashion, she becomes the wife of all the Pandavas.
King Drupada, Draupadi's father.
Duryodhana, the unscrupulous leader of the Kauravas and enemy of the Pandavas.
Bhishma, Dhritarashtra's wise uncle and adviser.
Krishna of Dvaraka, the Pandavas' cousin, counselor, and friend.


The Story

Among the descendants of King Bharata (after whose name India was called Bharata-varsha, land of the Bhar-atas) there were two successors to the throne of Hasti-napura. Of these, the elder, Dhritarashtra, was blind and gave over the reins of government to his younger brother Pandu. But Pandu grew weary of his duties and retired to hunt and enjoy himself. Again Dhritarashtra took control, aided by the advice and example of his wise old uncle, Bhishma. Upon Pandu's death, his five sons were put under the care of his younger brother, who had one hundred sons of his own.
At first the king's household was peaceful and free from strife, but gradually it became apparent that Pandu's sons were far more capable of ruling than any of Dhritarashtra's heirs. Of the Pandavas, the name given to the five descendants of Pandu, all were remarkably able, but the oldest, Yudhishthira, was judged most promising and therefore was 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 took violent exception. Accordingly, they persuaded their father to allow the Pandavas to leave the court and live by themselves. As a result of a trap set by the unscrupulous Duryodhana, leader of the king's sons, the five brothers escaped to the forest with their mother. There they spent some time in rustic exile.
In the meantime King Drupada had announced that the hand of his daughter, Princess Draupadi, would be given to the hero surpassing all others in a feat of strength and skill, and he had 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 were spent in celebrating the approaching nuptials of the princess before the trial of strength which would reveal the man worthy of taking the lovely princess as his wife. The test was to grasp a mighty bow, fit an arrow, bend the bow, and hit a metal target with the arrow. Contestant after contestant failed in the effort to bend the huge bow. Finally Arjuna, third of the sons of Pandu, came forward and performed the feat with little effort to win the hand of the princess. But in curious fashion Princess Draupadi became the wife of all five of the brothers. At this time, also, the Pandavas met their cousin on their mother's side, Krishna of Dvaraka. This renowned Yadava nobleman they accepted as their special counselor and friend, and to him they owed much of their future success and power.
Hoping to avert dissension after his death, King Dhri-tarashtra decided to divide his kingdom into two parts, giving his hundred sons, the Kauravas, one portion and the Pandavas the other. Thus it came about that Dhritar-ashtra's sons ruled in Hastinapur and the five sons of Pandu in Indraprastha.
The dying king's attempt to settle affairs of government amicably resulted in peace and prosperity for a brief period. Then the wily Duryodhana, leader of the Kauravas, set another trap for the Pandavas. On this occasion he enticed Yudhishthira, the oldest of the brothers, into a game of skill at dice. When the latter lost, the penalty was that the five brothers were to leave the court and spend the next twelve years in the forest. At the end of that time they were to have their kingdom and holdings once again if they could pass another year in disguise, without having anyone recognize them.
The twelve-year exile was one of many romantic and heroic adventures. All five brothers were active in stirring events; Arjuna, in particular, traveled far and long, visited the sacred stream of the Ganges, was courted by several noble ladies, and finally married Subhadra, sister of Krishna.
When the long time of exile was over, the Pandavas and Kauravas engaged in a war of heroes. Great armies were assembled; mountains of supplies were brought together. Just before the fighting began, Krishna stepped forth and sang the divine song, the Bhagavad-Gita, in which he set 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 was relieved of his doubts concerning the need to make his trial by battle.
The war lasted for some eighteen consecutive days, each day marked by fierce battles, single combats, and bloody attacks. Death and destruction were everywhere—the battlefields were strewn with broken bodies and ruined weapons and chariots. The outcome was the annihilation of all the pretensions of the Kauravas and their allies to rule over the kingdom. Finally Yudhishthira came to 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, led the five brothers to realize their weariness with earthly pomp and striving. Accordingly, Yudhishthira gave up his duties as ruler. The five brothers then banded together, clothed themselves as hermits, and set out for Mount Meru, the dwelling place of the gods on high. They were accompanied by their wife Draupadi and a dog that joined them on their journey. As they proceeded, one after the other dropped by the way and perished. At last only Yudhishthira and the faithful dog remained to reach the portals of heaven. But when the dog was refused admission to that holy place, Yudhishthira declined to enter without his canine companion. Then the truth was revealed—the dog was in reality the god of justice himself, sent to test Yudhishthira's constancy.
But Yudhishthira was not content in heaven, for he soon realized that his brothers and Draupadi had been required to descend to the lower regions and there expiate their mortal sins. Lonely and disconsolate, he decided to join them until all could be united in heaven. After he had spent some time in that realm of suffering and torture, the gods took pity on him. Along with his brothers and Draupadi, he was transported back to heaven, where all dwelt in perpetual happiness.


Critical Evaluation

There are six facets of the Mahabharata which require closer examination. First is the problem of language. Second is the question of literary form. Third is the matter of structure. Fourth is the debate about interpretation. Fifth is the analysis of the contents. And last is a partial list of analogs.
In regard to the language problem, modern readers usually rely on translations and should know about variations between one English translation and another. These variations are not inaccuracies; rather, they are the result of translators' differing points of view, all of which may lend insight into the work. The serious student may thus consult more than one translation before evaluating the poem.
Second is the question of literary form. The Mahabharata is classified as a heroic (or "folk") epic to distinguish it from the literary epic and the mock epic. But in some formal respects, it does not follow the pattern of the Western epic. Whereas the Greek heroic epic contains twenty-four books and the English literary epic has twelve, the Mahabharata consists of eighteen books. The number eighteen does not appear to be arbitrary. The Bhagavad-Gita (book 6, chapters 25-42) is a microcosm, divided into eighteen chapters; and the war in which Duryodhana and his forces were defeated lasted eighteen days. Also while most Western heroic epics are nationalistic in tone, the Mahabharata is concerned with a story of conflict primarily for high moral purpose, a struggle between Good and Evil. In most other formal respects, it follows traditional epic formulas.
Third is the matter of structure. The Mahabharata is not a unified epic poem but a collection of poetry which includes myths, legends, secular as well as religious tales and advice, folk wisdom, and religious poetry, among other things. And there is an appendix, the Harivamsa, a genealogy of the god Hari (Vishnu), of whom Krishna was the eighth avatar. As an anthology, this Hindu poem is structurally similar to the Judeo-Christian Bible. Although there is no bible, as such, in Hinduism, there is still a great quantity of sacred literature, including the Mahabharata as well as the Vedas, the Brahmanas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, and the Ramayana. To the pious Hindu, the most familiar is the Gita.
Fourth, as regards interpretation, a distinction must be made between literal and figurative readings of the text. The main story is very likely based upon a historical event: a war between two neighboring peoples, the Kurus and the Panchalas, who inhabited the west and east point of the Madhyadesa (the "middle land" between the Ganges and the Jumna) respectively, with the war ending in the overthrow of the Kuru dynasty. But later recensions transformed history into legend and theology. Hence, the Mahabharata may be construed both literally and figuratively. For instance, the Gita is literally a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. Yet the circumstances and setting— the impending battle, Arjuna's ethical reservations, and the question-answer format—are merely devices to dramatize Krishna's ethical and metaphysical sermon (compare The Sermon on the Mount). So the figurative or allegorical interpretation, which develops the idea of Good striving for supremacy over Evil, sees Arjuna as the individual soul and Krishna as the external Supreme Spirit which resides in each heart. Arjuna's chariot stands for the mortal Body. King Dhritarashtra's blindness represents ignorance, and his hundred sons are the evil tendencies of mankind. The battle, then, becomes a perennial one between the power of Good and the power of Evil. And the warrior who heeds the advice of the Supreme Spirit speaking from within will succeed physically in battle and spiritually in attaining the Highest Good.
Fifth is the analysis of the contents. While the Mahabharata is cast in the framework of an epic feud between the Kauravas (Evil) and the Pandavas (Good), this feud occupies only twenty to twenty-five percent of the work. Also included are the theosophic Gita and the Harivamsa. Consequently, approximately seventy percent of the poem is composed of philosophy, poems, and stories, primarily of a legendary or mythological nature. Among the best-known of the legends is the tale of Sakuntala (book 1), whose son Bharata founded the Great Bharata dynasty of Indian kings. Sakuntala's story also appears in a separate poetic drama, Sakuntala, by Kalidasa (c. fifth century A.D.). Another popular tale is that of Savitri, whose love for her husband and devotion to her father-in-law triumphed over Yama, the god of death. In both of these legends, women have prominent roles, they are evidence of the high place women held in ancient Indian culture. The Mahabharata also provided ethical guidance and in time became an authoritative treatise on dharma (truth, duty, righteousness), inculcating the divine origin of Brahman institutions, the caste system, and the superiority of the priestly caste.
Finally, the Western reader may find it helpful to note analogs between the Mahabharata and Western literature in order to compare cultural concepts and assumptions. As noted above, the Mahabharata and the Bible share a similar format. The story of Savitri and the story of Ruth have much in common. The polyandry of Princess Drau-padi with the Pandavas is reflected in the levirate marriages of the Old Testament. Likewise, the game of dice between Duryodhana and Yudhishthira also occurs in both the Bible (compare the "casting of lots") and Western folklore and literature. Equally common is the identity change or the disguise as manifested in, among other incidents, the discovery that Yudhishthira's faithful dog was in reality the god of justice. Such changes are also seen in Ovid's Metamorphoses, in The Second Shepherd's Play, in Shakespeare's As You Like It and Twelfth Night, and in many folktales. And the parallel between King Dhritarashtra and King Lear is quite clear. The richest source of analogs to the Mahabharata is found in Greek mythology. The bow-and-arrow feat of strength for the hand of Princess Draupadi is mirrored in the test of Penelope's suitors. The twelve-year exile and wandering of the Pandavas has its parallel in the Odyssey, just as the battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is echoed in the Iliad. And where Mount Meru was the dwelling place of the Hindu gods, Mount Olympus was the Greek counterpart; as Yudhishthira descended into the lower regions, so the Greek Orpheus descended into the underworld. These and other analogs suggest that the Hindu epic and its Western counterparts alike are rooted in archetypes of the collective unconscious.


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