The Mahabharata is an ancient, sacred work of Hinduism and one of the two major epic poems of India. The other is the Ramayana. At eighteen books and about 100,000 stanzas, the Mahabharata also is the longest epic in world literature. This work, composed in Sanskrit in approximately the sixth century B.C.E., remains of great importance to Hindus throughout India and Southeast Asia.
In Hindu tradition, the Mahabharata is said to have been dictated to Ganesh, the god of wisdom, by a wise man, Vyasa. The actual origin is a collection of material that has existed in various forms for more than 2,000 years. The poems were handed down through oral tradition until about 300 B.C.E., when some were ﬁrst written down. This process continued until the work was complete in about 300 C.E.
The name Mahabharata has two meanings. The ﬁrst, “Great King Bharata,” refers to a legendary Indian king. Second, since the word Bharata is also the ofﬁcial name for the Indian people, the epic is often referred to as the “Great Story of India.”
The work contains legends, myths, and fairy tales, as well as the Hindu codes of law. The section of the Mahabharata that concerns religious concepts is known as the Bhagavad Gita, which sets out the basic tenets of Hinduism.
The Pandavas and Dhartarashtras
The main story, which makes up ten of the eighteen books, is an epic tale of war. This narrative is often interrupted by other stories and discussions of religion.
The Mahabharata tells the story of two sets of paternal ﬁrst cousins: The ﬁve sons of the deceased King Pandu are called the ﬁve Pandavas, and the one hundred sons of blind King Dhritarashtra are called the Dhartarashtras. These two groups become bitter rivals and go to war over possession of the ancestral kingdom of Bharata.
The ﬁve Pandavas, Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva, who were fathered by ﬁve gods, are helped throughout the story by deities and seers. The hundred Dhartarashtras are described as human incarnations of demons.
One of the most important ﬁgures in the Mahabharata is Krishna Vasudeva, who is an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Cousin to both sides, he acts as friend and adviser to the Pandavas, and as the brother-in-law, mentor, and charioteer to Arjuna Pandava, a hero of the story.
The events leading to the war began with a game of dice. The Dhartarashtras took advantage of the eldest Pandava, Yudhishthira, and won the game. The ﬁve Pandavas and their common wife, Draupadi, who is an incarnation of the goddess Shri, were forced into the wilderness for a span of twelve years, plus a thirteenth year in disguise. When the thirteen years were over, Duryodhana, the leader of the Dhartarashtra party, refused to return the Pandavas’ half of the kingdom, and war was declared.
The two sides and their armies met on Kuru’s Field. The battle lasted eighteen days, and the Pandavas, after suffering signiﬁcant losses, were victorious. Only the ﬁve brothers and their cousin Krishna survived.
In the years that followed the war, Dhritarashtra and his queen, Gandhari, as well as Kunti, mother of the Pandavas, lived in a forest retreat and died in a forest ﬁre. Krishna Vasudeva and his clan slaughtered one another in a drunken brawl, and Krishna’s soul faded back into Vishnu. Upon hearing this news, the Pandavas decided that it was time for them to leave this world.
The Pandavas began the Great Journey, walking north toward the polar mountain and the heavenly worlds. All but Yudhishthira and a dog that followed him perished.
When Yudhishthira reached the gate of heaven, where the dog was not permitted to enter, Yudhishthira refused to drive the faithful dog away. The dog revealed itself as an incarnation of Dharma, the god who was Yudhishthira’s actual father.
Now Yudhishthira faced one last test of his virtue. He found only the Dhartarashtras in heaven and was told that his brothers were in hell. Yudhishthira insisted on joining his brothers in hell, thus passing the ﬁnal test, and was admitted into heaven.
As an important text of Hindu tradition, the Mahabharata should be treated with respect by storytellers.