The Mahabharata is an ancient Sanskrit poem that describes the mythical Kurukshetra War between two groups of brothers descended from King Bharata: the Pandavas and the Kauravas. It is considered so historically important to the Hindu tradition that it is sometimes referred to as the “fifth Veda”. The four Vedas are the fundamental texts of Hinduism, which describe the principles of faith and doctrines for life.
Summary and Synopsis
Divided into eighteen segments, Mahabharata begins with the origins of the families that are the focus of the book. Sauti, a narrator who returns from a sacrifice, tells the story of the sacred texts as he remembers them. It is the story of the people descended from the ancient emperor Bharata.
Shantanu, the king of Hastinapura, is married to the goddess of the Ganges river. She gives birth to Devata, a wise and strong boy who is the heir to the throne. However, after Ganga dies and returns to divinity, Shantanu marries a woman named Satyavati, who has a son named Vyasa. He promises her that her future son will be king. They have two children, but both die young.
Satyavati asks Vyasa to father children with the widows of his dead son, to maintain his claim to the throne. He does, and one of the widows gives birth to a blind baby named Dritharashtra, and her sister gives birth to a pale-skinned girl named Pandu. Due to his blindness, Dritharashtra is not eligible to be king, and Pandu becomes king.
However, Pandu has been cursed and will die if he sleeps with a woman. She marries Kunti, who has been blessed with exceptional fertility. They have three children: the mighty Yudhishthira, the mighty Bhima, and the warrior Arjuna. However, she has a fourth secret son, Karna, whom she had abandoned before getting married.
Madri, Pandu’s second wife, also gives birth to two sons, the twins Nakula and Sahadev. These five children are known as the Pandavas. King Pandu dies after mating with Madri, and his blind brother becomes king. The Pandavas marry the same woman, Draupadi, whom they treat as their common wife.
Dritharashtra and his wife, Gandhari, have one hundred children, known as the Kauravas, led by the eldest, Duryodhana. The two clans become vicious rivals as the Pandavas earn people’s love with their strength, kindness, and good deeds. Kauravas are seen as jealous and evil.
Duryodhana teams up with the Pandavas’ jealous stepbrother Karna along with his uncle Shakuni to drive the Pandavas out of the kingdom. They challenge their rival clan to a dice game and manage to defeat the Pandavas by cheating. The Pandavas lose everything, including his wife Draupadi, to the Kauravas and go into exile.
The Kauvaras sentence the Pandavas to twelve-year exile, followed by a year of anonymity and rejection. The Kauvaras, however, do not plan to let their rivals simply disappear on the field. They send many assassins after them and try to kill them in exile.
However, the Pandavas manage to escape each time, finding refuge with their maternal uncle, Lord Sri Krishna. Thirteen years pass and the Pandavas return to claim their part of the empire. However, the Kauvaras do not plan to honor their part of the agreement. They refuse to hand over the land, leading to the Great Kurukshetra War. This epic battle takes place in the fields of the Kuru clan and lasts for eighteen days.
This episode in the narration is the basis of the sacred Hindu scripture known as the Bhagavad Gita. The Pandavas finally succeed, claiming land for their family, but their friends, relatives, and loved ones die in battle. The narrative ends with a trial in heaven, as they are cleansed of their sins and join their brothers who died in battle in the afterlife, while Sauti closes his narrative.
In its written and complete form, the poem is made up of 100,000 verses, making it the longest of all ancient epic poems. However, unlike the Vedic texts, which are considered to be past and pristinely copied over the centuries, the Mahabharata did not initially manifest itself as a written work.
Instead, the poem was transmitted through an oral tradition, which means that the version we have now is a kind of hodgepodge of various versions and revisions by its tellers. In this sense, the Mahabharata is similar to the Greek war epic, the Iliad, which was transmitted orally until he promised to write around the 8th century BC. C., approximately the same period in which the Mahabharata began to take shape.
This oral tradition is reflected in the text of the Mahabharata itself, as each story told is told by one person to another. The entire epic itself is framed as recited by a single narrator.
Mahabharata studies tend to point out that the text is intended to be encyclopedic, touching on everything from dharma principles to the responsibilities of a king and the true nature of women. And although it is the only ancient Hindu text that takes a narrative form, it is loaded with didactic and philosophical segments, whether in the form of allegorical fables or didactic discourses among its characters. Therefore, the Mahabharata is partly an epic poem, partly a Hindu philosophical treatise.
- Yudhishtra: The eldest of the Pandava brothers. He is their leader as king and commander in battle.
- Arjuna: One of the Pandavas brothers. He is called the “wealth winner”. He is the best warrior of all the brothers, as he was trained by his future military opponent Drona. He is an expert archer and popular with women.
- Karna: He is technically the eldest of the Pandava brothers, but was raised by adoptive parents and is therefore not considered part of the family.
- Dhritarashtra: The blind king of Hastinapur who believes that his blindness is a curse on him, gives birth to 100 sons who are incarnate demons.
- Draupadi: The wife of the five Pandava brothers, Draupadi is a celebrated princess who is widely regarded as the most beautiful woman in the world.
- Duryodhana: The leader of 100 demon brothers born to the blind king Dhritarashtra, Duryodhana is portrayed as a blatant violation of dharma.
- Bhima: The strongest of the Pandavas, Bhima is often the brother who kills the brothers’ greatest enemies and protects them from their most skilled aggressors.
- Krishna: The god who helps Pandavas throughout history, helps them understand their dharma as rulers and fighters in war.
- Drona: At the time of the story, Drona is an 85 year old man who fights like a 16 year old boy.
- Vyasa: As shown in the story, Vyasa is the narrator of the entire Mahabharata epic, dictating the tale to Ganesha.
Despite its size and complexity, the Mahabharata predominantly explores a general theme: the observance of sacred duty, called dharma. All other thematic themes in the work relate to the question of dharma obeyed or ignored. Characters who satisfy the dictates of dharma are ultimately rewarded, while those who consciously refuse to obey their dharma are inevitably punished.
According to Hindu law, each individual has a special place in society and must behave in strict accordance with the requirements of that position, called caste. In the Mahabharata, all the important characters belong to the Kshatriya or warrior caste. People like Yudhishthira, Arjuna, Bhima, and Duryodhana must obey the dharma of warriors. They must be brave, honorable, and respectful of their opponents.
They should never take unfair advantage; for example, attacking an unarmed or unprepared enemy. Duryodhana, for example, fights justly against Bhima, who unfairly hits him “under the belt” in his combat. At the end of the narrative, we see that Duryodhana, despite her often wicked and unkind actions, gains admission to heaven because she always adhered to the warrior’s code or dharma.