||The Mahabharata (Sanskrit Mahābhārata महाभारत, IPA: [məɦɑːˈbʱɑːrətə])
is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other
being the Ramayana. The epic is part of the Hindu itihasa (or
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 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). Among the principal works and
stories that are a part of the Mahabharata are the Bhagavad Gita,
the story of Damayanti, an abbreviated version of the Ramayana, and
the Rishyasringa, often considered as works in their own right.
Traditionally, the authorship of the Mahabharata is attributed to
Vyasa. There have been many attempts to unravel its historical
growth and compositional layers. The earliest parts of the text are
not appreciably older than around 400 BCE. The text probably
reached its final form by the early Gupta period (ca. 4th c. CE).
The title may be translated as "the great tale of the Bhārata
dynasty". According to the Mahabharata itself, the tale is extended
from a shorter version of 24,000 verses called simply Bhārata.
With about one hundred thousand verses, long prose passages, or
about 1.8 million words in total, the Mahabharata is roughly ten
times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined, or about four
times the length of the Ramayana.
Textual history and structure
Vyasa narrating the Mahabharata to Ganesha, his scribe, Angkor Wat.
The epic is traditionally ascribed to Vyasa, who is also a major
character in 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
storyteller named Ugrasrava Sauti, many years later, to an
assemblage of sages performing the 12 year long sacrifice for King
Saunaka Kulapati in the Naimisha forest
Jaya, the core of Mahābhārata is structured in the form of a
dialogue between Kuru king Dhritarashtra and Sanjaya, his advisor
and chariot driver. Sanjaya narrates each incident of the
Kurukshetra War, fought in 18 days, as and when it happened.
Dhritarāshtra sometimes asks questions and doubts and sometimes
laments, knowing about the destruction caused by the war, to his
sons, friends and kinsmen. He also feels guilty, due to his own
role, that led to this war, destructive to the entire Indian
In the beginning Sanjaya gives a description of the various
continents of the Earth, the other planets, and focuses on the
Indian Subcontinent and gives an elaborate list of hundreds of
kingdoms, tribes, provinces, cities, towns, villages, rivers,
mountains, forests etc. of the (ancient) Indian Subcontinent (Bhārata
Varsha). He also explains about the 'military formations adopted by
each side on each day, the death of each hero and the details of
each war-racings. Some 18 chapters of Vyasa's Jaya constitutes the
Bhagavad Gita, the sacred text of the Hindus. Thus, this work of
Vyasa, called Jaya deals with diverse subjects like geography,
history, warfare, religion and morality. According to Mahabharata
itself, Vaisampayana's Bharata expanded on the story, with Vyasa's
Jaya embedded within it. Ugrasrava eventually composed the final
Mahabharata, with both Vyasa's Jaya and Vaisampayana's Bharata
embedded within the epic.
Accretion and redaction
Research on the Mahabharata has put an enormous effort into
recognizing and dating various layers within the text. Some elements
of the present Mahabharata can be traced back up to Vedic times.
The background to the Mahabharata suggests the origin of the epic
occurs at a time "after the very early Vedic period" and before "the
first Indian 'empire' was to rise in the third century B.C.,". This
is a "a date not too far removed from the eighth or ninth century
B.C." is likely. It is generally agreed that "Unlike the
Vedas, which have to be preserved letter-perfect, the epic was a
popular work whose reciters would inevitably conform to changes in
language and style." so the earliest surviving components of this
dynamic text are believed to be no older than the earliest external
references we have to the epic, which may include an allusion in
Panini's fourth century BCE grammar (Ashtādhyāyī 4:2:56).. It
is estimated that the Sanskrit text probably reached something of a
"final form" by the early Gupta period (about the 4th century
CE). Vishnu Sukthankar, editor of the first great critical
edition of the Mahabharata, commented: "It is useless to think of
reconstructing a fluid text in a literally original shape, on the
basis of an archetype and a stemma codicum. What then is possible?
Our objective can only be to reconstruct the oldest form of the text
which it is possible to reach on the basis of the manuscript
material available." That manuscript evidence is somewhat late,
given its material composition and the climate of India, but it is
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. At least three redactions of the text are
commonly recognized: Jaya (Victory) with 8,800 verses attributed to
Vyasa, Bharata with 24,000 verses as recited by Vaisampayana, and
finally the Mahabharata as recited by Ugrasrava Sauti with over
100,000 verses. However, some scholars such as John
Brockington, argue that Jaya and Bharata refer to the same text, and
ascribe the theory of Jaya with 8,800 verses to a misreading of a
verse in Adiparvan (1.1.81). 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 and "Virat-parva" from MS
Spitzer, the oldest surviving Sanskrit philosophical manuscript
dated to Kushan Period (200 CE), 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
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
The snake sacrifice of Janamejaya
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 a particularly close connection to Vedic (Brahmana)
literature. The Panchavimsha Brahmana (at 25.15.3) enumerates the
officiant priests of a sarpasattra among whom the names Dhrtarashtra
and Janamejaya, two main characters of the Mahabharata's sarpasattra,
as well as Takshaka, the name of a snake in the Mahabharata,
The state of the text has been described by some early 20th century
Indologists as unstructured and chaotic. Hermann Oldenberg supposed
that the original poem must once have carried an immense "tragic
force", but dismissed the full text as a "horrible chaos." The
judgement of other early 20th century Indologists was even less
favourable. Moritz Winternitz (Geschichte der indischen Literatur
1909) considered that "only unpoetical theologists and clumsy
scribes" could have lumped the various parts of disparate origin
into an unordered whole.
See also: Bhagavad gita#Date_and_text
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 BCE), 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 BCE.
A report by the Greek writer Dio Chrysostom (ca. 40-ca. 120 CE)
about Homer's poetry being sung even in India seems to imply
that the Iliad had been translated into Sanskrit. However, scholars
have, in general, taken this as evidence for the existence of a
Mahabharata at this date, whose episodes Dio or his sources
syncretistically identify with the story of the Iliad.
Several stories within the Mahabharata took on separate identities
of their own in Classical Sanskrit literature. For instance,
Abhijñānashākuntala by the renowned Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa (ca. 400
CE), believed to have lived in the era of the Gupta dynasty, is
based on a story that is the precursor to the Mahabharata. Urubhanga,
a Sanskrit play written by Bhāsa who is believed to have lived
before Kālidāsa, is based on the slaying of Duryodhana by the
splitting of his thighs by Bhima.
The copper-plate inscription of the Maharaja Sharvanatha (533-534
CE) from Khoh (Satna District, Madhya Pradesh) describes the
Mahabharata as a "collection of 100,000 verses" (shatasahasri
The 18 parvas
The division into 18 parvas is as follows:
||Adi Parva (The Book of the Beginning)
||How the Mahabharata came to be narrated by Sauti to the
assembled rishis at Naimisharanya. The recital of the
Mahabharata at the sarpasattra of Janamejaya by
Taksaśilā. 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
||Sabha Parva (The Book of the Assembly Hall)
||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
||Vana Parva also Aranyaka-parva, Aranya-parva (The
Book of the Forest)
||The twelve years of exile in the forest (aranya).
||Virata Parva (The Book of Virata)
||The year in incognito spent at the court of Virata.
||Udyoga Parva (The Book of the Effort)
||Preparations for war and efforts to bring about peace
between the Kurus and the Pandavas which eventually fail (udyoga
means effort or work).
||Bhishma Parva (The Book of Bhishma)
||The first part of the great battle, with Bhishma as
commander for the Kauravas and his fall on the bed of
||Drona Parva (The Book of Drona)
||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.
||Karna Parva (The Book of Karna)
||The battle again, with Karna as commander.
||Shalya Parva (The Book of Shalya)
||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
Bhima and Duryodhana which ends the war, since Bhima kills
Duryodhana by smashing him on the thighs with a mace.
||Sauptika Parva (The Book of the Sleeping Warriors)
||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.
||Stri Parva (The Book of the Women)
||Gandhari, Kunti and the women (stri) of the Kurus
and Pandavas lament the dead.
||Shanti Parva (The Book of Peace)
||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).
||Anushasana Parva (The Book of the Instructions)
||The final instructions (anushasana) from Bhishma.
||Ashvamedhika Parva (The Book of the Horse Sacrifice)
||The royal ceremony of the Ashvamedha (Horse sacrifice)
conducted by Yudhisthira. The world conquest by Arjuna. The
Anugita is told by Krishna to Arjuna.
||Ashramavasika Parva (The Book of the Hermitage)
||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
||Mausala Parva (The Book of the Clubs)
||The infighting between the Yadavas with maces (mausala)
and the eventual destruction of the Yadavas.
||Mahaprasthanika Parva (The Book of the Great Journey)
||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.
||Svargarohana Parva (The Book of the Ascent to Heaven)
||Yudhisthira's final test and the return of the Pandavas
to the spiritual world (svarga).
||Harivamsa Parva (The Book of the Genealogy of
||Life of Krishna which is not covered in the 18 parvas of
The historicity of the Kurukshetra War is unclear. Many historians
estimate the date of the Kurukshetra war to Iron Age India of the
10th century BCE. The setting of the epic has 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 foundation on which the Mahabharata corpus was built,
with a climactic battle eventually coming to be viewed as an epochal
Puranic 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
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
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 be 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, in which great values
and noble ideas have crumbled, and man is heading toward the
complete dissolution of right action, morality and virtue.
Arshia Sattar states that the central theme of the Mahabharata, as
well as the Ramayana, is respectively Krishna's and Rama's hidden
divinity and its progressive revelation.
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 King Shantanu 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 resolve his father's dilemma, Devavrata agrees to
relinquish his right to 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, Chitrāngada and Vichitravirya.
Upon Shantanu's death, Chitrangada becomes king. He lives 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, neglecting to invite the royal family of
Hastinapur. In order to arrange the marriage of young Vichitravirya,
Bhishma attends the swayamvara of the three princesses Amba, Ambika
and Ambalika, uninvited, and proceeds to abduct them. Ambika and
Ambalika consent to be married to Vichitravirya.
The oldest princess Amba, however, informs Bhishma that she wishes
to marry Shalvaraj (king of Shalva) whom Bhishma defeated at their
swayamvar. Bhishma lets her leave to marry Shalvaraj, but Shalvaraj
refuses to marry her, still smarting at his humiliation at the hands
of Bhishma. Amba then returns to marry Bhishma but he refuses due to
his vow of celibacy. Amba 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 the help of Arjuna, in the battle of
The Pandava and Kaurava princes
When Vichitravirya dies young without any heirs, Satyavati
asks her first son Vyasa to father children with the widows. The
eldest, Ambika, shuts her eyes when she sees him, and so her son
Dhritarashtra is born blind. Ambalika turns pale and bloodless upon
seeing him, and thus 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 asks 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
Mahabharata. 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 when Vidura intervenes and uses his knowledge of politics
to assert that a blind person cannot be king. This is because a
blind man cannot control and protect his subjects. The throne is
then 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 the sage Kindama, who 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.
The central figure is Yudhishthira; the two to his left are Bhima
and Arjuna. Nakula and Sahadeva, the twins, are to his right. Their
wife, at far right, is Draupadi. Deogarh, Dasavatar temple.
Pandu's older queen Kunti, however, had been given a boon by Sage
Durvasa that she could invoke any god using a special mantra. Kunti
uses this boon to ask Dharma the god of justice, Vayu the god of the
wind, and Indra the lord of the heavens for sons. She gives birth to
three sons, Yudhisthira, Bhima, and Arjuna, through these gods.
Kunti shares her mantra 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 on 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. Other Kaurava brothers
were Vikarna and Sukarna. The rivalry and enmity between them and
the Pandava brothers, from their youth and into manhood, leads to
the Kurukshetra war.
Lāksagraha (The House of Lac)
After the deaths of their mother (Madri) and father (Pandu), the
Pandavas and their mother Kunti return to the palace of Hastinapur.
Yudhisthira is made Crown Prince by Dhritarashtra, under
considerable pressure from his kingdom. Dhritarashtra 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 to 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 presumed dead.
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
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.
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 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 battle at Kurukshetra
Bhishma on his death-bed of arrows with the Pandavas and
Krishna. Folio from the Razmnama (1761 - 1763), Persian translation
of the Mahabharata, commissioned by Mughal emperor Akbar. The
Pandavas are dressed in Persian armour and robes.
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, Telinga, 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
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 Yudhishthira 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 (sarpasattra) in order to destroy the snakes. It is at
this sacrifice that the tale of his ancestors is narrated to him.