Mahabharata, the history of greater India, was originally composed by the sage Vyasa. Handed down over thousands of years, its present form of 110,000 verses makes it the longest poem in the world. The plot is gripping, with many twists and turns, and intertwined with intricate sub-plots. It focuses on the political tensions between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, and culminates in the fratricidal battle of Kurukshetra. The book also includes narrations of other historical tales, and several philosophical discourses. The story particularly explores many of the intricacies of dharma, especially for the warrior and priestly classes.

Krishna, cousin of the Pandavas, and Arjuna’s charioteer during the great battle

The Mahabharata is a favourite subject of art and drama. One film version, screened on TV in the early 1990s was so popular that it practically brought the whole of India to a stop! The plot is interlaced with intrigue, romance, fighting and chivalry. Tradition holds that it is especially meant to capture the attention of people in Kali-yuga, who prefer entertainment to philosophy Nonetheless, the message of Mahabharata is ultimately spiritual and at the heart of the epic is the Bhagavad-gita, narrated as the two sides stood poised for battle.

Brief summary of the story

Dhritarashtra, Pandu’s elder brother. He was not qualified to rule but became regent after Pandu’s early demise.

The story tells of a struggle for the throne between the five sons of Pandu (the Pandavas) and their impious cousins, the Kauravas (sometimes called the Kurus). Pandu was the second of three princes, and took the throne in preference to his blind elder brother, Dhritarashtra. As the result of a curse, Pandu died tragically while his sons were minors. Pandu’s younger brother, Vidura, though pious and learned, was born of a maidservant and could not ascend the throne. It thus remained vacant and by the law of succession should have passed to Pandu’s sons, headed by the pious Yudhisthira. As the boys grew up, alongside their cousins, Dhritarashtra acted as regent. However, his one hundred sons, headed by Duryodhana, were increasingly resentful that fate had deprived them and their father of the vast empire.

Arjuna, the third son of Pandu, to whom Krishna spoke the Bhagavad-gita. Here disguised as a brahmana, he wins the hand of Draupadi.

The Kauravas therefore plotted to kill the teenage Pandavas and their widowed mother, Kunti, by burning them alive. The princes were tipped off and escaped the burning palace via a tunnel. Now aware of their cousins’ treachery, they opted to remain in the forest. During this time, the third brother, Arjuna, won Draupadi as a bride in an archery contest. Due to a benediction gained in a previous life, Draupadi became the wife of all five brothers.

The blind king, feeling repentant, arranged to return to his nephews half the kingdom – but by far the worst half. However, with the help of their friend Krishna, the Pandava kingdom flourished and became opulent in all respects.

Hearing of Yudhisthira’s fame and popularity, Duryodhana seethed with envy. He threatened and cajoled his blind father to arrange for a gambling match between the two groups of cousins. The weak and affectionate Dhritarashtra reluctantly consented. Duryodhana ensured that the dice were rigged, and Yudhisthira lost everything.

A pivotal point in the Mahabharata. In this painting Krishna protects Draupadi, as one of the Kurus tried to disrobe her. According to Hindu theology, the abuse of a woman incurs heavy “bad karma.” None of the nobles intervened and in this way they precipitated their destruction on the field of Kurukshetra.

One of the Kurus even tried to strip Draupadi naked, but Krishna protected her by supplying an endless length of sari. None of the warriors intervened, sowing the seeds of their future destruction.The five brothers took terrible and irrevocable oaths to destroy the offenders. Nonetheless, according to the terms of the contest, they and Draupadi were exiled to the forest for thirteen years. During the final year they were to remain incognito and if discovered were to remain in exile for a further twelve years.

Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield

The five princes and their wife again entered the forest. After many adventures, they adopted disguises for the final year, trying to avoid the spies sent by their cousins. They remained undetected and finally returned to reclaim their kingdom. The Kauravas refused, and the two parties prepared for war on the plains of Kurukshetra. The carnage lasted eighteen days and the Pandavas came out victorious, but with very few soldiers left. Yudhisthira was crowned emperor. His kingdom flourished for 30 years, after which the Pandavas retired to the Himalayas, leaving their grandson on the throne.

Related Values and Issues

  • good over evil/justice
  • the legitimate use of violence
  • duty and personal inconvenience
  • the qualities of a real leader
  • chivalry/the warrior ethic
  • abuse of women (Draupadi’s story)

Personal Reflection

  • Where is the notion of a “spiritual warrior” found in our own heritage, or other world cultures? How does the warrior compare to today’s soldiers and freedom fighters?
  • Is war entirely wrong or is there legitimate use of violence?

Scriptural Passage

“One who is free from sin suffers calamities, while sinners are living happily. A rich man dies young and a poor fellow drags on his existence, weighed down by decrepitude. All this is the work of destiny.”

Mahabharata 12.28