A brief overview of the Mahabharata

Yudhisthira says: Forgiveness is the gateway to heaven

History of the Mahabharata

The Epic Mahabharata belongs to the group of scriptures called Smriti - the remembered word of God (see literature). Shruti (Vedas and Upanishads) is the group of scriptures that represent the cosmic sound of God that people once heard.

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To specify a certain date of the Mahabharata events, historians compare various texts with true historical incidents. Thus, they can calculate dates such as when, for example, Krishna died. Albeit doubts can be cast on various conclusions of such approaches, for Hindus the Krishna's death starts the new era - Kali Yuga. The majority of scholars, historians and Hindu sages agree on the year 3102 BC (January 23). The Mahabharata ends with Krishna's death and there is a general consensus on the above date.

The earliest known historical records about this valuable book made Panini, an Indian Sanskrit grammarian from the 4th century BC. Western scholars often deform Indian history and screw it up to 2000 years BC only. A typical example is a statement from Encyclopedia Britannica (2005 Deluxe Edition) where it is said: "The traditional date for the war that is the central event of the Mahabharata is 1302 BC, but most historians prefer a later date". However, no source is given and no reference to how Hindus perceive the concept of "Brahma ages" (Dvapara Yuga, Kali Yuga, etc.) is presented. As we can see above, the distortion is too undisguised. Not a "preference", of course, but only an in-depth study supported with (cited) arguments can claim that a particular date is correct or not. The Mahabharata also unveils some important historical events that archeologists can document in a number of excavations the age of which goes back to the time before 4th century BC. These excavations have illustrations of the Mahabharata events on them.

As a written document, the Mahabharata had developed gradually and it was supplemented later. If we accept the general opinion of Hindus (date of Krishna's death), its story must have happened before the year 3102 BC.

On the Indonesian island Java there is a version of the Mahabharata that developed territorially independently from the Indian subcontinent - Kakawin Bharatayuddha is an ancient poetical rendering of the Mahabharata.

Krishna and Arjuna are not only cousins

Vasudeva (Krishna's father) and Kunti (mother of the Pandavas) were brother and sister. Arjuna later married Krishna's sister Subharda, so he was also Krishna's brother-in-law.

The story

The authorship of the epic is traditionally ascribed to Vyasa, who is also one of the most important characters of the book. The first section of the Mahabharata introduces a few things and characters such as Ganesha - who, at the Vyasa's request - writes down the epic uninterruptedly in one time interval while Vyasa keeps dictating it.

Although there are several other things written in the beginning of the book, the main plot starts evolving around the story of King Shantanu (King of Hastinapura). Shantanu met Ganga, was enthralled by her beauty, they started living together and she gave him children. But Ganga, in order to protect her children's souls from the curse once Vashishta had imposed upon them (their children were actually eight Vasus being cursed by Vashishta), decided to kill them. Upon agreeing with Shantanu to become his partner she lays down a condition that he would never ask her anything.

When after birth of their eighth child Ganga goes to the river to throw her little innocent boy into it, Shantanu is so depressed that he bursts out in anger and asks Ganga why she keeps killing all their children. However, upon breaking his promise not to ask any questions Ganga decides to leave, but the King receives a promise that his last son will come back one day.

Ganga keeps her promise and after some time she comes back and returns her eighth son - Devavrata. When Devavrata grows into a handsome prince, Shantanu meets Satyavati and falls in love with her. But their marriage is almost impossible, as Satyavati's father asks the King that it must be his daughter's children - not anyone else in the world - who would once inherit the throne.

King Shantanu is unable to agree. Had he agreed, Devavrata would have lost his legitimate right to become the successor of the throne. But Devavrata decides to help the Fates' steerage by an Oath that will constrain him to eternal celibacy. As soon as he takes the Oath before the Satyavati's father, he becomes a new man with a new name - Bhishma.

Shantanu and Satyavati have two children - Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. But the children do not live a long life and Shantanu falls ill and dies too. Satyavati is confronted with kingless Hastinapura - there is no successor of the throne. Bhishma refuses it because of his oath. She therefore asks Vyasa - a saint and her firstborn son, to help her. Vichitravirya was married to Ambika and Ambalika. Satyavati asked Vyasa to procreate a successor for the throne. Vyasa, although reluctant, after some time agrees and goes to Ambika first (first Vichitravirya's wife), but she gets so scared by seeing his dirty ascetic body that she, while they make love, keeps her eyes closed in anguish. Later she gives birth to Dhritarashtra, who is unfortunately blind. Satyavati therefore asks Vyasa to help her again. Now it is the Ambalika's turn, the second Vichitravirya's wife, but she, after seeing Vyasa, gets so scared that she looses all color and becomes pale. She gives birth to Pandu who is also pale.

Pandu becomes King, but one day he makes a big mistake and shoots a sage Kindama while he (Kindama) makes love with his spouse in the woods, being transformed to animals. As a consequence of this, the mating deer couple was seriously hurt and they transformed themselves back to human form. The male part, Kindama, after being shot by the Pandu's deadly arrow, gets so angry that his inescapable curse mutilates all Pandu's future life - the verdict is: if Pandu ever sexually associates with a woman, he falls right away into the hands of death. After the curse Pandu renounces the material world and Dhritarashtra, his stepbrother, becomes King of Hastinapura.

Pandu had two wives - Madri and Kunti. One day he cannot defend himself against Madri's sexual appeal, which makes him so desirous that the Kindama's curse straightens out its awaiting hands of death.

The Pandavas

Kunti wants to fulfill her maternal expectations, but she has no man. She recollects the moment when her first son Karna was conceived from an arcane mantra one sage had given her once. Surya, the Sun God, appeared to her then. Thus, Kunti remembers her secret mantra and gives birth to three sons (other two come from Madri), which are referred to as the Pandavas.

Yudhisthira's father was Yama; Bhima's father was Vayu, Arjuna's father was Indra. Then it was Madri who gave birth to two other sons - the twins, whose fathers were Ashwins (divine twins). Madri's sons are Nakula and Sahadeva. These all are the five Pandavas.

The Kauravas

Pandu and Dhritarashtra are stepbrothers and their descendants - the Pandavas and Kauravas, later fight for the throne of Hastinapura. Dhritarashtra had a son - Duryodhana, who was very evil. Although the Mahabharata says that Dhritarashtra had one hundred sons, when the story unfolds in reference to the Kauravas, the epic pays most attention predominantly to Duryodhana, Karna, Gandhari (Dhritarashtra's wife), Shakuni (Gandhari's brother) and a few other persons on the Kaurava's part.

The Kauravas also have support from important royal advisors and teachers such as Drona (a superb teacher of martial arts), Kripa (a chief priest of the kingdom), Ashwattama (Drona's son), Bhishma, and Vidura (the third son whom Vyasa had conceived with a maiden - he later became the chief minister in the Dhritarashtra's kingdom).

Conflicts between the Pandavas and Kauravas

The generally accepted rule on the basis of which a successor of the throne was appointed had been historically based mostly on the hereditary principle (father - first-born son). When Satyavati had decided that the Hastinapura's crown would glow on the Vyasa's offshoots, she had not expected that Dhritarashtra's and Pandu's sons would be in conflict. Yudhisthira was older than Duryodhana and after Dhritarashtra's death the legitimate successor of the throne would be Yudhisthira. For Duryodhana, the King Dhritarashtra's first-born son, this was a big pain and he therefore strived every effort to contrive all unthinkable intrigues and plots with aim to kill the Pandavas.

Exile and War

By inviting the Pandavas to play a dice game, Duryodhana misuses their kind-heartedness. The game turns up to be a fiendish decoy where with assistance of the treacherous and double-faced Shakuni the Pandavas lose everything including themselves. They have a wife - Draupadi, and when the Kauravas ordered that she must come before them and look upon her humiliated husbands, the Kauravas then hanker after seeing her undressed. But a miracle happens and her dress unwinds as if being made of endless cloth strips. Draupadi then speaks loud to Dhritarashtra and asks - did Yudhisthira put her at stake before, or after he became a slave? An emotional and impressive Draupadi's self-defending long monologue makes everybody still for a long time until suddenly, under the pressure of Draupadi's honesty and well-argued words, King Dhritarashtra makes the result of the game void.

Duryodhana gets so angry that he invites the Pandavas to play a second game where exile is at stake - either the Pandavas or Kauravas spend 12 years in exile. The Pandavas lose again and go to exile.

After 12 years (with one more year of anonymity - 13 years all together, which was the Duryodhana's condition), they come back and the war between the two family clans is imminent. Duryodhana refuses to accept their successful concealment during the anonymity year; both family clans communicate via messengers only. Krishna becomes one of them, too, and with intention to stop the war he demands only five villages for the Pandavas. Duryodhana refuses this offer too.

Divine Weapons

In the Mahabharata, divine weapons are used and here is a brief overview of them:

  • Agneyastra is the fire weapon, which belongs to God Agni, master of flames. Drona and Arjuna used it.
  • Brahmastra is the Brahma's weapon. It is the most sinister weapon and few trustworthy scholars suggested that it could have the power of atomic destructiveness.
  • Gandiva is a miraculous bow God Agni gave to Arjuna.
  • Kaumodaki is the Lord Vishnu's invincible celestial mace.
  • Narayanastra is the missile weapon of Lord Vishnu.
  • Pashupatastra is the Lord Shiva's weapon, one of the most destructive ones.
  • Vajra is the weapon (thunderbolt) of Indra, a combination of sword, mace and spear.
  • Vimana (also Viman, Vihmana, Viwan) is the Sanskrit term for a flying machine and it has several occurrences in the Mahabharata. It is translated with words such as "celestial car" or "celestial vehicle" and an example from the Mahabharata (Ganguli English translation) is: "The gods also, with their spouses, respectfully invited thereto, came on their celestial cars and seated thereon shone like blazing fires."
  • Vishnu's chakra (Sudarsana discus) is a sharp spinning disc - a very dangerous weapon.


The Epic Mahabharata is the book about two family clans - the Pandavas and the Kauravas, where Krishna is depicted as the avatar of God Vishnu and who appears in His true form to Arjuna in a dialogue on the battlefield just a few moments before the war takes place. This probably the most precious historical dialogue in the Mahabharata is referred to as Bhagavadgita (or Bhagavad Gita), where Krishna shines light on many Arjuna's doubts in his indecisiveness about going to war. For example, Arjuna asks, "How can I fight with people whom I respect?" But Krishna answers that going away without responding to such humiliation would result in historical records referring to the Pandavas as cowards. Apart from many other things, Krishna gives to Arjuna also answers to many religious questions including those about life after death and the immortality of soul.

Finally, the Pandavas win.

The Ganguli English translation of the Epic Mahabharata is the only complete translation in the public domain.


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