The Mahabharata


Abhimanyu Hunting in a Forest
Mahabharata Illustration

Jul 21, CANADA (SUN) — The Mahabharata of of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli (published between 1883 and 1896).

The Mahabharata is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Ramayana. With more than 74,000 verses, plus long prose passages, or some 1.8 million words in total, it is among the longest epic poems worldwide.

The Mahabharata is of immense philosophical and religious importance in India. It includes the Bhagavad-Gita, a primary sastric text for Gaudiya Vaisnavas.

    "The forgetful living entities or conditioned souls have forgotten their relationship with the Supreme Lord, and they are engrossed in thinking of material activities. Just to transfer their thinking power to the spiritual sky, Krsna-dvaipayana Vyasa has given a great number of Vedic literatures. First he divided the Vedas into four, then he explained them in the Puranas, and for less capable people he wrote the Mahabharata. In the Mahabharata there is given the Bhagavad-gita. Then all Vedic literature is summarized in the Vedanta-sutra, and for future guidance he gave a natural commentation on the Vedanta-sutra, called Srimad-Bhagavatam. We must always engage our minds in reading these Vedic literatures. Just as materialists engage their minds in reading newspapers, magazines and so many materialistic literatures, we must transfer our reading to these literatures which are given to us by Vyasadeva; in that way it will be possible for us to remember the Supreme Lord at the time of death. That is the only way suggested by the Lord, and He guarantees the result: 'There is no doubt.'"

    Introduction to Bhagavad-Gita As It Is
    Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. HDG A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada.

Without reading the Mahabharata, it is difficult for one to understand the Bhagavad-Gita in context. Therefore, we are pleased to begin a new Sun series in which we will present an English translation of Mahabharata. Our serial presentation will offer the Ganguli English translation. While the Mahabharata is currently available online in Sanskrit with Parallel Devanagari and Romanization. The Ganguli translation is the only complete English Mahabharata currently available in the public domain.

We can expect the Sun's serial presentation of Mahabharata to take a long time. In fact, the Mahabharata material is so voluminous, we haven't make a count for purposes of estimating the number of articles required to present the entire epic here. Suffice to say, we won't be surprised to find ourselves reading the end chapters at this time next year.

We will begin our series with a background overview of Mahabharata, from Wikipedia:

"The title of Mahabharata may be translated as "the great tale of the Bharata Dynasty", according to the Mahabharata's own testimony extended from a shorter version simply called Bh?rata of 24,000 verses. The epic is part of the Hindu, itihasas, literally "that which happened", along with the Ramayana and the Puranas.

Traditionally, the Mahabharata is ascribed to Vyasa. Due to its immense length, its philological study has a long history of attempting to unravel its historical growth and composition layers. In its final form, it is assumed to have been completed between the 3rd and 5th centuries, with its central core (consisting of only a fraction of the full 1.8 million words) going back as far as the 5th century BC.


With its vast philosophical depth and sheer magnitude, a consummate embodiment of the ethos of not only India but of Hinduism and Vedic tradition, the Mahabharata's scope and grandeur is best summarized by one quotation from the beginning of its first parva (section): "What is found here, may be found elsewhere. What is not found here, will not be found elsewhere."

In its scope, the Mahabharata is more than simply a story of kings and princes, sages and wisemen, demons and gods; its author, Vyasa, says that one of its aims is elucidating the four goals of life: kama (pleasure), artha (wealth), dharma (duty) and moksha (liberation). The story culminates in moksha, believed by many Hindus to be the ultimate goal of human beings. Karma and dharma play an integral role in the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata includes large amounts of Hindu mythology, cosmological stories of the gods and goddesses, and philosophical parables aimed at students of Hindu philosophy. Among the principal works and stories that are a part of the Mahabharata are the following (often considered isolated as works in their own right):

  • Bhagavad-Gita Krishna instructs and teaches Arjuna Bhishmaparva.)

  • Damavanti (or Nala and Damayanti, a love story. Aranyakaparva.)

  • Krishnavatara (the story of Krishna, the Krishna Leela, which is woven through many chapters of the story)

  • Rama (an abbreviated version of the Ramayana. Aranyakaparva.)

  • Rishyasringa (also written as Rshyashrnga, the horned boy and rishi. Aranyakaparva.)

  • Vishnu sahasranama (the most famous hymn to Vishnu, which describes His 1000 names; Anushasanaparva.)

Textual history and organization

It is undisputed that the full length of the Mahabharata has accreted over a long period. The Mahabharata itself (1.1.61) distinguishes a core portion of 24,000, the Bharata Ashvalayana Grhyasutra proper, as opposed to additional "secondary" material, and the (3.4.4) makes a similar distinction. Not unlike the field of Homeric studies, research on the Mahabharata has put an enormous effort into recognizing and dating various layers within the text. The judgement of other early 20th century Indologists was even more condemning.

The first testimony of the existence of the full text is an inscription at Khoh, dated to 533 CE, describing the Mahabharata as a "collection of 100,000 verses" (shatasahasri samhita). 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 from MS Spitzer, the oldest surviving Mahabharata manuscript dated to ca. 200 CE. From this evidence, it is likely that the redaction into 18 books took place in the 3rd or 4th century CE. An alternative division into 20 parvans appears to have co-existed for some time. The division into 100 sub-parvans (mentioned in Mbh. 1.2.70) is older, and most parvans are named after one of their constituent sub-parvans. The Harivamsha consists of the final two of the 100 sub-parvans, and was considered an appendix (khila) to the Mahabharata proper by the redactors of the 18 parvans.

The 18 division into parvans is as follows:

parvan title sub-parvans contents
1 Adi-parva 1-19 Introduction, birth and upbringing of the princes.
2 Sabha-parva 20-28 Life at the court, the game of dice, and the exile of the Pandavas. Maya Danava erects the palace and court (sabha), at Indraprastha.
3 Aranyaka-parva (also Vanaparva, Aranyaparva) 29-44 The twelve years in exile in the forest (aranya).
4 Virata-parva 45-48 The year in exile spent at the court of Virata.
5 Udyoga-parva 49-59 Preparations for war.
6 Bhishma-parva 60-64 The first part of the great battle, with Bhishma as commander for the Kauravas.
7 Drona-parva 65-72 The battle continues, with Drona as commander.
8 Karna-parva 73 The battle again, with Karna as commander.
9 Shalya-parva 74-77 The last part of the battle, with Shalya as commander.
10 Sauptika-parva 78-80 How Ashvattama and the remaining Kauravas killed the Pandava army in their sleep (Sauptika).
11 Stri-parva 81-85 Gandhari and the other women (stri) lament the dead.
12 Shanti-parva 86-88 The crowning of Yudhisthira, and his instructions from Bhishma
13 Anushasana-parva 89-90 The final instructions (anushasana) from Bhishma.
14 Ashvamedhika-parva[6] 91-92 The royal ceremony of the ashvamedha conducted by Yudhisthira.
15 Ashramavasika-parva 93-95 Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti leave for an ashram, and eventual death in the forest.
16 Mausala-parva 96 The infighting between the Yadavas with maces (mausala).
17 Mahaprasthanika-parva 97 The first part of the path to death (mahaprasthana "great journey") of Yudhisthira and his brothers.
18 Svargarohana-parva 98 The Pandavas return to the spiritual world (svarga).
khila Harivamsaparva 99-100 life of Krishna.

The Adi-parvan is dedicated to the snake sacrifice (sarpasattra) of Jayamejaya, 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 particularly close connection to Vedic (Brahmana literature), in particular the Panchavimsha Brahmana which describes the Sarpasattra as originally performed by snakes, among which are snakes named Dhrtarashtra and Janamejaya, two main characters of the Mahabharata's sarpasattra, and Takshaka, the name of a snake also in the Mahabharata. The Shatapatha Brahmana gives an account of an Ashvamedha performed by Janamejaya Parikshita.

According to Mbh. 1.1.50, there were three versions of the epic, beginning with Manu (1.1.27), Astika (1.3, sub-parvan 5) or Vasu (1.57), respectively. These versions probably correspond to the addition of one and then another 'frame' settings of dialogues. The Vasu version corresponds to the oldest, without frame settings, beginning with the account of the birth of Vyasa. The Astika version adds the Sarpasattra and Ashvamedha material from Brahmanical literature, and introduces the name Mahabharata and identifies Vyasa as the work's author. The redactors of these additions were probablyPancharatrin scholars who according to Oberlies (1998) likely retained control over the text until its final redaction in the 3rd or 4th century CE. Mention of the Hunas in the Bhishma-parva appears to imply that the compilation of the text was still ongoing in 400 CE.


The historicity of the events of the story is unclear. The epic's setting certainly has a historical precedent in Vedic India, where the Kuru kingdom was the center of political power in the late 2nd and early 1st millennia BCE.


The epic employs the 'tale-within-tale' structure popular in many Indian religious and secular works. It is recited to the King Janamejaya by Vaishampayana by, a disciple of Vyasa.

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 Kauravas, the elder branch of the family, and the Pandavas, the younger branch.

The struggle culminates leading to the Great battle of Kurukshetra, and the Pandavas are ultimately victorious. 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, where the great values and noble ideas have crumbled, and man is speedily heading toward the complete dissolution of right action, morality and virtue. Some of the most noble and revered figures in the Mahabharat end up fighting on the side of the Kauravas, due to conflicts of their dharma, or duty. For example, Bhishma had vowed to always protect the king of Hastinapur, whoever he may be. Thus, he was required to fight on the side of evil knowing that his Pandavas would end up victorious only with his death.


The epic is traditionally ascribed to Maha Rishi Veda Vyasa, who is one of the major dynastic characters within the epic. The first section of the Mahabharata states that it was Ganesha who, at the behest of Vyasa, fixed the text in manuscript form. Lord Ganesha is said to have agreed, but only on condition that Vyasa never pause in his recitation. Vyasa then put a counter-condition that Ganesha understand whatever he recited, before writing it down. In this way Vyasa could get some respite from continuously speaking by saying a verse which was difficult to understand. This situation also serves as a popular variation on the stories of how Ganesha's right tusk was broken (a traditional part of Ganesha imagery). This version attributes it to the fact that, in the rush of writing, the great elephant-headed divinity's pen failed, and he snapped off his tusk as a replacement in order that the transcription not be interrupted.


Janamejaya's ancestorShantanu, the king of Hastinapur has a short-lived marriage with the goddess Ganga and has a heroic son, Bhishma. Many years later, when the king goes hunting, he spots Stayavati, the daughter of a fisherman and wants to marry her. The fisherman says that he will agree only on one condition - that her son should ascend the throne of Hastinapur. Bhishma, his son by his first wife, renounces his right to the throne and vows to be a lifelong celibate, so that Satyavati's son can be the king. Such a vow was unheard of amongst warrior dynasties thus inspiring the name Bhishma - 'the person of the terrible oath'.

The Pandavas

Unfortunately Satyavati's sons die young and her grandson Pandu ascends the throne as his elder brother Dhritarashtra is blind. But this king is cursed to be childless and he retires to the forest. Using a magical spell to summon the gods, his elder queen Kunti gives birth to three sons Yudhisthira, Arjuna and Bhima. His younger queen, Madri bears the twins Nakula and Sahadeva. Pandu and Madri die in the forest and Kunti returns to Hastinapura with her sons. The rivalry between the Pandavas and the Kauravas start from childhood itself. Dhritarashtra’s sons, the Kauravas, led by the eldest Duryodhana, detest their cousins. However, they were the favorite of their teacher Drona and (the Pandavas) grow up to be exceptional. Each one of the Pandavas is said to have one exceptional strength or virtue - Yudhishthira is the wisest and most virtuous, Arjuna the bravest warrior, Bhima the strongest and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva are endowed with exceptional beauty.

When the princes come of age, a tournament is held to display the strength and specialities of the princes of Hastinapur. When Arjuna was hailed as a master of archery, a young man challenges him for a duel. He declares his name is Karna, and he was the son of the charioteer. When asked to prove that his birth is of royal birth, which is the criterion for joining the tournament, Duryodhana, spotting a potential ally, jumps over to his side and gives his kingdom of Angawardana. Karna is forever grateful for this act. Because of this, he becomes Duryodhana's closest friend and plays a crucial role in the upcoming war.


Meanwhile Duryodhana plots to get rid of the Pandavas and tries to kill the Pandavas secretly by burning their palace which is made of lac. However, the Pandavas are warned and escape from the palace. They live in hiding for sometime. In course of this exile Arjuna wins the hand of the Panchala princess Draupadi. When he returns with her, Kunti not noticing the princess, imagines that he is back with some food and asks him to share it with his brothers. To ensure that their mother never utters a falsehood even by mistake, the brothers take her as a common wife. At this juncture they also meet Krishna, who would become their lifelong ally and guide.

Duryodhana's game

Duryodhana who now has a friend in the peerless warrior Karna, resigns to the coming back of the Pandavas with their new royal ally. Soon they conquer the whole of India and its adjoining regions and Yudhishthira is crowned the emperor. This proves too much for Duryodhana who feels death would be better than watching one's foes prosper. His maternal uncle Shakuni, convinced that however brave his nephew may be, he was no match for his cousins, decides to use a ruse to destroy the Pandavas. He forces Dhritarashtra to invite the Pandavas for a game of dice in which he wins everything from Yudhishthira, including himself, his brothers and Draupadi through the use of a trick. The jubilant Kauravas insult them in their helpless state and even try to strip Draupadi. Her honour is saved by the grace of Krishna. When the elders intervene and Dhritarashtra has to restore everything to the Pandavas, Shakuni forces another game of dice which he again wins. The losers are required to go into exile for 13 years.

The battle at Kurukshetra

When the Pandavas after many hardships and exile request for at least five villages for the five brothers from their vast kingdom, Duryodhana refuses to give in. Krishna goes to broker peace but fails. War was inevitable. The two sides summon vast armies to their help and line up at Kurukshetra for a war. The Kingdoms of Dwaraka, Kasi, Kekaya, Magadha, Matsya, Chedi, Pandya and the Yadus of Mathura and some other clans like the Parama Kambojas from Transoxiana were allied with the Pandavas; the allies of the Kauravas comprised the kings of Pragjyotisha, Anga Kekaya (Kekaya brothers who were enemies of the Kekeya brothers on the Pandava side ), Sindhudesa (including Sindhus, Sauviras and Sivis), Mahishmati, Avanti in Madhyadesa, Madra, Gandharas, Bahlihas, Kambojas (with Yavanas, Sakas, Tusharas etc.) and many others. Seeing himself facing grandsire Bhishma and his teacher Drona on Duryodhana's side due to their vow to serve the state of Hastinapur, Arjuna is heartbroken at the idea of killing them. Krishna who has chosen to drive Arjuna's chariot 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, the Kauravas soon start descending to butchery and the Pandavas to tricks. At the end of the 18 days slaughter only the Pandavas and Krishna survive with a few old warriors from the Kaurava side.

The end of the Pandavas

Beholding the carnage, the noble mother of the Kauravas, 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 who had incarnated precisely to destroy the wicked kings accepts the curse, which bears fruit 36 years later. He then departs from the world and the Pandavas who had ruled righteously all along, now tired, decide to renounce everything. Clad in skins and rags they retire to the Himalayas and ascend the peaks. One by one they get exhausted, die and ascend to heaven. Only the virtuous Yudhisthira who had tried everything to prevent the carnage and never very happy with his kingship afterwards, ascends to the heaven in his physical body.

Arjuna's grandson Parikshita 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.

Modern Interpretations

In the late 1980s, the Mahabharata was televised and shown on India's national TV (Doordarshan). It was directed by B.R. Chopra and his son Ravi Chopra, and was also shown in the UK by the BBC. The most acclaimed and well known presentation of the epic to Western audiences is Peter Brook's nine hour play premiered in Avignon in 1985 and its five hour movie version (1989), which was shown on other TV networks, including PBS (through the "Great Performances" show) and Danmarks Radio (credited in the movie's credits). However, there have been film versions of the Mahabharata long before these two film versions. The earliest film version was shown in 1920 and there will be a film version released in 2007. The movie has some big Bollywood names associated with it and is being directed by Mani Ratnam.

Critical Edition

Between 1919 and 1966, the scholars at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, compared the various manuscripts of the epic from India and abroad and produced the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, on 13,000 pages in 19 volumes, followed by the Harivamsha in another 2 volumes and 6 index volumes. This is the text that is usually used in current Mahabharata studies for reference.


An English prose translation of the full epic is in progress, published by University of Chicago Press, initiated by Chicago Indologist J. A. B. van Buitenen (parvans 1-5) and after his death continued by D. Gitomer of DePaul University (parvans 6-10), J. L. Fitzgerald of Tennessee University (parvans 11-13) and W. Doniger of Chicago University (parvans 14-18):

    vol. 1: parvan 1, 545 pages, 1980, ISBN 0226846636
    vol. 2: parvans 2-3, 871 pages, 1981, ISBN 0226846644
    vol. 3: parvans 4-5, 582 pages, 1983, ISBN 0226846652
    vol. 4: parvan 6 (forthcoming)
    vol. 7: parvan 11, first half of parvan 12, 848 pages, 2003, ISBN 0226252507
    vol. 8: second half of parvan 12 (forthcoming)

Another translation into English, entirely done by P. Lal, a verse-by-verse rendering which is the only one to include all slokas in all recensions of the work (not just those in the Critical Edition), is currently being published by Writer's Workshop, Calcutta."


    1. Roughly 10 times the size of the Iliad and Odyssey taken together, and about 4 times the size of the Ramayana. Epics that can be argued as being of similar length include the Tibetan Epic of King Gesar and the Kyrgyz Manas. Compared with the modern "fantasy" epic genre, it is about half as long as the 120 or so Dragonlace novels taken together, and larger than the combined Discworld novels by about a third. Continuous recitation would take close to two weeks.

    2. bh?rata means the progeny of Bharata, the king believed to have founded the Indian kingdom of Bharatavarsha.

    3. Oldenberg (1922) stipulated that the supposed original poem once carried an immense "tragic force", but dismissed the full text as a "horrible chaos.

    4. Winternitz (Geschichte der indischen Literatur 1909) opted that "only unpoetical theologists and clumsy scribes" could have lumped the various parts of disparate origin into an unordered whole.

    5. 18 books, 18 chapters of the Bhagavadgita and the Narayaniya each, corresponding to the 18 days of the battle and the 18 armies (Mbh. 5.152.23)

    6. The Ashvamedhika-parva is also preserved in a separate version, the Jaimini-Bharata (Jaiminiya-ashvamedha) where the frame dialogue is replaced, the narration being attributed to Jaimini, another disciple of Vyasa. This version contains ar more devotional material (related to Krishna) than the standard epic and probably dates to the 12th century. It has some regional versions, the most popular being the Kannada one by Devapurada Annama Lakshmisha (16th century).

    7. Placing the Kurukshetra battle at 3137 BCE and the death of Krishna and the beginning of the Kali Yuga at 3102 BCE.

    8. For example 16 October, 5561 BCE, calculated by V.Vartak; The Scientific Dating of the Mahabharat War

    9. "Mahabharat" TV-Series 1988-1990-IMDb entry

    10. "The Mahabharata" (1989) (mini)-IMDb entry

    11. Mahabharat (1920) -IMDb entry

    12. The Mahabharata (2007) -IMDb entry

    13. Bhandarkar Institute, Pune -Virtual Pune


  • J. Brockington, The Sanskrit Epics, Leiden (1998).

  • E. W. Hopkins, The Great Epic of India, New York (1901).

  • H. Oldenberg, Zur Geschichte der Altindischen Prosa, Berlin (1917)

  • Th. Oberlies, 'Ritual an und unter der Oberfläche des Mahabharata', in: Neue Methoden der Epenforschung (ed. H. L. C. Tristram), Freiburg (1998).

  • H. Oldenberg, Das Mahabharata, Göttingen (1922).

  • M. Mehta, The problem of the double introduction to the Mahabharata, JAOS 93 (1973), 547-550.

  • C. Z. Minkowski, Janamehayas Sattra and Ritual Structure, JAOS 109 (1989), 410-420.

  • C. Z. Minkowski, 'Snakes, Sattras and the Mahabharata', in: Essays on the Mahabharata, ed. A. Sharma, Leiden (1991), 384-400.

  • N. B. Utgikar, The mention of the Mahabharata in the Ashvalayana Grhya Sutra, Proceedings and Transactions of the All-India Oriental Conference, Poona (1919), vol. 2, Poona (1922), 46-61.

  • M. Witzel, Epics, Khilas and Puranas: Continuities and Ruptures, Proceedings of the Third Dubrovnik International Conference on the Sanskrit Epics and Puranas, ed. P. Koskiallio, Zagreb (2005), 21-80.

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