The great Sanskrit Hindu (see Hinduism entries) epic, the Mahābhārata is perhaps the world's longest literary work. It is eight times as long as the Iliad and Odyssey combined. Not considered “revealed” text or śruti (see Śruti), the epic is a traditional, or smṛti (see Smṛti), but it is the source for many of the most popular and complex myths and legends of Hinduism and India. Perhaps most important, it is considered a reliable source for questions having to do with proper actions and social arrangements (see Dharma) and the relations between the human and divine worlds. Mahābhārata means “Great (mahā) Story of the Bharatas,” the Bharatas being the legendary first Indians and, by extension, Hindus. “The Epic,” as it is sometimes called, continues to be performed and read all over India. There are even comic book versions widely sold.
The legendary author of the Mahābhārata is Vyāsa (see Vyāsa), a particularly powerful sage (see ṛṣi) otherwise known as Kṛṣṇa (see Kṛṣṇa) Dvaipayāna—the “island-born Kṛṣṇa,” and thus perhaps an avatar of Viṣṇu (see Viṣṇu, Avatars of Viṣṇu). The epic was dictated by Vyāsa to the elephant-headed god Gaṇeśa (see Gaṇeśa), who used one of his tusks as a pen. The work is sometimes called the “Veda of Kṛṣṇa,” suggesting a religious connection between Vyāsa and the Kṛṣṇa-Viṣṇu figure who is so central to the epic, particularly to the highly philosophical section we know as the Bhagavadgītā (see Bhagavadgītā). Vyāsa is also said to have brought the Vedas themselves to humanity. There is a tradition that holds Vyāsa as the begetter of the Bharatas, the ancestors of both the Pāṇḍavas (see Pāṇḍavas) and Kauravas (see Kauravas) the warring parties in the Mahābhārata. In fact, the authorship of the epic was collective and gradual. Much of what was transcribed by brahmans (see Brahmans) in the fifth century bce was based on earlier material, reaching back to ancient tribal warfare, and additions were made to the text as late as 500 ce The central issue of the epic is the war between the Pāṇḍavas and the Kauravas, which, according to tradition, took place on the sacrificial field of Kurukṣetra in ancient times.
The stories of the Mahābhārata are clearly representative of cosmic religious issues. It seems fair to suggest that the Mahabarata as smṛti is an example of particular sectarian devotion or bhakti (see Bhakti) in connection with Kṛṣṇa-Viṣṇu, specifically, as well as a reexamination of older Vedic (see Vedic entries) ideas of dharma and Brahmanic (see Brahmanism) sacrifice. The work contains eighteen books (parvans) and is supplemented by the Harivaṃśa, a geneology of Hari (Viṣṇu).
The epic begins with the establishment of the need for sacrifice in order that true prosperity (see Śrī) might be restored. The goddess Earth is oppressed by demons and evil. Viṣṇu and several other gods descend to assist the Goddess. Viṣṇu is Kṛṣṇa, friend and cousin to the Pāṇḍava brothers, who are fathered by gods for whom they become earthly vehicles or avatars. The Pāṇḍava king, Yudhiṣṭhira (see Yudhiṣṭhira), is fathered by Dharma, who embodies that proper order and duty that needs to be reestablished in the world. His brothers Arjuna (see Arjuna) and Bhīma, whose mother Kuntī (see Kuntī) is also the mother of Yudhiṣṭhira, are fathered by the gods Indra (see Indra) and Vāyu (see Vāyu), representing warriors. The less famous brothers, the twins Nakula and Sahadeva, whose mother is Mādrī, are fathered by the twin physician gods called the Aśvins (see Aśvins), who in this case represent social welfare. Together, the Pāṇḍavas, supported by Kṛṣṇa, stand for proper action and social arrangement or dharma. The Pāṇḍavas share one wife, Draupadī (see Draupadī), an incarnation of Śrī/Lakṣmī (see Lakṣmī), the wife of Viṣṇu. Opposed to the Pāṇḍavas are their hundred Kaurava cousins, led by the arrogant Duryodhana, who embodies cosmic discord, in alliance with Karṇa (see Karṇa), the son of the sun god Sūrya by Kuntī. Together the Kauravas represent adharma, or the opposite of dharma. The stage is thus set for a war that will be the cleansing sacrifice between ages (yugas) and a lightening of Earth's burden.
When, after political struggles and a decision to divide the kingdom, Yudhiṣṭhira lays claim to universal kingship, Duryodhana challenges him to a game of dice. In this famous game, Yudhiṣṭhira loses everything, including the joint Pāṇḍava wife Draupadī. He thus gambles away prosperity, as Draupadī is an incarnation of Śrī/Lakṣmī. The Kauravas attempt to disrobe Draupadī in order to insult and humiliate her and her husbands but are prevented from doing so by the powers of Kṛṣṇa. After losing another gambling match, however, the Pāṇḍavas are exiled for thirteen years. The religious significance of the exile is that it stands for the period of preparation (dīkś) for a sacrifice.
The ensuing war between the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas is prepared by Kṛṣṇa who, as the avatar of Viṣṇu (see Avatars of Viṣṇu), knows it must take place in order that Śrī (Prosperity) can be restored to Earth. Early in the great battle, Arjuna begins to doubt the value of the inevitable carnage and has to be convinced by the divine revelations of Kṛṣṇa—his charioteer—of the necessity of the sacrifice in the interest of dharma. These revelations form the Bhagavadgītā. The war is the war to end wars, resulting in the victory of the Pāṇḍavas but the death of almost everyone. It is the universal sacrifice that will bring to an end the age ( yuga) that precedes our own kaliyuga. Viṣṇu has thus achieved the original goal of coming to the rescue of Earth.