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date: 14 April 2021


A Dictionary of Hinduism

W. J. Johnson

Mahābhārata (‘ The Great Story of the Descendants of Bharata’) 

One of two great Sanskrit Epics (the other being the Rāmāyaṇa), its central narrative deals with the conflict between two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pāṇḍavas (the descendants of Bharata) for the lordship of Kurukṣetra in northern India. The extant text, which exists in two major recensions (northern and southern), numbers approximately 100 000 verses, divided into eighteen ‘books’ (parvan). Apparently gathered together, edited, and re-edited, over a period of perhaps 900 years (c.500 bce–400 ce), some of its material (which was originally transmitted orally) may be very much earlier, perhaps even of Indo-European origin. The Mahābhārata itself attributes its composition to the legendary ṛṣi Vyāsa, who instructs his pupil Vaiśaṃpāyana to recite it for the first time at Janamejaya's snake sacrifice. What he recites is a vast encyclopaedia of narrative and didactic material (the text refers to itself as the ‘fifth Veda’, and claims to contain everything), which continues to be interpreted, both from within the tradition and by academic scholarship, in multiple ways. The central concept is clearly the complex one of dharma, which is represented as being in perpetual crisis at all levels—individual, social, and cosmic. Variously analysed and questioned, the resolution of this dharmic crisis becomes a key conundrum both for the protagonists and the audience.

The Mahābhārata contains some of the best-loved stories in Indian literature, many of them, like the central narrative itself, continuously recast in vernacular languages, and told again in countless dramatic performances, visual representations, and music. Particularly productive in this respect are the stories of Śakuntalā, Sāvitrī, and Nala—not to mention the Mahābhārata's own version of the Rāma story (Rāmopākhyāna). Among the more didactic portions, the Bhagavadgītā (part of the Bhīṣmaparvan), is notable for being treated by many as an autonomous sacred text, effectively ‘authored’ by Kṛṣṇa.

A highly condensed version of the principal narrative is as follows:

Book 1: Ādiparvan (‘The Beginning’). The Epic begins with various genealogies and a number of narrative framing stories. It then deals with the origins of the Lunar Dynasty and the seeds of the conflict, including the miraculous birth of the Pāṇḍavas (Yudhiṣṭhira, Bhīma, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva) and their cousins, the Kauravas (Duryodhana, his 99 brothers and one sister—the children of the blind king, Dhṛtarāṣṭra). The cousins' education, and the creation of various alliances is recounted, including those of Duryodhana and the Pāṇḍavas' older half-brother Karṇa, and the Pāṇdavas themselves with Kṛṣṇa's people, the Vṛṣṇis. The Pāṇḍavas' collectively marry Draupadī.

Book 2: Sabhāparvan (‘The Assembly Hall’). Yudhiṣṭhira performs a rājasūya. He subsequently loses everything, including his brothers and himself in a rigged dicing match, organized by Duryodhana. Draupadī is humiliated by the Kauravas, but obtains the Pāṇḍavas' freedom. They are exiled to the forest for twelve years, with a thirteenth year to be spent incognito if they are to regain their kingdom.

Book 3: Āraṇyakaparvan (‘The Book of the Wilderness/Forest’). This tells of the Pāṇḍavas' twelve-year forest exile, including sections on Arjuna's journey to Indra's heaven, his meeting with Śiva, and Draupadī's abduction and rescue. Much of the material is incidental to the main narrative, such as the story of Nala, and the Rāmopākhyāna.

Book 4: Virāṭaparvan (‘King Virāṭa’). The Pāṇḍavas spend their thirteenth year of exile in disguise at the court of King Virāṭa of the Matsyas, to whom they become allied.

Book 5: Udyogaparvan (‘Preparations’). Both sides prepare for war, and eventually face each other at Kurukṣetra.

Book 6: Bhīṣmaparvan (‘Bhīṣma’). The book begins with the Bhagavadgītā, in which Kṛṣṇa dispels Arjuna's scruples about fighting his relatives and teachers. The battle starts and the Kaurava commander Bhīṣma is fatally wounded.

Book 7: Droṇaparvan (‘Droṇa’). Droṇa now assumes command, but he eventually lays down his arms and is killed.

Book 8: Karnaparvan (‘Karṇa’). Karṇa is now the Kaurava commander, but, at Kṛṣṇa's urging, he is killed, illegitimately, by Arjuna.

Book 9: Śalyaparvan (‘Śalya’). Śalya too is killed. Of the Kauravas, only Aśvatthāman, Kṛpa, Kṛtavarman, and Duryodhana survive. At Kṛṣṇa's instigation, Duryodhana is mortally wounded by Bhīma in contravention of the laws of battle.

Book 10: Sauptikaparvan (‘The Massacre at Night’). With Śiva's help, Aśvatthāman, Kṛpa, and Kṛtavarman massacre the sleeping Pāṇḍava army; only the five brothers escape.

Book 11: Strīparvan (‘The Women’). The surviving women grieve for those killed in the battle.

Book 12: Śāntiparvan (‘The Peace’). Yudhiṣṭhira is crowned. From his death bed, Bhīṣma gives a wide-ranging and extensive discourse on religion, ethics, dharma, and cosmology.

Book 13: Anuśāsanaparvan (‘The Teaching’). Bhīṣma's instructions to Yudhiṣṭhira continue. Eventually he dies and ascends to heaven.

Book 14: Aśvamedhikaparvan (‘The Horse Sacrifice’). Yudhiṣṭhira performs a horse sacrifice (aśvamedha) at the end of the war to atone for the Pāṇḍavas' destruction of their Kaurava cousins. This provides the occasion for Arjuna to fight many great battles as he escorts the horse in its wanderings across the entire earth.

Book 15: Āśramavāsikaparvan (‘The Stay in the Hermitage’). Dhṛtarāṣtra, and the Kaurava women retire to the forest, and eventually perish in a forest fire.

Book 16: Mausalaparvan (‘The Battle with Clubs’). Thirty-six years after the war, Kṛṣṇa's people beat each other to death in a drunken brawl. Kṛṣṇa's brother, Balarāma dies, and Kṛṣṇa allows himself to be killed in a hunting accident.

Book 17: Mahāprasthānikaparvan (‘The Great Departure’). The five Pāṇḍava brothers renounce the world and set out for Mount Meru. All die en route except Yudhiṣṭhira; after a final encounter with his father, Dharma, he enters heaven.

Book 18: Svargārohaṇaparvan (‘The Ascent to Heaven’). Yudhiṣṭhira enters heaven and sees his enemies enthroned, his brothers and wife in hell. The gods reveal this to be an illusion: both Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas now reside in a heavenly region, free of enmity and suffering. The text closes its narrative framing stories. See also the entries for the main characters listed above.