- The Mahabharata (MBh), is one of the two great Indian epics (the other is the RAMAYANA). It tells the story of the descendents of BHARATA, the leg-endary leader of the early Indian tribes. It is the world’s largest epic, containing at least 100,000 verses. It is often said in India that there is noth-ing that is not in the MBh and that which is not in the MBh is to be found nowhere. The story is said to have been dictated to the god GANESHA by the sage VYASA. Vyasa is the teller of the tale for our own era, but it is considered to have existed long before. From time to time Vyasa himself plays an important role in the epic.The epic recounts a dynastic struggle that took place near Delhi in northern India. The eldest son in the dynasty of the Kurus is Pandu, whose wife, Kunti, has five sons (considered Pandu’s sons, although each was fathered by a different god): YUDHISHTHIRA, ARJUNA, BHIMA, Nakula, and Sahadeva. Collectively they are known as the PANDAVAS. Because of a curse on Pandu that he will die if he has sexual intercourse with either of his wives (Kunti and Madri), Pandu is forced to give up his claim to the throne in favor of his blind brother, Dhritarashtra. Dhritarashtra has 100 sons, the oldest of whom is DURYODHANA. They are known collectively as the KAURAVAS.Dhritarashtra becomes regent until Pandu’s sons are of age, when one of them will rightfully assume the throne. Dhritarashtra is weak-willed and cannot resist his son Duryodhana’s attempts to usurp power. The plotting of Duryodhana and his Kauravas against the Pandavas forms the cen-tral dynamic in this intriguing story. When their plot to murder the five Pandava brothers fails, they fleece them at dice and drive them into exile.Finally, events culminate in open warfare between the two camps. The Pandavas are forced to fight against not only their evil cousins and uncles, but their venerable guru DRONA and their grand-uncle BHISHMA. In fact, part of the epic’s greatness is that the story is not pure black and white, but instead shows shades of gray on both sides.The god KRISHNA serves as the noncombatant charioteer of the brave Pandava, Arjuna. As the two pull up to look at the opposing armies before the war begins, Krishna recites the celebrated BHAGAVAD GITA, a profound poem that summarizes Hindu philosophy. On the battlefield of KURUK-SHETRA a terrible carnage ensues, as the Pandavas eventually triumph and gain the kingdom.This epic story is known to all Indians, many of whom are named for its heroes; place names in every part of India are taken from this story as well. There are versions in every one of the local Indian languages, as well as simplified folk dramas that act out its tales for those who cannot read.Further reading: Peter Brook, director, The Mahab-harata (videorecording), produced by Michael Propper (Chatsworth, Calif.: Image Entertainment, 2002); Wil-liam Buck, The Mahabharata (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973); J. A. B. Buitenen, The Mahab-harata, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973–78); Alf Heiltebeitl, The Cult of Draupadi, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988–91).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.