Krishna and Arjun on the chariot, Mahabharata, 18th-19th century, India
Krishna and Arjuna at Kurukshetra, 18th-19th-century painting.
Also known asBharata, Jaya
Author(s)Veda Vyasa
Period of composition400 BCE-500 CE
Propagator(s)Vaishampanaya, Sauti
Words1.8 billion ± 0.1 billion
Other information
Charactersthe Pandavas and Kauravas, various others
Setting(s)Epic India
Themes(s)Just war, dharma

The Mahabharata (IPA: /məhɑːˈbɑrətə/; Sanskrit: महाभारतम् Mahābhāratam), also called Jaya, is one of the two major Sanskrit poetic works of ancient India, the other being the Ramayana. It is the world's longest known epic poem, consisting of over 100,000 shlokas (couplets)—about seven times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined and four times the length of the Ramayana—and 1.8 billion words. The Mahabharata is an important source of the development of Hinduism between 400 BCE and 200 CE, appearing in its present form somewhere around 500 CE.

The Mahabharata consists of a mass of mythological and didactic material arranged around a central epic narrative detailing the Kurukshetra War, the struggle for the throne at Hastinapura, and the rivalry between the Kaurava and Pandava princes. Apart from the main narrative, the Mahabharata also contains philosophical and devotional content and several independent works like the Bhagavad Gita, the Rishyashringa and an abridged version of the Ramayana.

Traditionally, the epic has been attributed to the poet and sage Vyasa, though modern scholarship deems it unlikely that a single person wrote the epic. The origins of the epic fall around the 8th century BCE, but the oldest preserved parts are thought to have been composed around the 4th century BCE. The text reached its final form in the early Gupta period (c. 500 CE).



The Mahabharata is divided into eighteen parvas or books, listed in the table below.

No. Parva Meaning Upaparvas Summary Verses[1]
1 Adi Parva The Book of the Beginning; adi means "beginning, first, start" 1–19 Description of how Sauti came to narrate the Mahabharata at Naimisharanya after Vaishampanaya's recital at Janmejaya's sarpayagna at Takshashila. Genealogy and chronicles of the Bharata and Bhrigu races, leading to the birth and early lives of the Kuru princes. The story culminates in Arjuna and Krishna's battle and subsequent victory with the celestials. 7,205
2 Sabha Parva The Book of the Hall/Court; sabha can mean both "assembly hall" and "court" 20–28 Construction of Yudhishthira's hall by the demon Maya; killing of Jarasandha by Bhima; performance of the rajasuya sacrifice by Yudhishtira; killing of Shishupala by Krishna; the two games of dice; disrobing of Draupadi and the Pandavas' eventual exile. 2,387
3 Vana Parva/Aranyaka Parva/Aranya Parva The Book of the Forest; vana and aranya mean "forest", while aranyaka is the adjectival form of aranya 29–44 The twelve-year sojourn of the Pandavas and Vidura. Includes the tales of Nala and Damyanti, Ushinara, Nahusha and Satyavan and Savitri, along with the details of the birth of Karna and a short summary of the Ramayana. 10,239
4 Virata Parva The Book of Virata; virata literally means "huge, big" 45–49 The year spent incognito at Virata's court, culminating in the marriage of Uttara (Virata's daughter) and Abhimanyu (Arjuna's son). 1,736
5 Udyoga Parva The Book of Effort; udyoga means "effort, attempt" 49—59 Refusal of the Kauravas to the Pandava's demand of half the kingdom; preparations for war and efforts for peace, which eventually fail. Contains the Sanatsujatiya. 6,001
6 Bhishma Parva The Book of Bhishma; bhishma means "one who takes a hard vow" 60—64 The first ten days of the war, with Bhishma as commander for the Kaurvas; Bhishma's fall on the bed of arrows. Contains the Bhagavad Gita. 5,381
7 Drona Parva The Book of Drona; drona means "pot" 65—72 The next five days of the war, with Drona as commander; death of most of the major warriors on both sides 8,069
8 Karna Parva The Book of Karna; karna means "ear" 73 The next two days of the war, with Karna as commander; death of Karna at the hands of Arjuna. 5,175
9 Shalya Parva The Book of Shalya; shalya means "dart" 74—77 The final day of the war, with Shalya as commander. Death of Shalya, Shakuni and Duryadhona. Description of Balarama's pilgrimage to the fords of the Saraswati. 3,541
10 Sauptika Parva The Book of the Night-Battle; sauptika means "night-attack, night-battle" 78—80 Ashwatthama, Kripacharya and Kritavarma kill the remaining Pandava soldiers, leaving only seven on the Pandava side and three on the Kaurava side. 771
11 Stri Parva The Book of the Wives; stri means "wife" 81—85 Mourning of the dead soldiers by their wives, their mothers and the Pandavas. 713
12 Shanti Parva The Book of Peace; shanti means peace, calm 86—88 The crowning of Yudhisthira as the king of Hastinapura, and instructions from Bhishma on socioeconomic matters. 13,006
13 Anushashana Parva The Book of Instructions; anushasahana means "instructions" 89—90 The final instructions from Bhishma and his death. 6,493
14 Ashvamedhika Parva The Book of the Horse Sacrifice; ashvamedhika is the adjectival form of ashvamedh yajna, or the horse sacrifice 91—92 The ashvamedh is conducted by Yudhishthira. World conquest by Arjuna. Contains the Anugita. 2,741
15 Ashramavasika Parva The Book of the Hermitage; ashramvasika is the adjectival form of ashramvasi, "hermitage-dweller" 93—95 The eventual deaths of Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti in a forest fire when they are living in a hermitage in the Himalayas. Vidura predeceases them and Sanjaya on Dhritarashtra's bidding goes to live in the higher Himalayas. 1,061
16 Mausala Parva The Book of the Maces; mausala means mace 96 The destruction of the Yadavas with maces. The deaths of Balarama and Krishna. 273
17 Mahaprasthinika Parva The Book of the Great Journey; mahaprasthinika is a compound meaning "great journey" 97 The great journey of Yudhisthira, his brothers and his wife Draupadi across the whole country and finally their ascent of the great Himalayas where each Pandava falls except for Yudhisthira. 106
18 Swargarohana Parva The Book of the Ascent of Heaven; swaragarohana means "heavenly ascension" 98 Yudhishthira's final test and the Pandavas' ascent into heaven. 194
Epilogue Harivamsa Parva The Book of the Genealogy of Hari; harivamsa means "the dynasty of Hari" 99—100 An addendum to the eighteen books, detailing the genealogy and the early life of Krishna, which are not covered in the Mahabharata's eighteen books. 16,374


The birth of the Pandavas and KauravasEdit

King Janamejaya's ancestor, Shantanu, has a short-lived marriage with the goddess Ganga, on the condition that he never ask her her name or to provide any justification for her actions. They have eight sons, seven of which are killed by Ganga, and an eighth son named Devavrata (later to be called Bhishma). Devavrata becomes the heir apparent. Years later, when Shantanu goes hunting, he meets Satyavati, the daughter of a fisherman, and asks her father for her hand. The father refuses unless Shantanu promises that Satyavati's son would be king upon his death.

To solve his father's dilemma, Devavrata relinquishes his right to the throne. As the fisherman is not sure whether the prince's children would honor the promise, Devavrata also takes a vow of celibacy to prevent the same. Devavrata thus earns the name Bhishma—"one who takes a difficult vow".

Shantanu has two sons by Satyavati—Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Upon Shantanu's death, Chitrangada ascends the throne. He lives a very short life and is eventually killed by a gandharva of the same name on the banks of the Saraswati. Vichitravirya, still a child, ascends the throne with Bhishma as regent. Meanwhile, the king of Kashi arranges a swayamvara for his three daughters, forgetting to invite the royal family of Hastinapura. In order to arrange for Vichitravirya's marriage, Bhishma attends the swayamvara uninvited and abducts all three princesses. Though all the assembled nobles pursue him, Bhishma manages to escape to Hastinapura. The younger princesses, Ambika and Ambalika, agree to the marriage.

The eldest of the three princesses, Amba, informs Bhishma of her wish to marry the king of Salva. Bhishma respectfully escorts her to Salva, but the king refuses, stating that she was rightfully won by Bhishma. An infuriated Amba blames Bhishma for ruining her life, and turns to Parashurama for help. Upon Parashurama's failure, Amba turns to various men before finally turning to asceticism. She pleases Shiva, who grants her the boon that she would kill Bhishma in her next birth. Unable to wait, Amba kills herself immediately and is reborn as Shikhandi.

After Vichitravirya dies childless of tuberculosis, Satyavati asks her firstborn son Vyasa to father children with the two widows. Ambika shuts her eyes upon seeing the sage's uncouth appearance, and so their child Dhritarashtra is born blind. Ambalika turns pale and bloodless upon seeing him, so their child Pandu ("jaundiced") is born pale and unhealthy. Due to the physical defects of the two children, Satyavati asks Vyasa to try again. The princesses, frightened at the thought of siring children with Vyasa again, send their maid instead to Vyasa's room. Vyasa fathers a third son, Vidura, by the maid. Vidura grows up to become the Prime Minister of the Kuru kingdom.

After the princes grow up, Pandu is crowned king due to Dhritrashtra's blindness. Pandu marries twice, to Kunti and Madri, while Dhritarashtra marries Gandhari. Gandhari, sensitive to her husband's plight, blindfolds herself to share the pain. Her brother Shakuni is enraged by this and vows revenge on the Kuru kingdom.

Notes and referencesEdit

  1. In the critical updated edition.