The Story of the Mahābhārata

The innermost narrative kernel of the Mahābhārata tells the story of two sets of paternal first cousins—the five sons of the deceased king Pāṇḍu [pronounced PAAN-doo] (the five Pāṇḍavas [said as PAAN-da-va-s]) and the one hundred sons of blind King Dhṛtarāṣṭra [Dhri-ta-RAASH-tra] (the 100 hundred Dhārtarāṣṭras [Dhaar-ta-RAASH-tras])—who became bitter rivals, and opposed each other in war for possession of the ancestral Bharata [BHAR-a-ta] kingdom with its capital in the "City of the Elephant," Hāstinapura [HAAS-ti-na-pu-ra], on the Gaṅgā river in north central India. What is dramatically interesting within this simple opposition is the large number of individual agendas the many characters pursue, and the numerous personal conflicts, ethical puzzles, subplots, and plot twists that give the story a strikingly powerful development.

The five sons of Pāṇḍu were actually fathered by five Gods (sex was mortally dangerous for Pāṇḍu, because of a curse) and these heroes were assisted throughout the story by various Gods, seers, and brahmins, including the seer Kṛṣṇa Dvaipāyana Vyāsa [VYAA-sa] (who later became the author of the epic poem telling the whole of this story), who was also their actual grandfather (he had engendered Pāṇḍu and the blind Dhṛtarāṣṭra upon their nominal father's widows in order to preserve the lineage). The one hundred Dhārtarāṣṭras, on the other hand, had a grotesque, demonic birth, and are said more than once in the text to be human incarnations of the demons who are the perpetual enemies of the Gods. The most dramatic figure of the entire Mahābhārata, however, is Kṛṣṇa, son of Vasudeva of the tribe of Andhaka Vṛṣṇis, located in the city of Dvārakā in the far west, near the ocean. His name is, thus Kṛṣṇa Vāsudeva [Vaa-su-DAY-va]. But he also a human instantiation of the supreme God Vāsudeva-Nārāyaṇa-Viṣṇu descended to earth in human form to rescue Law, Good Deeds, Right, Virtue and Justice (all of these words refer to different facets of "dharma," the “firm-holding” between the ethical quality of an action and the quality of its future fruits for the doer). Kṛṣṇa Vāsudeva was also a cousin to both Bhārata phratries, but he was a friend and advisor to the Pāṇḍavas, became the brother-in-law of Arjuna [AR-ju-na] Pāṇḍava, and served as Arjuna's mentor and charioteer in the great war. Kṛṣṇa Vāsudeva is portrayed several times as eager to see the purgative war occur, and in many ways the Pāṇḍavas were his human instruments for fulfilling that end.

The Dhārtarāṣṭra party behaved viciously and brutally toward the Pāṇḍavas in many ways, from the time of their early youth onward. Their malice displayed itself most dramatically when they took advantage of the eldest Pāṇḍava, Yudhiṣṭhira [Yu-DHISH-thir-a] (who had by now become the universal ruler of the land) in a game of dice: The Dhārtarāṣṭras 'won' all his brothers, himself, and even the Pāṇḍavas' common wife Draupadī [DRAO-pa-dee] (who was an incarnation of the richness and productivity of the Goddess "Earthly-and-Royal Splendor," Śrī [Shree]); they humiliated all the Pāṇḍavas and physically abused Draupadī; they drove the Pāṇḍava party into the wilderness for twelve years, and the twelve years had to be followed by the Pāṇḍavas' living somewhere in society, in disguise, without being discovered, for one more year.

The Pāṇḍavas fulfilled their part of that bargain, but the villainous leader of the Dhārtarāṣṭra party, Duryodhana [Dur-YODH-ana], was unwilling to restore the Pāṇḍavas to their half of the kingdom when the thirteen years had expired. Both sides then called upon their many allies and two large armies arrayed themselves on 'Kuru's Field' (Kuru was one of the eponymous ancestors of the clan), eleven divisions in the army of Duryodhana against seven divisions for Yudhiṣṭhira. Much of the action in the Mahābhārata is accompanied by discussion and debate among various interested parties, and the most famous sermon of all time, Kṛṣṇa Vāsudeva's ethical lecture accompanied by a demonstration of his divinity to his charge Arjuna (the justly famous Bhagavad Gītā [BHU-gu-vud GEE-taa]) occurred in the Mahābhārata just prior to the commencement of the hostilities of the war. Several of the important ethical and theological themes of the Mahābhārata are tied together in this sermon, and this "Song of the Blessed One" has exerted much the same sort of powerful and far-reaching influence in Indian Civilization that the New Testament has in Christendom. The Pāṇḍavas won the eighteen day battle, but it was a victory that deeply troubled all except those who were able to understand things on the divine level (chiefly Kṛṣṇa, Vyāsa, and Bhīṣma [BHEESH-ma], the Bharata patriarch who was emblematic of the virtues of the era now passing away). The Pāṇḍavas' five sons by Draupadī, as well as Bhīmasena [BHEE-ma-SAY-na] Pāṇḍava's and Arjuna Pāṇḍava's two sons by two other mothers (respectively, the young warriors Ghaṭotkaca [Ghat-OT-ka-cha] and Abhimanyu [Uh-bhi-MUN-you ("mun" rhymes with "nun")]), were all tragic victims in the war. Worse perhaps, the Pāṇḍava victory was won by the Pāṇḍavas slaying, in succession, four men who were quasi-fathers to them: Bhīṣma, their teacher Droṇa [DROE-na], Karṇa [KAR-na] (who was, though none of the Pāṇḍavas knew it, the first born, pre-marital, son of their mother), and their maternal uncle Śalya (all four of these men were, in succession, 'supreme commander' of Duryodhana's army during the war). Equally troubling was the fact that the killing of the first three of these 'fathers,' and of some other enemy warriors as well, was accomplished only through 'crooked stratagems' (jihmopāyas), most of which were suggested by Kṛṣṇa Vāsudeva as absolutely required by the circumstances.

The ethical gaps were not resolved to anyone's satisfaction on the surface of the narrative and the aftermath of the war was dominated by a sense of horror and malaise. Yudhiṣṭhira alone was terribly troubled, but his sense of the war's wrongfulness persisted to the end of the text, in spite of the fact that everyone else, from his wife to Kṛṣṇa Vāsudeva, told him the war was right and good; in spite of the fact that the dying patriarch Bhīṣma lectured him at length on all aspects of the Good Law (the Duties and Responsibilities of Kings, which have rightful violence at their center; the ambiguities of Righteousness in abnormal circumstances; and the absolute perspective of a beatitude that ultimately transcends the oppositions of good versus bad, right versus wrong, pleasant versus unpleasant, etc.); in spite of the fact that he performed a grand Horse Sacrifice as expiation for the putative wrong of the war. These debates and instructions and the account of this Horse Sacrifice are told at some length after the massive and grotesque narrative of the battle; they form a deliberate tale of pacification (praśamana, śānti) that aims to neutralize the inevitable miasma of the war.

In the years that follow the war Dhṛtarāṣṭra and his queen Gāndhārī [Gaan-DHAAR-ee], and Kuntī [Koon-tee], the mother of the Pāṇḍavas, lived a life of asceticism in a forest retreat and died with yogic calm in a forest fire. Kṛṣṇa Vāsudeva and his always unruly clan slaughtered each other in a drunken brawl thirty-six years after the war, and Kṛṣṇa's soul dissolved back into the Supreme God Viṣṇu (Kṛṣṇa had been born when a part of Nārāyaṇa-Viṣṇu took birth in the womb of Kṛṣṇa's mother). When they learned of this, the Pāṇḍavas believed it time for them to leave this world too and they embarked upon the 'Great Journey,' which involved walking north toward the polar mountain, that is toward the heavenly worlds, until one's body dropped dead. One by one Draupadī and the younger Pāṇḍavas died along the way until Yudhiṣṭhira was left alone with a dog that had followed him all the way. Yudhiṣṭhira made it to the gate of heaven and there refused the order to drive the dog back, at which point the dog was revealed to be an incarnate form of the God Dharma (also known as Yama, the Lord of the Dead, the God who was Yudhiṣṭhira's actual, physical father), who was there to test the quality of Yudhiṣṭhira's virtue before admitting him to heaven. Once in heaven Yudhiṣṭhira faced one final test of his virtue: He saw only the Dhārtarāṣṭras in heaven, and he was told that his brothers were in hell. He insisted on joining his brothers in hell, if that be the case. It was then revealed that they were really in heaven, that this illusion had been one final test for him. So ends the Mahābhārata!

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Copyright 2009 James L. Fitzgerald
1.20  Created and maintained by James L. Fitzgerald, Das Professor of Sanskrit, Department of Classics, Brown University

Updated May 9, 2009