Mahabharata – The Great Epic

The Mahabharata (महाभारत) is the longest epic in any language. Tradition has it that it was composed by the sage Vyasa, who dictated it to Lord Ganapati, who was the only person who could write it down as fast as the sage could compose it.


It is divided into eighteen books of varying lengths. Here are the names of the books and the number of sections in each.

  1. Adi Parva – 236 sections
  2. Sabha Parva – 53 sections
  3. Vana Parva – 383 sections
  4. Virata Parva – 72 sections
  5. Udyoga Parva – 199 sections
  6. Bhishma Parva – 124 sections
  7. Drona Parva – 203 sections
  8. Karna Parva – 96 sections
  9. Shalya Parva – 65 sections
  10. Sauptika Parva – 18 sections
  11. Stri Parva – 27 sections
  12. Shanti Parva – 365 sections
  13. Anusasana Parva – 168 sections
  14. Aswameda Parva – 92 sections
  15. Asramavasika Parva – 39 sections
  16. Mausala Parva – 8 sections
  17. Mahaprasthanika Parva – 3 sections
  18. Swargarohanika Parva – 6 sections

The notation for citations is [Maha:Book.Chapter]. The first verse of the Mahabharata reads:

नारायणं नमस्कृत्य नरं चैव नरोत्तमम्
देवीं सरस्वतीं चैव ततो जयम् उदीरयेत्

translated by Shri. Kisari Mohan Ganguli as:

Om! Having bowed down to Narayana and Nara, the most exalted male being,
and also to the goddess Saraswati, must the word Jaya (victory) be uttered

The complete story of the Mahabharata is retold elsewhere on this site. Given below is a summary.


King Shantanu of the Kuru dynasty met a beautiful woman in the woods and fell in love with her. She became his wife, with the condition that he should never question her actions. This promise kept the king silent as she drowned their first seven sons as soon as they were born, but he remonstrated with her as she was about to drown the eighth. She revealed herself to be the Goddess Ganga, who had taken a mortal birth to help the eight Vasus escape the curse of Vasishta. She left the King as he had broken his promise, but told him that she will return his son to him when the boy’s education was complete. When the boy (named Devarata) reached the age of sixteen, she sent him back to Shantanu, who crowned him as his heir apparent.

The King fell in love with Satyavati, the daughter of the chief of fishermen. The father of the girl would give her in marriage only if Devarata were to be disinherited and his grand-children promised the throne. The King could not make that promise and returned dejected. The prince discovered the reason for his father’s sorrow and espoused Satyavati on his father’s behalf. He renounced the throne and also took a vow of celibacy, lest his children contend for the throne. As he had taken a terrible vow, he was called Bhishma from that day. Pleased with his son’s actions, Shantanu granted him the boon that he will be able to live as long as he wishes.

Two sons, Chitrasena and Vichitraveerya were born to Shantanu and Satyavati. After Shantanu‘s death, Chitrasena became the King, but he was soon killed in single combat with a Gandharva, his namesake. When Vichitraveerya, who succeeded him, came of age, Bhishma abducted the three princesses of Kashi to be his brides. The eldest Amba had already decided to marry Shalwa, who was one of the Kings who had tried unsuccessfully to stop Bhishma from abducting the girls, so only the two youngest, Ambika and Ambalika were married to Vichitraveerya. Bhishma sent Amba with all honors to Shalwa, but he would not marry her, since he had been shamed by Bhishma. Dejected, she wanted Bhishma to marry her, but he could not oblige due to his vow of celibacy. After trying unsuccessfully to persuade him by various means, she obtained a boon that she would be his slayer in her next birth. Impatient for that day, she committed suicide by immolating herself. She was born as Shikandi, a daughter of King Drupada of Panchala. As a child, she wore the garland that was meant for the slayer of Bhishma and her father exiled her, fearful of Bhishma‘s wrath. She became aware of her destiny and was turned into a man, becoming proficient in arms. Shikandi joined the Panchala army and rose to become a great general, biding his time for revenge.

Meanwhile, Vichitraveerya had died without leaving any issue. Satyavati tried to get Bhishma to marry them and assume the throne, but he would not betray his oath. She then asked her son, sage Vyasa (he was born to her before her marriage, of her liaison with the sage Parasara), to father children on her daughters-in-law. He obliged her, fathering Dhritharashtra on Ambika and Pandu on Ambalika. He also fathered Vidura on a servant woman. Due to the princesses not keeping their vows properly, Dhritharashtra was born blind and Pandu, preternaturally pale. Pandu became the King. He married Kunti and Madri, the younger sister of Salya, the king of Madra. Dhritharashtra married Gandhari, the princess of Gandhara.

Pandu was cursed by a sage who he mistakenly killed while hunting. Due to this curse, he could not father children on his wives. He retired to the forest with his wives, leading the life of a hermit, leaving Dhritharashtra to rule the kingdom. Pandu desired children, and Kunti knew an incantation that would give her children from any deity of her choice. She used it thrice, and obtained Yudhishtra by the grace of YamaBheema from Vayu and Arjuna from Indra. With her help, Madri begot the twins Nakula and Sahadeva by the Ashwini twins. Together, the children were known as the Pandavas. When Pandu could not control his desire and approached Madri in lust, the curse of the Rishi took effect and he fell down dead. Madri committed Suttee (immolated herself on his funeral pyre), leaving her children to the care of Kunti. The Pandavas and Kunti returned to Hastinapura, so that the young princess could be educated under the guidance of their uncle and Bhishma.

Meanwhile, Dhritharashtra had obtained hundred sons (called the Kauravas) and a daughter named Dushala with the blessing of sage Vyasa. His eldest Duryodhana was a day younger than Bheema and was jealous of his cousins. He tried to do them many ill turns, but the Pandavas survived those attempts. The Kuru princes were educated by Kripa, but Bhishma was on the lookout for a better instructor in arms. Drona agreed to teach them, if they could help him revenge himself on Drupada, who had insulted him. Arjuna was his favorite pupil, becoming most proficient with the bow. Duryodhana and Bheema excelled with the mace. When the education was complete a festival was organized to give the princes an opportunity to display their skills. Arjuna won universal acclaim in this function for his feats with the bow. He was challenged by a strange youth, who easily bettered his feats. When Arjuna was about to fight this youth, it was discovered that the youth was Karna the son of a charioteer named Adirata. Since princes would not fight commoners, Bheema taunted KarnaDuryodhana instantly became the friend of Karna, crowning him the King of Anga on the spot. The combat did not take place because the sun had set.

Karna was really the eldest son of Kunti, born to her of Surya the sun God, when she was still a maiden in her adopted father’s house. Afraid of the censure of society, she had abandoned the baby, who had been born with divine armor and earrings, in the river. He had been found by Adirata, and had been brought up by him and his wife Radha. He tried to enroll in various schools to learn warcraft, but was rejected as he belonged to the Shudra caste. In desperation, he disguised himself as a Brahmana and learnt the art of war under Parashurama. However, Parashurama soon discovered that he had Kshatriya blood and turned him away from his school, cursing him that his knowledge shall become useless.

As promised to Drona, the Kauravas tried to conquer Drupada, but were unsuccessful. However, the Pandavas were able to achieve this feat, and produced him prisoner before Drona. He pardoned Drupada, but not before taunting him and taking away half his kingdom. Humiliated, Drupada sought a son who could slay Drona. He conducted a great Yagna and obtained a son named Dhrishtadhyumna who would kill Drona and a daughter named Draupadi, who would wed Arjuna.

Seeing the Pandavas become stronger and popular day by day, Duryodhana counselled his father to send them away for a while. They were sent to a attend a festival in a town called Ekachakrapura, where Duryodhana had planned to burn them alive in a palace of lac, constructed by his henchman Purochana. The Pandavas were secretly warned by Vidura that such a plan was afoot, so they were able to escape, setting the palace on fire themselves and convincing everyone that they had perished. Vidura had arranged for them to escape and live in exile, disguised as Brahmanas.

While they were escaping in the forest, Bheema fought with and killed a Rakshasa named Hidimba. He married Hidimbi, the sister of this demon, and begat a son named Ghatotkacha on her. The Pandavas and Kunti reached the town of Ekachakrapura, where they stayed as guests in the house of a Brahmana.

While the Pandavas were out begging for alms, Kunti heard the Brahmana and his family crying. They had to send one of their number along with a food laden cart to be the prey of a Rakshasa named Bakasura, who was terrorizing this town. She offered to send Bheema instead, who slew the demon easily. However, the identity of the slayer was kept secret. Later, the Pandavas heard that there was going to be a contest to win the hand of the Panchala princess Draupadi, and enamored by descriptions of her beauty, they set out to witness the contest along with their mother. On the way, they were challenged by a Gandharva named Angaraparana, who was defeated by Arjuna and became their friend. On his advice, they sought a Brahmana named Dhaumya as their priest.

In the Swayamvara, the contest was to bring down a target spinning on a tall pillar, using a heavy bow, aiming solely with the help of the target’s reflection in water. When all the assembled Kings and royal personages failed, Arjuna, disguised as a Brahmana took up the challenge and easily brought down the target. Enraged, the assembled Kings attempted to attack him, but he held them off with the help of Bheema. Finally Krishna, a relative of Kunti, who saw through their disguise, brokered a peace.

When the Pandavas jokingly referred to Draupadi as ‘alms-obtained’, Kunti asked them to share ‘it’ equally, without seeing what it was. Dhrishtadhyumna who had followed them in secret to discover their identity, took them to their father. When the Pandavas announced their decision that all of them will wed DraupadiDrupada was unwilling to sanction this unnatural marriage. Finally, the sage Vyasa convinced Drupada to sanction this marriage. All five brothers married Draupadi.

The news of the Pandavas escape from the conflagration at the house of lac and their subsequent fortunate alliance was carried to Hastinapura. Concealing his chagrin, Dhritharashtra welcomed them back to Hastinapura. He gave them the northern half of his kingdom to rule and asked them to rule it from the ancient capital of Khandava Prasta. While Draupadi was with YudhishtraArjuna had to enter their chambers to retrieve his weapons, and as per the agreement between the brothers, he went on a year long exile. On his exile, he married many women, and fathered many children. Finally, he reached Dwaraka, where he married Subhadra, the half-sister of Krishna. Once back in Indraprasta, he helped Agni consume the Khandava forest and obtained many divine weapons, including his bow and quiver in return.

Yudhishtra desired to perform the Rajasooya Yagna, proclaiming him as the overlord of Kings. Krishna told him that Jarasandha, the King of Magadha had to be slain before the Yagna could be done. KrishnaArjuna and Bheema traveled to Magadha, disguised as Brahmanas and challenged Jarasandha. The King of Magadha accepted the challenge and chose Bheema as his opponent in a wrestling match. With the help of Krishna‘s advice, Bheema killed him be tearing him into two. The four younger Pandavas then set out on a campaign of conquest in each cardinal direction and brought the whole country under their sway.

The Rajasooya was conducted in a grand manner. When it came the time for the first worship at the end of the sacrifice, Yudhishtra offered it to Krishna on the advice of BhishmaShishupala, the King of Chedi, objected and started insulting Krishna. After bearing a hundred taunts patiently, Krishna finally slew him with his discus. Duryodhana who saw the wealth of Pandavas at first hand, became extremely jealous. His maternal uncle Shakuni, who was skilled in the game of dice, offered to defeat the Pandavas and make them slaves. Despite misgivings, Yudhishtra accepted the invitation. Cheating at the game of dice, Shakuni won all the wealth, his brothers and finally Yudhishtra himself. Finally, at the behest of ShakuniYudhishtra staked Draupadi and lost. Draupadi was dragged into the hall by her hair by Dushasana. When he attempted to disrobe her, she prayed to Krishna and by his grace, her upper robes kept renewing themselves, and her honor was saved. She made a vow that she will not tie her hair till she washes it in the blood of the Kauravas. Bheema vowed that he will kill all the Kauravas, and will drink the blood of Dushasana. He also vowed that he will kill Duryodhana by breaking open his thigh. Arjuna vowed to kill Karna.

Worried, Dhritharashtra granted the Pandavas freedom. However, Duryodhana persuaded them to play one more game, with the loser having to spend in twelve years in exile, with the thirteenth being spent incognito. If discovered in the thirteenth year, the loser will have to do twelve more years of exile. Shakuni once again won the crooked game of dice. The Pandavas and Draupadi went into exile, and Kunti stayed in Hastinapura.

On the first evening of their exile, their allies, including their father-in-law Drupada and their mother’s cousin Krishna came there to console them on their plight. When Yudhishtra wondered how he could provide food for all the people who were loyally accompanying the Pandavas, Dhaumya counselled him to pray to Lord SuryaYudhishtra obtained a Akshaya Patra, a vessel that would give unlimited food every day till Draupadi has finished eating.

Meanwhile, Dhritharashtra spoke harsh words to Vidura, who was trying to get the king to render justice to the Pandavas. Saddened, Vidura joined the Pandavas in exile, but he returned to Hastinapura, when King Dhritharashtra apologized and personally requested him to come back. The sage Maitreya visited Hastinapura and told the court about how Bheema slew a Rakshasa named Kirmira.

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