Banner image: Kalamandalam Gopi as Karnan in Karnasapatham (Kathakali), March 2015, Thirunakkara (photographer: Mopasang Valath).
The Mahābhārata as a family of literary and performance traditions
The Mahābhārata is traditionally classified as an ancient oral Indian epic that has grown over the centuries to become a family of literary and performance traditions in most Indian languages, yielding to the social imaginaries and the historical aspirations of artists, storytellers, performers, writers, religious leaders, philosophical commentators, television producers, film makers, and even communities. Countless interpretations, adaptations, and everyday allusions to the Mahābhārata make it one of the most important systems of codes, values, and narratives for Indians to reflect on human destinies, births and deaths, the futility of war, the nature of divinities, the paradoxical nature of human action and the inevitable consequences of one's actions. In addition to the central epic narrative of the conflicts between the Kaurava and the Pāṇḍava princes and the Kurukṣetra war, the Mahābhārata includes several philosophical texts, devotional material, and moral tales of importance. Among the seminal works and tales in the Mahābhārata are the Bhagavad Gītā, Śiva Sahasranama, Viṣṇu Sahasranama, the story of Naḷa and Damayanti, and an abbreviated version of the Rāmāyaṇa. While the inclusion of the devotional texts in the Mahābhārata makes it a rich resource for the Śaivite and Vaiṣnavite sects of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gītā, being the compendium of the ethical dilemmas, philosophical issues, and Yogic practices of ancient times, makes it perennially important and enduring through the ages.
Synopsis of the story
The central theme of the Mahābhārata is sibling rivalry leading to fratricide between Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas over the kingdom of Hasthināpura. The conflict begins when Dhṛtarāṣṭra, the eldest son of the Kuru dynasty has to pass his crown over to his younger brother Paṇdu because of his blindness. After reigning for a brief period Paṇdu renounces his kingdom due to his incurable illness and goes to the forest with his two wives Kuntī and Mādrī. The five sons of Paṇdu, the Pāṇḍava brothers (Dharmarājā, Bhīma, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva), grow up in the court along with their 100 cousins, the Kauvravas, sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra. The prominent among the Kauravas are the eldest son Duryodhana and his loyal and demonic brother Duḥśāsana. Because of the enmity and jealousy that develop between the cousins, the Pāṇḍavas are forced to leave the kingdom. During their exile the five jointly marry Draupadī and meet their cousin Kṛṣṇa, who remains their friend and companion thereafter. They return to experience some years of prosperity in a divided kingdom but are again forced to retire to the forest for 12 years and spend one year of life in disguise when the eldest brother, Dharmarājā loses everything (including Draupadī who is pledged) in a game of dice with the eldest of the Kauravas. Immediately after their defeat in the game of dice, Duryodhana sends Duḥśāsana to bring Draupadī to the court. Duḥśāsana forcibly drags Draupadī by hair into the court. Draupadī wearing a single garment and menstruating is further humiliated when Duryodhana orders Duḥśāsana to disrobe her in front of the crestfallen Pāṇḍavas and other helpless elders present in the court. Draupadī clasps her hands above her head in a gesture of worship and prays to Lord Kṛṣṇa to help her. Recognizing Draupadī’s moment of ultimate surrender Kṛṣṇa saves her as the single length of her sari miraculously grows endless as it unwinds, and tires Duḥśāsana so, that he faints. A furious Draupadī vows that she would not tie her up hair till it is dressed with the blood of Duryodhana and Duḥśāsana. After 12 years of life in the forest and one year in disguise the Pāṇḍavas return to claim their kingdom but Duryodhana refuses to give even a pinhead of a land. In the ensuing bloody battle at Kurukṣetra, Kṛṣṇa participates as a non-fighting charioteer of Arjuna and ensures the Pāṇḍavas’ victory over the Kauravas. Almost half of the Mahābhārata’s verses are devoted to the description of the great battle. In the middle of the battlefield, just before the war, Kṛṣṇa reveals himself to Arjuna as the Lord of the Cosmos and teaches him Dharma, one’s duty and meaning in human life. Hindus revere this portion of Mahābhārata known as Bhagavad Gītā as the holiest of the sacred texts. If Gītā preaches the philosophy of surrender to Kṛṣṇa, the eighth avatar of Lord Viṣṇu, and guides how human beings need to 'act', it is Draupadī of all characters in the Mahābhārata who exemplifies Gītā’s ideal. In Bhagavad Gītā, if Kṛṣṇa says that he is the universal time, destroying and recreating everything, Draupadī is also Kālī (the goddess of time), born out of fire, a feminine vehicle of Kṛṣṇa. The battle of Kurukṣetra annihilates Kauravas and an avenged Draupadī binds her hair with the blood of Duryodhana and Duḥśāsana before the Dharmarājā’s ascent to the throne. Over centuries of oral and written transmissions, the texts of Mahābhārata live innumerable lives through their endless versions in all Indian languages across the Indian subcontinent.
Five Forms of Draupadi, by Balaji Srinivasan. From the exhibition, 'Inner Flow: Chithrakathi Paintings on Bharatha-k-koothu' (Lalit Kala Akademi, Chennai, September 10–12, 2012).
Authorship and the historical development of the Sanskrit Mahābhārata
Oral traditions attribute the authorship the original Sanskrit Mahābhārata to Sage Kṛṣṇa Dvaipāyana Vyāsa, who is also a character in the epic. The oldest preserved parts of the written Sanskrit texts of the Mahābhārata are dated to be around 400 BCE, and the epic developed through the eighth and ninth century BCE (van Buitenen 1973, Fitzgerald 1991, Fitzgerald 2004) and evolved into its near-final form in the early Gupta period in the fourth century CE. Prior to 400 BCE the epic singing of the Mahābhārata featured mainly the clash of power between the Kuru and Pāñcāla dynasties. Drawing upon R. Martin’s conception of the epic poetry being a communicative institution to elaborate upon the fundamental categories and values in the ancient societies Fitzgerald has effectively argued that the written Sanskrit Mahābhārata grew out of such ancient oral epic traditions that may well go back to Indo-European traditions and institutions of epic poetry. He further writes:
the transformation of an old Bhārata epic had the purpose of arguing a new ideology of kingship fundamentally loyal to a new Brahmanic vision of the world. The ancient oral traditions of Bhārata epic were transformed into oral tradition of a Paṇḍava Bhārata epic that circulated in ancient North India between approximately 350 BCE and 50 CE. In the course of time, written texts in Sanskrit 'precipitated' from what was likely a rich 'cloud' of oral and performance traditions (likely first sometimes between 50 BCE and 50 CE; see Hiltebeitel, 2001; Fitzgerald 2006), giving rise to a written 'Great Bhārata,' a Mahābhārata that sought to bring the most significant streams of this epic together in one monumental text. (Fitzgerald 2010)
Between 50 BCE and 50 CE, while emerging as a Pāṇḍava epic narrating a diatribe against the kingly patrons of the earlier Vedic age, the epic also synthesized the developing new cosmological monotheism through the figure of Kṛṣna. Between 50 CE and 250 CE the Mahābhārata text absorbed the new developments in ethical and religious themes and early systematic Sāṇkhya philosophy. Further appraisal of the development of different Sanskrit literary texts would show that the dramatic literature and poetry had parallel narrative structures, themes and motifs found in the Mahābhārata, with the Naḷa-Damayanti story being the prominent example. From 150 CE to 350 CE the Mahābhārata texts accommodated the yuga-kalpa time frames further lending the characters and situations to philosophical enquiry. In the post-Gupta period, between 500 CE and 650 CE, texts of the written Sanskrit epic continued to expand, but chiefly only by the embellishment and extension of already existing features.
In a perspective essay titled, 'The Epic of the Bharatas', Romila Thapar proposed:
The Mahabharata can be viewed as a civilizational text not because it reflects the propagation of a particular view of these dharmas but because, among other things, it speaks to debate on social ethics, especially between the brahmanical perspective and those that question it—a debate that has continued over many centuries. (Thapar 2010)
It was probably 'the immense popularity of the epic, both as a linear narrative of the heroic as well as in the embroidered intricacies of the stories', Thapar argues, that led to its conversion into a Bhāgavata text. Sukthankar argued that this was done by the Bhrigu Brahmins who also ‘Bhriguised’ the Rāmāyaṇa. Both Kṛṣna and Rāmā became avatāras of Viṣṇu and this changed the character of the epic (Sukthankar 1957). A cursory appraisal of the timeline of the Mahābhārata in relation to the development of the Buddhist and Jain texts would reveal that Thapar is right in proposing that the ‘Bhriguisation’ and the conversion of the Mahābhārata into a Bhāgavata text were a reaction and appropriation of Buddhist stories and their tropes about rebirths.
The Mahābhārata as Itihāsapurāṇa and its framing devices
The Mahābhārata identifies itself as Itihāsapurāṇa—a composition that has both historical reports (itihāsa) and accounts that deal with divine mythologies (purāṇa). It is not only the events in the Mahābhārata, that are steeped in the Purāṇas but also the very framing of the writing and telling of the tales that are immersed in the mythologies. The first section of the Mahābhārata states that it was Gaṇeśa who wrote down the text to Vyāsa’s dictation. Gaṇeśa is said to have agreed to write it only if Vyāsa never paused in his oral composition of the epic. Vyāsa agreed on the condition that Gaṇeśa would only write after taking time to understand what was recited. The epic employs the story-within-a-story narrative technique, also known as frame-tales, popular in many Indian religious and non-religious works. The Itihāsa accounts of the Kurukṣetra war is the main narrative and it is framed within multiple narratives that situate, explain, and implicitly comment upon the central narrative (Hiltebeitel 1999). In the first frame of the narrative, Vaiśampāyana, a Brahmin disciple of Vyāsa, for the first time ever recites his master’s composition to Janamejaya, great-grandson of the epic hero Arjuna, in the city of Takṣaśilā at a magical rite aimed at annihilating every snake in the world by drawing them all into a ritual fire for avenging the killing of his father Parikṣit by a snake. Vaiśampāyana narrates the epic in the public forum offered by the sarpasattra (ritual killing of snakes). When the ritual is prematurely terminated by the snake Āstīka, Vaiśampāyana continues to narrate the destinies of the main characters of the epic to Janamejaya in private. The discontinuation of the killing of the snakes’ ritual refers to a theme that recurs in the epic, the suspension of vengeful violence (Hiltebeitel 1999, Fitzgerald 2004).
The first recital of the Mahābhārata is an important event in the second retelling of the epic in a different context. Ugraśravas, a non-Brahmin bard, listened to the recital of Vaiśampāyana in Takṣaśilā, and on reaching the Naimiṣa forest he came upon a group of Brahmins engaged in the performance of a Vedic ritual under the leadership of Śaunaka Bhārgava. Ugraśrvas offered to recount the Mahābhārata to the Brahmins. The written Sanskrit Mahābhārata thus presents two institutions of communication and authority, one a Brahmin narrating the story of a great war and the annihilation of Kṣatriyas in a public place to a Kṣatriya king, Janamejaya, and the other a non-Brahmin bard recounting the story of why violence and war are dharmic duties only for the Kṣatriyas to group of forest-dwelling Brahmins led by Śaunaka Bhārgava who in turn nourished murderous vendetta against all Kṣatriyas. These two framing devices of the Mahābhārata not only bring in the thematic treatment of the problem of violence but also the traditional rivalries between caste groups and their ideologies.
Thapar, commenting on the epic’s historical registers of clashes between clans, castes, dynasties and their ideologies, writes:
Beyond the clans was the non-caste ‘Other’, treated by the heroes as virtually bereft of human value, as is apparent at various points of the narrative. These were the people of the forest such as the Nishada and the Shabara, the excluded and impure mleccha and therefore dispensable. The episode that has been commented on is that of Ekalavya, who being a Nishada, had to give his thumb as a fee to the brahmin guru thus terminating his skill as an archer. But equally traumatic is the reference to how a Nishada woman and her five sons were left in the house of lac, which was set on fire to mislead the Kauravas about the presence of the Pandavas.' (Thapar 2010)
In a similar interpretation of the episode of Kṛṣna and Arjuna destroying Khāṇḍava forest and the tribes dwelling inside it, Iravati Karve wrote that for the royalties and their states in ancient India the tribes fell outside the caste hierarchy and so they could be destroyed without any remorse (Karve 2008).
How the caste and clan births of characters determine their destinies and conflicts in the course of events is an important theme in the Mahābhārata, as illustrated by the stories of Droṇa (a Brahmin who is a master of Kṣatriya martial arts and who is repeatedly betrayed by his Kṣatriya friend, and students), Karṇa (whose birth to maiden Kuntī remains a secret until the final days of Kurukṣetra war, and who is repeatedly taunted as the son of a charioteer and so unfit to be treated as an equal Kṣatriya) and Ghatotkacha (who is a son of Bhīma and the forest-dwelling Idumbi and whose death in the war is not treated with the respect it deserves as he is a low born) . The ironies and satires the frames of the Mahābhārata bring to bear on caste and clan determining destinies of the characters are immense. In fact, the Bharata dynasty’s legitimate lineage ended with Bhīṣma who had to vow celibacy to clear the way for his father, Śantanu’s marriage to Satyavatī, a fisherwoman from the banks of river Yamunā. Bhīṣma’s vow guaranteed the succession of Bhārata crown for Satyavatī’s children. But Satyavatī’s son Vicitravīrya became terminally ill and when it was clear that he would not be capable of fathering children, Satyavatī’s called upon her premarital son, Vyāsa to beget sons on the wives of Vicitravīrya. Vyāsa engendered the blind Dhṛtarāṣṭra (his mother Ambikā had closed her eyes while being with Vyāsa), and one 'white' son, Pāṇḍu (his mother Ambalikā had discolored), and the perfectly sound Vidura (Ambikā had sent her maidservant in to Vyāsa upon being ordered to be with him again, and the maid had been perfectly pleased to be with the sage), who became the palace steward without royal eligibility because of his mother’s low status. This was not the only time the royal lineage was breached in the Mahābhārata and it was infringed again in the next generation when Pāṇḍu could not procreate because of a fatal curse requiring him to refrain from sex. Pāṇḍu persuaded his senior wife Kuntī to use the mantra she received from an ascetic to summon the gods to engender children. During her maiden years Kuntī had naively used the mantra summoning the god Sūrya and gave birth to Karṇa. She abandoned the boy in a basket in a river and the child was found and reared by Adiratha and his wife Rādhā. Yielding to Paṇdu’s demands thrice Kuntī begot Yudhiṣṭhira by god Yama, Bhīmasena to Vāyu, and Arjuna to Indra. On Pāṇḍu’s advice Kuntī taught the mantra to his younger wife, Mādrī, who used it to summon the twin Aśvins and gave birth to Nakula and Sahadeva. In the meantime Dhṛtarāṣṭra married Gāndhārī. Śiva promised 100 sons to Gāndhārī but when she conceived she did not give birth even after two years. When she ejected the fetus out of her womb, a bloody mass came out. Vyāsa helped to divide the mass into 100 parts and put them in pots. When the first child was born out of a pot he was named Duryodhana and 99 others followed. Suffusing the forest-born Pāṇḍavas with secrecy and divine energies and the city-born Kauravas with ill omens and evil signs, the Mahābhārata framed the nature of good and evil and allowed the theological discourses to thrive on the births of the characters and their destinies.
Birth of Karna, by Indira Seshadri. From the exhibition, 'Inner Flow: Chithrakathi Paintings on Bharatha-k-koothu' (Lalit Kala Akademi, Chennai, September 10–12, 2012).
Birth of Duryodhana, by Meenakshi Madan. From the exhibition, 'Inner Flow: Chithrakathi Paintings on Bharatha-k-koothu' (Lalit Kala Akademi, Chennai, September 10–12, 2012).
Writing about the frame-tales and framing devices in the Mahābhārata Hiltebeitel contended that regional martial epics made even the Mahābhārata a framing epic and developed their stories with great ingenuity and creativity. Often ironic readings of what the classical epic would leave open would become the substance of the regional epics and they would create new narrative pathways (Hiltebeitel 2001:44). The regional retellings of the Mahābhārata have never been mere translations of the Sanskrit text but they are expansions, improvisations, and sometimes even localizations and infuse new plots. So, the Sanskrit Mahābhārata proliferated into many versions all over the sub-continent both in Sanskrit and in many Indian languages with its main appeal being martial adventures and heroism. When the regional bards and performers recited, sang, or performed the Mahābhārata they also narrated their local stories, and histories (Hiltebeitel 1991, Dirks 2002, Muthukumaraswamy 2006). Considered to be the longest epic poem ever written the Mahābhārata consists of over 100,000 ślokas or over 200,000 individual lines and long prose passages. It is organized into 18 major parvans (books).
Organization of the Mahābhārata into 18 parvans
This book presents the double framing of the Mahābhārata described in the previous section of this essay: how the Mahābhārata came to be narrated by Ugraśravas to the assembled sages at Naimiṣa forest after having listened to the first recital at the sarpasattra of Janamejaya by Vaiśampāyana at Takṣaśilā. The history and genealogy of the Bhārata and Bhrigu races are recounted and, the birth and early lives of the Kuru princes are narrated. The enumeration of the chapters and verses in each of the 18 books of the Mahābhārata, as given in the second chapter—the Parvasaṇgrahādhyāya—of manuscripts representing the Southern Recension, differs widely from that in the Northern Recension. A comparative table illustrating the divergences is appended to the introduction of the Southern Recension (Sastry 1931:xviii). The Ādiparvan’s critical edition edited by V.S. Sukthankar and published by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune first appeared in 1933 (BORI edition for short) (Winterinitz and Winternitz 1933) P.P.S. Sastry, the editor of the Southern Recension of the Mahābhārata wrote in his introduction that Sukthankar’s removal of the Gaṇeṣa acting as the scribe of Vyāsa as an interpolation did not in any way reduce the importance of the Mahābhārata as the fifth Veda. Gaṇeṣa writing the Mahābhārata as the scribe is however a famous illustration in many of the folio paintings of the Mahābhārata.
Vaiśampāyana, Vyāsa’s devoted student is the narrator of the Sabhā ('The Great Hall') Parvan.
The hall that Maya builds for the Pāṇḍavas is a truly spectacular, magical creation. The poetry of its description gives vent to a great imagination for the fabulous, so present in the Mahābhārata: 'That bright light, which dimmed even the sun’s brilliance, glowed with the divine radiance of the heavens. Like a thick monsoon cloud it dominated the whole sky, uplifting the spirit, unblemished.' This passage, incidentally, exhibits the love of light, and all that shines or sparkles, which deeply imbues the epic. Words like ‘radiant’ and 'resplendent' appear constantly. (Wilmot 2006).
An eventful book, the Sabhā Parvan describes Yudhiṣṭhira’s rājasūya yajña where Kṛṣṇa beheads Śiśupāla when he objects to the special ritual respects offered to Kṛṣṇa and insults him 100 times. The size of the Sabhā Parvan in the Southern Recension is double that of the Northern Recension of the Mahābhārata. Chapters 33–40 are completely omitted in the Northern Recension. The main theme of these chapters is the endeavour of Bhīṣma to convince Śiśupāla of the greatness of Kṛṣna. The game of dice and the disrobing of Draupadī and the eventual exile of the Pāṇḍavas are the pivotal events in the epic and they all happen in this book. Apart from the emergence of Kṛṣna as a god in this book, Draupadī’s prowess as a woman surfaces in the Sabhā Parvan. Her eloquence in questioning the Kaurava elders and her husband Yudhiṣṭhira that she could not be pledged after Yudhiṣṭhira losing himself in the game of dice makes powerful statement about law and justice of the time. The vow Draupadī makes to bind her hair with the blood of Duryodhana and Duḥśāsana reveals her to be a violent goddess. Folk theatrical performances such as Tamil Bhārata Kūttu worships Draupadī as a goddess and on her behest the entire Bhārata Kūttu festivals are conducted (Hiltebeitel 1991). We have examples online of the electrifying Terukūttu performances of the game of dice and the disrobing of Draupadī scenes.
Dharmaraja loses the Game of Dice, by Rajasri Manikandan. From the exhibition, 'Inner Flow: Chithrakathi Paintings on Bharatha-k-koothu' (Lalit Kala Akademi, Chennai, September 10–12, 2012).
Āraṇaya Parvan covers the 12 years of the Pāṇḍavas’ exile in the forest and the book has been described as a storehouse of myths, legends and instruction of all sorts. Sage Markaṇdeya narrates a version of Rāmāyaṇa and the story of Satyavān-Sāvitri to Yudhiṣṭhira who is grieving over the events exiling them to the forest. The stories of Rāmā and Sāvitri are presented as parallel instances of a hero overcoming even greater odds. Similarly, the Naḷa-Damayanti story is also presented in this book. Considered to be great tales in themselves, the Satyavān and Sāvitri, and Naḷa-Damayanti stories have found their way into the modern Indian world independently of the Mahābhārata. While Sri Aurobindo has made Sāvitri into a philosophical poem of enduring value (Ghose 1993), the Naḷa-Damayanti story made its way into moral tales for children. (Devin 2004, Milman 1860).
'The Book of the Forest' concludes with a near-fatal encounter between the Pāṇḍavas and a Yakṣā, a personification of Dharma. Yudhiṣṭhira’s victory over the Yakṣā in a session of questions and answers secures the Pāṇḍavas their lives; the Yakṣā also assures them success in living out the 13th year in exile incognito. In the exchanges between the Yakṣā and Yudhiṣṭhira, Yakṣā asks, 'Who is happy? What is quite extraordinary? What is the path?' Commenting on Yudhiṣṭhira's replies, Johnson observes, 'Ever present are the twin powers of time and death. Dharma may seem opaque, but that is because our experience is opaque.' The highest Dharma in such circumstances is, in Yudhiṣṭhira’s view, compassion. Satisfied with Yudhiṣṭhira's answers, the Yakṣā returns his brothers to life. Like Sāvitri, Yudhiṣṭhira has used his knowledge and wisdom to gain a reprieve from death (Johnson 2005:22). Reflecting over the conversation between the Yakṣā and Yudhiṣṭhira, Shulman writes, 'Both questions and answers tend to the metaphysical, with the latent center of meaning—the ultimate reality that is the true object of the quest—usually present only as a suggested power situated somewhere between the two explicit poles of the contest' (Shulman 2001:143). The episodes from the Āraṇya Parvan such as Arjuna’s penance, Arjuna seeking the Paśupatāstra from Śiva, and Arjuna being seized by lustful thoughts have become sources for performances in the traditional South Indian theatrical forms of Kūtiyaṭṭam, Kathakaḷi, Terukūttu, and Yakṣaghānā.
Shiva combats with Arjuna as a Hunter, by Shobha Rajagopalan. From the exhibition, 'Inner Flow: Chithrakathi Paintings on Bharatha-k-koothu' (Lalit Kala Akademi, Chennai, September 10–12, 2012).
If the Āraṇya Parvan is full of parallel tales, philosophical queries and metaphysical reflections with poetic power, the Virāṭa Parvan is carnivalesque and humorous as it describes the year spent incognito by the Pāṇḍavas at the court of Virāṭa (Garbutt 2006:16). The Pāṇḍavas assume various names and disguises and take up different professions in the court of Virāṭa. Yudhiṣṭhira assumes the name of Kanaka and becomes a companion gambler for the king, Bhīma as Ballaba becomes a cook in the kitchen, Arjuna as Brihannala becomes a transgender dance teacher for the princess, and Nakula as Granthika and Sahadeva as Tantipala take up work in the horse stables. Draupadī as Sairandhri works as the queen’s maid. Kīcaka, the commander of king Virāṭa’s army, sees the incognito Draupadī, and lusts after her. Draupadī repeatedly protests against Kīcaka’s advances, and he humiliates Draupadī. Unable to bear his advances, Draupadī complains to Bhīma who eventually kills Kīcaka. Learning about the death of Kīcaka through the spies, Duryodhana and his army launch an attack on the kingdom of Virāṭa. When the Kuru army tries to steal the cattle, all except Arjuna and prince Uttarā go out to fight the army. When the others are engaged in the battle, Duryodhana and his army try to capture the undefended city and steal the rest of the cattle. Arjuna along with Uttarā fights the Kuru army and wins the war. At the end of the book the year of exile for the Pāṇḍavas gets over and Abhimanyu is married to Virāṭa’a daughter, Uttarā. A.K. Ramanujan, commenting on the disguises of the Pāṇḍavas, used an Oscar Wilde quotation, 'Give a mask to a man he will reveal his true identity', to point at the true identities of the Pāṇḍava princes when they stopped being princes (Ramanujan 1999). The killing of Kīcaka is dramatized in forms such as Kathakaḷi and Terukūttu.
Immediately after the exile period the Pāṇḍavas return to Hastināpura to claim their half of the kingdom. The Kauravas refuse and all the efforts to bring peace between the disagreeing cousins fail. Following the failure of any agreement over peaceful settlements, both the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas begin their preparations for the war. Referring to the four types of emissaries who go between the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas J.A.B. van Buitenen and other have considered the Udyoga Parvan as a political treatise on emissaries (Buitenen 1988, Dutt 1997). The Udyoga Parvan elaborates with incidents on four types of emissaries: Samdisțārtha are envoys who convey a message but do not have any discretion to negotiate; Parimițārtha are envoys who are granted a circumscribed purpose with some flexibility on wording; Nisrșțārtha are envoys with an overall goal and significant discretion to adapt the details of negotiations to the circumstances; finally, Dūtapranidhi, a full ambassador who has full confidence of the party he represents, understands the interests and Dharma (law, morals, duties) of both parties, and can decide the goal as well as style of negotiations. Kṛṣna acts as a Dūtapranidhi in Bhāgavat-yana section of Udyoga Parvan; Kṛṣṇa going as an envoy of the Pāṇḍavas is a famous piece in the repertoires of Kathakaḷi and Bhārata Kūttu. A Dūtapranidhi’s methods would involve resolution for the cause of peace and Dharma, describing the consequences of successes and failures of reaching an accord, and bargaining with gifts and concessions (dhāna), and threats of punishment. Kṛṣṇa excels in the Sāman (conciliation), Dāna (gifts and concessions), Bhedā (sowing discord), and Daṇda (punishment) methods, and traditional theatre capitalized on this event. The Udyoga Parvan contains two important philosophical treatises in the form of advice. When Dhṛtarāṣṭra is unable to decide on the demand of the Pāṇḍavas, he seeks the counsel of Vidura and he advises on various matters concerning governance, administration, and justice. This section of the Udyoga Parvan known as Viduranīti has been translated into many Indian languages and it has received attention as a guidebook on state governance. Vidura, however, does not answer Dhṛtarāṣtra’s questions on the atman, citing his status as a Śūdra, and arranges for sage Sanatsujāta to advise him. Ādi Śaṇkarā wrote a commentary on the discourse of Sanatsujāta and made it an important text in the history of Indian philosophy (see online the 'Sanatsujatīyam in S.N. Sastri's translation).
The Bhīṣma Parvan depicts the first 10 days of the 18-day Kurukṣetra war and the losses suffered by both the Pāṇḍava and Kaurava armies. Before the beginning of the war both the chieftains of the armies and their deputies meet and agree upon the rules of war. The Bhīṣma Parvan contains what is known as ancient India’s ‘Just War Theory’, also referred to as a tradition of military ethics. As the Mahābhārata progresses towards the end of war many of the agreed upon rules are blatantly violated and the Mahābhārata records the horrors of war and its decadence into an ethic-less universe. According to the yuga-kalpa frames of the Mahābhārata, the Kurukṣetra war also marks the transition from the Tretā Yuga, ushering in the Kali Yuga. The Bhīṣma Parvan has the celebrated Bhagavad Gītā. Just as the battle is about to commence, Arjuna, asks his charioteer Kṛṣṇa to station his vehicle in between the two vast forces. 'I want to look at the men arrayed here so eager for war', he explains, and Kṛśṇa drives his chariot into the middle of the battlefield. At this moment, Arjuna is overcome with anxiety and despair. He drops his bow and threatens to renounce the battle altogether. It is Kṛṣṇa’s task to persuade Arjuna to overcome his doubts. The ensuing dialogue between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna goes well beyond the rationale of fighting the war. It expounds on many of the ethical dilemmas, religious practices, and philosophical issues of enduring value. Over the years the Bhagavad Gītā has acquired the status of being the holiest book for the Hindus so much so that the compositional birthday (which is believed to be Śukla Ekādasi day in the month of Margashirsh—the 11th day of the waxing phase of the moon in December) is celebrated every year as Gītā Jayanti at the present-day Kurukṣetra. The compositional moment of the Bhagavad Gītā is widely canonized in the Indian calendar art and the popular televised serials of the Mahābhārata in almost all Indian languages. Interestingly, the traditional theatre forms of India do not have a separate play dedicated to Bhagavad Gītā. In the cycle of Bhārata performances, the Gītā would be passed over with a cursory but a serious ritual moment. Instead, Bhīṣma lying on the bed of arrows, mortally wounded, is a scene that is enacted in the performances of traditional Indian theatre and dance with great fervor. The Chauu performances of West Bengal and Orissa especially have very energetic performances enacting Bhīṣma on the bed of arrows. The Bhīṣma Parvan's English translation by Alex Cherniak is considered to be of seminal importance (Cherniak 2008).
On the 11th day of the Kurukṣetra war, after the fall of Bhīṣma, Karṇa advises Duryodhana to appoint their teacher Droṇa as the chief of the Kaurava army. The Droṇa Parvan describes the war under Droṇa’s leadership and how millions of soldiers and great warriors, Abhimanyu, Jayadratha, Ghatoṭkaca, and Droṇa himself died during the war. Both the warring factions were abandoning the rules of the war and it was becoming gruesome. Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna wins several victories initially and attracts the attention of Droṇa. He forms a formidable Chakra Viyuhā, which Abhimanyu breaks successfully but he would not know how to exit from the Viyuhā. Six famous heroes on the Kaurava side including Droṇa and Karṇa join together and assist Duḥśasana’s son in killing Abhimanyu caught in the middle of the wheel (chakra) of surrounding soldiers. Similarly, to contain the great devastation Ghatoṭkaca is wrecking on the Kaurava army, Karṇa and others join together to kill him. The bravery of Abhimanyu and Ghatoṭkaca fuelled the imagination of the folio painting traditions of India, and many Mahābhārata texts feature pictures of their heroic deeds and other incidents in their lives. In the Chauu repertoire, Abhimanyu’s Chakra Viyuhā episode is presented as a vibrant dance.
Yudhiṣṭhira kills an elephant named Aśvatthāma and shouts that he has killed Aśvatthāma. On hearing this Droṇa believes his son Aśvatthāma is dead, and in his grief he abandons his weapons and goes into a meditative trance. Exploiting Droṇa’s vulnerability, Dhṛṣṭadyumna beheads Droṇa in the battlefield. In the last chapters of the Droṇa Parvan , Aśvatthāma who is angry over the unjust death of his father, decides to use Nārāyaṇa weapons that would destroy the humanity in its entirety. Kṛṣṇa saves the Pāṇḍavas and their army by asking them to abandon their weapons and surrender to the might of Nārāyaṇa. Vyāsa then intervenes and banishes Aśvatthāma from the battlefield for his reckless use of weapons. He reappears only after the end of the war in Sauptika Parvan. This episode has generated good discussions on the ethical use of weapons of mass destruction.
After the death of Droṇa, Karṇa is anointed as the chief of Kaurava army and the Karṇa Parvan describes the warrior qualities of Karṇa. In his introduction to the English translation of the Karṇa Parvan, Adam Bowles writes:
In the long history of the Mahābhārata—through its transmissions, adaptations, regional variations and poetic re-imaginings—there is perhaps no more remarkable figure than the hero Karṇa. Variously and often simultaneously famous for his courage, strength, unstinting loyalty and profound generosity, as well as his bragging, narcissism, and bitterness, Karṇa has become—beyond the Sanskrit Mahābhārata and perhaps especially in more recent times—venerated as the ideal warrior-hero and model devotee, idealized as a class-warrior and even worshipped as a deity. Yet if modern interpretations and developments of his persona and story sometimes take Karṇa far beyond the imaginings of the poets of the Sanskrit Mahābhārata, these developments remain deeply rooted in the characterization of Karṇa in the Sanskrit Mahābhārata. Widely recognized as a prime Indian exemplar of the tragic mode, Karna embodies that most modern of frailties: a deep and unresolved crisis over identity that everywhere and always defines and curtails his aspirations.' (Bowles 2008:16)
In the Pāṇḍav Līlā performances of Garhwal, and for the people of Singtur, Karṇa is treated as a deity and he is served by numerous lineages of priests, musicians, carpenters, and watchmen (Sax 2002). The performance of ascendance of Karṇa to heaven in the Terukūttu tradition of Tamilnadu, Karṇa Mōkṣam is believed to be very auspicious and it is performed to mark the death anniversaries and funerary rituals (Bruin 1998). Karṇa’s story has been the subject of important Tamil and Telugu movies as well. In the Southern Recension of the Karṇa Parvan the chapters describing Duryodhana persuading Śalya to be the charioteer of Karṇa are omitted. While the reasons for such omissions are not known, the chapters in the Northern Recension of the Mahābhārata informs us that Śalya initially refused to be the charioteer of Karṇa because of his low birth and Duryodhana had to persuade Śalya to be the charioteer. The Śalya-Karṇa partnership in the battlefield is in total contrast to the Arjuna-Kṛṣna partnership, and Śalya and Karṇa frequently quarrel. Despite the several odds and restrictions Karṇa wins over four of the Pāṇḍavas bust spares their lives because of the promise he made to his mother, Kuntī. Arjuna finally kills him as he is struggling to extricate his chariot wheel from the mud.
After the death of Karṇa, Duryodhana appoints Śalya as the general of the Kaurava army. The Śalya Parvan narrates the events of the 18th day of the war. The portrayal of Śalya is complex in the Mahābhārata. He is the maternal uncle of Nakula and Sahadeva but he sides with the Kauravas because he is lured with the promise of luxuries. At the same time he is also portrayed as one the great charioteers, Mahārathas, of his time. Despite the problematic aspects of his character, Śalya’s death is unique in that he is the only one of the four generals who is not killed by the Pāṇḍavas through questionable means. He enjoys an honorable death worthy of a heroic warrior. In many of the northern villages of Tamilnadu, where Bhārata Kūttu festival is celebrated as a month-long festival, along with the recumbent statue of Duryodhana, the mud and sand statues of Śalya and Śakuni are erected only to be trampled upon and destroyed by the participant villagers on the day they enact Paṭukaḷam, the last day of Kurukṣetra war. Bhīma finds Duryodhana hiding inside a pond, invites him to fight, and kills him by hitting on his thighs with his mace. The Śalya Parvan charts Duryodhana’s descent into humiliating defeat and the evacuation of Kaurava army.
Bhima and Duryodhana, the Final Combat, by Meenakshi Madan. From the exhibition, 'Inner Flow: Chithrakathi Paintings on Bharatha-k-koothu' (Lalit Kala Akademi, Chennai, September 10–12, 2012).
Sauptika Parvan marks the darkest aftermath of the 18-day Kurukṣetra war. Aśvatthāma massacres the entire Pāṇḍava army while they sleep on the night after the war is over. The only survivors of the rampage are the five Pānḍava brothers, Satyaki, and Kṛṣna, who were not there at the camp on the fateful night.
The Strī Parvan recounts the trauma and grief of women after the Kurukṣetra war. The 'book of the women' makes the Mahābhārata a strong example of anti-war literature. The book is full of the crying and wailing of the widows of the heroes who died in the war. The Pāṇḍavas perform rites for the dead. Vidura and Vyāsa console the grieving Dhṛtarāṣṭra with long discourses on death and emotional loss. Overwhelmed with grief and anger at the deaths of her sons and grandsons. Gāndhārī curses Kṛṣṇa realizing that he could have saved them all. Kṛṣṇa accepts the curse that he would die after 36 years, and after witnessing the deaths of his own kith and kin.
Yudhiṣṭhira is crowned as the king of Hāstinapura and the Śānti Parvan reads like a treatise on duties of a king and his government, dharma, proper governance, rights, justice, and describes how these create prosperity. Yudhiṣṭhira becomes a king of a prosperous and peaceful kingdom. Śānti Parvan—the longest book and most number of verses—has a number of treatises and fables embedded in it. Examples include a theory on caste, a theory on governance, and the fable of the wicked fowler and compassionate pigeons. Scholars have questioned the chronology and content of many chapters in Śānti Parvan and its companion book the Anusāsasna Parvan (Hiltebeitel 2001).
Anusāsana Parvan continues the theme of Śānti Parvan, a discussion of duties of a ruler, the rule of law, and instructions on dharma for those close to the leader. The dialogue is between Yudhiṣṭhira, Bhīṣma and other sages. The book debates the duties, behaviors and habits of individuals, with chapters dedicated to men and to women. Various types of marriages are mentioned and their merits compared. The parvan also recites many symbolic tales and legends, such as the legend of Nachiketā as well as the death and last rites of Bhīṣma, the eldest member of the Kuru dynasty.
The Āsvamedika Parvan describes the royal ritual of the Aśvamedhā initiated by Yudhiṣṭhira, on the advice of Kṛṣṇa. The ceremony is a year-long event where the horse is left free to roam in any direction it wishes to, and the territories it passes through are claimed by its owner unless challenged. This ceremony establishes the primacy of Yudhishthira as the emperor, and his recognition by other rulers and kingdoms. At the end of the year, the victorious Arjuna's army and the horse return to the emperor's capital, and the horse is sacrificed before many kings. The Anugītā sub-parva recites a restatement of Bhagavad Gītā teachings by Kṛṣṇa to Arjuna.
The Āsramavasika Parvan describes the 15-year rule by the Pāṇḍavas with Yudhiṣṭhira as the king. After 15 years of peaceful co-existence, Dhṛtarāṣṭra and his wife seek to renounce domestic life. They leave the kingdom and go into the forest to Vyāsa's hermitage. Yudhiṣṭhira attempts to dissuade them, but they insist on completing their fourth stage of alife. Kuntī, Sañjayā, Vidura join them in the hermitage. Vidura was the first to die. After two years of living in the hermitage, Kuntī, Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Gāndhārī too pass away in a forest fire. The news of their death causes grief to Pāṇḍavas and citizens of the kingdom. Yudhiṣṭhira performs funerary rites for those who had died at the hermitage (Dutt 1898).
Mausala Parvan describes the demise of Kṛṣṇa in the 36th year after the Kurukṣetra war had ended, the submersion of Dwaraka under sea, death of Balarāmā by drowning in the sea, and an internecine fight among the race of Yadavas that kills them all. The story of the complete extermination of the Yadavās becomes the reason why Yudhiṣṭhira and all the Pāṇḍava brothers renounce their kingdom and start out on an unsuccessful journey to heaven, events recounted in the last two books of the Mahābhārata.
The chapters in Mausala Parvan that describe Dwarka, its submergence in the Prabhasa sea, and others books of the Mahābhārata have attracted the attention of scholars. It has led to the hypothesis that if any city named Dwarka existed in ancient India, it is likely to have been in the modern state of Gujarat or Maharashtra. With funding from the Government of India, the Archaeological Survey of India and National Institute of Oceanography have conducted various studies since 1955, particularly since the late 1970s. These studies found remnants of various temples in Gujarat, variously dated to be from ninth century, first century and first millennium BC (Tripati and Gaur 1992; Nayak and Rao 1992).
King Yudhiṣṭhira coronates Parikṣit as the king of Hāstinapura, in the care of Yuyutsu. In Indraprastha, the Yadava prince Vajrā is coronated as the king. Then the Pāṇḍavas start their journey of India and the Himalayas. The Mahāprasthanika Parvan recites the journey of the Pāṇḍavas across India and finally their ascent towards Himalayas, as they climb their way to heaven on Mount Sumeru. As they leave their kingdom, a dog befriends them and joins their long journey. On their way, Draupadī dies first. Four of the Pāṇḍava brothers also die midway. Only Yudhiṣṭhira reaches Mount Sumeru. Their conversations, and the reasons for not all reaching heaven are described in Mahāprasthanika Parvan. This book has led to a number of folktales all over India and the myths around several temples have been constructed around the journey of the Pāṇḍavas.
Svargarohana Parvan describes the arrival of Yudhiṣṭhira in heaven, his visit to hell and what he finds in both places. Yudhiṣṭhira is upset when he finds evil people in heaven and good people in hell. He demands he be sent to hell where the people who love him are. The gods then reveal the fake hell and the real heaven to Yudhiṣṭhira. The Parvan ends with Yudhiṣṭhira settling down in heaven to remain there happily ever after.
Critical Edition of the Mahābhārata
Scholars at the Bhandharkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune began in 1918 to gather manuscripts of the written Mahābhārata from the whole of India and Southeast Asia to prepare a critical edition of the text they hoped to find behind those manuscripts. Under the scholarly leadership of V.S.Sukthankar, the first edition of the Ādi Parvan was published in 1933 and other books were also completed almost 50 years after it began, in 1966. Most of the manuscripts used were from the 18th and 19th centuries, some were from 16th century and one from Nepal used for Ādi Parvan was from the late 14th century (Winterinitz and Winternitz 1933). The Sanskrit Mahābhārata critical edition project made use of manuscripts in eight distinct Indian scripts, five of the North—Sharada, Devanagari, Bengali, Nepali, and Maithili—and three of the South: Grantha, Telugu, and Malayalam. One of the principal benefits that has emerged from the publication of the critical edition of the Mahābhārata is that is now possible to see how many and diverse Mahābhāratas developed in many regions and languages across India. Towards that end, Mahābhārata scholarship should move forward considering the enormous popularity and reach the televised Mahābharātas have achieved in the last 20 years.
All the 18 parvans of the Mahābhārata can be accessed and read in the Library section of Sahapedia. They are available in Sanskrit (manuscript edition, critical BORI edition, and the southern Kumbakonam edition), Hindi, Telugu, and Bengali. The English translation of Kisari Mohan Ganguli is available in two formats. R.C. Dutt’s condensed version of the Mahābhārata and a thesis on the development of the Assamese Mahābhārata can be accessed as well.
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