The Mahabharata: The Core of Indian Mythology

The Mahabharata is one of two Indian myths that form the core of Indian literature and Hindu mythology, the other being the Ramayana, which chronicles the journey of Rama and his allies to rescue his wife Sita from her captivity.

The Mahabharata is a story in 200,000 lines about a war between the Kaurava and Pandava factions of the Kuru clan, who fight over the throne of their mythical kingdom, Hastinapura (also called Hastinapur). The eldest Kaurava is younger than the eldest Pandava, even though the Kaurava is the more senior branch of the family, which leads to both Duryodhana (the eldest Kaurava) and Yudhishthira (the eldest Pandava) claiming the throne. The two families meet in battle at Kurukshetra, where the Pandavas are victorious, creating a fallout narrative wherein loyalty and morality will be at odds.

The Mahabharata ends with the death of Krishna and the apotheosis of the Pandava brothers, signaling the beginning of the age of Kali Yuga, a fourth epoch where humankind is headed toward a disintegration of all that is right and just.

King Shantanu and Satyavati

King Shantanu of Hastinapur has a short marriage with the goddess Ganga and the two have a son, Devavrata (later renamed Bhishma), who will become a great warrior. On a hunting trip King Shantanu sees Satyavati, a beautiful daughter of a fisherman, and asks to marry her. Her father refuses unless King Shantanu will make any son he has with Satyavati the king of Hastinapur. Devavrata agrees to relinquish his claim to the throne and even takes a vow of lifelong celibacy.

King Shantanu and Satyavati have two sons: Chitrangada and Vichitraviya. Chitrangada becomes king, but his reign is short and uneventful. Vichitraviya becomes king. At this time, the king of Kasi arranges to marry off his three daughters, but neglects to invite Vichitraviya. Bhishma, his half brother, attends the party uninvited and abducts the three daughters. Two of them, Ambika and Ambalika, agree to marry  Vichitraviya. But Amba refuses; she wants to marry the king of Shalva, whom Bhishma had actually defeated in combat at the party. But the king of Shalva is actually not interested in Amba, humiliated as he was by Bhishma. So Amba decides she wants to marry Bhisma after all, but he chooses to adhere to his vow of celibacy. Amba is enraged at the slight and becomes Bhishma’s enemy, eventually being reborn to King Drupada as Shikhandi, who will help bring Bhishma’s down at the epic battle of Kurukshetra.

Vichitravirya dies without any heirs, so Satyavati asks her remaining son Vyasa to father children with his widowed aunts. Ambika shuts her eyes and refuses to look at Vyasa, so their son Dhritarashtra is born blind. Ambalika turns pale at the idea of the union, so their son Pandu is born jaundiced. Satyavati asks Vichitravirya to have more children with his aunts, since the first children were born with these challenges. But Ambika and Ambalika cannot repeat the consummation, so send their maid to Vyasa instead. Vyasa fathers a third son with her, Vidura, who grows up healthy and becomes very wise, eventually serving as Prime Minister to King Pandu and King Dhritarashtra.

The children grow up. Dhritarashtra is about to be crowned king when his half brother Vidura asserts that a blind man cannot be king, since he cannot control or protect his people. The throne passes to Pandu (the jaundiced son), and he marries Kunti and Madri. Dhritarashtra marries Princess Gandhari, who blindfolds herself for life so she can feel the pain of her husband. This self-sacrifice upsets her brother Shakuni and he vows to avenge her on the Kurus. 

The Birth of the Pandava Brothers

One day, King Pandu is relaxing in the forest and hears a wild animal noise. He shoots an arrow, which kills the sage Kindama, who was disguised as a deer so he could perform a sexual act. Kindama curses King Pandu that if he ever engages in sex, he will die. So King Pandu retires to the forest with his two wives, letting Dhritarashta rule despite his blindness. 

King Pantu’s wife Queen Kunti, however, has a boon from the sage Durvasa that she could invoke any god’s assistance with a special mantra. So she asks Dharma, the Hindu god of justice, Vayu, the Hindu god of the wind, and Indra, the Hindu god of the heavens, for sons. She gives birth to triplet boys: Yudhishthira, Bhima, and Arujna. Queen Kunti shares the mantra with Queen Madri, who bears Nakula and Sahadeva. But King Pandu and Queen Madri end up making love, and so Pandu dies. Madri kills herself from remorse. So Queen Kunti raises the five sons, who are known as the Pandava brothers.

Meanwhile King Dhritarashra has one hundred suns with Princess Gandhari, who became known as the Kaurava brothers. The rivalry between the five Pandava brothers and one hundred Kaurava brothers becomes the basis for the war of Kurukshetra.

The Palace of Ghee

The Pandava brothers and their mother Queen Kunti return to Hastinapura. King Dhritarashra actually makes Yudhishthira the crown prince, pressured by his court.  King Dhritarashra had actually wanted his own son Duryodhana to be king. Duryodhana and his brothers Shakuni and Dushasana decide to get rid of the five Pandavas. Shakuni has the architect Purochana to build a palace of flammable materials like ghee (butter). He then invites Queen Kunti and the Pandavas to stay there, but their wise uncle Vidura warns them of the ruse, and provides them with a miner to dig them a tunnel out, where they run away into hiding. Everyone in Hastinapur assumes that Queen Kunti and the Pandava brothers are dead. Meanwhile, Bhima marries a demoness Hidimbi and they have a son Ghatotkcaha.

Arujna Wins the Hand of Princess Draupadi

The Pandava brothers learn of another swayamvara for the Princess Draupadi. They disguise themselves as Brhamins to attend the event. Krishna is a friend of the princess and tells her to be on the lookout for the Pandava brother Arujna (though he is believed to be dead). The task at hand to win the princess is to string a mighty steel bow and shoot a moving target on the ceiling, which is actually a mechanical fish eye—and moreover, to aim at it only by looking at its reflection in oily water. Arjuna wins the contest and marries Princess Draupadi. The brothers return and share the exciting news with their mother Queen Kunti, but she is meditating and asks the brother to share whatever they have among themselves, thinking they have returned with alms. Princess Draupadi therefore becomes married to all five brothers.

The Pandava brothers are now known to be alive and invited back to Hastinapura. The Kurus negotiate and split the kingdom, but the Pandavas want nothing more than a wild forest inhabited by the king of the snakes, Takshaka, and his snake family. The Pandavas built a glorious city there, Indraprastha.

Arjuna elopes with Krishna’s sister, Subhadra.

Yudhishthira wants to cement his position as king, so he seeks Krishna’s advice, and Krishna advises him to eliminate some opposition and to carry out certain rituals.

The Dice Game

The Pandava brothers build a new palace, and invite the Kaurava cousins. Duryodhana walks around and thinks that a glossy floor is water, so he will  not step on it. He is told it is not water, and steps into it, falling in (it is water, after all). The servants laugh at him, and the enraged Duryodhana—also jealous of the Pandava wealth—challenges them to a dice game at the suggestion of his brother Shakuni.

So they play against Yudhishthira with loaded dice, and the latter loses all his wealth, then his kingdom. He then gambles away his brothers, himself, and finally his wife into service of the Kauravas. The Kauravas insult the Pandavas and even try to disrobe Princess Draupadi  in insult, but Krishna makes her undressing endless to retain her dignity. 

King Dhritarashtra and Bhishma are aghast over the dice game and its end result, but Duryodhana insists that Hastinapura cannot be ruled by two kings. King Dhritarashtra orders another dice game, resulting in exile for the Pandava brother for 12 years, followed by a 13th year in which they must hide—and if they are discovered, they will have another 12 years of exile imposed on them. 

During their exile, the Pandavas acquire divine weapons given to them by the gods, and prepare some alliances for a future conflict. They spend the thirteenth year disguised in the court of King Virata, but are discovered at the end of the year. Duryodhana insists they must be exiled for twelve more years, but the Pandava brothers refuse, claiming the right of return, and leading to the battle of Kurukshetra. 

The Battle of Kurukshetra

The Pandavas and the Kauras meet for battle with their allies. Krishna serves as a charioteer to Arujna so he can remain in a slightly more neutral non-combatant role. Arjuna notes that the war will involve family members fighting against each other. He becomes despondent and doubtful about the rectitude of the battle. Krishna reminds him of his duty to fight for a righteous cause, and their discourse is written down as the 700-line Bhagavad Gita. The battle is fought, with both sides occasionally descending into dishonorable tactics. At the end of the eighteen-day battle, only the Pandavas and a few of their allies have survived. Yudhishthira becomes king of Hastinapur and Princess Gandhari of the now-dead and defeated Kauras curses Krishna that he will see a similar destruction of his own family, since he was a divinity who could have prevented the war. Krishna accepts the curse, which does come true 36 years later.

The Pandavas Renounce the World

The Pandava brothers decide to renounce worldly life and retreat into the Himalayas clad in rags, to climb toward the heavens. A stray dog travels with them. One by one, they die along the way, along with Princess Draupadi. As they fall, King Yudhishthira narrates the ostensible reason for their death, namely due to character flaws such as pride and vanity and impartiality). Only King Yudhishthira and the dog remain. The dog reveals himself to be Yama, the lord of the underworld, and he takes King Yudhishthira to the underworld, where he sees the other four Pandava brothers and their wife. Yama tells King Yudhishthira that he must be exposed to the underworld because anyone who rules must visit the underworld at least once. Yama then assures the king that his four brothers and Princess Daupadri will join him in heaven after the underworld purges them for their vices.

Meanwhile, Arjuna’s grandson Parikshit rules as king but dies when a snake bites him. His son Janamejaya is upset and performs a snake sacrifice, and it is at this very sacrifice that the story of the Mahabrata, that of his ancestors, is told to him. Eventually the Pandava brothers and Princess Draupadi, and the one hundred sons of King Dhritarashtra (the Kauras) ascend to heaven and become apotheosized, where they live in serenity and freedom from anger.

The Influence of the Mahabharata

As you can see, the Mahabharata is quite a Shakespearian epic with a complex cast of characters, and a plot driven by their competing and sometimes agreeing motivations. One of its central themes is the idea of a just war, which is captured in the discussion between Arujna and Krishna before the battle of Kurukshetra and later crystalized into a central text of Hindu theology, the Bhagavad Gita. The story of of the Mahabharata made its way around Asia, from Persia to Indonesia, and continues to be told today in various forms, from novels to Javanese dance performances. Speaking of Asia, if you’ve ever thought about traveling to some of the best cities in Asia, check out our list of 50 amazing urban gems.