Mahabharata: The Ancient Lore of War and Virtues

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Mahabharata is one of the greatest epics of India, which has captivated the hearts of its people for several millennia. Whether it is literature –both Sanskrit and vernacular- arts, crafts, paintings, music, dance and drama, or temple motifs, no aspect of Indian culture has escaped the stamp of their influence. It is believed, according to studies on preserved Hindu oral traditions that the great war took place during 3139 B.C. Modern historians, however, have attributed a much later date, 1424 B.C or 950 B.C. Interpreted on the mundane plane, the Mahabharata deals with the realistic account of a fierce fratricidal war of annihilation with its interest centred on the epic characters. The meaning on the ethical plane views the Mahabharata war as a conflict between the principles of dharma and adharma, between good and evil, between justice and injustice, in which the war ends in the victory of dharma.



Pictorial Mahabharata (Set of 5 Volumes)

Origins of Mahabharata

Traditional lore ascribes the authorship of this epic to the great sage Veda Vyasa, also known as Krishna Dvaipayana. He was a contemporary of the grandsire Bhishma and had first-hand knowledge of most of the events mentioned in the epic. Research scholars, however, feel that the original work called Jaya, written by Vyasa to commemorate the victory of the Pandava princes over the wicked Kauravas might have been a much smaller work comprising 8,800 verses. This was subsequently revised and enlarged into Bharata, a work of 24000 verses by Vaisampayana, a disciple of Vyasa, and recited during the Sarpayaga (serpent sacrifice) of Janamejaya, the great-grandson of the Pandava hero Arjuna. The final edition that has come down to us is the work of Suta Ugrasrava, son of Lomahrsana, and was recited at the Sattrayaga (a kind of sacrifice, the performance of which is spread over several years) of the sage Saunaka in the Naimisa forest. It is this that has been called Mahabharata, due to the immense size (maha=great) and its dealing with the story of the people descended from the ancient emperor Bharata, culminating in the war.

Contents of the Mahabharata

The standard editions of the Mahabharata contain 95,826 slokas or verses, in 18 parvans or books, with 107 subparvans and 2,111 chapters in all, including the appendix Harivamsa. The immensity of this epic can be measured by knowing the fact this is eight times as big as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey put together.

The text contains quite a few riddles known as Kutaslokas and vast portions of didactic material.

Other than this the eighteen major books or parvans are as follows:

  1. Adiparva: It deals with several ancient episodes connected with Shukracharaya and his intractable daughter Devayani. The famous romance of Sakuntala and Dushyanta is also mentioned. The major part of the book is dedicated to the story of the ancestors of Pandavas and Kauravas.
  2. Sabhaparva: This contains mainly the performance of the Rajasuya sacrifice by Yudhishtira, the eldest of the Pandava Princes, the game of dice manoeuvred by the wily Duryodhana, the eldest of Kauravas and its tragic consequences for the former
  3. Aranyaparva: it covers the story of the Pandavas in exile in the Kamakya forest. The famous quiz Yakshaprshana belongs to this Parva.
  4. Virataparava: it deals mainly with the stay of the Pandavas incognito in the kingdom of Virata.
  5. Udyogaparva: this is also a short book that has the peace parleys and preparations for the war. The revelation of Kunti to Karna that he is her son is a highlight of this section.
  6. Bhishmaparva: This book contains h crown-gem of the epic, the Bhagavad-Gita.
  7. Dronaparva: This contains an account of the heroic exploits of Drona and the brilliant achievements of the boy-hero Abhimanyu on the battlefield and his tragic death.
  8. Karnaparva: It details the gory death of the evil genius Dusshasana, the second of the Kaurava brothers at the hands of Bhima and the fall of Karna at the hands of Arjuna after a bitter fight.
  9. Salyaparva: the ninth book describes the final encounter between Bhima and Duryodhana on the last day of the war.
  10. Sauptikaparva: delineates the gruesome massacre of the Pandava army and its allies in the night during sleep, by Ashvatthama, Drona’s vengeful son.
  11. Striparva: It describes the pitiful lamentations of the women and the widows of the dead warriors.
  12. Santiparva: contains wonderful discourses on all aspects of dharma by the patriarch Bhishma at the request of Yudhishtira.
  13. Anusasanikaparva: Bhisma’s demise and Yudhishtira’s coronation are the incidents dealt with in this book. The two well-known hymns, Vishnusahsranama and Shivasahasranama are parts of these books
  14. Asvamedikaparva: it describes the departure of Shri Krishna for Dwaraka and the horse-sacrifice performed by Yudhishtira
  15. Asramavasikaparva: elaborates the departure of the old Dhrtarashtra to the forest along with Gandhari his spouse and Kunti and their subsequent death in a forest fire. Mausalaparva:
  16. Mausalaparva: it gives an account of the mutual destruction of the Yadava heroes and the death of Shri Krishna at the hands of a hunter.
  17. Mahaprasthanikaparva: It describes the final journey of the Pandavas, their death on the way.
  18. Svargarohanaparva: the last book contains accounts of how Yudhishtira alone reaches heaven after their death.


Sri Mahabharata- Adi Parvam (Tamil)

Main Characters

  • Shri Krishna

He is undoubtedly the most brilliant and picturesque personality projected by the epic. He appears on the scene rather suddenly at the time of Draupadi’s svayamvara (formal selection of husband by a maiden princess) and continues to saunter the scenes right up to the end. All his energies are channelized only in one direction: protection of the right and the good, and punishment or the destruction of the wicked. The epic projects him as God Himself come down to save mankind, as he admits in the Bhagavad-Gita.

  • Bhishma

The grand old man is another towering personality that awes and inspires us, whether in the supreme sacrifice of abducting his right to the throne or the vow of celibacy or the matchless heroism on the battlefield.

  • Yudhishtira

The eldest of the Pandavas is perhaps the most dominant character of the epic, next only to Shri Krishna. He was not only a great hero on the battlefield but a veritable incarnation of Dharma or righteousness. He is often referred to as Dharma raja due to this reason.

  • Bhima and Arjuna

The colossus is characterized by down-to-earth common sense while Arjuna the warrior is more idealistic and dreamy. Both were extraordinarily devoted to Shri Krishna and implicitly obedient to Yudhishtira.

  • Duryodhana

The eldest of the Kauravas is the chief villain of the epic. It is his greed and jealousy which overshadowed whatever heroism or virtues he had, resulting in the destruction of the two races and untold misery to millions

  • Karna

A victim of circumstances, he is the epitome of tragedy in the story. He was supremely noble and generous in every inch of his personality. He is perhaps the last word for friendship, loyalty and generosity.

  • Draupadi

The Panchala princess and the queen of Pandava strike the most among the women characters. Endowed with striking beauty, a sharp intellect and a sharper tongue which she could wield effectively, she remained faithful to her husbands. By her supreme sacrifices, she has set an example of wifely virtues.

  • Kunti

The mother of the Pandavas, impress us as hopeless but noble princess. The fortitude with which she silently bore all her misfortunes and miseries is unparalleled.

  • Gandhari

She made the utmost sacrifice of denying herself the pleasure of eyesight because Dhritarashtra, her husband was born blind, and thus is a paragon of the ideal wifehood.


Glimpses of Mahabharata at Exotic India

Exotic India offers a wide range of artefacts that depicts the episodes and essence of Mahabharata. Below are discussed a few:

Gita Upadesha

This is a magnificent model displaying one of the most important acts of the ancient Mahabharata, the narration of Bhagawad Gita to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The scene involves Shri Krishna seated on the driver’s seat while narrating Gita and handling the ropes (depicted as chains) of the horses and also Arjuna (The great warrior) is seated on the soldier’s seat with his palms joined together, praying to the Supreme Personality of Godhead seated in front of him. We can see Hanuman Ji seated on the shelter of the chariot behind the elephant’s head and near the ravishing flag placed on the top; the pillars and upper portion of the rath are comprised of the Rajasthani architecture which has been very carefully adopted here.



Brass Statue displaying Gita Upadesha

Baluchari Handloom Sari with Hand-woven Mahabharata Episodes on Pallu

Baluchari saris originated in Bengal and are known for hand-woven depictions of mythological scenes on the sari body. Pallu of this sari is divided in 6 panels, each panel portraying a scene from The Mahabharata.

Frosty-Green Baluchari Handloom Sari from Bengal with hand-woven Mahabharata Episodes on Pallu 

The Mahabharata

This book is a treasure-house of the Indian culture, both secular and sacred. It gives an insight into the core of the attainments of the people of India. It is the sanctum that enshrines the Bhagavad Gita. In other words, if the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita are elaborated and illustrated they develop into this marvellous book.

For centuries together Mahabharata has been popular not only all over India but in foreign countries also. Making reference to the characters and codes in this book is a mark of erudition. From the fifth century B. C. saints, scholars, poets and dramatists have quoted copiously from it. In the second century, B. C. a Greek envoy referred to precepts culled from this epic. In the sixth century, A. D. the whole poem was recited in temples in Cambodia. In the following century, the Turks of Mongolia read thrilling episodes from this book translated into their tongue. The people of Java translated the book into their language before the end of the tenth century. The Americans and the Russians are drawn to this book in the present century.

This book is a sastra or manual of ethics. It is a social and political philosophy. It deals with dharma, artha, kama and moksha, the four aims of life. Moral, social and religious duties are dharma. Earthly prosperity and wealth is artha. Pleasures pertaining to mundane life is kama. Emancipation self from the meshes of the world is moksha. It extols humanity as the highest manifestation of divinity.

The Mahabharata in English

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