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A Summary of ‘The Mahabharata’

By:Aneeta Sundararaj

The Mahabharata is a great epic that comprises one hundred thousand stanzas of verse divided into eighteen books, or parvas. It is the largest single literary work in existence. Originally composed in the ancient language of Sanskrit sometime between 400 BC and 400 AD, it is set in a legendary era thought to correspond to the period of Indian culture and history in approximately the tenth century BC.

The original author was Vyasa who tried to tell about the Great War between the Pandavas and the Kauravas - cousins who claimed to be the rightful rulers of a kingdom. This bloody feud between the two branches of the ruling family of the northern Indian kingdom of Kurujangala culminates in an epic eighteen-day battle and the annihilation of nearly all those involved in the Great War, except the victors, the five Pandava brothers—Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadev.

The eldest among the Pandavas was called Yudhistira. He was an embodiment of goodness and commanded the loyalty of his four brothers. The eldest among the Kauravas was called Duryodhana. He was crafty and malicious. His brothers shared in these evil qualities.

The evil brothers were envious of their cousin Yudhistira and started scheming to dethrone him. Their first attempt to kill the Pandavas was by burning them inside a palace. The Pandavas managed to escape, but then the evil brothers once again attempted to gain control. One challenged the eldest brother Yudhisthira to a game of dice which led Yudhisthira to lose everything, including his and his brothers’ wife, Draupadi. He, along with his brothers and their wife Draupadi, were exiled from the kingdom. For twelve years they had to live in the forest and upon the thirteenth year they were to hide in a city in disguise. It was during those thirteen years that the brothers grew to learn what it was like to live with the bare minimum and became more knowledgeable.

After the thirteenth year Duryodhana decided that he would fight against them which led to a huge war and the deaths of many. Many died from both sides and after the war, they realized that nothing was really gained.

The most dramatic figure of the entire Mahabharata, however, was Krishna who was the supreme personality of Godhead himself, descended to earth in human form to reestablish his devotees as care takers of the earth, and who practiced Dharma.

Krishna was the cousin of both parties, but he was a friend and advisor to the Pandavas, became the brother-in-law of Arjuna, and served as Arjuna's mentor and charioteer in the Great War. Krishna is portrayed several times as eager to see the war occur, and in many ways the Pandavas were his human instruments for fulfilling that end.

Throughout their lives and the terrible Great War that ensued at Kurukshetra there were examples of the ethical gaps amongst men which were never resolved. In the aftermath of the war, Yudhishthira alone was terribly troubled, but his sense of the war's wrongfulness persisted to the end of the text. This was in spite of the fact that everyone else, from his wife to Krishna, told him the war was right; even the dying patriarch, Bhishma, lectured him at length on all aspects of the Good Law (the Duties and Responsibilities of Kings).

In the years that followed the Great War, the only survivors on the part of the Kauravas, Duryodhana’s parents, King Dhritarashtra and his queen, Gandhari lived a life of asceticism in a forest retreat and died with yogic calm in a forest fire. Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas was with them too. Krishna departed from this earth thirty-six years after the Great War. When they learned of this, the Pandavas believed it was 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, beginning with Draupadi, the Pandavas died along the way until Yudhishthira was left alone with a dog that had accompanied him from the start. Yudhishthira made it to the gates 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 (the God who was Yudhishthira's actual, physical father), who was there to test Yudhishthira's virtue. Once in heaven Yudhishthira faced one final test of his virtue: He saw only the Dhartarashtra Clan in heaven, and he was told that his brothers were in hell. He insisted on joining his brothers in hell, if that were the case! It was then revealed that they were really in heaven, that this illusion had been one final test for him.

In essence, the epic story represents an extended exploration of the responsibilities set forth by the code of dharma. In addition to recounting a heroic tale, the Mahabharata contains a collection of writings on a broad spectrum of human learning, including ethics, law, philosophy, history, geography, genealogy, and religion. It also features a number of legends, moral stories, and local tales all woven into an elaborate narrative.


Aneeta Sundararaj, a storyteller, is the creator of the bestselling program "How To Tell A Great Story". Aneeta’s technique and famed “R.P.I. Principle”© has been used by many people and offers simple, cutting-edge strategies applicable universally. She is also the author of two ‘traditional’ books The Banana Leaf Men and Mad Heaven: the biography of Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Dr. M. Mahadevan. Visit to learn more.

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