Mahabharata Summary

Topics: Arjuna, Duryodhana, Drona Pages: 26 (8717 words) Published: January 31, 2013
The Mahabharata (composed between 300 BC and 300 AD) has the honor of being the longest epic in world literature, 100,000 2-line stanzas (although the most recent critical edition edits this down to about 88,000), making it eight times as long as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey together, and over 3 times as long as the Bible (Chaitanya vii). According to the Narasimhan version, only about 4000 lines relate to the main story; the rest contain additional myths and teachings. In other words, the Mahabharataresembles a long journey with many side roads and detours. It is said that “Whatever is here is found elsewhere. But whatever is not here is nowhere else.”

The name means “great [story of the] Bharatas.” Bharata was an early ancestor of both the Pandavas and Kauravas who fight each other in a great war, but the word is also used generically for the Indian race, so the Mahabharata sometimes is referred to as “the great story of India.”

The work is divided into 18 books (concerning an 18-day war among 18 armies). The main narrative concerning the war is contained in the first ten books.

Pronunciation guide of the main characters:

Vyasa [Vee-YA-sha]: narrator of the story and father of Pandu and Dhritarashtra

BHISH-ma: half-uncle by marriage of Pandu and Dhritarashtra

Dhri-ta-RASH-tra: blind king, father of Duryodhana and the Kauravas

GAN-dhari: wife of Dhritarashtra

KUN-ti: wife of Pandu and mother to the five Pandavas and Karna

Yu-DHISH-thira: leader of the Pandavas, rightful heir to the throne

BHI-ma: strongest of the Pandava brothers

AR-juna: mightiest of warriors

NA-kula and Saha-DE-va: Pandava twins

DRAU-pa-di: wife to the five Pandavas

Du-ry-ODH-ana: leader of the Kauravas

Duh-SA-sa-na: brother to Duryodhana

KRISH-na: supporter of the Pandavas and avatar of Vishnu

DRO-na: teacher of the Pandavas and Kauravas

KAR-na: warrior, secret son of Kunti, ally of the Kauravas

Note: quotations throughout are from English versions by C. V. Narasimhan [CN], Krishna Dharma [KD] or the dramatization by Jean-Claude Carriere (available on DVD). Portions of the following summary have been adapted from David Williams, Peter Brook and the Mahabharata: Critical Perspectives, 1991. I have also included a link to a new adaptation available on Kindle. (Buying from the following links provides some funding for this site, so thanks. I do not collect or use any information from you if you use the links.)


In the first two books of the Mahabharata, we learn the background of the Bharatas (also called the Kurus) leading up to the conflict between the five sons of Pandu and their cousins the Kauravas. This story is told by the sage Vyasa, whose name came to mean the “compiler.” (Actually, the author of the epic is unknown, probably many authors over centuries.) Vyasa's mother is Satyavati, whose name means truth, so he is the “son of truth.” In telling his story to a descendant of the Pandavas, Vyasa says, “If you listen carefully, at the end you’ll be someone else.” (play) Vyasa appears infrequently throughout the story, giving advice and also fathering Pandu and Dhritarashtra.

Ancestors of the Pandavas and Kauravas

Santanu, king of Hastinapura, was married to the beautiful Ganga, who was the river goddess in disguise. She agreed to marry him as long as he never questioned her actions. Over the years they had seven sons, but Ganga threw each one into the river. Santanu was distressed but he kept his promise. Finally, when their eighth son was born, Santanu asked his wife who she really was and why she had done this. Ganga revealed herself and told that her children had once been celestial beings, but were cursed to become human. She had ended their “punishment” quickly by drowning them immediately at birth. But since Santanu had questioned her actions, she left him, along with his last son Devarata.

Devarata is better known by his later name...
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