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What is the Mahabharata?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Mahabharata is an epic poem of the Indian sub-continent, which is one of the most important text of the Hindu faith. It dates back as far as the 8th century BCE, with later portions being added up to the 4th century BCE. The name itself means roughly, Tale of the Bharata Dynasty, and it is a mythological history of ancient India.

The Mahabharata is more than 1.8 million words long, spread over 74,000 distinct verses, making it one of the longest poems in the world. It covers a great deal of material, ranging from simple histories to entire philosophies on living. The Mahabharata begins with a claim of completeness, stating: “What is found here may be found elsewhere. What is not found here will not be found elsewhere.”

There are a number of sections of the Mahabharata that are relatively complete in and of themselves, and are often considered individual works that make up a larger whole. Most famous of these is the Bhagavad Gita, a section in which the avatar Krishna gives advice to the prince Arjuna during the battle at Kurukshetra, when Arjuna sees himself up against his own family members.

The main story arc of the Mahabharata is the story of two lineages of paternal cousins. These are the five sons of King Pandu and the hundred sons of the blind King Dhritarashtra. It centers on their feud and battles over the kingdom of Bharata. The sons of King Pandu, known as the Pandavas, were each the children of a god as well, and the gods play heavily in the story of the Mahabharata. They offer assistance and advice throughout, and the dynamic between the gods is as important at times as the dynamic between the mortals. This is similar in many ways to the Greek story of the Trojan War.

The most important of the gods portrayed is the supreme god, Vishnu, himself. He comes to earth through his avatar Krishna to give advice to the Pandavas, particularly Arjuna. At times it becomes clear that Krishna in fact desires this epic war, and is in many ways using the Pandavas to accomplish his goal.

The story starts with the sons of Dhritarashtra taking advantage of the Pandavas, abusing them in many ways, and ultimately exiling them to the wilderness for twelve years and an additional year in hiding, with the understanding that at the end of this thirteen years their half of the kingdom would be returned to them. The Pandavas underwent their exile, but in the end the Dhritarashtra cohort refused to fulfill their obligation. This led to a monumental war between the two sides, which comprises the bulk of the Mahabharata.

Throughout the story of the Mahabharata, various gods and advisors espouse different views on righteousness, dharma, and man’s role in the world. This philosophical underpinning is best seen in Krishna’s sermon to Arjuna, but exists throughout. Ultimately the Pandavas win the battle, but only after abandoning the righteous path of war, and ultimately slaying four father figures. The conclusion of the Mahabharata is not a happy resolution, but in fact a sense of deep horror at what the war led to, and although many figures in the story, including Krishna himself, justify the actions, the reader is nonetheless left with a sense that the war was wrong.

The aftermath of the story has the Pandavas mother retreating to live an ascetic life, the avatar Krishna living a violent and decadent life until dying and reuniting with Vishnu, and the Pandavas traveling north towards the gateway to the Heavenly World. The brothers die off one by one, until only Yudishthira is alive, along with a dog companion. He makes it to the Heavenly Gate, and he is tested by being asked to drive away the dog. He refuses, as the dog was his loyal companion, and it is revealed the dog is his divine father, Dharma. He is then shown heaven and shown that it is inhabited only by the Dhritarashtras, and that the other Pandavas are in hell. He then insists on being sent to hell to join his brothers, and it is revealed that they are in fact in heaven, and that he has passed the last pure test, and he is allowed to enter heaven.

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Discussion Comments
By anon337396 — On Jun 05, 2013

When searching for a book to review for Religion class, I knew what I didn't want: a generic, statistic fueled, boring textbook. Instead, I wanted to find something with a deeper underlying meaning -- something that would relate to me. One fine day, when looking for a missing pencil sharpener, I caught sight of a book titled "The Difficulty of Being Good" by Gurcharan Das. After reading the prologue, I knew this Hinduism associated book would be just right for me.

In summary, the book revolved around Hinduism’s epic battle -- the Mahabharata -- and how it can be used as a metaphor for everyday life. Explained in the simplest of terms, the Mahabharata was the battle between cousins over control of a kingdom. The Kauravas were the power hungry, evil cousins, while the Pandavas were the good guys, standing for the right values. Moments before entering the battlefield, Arjuna, one of the Pandavas, was befuddled. He was skeptical about the fighting, as he would be killing his cousins. However, Krishna, a Hindu avatar, had different plans for him. Krishna told Arjuna that he was fighting for the right thing and he was following dharma. No matter what the sacrifice, he was doing the right thing.

In his book, Gurcharan Das used the Mahabharata as a metaphor to help one understand oneself. The Pandavas are the positive forces of our body, and the Kauravas are the negative forces. The forces are battling each other for control of the kingdom: our bodies. Das stresses that we have to make a conscious effort to allow the positive forces to win control over our body. Allowing the positive forces to achieve control over our body requires following Dharma, or doing the right thing.

Das acknowledges that adhering to the laws of Dharma may consist of sacrifices. For example, if getting the top job at work involves cheating, it is not following Dharma. Getting the job is not the right thing. However, if following Dharma means being honest, and getting a lower paying job, doing the lower paying job is the right thing. There may be sacrifice, but the result is the right one. It was meant to be.

I am very satisfied that I decided to pick up "The Difficulty of Being Good" by Gurcharan Das. He has led me to realize that following the right values will get the right result, even if that result does not appear to be the “best” at that given moment. The book also connected me back to my Indian roots. I’m happy that I will have something more to talk about with my grandmother on my next trip to the homeland.

By anon18990 — On Oct 03, 2008

can anybody tell me about all the gods and the parts that they each play?

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