Mbh is divided into 18 books, named “parva”. And these 18 parvas give the structure to the article. So hereby a look at the epic by way of its parvas, beginning with the first parva.
Book One. Ādi parva. This is one of the longest book of the epic with about 20 sub-parvas; the others have only about five of these subsections, sometimes just one. Ādi parva tells of the origins of the epic itself, of the royal line of the Kuru kingdom being in focus, and of the development of two feuding groups of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pāṇḍavas.
And this is the story...
The fight between good and evil, devas and asuras, dharma and non-dharma, is as old as time itself. And a long time ago this struggle took the form of a war in heaven between devas, bright gods, and asuras, gods of darkness. The asuras eventually lost it. So they looked down on earth and thought, “let’s incarnate as men in this beautiful realm”... This they did, taking on human bodies and soon reveling in all sorts of sin, upsetting everyone: man, beast, troll. The earth goddess, Pṛthvī, couldn’t sustain it so she bade the devas by way of Brahmā to intervene. The chief god promised to do something – so, next, he asked Viṣṇu and other gods to incarnate on earth so as to reset the balance and continue the battle against the asuras on that plane, the earth.
So then, down to earth we go, to Bhārata and India, in the times of the great Bhārata war, that is, the Mahābhārata... And in the Mahābhārata context the fight between devas and asuras takes the form of a fight between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas (the asura-supported faction) and the Pāṇḍavas (the deva-supported faction). When the epic is over the devas have won and eased the pain of the earth; however, the golden age is also over by then. We are left with a world without any incarnated gods and magic not working as before – literally, an entzauberte Welt.
For the human story, the royal feud at the centre of the story, this was the case. – Śāntanu, king of the Kurus, with the river goddess Gangā has the son Bhīṣma; Bhīṣma is heir to the throne in Bhārata, the land of the Bhārata clans in northern India. Then we have king Śāntanu's new wife Satyavatī; she now wants her future sons to ascend to the throne. So prince Bhīṣma, noble as he is, willingly relinquishes his right to the throne and takes a wov to live in celibate. And Satyavatī marries Śāntanu and gives birth to two sons, Citrāngada and Vicitravīrya. They, however, die without issue. So to maintain the royal line, Satyavatī’s son in a previous marriage, Vyāsa, is called upon; he is to engender sons with the two widows of Vicitravīrya. These sons become Dhṛtarāṣṭra (his name meaning “whose empire, rāṣṭra, is firm, dhṛta”) and Pāṇḍu (= pale). And with a servant girl of widow number two he engenders Vidura; due to his humble origins Vidura becomes a peripheral figure of the epic, nonetheless having some importance as adviser to the royal family.
Because of Dhṛtarāṣṭra being blind Pāṇḍu soon becomes the king; he has two wives, Kuntī and Madrī. While on a hunt he lethally injures a hermit in the shape of a deer, a deer also in the act of knowing his deer, and dear, wife... Therefore the hermit curses Pāṇḍu; the next time he is about to make love to a woman he will die.
Thus, another threat to the survival of the royal line has arisen.
The solution comes from Pāṇḍu’s wife Kuntī; from a seer she once received a mantra by which she could summon any deva and make any wish. She has already used the mantra once; then she summoned the sun god and begat the son Karṇa. To avoid blame from her parents she eventually had to get rid of her son by putting him in a basket on a river, like in the story of the Biblical Moses. And like Moses, this basketed fellow survives and grows up without knowing his ancestry. Only at the end of the epic this is revealed.
Now, however, Pāṇḍu, to avoid sexual contact himself, asks Kuntī to make use of the mantra to beget sons. First, calling on the god Dharma, she engenders the son Yudhiṣṭhira. Next, with the wind god Vāyu she engenders Bhīma, and with Indra she engenders Arjuna. Using the same mantra Pāṇḍu’s second wife Madrī engenders the twins Nakula and Sahadeva with the Aśvins, the famed twin gods, gods of the dawn. – In the greater perspective this is part of the astral war hinted at above; the devas have now incarnated on earth to take up the battle against the incarnated asuras. And the asuras get reinforcement in the same avataric way through the Pāṇḍava’s cousins, the Kauravas, whose leader becomes a Kali incarnate.
These Kauravas are born in this way. The blind Dhṛtarāṣṭra gets himself a wife, Gāndhārī, who after a long gestation gives birth to a strange lump; on the advice of Vyāsa it is bred into a hundred sons. The oldest son is Duryodhana, the Kali incarnate, and the rest are incarnated demons – rākṣasas.
Then Pāṇḍu dies, because one day he felt attracted to his wife Madrī. She knew of the curse that he would die if aroused so she did what she could to avoid it – but to no use, once he slept with her and soon died. As a faithful (satī) wife she joined him on the funeral pyre.
Pāṇḍu’s suvivors, Kuntī and her sons, move to the Kuru capital of Hastināpura where the five boys are brought up together with their 100 Kaurava cousins. Yudhiṣṭhira is the rightful heir for he is older than Duryodhana and his 99 brothers. Dhṛtarāṣṭra rules during Yudhiṣṭhira’s infancy and, during it, is also influenced by his own son, Duryodhana, saying that he, Duryodhana, should be king. So they try to kill the Pāṇḍavas.
An important figure called Droṇa is now introduced. He grew up with Drupada, prince of Pañcāla; Drupada said that when asked he would give Droṇa anything. However, having ascended to his throne Drupada humiliates his former friend, saying that a Kṣatriya king can’t be friends with a poor Brahmin. Droṇa, bent on revenge, for himself finds a career in Hastināpura as a teacher of war to the royal cousins, Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas. Karṇa is also a pupil. Arjuna becomes the top student; he also gets the super weapon brahma-shiras from Droṇa. Karṇa becomes Arjuna’s enemy, not knowing they are half-brothers; Karṇa soon joins up with Duryodhana’s camp.
Next in Ādi parva we hear of Droṇa’s revenge. As a teacher he has the right of a gift from his pupils – and for this, he asks them to go to war against king Drupada. The war is successful and Drupada is brought before Droṇa in chains. Droṇa now lets him have half his kingdom back; a Brahmin giving a gift to a Kṣatriya in this way is a subtle insult and Drupada now becomes bent on revenge.
Then we have the “house of lac”-episode; the lakṣagrāma. Duryodhana wants to kill the Pāṇḍavas; he incites Dhṛtarāṣṭra to send the Pāṇḍavas and their mother Kuntī to a certain town, Vāraṇāvata; in occluded words Vidura warns them about this but they go anyway. In Vāraṇāvata they are given residence in a house with walls impregnated with lac, making it susceptible to fire; in other words, it becomes very igneous. By way of an agent in situ Duryodhana plans to kill the Pāṇḍavas in this house. However, remembering Vidura’s warning the quintet first dig a tunnel to escape by and then set fire to the house themselves – and then they escape by the tunnel. The builder, a low-caste woman and her five sons mysteriously perish in the flames; seeing their charred remains Duryodhana thinks that the Pāṇḍavas are now eliminated. They aren’t. But they wait for better times by spending some time off, living in the forest as brahmins.
In this time of exile we first have the Hidimba-Hidimbā episode. The female of this demon pair fell in love with Bhīma and, in the guise of a beautiful woman, seduced him. A hideous giant, Ghaṭotkaca, became the issue. He would later help the quintet.
The quintet and their mother, disguised as Brahmins, next comes to the land of Pañcāla, the land of king Drupada. Bent on revenge he has engendered a supernatural son to get the best of his old enemy Droṇa. For this a great sacrifice was performed, out of its fire creating Dhṛṣṭadyumna, a fierce warrior, and Draupadī, a wonderful woman. The warrior eventually becomes a pupil of Droṇa even though his father is his enemy. And Draupadī becomes the wife of the Pāṇḍavas, by way of a svayaṃvara now held in Pañcāla. The trial for the suitors are won by Arjuna; Draupadī choses him for her husband. By a misunderstanding – the tradition of sharing an alms, a backsheesh – Draupadī becomes the wife of all five Pāṇḍava brothers.
At the svayaṃvara the Pāṇḍavas, living incognito, are recognized by Kṛṣṇa, the nephew of Kuntī. He is a prince of the Yādavas and also an incarnation of Viṣṇu; this is a very important element of the astral war aspect of the epic.
The marriage to Draupadī makes the Pāṇḍavas the allies of Drupada. Now Dhṛtarāṣṭra invites them back to Hastināpura. Getting half the kingdom they build their own capital, Indraprastha. Draupadī begets five sons, one with each of her husbands, with proper intervals.
During this time Arjuna has an adventure of his own, having to go and live as a hermit for a while – twelve years, because of a certain situation of having been the first of the brothers to see Draupadī together with one of the other brothers). He makes good use of his exile, like fetching more super-weapons to be used in the upcoming war. He is still married to Draupadī; now he also marries Kṛṣṇa’s sister, Subhadrā, sealing his friendship with the mighty god-man.
Next, the fire god Agni asks for the assistance of Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna; he wants to set fire to the Khāṇḍava forest. Arjuna is given a bow with two magical quivers; they are always full. Kṛṣṇa gets a discus. With these weapons they kill all the creatures escaping from the burning forest. However, the asurean master builder Maya Danava is saved from the flames by Arjuna.
Book Two is called Sabhā parva, the book of the congregation hall (sabhā; meeting, court, hall, palace). It tells of the Pāṇḍavas having their own kingdom with Indraprastha as capital; the title is because of the book beginning with Maya Danava who, as a thanks for being saved, builds the Pāṇḍavas a palace in their town. For its part, the case of “monstrosity asked to build a castle” is like the Edda where the giant Fafner was hired to build Valhalla.
Yudhiṣṭhira is now crowned king, maybe “great king,” mahārāja; his realm has recently been enlarged by his four brothers on separate war expeditions.
It is a glorious time. But at the same time the Kauravas are jealous, symbolized by Duryodhana’s visit to the new-built palace. First, he is fooled by a shiny floor, thinking it a pool of water; next, he sees a real pool which he thinks is a floor – so when trying to walk over it he falls into the water. Humiliation!
Soon, he instigates Dhṛtarāṣṭra to challenge Yudhiṣṭhira to a dice game; Duryodhana’s uncle Śakuni comes up with the idea. Playing the game against Śakuni Yudhiṣṭhira loses his kingdom; also, Draupadī is humiliated by Duryodhana’s younger brother Duḥśāsana and the other Kauravas. Bhīma swears to take revenge on both Duḥśāsana (by drinking his blood) and Duryodhana (to crush the thigh on which the black prince has invited Draupadī to sit). Now, the Pāṇḍavas must go into a twelve-year exile in the woods, plus another year incognito in a town. Then, they will have their kingdom back.
Book Three, Vana parva, is the longest separate book of the epic. It tells of the twelve years of exile in the woods (vana, n).
Apart from inserted, separate stories, stories told to the heroes by visiting saints etc., we also get some real narration in this book. Like Arjuna going to Himālaya; he is in search of weapons but is also occupied with dhyāna yoga. In the shape of a hunter Śiva runs into a brawl with him; the great god wins but as a favor gives Arjuna the Pāśupata-astra weapon, an astral war weapon indeed. – At the same time Arjuna’s enemy Karṇa, for his part, is visited by Indra in the guise of a Brahmin. Indra asks for his earrings and body armor; according to custom a Brahmin’s request for a gift must be obeyed so he gives them away, although he, Karṇa, as the marvelous son of the sun god he is, was born with them...!
Discovering that it is Indra he has before him Karṇa asks for a gift in return. It becomes a lance he plans to use against Arjuna.
The separate stories we are treated to in Vana parva are those of Damayantī, Manu and the Fish, a short version of Rāmāyana, Savitrī and Yama, Agastya Drinking up the Ocean and Ganga Refilling It, and Cyavana and Sukanyā. The last one is about the old seer who wondrously married a fairy girl; they eventually got separated but when they reunited, the man had also gotten his youth back.
The book ends with Yudhiṣṭhira being tried by “the yakṣas questions”. His divine father, the god Dharma, puts him to the test to see if he really is the dharma king of this age. And verily, Yudhiṣṭhira’s knowledge of dharma saves him and the whole quintet; he and his four brothers have been in danger of being killed by the yakṣa whose gestalt Dharma took for this trial.
Book Four, Virāta parva, tells of the year spent incognito at the court of king Virāta, king of the Matsyas. First, Arjuna hides their weapons in a mimosa tree, placing a corpse next to it to have the corpse-vampire (= Skt. Vetāla) as a guardian of them; next, in the city, the heroes take on odd jobs, contrary to a Kṣatriya’s mindset, like Arjuna being a dance teacher (named Bṛhannalā) and Yudhiṣṭhira as a Brahmin who is the master of dice. Bhīma is a cook. Draupadī becomes the lady-in-waiting to the queen.
Then, we have the episode of a Virāta general, Kīcaka, falling in love with Draupadī and trying to know her; she says that she is married to five gandharvas, so hands-off...! Eventually, the general is killed by Bhīma. Then the Kauravas comes for an old-school cattle-raid, a favorite Indo-European topic, like “The Cattle Raid of Cooley” in Irish myth. A rather fun episode in this is how the Virāta prince Uttara, when about to fight off the raiders, can’t find a charioteer. Finally Arjuna is hired; going into battle Uttara wants to leave the chariot and escape but Arjuna drags him back... Then, he asks the prince to go to the mimosa tree and fetch the marvelous weapons. Arjuna reveals himself to the prince and then goes off to single-handedly defeat Duryodhana and the raiders. And in the process no one detects his real identity.
After the victory Arjuna puts the weapons back in the arboreal hideout and, going back to the capital, admonishes the prince not to reveal his true identity, because still there was three days during wich the quintet had to stay incognito. And the prince keeps his word; to his father the king he says that in the fight he had been assisted by a god in the shape of a young man.
Three days later the Pāṇḍavas disclose who they are. The Virāta king becomes an ally in the struggle by marrying his daughter Uttarā to Arjuna’s son, Abhimanyu.
Book Five, Udyoga parva, tells of preparations (udyoga, m) for war, since the feud between the Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas can’t be solved in any other way. However, efforts of reconciliation are also made; this we get our fair share of in the ten sub-parvas of this parva. For example, at Hastināpura Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Vidura, and Sañjaya are against war while Duḥśāsana and Śakuni are for. In the Pāṇḍava camp Draupadī is in for war as a revenge for her humiliation at the Kaurava court.
Returning from exile the Pāṇḍavas have a right to get their kingdom back. But Duryodhana refuses to even give them five villages, yea, even the land that could be covered by a needle point... In the upcoming war Duryodhana mobilizes eleven armies and Yudhiṣṭhira seven. For his part, Kṛṣṇa’s four armies go to Duryodhana’s side while he himself becomes the charioteer of Arjuna. Bhīṣma is appointed Kaurava C-in-C; Dhṛṣṭadyumna is Pāṇḍava C-in-C. – In the Kaurava camp Bhīṣma and Droṇa are against the war but, nonetheless, they loyally proceed to fight in it.
Book Six, Bhīṣma parva, tells of the first part of the Kurukṣetra battle, when Bhīṣma commands the Kaurava army. He eventually falls on a bed of arrows. But he doesn’t die since he, as an accomplished sage, can decide his own moment of death.
The book begins with the two sides agreeing on rules of war, like how to take care of wounded and not attacking non-combattants. These are traditional Kṣatriya rules but they become violated as the battle rages on.
In this book we also have the Bhagavad-Gītā, sung by Kṛṣṇa to Arjuna before the battle.
Book Seven, Droṇa parva, tells of the major part of the battle when Droṇa is Kaurava commander; when the book is over the battle has raged for fifteen of totally eighteen days. – Duryodhana, hearing of Bhīṣma becoming incapacitated, appoints Droṇa as the new C-in-C. In the battle the Pāṇḍavas are helped by the monster Ghaṭotkaca; Karṇa has to kill him with the lance he got from Indra. Thus, he can’t, as planned, use it against Arjuna. – Droṇa meets his end by a ruse; specifically, Dhṛṣṭadyumna kills Droṇa; thus, he has killed his own guru, a grave sin by Hindu standards. Aśvatthāmā is enraged by the murder of his father and vows revenge.
Book Eight, Karṇa parva, tells of the time when Karṇa is commander. This is a short parva with only one sub-parva, 73, telling of events during two days. – Bhīma in this book kills Duḥśāsana, drinking his blood – as he had promised. Arjuna kills Karṇa with an arrow, decapitating him.
Book Nine, Śalya parva, tells of the last day of battle when Śalya is in command. Śalya is eventually killed in combat by Yudhiṣṭhira, symbolizing Pāṇḍava victory in the pitched battle. Duryodhana, the only one remaining of the 100 Kaurava brothers, retreats to the bottom of a lake, using magic for this and to make the surface seem iced over. All his eleven armies are now beaten and dispersed; he only has three warriors left, Aśvatthāmā, his uncle Kṛpa, and Kṛitavarmā. – Discovering his hideout Yudhiṣṭhira strikes up a conversation with Duryodhana and eventually lures him out into the daylight. Yudhiṣṭhira invites him to a duel with any of the five brothers; if he only beats one he shall have the whole kingdom. This is a traditional pars-pro-toto situation, a duel between two warriors as a substitute for major battle. After some discussions of dharma the fight begins.
Bhīma eventually fells Duryodhana with a blow on his thigh. He kills him – and then dances on his head – until Yudhiṣṭhira says:
“Enough! He was, after all, a Kṣatriya and our cousin.”
On Kṛṣṇa’s advice the Pāṇḍavas strike camp outside the major camp. Aśvatthāmā and his two allies find the dying Duryodhana and lament him. Aśvatthāmā is appointed the last Kaurava commander; Duryodhana also allows him to carry out his revenge on the Pāṇḍava army. (This book has the sub-parvas 74-77.)
Book Ten, Sauptika parva, tells of how Aśvatthāmā prepares for his attack, his annihilation of the sleeping enemy army. He invokes Śiva, becomes possessed by him, and is given a divine sword. Joined by his two comrades he goes to the enemy camp; the pair is to guard it so that no one escapes during the slaughter. And so, with his supernatural powers Aśvatthāmā enters and slays the sleeping (cf the word of the title, sauptika, relating to supta, sleep; sauptika can also mean nocturnal) Pāṇḍava warriors in their camp. Among others Dhṛṣṭadyumna and Draupadī’s five sons are killed.
As mentioned above, the five Pāṇḍava brothers sleep outside the camp and survive the attack; they plus Dhṛṣṭadyumna’s charioteer and Kṛṣṇa are the only warriors remaining after the battle, as are Aśvatthāmā, Kṛpa, and Kṛitavarmā on the Kaurava side. (Btw the anti-hero’s name is to be analysed as Aśva-sthāma, “having the strength of a horse”.)
As we just said, the charioteer of Dhṛṣṭadyumna survived Aśvatthāmā’s attack on the camp; he now goes off to tell Yudhiṣṭhira of the bloody events of the night. At the same time Aśvatthāmā and his two allies seek out Duryodhana’s death bed and tell of the attack. Hearing it, Duryodhana draws his last breath and happily ascends to heaven.
Next, Arjuna and Aśvatthāmā meet in a duel. They fire magical weapons at each other; urged by Vyāsa and Nārada Arjuna recalls his launched missile but Aśvatthāmā can’t do this with his. It heads for the wife of Arjuna’s son, Uttarā, and is about to kill the child she is pregnant with – but – eventually, Kṛṣṇa undoes the weapon’s effect and saves the child, the future king Parīkṣit, in the process saving the whole royal line. As a punishment for all his deeds Aśvatthāmā is by Kṛṣṇa sentenced to be an eternally errant warrior, not finding peace anywhere.
Book Eleven is Strī parva, the book of women (strī) like Gāndharī, Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s wife, lamenting their sons fallen in the war. Gāndharī sees Kṛṣṇa as the origin of the Kauravas’ demise, him having been able to avert the war if he had only wanted to. She puts a curse on him and his tribe, the Yādavas; after thirty-six years they will kill each other. This comes true in Mausala parva.
The dead bodies of the fallen warriors are duly burned. Then all go to river Gangā to bring the proscribed water sacrifice to the dead. During this solemn occasion Kuntī reveals an old secret to her five sons: Karṇa was in fact their older half-brother. Yudhiṣṭhira is upset by this; to all the sins of the Pāṇḍavas is now added the sin of having killed a brother.
Book Twelve, Śānti parva, the peace parva. Yudhiṣṭhira laments the war and doesn’t want to be king; he wants to be a forest recluse. But his family convinces him to shape up and really be installed as king. Urged by Kṛṣṇa he then goes to the battlefield to meet the dying Bhīṣma; Kṛṣṇa takes away Bhīṣma’s pains from the arrow wounds, and so the old man can deliver a lecture on statecraft to Yudhiṣṭhira. – This and the next book are very long, making up about one fourth of the epic, because of containing the above mentioned advice of Bhīṣma to the newly crowned victor of the war, Yudhiṣṭhira. Bhishma tells him how to rule a kingdom religiously, socially, and politically. The parva has three sub-parvas, 86-88.
Book Thirteen, Anu-śāsana parva. More instructions (anu-śās, teach) from Bhīṣma to Yudhiṣṭhira. His lecture done, having lasted for two months, Bhīṣma commands his spirit to leave the body; his soul goes to heaven, visible as a soaring comet in the sky. At the same time, as a sign of divine grace, flowers rain down on the site of the dead body. The book has two sub-parvas, 89-90.
Book Fourteen. Āśvamedhika parva, relating to the Aśvamedha (= horse sacrifice) conducted by Yudhiṣṭhira (91-92). Vyāsa tells him that this will purify him from the sins of the bloody war just fought. (Uttarā gives birth to a child, who is stillborn but then is revived by Kṛṣṇa. This child, Parīkṣit, then becomes the father of Janamejaya, to whom Vaiśampāyana recites the Mahābhārata.) Then the Aśvamedha is performed and all is bright, sin is purified and the kingdom is restored.
Book Fifteen. Āśrama-vāsika parva. After fifteen years of peace and prosperity under Yudhiṣṭhira’s rule his uncle Dhṛtarāṣṭra and his wife Gāndharī goes to an āshram in Himālaya. There, the blind king dies by evoking “the fire from within”; his faithful wife joins him in the flames (93-95).
Book Sixteen. Mausala parva. It tells how Kṛṣṇa’s Yādava tribe kills itself using clubs, mausala (adjective, “related to musala,” m or n, club). Later, Kṛṣṇa is accidentally killed by a woods hunter. Kṛṣṇa gone makes the world bereft of magic, of the immanent etheric power; Arjuna discovers this by the disappearance of strength and joy. Vyāsa tells him that this is in order, their work as warriors and upholders of dharma now being done in this phase of the astral war. And all the magical weapons so important for the battle now returns to their heavenly abodes; they no longer have any use in the earthly realm. In other words, we see the golden age seguing into a silver age. (This a short, one-sub-parva book, as are also books 17 and 18).
Book Seventeen. Mahāprasthānika parva. Parīkṣit, tutored by Kṛpa, is to be the next ruler. With the kingdom in safe hands the Pāṇḍavas go north as hermits; “prasthānika” of the title means “relating to the great journey,” that is, dying.
Book Eighteen. Svargārohaṇa parva. It tells of the Pāṇḍavas dying one by one and ascending to (aroha, from the root ruh, reach) heaven (svarga). – As we just said, the just related phase of the astral war is over; the incarnated gods like Arjuna, Yudhiṣṭhira etc. have performed their mission on earth upholding dharma.
The epic also has an epilogue, Harivamśa. It tells of the life of Kṛṣṇa not covered in the epic, containing sub-parvas 99-100.
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Narayan, R. K. The Mahabharata. New York: Heinemann, 1978