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MAHABHARATA - The Summary of Great Indian Epic in a Nutshell

Updated on April 8, 2017
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Mahabharata – the Great Indian Epic Poem

Mahabharata is one of the earliest and the most popular epics of India. It is written in Sanskrit by Vyasa in 6th century BC. It has one lakh couplets in 18 sections and it is considered as the longest epics of the world.

Mahabharata - Summary

In the Dvapar yuga, a king named Shanthanu ruled Bharatavarsha (the Indian sub continent). He was so famous that even some of the Gods were envious of him. He married the goddess Ganga on a condition that she would have the freedom to do whatever she liked. If he objected her actions at any circumstance, she would part him.


They were blessed with a child, but Ganga threw that baby into the river itself. She continued this practice seven times. The patience of Shanthanu dried away and next time, he objected her when she tried to throw the newborn baby to the river. Ganga disappeared with the child as he had broken the agreement. However she returned the childafter some years and the king named Ganga Datta (the gift of Ganga).

Shanthanu happened to meet Sathiavathy, a fishermn's daughter, and he wished to marry her. But her father demanded to make her children the heirs of Shanthanu's kingdom. He became sad as he was not able to take away the kingdom from Ganga Datta as he was the legitimate heir being the eldest son. Gangadatta came to know his father's dilemma and he took an oath that he would never ask for the throne and would never marry. From that day onwards he came to be known as Bhishma.

Krishna as Envoy

Krishna as Envoy
Krishna as Envoy | Source

Sathyavathy gave birth to two sons; one of them died early and the other, Vichitra Veerya, was with a very feeble mind and body. So nobody was ready to give their daughters in marriage to him when he became a youth. Bhishma brought three young women by force; one among them was allowed to go to her lover and the other two had to marry Vichitra veerya. As he was not able to begot heirs to the kingdom, sage Vyasa, was invited. When Ambika saw the sage, she closed her eyes and her son, Druth rashtra, became blind. Pandu, the son of Ambalika became pale - coloured as she turned pale while she met the sage.


The Druthrashtra married Gandhari and Pandu wedded to Kunthi. Druthrashtra blessed with 100 sons and a daughter while Kunthi got five sons by the blessing of five Gods. The real story of Mahabharata begins from there. The sons of Pandu is known as Pandavas who were more than equal to the Kauravas, the sons of Druth rashtra. The struggle for power between these two groups of cousins is the central theme of the great epic poem.

Pandavas were better than in almost everything; especially in arts and in the use of all kinds of weapons.


Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas was an evil and wicked person who was always in the search for plans to eliminate Pandavas as he afraid of their strength, fame and their popularity among the people of the country and elders in the palace. His enmity was began from the very childhood itself as in every game and in studies Pandavas were the masters. Once he tried to kill Bhima, the second of the Pandavas by throwing him into river, but it was failed.

As per the custom of the country, the next ruler was Yudhishtira, the eldest of Pandavas as he is elder than even Duryodhana. The king Dhrithrashtra did not liked it, but he could not say it openly as it would be against the age old practice as per sashras and wisdom. But he covertly encouraged Duryodhana in his moves against Pandavas.


When the princes attained youth, the elders including Bhishma asked the king Dhrithrashtra to appoint Yudhishtira as crown prince. Even though he disliked it, he had to do it. Then as per the suggestion of Duryodhana they were sent to Hasthinpur away from the palace. They prepared a wicked plot to annihilate all of the Pandavas by setting fire to the mansion specially made by easily inflammable material. But Pandavas could save themselves from the trap. They left the place secretly and all thought that in the fire they all died.

The Pandavas in Drupada Court

The Pandavas in Drupada Court
The Pandavas in Drupada Court | Source

They decided to live incognito in some other place. In the mean time Arjuna participated a swayavaram ceremony conducted by king Drupada of Panchala Kingdom for her daughter Panchali.

Arjuna won the test and brought her to their house. “We have brought something special. Come and see”, they told their mother, Kunthi. Kunthi said inside “ Share it yourselves”, without knowing it was a young woman. The mother's words are divine. So Panchali got five husbands!


The Kauravas came to know that Pandavas were alive by this incident. Even though, Dhurydhana wanted to wipe off them from the earth, the elders asked to divide the kingdom and give half to Pandavas.


Pandavas conducted a Rajasooyam which confer the title of emperor to Yudhishtira , which made Kauravas more desperate to end the Pandavas. They knew they could not do it openly as Pandavas are peerless in power and weaponry.

They spent twelve years in the forests and a year in incognito as per the conditions. But even after the period was over, the Kauravas not ready to return the kingdom, and they were preparing for war enlisting the support of neighbouring kings. Even Krishna, the God in tried to mediate, but the Kauravas were not ready to give even five villages to the Pandavas.

Duryodhana decided to seek the advice of Sakuni, his uncle, who was an expert in the chathuranga (gambling game). He asked to call Yudhishtira for a game of chathuranga. Yudhishtira agreed, miserably failed in the game. He lost all of his valuable possessions, his kingdom and everything as they had to wager something in the game. He even pledged his brothers and wife, Panchali in the game, without hearing the advice of his brothers. Bhishma, and Vidghur tried to stop it , but they did not succeed.


When the game was over, Pandavas became the slaves of Kauravas. Dussasana, one of the Kaurava prince dragged Panchali to the court by hair. All the elders protested, but the success made him mad. Dussasana did not stop there. He pulled the robe of Panchali in the court. Panchali prayed to God Krishna who saved her from the extreme distress. Panchali took a vow from the court that she would not tie her hair till she dressed it with Dussasana's blood. Drithrashtra intervened and allowed the Pandavas to go with their weapons.

The start of the great battle of Kurushetra

The start of the great battle of Kurushetra
The start of the great battle of Kurushetra | Source

So the great Kurukshetra war became inevitable. In the war, God Krishna was with Pandavas and his forces were given to Kauravas , as both of them were his relatives. The war lasted for eighteen days, in which all of the Kauravas were dead. The destruction caused by the disastrous war was unimaginable. All of the elders, who were left after the war, Drithrashtra, Gandhari, Kunthi and vidhur took the path of Vanaprastham ( living the rest of their life in forests till death).

Yudhishtira became the king and he ruled for many years till he abdicated the throne for the younger generation. All the Pandavas took a mahayana (the great journey) in the end and they fell dead in during the journey and entered to heaven.

Kaurava Pandava Yuddh

Kaurava Pandava Yuddh
Kaurava Pandava Yuddh | Source

Mahabharata - Religious Significance

The epics - Ramayana and Mahabharata are the sacred scriptures of of the masses . They turn to these great books for solace and inspiration when they are in sorrow or despair. The characters mentioned in them have become legendary heroes and some of them are actually worshipped as the various incarnations of God himself.

Mahabharata - Literary and Cultural Significance

Mahabharata is not only a mere epic poem of India, also a religious book which is a source of of inspiration for millions of people. It is a source of a large number of books in a number of languages of India and Southeast Asia. their music, dance, poetry, drama, sculpture etc. also derive their inspiration from it.

Mahabharata - Historical Significance

History and mythology is intermingled in Mahabharata. Some historians put forward a view that while Ramayana allegorically depicts the war between Aryans and non Aryans, the Mahabharata depicts the war among the Aryans after the Aryanisation of the country.

Mahabharata - Historians Divergent Views


Hopkins : “Mahabharata was written not by a person nor even by one generation, but many.”

Jacobi and Macdonell: The epics are based on Mythology and their heroes and heroines are not historical figures.



Main Characters of Mahabharata

Krishna : He was incarnation of God Vishnu, the preserver of the world. He was always with righteousness.

Bhishma :He was the grand sire of both Kauravas and Pandavas. His earlier name was Ganga Datta.

Dritharashtra:He was the father of Kauravas.He was Bind.

Yudhushtira :He was the elder of Pandavas and Kauravas as well. He also known as Dharmaputra.

Bhima: He was a Pandava Prince. He was person with immense physical strength.

Arjuna: He was a Pandava Prince. He was master in the use of weapons especially the bow and arrows.

Duryodhana: He was the eldest son of Dritharashtra. His wickedness was the root cause of the Kurushetra war.

Gandhari : Mother of Kauravas

Kunthi : Mother of Pandavas

Panchali : Wife of five Pandava brothers. She was the daughter of king Drupada.

Vidhur : He was sage Vyasa's son by a maid. He was a scholar and helped Pandavas.

Sakuni: He was the uncle of kauravas. He was the brother of Gandhari.

Dussasana : Kaurava prince who humiliated Panchali in the royal court. He was very wicked and thoughtless person.

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    Sudarsan Nayak 3 years ago

    Thanks for brief description of Mahabharata, the holy epic of India