What Is The Mahabharata?


Mahabharata – महाभारतम्

Mahabharata Definition

The Mahabharata is an epic poem comprised of eighteen parvas and is the largest literary work in history. Along with the Ramayana, it is considered an important source in Hinduism and is a text about Dharma.

Around 2000 years old and attributed to Vyasa it outlines the events surrounding the Kurukshetra War which takes place between two sets of cousins –  the Kauvaras and the Pandavas.

Known to most yogi’s and spiritual seekers the Bhagavad Gita is a part of the Mahabharata and takes place on the battlefield.

Ganesha Scripting The Mahabharata
Ganesha Scripting The Mahabharata

Mahabharata Deep Dive

“The Beauty of Life is in the Struggle it Throws” Mahabharata

Often referred to as the fifth Veda and ascribed to Vyasa, The Mahabharata was composed roughly between 400 BCE and 200 CE but like many historical texts, the date and authorship are much debated.

Considered the longest epic poem ever written, it contains over 100,000 slokas or verses.  It is said to be ten times the length of the combined Iliad and the Odyssey and is referred to as being as important a text as the Quran, Homer, Shakespeare and the Bible.

The Mahabharata is vast, with countless stories and narratives within stories which makes for a challenging read. It accounts the Kurukshetra War which takes place between two groups of cousins – the Kauvaras (sons of Dhritarashtra), and the Pandavas (sons of Pandu).

a chariot scene fro the mahabharata

The Mahabharata is split into eighteen parvas which are:

  1. Adi Parva – The book of the Beginning
    This is the introduction that provides background to the birth and upbringing of the Kuru princes. We also find the history of the Bharata and Bhrigu races.
  2. Sabha Parva – The book of the Assembly Hall
    This book accounts for life at the court and includes the famous game of the dice as well as the exile of the Pandavas.
  3. Aranyaka Parva – The Book of the Forest
    This accounts for the twelve years of exile in the forest for the Pandavas.
  4. Virata Parva – The book of Virata
    This spans the year in exile spent at Virata.
  5. Udyoga Parva – The book of the Effort
    Udyoga means effort. Preparations for war take place in this book.
  6. Bhishma Parva – The book of Bhishma
    The first part of the battle takes place in this book. This book includes probably the most well-known section of The Mahabharata – The Bhagavad Gita.
  7. Drona Parva – The book of Drona
    With Drona as the commander, the war continues. This provides the biggest section on the war. Many of the warriors are deceased by the end of this section.
  8. Karna Parva – The book of Karna
    With Karna as the commander of the Kauvara army, the battle continues.
  9. Shalya Parvan – The book of Shalya
    Shalya is now the commander and it is the last day of battle. Bhima kills Duryidhana.
  10. Sauptika Parva – The book of the Sleeping Warriors
    Ashwathama and the Kauvaras kill the remaining Pandava army in their sleep.
  11. Stri Parva – The book of Women
    The women of both the Kauvaras and the Pandavas lament the dead.
  12. Shanti Parva – The book of Peace
    Yudhishthira is crowned king and receives advice from Bhishma. This is the longest of all of the books in The Mahabharata.
  13. Anusasana Parva – The book of Instructions
    Final instructions and advice are received from Bhishma to Yudhishthira.
  14. Ashvamedhika Parva – The book of the Horse Sacrifice
    The horse sacrifice is conducted by Yudhishthira.
  15. Ashramavasika Parva – The book of the Hermitage
    Dhritarashtra, Gandhar and Kunti eventually die in the forest.
  16. Mausala Parva – The book of the Clubs
    Gandhari’s curse comes to materialization and the infighting between the Yadavas with maces leads to their destruction.
  17. Mahaprasthanika Parva – The book of the Great Journey
    Following their journey to the Himalayas all Pandavas fall except Yudhishthira.
  18. Svargarohana Parva – The book of the Ascent to Heaven
    The Pandavas make their return to the spiritual world.
  19. Harivamsa – The book of the Genealogy of Hari
    Not technically part of The Mahabharata this book accounts for the life of Krishna.
a colourful sculpture scene from the mahabharata

The Story

The story is formed around the fight for the throne of Hastinapura, which is ruled by the Kuru clan. Duryodhana (Kauvaras) and Yudhushthira (Pandavas) both claim to be the rightful person to inherit the throne which leads to the great battle.

The Mahabharata begins with an introduction to the families who form the basis of the story.  Sauti is the storyteller who recounts the sacred texts.

The king of Hastinapura, Shantanu is married to the river goddess Ganga, and together they have an heir, Devata. 

Ganga dies and Shantanu is remarried to Satyavati and together they have a son, Vyasa.

He promises Satyavati that her son will be the king. Two of their sons die. She asks Vyasa to have children with the widows of her dead sons so that she will still hold her claim to the throne.

As a result, Vyasa and one of the widows have a child named Dritharashtra who is blind and his sister births a child named Pandu. Pandu becomes king because Dritharashtra is blind but there is a curse of Pandu which will lead to his death if he sleeps with a woman.

However, on marrying the fertile Kunti they have three children – Yudhishthira, Bhima and Arjuna. Kunti has a child, Karna,  whom she fled from before marrying Pandu.

Pandu’s second wife, Madri births twins – Nakula and Sahadev. Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakul and Sahadev are the brothers known as the Pandavas.

After sleeping with Madri, king Pandu dies, and his blind brother Dritharashtra becomes king. He and his wife Gandhari have one hundred children who become known as the Kauvaras.

The five Pandavas all marry the same woman who is called Draupadi. They are considered the good guys and are loved by many for their goodness and strength. The Kauvaras are seen as the opposite and are consumed by jealousy.

Duryidhana (the head of the Kauravas), Karna (the Pandava’s step brother) and Shakuni (their uncle) drive the Pandavas out of the kingdom and into exile. Through a game of dice (where the Kauvaras cheat) the Pandavas lose everything, including their wife.

The Pandavas are served with a twelve year exile in the forest followed by a year of anonymity. The Kauvaras do not let them live out their exile in peace but send assassins to kill them. Each time they escape and find refuge with their mothers’ brother, Krishna.

After thirteen years the Pandavas return to claim what is theirs within the empire. The cunning Kauvaras, however, do not honor their agreement which leads to the Kurukshetra war.

The war takes place over eighteen days in the fields of Kuru. This is where we find the Bhagavad Gita.

Eventually, the Pandavas are triumphant despite a huge amount of death. The Pandavas reclaim what is theirs.

The Mahabharata ends with Krishna’s death and the Pandava brothers’ ascension to heaven after a final test. This is also the beginning of Kali Yuga which is according to Hinduism the final age of humankind.

This tiny snapshot of the Mahabharata should demonstrate just how complicated the story is – think of it like a complex version of Game of Thrones!

a carving of the mahabharata

Mahabharata In Your Life

While you may not want to commit to reading the entire Mahabharata there are themes within the text that can be beneficial for the everyday. The epic explores themes such as:

  • Truth
  • Virtue
  • Good vs evil
  • Spirit
  • Virtue
  • Responsibility

The work is about dharma (code of conduct), action according to karma and moksha (freedom from rebirth). If you want to find out more about then a good place to start is The Mahabharata’s most famous section – The Bhagavad Gita. 

In Krishna’s conversation with the warrior and Pandava Arjuna you’ll find dialogue concerning right action and yoga as well as performing one’s own duty without attachment to outcomes. The Bhagavad Gita is much more accessible as a text than the entirety of the Mahabharata so give it a go.

You won’t find explicit teachings about yoga, yoga poses, breath work or meditation like in other texts but you’ll find yoga gems for living life.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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