The Story of the Mahabharata, India's Longest Epic Poem

Marco Brivio
A monk reads the Mahabarata by the river Ganges. Marco Brivio / Getty Images

The Mahabharata is an ancient Sanskrit epic poem that tells the story of the kingdom of Kurus. It's based on a real war that took place in the 13th or 14th century B.C. between the Kuru and Panchala tribes of the Indian subcontinent. It is regarded as both a historical account of Hinduism's birth and a code of ethics for the faithful.

Background and History

The Mahabharata, also known as the great epic of the Bharata Dynasty, is divided into two books of more than 100,000 verses, each containing two lines or couplets totaling more than 1.8 million words.

It is roughly 10 times as long as the Illiad, one of the most notable Western epic poems.

The Hindu holy man Vyasa is generally credited with being the first to compile the Mahabharata, although the entire text was assembled between the 8th and 9th centuries B.C. and the oldest portions date back to almost 400 B.C. Vyasa himself appears several times in the Mahabharata.

Synopsis of the Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is divided into 18 parvas or books. The primary narrative follows the five sons of the deceased King Pandu (the Pandavas) and the 100 sons of blind King Dhritarashtra (the Kauravas), who opposed each other in war for possession of the ancestral Bharata kingdom on the Ganga river in north-central India. The principal figure in the epic is the god Krishna.

Although Krishna is related to both Pandu and Dhritarashtra, he is eager to see war occur between the two clans and considers Pandu's sons to be his human instruments for fulfilling that end.

Leaders of both clans engage in a dice game, but the game is rigged in the Dhritarashtras' favor and the Pandu clan lose, agreeing to spend 13 years in exile.

When the period of exile ends and the Pandu clan return, they find that their rivals are unwilling to share power. As a result, war breaks out.

After years of violent conflict, in which both sides commit numerous atrocities and many clan elders are killed, the Pandavas finally emerge the winners. 

In the years that follow the war, the Pandavas live a life of asceticism in a forest retreat. Krishna is slaughtered in a drunken brawl and his soul dissolves back into the Supreme God Vishnu. When they learn of this, the Pandavas believe it time for them to leave this world, too. They embark upon a great journey, walking north toward heaven, where the dead of both clans will live in harmony.

Multiple subplots weave throughout the epic text, following the numerous characters as they pursue their own agendas, wrestle with ethical dilemmas and come into conflict with one another. 

Primary Theme

Much of the action in the Mahabharata is accompanied by discussion and debate among the text's characters. The most famous sermon, Krishna's prewar lecture on ethics and divinity to his follower Arjuna, also known as the Bhagavad Gita, is contained within the epic. 

Several of the important ethical and theological themes of the Mahabharata are tied together in this sermon, namely the difference between just and unjust warfare. Krishna lays out the proper ways of attacking a foe, as well as when it is appropriate to use certain weapons and how prisoners of war should be treated.

The importance of family and clan loyalty is another major theme.

Impact on Popular Culture

The Mahabharata has had a profound influence on popular culture, especially in India, both in ancient and modern times. It was the source of inspiration for "Andha Yug" (in English, "The Blind Epoch"), one of the most widely produced plays in India in the 20th century and first performed in 1955. Pratibha Ray, one of India's most notable female writers, used the epic poem as inspiration for her award-winning novel "Yajnaseni," first published in 1984.

The Hindu text has also inspired numerous TV shows and movies, including the film "Mahabharat," which was the most expensive animated film ever produced in India when it was released in 2013.

Further Reading

The definitive Indian version of the Mahabharata, also known as the critical edition, was compiled over the course of nearly 50 years in the city of Pune, ending in 1966.

Although this is considered the authoritative Hindu version in India, there are regional variations as well, notably in Indonesia and Iran.

The first and most notable English translation appeared in the last decade of the 1890s and was compiled by the Indian scholar Kisari Mohan Ganguli. It is the only complete English version available in the public domain, although several condensed versions also have been published.