Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.
Looking for an epic read that's roughly 12 times the size of the Bible? Then, Mahabharata might be the book for you. Sometimes referred to as the Hindu Bible, Mahabharata was written by Veda Vyasa. It is the world's longest known poem with more than 200,000 individual lines and nearly two million words.
The book is part narrative and part story, and details the Kurukshetra War that pitted brothers, the Kaurava and Pandava princes, against one another. It's also equal parts devotional readings, philosophical musings, and a collection of Hindu legend and history. Though it's impossible to thoroughly summarize this great book in just a few hundred words, let's take a look at the central story that runs throughout Mahabharata to get a glimpse inside Vyasa's writings.
Summary of Mahabharata
Imagine a football field where a game between two intense rivals is set to take place, and you'll have the general picture of Mahabharata. On one side, you have the five sons of King Pandu and their friends. On the other side, you have the 100 sons of King Dhritarashtra and their friends. And, they're not getting ready to play a game, but engage in a pretty serious battle. Something serious is about to happen on the field of Kurukshetra.
The Reason for the War
But, why's everyone so mad? For much the same reason that countries, foes, and allies get mad even today: a lengthy history of tense relationships, one-upmanship, and political game-playing. Both sides were Indian royalty who simply could not get along. Sound familiar?
The two warring sides, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, were cousins in an all-out war to control the Bharata kingdom in northern India. The Pandavas' fathers were gods, while the Kauravas were, essentially, demons. So, you've got the basic good versus evil script going on here, right? Not surprisingly, the Kauravas were mean and vicious toward the Pandavas and, at one point, used a simple game of dice to take advantage of them and drive them into the wilderness for more than a decade.
When the Pandavas made good on their losing end of the bet, the leader of the Kauravas still refused to give the Pandavas' portion of the kingdom back to them, and, as you probably guessed, things only went downhill from there.
The Start of the War
Each side rounded up their best soldiers, friends, and allies and prepared to engage in this epic battle. There were many deaths, but the Pandavas were eventually victorious in the 18-day struggle. For most, it was a troubling victory, because without the ability to think on the level of the divine Gods, the whole thing didn't make much sense; but then, a lot of wars seldom make sense to the average person.
True to form, the war didn't solve much. The period after the war was a time of uneasiness and discontent. A sacrifice was offered by the Pandavas to try to offset the wrongness of the war. The leader of the Kauravas lives the remainder of his life in exile, while the remainder continue being unruly. The Pandavas come to realize it is time for them to set out on their final journey to leave the earth and ascend to Heaven. This involves a strange ritual of a long walk until the body gives out.
Finally, the eldest brother of the Pandavas, Yudhishthira, reaches Heaven and is tested one last time. Would he rather spend eternity in Heaven with the Kauravas, or spend eternity in Hell with his brothers? He chooses Hell. Luckily, it's revealed that his brothers actually are in Heaven, and all's well that ends well.
While the war between the two sides is not the sum total of the Mahabharata, it is a good portion of it. The remainder is stocked with side stories, religious references, and other tales.
Like the Bible, there are too many characters in Mahabharata to chronicle them all, but here are a few of the most important figures:
- Vyasa: The author and narrator of the story; he is the father of Pandu and Dhritarashtra, the brothers at the center of the warring factions.
- Pandu: The earthly father of the Pandavas god-brothers.
- Dhritarashtra: The blind king and father of the Kauravas; Dhritarashtra lost his way thanks to the war.
- Bhishma: The half-uncle by marriage of Pandu and Dhritarashtra; his vow to remain unmarried allowed the others to fight over the kingdom's throne.
- Kunti: Mother of the five Pandavas; she is also Pandu's wife.
- Gandhari: Wife of Dhritarashtra; she wears a blindfold to limit her sight at her blind husband's request.
- Yudhisthira: The leader of the Pandavas; the rightful heir to the throne.
- Bhima: The strongest Pandava brother; it was his senses that were offended at the insult of his wife, Draupadi. He vowed to kill all of the Kauravas.
- Arjuna: The most popular Pandava brother and the best archer in the world. He actually won a wife in an archery contest.
- Draupadi: Wife to the five Pandavas; she is the primary reason for the war's beginning. After an insult in a dice game, the rest - as they say - was history.
- Duryodhan: The legitimate heir to his father, Dhritarashtra's, throne. He is the eldest of the Kauravas.
- Shakuni: Looking for a good villain to root for (or against)? Shakuni births the game of dice that leads to the all-out war.
Mahabharata is a giant of a book, an epic poem detailing the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, cousins who obviously didn't see eye to eye. Representative of good versus evil, the two branches of the family were said to be gods and demons, respectively. The book lays out the before, during, and after of the Battle of Kurukshetra, along with Hindu history, religion, and philosophy.
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