Mahabharata is the largest epic of the world; it has about 100,000 verses. The original author was Vyasa who tried to depict the Great War between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.
A son of Kuru named Santanu was the ruler of the kingdom of Hastinapura. Santanu's minor grandsons, Dhritarashtra and Pandu inherited the kingdom. As a guardian of the minors, Bhishma, their paternal uncle acted as a regent. He had taken a vow of celibacy for life. When the boys came of age and became majors, Pandu was enthroned as the king since the elder brother Dhritarashtra was blind. Both the brothers married. Pandu had two wives: Kunti and Madri. Dhritarashtra's wife was Gandhari.
Pandu had three sons by Kunti: Yudhishtira, Bhima and Arjuna. Pandu had two sons by Madri: Nakula and Sahadeva. The five brothers were together called Pandavas.
Dhritarashtra had a hundred sons and a daughter. They were called Kauravas, named after their ancestor Kuru. The eldest of the sons was Duryodhana.
Pandu, the king died in the prime of his life as a result of a curse. Dhritarashtra, though blind, had to be anointed the king. Dhritarashtra thus became the guardian of the Pandavas; of course, he was the father of the Kauravas. Both Pandavas and Kauravas lived together and received training in the arts of war and peace and sciences relevant for the royal clan. Their teacher was Dronacharya. There was always an undercurrent or rivalry between the Pandava and the Kaurava princes.
The eldest among the Pandavas was called Yudhistira. He was an embodiment of Dharma and commanded the loyalty of his four brothers.
The eldest among the Kauravas was called Duryodhana. He was crafty and malicious. His brothers emulated him in these evil qualities.
When Dhritarashtra proclaimed to the throne, the eldest of all the princes, Yudhishtira, the heir apparent to the throne, Duryodhana and his Kaurava brothers became envious and started scheming to dethrone Yudhistira.
Duryodhana built a house of highly combustible materials in Varanavarta. He sends the Pandavas to this house during a religious festival. His plan was to set fire to the combustible house when the Pandavas went to live there. The Pandavas got advance warning of this diabolical plot; their friends had prepared a secret underground passage from their chamber to the forest. When the house was in flames, the Pandavas could escape from the burning house. Duryodhana assumed that the Pandavas had died engulfed in the flames. In fact, the Pandavas were living in the forest, disguised as Brahmins.
During their life in the forest, a proclamation was made by Drupada, the king of Panchala: "I will give my daughter in marriage to the prince who would bend the great bow and hit a mark set in the sky." The Pandava princes went to Drupada's court. Other Kshatriya princes including Balarama and Krishna were also present there. Krishna and Balarama were the sons of Vasudeva, who was the maternal uncle of the Pandavas. Most of the assembled princes failed in bending the bow and hitting the mark set by Drupada.
Arjuna stepped up and lifted up the bow with ease and hit the mark with five successive arrows. The princess of Drupada was won. She was Draupadi. Soon, the word spread in the kingdom that the Brahmin youth who had won Draupadi, the princess, was indeed the famous son of Pandu. Kunti, the mother of Pandavas, was told about the archery contest won by Arjuna. Kunti did not know that the prize that he had won was a princess. She said, "If Arjuna has won, the prize he has collected should be shared equally among the five brothers." Mother's wish had to be respected. So it was that Draupadi became the common wife of all the five Pandava princes.
When it was clear that Pandavas had not perished in Varanavarta, Bhishma advised Dhritarashtra that the kingdom should be divided between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Dhritarashtra agreed and the kingdom was divided.
Pandavas built a new capital called Indraprastha. Duryodhana ruled from the old capital, Hastinapura. Yudhistira the king of the Pandava kingdom was a just ruler. His subjects were happy and prosperous. He was known as Dharmaraja. He performed Rajasuya sacrifice to become a king of kings. Invitations were sent to all kings, including Duryodhana of the Kauravas, to attend this event. The event was attended by Bhishma, the grand-father of both Pandavas and Kauravas; Drona and Kripa, the common preceptors; the blind king Dhritarashtra and his hundred sons; Karna, the friend of Duryodhana and a rival of Arjuna; thousands of other potentates who had accepted the overlordship of Dharmaraja Yudhistira. Bhishma officiated the master of ceremonies. He directed that, in organizing the hospitalities (maryaada), Krishna should be given the prime place, as the prince of Dwaraka. Sisupala who was the king of Chedi and a cousin of Krishna opposed this directive of Bhishma, "You are insulting all the kings assembled here who are mightier than Krishna." Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva spoke in defense of the directive of Bhishma. The deliberations became a war of words.
Bhishma reiterated his directive, "Sisupala! If you dare, you can challenge Krishna to a fight." Sisupala started insulting Krishna a hundred-and-one times. Krishna had vowed to Sisupala's mother that he would tolerate only up to one hundred offences of his Sisupala. Krishna was now ready to kill Sisupala. Krishna killed Sisupala. Rajasuya sacrifice was completed. Yudhistira was crowned the emperor.
Duryodhana was fretting and fuming at the turn of events. He was envious of the prosperity of the Pandavas and their kingdom. Duryodhana built himself up to a rage that all this had happened because of his father's initial mistake of proclaiming Yudhistira as the heir apparent and giving up half the kingdom to the Pandavas. Duryodhana consulted with his uncle Sakuni. Sakuni advised, "If you cannot vanquish Pandavas by force, they should be defeated by a crafty scheme. Yudhistira had a weakness for gambling. Invite him to Hastipura for a game of dice. I am an expert in casting dice. I will play with Yudhistira and defeat him for high stakes and ruin him."
Consent of Dhritarashtra was obtained and the invitation was sent out to Yudhistira to the gambling event. Yudhistira could not refuse the challenge. Yudhistira could not win against Sakuni. He started losing stake after stake. He staked his wealth and all his possessions. He staked his kingdom, his subjects and all his troops. He staked and lost even his own brothers, himself and at last, to the horror of all the onlookers, even his own queen, Draupadi.
Duryodhana was infatuated with the series of victories at the game of dice. He lost his head. He wanted to insult the Pandavas by taking revenge on Draupadi, who was now his slave. He wanted someone to go fetch Draupadi into the hall so that she could be made to sweep all the rooms. His brother Dussasana obeyed the command. Draupadi could hardly believe what she heard from Dussasana, "You are now the slave of Duryodhana. Yudhistira put you up as a stake in the gambling and lost." As Draupadi recoiled from this shock and tried to retreat into her chamber, Dussasana sprang upon her, seized her by her hair, and dragged her into the assembly hall. The Pandavas sat speechless, observing this ignominy. The evil Kauravas tried to disrobe Draupadi by force. Drauapadi prayed to Lord Krishna, "O Krishna! What a shame have I to suffer! O Protector! Protect me." At once, a miracle occurred. As the robe enveloped around her body was being removed from her body, another appeared in its place. Dussasana was now tired removing hundred of robes. He became ashamed and stopped the disrobing saga. Bhima could not tolerate this disgusting sight of an insult to Draupadi in an open assembly; he vowed that some day, in the field of battle, he would cut open the breast of Dussasana and drink his blood. He later fulfilled this vow.
Duryodhana uncovered his left thigh and asked Draupadi, "Come, you maid! Sit on my thigh." This outrage evoked an angry vow from Bhima, "Some day, in the battle-field, I will break the thighs of the Kauravas with this mace of mine." He later fulfilled this vow.
Dhritarashtra rebuked Duryodhana for this conduct unbecoming of a king and apologizing to Draupadi, asked, "Draupadi! I have to recompense for this insult piled upon you. Choose any boon you desire."
Draupadi replied without hesitation, "Free Dharmaraja and his brothers at once." Dhritarashtra granted her request.
Once more the Pandavas were called back to a game of dice. The stake was that the losers should abandon their kingdom and live in the forest for twelve years and remain incognito for one year before reclaiming their kingdom. Another condition was that if they were recognized during the 'incognito period', they should spend another twelve years in the forest.
Sakuni and Yudhistira threw the dice and once more, Sakuni won. Now it was clear. The Pandavas had to abandon their kingdom and go into exile for twelve years.
The vanavaasam or life in the forest was for the Pandavas an opportunity to protect many rishis. The rishis told them the stories of Nala and Damayanti, of Savitri and Satyavan. These were stories highlighting some features of Dharma, the cornerstone of society. During this period, the Pandavas visited many pilgrimage sites and holy places. Dharmaraja told his brothers that the royal family of the Bharatas should be united against an external foe and that when Kauravas were fighting an external aggression, for example, from the Gandharvas, it was the duty of the Pandavas to help the Kauravas.
Twelve years of life in the forest were completed. The one-year of incognito exile had to be spent in the court of Virata, the king of Matsya. Yudhishtira disguised himself as a Brahmin counselor, Bhima as a cook, Arjuna as a dance-master, Nakula as a horse-keeper, and Sahadeva as a cowherd. Draupadi disguised herself as a servant-maid to the queen. She called herself Sairandhri.
Ten months had passed in the incognito exile. The queen's brother was Kichaka. He fell in love with Sairandhri. Sairandhri repelled Kichaka's advances. When her complaint to the king on Kichaka's mischievous moves went unheeded, Sairandhri reported to Bhima, who had disguised himself as the chief cook of the royalty. Bhima advised Sairandhri to set up a meeting with Kichaka at midnight. When Kichaka arrived to meet Sairandhri, Bhima pounced upon him and crushed him to death. The relatives of Kichaka thought that this murder was caused by Sairandhri and carried her off to be cremated along with Kichaka's body. Bhima heard Sairandhri's cries and rescued her, beating off her assailants. With all these troubles, Sairandhri was fired from her job as the servant-maid.
News of Kichaka's death reached Duryodhana who could immediately guess that this could have been perpetrated only a Pandava prince. Duryodhana provoked a neighboring king who had been defeated earlier by Kichaka to attack Virata's kingdom on the south. Duryodhana promised to attack from the north the next day. Duryodhana's hope was that if Pandavas were in the royal household of Virata, they would enter the battlefield. Then, their incognito would be blown and they could be exiled into the forest once again, for another spell of twelve years.
The battle lines were drawn. King Virata faced the armies on the south with the help of all the Pandavas in disguise, excepting Arjuna. Virata suffered a reverse in battle and was taken prisoner. Bhima rescued him. Pandavas were instrumental in attaining a victory over the rival armies.
Kauravas had massed their troops on the north led by the stalwarts: Bhishma, Drona, Kripa and Karna. They stole Virata's cattle. Facing these troops was the son of Virata, named Uttara. Uttara needed a charioteer. Draupadi who had not yet quit the service in the royal household, suggested that the dance-master in the court could be his charioteer, since this man was the charioteer of Arjuna. (We know that the dance-master was Arjuna himself). Arjuna drove the chariot to the tree where he had hidden his weapons. Arjuna revealed his identity to Uttara. Uttara's joy knew no bounds and with the great archer by his side, marched triumphantly to face the Kaurava army. Arjuna gave the army a foretaste of what they could expect in the Great War in Kurukshetra. Karna was wounded and retreated, bleeding from the battlefield. Kripa's chariot was destroyed. Drona was defeated. So was Drona's son Asvatthama. Bhishma was also defeated. Duryodhana was made to run away against the onslaught of Arjuna, in disguise. The Kaurava army melted away, recognizing that Arjuna was in command. By that day, the thirteenth year of exile had ended and the Pandavas could now throw away their disguise.
King Virata honored the Pandavas. He offered his daughter, in marriage to Arjuna's son, called Abhimanyu who was born to Subhadra. Subhadra was Krishna's sister. Subhadra and her son were staying at Dwaraka during the period of exile of the Pandavas.
Drupada sent his priest as an emissary to Duryodhana to reclaim the kingdom of the Pandavas. Though the diplomatic moves were on, preparations were afoot on both sides for war. Both Kauravas and Pandavas struck alliances with the rulers of neighbouring kingdoms. A key ally had to be Krishna. Both Duryodhana and Arjuna set out to Dwaraka to see Krishna's alliance. Krishna was asleep when Duryodhana and Arjuna reached Krishna's palace. Duryodhana went in and sat on a chair at the head of Krishna's bed. Arjuna went in next and bowed to Krishna, who feigned to be sleeping on his bed and stood humbly at Krishna's feet. Krishna woke and sat up. His eyes first fell on Arjuna who was in front of him. Then he saw Duryodhana at his back. Both Duryodhana and Arjuna explained the reasons for their visit. Duryodhana claimed that he had the first claim since he had arrived first. Krishna replied, "Though you had come first, my eyes fell on Arjuna first. Therefore, I have to help both of you. I will suggest two alternatives: one of you can have my army of ten divisions and the other can have me alone, unarmed. The choice is yours. Arjuna being the younger of the two will be the first to choose." Arjuna was happy, "Krishna, I choose you even if you are unarmed." Duryodhana was also happy that he had obtained a better bargain by getting a well-equipped army of ten divisions. The alliance arrangement was satisfactory to both Duryodhana and Arjuna.
Dharmaraja tried his best to achieve peace through negotiations. He even suggested that if Duryodhana was prepared to part with five villages to the Pandavas, a deal could be struck and war avoided. Duryodhana was confident that his army would defeat the Pandavas and declined to accept this generous offer of Dharmaraja, Yudhishtira. Krishna himself tried to intervene as a peace envoy. Krishna went to Dhritarashtra and asked him to retrain his sons from the instrument of war and to seek peace with the Pandavas. Bhishma and Drona applauded Krishna's efforts. Duryodhana would listen to no one and was stubborn in his refusal to accommodate the fair requests of Pandavas for their share in the kingdom. Krishna left disappointed with a firm warning to Duryodhana that he was setting himself to a dangerous path.
Kunti the mother of the Pandavas met with Krishna, her nephew at Hastinapura. Kunti sent a message through Krishna to her sons, "My warrior sons! Prepare for war and give the Kauravas a good fight." Kunti went to Karna and told him, "O Mighty Karna! Let me reveal a secret to you. You are my son. You were born when I chanted mantras sacred to the sun-god. You were the sun-god's gift. I got terrorized and abandoned you and ran away. A charioteer picked you up. So, Karna, you are the eldest brother of the Pandavas. You should join the Pandavas in the war." Karna, who was the chief commander of Duryodhana's army heard this story awe-struck. "Mother! So, Arjuna, my foe, is my blood-brother. My life has been with the Kauravas. I cannot abandon them. Duryodhana is my friend and my patron, I have to fight by his side."
War seemed inevitable. Pandavas marched to Kurukshetra where Duryodhana had assembled his armies. Duryodhana had an army of eleven akshauhinis, Pandavas had an army of seven akshauhinis. Bhishma had formed an impenetrable vyuha of the Kaurava forces. Dharmaraja was terrified at this sight and feared that the Pandavas would be defeated. Arjuna responded, "O Brother! Those who are desirous of victory do not conquer so much by might as by compassion, piety and virtue. We are certain to succeed in this war. Victory is for the side which has Krishna. I am not afraid."
Krishna, Arjuna's charioteer, counseled Arjuna: "Purify yourself and pray to the goddess Durga for success." Arjuna got down from the chariot and chanted hymns of praise of the goddess. The goddess was pleased and appeared before Arjuna, "O Arjuna! You have my blessing. You will defeat the enemy because you have Narayana himself to help you."
Arjuna mounted the chariot and both he and Krishna, the charioteer blew their conches. Then, Krishna halts Arjuna's chariot and starts the Bhagavad Gita teaching. Arjuna was in front of the army composed of his gurus, friends and relatives who had to be killed by him in battle and felt a sense of pity. Arjuna dropped his bow down and said, "I cannot fight." Krishna discussed with Arjuna the entire range of implications of Dharma, the duties of man and was able to convince Arjuna that it was his duty to fight. "Do you duty. Do not mind the consequences." This famous discourse encourage Arjuna to take to arms.
Dharmaraja also got cold feet. He went to Bhishma, the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava forces, "O warrior! Give us your blessing!" Bhishma blessed him, "I am fighting on the side of Duryodhana, not because Kauravas were the righteous side, but because he was tied by his service to them." Dharmaraja approached Drona and Kripa and sought the teachers' blessings. They also felt that the Pandavas' cause was righteous but as true soldiers they had to be loyal to their masters, the Kaurava royalty. They told Dharmaraja, "We bless you! You can fight with us and even kill us in battle."
Dharmaraja went back to his assigned task on the battle-array of the Pandava armies. He announced, "Anyone who chooses to fight on our side will be welcome here as a friend." Only one person broke ranks and shifted allegiance from the Kaurava forces. He was Yuyutsu, one of the Kaurava brothers. The allies of the Pandavas admired the righteous behavior of the Pandavas in battle.
The battles began.
Bhishma commanded the battle from his side for ten days. He was fierce in battle and Pandavas had to cope with him by setting up Sikhandi, son of Drupada against Bhishma. Bhishma had earlier vowed that he would not fight Sikhandi who had been a woman in his former life. So, Bhishma avoided facing Sikhandi. Arjuna used Sikhandi as cover and unleashed a barrage of arrows and brought down the veteran Bhima. Both sides stopped fighting to pay homage to this great warrior. He was laid on a bed of arrows on the battlefield. He blessed the armies. He quit his body at his own will, after the sun entered on the northern course.
Drona, an old man eighty-five years of age, took over as commander-in-chief. He fought for five days. Abhimanyu, the son of Arjuna, a mere lad of sixteen years, fought a valiant battle against Drona. He broke the chakra-vyuha formation of Drona. Abhimanyu fought with also Asvatthama, Kripa, Karna, Duryodhana and Dussasana and routed them from the battle field. He fell only all these warriors joined together and fought with him from all sides. Abhimanyu was the greatest hero of the Kurukshetra war. He was killed on the thirteenth day of the war.
Jayadratha had prevented the Pandavas from going to the rescue of the young warrior, Abhimanyu. Arjuna vowed to Bhima, "I will kill this Jayadratha before sunset tomorrow. If not, I will kill myself." Kauravas tried to keep Jayadratha beyond Arjuna's reach the next day. After a fierce battle, Arjuna was able to pierce Jayadratha with his arrows and severe his head.
That day, the battle did not stop at sunset and was continued till midnight, with torches lit up to wage the war. Ghatotkacha, son of Bhima, fought with Karna. Karna killed Ghatotkacha with a weapon which was the gift of Indra which Karna had reserved for his battle with Arjuna. The armies rested by mutual consent, for a few hours, until the moon rose. The battle renewed, raging like a typhoon.
The sun rose, it was the fifteenth day of battle. Pandavas adopted a stratagem. Bhima killed an elephant called Asvatthama and announced loudly, "Asvatthama was dead!" Drona heard this loud announcement and was shocked, thinking that it was Asvatthama who was his son had been killed. Drona asked Dharmaraja, "Is this report true?" Yudhistira pondered for a moment and repeated loudly, "Asvattham is dead," and muttered to himself, under his breath, "elephant", just to appease his conscience as a truthful person. Drona knew that Yudhistira would never speak untruth, so he believed the announcement. Drona dropped his bow. As he stood defenseless, Drishtadyumna, the brother of Draupadi and the commander of the Pandava forces, killed Drona.
Karna took over as commander-in-chief. It was the sixteenth day of battle. Karna defeated Nakula, but spared his life. Yudhishtira defeated Duryodhana, but spared his life. Karna chose Salya, the king of Madra, as his charioteer. Salya agreed though his sympathies were with the Pandavas. Salya was the maternal uncle of Nakula and Sahadeva. Salya's loyalties were divided.
The seventh day of the battle started with the usual fury between two equally-matched armies. Bhima fought with Dussasana. Bhima vanquished Dussasana, ripped his breast open and drank his blood. Bhima had fulfilled his vow made when Draupadi was humiliated in the Draupadi vastraapaharanam.
Karna had defeated Dharmaraja, Nakula and Sahadeva. Arjuna stepped up to continue the fight with Karna. Karna discharged a snake-like weapon. Krishna, the charioteer saved Arjuna's head, by pressing the chariot down into the earth by a cubit. Arjuna lost his golden crown which flew away as the snake-like weapon hit the crown. At one moment, in battle, Karna's chariot sank into the ground. Karna stepped down to lift up one of the wheels of the chariot which had sunk into the ground. Karna cried, "Is it fair to hit me with arrows now, when I am not in a position to fight back?"
Krishna responded, "Was it fair, O Karna, when you allowed the Kauravas to be locked up and burnt in a castle made of combustible material? Was it fair when Dussasana tried to disrobe Draupadi in an open assembly? You have forfeited all rights to invoke Dharma your aid."
Karna was a generous warrior. He could have stopped Duryodhana from the evil deeds perpetrated on the Pandavas. He was the main cause for the war. He fell to the arrows of Arjuna, on the battlefield. As Karna died, a radiant light ascended and mingled with the crimson rays of the setting sun. The battle ceased for the day.
The eighteenth day of battle saw Salya as the commander of the Kaurava forces. Dharmaraja, Yudhishtira killed him. By the afternoon, the Kauravas conceded defeat and fled from the field of battle in total disarray. Duryodhana fled and hid himself in a lake. Pandavas taunted him to come out and fight. Bhima fought with Duryodhana and broke the latter's thigh bones. Bhima felt proud that the wrongs done to Draupadi had been fully avenged.
Asvatthama was made the commander-in-chief of the Kauravas. He and his two companions went, in the darkness of the night, to Drishtadyumna who had killed his father Drona and strangled him to death while Drishtadyumna was asleep. He also killed the five sons of Draupadi who were sleeping in another tent. Pandavas escaped death because Krishna had taken them away to perform some religious rites and prayers to commemorate their victory.
Pandavas returned to find their sons and relatives murdered in cold blood. Draupadi collapsed unconscious. Pandavas searched out Asvatthama in the Ganga. Asvatthama was defeated and set free with the curse, "Wander homeless on the earth for your crimes and unjust behavior in battle."
Pandavas marched towards Hastinapura. With so many dead, the march was not a victory march but was more like a funeral procession. Dharmaraja was installed on the throne, along with Draupadi as the queen. Krishna himself blessed them by sprinkling holy water on their heads during the investiture (abhishekam).
The sun had entered the northern course. Bhishma was still alive on the bed of arrows. Dharmaraja and Krishna went to seek Bhishma's blessings and guidance on the matters of state. Bhishma bestirred and gave his guidance on Dharma among the rulers and on other subjects related to religion and ethics. He spoke of truth, non-violence and the Law of Karma, apart from the attributes of the Supreme Being. Thereafter, Bhishma's life ended, as he contemplated the Supreme. Bhishma was a noble and pure soul.
Pandavas ruled in Hastinapura for many years. They treated the blind old king Dhritarashtra with respect. Dharmaraja performed the Asvamedha sacrifice. A few years later, Dharmaraja, with his wife Gandhari, and Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, retired to the Himalayas. Yadavas quarreled among themselves. Krishna also had retired into the forest and was killed by a hunter's arrow.
Pandavas were tired now. The posthumous son of Abhimanyu, called Parikshit was enthroned and the Pandavas left for the forests of the Himalayas, accompanied by Draupadi. Draupadi died enroute. All the brothers died one after another until Dharmaraja was left alone. Indra came down from the heavens to escort Dharmaraja to heaven. Dhramaraja entered Indra's chariot together with the dog which had been Dharmaraja's companion in the long march, "O Indra! It will be a sin on my part if I desert someone who has been devoted to me."
The dog disappeared and unseen Dharma spoke, "O King! You have earned, by your merit, the region of eternal bliss."
Dharmaraja was conducted to the regions of the dead as he searched for his brothers and Draupadi. He saw them and also Bhishma suffering, while Duryodhana was in a happy mood. Indra explained that the suffering was an illusion created as a punishment for the untruth uttered by Dharmaraja in the field of battle to kill Drona. Dharmaraja experienced pain as he moved into the region of eternal bliss together with all those he had loved in his lifetime on earth.