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Mahabharata
About Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is the longest Sanskrit epic of ancient India the other being the Ramayana. Its longest version consists of over 100,000 shloka or over 200,000 individual verse lines (each shloka is a couplet), and long prose passages. About 1.8 million words in total, the Mahabharata is about ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, or about four times the length of the Ramayana. W. J. Johnson has compared the importance of the Mahabharata to world civilization to that of the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, the works of Homer, Greek drama, or the Qur'an.

Besides its epic narrative of the Kurukshetra War and the fates of the Kaurava and the Pandavaprinces, the Mahabharata contains a lot of philosophical and devotional material, such as a discussion of the four "goals of life" or purusharthas The main works and stories that are a part of the Mahabharata are the Bhagavad Gita, the story of Damayanti, an abbreviated version of the Ramayana, and the Rishyasringa are often believed as works in their own right.

Traditionally, the authorship of the Mahabharata is attributed to Vyasa. There have been many attempts to unravel its historical growth and compositional layers. The oldest preserved parts of the text are thought to be not much older than around 400 BCE, though the origins of the epic probably fall between the 8th and 9th centuries BCE. The text probably reached its final form by the early Gupta period (c. 4th century).. According to the Mahabharata itself, the tale is extended from a shorter version of 24,000 verses called simply Bhārata.

Accretion and redaction
Research on the Mahabharata has put an enormous effort into recognizing and dating layers within the text. Some elements of the present Mahabharata can be traced back to Vedic times. The background to the Mahabharata suggests the origin of the epic occurs "after the very early Vedic period" and before "the first Indian 'empire' was to rise in the third century B.C

 
Textual history and structure

The epic is traditionally ascribed to the sage Vyasa, who is also a major character in the epic. Vyasa described it as being itihāsa (history). He also explains the Guru-shishya parampara, which traces all great teachers and their students of the Vedic times. The first section of the Mahabharata states that it was Ganesha who wrote down the text to Vyasa's dictation. Ganesha is said to have agreed to write it only if Vyasa never paused in his recitation. Vyasa agrees on condition that Ganesha takes the time to understand what was said before writing it down.

The epic employs the story within a story structure, otherwise known as frame tales, popular in many Indian religious and non-religious works. It is narrated by the sage Vaisampayana, a believer of Vyasa, to the King Janamejaya who is the great-grandson of the Pandava prince Arjuna. The story is then narrated again by a professional storyteller named Ugrasrava Sauti, many years later, to an assembly of sages performing the 12-year sacrifice for the king Saunaka Kulapati in the Naimisha Forest.

The text has been described by some early 20th-century western Indologists as unstructured and chaotic. Hermann Olden berg supposed that the original poem must once have carried an immense "tragic force" but dismissed the full text as a "horrible chaos." Moritz Winternitz (Geschichte der indischen Literatur 1909) considered that "only unpoetical theologists and awkward scribes" could have lumped the parts of dissimilar origin into an unordered whole.

 
Historical Context

The historicity of the Kurukshetra War is unclear. Many historians estimate the date of the Kurukshetra war to Iron Age India of the 10th century BCE. The setting of the epic has a historical precedent in Iron Age (Vedic) India, where the Kuru kingdom was the center of political power during about 1200 to 800 BCE. A dynastic conflict of the period could have been the motivation for the Jaya, the foundation on which the Mahabharata corpus was built, with a climactic battle ultimately coming to be viewed as an epochal event.

Puranic literature presents genealogical lists related with the Mahabharata narrative. The evidence of the Puranas is of two kinds. Of the first kind, there is the direct statement that there were 1015 (or 1050) years between the birth of Parikshit (Arjuna's grandson) and the accession of Mahapadma Nanda, commonly dated to 382 BCE, which would yield an estimate of about 1400 BCE for the Bharata battle. However, this would imply unusually long reigns on average for the kings listed in the genealogies. Of the second kind are analyses of parallel genealogies in the Puranas between the times of Adhisimakrishna (Parikshit's great-grandson) and Mahapadma Nanda. Pargiter accordingly estimated 26 generations by averaging 10 different dynastic lists and, assuming 18 years for the average duration of a reign, arrived at an estimate of 850 BCE for Adhisimakrishna, and thus approximately 950 BCE for the Bharata battle.

The Pandava and Kaurava Princes

When Vichitravirya dies at a young age without any heirs, Satyavati asks her first son Vyasa to father children with the widows. The eldest, Ambika, shuts her eyes when she sees him, and so her son Dhritarashtra is born blind. Ambalika turns pale and bloodless upon seeing him, and thus her son Pandu is born pale and unhealthy . Due to the physical challenges of the first two children, Satyavati asks Vyasa to try once again. However, Ambika and Ambalika send their maid instead, to Vyasa's room. Vyasa fathers a third son, Vidura, by the maid. He is born healthy and grows up to be one of the wisest characters in the Mahabharata. He serves as Prime Minister (Mahamantri or Mahatma) to King Pandu and King Dhritarashtra.

When the princes grow up, Dhritarashtra is about to be crowned king by Bhishma when Vidura intervenes and uses his knowledge of politics to declare that a blind person cannot be king. This is because a blind man cannot control and protect his subjects. The throne is then given to Pandu because of Dhritarashtra's blindness. Pandu marries twice, to Kunti and Madri. Dhritarashtra marries Gandhari, a princess from Gandhara, who blindfolds herself so that she may feel the pain that her husband feels.

Her brother Shakuni is enraged by this and vows to take revenge on the Kuru family. One day, when Pandu is relaxing in the forest, he hears the sound of a wild animal. He shoots an arrow in the direction of the sound. Pandu then retires to the forest along with his two wives, and his brother Dhritarashtra rules thereafter, despite his blindness.

Pandu's older queen Kunti, however, had been given a boon by Sage Durvasa that she could invoke any god using a special mantra. Kunti uses this boon to ask Dharma the god of justice, Vayu the god of the wind, and Indra the lord of the heavens for sons. She gives birth to three sons, Yudhisthira, Bhima, and Arjuna, through these gods. Kunti shares her mantra with the younger queen Madri, who bears the twins Nakula and Sahadeva through the Ashwini twins. Kunti raises the five brothers, who are from then on usually referred to as the Pandava brothers.

Dhritarashtra has a hundred sons through Gandhari, all born after the birth of Yudhishtira. These are the Kaurava brothers, the eldest being Duryodhana, and the second Dushasana. Other Kaurava brothers were Vikarna and Sukarna. The rivalry and enmity between them and the Pandava brothers, from their youth and into manhood, leads to the Kurukshetra war.

The end of the Pandavas

After "seeing" the carnage, Gandhari who had lost all her sons, curses Krishna to be a witness to a similar extinction of his family, though celestial and capable of stopping the war, he had not done so. Krishna accepts the nuisance, which bears fruit 36 years later. The Pandavas who had ruled their kingdom meanwhile, decide to relinquish everything. Clad in skins and rags they retire to the Himalaya and climb towards heaven in their bodily form. A stray dog travels with them. One by one the brothers and Draupadi fall on their way. As each one stumbles, Yudhisthira gives the rest the reason for their fall. Only the virtuous Yudhisthira, who had tried everything to prevent the carnage, and the dog remain. The dog discloses himself to be the god Yama (also known as Yama Dharmaraja), and then takes him to the underworld where he sees his siblings and wife.

After explaining the nature of the test, Yama takes Yudhishthira back to heaven and clarifies that it was necessary to expose him to the underworld because (Rajyante narakam dhruvam) any ruler has to visit the underworld at least once. Yama then assures him that his siblings and wife would join him in heaven after they had been exposed to the underworld for measures of time according to their vices.

Arjuna's grandson Parikshit rules after them and dies bitten by a snake. His furious son, Janamejaya, decides to perform a snake sacrifice (sarpasattra) in order to destroy the snakes. It is at this sacrifice that the tale of his ancestors is narrated to him.

The older generations

King Janamejaya's ancestor Shantanu, the king of Hastinapura, has a short-lived marriage with the goddess Ganga and has a son, Devavrata (later to be called Bhishma, a great warrior), who becomes the heir apparent. Many years later, when King Shantanu goes hunting, he sees Satyavati, the daughter of the chief of fisherman, and asks her father for her hand. Her father declines to consent to the marriage unless Shantanu promises to make any future son of Satyavati the king upon his death. To resolve his father's dilemma, Devavrata agrees to surrender his right to the throne. As the fisherman is not sure about the prince's children honouring the promise, Devavrata also takes a promise of lifelong celibacy to guarantee his father's promise.

Shantanu has two sons by Satyavati, Chitrāngada and Vichitravirya. Upon Shantanu's death, Chitrangada becomes king. He lives a very short ordinary life and dies. Vichitravirya, the younger son, rules Hastinapura.

Meanwhile, the King of Kāśī arranges a swayamvara for his three daughters, neglecting to invite the royal family of Hastinapur. In order to arrange the marriage of young Vichitravirya, Bhishma attends the swayamvara of the three princesses Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, uninvited, and proceeds to kidnap them. Ambika and Ambalika consent to be married to Vichitravirya.

The oldest princess Amba, however, informs Bhishma that she wants to marry king of Shalva whom Bhishma defeated at their swayamvara. Bhishma lets her leave to marry king of Shalva, but Shalva declines to marry her, still smarting at his embarrassment at the hands of Bhishma. Amba then returns to marry Bhishma but he declines due to his promise of celibacy. Amba becomes furious and becomes Bhishma's bitter enemy, holding him responsible for her troubles. Later she is reborn to King Drupada as Shikhandi (or Shikhandini) and causes Bhishma's fall, with the help of Arjuna, in the battle of Kurukshetra.

The battle at Kurukshetra

The two sides summon vast armies to their help and line up at Kurukshetra for a war.. Before war being declared, Balarama had expressed his unhappiness at the developing conflict and left to go on pilgrimage; thus he does not take part in the battle itself. Krishna takes part in a non-combatant role, as charioteer for Arjuna.

Before the battle, Arjuna, seeing himself facing his great grandfather Bhishma and his teacher Drona on the other side, has doubts about the battle and he fails to lift his Gāndeeva bow. Krishna wakes him up to his call of duty in the famous Bhagavad Gita section of the epic.

Though initially sticking to courteous notions of warfare, both sides soon adopt dishonourable methods. At the end of the 18-day battle, only the Pandavas, Satyaki, Kripa, Ashwatthama,Kritavarma, Yuyutsu and Krishna survive.

The dice game
Shakuni, Duryodhana's uncle, now arranges a dice game, playing against Yudhishtira with loaded dice. Yudhishtira loses all his wealth, then his kingdom. He then even gambles his brothers, himself, and finally his wife into servitude. The thrilled Kauravas insult the Pandavas in their helpless state and even try to undress Draupadi in front of the whole court, but her honour is saved by Krishna who amazingly creates lengths of cloth to replace the ones being removed.

Dhritarashtra, Bhishma, and the other elders are amazed at the situation, but Duryodhana is obstinate that there is no place for two crown princes in Hastinapura. Against his wishes Dhritarashtra orders for another dice game. The Pandavas are necessary to go into exile for 12 years, and in the 13th year must remain hidden. If discovered by the Kauravas, they will be forced into exile for another 12 years.

Exile and return

The Pandavas spend thirteen years in exile; many adventures occur during this time. They also prepare alliances for a possible future conflict. They spend their final year in disguise in the court of Virata, and are discovered just after the end of the year.

At the end of their exile, they try to negotiate a return to Indraprastha. However, this fails, as Duryodhana objects that they were discovered while in hiding, and that no return of their kingdom was agreed. War becomes inevitable.

 
Lakshagraha (The House of Lac)

After the deaths of their mother (Madri) and father (Pandu), the Pandavas and their mother Kunti return to the palace of Hastinapur. Yudhisthira is made Crown Prince by Dhritarashtra, under substantial pressure from his kingdom. Dhritarashtra wanted his own son Duryodhana to become king and lets his desire get in the way of preserving justice.

Shakuni, Duryodhana and Dusasana plan to get rid of the Pandavas. Shakuni calls the architect Purochana to build a palace out of flammable materials like lac and ghee. He then arranges for the Pandavas and the Queen Mother Kunti to stay there, with the purpose of setting it alight. However, the Pandavas are warned by their wise uncle, Vidura, who sends them a miner to dig a tunnel. They are able to escape to safety and go into hiding. Back at Hastinapur, the Pandavas and Kunti are presumed dead.
Marriage to Draupadi.

Arjuna marries Krishna's sister, Subhadra. Yudhishtira wishes to establish his position as king; he seeks Krishna's advice. Krishna advises him, and after due preparation and the elimination of some opposition, Yudhishthira carries out therājasūya yagna ceremony; he is thus recognised as pre-eminent among kings.

The Pandavas have a new palace built for them, by Maya the Danava. They invite their Kaurava cousins to Indraprastha. Duryodhana walks round the palace, and mistakes a lustrous floor for water, and will not step in. After being told of his error, he then sees a pond, and assumes it is not water and falls in. Draupadi laughs at him and ridicules him by saying that this is because of his blind father Dhritrashtra. He then decides to avenge his humiliation.

Summary

The core story of the work is that of a dynastic struggle for the throne of Hastinapura, the kingdom ruled by the Kuru clan. The two collateral branches of the family that participate in the struggle are the Pandava and the Kaurava. Although the Kaurava is the senior branch of the family, Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, is younger than Yudhisthira, the eldest Pandava. Both Yudhisthira and Duryodhana claim to be first in line to inherit the throne.

The struggle concludes in the great battle of Kurukshetra, in which the Pandavas are finally successful. The battle produces complex conflicts of kinship and friendship, instances of family loyalty and duty taking precedence over what is right, as well as the converse.

The Mahabharata itself ends with the death of Krishna, and the successive end of his dynasty and ascent of the Pandava brothers to heaven. It also marks the beginning of the Hindu age of Kali Yuga, the fourth and final age of mankind, in which great values and noble ideas have collapsed, and man is heading towards the complete dissolution of right action, morality and virtue.

Just War
The Mahabharata offers one of the first instances of theorizing about "Just war", illustrating many of the standards that would be disputed later across the world. In the story, one of five brothers asks if the suffering caused by war can ever be justified. A long discussion ensues between the siblings, establishing criteria like proportionality (chariots cannot attack cavalry, only other chariots, no attacking people in distress), just means (no poisoned or barbed arrows), just cause (no attacking out of rage), and fair treatment of captives and the wounded.

 

 


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