With 1.8 million words, Mahabharata is the world’s longest poem. This epic is not just a story of the battle fought between brothers, it is an ocean of knowledge. Its verses are more than poetry, they are a moral compass to millions who read it. The ground of Kurukshetra is more than a battlefield, it’s the place where the divine knowledge of Gita was first spoken. It’s not about good versus evil, it’s about understanding the circumstances and choices that lead to good and evil.
It all starts with a king named Kuru. He was the ruler of a province called Hastinapur. Along his bloodline came a king named Vichitravirya who had two children. One was named Dhritarashtra, the other Pandu. Vichitravirya’s brother, Bhisma, was the son of Goddess Ganga and had the boon to decide his time of death. Bhisma had also pledged to never take the mantle of the king. After the death of Vichitravirya, it was his responsibility to choose between Pandu and Dhritarashtra. Even though Dhritrashtra was older, he was also blind. Hence Pandu was chosen as the next ruler.
Dhritarashtra felt it was unfair to him and became bitter. Pandu married Kunti and Dhritarashtra married Gandhari. Gandhari chose to blindfold herself to be equal to Dhritarashtra. Dhritarashtra wanted to have a son before Pandu so that his son could become the next King. But his attempts with Gandhari failed.
Meanwhile, Kunti had a son named Yudhisthira, who according to rituals, would be the next king.
With the help of Sage Vyasa, Gandhari and Dhritarashtra had 101 children, the eldest among them was Duryodhana. Pandu had four more sons named Bheema, Arjuna, Nakul, and Sahdev. These five brothers were knowns as Pandavas (son of Pandu) while 100 sons of Gandhari were called Kauravas (lineage of Kuru).
The Kauravas grew up under the influence of their father, mother, and maternal uncle Shakuni, who fed them the jealousy of Pandavas. Both Pandavas and Kauravas were trained by great mentors like Guru Dronacharya and Kripacharya. The rivalry between the two made them determined to outperform each other. After completing their training, the Kuru clan had some of the most powerful warriors in its family.
The fuel to this fire was the Gurudakshina (a teacher’s reward) Dronacharya asked for. He asked both the Pandavas and Kauravas to attack the kingdom of Panchala. Panchala’s ruler King Drupada had once insulted Drona and now Drona wanted his revenge. Kauravas failed in capturing Panchala but Pandavas, who had learned from the mistakes of Kauravas, succeeded.
After accepting his defeat, Drupada invited the princes of the Kuru clan to the swayamvar of his daughter Draupadi. Swayamvar was a ritual where a princess selected her future husband. Draupadi was considered the most beautiful woman of her time. Princes were asked to shoot the eye of a wooden fish rotating above a pool of water by just looking at its reflection. Duryodhana failed miserably and was mocked by Draupadi. Karna, a great warrior who had the skill to do it, was insulted and forfeited by Draupadi for not being of royal blood. In the end, it was Arjuna who did it and married Draupadi.
Duryodhana and Karna pledged to take revenge for their insults.
Arjuna took Draupadi to his mother and asked her to guess what he had brought for her. Kunti casually asked him to divide whatever he has with her brothers, expecting a hunt. Hence Draupadi was married to all five of the Pandava brothers.
Shakuni came up with a plan to take revenge on Draupadi and remove the Pandavas from the competition for the throne. Shakuni had dice that were made from his dead father’s bones. Those were magically under Shakuni’s command. So he asked Duryodhana to invite Yudhisthira for a game of Chaupar (an ancient Indian dice game). Chaupar was a royal game as it required betting. Yudhisthira came along with Pandavas and Draupadi and started playing the game. But with Shakuni’s power, he slowly started losing everything. He first lost his lands and then the lands of his brothers. Then to the horrors of everyone, he even put his brothers as a bet and lost them. The likes of Bhisma and Dronacharya tried stopping Yudhisthira from playing furthermore but he was amended to win everything back. The final nail in the coffin was the betting on Draupadi and losing her. Bhisma’s chair cracked under his arm in helplessness.
This is what the Kauravas had planned for. Duryodhana instructed his brother Dussasana to bring Draupadi in front of the court as a slave. Dussasana not only dragged Draupadi to the court but also started disrobing her. Nobody in the courtroom moved. With his divine power, Krishna kept producing Saree for Draupadi, and for all his effort, Dussasana could not disrobe her.
Vikarna, Vidura, and Yuyutsu were the only ones who tried stopping Duryodhana but failed. So they went and requested King Dhritarashtra to interfere. At once Dhritarashtra stopped the heinous act and freed Draupadi and Pandava brothers from the bet. But to keep the legitimacy of the game he didn’t return their land. As Yudhisthira was walking off, he was invited for one last game. If he wins, the land will be given back, but the Pandavas would go on a 13-year exile if he loses. Yudhisthira, a man of righteousness, wanted to make it up to his brothers and Draupadi. Hence he played the game. And lost.
Many important incidents happened during these years of exile. Bheema had a child with the demon Hidimba. The child was named Ghatotkach. Arjuna honed his archery skills and achieved many celestial weapons. Their children were raised safely in Panchala. Krishna tells them about the cheating done by Shakuni. He wants them to be ready for a war. To win the war, the Pandavas first do the Tirth Yatra, a Hindu pilgrimage of four devotional sites. Then they spend the final year in King Virat’s kingdom to gain an alliance. After the completion of exile, Arjun’s son Abhimanyu is married to Virat’s daughter.
Pandavas along with Krishna returned to Hastinapur. Krishna asked for just five villages for five brothers. This much should be enough to satisfy Pandavas, he said. But Duryodhana arrogantly denies giving a single piece of his land to Pandavas.
With no other options left, Krishna declares the start of Mahabharata, the war for the right to rule.
The war was fought for righteousness or Dharma. Hence everyone was free to choose the side they believed was right. There was no obligation of the bloodline. Both Arjuna and Duryodhana wanted Krishna on their side. Krishna decided that one can have him and the other his army. The ignorant Duryodhana chose Krishna’s army over Krishna.
The war took place in the fields of Kurukshetra. It lasted for 18 days. It was full of deceit, trickery, sacrifice, tragedy, and sorrow. From the likes of 16-year-old Abhimanyu to centuries-old Bhisma, close to 4 million soldiers lost their lives. All 100 sons of Gandhari perished.
The dilemma of this tragedy and loss had stopped Arjuna from fighting his brothers for a piece of land. For which Krishna had bestowed the knowledge of Gita, on Arjuna.
The moral of this epic is in its epilogue. Yudhisthira is the last Pandava to die and goes to heaven. Surprisingly he finds Duryodhana sitting on a throne and asks the God of death Yama for justification. Yama answers that Duryodhana was not a completely evil man. He was a great king, a great friend, and died fighting an honourable fight. He had paid his repentance for the bad deeds and hence is now in heaven.
Yudhisthira understands that everyone is bound to the laws of karma. Even Krishna could not outrun it. When Gandhari came to know about the complete annihilation of his lineage he cursed Krishna to experience the same fate. Krishna’s clan died fighting each other and his kingdom Dwarika sank under the ocean. Krishna’s death too happened as a result of karma. Bali, whom Ram had killed by hiding in the bushes, reincarnates as a hunter and kills Krishna from the bushes.
Every character in the Mahabharata was flawed. But they all completed their circle of karmic balance. Hence, Karma and Dharma were the only two heroes of Mahabharata, if there were any. And with this story, generations upon generations have passed down this basic belief system of Hinduism for thousands of years now.