The Mahabharata is an epic narrative of the Kurukshetra War and the fates of the Kaurava and the Pandava princes. It also contains philosophical and devotional material, such as a discussion of the four “goals of life” or purusharthas (12.161). Among the principal works and stories in the Mahabharata are the Bhagavad Gita, the story of Damayanti, an abbreviated version of the Ramayana, and the Rishyasringa, often considered as works in their own right.
The Mahabharata is the longest known epic poem and has been described as “the longest poem ever written”. 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 roughly 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 in the context of world civilization to that of the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, the works of Homer, Greek drama, or the Qur’an.
he 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 describes 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 frametales, popular in many Indian religious and non-religious works. It is recited by the sage Vaisampayana, a disciple of Vyasa, to the King Janamejaya who is the great-grandson of the Pandava prince Arjuna. The story is then recited again by a professional storyteller named Ugrasrava Sauti, many years later, to an assemblage of sages performing the 12-year sacrifice for the king Saunaka Kulapati in the Naimisha Forest.
The earliest known references to the Mahabharata and its core Bharata date to the Ashtadhyayi (sutra 6.2.38) of Pāṇini (fl. 4th century BCE) and in the Ashvalayana Grhyasutra (3.4.4). This may mean the core 24,000 verses, known as the Bharata, as well as an early version of the extended Mahabharata, were composed by the 4th century BCE. A report by the Greek writer Dio Chrysostom (c. 40 – c. 120 CE) about Homer‘s poetry being sung even in India seems to imply that the Iliad had been translated into Sanskrit. However, Indian scholars have, in general, taken this as evidence for the existence of a Mahabharata at this date, whose episodes Dio or his sources identify with the story of the Iliad.
Several stories within the Mahabharata took on separate identities of their own in Classical Sanskrit literature. For instance, Abhijñānashākuntala by the renowned Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa (c. 400 CE), believed to have lived in the era of the Gupta dynasty, is based on a story that is the precursor to the Mahabharata. Urubhanga, a Sanskrit play written by Bhāsa who is believed to have lived before Kālidāsa, is based on the slaying of Duryodhana by the splitting of his thighs by Bhima.
The 18 parvas or books
The division into 18 parvas is as follows:
|1||Adi Parva (The Book of the Beginning)||1–19||How the Mahabharata came to be narrated by Sauti to the assembled rishis at Naimisharanya, after having been recited at the sarpasattra of Janamejaya by Vaishampayana at Takṣaśilā. The history and genealogy of the Bharata and Bhrigu races is recalled, as is the birth and early life of the Kuru princes (adi means first).|
|2||Sabha Parva (The Book of the Assembly Hall)||20–28||Maya Danava erects the palace and court (sabha), at Indraprastha. Life at the court, Yudhishthira‘s Rajasuya Yajna, the game of dice, the disrobing of Pandava wife Draupadi and eventual exile of the Pandavas.|
|3||Vana Parva also Aranyaka-parva, Aranya-parva (The Book of the Forest)||29–44||The twelve years of exile in the forest (aranya).|
|4||Virata Parva (The Book of Virata)||45–48||The year spent incognito at the court of Virata.|
|5||Udyoga Parva (The Book of the Effort)||49–59||Preparations for war and efforts to bring about peace between the Kaurava and the Pandava sides which eventually fail (udyoga means effort or work).|
|6||Bhishma Parva (The Book of Bhishma)||60–64||The first part of the great battle, with Bhishma as commander for the Kaurava and his fall on the bed of arrows. (Includes the Bhagavad Gita in chapters 25-42.)|
|7||Drona Parva (The Book of Drona)||65–72||The battle continues, with Drona as commander. This is the major book of the war. Most of the great warriors on both sides are dead by the end of this book.|
|8||Karna Parva (The Book of Karna)||73||The continuation of the battle with Karna as commander of the Kaurava forces.|
|9||Shalya Parva (The Book of Shalya)||74–77||The last day of the battle, with Shalya as commander. Also told in detail, is the pilgrimage of Balarama to the fords of the river Saraswati and the mace fight between Bhima and Duryodhana which ends the war, since Bhima kills Duryodhana by smashing him on the thighs with a mace.|
|10||Sauptika Parva (The Book of the Sleeping Warriors)||78–80||Ashvattama, Kripa and Kritavarma kill the remaining Pandava army in their sleep. Only 7 warriors remain on the Pandava side and 3 on the Kaurava side.|
|11||Stri Parva (The Book of the Women)||81–85||Gandhari and the women (stri) of the Kauravas and Pandavas lament the dead and Gandhari cursing Krishna for the massive destruction and the extermination of the Kaurava.|
|12||Shanti Parva (The Book of Peace)||86–88||The crowning of Yudhishthira as king of Hastinapura, and instructions from Bhishma for the newly anointed king on society, economics and politics. This is the longest book of the Mahabharata. Kisari Mohan Ganguli considers this Parva as a later interpolation.’|
|13||Anushasana Parva (The Book of the Instructions)||89–90||The final instructions (anushasana) from Bhishma.|
|14||Ashvamedhika Parva (The Book of the Horse Sacrifice)||91–92||The royal ceremony of the Ashvamedha (Horse sacrifice) conducted by Yudhishthira. The world conquest by Arjuna. The Anugita is told by Krishna to Arjuna.|
|15||Ashramavasika Parva (The Book of the Hermitage)||93–95||The eventual deaths of Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti in a forest fire when they are living in a hermitage in the Himalayas. Vidura predeceases them and Sanjaya on Dhritarashtra’s bidding goes to live in the higher Himalayas.|
|16||Mausala Parva (The Book of the Clubs)||96||The materialisation of Gandhari’s curse, i.e., the infighting between the Yadavas with maces (mausala) and the eventual destruction of the Yadavas.|
|17||Mahaprasthanika Parva (The Book of the Great Journey)||97||The great journey of Yudhishthira, his brothers and his wife Draupadi across the whole country and finally their ascent of the great Himalayas where each Pandava falls except for Yudhishthira.|
|18||Svargarohana Parva (The Book of the Ascent to Heaven)||98||Yudhishthira’s final test and the return of the Pandavas to the spiritual world (svarga).|
|khila||Harivamsa Parva (The Book of the Genealogy of Hari)||99–100||This is an addendum to the 18 books, and covers those parts of the life of Krishna which is not covered in the 18 parvas of the Mahabharata.|