Category Archives: b. The Mahabharata

The Mahabharata (General Overview)

The Mahabharata is the longest epic poem in the world and along with the Ramayana, is one of the two most significant and influential pieces of Hindu literature ever composed. Traditionally Hindu beliefs have credited the Vedic master Vyasa with the authorship of the Mahabharata, however most modern scholars agree that many portions of the epic were composed by others (Fitzgerald 804-805). Due to the amount of interpolation in the Mahabharata it is not possible to determine precisely when it was composed though most place its origins sometime in 5th century BCE with the most recent alterations made sometime in 4th century CE.

The central story of the Mahabharata tells the tale of five princely brothers known as the Pandavas and their many exploits. The most significant of these is a feud between their cousins the Kauruvas over the right to rule the kingdom, a conflict which eventually leads to a full scale war. The story itself is said to have taken place at the beginning of the kali yuga, the last of the four ages in the cycle of the universe. It is believed among those who follow Hindu traditions that the kali yuga is a time of great chaos and ignorance of Dharma, with fighting and violence between members of the same family. Indeed the central tale of the Mahabharata tells of a great war between two sets of cousins as they fight over the right to rule a kingdom. This struggle acts as a personification of the very nature of kali yuga (Bailey 415) and is also said to mark the beginning of this final stage of the cosmic cycle.

The actions of the Pandavas, and in particular the always dharmicly minded eldest brother Yudhisthira, serve as an example of proper conduct within the Hindu tradition and are often regarded both within the text and in Hindu society as the ideal approach to living one’s life. One early demonstration of Yudhisthira’s dharmic nature reveals itself during a dice game against the Kauruvas. Since gambling is seen as an acceptable activity by the warrior caste who regularly allow their own survival to be determined by fate Yudhisthira’s actions are not seen as adharmic, even when he loses his kingdom and wife to the Kauruvas over the course of the game. In fact by giving up their kingdom and placing themselves into exile for thirteen years the Pandavas actions are regarded as being very dharmic as they were upholding the agreement they had made with the Kauruvas. By contrast the actions of the Kauruvas act as an example of adharmic action. After the thirteen year exile the Pandavas returned for their half of the kingdom as had been agreed upon at the beginning of the period of exile. The Kauruvas however “refused to grant their cousins even five small villages,” thus breaking the vows they had made earlier. Later the Mahabharata demonstrates Yudhisthira’s inability to lie even when doing so was a necessary part of Krsna’s war strategy [he was able to overcome this problem by telling a half-truth, albeit with great difficulty,] and his unwillingness to abandon his family even when he was made to believe they were going to spend an eternity in hell for their adharmic actions on the battlefield. This strict adherence to dharma allows Yudhisthira to enter into heaven and shows the positive consequences that come from living a dharmic life.

In addition to the tale of conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauruvas the Mahabharata contains several other notable stories which are sometimes regarded as individual works within the larger epic. In the tale of Nala and Damayanti, two lovers anger the god Kali when Damayanti chooses to wed Nala instead of him. Eventually Nala loses his kingdom to his brother in a game of dice, though he is later able to win it back. The similarities between this story and the overall tale of the Mahabharata are numerous, including the practice of bridegroom choice as a major component of the tale and a prince losing his kingdom in a game of dice. The tale of Nala and Damayanti can be said to encapsulate the message of the Mahabharata as a whole (Pave 101) The Krsnavatara tells the life story of the prince Krsna, a family friend of the Pandavas and an incarnation of the god Visnu. Krsna would go on to play a significant role in the Pandava’s war as their advisor and his counsel would prove indispensable during the fighting.

The most influential passages from the Mahabharata are found in the Bhagavad Gita, a text that is 700 verses in length. The Bhagavad Gita tells of the Pandava brother Arjuna and his moral dilemma the night before engaging the Kauruva army in battle. Riding between the two armies with Krsna as his charioteer Arjuna sees family, friends and other loved ones who he will be fighting in the upcoming battles and in a moment of despair refuses to slay anyone, even if doing so would cost him his own life. It is at this point that Krsna reveals himself to be an avatar of the god Visnu and explains to Arjuna that any death brought about by the battle would ultimately be inconsequential as the soul is permanent and cannot be destroyed. He also tells Arjuna that he must be victorious in the upcoming battles in order to maintain Dharma in the world. Because the Pandavas represent dharmic principles a victory over the adharmic Kauruvas will shift the cosmic balance back in favour of Dharma.

In his counsel of Arjuna, Krsna lectures on many topics including the nature of Dharma, Brahman, and Karma and also tells of three yogic paths that may be used to achieve samadhi. First amoungst the yogic paths mentioned is Karma Yoga, conveyed as a means of attaining moksa through strict adherence to dharmic principles and selfless action. Later Krsna teaches Jnana Yoga, or the path of knowledge, a means of achieving enlightenment by ceaseless pursuit of understanding and proper segregation of one’s and kshetra-jna (or soul) and kshetra (or body). Lastly Krsna tells of Bhakti Yoga, which centers on complete devotion of one’s self to god through love and purity of intention. Since the writing of the Mahabharata these three yogic principles have been adopted by the followers of Hindu tradition and used as a means of attaining enlightenment.

After convincing Arjuna that it upcoming battle is necessary, Krsna begins his role as military advisor for the Pandavas when the war begins the next day. Though outnumbered and facing some very powerful adversaries the Pandavas are able to win many battles, largely through Krsna’s aid. However many of Krsna’s strategies rely on deceit or trickery. The dharmic brothers, especially Yudhisthira, disagree with these methods but Krsna tells them the adharmic nature of these acts is not as important as winning the battle and restoring the world to a more dharmic existence. Eventually, after many long battles and slaying many loved ones the Pandavas are victorious.

The war that is fought between the Pandavas and the Kauruvas is regarded by the Mahabharata as a battle between the dharmic and the adharmic forces of nature (Hiltebeitel 184-185). However it is also implied that this battle is also a metaphor for the moral struggles that take place within each of us.


Bailey, Gregory. (2005) “The Mahābhārata and the Yugas: India’s Great Epic Poem and the Hindu System of World Ages.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. Jul-

Sep, Vol. 125 Issue 3, p 415-417.

Fitzgerald, James L. (2003) “The many voices of the Mahābhārata” Journal of the American Oriental Society 123 no. 4 O-D, p 803-818.

Hiltebeitel, Alf. (2004) “Destiny and Human Initiative in the Mahabharata.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. Jan-Mar, Vol. 124 Issue 1, p184-186.

Pave, Adam D. (2006) “Rolling the Cosmic Dice: Fate Found in the Story of Nala and Damayanti.” Asian Philosophy, Vol. 16 Issue 2, p 99-109.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Pandavas

The Kauruvas


Bhagavad Gita





















Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Dana Orpin (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.


In Hindu mythology, few women stand out as much as the character of Draupadi. Draupadi is the wife of the five Pandava princes in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata; she is a heroine who is unpredictable, unwavering and who could also possess the austerity of a traditional Hindu wife. Many see Draupadi as an early feminist because of her fearlessness in admonishing those who harmed her or her family. Draupadi existed in a time when a woman’s role was to serve her husband. As Dr. Vanamala Bhawalkar states “[in] Draupadi’s Era, there was no question of women’s equality with men. The wife was the counterpart of her husband and both together became a complete person. As Milton had said “He for God and she for the God in him” was true in those days.”(150) The unique relationship between Draupadi and her husbands is what makes her story so exceptional. Draupadi, the wife of the mighty Pandava brothers was anything but a conventional wife; she was smart, bold and would often lead her husbands into action.

There are few women that compete with the beauty of Draupadi; all those that met her adored her. Her beauty was so great that she delighted all of the human senses. Alf Hiltbeitel states this of her beauty: “[T]he very sight of her was magnetic due to her irresistible beauty and fragrance”(Hiltebeitel 267). Draupadi’s beauty would gain her much attention, but it is her ability to balance her beauty with the desirable traits of a wife that gain her such devotion. However, as Bhawalkar notes, it was not only her beauty that won her praise: “Yudhisthira said that she was such that any man would desire and that she never committed any sin. Bhima equaled her to the ancient famous wives. Her mother-in-law Kunti praised her for the virtues and her laudable behavior with all her husbands”(Bhawalkar 141). Draupadi was as skilled in the arts of being a woman, and everything that was associated with womanhood, as she was gifted in beauty. Her opinions were well respected and supported by her family due to her vast knowledge of many subjects. Unlike many women in her era, Draupadi’s father, Drupada, allowed Draupadi to be educated. Bhawalkar comments on Draupadi’s education: “Drupada had engaged learned Brahmanas for the education of his sons. Draupadi also joined them and became an expert in Political Science”(Bhawalkar 3). It is possible that the unique qualities that Draupadi possessed, such as strength and audacity, are a result of being educated. Having such a complete education would have given Draupadi a sense of confidence unfamiliar to most women. Also Draupadi was quick to learn and thirsted for knowledge; she had a keen memory and had a vast knowledge on many subjects. Bhawalkar comments on the success of Draupadi as a student: “She became known as Pandita (learned and wise) and grew up a charming maiden admired by all”(Bhawalkar 4). Bhawalkar affirms that these attributes are a part of why Draupadi was so well liked and respected. Her intellect and knowledge did not however hinder her ability to be a dutiful wife. “Draupadi was a devoted wife, chaste, religious minded and adhering to duty. Her integrity and fidelity were admirable. She was always careful to please her husbands, served not only them but even their wives”(Bhawalkar 142). Draupadi was concerned with the common good of all her family and believed that a family functioned best as a whole unit. Draupadi was so devoted to her husbands that she followed them into exile and a life without lavishes. Sandy Sutherland notes that in exile she is depicted as: “having suffered great insult, but faithfully following her husbands into exile and enduring the hardships of the forest. It is from these scenes, and not from her life in the palace, that we learn of the real character of Draupadi”(Sutherland 68). She was quick to see the benefit of her polygamous lifestyle and was able to take all obstacles in stride. Draupadi possessed the desirable traits of many women, and was able to use these traits to influence and control. Draupadi had a great understanding of the balance between being bold and forthright, and being submissive and dutiful.

Of all the parts in the Mahabharata that include Draupadi, the story of Draupadi’s Cheer-Haran remains the most vivid. This is an important event because it is one of the main reasons for the Mahabharata war, and it is also a breaking point for Draupadi. The climax of this event is when Draupadi is dragged into court after Yudhisthira had lost her in a bet to the Kauravas, along with all of his wealth and kingdom. The character Dushsasana, one of the Kaurava brothers, attempts to strip off Draupadi’s sari. However, Draupadi prays to Krsna and he works a miracle to prevent her sari from running out of layers. Draupadi is humiliated by this and is angered by the Pandavas inability or reluctance to help her. It is her reaction to this abhorrence that we see Draupadi’s bravery, as she reprimands those around her in the court. Bimal Krishna Matilal comments on her courage: “Draupadi had presence of mind and fearlessness even during calamities. She could rebuke and threaten the Kauravas, Jayadratha and Kicaka for molesting her and was bold enough to argue with the members of the assemblies of the Kuras and also Virata”(Matilal 143). It is Draupadi’s reaction to situations like these that set her apart from her husbands; she is often the first to react to any injustices and is a visibly powerful figure often controlling the Pandavas. Sutherland comments on the power that Draupadi possesses in this incident: “The episode is ironic, though. During the scene we are made aware that the beautiful Draupadi is possessed also of quick wit and a clever tongue. Her ability at debate is soon demonstrated, and at the conclusion of the episode, we realize that her wit has saved her husbands from impending slavery”(Sutherland 67). The Pandavas recognize what Draupadi is capable of and listen to her. Because she possesses such vast knowledge on politics, the Pandavas are inclined to listen to her and frequently rely upon her for decision-making. This is not to say that Draupadi was invincible, she was greatly affected by conflict and would become emotional. Bhawalkar comments the on emotional side of Draupadi: “Draupadi, unlike the mythological goddess or the ideal heroines of our ancient literature, was quite human with human emotions and feelings like anger, love, hate, happiness and grief. Her life was full of ups and downs and she maintained her dignity in both the situations”(Bhawalkar 141). It is Draupadi’s ability to overcome adversity in a venerable manner that sets her apart from other women. In the Mahabharata she proves that no situation is insurmountable, and she never abandons her husbands, regardless of the positions they lead her into.

After the incident at the court of the Kurus, Draupadi emerges as a much more powerful character and this is seen in the interactions with her husbands. Bhawalkar remarks on Draupadi’s relationship with her husbands: “Draupadi was not a dumb follower of her husbands. She had her own individuality. Though soft speaking she used harsh words to her husbands and others when necessary”(Bhawalkar 143). This boldness is what sets her apart from other women in the epics. The Pandavas are accepting of this treatment possibly because they feel guilt for their abandonment of Draupadi at the court, or possibly because they truly trust in her decisions. The Pandavas often looked to Draupadi for guidance and approval. Draupadi was in many ways equal to her husbands and they desired her respect. Despite the fact that Draupadi eventually forgives her husbands, she is left with a desire for vengeance, and is quick to seek revenge on those who offend her or her family. Draupadi begins to be recognized for this aggressive attitude and her enemies are wary of her power. Enemies knew that Draupadi had a great influence on the Pandavas and she was feared because of her vast knowledge on all things moral. “She could argue forcibly to win her point with apt quotations and illustrations from her fund of knowledge on various subjects like righteousness, duties and codes of conduct for the four Varnas (castes), moral, legal and ethical codes and was called Dharmajna, Dharmadarsini”(Bhawalkar 141). Although Draupadi was desperate for revenge on those who harmed her, her distinction between right and wrong was rarely clouded and she was often in pursuit of justice.

Draupadi’s distinction among other women from the epics is paramount and well deserved; she was far ahead of her time, often found commanding her husbands to do her bidding. It is her ability to use her position with responsibility and insight that show her true power as a woman. Dr. Bhawalkar summarizes Draupadi’s unique qualities:

Yet the superb qualities of Draupadi like steadfast devotion to duty, spirit of self sacrifice, fortitude; courage, capacity for hard work, presence of mind, perseverance, endurance, thirst for knowledge, wisdom to discriminate between right and wrong and strength to fight against injustice, truth, modesty, forgiveness, softness and harshness as the occasion demanded – these and such other qualities seen in Draupadi’s life are universal and beyond the limit of time and space. (Bhawalkar 151)

Draupadi’s fearlessness and uncompromising nature makes her of great importance in the history of mythological women and of women today.


Bhawalkar, V. (2002) Eminent Women in the Mahabharata. Delhi: Sharada Publishing


Hiltebeitel, Alf. (1988) The Cult of Draupadi Volume 1. Chicago: University of Chicago


Matilal, Bimal Krishna. (1989) Moral Dilemmas In The Mahabharata. India: Shri

Jainendra Press.

Sutherland, Sally J (1989) “Sita and Draupadi: Aggressive Behavior and Female Role-

Models in the Sanskrit Epics.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 109,

no. 1 (Jan. – Mar.): 63-79.

Related Topics














Indian Feminism

Related Websites

Written by Chloe Grant (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Related Readings (Mahabharata)

Buck, William (1973) Mahabharata. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Buitenen, J. A. B. (1973-8)The Mahabharata, 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fitzgerald, James L. (2004) The Mahabharata, Vol 7. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mahabharata, Critical Edition, 22 vols. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1933-1978.

Narayan, R. K. (1978) The Mahabharata. New York: Viking.

Rajagopalachari, C. (trans.) (1958) Mahabharata. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

On the Mahabharata and its Tradition

Bessinger, M., and J. Tylus (eds.) (1999) Epic Traditions in the Contemporary World. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dumézil, George (1973) The Destiny of a King. Alf Hiltebeitel (trans.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hiltebeitel, Alf (1999) Rethinking India’s Oral and Classical Epics: Draupadi among Rajputs, Muslims, and Dalits. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

_____ (2001) Rethinking the Mahabharata: A Reader’s Guide to the Education of the Dharma-King. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

_____ (1988) The Cult of Draupadi, Vol. I. Mythologies: From Gingee to Kuruksetra. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

_____ (1991) The Cult of Draupadi, Vol. II. On Hindu Ritual and the Goddess. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

O’Connor, Garry (1990) The Mahabharata: Peter Brook’s Epic in the Making. San Francisco: Mercury House, Inc.

Sullivan, Bruce (1990) Krsna Dvaipayana Vyasa and the Mahabharata: A New Interpretation. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Sukthankar, V. S. (1957) On the Meaning of the Mahabharata. Bombay: Asiatic Society.

Williams, David (1991) Peter Brook and The Mahabharata. London: Routledge.