Category Archives: The Mahabharata


Drona was an important figure in the Mahabharata epic. First was his role in teaching the warring cousins, the Pandavas and Kauravas, in the arts of war, and then fighting in a battle with them on opposite sides. His death is also very important and has an entire section of the epic devoted to it; he is a central figure because of his influence over the two main characters of the story. Drona was a Brahmin by birth, but was also a master in the arts of war and he was the best archer in his time. He took up a position to teach these arts to the “grandsons” of Bhisma who were the Pandavas and Kauravas. The Pandavas and Kauravas were cousins who were always trying to best each other in anything they did, and both groups were taught by Drona.  Drona’s main part in the Mahabharata occurs when the Pandavas wage war on the Kauravas for banishing them into the forest, after the Kauravas cheated the Pandavas in a game of dice (Menon volume 1:2-4).  Drona fights alongside the Kauravas in a bloody battle against his former students, and he is eventually killed (Ly 134-137). Drona’s story actually begins well before he was a great master warrior and had no wealth to his name.

After the birth of his son Asvatthama, Drona set off in the hopes to gain wealth for his family, by becoming the finest archer of his time.  He first travelled to Mahendra Mountain, where he had heard that Parasurama Bhargava was giving away all of his possessions.  Unfortunately, when Drona reached the top, he was informed by Parasurama that he had already given away everything (Menon volume 1:110-111).  He then travelled to the Pancala kingdom where Drupada, an old friend and former student of his father, was king. When Drona was young and Drupada was still a prince, the two became close friends and Drupada had once told Drona, “when I am King, you must come and live with me in my palace.  My kingdom will be yours as much as it is mine.  Only, we must be friends forever” (Menon volume 1:110).  To Drona’s surprise when he met with Drupada, the king would not help him and cast him aside.  After being humiliated by the king, Drona, Asvatthama, and his wife Kripa went and lived with Bhisma – Drona’s brother in-law.  After a few weeks, Bhisma told Drona that he wanted him to be the martial arts master of his grandchildren and have the wealth that he wanted. He also told him that one-day would stand with Bhisma against the Pancala kingdom even if it meant war. (Menon volume 1:113).

After coming into this newfound position, Drona would start to teach the grandsons of Bhisma, although he is not the biological grandfather since he is celibate; he is more like the granduncle to the Pandavas and Kauravas.  Although, before he started to train them, he asked them to promise him that they would help him accomplish a mission that was close to his heart and that if they did, he would make them great Ksatriyas (warriors); without hesitation they agreed. (Menon volume 1:114).  One of the Pandava princes, Arjuna, became Drona’s star pupil and the greatest archer that he had ever known.  This is for a few reasons, one, Arjuna was the only prince that was allowed to shoot a wooden bird out of a tree since he saw only the bird and nothing else (Menon volume 1:117-119).  Secondly, because he also saved Drona’s life, he was bathing in the river Ganga and a crocodile tried to attack him, but before it could, Arjuna shot it through the eye and heart.  This was the moment Drona said Arjuna would be the greatest archer in the world (Menon volume 1:120-121).  This caused the Kauravas princes to feel upset although they did not say anything.

After many years of training, Drona and his students went to fight Drupada, as this was the mission that Drona’s students had promised to help him accomplish. After a long battle they all defeated Drupada, and with Arjuna’s sword at Drupada’s throat and the ability to kill him, Drona recognized Drupada’s loyalty and forgave him (Menon volume 1:157).  Drona only did so because of their long and old friendship. As a sign of good faith, he gave Drupada half of his lands back and the two became friends again.  Drupada had his own ulterior motives behind becoming friends with Drona.  He had noticed that Arjuna was the greatest warrior he had ever seen and that he wanted him to wed one of his daughters.  He hoped that they might have a son who would one day kill Drona for what he had done that day (Menon volume 1:157).  For the time being the two remained at peace.  Drona ruled the northern Pancala lands and Drupada ruled the remainder of his lands from Kampilya (Menon volume 1:157). Peace, however, did not last forever; due to events at the palace, the Pandavas were exiled to the forest by the Kauravas.

When the Great War described in the Mahabharata ensued, Drona, Asvatthama, and Bhisma fought with the Kauravas in Duryodhana’s armies, while Arjuna and the Pandavas fought against them (Stewart 113).  During the battle, Drona fought halfheartedly against his former students. He said that the only way he would be able to defeat the Pandava’s army was if Arjuna was removed from the battlefield (Pilikian 17). Knowing this, one of the king’s stepped forward, offering Arjuna a challenge he could not refuse, so that Drona could then defeat the army (Pilikian 17).  Drona and Bhisma were chosen to lead the chariots to victory against the Pandava’s archers.  Unfortunately, Bhisma was killed and Drona was appointed commander of Duryodhana’s armies (Pilikian 63).  According to The Mahabharata, with Drona as leader of the army, and Arjuna off the battlefield, Drona ‘unleashed his divine arsenal and the Pandavas and Srinjayas were eclipsed beneath his attacks as he went reeving through them like Indra among demons’ (Pilikian 75).  Drona “was like a tiger amongst men in the fight”, although he did have remorse and sympathy for the men he was killing, he felt that the fate they suffered was underserved (Pilikian 89).  Throughout the battle there were Pandavas soldiers all around Drona yelling “kill Drona, kill Drona” or the war is lost (Menon Volume 2:228).

In order to win the battle, Drona tried to capture Yudhisthira [to try and trick him into a game of dice so they could banish them back to the forest] (Menon volume 2:219). However after Drona killed many Pandava soldiers in order to get close enough to him, Yudhisthira leapt nimbly from his chariot, mounted the swiftest horse he can find and fled (Menon volume 2: 227).  In an attempt to capture Yudhisthira again, Duryodhana, (king of the Kauravas) devised another plan to distract Arjuna so Drona might capture Yudhisthira (Menon volume 2:224-224).  Once again this plan failed, but this time it was due to Arjuna’s son.  Yudhisthira used him to break the Kaurava’s defenses and this lead to Drona and five other warriors to face him (Menon volume 2:228-240).  Arjuna’s son was much more powerful than Drona and his men had anticipated and Karna [another warrior of Drona’s] feared that if they didn’t kill him they would all die (Menon volume 2:244-245).  Drona and his men had a long, grueling battle against Arjuna’s son, but in the end they sever his bow string, break his bow, kill his horses, his two guards, and then kill him with hundreds of arrows (Menon volume 2:243-246).

Then Drona, during a point in the battle when the fighting had stopped, sat alone at the edge of the field of death and a profound sense of doom came upon him.  He thought about Drupada and tears rolled down his face (Menon volume 2:331-332).  He remembered of how Drupada prayed for a son to kill him and now that he had killed Arjuna’s son, it was only a matter of time before Arjuna would come after him and try to kill him (Menon volume 2:332-333).  This introduces us to the dramatic death of Drona, which occurs in the Drona Parva part of the Mahabharata epic.  In order to kill Drona the Pandava’s king, Yudhisthira, lied to Drona saying that his son had been killed in a bloody battle (Ly 134).  When Drona heard that his son had been killed, his spirit was broken and the will to fight left him and he laid down his bow (Menon volume 2:341).  Before Drona could be killed, however, he picked up another bow and commenced to fight once again.  Drona was fear embodied once again.  His body was full of an uncanny light (Menon 2:342).  Earlier in the epic, Drona had killed three of Bhīma’s sons while he was trying to reach Drupada to kill him.  Now with Drona fighting for one last time to avenge his son’s death, Bhima, in disgust, yelled at him that although he was born a Brahmin he has now become a butcher (Menon volume 2:342-343).  These words finally made Drona cast aside his bow.  The war paused and Drona yelled, “I will not fight anymore, Drona’s war has ended, the rest is left to you”(Menon volume 2:343).  Sitting down in his chariot with his legs crossed Drona then shut his eyes and “yokes his spirit”, surrendering his greater self.  While this is happening Bhima jumped from his chariot and ran at Drona (Menon volume 2:343).  Arjuna wanted to take Drona alive but, could not stop Bhima, who was grieving for the loss of his sons and bent on vengeance, with a swing of his sword Bhima severed Drona’s head from his body, leaving him a lifeless corpse (Menon volume 2: 341-343).



Pilikian, Vaughan (2006) Mahabharata: Drona Volume 1. New York: New York University Press.

Ly, Boreth. (2003). “Narrating the Deaths of Drona and Bhurisravas at the Baphuon.” Arts Asiatiques 58. 134–37.

Menon, Ramesh (2006) The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering (volume 1). New york, Lincoln, Shanghai: iUniverse, Inc.

Menon, Ramesh (2006) The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering (volume 2). New york, Lincoln, Shanghai: iUniverse, Inc.

Stewart, Frank. (2010). “The Mahabharata and Andha Yug: A Brief Summary.” Manoa 22 (1). 111–14.


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Article written by: Adam Geib (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.




Karna is an important figure in the Mahabharata Epic, which reputedly took place at the start of the Kali Yuga. The Mahabharata tells the story about a war between the five Pandava brothers and the Kaurava brothers. Karna was born to Kunti, the mother of the five Pandava brothers, and the Sun god Surya. Karna was born with an impenetrable armor and golden earrings which made him invincible. At the time of Karna’s birth, Kunti was unmarried and a virgin. As Kunti was an unmarried princess when she had Karna, she abandoned him in the Asva River, where he was found by, and adopted by Adhiratha and Radha, who were a charioteer (suta) couple. The couple raised him as their own son and named him Vasusena (see McGrath 28; Adarkar 4).

While growing up, Karna always used to pray to the Sun god and was generous to brahmins. He made a vow that he would always give alms to brahmins who approached him regardless of what their requirements were. One day, while Karna was praying to the Sun god, Indra, the god of thunder, came to Karna disguised as a brahmin and asked Karna to give him his armor and earrings as a gift. Even though Karna knew that this was a trick by Indra, he kept his promise and submitted his armor and earrings to Indra. Due to his actions, he earned the name of Vaikartana, “the flayed”, and received an infallible spear from Indra which would kill anyone it hit, but could only be used once (see Bryant 26).

As a young man, Karna was an exceptional warrior whose skills were equal to that of Arjuna. To learn the arts of warfare, Karna approached Dronacarya, the famous teacher of Arjuna. Drona refused to teach Karna because of his status as a suta. As his attempt to be Drona’s student did not work out, Karna left in search of the great brahmin warrior sage, Rama Jamadagni (see McGrath 29). Afraid of being rejected as a student due to his status of a suta, Karna disguised himself as a brahmin and sought Rama Jamadagni’s guidance. Under Rama Jamadagni’s guidance, Karna learned all the arts of warfare. One day, while his master was taking a nap on his lap, Indra, in the form of a bee, stung Karna until he started bleeding. Upon waking, Rama Jamadagni found out that Karna was not a brahmin and cursed Karna, stating “may he forget the weapon at the time he will be killed”. During his training Karna mistakenly killed a brahmin’s cow and the brahmin cursed him, saying “may the earth swallow his wheel at a time of greatest peril” (see Bryant 26). Later in his life, these two curses played a major role during his time in the Mahabharata.

Even though Karna was an exceptionally strong warrior and the only one who could match Arjuna, his status of a suta came in the way of showing his prowess. As Karna grew, his hate for the Pandava brothers grew, especially Arjuna. During an archery contest, Karna decided that he wanted to challenge Arjuna and see who the better archer was. Instead of accepting the challenge, Arjuna insulted Karna by calling him a suta and refused to accept his challenge. Infuriated, Karna vowed to kill his step brother. Throughout the Mahabharata, Karna is shown to best Arjuna in battle even when Arjuna had Krsna as his charioteer. Karna’s charioteer, Salya, demoralized Arjuna, trying to demolish his will to fight (See Adarkar 202-203; De Bruin and Brakel-Papenyzen 52). Even Arjuna’s father, Indra, believed that Karna was a major threat to Arjuna. Indra aided his son, by obtaining Karna’s armor, which made him invincible, and by creating Ghatotkaca, son of Bhima, in whose presence Karna had to use his infallible spear (see Adarkar 202). Due to these events, Karna was far more vulnerable but still had the edge against Arjuna in their final battle. Due to Krsna’s unorthodox strategy, which was against the ksatriya code, Arjuna was able to slay Karna.

Before going to war, Karna was confronted by his mother, Kunti, who revealed the entire truth. Karna, listening to his mother, realized that the Pandava brothers were his own brothers. Karna was the eldest of the six brothers. Kunti pleaded that Karna join the Pandava side and fight alongside his brothers. According to dharma, Karna was supposed to obey his mother. Instead, he replied “by casting me away, the wrong you have done me, destructive of fame and glory, is irreversible….When there was time to act, you did not show me this crying out [anukrosha]. And now you have summoned me, whom you have denied the sacraments. You never acted in my interest like a mother, and now, here you are, enlightening me solely in your own interests!” (see Bryant 32-33). Even though Karna refused to obey his mother, he vowed that he would spare his four brothers, and only fight Arjuna with intentions of killing him. He promised that regardless of who dies, Kunti would be left with five sons (see Lama 50-52).

During the Mahabharata War, Karna’s and Arjuna’s battle decided the outcome of the war. Krsna played a crucial role in Karna’s death, as he encouraged Arjuna to break the ksatriya code, in order to kill Karna. Throughout most of their battle Karna had the upper hand. Krsna saved Arjuna’s life more than once during the battle. When Karna was dominating over the battle, his curses took effect and eventually led to his demise. The first curse, which he received from the brahmin whose cow Karna unintentionally killed, took effect resulting in Karna’s chariot getting stuck in the mud. As Karna was about to die, his second curse, which he received from his mentor, finally affected him. Karna lost knowledge of all his weapons and was left defenseless (see Adarkar 6; Bryant 26). Upon listening to Krsna’s advice, a reluctant Arjuna fired arrows at a defenseless Karna and killed him by breaching the codes of ksatriya conduct (see Lama 53-54).

Throughout the Mahabharata, Karna’s life was that of suffering and injustice. Nonetheless, Karna stood by dharmic values and believed in duty and loyalty. Karna, like Yudhisthira, was tested twice in order to see if he upheld to dharma. He was loyal to two types of people, “one elevated, one low” (See Adarkar 99). He was loyal to his suta parents who raised him with love, and to his close friend Duryodhana. Karna proved his loyalty when he decided to fight alongside Duryodhana, even when he found out that the Pandavas were his real brothers. Karna believed that “birth or class determines nothing”, and always knew that what mattered most were his parents who raised him and friends who believed in him and gave him another opportunity in life (see Adarkar 113)


Sources and Bibliography

De Bruin, Hanna M and Papenyzen, Clara B (1992) The Death of Karna: Two Sides of a Story. Hawaii: University of Hawai’i Press.

Lama, Mahendra P (1990) Review: Lucid and Profound. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

Bryant, Edward F (2007) Krishna: A Sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Adarkar, Aditya (2001) “Karna in the Mahabharata” PhD diss., University of Chicago

McGrath, Kevin (2001) The Sanskrit Hero: Karna in epic Mahabharata. Boston: Brill Publishers


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Article written by: Shreyas Dhokte (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.







The Harivamsa is widely considered by most Hindus as an appendix to one of the most well known epics in Indian literature, the Mahabharata. As an appendix to the Mahabharata the Harivamsa is not one of the 18 sections (parvas) of the epic, but is widely regarded by most scholars to be closer to a purana, a religious text (Winternitz 424). The origins of this appendix is not precisely known but it is apparent that it was a part of the Mahabharataby by the 1st century CE because, “the poet Ashvaghosha quotes a couple of verses, attributing them to the Mahabharata, which are now only found in the Harivamsa” (Datta 1558). The Harivamsa is not known to have been created by one person but rather is the collection of many different authors as a “heaping up or very loose arranging, side by side of texts –legends, myths and hymns –which serve to glorify the god Visnu” (Winternitz 424). However, according to Sanskrit texts, it has been attributed to the sage Vyasa. The most likely reason that the Harivamsa is equated with the Mahabharata is because it is said that they had both been recited to Janamejaya, during the same ritual by Vaisampayana. While both these texts contain some of the same Brahmanic legends and rituals, the vast majority of their content is different (Winternitz 425). While the Harivamsa has been regarded as an important source of information on the origin of Visnu’s incarnation as Krsna, there has been speculation as to whether this text was derived from an earlier text and what its relationship is to the Brahmapuranam, another text that deals with the origins of Krsna (Ruben 115).

The Harivamsa is made up of 16,374 verses and divided into chapters called adhyayas (Datta 1558). The chapters are further divided into three books called the, Harivamsaparvan, the Visnuparvan and the Bhavisyaparvan, with 55, 128, and 135 chapters respectively; each chapter deals with a distinct aspect surrounding the gods Visnu, Siva, and Krsna. The Harivamsaparvan means the “lineage of Hari”, Hari being another name for Visnu. Visnu is considered a preserver god who incarnates into avatars to keep and restore order in the cosmos. Visnu’s avatars have included a tortoise, boar, fish, man lion, dwarf, humans and finally it is said that Visnu’s last avatar will be a white winged horse. Krsna is Visnu’s eighth incarnation (Jackson –Laufer 597). The Harivamsaparvan consists of a version of creation which Winternitz considers “confused” because of a haphazard collection of myths and legends. This book of the Harivamsa also follows the lineage leading up to the miraculous birth of Krsna (Winternitz 426). The Harivamsaparvan also contains great amount of hymns dedicated to Krsna; one can even consider this book as containing “…in a certain way the divine history of Krsna previous to this stage” (Winternitz 426).

The second book, the Visnuparvan deals “almost exclusively with Krsna, the incarnation of the god Visnu” (Winternitz 427). Winternitz outlines the importance of the second book of the Harivamsa to Krsna worshippers:

Where as the best and wisest among the Visnu-worshippers adore Krsna above all as the proclaimer of the pious teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita’s, it is the Krsna of legends as they are narrated in the Harivamsa and in the Puranas, who is worshipped and prayed to by the millions of the actual folk in India up to the present day, sometimes as a supreme god, and sometimes esteemed as an ideal of perfect humanness (427).

In many cases it is this legendary Krsna that is adored rather than the Krsna in the Mahabharata that could be considered the “treacherous, hypocritical friend of the Pandavas” (Winternitz 1981: 427). The Visnuparvan provides in-depth look at the mythology behind the birth and youth of Krsna. According the Visnuparvan, Krsna was born of a surrogate mother because of a prophecy told to King Kamsa that he would be killed by the eighth son of Devaki, Krsna’s mother. Devaki was placed under continual watch until the first six of her sons were killed, however after Krishna was conceived he was secretly placed into another womb. Krsna was then raised in a community of cow herders and lived with them even as he started to display supernatural talents. An important chapter outlines how Krsna’s adoptive mother Yasoda had enough of the wild ways of the little Krishna and ties him to a mortar. The chapter then tells of the amazement of both Yasoda and the other cow herders as they see young Krsna laughing as he had pulled the mortar behind him and in the process took down two large trees, roots and all (Winternitz 428). A chapter in the second book tells of the first time that Krsna is recognized as the god Visnu. While arranging a festival to the god Indra, Krsna convinces the herdsmen to instead have a festival to honour the mountains. This makes Indra very angry and he begins to rain down on the cow herders. Krsna, however, holds up a mountain as an umbrella for his people causing Indra to realize that this was actually the god Visnu. Krsna then tells his herdsmen to not treat him as a god but treat him the same as any other herdsman (Winternitz 429). The second book then goes on to tell of all the adventures and battles of Krishna, as well as battles between Visnu and Siva. The end of the Visnuparvan contains hymns and songs to Krsna but also contains one other chapter that is seemingly unrelated and alludes to the Kamasastra as a “instructions in the form of conversations between Krishna’s wives and the sage Narada…of the ceremonies, celebrations and vows by means of which a wife can make her body pleasant to her husband”(Winternitz 431).

The third book, the Bhavisyaparvan, means “chapter of the future” as its first verses allude to the failure of Janamejaya’s horse ritual. This book of the Harivamsa also talks about the age of Kali that was to continue until the  Visnu’s ninth incarnation as a white winged horse (Datta 1558). The Bhavisyaparvan goes onto include two more unrelated creation stories and then adds both hymns and stories surrounding the gods Vishnu and Siva. This last book of the Harivamsa contains a poem that relays the importance of both reading and reciting the Mahabharata and prescribes the “presents that should be given to those who read out each Parvan on completing the reading”(Winternitz 434-435). The book is finally ended by summarizing the Harivamsa.

The Harivamsa is an important text because it contains accounts of Krsna not found in any other literature. An example is a story found in chapter 52 of the Visnuparvan where Krsna creates a pack of wolves from his body hair and these terrorize the cow herder people, in order to convince them that they must move. Krsna, being an incarnation of Visnu, the preserver god, justifies this action by bringing happiness and peace to these people (Lorenz 94). However, although the Harivamsa does contain writings on Krsna not found anywhere else there is evidence that the legend of Krsna does not come from this appendix but rather may have originated from an earlier text.  This is because the compiled nature of the Harivamsa has allowed for additions over time (Lorenz 2007: 97). It may be the case that the Harivamsa that is currently appended to the Mahabharata was actually created out of an original oral Harivamsa, because over time, the text was enlarged by additions and was matched in style to the Mahabharata (Ruben 124).


Datta, Amanesh (1987) Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature Vol. II. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

Jackson –Laufer, Guida (1994) Encyclopaedia of Traditional Epics Vol. II. Santa Barbara,  California: Library of Congress Cataloguing.

Ruben, Walter (1941) “The Krsnacarita in the Harivamsa and Certain Puranas.” Journal of  American Oriental Society. Vol. 61, No.3. Pp.115-127.

Lorenz, Ekkehard (2007) The Harivamsa: The Dynasty of Krishna. Oxford University Press.

Winternitz, Maurice (1981) History of Indian Literature Vol. I. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

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Written by Danielle Dore (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

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.


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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.

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.