There are plentiful stories from the Mahabharata, directly and indirectly related to the main characters. They are tales of entertainment and learning. Here, we’ll discuss several stories from the Mahabharata that teach us important lessons about dharma and what constitutes the correct and wholesome way of living. Some of these stories are well-known while others…
What to Learn From the Great Epic ?
Stories from the Mahabharata epic are in the hundreds! Almost every event in the epic is a story in itself, though we can appreciate the lessons better when we understand the surrounding context. The dharma of the Mahabharata can be understood best by becoming aware of the larger picture and and understanding individual events from that context. It also helps to be aware that the main Mahabharata characters embody an archetype. Figuring out the archetype will help the reader understand that characters’ motivation and whether they are on the side of dharma or adharma. In this epic of the Mahabharata, you will find that the actions of the Pandavas are almost always on the side of dharma whereas the actions of the Kauravas are almost always on the side of adharma. You’ll also see that characters like Bhishma are often on the fence. Draupadi’s actions are difficult to decipher if you look at them from only from human logic, but if you were to examine her actions from the bigger picture then you would view Draupadi in Mahabharata as a very gracious and dharmic character. Another thing we’d like to make you aware about is that we’ve used several sanskrit words on this page because translating them would result in loss of meaning. Check the Mahabharata glossary to understand what they mean and look up the Mahabharata FAQ for answers to frequently asked questions.
Apart from the events directly related to the Pandavas and Kauravas, the Mahabharata has stories that appear on the fringes of the central plot. They deal with the dharma in various facets and their implications. timeline. Such stories work as standalone narratives and are also found in other Puranas. The story of Samudra Manthan isone example of a standalone story. Many of these have been rewritten and retold as fictional narratives in literature and visual media (TV shows, movies, etc.).
Do you know the following stories of Mahabharata in English?
Five Famous Stories from the Mahabharata
The stories in this section are independent of the central Draupadi Mahabharata plot. However, they teach us about love, loyalty, greed, betrayal, arrogance, good vs. evil, and that every action has consequences.
Sakuntala (Adi Parva)
Sakuntala is the daughter of a celestial angel, Menaka, and Rishi Vishwamitra. Indra sends Menaka to hinder the rishi’s tapasya. She becomes successful but ends up with a child whom she leaves on the banks of a river in the Nandana forest. Rishi Kanva adopts her and names her Sakuntala.
Years later, King Dusyanta goes hunting and comes across Rishi Kanva’s ashram. There, he meets Shakuntala and falls in love with her. The duo gets married in secret as per the Gandharva marriage rituals. He later leaves, promising to send for her.
However, he doesn’t send for her and Shakuntala waits for several years in Rishi Kanva’s ashram. Unable to wait any longer, Sakuntala arrives at the king’s palace with their son, Bharata. Her six-year-old child was god-touched and blessed to become the ruler of the earth. Sakuntala introduces the child to Dushyanta, who recognizes her immediately.
Yet, he denies knowledge and asks her to leave. Feeling betrayed and insulted, Sakuntala reminds him of their time together and tells him that he should follow Dharma. When Dusyanta denies the truth, the gods from the heavens speak and inform him to accept his family. Dusyanta makes sure the entire kingdom hears of this and acknowledges Sakuntala. He then apologized to Sakuntala, saying the public wouldn’t have accepted her or the child without proof, and hence, he had to put up an act and provoke her.
Dusyanta crowns Bharata as the prince who grows up a fearless warrior and protector of dharma. Eventually, blessed by the Gods, he becomes a Chakravartin Samrat.
Note: The Kalidasa retelling of Sakuntala (Abhijnanashakuntalam) has additional creative elements and is considered one of the greatest dramas in Indian Literature. It is also one of the most popular stories from Mahabharata in Hindi, Telugu, and other Indian languages.
Samudra Manthan (Adi Parva)
This is the story of churning the great Ocean of Milk (Ksheera Sagaram) using Mandara Mountain as the churning rod and Vasuki as a rope. This is one of the stories from theMahabharata that is also mentioned in several Puranas. With the gods on one side and the danavas on the other, they tugged Vasuki this way and that to churn the celestial ocean for amruta (heavenly nectar that gives immortality).
Around thirteen items rise from the ocean. The first is Halahalam or Kalakuta, a deadly poison Shiva agrees to store in his throat. The Moon (Chandra), Parijata tree (Kalpavriksham), Airavata (White Elephant with four tusks), Uccaihshravas (white horse with wings), Kamadhenu (celestial wish-granting cow), Kausthubha and Chintamani gems, the Apsaras (angels), Goddess Lakshmi, and Soma appear.
Finally, Dhanvantri appears with the pot of amruta. The danavas steal the pot and run away. Then Vishnu takes the Mohini avatar to entice the danavas and gets the pot of amruta from them.
Note: Samudra Manthan is a part of Shrimad Bhagavatam. Sauti Mahamuni recites the same to other rishis when narrating Mahabharata to them. Check out the Mahabharata Glossary for more information (to be updated regularly). Download the fictional retelling for kids from here.
Birth of Garuda (Adi Parva)
Garuda is the most powerful bird in Hindu Itihasa-Purana stories. He is also the vehicle of Maha Vishnu. The story of his birth is full of action, adventure, and intrigue.
Diti and Aditi are twin sisters and wives of Sage Kashyapa, who give birth to devas and danavas, respectively. Similarly, Vinata and Kadru are sisters and other wives of the sage. One day, the sage grants them each a wish. Kadru asks for a thousand powerful serpents as sons and Vinata asks for two sons who will become greater than Kadru’s thousand sons.
Sage Kashyapa grants them their wishes. He gives Kadru a thousand eggs from which her serpent sons eventually crawl out. Vinata also gets two eggs which don’t hatch for a very long time. An impatient Vinata cracks open an egg and gets cursed by the half-born that she will become Kardu’s slave. The half-born child named Aruna flies into the sky (he later becomes the sun’s charioteer). Five hundred years later, the second egg cracks open, and Garuda comes out. He is majestic and glows like the fire.
Note: The birth of Garuda gets a magnificent description in the original. The enmity between Nagas and Garudas has been exploited in several fictional retellings with many embellishments. This is one of the most powerfull short stories from the Mahabharata because its words have a mantric effect.
Garuda as Vishnu’s Vehicle (Adi Parva)
Garuda is a mighty bird with a vast wing span, a powerful beak, and strong claws. He was Vinata and Rishi Kasyapa’s son, born from an egg. Garuda startled the world when he broke out of the shell. He shone as radiant as Agni himself. However, his mother was a slave to her sister, Kadru, which made Garuda a slave of the Nagas.
Hurt by how his mother was ill-treated, Garuda asked if there was a way to gain freedom from her sister and the Nagas. The Nagas then told him to bring Amrita from heaven. If he was successful, they would free him and her mother from the promise. Garuda agreed to the deal. After a few adventures, Garuda flew into heaven.
The gods were terrified and awestruck by his splendor. Under Indra’s guidance, they tried their best to fortify the chambers with Amrita. However, nothing could survive against his mighty strength. In fact, it was quite easy for Garuda to grab the pot of Amrita and fly back to the island with Nagas.
On his way back, Garuda flew past Vaikuntam, Maha Vishnu’s adobe. Vishnu was pleased to see that Garuda didn’t even touch a drop of Amrita, nor was he interested in consuming it. He said he would give the bird a boon.
Garuda thanked him and asked to be immortal and free of diseases even without drinking Amrita. He also wished to stay above Vishnu. When he granted the wishes, Garuda said he would also like to give Vishnu a boon.
Vishnu asked Garuda to become his vehicle. That way, the mighty bird could become immortal. Then Vishnu added Garuda’s image to his flagstaff. This ensured that he would always stay above Vishnu at all times. Thus, Garuda became Visnhu’s vehicle and his ardent bhakta.
Yayati (Adi Parva)
While the story of King Yayati is seen as a tale of lust and its consequences, it also deals with various themes on both sides of the spectrum.
King Yayati marries Devayani, daughter of Sage Shukracharya. However, he has a physical relationship with Sharmishtha, her beautiful maid. Angered by the infidelity, the sage curses Yayati to become old and impotent. When he pleads for forgiveness, the sage tells him that if another man agrees to accept the curse, Yayati can regain his lost vitality.
Puru, Yayati’s youngest son, agrees to receive the curse. Yayati is delighted by this. Yayati enjoys everything that youth and a young body can give him. For one thousand years he sports with beautiful maidens and apsaras and spends his time in celestial gardens, gem-laden mountains, and shimmering lakes. However, in the end, he realizes that physical pleasures are ephemeral and the only pleasure worth pursuing is Divine pleasure.
Lesser Known Short Stories from Mahabharata
The Seven Chiranjeevis
While the word Chiranjeevi is interpreted as immortal, it actually means that the person would live for a long, long time (centuries). According to Mahabharata, there are seven such men in this universe –
- Hanuman (also considered the elder brother of Bheema)
- Krishna-Dwaipayana Veda Vyasa (the rishi who composed Mahabharata)
- Ashwatthama (Sage Drona’s son)
- Vibhishana (Ravana’s younger brother)
- Maha Bali (the demon king; the story of how Shukracharya goes blind is detailed in Vamana Avatar)
- Parashurama (Vishnu’s sixth avatar; he also known as the warrior sage)
- Guru Kripacharya (the sage who trained the Kuru clan before Dronacharya)
Amba’s Story (Udyoga Parva)
Amba is the eldest princess of the Kosala kingdom. Bhishma abducts her along with her two sisters, Ambika and Ambalika, with plans to get them married to Vichitraveerya. After reaching Hastinapura, Amba tells Bhishma that she loves King Shalva. Bheeshma apologizes and asks his soldiers to escort her respectfully to her lover, King Shalva.
However, King Shalva considers it humiliating to accept Amba after she was abducted by Bheeshma and breaks ties with her. Devastated, she goes to Bhishma and asks him to marry her as he was the one who abducted her. However, he tells her that it’s impossible for him to marry her because he has taken a vow of lifelong celibacy.
She then pleads with Parashurama (Bhishma’s guru) to help her. Parashurama even battles with Bhishma but is unable to defeat him (in some versions, it ends in a draw). When nothing convinces Bhishma to marry her, Amba goes into the forest to perform penance and get revenge on Bhishma for ruining her life. In a later birth, Amba is born as Shikandi in King Draupada’s kingdom. During the Kurukshetra war, Krishna plans to use Shikandi to kill Bhishma. Thus, she succeeds in getting her revenge. It it is an example of the Dharma of Mahabharata.
The Curse of Urvashi (Aranya Parva)
Urvashi is one of the three major apsaras in Indra’s abode. She is the epitome of feminine beauty and is immortal. The story goes that Arjuna prays to the gods to obtain celestial weapons for the upcoming war with the Kauravas. The Pandavas are in their 13-year exile, and each of them trains hard in their areas of expertise.
Since Indra is Arjuna’s father, he invites Arjuna to heaven to grant him the boons. Here Arjuna receives the divine weapons and blessings. One day, while in heaven, Urvashi sees him and is awestruck by his beauty and strength. She tries to impress him and propositions a liaison (or marriage). Arjuna apologizes and declines, saying Urvashi is like a mother to him. Enraged by his words, she curses him to be a eunuch.
Later, when it’s time for the final Agyatavaas (the year of disguise), Arjuna utilizes the curse to become Brihanalla, a transgender dance teacher, to Uttara, King Virata’s daughter. Towards the end of the year, he also becomes a charioteer to Uttar, the king’s son. This is when the Kauravas attack the kingdom but they lose to Arjuna’s valor and skills.
To Sum Up
Every story in Mahabharata has something to offer. However, the direct interpretations may not always be accurate and might even be contradictory to the original intention. The best way to process the stories is to look for hidden meanings and the bigger picture.
If you enjoyed reading the stories on this page then you will also enjoy the stories from the Mahabharata in Hindi.
Check out The Mahabharata – FAQs Page for additional information (to be updated regularly).