The Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is the longest epic in the world containing about 100,000 shlokas or couplets. Along with being the longest epic, it is also the itihasa of Bharata.

The word, itihasa, literally means so indeed it was. Therefore, itihasa informs us about the great sages, kings, queens, and other people who lived in this land of Bharat. Even though the meaning of itihasa seems akin to history, it should not be mistaken for a historical account in the Western sense of the word. 

The two itihasas of Bharat – Ramayana and Mahabharata – were not composed simply as lessons or accounts of history. Their purpose was far wider in scope. The following shloka gives us the wider meaning of the word itihasa, as used in the context of the Mahabharata (and also the Ramayana).

धर्मार्थ-काम-मोक्षणम्, उपदेश-समन्वितम्
पूर्व-वृत्तान्त-कथा-युक्तम् इतिहासं प्रचक्षते

Transliteration:
Dharmartha kāma mokshanāma upadesha samanvitam
purva vrutant katha yuktam itihasa prachakshate

The meaning of the shloka is – this composition is an itihasa (things as indeed they were), complemented with fictional stories, forming a cohesive narrative, to guide people on how to live meaningful, well-rounded lives according to the four purusharthas (proper goals of human life): dharma, artha, kama, and moksha

The Mahabharata further states that any story in the world can be found in the epic, however, if a story is not in the Mahabharata, it will not be found anywhere else.

Here, the reference is to the archetype or the template of human personalities and experiences. Even though, on the surface, it may seem that each person has a unique personality and unique set of challenges, however, in reality, there are certain repeating patterns. If we think of these personality and situational patterns as templates, then we can say that the Mahabharata addresses the challenges posed by all these templates and offers solutions in accordance with dharma. Here, the dharma of the Mahabharata should not be mistaken with religion. Dharma is to be understood as that which sustains, nourishes, and upholds. 

So, the Mahabharata is an epic based on history and complemented with fiction such that the stories from the Mahabharata guide us through the dilemmas of our lives and show us how to live a wholesome life in accordance with universal principles. In The Mahabharata – FAQ section (which is under development right now), we will provide answers to frequently asked questions about the dharma, Mahabharata, and various Mahabharata characters.

The Mahabharata Full Story

The Mahabharata full story consists of 18 parvas or sections. We are in the process of creating a two-tiered version of the Mahabharata, where tier-1 will contain a condensed version that covers all the main events, discussions, conflicts, and dharma-sankatas (dilemmas). The details (usually geographical, botanical, etc) will be provided in tier-2. This way, a reader can follow along the condensed version to read all the discussions and dilemmas that highlight the subtle dharma, while also having the ability to follow links and the details omitted in the condensed version.

Below are links to our restructured version of the Mahabharata for all the 18 parvas. Each section also has a summary of that parva to help you familiarize yourself with its main contents.

Adi Parva

Complete Adi Parva (Table of Contents)

The Adi Parva begins with Ugrasrava Sauti going to Naimisha Forest to meet a group of ascetics. The ascetics ask Sauti to narrate the story of the Mahabharata to them. Sauti starts with summaries of the Mahabharata and the benefits of reading the Mahabharata. He also narrates a creation story of the universe, followed by stories of sages who lìved in times prior to the Mahabharata. He lists the ancestors of the Pandavas, provides information about how the family tree grew, and how they established various kingdoms on the land of Bharat. 

Sauti tells us about King Shantanu’s marriage to the personified Ganga and Bhishma’s birth from their marriage. He also narrates events that led to Shantanu’s next marriage to Satyavati and the birth of their sons – Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Then we hear about the birth of Dhritarashtra, Pandu,  and Vidura, followed by the birth of Dhritarashtra’s hundred sons (referred to as the Kauravas) and Pandu’s five sons (referred to as the Pandavas).

The five Pandavas in order of age were: Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva. Nakala and Sahadeva were twins born from Pandu’s younger wife, Madri, while the three older Pandavas were born from Pandu’s older wife, Kunti. 

Among Dhritarashtra’s hundred sons, Duryodhana was the oldest. Most of the decisions of the Kaurava brothers were made by Duryodhana in consultation with his younger brother Dushasana, friend Karna, and maternal uncle Shakuni.

We learn about the Kauravas’ jealousy and hatred towards the Pandavas from an early age, and the dangers it created for the Pandava brothers including several attempts on Bhima’s life and an attempt to burn down all the Pandava brothers with their mother Kunti in a house made of lac. 

We learn that the Pandavas escaped Duryodhana’s attempt to burn them, went into hiding, and married the princess of the Panchala kingdom (Draupadi) in an unconventional marriage since all five Pandava brothers married Draupadi. 

After the marriage, the Pandavas returned to their ancestral kingdom and were given half the kingdom by the elders to ensure peace between both sets of cousins by giving them their independent domains to rule over. We learn that the Pandavas got the barren and arid half of the kingdom, but turned it around into a prosperous region with unity and hard work.

Sabha Parva

Complete Sabha Parva (Table of Contents)

The kingdom of the Pandavas was called Khandavprastha. Sabha Parva begins with the construction of their grand palace in the capital city of Indraprastha along with a grand assembly hall, called Mayasabha, which was filled with illusions and architectural wonders. This is followed by Maharishi Narada’s visit to Indraprastha where he described various celestial sabhas and feats of great kings, and urged Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava brother and king of Khandavaprastha, to perform the Rajasuya yagna to assert dominion over the larger region of Bharat and become the emperor of the region.

Yudhishthira agreed to Narada’s suggestion. However, a powerful and cruel king called Jarasandha would have to be defeated before the Pandavas could attempt such an ambitious undertaking. Jarasandha was killed by Bhima with Krishna’s help, after which the four younger Pandavas set forth in the four directions and conquered various kingdoms. 

Subsequently, the Rajasuya yagna, in which Yudhishthira would be accepted as the emperor, was announced and invitations were sent to all the kings of Bharat. At the event, as was customary, a distinguished guest was honored as a great, wise, and worthy person. Krishna was chosen by the Pandavas and seconded by Bhishma. However, Shishupala, who hated Krishna, objected and hurled many insults at Krishna. This led to Shishupala’s death, after which Krishna was honored and the Rajasuya yagna was conducted.

The Pandavas’ cousin, Duryodhana, saw the grandeur, power, and respect the Pandavas had won for themselves. Once again, Duryodhana was filled with jealousy for the Pandavas. Consequently, he made a plan to usurp the Pandavas’ kingdom and fortune in a deceitful game of dice. In this game, the Pandavas lost everything including their own selves when they became slaves of the Kauravas. Yudhishthira also wagered their wife, Draupadi, who was dragged and humiliated by one of the Kaurava brothers called Dushasana. This enraged Bhima, who vowed revenge. The fear of Bhima’s anger and the manifestation of ominous omens caused some elders to intervene. The Pandavas and Draupadi were freed and their kingdom was also returned. However, another game of dice followed almost immediately. The Pandavas lost once again and according to the rules of the game, they had to go on a thirteen-year exile in which the last year had to be spent in disguise.

Vana Parva

Complete Vana Parva (Table of Contents)

The Aranyaka Parva – also known as Vana Parva –  contains events and details of twelve years of the Pandavas’ thirteen-year exile. They spent these first twelve years in various forests. In this Parva, we find out how the Pandavas received the Akshaya Patra from Surya Deva. We learn about various discussions between the Pandavas and Krishna. It was during this period that Arjuna did his tapasya for celestial weapons. He was tested by Lord Shiva disguised as a Kirata. Arjuna had to fight with him but at the end of the fight, Lord Shiva was pleased and gifted Arjuna the Pasupata astra. After pleasing Shiva, Arjuna stayed in heaven with Indra for five years. During these years, Arjuna acquired various celestial weapons, learned celestial music and dance from the Gandharva King, and was cursed to become a eunuch for one year by the apsara, Urvashi, for not giving in to her advances.

During the five years, when Arjuna was in heaven, the Pandavas went on a pilgrimage to various sacred places and also met rishis and ascetics. We learn about the stories of Nala and Damayanti, Rama, Parashurama, how the river Ganga was born, the story of Ashtavakra, and Vishnu’s Varaha avatar. 

The story about Draupadi asking Bhima to bring her the beautiful Saugandhika flowers is very interesting and is mentioned in this Parva. Bhima meets Hanuman when he goes in search of the flowers.

Draupadi was kidnapped twice in this Parva. Once by Jatasura and then by Jayadratha. The first time, she was saved by Bhima, and, the second time, by the four younger Pandavas. 

This Parva has important conversations like the conversation between Nahusha and Yudhishthira, the conversation between Draupadi and Satyabhama, and the conversation between the yaksha and Yudhishthira.

We hear about the glory of Sibi, the birth of Karthikeya, the story of Sati Savitri, and a summary of the Ramayana by Rishi Markandeya. 

In this Parva, we read about two attempts Duryodhana made to get the Pandavas in trouble. In the first instance, Duryodhana, his brothers, and Karna went dressed in royal finery to the forest where the Pandavas were staying. Duryodhana’s objective was to humiliate the exiled Pandavas who were living a simple life dressed in very simple clothing. Duryodhana’s plan boomeranged and he was the one who got humiliated. The second time, Duryodhana cunningly sent Rishi Durvasa to the Pandavas, hoping they would make some mistake in caring for him and would get cursed by the rishi known for his anger. The Pandavas were protected by Krishna who kept them safe from any untoward incident.

Virata Parva

Complete Virata Parva (Table of Contents)

The Virata Parva deals with the year the Pandavas and Draupadi spent in disguise in the Matsya kingdom ruled by King Virata. We learn how the Pandavas disguised themselves, where they hid their weapons, how they entered the kingdom, and how they found employment.

Draupadi was assaulted in this Parva also. This time, the Matsya Queen’s brother, Keechaka, lusted after her and tried to forcefully obtain Draupadi. When Draupadi told Bhima about the incident, he was furious and they made a plan so that Bhima could kill Keechaka. Draupadi faced so many traumatizing events in the epic, and she went through all the trials with tremendous courage and grace. To honor her, we created a special section called the Draupadi Mahabharata

When the news of Keechaka’s death reached Hastinapura, Duryodhana suspected that the Pandavas might be hiding in Virata’s kingdom. We learn about the plan he made to expose the Pandavas and his subsequent defeat at the hands of Arjuna who was disguised as the eunuch – Brihannala.

The Parva ends with the wedding of King Virata’s daughter, Princess Uttarā, with Arjuna’s son, Abhimanyu.

Udyoga Parva

Complete Udyoga Parva (Table of Contents)

Udyoga Parva begins at the point when the Pandavas have successfully fulfilled the conditions of their thirteen-year exile, but Duryodhana refuses to return their kingdom to them. We learn about the several rounds of peace talks between the Pandavas and Kauravas, all of which failed, leaving war as the only option if the Pandavas wanted their kingdom back. 

This is followed by both sides gathering allies and preparing for the war. We also learn about Shikhandi (Draupadi’s elder brother) and his backstory in a previous life as Amba (the Princess of Kashi) and why the great Kuru warrior, Bhishma, said he would not fight  Shikhandi, or even defend himself if Shikhandi attacked him, in the war.

Bhishma Parva

Complete Bhishma Parva (Table of Contents)

In Bhishma Parva, Vyasa granted the boon of second sight to Sanjaya so he could narrate the events of the war to Dhritarashtra.

Two massive armies of the Kauravas and Pandavas faced each other on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Just before the battle, the great Pandava archer, Arjuna, broke down on the battlefield and refused to fight the enemy. He found himself unable to pick up arms against his cousins, uncles, and friends – many of whom were on the opposite side. Krishna, who was Arjuna’s charioteer, delivered Divine knowledge in the form of the Bhagavad Gita, where he explained that even though the body perished, the soul was eternal. Arjuna got into his chariot ready to fight the war. 

This Parva covers the first ten days of the war, at the end of which the great Kaurava warrior, Bhishma, was grievously wounded, but since he had the boon of being able to choose his time of death, he slept on a bed of arrows and decided to leave his body during the auspicious time when the Sun would begin its northward journey.

Drona Parva

Complete Drona Parva (Table of Contents)

Drona Parva begins with Duryodhana appointing Drona as the new commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. 

This Parva covers five days – days eleven to fifteen – of the war. In this period, Drona created a battle formation called the Chakravuyha to capture Yudhishthira. He was unable to capture Yudhishthira, but Arjuna’s son, Abhimanyu, died in the Chakravyuha while valiantly fighting enemy soldiers single-handedly till his last breath. 

Following Abhimanyu’s death, Arjuna vowed to kill Jayadratha, who he held responsible for his son’s death. Arjuna declared that if he failed to slay Jayadratha, he would kill himself. We learn how Arjuna pierced through another complex battle formation, created by Drona to protect Jayadratha, and fulfilled his vow with Krishna’s help.

We witness the great feats of Bhima’s rakshasa son, Ghatotkacha, and his death when he forced Karna to use a celestial weapon that Karna had reserved for his battle with Arjuna.

This Parva ends with Drona’s death which was planned by Krishna, assisted by Yudhishthira’s lie, and executed by Draupadi’s brother, Drishtadyumna.

Karna Parva

Complete Karna Parva (Table of Contents)

Karna Parva begins with Karna becoming the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. This parva covers the sixteenth and seventeenth days of the war. We witness Arjuna’s fight with the Trigartas and Samsaptakas. 

Before Karna went to battle with Arjuna, he asked for King Shalya to be made his charioteer. We find out how Duryodhana convinced Shalya. 

We see a quarrel between Yudhishthira and Arjuna and how Krishna’s diplomacy prevented the quarrel from escalating. 

Back in the Sabha Parva, when one of the Kaurava brothers had insulted and tried to disrobe Draupadi, Bhima had vowed to avenge the insult. Bhima fulfilled his vow in this parva when he killed Dushasana along with twenty-five thousand Kaurava soldiers. 

The Parva ends with King Dhritrashtra’s grief at the death of his son, Dushasana, and the routing of their army.

Shalya Parva

Complete Shalya Parva (Table of Contents)

The Shalya Parva begins with Shalya being made the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. This Parva covers the eighteenth day of the war.

The eighteenth day has events like Sahadeva, the youngest Pandava brother, slaying Shakuni and his son, followed by Yudhishthira slaying Shalya. With the commander-in-chief dead, Duryodhana fled to a lake and immersed himself in it to rest and rejuvenate. Sanjaya escaped from the battlefield and returned to Hastinapur, while soldiers in both armies continued fighting and the Kaurava army was completely wiped out except for three warriors (Ashwatthama, Kripa, and Kritavarman) who escaped from the battlefield.

Unable to see Duryodhana on the battlefield, the Pandavas went searching for him and found him in the lake where he was resting. This was followed by a mace duel between Bhima and Duryodhana in which the former badly injured Duryodhana and left as Duryodhana lay there in agony taking his last breaths.

Soon after, Ashwatthama met Duryodhana and was furious to see his friend’s pain. Ashwatthama vowed to destroy the Pandavas and was made the next commander-in-chief of the Kauravas by Duryodhana. 

Duryodhana died after some time.

Sauptika Parva

Complete Sauptika Parva (Table of Contents)

The Sauptika Parva describes the events on the night of the eighteenth battle day. Duryodhana was dead and the entire Kaurava army had perished except for Ashwatthama, Kripa, and Kritavarman. Several warriors were alive on the Pandavas’ side, but they assumed the war was over and were sleeping. An angry Ashwatthama went into the Pandava camp at night and butchered Draupadi’s sons, her brothers – Drishtadyumna and Shikhandi – and everyone else resting there. 

The five Pandavas, Krishna, and two other warriors weren’t in the camp that night. 

A pained Draupadi sought revenge on Ashwatthama when she found out how he had slaughtered her family while they were sleeping. This was followed by the Pandavas pursuing Ashwatthama, followed by Arjuna and Ashwatthama firing dangerous Brahmastra missiles at each other. Arjuna retracted his missile on Vyasa’s urging, but Ashwatthama failed to do so and redirected the missile towards Arjuna’s grandson who was still growing in his mother’s womb.

Krishna, who was enraged at Ashwatthama trying to kill an unborn child, cursed him and also promised to save the child (who was named Parikshit after birth and became the future king of Hastinapur).

The Parva ends with the Pandavas and Krishna returning to Hastinapur.

Stri Parva

Complete Stri Parva (Table of Contents)

The Stri Parva describes the aftermath of the battle and the grief of the women who had lost loved ones in it. This parva also describes the grief of Dhritarashtra and Gandhari – parents of the deceased Kaurava brothers. 

In a state of anger, Dhritarashtra tried to crush Bhima, but Krishna saved him in the nick of time. Gandhari, overcome with grief upon seeing all her sons dead, held Krishna responsible for not preventing the war and cursed him.

In this Parva, we see the funeral of all the deceased warriors, as well as Kunti’s revelation that Karna, who was Duryodhana’s friend and fought on the side of the Kauravas, was her son born before her marriage to Pandu.

Shanti Parva

Complete Shanti Parva (Table of Contents)

At the beginning of the Shanti Parva, we see Yudhishthira depressed on account of the death and devastation caused by the war. Initially, he refused to accept the kingdom, however, he eventually agreed after much persuasion by his brothers, Draupadi, and great rishis like Narada, Vyasa, and others.

This Parva is filled with teachings on many topics. They begin with the sages guiding Yudhishthira about dharma, adharma, and the responsibilities of a king. After that, Yudhishthira went to the battlefield where Bhishma still lay on a bed of arrows waiting for the predetermined auspicious time to leave his body. The conversation between Yudhishthira and Bhishma is filled with various lessons on dharma.

Anusasana Parva

Complete Anusasana Parva (Table of Contents)

The Anushasana Parva continues from the previous parva, furthering the discussion between Yudhishthira and Bhishma where the latter explained the responsibilities of a king and also gave examples by narrating stories of previous kings. These stories from the Mahabharata are plentiful and filled with wisdom as they exemplify aspects of dharma and human behavior. 

Bhishma recited the Vishnu Sahasranama in the Anushasana Parva.

This Parva ends with Bhishma leaving his body and his return to heaven.

Ashwamedhika Parva

Complete Ashwamedhika Parva (Table of Contents)

The main event of the Ashwamedhika Parva is the Ashwamedha Yagna which Yudhishthira was guided to conduct so he could become the emperor of Bharat and bring prosperity and good governance to the various kingdoms that were struggling to get back on their feet after the war. There are several noteworthy incidents during the Ashwamedha battles, such as an incident when Arjuna fought with his son, Babruvahana, in Manipura, and lost consciousness before being revived by one of his wives, Ulupi.

This Parva sees the birth of Arjuna’s grandson, Parikshit, bringing much-needed joy to the family.

Ashramvasika Parva

Complete Ashramavasika Parva (Table of Contents)

In ancient India, there was a tradition followed by many, where a person would leave worldly life after a certain age and retire to the forest in pursuit of spiritual truths. 

In the Ashramavasika Parva, the elders of the kingdom – Dhritarashtra, Gandhari, and Kunti – leave their palace in Hastinapur to spend their remaining days in a forest. They were accompanied by Vidura and Sanjaya. 

Vidura was the first, among them, to leave his mortal body.  Subsequently, Dhritarashtra, Kunti, and Gandhari also left their physical bodies. Sanjaya was the last to leave his body, bringing an end to an entire generation of Kuru elders. 

The Parva ends with Maharishi Narada informing the Pandavas of the sad news that Krishna’s clan, the Vrishni race, had perished

Mausala Parva

Complete Mausala Parva (Table of Contents)

The Mausala Parva gives us the details of the destruction of Dwarka. As a result of Gandhari’s curse, a fight erupted among the Vrishni people in which they killed each other. Following the destruction of the Vrishnis, Balarama walked into the sea and Krishna was mistakenly killed by a hunter in a forest. 

Arjuna went to Dwarka to save the Vrishni women but none of his weapons worked and he found himself completely helpless. 

In this Parva, we see Krishna’s wives going to the forest to do tapasya.

Mahaprasthanika Parva

Complete Mahaprasthanika Parva (Table of Contents)

After Krishna’s death, the Pandavas decided to leave worldly life and go on their final pilgrimage. The Mahaprasthanika Parva begins with Arjuna’s grandson, Parikshit, crowned the next king. Having fulfilled all their responsibilities, Draupadi and the Pandavas left the kingdom and started their final pilgrimage and journey to the Himalayas. 

Arjuna relinquished his Gandiva bow by releasing it in the sea of red waters and returned it to Agni who had given the bow to him decades back during the burning of the Khandava forest. 

In their final ascent up the Himalayas, they died one after the other, except for Yudhishthira. Draupadi was the first to fall, followed by Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva.

Svargarona Parva

Complete Svargarohana Parva (Table of Contents)

In the Svargarohana Parva, we see Yudhishthira ascending to heaven in his human body, after being tested by two devas: Indra and the deva of dharma. In the celestial realms, Yudhishthira first had to pass through a vision of hell where he heard Draupadi and his brothers crying out in pain. 

Eventually, Yudhishthira left his mortal body and went to heaven after having a bath in the celestial Ganga. He was reunited with his family in heaven.

There are two more parvas – Harivansha and Vavishya – that are not traditionally considered to be part of the Mahabharata but have been added to the appendix of the Mahabharata for those who would like to read them. They contain information about Vishnu (Hari) and certain esoteric details of the universe.

Who Wrote the Epic Mahabharata?

In ancient India, books were not written. Literary works were composed in shlokas (couplets) and were recited or performed by bards. These compositions were passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth. 

The Mahabharata story was one such work composed by Veda Vyasa who first taught it to his son Suka. Soon after that, Rishi Vaishampayana heard it from Suka. Sometime later, Rishi Vaishampayana narrated the epic to the assembled sages and other people at King Janamejaya’s snake yagna. Ugrasrava Sauti, a bard, heard it from Rishi Vaishampayana at that event. After the snake yagna, Ugrasrava Sauti visited several holy places and proceeded to Naimisha forest to meet the ascetics who had gathered for Rishi Saunaka Kulapati’s twelve-year yagna. There, Ugrasrava Sauti narrated the Mahabharata to the ascetics. Sauti narrated a few details of his own, such as summaries of the parvas, benefits of reading the Mahabharata, and stories of sages who lived in earlier times, followed by the Mahabharata he had heard from Rishi Vaishampayana. The unabridged Mahabharata we have right now is the version narrated by Ugrasrava Sauti to the ascetics in the Naimisha forest.

The Mahabharata PDF

The story of the Mahabharata is available in several forms including PDF, paper books, e-books, audiobooks, website content, etc.

Among the authoritative unabridged translations available as the Mahabharata PDF, Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s English translation of the Mahabharata is available as a PDF download. The Hindi translation of the Mahabharata by Gita Press is also available as a set of PDF downloads

Among abridged translations of the Mahabharata, the condensed Mahabharata by Rajagopalachari is held in high esteem and can be downloaded as a PDF.

Whichever translation or format you choose, if you read the Mahabharata with the intention of learning, then there’s a good chance you’ll find parallels from the epic with your own life situations and receive specific as well as general guidance. 

The Mahabharata contains several Sanskrit words. Many of them have become well-known over time, but you might still come across unfamiliar words. You can check their meaning in the upcoming Mahabharata glossary.

We wish you good luck in your journey.