The Mahabharata: a Book Report

The following is a work-in-progress in which I'm slowly reading through the Hindu epic poem The Mahabharata, and writing a book report on what I read.


A little over a year ago, I embarked on a kind of religious quest.  I decided to read the entire Bible and write a report on each book.  It took me about six months, and you can read the whole thing HERE.  Immediately after, I began reading the Qur’an, surah by surah, and wrote a book report on that, which you can read HERE.  Having finished that, I have decided to read The Mahabharata, one of the central texts of Hinduism, and write a book report on what I find.  I recently purchased the abridged Penguin edition of The Mahabharata.  Even in abridged form, this book is a daunting 791 pages!

The Mahabharata is often described as the longest poem ever written—over 100,000 lines!  The translator of my version, John D. Smith, writes: “a complete version would require at least another four volumes the size of this one.”  By my math, that would be nearly 4,000 pages!  This abridged translation is an amalgam of summary and direct translation—meant to give the overall arc of this ancient epic of India.

Hinduism is different from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in that it does not have one central text.  The main/classic scriptures of Hinduism include the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, The Mahabharata (which includes the famous Bhagvad-Gita), and the Ramayana.  Thus, someone could literally spend their whole life reading Hindu scriptures.  The Mahabharata, the subject of this project, came after the Vedas, which are some of the oldest religious writings in the world—some of them pre-dating the Bible and the Qur’an by centuries.  The Mahabharata came later.  Scholars today generally agree that The Mahabharata was composed over several centuries, stretching roughly from 400 B.C.E. to 400 C.E.  Interestingly, this overlaps the composition and compilation of some of the Bible, particularly the New Testament.

So, what is The Mahabharata?  It is an epic poem which tells the story of a great war between two groups of relatives: the Kauravas and the Pandavas.  Unlike the Vedas, which were composed by the priestly class of Indians (the Brahmins), the Mahabharata is a product of the social class below the Brahmins: the kings and warriors (the Ksatriyas).  Over the centuries, the Brahmins added some elements to the text.  But, at its heart, The Mahabharata is a story about the conflict between kings and warriors.

But it is also about the gods.  Translator John D. Smith explains the central conflict.  It is about “the eternal battle between gods and demons played out as a human conflict between two sets of cousins, the hundred sons of Dhrtarastra (the Kauravas) led by the wicked Duryodhana, and the five sons of Pandu (the Pandavas).”  Put more simply: the “bad guy” Kauravas are incarnations of demons and the “good guy” Pandavas are incarnations of gods.  And they go to war.

The Mahabharata consists of 18 books (or parvans), which may roughly be divided into three main sections: “The first five books recount the events that led up to the great war at Kuruksetra; Books 6-10 describe the course of that war and the night-time massacre that followed it; Books 11-18 tell of the war’s long aftermath.”

This is the overall plot of the Mahabharata but, at a deeper level, it is about the Hindu concept of dharma.  Put simply, dharma “is what it is right for that person to do.”  Dharma is one’s purpose in life.  Smith explains it in this way: “Only by performing ones own dharma can one hope to improve one’s station in life at the next rebirth.”  Characters, in seeking to perform their dharma, encounter various crises which hi-light fundamental questions about the purpose of human existence.

Book 1: Beginnings

Seers in the Forest

The poem begins in a forest.  A storyteller named Ugrasravas joins a group of Brahmin seers who have gathered together.  The seers ask Ugrasravas what he’s been up to.  He replies that he’s just come from a snake sacrifice where he heard the epic poem The Mahabharata.  After this, he visited many holy sites where the events of the Mahabharata took place—the epic battles in particular.  At the seer’s request, Ugrasravas begins to tell the story of the Mahabharata.  He tells of the origin of the universe, and the seer Vyasa who witnessed the events of the Mahabharata and composed them into a poem.  He then gives a summary of the 18 books of the Mahabharata, sort of like a movie trailer.

Snake-Sons and Bird-Boys

Then Saunaka, chief of the seers, asks Ugrasravas to tell the events which led up to King Janamejaya's snake sacrifice, where he heard the Mahabharata, so Ugrasravas tells the following story:

A seer named Kasyapa granted each of his two wives (Kadru and Vinata) a "boon" (a special gift).  Kadru asked for a thousand snakes for sons; Vinata asked for two sons of equal strength.  So Kadru produced a thousand eggs which, after 500 years, hatched into snakes.  Vinata produced two eggs.  After 500 years, she became impatient and broke one open.  Out came an incompletely-formed bird named Aruna, bird of dawn.  Aruna was so angry at his mother for his premature hatching that he cursed her to be a slave to Kadru for 500 years, after which she would be freed by her other son, the divine bird Garuda.

One day, the wives Kadru and Vinata came across the horse Uccaihsravas, who was born from the ocean.  At this point, the seer Saunaka interrupts Ugrasravas's story and asks to hear the origin of this magical horse, so Ugrasravas tells it.  [Note that this is a digression from a digression in the story.  The Mahabharata is full of these.  It's a multi-layered narrative.]  Anyway, here's the story of the horse Uccaihsravas.

 The Origin of the Horse Uccaihsravas

Once upon a time, the gods wanted to obtain amrta (or, soma), the nectar of immortality.  Vishnu told his fellow gods how to get it--they must churn the ocean.  So a coalition of gods and demons uprooted Mount Mandara to use as a churning rod.  They used the serpent king Vasuki as a churning rope.  Then they began churning the ocean--turning it into milk, then something called ghee, then the ocean birthed the sun, the moon, the goddesses Sri and Sura, the horse Uccaihsravas, a gem called kaustubha, and finally the precious amrta!

The demons tried to sieze this nectar of immortality, but Vinshu intervened and only allowed the gods to drink it.  One demon named Rahu got a sip, but Vishnu beheaded him.  Today, it is Rahu's head that swallows the sun and moon during eclipses.  There was a great war between gods and demons over the amrta, which the gods ultimately won.  End of digression within digression.

How Garuda Freed His Mother From Her Curse

Okay, back to the story of Kadru and Vinata--who had the snakes and birds for children.  Upon encountering the divine horse Uccaisravas, the two women made a wager over the color of the horse.  Vinata bet that it was white; Kadru bet that it had a black tail.  The loser of the bet would be a slave to the winner.  Kadru, being the more devious of the two, tried to persuade her snake sons to pretend to be the horse's tail.  When they refused, she cursed them to die in King Janamejaya's snake sacrifice.  Ultimately, Kadru won the bet, and Vinata became her slave.

Meanwhile, Vinata's second egg hatched, and out came the divine bird Garuda, destined to free his mother from her curse.  But before he could to this, he too was a slave to the whims of Kadru.  Once, Kadru commanded Garuda to carry her snake sons to the “Island of the Snakes” for a kind of vacation.  En route, Garuda flew very close to the sun, in an effort to kill his snake cousins.  But the snakes appealed to the god Indra, who saved them with cooling rain. 

On the Island of the Snakes, the enslaved Vinata and her bird-son asked the snakes how they might become free from slavery.  They responded, “Bring us the amrta, the nectar of immortality!”  So Garuda set off on a journey to find the amrta, which would break his mother’s curse.  Garuda had a big appetite and wasn’t shy about eating people and large animals.  He ate thousands of the Nisada people, sparing only the Brahmins, the top social caste.

Then Garuda met his father, the seer Kasyapa, who told his bird-son that, the next time he became really hungry, he should eat these two seers who cursed each other to become a giant turtle and a giant elephant.  After saving some Brahmins, Garuda ate the giant turtle and elephant.  Word reached the gods that this mighty bird-boy was on a mission to steal the amrta.  Indra told the gods, “Protect the nectar of immortality!”

At this point, the seer Saunaka again interrupts the storyteller Ugrasravas, asking him how a bird-boy could possibly be powerful enough to challenge the gods.  Basically, Ugrasravas explains, Garuda the bird-boy was a new and improved incarnation of the god Indra.  Then he continues his story.

So Garuda the mighty bird-boy/new and improved Indra single-handedly went to war with the gods.  This dude had guts, and way more power than anyone expected.  He beat back the gods and captured the precious amrta, the nectar of immortality!

At this point, something kind of amazing happened.  Garuda made a truce with both Vishnu and Indra, and they exchanged “boons,” or special gifts (the opposite of curses).  Gaurda agreed to be the trusty mount of Vishnu, and he promised Indra that he would return the amrta after his mother was freed from her curse.  Thus, the mighty Garuda freed his mother from her curse.

Astika, Savior of the Snakes

After this, Kadru’s snake sons got nervous because their mother had cursed them to die in a snake sacrifice.  One of the snake-boys named Sesa left his brothers and devoted his life to asceticism.  Pleased with this, the great god Brahma appointed him to support the earth, sort of like the Greek god Atlas.  The remaining sons were encouraged when they heard a prophecy that an ascetic named Jaratkaru would have a son named Astika, who would save them from their curse.

Meanwhile, a king named Pariksit went hunting in the forest.  While pursuing a deer, he came across a sage named Samika, and asked if he’d seen the deer.  However, Samika had taken a vow of silence, so he didn’t respond.  Angered, king Pariksit placed a dead snake around the seer’s neck, and left.  When the seer’s son Srngin saw his father’s shame, he cursed king Pariksit to die within seven days from a snake bite by the snake king Taksaka.  Samika, angered by his son’s rash curse, somehow warned the king, who invited the seer Kasyapa to protect/cure him should he be bitten.  But it was to no avail.  Taksaka bit the king and he died, leaving the throne to his son Janamejaya (the king who would ultimately perform the snake sacrifice).

Meanwhile, the ascetic Jaratkaru married a snake woman, also named Jaratkaru, and she had a son named Astika, who was destined to save the thousand snake-sons of Kadru from king Janamejaya’s impending snake sacrifice.

As he grew up, king Janamejaya learned of his father’s death by snake-bite, and resolved to take revenge on Taksaka and all snakes with a giant snake sacrifice.  Ultimately, however, Astika gained favor with the king and managed to halt the snake sacrifice before the sons of Kadru perished.  Thankful to their savior, the snakes granted Astika a boon (special gift), and Astika chose that anyone who recites his story will be protected from snake bites.

Vyasa’s Ancestors

Then Saunaka, chief of the seers, asks Ugrasravas to tell the Mahabharata tale as he heard it from the seer Vyasa at king Janamejaya’s snake sacrifice, and so he does.  Here, we slip into another layer of narration, sort of like the dream-within-a-dream sequences of that movie Inception. 

The noble seer Vyasa went to the court of king Janamejaya for his snake sacrifice.  There, the king asked Vyasa to tell the story of the war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas (the main action of the Mahabharata).  Not only did Vyasa compose the Mahabharata, he also witnessed the events it describes.

Before telling the tale, however, Vyasa’s pupil gave a meditation on the spiritual value of the Mahabharata.  Basically, hearing and reciting this sacred history brings spiritual benefit and instruction.  It’s not just a good story—it’s a story that has real power to change, heal, and protect people.  The Mahabharata, interestingly enough, begins with the story of the author’s ancestors and birth, which is as follows.

Once there lived a king named Vasu who, at the god Indra’s instruction, conquered the beautiful region of Cedi.  Indra also gave Vasu a cool flying chariot.  Thankful, Vasu instituted a festival in Indra’s honor which is still celebrated today.

Vasu had five sons, who each became mighty kings of different regions.  Vasu took as his wife a woman who was literally born from a mountain.  Her name was Girika, or Mountain-Girl.

Once, when king Vasu was hunting in the forest, thinking lusty thoughts about his wife, he ejaculated on a leaf.  Sensing that it was the opportune time, he blessed the semen and told a hawk to carry it to his wife.  Unfortunately, another hawk mistook the semen for a piece of meat and the two hawks fought it out for the cum-leaf.  In their fighting, it fell into the river Yamana.  There, it was swallowed by a fish-woman named Adrika (she’d been cursed by Brahma to become a fish, and the only way the curse could be broken was if she gave birth to two human children).  After swallowing the semen, Adrika conceived.

After nine months, a fisherman caught her, cut her open, and removed two human children (a boy and a girl)!  Adrika’s curse was immediately lifted.  King Vasu took the boy (whose name was Matsya), and the fisherman kept the girl (whose name was Satyavati), and raised her as his daughter.  Because she lived among fishermen, and was born of a fish, Satyavati smelled of fish.

Years later, when Satyavati had grown into a beautiful woman, a seer named Parasara saw her and fell in love.  He promised her that, if she slept with him, he would give her a boon (a special gift).  She agreed, and chose as her boon to no longer smell like fish, but to have a sweet-smelling fragrance.  Then Satyavati and Parasara made love.  She conceived and gave birth to the great seer/poet Vyasa, compiler of the sacred Vedas, and author of the Mahabharata.  Vyasa told his mother, “Think of me at times of need, and I shall appear to you and help you.”

The Golden Age, the Fall, and the Incarnations of the Gods

Vyasa’s pupil then told the stories of the origins of many other characters in the Mahabharata.  King Janamejaya asked why all these heroes were born, and Vyasa’s pupil explained:

Long ago, there was a Golden Age of the Earth—kings were just, people were ethical and happy, and the world was plentiful and healthy.  Everyone lived according to his/her dharma (or, purpose) and people lived a really long time.  This was known as the Krta Age. 

Unfortunately, this paradise was not to last.  Demos, spiritual forces of evil, angry at the gods, began to incarnate themselves on Earth—being born as humans and other creatures.  These incarnations of demons oppressed people and really messed things up on Earth.

Desperate and afflicted, Earth sought help and refuge with Lord Brahma, the creator god.  Brahma spoke to all the gods and told them that, to counteract the demonic focus on earth, they must also incarnate portions of themselves on Earth, in the form of mighty heroes.  Thus, all the main heroes and villains of the Mahabharata are partial incarnations of gods and demons.  The main conflict of this epic story, therefore, is not only an earthly struggle but a spiritual one as well.

Heroes and Villains as Incarnations of Gods and Demons

Then Vyasa’s pupil listed some of the main characters of the Mahabharata, and the gods and demons of whom they were partial incarnations:

Drona, the weapons-master who taught the Pandavas and Kauravas, was born from a portion of Brhaspati, seer of the gods.

Bhisma, grandfather of the Pandavas and Kauravas, was born of the goddess Ganga.

Duryodhana, the wicked leader of the Kauravas, was a partial incarnation of the god Kali.

All of the Kauravas were Rakasas, demons incarnate.

Arjuna, hero of the Pandavas, was an incarnation of the god Indra.

Karna, Arjuna’s main foe, was a partial incarnation of the Sun god.

Draupadi, wife of the five Pandava brothers, was a partial incarnation of the goddess Sri.

Then Vyasa’s pupil told a lot of complicated genealogies.  Like in the Bible, genealogies are an important way for people to connect with sacred history and myth.  These genealogies connect people with gods and their great mythic ancestors.

King Samtanu and the Goddess Ganga

Among the noble line of the Bharatas, after whom the Mahabharata is named, there was a king named Pratipa.  Once, when the king was praying on the banks of the Ganga (or, Ganges) River, he saw a beautiful woman.  She wanted to make love with him, but it was not his dharma to do so.  Instead, Pratipa promised the lovely woman (who was actually the goddess Ganga) that she could marry his son Samtanu when he came of age.  Ganga agreed.

Years later, when king Pratipa’s son Samtanu had become king, he encountered the lovely Ganga and fell madly in love with her.  Ganga agreed to marry Samtanu on one condition: he must never question any of her actions.  Drunk with love, Samtanu agreed.

In time, Ganga fathered a son by king Samtanu.  To the king’s horror, she drowned the baby in the Ganges river.  Though he was heartbroken, Samtanu dared not confront the queen, remembering his promise never to question her actions.  All together, Ganga gave birth to eight sons, all of whom she immediately drowned in the river.  When the eighth son was born, Samtanu could take it no longer.  He finally spoke up, saying: “Do not kill him!  Who are you, or whose are you?  Why do you harm your sons?  Stay, wicked child-killer: do not incur this dreadful sin!”

Ganga spared the life of the eighth child and explained to Samtanu that her eight sons were actually incarnations of cursed gods, and that, by killing them, she was actually freeing them to return to heaven.  Ganga allowed Samtanu to keep the eighth child, whose name was Bhisma.  Because Samtanu had broken his promise to Ganga, she left him.  Bhisma would grow to become a wise and powerful man.

Samtanu and Satyavati

King Samtanu's son Bhisma grew in wisdom and strength, and was well-regarded in his father's kingdom of Hastinapura.  One day, when King Samtanu was walking along the Yamuna river, he encountered a lovely fisher-girl and fell madly in love with her.  This was interesting because Samtanu had also met his first wife Ganga by the banks of a river.

Anyway, Samtanu askd the girl's father, the fisher king, for his daughter's hand in marriage.  The fisher king replied that he would only consent to the marriage if his daughter's son, and not Bhisma (the rightful heir) became king after Samtanu.  The king went away despondent.

Back at the palace, Bhisma asked his father why he was so sad.  The king didn't mention the fisher-girl.  Instead, he made up some bullshit about wanting more sons.  Bhisma consulted one of his father's ministers and learned the real reason--his father wanted Satyavati.

Bhisma, being a noble and self-sacrificing hero, went to the fisher king and said he would give up his claim to the throne so that his father could be happy.  He even promised that he would take a vow of celibacy so that there would be no rivalry between his sons and Satyavati's.  Bhisma was even more respected after this great and difficult promise he'd made for the sake of his father.

So King Samtanu got to marry Satyavati.  To thank his son, Samtanu granted Bhisma the boon (special gift) that he could choose the hour of his death.

King Samtanu and Satyavati.

Bhisma Kidnaps Three Princesses

King Samtanu married Satyavati the fisher-girl and she bore him two sons named Citrangada and Vicitravirya.  After Samtanu died, the eldest son Citrangada became king.  Unfortunately, he died in battle.  So Vicitravirya became king, even though he was only a boy.

When the time came for young king Vicitravirya to marry, Bhisma (for some reason) kidnapped the three daughters of the king of Kasi.  No one could stop him because Bhisma was super strong and badass.  Learning that one of the three princesses was already engaged to someone else, Bhisma let her go, and returned to Hastinapura with two princesses for king Vicitravirya to marry.  Their names were Ambika and Ambalika.  Unfortunately, king Vicitravirya died of tuberculosis before he fathered a child.

Now the great kingdom of Hastinapura was kingless!  What could be done?

Vyasa's Sons

With no king, the land of Hastinapura was in real trouble.  Some people suggested that Bhisma assume kingship and continue the family line, but Bhisma had taken a vow of celibacy.

So Satyavati proposed a solution.  Before she married King Samtanu, she had given birth to the great seer Vyasa, compiler of the sacred Vedas and author of the Mahabharata.  Vyasa had promised his mother that, if she ever needed him, he would appear to help.  So Satyavati summoned Vyasa and asked him to have sex with the two queens Ambika and Ambalika, to father a king of Hastinapura.  Vyasa agreed, but warned the queens that (due to his life of austerity), he was very dirty, smelly, and ugly.  The queens had no choice.  For the sake of the kingdom, they had to fuck this smelly, bearded mystic.

So Vyasa had sex with the eldest queen Ambika first.  However, she was so horrified by the seer's appearance that she closed her eyes during sex.  Consequently, she gave birth to a blind son named Dhrtarastra.  A blind boy, everyone agreed, did not make an ideal king.  So Vyasa then had sex with the younger queen Ambalika,  But she, too, was so horrified by the seer's appearance that she turned pale during sex.  Consequently, she gave birth to a pale son named Pandu--the pale king.

From these two sons--the blind Dhrtarastra and the pale Pandu--would be born the two warring factions of cousins--the Kauravas and Pandavas--whose epic battle forms the central conflict of the Mahabharata.  Interestingly, the guy who wrote the Mahabharata (Vyasa) was also the guy who literally fathered the two sons who would go to war.  So, in both a literary and a literal sense, one could say that Vyasa the seer birthed the Mahabharata.

Unsatisfied with the blind king and the pale king, Satyavati asked Vyasa to once again have sex with the eldest queen Ambika.  But the queen was not down with that, so she dressed up her servant-girl to do the deed.  Unlike the queens, this servant-girl was not disgusted by the seer's appearance.  They made sweet love all night.  In the morning, Vyasa said, "You are no longer a servant."  Ultimately, the servant-girl would give birth to a great man named Vidura, "foremost among all the world's wise men."  He was an incarnation of the god Dharma.

Vyasa the seer and Queen Ambika.

The Golden Age 

After the birth of Vyasa's three sons, the kingdom of Hastinapura (under the stewardship of the great Bhisma) enjoyed a period of great prosperity.  This was still the Krta (or Golden) Age.  It was a wonderful time to be alive.  The text states:

"The people prospered, for they were given to generosity, religious practice and virtue, promoting sacrifices and observances, and living on terms of affection with each other.  They were free from pride and anger, and from greed, and their prosperity was shared, for dharma held sway...Bhisma kept the wheel of dharma rolling forward throughout the kingdom."

Bhisma oversaw the education of the three princes (Dhrtarastra, Pandu, and Vidura).  They were taught martial arts, history, literarture, the teachings of the sacred Vedas and other disciplines.  Pandu was an excellent archer, Dhrtarastra was very strong, and Vidura exceedingly wise.  The future of the Kingdom of Hastinapura looked very bright indeed.

The Wheel of Dharma.

Princes and Princesses

When the three princes of Hastinapura (Dhrtarastra the Blind, Pandu the Pale, and Vidura the Wise) came of age, Bhisma set about getting them wives.  Dhrtarastra the eldest was married to a princess named Gandhari.  She was so sympathetic to her husband's blindness that she wore a blindfold at all times.

Pandu actually got two wives: Kunti and Madri, both princesses.  Kunti was a bit controversial because she'd already fathered a child by the Sun god--the mighty warrior Karna, who carried a powerful spear given to him by the god Indra--who would ultimately fight against her other sons.  Vidura, being born of a servant-girl, didn't fare quite as well as his brothers.  He was married to an illegitimate daughter of King Devaka.

Dhrtarastra and Gandhari

Gandhari's 100 Sons

Gandhari (wife of the blind king Dhrtarastra) once came upon her father-in-law, the great seer Vyasa.  He was exhausted and weary, so Gandhari helped him.  In return, Vyasa granted her a "boon" (a special gift of her choosing).  She chose for her boon that she would give birth to 100 sons.

Gandhari was pregnant for two years when she learned that her sister had given birth to a son.  Angry and jealous, Gandhari forced the embryo to fall from her womb.  To her horror, it was a hard, lifeless ball of flesh.  She was about to cast it away, when Vyasa appeared and stopped her.  Gandhari was not pleased with her father-in-law.  Where were the 100 sons she was promised?

The great seer told her not to worry.  He said to fill 100 pots with ghee (a type of butter), separate the lifeless embryo into 100 parts, and place each one into a pot.  After two more years, 100 sons were born from these pots.  These 100 sons would form the infamous Kauravas, arch-enemies of their cousins, the Pandavas.

The eldest son of Gadhari was named Yudhisthira, and after him was born Duryodhana, whom his father loved dearly.  Shortly after Duryodhana was born, there were evil portents: "cries of terrible carrion creatures and the ominous howling of jackals."  The Brahmins and sages warned King Dhrtarastra, saying:

"It is plain that this son of yours (Duryodhana) will bring the line to its end: abandoning him will mean peace, rearing him great calamity.  Be content with 99 sons, O King; and with this one act for the welfare of the world and of your line!  Give up one son for the sake of the family; give up one family for the sake of the village; give up one village for the sake of the kingdom; give up the earth for the sake of yourself!"

But King Dhrtarastra did not heed the advice of the Brahmins and sages.  Out of love for his son, he spared Duryodhana's life, no matter what the consequences.

Gandhari and her 100 sons.

The Birth of the Five Pandavas

In my previous post, I described the strange birth of the 100 Kauravas, the main villains of the Mahabharata.  Now I'll tell you of the birth of their five cousins, the Pandavas (sons of Pandu), the main heroes of the Mahabharata.

One day, King Pandu was hunting in a forest when he killed a pair of deer as they were mating.  Unbeknownst to him, these deer were a great ascetic and his wife in animal form.  Before dying, the  ascetic cursed Pandu that, when he made love to his wife, they both would die.  Griefstricken, Pandu left his kingdom and decided to live in the forest as an ascetic.  To counteract Pandu's curse, his wife Kunti was given a boon (the opposite of a curse) that she would conceive sons by different gods.

And so Kunti first invoked the god Dharma to give her a child.  In due time, her firstborn Yudhisthira was born.  Then she invoked the god Vayu, and her son Bhima was born.  Bhima was super large and strong.  Then Kunti invoke the god Indra, and her noble son Arjuna (the mighty bowman) was born. Then Pandu's other wife Madri invoked two gods known as Asvins, and she gave birth to twin sons named Nakula and Sahadeva, who were very beautiful.  Thus were born the five Pandavas (sons of Pandu), each a partial incarnation of a god.

Here is a bas relief sculpture of the five Pandavas.  The woman in the right is Draupadi, one of their wives.

The Death of Pandu and Madri

Remember Pandu's curse?  The pale king had been cursed to die should ever have sex with his wife.  Not only that, she would die too.  One spring day, overcome by lust for his wife, Pandu had sex with Madri, and so he died.  Shortly after, she died too.  You can't beat a curse.

At this time, Pandu, his wives, and his five sons (the Pandavas) were living as ascetics in the Himalayas.  After Pandu and Madri's death, Kunti (Pandu's other wife) and the Pandava boys moved back to the kingdom of Hastinapura to take their rightful place as royalty.

Elaborate funeral rites were performed for Pandu and Madri, followed by days of feasting.  After this, the seer Vyasa told Pandu's grieving mother Satyavati that hard times were coming, and that she should retreat to the forest, away from palace life.  So Satyavati, along with the princesses Ambika and Ambalika, retired to the forest, lived ascetic lives, and then died there.

Pandu, the Pale King

A Tournament

Both the Kauravas and the Pandavas were taught martial arts by a master named Drona.  The best of the warrior-princes was Arjuna.  After the princes finished their training, Drona arranged a tournament to demonstrate his pupils' skills.  The first match was between Duryodhana (eldest of the Kauravas) and Bhima (strongest of the Pandavas).  However, before they could fight, the crowd became so divided and unruly that Drona called off the match, fearing a riot.

To satisfy the unruly audience, Arjuna gave a demonstration of his amazing skills, particularly as an archer.  As the prince was wowing the crowd with his impressive bowmanship, he was interrupted by the sound of an arm beating against a chest.  Who should appear, but Karna, half-brother of Arjuna, son of the Sun god and Kunti!  Karna was a large and impressive warrior, and he challenged Arjuna to a fight, saying, "Son of Kunti, whatever you have done, I shall outdo it before the eyes of all these men!"  Sensing an opportunity, the wicked Duryodhana forged an alliance with Karna.  Then the two great heroes prepared to duke it out.

As they prepared to fight, there was a corresponding conflict in the heavens.  Indra, the god who'd partially incarnated himself in Arjuna, created lighting, thunder, and rainbows.  The sun god, who'd partially incarnated himself in Karna, burned away the clouds of Indra.  And so, in this earthy conflict between Arjuna and Karna, there was a corresponding conflict in the sky between Indra and the sun god.

Meanwhile, Kunti, the mother of both warriors, fainted and was revived by Vidura the wise.  This was a lose-lose situation for her.  Kunti "gazed at her two sons in their armor, and she grieved."

At this point, a guy named Krpa announced that, before fighting the prince Arjuna, Karna must prove that he is royalty.  Because he was unable to do so, Duryodhana intervened and proclaimed Karna king of a region called Anga.  In gratitude, Karna pledged his loyalty to Duryodhana forever.  Bad choice, Karna.  Then Karna's earthly father showed up, basically demonstrating that Karna was not, in fact royalty.  Bhima thought this was hilarious, and proceeded to insult Karna.  Duryodhana argued that the true source of kingship was not in birth--a fairly radical idea.

Basically, the tournament never really happened.  Everyone got into an argument about the qualities of kingship, and then the sun went down and everyone went home.  Meanwhile, the kingdom of Hastinapura was increasingly divided between the supporters of the Pandavas and the supporters of the Kauravas.  A conflict was brewing.

The Burning of the House of Lac

After the death of Pandu, his brother Dhrtarastra (the blind king) took the throne of Hastinapura.  His son, the wicked and conniving Duryodhana, heard rumors that Pandu’s son Yudhisthira was favored to become the next king.  Fearing a loss of power, Duryodhana hatched an evil plan to get rid of Yudhisthira and the Pandavas.  He persuaded his father to send the Pandavas away to a city called Varanavata.

Meanwhile, Duryodhana had one of his father’s ministers build a house out of Lac (an extremely flammable material) for the Pandavas to live in.  The plan was to burn them alive.  Thankfully, the Pandavas learned of Duryodhana’s evil scheme and built a secret shelter of escape should their house burn down.

One evening, the house was set ablaze, and the Pandavas escaped.  Ironically, the minister who’d built the house of lac perished in the flames.  Word reached Hastinapura that the Pandavas had died in the fire.  Meanwhile, the five princes and their mother Kunti went into exile.

Bhima and Hidimba

The Pandavas were living in exile from the Kingdom of Hastinapura.  One night, while they lay sleeping, a Rakasa (demon) named Hidimba told his sister (also named Hidimba) to kill the princes and feast on their flesh.  However, before doing so, she saw Bhima and fell in love with him, and spared their lives.  Angered by this, the brother Hidimba tried to kill Bhima, but the prince was too strong, and he killed his attacker.

Then Bhima married the sister Hidimba, and she had a son named Ghatotkaca, who (though he was bald) proved to be a mighty warrior and ally of the Pandavas.  Indeed, Ghatotkaca would prove to be a powerful ally to the Pandavas in the coming Kurukshetra War. Eventaully, Bhima and Hidimba parted ways, but Ghatotkaca promised that he would always be there to help the Pandavas when they needed his help.

Left to right: Hidimba, Bhima, and Ghatotkaca.

The Killing of Baka

The five Pandava princes and their mother Kunti traveled on in their exile, dressed as ascetics.  One day, they met the great seer Vyasa, who led them to a city called Ekacakra, where they could live in hiding in the house of a Brahmin and his family.

Unfortunately, in Ekacakra, there lived a cruel Rakasa (demon) named Baka, who demanded human sacrifices as the price for his "protection" (sort of like the Mafia).  When it came time for the Brahmin to sacrifice himself, Kunti sent her son Bhima in his stead.  So Bhima went to Baka and killed the demon, thus ending his reign of terror.  The townspeople were very thankful, and marveled at the strength of this "ascetic."

Bhima defeats Baka.


While the Pandavas were living in Ekacakra, they were visited by a Brahmin who told them tales of faraway places, such as the land of Pancala where a king named Drupada ruled.  At one point, Drupada was friends with Drona (the Pandavas martial arts teacher), but they’d had a falling out.  Because of their feud, Drupada’s son Dhrstadymna was destined to kill Drona, and his daughter Draupadi was destined to destroy all the Ksatriyas.  This same Draupadi was also destined to marry the five Pandava princes.  Danger loomed on the horizon, danger and love.



At their mother’s suggestion, the Pandavas decided to travel to the kingdom of Pancala.  Along the way, they bumped into a king named Citraratha, who got really mad and attacked the princes.  Arjuna defended his brothers with the powerful Fire Weapon.  When the fighting was over, Citraratha and Arjuna exchanged gifts.  Citraratha got the Fire Weapon; Arjuna got the power to see everything everywhere.

When asked why he attacked the princes, Citraratha said it was because they had no fire, no offering, and no household priest.  A successful king, he said, must have a priest to handle religious observances.  Then Citraratha told Arjuna a bunch of stories, all of which hi-lighted the need for a household priest.  The Pandavas asked Citraratha if he could maybe recommend a good household priest.  He recommended a guy named Dhaumya, so Arjuna hired him.  Then the Pandavas continued their journey to Pancala.

Pancala was a real kingdom in ancient India.

Draupadi's Svayamvara

The five Pandavas, their mother Kunti, and their new priest friend Dhaumya all traveled together to the kingdom of Pancala, dressed as Brahmin ascetics.  They went to check out princess Draupadi’s svayamvara—a coming-of-age party in which various noble men would compete for her hand in marriage.

Draupadi’s father, king Drupada, had created a challenge for the suitors of his daughter—they must string a very strong bow and use it to strike a high target.  Drupada made this challenge secretly hoping that the great Pandava prince Arjuna would win.  Draupadi’s svayamvara was very well-attended—many suitors came, seeking the princess’s hand.  Also in attendance were many Brahmins, gods, and demons who understood the significance of this event.

One by one, different suitors tried, and failed, to defeat the challenge of the bow.  And then the mighty archer Arjuna stepped forward.  His appearance sparked a debate among learned men, because he was dressed as a Brahmin.  Though Brahmins were the highest caste, they were not usually trained warriors.  And so, it was thought that should Arjuna the “Brahmin” try, and fail, to defeat the challenge, it would bring dishonor to all Brahmins.

But Arjuna knew who he really was.  He was a Ksatriya—a warrior-prince, the greatest archer in the world.  In a flash, he strung the large bow, shot five arrows, and pierced the target!  To everyone’s amazement, this “Brahmin” had defeated king Drupada’s challenge.  Princess Draupadi, seeing that Arjuna was her victorious suitor, gave her husband-to-be a garland of flowers, and the two left the arena together, to thunderous applause.

Arjuna defeats the challenge.

Draupadi Marries All Five Pandavas!

After Arjuna won princess Draupadi’s hand in marriage at her svayamvara, a dilemma arose among the Pandavas about the marriage.  Technically, the eldest brother Yudhisthira was supposed to marry first.  If Arjuna married before his older brother, it would be a serious violation of dharma, and a great sin.

Ultimately, they sought the counsel of the great seer Vyasa, who gave this interesting solution: Draupadi would marry all five Pandavas!  Her father, king Drupada, was not too keen on this idea at first, so Vyasa told him a story.  Basically, he explained, the five Pandavas and Draupadi were all incarnations of gods, and their marriage was divinely ordained, strange as it seemed.  Vyasa, being a powerful seer, granted King Drupada a vision of the true divine forms of the Pandavas and his daughter.  Seeing these luminous forms, king Drupada consented to the marriage.

And so princess Draupadi married the five Pandava princes.

Draupadi and the Five Pandavas

A Kingdom Divided

After Draupadi married the Pandavas, word reached their cousins, the Kauravas, that they were alive and well.  Most people were happy, but wicked Duryodhana and his associate Karna conspired against their cousins.  Karna proposed going to war with the Pandavas, but wiser heads prevailed.  Bhisma, Vidura, and Drona all convinced king Dhrtarastra to welcome the Pandavas back to their kingdom of Hastinapura with open arms.  This was what dharma required.  And so the five Pandava brothers, along with their wife Draupadi and their mother Kunti, returned to their kingdom with a resplendent entrance.  The people of the city were so excited and happy to see the returning princes.

After the Pandavas had stayed awhile in Hastinapura, king Dhrtarastra proposed a solution to ease the tensions between the two sets of cousins (the Pandavas and the Kauravas)—the kingdom would be split evenly in two, with the Kauravas ruling from Hastinapura, and the Pandavas ruling from a place called Khandavasprastha.  The Pandavas agreed and moved to their new home, which was just a forest when they arrived.  But out of that forest, the five princes built a beautiful, luxurious, and prosperous city called Indraprastha.  It was one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

And so the kingdom was divided.  The Kauravas ruled half from Hastinapura, and the Pandavas ruled the other half from Indraprastha.


Sunda and Upasunda

The five Pandavas ruled happily and righteously from the city of Indraprastha.  One day, they were visited by the seer Narada, who warned the brothers not to get into conflict over their shared wife, Draupadi.  To illustrate the danger of brotherly love feuds, Narada told them the story of the two demon brothers Sunda and Upasunda, which is as follows…

Once upon a time, there were two demon brothers named Sunda and Upasunda, and they were very close.  Because they performed such fierce austerities, Brahma offered them a boon (a special gift).  The brothers chose mighty strength, the ability to change shape at will, and invulnerability except to each other.

Armed with their new powers, Sunda and Upasunda set about conquering the world.  They killed many Brahmins and kings, chased away the gods, and basically laid the earth to waste.  In desperation, some seers approached Brahma for help.  So Brahma asked a guy named Visvakarman to create a very beautiful woman to seduce the demon brothers.  So the lovely Tilottama was created, and when Sunda and Upasunda laid eyes on her, they each fell madly in love.  Then they fought and killed each other.

Upon hearing this story, the Pandavas agreed that if any brother laid eyes on another brother sleeping with Draupadi, he must be exiled for twelve years of celibacy in the forest.

Sunda and Upasunda fight over Tilottama.

Arjuna's Exile

One day, a Brahmin whose cattle had been stolen visited the Pandavas and asked for help.  Arjuna knew that his brother Yudhisthira was sleeping with Draupadi in the weapons room, so he was faced with a dilemma of dharma.  If he went into the weapons room to get a bow to help the Brahmin, he would violate his agreement with his brothers not to look upon them when they were with Draupadi.  If he didn’t go into the weapons room to to get a bow to help the Brahmin, he would be violating dharma.  Being a man of honor, Arjuna went into the weapons room and got a bow to help the Brahmin.  And then he went into exile.

While in exile, Arjuna traveled to many sacred places and, though he’d taken a vow of celibacy, hooked up with a few different women on his travels.  Also, while in exile, he met a woman named Subhadra and married her.  Then he returned to Intraprastha.  At first, his wife Draupadi was jealous of Arjuna’s new wife, but eventually they got along. 

Meanwhile, Draupadi bore five sons, one to each of the Pandava brothers, her husbands.

While in exile, Arjuna fought a crocodile.

The Burning of the Khandava Forest

One day, the Pandavas encountered a Brahmin who was actually the god Fire.  Fire explained that he wanted to satisfy his hunger by burning the Khandava Forest.  Unfortunately, this forest was under the protection of the god Indra, who sent heavenly rains to protect the forest, its creatures, and his friend Taksaka, king of the serpents.

So Fire asked Varuna, god of waters, to give Arjuna and Krishna special weapons to defeat Indra.  Then Fire began consuming the forest—thousands of creatures perished in the flames.  Indra tried to quench the fire with rain, but Arjuna and Krishna deflected the rain with their weapons.  There was a mighty battle for the Khandava Forest: Arjuna and Krishna vs. Indra and his friends.  Ultimately, Arjuna and Krishna won, and the forest was consumed by Fire.

Fortunately, a few creatures survived: Taksaka (king of serpents), the god Maya, and four sarugaka birds.  After the battle was over, everyone became friends again—Krishna, Arjuna, and Indra.  Indra even gave Arjuna celestial weapons.  Book 1 of The Mahabharata ends with Arjuna, Krishna, and Maya sitting together on the bank of a river.

The Burning of the Khandava Forest.

End of Book 1