Mahabharata, the history of greater India, was originally
composed by the sage Vyasa. Handed down over thousands of years, its
present form of 110,000 verses makes it the longest poem in the world.
The plot is gripping, with many twists and turns, and intertwined with
intricate sub-plots. It focuses on the political tensions between the
Pandavas and the Kauravas, and culminates in the fratricidal battle of
Kurukshetra. The book also includes narrations of other historical
tales, and several philosophical discourses. The story particularly
explores many of the intricacies of dharma, especially for the
warrior and priestly classes.
Krishna, cousin of the Pandavas, and Arjuna's charioteer during the
The Mahabharata is a favourite subject of art and drama. One film
version, screened on TV in the early 1990s was so popular that it
practically brought the whole of India to a stop! The plot is interlaced
with intrigue, romance, fighting and chivalry. Tradition holds that it
is especially meant to capture the attention of people in Kali-yuga, who
prefer entertainment to philosophy Nonetheless, the message of
Mahabharata is ultimately spiritual and at the heart of the epic is
the Bhagavad-gita, narrated as the two sides stood poised for
Brief summary of the story
Dhritarashtra, Pandu's elder brother. He was not qualified to rule but
became regent after Pandu's early demise.
The story tells of a struggle for the throne between the five sons of
Pandu (the Pandavas) and their impious cousins, the Kauravas (sometimes
called the Kurus). Pandu was the second of three princes, and took the
throne in preference to his blind elder brother, Dhritarashtra. As the
result of a curse, Pandu died tragically while his sons were minors.
Pandu's younger brother, Vidura, though pious and learned, was born of a
maidservant and could not ascend the throne. It thus remained vacant and
by the law of succession should have passed to Pandu's sons, headed by
the pious Yudhisthira. As the boys grew up, alongside their cousins,
Dhritarashtra acted as regent. However, his one hundred sons, headed by
Duryodhana, were increasingly resentful that fate had deprived them and
their father of the vast empire.
Arjuna, the third son of Pandu, to whom Krishna spoke the
Bhagavad-gita. Here disguised as a brahmana, he wins the
hand of Draupadi.
The Kauravas therefore plotted to kill the teenage Pandavas and their
widowed mother, Kunti, by burning them alive. The princes were tipped
off and escaped the burning palace via a tunnel. Now aware of their
cousins' treachery, they opted to remain in the forest. During this
time, the third brother, Arjuna, won Draupadi as a bride in an archery
contest. Due to a benediction gained in a previous life, Draupadi became
the wife of all five brothers.
The blind king, feeling repentant, arranged to return to his nephews
half the kingdom – but by far the worst half. However, with the help of
their friend Krishna, the Pandava kingdom flourished and became opulent
in all respects.
Hearing of Yudhisthira's fame and popularity, Duryodhana seethed with
envy. He threatened and cajoled his blind father to arrange for a
gambling match between the two groups of cousins. The weak and
affectionate Dhritarashtra reluctantly consented. Duryodhana ensured
that the dice were rigged, and Yudhisthira lost everything.
A pivotal point in the Mahabharata. In this painting Krishna protects
Draupadi, as one of the Kurus tried to disrobe her. According to Hindu
theology, the abuse of a woman incurs heavy "bad karma." None of the
nobles intervened and in this way they precipitated their destruction
on the field of Kurukshetra.
One of the Kurus even tried to strip Draupadi naked, but Krishna
protected her by supplying an endless length of sari. None of the
warriors intervened, sowing the seeds of their future destruction.The
five brothers took terrible and irrevocable oaths to destroy the
offenders. Nonetheless, according to the terms of the contest, they and
Draupadi were exiled to the forest for thirteen years. During the final
year they were to remain incognito and if discovered were to remain in
exile for a further twelve years.
Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield
The five princes and their wife again entered the forest. After many
adventures, they adopted disguises for the final year, trying to avoid
the spies sent by their cousins. They remained undetected and finally
returned to reclaim their kingdom. The Kauravas refused, and the two
parties prepared for war on the plains of Kurukshetra. The carnage
lasted eighteen days and the Pandavas came out victorious, but with very
few soldiers left. Yudhisthira was crowned emperor. His kingdom
flourished for 30 years, after which the Pandavas retired to the
Himalayas, leaving their grandson on the throne.
Related Values and Issues
good over evil/justice
the legitimate use of violence
duty and personal inconvenience
the qualities of a real leader
chivalry/the warrior ethic
abuse of women (Draupadi's story)
Where is the notion of a "spiritual warrior" found in our own
heritage, or other world cultures? How does the warrior compare to
today's soldiers and freedom fighters?
Is war entirely wrong or is there legitimate use of violence?
"One who is free from sin suffers calamities, while sinners are
living happily. A rich man dies young and a poor fellow drags on his
existence, weighed down by decrepitude. All this is the work of
A scene from the Ramayana. Sita becomes enchanted by a
magician diguised as a deer. Rama goes to catch the deer and Ravana
The Ramayana, "the Journey of Rama," is a Sanskrit epic
compiled by the poet-sage Valmiki. Scholars say that it received its
present shape perhaps as late as the second century CE, but that it
contains much older material. Indian scholars date Valmiki to the third
Though academics consider the Ramayana a mythical account,
Hindus consider Rama a historical figure, and an avatar of Vishnu. Some
date him back to the Treta-Yuga, whereas others consider him far more
There are two principal vernacular versions; the Hindi
Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas and a Tamil version by Kambha.
Tulsidas's version is extremely popular, but is shorter than Valmiki's,
excluding the final chapter about Sita's banishment, the birth of her
twin sons, and her disappearance. The Ramayana is the subject
of many art forms, particularly drama, and is increasingly well known
outside the Hindu community.
Brief summary of the story
A painting of Hanuman shortly after finding Sita. Ravana's men
subsequently captured Hanuman. They set fire to his tail, but he
escaped and burned down much of the city.
The story tells of how Rama was cheated out of his throne and
unfairly banished to the forest. His wife, Sita, and brother, Lakshmana,
chose to go with him. Despite the hardships, Rama actually enjoyed
forest life, for it allowed him to keep company with the many sages and
saints who lived there. Ravana, king of the Rakshasa race (man-eaters),
heard of Sita's beauty and kidnapped her. Rama was beside himself with
grief, but resolved to rescue his wife. He eventually formed an alliance
with a race of Varnaras (monkey-like people). Their general, Hanuman,
eventually found Sita on the isle of Lanka. Thereafter, Rama ordered his
army to throw boulders in the ocean. Miraculously they floated, and the
monkey warriors constructed a floating bridge to Lanka. The two armies
met outside the city gates. Rama's army managed to gain the upper hand
and many of Ravana's sons were slain. Eventually Rama killed Ravana, was
reunited with Sita, and returned to his capital, Ayodhya. During his
reign everyone was freed from misery.
The triumphant restoration of Lord Rama to his own kingdom is
celebrated during the famous festival of lights, Divali. Rama, with Sita,
Lakshman, and his entire army, returned on the night of the new moon. It
was pitch dark, and the jubilant citizens lit the way with thousands of
Related Values and Issues
Duty/dharma (of husband, wife, leader, son, brother, etc.)
Stewardship and "secondary proprietorship"
Good over evil
Sita, although a princess, chose to go with Rama to the forest,
despite the hardships. Have we ever loved someone, or felt so good
in their company that we would accept so much personal hardship just
to be with them? Or do we tend to love only when the going is good?
"If one surrenders unto Me sincerely, saying, 'My Lord, from this
day I am fully surrendered unto You,' I always give that person
protection. That is My vow"