"Mahabharata" Plot Summary: The Indian Epic in a Nutshell

Updated on May 15, 2020
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Kumar Paral is a writer, a culture enthusiast, and a bibliophile.

The Gitopadesh is a well-known part of the Mahabharata involving teachings from Krishna.
The Gitopadesh is a well-known part of the Mahabharata involving teachings from Krishna. | Source

The Mahabharata: The Longest Epic

The Mahabharata is one of the earliest and the most popular epics of India. It was written in Sanskrit by Vyasa around the 3rd century BCE. It is an essential and foundational text addressing Hindu morality (dharma) and history (itihasa).

The Mahabharata is comparable to another ancient Indian epic, the Ramayana, although it is longer and focuses on a different storyline. The plot of the Mahabharata revolves around a struggle for political power between two groups of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. It is made up of about 100,000 couplets divided into 18 sections, making it the longest epic poem in the world's history.

Origins of the Mahabharata

Since the epic is so ancient, it's hard to know its origins for certain. It's said to be written by Vyasa, an ancient Indian sage. However, it's possible that the epic was not written by just one author; it may have been compiled from multiple sources.

The epic is said to be written by Vyasa, an ancient Indian sage.
The epic is said to be written by Vyasa, an ancient Indian sage. | Source

Backstory and Beginning of the Mahabharata

In the Dvapar Yuga, one of the four yugas or eras of Hindu cosmology), a king named Shanthanu ruled Bharatavarsha (the Indian subcontinent). He was so famous that even some Gods were envious of him. He married the Goddess Ganga on the condition that she would have the freedom to do whatever she liked. If he objected to any of her actions, she would leave him.

The Birth of Gangadatta

They were blessed with a child, but Ganga threw that baby into the Ganges river. She continued this practice seven times. Next time, as the patience of Shanthanu had run out, he objected when she tried to throw the newborn baby into the river. Ganga disappeared with the child as he had broken his marital agreement with her. However, she returned the child to him after some years and the king named the boy Ganga Datta (the gift of Ganga).

Santanu married the goddess Ganga.
Santanu married the goddess Ganga. | Source

Gangadatta Becomes Bhishma

Shanthanu happened to meet Sathiavathy, a very beautiful woman, who was the daughter of a fisherman, and he wished to marry her. But her father demanded that to make her children the heirs of Shanthanu's kingdom. Being the eldest son, Ganga Datta was the legitimate heir to the kingdom. Moreover, he wanted to be the successor to the throne. Gangadatta came to know about his father's dilemma, and he took a great oath that he would neither marry nor be a king. Because of the oath, he came to be known as Bhishma.

Vichitra Veerya's Wives

Sathyavathy gave birth to two sons; one of them died early, and the other, Vichitra Veerya, was with a very feeble of mind and body. Nobody was willing to give their daughters in marriage to him, so Bhishma brought three young women to him by force; Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika.

The Birth of Dhritarashtra and Pandu

One among them, Amba, was allowed to go back to her lover, and the other two had to marry Vichitra Veerya. As he was not able to beget heirs to the kingdom, the sage Vyasa was invited to bless them. When Ambika saw the sage, she closed her eyes and so her son, Dhritarashtra, became blind. Pandu, the son of Ambalika, became pale-coloured because his mother turned pale when she met the sage.

Shantanu and Matsyagandhi
Shantanu and Matsyagandhi | Source

The Pandava-Kaurava Rivalry Begins

Dhritarashtra married Gandhari and Pandu wedded Kunthi. Druthrashtra blessed with one hundred sons and a daughter, while Kunthi got five sons by the blessing of the Gods. The real story of the Mahabharata begins from there. The sons of Pandu were known as Pandavas, who were more than equal to the Kauravas, the sons of Dhritarashtra. The struggle for power between these two groups of cousins is the central theme of the Mahabharata.


The Pandavas excelled in almost everything, especially in the use of weapons. Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, was an evil and wicked person who was always searching for a way to eliminate the Pandavas as he was afraid of their strength, fame and popularity among the people of the country. His enmity began in his childhood, as the Pandavas were always victorious both in their studies and in games. Once Duryodhana tried to kill Bhima, the second son of the Pandavas, by throwing him into a river, but the plan failed.

The god Krishna plays an important role in the Mahabharata's story.
The god Krishna plays an important role in the Mahabharata's story. | Source

Yudhishtira Becomes Crown Prince

As per the custom of the country, the next ruler was Yudhishtira, the eldest of the Pandavas, as he was older than even Duryodhana. The king, Dhritarashtra, did not like it, but he could not express that openly since it would be against the age-old practices and customs of the country. But he covertly encouraged Duryodhana's moves against Pandavas.

The Pandavas Escape the Fire in Hasthinpur

Bhishma told King Dhritarashtra to appoint Yudhishtira as crown prince. Even though he disliked it, he had to do it. Then, as per the suggestion of Duryodhana, they were sent to Hasthinpur away from the palace. They prepared a wicked plot to annihilate all the Pandavas by setting fire to the mansion specially made of flammable materials. But the Pandavas saved themselves from the trap. They left the place secretly, and everyone thought that they all died in the fire.

The Mahabharata is a foundational text addressing Hindu morality and history.
The Mahabharata is a foundational text addressing Hindu morality and history. | Source

Panchali Swayavaram: The Marriage of Draupadi

The Pandavas decided to live incognito. In the meantime, one of the Pandavas, Arjuna participated in a swayavaram ceremony (a ceremony for choosing a husband) conducted by King Drupada of the Panchala Kingdom for his daughter Draupadi, also known as "Panchali." Arjuna succeeded in the ceremony's challenge and brought Draupadi to the Pandavas' house.

“We have brought home something special. Come and see,” they told their mother, Kunthi. “Share it amongst yourselves,” Kunthi said, without realizing the thing in question was a young woman. The mother's words were law to them, so Draupadi got five husbands.

Because of this incident, the Kauravas came to know that the Pandavas were alive. Even though Dhuryodhana wanted to wipe them out, the elders advised giving half of the kingdom to the Pandavas.

Arjuna's feat of archery won him Panchali (Draupadi) as his wife.
Arjuna's feat of archery won him Panchali (Draupadi) as his wife. | Source

The Game of Chathuranga

The Pandavas conducted a Rajasooyam to confer the title of emperor to Yudhishtira, which made the Kauravas even more desperate to end the Pandavas. They knew they could not do it openly, as the Pandavas are peerless in strength and weaponry.

Duryodhana decided to seek the advice of Sakuni, his uncle, who was an expert in chathuranga (a gambling game involving dice). He told them to invite Yudhishtira for a game of chathuranga. As Yudhishtira agreed and miserably failed in the game, he lost his kingdom and all his valuable possessions. He even pledged his brothers and Panchali in it, without heeding the advice of his brothers. Bhishma and Vidghur also failed to stop him.

The Pandavas' Exile

When the game was over, Pandavas became the slaves of the Kauravas. Dussasana, one of the Kaurava princes, dragged Panchali to the court by her hair. All the elders protested, but the success made him mad. Dussasana did not stop there. He pulled Panchali's robes off in the court. Panchali prayed to the god Krishna, who saved her from the extreme distress; no matter how much Dussasana pulled, there was no end to Panchali's clothing. Panchali took a vow before the court that she would not tie her hair till she dressed it with Dussasana's blood.

Dhritarashtra intervened, and the Pandavas were forced to go into exile for 12 years. For the 13th year, they could stay in any inhabited place as long as they remained hidden to the Kauravas; if they were recognized, they would have to go back into exile for another 12 years.

Krishna acted as an envoy to mediate the conflict.
Krishna acted as an envoy to mediate the conflict. | Source

Krishna as Envoy

As per the conditions of the game, the Pandavas spent the next 12 years in the forest and the 13th year incognito. But even after the period was over, the Kauravas were not willing to have them return to their kingdom, and they were preparing for a war by enlisting the support of neighbouring kings. Even Krishna, the God incarnate, tried to mediate the conflict, but the Kauravas were not ready to give even five villages to the Pandavas.

The Beginning of Great Battle
The Beginning of Great Battle | Source

The Great Battle of Kurukshetra

So the great Kurukshetra war became inevitable. In the war, the god Krishna was with the Pandavas, and his forces were given to the Kauravas, as both of them were his relatives. The war lasted for 18 days, during which all the Kauravas died. The destruction caused by the disastrous war was unimaginable. All the elders who were left after the war, Dhritarashtra, Gandhari, Kunthi and Vidhur, took the path of Vanaprastham (living the rest of their life in the forests till death).

Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita is sometimes referred to as an independent text, but it's also part of Book VI of the Mahabharata epic. This section is a dialogue between Krishna and Prince Arjuna that takes place right before the Kurukshetra battle.

On the brink of battle, Arjuna had doubts about the morality of the imminent violence. Krishna reminded Arjuna of his duties, incorporating some of the core philosophies of the Upanishads and other Hindu texts. The Gita is looked up to by many Hindus for its moral and spiritual guidance.

Pandavas and Draupadi
Pandavas and Draupadi | Source

Mahayana (the Great Journey)

Yudhishtira became the king, and he ruled for many years until he abdicated the throne. All the Pandavas took a mahayana (great journey) in the end, and they entered into heaven.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Kumar Paral


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    • profile image


      2 months ago

      Excellent narrative and sharp sense of humor. This will create world peace and billions of dollars in my bank account instantly. Keep writing such factually accurate articles so that illiterate doctors can educate themselves about tablet devices.

    • profile image

      Sudarsan Nayak 

      5 years ago

      Thanks for brief description of Mahabharata, the holy epic of India


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