Mahābhārata and its Place in Indian Culture – Part 2

The story of the Mahābhārata is gigantic. It is thus divided into eighteen parvas. These divisions are called kāṇḍas in the Rāmāyaṇa. What is termed as ‘sandhi’ in later works such as Jaiminī-bhārata corresponds to an adhyāya. Several adhyāyas together constitute a parva. The word ‘parva’ means a span between two nodes of a sugarcane. Just like the span between nodes in a sugarcane stalk, so also is the role played by the parvas in the Mahābhārata. This section tells in brief the names of the parvas and the story segments contained inside them.

1. Ādi-parva

The introduction to the Bhārata story; the rule of King Śantanu; Bhīṣma’s oath; birth of Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Pāṇḍu, and Vidura; Pāṇḍu is cursed; Pāṇḍu and his wives retire to the forests of the Himalayas; the birth of the Pāṇḍavas; the birth of the hundred Kaurava brothers, Duśśalā, and Yuyutsu; the death of Pāṇḍu and the sahagamana of Mādrī; the growth of the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas; learning martial arts under Droṇa; Ekalavya’s story; the martial tournament of the princes; crowning of Karṇa as the king of Aṅga; Drupada defeated; Duryodhana out of jealousy puts the Pāṇḍavas in a lac house and tries to burn them alive; escape from the house of lac; slaying of Hiḍimba; Bhīma weds Hiḍimbā; stay at Ekacakranagara and slaying of Bakāsura; Draupadī’s svayaṃvara; Draupadi marries the five Pāṇḍava brothers; Dhṛtarāṣṭra invites the Pāṇḍavas to return to the capital; the kingdom is divided between cousins; stay of the Pāṇḍavas in the Khāṇḍava forest; Arjuna’s travels and marriages; Subhadrā weds Arjuna; burning of the Khāṇḍava forest.

2. Sabhā-parva

Rescuing Maya; construction of Maya-sabhā in Indraprastha; killing of Jarāsandha; Dharmarāja performs the Rājasūya-yāga; Agra-pūjā in the yāga given to Kṛṣṇa; killing of Śiśupāla; Duryodhana is jealous of the Pāṇḍavas’ wealth and the grandeur of the yāga; Duryodhana invited the Pāṇḍavas for a game of dice; Śakuni wins by deceit and Yudhiṣṭhira loses all his possessions; Draupadī is humiliated; Pāṇḍavas return for a second innings of gambling; Yudhiṣṭhira loses once again and as per the agreement is exiled to the forest.

3. Vana-parva

Pāṇḍavas spend twelve years in the forest; Duryodhana is cursed by Maitreya; Kṛṣṇa meets the Pāṇḍavas in the Kāmyakavana; Pāṇḍavas move to Dvaitavana; Arjuna is awarded the Pāśupatāstra by Śiva and several boons by Indra; Naḻopākhyāna; Pāṇḍavas go on a tīrthayātrā; Agastya’s story; story of Ṛṣyaśṛṅga; Śibi’s story; Śvetaketu’s story; the episode of the Saugandhikā flowers; slaying of Jaṭāsura; Arjuna returns from deva-loka; Ajagara-Yudhiṣṭhira conversation; story of Dharmavyādha (most of the sub-stories are told to console Dharmarāja); the ghoṣa-yātrā of Duryodhana; Vaiṣṇava-yāga performed by Duryodhana; Pāṇḍavas return to the Kāmyaka forest; Jayadratha abducts Draupadī and is later captured and punished by Bhīma; story of Rāma; story of Satyavān and Sāvitrī; return to the Dvaita forest; Yakṣa-praśna episode.

4. Virāṭa-parva

Pāṇḍavas must spend a year in ajñātavāsa (living incognito); they stay at Virāṭa’s court; Kīcaka tries to molest Sairandhrī (Draupadī in disguise); Bhīma kills Kīcaka and the Upakīcakas; Duryodhana attempts to steal the cows of Virāṭa and Arjuna rescues them; he drives away the Kauravas; with that the ajñātavāsa of the Pāṇḍavas come to an end; Uttarā marries Abhimanyu; Pāṇḍavas move to Upaplāvya.

5. Udyoga-parva

Udyoga means ‘attempt’; in this segment, both the parties prepare themselves for a war; Arjuna and Duryodhana visit Kṛṣṇa to seek his help; Śalya joins the Kauravas; Drupada sends his purohita as a peace emissary to Hastināpura; Sañjaya is sent to the Pāṇḍavas from the Kauravas’ side; Vidura-nīti; discussion about war and peace in the Pāṇḍava camp; Kṛṣṇa tries to strike a treaty of peace to evade war; Duryodhana however says that he wouldn’t even spare a land the size of the tip of a needle; Kṛṣṇa meets Karṇa and tries to win him over; Kuntī meets Karṇa; war is declared; Bhīṣma is appointed as the commander-in-chief; Karṇa’s squabble; Balarāma heads out on a tīrthayātrā.

6. Bhīṣma-parva

On the first day of the war, Arjuna refuses to fight his relatives and friends; Kṛṣṇa advices him and changes his mind, motivating him to fight the war; this is called the Bhagavad-Gītā and is well-known around the world; Yudhiṣṭhira bows down to all the elders in the Kaurava army; the war begins; Bhīṣma fights for ten days and then falls at the hands of Śikhaṇḍi and Arjuna; Bhīṣma lies on a bed of arrows; Karṇa meets Bhīṣma.

7. Droṇa-parva

Droṇa serves as the commander in chief of the Kaurava army for five days; Droṇa’s oath; Arjuna fights the Saṃśaptakas; Bhagadatta vanquished; Abhimanyu tears into the Padma-vyūha; Saindhava kills Abhimanyu and Arjuna avenges his son’s death by killing him; Ghaṭotkaca dies at the hands of Karṇa; after getting to know that his son Aśvatthāma is no more, Droṇa lays down his weapons; Dhṛṣṭadyumna kills the unarmed Droṇa; Aśvatthāma fires the Nārāyaṇāstra, which is brought under control.

8. Karṇa-parva

Śalya becomes the charioteer for Karṇa; Karṇa serves as the commander-in-chief for two days; Yudhiṣṭhira defeated; Bhīma slays Duśśāsana; Arjuna kills Karṇa.

9. Śalya-parva

Śalya is the commander-in-chief for half a day; after he dies, Duryodhana hides in a lake; because of the ridicule of the Pāṇḍavas, he comes out and engages in a mace combat with Bhīma; Balarāma returns; Duryodhana falls with his thigh broken; the Kuru crown falls; Balarāma is enraged; Kṛṣṇa provides solace; Kṛṣṇa consoles Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Gāndhārī; Aśvatthāma and others meet Duryodhana; Aśvatthāma made commander-in-chief.

10. Sauptika-parva

Sauptika refers to ‘the ones who are asleep’; the story of the crows and the owls; Aśvatthāma’s resolve; the Pāṇḍavas and their allies sleep peacefully thinking that the enemy is vanquished; Aśvatthāma chars them to death without leaving behind the slightest trace of their identity; death of Dhṛṣṭadyumna; the Pāṇḍavas survive because they are elsewhere at that point of time; Duryodhana dies; Draupadī laments for her children; Bhīma and others chase after Aśvatthāma; astra-yuddha; defeat at the hands of Arjuna; this brings the eighteen-day Mahābhārata war to an end; Aśvatthāma cursed; the jewel on his head is gifted to Draupadī by the Pāṇḍavas.

11. Strī-parva

Here women who have lost their husbands, Gāndhārī and Dhṛtarāṣṭra who have lost their children weep; Sañjaya consoles Dhṛtarāṣṭra; Vidura offers solace; Dharmarāja and others meet Dhṛtarāṣṭra; cooling down the anger of blind king; Gāndhārī meets Kuntī; Kuntī and Gāndhārī give solace to Draupadī; Gāndhārī curses Kṛṣṇa; Kṛṣṇa’s response.

12. Śānti-parva

Yudhiṣṭhira is overcome with detachment; his family and friends make him change his mind; Pāṇḍavas enter the capital; Dharmarāja is crowned king; Kṛṣṇa and Yudhiṣṭhira meet Bhīṣma, who is still alive waiting uttarāyaṇa (movement of the Sun into the northern hemisphere); Bhīṣma preaches dharma to Yudhiṣṭhira (rāja-dharma, āpad-dharma, and mokṣa-dharma).

13. Anuśāsana-parva

Bhīṣma continues his counsel of dharma; Gautamī and serpent episode; about vidyā, tapas, dāna; victory to dharma; Bhīṣma gives up his life; Gaṅgā laments; Kṛṣṇa consoles Gaṅgā.

14. Aśvamedha-parva

Yudhiṣṭhira laments; Kṛṣṇa meets his parents and describes the Kurukṣetra war to them; Parīkṣit is born; preparations for the Aśvamedha-yāga; Arjuna fights Babhruvāhana; grandeur of the yāga; a mongoose tells its story.

[The Kannada classic, Jaiminī Bhārata, begins with this part of the epic.]

15. Āśramavāsika-parva

Yudhiṣṭhira’s fifteen-year rule; Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s vairāgya; Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Gāndhārī, Kuntī, Vidura, and Sañjaya retire to the forest to perform penance; Pāṇḍavas meet them in the forest; Vidura gives up his body; Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Gāndhārī, and Kuntī get caught in a forest fire and meet their end.

16. Mausala-parva

Musala means ‘pestle’; Samba (son of Kṛṣṇa) gives birth to an iron pestle; in-fights among the Yādavas; after a drunken brawl on the shores of the Western ocean, the Yādavas fight with pestles and kill each other; women lament; Balarāma gives up his body; Kṛṣṇa is killed by a hunter; Arjuna rushes to Dvārakā; Kṛṣṇa’s father Vasudeva gives up his body; his wives immolate themselves; Dvārakā is consumed by the ocean; the Yādava women who are under Arjuna’s protection are molested by wayfarers while Arjuna watches helplessly, unable to fight; Vajra is installed in Indraprastha; Rukmiṇī and other Yādava women enter the fire or retire to the forest.

17. Mahāprasthāna-parva

Mahāprasthāna means ‘great journey’; the Pāṇḍavas hand over their kingdom to Parīkṣit and head towards svarga; Yuyutsu is crowned the king of Hastināpura; journey towards the Himalayas; a dog follows them; Arjuna gives up his Gāṇḍīva and armour; Draupadī, Sahadeva, Nakula, Arjuna, and Bhīma – one by one fall off on their path while climbing up towards svarga; the reasons behind their fall are given by Yudhiṣṭhira; Indra welcomes Dharmarāja to heaven; deity of dharma blesses Yudhiṣṭhira; he alone ascends to heaven in his bodily form.

18. Svargārohaṇa-parva

Dharmarāja first has a vision of naraka and then attains svarga; deity of dharma explains the reason behind this; Duryodhana, Karṇa, and others too attain vīra-svarga since they adhered to kṣatriya-dharma and died on the battlefield; Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas become one with the deities.

After this, in the segment called Harivaṃśa, we find the story of Kṛṣṇa; it is technically not a part of the Mahābhārata.


To be continued…

This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada article "ಮಹಾಭಾರತ ಮತ್ತು ಭಾರತೀಯ ಸಂಸ್ಕೃತಿಯಲ್ಲಿ ಅದರ ಸ್ಥಾನ" by Hari Ravikumar and Arjun Bharadwaj published in a serialized form. The original article appears as a part of the anthology "ಭಾಷಣಗಳು ಮತ್ತು ಲೇಖನಗಳು."

The original Kannada article is available for free online reading here. To read other works of Prof. Krishna Shastri, click here.



Prof. A R Krishna Sastri was a journalist, scholar, polyglot, and a pioneer of the modern Kannada renaissance, who founded the literary journal Prabuddha Karnāṭaka. His Vacana-bhārata and Kathāmṛta are classics of Kannada literature while his Saṃskṛta-nāṭaka and Bankimacandra are of unrivalled scholarship.



Hari is a writer, translator, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, Carnatic music, education pedagogy design, and literature. He has worked on books like The New Bhagavad-Gita, Your Dharma and Mine, Srishti, and Foggy Fool's Farrago.


Arjun is a poet, translator, engineer, and musician. He is a polyglot, well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, Hindi, English, Greek, and German. He currently serves as Assistant Professor at Amrita Darshanam - International Centre for Spiritual Studies at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Bangalore. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature.