The Mahabharata is an enormous epic poem that now plays a central role in the Hindu religion. It tells the story of the great Bharata family and its war of succession.
The poem was composed originally in Sanskrit. Scholarly analysis of the poem has led some to believe that some part of the poem may date from real events that occurred as early as 1400 b.c.e. Between 400 b.c.e. and 400 c.e. the Mahabharata reached its current form of more than 100,000 poetic couplets.
The Mahabharata most likely began as a warrior’s story told either by a warrior, or by a poet about a warrior in the kingdom of Kuruksetra in northern India. It tells the story of the struggle for the kingdom between the descendants of King Bharata, contested by two families (the Pandavas and Kauravas) in early Indian history. The Pandava brothers lose the kingdom to the Kauravas and engage in a titanic struggle to regain it. The story is filled with violent conflict, gods, goddesses, heroes, the duty of making and keeping vows, and the futility of war. The heroes are real historic persons in some cases. In others the heroic figures represent human ideal or gods. The main story of the Mahabharata is interrupted with many side stories and discussions, including those on religion and duty. Central to the Mahabharata is dharma (codes of conduct). Dharma describes the proper conduct for kings or for others in all kinds of situations. In its present form there are 18 sections (parvans) to the Mahabharata. In addition there is a supplemental section called the Harivamsa (Genealogy of the god Hari), who is identified as the god Krishna-Vishnu.
The Mahabharata contains the whole of the Bhagavad Gita, or the Song of God. The Bhagavad Gita records the conversation between Arjuna and his chariot driver who is really Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu). The philosophical conversation takes place on the battlefield between the two sides as they are poised for the final slaughter. It presupposes a definite cosmology that is different from many other cosmologies including that of the modern West. The battle between 18 armies lasted 18 days. The cosmology of the Mahabharata depicts the universe as cycles of recurring creation and destruction. The war and the imminent deaths of the warriors are all going to occur as part of a cycle that is part of Brahman, or reality. The philosophical discussion is about karma, predestination, and human action. Actions of people are determined but at the same time are also efficacious in achieving goals. The Mahabharata was retold over wide areas of Southeast Asia. Many of its stories were carved or painted into the walls of Hindu temples in India and in Southeast Asia. The relief carvings at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom in Cambodia portray its scenes.