One of two great epic poems in Indian literature, the other being the Ramayana, the Mahabharata has more than 100,000 couplets, making it the longest epic poem in the world. It deals with the vicissitudes of the descendants (Bharatas) of the mythical first king of India, Bharata. His ninth descendant was Kuru; hence the kingdom in the story is known as Kurukshetra (Kuru's field), an area in north-central India. However, kuru is the imperative form of the Sanskrit root kr (“do, cause, make,” etc.), so its mythological interpretation deals with human behavior (from a Theosophical standpoint, with human involution and evolution). The epic is therefore less historical than metaphorical.
In this long story, the throne of the kingdom passes, generation after generation, to a younger son, rather than to the eldest, as was the custom, signifying Theosophically the involutionary cycle. At the opening of the story, the oldest brother is the blind king Dhritarastra (whose name echoes the Sanskrit word dhriti “steadfast, constant”) thus implying rigidity or conventionality. Because of his blindness, he is unfit to inherit the throne, which passes to his younger brother Pandu. Dhritarastra marries Gandhari, who blindfolds herself in order not to be superior to her husband. Therefore, their offspring are all born of blindness, symbolic of ignorance. They have a hundred sons, the eldest being Duryodana (whose name literally means "ill bred"); in fact all the sons' names begin with a Sanskrit prefix (dur-, dus-, duh-) that means "bad" (cf. Greek dys-); so they represent allegorically our bad habits or bad behavior, resulting from our ignorance or moral blindness. The "sons" of Pandu, on the other hand, are not really his offspring because he had been cursed with death if he were to have sex. Rather, they are the offspring of various Vedic gods: the eldest, Yudisthira, by Yama-Dharma, the god of righteousness; Bhima by Vayu, the wind god; Arjuna by Indra, the warrior god; and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva by the divine twin horsemen of the Sun, the Ashvins. So they are all semidivine. Being five in number, they represent symbolically our personal nature: intuition, intellect, kama-manas (lower or desire-mind), vital body (etheric double), and its "twin," the physical body. The mother of all five brothers is Kunti, the sister of Sri Krishna, who invoked the gods (with her husband's approval) by means of mantras.
Naturally, Duryodana believes he should succeed to the Kuru throne rather than Yudisthira. He first tries to kill the five brothers, called Pandavas, by burning a wax house built for them when they attend a religious festival. They escape disguised as Brahmins; and during their exile in the forest, they jointly marry Draupadi (who would represent, metaphorically, the life-soul or jiva). They also gain allies, so Duryodana and his brothers, called Kauravas (i.e., descendants of Kuru), are reluctantly forced to give the Pandavas back half of their rightful kingdom. Duryodana then challenges Yudisthira to a dice game (using loaded dice) and succeeds in sending his five cousins (with their mother and common wife) back into exile for twelve years. At the end of that time, he refuses to relinquish the kingdom, so the Great War is fought on the kingdom's traditional battlefield, Kurukshetra, between the Kauravas and their allies and the Pandavas and their allies, one of whom is Sri Krishna. Arjuna, the greatest warrior of his day, leads the Pandavas; Krishna declines to fight, but agrees to act as Arjuna's charioteer and counselor. The Bhagavad-Gita (“Song of God”) is a dialog between Arjuna and Krishna at the onset of that battle, which lasts for eighteen days and involves enormous bloodshed. The Pandavas finally win, symbolizing humanity’s predestined victory over our ignorance-born imperfections (Gita 18.59-61).
The Mahabharata is traditionally ascribed to the Vedic sage Vyasa (Gita 18.75), although he may have merely recorded myths that had been in existence long before his time; his name means “compiler.” Scholars believe the epic reached its present form about 400 AD. Helena P. Blavatsky has written much about the epic in her various works, pointing out that it contains an ancient esoteric philosophy akin to Theosophy. It is also noteworthy that the Golden Rule of Christianity ("Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" Matt. 22.39) is foreshadowed in the Mahabharata as "Treat others as thou wouldst thyself be treated" (Shanti Parva 12.167.9) and as "Do nothing to thy neighbor which hereafter thou wouldst not have thy neighbor do thee" (Anushasana Parva 13). A few other quotations also illustrate the high ethics mandated by this poem: "There is no greater virtue than kindness. They who have their minds under control never come to grief. Friendship with the holy never ages" (Shanti Parva 12.313.70). "Kindness is desiring happiness for all. Straightforwardness is mental poise. Holy is he who is kind to all. Wicked is he who is cruel" (Vana Parva 3.90).
An English translation of the entire epic has been published in eighteen volumes, but abridged translations include Annie Besant’s The Story of the Great War, (1899; reprinted as Mahabarata: The Epic Story of the Great War, 1927, 1978).