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Shantanu - BhishmaShantanu was a Kuru king of Hastinapura. He was a descendant of the Bharata race, of the lunar dynasty and great-grandfather of the Pandavas and Kauravas. He was the youngest son of King Pratipa of Hastinapura.
Shantanu saw a beautiful woman on the banks of the river Ganges (Ganga) and asked her to marry him. She agreed but with one condition: that Shantanu would not ask any questions about her actions. They married and she later gave birth to a son. But she drowned the child. One by one, seven sons were born to them and were drowned by Ganga. When Ganga was about to drown the eighth son, Shantanu, devastated, could not restrain himself and confronted her. She told him that their eight children were Eight Vasus who were cursed by Vasishtha to be born on earth as mortal humans. So she released the seven of them from this life by drowning them all. However the Vasu Dyaus was cursed to live a long life and to never have a wife or have children. With these words she disappeared along with the child while Shantanu was struck with grief thinking about spending the rest of his life without her.
One day, while walking along the banks of the Ganga, Shantanu saw that the river had become shallow. While searching for the cause of this phenomena, he came across a handsome young boy who had checked the river's flow with his celestial weapon. Shantanu upon seeing this wondered whether the boy was actually his son and called upon Ganga to show the boy to him. Ganga thus appeared. She then revealed to him that the boy was actually his son Devavrata and that he was taught the knowledge of the holy scriptures by the sage Vasishtha and the art of warfare by Parshurama. She told Shantanu to take him back with to Hastinapura. Upon reaching the capital Shantanu crowned Devavrata as the heir-apparent to the throne.
Shantanu came across Satyavati, daughter of the chief of the fishermen. Shantanu fell in love with her and desired to her. Upon asking for his consent, her father agreed to the marriage on condition that Satyavati's son would inherit the throne of Hastinapura. King Shantanu was unable to give his word on accession as his eldest son Devavrata was the heir to the throne. However, Devavrata came to know about this and for the sake of his father, gave his word to the chief that he would renounce all his claims to the throne, in favour of Satyavati's children. To reassure the skeptical chief, further he also vowed lifelong celibacy to ensure that future generations borne of Satyavati would also not be challenged by his offsprings. Devavrata was named as Bhishma (one who has taken a terrible vow) . Shantanu and Satyavati went on to have two sons, Chitrāngada and Vichitravirya.
Three brothersShantanu had two sons from Satyavati. The elder son died in a battle. The second son Vichtravirya was a weakling but Bhishma supported him having the welfare of Hastinapur at his heart. In order to get Vichitravirya married Bhishma invaded Kashi and won three daughters of the king of Kashi. Amba prayed that she was already in love with another prince and wishes to marry king of Shalva. Shalva, refuses to marry her, as he was defeated by bhishma. Amba gave her child to Salwayana tribe, in turn to Drupada, the king of Panchala. She burnt herself.
Vichitravirya was thus married to the two remaining princesses Ambika and Ambalika. Vichitravirya however died without a son and heir to the throne.
By the custom of those days it was permissible to breed a son through the brother of the husband, and the heir would be considered as legal. There was no living brother to Vichitravirya, but before her marriage to Shantanu, Satyavati had a son from the Rishi Parashara, grandson of the great Rishi Vashishtha. This son was the famous great Rishi Vyasa who edited the Vedas, wrote Puranas including Mahabharata. Satyavati, in consultation with Bhishma, called upon Vyasa to beget children for the two wives of the late Vichitravirya in order to have a successor to the throne. Unfortunately the elder son Dhritarashtra was born blind while the second son was anaemic and was therefore named Pandu. At the request of a slave of the palace, Vyasa also begot a son from her. This was Vidura who later turned out to be a great learned sage and played a significant role in the affairs of the kingdom.
Gandhara EnslavedVidura influences to make Pandu the king. Pandu has married twice, to Kunti and Madri. Gandhara was attacked by Hasthinapur and Pandu kills the ruler and wins the war. Gandhari, a princess from Gandhara, was married to Dhritarashtra, as part of peace deal. Her brother Shakuni is enraged by this and vows to take revenge on the Kuru family.
Drona Biased teacherDrupada, initially friend of Drona, became his enemy. Drona uses Drupada’s weakness and defeats him, during war between both the countries. He asks his son Dhristadyumna to kill Drona and his son. Drupada knows that Drona is attached to his son and if he is killed, Drona can be defeated and killed. Shikhandi fought in the Kurukshetra war on the side of the Pandavas, along with his father Drupada and brther .
Envious CousinsDhritarashtra had many sons through Gandhari, Duryodhana, Dushasana, Vikarna and Sukarna. Yudhishthira is made Crown Prince by Dhritarashtra, under pressure from advisors. Pandavas are housed in a palace out of flammable materials like lac and ghee. Vidura, who is aware of many secrets, helps them to escape and go to Himalayas. Back at Hastinapur, the Pandavas and Kunti are presumed dead. The five Pandavas, or sons of Pandu, were eventually forced into exile by Duryodhana's intrigues. During this time, the five brothers married Draupadi, and had many adventures together, which led to their names becoming attached to many temples and places around India.
IndraprasthaAfter a period of time, the Pandavas returned to the court and requested that their kingdom be returned. When Duryodhana refused, the Pandavas proposed that the kingdom be divided equally between the cousins. The court ministers convinced Duryodhana to agree. The Kauravas (sons of Dhritarastra) got Hastinapur for their capital and the Pandavas got Indraprastha (now greater Delhi).
Dice game, leading to warEventually, Duryodhana devised a dice game in which the Pandavas were cheated of their entire kingdom, including their wife Draupadi. The Kauravas attempted to strip Draupadi in public, but Krishna protected her. The Pandavas then had to go into exile for twelve years in the forest and then live for one year incognito. During the thirteenth year, the Pandavas lived in the service of the King of Virata.
When their exile was over, the Pandavas returned and demanded that their kingdom be restored. Again Duryodhana refused. The Pandavas, hoping to avoid war, requested five villages to rule. Again Duryodhana refused. Ultimately, his refusal led to the battle at Kurukshetra (north of Delhi). It was just prior to this battle that the Bhagavad-gita was spoken.
While preparing for war, Arjuna and Duryodhana were given the choice of having either Krishna or Krishna's army on their side. The only stipulation was that Krishna himself would not fight. Duryodhana chose Krishna's army, and Arjuna happily chose Krishna. Krishna thus became Arjuna's charioteer. On the morning of the first day of battle, Krishna recited to Arjuna the Bhagavad-gita.
When pandavas/kauravas approached Chola for support in their war of Dharma, Pranthaka chola replied, "Dharma and war does not go together. War is born when Dharma is dead. He did not join any side, but donated food for both.".
WarThe Kauravas side was at first commanded by Grandfather Bhisma, but he was eventually wounded during the battle. The battle lasted for eighteen days, and millions of soldiers were killed. Most of the Kauravas were killed in this battle. On the last day of battle, Bhima and Duryodhana fought a duel with clubs. After a vicious fight in which Bhima smashed Duryodhana's thighs and won, the Pandavas won back their kingdom.
Plot developmentStarting point was few tales like: Bhishma’ s sacrifice; Ambha’s curse and revenge; Vidhura man of Wisdom; Motherless Karna; Game of Dice; Draupathi’s Revenge; and Great war. Based on these, epic was developed over a period may be a 1000 years from first version "jaya" which is just few thousand slokas. It became "bharatha” and maha bharatha or ithihasa, with addition of a number of other stories and anecdotes. In the northern rescension of maha bharatham, there are 82136 stanzas and the southern rescension has 96586 stanzas.
Alternate Versions below:
Bhishma’s mother Ganga, lost many children before him, during child birth. Ganga died while Bhishma was born. So, Bhishma had a guilty feeling that he was responsible for mother's death.
Bhishma’s sacrificeShantanu, has a son, Devavrata with Ganga. After Ganga’s death, King Shantanu was depressed. After many years of sorrow, he falls for Satyavati, the daughter of the chief of fisherman. But Shantanu has to promise to make any future son of Satyavati the king upon his death.
To resolve his father's dilemma, Devavrata agrees to relinquish his right to the throne and also takes a vow of lifelong celibacy to guarantee his father's promise. He took a vow, to serve future kings and protect the empire. (Mistake made by him, because of his guilt that he was responsible for mother’s death and father’s sorrow). Satyavati’s greed and ambition led to inflicting gross injustice upon her step-son Bhishma.
Ambha’s curse & RevengeShantanu has two sons by Satyavati, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Chitrangada dies. Bhishma attends the swayamvara of the three princesses Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, uninvited, and abduct them. Ambika and Ambalika are married to Vichitravirya.
Amba, wishes to marry king of Shalva and expecting a baby. Shalva, heavily wounded after fight with Bhishma refuses to marry her. Bhishma, also refuses to marry her. She kills herself, after delivering a baby girl. Before her death, she tells that Bhishma will pay the price for his mistake done to her. Amba’s daughter looked like Amba. She learnt all fighting skills and challenges Bhishma. Bhishma can not even look at her, as she brings out his sin of spoiling the life of a woman. He dies at her hands
Vidhura, the WiseVidhura (mostly the title Vidhura - Wise, remote; distant) because of birth was kept away like a slave. Satyavati ensures that he is kept as a slave or the King’s servant. Vidhura wanted to marry Kunti, but snatched by Pandu. Pandu and Vidhura won Gandhara. Bhishma compelled the King of Gandhar to marry off his daughter, Gandhari to blind prince of Hastinapur and enslaving Sakhuni’s (prince of Gandhar and Gandhari’s brother). During hunting Pandu was fatally injured due to low quality sword and distraction by Madri. Madri, took the blame for his death and dies on his funeral pyre. Dhritarashtra becomes a King. Vidhura suspects Shakuni and Gandhara group behind the plot to kill Pandu.
Kunti raises all Pandu’s children. Vidhura has a soft corner for her and her children. Vidhura protects Pandavas from kauravas (children of Dhritarashtra) from many hurdles and help them to live in exile. Arjuna marries draupathi, a tribal beauty who practice polyandry. So, she marries all brothers. Vidura ensures they get their share of kingdom and live independently at Indraprastha.
Vidhura's ChallengeVidhura used to go for pilgrimage every year. During his absence, kauras arranged a dice game and cheats Dharma putra (or Pandavas). Vidhur gets the news from his spies and rushes back to stop, but late. Vidhura confronts Dhritarastra and challenges that he will rectify the situation by getting back Kingdom for Pandavas.
Vidhura is the best fighter and strategist. As a slave, he has to take a vow, to take care of Dhritarashtra and he will never fight against him or his sons. This prevents Vidhura to fight directly for Pandavas. He breaks his bow and declares he will not take part in combat but be a chariotter for Arjuna and by his strategies, he will destroy Kauravas through pandavas.
Pandavas or especially Arjuna did not have confidence to win a large kingdom or army with experts like Bhishma, Drona etc. Vidhura makes them understand need to fight and advices Arjuna to think differently.
Vidhura slowly builds a small army to fight Kauravas. With good strategy, Vidhura ensures Pandavas eventually win.
Later in some parts of the story, Vidhura was replaced with Divine Krishna.
Participants of Mahabharata warMahabharata was not the war of the entire planet, but Indian subcontinent. The main participants of Mahabharata war was Kuru Kingdom and Panchala Kingdom, along with their many allies.
The kingdoms of five rivers - western kingdoms such as Sindhu, Souvira, Sivi, Madra, Balhika, Khamboja, Trigarta, Gandhara etc joined Kouravas along side eastern Kingdoms such as Anga, Vanga, Poundra, Kalinga etc.
Chedi, Matsya, Kashi, Kunti Kingdom sided with Pandavas along side southern nations such as Pandyan Kingdom. Magadha primarily joined Pandavas but some of their family joined Kauravas.
Kekeya Kingdom and Dwarka supported both (Krishna’s Narayani sena and Kritavarma joined Kauravas where as Krishna, Satyaki and his sons and one akshouhini army joined Pandavas).
Apart from that Yavanas, Nishadas and many other tribes mentioned to be participated in war.