The Mahabharata is a collection of hundred Parvas (or ‘sections’) that tell the story of a long-standing family feud between two sets of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – for control of the Kuru throne in Hastinapur.
The climactic event of the story is an eighteen-day war that happens between the two factions on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
It is commonly understood that the Pandavas are the protagonists of this tale and the Kauravas the antagonists – though many retellings have appeared over the years that flip this structure.
In this post, we will summarize the Anukramanika Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.
Narrator and Frame
The narrator of the Mahabharata is a man called Ugrashrava Sauti. He is the son of Lomaharshana, a sage.
In the forest of Naimisha, a number of sages assemble to attend the twelve-year sacrifice of a king named Saunaka Kulapati. Sauti visits this place, and after pleasantries have been exchanged, the sages ask him to repeat the story of the great war of Kurukshetra.
Sauti explains that by the time Sage Vyasa, the son of Satyavati, sat down to compose this poem, all of the tale’s principal characters – the Pandavas, the Kauravas, Bhishma, Vidura, Krishna etc. – have long died.
Vyasa and Ganesha
Vyasa employs the services of Ganesha to write down the story as he dictates it.
Ganesha puts forward a condition that Vyasa must recite the poem in such a way that his quill never stops. As a counter-condition, Vyasa suggests that Ganesha must comprehend everything he writes.
Legend has it that Vyasa then deliberately mixes lucid and complex verses together so that the project proceeds at a manageable pace.
The Anukramanika Parva contains an introduction to the Mahabharata. Sauti tells the sages of the number of verses it contains (eight thousand and eight hundred), and the tremendous amount of wisdom that bursts forth from it.
He also claims that scholars have weighed the four Vedas against the Mahabharata, and have found the latter to be more substantive. It has therefore been prescribed as necessary reading for one and all.
Mahadivya, the Mighty Egg
Here we encounter the story of Mahadivya, the mighty egg which is the inexhaustible seed for all created beings. It is the starting point of all creation, the Big Bang of the Hindu cosmology.
At the beginning of the yuga, Brahma is the first to emerge from the Mahadivya, followed by Suraguru (Vishnu) and Sthanu (Shiva).
The twenty-one Prajapatis, the Adityas, the Vasus, the twin Ashwins, and the sages were then created, who together gave rise to the world as we know it.
The theory is that at the end of every yuga, everything in the universe will compress into the form of Mahadivya, only to be released at the beginning of the next yuga.
There is no beginning or end to this expansion and contraction cycle. Everything that comes into being must be destroyed, and everything thus destroyed must take birth later in a different form.
The Number of Verses
Sauti explains to the assembled sages that in all, six hundred thousand verses were compiled to tell the story of the Bharatas. Of these:
- Three hundred thousand are known in the world of the Devas.
- A hundred thousand are known in the world of the Pitris.
- A hundred thousand are known in the world of the Gandharvas.
- And a hundred thousand are known in the world of men.
In the world of the Devas and Pitris, Narada is the principal reciter of this tale. Suka, the son of Vyasa, tells the story to the Gandharvas.
In the land of men, Vaisampayana – one of the disciples of Vyasa – takes on this responsibility.
Sauti himself claims that he has heard the tale from Vaisampayana’s own lips at the snake-sacrifice of Janamejaya.
The Despair of Dhritarashtra
After narrating a small summary of the war, Sauti describes a moment of contemplation that occurs between Sanjaya and Dhritarashtra.
Lamenting the misfortune of his sons, and what he interprets as Krishna’s active role in instigating the Kurukshetra war, Dhritarashtra expresses a wish to end his life because he is overcome by grief.
Sanjaya consoles his king then by giving a list of illustrious names from the past, like Yadu, Kuru and Puru, who despite their greatness had to yield to the ravages of time.
Time is the one reality, Sanjaya tells Dhritarashtra; it creates all things, and it destroys all things. Time burns everything to the ground; it then extinguishes that fire. Time alone is awake when everyone is asleep.
‘You’re well-versed in the shastras, Your Majesty,’ Sanjaya says. ‘You know very well the decrees and intricacies of fate. Does it suit you to grieve for the deaths of your children, then, they who were malevolent and inflamed by earthly passions?
‘Does this anxiety for the safety of your children become you? When kings as noble as Bharata and Raghu had to bend to the sway of time, of what import are your sons?
‘Rouse yourself from this pall, O King, and perform your duty to your best while you still draw breath.’
The Fifth Veda
Sauti then reveals the principal elements of the Mahabharata, and how advantageous it is for a person to read it.
‘A man of faith,’ he says, ‘devoted to piety, will be freed from sin if he reads the Mahabharata. If he reads even a single verse of this introduction, his offerings to his ancestors will never be exhausted.’
Now he tells the Brahmins about an incident where the gods measured the value of the Mahabharata against the four Vedas.
‘Having placed the four Vedas on one side and the Bharata on the other,’ he says, ‘these were weighed in the balance by the celestials assembled for that purpose.
‘And as the latter weighed heavier than the four Vedas with their mysteries, from that period it hath been called in the world Mahabharata.’ Sauti therefore christens the Mahabharata the fifth Veda, and the most important of the Vedas.