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 Sangraha Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.
The Five Lakes of Blood
The Sangraha Parva begins with the sages of Naimisha asking Sauti about the place known as Samantapanchaka.
Sauti tells the following story:
In the interval between the Treta and the Dwapara yugas, Parashurama, the son of Jamadagni, embarks upon a campaign of annihilation directed toward the Kshatriya race.
Twenty one times he wipes them off the face of the Earth. Anger still not sated, he offers oblations to his ancestors with the blood of his slain enemies. The five lakes of Samantapanchaka are turned red due to this.
When Parashurama’s ancestors appear and declare themselves pleased with his reverence, the sage asks for a boon that he might be absolved of all the sins he has accrued due to his Kshatriya-killing.
This land of five gory lakes, from then on, has been venerated as a holy place.
This mass killing of Kshatriyas at the beginning of the Dwapara serves as a portent of things to come. Toward the end of Dwapara, eighteen Akshauhinis of soldiers from all over Aryavarta assemble at this very place.
And they all get slain over an eighteen-day cleansing ritual that we now call the battle of Kurukshetra.
The sages ask Sauti what an akshauhini is, and Sauti gives the following answer:
One chariot, one elephant, five foot-soldiers and three horses form one Patti.
Three pattis make one Senamukha.
Three senamukhas are together called a Gulma.
Three Gulmas form a Gana. (An aside: the ganas of Shiva are led by Vinayaka, thus his name Ganesha.)
Three ganas make one Vahini.
Three vahinis are together called a Pritana.
Three pritanas form a Chamu.
Three chamus to one Ankini.
And ten Ankinis, when assembled, is called an Akshauhini.
An Akshauhini contains 21870 chariots, the same number of elephants, 109350 soldiers that fight on foot, and 65610 horsemen.
Eighteen such Akshauhinis were assembled for the battle of Kurukshetra, seven on the side of the Pandavas and eleven on the side of the Kauravas.
A short account of the battle is also given here: Bhishma commandeers the Kaurava army for ten days. Drona leads for the next five. Karna takes over the reins after Drona’s death and fights for two days, followed by Shalya for half a day.
The remaining half a day is consumed by a battle of clubs between Suyodhana and Bhimasena. On the night of the eighteenth day, Ashwatthama and Kripacharya destroy the remaining army of Yudhishthir in a stealth attack.
The Number Eighteen
The number eighteen appears repeatedly in the Mahabharata context. There are eighteen parvas. The number of Akshauhinis that fought is eighteen. The war lasts for eighteen days.
Why eighteen? We don’t know. But there have been a few attempts at an explanation.
Here’s one: The human body contains nine orifices. The Gita describes the body as a ‘city with nine gates’.
And since a good life consists – at the very fundamental level – of a harmonious relationship between the self and the other, the inner and the outer, it requires us to gain knowledge of eighteen gates in all.
Nine that belong to the self, nine that belong to the other.
The Adi Parva
Sauti tells the sages next about the eighteen Parvas.
The Adi Parva packs quite a punch in the amount of story it covers. It begins with the descent of Ganga from heaven and her marriage to Shantanu, the king of Hastinapur.
It takes us through the passing of generations:
- The growth of Bhishma into a regent, the short reigns of Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya (sons of Satyavati)
- The crowning of Pandu as king over his blind brother Dhritarashtra
- The birth and rearing of the Pandavas and Kauravas,
- The burning of the house of wax, the escape into the forest and the events in Chaitraratha,
- The wedding to Draupadi,
- The alliance with Dwaraka through Arjuna’s marriage to Subhadra,
- The burning of Khandava and the construction of Indraprastha.
The Sabha Parva
The Sabha Parva sees the establishment of the Pandavas as the foremost rulers of Aryavarta.
We hear of the Rajasuya yaga, the killing of Jarasandha, the crowning of Yudhishthir as the emperor of the land, and the killing of Shishupala at the hands of Krishna.
Toward the end of this parva, the most pivotal incident of the Mahabharata occurs: the disrobing of Draupadi and the freezing of enmity between the Kauravas and the Pandavas.
Stripped of their royal bearings, Yudhishthir and his brothers, accompanied by Draupadi, set out to honour the rules of the dice game.
The Vana Parva
The Vana Parvadescribes the life of the Pandavas in the forest.
The main theme of this section is the rise of Arjuna’s power; he obtains the Pashupatastra from Shiva, goes to heaven and meets with Indra, his father.
Meanwhile, Yudhishthir visits all the pious sages of Earth and receives from them lessons of wisdom. Toward the end of this parva, he is examined by Yama in disguise as a Yaksha.
The questions that the Yaksha asks Yudhishthir are together called the Yaksha Prashna.
The Virata Parva
In the Virata Parva, we see the Pandavas enter the court of Virata in disguise, to spend their year of Agnyatavasa (hiding).
There are two main events that happen here: one is the killing of Kichaka, and the other is the battle between Arjuna and the Kaurava army to protect the cattle of Virata.
At the end of the Virata Parva, the Pandavas reveal themselves and remain at Matsya, the kingdom of Virata.
Virata gives Uttara, his daughter, as wife to Abhimanyu. At this wedding, a number of Pandava allies come together to discuss future options.
The Udyoga Parva
The Udyoga Parva documents efforts from the Pandavas to broker peace with the Kauravas, and their subsequent failures.
Then the focus shifts toward war building, and ends with both armies facing each other on the battlefield.
Krishna’s famous negotiation attempt with the Kauravas, and his pledge that he will not bear arms while his entire army fights for Suyodhana, happen in this section.
Krishna also attempts – and fails – to recruit Karna as a mercenary for the Pandava cause.
The Bhishma Parva
The Bhishma Parva tells the story of the first ten days of war, when Bhishma leads the Kaurava forces.
These are often called the most peaceful war days, where both armies seem to fight almost reluctantly. It later becomes clear to Krishna that Bhishma is deliberately engineering a stalemate in the hope that the war will be called off.
The parva ends with the fall of Bhishma onto a bed of arrows.
Arjuna and Shikhandi are the main players in the drama – the former uses the latter as shield to cripple Bhishma, knowing that the grandsire has vowed not to fight Shikhandi.
The Drona Parva
In the Drona Parva, the war becomes a bloodbath.
On the thirteenth day, Arjuna’s son, Abhimanyu, is killed by the great warriors on the Kaurava side, and all rules of just warfare are abandoned in this period.
Ghatotkacha also dies during the night time battle on the fourteenth day. The volley of lies and deception comes to a head when on the fifteenth day, Yudhishthir utters the first lie of his life and forces Drona to give up arms.
At that moment, Dhrishtadyumna cuts off Drona’s head and obtains revenge for the wrongs done to his father Drupada.
The Karna Parva
The Karna Parva narrates the events of the sixteenth and seventeenth days.
The commander-in-chief defeats each of his four stepbrothers in battle during this time, but owing to his promise to Kunti, refuses to kill any of them.
He is killed at the end of the section by Arjuna, at the behest of Krishna while he is unarmed and thrown off his chariot.
The Shalya Parva
In the Shalya Parva, the war draws to a close, and Shalya becomes the fourth and last leader of the Kaurava camp to die on the battlefield.
This is the section in which the Pandavas secure victory on the eighteenth day. A mace duel takes place between Suyodhana and Bhimasena, in which the former is mortally wounded.
The parva ends with Ashwatthama, Kritavarma and Kripacharya plotting revenge on the Pandavas.
The Sauptika Parva
The Sauptika Parva describes the manner in which the three surviving members of the Kaurava army attack the sleeping soldiers in the Pandava camp and kill them all.
The only survivors of this massacre are the five Pandava brothers, Satyaki and Krishna.
Toward the end of this section, the Pandavas chase and apprehend Ashwatthama, who admits defeat and is cursed by Krishna to become an immortal.
The Stri Parva
The Stri Parva is better known as the book of grief, mostly by women but also by the surviving men.
Dhritarashtra’s attempt to kill Bhimasena by embracing him occurs in this section. Gandhari also curses Krishna that his Yadava clan will meet its death like the Kurus, plagued by civil war.
Vyasa and Vidura’s treatises on the nature of grief and death brings this section to an end.
The Shanti Parva
In the Shanti Parva, the longest of the eighteen books, Yudhishthir receives wisdom and knowledge from a group of sages and Bhishma.
Various topics are covered, such as caste, religion, philosophy, cosmology, politics, governance and morality.
While it is true that critics consider the Shanti Parva and its successor, the Anushasana Parva, later interpolations into the epic, they’re still considered integral parts of the Mahabharata.
The Anushasana Parva
Next comes the Anushasana Parva, which continues in the same vein as the Shanti Parva, where Yudhishthir continues his studentship at the feet of Bhishma and other sages.
The topics of conversation are centred around the conduct of a leader, and the behaviour and habits of those closely assisting a ruler.
At the end of this section, Bhishma dies and his last rites are administered.
The Ashwamedha Parva
The Ashwamedha Parva contains the story of the horse sacrifice that Yudhishthir conducts to celebrate his victory.
At the end of the ritual, a mongoose with a golden head springs out of the ground and declares the entire ceremony meaningless.
Also in this section appears a sub-parva called the Anugita Parva, which reiterates much of Krishna’s battlefield discourse with a few further additions.
Scholars almost unanimously consider the Anugita a later addition.
The Ashramavasika Parva
In the Ashramavasika Parva, we are told of the peaceful and gracious nature of the Pandavas’ subsequent rule over fifteen years after the Kurukshetra war.
The Kuru family is one again, with Yudhishthir consulting Dhritarashtra and Gandhari over matters of polity.
Dhritarashtra, Kunti, Gandhari, Vidura and Sanjaya leave the comforts of the palace and retire into the woods.
Kunti and Gandhari find comfort in each other’s company. The parva ends with the death of Dhritarashtra, Gandhari, Kunti and Vidura.
The Mausala Parva
The Mausala Parva, one of the shortest books of the Mahabharata, nevertheless recounts an important tale: that of the death of Krishna and the Yadavas.
The section ends with the sinking of Dwaraka, and the fall of Arjuna as warrior. All his weapons and skills desert him when he tries to defend the children and women of Dwaraka from robbers.
Krishna and Balarama die in the Yadava civil war, as foretold by Gandhari.
The Mahaprasthanika Parva
In the Mahaprasthanika Parva, the shortest book of the epic, the Pandavas journey around Aryavarta and finally begin their ascent toward the Himalayas.
One by one, the Pandavas and Draupadi drop to their deaths with the exception of Yudhishthir, who reaches heaven in his mortal form because of his steadfast adherence to virtue.
The Swargarohanika Parva
The last section of the Mahabharata is called the Swargarohanika Parva, in which Yudhishthir’s experiences in heaven are described.
After one final test where Yudhishthir is shown a hell filled with good people and a heaven filled with bad people, the epic ends with a happy reunion in the company of the gods.