Mahabharata Parva 7: The Sambhava Parva

Mahabharata Parvas - Sambhava - Featured Image - Picture of the river Ganga

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 Sambhava Parva.

(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)

The Gods of Heaven

During the council of the celestials where it was decided that Vishnu would be incarnate on Earth as Krishna, a proposal is made to Soma, the moon god, that his son, Varchas, should also be sent to the land of men to combat evil.

To which Soma replies, ‘O Celestials, my son is most dear to me. I cannot part with him for the length of time that is being proposed here. Listen, instead, to my suggestion:

‘Let my Varchas be parted from me for a mere sixteen years. He will make an appearance toward the very end of the long process over which all the forces of evil must be assembled before they’re destroyed.

‘Both Nara and Narayana (Arjuna and Krishna) will fight on the side of the good in this great battle, but there will come to pass one encounter in which neither Nara nor Narayana take any part. And my son will step into this void and force all his enemies to retreat.

‘He will also beget one heroic son in his line, who shall continue the almost extinct Bharata race. So after the great cleansing is finished, he will ensure that the blood of the celestials will be present in the monarch that will follow.’

To this other celestials agree, and Varchas appears in the Mahabharata as Abhimanyu, the son of Arjuna.


The story of the Mahabharata begins in earnest with two curses: one placed on Mahabhisha the king by Brahma, and the other placed on the eight Vasus by Vasishtha.

The river goddess Ganga plays a role in both stories.

Mahabhisha is known to be one of the few king-sages on Earth, a person who is equally well versed in the scriptures and the principles of statecraft and battle.

As a result, he attains heaven in his mortal form. On one occasion, Mahabhisha, while sitting in council with Brahma and some other gods, sees Ganga pass by, and though the rest of them lower their heads in respect, Mahabhisha looks upon her with lust.

Brahma, noticing this, places a curse on the king, saying, ‘You shall be born on Earth for looking at the pious Ganga with desire.’

The Eight Vasus

Meanwhile, Ganga, who has seen Mahabhisha while passing by the gods’ council, begins to think of him as well. On her way back to her place amid the mountains, she meets the eight Vasus, looking rather dejected.

When asked the reason for their sadness, they tell her, ‘The sage Vasishtha has seen it fit to curse us for no more than a tiny fault, O Ganga. He has decreed that the eight of us will descend to Earth in the form of men.’

‘What did you do, O Vasus, to provoke the anger of the sage thus?’

‘We shall tell you that story in due course, O Mother of all things,’ the Vasus reply. ‘But we wish to know whether you would be kind enough to bear us in your womb on Earth, for we are unwilling to enter the body of any ordinary human female.’

‘Who is going to be the father of you all?’

‘We are informed that unto the virtuous king Pratipa will be born a son by name Shantanu, who is himself Mahabhisha of our world, preparing to descend upon Earth to serve another curse – for what sin, we do not know.

‘We think that he will make a suitable father for our human forms if you accede to become our mother.’

The Eighth Vasu

At the mention of Mahabhisha’s name, Ganga becomes excited at the thought of meeting him again on Earth.

This must be destiny indeed, she thinks, for how is it that events have transpired to place this opportunity at my feet? And with haste she agrees to carry the Vasus in her womb on Earth.

‘But remember, Lady Ganga,’ say the Vasus, ‘you must make certain that you kill the first seven of us within a few hours of our birth, by drowning us in your person so that we know no pain.

‘The eighth of us, though, you shall not kill, and he shall be reared as the son of Shantanu, and he might in the future become king to the land of Hastinapur. This is in accordance with Sage Vasishtha’s curse.’

The Vasus then tell Ganga about the incident surrounding the theft of Vasishtha’s cow, which angered the sage so much that he cursed the eight gods with human births.

For the eighth and youngest, Prabhasa, Vasishtha reserves special cruelty: he decrees that Prabhasa will live a long life on Earth without knowing the pleasure of a woman’s company.

Ganga Marries Shantanu

In due course of time, Ganga meets Shantanu on the riverbank. The two of them fall in love and marry.

After they have children, though, Ganga begins to kill each of her children on the day they’re born. This shocks Shantanu, but love for his wife prevents him from saying anything.

When the eighth child is born, though, he loses all control over his patience and abuses Ganga. Ganga, for her part, leaves Shantanu with their child.

At this moment of separation, Mahabhisha’s essence also leaves Shantanu.

For sixteen years, Shantanu rules Hastinapur alone. Then, Ganga brings back their son and hands him over to the king. Shantanu gives him the name Devavrata, and makes him crown-prince.

The Price of Satyavati

For four years, things move smoothly, with Shantanu retreating bit by bit from the life of a king and Devavrata growing into his future role under the careful eye of his father.

Then on another hunting expedition, this time on the bank of the Yamuna, the king meets Satyavati, the daughter of a fisherman, and loses his heart to her.

When Shantanu approaches the father of Satyavati for her hand in marriage, the fisherman demands that he will bestow his daughter only on receiving a promise from the king that her sons will ascend the throne of Hastinapur as kings.

Knowing that he has already made his son the crown-prince, Shantanu returns to the palace dejected.

However, Devavrata comes to know of this incident from a charioteer and goes himself to the hut of Satyavati to speak to her father.

In order to ensure that Satyavati’s children never face any rivals to the throne, Devavrata takes a vow that he will remain a Brahmachari forever.

This earns him the title of Bhishma.

Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya

A short time after her marriage to Shantanu, Satyavati brings forth first Chitrangada and then Vichitraveerya. Shantanu dies after the birth of his second son, and Bhishma rules as regent, on behalf of Chitrangada who becomes king at a suitable age.

But a short while after attaining kingship, Chitrangada is challenged to a duel on the bank of the river Saraswati by a Gandharva also named Chitrangada.

The duel is said to have lasted three years (probably an exaggeration), and at the end of it all, the Gandharva kills the boy.

Soon after his death, Bhishma installs Vichitraveerya as king. And when the time comes for Hastinapur to acquire queens for the perpetuation of the race, Bhishma does not send Vichitraveerya to any kingdom to compete in a groom-choosing ceremony.

Instead, he sets out to the city of Kasi (and its twin Kosala) to bring the three princesses, Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, back to Hastinapur to be wed to his brother.

The Three Princesses of Kasi

The groom-choosing ceremony of Kasi is originally supposed to be one of self-choice, where the three princesses would garland princes of their liking in open court.

But Bhishma, not willing to leave such things to fate, enters the great hall in full armour, bearing a weapon, and throws down a challenge to all the other suitors.

‘I intend to carry the three princesses to Hastinapur, to be wedded to my brother, King Vichitraveerya. If any of you wish to stop me, you will have to face the tip of my sword and defeat me in battle.’

The suitors who had arrived at Kasi respond to Bhishma’s challenge, and in the battle that follows, the regent from Hastinapur routs the army single-handedly.

He brings the three princesses back to the Kuru house, with the intention of bestowing them upon Vichitraveerya.

However, Amba, the eldest of the three princesses, approaches Bhishma before the wedding and tells him of her love for a king called Shalya, ruler of a small kingdom called Saubha.

‘I love the king, and he loves me,’ she tells Bhishma. ‘The match was also approved of by my father, sir. Since you are well-versed in all the tenets of virtue, I shall leave it to you to do as you like having known this.’

Bhishma decides to let Amba go and marry the man of her desires. The two other princesses, Ambika and Ambalika, are then wedded to Vichitraveerya.

The Son from the Past

However, another stroke of misfortune claims Vichitraveerya’s life before he could sire a child, leaving his two wives as widows. This leaves Bhishma in a state of anxiety as to how the line of the Bharatas could be continued.

He holds a consultation with his stepmother Satyavati, who advises him to take Ambika and Ambalika as his wives.

Bhishma, of course, refuses. Then Satyavati tells him about another son she had in the long-dead past – with Sage Parashara on the Yamuna.

‘Wonderful!’ says Bhishma with relief. ‘We must send word for him immediately then, Mother.’

So Vyasa arrives in due course, and he fathers three boys:

  • With Ambika, the elder of Vichitraveerya’s two wives, he has a blind child who is given the name, Dhritarashtra.
  • To Ambalika, the younger wife of Vichitraveerya, a pale boy is born. He is named Pandu.
  • With an unnamed Sudra maidservant, Vyasa fathers a third child named Vidura.

Vidura grows up to become a trusted adviser to both Pandu and Dhritarashtra.


As the boys grow up, a decision is taken by Bhishma to install Pandu on the throne instead of Dhritarashtra.

Pandu gets married twice, first to Pritha – whose boon from Durvasa would later play an important role in birthing the Pandavas – and then to Madri, the princess of the Madra kingdom, sister to a king called Shalya.

After the wedding, Pandu sets out almost immediately on an expedition of conquest, thus establishing himself as the supreme ruler of Aryavarta.

Upon his return to Hastinapur, he retires into the woods with his two wives, with the express intention of having children and extending his dynasty.

Dhritarashtra gets married once, to a princess of Gandhara called Gandhari, the daughter of a king by name Suvala.

At the wedding ceremony to the prince, Gandhari chooses to voluntarily blind herself by tying around her eyes a band of silk, reasoning that a wife should never see more than her husband could.

While the Mahabharata portrays this act as one of sacrifice, later retellings have speculated on whether there was a bit of rebellion on Gandhari’s part.

Vidura gets married too, to a woman named Sulabha, who is the daughter of King Devaka by a Sudra wife.

Birth of the Kauravas

Gandhari, the wife of Dhritarashtra, serves Dwaipayana over a period of time on one of his visits to the court of Hastinapur. In return for her hospitality, Dwaipayana blesses her that she will give birth to a hundred sons that are equal to Dhritarashtra in valour.

She gets pregnant before Pritha does, which fills her with joy, because that means that she would give birth to the oldest son, who might grow up with a claim to the throne.

But for two full years she does not deliver, and her stomach grows heavier and harder with each passing day. In the meantime she also hears that Pritha – in the forest with Pandu and Madri – has given birth to a son.

‘Woe upon me,’ she cries out, ‘and woe upon the sage who gave me a false boon.’ Saying this, she beats herself on the stomach with such strength that the mass of flesh growing inside of her slips out and falls to the ground.

Before panic could set in, Dwaipayana arrives and consoles the queen. ‘My words never go in vain, my lady,’ he tells her. ‘Ask your servants to fetch a hundred pots filled with clarified butter.’

He then divides the ball of flesh – after first sprinkling holy water over it – into hundred equal parts, each the size of a thumb, and drops them into a pot each, immersed in butter and infused with his magic.

Two years later, the hundred pots ‘deliver’ hundred boys. The eldest of these is Duryodhana.

Dhritarashtra also has a son by an unnamed Vaishya woman. His name is Yuyutsu.

The Curse of Kindama

Meanwhile, after his successful expedition across Aryavarta, Pandu retires to the woods and occupies himself with hunting and enjoying the pleasure of his wives’ company.

Now we pick up the tale on one such leisurely afternoon in the forest, with Pandu chancing upon a deer and a doe about to engage in sexual intercourse.

The king’s arrow whizzes out of his bow into the deer’s side, and the animal falls to the ground. Much to Pandu’s surprise, it then speaks in the voice of a human.

‘How dare you hurl you weapon at a harmless animal, O King,’ it says. ‘What has made your heart so cruel that you should take my life like this?’

The animal now curses Pandu.

‘I am actually a sage called Kindama,’ it says. ‘Since you killed me without knowing who I am, the sin of killing a Brahmin shall not be yours. But you have committed the crime of slaying an animal while it was making love.

‘For this you shall have your punishment. The very next time you approach your wife or any woman lustfully, you shall be struck down by the god of death.’

Birth of the Pandavas

After the curse is placed on Pandu, he gives up his kingly way of life, dons the bark of trees, and goes with Kunti and Madri to the northern hills. Here he lives among sages and mendicants, performing austerities of his own.

But over time, the sages that he lives with implore him to have children. Pandu approaches Kunti with the proposal that she should bear children fathered by one of the sages at the hermitage.

Kunti, however, has a better proposition. She reveals that she is in possession of an incantation that will summon any god of her choosing for the purpose of having a child with her.

Pandu is overjoyed at this news, and in no time at all, between Kunti and Madri, the five Pandavas are born:

  • Yudhishthir, the eldest son, is fathered by Yama with Kunti.
  • Bhimasena is fathered by Vayu.
  • Arjuna fathered by Indra.
  • Nakula and Sahadeva are born of the union between Madri and the Ashwin twins.

As far as the timeline is concerned, the day on which Bhimasena is born is the same as the day on which Duryodhana emerges from the pot of clarified butter in Hastinapur.

The Death of Pandu

A few years after the birth of the Pandavas, one day in the season of spring, Pandu approaches Madri consumed by desire, and though she tries to ward him off, he bends her to her will.

Just as they are about to be united, the curse of Kindama comes true, and Pandu falls to his death, his body chilled by an invisible thunderbolt.

This throws the lives of the two women and the children into disarray. Madri makes the decision to immolate herself on Pandu’s funeral pyre.

Afterward, Kunti brings her children to Hastinapur with the intention of raising them there.


Drona is born of the union between a sage named Bharadwaja and an apsara called Ghritachi.

It is said that once the sage was performing ablutions at the source of the Ganga and saw Ghritachi, with her upper garment strategically displaced by the breeze.

Overcome by desire and yet ashamed of it, Bharadwaja releases his fluid into a vessel (a ‘drona’). And after a few months of care, an infant boy develops inside it.

Throughout Drona’s childhood and early youth, Drupada comes to Bharadwaja’s hermitage to gain training from the sage. Both Drona and Drupada thus grow up together.

Their paths diverge with the deaths of their fathers; Drupada becomes the king of Northern Panchala whereas Drona continues to live at his father’s hermitage, engaged in the Brahmin way of life.

Around this time he marries Kripi. Marriage brings the young sage into a life of a grihasthi, and a son is duly born to them.

At the birth of the infant, he neighs like the divine steed Uchchaihsravas, and a voice proclaims from the sky: ‘Since this boy has the voice of a horse, he shall be called Ashwatthama.’

A Blade of Grass

For a period of time, Drona lives privately in the house of Kripa, unknown to the royals. Then one day, the Kuru princes, playing with a ball, drop it accidentally into a well.

While debating among themselves how to bring it out, a lean and decrepit Brahmin arrives and asks them what the matter is.

On being told of the predicament, Drona laughs and says, ‘You are the mighty princes of the Kuru line, being taught by none other than Kripacharya himself.

Are you not ashamed to accept defeat in the hands of a ball and a well so readily? If you promise to give me a meal from your kitchen, I shall be only too happy to extract your plaything for you, with nothing more than blades of grass.’

And by the power of his aim and that of his incantations, Drona brings out the ball. The astonished Yudhishthir bows to him. ‘Who are you, sir? No one we know possesses skills of this sort that can make missiles out of mere hay.’

‘Go,’ Drona tells them. ‘Narrate the incident as it has happened to Bhishma, your grandfather. He shall know who I am.’

Bhishma, upon hearing the story from his grandchildren, comes himself to Kripa’s house to meet this Brahmin. He invites Drona to become the chief acharya to the Pandavas and the Kauravas.

From this day on, he comes to be known as Dronacharya.

The Graduation Ceremony

When the education of the princes ends, Drona comes to Dhritarashtra and takes permission from the king to arrange for a tournament of sorts where the Pandavas and the Kauravas could demonstrate their acquired skills.

A suitable plot of land is identified, and a stage is erected so that all manners of weapons could be stored in it. A hall is built for lady spectators, and a viewing gallery is constructed for the general public.

Arjuna distinguishes himself as the most skilled of all the princes. He performs feat after feat of sheer mastery that draws admiration from the crowd.

But then, a warrior arrives at the gate with a bow in hand.

He steps into the arena and addresses Arjuna amid whispers of the spectators.

‘Partha,’ he says, ‘I shall perform all the feats that you have performed, and I shall do them better.’

And before anyone can think of responding, he strides to where Arjuna had been standing, and places the first arrow onto his bow.

Karna Arrives

Karna challenges Arjuna to a duel. But just at the heroes are marking out their spots, Kripa rises in his seat and asks Karna to reveal his lineage.

With Karna paling at the request, Duryodhana springs to his support and says, ‘Kripacharya, there are three classes of men that can claim to royalty: those of royal blood, heroes that perform valorous deeds by the sheer power of their will, and those that lead armies.

‘If Arjuna is not willing to fight this man who is clearly a hero, then let me right at this moment install Karna as the king of Anga.’

And right there on the arena, Karna is given the kingship of Anga by Duryodhana. And they embrace each other like brothers, swearing eternal friendship.

The battle between Karna and Arjuna does not happen today, but Duryodhana succeeds in procuring the services of a great warrior in Karna – who will forever remain beholden to him.

The Gurudakshina of Drona

After the dust has settled on the tournament, in which the Pandavas made a new enemy and Duryodhana a new friend, Dronacharya asks the Kuru princes for his fee.

‘Invade Panchala, my children, and bring its king Drupada before me alive and unharmed. That will be the most suitable dakshina for all that you have learnt under me.’

The Kauravas try their luck first; indeed, Arjuna displays remarkable foresight in letting them go first, reasoning that they would not be able to subjugate Drupada on their own.

His guess turns out to be right; after a long battle, the Kaurava forces comprising Duryodhana, Karna, Yuyutsu and other such warriors are routed by the Panchala army.

When their own turn comes, Arjuna asks Yudhishthir to stay away from battle, and entrusts Nakula and Sahadeva with the task of guarding each of his chariot-wheels.

With Bhimasena fighting on foot with mace in hand and commanding their infantrymen, Arjuna scythes through the Panchala defences and defeats Drupada in a well-matched battle of bow and arrow.

Drona thus becomes king to a part of Panchala called Ahichhatra. Thus ends the Sambhava Parva of the Mahabharata.