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Within its 200,000 verse lines in Sanskrit the Mahabharata takes on many roles: epic poem, foundational text of Hinduism, and, more broadly, the engaging story of a dynastic struggle and the passing of an age when man and gods intermingled. David R. Slavitt’s sparkling new edition condenses the epic for the general reader.

At its core, the Mahabharata is the story of the rivalry between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two related noble families who are struggling for control of a kingdom in ancient northern India. Slavitt’s readable, plot-driven, single-volume account describes an arc from the conception and birth of Bhishma to that hero's death, while also introducing the four goals of life at the center of Hinduism: dharma (righteousness, morality, duty), artha (purpose), kāma (pleasure), and moksa (spiritual liberation). The Mahabharata is engaging, thrilling, funny, charming, and finally awesome, with a range in timbre from the impish naivete of fairy tales to the solemnity of our greatest epics, and this single-volume edition is the best introduction available.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810130593
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 03/30/2015
Pages: 592
Sales rank: 636,771
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

David Slavitt is a poet, translator, novelist, critic, and journalist. He is the author of more than seventy works of fiction and poetry, as well as poetry and drama in translation. He is the author of The Duke’s Man: A Novel (Northwestern University Press, 2011) and translator of The Metamorphoses of Ovid (1994).

Henry L. Carrigan Jr. is the assistant director and a senior editor at Northwestern University Press.

Read an Excerpt


By David R. Slavitt

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2015 David R. Slavitt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-3059-3



The Ganges, the holy river.
Ganga, she is called, or Ma-Ganga, Mother Ganga.
Daughter of the Himalayas and Menaka, the most beautiful of the Apsaras.
She flows from the toes of Vishnu. She purifies the ashes
of the sixty thousand sons of King Sagara.

* * *

One day the celestials had assembled to worship Brahma.
Among the royal sages there was King Mahabhisha.
Ganga, the queen of rivers, also came to pray.
Her garments, white as moonbeams, were displaced by the wind.
Her body was exposed. The celestials bent their heads or looked away.
But Mahabhisha stared openly at the queen of rivers.
For this he was cursed by Brahma: "Wretch, you have forgotten yourself.
For staring at Ganga, you shall be reborn on earth
and suffer the agonies of human beings. But again and again
you shall attain to these regions. She, too, shall be born in the world of men
and shall do you injuries. But when your wrath shall be provoked,
then shall you be freed from my curse."
King Mahabhisha, in his sadness, thought of the least bad human life he might lead.
Considering all the monarchs and ascetics on earth,
he declared that he wished to be born as son to Pratipa,
son of Bhimasena, light of the Kuru race, and unrivaled on earth.
But still his face was deeply woeful. And Ganga, the queen of rivers,
seeing King Mahabhisha's dejection, went away, thinking of him wistfully.
On her way, she saw the eight Vasus, dwellers in heaven,
pursuing the same path. And the queen of rivers asked them:
"Why do you look so dejected? You are gods in heaven. Is anything wrong?"
The Vasus answered, saying: "O queen of rivers,
we have been cursed for a minor fault, having provoked the anger of the Brahma.
Vasishtha, foremost among seven excellent rishis,
had been engaged in twilight prayers, but seated as he was, we could not see him.
In ignorance, we crossed between him and the sun.
He cursed us, saying: 'Be you born among men!'
It is beyond our power to frustrate an utterance of Brahma.
Therefore, O river, become a human female
and make us, the Vasus, your children. We are unwilling to enter the womb
of any human female." The queen of rivers told them: "Be it so"
and asked them: "On earth, who is that foremost among men whom you would choose to
be your father?"
The Vasus replied: "On earth, Pratipa shall have a son, Shantanu,
who will be a king of universal fame."
And Ganga then said: "Gods, my wish is exactly what you sinless ones have expressed.
I shall do good to that Shantanu."
The Vasus then said: "And then you must throw your children into the water,
so that we may be rescued soon
without having to live on earth for any length of time."
Ganga then said: "I shall do what you desire.
But in order that Shantanu's intercourse with me may not be entirely fruitless,
allow one son at least to live."
The Vasus agreed.
"We shall each contribute an eighth part of our respective energies.
With the sum of these, you shall have one son
according to your wishes and his.
But this son shall not beget any children on earth.
This son of yours, for all his great energy, shall be childless."

* * *

This Pratipa of whom the Vasus had made mention
spent many years in ascetic penances at the source of the river Ganga.
The lovely Ganga, assuming the form of a beautiful female,
arose one day from the waters of the river and approached the monarch.
The royal sage was engaged in his austere exercises
when the celestial maiden, endowed with ravishing beauty,
came to him and sat upon his right thigh
that was, for manly strength, a veritable sala tree.
When the lovely maiden had sat upon his lap in this way, the monarch said to her:
"O beautiful girl, what do you desire? What shall I do?"
The maiden answered: "I desire you, O king. I wish you to be my husband!
O foremost among Kurus, make me your wife!
To refuse a woman who comes to you of her own accord is never approved by the wise."
Pratipa answered: "O fairest maiden, even when moved by lust,
I never go to others' wives or to women not of my order. I have taken an oath."
The maiden replied: "I am not ugly. I am in every way worthy of your favor.
I am a celestial maiden, and I desire you for my husband.
Do not refuse me, O king." To this Pratipa answered: "Dear maiden,
still I must abstain from what you would have me do.
If I break my vow, sin will overwhelm and kill me.
You have embraced me, sitting on my right thigh.
But this is the seat for daughters and daughters-in-law.
The left lap is for the wife, but you did not choose that.
O fairest of women, I therefore cannot enjoy you as an object of desire.
But be my daughter-in-law. I accept you for my son!"
The damsel then said: "O virtuous one, let it be as you have said.
Let me be united with your son.
Because of my great respect for you, I shall be a wife of the celebrated Bharata race.
You, who descend from Bharata, are the refuge of all the monarchs on earth!
I am incapable of numbering the virtues of the Bharatas
even if I had a hundred years in which to do so.
But, O lord of all, let it be understood now that when I become your daughter-in-law,
your son shall not be able to judge of the propriety of any of my actions.
Living thus with your son, I shall do good to him and increase his happiness.
And he shall finally attain to heaven in consequence of the sons I shall bear him,
and of his virtues and excellent conduct."
The celestial damsel then disappeared.
And Pratipa, too, departed to wait for the birth of his son
and the fulfillment of her promise.

* * *

After much time, when Pratipa was old, a son was born to him and his wife,
and the child was called Shantanu, meaning "Control,"
because he was born after his father had controlled his passions for so long
and had carried out so many ascetic penances. Shantanu became the best of Kurus,
understanding that this region of indestructible bliss
can be acquired by deeds alone.
When Shantanu grew up into a youth, Pratipa addressed him:
"Some time ago, O Shantanu, a celestial damsel came to me for your good.
If you meet that fair-complexioned one, and if she solicits you for children,
accept her as your wife. And do not judge of the propriety or impropriety of her actions,
and do not ask who she is, or from whom or whence she comes,
but accept her as your wife. This is my command!"
Having thus commanded his son Shantanu, Pratipa installed him on his throne
and retired into the woods.
King Shantanu then ruled with great intelligence and dignity.
He loved hunting and passed much of his time in the woods,
where this most excellent monarch slew many deer and buffalo.
One day, as he wandered along the bank of the Ganges,
he saw a lovely maiden of blazing beauty as dazzling as the goddess Sri.
Of faultless pearly teeth, and decked with celestial ornaments,
she was attired in garments of a texture as fine as the filaments of the lotus.
Seeing her, the monarch was astonished—his raptures made his skin tingle.
With an unwavering gaze, his eyes drank in her charms,
but still he failed to quench his thirst.
Seeing the monarch of blazing splendor moving about in great agitation,
the damsel was herself moved and felt a great attraction to him.
She gazed and gazed and longed to gaze on him forever.
The monarch then addressed her in soft words:
"O slender-waisted one, whether you be a goddess or the daughter of a Danava,
or of the race of the Gandharvas or the Apsaras,
or of the Yakshas or the Nagas, or of human origin,
O woman of celestial beauty, I ask you to be my wife!"
The maiden, hearing the soft and sweet words of the smiling monarch,
and remembering her promise to the Vasus, answered the king;
faultless of feature, the damsel sent a thrill of pleasure into his heart
with every word she uttered: "O king, I shall become your wife
and obey your commands. But you must not interfere with me in anything I do,
whether it be agreeable or disagreeable,
nor shall you ever speak to me in an unkindly way.
As long as you are gentle and kind, I promise to live with you.
But I shall leave you the moment that you interfere with me
or speak a harsh word to me." The king answered: "So be it."
And thereupon the damsel, obtaining that excellent monarch,
that foremost exemplar of the Bharata race, as her husband, was highly pleased.
And King Shantanu also, obtaining her as his wife,
enjoyed to the full the pleasure of her company.
Adhering to his promise, he refrained from asking her anything.
Shantanu became exceedingly gratified with her conduct,
beauty, magnanimity, and attention to his comforts.
And Ganga, the goddess of the three realms—celestial, terrestrial, and subterranean—
having assumed a human form of superior complexion,
and endowed with celestial beauty, lived happily as the wife of Shantanu,
having as the fruit of her virtuous acts obtained as her husband
that tiger among kings equal unto Indra himself in splendor.
She gratified the king by her attractiveness and affection,
by her wiles and love, by her music and dance, and was herself gratified.
The monarch was so enraptured with his beautiful wife
that months, seasons, and years rolled on without his being conscious of them.
And the king, while thus enjoying himself with his wife,
had eight children born to him who in beauty were like the very celestials themselves.
But those children, one after another, as soon as they were born,
Ganga threw into the river, saying: "This is for your good."
And the children sank, to rise no more.
The king could not have been pleased with such conduct.
But he never spoke a word about it, lest his wife leave him.
But when the eighth child was born,
and his wife, as before, was about to throw it smilingly into the river,
the king with a most sorrowful countenance, and wanting to save it from destruction,
addressed her and said: "Do not kill him! Who are you?
From whom do you come? Why do you kill your own children?
Murderess of our sons, the weight of your sins is great!"
His wife replied: "You want children? Now you have a child.
I shall not destroy this one.
But according to our agreement, my stay with you is at an end.
I am Ganga, the daughter of mountains. I am worshipped by the great sages.
I have lived with you so long to accomplish the purposes of the celestials.
The eight illustrious Vasus, endowed with great energy,
were condemned by Vasishtha's curse to assume human forms.
On earth, besides you, there was none else to deserve the honor of begetting them.
Nor was there any woman on earth except one like me,
a celestial of human form, to become their mother.
I assumed human form to bring them forth.
You, too, having become the father of the eight Vasus,
have acquired many regions of perennial bliss.
It was also agreed between myself and the Vasus
that I should free them from their human forms as soon as they were born.
I have thus freed them from their curse.
Blessings upon you. I now leave you, O king!
But rear this child of rigid vows. That I should live with you as long as I have
was the promise I gave to the Vasus. Let the child be called Gangadatta."
Shantanu asked: "What was the fault of the Vasus, and whose curse
condemned them to be born among men?
What also has this child of ours, Gangadatta, done so that he has to live among men?
O daughter of mountains, tell me all."
The celestial Ganga replied to her husband:
"O best of Bharata's race, he who was obtained as a son by Varuna was called Vasishtha,
who afterward came to be known as Apava.
He had his asylum on the breast of Meru, king of mountains.
The spot was sacred, abounding with birds and beasts,
and at all times of the year there bloomed flowers of every season.
Apava, that foremost among virtuous men, the son of Varuna,
practiced his ascetic penances in those woods blessed with sweet roots and water.
Daksha had a daughter known by the name of Surabhi,
who, for the benefit of the world, brought forth,
by her connection with Kasyapa, a daughter—Nandini—in the form of a cow,
foremost among cows, the cow of plenty, capable of granting every desire.
The virtuous son of Varuna obtained Nandini for his Homa rites.
And Nandini, dwelling in that hermitage that was adored by munis,
roamed fearlessly in those sacred and delightful woods.
One day there came into those woods adored by the gods and celestial rishis
the Vasus, with Prithu at their head. Wandering there with their wives,
they enjoyed themselves in those delightful precincts.
And strolling there, the slender-waisted wife of one of the Vasus
saw in those woods Nandini, the cow of plenty, with her wealth of accomplishments,
large eyes, full udders, fine tail, beautiful hooves, and every other auspicious sign,
and yielding much milk.
She showed the animal to her husband, Dyaus, who also admired her fine qualities.
He said to his wife: 'O black-eyed girl of fair thighs,
this excellent cow belongs to the rishi who owns this delightful refuge.
O slender-waisted one, any mortal who drinks the sweet milk of this cow
remains youthful for ten thousand years.'
Hearing this, the wife addressed her lord of blazing splendor, saying:
'There is on earth a friend of mine, Jitavati by name,
possessed of great beauty and youth.
She is the daughter of that god among men, the royal sage Usinara,
endowed with intelligence and devoted to truth.
I desire to have this cow and her calf, O illustrious one, for that friend of mine.
Therefore, bring me that cow so that my friend on earth, drinking of her milk,
may become free from disease and decrepitude.
O illustrious and blameless one, there is nothing I should like better.'
Hearing these words of his wife, and moved by the desire of humoring her,
Dyaus stole the cow, aided by his brothers Prithu and the others.
Indeed, Dyaus, commanded by his lotus-eyed wife, did her bidding,
forgetting for the moment the ascetic merits of the rishi who owned the cow.
He did not think at the time that he was going to fall into the sin of stealing the cow.
When Apava, son of Varuna, returned to his holdings in the evening
with fruits he had collected, he did not see the cow or her calf.
He searched for them in the woods but failed to find them,
and he understood by his ascetic vision that she had been stolen by the Vasus.
His wrath was at once aroused, and he cursed the Vasus, saying:
'Because they have stolen my cow of sweet milk and handsome tail,
therefore, shall they be born on earth!'"
Ganga continued: "O bull of Bharata's race, the illustrious rishi Apava thus cursed the
Vasus in his anger
and, having cursed them, the illustrious one set his heart once more
on ascetic meditation.
The Vasus came to know of Apava's curse and speedily came to his house.
Addressing the rishi, they endeavored to pacify him, but they failed to obtain pardon.
Apava said: 'You Vasus have been cursed by me.
But you shall be freed from my curse within a year of your birth among men.
But Dyaus, for whose deed you have all been cursed,
shall for his sinful act be required to dwell on earth a length of time,
for I shall not make futile the words I have uttered in wrath.
Dyaus, though dwelling on earth, shall not beget children.
He shall be virtuous, however, and conversant with the scriptures.
He shall be an obedient son to his father,
but he shall have to abstain from the pleasure of female companionship.'
Thus addressing the Vasus, the great rishi went away. The Vasus then
together came to me. And they begged of me that as soon as they would be born,
I should throw them into the water.
And I did so to free them from their earthly lives.
From the rishi's curse,
this one only—Dyaus—is to live for some time on earth."
Having said this, the goddess disappeared, taking with her the child.
That child of Shantanu was named both Gangeya and Devavrata
and afterward came to be known as Bhishma.
And he surpassed his father in all accomplishments.
Shantanu, after the disappearance of his wife, returned to Hastinapura, his capital,
with a sorrowful heart.



A river called Suktimati flowed by King Vasu's capital.
This river was once attacked by a life-endowed mountain called Kolahala
that had been maddened by lust.
Vasu, beholding the foul attempt,
struck the mountain with his foot, a kick so hard as to enable the river
to free herself of the mountain's unwelcome embraces.
Still, the mountain had begotten on the river twins,
which the river, grateful to Vasu for his having rescued her,
gave to Vasu.


Excerpted from Mahabharata by David R. Slavitt. Copyright © 2015 David R. Slavitt. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Prologue                              
2 Ganga                                  
3 Satyaviti                              
4 Vyasa                                  
5 Pandu                                  
6 Bhima                                  
7 Drona                                  
8 Kanika                                 
9 Duryodhana                        
10 Hidimva                            
11 Vaka                                  
12 Tapati                                
13 Vasishtha                          
14 Draupadi                           
15 Tilottama                           
16 Subhadra                           
17 Agni                                                                                                          
18 Narada                              
19 Sakuni                               
20 The Jackal                         
21 Exile                                  
22 Saunaka                             
23 Shiva                                 
24 Arjuna Visits Heaven                                                                                
25 Karna                                                                                                        
26 Virata                                
27 Kichaka      '                      
28 The Yaksha                                                                                               
29 Susarman                                                                                                   
30 Uttara                                                                                            
31 The Envoys                       
32 Kunti                                 
33 Councils                            
34 Sikhandini                         
35 Engagement                      
36 Akampana                         
37 The End of Bhishma                                                                                 
38 The Funeral,

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