The politics of the mahabharata Essay

The Mahabharata, although increasingly seen as a religious text due to the advent of the Bhakti movement and the veneration of Krishna as god on earth, instead actually functions more like a political and social text. It talks about the political and social situation found in the plains of the Ganga around 1000-500 BCE. One can spend a lifetime arguing whether or not the events of the epic are historical or mythical, however, the researcher finds the mere fact that the epic has been alive and thriving all these millennia to be a sign to look at the very content of the story itself. The kingdoms that all play a significant role in the narrative of the epic. Through the course of the story, we learn much about these places and the workings of their government and society. In this research paper, the researcher will look at the differences between the governing methods of the largest kingdoms thriving over the almost 2 century timeline of the epic- their notion of state, while also looking at the differences seen in the social sphere of each kingdom- here, interest will also be given to the question of citizenship which was raised by Draupadi herself during the game of dice.

The epics being extremely popular and highly influential, there are many papers written on them. There are some papers which also have talked about topics similar to which this paper sets out to do. A paper titled “Empire, Invasion, and India's National Epics” where the researcher talks about the writing of the epics, the possible influences that shaped the writing of the epics and how the epics reflect the invasion and cultural changes that occurred during the course of ancient Indian history. The researcher draws parallels between episodes like Yudhistira’s victory over Jarasandha and the historical invasions and cultural exchange of the time. He concludes by talking about how the Rajputs claimed the epic lineage for themselves in later times. A paper titled “Fate and Human Action it the Mahābhārata's Mythology of the Great Ṛṣis”, the researcher uses the multiple mentions of Rishis in the epic to learn their function in the society of that time and the purpose of the bards using the Rishis in the plot of the epic. A paper titled “Mahābhar̄ata : A Mythology in the Making (3) : The Forest Interludes”, talks exclusively and in detail about all the episodes in the course of the epic that occurred in the forest as the forest plays an important role throughout the epic. Finally, a paper titled “The "Mahabharata": A Reading in Political Structuring” comes closest to doing what this paper does as it looks at all the political achievements of Krishna and charts them out. However, this paper will not look only at the politics of Krishna but will take a more broad look at the political landscape of the time of the epic and not the the work of an individual.

This paper shall be looking at the kingdoms of Hastinapura, Indraprastha, Dwaraka, Panchala and Magadha and look at their administration and statehood. The paper will look at the kingdoms pre-Kurukshetra war and post-Kurukshetra war It will also take the “Game of dice” as a special incident to look at the nature citizenship through it.

Let us start at the time of Shantanu. All kingdoms around the Gangetic plains around that time were relatively stable and followed monarchy. The rule of Shantanu is a good starting point because it is the beginning of political confusion and instability for the kingdom of Hastinapura. Until the time of Shantanu, the throne was passed down from father to eldest son (and sometimes from elder brother to younger brother). It was believed the eldest son was most qualified for the throne and was hence trained best to rule. Then, Shantanu’s son Devavratha took his infamous vow of celibacy and donned the name Bhishma. His half-brothers were crowned king on the demands of Satyavati. Due to the state of Hastinapura’s monarchy, and Bhishma’s sense of self-righteousness in keeping his vow, the state of Hastinapura remained kingless for almost two whole generations because both of Satyavathi’s sons died young. When the generation of Pandu, Dhritharashtra, Vidura and their sons arrived, the situation of succession became even more volatile. The eldest Dhritharashtra was not allowed to rule because of his blindness (more than just physical), Pandu ruled for sometime before imposing a self-exile and Vidura, although highly qualified was never considered because he was not of royal blood. So, when the Pandavas and Kauravas grew up, both sets of cousins claimed rights to the throne. It is this battle for succession that is the center of the Mahabharata story and eventually led to a bloody war that encompassed the entire sub-continent.

Since the war did not involve only the cousins and also involved a number of other kingdoms, the researcher will now give a brief about a few other powerful kingdoms of the age of the epic. Panchala, the neighboring kingdom of Hastinapura is said to have been the biggest rival of Hastinapura. Although also a monarchy, Panchala however, was much more stable than Hastinapura throughout the time of the epic. The king Drupada, openly accepted having a transgendered son called Shikandi. The main problems of that kingdom came from Drupada’s personal enmity with Dronarachya due to which he performed a highly discouraged yagna through which was born Dhrishtadyumna, slayer of Drona and Draupadi- also often credited to causing the great war. Then, there’s the kingdom of Magadha. Although the king Jarasandha himself was a monarch who got the throne from his father, it is said that otherwise, his kingdom was a complete meritocracy. From the foot soldier to the minister, everyone was chosen based on merit. However, it is also said that he held kings of neighboring areas captive and planned to use them in a large human sacrifice. The kingdom was otherwise extremely powerful and independent but fell as soon as Jarasandha died. Making it seem quite dictatorial in nature. Closely connected to Magadha is Dwaraka. The people of Dwarka were originally from Gokul, Mathura and Vrindavan on the banks of river Yamuna. However, when Krishna killed Kamsa, who was Jarasandha’s son-in-law, Jarasandha’s rage drove the people to run from the banks of Yamuna to Dwaraka- the coast of present-day Gujarat. The kingdom of Dwaraka was technically a monarchy but most administration and trade were taken care of by Balarama- Krishna’s elder brother and Krishna himself helped Dwaraka gain many allies. It was said to have been a very rich city due to trade connection with western civilizations. Another kingdom worth the mention would be Gandhara the mountain kingdom from the west where Shakuni ruled from. Although technically Shakuni’s kingdom, Shakuni himself sped most of his life in Hastinapura with his sister, brother-in-law and nephews. He is also attributed to be a major cause for the great war.

Last, but not the least, Indraprastha. Indraprastha is located in present-day Delhi. It was once a part of Hastinapura but was then given to the Pandavas as attempt to prevent civil war between the cousins. It was forested area which was then burned down to create agricultural land. Indraprastha was also a monarchy with only one monarch- Yudhishthira. However, Yudhishthira’s eldest son was set up to become the next king. The kingdom rose to prosperous heights in a very short amount of time. Through trade, marriage and conquests, Indraprastha gained the ally ship of almost the entire subcontinent. Here again, Magadha was the biggest rival. However, with the help of Krishna, even that threat was neutralized. So powerful Indraprastha grew, it had enough power to host the Rajasuya Yagna. A ritual that can only be hosted by a king who all the kingdoms of the subcontinent were willing to accept as emperor and pay tax to. As mentioned in the [paper], this was the highest point in the lives and careers of the Pandavas and their allies. The murder that took place during the Rajasuya, the jealousy that was born from it were all the last straw that pushed the land called Aryavarta to the time of the great war.

At this point in the paper, the researcher would like to talk about a specific even from the epic- the infamous “Game of dice”. This is a pivotal point not only in the story of the epic but also in the politics of the era. It was in this game of dice that something happened which probably had never happened before in the history of Aryavarta- unfortunately it was not the humiliation of a woman, that had happened multiple times in that very epic prior to the game. The historical act that occurred in the game hall was- Yudhishthira gambled away his kingdom. Although all kingdoms of Aryavarta of that time were monarchies, it was very important to note that the monarch of a kingdom did not own his kingdom. A king was only a protector and administrator of his people and their land. He was not the owner. War was declared by consulting ministers and generals who all had the people’s best interest in mind. That day, before Yudhishthira gambled away his brothers, himself and his wife, the first thing he gambled away that wasn’t his was his kingdom. The flurry of tragic events that followed did something else- it collapsed the state into the personal. The loss of his kingdom, his freedom and dignity all paled in Yudhisthira’s eyes when he saw the vengeful anger of Draupadi. Draupadi took upon a personal vendetta against everyone in that hall that day- including her husbands. The war then became about avenging humiliating. Indraprastha once again became a part of Hastinapura.

The anger of Draupadi is something worth visiting again. It is because of the collapse of state down to the level of personal, for the first time in the epic, there is a very pertinent question asked, “Does a man have rights over his wife after he gave up his own rights?” Here is the argument provided in the epic:

The base assumption over here is that a slave has no rights. However, even slaves have wives. And a man has a right over his wife. Draupadi, though was the wife of 5 men. So, does only one husband have the right over her then? Even if it’s the first husband? At this point in the epic, Duryodhana actually tell the other four Pandavas, if they admit that what their eldest brother did was wrong, the he was willing to set them all free, leave Draupadi was their common wife, give back their kingdom and only keep Yudhishthira as a slave- after all, he was the one doing the gambling. Not one word from any brother. So, the debate continues. Yudhishthira gave himself up to slavery before he gave Draupadi up. Meaning, at one point, a slave was putting a queen, princess and royal daughter on stake. What right did he have to do that?

It is over here the argument reaches a stalemate. No one can agree or disagree. A man still has rights over his wife. None of the other husbands objected to Yudhisthira’s actions. Draupadi’s pleas for basic human decency fell on the deaf ears of these scholars of Dharma. And so, at the battle of Kurukshetra, everything was personal. Every single person on that battlefield stood with the personal belief that the side they were standing on was the right side- or at the very least, the side they promised to stand by.

After the bloody war, there was peace. But it was an eerie peace. The Pandavas were left to rule an empire of widows and children. Magadha, Panchala, Gandhara and dozens of other kingdoms all fell under Hastinapura by default. They were ruled so by Yudhishthira for 39 years according to most texts. Dwaraka was the only kingdom almost completely unaffected by the great war as only one part of the army fought. This was because Balarama refused to take any side during the battle. However, after time, Dwaraka fell to a bloody civil war. Krishna died and the Pandavas left for the Himalayas after crowning Parikshit as king.

In conclusion, the political state during the course of the Mahabharata started as a grab for the throne between cousins and siblings then grew to a war that engulfed the entire subcontinent but was fought not for land or resources but personal vengeance stemming from a denial of rights the right to the throne for the Pandavas and the right to dignity for Draupadi.


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• Hill, Peter. “FATE AND HUMAN ACTION IN THE MAHĀBHĀRATA'S MYTHOLOGY OF THE GREAT ṚṢIS.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, vol. 75, no. 1/4, 1994, pp. 65–79. JSTOR,

• Lad, Gouri P. “MAHĀBHAR̄ATA : A MYTHOLOGY IN THE MAKING (3) : THE FOREST INTERLUDES.” Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute, 51/52, 1991, pp. 533–546. JSTOR,

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