The Mahabharata Study Questions

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The Mahabharata
Study Questions

Prepared by Prof. Brian Hatcher, Dept. of Religion, IWU

Revised by Prof. Nancy Sultan
Keep Gilgamesh and Homer's Iliad in mind for comparative analysis of characters and motifs!
Useful Vocabulary:
Brahman priest cast

dharma socio-cosmic order, norm of good behavior

dharmasastra treatise on dharma

jati caste

kama search for sexual desire/pleasure

kamasutra instruction on kama

karman action during life, with consequences

Ksatriya warrior caste

kula/kutumba family (patrilineal)

moska deliverance from samsara

parda veiling of women (regional)

samsara chain of rebirth (reincarnation)

Sanskrit "perfected" language of the epic. "superhuman language"

sati self-sacrifice of wife on husband's funeral pyre (act of loyalty)

sraddha ancestor worship

Vedas the most ancient Indian sacred literature, i.e. the Rg-veda, which is divided into two portions, mantra and brahmana.



Adi Parva
Orality vs. Literacy: Who narrates the story of the Pandavas and the Kauravas? What is the setting for the narration? Identify how this story is told and its context.

Do you see any parallels between the fate of Pariksit, the heir to the Pandavas, and the fate of Taksaka, the snake who killed Pariksit? (Hint: you will need to read through to the end of the epic to think about this question!)

How do the birth narratives of the principal characters serve to set the stage for the epic drama?

Choose a character and suggest how his/her origins foreshadow his/her role in the subsequent story.




Sabha Parva
Fate vs. Human Fallibility: Both Dhrtarashtra and Yudhisthira play important parts in propelling events forward toward conflict. Could they have acted otherwise? What is it about their characters that makes them behave as they do? How do they explain the causes of their own predicaments? Keep the ideas of “fate” vs. “human fallibility” in mind throughout the poem as you analyze characters and their motivations/actions.

What elements are significant within the story of Duhsasana’s attempt to disrobe Draupadi? In the longer version of the poem it is made clear that Draupadi is menstruating at the time this incident occurred. What does this fact add to our interpretation? Analyze Draupadi’s character.




Aranyaka Parva
Consider the encounter between Indra and Karna. What do we learn about Karna from this story?


Virata Parva
There seems to be a kind of logic that governs the disguises adopted by the Pandavas and Draupadi? Can you suggest what it is? That is, why do the characters adopt the disguises they do?

It might be said that the entire Virata Parva is built upon a series of inversions or reversals of things found elsewhere in the epic. Can you provide any evidence that this is so?


When Kicaka molests Draupadi, she appeals to Bhima. Why? Can you connect the events in this episode to parallel scenes elsewhere in the epic?




Udyoga Parva
Arjuna and Krishna appear to have a special relationship. Does the scene in which both Duryodhana and Arjuna go to Krishna’s bedside help you see this in a new light? Think about this question in light of the Greek idea of “god-hero antagonism.”

When Krishna tells Karna of his true kinship, why doesn’t the latter go over to the Pandavas and fight for them?



Bhisma Parva
Why won’t Bhisma fight Sikhandin? How does Arjuna use this to his advantage? Check back to page 115-117 (Udyoga Parva) for the story.


Drona Parva
Why does Karna use the sakti weapon on Ghatotkaca? What are the consequences of his action here? Does this reveal to us any lesson about Karna’s “human fallibilities”?

Krishna is called “The Divine Planner” “The Protector of Virtue” Is Krishna here guilty of deceitful behavior? If yes, how can this be true of god incarnate?




Karna Parva
Where is the balance of virtue in the slaying of Duhsasana by Bhima? Is revenge more noble than the code of the warrior? If Bhima is one of the ‘good guys’ are we supposed to identify with his apparent lust for blood?

What series of prior events conspire to lead to the defeat of Karna by Arjuna? With whom do you identify in this episode?




Salya Parva
What does Bhima’s slaying of Duryodhana suggest about right action? Just what is right? What is virtue? Who is the more perfect warrior here?


Stri Parva

Is Bhima’s reason for vengeance valid?




Asvamedha Parva
Was Krishna indifferent to the fate of the Kauravas? If so, how can he say he works for the preservation of virtue?


Mahaprasthanika Parva
What does Yudhisthira’s love for his family say about the way to lead a virtuous life? Are moral rules universal, or are they constrained by kinship?


Svargarohanika Parva

According to Hindu tradition, you die and go to hell or heaven, but you do not remain in either of these places forever. The idea of samsara mandates a continuing cycle of birth-death-rebirth. The only way to achieve true happiness is to get out of this cycle altogether by attaining moksha. Why must the Pandavas visit hell in this section?




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