The Mahabharata can be ranked among the greatest of Indian literary works and has a popular appeal that cuts across religion, caste and creed. Unlike the Ramayana, the Mahabharata is not about perfection. This great epic with its various sub-plots deals with human weaknesses and the exploitation of rivalry, jealousy and lust for power.
According to the epic, the kings of the kingdom of Bharat were chosen under a democratic norm. However, Devrat made a vow not to accept the crown so as to allow the union of his father with his step-mother. From then on, events in the ideal capital of Hastinapur took a turn for the worse. When a blind prince could not lay claim to the throne on account of his affliction and had to surrender it to his younger brother, his ambitious greed to keep the throne for himself and later for his sons led to their mighty battle with the five Pandava prince. It is this battle that is the central theme of the epic and is referred to as the Mahabharata.
The 100 Kaurava princes had the might of the empire behind them; the five Pandava brothers shown as the more deserving, were not beyond a little human folly and it seems that they were abetted by the Gods in the shape of Lord Krishna. The battle was won with the aid of a little deceit practiced by Krishna who participated in the battle as Arjuna's charioteer. Arjuna's reluctance to go to battle against the members of his family earned him a lesson on the battlefield from Lord Krishna - the subject matter of another major philosophical manuscript, the Bhagvad Gita.
The sins of the forefathers cast their shadows on the princes in battle as warrior after brave warrior is felled, sons and uncles lost, and finally the grand old man, Devrat (later known as Bhishmapitamah) himself lies dying on a bed of arrows. It must have been a hollow victory for the Pandavas for they also lost their half-brother, Karan, no less a personage than the offspring of the union of their mother with the Sun God. One part of the epic also came to be because the common wife of the Pandavas, Draupadi, was humiliated in the Kaurava court when she was lost to them in a game of dice. She keeps egging the Pandava princes to battle to seek revenge for her humiliation.
Is there any historic truth in the Mahabharata? Very likely. The battle, fought in Kurukshetra, in modern Haryana, has been described in great detail; temples and buildings dedicated to the memory of the Pandavas crop up in isolated pockets of the Himalayas and in forested parts of the country, suggesting the route that they travelled whilst in exile. It is possible, that with an allowance for the exaggeration of poetic licence, the events could in reality have occurred at some point in the history of India.