Mahabharata: India's Epic

Tutor: Dr Nick Sutton
Start date: 10 October 2021


Mahābhārata is truly a vast work that presents an amazing story with many different strands and subplots as well as extensive passages of religious, philosophical, moral, and practical instruction. In this course you will learn the story and characters of Mahābhārata. We will also delve into the role of the divine in worldly matters and explore concepts of dharma.

What sort of text this is? Who wrote it and when? What is it really about and what are its principal roles in the religious, cultural, and social life of India?

This course is produced and presented by Dr Nick Sutton of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, who has spent the past four decades studying, teaching, and writing on Mahābhārata.





Session One: Overview of the Mahābhārata

We begin by giving a sense of the size and scope of the Mahābhārata. This is truly a vast work that not only presents a complex narrative with many different strands and subplots, but also extensive passages of religious, philosophical, moral, and practical instruction.

Here we provide an outline of the text by presenting a review of all of its eighteen parvans (limbs or sections). What sort of text this is? Who wrote it and when? What is it really about and what are its principal roles in the religious, cultural, and social life of India?

Session Two: Who’s Who in the Mahābhārata


Mahābhārata highlights its central truths through complex characterisations: some virtuous and admirable individuals and others bereft of elevated human instincts.

By placing each character in a range of situations it shows the problems, tensions, and genuine dilemmas we all face in seeking to attain the fullness of our humanity. The main characters we look at here are:

  1. Arjuna
  2. Bhīma
  3. Nakula
  4. Sahadeva
  5. Bhīṣma
  6. Karṇa
  7. Droṇa
  8. Aśvatthāman
  9. Duḥśāsana
  10. Śakuni
  11. Jayadratha
  12. Kīcaka
  13. Drupada
  14. Virāṭa
  15. Śalya
  16. Sātyaki

Session Three: The Women of the Mahābhārata

Women have a central role in the Mahābhārata. We look at teachings on gender roles, specifically the dharma of women. We contrast the text’s ideas on female dharma with the actions of the three principal female characters: Draupadī, Gāndhārī, and Kuntī.

Session Four: The Divine Identity

The Mahābhārata is a deeply spiritual account of divine intervention in the world.

We explore how divine nature and identity are presented within the text, with the focus on Kṛṣṇa as an avatāra of Viṣṇu. Mahābhārata is one the earliest remaining works of Vaiṣṇava theism, and in this session we look at the Vaiṣṇava doctrines it presents to its readers.

We will also see the role of Śiva in the narrative and the nature of the relationship between Viṣṇu and Śiva.

We conclude with a look at monotheism, monism, and polytheism within Indian religion as a whole, as well as the understanding that liberation from rebirth is attained not just through personal enlightenment, or yogic perfection, but also as a gift of divine grace.

Session Five, Dharma in the Mahābhārata

Dharma is arguably the principal theme of the Mahābhārata and is discussed at length in a number of passages. In this session we develop a clear definition of the term ‘dharma’.

The wise say that dharma is whatever is based on love for all beings.
This is the characteristic mark that distinguishes dharma from adharma, Yudhiṣṭhira.
(Mahābhārata, 12.251.24)

Session Six: Religious Philosophy in the Mahābhārata

Religious, ethical, and practical instruction collectively comprise almost half the chapters in the Mahābhārata. And it is after the battle is over that the Mahābhārata takes the form of a didactic work. Within the 353 chapters of the Śānti-parvan (Book 12), 185 chapters (168–353) form what is known as the Mokṣa-dharma-parvan. It is to this collection of religious and philosophical discourses that we will be turning our attention to.

Session Seven: The Anuśāsana

Mahabharata Death of Bhishma

For this final session we move to the thirteenth book of the Mahābhārata, the Anuśāsanaparvan. Here we find a continuation of the extensive forms of instruction imparted by Bhīṣma to Yudhiṣṭhira that covered almost all of the Śānti-parvan, though here the topics considered are far more varied.

Related courses

Philosophy of Yoga | The Puranas | Bhagavad Gita


Course delivery is 100% online

7–9 weekly sessions

Study in your own time

Your tutor is available by email and forums

Communicate online with your fellow students

All course materials are delivered via the web

Student forums with tutor participation

Recorded lectures available in video and mp3 format

All required lecture notes included

Audio interviews with specialists in Hindu Studies

Supplementary materials taken from the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies teaching and research programme

Assessment is optional and is on the basis of successful completion of a single essay of 2000 words, with the exception of our Sanskrit courses which are assessed on weekly course work.

Courses can be completed in as little as seven weeks. There is a final deadline for essays or course work of twelve weeks from the beginning of the course.

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