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The Story of the Mahabharata

The Fateful Game of Dice
The Fateful Game of Dice
From a dispersed Razmnama (Book of War)
Ascribed to Sangha, Indian
Northern India, Mughal Court
Manuscript dated by internal colophon to 1598–99
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper
The Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Book Department, John Frederick Lewis Collection.
The ancient Sanskrit text of the Mahabharata, traditionally attributed to the sage Vyasa, may be the longest epic poem ever composed. Multiple stories of gods and heroes are contained within a complex framing narrative that recounts the struggle between warring cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, over the throne of Hastinapura. After the eldest Pandava brother, Yudhishthira, loses the family's possessions to the Kauravas in a fateful game of dice (see left), the Pandavas are forced into exile for twelve years. Guided by the god Krishna, the Pandavas attempt to forge peace with their cousins—but the two families eventually fight a war that the Pandavas win. In spite of this, Yudhisthira is deeply troubled by the dishonor and malice perpetrated over the course of the war, and it is for this reason that he alone among his family receives liberation upon his death. Through its tales of rivalry and adventure, the Mahabharata, of which the Bhagavad Gita is one section, addresses a host of philosophical and ethical issues, making it a core text for Hindus to the present day.

The Mughal Emperor Akbar was probably interested in the Mahabharata for a number of reasons. First, he undoubtedly found its focus on war and dynastic succession similar to the most popular Persian epic, the Shahnama (Book of Kings), a quasi-historical chronicle of the rulers of Iran. Second, creating a Persian translation of the Mahabharata would show the court that there were universal truths common to both Hinduism and Islam. Finally, since Muslims represented only a small minority within the religiously diverse Mughal Empire, the translation of this great Hindu epic was plain good politics.