The links below are to the Sacred Texts edition of the book, and you can find many other online reading options in the Overview. You can use the chapter titles to find the right pages in whatever edition you are using. As always with poetry, I would recommend that you read at least some of this aloud to appreciate the verse style Dutt has chosen!
Book I: The Tournament
Book II: The Bride's Choice
Book III: The Imperial Sacrifice
READING A (go to Reading B)
Book I: The Tournament
Dutt provides a quick summary of the plot thus far which leads to the confrontation between the sons of Pandu (Pandavas) and the sons of Pandu's brother Dhritarashtra (Kauravas) at the conclusion of their military training; the guru Drona has been teacher to both sets of brothers.
1. The Gathering. Dhritarashtra, the blind king of Hastinapura, decides that there should be a contest, and he reveals his plan to his uncle Bhishma and also to the guru Kripa who, like Drona, schooled the boys in the arts of war. Dhritarashtra sends his brother Vidura to proclaim the contest. Queen Gandhari attends, as does Kunti (also called Pritha), Pandu's widow. Drona's son, Ashwatthaman, is also there, having trained together with the princes.
Mount Meru: the sacred mountain at the center of the world
brahmins: priestly caste
vaishya: merchant caste
kshatriya (kshatra): warrior caste
mantra: a powerful hymn, incantation
shankha: conch-shell trumpet
2. The Princes. Yudhishthira, eldest son of Pandu, enters first. The princes exhibit their skills on horseback and on chariots ("cars"), and they also ride elephants ("tuskers"). They show their skills with bow and arrow, swords, maces, and other weapons.
gandharvas: celestial musicians
3. Bhima and Duryodhana. Bhima, second son of Pandu, and Duryodhana, eldest son of Dhritarashtra, both use the mace as their weapon. Vidura tells Dhritarashtra, the blind king, and Gandhari, who has blindfolded herself voluntarily, what is happening. Both Bhima and Duryodhana have supporters in the crowd, and Drona has to put a stop to their fight. Next Drona summons Arjuna, third son of Pandu and Kunti's youngest son, conceived by her through the power of the storm-god Indra.
4. The Advent of Arjuna. Kunti is especially proud of Arjuna, and Dhritarashtra declares his pride in all the sons of Kunti: Arjuna and Bhima and Yudhishthira. Arjuna performs amazing feats of archery that show him to be the best warrior of the contest.
yajna: sacrificial ritual
5. The Advent of Karna. A mysterious warrior arrives, and as he enters, the princes all gather around their teacher Drona for protection, as the gods circled around Indra when he fought the rebellious Danavas (children of Danu). The poet reminds us that Karna is the oldest son of Kunti (Pritha), a son she conceived with the sun-god Surya before she was married to Pandu. So Karna (Pritha's eldest son) speaks to Arjuna (Pritha's youngest son), but they do not know that they are brothers. Karna declares that he will accomplish greater feats than Arjuna in order to win the contest. Arjuna is jealous when he sees that Karna really is his equal.
6. The Rival Warriors. Duryodhana is delighted by Karna's performance, but Arjuna is furious and vows to kill Karna, while Karna in turn vows to slay Arjuna. Surya the sun-god favors Karna (his son), while Indra the rain-god favors Arjuna (his son). Kunti, who is Karna's mother (although he does not know it), faints from grief.
7. The Anointment of Karna. Kripa declares Arjuna's noble lineage and commands Karna to do the same, but he cannot. Duryodhana then makes Karna the king of Anga, giving him a royal title if not a royal father. Karna pledges to be Duryodhana's friend and ally.
chowri: a chowri is a yak, and it also refers to a fly whisk made from yak tail-hairs
8. The Chariot Driver. Karna's putative father, a chariot driver, comes forward and embraces Karna. Bhima, Arjuna's elder brother and Duryodhana's bitter enemy, mocks Karna for being the son of chariot-driver. Karna is enraged at Bhima's taunts.
suta: a chariot-driver
9. Close of the Day. Duryodhana rebukes Bhima. He notes that Drona had a humble birth, as did Kripa, and he even notes the strange birth story of the Pandavas themselves. He then offers to fight in defense of Karna's honor, but night comes on and the contest is over. Some declare Arjuna the winner, while others say Karna, and some say Duryodhana. Even Yudhishthira is shaken by the way Karna was able to rival Arjuna's skills.
Dutt quickly summarizes Duryodhana's failed attempt to kill the Pandavas in a fire; after that, the Pandavas retreat to the forest and disguise themselves as brahmins (priests).
1. Journey to Panchala. The Pandavas hear about the daughter of King Drupada of Panchala, they decide to travel to her swayamvara. The princess, Draupadi, was born from the fire at a sacrificial altar, as was her brother. On the way they meet Vyasa, composer of the Vedas; he will also be the composer of the Mahabharata itself. He is also the grandfather to both the Pandavas and the Kauravas, being the father of both Pandu and Dhritarashtra.
puranas: collections of religious stories
rishi: a holy man
shashtra: sacred writings
swayamvara: ritual in which the bridegroom (vara) is chosen
2. The Wedding Assembly. King Drupada knew about Arjuna and hoped he won be the one to win the swayamvara contest, so he created an archery challenge he thought only Arjuna could accomplish. Kings and princes came in their chariots ("cars") from all around.
Brahma: one of the three main gods, along with Shiva and Vishnu
Kailasa: sacred Himalayan peak, home of Shiva
3. The Bride. Draupadi arrives, escorted by her brother, and he explains that the suitors must use the bow provided to hit the whirling discus with five arrows.
4. The Suitors. Duryodhana and Karna are among the suitors, along with many others from all over India. Shalya is there, the brother of Madri (mother of the twin Pandavas Nakula and Sahadeva), and so is Krishna and his brother Balarama (also called Valadeva). Jayadratha is there, and also Jarasandha who will figure in the later story. Celestial beings come to see the content: adityas, maruts, suparnas, nagas, gandharvas, and apsaras. Krishna alone recognized the Pandavas in their brahmin disguise.
Kandarpa: another name for Kamadeva, the god of love (Kama)
Uma: another name for the goddess Parvati, Shiva's consort
If you are using the Sacred Texts transcription, there is a typo in this couplet: Winged Suparnas, scaly Nagas, saints celestial pure and high, / For their music famed, Gandharvas, fair Apsaras of the sky.
5. Trial of Skill. Karna is able to string the bow but before he shoots the arrows, Draupadi declares that she is of the kshatriya caste of warriors and kings, so she will not marry the son of a suta (chariot-driver). The audience laughs as the other suitors fail even to string the bow.
Surya: the sun-god, Karna's father
Agni: the fire-god
6. The Disguised Arjun. The audience is surprised when a brahmin rises to the challenge, but it is Arjuna in disguise. They wonder if this brahmin might not be as powerful as Agastya or Parashurama, the son of Jamadagni. The audience cheers when Arjuna strings the bow and hits the target with the five arrows. The rival suitors, however, are angry. Draupadi awards the garland to Arjuna as the winner.
Ishana: another name of Shiva
7. The Tumult. The warriors are furious that a brahmin (they think) has beaten them. When the suitors rise up to attack the brahmins, Bhima and Arjuna rise up to defend them.
8. Krishna to the Rescue. Krishna reveals the identity of the Pandavas to his brother, Balarama (Valadeva). Krishna then speaks to the angry suitors so that they calm down, and Draupadi leaves with Arjuna.
READING B (go to Reading A)
Book III: The Imperial Sacrifice
Dutt explain how Draupadi ended up with all five Pandavas as her husbands. Yudhishthira decides to declare himself imperial king in the city of Indraprastha on the Yamuna river. The ritual is called a rajasuya.
1. The Assemblage of Kings. Dhritarashtra is glad to see his nephew Yudhishthira crowned as king. Even Duryodhana and Karna come to the ceremony. King Virata comes from the kingdom of Matsya; he will be an important character in the story later.
mlechcha: this is the Sanskrit word for a "barbarian," a foreigner
2. Feast and Sacrifice. Yudhishthira will be the Dharma-Raja, or Dharma-King (and remember that is father was the god Yama, who also goes by the name of Dharma).
diksha: a mantra that begins a sacred ritual
nishka: a coin
Varuna: god of the ocean and water
ida, ajya, homa: three different types of sacrificial offerings
3. Glimpses of the Truth. The brahmins discuss and debate about religious questions. Narada, a celestial sage (devarishi), realizes that this is a cosmic moment, and he recognizes Krishna as an avatar of Vishnu (Narayana).
abhisheka: a religious ritual
arghya: an offering made to an honored guest
5. Shishupala's Pride. King Shishupala is angry that Krishna received the gift. Shishupala notes that Krishna is not even a king; he is just a chief of the Vrishni clan. Shishupala proposes that there are many others at the ritual who are more worthy of the gift than Krishna.
6. Shishupala's Fall. Krishna explains that Shishupala has insulted Krishna and wronged him many times before: he set fire to Krishna's city Dwaraka; he attacked the king of the Bhoja (one of the Yadava clans); when Krishna's father Vasudeva conducted a horse sacrifice (ashwamedha), Shishupala stole the horse; he raped the wife of Krishna's friend Babhru; he kidnapped the princess of Visala, and he even lusted after Rukmini, Krishna's wife. Shishupala then insults Krishna again, and Krishna explains that he promised Shishupala's mother that he would forgive Shishupala one hundred times. But now Shishupala has crossed that limit, so Krishna behinds him with his discus weapon. Shishupala's spirit emerges from his headless body, now purged of sin.
7. Yudhishthira Emperor. Yudhishthira is made king, and he bestows his blessing on the kings who are present at the ceremony and bids them goodbye. Last to leave is Krishna, and his departure makes everyone sad.
Book IV: The Fatal Dice
Duryodhana is furious at the success of Yudhishthira's rajasuya. He plots with his uncle Shakuni about how to destroy Yudhishthira in a game of dice. Yudhishthira gambled and lost everything, even his brothers and then even himself. Finally, he bets Draupadi and loses her too.
1. Draupadi in the Council Hall. Duryodhana sends a servant to summon Draupadi, who is now his slave. Draupadi objects that if Yudhishthira already stakes and lost himself, he had no right to gamble with her life. Duryodhana angrily sends his own brother Dushasana to fetch her, and he drags her by the hair.
2. Draupadi's Plaint. The "unseemly plight" that Draupadi mentions here is that she is having her menstrual period, which makes the summons to appear even more distressing. Draupadi denounces her husbands for their silent assent to what Duryodhana is doing to her, and she rebukes the other kings and warriors for allowing this outrage.
3. Insult and Vow of Revenge. Draupadi's words provoke the men in the hall to curse Dushasana, but Karna declares Draupadi to be truly lost. Bhima is furious at Karna and denounces him as a chariot-driver's son. Karna laughs, old Bhishma weeps, and Duryodhana goes mad with lust and tries to make Draupadi sit on his thigh. Bhima vows he will keep Duryodhana in battle by smashing that thigh.
4. Dhritarashtra's Kindness. The brahmins hear jackals and ravens crying, and Bhishma says "svasti" to avert the bad domens (svasti is a word related to the good luck sign of the swastika). Terrified and grief-stricken, the blind king Dhritarashtra rebukes his son Duryodhana and he begs Draupadi's forgiveness. She asks the king to make Yudhishthira free again. She then asks him to free Bhima, Arjuna and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva, so all the Pandavas will be free. He agrees and offers her another wish. Draupadi says she wants nothing more. Dhristarashtra is impressed by her behavior.
dasaputra: the son of a slave
5. The Banishment. Yudhishthira, his brothers, and Draupadi go into exile [notice that this version does not mention the second gambling match]. The mother of the Pandavas, Kunti (Pritha), does not go with them this time. Vidura (half-brother of their father Pandu) blesses them and urges them to treat their exile as a samadhi, an exercise in religious austerity. He says there is wisdom on Mount Meru and in the forest of Varnavata (where the Pandavas spent their time disguised as brahmins), and in the other holy places visited by holy people, including their ancestor Ila. He also invokes the protections of the gods Indra, Yama, Kubera, and Varuna, along with the Moon, Earth, Sun, and Wind.
If you are using the Sacred Texts transcription, there is a typo in the first line of that couplet: This your exile, good Yudhishthir, is ordained to serve your weal, / Is a trial and samadhi, for it chastens but to heal!
6. Pritha's (Kunti's) Lament. Draupadi comes to say goodbye to Kunti (Pritha). Draupadi is weeping, and her hair is still unbound. Kunti begs her to stay and not go with the Pandavas into exile, and she calls her husband Pandu and his other wife Madri (mother of Nakula and Sahadeva) happy because they did not witness these events. She begs the goddess Vidhata (Vidhi, Fate) to end her life now. She then begs the youngest of the Pandavas, Sahadeva, to stay with her. But she is left behind as Draupadi and the Pandavas go into exile.