Brief Biographies of Main Characters
ABHIMANYU: The son of Arjuna and Subhadrā. Said to be an incarnation of the moon-god Soma’s son. He was slain in the battle of Kurukṣetra when just sixteen. He married Uttarā, King Virata’s daughter, and fathered Parīkṣit.
ADHIRATHA: A leader of the sutas, the caste generally employed as charioteers. He found Karṇa after Kuntī had cast him away in a basket and raised him as his own son. His wife’s name was Radha, and thus Karṇa was known as Radheya.
AGNIVESHA: A ṛṣi who underwent severe austerities on Mount Mahendra. He was expert in the use of weapons, and both Droṇa and Drupada studied under him. He received the Āgneyāstra (fire weapon) from the Ṛṣi Bharadvāja, and passed it on to Droṇa.
AKRURA: Kṛṣṇa’s uncle and a famous Vṛṣṇi. He was a commander of the Yādava army and also acted as one of Kṛṣṇa’s advisors.
ALAMBUSHA: A rakshasa who fought for Duryodhana in the Kurukṣetra war. He was Baka’s brother, and bore enmity toward Bhīma because Bhīma slew his brother. He killed Arjuna’s son Iravan, and was himself killed by Bhīma’s son, Ghaṭotkaca.
AMBA: The king of Kashi’s eldest daughter. Bhīṣma abducted her from her svayaṁvara to be his brother’s bride. Having already committed herself to Shalva, Bhīṣma released her. When Shalva rejected her as a wife because she had been touched by another, she developed an intense hatred for Bhīṣma. She worshipped Śiva and obtained a boon that she would kill Bhīṣma in her next life. She was then reborn as Śikhaṇḍī.
AMBĀLIKĀ: The king of Kashi’s youngest daughter. She was abducted by Bhīṣma from her svayaṁvara and married Vicitravīrya. Later she became Pāṇḍu’s mother by union with Vyāsadeva.
AMBIKĀ: Second daughter of the king of Kashi, abducted from her svayaṁvara by Bhīṣma. She married Vicitravīrya and, after his death, became Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s mother by union with Vyāsadeva.
ANGARAPARNA: A Gandharva chief; also known as Citraratha, who met the Pāṇḍavas when they were fleeing from Vāraṇāvata after the burning of the lac house.
ARJUNA: Third son of Pāṇḍu and Kuntī, begotten by Indra. He is famous as Kṛṣṇa’s dear friend and he heard the Bhagavad-gita from Him. He is known by nine other names: Dhanañjaya (winner of wealth), Vijaya (always victorious), Swetavahana (he whose chariot is drawn by white horses), Phālguna (born under the auspicious star of the same name), Kirīṭī (he who wears the diadem), Bhibatsu (terrifying to behold in battle), Savyasachi (able to wield a bow with both hands), Jiṣṇu (unconquerable), and Kṛṣṇa (dark-complexioned). The name Arjuna means “one of pure deeds.” He is said to be an incarnation of the ancient sage Nara.
ASHVINI KUMARAS: Twin gods who act as celestial physicians. They fathered Nakula and Sahadeva through Mādrī.
ASHVATTHAMA: Son of Droṇa and Kripi. When he was young, his father was impoverished. Some of Aśvatthāmā’s friends, knowing that he had never tasted milk, once gave him a cup of water mixed with flour and told him it was milk. The boy drank it and danced in glee, saying “I have tasted milk!” His father saw this and was cut to the quick. It was this incident that inspired him to go to his old friend Drupada and beg. Aśvatthāmā is said to be a partial expansion of Śiva.
BABRUVAHANA: Son of Arjuna and Citrāṅgadā, who became the ruler of Maṇipura.
BAHLIKA: Younger brother of Śantanu. He lived a long life and was an advisor to Dhṛtarāṣṭra. He became a commander in Duryodhana’s army during the Kurukṣetra war. He was finally killed by Bhīma.
BALARAMA: Son of Vasudeva and Rohini. Said by the Vedas to be an eternal form of the Supreme Lord who sometimes appears in the material world to enact pastimes. More information about Him can be found in the Bhagavata Purana (Srimad-Bhagavatam).
BHARATA: A king in the dynasty of the moon-god (all kṣatriyas are descendents either of Chandra, the moon-god, or Sūrya, the sun-god) who ruled the earth for thousands of years. The earth planet has been named after him, and it was common during the Mahābhārata era to call his descendents by his name. Bharata was born from the union of King Dushyanta and the daughter of Kanva Ṛṣi, named Shakuntala. The story of their marriage and Bharata’s birth is recounted in the Mahābhārata’s Adi Parva.
BHIMASENA: Pāṇḍu and Kuntī’s second son, sired by Vāyu, the wind-god. After the great war he was installed by Yudhiṣṭhira as crown prince. A story is told in the Skanda Purana that Bhīma became a little proud after the war, considering that it was by his own power that he had achieved success in the war. All his brothers attributed their success to Kṛṣṇa. Wanting to curb Bhīma’s pride, Kṛṣṇa took him on Garuḍa and traveled a long way to the south, where they came to a great lake many miles wide. Kṛṣṇa sent Bhīma to find the source of the lake. Bhīma ran around its perimeter, but could not discover its source. As he ran he encountered a number of powerful Asuras. Bhīma found himself unable to defeat them and he ran to Kṛṣṇa for shelter. Kṛṣṇa lifted and threw the lake away and dispersed the Asuras. He said to Bhīma, “This lake was contained in Kumbhakarna’s skull, the Rākṣasa killed by Rāma in a previous age. The warriors who attacked you were from a race of demons who fought with Rāvaṇa against Rāma.” Bhīma’s pride was thus curbed.
BHĪṢMA: Son of Śantanu, known as the “grandfather” of the Kurus. Although he never became king, he officiated at Hastināpura as regent until Vicitravīrya was of age. He is said to be an incarnation of Dyau, the chief Vasu (see Appendix Three). The original text of the Mahābhārata contains an entire Parva, the Shanti Parva, devoted to Bhīṣma’s instructions on religion and morality, which he delivered while lying on the bed of arrows.
CHITRASENA: King of the Gandharvas who taught Arjuna the arts of singing and dancing while he was in heaven. He later captured Duryodhana, whom Arjuna and Bhīma had released. Citrasena was also the name of a king of Trigarta who fought with the Kauravas, and also the name of one of Karṇa’s sons.
DEVAKI: Kṛṣṇa’s mother and the wife of Vasudeva, a chief of the Vrishni clan. Details of her life can be found in the Bhagavata Purana.
DHAUMYA: An ascetic ṛṣi who became the Pāṇḍavas’ guru and guide. The younger brother of Devala, another famous ṛṣi.
DHRISTADYUMNA: Son of Drupada, born from the sacrificial fire. Said in the Vedas to be an expansion of the fire-god, Agni.
DHRISTAKETU: A son of Śiśupāla, king of the Cediś, who befriended the Pāṇḍavas and supplied them with an akshauhini division of troops for the Kurukṣetra war. He was slain by Droṇa. After the war, his sister married Nakula. He was said to be one of the celestial Viśvadevas incarnating on earth.
DHRITARASTRA: The blind son of Vyāsadeva, born of Ambikā after the death of her husband, Vicitravīrya. He became king in Hastināpura after Pāṇḍu retired to the forest. He was the father of the Kauravas. In the Bhagavata Purana it is said that, after practicing yoga, he achieved liberation, merging into the Supreme Brahman at the end of his life.
DRAUPADI: Daughter of Drupada, king of Pañchāla, and wife of the five Pāṇḍavas. In her previous life she was an ascetic woman named Nalayani who received a boon from Śiva that she would have five husbands in her next life. The epitome of womanly skills, she once gave advice on how to serve a husband to Satyabhāmā, one of Kṛṣṇa’s principal wives. She was said to be an expansion of the Goddess Lakṣmī. Also known as Pāñcālī.
DRONA (DRONACHARYA): The Kurus’ martial teacher. The sage Bharadvāja once caught sight of the Apsarā Ghrtachi and, as a result, semen fell from his body, which he caught in a pot. Droṇa was later born from that pot. He was taught by Agniveśya and Paraśurāma. Said to be an expansion of Bṛhaspati, the celestial seer and preceptor of the gods.
DRUPADA: King of the Pañchāla province in Bharata. He was a staunch ally of the Pāṇḍavas, respected as the senior most king among their allies. He formed an enmity with Droṇa after the latter had come to him for charity and had been refused. Droṇa finally killed him in the Kurukṣetra war. Drupada was also known as Yajnasena, and is said to be an expansion of the celestial Maruts.
DURVASA: A powerful ṛṣi famous for his quick temper. The Puranas and Mahābhārata contain many stories about Durvāsā. He is particularly famous for having granted Kuntī the boon that she could summon any god to do her will, which resulted in the births of the Pāṇḍavas from five principal deities. He is said to be an expansion of Śiva.
DURYODHANA: Eldest of Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons and leader of the Kauravas. From childhood he formed an enmity with the Pāṇḍavas, which later resulted in the Kurukṣetra war. He was killed by Bhīma and went to the heavenly planets as a result of his adherence to kṣatriya duties. He was said to be an expansion of Kali, the god presiding over the dark age.
DUSHASHANA: Duryodhana’s eldest brother and one of his inner circle of close advisors. He grievously offended Draupadī and the Pāṇḍavas, and as a result Bhīma vowed to kill him and drink his blood. He did so during the great war.
EKALAVYA: Son of Hiranyadhanu, a Niṣadha tribal chief. He became quite skilled in archery by worshipping Droṇa, but he was ultimately cursed by him. He was killed by Kṛṣṇa.
GANDHARI: Daughter of the king of Gandhara, who became Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s wife. Having once pleased Vyāsadeva by her service, she was blessed by the sage that she would have one hundred sons. After marrying the blind Dhṛtarāṣṭra, she covered her own eyes with a cloth for the rest of her life. She is thus famous as one of the most chaste ladies in Vedic history. She died in the forest with her husband and Kuntī.
GAṄGĀ: A goddess who appears in this world as the river Ganges. She was Bhīṣma’s mother (see Appendix Three). Her origin is described in various Vedic texts, including Bhagavata Purana and Rāmayana. The river water descends from the spiritual world after touching Lord Viṣṇu’s foot and is thus considered sacred.
GHATOTKACHA: The son of Bhīma and the Rakshashi Hiḍimbī. He became a leader of the Rākṣasas and assisted the Pāṇḍavas in the Kurukṣetra war. Karṇa killed him with Indra’s celestial Śakti weapon.
INDRA: King of the gods, also known as Purandara and Śakra. The Vedas contain numerous stories about this deity, who became Arjuna’s father.
JARASANDHA: King of Magadha and a powerful enemy of Kṛṣṇa. His father, Bṛhadratha, once approached a sage to seek a blessing to have a son. The sage gave him a mango, which the king divided into two, giving half to each of his wives. They each gave birth to half a child, and the king threw away the halves. A Rakshashi named Jara later found the two halves and joined them together, whereupon the body came to life. The child was then named Jarāsandha, meaning ‘joined by Jara.’ The Bhagavata Purana describes the history of his inimical relationship with Kṛṣṇa. He was killed in a wrestling match with Bhīma.
JAYADRATHA: King of Sindhu who married Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s daughter Dushala. When he was born, a heavenly voice announced that he would be a powerful warrior but would be beheaded by an enemy of unparalleled strength. His father, Vridhakshetra, then cursed whomever would cause his son’s head to fall to the ground to himself die, his own head shattering into a hundred fragments. He was killed by Arjuna at Kurukṣetra.
KAMSA: Maternal uncle of Kṛṣṇa who usurped the throne from his father, Ugrasena. He was killed by Kṛṣṇa. Details of his life are found in the Bhagavata Purana.
KARNA: Firstborn son of the Pāṇḍavas’ mother Kuntī from her union with the sun-god (see Appendix One). He became the chief support and best friend of Duryodhana, who made him king of Aṅga. He was killed by Arjuna at Kurukṣetra and went to the sun planet. Other names of Karṇa include Vasusena, Vaikarthana and Radheya.
KRIPA (KRIPACHARYA): Son of the sage Saradvan, who was once practicing asceticism in the forest when he saw the Apsarā Janapadi. He passed semen, which fell into a clump of reeds, and a boy and girl were born from it. They were named Kṛpa and Kripi. They were found and brought to Śantanu, who was later told of their origin by Saradvan. Kṛpa was taught Dhanurveda, the martial arts, by his father, and he became one of the Kurus’ martial teachers. He survived the Kurukṣetra war and counseled the Pāṇḍavas when they ruled the world. Later, they appointed him preceptor of their grandson, Parīkṣit.
KRISHNA: Said by the Vedas to be God, the Supreme Person, who is the origin of all other incarnations of the Godhead such as Viṣṇu and Nārāyaṇa. The Bhagavata Purana contains extensive descriptions of His qualities and activities. He spoke the Bhagavad-gita to Arjuna at the beginning of the Kurukṣetra war.
KRITAVARMA: A chief in the Yadu dynasty. A devotee of Kṛṣṇa, he was the commander of the Yadu army. Kṛṣṇa offered the army to Duryodhana for the Kurukṣetra war, and thus they and Kṛtavarmā fought against the Pāṇḍavas. Kṛtavarmā survived the war, but was later killed at Prabhāsa during a fratricidal quarrel among the Yadus.
KUNTI: The Pāṇḍavas’ mother. She was the sister of Vasudeva, Kṛṣṇa’s father. Her own father, Surasena, had given her as a baby to his close friend King Kuntībhoja, who had no children. She was named Prtha at birth, but became better known as Kuntī after being raised by Kuntībhoja.
KURU: Ancient king and founder of the Kuru dynasty (see family tree in Appendix Four). Due to his performance of sacrifice and asceticism at the site, the place known as Kurukṣetra, named after Kuru, is considered sacred.
KUVERA (VAISHRAVANA): God of riches and one of the four universal protectors or Lokapālas. Known as the celestial treasurer.
MARKENDEYA: An ancient ṛṣi said to have lived through thousands of ages. The Mahābhārata contains many stories about him.
NAKULA: One of the twin sons of Pāṇḍu and Mādrī, begotten by the twin Aśvinī gods. He was a maharatha warrior renowned for his expertise with a sword. He conquered the western regions of Bharata, before Yudhiṣṭhira’s Rājasūya sacrifice. Along with Draupadī, he married a princess of Chedi named Karenumati.
NARADA: A celestial sage also known as Devarshi, or the ṛṣi among the gods. He is famous as a devotee of Kṛṣṇa and frequently assists Him in His pastimes on earth. The Vedas contain innumerable references to Nārada’s activities and teachings.
PANDU: Father of the Pāṇḍavas born to Vicitravīrya’s widow queen Ambālikā by the grace of Vyāsadeva.
PARĀŚARA: A powerful ṛṣi, grandson of Vasiṣṭa, who fathered Vyāsadeva by conceiving him with Satyavatī when she was still a maiden. Once Satyavatī ferried the sage across a river and he was attracted by her beauty. He asked if he could have union with her, promising that by his mystic power she would not lose her virginity. She agreed and they united on an island in the middle of the river, which Parāśara shrouded from view by creating volumes of mist. Vyāsadeva was immediately born and grew at once to manhood.
PARASURAMA: A ṛṣi said to be an empowered incarnation of Viṣṇu. He is famous for having annihilated all the kṣatriyas of the world after his father, Jamadagni, had been killed by a king named Kartavirya. An expert in the Vedic military arts, he was the martial teacher of Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Karṇa. The Mahābhārata contains various stories about his exploits.
PARIKSIT: Posthumous son of Abhimanyu, the Pāṇḍavas installed him as king in Hastināpura when they retired. He was named Parīkṣit, meaning ‘the examiner’, as the Brahmins said he would come to examine all men in his search for the Supreme Lord, whom he saw while still an embryo in his mother’s womb. He became famous as the hearer of the Bhagavata Purana from the sage Sukadeva Goswami.
SAHADEVA: The youngest Pāṇḍava. One of the two twin sons of Mādrī fathered by the Aśvinī gods. He conquered southern Bharata before Yudhiṣṭhira’s Rājasūya sacrifice. Famous for his perceptive powers and intelligence, he was appointed as Yudhiṣṭhira’s personal advisor after the Kurukṣetra war. Besides being married to Draupadī, he married a princess of Madra named Vijaya.
SANJAYA: Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s charioteer and secretary. Although he belonged to the suta caste, he was a spiritually advanced disciple of Vyāsadeva, who gave him the power to see the events during the Kurukṣetra war. Consequently, he narrated all the battle scenes to Dhṛtarāṣṭra.
SATYAKI: A Vṛṣṇi hero who became Arjuna’s martial disciple. He was a close friend of Kṛṣṇa. A powerful maharatha, he fought for the Pāṇḍavas at Kurukṣetra, surviving both the war and subsequent massacre of sleeping soldiers by Aśvatthāmā. He died at Prabhāsa during the fratricidal battle among the Yadus.
SHAKUNI: Son of King Suvala and brother of Gāndhārī. Acted as close confidant and mentor to Duryodhana. Although a powerful kṣatriya, he preferred cunning and underhanded methods to open combat. Said to be an expansion of the deity presiding over the Dvapara age (third in the cycle of four ages), he was slain at Kurukṣetra by Sahadeva.
SHALVA: King of Saubha. He fought Bhīṣma for Amba’s hand after Bhīṣma kidnapped her from her svayaṁvara. Due to his strong friendship with Śiśupāla, whom Kṛṣṇa killed, he became Kṛṣṇa’s enemy. He attacked Dwārakā in the huge airplane he had received from Śiva. Said to be an incarnation of the Asura Ajaka, Kṛṣṇa killed him.
SHALYA: Ruler of Madra and brother of Pāṇḍu’s second wife Mādrī. Although the Pāṇḍavas’ friend, and having a particular friendship with Yudhiṣṭhira, he was tricked by Duryodhana into fighting for the Kauravas at Kurukṣetra. Said to be an incarnation of the Daitya Samhlada, Yudhiṣṭhira killed him in the war.
ŚANTANU: Great grandfather of the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas, and Bhīṣma’s father from his union with Gaṅgā (see Appendix Three). After retirement, he went to Mount Archika in the Himālayas and practiced asceticism, finally attaining liberation. It is said in the Bhagavata Purana that his elder brother, Devapi, still lives on earth in a place called Kalapa, awaiting the commencement of the next Satya-yuga (golden age) when he will become king.
SHIKHANDHI: Son of Drupada and a reincarnation of Amba. He was born as a woman and later became a man by the grace of a Yakṣa named Sthunakarna. Remembering his enmity from his previous life, he vowed to kill Bhīṣma. It was due to him that Arjuna was able to approach and finally slay Bhīṣma. Aśvatthāmā killed him during the night slaughter of the sleeping Pāṇḍava warriors.
SISHUPALA: King of Chedi and an avowed enemy of Kṛṣṇa. The Bhagavata Purana describes his previous existence as Jaya, a gatekeeper in the spiritual Vaikuntha world. Due to a curse, he and his brother Vijaya had to take birth in the material world for three lives as demons (his other two incarnations were Hiranyaksha and Rāvaṇa). Kṛṣṇa killed him at Yudhiṣṭhira’s Rājasūya sacrifice.
SUBHADRA: Kṛṣṇa’s sister, said to be an incarnation of Yogamaya, the Lord’s personified spiritual energy. Her birth is described in the Bhagavata Purana. She married Arjuna and they had a son named Abhimanyu. Unlike her co-wife Draupadī, no details are given in the original text about how she ended her life.
SUSHARMA: King of Trigarta and brother of Duryodhana’s wife, Bhanumati. He led a huge army and concentrated on fighting Arjuna during the Kurukṣetra war, having taken a vow to kill him. He was slain by Arjuna.
ULUPI: Daughter of the Nāga king Kauravya, who became Arjuna’s wife. They had a son named Iravan, who was killed at Kurukṣetra. She married Arjuna during his one year exile from Indraprastha, only spending one day with him after their wedding. She was reunited with him in Hastināpura after the war.
UTTARA: A princess of Virata whom Arjuna taught dancing during his final year of exile. She married Abhimanyu and their son was named Parīkṣit.
VASUDEVA: Kṛṣṇa’s father, after whom Kṛṣṇa Himself is named. Details of his life and previous births are given in the Bhagavata Purana.
VIDURA: Son of Vyāsadeva and a palace maidservant. He was said to be an expansion of Yamarāja, the lord of justice. Once a ṛṣi named Mandavya was mistaken for a robber. The king arrested and punished him by having him pierced by a lance. The sage later went to Yamarāja and asked why this had happened and was told that in his childhood he had pierced an insect with a blade of grass. Hearing that he had received punishment for a mistake made when he was still an ignorant child, the sage cursed Yamarāja to take birth on earth as a śūdra. Thus he became Vidura.
VIRATA: King of Matsya, where the Pāṇḍavas spent their final year in exile. He joined with the Pāṇḍavas in the Kurukṣetra war, bringing an akshauhini division of warriors. Droṇa killed him in the battle. He was said to be an expansion of the celestial Maruts.
VYĀSADEVA: The sage who authored the Mahābhārata. Born from the union of Parāśara Ṛṣi and Satyavatī, he is known as Dwaipayana because he was born on an island (see Parāśara). He compiled the Vedas and is said to be an empowered incarnation of Viṣṇu. His son’s name is Sukadeva, the famous reciter of the Bhagavata Purana.
YADU: Ancient king and founder of the Yadu dynasty, in which Kṛṣṇa appeared (see family tree in Appendix Four). Details of Yadu’s birth and life are given in the original text of the Mahābhārata and also the Bhagavata Purana.
YUDHISTHIRA: Eldest Pāṇḍava, born from the union of Kuntī and the god Dharma. He performed a Rājasūya sacrifice which established him as world emperor. Famous for his adherence to virtue and truth, he is also known as Dharmarāja, as well as Ajātaśatru, which means “one who has no enemies.” After the war he ruled the world for thirty-six years and was succeeded by Parīkṣit.