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The central story of the Mahabharata concerns a long struggle for power between two branches of a royal dynasty, the Kauravas and their cousins the Pandavas. It is believed to be based on folk memories of real events in a north Indian kingdom (in the region of Delhi) some time before 1000 BC.

Luckily for the Pandavas they are befriended by another very powerful cousin, the lord Krishna. He fights beside them in battles (the Bhagavad Gita is his advice before one such battle) and with his help the Kauravas are defeated. In spite of a wealth of detail and incident, this story only takes up about a fifth of the poem. The rest is a vast collection of myths and legends on the theme of how to live a worthy life.

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