The innermost narrative kernel of the Mahabharata tells the story of two sets of paternal first cousins--the five sons of the deceased king Pandu [pronounced PAAN-doo] (the five Pandavas [said as PAAN-da-va-s]) and the one hundred sons of blind King Dhritarashtra [Dhri-ta-RAASH-tra] (the 100 hundred Dhartarashtras [Dhaar-ta-RAASH-tras])--who became bitter rivals, and opposed each other in war for possession of the ancestral Bharata [BHAR-a-ta] kingdom with its capital in the "City of the Elephant", Hastinapura [HAAS-ti-na-pu-ra], on the Ganga river in north central India. What is dramatically interesting within this simple opposition is the large number of individual agendas the many characters pursue, and the numerous personal conflicts, ethical puzzles, subplots, and plot twists that give the story a strikingly powerful development.
The five sons of Pandu were actually fathered by five Gods (sex was mortally dangerous for Pandu, because of a curse) and these heroes were assisted throughout the story by various Gods, seers, and brahmins, including the seer Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa [VYAA-sa] (who later became the author of the epic poem telling the whole of this story), who was also their actual grandfather (he had engendered Pandu and the blind Dhrtarastra upon their nominal father's widows in order to preserve the lineage). The one hundred Dhartarashtras, on the other hand, had a grotesque, demonic birth, and are said more than once in the text to be human incarnations of the demons who are the perpetual enemies of the Gods. The most dramatic figure of the entire Mahabharata, however, is Krishna Vasudeva [Vaa-su-DAY-va], who was the supreme God Vishnu himself, descended to earth in human form to rescue Law, Good Deeds, Right, and Virtue (all of these words refer to different aspects of "dharma"). Krishna Vasudeva was the cousin of both parties, but he was a friend and advisor to the Pandavas, became the brother-in-law of Arjuna [AR-ju-na] Pandava, and served as Arjuna's mentor and charioteer in the great war. Krishna Vasudeva is portrayed several times as eager to see the purgative war occur, and in many ways the Pandavas were his human instruments for fulfilling that end.