The Mahabhagavata Purana gives extremely interesting variations on the MBH story. The Purana is recounted by Vyasa to his pupil Jaimini. As in the case of the Bhagavata Purana, the account states that dissatisfied with the MBH and the Puranas he had composed, Vyasa desired the ultimate knowledge and went to the realm of Brahma who advised him to listen to the glory of the Supreme Creatrix who had created the trinity and everything else. With great reluctance, after being much praised by Narada and requested by Vishnu, Mahadeva agrees to recount who it is that the trinity worship. Chapters 49-58 contain the MBH story following the story of Rama (including the worship of Durga for Ravana’s destruction which Valmiki does not mention, but is found in the Bengali Ramayana of Krittibas).
Once Shiva told Parvati that he would like to assume female form and she should be male and be the husband. She agreed and said that her thundercloud complexioned form of Bhadrakali would descend to earth as Krishna, while her attendants Vijaya and Jaya would become Krishna’s friends Sridam and Vasudam. Shiva said he would descend in nine forms as Radha, daughter of Vrishabhanu and also as eight others like Rukmini and Satyabhama. When earth had approached Brahma to lessen the burden of the daityas who had been reborn as wicked kshatriyas, he had requested Jagaddhatri to intervene. She said that as her female form was worshipped by kshatriyas, she would not fight them. But her Bhadrakali form would be born displaying Vishnu’s signs to Devaki-Vasudeva and destroy them. Vishnu himself would be born as Pandava Arjuna. A portion of the Devi would be born as the wife of the Pandavas, KrishnA whom wicked Duryodhana would insult in the assembly hall, having deceitfully defeated Yudhishthira in a game of dice. In the war that would follow, the goddess would delude all warriors to kill one another and at its end the earth would be bereft of kshatriyas, with only the old and children alive besides the five brothers devoted to her. She directs Brahma to convey all this to Vishnu who took birth in two portions: as Vasudeva’s son Rama and as Pandu’s son Dhananjaya via the mediation of Indra.
Kashyapa and Aditi had pleased the Creatrix with severe ascesis and begged her to be born to them. She agreed to be born male with the complexion of newly risen rain clouds, her garland of skulls being turned into one of wild flowers, her appearance attractive, displaying Vishnu’s signs though with two arms and two eyes.
Finding that Kamsa had killed six newborn sons of Devaki, Brahma anxiously approached the Devi who bade him ask Vishnu to be born to Devaki as the Devi’s elder brother. She herself would split into two and be born from Rohini and Yashoda and as Devaki’s eighth son. In the fifth month, from Rohini’s womb she would enter Devaki’s, while Vishnu would migrate from Devaki’s womb to Rohini’s. Kamsa would not be aware of the eighth birth. Vasudeva would bring Yashoda’s daughter—a portion of Devi—who would slip from Kamsa’s hand when he tried to dash her against a stone and rise to the heaven in the ten-armed, lion-riding form announcing that his killer was growing in Nanda’s home. All this would have to be done until Kamsa’s prowess got exhausted. Thus, Vishnu first enters Devaki’s womb, and the Devi enters Rohini and Yashoda’s wombs. In the 5th month Devi shifts from Rohini’s womb to Devaki’s, while Vishnu moves from Devaki’s womb to Rohini’s who has been shifted to Nanda’s home in Gokul and gives birth to the fair Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu. At midnight of ashtami under the Rohini asterism and Vrisha lagna the Devi is born from Devaki as a son. At the same time she is born to Yashoda as a daughter. To assuage Devaki’s fears, the son shows his true form as the terrifying four-armed Kali with three eyes, terrifying mien, astride a corpse, with hair free flowing and a crown, a skull-garland. At Vasudeva’s request, she changes to the pleasing ten-armed form.
After recounting Krishna’s childhood exploits including the rasalila with Radha (Shiva) and the killing of Kamsa, the narrative shifts to Hastinapura in chapter 55 stating that Vishnu took birth through Purandara from Kunti’s womb as Arjuna who was supreme in archery and all other disciplines, while his four brothers were also of great prowess. Wicked Dhritarashtra, Karna, Shakuni and Duryodhana plotted against them despite the advice of Ugrasena conveyed through Akrura, who informed Krishna of Dhritarashtra’s perversity. Krishna determined that this hatred would surely lead to the death of Dhritarashtra’s son and wicked Shakuni. Krishna shifted to Dvaraka with the Yadavas at this point. Then he abducted the daughter of Bishmaka king of Vidarbha, Rukmini (Shiva’s portion along with 7 other wives of Krishna).
Having got married, the Pandavas wished to perform a sacrifice and summoned Krishna who, in order to aggravate the hatred of the Kauravas and destroy kings, advised performance of the Rajasuya (this yajna has invariably been followed by destructive conflicts, enumerated in the Devi Bhagavata Purana by Vyasa). Krishna sent out Bhima to conquer all directions and by deceit got Bhima to kill the king of Magadha. During the yajna when Shishupala insulted Yudhishthira, Krishna and the yajna itself, enraged with the honors offered to Krishna, he was decapitated in that assembly of kings by Krishna. Aggrieved with the splendor of the yajna, wicked Duryodhana, cruel Karna plotted with wicked Shakuni to invite the Pandavas to a game of dice in which Yudhishthira was cheated and lost twice over and had to go into exile. Duryodhana insulted Draupadi in the assembly hall and was regarded by Bhishma and other kshatriyas as the thorn of kshatriyadom. They consoled Draupadi and restored her to the Pandavas, criticizing the Dhartarashtras. Krishna considered all this as the chief cause leading to removing earth’s burden, and returned to Dvaraka (this implies that from the Rajasuya yajna till the exile he was present in Hastinapura).
During the exile the Pandavas came to Kamakhya to beg the death of sinful Kauravas in battle and restoration of their kingdom. Bhagavati appeared and assured Dharma’s son of this and said to support him she had taken male birth from Devaki in the home of Vasudeva being prayed to relieve the earth of burden. She told him that at her bidding, for the same reason, Vishnu had taken birth as Arjuna. She would ensure the destruction of Bhishma, Drona etc. through Arjuna and Bhima. A long paean to the Devi follows by Yudhishthira in which she is repeatedly addressed as “Kameshvari” and “Kamarupa vasini”.
Bhagavati then asks him to beg another boon. He begs for her protection during the incognito period of exile. She tells them to live in the city of the king of Matsya. So they went to the city of Virata, keeping their dresses, weapons on a Shami tree. Carrying golden dice, dressed as a Brahmin, Yudhishthira came to the king of Matsya giving his name as Kanka. Similarly, Bhima was engaged in the kitchen, Arjuna—disguised as a woman—to teach dance and Draupadi as Queen Sudeshna’s Sairandhri.
By the grace of the goddess, none was recognized in the 13th year. When just a month was left for the year to end, Sudeshna’s brother, mighty Kichaka saw Sairandhri. He insisted on Sudeshna to let him have her on pain of suicide. Sudeshna told him Sairandhri had assured her that no man could approach her because of her five Gandharva husbands, when the queen was apprehensive that the king would leave her on seeing Sairandhri. Kichaka was not bothered and insisted. When Sudeshna asked her to visit Kichaka, Sairandhri refused saying he would die if he approached her. Sudeshna informed her brother of this who was enraged and determined to violate her by force. Afraid, the daughter of Drupada prayed to the Devi Jagaddhatri (invoked as Katyayani, Jagadambikey and symbol of chastity). Durga durgatinashini assures her that any lustful person who desires her will die.
For some special work she went to Kichaka’s apartments at night. He seized her hand. Draupadi pushed him away hard and fled, followed by furious Kichaka. Draupadi rushed into the Matsya king’s hall where the old king was dicing with Dharma’s son. Here Kichaka grabbed her hair and kicked her. Drupada’s daughter lamented and criticized the Matsya king, glaring with red eyes at Bhima and depressed king of dharma. Then, wiping her tears, she left, biding her time. Bhima determined to kill Kichaka and advised Sairandhri to invite him at night to the dancing hall where he would kill him, and she should then announce that the sinner had been destroyed by the Gandharavas. Draupadi did so and the citizens said the Gandharvas had destroyed Kichaka. Hearing this the Upakichakas came and lamenting took his body for cremation. Outside the hall they decided to burn Sairandhri with it and abducted her. Draupadi cried aloud, hearing which Bhima leapt over the walls and destroying the Upakichakas freed Sairandhri. The citizens said that the Gandharvas had destroyed the Upakichakas. Then the fearful king told Sairandhri to depart from his town. She assured him she would do so in a few days.
A few days later 13 years were over. So far Duryodhana’s spies had failed to spot them. Now, hearing of the death of Kichaka and his followers he decided that the Pandavas must be living there and consulting Bhishma, Drona etc. arrived with his army at the Matsya kingdom. There they fought Partha at the cattle stables and were defeated. Then, recognizing the Pandavas, humbly king Virata honored them and married his daughter Uttara to Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu. Then the Panchalas and the king of Kashi and other kings arrived to help the Pandavas, who assembled for war at Kurukshetra.
To relieve earth of her burden, Devi KrishnA in the form of Krishna arrived to help Yudhishthira with his soldiers and Satyaki. Bhishma, Vyasa and others failed to dissuade Duryodhana from war. Depending on Karna’s views, he was determined on war. Both sides assembled at Kurukshetra. Yudhishthira approached the elders individually and touched their feet and obtained their permission to engage in war. Then the Pandavas descended from their chariots and prayed to Jagadambika for victory, recalling that by her grace Rama had destroyed the Rakshasas. Devi granted them the boon of winning back the kingdom and told them that for this she had taken the form of Vasudeva on Arjuna’s chariot.
Bhishma led the Dhartarashtras, Karna stepping aside out of hatred of Bhishma, while Bhima led the Pandava army. Bhishma destroyed an arvuda of soldiers in 10 days. On the 10th evening Shikhandi, with Arjuna’s help, felled Bhishma who awaited Uttarayan on a bed of arrows surrounded by a moat. Karna and others chose Drona as general and he fought for 5 days during which Subhadra’s son was slain in unjust battle. Arjuna took a vow and in the evening killed Jayadratha. On the 5th day Drona was killed by the son of Panchala. Karna fought for 2 days, killing rakshasa Ghatotkacha. Arjuna of the monkey banner slew Karna. King Yudhishthira, waxing angry, slew Shalya and Bhima killed Duryodhana in a terrible mace duel having killed the other Dhartarashtras earlier. At night, Bharadwaja’s son slew sleeping Dhrishtadyumna and Draupadi’s five sons. Arjuna drove immortal Ashvatthama and Kripa with his arrows from the field. Thus in 18 days of battle 18 akshauhinis were destroyed. On the 8th day of the white fortnight of Magha Bhishma died. By the grace of Mahadevi the Parthas enjoyed their kingdom.
As earth’s burden had been removed, Brahma approached Krishna in Dvaraka and told him that at Shambhu’s request and for relieving earth, Devi had taken birth as a mortal. As the task had been completed, she should now return. Jagadishvari, in the lovely Shyama form, agreed to return. Calling the counselors he said that by the curse of Ashtavakra muni most Yadavas were already dead and only some aged were alive and he no longer wished to remain on earth.
Yudhishthira be summoned forthwith with his brothers. They arrived with Draupadi and other women determined to follow Krishna. Krishna asked Yudhishthira and Bhima to protect his citizens after his departure. All the Pandvas said that they had no wish to remain alive if he left. Krishna then smiled and asked Drupada’s daughter, born of his portion, whether she would stay back or follow him. Draupadi said, “I am your portion. You are the original Kalika. Like a bubble merging into water, I will merge into you.” Balarama asked Krishna to take all Vrishnis along. Krishna wore yellow garments and donating wealth to Brahmins left the city followed by all Vrishnis and Pandavas along with servants, mothers, women and reached the seashore. Nandi arrived in the sky with a jewel encrusted lion chariot, and Brahma with thousands of chariots. Flowers were rained by the gods. Suddenly Krishna became Kali and sped to Kailasa on that lion-chariot. Draupadi, touching the sea waters, merged into her before the eyes of all. Then Yudhishthira rose to svarga on a wonderful chariot. Balarama and Arjuna touched the sea waters and left their bodies and assuming dark complexioned, four-armed bodies, rode on Garuda to Vaikuntha. Bhima and other Vrishnis left their bodies. Rukmini and the 8 chief queens assuming Shambhu’s form left their bodies. The other women of Krishna re-assumed the form of Bhairavas. Sridam and Sudama became Jaya and Vijaya again.