There is a very interesting story about Karna being an Asura named as Dambhodbhava.
Quora: Who was Karna in his previous birth?. Arjuna-Krishna being Nara-Narayana kids, who fought with Dambhodbhava.

  • There is also a story about Draupadi's previous birth where she asked for a husband with 14 qualities and end up marrying the 5 Pandavas.
  • Bhishma being a Vasu.
  • Shishupala being Raavana (or Vishnu's gatekeeper)
  • Shikhandi being princess Ambaa

Are there any sources for the other key characters' previous births like:

  • Satyavati & Muni Veda Vyasa
  • Dhritarashtra, Pandu, & Vidura
  • Other Pandavas
  • Duryodhana, Dushashana
  • Abhimanyu, Ghatotkacha, Upapandavas
  • Drona & Ashwathama
  • Shakuni, Shalya, Drupada, Dhrishtadyumna
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    Good question sir, Ravana and Kumbhakarna(or Vishnu's gatekeeper) were re-born as Shishupala and Vakradanta(Dantavakra). – learningbrain Apr 14 '15 at 13:17

This chapter of the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata describes exactly who incarnated as each of the major characters in the Mahabharata. It's too long a chapter to quote the whole thing here, so let me just address some important people.

I discuss the previous births of Draupadi and the Pandavas here. As you said, Bhishma was an incarnation of one of the Vasus, a group of eight Vedic gods controlling various aspects of nature, but more specifically he was the Vasu known as Dyaus Pita, AKA Prabhasa, god of the sky. And as you said Shishupala was an incarnation of Vishnu's gatekeeper Jaya, who had previously been born Hiranyakashipu and Ravana, while Shishupala's brother Dantavakra was an incarnation of Vijaya, who had previously been born as Hiranyaksha and Kumbhakarn, as I discuss in this answer.

Now Bhishma's father Shantanu was a rebirth of Mahabhisha, a king of the Ikshvaku dynasty. After Mahabhisha died, he went to Devaloka, where on one occasion he stared at the goddess Ganga when her robe slipped by accident. As a result, he was cursed by Brahma to be born on earth and to be tormented by Ganga, as described in this chapter of the Adi Parva of the Mahbharata:

One day the celestials had assembled together and were worshipping Brahman. Many royal sages and king Mahabhisha also were present on the spot. And Ganga, the queen of rivers, also came there to pay her adorations to the Grandsire. And her garments white as the beams of the moon was displaced by the action of the wind. And as her person became exposed, the celestials bent down their heads. But the royal sage Mahabhisha rudely stared at the queen of rivers. And Mahabhisha was for this cursed by Brahman, who said, 'Wretch, as thou hast forgotten thyself at the sight of Ganga, thou shalt be re-born on earth. But thou shall again and again attain to these regions. And she, too, shall be born in the world of men and shall do thee injuries. But when thy wrath shall be provoked, thou shalt then be freed from my curse.'

Shantanu's second wife Satyavati, who was the daughter of the king Uparichara Vasu but raised by fishermen, was the next birth of Acchoda, mind-born daughter of the Pitris or ghosts of departed ancestors. (I discuss another mind-born daughter of the Pitris in this question.) Acchoda was caught admiring Uparichara Vasu, so the Pitris gave her the following curse, as described in this chapter of the Harivamsa:

You have just now seen an air-voyager, isn't it... he is called uparichara-vasu... when he takes birth in human world, then you will become his daughter... while remaining a virgin you will deliver the son of sage parAshara, which son of yours, namely veda-vyAsa, will ramify veda canons... still remaining a virgin you will return to your own abode, that which is unachievable otherwise... Later you will auspiciously give rise to two sons of mahAbhiSha, namely king shantanu; one boy will be the glorious vichitraviirya, while the other will be the righteous chitrA~Ngada; and later, on your begetting them you will return to your abode; thus you have to undergo this wretched life on earth because you sidestepped from the morals of manes... will become the daughter of that king vasu through lady adrika, whom you have just now seen along with uparichara-vasu on aircraft... all this happens in twenty-eight dwApara era... then you will emerge as the daughter of a fish, namely from this lady adrika who by then transfigures as a fish

Satyavati's son Krishna Dwaipayana Veda Vyasa (or Vyasa for short) was an incarnation of Vishnu, but he was also the next birth of the sage Aparantamas, an earlier compiler of the Vedas described in this chapter of the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata.

Vyasa's son Pandu was apparently the incarnation of the god of Purity, while Vidura was the incarnation of Yama god of death, as described in this chapter of the Adi Parva of the Mahbharata:

[Dhritarashtra's] younger brother who was possessed of great strength and was really a great being known as Pandu, devoted to truth and virtue, was Purity's self. And, O king, thou shouldst know that he who was known on earth as Vidura, who was the first of all virtuous men ... was the god of Justice himself.

There's no information in that chapter as to Dhritarashtra's previous birth, but as far as the Kauravas go, Duryodhana was the incarnation of Kali (the demon of the Kali Yuga) and his brothers were incarnations of Rakshasas:

The evil-minded and wicked king Duryodhana, the destroyer of the fair fame of the Kurus, was born of a portion of Kali on earth. He it was who caused all creatures to be slain and the earth to be wasted; and he it was who fanned the flame of hostility that ultimately consumed all. They who had been the sons of Pulastya (the Rakshasas) were born on earth among men of Duryodhana's brothers, that century of wicked individuals commencing with Duhasasana as their first.

Arjuna's son Abhimanyu was an incarnation of Varchas, son of Chandra the moon god, and the reason he died so early is that Chandra didn't want him to be gone too long:

And he who was known as the mighty Varchas, the son of Soma, became Abhimanyu of wonderful deeds, the son of Arjuna. And before his incarnation, O king, the god Soma had said these words to the celestials, 'I cannot give (part with) my son. He is dearer to me than life itself. Let this be the compact and let it be not transgressed. The destruction of the Asuras on earth is the work of the celestials, and, therefore, it is our work as well. Let this Varchas, therefore, go thither, but let him not stay there long.'

The Upapandavas were incarnations of the Vishwadevas, Dristadyumna was an incarnation of Agni, Amba/Sikhandi was the incarnation of a demon, and the Upapandavas are incarnations of the Vishwadevas:

Know also, O monarch, that the mighty car-warrior Dhrishtadyumna was a portion of Agni. And know also that Sikhandin, who was at first a female, was (the incarnation of) a Rakshasa. And, O bull in Bharata's race, they who became the five sons of Draupadi, those bulls amongst the Bharata princes, were the celestials known as the Viswas. Their names were Pritivindhya, Sutasoma, Srutakirti, Satanika, Nakula, and Srutasena, endued with mighty energy.

Kripacharya was an incarnation of the Rudras, Shakuni was an incarnation of Dwapara (embodiment of the Dwapara Yuga), and Satyaki and Drupada were incarnations of the Maruts:

And, O king, that Brahman sage who, on earth, was known by the name of Kripa and was the embodiment of all manliness was born of the tribe of the Rudras. And the mighty chariot-fighter and king who on earth was known by the name of Sakuni, that crusher of foes, thou shouldst know, O king, was Dwapara himself (the third yuga). And he who was Satyaki of sure aim, that upholder of the pride of Vrishni race, that oppressor of foes, begotten of the portion of gods called the Maruts. And that royal sage Drupada who on earth was a monarch, the first among all persons bearing arms, was also born of the same tribe of the celestials.

Ashwatthama was an incarnation of Shiva; see the Shiva Purana. And Shalya was an incarnation of Prahlada's brother Sanhlada:

He who had been known as Samhlada, the younger brother of Prahlada, became among men the famous Salya, that bull amongst Valhikas.

Being a Vaishnava, I'd like to end with one last individual:

And he, called Vasudeva [Krishna], endued with great valour, was among men a portion of him called Narayana--the god of gods--eternal.

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    I have read somewhere that dritarashtra is incarnation of a gandharva king named hamsa the son of Arishtha.Will back up with references – tekkk May 16 '15 at 1:09
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    @sysinit Well, that Adi Parva chapter I linked to says "That son of Arishta who was known by the name of Hansa, was born in the Kuru race and became the monarch of the Gandharvas. He who was known as Dhritarashtra born of the seed of Krishna-Dwaipayana, and gifted with long arms and great energy, also a monarch, of the prophetic eye, became blind in consequence of the fault of his mother and the wrath of the Rishi." I think that may be a mistranslation, and it actually means "That son of Arishta named Hansa who was monarch of the Gandharvas, was born in the Kuru race as Dhritarashtra..." – Keshav Srinivasan May 16 '15 at 1:55
  • Isn't the last one obvious? :p But yeah, mentioning him is irresistible. – Surya Nov 7 '15 at 17:31
  • @ChinmaySarupria He wasn't mentioning Krsna as in his previous birth. He was saying, also, Vishnu took an avatara as Krsna. – Surya Nov 7 '15 at 17:32
  • @Surya Haha yeah, I'd be derelict if I didn't throw in a little note about Vishnu. – Keshav Srinivasan Nov 7 '15 at 23:06
  • Bhishma: The eight Vasus were incarnated of Ganga by her husband Santanu. The seven were killed by Ganga before Bhishma's birth and the youngest of them was Bhishma.

  • Drona: Drona sprung from a portion of the celestial Rishi Vrihaspati

  • Aswatthaman: Aswatthaman was born on earth, of the united portions of Mahadeva, Yama, Kama, and Krodha

  • Kripa: Kripa was born of the tribe of the Rudras

  • Dhritarashtra and Pandu: Dhitrashtra was incarnation of Hansa (the monarch of the Gandharvas and son of Arishta) and Pandu was incarnation of Hansa's younger brother

  • Vidura: Vidura was incarnation of Dharma

  • Duryodhana: Duryodhana was born of a portion of Kali

  • Kunti and Madri: The two goddesses Siddhi and Dhriti became Kunti and Madri

  • Gandhari: Mati became Gandhari

  • Sakuni: Sakuni was incarnation of Dwapara

  • Draupadi: Draupadi was born of a portion of Sachi (the queen of the celestials)

  • Valadeva (Baladeva) - Baladeva was portion of Sesha. Baladeva is also considered an incarnation of Lord Vishnu's form Saṅkarṣaṇa in SB.

  • Krishna: Krishna was incarnation of Lord Vishnu or Narayana

  • Rukmini: Rukmini was portion of Sri (Lakshmi)

  • Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakul, Sahdeva: They were incarnations of Indra through Dharmraj, Vayu, Indra and Ashvins. Arjuna also believed as incarnation of Nara.

  • Duryodhana's brothers (Duhasasana and others): the Rakshasas from Pulastya

  • Abhimanyu: Abhimanyu was incarnation of Varchas (the son of Soma)

  • Karna: Karna was born from the portion of Surya

  • Jarasandha: Jarasandha was incarnation of Danava Viprachitti

  • Sisupala: Sisupala was incarnation of Hiranyakasipu

  • Salya: Salya was incarnation of Samhlada, the younger brother of Prahlada

  • Bhagadatta: Bhagadatta was incarnation of Asura Vashkala

  • Ugrasena : Ugrasena was incarnation of Asura Swarbhanu

  • Rukmi, Ekalavya: They were born of the Asura class called Krodhavasa

  • Kansa: Kansa was incarnation of Danava Kalanemi

  • Satyaki, Drupada, Kritavarman, Virata: They begotten of the portion of gods called the Maruts

  • Dhrishtadyumna: Dhrishtadyumna was a portion of Agni

  • Sikhandin: Sikhandin who was at first a female, was (the incarnation of) a Rakshasa

  • Five sons of Draupadi: They were incarnations the celestials known as the Viswas


Abhimanyu: Discussed in Was Abhimanyu's death, a plot by Krishna?

Draupadi, Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakul, Sahdeva: Discusseed in Is Draupadi a goddess?, How can Draupadi be a pathivrata (dutiful wife) while being married to 5 men?, Why did all the Pandavas marry Draupadi?

Dhritarashtra and Pandu: Discussed in In Mahabharat who were Dhitrashtra & Pandu incarnations of?

Vidura: Discussed in What is the connection between Vidura from Mahabharata & Rishi Atri?

Baldeva: Discussed in Can Vishnu's multiple avatars exist at the same time on earth?

Shakuni, Duryodhan: Discussed in What does "Avatar of Kali Yuga" and "Avatar of Dwapara Yuga" mean?

Mahabharata-Adi Parva-Adivansavatarana Parva-Section LXIII

Mahabharata-Adi Parva-Sambhava Parva-Section LXVII

Mahabharata-Svargarohanika Parva-Section 3, Section 4, Section 5

  • Amba was incarnation of Duyu vasu's wife (bhisma's wife) due to curse of sage vasista she would hate her own husband. Arjuna incarnation Vali and Indra Karna sugrivas incarnation, Bheema is vayu or hanuma incarnation important incarnation missing above is Raghavendra swamigal he was there as Bhalika he was the father of bhurisravas. Bhalika was incarnation of prahlad – Prasanna R Jan 8 at 14:57
  • Im surprised sakuni is termed good.. actually is evil person, im sure he is rakshas – Prasanna R Jan 8 at 15:01

There is already an answer present here which quotes from Adi Parva ( and several other Parvas also). I'm here quoting the last Parva of Mahabharata from where we can get information about characters of Mahabharata. Svargarohanika Parva chapter 5 of Mahabharata states:

Vaishampayana said, "Every one, O king of men, is not capable of returning to his own nature at the end of his deeds. Whether this is so or not, is, indeed a good question asked by thee. Hear, O king, this which is a mystery of the gods, O chief of Bharata’s race. It was explained (to us) by Vyasa of mighty energy, celestial vision and great prowess, that ancient ascetic, O Kauravya, who is the son of Parasara and who always observes high vows, who is of immeasurable understanding, who is omniscient, and who, therefore knows the end attached to all acts.

"Bhishma of mighty energy and great effulgence attained to the status of the Vasus. Eight Vasus, O chief of Bharata’s race, are now seen. Drona entered into Brihaspati, that foremost one of Angirasa’s descendants. Hridika’s son Kritavarma entered the Maruts. Pradyumna entered Sanatkumara whence he had issued. Dhritarashtra obtained the regions, so difficult of acquisition, that belong to the Lord of treasures. The famous Gandhari obtained the same regions with her husband Dhritarashtra. With his two wives, Pandu proceeded to the abode of the great Indra. Both Virata and Drupada, the king Dhrishtaketu, as also Nishatha, Akrura, Samva, Bhanukampa, and Viduratha, and Bhurishrava and Sala and king Bhuri, and Kansa, and Ugrasena, and Vasudeva, and Uttara, that foremost of men, with his brother Sankha—all these foremost of persons entered the deities. Soma’s son of great prowess, named Varchas of mighty energy, became Abhimanyu, the son of Phalguna, that lion among men. Having fought, agreeably to Kshatriya practices, with bravery such as none else had ever been able to show, that mighty-armed and righteous-souled being entered Soma. Slain on the field of battle, O foremost of men, Karna entered Surya. Shakuni obtained absorption into Dwapara, and Dhrishtadyumna into the deity of fire. The sons of Dhritarashtra were all Rakshasas of fierce might. Sanctified by death caused by weapons, those high-souled beings of prosperity all succeeded in attaining to Heaven. Both Kshattri and king Yudhishthira entered into the god of Righteousness. The holy and illustrious Ananta (who had taken birth as Balarama) proceeded to the region below the Earth. Through the command of the Grandsire, he, aided by his Yoga power, supported the Earth. Vasudeva was a portion of that eternal god of gods called Narayana. Accordingly, he entered into Narayana. 16,000 women had been married to Vasudeva as his wives. When the time came, O Janamejaya, they, plunged into the Sarasvati. Casting off their (human) bodies there, they re-ascended to Heaven. Transformed into Apsaras, they approached the presence of Vasudeva. Those heroic and mighty car-warriors, Ghatotkaca and others, who were slain in the great battle, attained to the status, some of gods and some of Yakshas. Those that had fought on the side of Duryodhana are said to have been Rakshasas. Gradually, O king, they have all attained to excellent regions of felicity. Those foremost of men have proceeded, some to the abode of Indra, some to that of Kuvera of great intelligence, and some to that of Varuna. I have now told thee, O thou of great splendour, everything about the acts, O Bharata, of both the Kurus and the Pandavas.

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