The Vana Parva of the Mahabharata begins with the departure of the Pandavas into the forest, and ends when they finish their twelve-year exile in the forest.
And here’s the result. From inexhaustible vessels to divine weapons, from sages who digest Rakshasas to infants who feed off Indra’s finger, these twelve stories have a bit of something for everyone. Enjoy!
At the time of the Pandavas leaving the Kuru court on their exile, a large group of Brahmins arrive announced and insist on accompanying the dethroned king and his brothers into the woods.
Yudhishthir is bemused at this, and asks Dhaumya the sage what to do. And Dhaumya replies, ‘Worship the sun god and he will advise you.’
Yudhishthir does so, stationing himself in the Ganges and singing the praises of the god in various different ways. After a suitable amount of time has passed, Surya appears before the Pandava, and asks what he could do to reward him.
Yudhishthir tells him about the issue. ‘I have a large group of Brahmins that I must feed along with myself and my brothers, O Lord,’ he says. ‘But we have neither the wealth nor the means to do so.’
Surya nods and brings out a copper vessel. Handing it out to Yudhishthir, he says, ‘Accept this vessel, O King. It will multiply all the food that is made in your kitchen such that it will never exhaust its contents. Only after Panchali has eaten will the vessel become empty, only to fill up the next day once again.’ The Pandavas thus become owners of what is called the Akshayapatra (the inexhaustible vessel).
Along with the Kalpavriksha and the Kamadhenu, the Akshayapatra is one of three ever-giving entities in the Mahabharata.
The Killing of Kirmira
The Pandavas begin their period of exile in the forest of Kamyaka. Here, they come across a demon by name Kirmira.
He happens to be the brother of Bakasura, whom Bhimasena has killed earlier in Ekachakra. When he hears the name of Bhima, Kirmira licks his lips in anticipation.
‘Ah!’ he says. ‘I have been searching for you all these years to no avail. Now fate has placed you in my path. Come and fight me, O Pandava. Let me avenge the death of my brother.’
Bhimasena – already smarting with anger at the Kauravas – gladly accepts this challenge. The man and the Rakshasa hurl uprooted trees, massive boulders and even parts of mountains at each other. Then they wrestle with their bare arms. At the end, Bhima strangles Kirmira and kills him.
Thus freeing Kamyaka of the annoyance of Kirmira (the third of all Rakshasas that Bhima kills in the Mahabharata – the first two being Hidimba and Bakasura), the Pandavas set up residence in the hermitage of Dhaumya.
One of the important story arcs of the Vana Parva is how Arjuna acquires a number of divine weapons to prepare himself for the final Mahabharata war at Kurukshetra.
The most powerful of these weapons is the Pasupatastra, wielded by Shiva.
At about the same time that Arjuna worships Shiva for the weapon, an Asura called Muka disguises himself as a wild boar with the intention of killing Arjuna. (We are not told why.) As the boar is charging at the prince, he interrupts his rites for long enough to shoot at the beast one well-aimed arrow.
But two arrows strike the boar on the side, and it falls to its death. One of them is Arjuna’s. The other belongs to a hunter who steps into the clearing accompanied by his wife.
He tells the prince, ‘You have ventured into my part of the woods, O Brahmin. And the beast you shot at was first felled by my arrow. The meat is therefore mine.’
‘I have no need for food, O Hunter,’ Arjuna says, ‘for I have long given up food for the worship of my lord. But your arrogance astounds me. Do you know who you speak to? I am the brother of King Yudhishthir, who is the emperor of all the lands you have never heard of. Just to teach you a lesson I will fight you and take that pig’s carcass for myself.’
The smiling hunter does not rise to the bait, but he does not remove his foot from the side of the dead boar either. ‘I would like to see you try, O Prince,’ he says.
Arjuna fits two arrows onto his bow and shoots them at the hunter, but both of them fly out of sight. ‘A prince who cannot aim at this big a target?’ says Shiva, gesturing at himself. ‘Your brother Yudhishthir must not rely on you to win his wars.’
Frustrated, Arjuna runs up to the hunter and tries to hit him on the head with the bow, but even as the weapon shatters to pieces, the hunter remains smiling and unhurt.
Arjuna realizes that something is not right, and just as he is about to piece things together, Shiva shows him his true form, and grants him the use of the Pasupatastra.
‘This weapon can be propelled by thought, speech or by the strength of your arms with a bow,’ he says. ‘And there is no one in the whole three worlds that will not be slain by it. However, you must take care not to use it on a foe that is weaker than you are, because then it will reduce all of creation to ashes.’
The Curse of Urvasi
In his quest to become the most powerful warrior in the world, Arjuna travels during the Vana Parva to Amaravati, the home of his father and the king of gods, Indra.
Among other things, here he begins to learn music and dance under the tutelage of Chitrasena the Gandharva. He does this on the exhortation of Indra, who tells him that a Kshatriya ought to pay attention to the softer modes of art as well.
During this time, Chitrasena notices Arjuna staring at Urvasi, one of the apsaras at court, and interprets that gaze as one of desire. He goes to the dancer, therefore, and requests her to entertain the Pandava.
However, when the time comes for Urvasi to offer herself to Arjuna one night, the Pandava surprises her by treating her with utmost respect, almost as if she were his superior.
When a slightly amused Urvasi reveals to Arjuna the true intention behind her visit, the Pandava closes his ears as if he had heard something blasphemous.
‘My lady,’ he says. ‘Chitrasena is mistaken. I did look at you at court the other day, but I was doing so out of curiosity, and I was thinking to myself: this is the woman who has given birth to the entire Kaurava clan. (Urvasi is the wife of Pururavas, the ancestor of the Kauravas.)
‘You are my ancestress, many generations my senior. I cannot think of you as an object of lust. As Mother Kunti and Mother Madri is, so are you to my mind. Please do not taint our relationship. I am sorry I cannot fulfill your desire.’
No amount of negotiation on the part of Urvasi shakes Arjuna’s stand on the matter, and the end of it, the spurned Apsara places upon the son of Indra a curse of impotence.
‘Because you stymied the advances of a worthy woman,’ she says, ‘you shall be required to spend a whole year of your life on Earth among women, unidentified as a man among them, and ridiculed as a eunuch.’
Of course, Indra later consoles a distraught Arjuna and tells him that this curse is all ‘part of the plan’. Donning the garb of a eunuch, and using all the skills of dance and music he has learned from Chitrasena, Arjuna would become Brihannala at Virata’s court during their exile’s thirteenth year.
The story of Nala and Damayanti is told to Yudhishthir by Sage Brihadaswa during the early days of their exile. Yudhishthir is consumed by grief at their misfortune, and when he wonders out loud if any other king had had to endure such horrific ordeals, Brihadaswa says, ‘Yes, King. Let me tell you about Nala.’
The full story is beyond the scope of this post, but I’d like to highlight a few different parallels between the stories of Nala and Yudhishthir:
- Nala becomes husband – like Yudhishthir – to the most beautiful woman of her time, Damayanti. At the groom-choosing ceremony, Damayanti chooses Nala over four gods: Indra, Agni, Varuna and Yama.
- He loses his kingdom to his brother Pushkara in a game of dice. He is forced to go into exile with his wife Damayanti. However, it is worth noting that he does not stake Damayanti in the game. Just his kingdom and wealth.
- In the forest, he deserts Damayanti and wanders off on his own. Owing to an unfortunate encounter with a snake called Karkotaka, he gets transformed into a Chandala named Bahuka.
- He becomes a charioteer to a king called Rituparna. Later, when Rituparna travels to Chedi to attend Damayanti’s second groom-choosing, the king and his charioteer educate each other on their areas of expertise. Bahuka teaches Rituparna about equine lore; Rituparna teaches Bahuka all he knows about dice.
- After reuniting with Damayanti, Nala challenges Pushkara to another game of dice. This time, armed with his newfound knowledge, he defeats his brother and regains his kingdom.
Sage Brihadaswa assures Yudhishthir that like Nala, the eldest Pandava will also go through a period of intense strife, but at the other end of the tunnel, he will emerge with knowledge and wisdom that will enable him to defeat his enemies, the Kauravas.
Agastya and Lopamudra
Yudhishthir is told this story of Agastya and Lopamudra by Sage Lomasa.
Sage Agastya once encounters in a cave all his ancestors hanging heads down from the ceiling, moaning in pain. He asks them what the matter is, and they tell him, ‘We are not attaining heaven because you do not have a son, my child. Make haste and marry a virtuous woman.’
The sage assures his ancestors that he will do their bidding, but is privately worried because he does not know if he can find a woman of high enough virtue to be his wife. So he uses his psychic powers and creates a girl child out of nothing.
And he presents the infant to the then king of Vidarbha, who is undergoing penance to obtain offspring.
The king names her Lopamudra and brings her up to puberty, and when they are looking for a suitable husband for her, Agastya returns and says, ‘O King, I have given you a daughter when you most needed one. Now I request you to return her to me so that I can make her my wife.’
After a short moment of reluctance, and after discussing the matter with his wife, the king agrees to hand Lopamudra over to Agastya. (It should be noted here that Lopamudra herself wishes to be married to the sage.)
Lopamudra sheds all her royal robes and accompanies Agastya to his hermitage, and in due course of time, gets used to performing her chores herself without the help of a hundred waiting women. She takes the same vows as her husband, and helps him perform his austerities properly.
After a year or two, however, when Agastya approaches his wife to begin the business of having children, she says, ‘Sage, I have no doubt you married me for the sake of gaining sons. But I need you to love me the way I have loved you. Approach me for union on a bed that is as big as the one I used to sleep on in my father’s place. I wish to be clad in ornaments and garments, not these rags.’
Agastya is a bit taken aback by this. He replies, ‘I am not rich like your father is, Lopamudra. How shall I bring all that you wish?’
‘You are a man of deep ascetic knowledge,’ says Lopamudra. ‘For a man of your merit, it is not difficult to procure anything just by thinking about it.’
Agastya admits that it is true. ‘But it would be a waste of my ascetic powers if I use them for mere wealth. However, I shall make sure that I bring back enough riches to please you, my wife, for you are right. It is indeed the duty of the husband to provide for his household.’
Saying so, he sets out in the quest for wealth. In due course of time, he encounters Ilwala and Vatapi.
Ilwala and Vatapi
At that time, the city of Manimati is ruled by a Daitya king named Ilwala. In order to quench his deep hatred of Brahmins, and in order to kill as many of them as possible, he performs the same trick over and over:
He invites a certain number of Brahmins to his palace, ostensibly to have food. Vatapi, his brother, happens to have a power by which he can change shape into a ram and back into a human again. Ilwala cooks the ram and feeds it to the Brahmins, and before they digest the meat, he summons Vatapi back to human form using an incantation. Vatapi thus emerges from the bodies of the Brahmins, tearing open their stomachs and killing them.
When Agastya comes to Manimati, however, he divines the intention of Ilwala and digests Vatapi immediately after the meal using his ascetic powers. Ilwala triumphantly summons his brother from Agastya’s body only to be told that the sage has already killed him.
And to rub salt into the wound, Agastya says, ‘I have digested all your excellent food, King Ilwala. If you now give me my dakshina, I will go on my way.’
This encounter with Ilwala and Vatapi gladdens the hearts of many kings in the region, and they all reward Agastya. Laden with wealth and gems, the sage returns to Lopamudra.
They have a son named Dridhasyu.
Shiva’s Cruel Boon
Agastya plays an oblique role in the descent of Ganga from heaven to Earth.
In order to help out the Devas in their ongoing war with the Asuras, Agastya on one occasion drinks up all the water of the ocean. And when the gods tell him – after the battle has been won – to regurgitate it, he replies, ‘But I have digested it!’
It then falls upon an Ikshvaku king named Sagara to pick up the mantle unwittingly. In a bid to gain sons with his two wives, he propitiates Lord Shiva, who gives Sagara a rather cruel boon:
‘I shall grant you sixty thousand sons,’ he says, ‘by one of your wives. These will be valiant men, but they will all perish before they are married. Your line will be continued, however, by the oneson your other wife will bear.’
As it turns out, all sixty one thousand sons of Sagara grow up to be mean, vindictive men. The first sixty thousand die as promised before they’re married. The last one – named Asamanjasa – gets banished from the kingdom by Sagara. However, before he leaves, he does give birth to a boy called Anshuman.
Anshuman becomes king after Sagara, and his son Dilipa ascends to the throne after him. It is his son, Bhagiratha, that finally takes up the challenge of bringing Ganga down from heaven and of filling up the Earth’s oceans.
Sage Lomasa tells Yudhishthir the story of Rishyasringa, a sage who has two claims to fame: one, he is born of a hind, and two, he brings to an end he great famine of Anga.
Rishyasringa’s birth happens in an undisclosed location on the banks of a lake in the neighbourhood of Anga. His father, Sage Vibhandaka, is the son of Kashyapa, and is among those sages whose seed never fails to produce offspring.
He is said to have repaired to this region with the intention of undergoing undisturbed penances, but as luck would have it, Urvasi the celestial dancer once visits the lake to bathe in it. The sage, though in full control of his mind, loses grip over his body and ejaculates inadvertently. His semen gets released into the water and enters the body of a hind that had come there to slake her thirst.
She duly become pregnant, and in due course of time gives birth to a boy. This child has a horn on his head, which earns him the name Rishyasringa.
Vibhandaka – consumed by anger at Urvasi – raises Rishyasringa without knowledge of the female form, thinking that this would make the boy immune to seduction. But in a few years, with King Lomapada of Anga searching for ways to end the famine in his city, a courtesan skilled in the art of ‘conversation and dance’ arrives at the hermitage and lures Rishyasringa away.
King Lomapada gives his daughter Shanta in marriage to the horned sage, and with that, the famine of Anga is driven away.
The Killing of Renuka
Sage Jamadagni is a staunch follower of the Vedas, quick to anger but equally given to generosity. He marries Renuka, the daughter of King Prasenajit, and has five sons by her. The names are Rumanvana, Sushena, Vasu, Vishwavasu and Rama.
The fifth and the youngest boy, because he favours the axe as a weapon, comes to be known as Parashurama (‘the axe-bearing Rama’).
It so happens one day that Renuka, on her daily trip to the river to fetch water, comes across the Gandharva Chitraratha sporting half-naked with his consorts. And beholding his magnificent form, she finds herself consumed by desire for just a moment.
She returns to the hermitage with her head hanging in shame, and Jamadagni is quick to guess what had occurred.
Like any possessive husband, he flares up in anger, and orders the just-returning Rumanvana to kill his mother. Rumanvana is shocked into silence at first, and then recovers enough to refuse his father.
The other three brothers arrive on the scene one after the other, and they all react the same way. Jamadagni curses them to become rocks.
Parashurama comes there at last, and when Jamadagni repeats his order, he immediately raises his axe and beheads Renuka in one swoop of the weapon. This appeases Jamadagni’s wrath, and he grants his youngest son a few boons.
Parashurama asks that (a) his mother’s life be restored, (b) his memory of the incident be erased, (c) his brothers be returned to their normal forms, (d) he remain undefeated in battle, and (e) that he may obtain a long life.
Chyavana Paralyzes Indra
Sage Chyavana, owing to a past favour that the Ashwin twins had done him, once performs a ritual for King Saryati in which he offers them a portion of the Soma juice.
This angers Indra because the Ashwin twins are ‘mere physicians’ who ‘live most of their lives on Earth’ and are therefore ‘unfit to be honoured in the same manner as gods.’
Chyavana, of course, is having none of it. He says, ‘You discriminate against them just because of their profession, Devendra? They have given me everlasting youth and beauty and good health. It is only natural that I keep my promise to them.’
Seeing his command being openly flouted, Indra issues a threat. ‘If you do not obey my orders, O Rishi,’ he says, ‘I shall be forced to hurl this vajrayudhaat you. Not all your ascetic powers will protect you from it.’
Chyavana watches the thunderbolt out of the corner of his eye, and with a simple motion of his finger, paralyzes both of Indra’s arms, causing the weapon to clatter to the ground. And then, with the strength of his own anger, he gives rise to a demon called Madasura (the word Mada means intoxication) who advances menacingly toward Indra.
With his arms paralyzed and his weapon on the ground, Indra suddenly realizes the futility of his position. He asks for Chyavana’s forgiveness, and proclaims that the Ashwin twins will thenceforward be given a share in the Soma offerings of the celestials.
Chyavana’s anger is assuaged too, and he wills it that Madasura’s form is broken down into pieces, and is distributed among the vices: in alcohol, in sexual desire, in dice, and in field sport.
During the Vana Parva, Sage Lomasa tells Yudhishthir of a king named Mandhata who given birth by his father, Yuvanaswa.
Yuvanaswa is a king of the Ikshvaku clan. He performs many pious deeds in his life. Not only is he a wise and just king but he also shows remarkable facility in performing all the necessary sacrifices at the correct times. But there is one thing lacking in his life, and that is (you guessed it) a son.
He performs various austerities in the quest for an heir, and as part of that, he repairs into a forest and subsists on air alone. At the same time, he wanders close to the hermitage of Bhrigu, where the sage is presiding over a ceremony intended to give the gift of a son to Yuvanaswa.
(This fact is not known to the king, though, nor does Bhrigu know that the king has come there.)
At the hermitage, there is a large vessel of sacred water that has been imbued with magic, intended to be consumed by the queen of Yuvanaswa. But the king finds it in a moment when there is no one attending upon it, and overcome by thirst (because he has not touched water in months), finishes it off in a few rapid gulps.
The sages come running to the king in alarm, but it is already too late by then. Bhrigu says, ‘Your queen, if she had drunk it, would have given birth to a heroic son, but now, fate has decreed that you should consume it. Let us not question the way of destiny. Let us instead prepare for another sacrifice that will allow you to bear your own son without the pain of labour.’
That ceremony passes without event, and after a hundred more years, Yuvanaswa gives birth to a son, who comes tearing out of his left side magically, without harming his father. When the infant is born, all the gods ask the question (since he does not have a mother to give him milk): ‘What will this boy suck?’
And it is said that Indra offers his forefinger to the boy and says, ‘He shall suck me.’ It is thus that the prince is given the name of Mandhata (‘Me he shall suck’).
And because he grows up sucking on the finger of Indra, he is endowed with the might of a hundred mountains.
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