Welcome to the very first of my series of posts on stories from the Mahabharata. Very excited to have you here!
In this post, not only will I share with you 25 of my favourite Mahabharata stories, I will also point you to resources that will completely satiate your hunger for this greatest of epics. At the end of it all, you will be a walking encyclopedia on the Mahabharata, and if you’re not careful you will annoy your friends and family by talking of nothing else.
In short, I am going to turn you into a Mahabharata nerd.
All set? Let’s begin – and dig in!
Table of Contents
- Sage and Scribe
- Pandu’s Last Wish
- Yudhisthir’s Chariot
- The Final Journey
- Parashurama Kills the Kshatriyas
- Jaya and Vijaya
- Krishna Fights Arjuna
- The Incarnation of Yama
- The Other Wives of Arjuna
- How Abhimanyu’s Death Saved Arjuna’s Life
- The Death of Krishna, and His Rebirth as God
- The Two Boons of Jayadratha
- The Three Men in Amba’s Life
- The Two Different Faces of Ganga
- The Lesser Known Avatars of Vishnu: Matsya
- The Lesser Known Avatars of Vishnu: Kurma
- The Lesser Known Avatars of Vishnu: Varaha
- The Avatar of Convenience: Mohini
- Bhrigu and His Relationship with Vishnu
- Shukracharya and Agastya
- The Syamantaka Jewel
- The Birth of Garuda
- Snakes and Their Forked Tongues
- Further Reading
Sage and Scribe
By the time the Mahabharata, who started life as an ‘oral story’, arrived at the point of being written down, Sage Vyasa is said to have prayed to the Gods for a worthy scribe.
Upon the recommendation of Brahma, Vyasa enlists the services of Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva.
Ganesha is only too happy to work for Vyasa, but he comes with a condition. He says that as long as the torrent of words that flows out of Vyasa’s mouth is continuous enough to keep his quill moving, he will write for him.
But once the quill stops, it stops for good.
Vyasa, for his part, agrees to this condition, and lays down a rule of his own. ‘You must understand the meaning of every word that you put down,’ he says.
The transcription of the Mahabharata therefore becomes this dance between sage and scribe, the former composing verses in his mind before speaking them out, and the latter taking the time to understand what it is that he is putting down.
This alliance can be seen as a metaphor for the creative process: the mind must be left free to conceive and imagine and wander, while the hand must take the time to pause and think and edit.
Pandu’s Last Wish
When King Pandu dies in the forest after having made an ill-fated sexual advance at Madri, he suggests to his sons that they should each eat a bit of his corpse.
It is his way of ensuring that his sons partake of some of the fruits of all the penances he had been performing during his exile years.
Predictably, the Pandavas – who are mere children at this point – react to this prospect with disgust. Except for Sahadeva, who is the youngest and also perhaps the most impressionable of the brothers.
On the night of the king’s death, without telling anyone, Sahadeva cuts off his father’s little finger and swallows it whole.
This act is said to imbibe the youngest Pandava with all the wisdom and stoicism that he exhibits later in the story. He is also thought to acquire knowledge of the past, present and the future. He becomes a trikala gyani.
Of course, a logical question to ask is why he did not prevent the Mahabharata war if he could foresee it. And the answer is that for a gnostic, the future is as immutable as the present. The future has also – in a sense – already happened. Knowledge of it does not imply the power to change it.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 6: Pandu Dies.)
On the fifteenth day of the Kurukshetra War, with Dronacharya in fine fighting form at the head of the Kaurava army, the Pandavas are left with little choice but to be a little creative in order to stop him.
At the behest of Krishna, Bhima kills an elephant called Ashwatthama, and bellows into the air, loud enough for Drona to hear: ‘Ashwatthama is dead!’ The acharya keeps fighting, because he does not believe that his heroic son can be killed, and when he chances upon Yudhisthir, he asks him whether it is true.
In reply, Yudhisthir says those famous lines: ‘Ashwatthama hathah’ (Ashwatthama is dead). Then he pauses, as the sound of conches and trumpets fills the air. Into the din, he whispers: ‘Kunjaraha’ (The elephant).
As soon as he hears that half-lie, Drona gives up arms and sits down in his chariot to meditate. He meets his death at the hands of Dhrishtadyumna.
At the same moment, Yudhisthir’s chariot, which has always floated a few inches off the ground due to his spotless virtue, descends to the ground with a soft thud.
Later, after their deaths, Yudhisthir would spend a few moments in hell as penance for this very act.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 50: Drona Dies.)
The Final Journey
This is the story of the Pandavas walking up to the top of Mount Meru at the very end.
The five of them begin at the foot of the hill, but after a few leagues, Draupadi drops to her knees and to her death. After her, Sahadeva falls, then Nakula, and then Arjuna and Bhima.
Yudhisthir alone reaches the top of the mountain, accompanied by a dog.
The reasons for which the four brothers and the wife fail to make it to the top are given by Yudhisthir himself. Draupadi’s great sin was to love one of her husbands (Arjuna) more than the others. Sahadeva, Nakula and Arjuna were vain about one thing or the other – intelligence, beauty and valour respectively – whereas Bhima was consumed by gluttony and greed.
(The implication is that Yudhishthir is the most virtuous of the five brothers, but it is also instructive that these explanations are given by Yudhishthir himself.)
At the top of the mountain, Indra appears before Yudhishthir and tells him, ‘We have room in Heaven for you, O King, but not for the dog.’ To which Yudhishthir replies, ‘Lord, this animal has accompanied me through my final journey. I cannot forsake him now – not even for the promise of Heaven.’
It is then that the dog himself is revealed to be Yama in disguise, who had come to test his son’s alignment with virtue.
Having passed this examination, Yudhishthir becomes the only Pandava to enter Heaven in his mortal body.
(Suggested: Did Draupadi love Arjuna the most?)
Parashurama Kills the Kshatriyas
Though a Brahmin by birth and raising, by temperament Parashurama is a Kshatriya – quick to anger, vengeful, and bound by bonds of loyalty, love and prestige that fit better on a king than on a detached Brahmin.
When his parents are killed by the king Kartaveerya Arjuna, he of the thousand arms, Parashurama picks up an axe and sets out on a sojourn of revenge and bloodlust. Not only does he resolve to kill Kartaveerya Arjuna, he also takes an oath to cleanse the Earth of Kshatriya blood once and for all.
Every time he decimates the Kshatriya race, however, they spring up again, as though by magic. Each time he kills them and hangs up his axe, in a few years they reappear, forcing him to set out once again on a rampage of violence.
It is said that he kills the Kshatriyas twenty one times, and after that he just gets tired and gives up.
This is because the Kshatriya race, through a birthing process called niyoga, perpetuates itself in heirless times through the line of the mother. So if Parashurama truly wished to get rid of the Kshatriyas, he would have done well to kill the queens along with the kings.
But then, his Kshatriya leanings would not allow him to attack a woman (unless ordered by his father to do so, in which case he would kill his mother too. But that’s quite another story).
Jaya and Vijaya
Once, when the four manasaputras of Brahma arrive at the door to Vaikuntha and ask to be let in, the doorkeepers on duty that day happen to be two strapping young men by the names of Jaya and Vijaya.
Both are staunch devotees of Vishnu, and both had been instructed that very morning that the master was not to be disturbed.
So they do what any self-respecting doorman would do: they deny entry to the manasaputras.
With their propensity to quick anger, the manasaputras curse the doorkeepers for their grave sin, and since there is no harsher punishment in the universe than to live on Earth as a human, they decree that both Jaya and Vijaya would live on Earth as mortal people.
Jaya and Vijaya fret over this quite a bit, but when Vishnu arrives on the scene a little while later, he smiles as if it has all gone to plan.
‘You have a choice,’ he says. ‘Do you want to be born as my devotees for seven lives, or as my enemies for three?’
The doorkeepers choose three lives as enemies, because that would mean a shorter term of being separated from the lord. Vishnu grants them their wish, and proceeds to fight them as enemies on Earth in three separate epochs.
Jaya and Vijaya became Hiranyakashyapu and Hiranyaksha in one life, Ravana and Kumbhakarna in the second, and Sisupala and Dantavakra in the third.
It is said that the power of the enemies also diminishes progressively. Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashyapu are each so strong that Vishnu needs one avatar each to defeat them. With Ravana and Kumbhakarna, he finishes them off both in one life, as Rama.
Sisupala and Dantavakra, whom Vishnu kills during the Krishna Avatar, are not even part of the main script and are mere footnotes in the story of the Kurukshetra War.
Krishna Fights Arjuna
Krishna and Arjuna are known for their friendship. They’re not only related by birth – Kunti being the sister of Krishna’s father, Vasudeva – but also by marriage, after Arjun falls in love with and marries Subhadra, Krishna’s sister.
But there is a time when they – reluctantly – take up arms against one another.
The story is that one morning, Gaya, a Gandharva king, is flying on his chariot over Dwaraka. He chews on some betel leaves and spits them out, causing them to fall into the outstretched hands of Krishna, who had just come out to offer his salutations to the Sun.
When Krishna sees what Gaya has done, he becomes overcome with rage, which is exacerbated by the fact that Gaya, instead of descending to the ground and apologizing, decides to flee.
Krishna then takes an oath to kill Gaya.
The Gandharva king, meanwhile, goes everywhere for protection, but even the Gods turn him down. Finally, on the advice of Narada (who else?), he goes to the Pandavas, who are in the forest serving out their sentence, and begs Arjuna to save his life.
Though Arjuna is torn, the Kshatriya way of life is to offer protection to whoever needs it, so he says yes.
That sets up a fight between Krishna and Arjuna. All attempts at diplomacy and peacekeeping prove to be futile, and at the end, the chariots run up against each other.
The fight escalates to a point where Krishna is wielding the Sudershana Chakra, and Arjuna is setting the Brahmastra to his Gandiva.
It is at this point that Brahma intervenes and suggests that there might be a way for both Krishna and Arjun to keep their vows. He asks Krishna to kill Gaya, after which he brings him back to life, which means that Krishna gets to kill him and Arjuna gets to ‘protect’ him.
It is often said about the Kurukshetra War that the most powerful warrior of the did not fight in it.
Krishna is the person being referred to here, but there is another warrior who did not fight in the war who can lay claim to the title of ‘the most powerful warrior of all’. His name is Barbarika.
He is the son of Ghatotkacha, so by rights, he would have been on the side of the Pandavas. But before he sets out to take part in the war, Barbarika promises his mother that he will fight on whichever side is weaker of the two.
Barbarika’s power comes from three divine arrows. When he shoots the first arrow, it marks all the objects that ought to be destroyed. The second arrow marks all the objects that ought to be kept safe. The third arrow destroys the first kind of target while sparing the second.
Such extreme power – no matter which side held it – is not safe for the world, decides Krishna. He instructs the boy to take no part in the war because it was impossible to tell just which of the two sides was the weaker one.
In order not to run the risk of inadvertently breaking his promise to his mother, Barbarika therefore chooses to sit on the sidelines and watch.
The Incarnation of Yama
Vidura is the incarnation of Yama. The story which talks about how this came to be is an interesting one, and concerns a sage by name Mandavya.
One day, a band of robbers, after having looted the king’s treasury, come to Mandavya’s hermitage in the forest and hide the jewels inside it without the sage’s knowledge.
The king’s guards think it was Mandavya who had stolen the royal jewels, and in the resulting punishment, the sage is impaled on a stake.
This gives him the name of Ani Mandavya, the word ‘ani’ meaning ‘stake’.
For a long time Mandavya remains alive in deep pain. During his more desperate moments, he curses Yama and asks, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’
After a lengthy period of silence, Yama appears before the sage and gives him the reason. ‘When you were a boy of four, Madavya,’ he says, ‘you were in the habit of impaling insects with sticks. You took great pleasure in the act. This is your punishment for causing the death of all those beings.’
Mandavya, of course, does not agree with the god of justice, and curses him in anger. ‘You shall be born in the land of men,’ he says, ‘in the womb of a shudra woman.’
And it was to honour this curse that Yama took birth as Vidura, the low-born half-brother of Pandu and Dhritarashtra.
The Other Wives of Arjuna
Arjuna was quite the philanderer of those times. During their exile, he travels the breadth of Aryavarta to acquire weapons from the gods. On one such trip, he travels to the far eastern state of Manipura, where he meets Princess Chitrangada.
He is enamoured by her beauty, and when he asks for her hand, her father informs him that since Manipura is a matrilineal kingdom, any son born to Chitrangada will need to become the future king. So Chitrangada cannot be taken away by her husband back to his kingdom to serve as queen.
Arjuna agrees to this, and stays with Chitrangada long enough to bear her a son by name Babruvahana.
At a further point in his travels, Arjuna meets the Naga princess Ulupi, who seduces him against his wishes and has a son by him called Iravana.
However, by far the most popular of Arjuna’s wives is Subhadra, the princess of Dwaraka. This is an alliance that Krishna proposes, much against the wishes of Balarama. Arjuna abducts Subhadra and carries her away with Krishna’s secret consent, and after all the dust has settled, Balarama gets convinced by his younger brother that the marriage is a profitable one for Dwaraka.
In time, Subhadra bears Arjuna a son named Abhimanyu.
(Suggested: Why did Arjuna marry Subhadra?)
How Abhimanyu’s Death Saved Arjuna’s Life
The death of Abhimanyu happens on the thirteenth day of the Mahabharata war. It is the pivotal moment at which the battle begins to shed its Dharmic qualities.
It also sets into motion a chain of events that lead to the eventual protection of Arjuna’s life. Here’s how:
- On Day 13, Abhimanyu is killed while Arjuna is away fighting the Samshaptakas in another part of the battlefield.
- On Day 14, Arjuna kills Jayadratha for his ‘sin’ of holding Drona’s Chakravyuha from crumbling the previous day.
- The killing of Jayadratha angers the Kauravas enough to continue fighting past sundown into the night.
- This increases the power of Ghatotkacha and his band of Rakshasas. He begins to wreak havoc on the Kaurava forces.
- Karna is persuaded by Duryodhana to use the Vasava dart – which he has been reserving for use against Arjuna – on Ghatotkacha.
- As Ghatotkacha is felled by Karna’s dart, Krishna celebrates because he knows that Karna has been defanged. Arjuna is safe.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 44: Abhimanyu Dies.)
The Death of Krishna, and His Rebirth as God
The Mausala Parva recounts the death of Krishna and the Yadavas. Following the curse of Gandhari, who wishes ruin and destruction upon the Dwaraka dwellers, the entire race perishes by infighting.
Thirty six years after the Mahabharata war, as Dwaraka gets swallowed by the sea, Krishna retreats to the shade of a tree for contemplation, only to be killed by the stray arrow of a hunter.
Even in death we see the deliberate stoicism that Krishna has practiced all his life. He is not quite smiling, but he is calm, accepting and grateful.
Later, in the new age of Kali, Krishna gets a new lease of life as a cowherd. The Abhiras, who come to settle on the shore of the western sea, call themselves Yadavas. They fashion Krishna into a god. They tell tales of his childhood, of his innocence and his naughtiness, and of his dalliances with women.
The Krishna of the Mahabharata is an elusive personality. He declares love and friendship to many, but he rarely mourns any death in the Mahabharata war. The expression he is most often seen wearing is that of a knowing smile. In the end, he kills his own people. He preaches detachment from emotions, a steadfast adherence to duty.
The Krishna of the Abhiras, the god Krishna, is filled with the warmest of human qualities: a naughty child, a playmate of simple and downtrodden cowherds, an eternal lover.
The story of Krishna, therefore, is really the story of two Krishnas: the boy Krishna of Vrindavan, and the man Krishna of Dwaraka. The latter died with the extinction of the Yadava race, but the former is still alive and well – with all of us.
(Suggested: How did Krishna die?)
The Two Boons of Jayadratha
Jayadratha, the husband of Dushala and brother-in-law to Duryodhana by marriage, fights on the side of the Kauravas during the Mahabharata war. He displays much skill and courage on the thirteenth day to fight off all the warriors on the Pandava side that have been appointed by Arjuna to protect Abhimanyu.
Jayadratha’s enmity with the Pandavas begins a bit earlier than this, however.
During the beginning of the exile years, Jayadratha tries to abduct Draupadi and receives a humiliating defeat at the hands of Arjuna and Bhima. To avenge this, he performs some severe austerities and pleases Shiva.
When the king asks for a boon that he might one day defeat the Pandavas, Shiva replies, ‘The Pandavas are too powerful, O King. And Arjuna is the most powerful of them all. The most I can do is to grant that you will be able to defeat four of the Pandavas – not Arjuna – on one fateful day.’
Another boon that Jayadratha has comes from his father, Vridhakshtra. It states: ‘Whoever causes the head of my son Jayadratha to fall to the ground will be burnt to ash.’
On the fourteenth day, therefore, Krishna instructs Arjuna to shoot his arrows in such a way that they should behead Jayadratha and carry the head off to the outskirts of Kurukshetra, to land on the lap of the meditating Vridakshtra. When the old man finishes his prayer and stands up, his son’s head falls to the ground, and immediately his own body goes up in flames.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 46: Arjuna Kills Jayadratha.)
The Three Men in Amba’s Life
Amba begins life as the eldest princess of the kingdom of Kosala. When Bhishma comes to her swayamvara and abducts her along with her two sisters (Ambika and Ambalika), she becomes the betrothed queen to Vichitraveerya, and possibly the future queen of Hastinapur.
However, because she is in love with Shalva, the king of Subala, she requests Bhishma to let her go.
Bhishma agrees, but Shalva rejects Amba. By the time Amba returns to Hastinapur, Vichitraveerya is no longer interested in her either. With a note of desperation she implores Bhishma to marry her, only to be reminded staunchly about the regent’s infamous vow of celibacy.
Amba then goes into the forest, seething in anger at the world. Parashurama takes her under his wing and promises to set things right. He even goes to the extent of fighting Bhishma to convince him to marry Amba, but nothing works.
Taking matters into her own hands, Amba begins to propitiate Shiva in the hope of a boon that will allow her to exact vengeance upon Bhishma. The lord gives her the means to take birth in a future life as a man who will kill Bhishma.
Eager to hasten the matter, Amba immolates herself in a fire and is immediately born as Shikhandi in the house of Drupada, the ruler of Panchala.
Thus Amba’s destiny is shaped by the whims and fancies of three men: the first is Bhishma, the second Parashurama, and the third Shikhandi – who is herself reborn.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 38: Amba and Shikhandi.)
The Two Different Faces of Ganga
Ganga is the personification in our legends of the Ganges. She appears to us in two different forms. In the first, she is a youthful, vivacious young maiden, full of life and bubbling over with exuberance.
This is the Ganga that flows in heaven. When Bhagiratha comes to her with a request to descend to Earth, she laughs and says, ‘Who can withstand the force of my current?’
The descent of Ganga is also the story of her shackling: first in the locks of Shiva, then through the contours of Earth’s lands led by Bhagiratha, and finally into the mouth of Sage Jahnu who releases her out of his ear. (She thus becomes Jahnavi.)
In the second form of Ganga, at the beginning of the Mahabharata, she makes the transition to a sexually mature woman. She first seduces Shantanu to quench her desire for Mahabhisha. Then she bears the eight Vasus in her womb, seven of which she is required to kill by drowning them within herself.
As the story progresses, we see Ganga settle deeper and deeper into the role of Bhishma’s mother. When the Kuru regent’s remains are finally immersed in her, one gets the feeling that the story of Ganga has come to an end too. From the child-like girl who thought naively that she would wash off Shiva with her current, to the maiden craving union with the man she loved, and finally to the mother watching over her son from a distance, we see her in all forms of a woman.
The Lesser Known Avatars of Vishnu: Matsya
Of the ten avatars of Vishnu, the first three – matsya, kurma and varaha – do not get as much press and popularity as the other seven. In the next three sections of this post, we will briefly cover these.
The structure of the Matsya avatar is that Vishnu appears to a man in the form of a tiny fish that keeps growing in size to fill the vessel in which it is kept. The man first puts it into a bowl, then a tank, then a lake, until at the end he moves it into the sea.
Here, the fish tells the man about an impending flood to prepare for which he has to build a boat.
On the day of the flood, the fish returns with a horn on its forehead. The boat is secured to it by the snake Adisesha. The fish – containing the man accompanied by the seven sages and a collection of seeds and plants that ought to be saves – steers them through the deluge to the top of a mountain.
While performing this rescue act, the fish also discourses the men in the boat on the Vedas.
Different books say different things on who the man is that finds the fish. In the Mahabharata it is Vaivasvata Manu, the first man on Earth. In the Bhagavata Purana it is the ‘current Manu’ who goes by the name of Satyavrata.
The Lesser Known Avatars of Vishnu: Kurma
The Kurma Avatar, in which Vishnu appears as a turtle, is perhaps the most ‘passive’ of his forms.
In the Satya Yuga, after the events of the Matsya Avatar have passed, Indra incurs the wrath of Sage Durvasa for some minor misdemeanour, and earns the curse that all the gods will lose their divinity, immortality and strength.
Now this is also the time when the gods and the Asuras are fighting one another for ownership of Heaven. This battle begins to turn decisively toward the Asuras, when the gods approach Vishnu for advice. And he says, ‘Churn the ocean of milk and drink the nectar of immortality that will surface.’
Mount Mandara becomes the churning rod, Vasuki the snake becomes the churning rope, and the Gods and the Demons take one side each to churn the ocean of milk. After a few months of churning, though, the mountain begins to sink into the ocean, which is when Vishnu takes the form of a giant turtle and holds up Mandara on his shell.
For the remainder of the churning, the turtle stays in place, patiently bearing the weight of the mountain.
After the nectar of immortality appears, Vishnu is required to don yet another, more active form. More on that later.
The Lesser Known Avatars of Vishnu: Varaha
The tale of the Varaha Avatar is connected to one of the earlier stories in this collection about Jaya and Vijaya. In their very first incarnation, Jaya becomes Hiranyaksha, the demon who has a boon of being indestructible against a variety of human, god-like and animal enemies. It so happens that Hiranyaksha had not thought of including a boar in his list of animals, so Vishnu takes that form to kill him.
Hiranyaksha takes the Earth down to the depths of the ocean of milk and keeps her imprisoned there. Vishnu, in the form of Varaha, dives into the ocean, challenges the demon to a duel, fights him for a thousand years, and finally vanquishes him. Then he mounts the Earth on his tusks and brings her back to the surface.
An interesting aside to this story is that some versions state that Hiranyaksha ‘rolls the Earth like a mat’. Clearly, in those times, they used to believe that the Earth was flat, like a mat or a carpet, and that it floated on the ocean’s surface.
Also, if you’re a boar, it is much easier to mount a rolled mat than a sphere onto your tusks.
The Avatar of Convenience: Mohini
Once in a while, Vishnu assumes a female form called Mohini.
The first time she makes an appearance is during the churning of the ocean. When the nectar of immortality appears, and the gods and the Asuras are fighting for a share, it is Mohini who hypnotizes and deceives the Asuras with her charm.
Another story in which she features is the tale of Bhasmasura, he who earns a boon from Lord Shiva that anything he touches with his right hand will be burnt to ash. Mohini kills Bhasmasura by contriving to make him touch himself on the head.
In some South Indian versions of the Mahabharata, at the beginning of the war, Krishna instructs Yudhishthir to sacrifice a worthy warrior to the gods. Only four men bear the auspicious marks on their bodies: Krishna, Arjuna, Shalya, and Iravan. Of these four, Krishna and Arjuna are too important for the war, and Shalya fights for the Kauravas, so Iravan becomes the automatic choice.
The prince consents to offer himself, but he places a condition that he would like to be wedded to and mourned by a maiden.
When no one volunteers, Krishna marries young Iravan as Mohini, and gives him a memorable night of passion before the fateful day.
Bhrigu and His Relationship with Vishnu
Bhrigu, one of the seven great sages, appears to have a love-hate relationship with Vishnu. We see this in the form of two stories.
The first one is where Bhrigu takes it upon himself to test the three big gods of the pantheon. At Brahma and Shiva’s abodes, he does not get the respect that he wants, so he curses both of them. In Vaikuntha, though, after spotting Vishnu sleeping and kicking him on the chest with his bare foot, the god approaches the sage with deference and says, ‘O Sage, I hope you haven’t hurt your foot by kicking me.’
This impresses Bhrigu, and he proclaims Vishnu to be the best of the three gods.
But in another story, Vishnu kills Usana, Bhrigu’s wife, in order to free the gods from a spell that she had placed on them. In order to avenge his wife’s death, Bhrigu curses Vishnu that he will spend multiple cycles of birth and death in the land of men.
These cycles have become the human avatars of Vishnu that we know – Vamana, Rama, Krishna, Parashurama, Kalki and Buddha.
The myth of Yayati deals with the age-old theme of lust.
Yayati is the husband of Devayani, the daughter of Shukracharya, the preceptor of the Asuras. When Shukracharya comes to know that Yayati has betrayed his daughter in the favour of another maiden by name Sharmishtha (a friend of Devayani’s), he curses the king with impotence and old age.
When Yayati shows remorse for his sin, Shukracharya relents and says, ‘If you find a man willing to accept it, you can transfer the curse onto him, O King.’
Now Yayati has five sons, three with Sharmishtha and two with Devayani. Only the youngest of these five men – Puru – agrees to the notion of receiving his father’s infirmity. In return for this, Yayati makes him king.
For a thousand years hence, Yayati enjoys the sensual pleasures of his youth in the company of his two wives. But at the end, he realizes the futility of lust.
He says, ‘Craving for sense pleasures is not removed but aggravated by indulgence, even as ghee poured into fire strengthens it. One who aspires for peace and happiness should instantly renounce craving and seek pleasures of the mind, which neither grow old nor cease as the body ages.’
Shukracharya and Agastya
It is common knowledge today that Brahmins are instructed by scripture not to consume alcohol or meat. But it was not always thus. In fact, both these rules can be traced back to two stories – one featuring Shukracharya, the other featuring Agastya.
First, the Shukracharya story.
Before Devayani meets Yayati (refer to the previous story), she falls in love with Kacha, the son of Brihaspati. The young man comes to Shukracharya’s hermitage to serve as a disciple, but he is also a spy on a covert mission.
The gods want him to learn from Shukracharya the art of casting the sanjeevini mantra, which brings the dead back to life.
The Asuras that hang around the hermitage know of Kacha’s true intentions. They kill him, burn the body to ashes, and mix them in Shukracharya’s wine. Long after the preceptor has drunk the wine, Devayani, fearing the worst, pleads with her father to use the sanjeevini mantra to bring Kacha back to life.
Shukracharya relents, but as soon as he finishes the chant, he realizes that Kacha – alive and well – is inside his stomach. Now the only way to make sure that both disciple and teacher remain alive is to first teach the mantra to Kacha, allow him to tear open the sage’s body and emerge from it, and then use the mantra on Shukracharya’s corpse.
Devayani thus protects both her father and her lover. But the Asuras lose the sanjeevini.
Now to Agastya. During this time, there is a demon by name Vatapi, who would assume the form of a goat and allow himself to be cooked and eaten by a Brahmin at a time. Then he would use his magic to tear open the Brahmin’s stomach, killing him in the process.
Agastya divines this beforehand, and when he gets invited to lunch at Vatapi’s house, accepts, but uses his yogic powers to digest Vatapi before he has the chance to invoke his chant.
Since the consumption of alcohol (in the first instance) and of meat (in the second) has brought about such misery, the two sages decreed that Brahmins of the future should keep their distance from both substances.
The Syamantaka Jewel
Before the Kohinoor, there was the Syamantaka. In fact, many people speculate today that maybe, just maybe, the Kohinoor is the Syamantaka that is described in our myths.
While we do not have enough evidence to argue for or against that theory, let’s acquaint ourselves with the more important thing: the story.
The place is Dwaraka, and the time is around the burning of the wax palace in the Mahabharata. Satrajit, a nobleman, gets the Syamantaka jewel from Surya as a gift. The jewel is said to bring wealth to the place in which it is stored, and to produce for its keeper eight measures of gold daily.
Satrajit gives the jewel for safekeeping to Prasena, his brother, who wears it and goes into the forest on a hunting expedition. But on that trip he gets killed, and the Syamantaka gets stolen.
The blame for this murder and theft falls upon Krishna’s shoulders, because people think that he had had his eye on the jewel himself.
So to prove his innocence, Krishna sets out on the trail followed by Prasena, and he finds clues such as tattered clothing along the way. Following the footsteps of what looks like a lion, Krishna reaches the mouth of a cave, in which he encounters a large bear wearing the Syamantaka around his neck.
The bear and Krishna engage in combat for twenty-eight days, at the end of which the animal is exhausted. Krishna realizes that this is no ordinary bear. This is the same Jambavanta who helped Rama in his quest to attack Lanka all those years ago.
At the same time, Jambavanta recognizes glimpses of his old master in Krishna’s face, and they stop fighting to ask each other for forgiveness.
Along with the jewel, Jambavanta hands over his daughter, Jambavati, to Krishna in marriage. On his return to Dwaraka, Krishna returns the jewel to Satrajit and presents the corpse of Prasena to prove his innocence.
In return, Satrajit offers the jewel back to his king, and to make amends for the false accusations, also offers the hand of Satyabhama, his daughter, in marriage to Krishna.
The Birth of Garuda
Sage Kashyapa has thirteen wives. The most famous of these are Diti and Aditi, who give birth to the Asuras and the Devas respectively. Two of the other – less well-known – wives are Vinata and Kadru, who are daughters of Daksha Prajapati, Lord Shiva’s father-in-law.
Vinata and Kadru share a jealous relationship. When Kashyapa offers them boons on the occasion of their wedding, Kadru wishes for a thousand powerful snakes as sons, whereas Vinata asks for just two sons who would outdo all of Kadru’s in glory.
Both wives get their wishes. Kadru lays a thousand eggs, while Vinata lays but two. The eggs of Kadru hatch almost immediately, and a thousand snakes are born. But Vinata’s eggs do not hatch. In her desperation, Vinata breaks open one of the eggs, only to find a half-formed human being inside it.
The son curses her for her impatience and says that Vinata will become a slave to Kadru until the second egg hatches.
Having berated his mother thus, the egg-child flies away and becomes a charioteer to the sun.
For months after that, Vinata takes good care of the remaining egg, and watching the snake children of her sister grow up in front of her burns her with envy. But she does not make the same mistake with the second egg; she had learned her lesson. She becomes a slave to her sister and nephews, waiting for the moment her first child promised would arrive.
And then the second egg hatches, giving rise to a mighty, full-grown kite-like bird. Garuda is born.
Snakes and Their Forked Tongues
In a bid to rescue Vinata from slavery, Garuda asks his half-brothers, the Nagas, what he could trade for his mother’s freedom. The Nagas reply that if Garuda could get them the nectar of immortality that the Devas so jealously guard, then they would set Vinata free.
Garuda then flies to the abode of the gods, and proceeds to fight them for the elixir. He manages to defeat most of them, and gets his hands on the amphora of nectar. While returning to Earth, though, Vishnu encounters him and tells him, ‘Garuda, I can make you immortal without you having to drink a drop of the nectar.’
‘But my lord,’ said Garuda, ‘I must give this to my half-brothers, for otherwise my mother will forever be their slave.’
Vishnu promises him that he can give him an idea by which he will not have to give the nectar to the Nagas and at the same time save his mother. Garuda hears Vishnu out, and promises him that he will follow the lord’s orders.
On his return to Earth, Garuda places the jug of nectar in a meadow, shows it to his half-brothers, and secures the freedom of Vinata. Then he tells them to perform their religious ablutions before having the nectar, offering to watch over it as they do so.
While the snakes go away, leaving Vinata and Garuda alone, Vishnu sends Indra to whisk the jar away back to Heaven. And by the time the snakes return, they find that the nectar of immortality is gone.
In their desperation to taste the nectar, they crawl all over the meadow and lick the blades of grass, which still carry the fragrance of the elixir but none of its taste. The sharp blades cut into their tongues and split them into two.
That is how snakes came to have forked tongues, and that is how eagles and kites came to be sworn enemies of snakes.
With his mother freed and his duties complete, Garuda presents himself in front of Lord Vishnu, who, as promised, made him immortal.
And also employed him as his steed.
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