Welcome to yet another post containing stories from the Mahabharata.
Some of these I’ve heard from my grandmother. Some I’ve read. Some I’ve met in passing during conversations with people.
If you go to my Mahabharata Stories resource page, you will find all my collected stories from Mahabharata, neatly classified by Parva. (200+ stories and counting!)
Table of Contents
- The Birth of Satyavati
- The Unused Weapon: Pashupatastra
- Demolition of Arjuna’s Vanity
- The Birth of Jamadagni
- The Birth and Death of Jarasandha
- The Blinding of Shukracharya
- Anasuya, the Mother of the Trinity
- The Three Myths of Ganesha
- Kartikeya, the Forgotten Brother
- The Ever-giving Myth
- The Non-human Races: Kinnaras and Kimpurushas
- More Non-human Races: Yakshas and Gandharvas
- Divine Musician: Tumbura
- The Yaksha Prashna
- The Unlikely Hero: Yudhisthir
- The Sacrifices: Ashwamedha and Rajasuya
- Maya the Gifted Architect
- The Seven Chiranjeevis
- Nala Damayanti
- Kali, the Arch Enemy of Vishnu
- The Apsaras: Rambha, Urvashi, Menaka, Tilottama
- Further Reading
The Birth of Satyavati
Most people know Satyavati, the second wife of King Shantanu, as the daughter of a fisherman. But her real father is a king by name Uparichara.
One day, when he is away on an expedition to hunt deer, he finds himself consumed by desire for his wife, Girika, whom he has left behind at the palace.
He produces his seed and gives it to a passing hawk to carry to his wife so that she could impregnate herself.
The hawk, on its way to the palace, gets into a fight with another hawk, and in the process, drops the king’s seed into the Yamuna, where it is swallowed by a fish.
(Suggested: How did Bhishma Get His Name?)
Now this fish is really an Apsara called Adrika, who has been transformed by a sage’s curse. When she swallows Uparichara’s seed, she becomes pregnant, and in due course, the spirit of Adrika leaves the animal.
While the fish is heavily pregnant, some of the king’s fishermen catch it and bring it into the royal kitchen. They cut it open for Uparichara’s feast, only to find that a boy and a girl come out of it.
The king keeps the boy at his court, but gives the girl away to the fishermen to foster in their settlement. Since she came out of a fish, the girl carries the foul odour on her person, and she is given the name Matsyagandhi.
In due course, after she arrives at the court of Hastinapur as queen, they call her Satyavati.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 2: Satyavati Marries Shantanu.)
The Unused Weapon: Pashupatastra
The Pashupatastra is often described as the one weapon that can destroy all of Brahma’s creation if not used by the right warrior against the right enemy.
The story of how Arjuna obtains the weapon is also one in which his arrogance is crushed by Shiva.
During their exile, Arjuna performs some austerities for Lord Shiva in the hope of pleasing him, when a demon called Noorkasura dons the shape of a wild boar and charges at him.
Arjuna awakens from his trance, and finds just enough time to reach for his bow and shoot one arrow at the advancing beast.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 13: Exile of Arjuna.)
But when the animal falls to the ground, sticking out of his side are two arrows, one his, lined with white feathers of a dove, and the other a strange, crude, blunt shaft.
Arjuna springs to his feet and runs across the barren land to claim his kill, but at the same time a hunter leaps out of the bushes, and reaches the carcass of the boar before he does, pinning it down with his blackened foot.
‘This is mine,’ says the stranger. ‘You have encroached upon my neck of the woods. All the beasts that come into this area have to fall by my arrows.’
Arjuna smirks at the arrogance of the hunter. ‘I am the son of Indra. I am your king, your protector, and you speak to me thus.’
‘I can tell that you are the son of Indra,’ says the hunter. ‘Your eyes carry the same unearned pride that I have seen in his.’
Words flow from one to the other and back. Tired by the unending volley, Arjuna steps up and challenges the hunter for a duel.
(Suggested: How did Arjuna get the Gandiva?)
The hunter stands tall, hands on hips, and says, ‘Let us see how good your aim is, prince of Hastinapur.’
Arjuna strings and arrow, takes aim, and lets it fly. It whizzes past the hunter and strikes the trunk of a tree. Another arrow, and this one too misses its mark.
In exasperation, Arjuna looks at the Gandiva, then at the hunter, and runs up to his enemy. He leaps into the air to strike the hunter full on the forehead.
But the bow in his hands has changed into a garland of jasmines, and it has left him and fallen around the hunter’s neck.
Now when Arjuna looks up he sees the three sharp tips of a sturdily held trident, and the shiny coat of leopard skin wrapped around the waist.
Realization strikes him, and he falls to his knees. Lord Shiva blesses him, cautions him against conceit, and grants him the Pashupatastra.
(Suggested: How did Arjuna get the Pashupatastra?)
Demolition of Arjuna’s Vanity
In the Mahabharata, leading up to the war, Arjuna is the most Faustian of all Pandavas. He is accepted to be the best among his brothers at everything – skill at arms, diplomacy, beauty, charm; you name it, he has it.
For the Mahabharata war, he is given everything he needs to succeed. Krishna becomes his charioteer. He fights with the flag of Hanuman hoisted on his mast.
He bears the great bow Gandiva on his shoulders, and his quiver brims with immense weapons.
But after the war has been won, the other side of his pact with the devil comes into play.
As Krishna and Arjuna walk away from the chariot on the last day, the horses and weapons burst into flames.
(Suggested: Why was Arjuna Invincible?)
As Arjuna looks on in horror, Krishna explains that but for his magic, the chariot and all the weapons that it carried would long have been destroyed.
This is when Arjuna realizes that all that had been given to him will be taken away. Agni, the devourer of Khandava, the giver of gifts, now turns his hunger toward Arjuna’s chariot.
One by one, all of the sources of his power are taken away from him, and at the end Krishna deserts him too.
While Faust made the pact with the devil of his own volition, Arjuna was chosen without his knowledge. This is cruel, because every success made him vainer still.
(Suggested: Can Arjuna defeat Karna without Krishna?)
And at the end, he was left a hollow man, clinging to an ineffective Gandiva and an exhausted pair of quivers as symbols of his victory.
At least Faust saw all the gifts that came his way for what they were: one side of a bargain. For Arjuna, they reflected his own abilities, his own valour, his own identity.
As it was with Arjuna, so it is with us. The devil lurks in the shadows. He is invisible. His deals creep up on us without permission, and we sign over our souls without realizing it.
(Suggested: Why was Arjuna Drona’s favourite pupil?)
The Birth of Jamadagni
The birth story of Parashurama’s father, Jamadagni, is an interesting one. Sage Rucheeka, Jamadagni’s father, marries Satyavati, the daughter of King Kusika. (Not to be confused with the Satyavati of Hastinapur.)
When the time arrives for them to have children, Rucheeka begins making preparations for a ceremony that would grant them sons. Satyavati asks her husband to also help her mother, the wife of Kusika, to have sons.
Rucheeka therefore prepares rice pudding in two different vessels, one filled with brahmyam (the brahmanic energies) intended for Satyavati, and the other filled with kshatram (the kshatriya energies) intended for Satyavati’s mother.
He tells them that after their bath, they must hug a fig tree and an Aswatha tree respectively after they consume their rice puddings.
But Satyavati’s mother, assuming that Rucheeka would give his wife the ‘better’ portion, exchanges the vessels. Satyavati thus ends up consuming the seed for a Kshatriya child whereas her mother bears a child with Brahmanic powers.
Rucheeka finds out after the fact that the vessels have been interchanged, but by then it’s too late. Satyavati requests him to somehow reverse the effect, but all Rucheeka can do is postpone the birth of a Kshatriya warrior by a generation.
In due course, Satyavati gives birth to Jamadagni, who later gives birth to the Kshatriya-like Parashurama.
(On the other hand, Satyavati gives birth to Gadhi, who has a Brahmin-like son named Vishwamitra.)
The Birth and Death of Jarasandha
We first meet Jarasandha during the Rajasuya of Yudhishthir, when Bhima – with some help from Krishna – kills him in a wrestling match by tearing open his body and tossing the two pieces in opposite directions so that they cannot join together.
The reason why Jarasandha’s body has this quality is found in the tale of his birth.
His father, Brihadratha, was childless and had two wives, twin sisters who were the daughters of the king of Varanasi.
For want of a child, Brihadratha pleases a sage named Chandakaushika, who, ignorant of the fact that the king has two wives, gives him one fruit that will result in one son.
Brihadratha cuts open the fruit into two, and gives one piece each to his wives. They become pregnant, and a year later give birth to two identical halves of a human body.
(Suggested: How did Bhima kill Jarasandha?)
The figures are so grotesque that the royal family abandons them in the forest.
Now a demon by name Jara chances upon these abandoned pieces of an infant, and as she holds them up in her palms to take a better look, they come together and give rise to a howling child.
Not having the heart to eat a live infant, Jara takes the child to Brihadratha and tells him what happened.
Brihadratha takes his son back with great joy, and when the occasion comes for his naming, he names him Jarasandha, which means ‘joined by Jara’.
(Suggested: Why did Krishna not kill Jarasandha?)
The Blinding of Shukracharya
Bali, the emperor of the Asuras, once becomes so powerful that he is able to conquer all the three worlds and drive the gods away from heaven.
To celebrate his victory over all of creation, the emperor calls for a feast in which he gives away alms to the poor.
Shukracharya the preceptor is right by Bali’s side, guiding him through the rites.
The Gods go to Vishnu for help, and in a bid to bring back what had been taken from them, Vishnu dons the shape of Vaman, the boy Brahmin, and arrives at Bali’s hermitage.
Upon his arrival, the hall falls silent, and Shukracharya immediately divines that this is no ordinary boy. He leans toward Bali and whispers that he must not yield to the boy’s words.
To this Bali replies, ‘If the Lord himself has come to ask me for something, how can I say no?’
Vaman walks up to the pulpit, where ghee is being poured off deep wooden spoons into the fire. He comes up to the king and asks if he could be granted three wishes.
‘Any number of wishes for you, my lord,’ says Bali.
‘Three is all I ask, O king.’
Bali joins his hands and bows.
‘Three feet of land is all I ask, Your Majesty. I am but a Brahmin. What need have I for treasures and gold?’
Shukracharya whispers softly to Bali that he must not accede. But Bali gets up to his feet and readies the vessel of holy water. The preceptor shrinks himself down to the size of a gnat so that he could block the spout of the kettle.
Then Vaman pokes at the spout with a blade of grass to unblock it, and blinds Shukracharya in one eye.
After the alms have been given, Vaman swells up to become a giant. With one foot he measures all of Earth and the underworld. With his second foot he measures out all of heaven. Then he asks Bali, ‘Where shall I place my third foot?’
To which Bali, realizing that he has been outwitted, says, ‘Here, Lord Vishnu, on my head.’
Anasuya, the Mother of the Trinity
Anasuya, often called ‘Sati Anasuya’, was the wife of Atri, one of the Seven Great Sages.
Together, they lived in a hermitage near the Southern border of the forest of Chitrakoota, where Rama, Sita and Lakshmana arrive while on exile in the Ramayana.
One tale illustrating Anasuya’s qualities as a chaste wife is mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana, when Sage Narada praises Anasuya in hymns and verses, sending Lakshmi, Parvati and Saraswati into a fit of envy.
‘Who is this Anasuya?’ they ask one another. ‘Can this Anasuya be a more suitable wife than us, the wives of the Holy Trinity?’
They request their husbands to test Anasuya’s chastity, in response to which the three gods descend to Atri’s hermitage in his absence and asks her to serve them food in the nude.
Anasuya smiles her agreement, but first sprinkles holy water on the three of them to convert them into children. It is said in some versions that Anasuya then proceeds to feed them milk off her own breasts.
When Atri returns to the cottage, the three children merge into a single being with two legs, one trunk, three heads and six hands. The boy comes to be known as Dattatreya, worshipped around India as an avatar of the trinity.
The Three Myths of Ganesha
Ganesha is, after Krishna, perhaps the most popular God of the Hindu pantheon. Of the myths that surround him, the three most important concern the followingH:
- His birth and parenthood
- His elephant head
- His single tusk
We will cover each of them in turn.
Birth and childhood
Ganesha is widely considered the son of Shiva and Parvati, and the brother of Kartikeya. The order of their birth is a contentious issue; in North India they consider Kartikeya to be the older brother, while in the South, the order is reversed.
In the most popular of legends that depict a friendly rivalr between the brothers, there is a competition between the two as to who would circle the world faster.
While Kartikeya sets out on his peacock immediately after the challenge is set, Ganesha simply walks around his parents because Shiva and Parvati are the embodiments of the world.
In most such myths of competition that survive today, it is always Ganesha who emerges the victor.
The elephant head
In the Shiva Purana, it is said that once, builds an idol of a boy from turmeric paste and breathes life into it. She named him Vinayaka, and placed him as a guard to her house.
When Shiva tries to enter, Vinayaka drives him away. Furious at being denied entrance into his own house, Shiva orders his army to kill the child, but Vinayaka fights the whole army single-handed and sends them scurrying back to their master.
Snatching his trident, then, Shiva marches into battle with the impudent boy and beheads him.
This angers Parvati so much that she resolves to destroy the world. This is when Brahma intervenes and brokers peace between the couple.
Shiva, his rage assuaged by this time, agrees and places onto Vinayaka’s body the head of an elephant.
He accepts him as his own son and appoints him the head of his Ganas. Thus Vinayaka comes to be known as Ganesha.
The broken tusk
Ganesha is depicted in all modern art with one broken tusk. One explanation for the broken tusk is given in the Mahabharata.
When Vyasa sits down to dictate the story of the Great War to Ganesha, the latter breaks off one tusk and uses it as a carver on the parchment.
Another story told in this respect is that when Parashurama once goes to visit Shiva and is stopped by Ganesha at the gate, a fight ensues between the Brahmin and the elephant-god.
In the tussle, Parashurama hurls his battle axe at Ganesha. Since Ganesha knows that the axe had been gifted to the sage by Shiva, he bears it on his tusk as a mark of respect for his father. This causes the tusk to break and fall to the ground.
Kartikeya, the Forgotten Brother
Though not as popular as Ganesha in modern popular culture, Kartikeya is an important god in the Hindu pantheon, and he bears the title of ‘Deva Senapati’, or ‘the General of the gods’.
In the Mahabharata, he is described as being the son of Agni and Svaha, and the reason for his birth is to destroy a buffalo demon by name Mahishasura.
It is in the Shiva Purana that Kartikeya takes birth as the son of Siva and Parvati. The Devas are then under onslaught by an Asura called Soorapadam, who has a boon that he can be killed by only Lord Shiva or his seed.
The gods run to Lord Shiva for help, and in order to vanquish the enemy, Shiva opens his third eye, whence six sparks come out.
Agni, the god of fire, takes these six sparks to Saravana Lake where, on the petals of a lotus, Kartikeya takes birth with six heads.
Shiva and Parvati give him over for fostering with the six Krittika sisters, who bring him up to be a handsome, intelligent and powerful man.
It is with this association with the Krittikas that he gains the name of Kartikeya.
The Ever-giving Myth
In Hindu mythology, a recurring theme is that of an animal, tree or object that gives its owner whatever he or she desires, in unlimited quantities. There are three main manifestations of this.
Also known as the inexhaustible vessel, its specialty is that it will provide a never-ending supply of food for the person who owns it.
In the Mahabharata, when a large number of holy men visit the Pandavas in the forest without notice, Yudhishthir prays to Surya, god of the sun, who presents him with the Akshaya Patra.
This is the tree of life, or the tree of the world. During the churning of the ocean of milk, Kalpavriksha emerges from the primal waters and is taken away by Indra, the king of the gods.
He takes it atop Mount Meru and plants it on one of the highest peaks of the mountain, surrounded by the five paradise gardens.
During the churning of the ocean, along with the Kalpavriksha, Kamadhenu, the divine cow, is also said to have emerged from the depths of chaos.
She is often depicted with the face of a woman and with two full breasts attached to the hind body of a cow with an ever-flowing udder.
Many small myths employ Kamadhenu’s – or her daughter Nandini’s – presence. Sage Vasishtha’s hermitage is often said to be the grazing ground of Nandini, and it is from here that the Vasus steal her at the very beginning of the Mahabharata.
In other, later myths, the Kshirasagara (‘ocean of milk’) is described as the result of the ever-flowing udder of Kamadhenu. So instead of the ocean giving birth to her, it is she who gives birth to the ocean.
Uttanka is the sage who instructs King Janamejaya to perform the snake sacrifice because Takshaka, king of the Nagas has killed Parikshit, Janamejaya’s father. It is at this sacrifice that the tale of the Mahabharata is narrated to the king.
However, as a younger man, Uttanka serves Sage Gautama, and when the time comes to give his dakshina, Ahalya, the wife of Gautama, tells Uttanka that she wants to wear the divine earrings of Madayanti, the wife of King Saudasa.
Uttanka first visits Saudasa, obtains from him a token to be taken to Madayanti, and approaches the queen for her earrings.
The queen parts with them readily, but warns Uttanka that the jewels are coveted by Nagas, Yakshas, Asuras and the gods. ‘Do not let the earrings touch the ground,’ she advises him, ‘for otherwise the snakes will steal them from you.’
On his way home, Uttanka ties the earrings into a deerskin and ties the bundle to a branch. But the deerskin comes undone and the earrings drop to the ground.
A snake immediately wriggles out of a nearby anthill and drags the earrings away.
Though he manages to retrieve the earrings with the help of Indra and Agni, Uttanka is consumed hereafter with a deep hatred for the Nagas. It is to feed this rage that he recommends the snake-sacrifice to Janamejaya.
King Saudasa, the king we encountered in the previous story, is also known by the name of Kalmashapada.
While hunting in the forest, Kalmashapada once kills an Asura disguised as a tiger cub. The Asura’s brother then vows revenge on the king, promising that he would avenge the death of his brother at the proper time.
Later, when Kalmashapada invites Sage Vasishtha for the Ashwamedha Sacrifice, the Asura disguises himself as the sage and tells Kalmashapada that he would like to be served meat during the ceremony.
Fooled by the deception, Kalmashapada offers the real Vasishtha meat on the day of the ceremony, and promptly earns for himself a curse to become a wandering cannibal.
Out of hatred for Vasishtha and his sons, in his garb as an Asura, Kalmashapada kills and eats all the ninety-nine sons of Vasishtha.
After twelve years of life as a cannibal, Kalmashapada is freed from he curse by Vasishtha. Once he is back in Ayodhya, Kalmashapada tells the sage that he is unable to make love to Madayanti, his wife.
He requests Vasishtha to father his child, to which the sage agrees.
It is said that Madayanti carries Vasishtha’s son for a full twelve-year period, at the end of which she hits her womb with a stone and her son is born. Because the son is born with the aid of a stone (an Ashman), he is named Ashmaka.
In the Mahabharata, the story of Ashtavakra is told in the Vana Parva. He is the son of Kahola and Sujata, disciple and daughter respectively of Sage Uddalaka.
When Sujata becomes pregnant, she makes a habit of attending the Vedic discourses in which her husband and father participate.
As her stomach grows in size, the embryo becomes more and more able to grasp the words that are being spoken, and near the seventh month or so, begins to correct the inaccuracies in verses uttered by Kahola.
This happens on eight separate occasions, which results in Kahola cursing his own son with eight deformities in the body.
Thus is born Ashtavakra, with deformities in feet, knees, hands, the chest and the head. Around the time of his birth, Kahola goes to Janaka’s palace and loses a debate with the palace sage named Vandin.
As punishment for the loss, Kahola is put to death by immersion in a lake.
When he is twelve, Ashtavakra comes to know from Sujata and Uddalaka about his real parentage, and resolves to defeat Vandin at Janaka’s court. After a long and protracted debate, Vandin gets defeated and is thrown into the water himself.
But Vandin reveals that he is the incarnation of Varuna, the god of water, and frees all the other sages that have been immersed due to defeat in past debates.
Then, on Kahola’s suggestion, Ashtavakra takes a dip in the river Samanga, which straightens all his crooked limbs and organs.
Nahusha is a just and wise king of an unnamed city on Earth whose life changes when one day, he receives a call from the gods.
It so happens that Indra has gone into hiding for some reason and the gods want Nahusha to stand in and assume the title of the king of Amaravati.
A bemused Nahusha says yes, and for a while rules wisely. But the pride of the position gets to him by and by, and before long he turns into a tyrant.
Things come to a head when Nahusha desires Shachi, the wife of Indra. Shachi has no intention of sleeping with a pretender, but neither can she disobey the command of the king of gods.
So with a secret plot to foil his vanity, she wards him off by telling him that she will become his only if he can arrive at her palace in a palanquin borne by all the great sages of Meru.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 21: Nahusha the Serpent.)
Nahusha laughs at the utter simplicity of Shachi’s condition, oblivious to the fact that the sages are together more powerful than the gods themselves.
During the palanquin ride, drunk with pride, Nahusha kicks Agastya in the back and goads him to carry him faster. The sage, in anger, curses him with the words: ‘Fall, you serpent!’
The sages carry Nahusha to the edge of heaven in his palanquin and toss him onto Earth head first. He hits the ground as a serpent, and slinks away into the forest to atone for his sins.
The sages tell him that he will regain his form only when he gains the knowledge of how a king ought to behave.
During the time of the Mahabharata, when the Pandavas come to the forest on exile, Nahusha traps Bhima in a death grip. Yudhishthir engages the serpent in a conversation about ethics and kingly behaviour.
This is a story of the ambition of two men.
Trishanku, who was born King Satyavrata into the Solar Dynasty, is filled with the desire of ascending to heaven in his mortal form.
He approaches Vasishtha with his request first, and the sage rejects him. ‘Spend the rest of your life doing good, O King,’ says Vasishtha, ‘for that is the only way to reach heaven.’
However, Satyavrata does not accept this answer, and tries to induce Shakti, Vasishtha’s son, into performing this task for him. When Vasishtha comes to know of this, he curses Satyavrata with the appearance of a chandala.
Satyavrata changes his name to Trishanku.
Around this time, Vishwamitra, a king who had been slighted by Vasishtha, has just been conferred the title of Rajarshi. His great ambition, though, is to become a Brahmarshi and be respected on equal terms as Vasishtha.
When Trishanku approaches Vishwamitra, therefore, the sage agrees to send him to heaven in his mortal body. ‘If I perform a feat that sage Vasishtha did not,’ he thinks, ‘I will be thought of as greater than he.’
So a sacrificial fire is built, a hermitage is elected for the ritual. Vishwamitra presides over all offerings and prayers, and with his yogic powers, lifts Trishanku off the ground into the sky, sending him hurtling toward the stars.
But when the king reaches the gates of heaven the gatekeepers seize him by the legs and throw him back down to Earth. During his head-first descent, Trishanku prays to Vishwamitra for help.
In his anger, Vishwamitra says, ‘If the Gods will not allow you into their heaven, Trishanku, I shall build a heaven for you right where you are.’
He extends his arm to stall the fall of the king, and around him spring up – by the power of the sage – a whole constellation of stars and other heavenly bodies.
The gods of heaven, then, approach Vishwamitra and convince him to reduce the powers of Trishanku so that his rule will still be superseded by that of Indra.
Vishwamitra agrees, and ever since then, Trishanku has been ruling his heaven, even though he is yet to be granted passage into the real abode of the Gods.
The Non-human Races: Kinnaras and Kimpurushas
Some earth-bound races in the Mahabharata are described as half-human, half-animal. Of these, kinnaras and kimpurushas are often invoked.
The names of both races are designed as questions (kin-nara, kim-purusha) which mean: Is it human?
Male kinnaras are said to be half-horse, like the Greek centaurs. In the Mahabharata, their characters are described as loving and given to pleasure.
They often appear in pairs, one kinnara with one kinnari, and they see themselves as eternal, monogamous lovers. They have no children, and they permit no third creature to disrupt their pairing.
The Kinnari is often described as half woman, half-bird, renowned for her dance, song and poetry. The Kinnari is thought to be a traditional symbol for feminine beauty, grace and accomplishment.
The Kimpurushas are more violent beings. They have kingdoms, and there is history of conflict between them and the Kshatriyas. They are described as half-men, half-lions in the Mahabharata.
Though the exact locations of these races and their kingdoms are little known, references in the Mahabharata suggest that they have lived beyond the ‘White Mountains’, which could mean the present-day Himalayas.
More Non-human Races: Yakshas and Gandharvas
Among other non-human races that make constant guest appearances are Yakshas and Gandharvas.
The most famous Yaksha in the Mahabharata is the one who appears as a guardian of a lake in the forest where the Pandavas rest during their exile.
He asks Yudhishthir a bunch of questions that have come to be known as ‘Yaksha-prashna’ – or ‘the Yaksha’s questions’.
The Yakshas are typically thought to be benevolent nature-spirits, caring for trees, rivers, lakes and such. They live in roots and hollows. Many of them have a dual nature: one on hand they are benign and generous, but on the other they can be cruel.
The female of the species – called Yakshinis – are portrayed as beautiful young women with full breasts and hips.
The Gandharvas are also nature spirits, but they are elevated to the status of semi-divine beings. They’re said to be the guardians of the divine nectar of the gods. They’re the husbands of Apsaras, and possess exceptional musical talents.
In a lot of art and sculpture, Gandharvas are shown in the middle of a recital in the court of Indra, while an Apsara dances to their tunes and song.
Their form of marriage is not composed of the rituals and rites of a Hindu marriage.
Many human characters in the Mahabharata (e.g. Shakuntala and Dushyanta) marry their spouses according to the Gandharva code, which is consummated by mutual consent in the absence of witnesses.
Divine Musician: Tumbura
A horse’s head on a human’s body. Wooden cymbals in one hand and the veena in the other. Rocks melt when he sings. Time pauses. When his song is accompanied by the dance of Rambha or Urvasi, it is a sensual experience fit for the Gods.
His name is Tumbura.
He is described as one of the four Gandharva sons of Kashyapa and his wife Pradha. His three brothers are Bahu, Haha and Huhu, who are all pleasant of speech.
In some accounts, Tumbura is said to be the disciple of Narada. In one story, Tumbura surpasses Narada in singing prowess and gains favour from Lord Vishnu. This spurs Narada into a fit of anger.
After training under an owl called Ganabandhu, Narada sets out to vanquish his former student in a war of music, but on arriving at Tumbura’s house, he sees all the Ragas and Raginis in human form on the porch.
The notes are all in pain from visible scars and wounds, and Tumbura walks among them, a pot of healing herbs in hand.
Narada realizes then that his ill-feeling had caused all the hurt, and in humiliation leaves from there to learn singing once again in earnest.
The Mahabharata depicts Tumbura as a minor character. He is said to have attended Arjuna’s birth celebrations, and he is also present when an adult Arjuna visits heaven during his exile.
He is among those present at Yudhishthir’s Ashwamedha, and is in general shown as a Pandava sympathizer.
The Yaksha Prashna
On the last day of their exile, the Pandavas, one by one, leave for a drink of water from a nearby lake and don’t return.
Yudhishthir is the last to follow his brothers, and upon arriving at the bank of the lake, he sees a talking crane perched in the soft mud, and all around it are the corpses of the other Pandavas.
When Yudhishthir asks why they have been killed, the crane replies that they had tried to drink from the lake without first answering its questions.
Yudhishthir understands at once that this is no ordinary crane. He bows to it and says, ‘Please ask me your questions. I shall answer them to the best of my ability.’
(Suggested: Was Yudhishthir wise or foolish?)
Thus begins a dialogue between the Yaksha and the eldest Pandava. The Yaksha asks questions that pertain to a vast array of human knowledge: spirituality, ethics, polity and philosophy. And Yudhishthir answers them all.
For instance, the Yaksha asks, ‘What is heavier than the Earth, higher than the heavens, faster than the wind, and more numerous than straws?’
Yudhishthir answers, ‘One’s mother is heavier than the Earth, one’s father is higher than the heavens, the mind is faster than the wind, and one’s worries are more numerous than straws.’
‘What, if renounced, makes one lovable?’
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 27: The Yaksha Prashna.)
‘What, if renounced, makes one wealthy?’
‘What is the invincible enemy?’
‘What disease is incurable?’
(Suggested: What did Yama do for Yudhishthir?)
And so on. The most profound answer, perhaps, occurs at the very end, when the Yaksha asks what the greatest wonder of life is. And Yudhishthir says:
‘Death is the universal truth of life. Day after day countless beings die. But living things live as though they will live forever. What can be more wondrous than this?’
After the dialogue is finished and the Pandavas are brought back alive, the Yaksha reveals himself as an incarnation of Yama, the god of justice.
The Yaksha Prashna is designed as a narrative device in which we get to see the change that has come over Yudhishthir during the exile years.
While Arjuna and Bhima win battles of skill and brawn, Yudhishthir’s growth as a character occurs in his wisdom.
(Suggested: Was Yudhishthir jealous of Arjuna?)
The Unlikely Hero: Yudhisthir
The Mahabharata is one of those stories that do not follow the conventional ‘hero’s journey’ structure. It is easy to say who the hero is of the Ramayana. The word ‘Ramayana’ means ‘Rama’s journey’.
There is no such hint given out in the Mahabharata. There is story after story after story, and each one seems to stand on its own. Many choices offer themselves for the title of ‘hero’. Is it Bhishma? Arjuna? Bhima? Draupadi? Kunti?
Or is it the all-knowing all-seeing one, Krishna?
Cogent arguments can be made for each one of them, but in his The Book of Yudhishthir writer Buddhadev Bose casts a vote for a rather unlikely candidate: Yudhishthir.
(Suggested: How did Yudhishthir become emperor?)
The main thrust of the argument is that the story of the Mahabharata is actually a story of Yudhishthir’s journey. When it begins, he is a reluctant king, almost derisive of the throne that he has not won but has been gifted by virtue of his status as the eldest brother.
During the exile, the characters of Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula, Sahadeva and Draupadi seem to be cast in stone. In fact, none of these people seem to undergo any drastic change during this period.
But Yudhishthir, the student of life, the spiritualist, starts on his journey here. He listens to the sages in the forest. He learns more of the deep answers to life.
At the end of the twelve-year exile, he sits his first test with the Yaksha on the bank of the lake, and passes it with flying colours. Throughout the story, questions of morality and ethics are asked of him, and he answers them all.
(Suggested: How did Yudhishthir die?)
His final test comes after the war is finished, when the five brothers and Draupadi ascend the mountain of Meru. Of all the other, more celebrated people, it is Yudhishthir who makes it to the top alive.
Awaiting him on the tip of the Meru is another test, where the gods give him a choice of being in heaven all alone or being in hell with his brothers and wife.
It is possible, therefore, to see the Mahabharata as a story in which Yudhishthir, a person who is blessed with no heroism or valour, finds inner strength and the spiritual answers to life’s biggest questions.
From this vantage point, it is not a story of war or of victory or of the end of the epoch, but the tale of one man’s need to find himself.
(Suggested: Why did Yudhishthir go to hell?)
The Sacrifices: Ashwamedha and Rajasuya
There is often some confusion among modern readers as to whether the Ashwamedha and the Rajasuya are different rituals or if they’re interchangeable terms to describe essentially the same ceremony.
First, the similarities:
- Both sacrifices are performed by the king or royal family.
- Both ceremonies are conducted in order for the king to expand his empire.
However, the main difference lies in the ‘how’. During the Ashwamedha, a white stallion that is older than 24 years is let loose at the edge of the kingdom. A hundred princes and noblemen accompany the horse wherever it goes.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 15: The Rajasuya.)
In case it wanders into hostile territory, the enemy must be subjugated and the region should be annexed to the kingdom.
The horse is let free for a period of one year, and during this year, back in the royal palace, a host of uninterrupted rituals are carried out by the reigning king.
The Rajasuya is a more planned affair. While the Ashwamedha relies on the horse’s choice over a year, the Rajasuya involves an elaborate military campaign.
Generals appointed by the king are sent out to extract tribute from kingdoms near and far.
Those who pay the tribute are considered allies, whereas those who refuse the offer of friendship must fight the king’s army.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 57: Arjuna Fights Babruvahana.)
The Rajasuya is performed after the Generals have returned, and after the reigning king is accepted to be the most powerful man in the land.
Of the two, the Rajasuya is rarer, and demands more effort, planning and resources. While the Ashwamedha is bound by time (one year) and relies on the whims of a horse, the Rajasuya has to be a more strategic affair.
Only a small number of kings through history, therefore, have performed the Rajasuya, whereas the Ashwamedha is more common.
Maya the Gifted Architect
Mayasura is a king of the race of demons (Asura, Rakshasa and Daitya). His great ability is the art of architecture. It is said that he once ruled over a kingdom called Mayarashtra.
A master of illusion and a magician with materials, Maya makes an appearance in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
In the former, he is introduced as the father of Mandodari, the wife of Ravana. He is said to be one of the many sons of Diti and Kashyapa, and he may have had more than a passing hand in the construction of Lanka.
His role in the Mahabharata is less connected to the main events but no less important.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 14: Massacre at Khandava.)
After the destruction of the Khandava forest, in which Krishna and Arjuna protect the life of Maya, the architect is employed to build for Yudhishthir a great hall in the city of Indraprastha.
In another story told in the Shiva Purana, Maya is described as the builder of Tripura – which means ‘three cities’. The first exists on earth, built with iron walls.
The second hangs in the sky, with walls built of silver, while the third is located in heaven, fortified by walls of gold.
The demons get a boon from Brahma that all three cities must be destroyed by a single arrow, safe in the knowledge that such a powerful arrow could only be shot by Shiva, their chief patron god.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 17: The Game of Dice.)
Also, Maya builds Tripura in such a manner that the three cities never fall into a single line, save for a few moments in a thousand years, when the star ‘Pushya’ comes into conjunction with the moon.
After the construction of Tripura, demons from all around the three worlds come to the city and begin to live there. Over a period of time, they begin to threaten the gods.
Then, to restore order, Shiva enters the fray and shoots an arrow at the right moment that reduces Tripura to dust.
It is said that Meru itself becomes the bow, Adisesha the string and Vishnu the arrow. Agni sits on the tip of the shaft, while Vayu gives wing to its feathers.
This act of annihilating the city of Tripura gives Shiva the title of Tripurantaka (‘the ender of Tripura’).
The Seven Chiranjeevis
The chiranjeevis are immortal beings in Indian mythology that are believed to remain alive on Earth until the end of Kali Yuga.
There are seven chiranjeevis in all.
1. Ashwatthama, son of Drona. A great warrior and the son of a sage. He is considered to be a Maharathi in his skill with weapons, but also a scholar and a wise man.
Immortality comes his way as a curse for his attempt to destroy the fetus in Uttara’s womb at the end of the Mahabharata war.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 54: Ashwatthama Rages.)
2. Bali, the demon king. After facing defeat in the hands of the boy Brahmin Vaman, Bali, the king of the demons is granted the gift of immortality.
3. Hanuman, the loyal vanara. Hanuman is the aide that helps Rama recover Sita from the clutches of Ravana. After the events of the Ramayana, Hanuman is thought to have retreated into the mountains to lose himself in prayer.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 22: Adventures of Bhima.)
4. Kripacharya, the teacher of the Kuru princes. Before the arrival of Drona, Kripa is assigned the task of training the Kuru princes.
He is one of the survivors of the Mahabharata war, and afterwards he is appointed as a preceptor to Parikshit, Arjuna’s grandson and the father of Janamejaya.
5. Parashurama, the sixth avatar of Vishnu. This is probably the only immortal avatar of Vishnu. Though milked dry of all his powers by now, Parashurama is expected to return at the end of the epoch and guide Kalki in his efforts to save mankind.
6. Vibhishana, brother of Rama. After the Ramayana war is won (or lost, depending on how you look at it), Vibhishana is crowned the king of Lanka by Rama, and is given a boon that he shall be alive on Earth until the end of the Mahayuga.
7. Vyasa. He is the sage who composed the Mahabharata. He is said to have taken birth in the Tretayuga, lived to see the end of Dwapara, and will not meet his death until the end of Kali.
Damayanti is a princess of the Vidarbha kingdom, who marries king Nala of the Nishadas long before the events of the Mahabharata.
She is said to have at one time been the most beautiful princess in the world, so much so that even the four gods Indra, Agni, Varuna and Yama wanted to wed her.
But Damayanti had already fallen in love with Nala. At her groom-choosing the four gods assume the shape of Nala and stand by the real king as a challenge to Damayanti. The princess picks out the real Nala by noticing his imperfections.
Damayanti and Nala marry and have two children. Kali, the demon of evil, enters Nala’s house and ensures that the king loses his kingdom in a game of dice with his brother, Pushkara.
After they leave for the forest, Nala abandons Damayanti out of fear that the ill luck that had caught hold of him would possess his wife as well.
He travels on to the city of the Nagas, and rescues king Karkotaka from a fire. In return, the snake bites him and turns him into an unrecognizable dwarf called Bahuka.
When Nala asks him why he was being punished, Karkotaka tells him that the venom will drive out Kali from his body, but only at the right time.
Meanwhile, Damayanti takes refuge in the palace of the princess of Chedi. She spends a few years here before she is discovered and sent back to her father’s house in Vidarbha.
After a long and fruitless search for Nala, Damayanti announces another groom-choosing ceremony for herself, thinking that it would draw Nala out of hiding.
Nala, in the form of Bahuka, becomes the charioteer of King Rituparna, who arrives at Damayanti’s groom-choosing. On their way to Vidarbha, the king and charioteer play dice.
On one of the occasions when Nala is being taught how to control the fall of dice, the venom from Karkotaka takes effect and forces Nala to vomit Kali out of his body.
At the groom-choosing, Nala regains his true form and Damayanti claims him once more as her husband. He uses the knowledge of gambling that he has gained from Rituparna to win back everything he has lost.
An interesting aside to this tale is that during their courtship, Nala sends messages of love to Damayanti through a golden swan. Damayanti falls in love with Nala without ever having met him.
Even today, messengers that carry back and forth letters of endearment between lovers are called ‘hamsa raayabaaris’ or ‘swan-messengers’.
Kali, the Arch Enemy of Vishnu
The ten avatars of Vishnu are said to occur because the god is intent on banishing evil (or Adharma) from the world of men. In each of his avatars, he grapples with one or the other form of evil.
In the final avatar, that of Kalki, he comes face to face at last with Kali, the reigning lord of Kali Yuga, who had been the string-puller of adharma in all the other epochs as well.
In the Mahabharata, Kali in its naked form is mentioned in the tale of Nala and Damayanti, and he is described as being incarnated as Duryodhana.
His companion, Dwapara, takes birth as Shakuni, and together they lock themselves in a battle with Vishnu’s incarnation in that age, Krishna.
At the onset of Kali Yuga, after the dust of the Mahabharata war has just settled, Kali influences King Parikshit’s mind to attract a curse from Sage Shamika.
Accordingly Takshaka, the king of the Nagas, enters Parikshit’s chamber hidden inside an apple to kill him.
Some say that the birth of Kali happened during the churning of the ocean. A great poison known as halahala floated up to the surface. A small portion of it was given to Shiva to drink, who held it in his throat.
Vayu, the god of wind, rubbed some of it in his hands to reduce its potency. There was still a little of it left, though, and this became the Kali.
From this very poison did emerge all ‘cruel objects such as snakes, wolves and tigers.’
The final battle between Vishnu and Kali is predicted to happen toward the end of the Kali Yuga. It has been foreordained that Vishnu will win this battle, but the victory is only going to be temporary.
Evil, they say, can never be killed, only stymied. Its battle against ‘good’ is ongoing and everlasting.
The Apsaras: Rambha, Urvashi, Menaka, Tilottama
In the Mahabharata, the Apsaras are one of the ‘other races’ who are divine dancers in the court of Indra.
They are wives of Gandharvas, and are often depicted as nubile young women who perform tasks of seduction on human beings upon orders from one of the gods.
There are four main apsaras that make frequent appearances in various myths. We will look at each of them in turn.
Perhaps the best-known of all the apsaras, very little is known of the life of Rambha. She is unrivalled in the arts of dancing, music and lovemaking.
When she tries to distract Vishwamitra from his penance during his quest to become the Brahmarshi, he curses her to become a stone.
In the Ramayana, Ravana violates Rambha and earns a curse from Brahma that if he ever takes another woman against her will, his head would explode. This protects Sita’s chastity during her stay in the Ashokavana.
Urvashi is considered the most beautiful of the Apsaras, though the rest of them would disagree.
Her birth is said to have happened when the twin sages Nara-narayana clapped their thighs in anger in response to Indra’s sending down of Menaka and Rambha to foil their prayers.
They named her ‘Urvashi’ (born of the thigh) and gifted her to Indra after the incident. Urvashi is best known in a legend of love with King Pururava, with whom she has a son named Ayu.
Urvashi is cursed to bear Pururava his child, but also to leave them once their son is born.
Menaka’s story is most closely entwined with that of the mainstream Mahabharata. She is sent by Indra to Vishwamitra to break the severe penances he is undertaking in a bid to become a Brahmarshi.
Menaka succeeds in seducing the sage, and they have a daughter together, whom they name Shakuntala.
The girl grows up in the hermitage of Sage Kanva, and later marries Dushyanta and gives birth to Bharata.
When Vishwamitra realizes his folly, he sends Menaka away and requests her never to meet him again.
The Mahabharata describes Tilottama as being created by the divine architect, Vishwakarma.
In the Adi Parva, Narada tells the Pandavas the story of Sunda and Upasunda, inseparable brothers who show signs of power strong enough to challenge the gods.
They have a boon that they would be indestructible by all enemies save for each other. Brahma then orders Vishwakarma to create a beautiful woman who incites envy between the two brothers to the point that they kill one another.
Narada gives this tale as an example that Draupadi could indeed become a reason for quarrel among the Pandavas. He urges them to adopt a system whereby they could ‘share’ her amicably.
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