In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes. This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.
(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 19: The Pandavas in Exile. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
Here’s what we will cover in this episode:
- Quarrel with a Hunter
- The Pashupatastra
- Other Gifts
- Dancing with Chitrasena
- The Curse of Urvasi
- The Nivatakavachas
- Display of Weapons
- Departure from Kailasa
- Further Reading
Quarrel with a Hunter
Arjuna worships Shiva over four months of severe penance. In the first month, he eats only fruits, once every three nights. In the second month, he eats a meal once every six nights.
He spends the third month eating only once a fortnight, and by the fourth month, he is subsisting on air alone.
The sages and gods of the Earth become worried at this. They go to Shiva and persuade him to stop Arjuna. Shiva disguises himself as a hunter, and accompanied by Parvati (who dresses in the garb of a huntress), floats down to the tree in Indrakila under which Arjuna is standing on one foot.
At about the same time, 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 worship to pick up the bow and 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.’
A quarrel erupts between Arjuna and the hunter now.
‘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, 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.’
Arjuna shoots two more arrows with a grunt of impatience, and they also miss their mark. He throws the bow onto his other hand and tries again, still in vain. Frustrated, he 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 Pashupatastra.
‘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.’
Shiva thus first quells Arjuna’s pride before giving him the Pashupatastra. After the god’s departure, some other celestials appear and give Arjuna more gifts.
Four other descend from heaven after the departure of Shiva: Indra, the king of the gods; Yama, the lord of the dead; Varuna, the keeper of the water and the chief of Daityas and Nagas; and Kubera, the treasurer among the celestials.
- Yama first speaks to Arjuna and gives him his mace, along with the required knowledge and technical mastery required to use it in battle.
- Varuna comes next, and presents an array of nooses. ‘During the rescue of Taraka, the wife of Brihaspati,’ he says, ‘thousands of mighty Daityas were seized and tied with these weapons.’
- Kubera blesses Arjuna in his turn, too. ‘Accept from me this weapon called the Antarddhana. It is capable of sending its victim to sleep. This was the weapon that Shiva used during the killing of Tripura.’
- Indra grants Arjuna the gift of divine sight, by which he can see the gods in all of their splendour. ‘You are destined for great deeds, my son,’ he says. ‘Let me invite you onto my chariot, and my charioteer, Matali, will drive us into heaven. Once we are there, I shall give you all my celestial weapons.’
Arjuna then worships all the gods with all the required rites, and ascends to heaven along with Indra, amid the rattle of clouds and the sun’s brilliant rays. He proceeds to live with Indra for a period of five years.
Dancing with Chitrasena
After Arjuna goes to Amaravati with his father Indra, and after he has had a look around the place and taken the celestial weapons that had been promised, he begins to learn dancing and music under 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 in order to become a well-rounded person.
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.
Urvasi gives her consent, and on watching Arjuna from a distance, becomes consumed by love herself, and begins fantasizing of union with him.
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.
‘Welcome to my humble chamber, my lady,’ he says, getting up as she enters. ‘I am but your servant. Please command me as to what to do.’
The Curse of Urvasi
Urvasi is first puzzled by Arjuna’s behaviour, and then frustrated. ‘I have come here not to be waited upon by you, Prince,’ she tells him. ‘I wish you to take me as your lover.
‘Chitrasena has said that you gazed at me in the lord’s court a few days back. And the first time I laid my eyes on you, I lost my heart to you too. Let us not waste time in idle talk, O Pandava. Do not thwart the advances of a woman whose flesh burns for you.’
Arjuna covers his ears as if he has 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 are, so are you to my mind. Please do not taint our relationship. I am sorry I cannot fulfill your desire the way you wish.’
Urvasi tries to convince Arjuna, but when it doesn’t work she places a curse on him.
‘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 spurned as a eunuch.’
Arjuna is first alarmed at this turn of events, but Indra consoles him and says, ‘You will serve this year of Urvasi’s curse during the required time of incognito, hidden deep within the ladies’ chambers of a king. Do not worry. It is as it should be.’
It so happens therefore that later, when the time comes for the Pandavas to live in hiding, they seek out the court of Virata, and Arjuna transforms into a dance-teaching eunuch by name Brihannala.
Arjuna wages two main battles when he is at Amaravati: one with a group of Asuras called Nivatakavachas, and another to free a floating mountain called Hiranyapuri from a group of Rakshasas.
The Nivatakavachas have a boon from Brahma that they cannot be vanquished by any celestial. So Indra grants Arjuna the Vajrayudha and use of his charioteer Matali so that he may kill the Asura group.
The Nivatakavachas are at this point living underneath the ocean and fight from there, hidden out of sight. They are skilled in the art of deception and illusion. They try their bag of tricks on Arjuna, but the third Pandava proves too strong for them – armed as he is by the Vajrayudha and many of Indra’s weapons.
After a long and arduous battle (with plenty of weapons flying back and forth), Arjuna destroys the Nivatakavachas.
On their way back to Amaravati, however, Arjuna and Matali chance upon a mighty mountain floating in mid-air. . Arjuna points to it and asks, ‘What is that wondrous sight, Matali?’
‘That, O Pandava,’ says Matali, ‘is the city of Hiranyapuri. A number of Asuras live there, protected by the boons earned by Pulama and Kalaka, two Daitya women of yore.
‘Their wish was to procure a divine aerial city furnished with gems and gold. They also asked the Grandsire to grant them a boon whereby they are invincible at the hands of gods, Rakshasas and Nagas. That leaves just you, a man, Arjuna, to defeat them.’
Arjuna obliges here too, and after a long battle, with a little help from the Pashupatastra, wins back Hiranyapuri on behalf of Indra.
On his return to Amaravati, he is given a hero’s welcome. ‘You have surpassed all the great warriors of Earth, my son,’ declares Indra. ‘With these weapons at your disposal, there is indeed no one in the world of men that can match you. With you fighting by his side, Yudhishthir will certainly win back his lost kingdom.’
And after giving him a golden garland and a conch named Devadatta, Indra bids him goodbye.
Display of Weapons
By the time Arjuna’s five-year period in Amaravati ends, the other Pandavas and Draupadi have made their way to Kailasa and are living as Kubera’s guests.
Arjuna joins them there and shows Yudhishthir all the weapons he now has in his possession: The celestial armour that Indra had given him. The Vajrayudha. The Pashupatastra. The Brahmastra. The Devadatta. The Gandiva. Everything.
But the portents that appear, surprisingly, are fearsome. The Earth trembles as though scared. The river roars, threatens to swallow its bank. A great wind tugs at the thatched roofs. Thunder and lightning descend upon them from cloudless skies.
All the celestials appear on the scene immediately, and accompanying them are the great sages, the Siddhas, the important Yakshas and the Rakshasas.
From amid the crowd, Narada walks out and addresses Arjuna. ‘Partha,’ he says, ‘you must not make light of the gifts that you have been given. Do not call upon them unless you have a great need to do so.
‘Watch how the mere act of bringing them out into the open has plunged Mother Earth into fear. The celestials have trusted you with great power, O Pandava. You must wear it with the humility it deserves.
‘Do not bring your weapons out again unless you are faced with a foe so powerful that he cannot be defeated in any other way. You will have need for them when the war starts and you have to fight for your kingdom.
‘But even then, you must exercise caution in the use of these armaments, for one misuse is all it will take for the world to be destroyed completely.’
Departure from Kailasa
The Pandavas spend a further four years on the mountain slopes of Kailasa, making full use of Kubera’s hospitality. These are peaceful years in their lives; they live like gods under the patronage of Vaisravana, attended upon by Rakshasas, and with numerous wise sages for company.
They spend their time hunting, sporting, practicing their skill in arms, and listening to spiritual discourses.
This rounds up ten years of the Pandavas’ exile (the first year together, five years of Arjuna’s absence, and four years on Kailasa). At the beginning of the eleventh year, Bhimasena, accompanied by Arjuna and the twins, approaches Yudhishthir.
‘Brother,’ he says, ‘the time has come for us to once again seek the world of men. We have been pampered for a long time here in Kailasa. There is danger that we might come to like this life a little too much, and forget our battle with the sons of Dhritarashtra.
‘This is now the eleventh year of our exile. After this and the next, we will begin the year of hiding, the Agnyaatavasa. With the blessings of the gods we will certainly get through it undiscovered, and then we must train our energies completely on winning our kingdom back from the Kauravas.’
Yudhishthir understands the intentions of his brothers, and together the six of them bid farewell to Kubera.
They retrace their journey down the hills along the river Ganga, to the point where it breaks in two. From there, they follow the westward course of Saraswati, and arrive at the forest of Dwaita.
It is here that the twelfth year of the Pandavas’ exile commences.
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