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 56: Gandhari Curses Krishna. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
A short while after the dust settles on the war of Kurukshetra, Yudhishthir decides to perform the Ashwamedha sacrifice. In this ritual, a sacrificial horse is allowed to roam free across the land, and the owner of the horse claims every kingdom that the horse enters as his.
The owner of the land is then presented with two choices: either agree to pay tribute to the encroacher, or fight him in battle.
This is just another way a king can secure dominion over kingdoms that are not originally his. In the Rajasuya, the approach is a lot more direct – by means of invasion – but in the Ashwamedha, it is the horse that is making the play.
In any case, just before the Ashwamedha begins, Krishna arrives and performs a bit of a miracle: a boy is born to Uttara but he is proclaimed to be dead. Krishna fulfills his promise and brings the infant back to life.
They name him Parikshit, and he becomes the de facto heir to the throne of Indraprastha.
Arjuna the Protector
A few days after this miracle is performed by Krishna, Vyasa arrives in Hastinapur, and the Pandavas take it as a sign for the Ashwamedha to begin in earnest. King Yudhishthir performs all the necessary welcome rituals and says to the sage:
‘This treasure, O Holy One, which has been brought through your grace, I wish to devote it to that great sacrifice known by the name of the horse. I desire to have your permission, O Rishi. We are all at your disposal, and at that of Krishna.’
And Vyasa replies, ‘I give you permission, O King. Do all that has to be done after this. Worship all the deities that must be worshipped, and give gifts away to celestials and to Brahmins. The Ashwamedha is the cleanser of all sins, O Yudhishthir. Without doubt it will cleanse all of your sins too.’
Yudhishthir nods at Vyasa’s instructions, and asks the sage a question. ‘Who will protect this horse while it roams over the earth, O Sage?’
And Vyasa says, ‘There is none other than Arjuna who is deserving of such a role. While Bhimasena and Nakula protecting the city, and with Sahadeva looking after the many guests, may the mighty-armed Dhananjaya accompany the horse.’
Fighting the Saindhavas
One of the stops that Arjuna makes on his quest to protect Yudhishthir’s horse is at Sindhu, the kingdom of Jayadratha.
Hearing that the Pandava has come to their city, they come out of their gates, proclaiming their names and lineages, intending to pick a battle with the curly-haired one.
Some of them attempt to seize the horse while others try to waylay the path of Arjuna, who is standing on his two feet and fighting from the ground.
Surrounding the slayer of the Nivatakavachas from all directions, a thousand cars and ten thousand horses appear as if out of nowhere, and the Saindhava warriors recall to their minds the unjust (according to them) killing of Jayadratha.
‘You killed our ruler by magic and subterfuge, with the help of that deceitful Krishna,’ they say. ‘Now you do not have him with you. We desire to see how heroic you can be on your own, O Vijaya.’
But all of this does not have any effect on Arjuna. Standing immovable like a hill, and drawing upon his celestial bow, he withstands the great shower of arrows thrown in his direction by the Saindhavas.
‘I could easily kill every one of you with my weapons, O Princes,’ he says, ‘but my brother Yudhishthir has decreed that this should be a peaceful expedition. Aryavarta has seen enough bloodshed! So I come with the intention of inviting you to the Ashwamedha that is happening in Hastinapur.’
With these words, he aims his arrows at the weapons of his enemies, not at their bodies. He also shoots his shafts such that they kill the many horses and elephants that make up the Saindhava army, while leaving the humans alone.
At this point, Dusshala appears on the battlefield with an infant in her arms. When Arjuna sees her approach, he bids all fighting to stop and lowers his bow. He receives his sister with comforting words and asks her:
‘This is no place for a woman, Dusshala. Why are you here? Pray, what do you wish me to do?’
Dusshala shows the baby in her arms to Arjuna. ‘This is my grandson, O Partha,’ she says, ‘the son of Jayadratha’s son Suratha. This young boy wishes to salute you with all respect. Please look into his eyes.’
Arjuna does so, but he also asks Dusshala what has happened to Suratha.
‘When he heard of Jayadratha’s death at your hands, Arjuna,’ replies Dusshala, ‘Suratha gave up his life, smitten as he was by grief. Now he has left the future of his clan in my hands, and I have come to tell you that the Saindhavas will become friends to the Pandavas, O Gudakesha. Let this fighting stop, for there is nothing to be gained from it.’
Arjuna is despondent by these words of Dusshala. Once again it is brought home to him just how far-reaching the consequences of war had been.
He descends from his chariot, and clutches Dusshala in a warm embrace. After blessing her grandson, he assures her that the fighting will stop if she decrees it so.
The Saindhavas, having seen their queen adopt the stance of peace, also cast away their weapons and pledge their allegiance to Arjuna.
Following the horse, Arjuna next goes to the kingdom of Manipura, where Babruvahana, his son by Chitrangada, is ruling.
As soon as the prince gets to know that his father has come into the city, he sets out in the garb of a priest with a retinue of courtiers in order to invite him in with all honours.
But Arjuna does not take kindly to this gesture.
‘Are you a true Kshatriya, my son?’ he asks, quite harshly, when the prince extends his arms of welcome. ‘I have come following the sacred horse of Yudhishthir, and we have trespassed into your city.
‘Is this how you have been taught to deal with unwelcome visitors to your land? I wished that you will encounter me with bow and arrow, not with a plate of gifts! Indeed, you look like a woman in these robes, not like the son of a Pandava.’
(This is strange behaviour from Arjuna, who is ostensibly on a peaceful campaign around Aryavarta. Perhaps what Arjuna means by ‘peaceful’ is that the king must perform his Kshatriya duty and commit to a battle, and then surrender to the superior strength of his enemy.)
While Babruvahana is weighing his options in the face of this unexpected speech from his father, another surprise visitor appears there.
Ulupi, the other wife of Arjuna (by whom he has a son named Iravan, who dies in the Kurukshetra war), springs out of the earth and addresses her step-son with the following words.
‘My name is Ulupi, O Baburavahana,’ she says, ‘and I am the daughter of the Naga king that rules the kingdom that lies west of here. Do not doubt whether or not you must fight your father today.
‘It is in the performing of your order’s dictates that you make yourself worthy of your throne. Even if you have to clash weapons with your sire, you must do so. Do not, therefore, tarry any longer, Prince, and return to this field in your battle-gear.’
Thus advised by his step-mother to fight against his father, Babruvahana reluctantly picks up his weapon and challenges Arjuna to a duel.
Babruvahana Kills Arjuna
Putting on his armour of bright gold and his resplendent head-gear, Babruvahana ascends his chariot with a bow in hand. The chariot has been equipped with all the necessities of battle.
Its horses run with the speed of the wind, and golden ornaments adorn it from all four sides. Raising his standard which depicts the image of a golden lion, Babruvahana blows on his conch and proceeds against his father.
Almost immediately, he proves himself an able warrior, shooting arrows through the arm of Arjuna, and then sending one slicing through the Pandava’s shoulder.
Arjuna loses consciousness owing to this relentless onslaught, and on regaining his senses he applauds the son of Chitrangada. ‘Bravo!’ he says. ‘I am highly gratified seeing you perform such worthy feats with the bow and arrow.’
Arjuna tries to return to the battle with a new set of arrows, but Babruvahana does not allow him to settle, overwhelming him once again with a steady stream of sharp shafts.
So numerous are they that the Pandava again loses consciousness, and before anyone can rush to his help, his breathing slows down to a stop.
Ulupi Revives Arjuna
This causes much alarm in the battlefield, for not even the spectators of the fight might have expected Arjuna to die at the hands of his son. More distraught is Babruvahana himself, who is now saddled with the sin of killing his own father.
Ulupi is standing aside watching, and Chitrangada comes out of the palace too, no doubt having heard the news, and throws herself at the body of Arjuna, ready to tear out her hair in grief.
‘Look, Ulupi!’ she says. ‘Behold our ever-victorious husband slain in battle by none other than his own son! Are you a woman who knows what is good and what is bad? Are you not conversant with the dictates of virtue?
‘It is due to your suggestion that my son fought with his sire, and it is due to you that our husband is now dead. What have you done, O Princess? Why did you do this?’
Ulupi, for her part, is calm and composed, as if she has been expecting all this to happen. She takes out from her garment a jewel of the Naga kingdom, and placing it on the chest of Arjuna, utters a chant under her breath.
No sooner have the words left her mouth than Arjuna’s eyes blink open, and he is restored to life.
Arjuna now asks Ulupi about the meaning of all this.
Ulupi tells him: ‘In the great war of the Bharatas, you had slain the grandsire Bhishma by unfair means. You did not rely on the might of your own arms to defeat him, O Pandava, but you used deceit by hiding behind Shikhandi.
‘This act of yours has incurred the wrath of the Vasus – the brothers of Bhishma – and that of Ganga, his mother. At the fall of the son of Shantanu, the Vasus came to the bank of the Ganga, and decreed that Dhananjaya must serve the punishment for his unworthy act.
‘They decided that Arjuna will have to meet his death at the hands of his son, and only with that the sin of having killed Bhishma will leave him.
‘When I heard this, I hurried over here because I knew you were protecting the sacrificial horse. It was therefore my intention to see to it that Babruvahana and you fight each other, my lord, and that you die at his hands.
‘I wanted to be here at that moment because I can then use the jewel of the Nagas to bring you back to life.’
Ulupi also assures Arjuna that this should not count as a defeat. ‘They say one’s son is one’s own self, O Arjuna. So on this occasion, it is to be understood that you merely lost to a part of yourself. Therefore your title of Vijaya is still intact.’
End of the Journey
After this battle, Arjuna has some more challenges ahead of him. But he overcomes them all without incident.
Yudhishthir thus becomes the ‘emperor of the earth’ once again after performing the Ashwamedha sacrifice successfully. He thus becomes the ruling king of Indraprastha.
This marks the end of the journey of the Pandavas. They have now officially regained everything they had lost. All that remains in the Mahabharata story is the tying up of some loose ends.
We will do that over the next few episodes.
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- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered