Mahabharata Episode 11: Ghatotkacha is Born

Ghatotkacha is born - Featured Image - Picture of a tattoo showing a warrior with a horned helmet and flowing hair. Representing Ghatotkacha

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 10: Conspiracy in Varanavata.

To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

Birth of Ghatotkacha

After marrying Bhima, Hidimbi takes her husband on a honeymoon of sorts, flying along the skies to pristine lakes and valleys outside the reach of normal men. They visit faraway towns and sport together in hidden gardens.

They are said to have gone as far as Manasarovar. As per their condition, every day at nightfall, Bhima comes back to Kunti and the other Pandavas, and at dawn goes with Hidimbi wherever she wishes.

In time, Hidimbi gives birth to a son. We’re informed that rakshasa women deliver their children on the same day after conception. Their pregnancies last but a few hours.

The boy, born with a long nose, broad chest, large calf-muscles, and bulging eyes, grows into a youth within an hour of being born.

He does not bear any similarity to the human form even though born of a man. He does not have any hair on his head, and owing to a remark made by Hidimbi that his head looks like a ghata (a pot), he comes to be named Ghatotkacha (the pot-headed).

Bhima becomes First Father

Of the five Pandavas, therefore, Bhima is the first to become a father. Not much fuss is made about this point, which goes to show that the children born to the younger brothers of a king have just about no claim to the throne.

Unless, of course, some misfortune befalls the actual heirs.

It is also interesting that no discussion takes place between the five brothers – as it does later with Draupadi – as to whether Hidimbi should be given to Yudhisthir as his wife. While we’re in speculating territory here, some reasons for this are:

  • Bhima did not win Hidimbi, nor did he ‘earn’ her in any sense of the word. So Yudhishthir has no claim on her.
  • It is Hidimbi herself who sought to become Bhima’s paramour. Her wishes, therefore, are very plain to all five Pandavas.
  • None of the other four brothers seem to show any interest in Hidimbi in the way they do later in Draupadi.
  • It is not explicitly clear that the union between Bhimasena and Hidimbi is an actual marriage. If it is, it seems to follow the rakshasa code. So the normal rules of Vedic marriages do not seem to apply.

Ghatotkacha Leaves with Hidimbi

After his birth (and the quick growth spurt), Ghatotkacha takes his mother and goes northward, having promised the Pandavas that he is forever on the ready to be summoned in times of need.

Why he does not accompany the Pandavas immediately on their mission is not certain. For one, it would have been highly inconvenient for the Pandavas – themselves without support – to carry along a seventh passenger on their journey.

For another, now that Hidimba has been killed by Bhima, Hidimbi needs someone to support her. The rakshasa form of marriage doubtless allows a woman’s firstborn to remain with her in order to perpetuate their dynasty.

When does Ghatotkacha Return?

Having taken their leave during their escape from Varanavata, Ghatotkacha returns to help the Pandavas on two separate occasions.

First, during the exile of the Pandavas after the dice-game, when they travel north to the land of Kubera, Ghatotkacha arrives with several of his flying friends to carry the Pandavas and Draupadi from place to place. During this time, Arjuna is away procuring divine weapons, so Ghatotkacha keeps them company and acts as a bit of a guide to the mountains.

The second time he answers the call of Bhimasena is right at the very end, during the war. He brings with him a horde of rakshasas to fight on the side of the Pandavas against the Kuru army.

On the fourteenth day, with the battle spilling over after sunset into the night, he engages Karna in a duel and forces him to use the Vasava dart on him. Karna has been saving this dart for use against Arjuna, so this move effectively defangs him.

For his part, Ghatotkacha dies when he is hit by Karna’s weapon. It is sometimes said that Indra lends a portion of himself to the rakshasa on the fateful night so that Ghatotkacha can raise his game to match Karna, in order for Arjuna to be protected.

Sasirekha Parinayam

Incidentally, Ghatotkacha also appears in a folktale called Sasirekha Parinayam (‘the marriage of Sasirekha’) featuring Abhimanyu and Sasirekha (apparently a daughter of Balarama), set during the time of the Pandavas’ exile.

In this story, Ghatotkacha plays all sorts of pranks on the Kauravas and ensures that Sasirekha marries Abhimanyu instead of Duryodhana, for whom Balarama originally intends his daughter.

However, this is strictly folklore. The Mahabharata makes no mention of a Sasirekha among Abhimanyu’s wives, nor is there a maiden of that name among Balarama’s daughters.

Journey to Ekachakra

Having left the forest after Ghatotkacha’s departure with Hidimbi, the Pandavas make for the city of Ekachakra. Vyasa leads them to the house of a Brahmin and suggests that they should stay there for a while.

The Brahmin, his wife, his older daughter and his young son all accept the Pandavas and Kunti as one of their own. After they have been living peacefully for a while, one day, Kunti notices that the family is plunged in gloom.

Kunti asks the Brahmin what the problem is, and comes to know that an Asura named Baka is running a protection racket on the town of Ekacharka. His demanded tribute for the ‘services’ he offers the city is a cartload of rice, two buffaloes and a human being to eat every week.

One after the other, the householders of Ekachakra have to give them this food, and the turn comes to a particular family after many years.

‘It is today our turn, my lady,’ says the Brahmin, ‘to feed the brute. I shall have to go and become the rakshasa’s food today, so that my family might be spared. But I worry for their well being in my absence.’

Kunti Pledges Bhima

Kunti considers this for a while and replies to the Brahmin at length: ‘It does not have to be this way. You have but one son of tender years, and one daughter, O Brahmin. I have five sons, and I can easily spare one.

‘Why do you not send one of my sons along with the asura’s food? That way your whole family will survive, and I will have received my opportunity to express my gratitude toward you for taking us in.’

 ‘Ah,’ says the Brahmin, ‘but the gods will not forgive me if I ask my guest to make this sacrifice, my lady. How can I, in my right mind, ask you to give up one of your sons so that I can protect my own?’

Kunti smiles. ‘Do not fear for the safety of my son, sir. He is a Brahmin, but he is skilled in the art of combat. And his strength is unequalled. I have seen him fight and win with many rakshasas in the past.

‘This asura, I am certain, will not be able to slay him. But do not tell anyone of the powers of my son; I am letting you know so that you allow him to take your place on that cart of rice.’

The Brahmin reluctantly agrees with this proposal, though he is mildly encouraged by the look of Bhima’s arms and shoulders.

Convincing Yudhishthir

Yudhishthir does not particularly like the idea of sending Bhima to Bakasura, but Kunti gives him three reasons why she took that step:

  • One, it is a token of gratitude for the Brahmin family who took them in without questions and helped them conceal their identity.
  • And two, a Kshatriya gathers a lot of religious merit when he renders service to a Brahmin. By performing this act, Bhima and the Pandavas, Kunti says, will be blessed by the gods.
  • There is also the matter of fulfilling their own Kshatriya Dharma of freeing the town of Ekachakra from the grip of a cruel rakshasa.

In any case, Bhima goes with the cartload of rice and other food items, steering the buffaloes in the direction of Baka’s abode. When he nears the place, he gets hungry and begins to eat the food himself while calling out to the rakshasa.

Bhima Kills Bakasura

When Baka appears, after a long duel of words and a shorter duel of arms, Bhima kills Bakasura by breaking the asura’s back over his knee. And as he falls to the ground, vomiting blood, his brothers and other kinsmen rush out of the caves, stricken with horror.

Bhima warns them that if they ever venture to eat human meat again, he would return to kill them all. They promise him that they will be peaceful from then on.

Loading Bakasura’s body on the cart, Bhima rides to the front gate of Ekachakra. He leaves the corpse of the rakshasa on the earth under the main arch, and leaves in the darkness, unseen.

The next morning, the town is abuzz with news of the rakshasa’s death, and curious men come from far and wide bearing wives and children to take a look at the bloodied body of Baka.

Soon, some of the enterprising men of Ekachakra work out whose turn it had been to send the rakshasa food, and come to the house where the Pandavas are staying. ‘Tell us whom you sent to Baka last evening, O Brahmin,’ they ask, burning with curiosity. ‘Tell us all!’

But having promised Kunti that he will keep their identities hidden, the Brahmin just says that a strange hero had come to their house the night before and offered to fight the asura with the intention of killing him.

He does not know who he is, where he came from, or even his name. ‘All I know,’ he says, ‘is that he was a Brahmin.’

From then on, the town of Ekachakra begins to celebrate a festival on the anniversary of Baka’s death during which the principal ceremony is the worship of Brahmins.

Further Reading

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