The Mahabharata is a collection of hundred Parvas (or ‘sections’) that tell the story of a long-standing family feud between two sets of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – for control of the Kuru throne in Hastinapur.
The climactic event of the story is an eighteen-day war that happens between the two factions on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
It is commonly understood that the Pandavas are the protagonists of this tale and the Kauravas the antagonists – though many retellings have appeared over the years that flip this structure.
In this post, we will summarize the Rajya Labha Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
Sunda and Upasunda
During the early days of the Pandavas’ rule in Indraprastha, Narada arrives at Yudhishthir’s court in course of his wanderings, and after receiving the respects of the five brothers and their queen Draupadi, the sage sits down to tell them the story of two brothers.
There was once (says Narada) a mighty Daitya by name Nikumbha, to whom two sons were born. He named them Sunda and Upasunda. The brothers were devoted to each other, and were always seen together performing the same task.
When they grew into early youth, they participated in severe austerities that shook the very Vindhyas to their roots. The celestials tried to interrupt their prayers with various means – by trickery, by temptation, by powers of magic – but the brothers did not waver.
At last they got their wish: the Grandsire Brahma appeared before them and asked them what they wanted.
‘We wish, O Lord,’ said the brothers, ‘with your grace, to have the knowledge of all the weapons and magic practiced in the three worlds today. Grant us great strength and let us be able to assume any form at will. Also, make us immortal like the other celestials.’
‘I shall give you everything that you ask,’ said Brahma, ‘but for immortality. Those who perform austerities for the subjugation of the worlds cannot be made immortal. So ask for something else.’
‘In that case, O Lord,’ said the brothers, ‘make it so that we shall meet our deaths only at the hands of each other.’
Brahma granted them this wish, and armed with their newfound power, after a suitable time of revelry, the two brothers unleashed a torrent of destruction and death upon the three worlds.
Indra was conquered. Yama got thrown out of his kingdom. Sages and kings on Earth were terminated. People became terrified of the two brothers, who set up their kingdom in Kurukshetra.
With the sages of Earth praying to the gods for mercy, at the abode of Shiva they all met in council, each bent in grim worry. After Brahma had listened to all of them speak, he decided that it was time to destroy the Asuras.
He summoned Vishwakarma, the divine architect, and asked him to create a damsel capable of captivating all hearts.
Vishwakarma set to work, and in creating the maiden that Brahma had desired, he took an equal portion of all the precious gems in existence, and poured into her creation every ounce of his energy and experience.
To the resulting girl he gave the name Tilottama (greater than all the parts).
As soon as she was brought forth, she asked Brahma, ‘What is it that you would have me do, Grandsire?’
‘Go to the city of the Asuras,’ said Brahma, ‘and make it so that Sunda and Upasunda will fight one another for your possession.’
‘So be it,’ said Tilottama, and left for Kurukshetra.
Death of the Brothers
Narada continues the story: Tilottama did her job well. She came to Kurukshetra attired in a single piece of silk, and arranged it so that the two brothers would cast their eyes on her at the same time.
‘She is mine!’ said Sunda. ‘She shall bear my children.’ Whereas Upasunda laughed at his brother and said, ‘I have seen her first, so she is mine. You shall do well to respect your sister-in-law.’
The argument became fiercer and fiercer, and in no time at all the brothers had drawn maces on each other. The battle did not last long, for each knew the other’s weaknesses.
Three or four well-placed blows were all it took, and the two Asuras fell to the ground, their bodies bathed in blood.
Tilottama would receive a boon from Brahma for her service to become a permanent resident in heaven. And Indra would return to become the king of the three worlds once again.
Concluding the story, Narada tells the Pandavas, ‘Do you see how brothers who were devoted to one another fell apart when faced with the issue of a single woman?
‘I do not wish the same situation to occur to you, O Pandavas, so please make an agreement between yourselves that contains the rules of how you wish to share your common wife.’
The Pandavas, obeying the sage, come up with an arrangement whereby if any of the brothers is to see another spending time with Draupadi in private, he is to retire into the forest for twelve years, passing his days as a Brahmachari.
Interestingly, we do not see the ‘wife of one brother per year’ rule even here. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we must assume that at this stage, the Pandavas are still sharing Draupadi on an ad-hoc basis, with just the punishment clause in place.
Thoughts on Sunda-Upasunda
A short comment here about the theme of Sunda-Upasunda: a modern reader given to misogyny might conclude from it that a woman is the root of all evils, that a sly maiden can drive a wedge between loving brothers.
In the same vein, it has been suggested by many that Draupadi is the cause of the Mahabharata war, that without her the Pandavas and the Kauravas would have found a less violent way of settling their differences.
(A similar accusation is levelled at Sita for the Ramayana and at Helen for the Trojan War.)
This is nonsense. If the Sunda-Upasunda story tells us anything, it is that our most debilitating weaknesses lie deeply embedded within our biggest strengths.
And, of course, that all love is conditional, liable to be turned into hate and envy in the presence of a resource that cannot be shared or divided. In the case of Sunda and Upasunda, this resource happens to be Tilottama.
In the case of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, it is the throne of Hastinapur.
The universal inner human conflict between competition and cooperation is what is the focus here, not the craftiness of a woman or the lust of a man.
The Rajya Labha ends thus.