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 Arjuna Vanavasa Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
A Brahmin’s Cattle
At the beginning of the Arjuna Vanavasa Parva, it so happens that a Brahmin’s cattle in Indraprastha is stolen by a bunch of dacoits. The victim comes to the king’s court with his complaint and urges Arjuna to give him justice.
In haste, the third Pandava says, ‘Cease your worry, O Brahmin. I shall see to it that the thieves are brought to court and that all your wealth is returned.’
But as soon as he says this, he realizes that all his weapons are kept in the same chamber where Yudhishthir is at the time sitting with Draupadi.
However, not discharging the duty of protection to the helpless in the kingdom is also a sin unworthy of a king like Yudhishthir.
So knowing full well the consequences of his actions, he enters the chamber, picks up his weapons, and goes to punish the thieves.
Arjuna Exiles Himself
After the whole episode ends and the Brahmin has left gratified, Arjuna announces his wish to go into exile for twelve years. Yudhishthir tries to reason with him thus:
‘I know why you came to our chamber, Brother. Neither I nor Draupadi was upset by your entry in the slightest. Indeed, a younger brother has full right to enter the chambers of his older brother.
‘It is the older brother who is not allowed to enter the chambers of his younger brother. So you do not need to observe this vow.’
But Arjuna replies with joined hands, ‘Brother, it is you who has taught us that when it comes to a matter of duty, one must not find reasons to escape it.
‘A vow taken is a vow taken, and it must be carried forth at all times. Is it not what we have been taught from the life of Bhishma, our grandfather, too? I shall not count myself among the worthy descendants of our line if I now accept your reasons and shirk my duty.’
Saying this, Arjuna makes preparations to go into the forest for a twelve-year exile.
After taking the vow of celibacy on his exile, Arjuna breaks it multiple times during the course of the twelve years. The first time he does so is right at the start, when he meets a Naga princess called Ulupi.
The scene of the incident is the origin point of the Ganga, where Arjuna and a few Brahmins assemble to live a life of purity and chastity.
One morning, when the Pandava descends into the river to take his path, he gets abducted by Ulupi deep into the river, to the land of her father, Kauravya.
Over there, Arjuna first completes his daily rites to the lord of fire, and then asks the maiden who had brought him: ‘Who are you, timid maiden? (Not sure why he addresses a woman who had just kidnapped him with the word ‘timid’.) And why have you brought me here?’
‘I am the daughter of King Kauravya, O Prince, and they call me Ulupi,’ replies the girl. ‘The moment I saw you, the god of desire has shot his arrows into my heart, and I wish for you to be my husband.’
‘I am afraid that cannot be, Princess,’ says Arjuna. ‘I have taken the vow of celibacy for the mistake I committed. Is there any way I can give you pleasure while staying true to my word?’
Visit to the Naga Kingdom
‘I know the circumstances that have led to your exile, Arjuna,’ says Ulupi. ‘And it is true that if you break your vow of celibacy, your austerities will suffer a small dent.
‘But if you do not satisfy my desire, I promise you that I shall consign myself to flames, and then your practice will suffer a great deal more because you will have the death of a Naga maiden hanging about your heart.
‘Also, O sinless one, you are a married man. Your celibacy has already been broken once. The strength of such a vow taken by a married man is not significant, O Prince, because it is taken for the sake of your wife.
‘Whoever has heard of a Brahmachari who has to remain so out of respect for his wife?’
Armed with this double-edged argument, Ulupi manages to seduce Arjuna into taking her as his lover for one night. The morning after, he returns to the hermitage by the Ganga.
Out of this union (one might not call it marriage, though they may have wed by the Gandharva code) is born a son called Iravan.
He returns later during the Kurukshetra war.
Arjuna’s next significant stop in the course of his wanderings over Aryavarta is at Manipura.
It is described that he reaches the Mahendra mountain (Mahendragiri in Orissa), then goes to Kalinga, and from there, ‘proceeding slowly along the seashore’, reaches Manipura.
Here he meets the princess of Manipura named Chitrangada, and falls in love with her. When he approaches her father, the king Chitravahana, for her hand, he tells the Pandava a story regarding their dynasty.
‘There was a king in our line called Prabhankara,’ says the king, ‘who was childless. With severe penance he pleased Lord Shiva and asked him for a child.
‘The lord was so pleased with Prabhankara’s conduct that he granted that every generation of kings following Prabhankara’s will give birth to one child and one child only.
‘However, the lord assured my ancestor that none of the children will die before they have had an opportunity to sire a child themselves.
‘So the throne of Manipura will never be left heirless, nor will it ever succumb to infighting because there is always just one successor with a claim to kingship.
‘All my ancestors after Prabhankara have been male. But to me was born Chitrangada, the princess whom you wish to marry. In order for her to continue the line of her father, I made her my putrika.
‘So she will bear only one child, and her child will remain in Manipura and rule the land in due course.’
‘What if Chitrangada also has a daughter, O King?’ asks Arjuna.
‘She will be made a putrika as well, and she will remain in the kingdom after her marriage, so that her children will be brought up in Manipura to become rulers in their time.’
‘I understand,’ says Arjuna, and agrees to marrying Chitrangada in lieu of the condition that he will stay with her until a child is born to her, and that he will allow that child to be brought up in Manipura.
Arjuna thus becomes husband to the princess of Manipura and lives with her in the palace for three years. At the end of this period, Chitrangada gives birth to a boy named Babruvahana (sometimes called Babhruvahana).
As soon as the son is born, Chitravahana anoints him the future heir to the kingdom, and Arjuna bids farewell to his wife and son to continue on his journey.
The Five Crocodiles
From Manipura, Arjuna travels to the bank of the ‘southern ocean’ (whether or not this is the Indian Ocean, we do not know), and comes to a place where five great lakes exist.
The names of these lakes are Agastya, Saubhadra, Pauloma, Karandhama and Bharadwaja.
But the ascetics living close to these lakes do not use their water; they do not venture close to them in fright. When Arjuna asks them why, they tell him that five crocodiles have occupied these lakes.
Hearing this, Arjuna takes up his weapon and approaches the Saubhadra. As soon as he steps into the water, his leg is seized by a crocodile.
The Pandava wrestles with it for a long time and eventually subdues it. Just as he slays it, however, the reptile changes form and in its place stands a beautiful damsel.
‘Who are you?’ Arjuna asks. ‘And why are you here?’
The Story of Varga
‘My name is Varga, O mighty one,’ says the woman. ‘I am an apsara, quite dear to Kubera. I and four other companions of mine – Saurabheyi, Samichi, Vudvuda and Lata – have been forced to occupy these lakes due to a curse of a Brahmin.
‘A hundred years ago, in our foolishness, we tried to distract the Brahmin from his practice, and enraged, he cursed us to become crocodiles and range the waters for a hundred years.
‘He said that Arjuna the third Pandava would come in due course and release us from this prison. I have waited long for your arrival, O Prince. It is today that you have delivered me. Please do the same with my four fellow apsaras, and we shall go on our way.’
‘But why did you come here to these lakes, Varga?’ asks Arjuna. ‘How did you come to know that I shall come this way?’
‘The sage Narada told us,’ replied Varga. ‘It was he who directed us this way.’
Arjuna then went to the remaining four lakes, and killing the crocodiles that infested them, made them safe for use by the sages. At the same time, he freed the five apsaras from their curse.
Visit to Dwaraka
After freeing the crocodiles of their curse, Arjuna, we are told, travels to Manipura once again to visit Chitrangada and Babruvahana. After a short stay in Manipura, he returns to the southern ocean, and then begins traversing the western coast.
At the end of it all, he finds himself at a sacred spot called Prabhasa, on the outskirts of the kingdom of Dwaraka, ruled by the Yadava king Balarama and his younger brother, Krishna.
Upon hearing of Arjuna’s arrival at Prabhasa, Krishna comes there and spends some time with him, asking after the welfare of the Pandavas, Draupadi and Kunti. Arjuna tells him of all the places he had visited and the things he had seen.
The friends spend a few quiet days at Prabhasa, and then, Krishna takes his guest in a golden chariot into the capital city. By this time, eleven years of Arjuna’s exile have passed. We have come to the end of the Arjuna Vanavasa Parva.