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 Rajasuya Arambha Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
We ended the previous Parva with Yudhishthir asking Krishna whether or not he is deserving of performing the Rajasuya.
Krishna tells Yudhishthir that while the eldest Pandava is by all means deserving of the title of emperor that the Rajasuya will confer upon him, it is impossible for him to attain that status while a certain king holds much of the power in the middle kingdoms.
‘This is the same man,’ he says, ‘who drove the Vrishnis out of Mathura and forced us to settle in Dwaraka by the edge of the sea. Unless you defeat him, Yudhishthir, you shall never be called emperor.’
Who is this king you speak of, Krishna?’ asks Yudhishthir.
‘You may have heard of Jarasandha,’ Krishna replies. ‘He has a stronghold in Magadha, but over the last few years, he has been securing allies and subjugating kingdoms incessantly.
‘Now he has grown so powerful that calling him the emperor of the middle kingdoms is not a stretch.’
The Overlord of Magadha
‘He is the overlord in Magadha,’ continues Krishna, ‘and he has caused the people of Shurasena and Kunti to flee westward. Why, he even forced us to vacate Mathura and make for ourselves a new home in Dwaraka.’
Krishna then reels off the names of all the kings who have now pledged allegiance to Jarasandha, and with each name, Yudhishthir’s heart sinks a little bit more.
Shishupala of Chedi, Dantavakra of Karusha, Bhagadatta of the Yavanas, and all the other smaller kings who called themselves the descendants of the Bhojas are now fighting under Jarasandha’s banner.
‘His army is so large,’ says Krishna, ‘that the Yadava tribes thought it more prudent to leave the kingdom of Mathura and make for the western sea so that we will never be attacked successfully amid the mountains.
‘We built the fortress of Dwaraka such that even women would be able to fight from within its walls. We now live inside the city, knowing that it cannot be taken by any force.
‘But we also know that we are not strong enough to stop the sweep of Jarasandha’s victory march across the plains.’
‘So if you wish to become the emperor, Yudhishthir,’ Krishna concludes, ‘you must defeat this man in any manner possible. While he lives, it is impossible for you to finish the Rajasuya, because you will not receive the support you need from all the kings of the land.’
‘But Krishna,’ says Yudhishthir, ‘what chance have I to vanquish a king who has made you and Balarama flee? Perhaps it is not the right time for me to become emperor, then. I shall ask my ministers and priests to stop the preparations.’
At this stage, Bhimasena rises to his feet and proclaims that he will kill Jarasandha with the help of Krishna and Arjuna.
Arjuna too gives a stirring speech (how a Kshatriya should never be led by fear, how with Krishna on their side they can fight any army on Earth and so on), after which Krishna also tells Yudhishthir:
‘Your brothers have spoken like true men of valour, Yudhishthir. What makes you think choosing to do nothing is effective in stopping a man like Jarasandha?
‘If no one stands up to him, he will soon conquer all of the middle kingdoms, and then he will set his sights on Indraprastha. And one day, he will march up the western mountains and launch a siege on Dwaraka.
‘But before that, he intends to perform a sacrifice himself, and you will be forced to attend it as tribute-paying ally.’
‘Indraprastha will never pay tribute!’ thunders Bhimasena, and Arjuna nods in assent.
Yudhishthir lets out a sigh at his brothers’ fervour. ‘Does he wish to perform the Rajasuya as well?’
‘Not quite the Rajasuya,’ says Krishna, ‘but a ceremony worshipping Lord Shiva that will grant him all the powers that he does not yet possess, which will make him near-invincible.
‘He is sacrificing at this event hundred kings that he has defeated in the past, and he has already collected eighty six of them. Time, Yudhishthir, is running out.’
Yudhishthir nods reluctantly, and in a tone of exasperation, asks Krishna, ‘Who is this Jarasandha anyway, O Vasudeva? How did he come to possess enough power to withstand you and Balarama in battle?’
‘I shall tell you,’ Krishna says, and narrates to the three brothers the tale of Jarasandha’s birth.
The Fruit of Chandakaushika
Jarasandha’s father (Krishna tells Yudhishthir) was the king of Magadha, Vrihadratha.
He had married the twin daughters of the king of Kasi, and on the occasion of their marriage, he had given them a promise that he would forever treat them both equally, never favouring one over the other.
However, the king’s youth passed without begetting a son, and the increasingly desperate Vrihadratha approached the sage Chandakaushika (the son of Kakshivat) to procure for himself an heir to rule his kingdom after him.
After pleasing the sage with presents and jewels and words of praise, when the sage asked him what he wanted, the king said, ‘Please grant me a son.’
At this time, Chandakaushika, in the course of his wanderings, had come to Magadha and taken a spot under a mango tree. Right at the moment of the king’s words, a ripe mango fell off the tree onto Chandakaushika’s lap.
Picking it up and handing it over to Vrihadratha, the sage said, ‘Your wish is granted, O King. Give this mango to your queen to eat, and in due course of time she will bring forth a son that will surpass you in all your enviable attributes.’
The Birth of Jarasandha
Vrihadratha, though, in the manner of a man true to his word, cut the fruit in two and gave half a piece to each of his wives.
To his delight, both of them became pregnant, but when the time came for them to deliver, he was aghast to see that they each gave birth to a fragment of a male body, with one eye, one ear, half a nose, half a stomach and half an anus.
The sisters sorrowfully swaddled the still-born parts in cotton wool and asked their maids to cast them away.
Now there lived in the court of Vrihadratha a cannibalistic demon named Jara, disguised in human form. While foraging for food that same night, she came across the discarded infant pieces.
It so happened that while she held them together in her hands, the fragments fused and became one whole live human child.
Jara did not have the heart to eat the strong young boy, and his cries brought the royal household to that place. She presented the prince to Vrihadratha, explaining everything that had occurred.
The king announced at that very moment that Magadha would celebrate a festival every year in honour of Jara, and to his son he gave the name Jarasandha (he who was joined by Jara).
As he grows older, Jarasandha becomes a famous king. He wages a war against Mathura and drives the Vrishnis away to the west. Krishna tells Yudhishthir that the time has come for Jarasandha to die.
With this, the Rajasuya Arambha Parva ends.