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 Shishupala Vadha Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
‘Let the dogs bark’
‘This worship of Krishna the cowherd is happening against my wishes,’ says Shishupala, looking around at the rest of his compatriots. ‘And I know for certain there are more here like me.
‘Why do you sit on your hands like meek lambs, O Kings? Let us take up our arms and stage a revolt. Let us make sure that this blasphemous ceremony does not reach its end.’
Worried that Shishupala might instigate a brawl, Yudhishthir asks Bhishma for advice on what to do.
‘Let the dogs bark, child,’ says Bhishma. ‘A pack of dogs, in the presence of a lion, will bark as long as it is asleep and does not stir. But once the lion wakes up, the dogs will whimper and slink away.
‘Here the lion is Krishna, and Shishupala leads the dogs. Let him bark while he can, because when Krishna decides that it is time to act, the king of Chedi will meet the consequences of his actions.’
‘Your words reek of shame and weakness, old one,’ says Shishupala to Bhishma in response. ‘You sing Krishna’s praises as if he is a god, but what has he done?
Shishupala begins to question Krishna’s status as divine being.
‘He has killed a woman in Putana,’ he says. ‘He has killed the bull Arishtasura. Has it not been said in our scriptures that women and kine are to be forever protected? Where is the virtue of this fellow?
‘Do you not agree that these are sins that need to be punished?
‘You say he has lifted the Govardhana. Indeed, what is so heroic about lifting that little anthill? Whenever he has been faced with real men, he has chosen to flee from fighting, like he did with Jarasandha.
‘And then he strikes back with the means of a thief, entering through a gate reserved for beggars, disguised as a Brahmin, and killing our beloved king by means of deceit and trickery.
‘Is this the greatness of a man you call the prime mover of the universe? Even with Kamsa, he and his brother engineered an attack that is filled with subterfuge.
‘Why, has he in his entire life fought one battle by fair means and won it?’
Shishupala Insults Bhishma
‘And what do we say of you, O Bhishma?’ says Shishupala now.
‘You are like the swan in that old story, which always preaches the highest of virtues and convinces the rest of the birds to leave their eggs with it for safekeeping, only to eat them up at the first opportunity.
‘You speak of the Vedas in every sentence, Grandsire, but is it not true that all the good deeds of your life come to nought unless you have children?
‘Like that swan, you are just a speaker of good words with nothing to show for them, and like that swan, beware, you will be struck down by the very men whom you are now clutching to your bosom as loved ones.’
(This veiled curse of Shishupala, it is to be noted, does come true. Bhishma does meet his end at the hands of Krishna and Arjuna in the Kurukshetra war.)
The Birth of Shishupala
Bhimasena rouses himself in anger at the words of Shishupala, but Bhishma holds him back, and tells him the story of Shishupala’s childhood, in which he procures from Krishna a strange boon.
Shishupala was born in Chedi to King Damaghosha and Queen Srutashrava, the sister of Vasudeva. As a newborn, he had four arms and three eyes, and he brayed like an ass loudly, showing every bad omen that was known at the time.
When the king was contemplating giving up the boy, an invisible voice from the sky told him:
‘Do not worry, O King. This son of yours will grow up to be a great ruler. No harm will come to you or your city due to him. He will not die in childhood. Indeed, he who is destined to kill him has also been born.’
The queen, anxious for her child, asked the voice how they might be able to identify the boy’s future killer.
‘He upon whose lap, when you place the child, the extra arms will fall off and the extra eyes will disappear will one day slay the prince.’
The king and queen, from then on, made it a habit to invite monarchs from various parts of Aryavarta so that they could place Shishupala on their laps. But the arms and eyes stayed intact.
Then, Krishna and Balarama visited Chedi from Dwaraka. The very instant Shishupala was placed on Krishna’s lap, the arms fell off and the two superfluous eyes disappeared.
Queen Srutashrava, plunged in worry, addressed Krishna and said, ‘Dear Nephew, I would like to ask you for a boon.’
‘Anything you wish, Aunt, I shall do whether I am able or not,’ replied Krishna, playing with the boy on his lap.
‘Grant me that you will pardon the offences of Shishupala for my sake.’
Krishna smiled. ‘I cannot pardon every mistake of his, Aunt, but for your sake I promise to forgive him a hundred sins that are serious enough to get him slain otherwise. Now set your mind at rest.’
Finishing the tale, Bhishma tells Bhima, ‘It is with the arrogance of possessing this boon from Krishna that Shishupala rages thus. Do not interrupt him, child, for Krishna knows well what must be done. Leave it to him.’
Shishupala Accuses Bhishma
Shishupala turns on Bhishma once more at this point. ‘You are like the bird Bhulinga, O Bhishma. There is a bird that lives in the northern mountains of the Himavat by that name, who always speaks in dulcet tones.
‘This bird keeps saying that nothing rash should ever be uttered, yet she lives by picking off pieces of flesh sticking to the teeth of a lion. Without the lion she does not have a life of her own.
‘You are similar to that bird. The respect that has come to you is due to the kings you see here.
‘Drona, Ashwatthama, Duryodhana, Karna, Bhagadatta, Dantavakra, Virata, Drupada, Sakuni, Vrihadvala, Ekalavya, Shalya – these are the men who are worthy of your praise, O Grandsire, and you choose to erect on a high pedestal this – this cowherd!
‘You are alive only because of the good wishes of all these kings of Aryavarta who have assembled here, but you have done nothing but insult them.’
Bhishma purses his lips at the accusation, and looks around the hall, beholding the throng of rulers. ‘It is true that I owe my very life to these kings,’ he says, loud enough for everyone to hear.
‘But I do not regard any of these kings as equal to even a single piece of straw.’
Hearing this, some of the smaller kings who had earlier walked out with Shishupala stand up in anger, and begin to yell abuse at Bhishma. They reach for their arms, slap their thighs, twirl the tips of their moustaches.
‘Bhishma has become boastful in his old age,’ they say. ‘He ought to be taught a lesson.’
With a wave of the hand, Bhishma silences them all. ‘Even at my age I am more than a match to each and every one of you,’ he says. ‘But here is Govinda, the man who has accepted our offering, whom you are opposing.
‘Let all those who wish to fight me – those who wish a speedy death, in other words – challenge Keshava himself, the wielder of the mace and the discus.’
A moment’s silence falls on the group of kings at this, and they look at each other.
Shishupala raises his right arm, then, and addresses Krishna.
‘Come and fight me, Krishna,’ says Shishupala. ‘Bhishma is right. Why must we waste time in insulting him when it is you that deserves all our ire? You are nothing but a slave and a wretch.
‘You are certainly no king. If the Pandavas worship you out of selfishness, and if the world treats you as a hero out of ignorance, it is my duty today to peel those scales off and uncover you for who you truly are.
‘Come, let us finish this today. Let me defeat you.’
Krishna gets up to his feet now, having listened and watched to the proceedings for a long time. In a soft voice, he addresses the assemblage of kings.
‘Respected guests of Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya, hear me tell you of the true colours of this man Shishupala. He is the son of a daughter of the Satwata race, indeed of my own aunt, but he is the very enemy of our clan.
‘When he heard that we had gone to the city of Pragjyotisha, he came to Dwaraka under the pretence of being a kinsman and burnt it. Indeed, Dwaraka cannot ever be claimed by outside forces, but how can one defend against attacks inflicted by one’s own?’
‘When King Bhoja was sporting in the Raivataka hill, this fellow imprisoned many of the attendants of the king and led them away in chains to Chedi.
‘When my father, the pious Vasudeva, was performing the Ashwamedha sacrifice, Shishupala stole the horse and obstructed our activities.
‘He ravished the reluctant wife of Akrura when she was on her way from Dwaraka to the country of the Sauviras. Disguising himself as the king of Karusha, he also tricked Bhadra, that pious princess, intended as a bride for someone else.
‘All these and other sins of this man I bore patiently, in accordance to a boon I have given long ago to my aunt, the Queen Mother of Chedi.
‘Even in this gathering today, you have all seen the amount of hate he carries in his heart for me, and the number of ways in which he has insulted all the people here.
‘I have now forgiven him his hundred sins,’ says Krishna, watching his bristling cousin.
‘Today, in the presence of you all, I shall punish him for his deeds, with apologies to my aunt who must grieve the passing of someone even so wicked just because he is her son.’
Krishna Kills Shishupala
Having said this, Krishna summons his discus and lets it fly in Shishupala’s direction. For all the bravado shown in his speech, the king of Chedi submits without fight to the weapon, and in no time at all is beheaded.
At the moment of his death, the cloudless sky pours showers of rain, and the Earth itself trembles.
Of the kings present there, some of them cheer Krishna and the Pandavas. Others become suffused with rage. And a third group function as mediators to keep the peace.
But all of them are awestruck at this display of power by Krishna. The status of the Pandavas as the supreme rulers of Aryavarta becomes even more entrenched.
After the funeral rites of Shishupala are performed with due process, the Rajasuya concludes successfully, and all the assembled kings are sent away to their respective kingdoms with gifts and attendants.
Duryodhana alone continues to stay in the Maya Sabha, accompanied by Shakuni, the brother of Gandhari.
It is at this point that the Shishupala Vadha Parva ends.