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 Aranyaka Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
The Pandavas Leave
As the Pandavas are about to enter the forest, a group of Brahmins reach Hastinapur with the desire of following the five kings into the woods. Yudhishthir is bemused by this.
‘We are robbed of our prosperity and kingdom, O Sages,’ he says. ‘We are destined to suffer much during our period of exile, and we have no gifts to give you. It is better, therefore, that you return to your respective hermitages.’
But the Brahmins refuse to budge. ‘We will be of no discomfort to you, O King,’ they say. ‘We will supply our own food, and we will stay out of the way as much as we can.
‘We intend to follow you on your journey, and we will entertain you with words and stories from the scriptures so that your mind may be at ease.’
While Yudhishthir is turning this matter over in his head, a Brahmin by name Shaunaka arrives. ‘O King,’ he says, ‘do not let fear and anxiety triumph over you. The world is filled with suffering of the body and the mind. Let me tell you the means of allaying it.
Dialogue with Shaunaka
‘Suffering of the body may be dispelled by use of medicine, but for suffering of the mind, the best cure is the conscious act of meditation. Indeed it is affection that causes much of human mental suffering – affection for one’s self, one’s friends, and one’s wealth.
‘That man is wise who detaches himself from self-love, so that like a lotus leaf, he can distinguish between the ephemeral and the everlasting.
‘Wealth is the most common way human affection is displayed in our world, O King. And yet wealth does not help a man fight his anxieties.
‘Instead, it enhances them. Often, life is lost for the sake of wealth. The thirst for wealth can never be quenched, and all the riches of the Earth are not enough to satisfy the desire of even one man.
‘The wise, knowing the instability of possessions, seek to conquer their desires. Therefore, Your Highness, do not grieve your lost affluence.
‘Emancipate yourself from needing a crown on your head and a throne on which to sit.’
Yudhishthir joins his hands in respect and replies, ‘I do not wish wealth for my own sake, O Sage, but in order to gain the merit of giving it away in charity to Brahmins such as you.
‘Has it not been said that a good man is he in whose house a guest can ever find a seat to sit on, a bed to sleep on, food to eat, and sweet words to converse in? How do I ensure that I keep my desire in check while achieving all of this?’
Shaunaka acknowledges the contradiction. ‘It is true that the world is a complex one, Your Majesty. The Vedas do not advise you to not act, but merely to detach yourself from the fruits of your actions.
‘Renunciation of Abhimana (attachment) is important since it frees you from anxiety; all you must do is perform your actions to the best of your ability.
Thus educated in the path he must now choose, Yudhishthir goes to Dhaumya and asks him how to solve this problem of the accompanying Brahmins.
In response to Yudhishthir’s question, Dhaumya gives an account of how the Sun god allays the hunger of all living beings on Earth. ‘In the days of old, O King,’ he says, ‘all the animals of Earth were afflicted with hunger, for there was no food on the planet.
‘Beholding this, Surya began to use the heat of his rays to extract water from all the oceans, and stored it within himself. Then, Soma, the moon, created clouds and filled them with the water that Surya had taken.
‘The resultant rain gave birth to all the plants that bear fruits and vegetables blessed with the six tastes.’
Dhaumya tells Yudhishthir that he should propitiate Surya, therefore, because he is the father of all life on Earth. Yudhishthir does so, stationing himself in the Ganges and singing the praises of the god in various different ways.
After a suitable amount of time has passed, Surya appears before the Pandava, and asks what he could do to reward him.
The Akshaya Patra
Yudhishthir tells him about the issue. ‘I have a large group of Brahmins that I must feed along with myself and my brothers, O Lord,’ he says. ‘But we have neither the wealth nor the means to do so.’
Surya nods and brings out a copper vessel. Handing it out to Yudhishthir, he says, ‘Accept this vessel, O King. It will multiply all the food that is made in your kitchen such that it will never exhaust its contents.
‘Only after Panchali has eaten will the vessel become empty, only to fill up the next day once again.’
The Pandavas thus become owners of what is called the Akshaya Patra (the inexhaustible vessel). Yudhishthir tests it on the first day by placing in it the food that Draupadi has made: a little amount of beaten rice.
And in front of them appear large quantities of different delicious items.
After the Brahmins and the Pandavas have eaten, Draupadi has the last meal of the day, after which the food duly disappears.
Meanwhile, back at the Kuru court, Dhritarashtra and Vidura have a bit of a falling out because the younger brother advises the king to make peace with the Pandavas.
Vidura gets banished from the kingdom, visits Yudhishthir for a few days, and then gets welcomed back to court by a repentant Dhritarashtra.
Vyasa also stops by in the course of his wandering and advises Dhritarashtra that for the good of the future of the Kaurava race, the king should welcome the Pandavas back to their kingdom.
Dhritarashtra, of course, does not listen, and Vyasa says, ‘I understand that you are obsessed with your son, O King, and it is quite normal to be this way.
‘Sage Maitreya will come here soon and wish to speak with you and Duryodhana. Please listen to his words, for they are intended for the good of your descendants.’
When Maitreya arrives, Dhritarashtra and Duryodhana receive him with all due respect, and ask him how the Pandavas are doing. After the pleasantries have passed, Maitreya addresses Duryodhana and says:
‘The Pandavas might appear weak at this moment, my son, but they are very powerful. Bhimasena has killed Rakshasas like Hidimba and Kirmira with his bare hands.’
The Curse of Maitreya
‘Arjuna is in possession of the great bow Gandiva,’ continues Maitreya, ‘and they say that his quivers never run out of arrows. Yudhishthir is steadfast on the path to virtue, and it is well known to all that the truly virtuous cannot be vanquished.
‘So do the right thing, O Kaurava, and bring back your brothers from the forest. Ask for their forgiveness and invite them to rule their kingdom.’
Duryodhana listens to Maitreya’s advice, and then smiles and rubs his foot against the ground carelessly, in the manner of a stubborn bull. This angers Maitreya, and he says:
‘For your impertinence, Prince, I curse you that when the time of the great battle comes, Bhimasena will shatter those very thighs on which you stand.’
Duryodhana immediately repents, and asks the sage what he could to have the curse redacted. ‘My words will lose their potency only if you give the Pandavas their share of the kingdom and reinstate them on the throne of Indraprastha.’
But Duryodhana does not agree, and Dhritarashtra asks Maitreya the details of how Bhimasena killed the Rakshasa Kirmira.
This ends the Aranyaka Parka and brings us to the Kirmira Vadha Parva.