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 Arjunabhigamana Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
The Anger of Draupadi
All this while, ever since the Pandavas have set out to Kamyaka, we see Draupadi as a demure and obedient wife, quiet about the torrent of emotions raging within her.
But at the beginning of the Arjunabhigamana Parva, the Vrishnis and Panchalas come to visit the Pandavas in the forest, and at the sight of Krishna, Draupadi allows her passions to spill over.
‘Fie upon the Pandavas,’ she says, ‘and fie upon the Panchalas and upon the Yadavas, who have all stood by watching while Duryodhana committed such wild atrocities upon my person.
‘What were you waiting for, Krishna? Why was I left to fend for myself? Why did my five husbands – those who can win the world if they desire it, I am told – sit by with hung heads while the enemy proceeded to remove the one piece of cloth covering my body?
‘Why is it that Karna, the king of Anga, that son of a charioteer, was allowed to insult me with such cruel words? Why was it left to the blind eye of virtue to clothe me, to protect me?
‘Why did it have to be Mother Nature that had to call the game of dice to a stop? Where were my brothers? Where was my father? I have no one but myself, O Kesava.’
Krishna Consoles Draupadi
She breaks into tears, and Krishna comes up to console her. Wiping her face clean, he makes her a promise. ‘The wives of those who have committed these offences against you and your husbands will one day weep like you are today, Panchali.
‘The men whom you have named will perish to the arrows of Arjuna, and their blood will wet the earth of this land.
‘I shall exert all my powers to make these words come true, and even if the Himavat was to split in two, I shall not relent in giving you your vengeance.’
Encouraged by Krishna, Dhrishtadyumna (the son of Drupada) also takes a vow. ‘I will slay Drona, my sister. Bhimasena has already vowed to kill Duryodhana and Duhsasana.
‘Shikhandi will kill the grandsire Bhishma, and Dhananjaya will see to the death of Karna. With the Panchalas, the Yadavas and the Pandavas fighting on one side, even Indra is not a match for our prowess.
‘The sons of Dhritarashtra are but mere trifles.’
Krishna then addresses Yudhishthir and says, ‘If I had been in Dwaraka, and if news of this game had reached me in time, I would not have allowed it to happen.
‘I would have used all my powers of persuasion to prevent Dhritarashtra from taking such a step. It is unfortunate that I got to know of what had happened only after I had returned to Dwaraka, and by then it was already too late.’
(An aside: The slant of this conversation – and Krishna’s claim that he was away from Dwaraka at the time – lends further strength to the notion that he did not rescue Draupadi during the disrobing.)
Yudhishthir asks Krishna, ‘If you were not in Dwaraka, O Krishna, where were you? And what were you engaged with so that you were not able to give attention to the happenings at Hastinapur?’
Krishna answers in the following manner.
The Battle with Salwa
While Krishna was staying back in Indraprastha after the completion of the Rajasuya, Salwa, the king of Saubha, attacks Dwaraka with an army in order to avenge the death of Shishupala.
From the name it sounds like this is the same man for whom Amba gives up the opportunity to become the queen of Hastinapur. But the text does not make any reference to that effect.
In any case, Salwa attacks Dwaraka with an entire army, and he defeats all the great Yadava warriors. By the time Krishna returns, he finds his city shorn of all its splendour, with gardens uprooted, houses mangled, and treasury looted.
‘Defend the city against further attacks,’ he commands Satyaki and the others. ‘I will go and punish that arrogant man for his deeds.’
So Krishna takes a portion of the Yadava army with him to the city of Saubha, and in the battle that follows, Salwa proves to be quite a match.
He takes the help of Danavas, Yakshas and Rakshasas to fight with Krishna, and uses many illusions to trip up the Yadava prince.
The most powerful of these is when he creates the vision of a man dressed in the garb of a Dwaraka messenger, who goes to Krishna in the middle of battle and says:
‘O Prince of Dwaraka, stop fighting! Your father, Vasudeva, has been slain by the army of Salwa. The city is in ruins. They need you to retreat and protect them.’
Krishna is Victorious
Krishna almost believes the messenger and asks his charioteer to retreat, but on closer thought, remembers that all the great Vrishni maharathas – Balarama, Pradyumna, Satyaki – could not have been defeated by Salwa’s army in Salwa’s absence.
So he soldiers on, and after another long period of fighting, kills Salwa and returns to Dwaraka victorious.
It is during this interval that the game of dice happens in Hastinapur, and the news reaches Krishna only after the battle with Salwa is finished, by which time the Pandavas had already lost their kingdoms and made their homes in Kamyaka.
‘Had I been present, I would have even slain Duryodhana if necessary. I would not have allowed the game to take place,’ he says to Yudhishthir. ‘But what can one do now? One cannot mend the flow of a river after the dam has broken.’
Saying so, after giving the Pandavas an explanation of why he could not come to their aid when they needed him, Krishna departs from Kamyaka.
Might or Forgiveness?
After Krishna leaves, the Pandavas take up residence for a short while in a nearby forest called Dwaitavana, next to a lake.
After living there for a few months, on a particularly still evening, Draupadi waits upon Yudhishthir and asks him how he manages to refrain from anger despite being subjected to so many wrongs.
In that context, she tells him a story of Bali and Prahlada.
Bali is the king of Asuras who makes an appearance during the Vamana avatar of Vishnu, and Prahlada, his grandfather, is the devotee that Narasimha protects from the mistreatment of Hiranyakashyapa.
In this frame, Bali asks his grandfather: ‘I have heard some people say that forgiveness is right, and some others claim that might is. I am confused by this contradiction. Which of these two do you think has the greater power?’
Prahlada answers: ‘Neither is right for every situation. The wisdom of a man lies in making the right choice for the right time. For instance, a person who always forgives is not taken seriously by his servants, friends or family members.
‘He will be drained of his wealth by covetous kinsmen, and at the end driven out of his house by his own wife.
‘On the other hand, he who never forgives is also destined to suffer much. His anger will alienate all the people around him, and he will struggle to make friends whom he can trust.
‘He draws many enemies to himself, and he must rule for a temporary time with fear as his weapon. Such men are always vanquished by rebellion among their own courtiers and people.
‘When the first opportunity arises, men who surround a wrathful person will bring him down by joining forces together.’
Forgiveness over Might
Now, Prahlada gives a short list of situations in which forgiveness ought to be preferred over punishment.
- If a person who had previously done you a service wrongs you, you must forgive him keeping in mind his past good deed.
- If an offence is committed by a man out of ignorance, he is worthy of being forgiven because wisdom and learning are not easy things to attain.
- On the other hand, those who wrong you intentionally and then plead for pardon, even if their mistake is a small one, ought to be punished.
- The first offence of any person should be forgiven with a warning; all subsequent mistakes of the same sort should be punished.
- Sometimes forgiveness is of practical use; a person might be popular, or he might be of use to you in the future. In these times, choose to forgive.
- If a person commits a sin unwillingly, then it is better to examine his plea through a judicious enquiry, and then pardon him if it is found that he is not guilty.
‘Prahlada advises Bali to be conscious of place and time while choosing between forgiveness and might,’ Draupadi tells Yudhishthir, concluding the story.
‘But the Kaurava princes have harmed us repeatedly in various ways, O King. It is important that you do not fall into the trap of being ever-forgiving, thus harming yourself and your family while benefiting your foes.’
This conversation between Draupadi and Yudhishthir escalates quickly, with the former arguing that action is the greatest virtue and the latter stressing the importance of patience and trust in fate.
Bhimasena joins them after a while, taking Draupadi’s side, and even throwing at Yudhishthir a few thinly veiled insults. ‘It is because of you we are here,’ he says.
‘The greatest of warriors the world has ever seen, and the most beautiful and chaste woman that has ever taken birth – we all sit here, waiting, just because you do not see the wisdom of attacking our foes.
‘We are Kshatriyas, Brother, and for Kshatriyas, fighting is the greatest virtue. Let us stop this silly pandering to vows, and take up arms against the sons of Dhritarashtra.’
A Practical Matter
Yudhishthir tries a few times to explain his position to Bhima and to Draupadi. But when it fails, he resorts to practical arguments. ‘I have no doubt that we can defeat Duryodhana in battle, Bhima,’ he says.
‘But remember that Bhishma, our grandsire, and Drona, our preceptor, will fight on his side. So will Ashwatthama, Kripacharya and Karna. Between them, these five men know all about the science of warfare and weapons.
‘How do we defeat them in an all out war?’
Bhima retreats thoughtfully at this, and just as the argument ends, Vyasa arrives and takes Yudhishthir aside. ‘I know what you seek, O King,’ he says.
‘I shall give you a mantra that I know you have the capability to receive. Pass it on to Arjuna, and send him to the northern mountains in search of Indra.
‘The king of gods will equip his son with all the weapons that he needs to vanquish foes like Bhishma and Drona.’
Yudhishthir receives the mantra, and at an appropriate time, gives it to Arjuna and asks him to journey to the mountains beyond the Gandhamadana.
The Brahmins at the hermitage perform the required rituals, and on an auspicious day, Arjuna sets out – with the Gandiva and the two quivers – toward the north.
In due course, he crosses the Gandhamadana and reaches a spot known as Indrakila. Just as he is about to settle under a tree, Indra appears in the guise of a Brahmin and asks him to make a wish.
‘I want to gain knowledge of all the weapons in the world,’ says Arjuna.
Indra smiles and replies, ‘You are in Indrakila, O Prince. This is a place where men attain utter purity of the heart. What need have you here of weapons? Ask for something else. Something more valuable.’
Arjuna shakes his head. ‘I do not desire a state of bliss, my lord. For a Kshatriya, weapons and war are the greatest sources of happiness. My thirst for revenge for all the wrongs heaped upon my brothers and wife has driven me here.
‘It surpasses all my other desires. So please grant me knowledge of all the weapons in existence.’
Indra says, ‘If that is what you seek, that is what you will get. But I can give you this knowledge only after you have worshipped and pleased Shiva, the holder of the trident.
‘So devote yourself, my son, to obtaining the blessings of the Pashupati, and only then will I grant you your wish.’
Saying so, Indra disappears, and Arjuna readies himself for a long period of penance in Shiva’s honour.
The Arjunabhigamana Parva ends at this point, making way for the Kairata Parva.