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 Nivatakavacha Yudha Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
The Return of Arjuna
The Pandavas live for a few days on the summit of Kubera, and Draupadi gets her wish of exploring that place. After that, they return to the hermitage of Arishthishena.
Here Dhaumya takes Yudhishthir to one side and shows him the mountain Mandara, on top of which sits the peak of Meru.
‘That is where all the gods of heaven reside, O King,’ Dhaumya says. ‘The sun revolves around this mountain, and all the aspects of creation – from the smallest mite of dust to the largest animal – have come into being due to that very place.’
The Pandavas move a bit closer to the mountain, aided by Dhaumya. The sage points out to them all the ten cardinal points of the sky, and also the setting and rising points of the sun in various seasons.
While the king and his brothers are engaged in long periods of contemplation, wandering about in those surroundings and listening to stories from the many sages, Arjuna takes his leave from Indra.
The god of kings instructs Matali to leave his son near the Gandhamadana.
Reunion with the Pandavas
Having arrived at the mountain, Arjuna, with matted locks, first pays his respects to Dhaumya, and then in turn to Yudhishthir, Bhimasena and the twins.
He then meets Draupadi as if she were his sister-in-law. This reunion is described in the text without much fanfare, in almost prosaic fashion.
Arjuna then sits down with his family and tells them what he had been doing these last five years. The rest of the Pandavas also fill him in on events that had occurred in their lives in his absence.
That night, Indra appears to them in all his splendour and promises them that victory will be theirs now that Partha has been equipped with all the divine weapons in existence.
Yudhishthir asks Arjuna for details of what he did with all the weapons he procured from Indra and the other celestials.
Arjuna tells him two stories – one concerning the Nivatakavachas, and the other about a flying city called Hiranyapuri.
Arjuna wages two main battles when he is at Amaravati: one with a class of Rakshasas called Nivatakavachas, and the other with Rakshasas on a floating mountain called Hiranyapuri. We will look at them both in turn.
The last time we met Arjuna in Amaravati, he was busy learning dance from Chitrasena and earning curses from Urvasi.
Now, after his training with the Gandharva is complete, he is back in the court of Indra, and all the celestials shower him with weapons of all kinds.
Taking them, and ascending the chariot with Matali holding the reins, Arjuna goes into battle with the Nivatakavachas.
These Asuras live under the ocean, in the abode of Varuna, and fight with great skill from within the water using powers of illusion. They try doing that with Arjuna, but the combination of his valour and the weapons prove too strong.
There occurs a moment in the battle when the Daityas disappear out of sight and rain weapons down on the Pandava from behind the cloak of invisibility.
This fells Matali as well, and the chariot becomes unstable. But Arjuna regains control with the use of the Vajrayudha, Indra’s favourite thunderbolt, and destroys all the Nivatakavachas.
While they are leaving the city, Arjuna asks Matali, ‘This is a beautiful place. Why do the gods not reside here?’
And Matali replies, ‘The Nivatakavachas appeased the Grandsire by means of their many austerities, and asked for two boons, O Arjuna. One, they wished for this city to become theirs, and two, that none of the celestials must be able to vanquish them in battle.
‘It is for that reason Sakra bestowed all those weapons upon you, so that you, a mortal but an incarnation of Nara, could perform the desired task.’
On their return to Amaravati, however, they chance upon a mighty mountain floating in mid-air. Arjuna points to it and asks, ‘What is that wondrous sight, Matali?’
‘That, O Pandava,’ says Matali, ‘is the city of Hiranyapuri. A number of Asuras live there, protected by the boons earned by Pulama and Kalaka, two Daitya women of yore.
‘Their wish was to procure a divine aerial city furnished with gems and gold. They also asked the Grandsire to grant them a boon whereby they are invincible at the hands of gods, Rakshasas and Nagas.
‘That leaves just you, a man, Arjuna, to defeat them.’
Arjuna obliges here too, and after a long battle, with a little help from the Pashupatastra, wins back Hiranyapuri on behalf of Indra.
On his return to Amaravati, he is given a hero’s welcome. ‘You have surpassed all the great warriors of Earth, my son,’ declares Indra. ‘With these weapons at your disposal, there is indeed no one in the world of men that can match you.
‘With you fighting by his side, Yudhishthir will certainly win back his lost kingdom, and he will come to rule the entire land of Aryavarta in due course.’
Display of Weapons
The morning after, Arjuna performs a few rites of worship directed at the gods, and sets out all the weapons he has acquired on the floor of his hut.
The celestial armour that Indra gives him. The Vajrayudha. The Pashupatastra. The Brahmastra. The Devadatta. The Gandiva. Everything.
But the portents that appear, surprisingly, are fearsome. The Earth trembles as though scared. The river roars, threatens to swallow its bank.
A great wind tugs at the thatched roofs. Thunder and lightning descend upon them from cloudless skies. Not once does Arjuna shine with the Vedic power of his weapons.
All the celestials appear on the scene immediately, and accompanying them are the great sages, the Siddhas, the important Yakshas and the Rakshasas. Sage Lomasa is there too, and so is Dhaumya.
From amid the crowd, Narada walks out and addresses Arjuna. ‘Partha,’ he says, ‘you must not make light of the gifts that you have been given. Do not call upon them unless you have a great need to do so.
Watch how the mere act of bringing them out into the open has plunged Mother Earth into fear. The celestials have trusted you with great power, O Pandava. You must wear it with the humility it deserves.
‘Do not bring your weapons out again unless you are faced with a foe so powerful that he cannot be defeated in any other way. You will have need for them when the war starts and you have to fight for your kingdom.
‘But even then, you must exercise caution in the use of these armaments, for one misuse is all it will take for the world to be destroyed completely.’
Departure from Kailasa
The Pandavas spend a further four years on the mountain slopes of Kailasa, making full use of Kubera’s hospitality. These are peaceful years in their lives.
They live like gods under the patronage of Vaishravana, attended upon by Rakshasas, and with numerous wise sages for company. They spend their time hunting, sporting, practicing their skill in arms, and listening to spiritual discourses.
This rounds up ten years of the Pandavas’ exile (the first year together, five years of Arjuna’s absence, and four years on Kailasa). At the beginning of the eleventh year, Bhimasena, accompanied by Arjuna and the twins, approaches Yudhishthir.
‘Brother,’ he says, ‘the time has come for us to once again seek the world of men. We have been pampered for a long time here in Kailasa. There is danger that we might come to like this life a little too much, and forget our battle with the Kauravas.’
Yudhishthir understands the intentions of his brothers, and sets about taking the leave of all the Rakshasas and Yakshas who had attended upon them all these years. He takes leave of the mountain itself, saying:
‘Perhaps when all this is over, O Kailasa, we shall return and seek your blessings with calmer souls.’
Ghatotkacha arrives with his retinue of Rakshasas to carry the Pandavas back to the Visala tree, where Draupadi had first seen the Saugandhika lotus.
From there they go to the hermitage of Nara, and then to the abode of Vrishaparva. They reach the capital of Subahu, where they had left all their chariots and servants, and having dismissed Ghatotkacha, travel along the river Ganga.
From here they travel westward along the course of River Saraswati, and they arrive in the forest of Dwaita. By this time, the twelfth year of their exile commences.
This brings the Nivatakavacha Yudha Parva to a close.