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 Ajagara Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
Bhima Gets Captured
During the narration of the Pandavas’ exile, Sage Vaisampayana mentions in passing that Yudhishthir once saved Bhimasena from the clutches of a snake. Janamejaya is surprised by this.
‘My grandfather is considered the most powerful of all men. He had the strength of ten thousand elephants in his arms. He defeated the entire army of Kubera on his own at the Kailasa Mountain.
‘How, then, O Sage, did he get captured by a single snake near the hermitage of Vrishaparva?’
‘The same question, O King,’ replies Vaisampayana, ‘occurred to Bhimasena as well. He went on his own to explore some of the surrounding forests amid the Himalayan hills, and he came upon a cave infested with snakes.
‘All the smaller reptiles slithered away from the path of Vrikodara, but the king of the cave, a long and mighty serpent, coiled himself around Bhimasena before he could leap away.
‘Even after securing its grip, it did not let go in spite of the Pandava’s fervent exertions.’
The Serpent King
Bhima asks the serpent (continues Vaisampayana) how this is possible. ‘O Snake, I have the might of the world in my arms, yet you overpower me. You must be a celestial, or a Rakshasa who is strong beyond imagination.
‘How is it that I have come to face defeat in your hands?’
The snake hisses in half-laughter. ‘It is due to the boon of Agastya that I am blessed with enough strength to capture you, O Bhimasena. For better or for worse, you were destined to become my food on this day.
‘Indeed, I shall inject my poison into you without delay, so that I might feast upon your meat in leisure.’
‘But who are you, O Serpent?’ Bhima asks. ‘What did you do to earn the curse of Agastya?’
‘My name is Nahusha,’ replies the serpent. ‘You must have heard of me. I am in fact one of your ancestors, born to Ayu and his wife Indumati.
Some unfortunate events have led to my being cursed by Agastya, and I was told that a wise man that knows the relationships between the soul and the Supreme Being would one day come and free me from my punishment.’
The snake leans in closer, takes another look at Bhimasena. ‘You are not that wise person, are you?’
Bhima shakes his head. ‘I have been called many things, O Snake,’ he says, ‘but never that. Perhaps this is what has been written in my destiny, notwithstanding all the prophecies that the gods have spoken in my favour.
‘This is fate playing her cruel hand, and what else can one do but submit to it?’
He goes on to lament at length about how his brothers and wife would be left upon his death without a protector, and how the Pandavas might even forgive the Kauravas without his constant goading.
Just as the serpent is about to strike out with its fangs, though, Yudhishthir arrives at the mouth of the cave and says, ‘Halt!’
One look at the king standing at the mouth of the cave and Nahusha realizes that this could be the wise man that Agastya referred to all those years ago. His grip on Bhima loosens a touch, and he turns his head to face the eldest Pandava.
‘Yes?’ he says, forked tongue slipping over shiny scales. ‘I am in the middle of my daily meal. Unless you have come to offer yourself too –’
Yudhishthir joins his hands, bows to Nahusha, and introduces himself. ‘My younger brother here, sir, is not always tactful of tongue. But he means no harm, I assure you. Is there anything I can do to persuade you to let him go?
‘He will bring back enough meat to last you a whole season on my orders, I promise. He is the prince of a Great Kingdom. Why must you kill him when you can satiate your hunger on any stray beast?’
‘You speak like a schooled man,’ says Nahusha, and in his mind the suspicion deepens that this might be the deliverer of the curse. ‘I have a few questions for you.
‘If you answer them to my satisfaction, I will let your brother go. But if you do not, I shall eat him and you both. Do you agree to those terms?’
Yudhishthir agrees, and Nahusha asks his questions.
Who is a Brahmin?
‘Who is a Brahmin and what is the only knowledge that is worth knowing?’ asks Nahusha.
‘A Brahmin is he within whom we see the following traits: truth, charity, forgiveness, good conduct, benevolence, and observance of rites in accordance with his order.
‘As for knowledge, we must all strive to know the eternal Brahma, in which there is neither happiness nor misery. Do you agree?’
Nahusha replies, ‘What if the qualities you name are present inside a Sudra? Will you consider him a Brahmin as well? And what is this thing that you speak of that contains neither happiness nor misery? I have not encountered such a being anywhere.’
‘He who contains those qualities, O Serpent,’ says Yudhishthir, ‘can never be a Sudra.
‘He is without doubt a Brahmin, even if he belongs to the Sudra order by birth. On the other hand, he who does not possess these traits cannot be called a Brahmin even if he is one by birth.
‘About your question of knowledge, it is indeed true that in times of heat, cold does not exist, and in times of cold, heat does not exist. But there are times, are there not, during which heat and cold are in such harmony that they can both be claimed to not exist?
‘That is the nature of the Brahmic state, in which your misery and happiness combine with such perfection as to annihilate each other.’
Nahusha is satisfied with the latter answer but still challenges the former. ‘If you recognize a Brahmin by his conduct alone, then why do we have the distinction of caste? Is it not futile?’
A Person’s Caste
‘A person’s caste, O Serpent,’ replies Yudhishthir, ‘cannot be determined with any certainty because there is much promiscuity between the four orders. Men of all castes beget children on women of all castes.
‘So character and conduct are the only true ways by which one can ascertain a person’s caste. Indeed, the natal ceremony of an infant is performed while it is still attached to the umbilical cord.
‘And every person is assumed to be a Sudra until he or she is initiated into the Vedas. So whoever conforms to the rules of pure and virtuous conduct, I have no qualm about proclaiming him a Brahmin, no matter what order he was assigned at birth.’
Nahusha gives some thought to Yudhishthir’s answer, and decides that it pleases him. ‘You have proven to be a man wise beyond your years and station, O King,’ he says. ‘As reward, I free your brother Vrikodara.’
Nahusha now tells Yudhishthir his story.
‘Even those who attain heaven are susceptible to vices, O King,’ Nahusha says wistfully. ‘Wealth and prosperity – both of which are present in such abundance in the land of the gods – can intoxicate the wisest, most valiant men.
‘I, too, was overpowered with this infatuation, and had to serve this period of punishment to rediscover myself.
‘I possess a power by which I can drain away the energy – both physical and mental – of the person I set my eyes upon. That is indeed why Bhimasena was unable to take recourse to the strength of his muscles when I captured him.
‘It is due to this very same power that I rose to the status of a powerful king in heaven. All the Brahmarshis and the Rajarshis used to draw my chariot. I made them do it, you see, so that everyone would know that they were mere slaves to my will.’
The Curse of Agastya
‘It was this arrogance that led to my downfall. One day, my foot touched the back of the high-souled Agastya, and he, consumed by rage, cursed me so that I would become a serpent and spend the rest of my life in a dark cave here on Earth.
‘I fell on his feet and asked for forgiveness, of course, at which his heart warmed, and he said, “A virtuous king of your own clan will come to free you of this prison caused by your vanity.”
‘I thought Bhimasena was the person who would deliver me, but when I saw you, Yudhishthir, I was certain.
‘May you and your brother encounter all the good luck in the world, and may you abide with utmost happiness in this land of men. When the time comes, I am certain that we will meet again in heaven. For now, let me take your leave.’
Saying so, Nahusha sheds his serpentine form and ascends to heaven as his celestial self. Yudhishthir and Bhimasena make their way back to the hermitage, where they recite everything that had happened to Dhaumya and the other Pandavas.
All the assembled Brahmins admonish Bhimasena and forbid him from venturing out into the dangerous woods on his own in the future.
This brings an end to the Ajagara Parva.