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 Pauloma Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
Bhrigu and Puloma
The sage Bhrigu, one of the Saptarishis who was created by Brahma, had a wife named Puloma. When she became heavily pregnant with their child, one day Bhrigu leaves her alone at their hermitage and goes to perform his ablutions.
At this time, a Rakshasa, also by name Puloma, appears at their house and gets besotted by the sage’s wife.
Now it so happens that Puloma (the woman) was in the past first promised to Puloma (the Rakshasa) before she was given in marriage to Bhrigu.
The Rakshasa questions the live sacrificial fire burning at the hermit’s hut whether this is fair or right. ‘This woman has first been promised to me, O Agni,’ says the Rakshasa, ‘and now I have to watch her bear another man’s children.’
Agni does not reply at first, for he does not wish to lie by denying the Rakshasa’s words, nor does he wish to earn Bhrigu’s wrath by admitting their truth.
But on further goading from the Rakshasa, Agni relents and concedes that yes, Puloma was indeed first promised to him but was later given in marriage to Bhrigu.
This response from the god of fire angers the Rakshasa further, and in a fit of rage, he assumes the shape of a boar and carries Puloma away.
The speed with which the boar carried away the maiden is said to have exceeded that of the wind and even of thought. This causes the child of Bhrigu, lying in her womb, to slip and drop to the ground.
A premature child is called a ‘chyut’ in Sanskrit, so the son of Bhrigu came to be known as Chyavana. (Chyavana also means ‘he who is torn’.)
The Rakshasa, meanwhile, takes one look at the infant Chyavana, and is turned into a heap of ashes. Puloma picks up her son and returns home.
Beholding this, Brahma creates a river with all the tears that Puloma has shed during the ordeal, and shapes its path so that it flows by the hermitage of Bhrigu. This river is named Vadhusara.
Curse on Agni
For his trouble, Agni ends up earning a curse from Bhrigu all the same. After the sage returns and hears from his wife how the fire god betrayed them by siding with the Rakshasa, Bhrigu decrees that Agni will ‘eat of all things’.
The curse by Bhrigu angers Agni. He says, ‘Rishi, I was asked a question in the capacity of a witness, and I told the truth as I know it. Is this wrong? Is this the sin for which you have cursed me?
‘Know that I have the power to curse you as well, but I shall not, because I hold sages such as you in high regard.
‘Also, listen. All the great multitudes of men in the world make their offerings to both the Gods and the Pitris (ancestors) through me. I am present at the daily homa, at places of sacrifice, at times of union between man and woman.
‘The Gods and the Pitris are fed through me, because they eat the clarified butter that is poured into me. Thus, I am their mouth. How, then, am I to be the eater of all things?’
Saying this, Agni retreats from all places, and refuses to appear in the world of men, starving it of warmth, light and the means of worship.
The sages then go to Brahma and implore him to placate Agni. The Creator addresses the god of fire and says, ‘You are the supreme power that creates and destroys, feeds and burns.
‘It shall be so that whatever you touch from now on will be pure and holy. And in order to make the Rishi’s curse come true, you shall have the first part in every offering that is made to you.
‘You shall not exist just as the mouth to the Devas and Pitris, but you shall purify everything that is poured into you by taking your part of it and eating it first. Thus you shall be the eater of all things, just as Bhrigu wishes.’
And Agni bowed to Brahma and said, ‘So be it.’
It was thus that fire returned to human dwellings, and ever since, whenever an offering is made at a temple or a ceremony, it reaches the Gods and the Pitris only after a share of it has been consumed by the lord of fire.
Ruru and Pramadvara
Ruru is the son of Chyavana’s son, Pramati. Pramadvara is the daughter of King Vishwavasu of the Gandharvas and the celestial dancer Menaka. She was abandoned at birth by the hermitage of Sage Sthulakesa, who raises her as his own child.
Ruru and Pramadvara fall in love, and with the blessings of their elders, make preparations to get married. But a few days to the wedding, while out in the forest in the company of her female friends, Pramadvara accidentally steps on a serpent, is bitten by it, and falls to her death.
This plunges Ruru into grief, and he wanders deep into the forest, lamenting out loud to the gods that if he had done any charitable deeds in his life, the merits of those should be transferred to Pramadvara and increase her life span.
A messenger of the gods, presumably Narada, appears now and says, ‘Ruru, your utterances are ineffectual. No one whose days on Earth are finished can be made to return by mere words.
The daughter of the Gandharva has finished her time in this realm, and therefore she has been taken away. However, the gods have provided in her destiny a means by which her life may be restored.’
Ruru sits up, interested. ‘What is this method you speak of, O Messenger?’
‘If you resign half of your own life to your bride, Young Sage, your Pramadvara will rise from her death.’
To which Ruru answers: ‘I shall most willingly give half my life for the sake of my beloved.’
The sacrifice works, of course, and before long Pramadvara is back on her feet, her usual beautiful self. Ruru marries her, and in time brings to life a son by name Sunaka.
Sunaka, as it happens, is an ancestor of Saunaka-Kulapati, who is the king to which Sauti is telling the story.
A snake that does not bite?
At their wedding ceremony, Ruru takes a vow that he will kill every serpent that crosses his way. For a few years he keeps this promise too, carrying a staff for the purpose.
But then one day he sees an old serpent of the Dundubha species, and just as he raises his weapon, the snake says, ‘I belong to a species that never bites a human being, O Brahmin. So is it not unfair that you wish to punish me for a crime I know not how to commit?’
‘A snake that does not bite?’ says Ruru suspiciously, his staff still half-raised. ‘Why should I believe you?’
‘I was actually not born a serpent, O Sage,’ replied the snake. ‘I was born a Brahmin, and I was a sage by name Sahasrapat. It is by the curse of another Brahmin that I became a snake.’
Now curious, lowering his weapon, Ruru asks, ‘For what were you cursed, Snake? And how long will your form remain so?’
Sahasrapat recounts the following story:
‘A long time ago, I used to be friends with an impetuous ascetic named Khagama. On an inauspicious day, I got the misguided idea of trying to jest with him with a mock snake fashioned out of blades of grass.
‘He was engaged in the fire-sacrifice then, so he was not amused by my attempt at frolic. In fact, it enraged him to a point where he placed a curse on me saying, ‘Since you ventured to frighten me with a fake snake, you shall be turned into a serpent that cannot bite.’
‘After his anger had died down, when I begged him to take back his curse, he said that a sage by name Ruru, the son of Pramati, would come and deliver me from the curse.
‘You are the very same Ruru, O Sage, and now I can leave my snake-body to assume my real form. Once I have regained my true self, I shall tell you something for your good.’
A Mention of Astika
And then Sahasrapat, in his original form, said to Ruru, ‘My boy, a Brahmin must never take the life of another creature. A Brahmin should ever be mild, and should encourage other people on a path of wisdom, faith and peace.
‘Being stern and wielding the sceptre should be left to the Kshatriyas. You should follow in the footsteps of a great Brahmin from the old days who went by the name of Astika.’
‘Who is Astika, O Sage?’
‘Astika is the man who delivered the race of serpents from the wrath of Janamejaya, the king of Hastinapur, who embarked upon a great snake-sacrifice to kill every serpent on Earth.’
Ruru joined his hands at the chest and said, ‘Tell me the story of this Astika, O Sage, and that of Janamejaya.’
‘That tale you will hear when the time is right, my boy,’ says Sahasrapat, and vanishes. This brings to a close the Pauloma Parva.