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 Ghosha Yatra Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
The Ghosha Yatra Parva begins with a Brahmin’s visit to Dhritarashtra’s court in Hastinapur. ‘I have come here from Dwaitavana, Your Highness,’ he tells the king after taking his seat in court.
‘And I have seen the sons of your brother, the five Pandavas, and their wife Draupadi.’
He then goes on to describe in great detail the amount and kind of suffering (in his view) that the Pandavas are going through. This plunges Dhritarashtra into sadness, though in the corner of his mind he realizes that he is partly to blame for the state of affairs.
‘How is it that Yudhishthir, the son of Dharma himself,’ laments the king, ‘must go through such travails? The princes had been used to lives of such luxury in Indraprastha, and now they sleep on hard ground, with just a thin fabric between them and the earth.
‘And what of Panchali, the fire-born, the daughter of Drupada, who lives in the forest like the wife of a commoner. Their bodies are ravaged by the elements, this Brahmin says, and they are stricken to the bone.’
Shakuni Guides Duryodhana
Dhritarashtra continues: ‘On the other hand, look at my son Duryodhana, my brother-in-law Shakuni, and that king of Anga, Karna. They have committed nothing but rash acts, and yet here they are living such princely lives.
‘Where are the consequences of their actions? Where are the fruits of the Pandavas’ labour? Is it really true that good things happen to good people, and that bad things are in store for the bad?
‘Or is it just that the world moves to an invisible, unknowable rhythm, sometimes fair, sometimes not?’
While Dhritarashtra is speaking out thus in court, experiencing in equal parts remorse for the past and fear for the future, Shakuni goes to Duryodhana and tells him of the king’s thoughts, which sadden the prince.
In order to cheer him up, Shakuni suggests that they should all visit the Pandavas in the forest with a view to ridiculing their penury.
‘We have a cattle station next to the lake of Dwaitavana,’ Shakuni reminds Duryodhana. ‘We can tell the king that we wish to go there and inspect our cattle.
‘That is by no means unnatural. And while we are there, we can visit the Pandavas and witness their suffering. That will put your mind at ease, O Prince.’
Later, when the four of them (Duryodhana, Duhsasana, Karna and Shakuni) are paying their respects to Dhritarashtra, a cowherd named Samanga appears in court and speaks of the cattle that is being tended to in Dwaitavana.
Pretending as if the thought just struck them, Karna and Shakuni rise in their seats and address Duryodhana.
‘I hear that the forest surrounding our cowshed is a delightful one, O Prince. This is also a great season to go hunting. Let us, therefore, yoke our horses to chariots and set out into the woods.’
Dhritarashtra understands the hidden meaning and tries to warn his son. ‘That is the place where the Pandavas are said to reside. If I were you, Duryodhana, I would be wary of going there.
‘Have you not heard how powerful Arjuna and Bhimasena have become since we last saw them? We were unable to face them then; what makes you think that we shall be able to now?
‘Heed my words, boy, and if you have to go to Dwaitavana, let it be to ask for forgiveness of the sons of Pandu.’
‘Forgiveness!’ says Duryodhana, standing up. ‘I have no intention of meeting my cousins, let alone pray for their mercy. I wish nothing more than to sport in the forest while minding our cattle, Father.
‘It is hunting season too, so we will see if we cannot bring down a few deer and feast on their meat.’
Dhritarashtra is not convinced, but he reluctantly allows them to go. A large retinue of chariots, servants and soldiers therefore sets out, with Duryodhana at its head.
Once they reach Dwaitavana, the Kauravas set up camp at a distance of four miles away from where the Pandavas are residing.
Duryodhana spends a few days examining his cattle, taking note of the number of ageing cows, calves that require taming, those that have not yet been weaned, and the number of new cows to be bought to keep up with demand for the following year.
After finishing that task, they begin to hunt around the area, finding hyenas, wild buffaloes, boars and deer. The courtiers that have accompanied them to the forest also indulge themselves by sporting and dancing.
Quarrel with Gandharvas
After a few days of this, Duryodhana comes to the lake and instructs his men to build tents along its bank. But when the men take up tools with the intention of beginning work, a large number of Gandharvas appear on the scene and ask them to go away.
‘We are the servants of Duryodhana,’ the workmen tell them. ‘He has commanded us to set up pleasure-houses on the bank of the lake.’
‘This lake does not belong to your arrogant master,’ the Gandharvas reply. ‘We came here first, and we desire to sport in this lake. Go of your own accord or we will drive you away.’
The men return to the main camp and report to Duryodhana what had happened. The prince, beside himself with rage, orders soldiers to march toward the lake and fight the Gandharvas.
‘Let them be taught a lesson,’ he says, ‘to think better of crossing paths with the prince of Hastinapur.’
What follows is a fierce battle between the Gandharvas and the Kauravas. Though Karna, Shakuni and Duryodhana match the followers of Kubera for a while, their army is ultimately routed and they are taken captive.
Some of the survivors among Duryodhana’s men flee, crying for help, to the hermitage of Yudhishthir, and ask him for help.
When news reaches the Pandavas that Duryodhana, along with his wives and entourage, has been taken prisoner by the Gandharvas, Bhimasena’s first reaction is to laugh. But Yudhishthir reprimands him sternly and says:
‘Vrikodara, it does not become you to take pleasure in the suffering of our kinsmen. Disputes and fights are common between men who share the same lineage. But when an outside force threatens one of us, O Bhima, we must all be together.
‘Remember that our vow is not complete yet, Bhima. This is still the twelfth year of exile. Only after we finish the thirteenth year of hiding are we deemed worthy of our lost kingdoms.
‘Only then will the Kauravas become our enemies. Now, in the current state, he is the king of the land and we the subjects. It is the duty of every able-bodied subject, is it not, to save the life of his king?
Arjuna is the first among the brothers to be stirred into action by Yudhishthir’s speech. He picks up his weapons and stands by the doorway, waiting. Bhimasena goes next, a smile still on his face. Nakula and Sahadeva follow.
‘Do not fight the Gandharvas unless you have to, Arjuna,’ Yudhishthir tells them as they walk out. ‘Try to placate them by words of conciliation.
‘Many of these people we may have already met during our time in Kubera’s mansion. Do not raise arms on our friends unless they refuse to let Suyodhana go.’
True to Yudhishthir’s advice, Arjuna first tries to speak with the leader of the Gandharva army, hoping to convince them that setting Duryodhana free is the most sensible course of action.
‘Let my brother go free,’ he says. ‘Whatever his sins are, I am certain that they do not deserve punishment of this sort.’
The Gandharvas laugh in reply. ‘No one commands us except Kubera, O Hero. If you desire to win back the freedom of this vain man, then you must fight us for it.’
Arjuna persists with his attempts at negotiation. ‘Capturing a man’s wives without first vanquishing him is despicable behaviour for a warrior.
‘You have committed an act that will blight the honour of the entire Gandharva clan. Make amends for it, please, by at least releasing the women.’
The Gandharvas do not agree to these terms either, so the Pandavas are left with no choice but to fight. Arjuna signals the battle’s beginning by shooting a bunch of pointed arrows into the sky, which pierce the earth at the feet of the Gandharva footmen.
The Gandharvas respond with a volley of arrows of their own, and the two armies charge at each other.
Fight against Chitrasena
A fierce fight then erupts between Arjuna and Chitrasena the king of Gandharvas. (This is the same Chitrasena that taught Arjuna to dance when the latter was visiting Amaravati.)
To begin with, the Gandharva king conceals himself with the power of his illusion and rains down weapons upon the Pandava. But Arjuna is easily able to ward them off.
He uses the weapon called the Sabdaveda, which breaks Chitrasena’s magic and reveals him to the naked eye.
By this time, Chitrasena is also exhausted and ready to surrender. So he smiles at his old friend and says, ‘I accept my defeat at your hands, Arjuna, though I did not expect anything different.’
Arjuna cries out in pleasure at recognizing Chitrasena, and the two friends sit down in their respective chariots to enquire about each other’s welfare. Arjuna then asks Chitrasena if he could free Duryodhana from captivity.
‘I will, of course, my friend,’ Chitrasena replies. ‘You have won this battle fair and square. But I must warn you that Duryodhana and his men came here in order to mock you. I knew of their intentions and sent my army to teach them a lesson.’
All the Kauravas captured by the Gandharva people are thus freed at Chitrasena’s command. The celestial also revives all the people who lost their lives during this fruitless fight. And having blessed Arjuna, Bhima and the two twins, he ascends to heaven.
The Pandavas bring Duryodhana back to the hermitage, where Yudhishthir addresses him and says, ‘Go back to your capital, O son of the Kuru race. Do not be despondent or cheerless on account of this experience.’
And Duryodhana, having saluted his cousin and overwhelmed with shame and disgrace, sets out to return to Hastinapur.
Duryodhana is consumed by shame at this incident. He tells Shakuni and Karna (both of whom have fled the battle scene) that he intends to kill himself.
Saying this, he casts away all his royal robes and sits down under a tree in the garb of an ascetic. His wives and kinsmen are worried at this, but are left with no choice but to allow the prince his space.
Now the Daityas and Danavas of the world come together to perform a sacrifice in order to restore Duryodhana’s confidence. The ceremony gives rise to a strange goddess with a wide-open mouth, and she gets sent to the forest where Duryodhana is staying.
‘Bring him here so that we might tell him about his destiny,’ the Danavas instruct the goddess.
In a twinkling of the eye, Duryodhana disappears from the spot where he is meditating and reappears in the nether regions amid scores of Asuras and Danavas. After the rousing cheers of welcome have abated, the chief steps forward and says the following words.
‘Those who kill themselves go straight to hell, O Prince. The vow of starvation does not become you. The truth that you do not know is that your upper body is as hard as a diamond.
‘It is invulnerable to weapons of all kinds. The lower part of your body is as comely as a flower, designed to capture the hearts of women. You have been put together by Shiva and Parvati themselves, Duryodhana.’
The Danavas Revive Duryodhana
‘Thousands of Danavas have taken birth on Earth in this age to assist you in the battle against our enemies. They will possess all the great Kshatriyas when the time comes.
‘If you are wary of the danger posed by Arjuna, O Prince, know that the powerful Narakasura has taken birth as Karna, and he has been equipped with the desire and the knowhow to slay the third Pandava.
‘There are also thousands of Danavas called the Samshaptakas who will come to your aid in time for the battle. Therefore, grieve not, because your victory is assured with all the strength at your disposal.
‘Cast aside, therefore, all these thoughts of killing yourself, and look ahead to the time when the entire world of men will bow to your command.’
Duryodhana wakes up in the morning from a deep sleep in the forest, and considers the dream a vision sent by well-meaning friends. He finds that his vigour has returned, and that he no longer feels that the Pandavas are unbeatable.
And heading his entourage, flanked on either side by Karna and Shakuni (who are themselves feeling better after a night’s sleep), Duryodhana returns to Hastinapur.
Karna Conquers the World
Soon after Duryodhana returns to Hastinapur after being saved by the Pandavas, Karna sets out on an expedition of conquest at the head of a large army.
Over the course of a few months, he defeats many of the significant kings of Aryavarta and forces them to pay tribute to the house of Kuru.
Now, a skeptic might argue that this is more an effect of the army rather than its leader, but one has to admit that even allowing for that, this feat is impressive.
It is in fact the first piece of recorded evidence that the Mahabharata gives of Karna’s much vaunted capabilities.
Karna heads forth to all four directions and establishes Duryodhana’s rule, just as the Pandavas did with Yudhishthir twelve years ago, though not to the same extent. However, he does enough to impress Duryodhana beyond words.
This achievement by Karna helps further reinstate Duryodhana’s belief that the Pandavas can be beaten. He now entertains thoughts of performing the Rajasuya and declaring himself an emperor.
The Golden Plough
Duryodhana summons his priests after Karna returns from his expedition of conquest. ‘All of Aryavarta now pledges allegiance to me, O Brahmins,’ he says.
‘I wish to now perform the great Rajasuya sacrifice, so that the land might sing my praises as a powerful emperor.’
The Brahmins have a couple of objections to this. ‘Until the reigning emperor, Yudhishthir, is alive, O Prince,’ they say, ‘you cannot be crowned as one.
‘Also, your father is alive, and it is said in the scriptures that a performer of the Rajasuya must be one whose father has passed away. How can you be called an emperor when your father still rules the land?’
They do have an alternative, though. ‘But we know of a ceremony which is equal in status to the Rajasuya. From all the gold that you have amassed as tribute from your allies, command that a plough be made, and use it to plough the sacrificial compound.
‘While you do this, make sure that all your allies are present to witness the act, and that learned sages are chanting verses from the Vedas.’
Duryodhana Becomes Emperor
Delighted at the suggestion, Duryodhana takes permission from Dhritarashtra and orders for a plough to be made as per the Brahmins’ specifications. After that task is complete, he sends messengers to all the kingdoms of the world to invite them to the ceremony.
One of these arrives at Dwaitavana, and presents to Yudhishthir the news. The exiled king smiles. ‘It is indeed very fortunate that Suyodhana is honouring his ancestors thus, by celebrating this best of sacrifices.
‘But we cannot attend the ceremony because we are still in exile. Our vow does not run its course until the end of the thirteenth year, while we are yet to approach the end of the twelfth.’
The ceremony of the plough, therefore, happens in the Pandavas’ absence. The people of Hastinapur, who gather at the compound, speak among themselves, and while some are appreciative of Duryodhana, others are not.
But Duryodhana carries on just the same. Karna, while accepting Duryodhana’s offering, promises his friend that a bigger sacrifice will be conducted in the near future.
‘Once the Pandavas are slain, my friend,’ he says, ‘I will see to it that your wish of performing the Rajasuya comes true. Then, no one in the world will dare question you.’
Duryodhana thus attains the status of an emperor in Aryavarta during the twelfth year of the Pandavas’ exile.
The Ghosha Yatra Parva ends with this.