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 Aranya Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
The Elusive Deer
The Aranya Parva begins with the Pandavas moving back (again) from Kamyaka back to Dwaitavana, and making preparations for the end of their twelve-year exile.
A short while after they have settled down in their new home, a sage comes to Yudhishthir with the following problem.
‘The other day, O King,’ he says, ‘when I was immersed in my austerities, a deer came by my hermitage and carried off my staff and water vessel in its antlers.
‘I have to perform the Agnihotra sacrifice soon, and unless my items of prayer are retrieved, I cannot attend to my duties. Please hunt this deer down and return my stolen possessions.’
The Pandavas set out in search of the deer, and they eventually find it, but they are unable to pin it down with their arrows. It escapes all their shafts by leaping and prancing out of the way, and finally, when they think they have cornered it, it disappears from sight.
The Pandavas are understandably flustered at their inability to hunt down a single deer, and they sit down under a tree to think over matters.
Nakula, Sahadeva, Arjuna and Bhimasena are distraught, perhaps overly so, and begin cursing the Kauravas all over again for their fate. But Yudhishthir calms them down and says:
‘I think we are exhausted, thirsty and hungry, my brothers. Let us not make rash judgements in our current states. Nakula, will you please scout around the area and find us some water so that we can refresh ourselves?’
In Search of Water
Nakula sets out and comes upon a lake as clear as crystal. Just as he is about to put his weapons down to have a drink of the water, a voice forbids him from the sky. ‘Do not drink of this lake, O Prince, without first answering my questions,’ it says.
But Nakula is too thirsty to heed warnings from unseen people. He has a mouthful of water from the lake and drops down dead.
After waiting a while for him to return, Yudhishthir sends Sahadeva, who also comes to the lake and sees the body of Nakula. The same voice from the sky greets him too.
‘Do not drink the water of the lake before answering my questions, O Prince. Your brother met with his death because he disobeyed me.’
Sahadeva also does not heed the advice. As soon as he drinks a bit of the water, he also drops down, next to Nakula.
Arjuna and Bhimasena follow the two brothers, and needless to say, neither of them see it fit to obey the voice either. Yudhishthir, now waiting alone for the others to return, gets a feeling that something is not quite right.
He sets out himself and comes to the bank of the lake, shocked to see his four brothers lying prostrate on the earth, as if dead.
The voice from the sky welcomes him. ‘Do not drink the water of the lake, O King,’ it says, ‘until you answer my questions.’
And unlike his brothers, Yudhishthir joins his palms together at his chest, and bows. ‘Ask me what you wish, good sir,’ he says, ‘and I shall answer you to the best of my knowledge.’
Yaksha Prashna – Part One
The owner of the lake identifies himself as a Yaksha, and shows his form to Yudhishthir. ‘Your brothers acted rashly and chose to take water from my lake without my permission, O King,’ he tells him.
‘It is I who killed them. Answer my questions and you can take as much water as you want.’
‘Ask me anything you wish, Respected One,’ says Yudhishthir.
‘What is it that makes the sun rise?’ asks the Yaksha. ‘Who keeps him company? What causes him to set? And where is he found?’
Yudhishthir answers: ‘Brahma makes the sun rise, O Yaksha, and he is kept company by all the gods. Yama causes him to set, and he is established in truth.’
(Here the sun is used as a metaphor for human life. Brahma creates it, Yama takes it, and the most important element in which it is established is the truth.)
‘How does one become learned?’ asks the Yaksha. ‘How does one attain greatness? How can a person gain mastery over a moment of time? And how can he become wise?’
‘Study of the Vedas makes a man learned,’ says Yudhishthir. ‘Greatness comes to those who have performed austerities. Intelligence gives a man the mindfulness to appreciate a moment of time, and wisdom accrues by service to the aged and helpless.’
‘Why are Brahmins considered divine in this world?’ asks the Yaksha. ‘What makes them human? What attribute of theirs is the most pious, and what the most impious?’
‘They are considered divine because of their mastery of the Vedas,’ replies Yudhishthir. ‘They die like any other being, which makes them as human as the rest of us. Asceticism is their most pious act, and slander their most impious.’
‘What are the corresponding attributes of a Kshatriya, then?’
‘Arrows and weapons give a Kshatriya his divinity. Their propensity to fear makes them human. Performing of sacrifices is their most pious act, and refusal to protect those that they ought to, their most impious.’
The Yaksha now asks a question about sacrifices. ‘What is considered the sama of a sacrifice? And what constitutes the yajus? What is it that is called the refuge of a sacrifice, and what is it that has to be present without fail at a sacrifice?’
‘Life is the sama, the mind is the yajus, the rig is the refuge, and it is rig alone that a sacrifice cannot do without.’
(Here it is to be noted that the sacrifice Yudhishthir refers to is the spiritual sacrifice of learning. Just like in a real sacrifice the Rig, Yajur and Sama mantras are read, in the spiritual sacrifice, life and mindfulness are the principal components.)
Yaksha Prashna – Part Two
‘What is of most importance to those that cultivate? What is of most importance to those that sow, and to those that bring forth?’
Yudhishthir’s answer: ‘To those that cultivate, rain is most important. For those that sow, the seed is most important, and to those that nurture, the offspring is most important.’
(Here the contrast is between the father, the tiller of the land, and the mother, the giver of life – and their respective, often conflicting priorities.)
Question: Who draws breath but is not alive?
Answer: The man who does not offer anything to the gods, guests, servants, ancestors and to himself is considered not living even though he draws breath. (The importance of charity is again reinforced here.)
Question: What is weightier than the earth? Higher than the heavens? Fleeter than the wind? And what is more numerous than grass blades?
Answer: Mother is weightier than the earth. Father is higher than the heavens. Our minds are fleeter than wind, and our thoughts more numerous than grass blades on the earth.
Question: What does not close its eyes when asleep? What does not move after its birth? What is without heart? And what swells on its own, without external impetus?
Answer: A fish does not close its eyes even when asleep. An egg does not move after it is born. A stone is without heart, and a river swells on its own, without outside influence.
Question: Who is the friend of an exiled person? Who is the friend of the householder? Who is the friend of the sick? And who is the friend of a person about to die?
Answer: The friend of a man in exile is his companion. The friend of a householder is his wife. The friend of a sick man is the physician, and the friend of a man about to die is an act of generosity.
Question: Who is the guest of all creatures? What is the eternal duty of a person? What, O King, is the Amrita? And what is this entire universe?
Answer: Agni is the guest of all creatures. The milk of a cow is the Amrita in this world. Homa (or sacrifice) is the eternal duty of a person. And this universe consists of air alone.
(This is Yudhishthir’s way of suggesting that of all five elements, air is the most important and prevalent.)
Yaksha Prashna – Part Three
Question: What is that which journeys alone? What is re-born after its birth? What is the remedy against cold? And what is the largest field of all?
Answer: The sun journeys alone. The moon takes a new birth every night in a different form. Fire is the remedy against cold. And Earth is the largest field of all.
Question: What is the highest refuge of virtue? Of fame? Of heaven? Of happiness?
Answer: Liberality is the highest form of virtue. Gifts are the highest forms of fame. Truth is the highest form of heaven, and good behaviour of happiness.
Question: What is the soul of a man? Who is that friend bestowed upon man by the gods? What is a man’s chief support? And what is his chief refuge?
Answer: The son is a man’s soul. His wife is the gift bestowed upon him by the gods. The clouds are his chief source of support, and gifts are his chief refuge.
(The third answer is a little puzzling. By referring to the clouds, is Yudhishthir saying that a man really has no source of support but himself? Perhaps.)
Question: What is the best of all laudable things? What is the most valuable of possessions? What is the best of all gains? And what is the best of all kinds of happiness?
Answer: Skill is the most laudable of things, knowledge the most valuable of possessions. Of all the gains that come to us, health is the most precious, and contentment the best form of happiness.
Question: What is the highest duty in the world? What is that virtue that always bears fruit? What is it that, when controlled, does not lead to regret? And who are those with whom an alliance cannot be broken?
Answer: The highest of duties is to refrain from causing injury. Virtue that is prescribed in the Vedas always bears fruit. The mind, if controlled, can free us of regret. An alliance with righteousness can never be broken once formed.
Question: Renunciation of what causes agreeableness? No regret? Wealth? Happiness?
Answer: If you renounce pride, you will become agreeable. If you renounce wrath, you will never regret it. If you renounce desire, it will make you wealthy. And if you renounce avarice, it will give you great happiness.
Question: For what does one give away to the Brahmins? To mimes and dancers? To servants? And to a king?
Answer: One gives to a Brahmin to gain religious merit. When we give to mimes and dancers, we do so out of a hope to acquire fame. We give to servants in order to support them, and to a king, we give so that we might be freed of fear.
Yaksha Prashna – Part Four
Question: With what is the world enveloped? What is that which causes someone to be ignorant of self? For what are friends forsaken? And for what does one fail to go to heaven?
Answer: The world is enveloped in darkness. Darkness does not allow us to discover ourselves. Greed causes people to forsake their friends. And it is due to a lack of connection with the world that one fails to go to heaven.
Question: What is equivalent to death for a man, for a kingdom, for a ceremony, for a sacrifice?
Answer: A man who is forever desirous of wealth can be considered dead. As is a kingdom without a king. A ceremony conducted by an unworthy priest is dead, and so is a sacrifice in which no gifts are given to Brahmins.
Question: What is the sign of asceticism? What is true restraint? What constitutes forgiveness? And what is shame?
Answer: Staying within the confines of one’s own religion is true asceticism. Restraint of the mind is superior to everything. The height of forgiveness is to endure enmity with a smile. Shame is what results when we commit unworthy acts.
Question: What is knowledge? What is tranquillity? What constitutes mercy? And what is simplicity?
Answer: True knowledge is that of divinity. True tranquillity is a peaceful, steady heart. Mercy is the quality of wishing happiness to all. And simplicity is equanimity in good times and bad.
Question: Who is the invincible enemy? What is the incurable disease? What sort of man is called honest or dishonest?
Answer: Anger is the invincible enemy. Covetousness is the incurable disease. A merciful man is honest and an unmerciful man is not. (This last is an oversimplification. One can easily be both merciful and dishonest.)
Question: Tell me the meanings of ignorance, pride, idleness and grief.
Answer: Ignorance consists of not knowing one’s duties. Pride is believing that one is a constant sufferer in life. Idleness is not discharging one’s duties, and ignorance is grief.
(This last answer should be taken to mean that ignorance leads to grief. In the moment, ignorance is obviously a blissful state.)
Question: What is steadiness? Patience? What is a real ablution? And what is the nature of charity?
Answer: Steadiness is staying within one’s religion. Patience comes from the subjugation of one’s senses. A real ablution is one in which the mind is cleansed of all impurities. Charity is protecting all creatures.
Yaksha Prashna – Part Five
Question: Who should be considered a learned man? Who is an atheist? Who is an ignorant man? What is desire and what are its many sources? And what is envy?
Answer: He who knows his duties is a learned man. An atheist is an ignorant man and an ignorant man is an atheist. Desire occurs due to attachment toward possessions, and envy is nothing but grief of the heart.
Question: What is pride? What is hypocrisy? What is grace of the gods, and what is wickedness?
Answer: Stolid ignorance is pride. Setting up of a rigid religious order is hypocrisy. The grace of the gods is nothing but the fruit of our actions. And wickedness consists of speaking ill of others.
Question: Who is he that is condemned to everlasting hell?
Answer: He who summons a Brahmin with promises of gifts and turns him away empty-handed goes to hell. Speaking impure words about the Vedas, the scriptures, the gods, and the ancestors is also punishable by eternal hellfire. He who possesses wealth but never gives away any of it to those less fortunate than him also goes to hell.
Question: How does one become a Brahmin? By birth, behaviour, study or learning?
Answer: Conduct governs all. A man who is conversant with the Vedas and can quote the scriptures should be considered a wretch if his behaviour is sinful. Even a Sudra can become a Brahmin if he lives in accordance with morality and brings his senses under control.
Question: What does he gain who always speaks agreeable words? What does he gain whose judgement is sound? What is the advantage in having many friends? And what does he gain who is devoted to virtue?
Answer: He who speaks agreeable words gains the love of all. He whose judgement is sound gets whatever he asks for. He who has many friends lives in happiness. And the path of virtue leads to a peaceful state in the afterlife.
Question: Who is truly happy? What is most wonderful? What is the one true path? What is the one true Truth?
Answer: A man who cooks in his own house at the end of the day with scanty vegetables, a man who is not in debt, is truly happy. The most wonderful thing about our world is that even though thousands of beings die every moment, those that are alive think themselves to be immortal. The path of great men that have lived before us is the only true path, because the teachings of the Vedas and the Rishis are complex and contradictory.
As for Truth, the world is full of ignorance, and is like a frying pan. The sun acts as fire, and the days and nights are fuel. The months and the seasons become the wooden ladle, with which Time cooks us all.
Question: Who is truly a man that possesses every kind of wealth?
Answer: The report of one’s good actions lasts longer than one’s life. As long as people are talking fondly about your deeds, you are said to possess every kind of wealth.
One Final Test
The Yaksha is pleased with the answers he has received from Yudhishthir. ‘You can wish for any one of your brothers to be brought back to life, O King,’ he tells him. ‘Choose which one it will be.’
Yudhishthir bows to the figure and says, ‘I wish that my brother Nakula is resurrected.’
‘Nakula?’ says the Yaksha. ‘You have your dear brothers, Arjuna and Bhimasena, great heroes both of them. If you choose either one of them, your chances of winning back your kingdom increase tremendously. Yet you choose your foster brother?’
‘I have never thought of Nakula as my foster brother, my lord,’ replies Yudhishthir. ‘My father had two wives, Kunti and Madri. If it is decreed by destiny that one of Kunti’s sons should live, may it be so that one of Madri’s does as well.
‘Mother Madri is as dear to me as Mother Kunti. When she left, she placed the responsibility of protecting Nakula and Sahadeva on me. I would be shirking my duty if I choose one of Arjuna or Bhimasena over them.
‘So please see to it that Nakula is revived.’
The Yaksha is further pleased by Yudhishthir’s answer, and grants that all the Pandavas will regain their lives. As the brothers stand up, one by one, they find that their thirst and hunger had left them. They all stand in one line bowing to the Yaksha.
Yama Reveals Himself
As the Yaksha is giving his blessings, Yudhishthir asks him, ‘Each of my brothers is capable of killing thousands of warriors of the Yaksha race, my lord. But you were able to slay them with just one slash of magic. Who are you, and why have you come here?’
The Yaksha sheds his disguise now and shows his true form. ‘I am Yama, O Yudhishthir, the lord of justice and death. I came here to behold you, and I am pleasantly surprised at the amount of wisdom you have accumulated over the last twelve years.
‘Ask me for boons, my son, and I shall grant them to you.’
‘My first wish,’ Yudhishthir replies, ‘is that the Brahmin who lost his staff and water vessel would have them returned to him. And my second wish is that no one would recognize us during our year of hiding which begins shortly.’
Having given the Pandavas their two wishes, Yama vanishes from the spot. The Pandavas return to their hermitage and begin preparations for the end of their twelve-year exile.
After returning to their living quarters, the Pandavas begin to prepare themselves for the oncoming thirteenth year. They sit down with all the sages that have been living with them all this time, and inform them that they will soon be leaving.
Despite the boon from Yama, Yudhishthir is not convinced that they will be successful in spending a whole year undiscovered.
‘What if Duryodhana, or Duhsasana, or Karna or Shakuni find us when we are in hiding? We will need to suffer twelve more years of exile,’ he says.
But Dhaumya gives him some much-needed solace. ‘O King, you are virtuous and subdued and firm in your word. Such men are never overwhelmed by any calamity.
‘Do not worry, therefore. Even the gods have been required to live in disguise for various reasons through the ages.’
‘The wild boar that rescued Earth from sinking into the ocean of milk, the tortoise that supported the mountain of Mandara, the king who took birth in the court of Dasaratha, and the cowherd-prince of Dwaraka in our own age – are these all not disguises, my son?
‘If the lord of the lords himself does not shy away from concealment of his true identity, why should you?
‘You have heard how Agni shed his form and entered into water to hide from his enemies. Hari is said to have hidden inside Sakra’s thunderbolt, with which the king of the gods slew a thousand Danavas.
‘You also heard the story of Aurva, did you not, who lay concealed inside his mother’s thigh for ten long years.
‘So do not fret about the upcoming year, O King. As all your other troubles, this one too will strengthen you, and will prepare you for the battle you must wage against the forces of darkness in due course.’
This little speech restores Yudhishthir back to composure. Bhimasena now gets up on his feet, and for once, instead of taunting his elder brother, offers him support.
‘The holder of Gandiva has chosen not to act rashly owing to your orders, Brother. Nakula and Sahadeva, too, though itching to exact vengeance upon our foes, have remained calm.
‘I promise that we shall never swerve from the path that you lay out for us. You are our leader, and you we shall follow. As the good sage says, now is the time for hope, for optimism!
‘Let us not begin this eventful year on a note of despair.’
With this explicit expression of Pandava solidarity ends the Aranya Parva. We now move into the Virata Parva, which documents the events of the thirteenth year of the Pandavas’ exile.