Mahabharata Parva 53: The Goharana Parva

Mahabharata Parvas - Goharana - Featured Image - Picture of Brihannala's chariot

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 Goharana Parva.

(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)

Invading Matsya

The spies of Duryodhana, meanwhile, have been searching the whole year for the Pandavas, and they cover the usual suspicious kingdoms – Kunti, Shurasena, Dwaraka, Madra – but they fail to find them.

However, some of them bring back news of Jimuta’s defeat, and then in the twelfth month, the accident by fire (which is how Virata announces it) that causes the death of a hundred and six Kichakas.

Duryodhana is worried that the Pandavas are not found yet, but Karna is not. ‘Do not let thoughts of the Pandavas rob you of sleep, my friend,’ he says.

‘They have either disappeared for good or they are hiding in some nondescript location, shorn of all their glories. Why must we waste any time thinking of them?’

Kripacharya, Bhishma and Drona are more sympathetic of the Pandava cause. They advise Duryodhana to be careful of the consequences if Yudhishthir and his brothers are not found.

‘Wherever Yudhishthir goes,’ says Bhishma, ‘virtue follows him. I do not agree with Karna, therefore, that they are living in destitution. It is my belief that people as righteous as the Pandavas will never live a day of their lives in sorrow.’

Susharma’s Suggestion

Meanwhile, Susharma, the king of the Trigartas, speaks up about Kichaka. ‘He was the powerful general of the Matsya army, O Prince,’ he tells Duryodhana. ‘As long as he commandeered Virata’s forces, we did not have a chance to defeat them.

‘But now, he and his brothers lay dead, struck down by an accident that is fortuitous for our cause. Why do we not use this opportunity to plunder the Matsya kingdom and rob it of its wealth – in gems, cattle and corn?’

Duryodhana gets up on his feet, convinced that this is the right course of action. He orders Duhsasana, ‘Let the Trigartas, led by Susharma, immediately fall upon the city of Virata and seize their immense wealth of kine.

‘The Kaurava army will support them by marching in two divisions, and take corn and precious stones from that prosperous city.’

And so, Susharma sets out on the seventh day of the dark fortnight of the month, six days off from the end of the Pandavas’ year of hiding. They enter Matsya from the southeastern border, quietly seizing Virata’s cowsheds one by one.

Duryodhana also sets out on the eighth day at the head of a large Kaurava force, with all the warriors such as Drona, Karna, Kripa and Bhishma by his side.

Defeat of the Trigartas

When herdsmen from the southeastern cattle-houses come fleeing to the palace of Virata with cries of help, the king calls for battle and appoints himself the leader of his army in the absence of Kichaka.

While he is putting on his coat of mail, he gets a thought that he could use the fighting skills of Kanka, Vallabha, Tantripala and Granthika as well. He claps his hands and says to his courtiers:

‘Arrange for chariots for the four men who came here from the court of King Yudhishthir. Cover them in armour, and give them weapons of their choice.’

Yudhishthir, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva thus ride out at the head of the entire Matsyan force to drive out the Trigartas. Susharma and Virata are locked in a long one-to-one battle, at the end of which the former gains ascendency over the latter.

But Bhima, at the behest of Yudhishthir, jumps into the fray and saves Virata’s life. He then challenges Susharma and breaks down his chariot with well-aimed arrows. He kills his charioteer. He maims his horses.

Virata Spares Susharma

At the same time, the other three Pandavas kill many thousands of Trigarta infantrymen, sending the whole army into disarray. Bhima leaps out of his chariot, runs to Susharma, and drags him to the ground.

He sends him rolling in the dust by Virata’s feet. ‘This man does not deserve to live, Your Majesty,’ he roars. ‘With your command I shall sever his head from his body.’

But Yudhishthir is right at Virata’s side. ‘Mercy to a vanquished foe is considered the highest of virtues, O King,’ he says. ‘Do not kill Susharma and orphan his innocent people. Let him live, but exact a suitable tribute from him.’

Bhima howls in frustration that Yudhishthir is again preventing him from handing out just punishment to erring men. But with Virata also asking him to let Susharma go, he snarls at the defeated king and says:

‘I will pardon you, but when you return to your kingdom, announce to your citizens that you have been licked by the Matsyan king, Virata. From now on, you are forever his slave.’

Virata is overjoyed at the kind of support the four strangers provided him. He promises them a number of gifts as they make preparations to return to the palace.

‘Anything you desire in my kingdom is now yours, O Heroes,’ he says. ‘Only due to your prowess have I been crowned with victory today.’

Brihannala Turns Charioteer

Meanwhile, with Virata and the Matsyan army away to fight the Trigartas, the main city is attacked by the Kaurava army, and Duryodhana captures sixty thousand cows. The fear-stricken cowherds come to the palace and beg the prince, Uttara, for help.

‘You father, His Majesty Virata, has said that you will be the sole protector of the city in his absence, O Prince. And now the moment of reckoning is upon us.

‘The wicked Duryodhana – along with his army – has captured all our cows and he is driving them away toward Hastinapur. Please save them!’

Uttara (not to be confused with the princess Uttara of the same name, whom Brihannala is teaching dance), surrounded by women in the inner chambers, indulges in a bit of boasting.

‘I would fight them off with such skill that they will wonder whether I am Arjuna in disguise! But I need a charioteer to man my horses, and without one I cannot meet the foe.

‘Alas, all able-bodied men of the kingdom are away at the southeastern corner, driving out the Trigartas.’

At this speech, Brihannala takes Draupadi to one side and tells her that he wishes to ride Uttara’s chariot. ‘Tell him that I was once charioteer to Arjuna. Let us go out to meet the Kauravas so that we may rescue all the stolen cattle.’

Uttara Rides Out

 Draupadi steps forward with due reticence and informs Uttara of the matter. The prince is disbelieving, but in the absence of anyone, he thinks that Brihannala ought to do.

The ladies dress both men in armour, and before long, a chariot is hurtling across the parched expanses of Matsyan land to the northern outskirts, where the Kaurava army is driving the cattle away.

‘Take me to the Kauravas!’ says Uttara. ‘And Brihannala, today is the day you will not forget in your life, for I promise you; I will make your old master Arjuna proud with my courage.’

Brihannala’s response is to crack the whip harder on the horses and utter fierce directions to them so that they could gallop across the city.

But as they near the Kaurava forces, arrayed in their large numbers along the northern edge of Matsya, Uttara’s heart sinks, because he sees Drona, Bhishma, Kripa, Ashwatthama, Karna, Duryodhana and the others attired in full battle armour, awaiting him.

And here he is, the sole warrior, not yet fully a man.

‘Stop, Brihannala!’ he says, and the charioteer pauses in wonder. ‘I cannot fight these men on my own. These are maharathas! And I – I have not yet fought in a battle. I do not even have an army to support me; I just have a dancer for company. Turn back right now!’

Brihannala’s Advice

‘You are a member of the Kshatriya clan, O Prince,’ says Brihannala. ‘How can you speak of running away from the battlefield? Let me drive you right up to the Kaurava heroes. Let us fight them off today, Uttara, and rescue the kine of your father.’

‘Let them take away the kine,’ Uttara replies. ‘Let them lay Matsya to ruin for all I care. I do not wish to fight these warriors, not today.’ And with these words, he jumps off the chariot and runs away.

‘O Prince!’ says Brihannala, his arm raised, before leaping to the ground himself and giving chase. In this act, his hair comes undone, and his dancers’ clothes flutter about in the wind.

The Kauravas laugh at this spectacle. ‘Look at the brave Uttara Kumara,’ says Duryodhana. ‘He is being cajoled into fighting by a eunuch.’ A frown enters his brow, then. ‘A eunuch that looks rather familiar, do you not agree, Grandsire?’

Bhishma nods. ‘Those neck muscles, those shoulders, that waist, the marks on those wrists – they remind me of Arjuna. But how can Arjuna be here in the Matsya kingdom, in the garb of a member of the third sex? It defies belief!’

While the Kauravas are thus speculating, Brihannala catches up to Uttara and holds him by the hair on his head. With a smile on his face, he drags him back to the chariot and says:

‘If you do not wish to fight, Prince, do me a favour and take the reins of the horses. I have learnt a bit of the science of arms in my time as Arjuna’s charioteer; let me put it to good use and save our cows.’

Now with the roles reversed, Brihannala instructs Uttara to drive them first to the Sami tree next to the cemetery, where the Pandavas hid their weapons a year ago.

The Corpse atop the Tree

Once they reach the tree, Brihannala says to Uttara, ‘The bows that you use cannot match my strength, nor can they withstand the stretch of my arms when I pull the string back.

Therefore, O Bhuminjaya, climb up to the highest branch of this tree, where lies a bundle of weapons left here by the great Pandavas. Bring it down so that I may pick up the Gandiva, the preferred bow of Arjuna, and return to battle to fight the Kauravas.’

But Uttara is reluctant to obey Brihannala’s order. ‘I have heard it said that there is a corpse atop this tree. How can I, a prince, touch it with my hands and defile myself? It is not right of you, Brihannala, to seek to pollute me thus by making me touch a dead body.’

‘You will neither be defiled nor polluted, Prince,’ says Brihannala, a touch irritated at the boy’s misplaced sanctimony. ‘There are only weapons on this tree. There is no corpse.

‘Go now and bring them down. Let us make haste, because we have to get back before the cattle is stolen from our shores.’

Uttara climbs up the tree and brings down the weapons with some effort. Once the bundle is untied, he sees the splendour of the Gandiva and the four other bows, along with the assorted maces and swords.

It dawns on him then that this dancer is not quite who he pretends to be. He says, ‘Whose weapons are these, Brihannala? Golden quivers, gem-encrusted sword handles, such luminescent bows with thick strings – tell me everything you know about them!’

Arjuna Reveals Himself

‘This is the Gandiva,’ says Brihannala, pointing to the most elaborate of the bows. ‘It is with this that Partha vanquished in battle both men and celestials. This bow is smooth, and with perfect balance, equal unto a hundred thousand weapons.

‘It is said that Shiva held it first for a thousand years, then Prajapati for five hundred and three. It passed on to Indra, then, for eighty five years, after which Soma held it for five hundred. Then it went to Varuna for a hundred more, before it was given to Arjuna.

‘This other bow with the golden handles belongs to Bhimasena, and this one with pictures of the Indragopakas on it has been used by Yudhishthir in countless battles. Nakula’s bow, as you see, glows like the sun itself, while Sahadeva’s bears golden images of insects.

‘These winged arrows, nimble and swift, a thousand in number, belong to Arjuna. And these are the famous inexhaustible quivers that Dhananjaya used to use.

‘Bhimasena’s quiver is over there, with the pictures of five tigers, and with yellow shafts whetted on stone. Those ones with the golden wings belong to Nakula, whereas these short and thick darts furnished with long feathers and golden heads are Yudhishthir’s.’

Uttara is convinced that he is in the presence of a great warrior disguised as a eunuch. He joins his hands and bows slightly in the direction of the dance teacher.

‘If these are weapons carried by those lions among men, O Brihannala, where are they now? Where is Arjuna?

And Brihannala replies, ‘Prince, I am Arjuna, the third son of Pandu.’

Brihannala Returns

What follows is perhaps the most remarkable one-man-show in storytelling history. Watching Brihannala and Uttara return on the chariot, Drona is the first among the Kauravas to wonder if the person approaching is not Arjuna in disguise.

‘The rattle of the wheels reminds one of Falguna,’ he says. ‘The conch in the hands of that warrior resembles the Devadatta, and the bow – is that not the Gandiva? Who else can wield these weapons but Partha himself?’

Duryodhana is pleased that Arjuna has revealed himself before the time of incognito is up. ‘I shall leave it to the elders to decide whether or not the Pandavas should now be sent back to the forest for twelve more years,’ he says. ‘But for now, we will stand and fight.’

Bhishma performs a calculation and notes: ‘The wheel of time revolves with its many divisions – kalas and kashtas and muhurtas – with days and fortnights following the movement of the constellations and planets.

‘Taking all the deviations into consideration, there is a two-month increase every five years. In thirteen years, there is an excess of five months and twelve nights.

‘Calculating it in that way, the thirteenth year of the Pandavas’ exile ended yesterday, and today is the thirteenth day of the sixth month, which means they are no longer required by the terms of agreement to remain in hiding.’

Duryodhana’s Plan

A short argument erupts among the Kauravas about Drona’s awestruck words at the approaching Pandava chariot, but Bhishma brokers peace between Duryodhana and the preceptor’s son, Ashwatthama.

Addressing the son of Dhritarashtra, he says, ‘Take a fourth of the army and retreat to Hastinapur, O Prince. Let half of the army remain with us so that we may drive back the advances of Partha.

‘And allow the remaining fourth of our force to be engaged in driving the cattle back to our city. We have come with a purpose. Let us ensure that we fulfil it.’

But the plan proves to be quite ineffective, as Arjuna expertly manoeuvres his chariot to seek out each of the Kuru elders in turn and defeating them in a series of single combats. He fights Kripa first and makes that whole section of the army flee in terror.

Then he fights Ashwatthama, Karna, Dronacharya and Bhishma one after the other, crippling each division of the Kaurava force in turn and making them retreat from the battlefield.

Then, after driving Duryodhana away as well, he rounds up the cattle and single-handedly guides them back to Matsya.

With this, the Goharana Parva comes to an end.