Mahabharata Parva 57: The Prajagara Parva

Mahabharata Parvas - Prajagara - Featured Image - Picture of the Solomon Knot

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 Prajagara Parva.

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

Wisdom of Vidura

Dhritarashtra and Vidura have a conversation after Sanjaya returns to Hastinapur. Vidura gives Dhritarashtra some lectures on what constitutes morality and wisdom.

Here are some of Vidura’s nuggets:

  • Four practices designed to eliminate fear but instead bring it on when performed incorrectly: the Agnihotra, the vow of silence, education, and the act of self-sacrifice.
  • Five fires that ought to be worshipped daily: mother, father, Agni, one’s soul, and one’s preceptor.
  • Five followers wherever you go: friends, foes, indifferent observers, dependants, and servants.
  • Of the five senses that man possesses, if even one springs a leak (or becomes unrestrained), then all his intelligence runs out of his mind, like water running out of a perforated leather vessel.
  • Six faults that should be avoided: sleep, drowsiness (perhaps means inattentiveness), fear, anger, indolence, procrastination.
  • Six things to renounce: a preceptor who has not read the scriptures, a priest who is illiterate, a king who is unable to protect, a wife who has a sharp tongue, a cowherd who is unwilling to go into the fields, a barber who wishes to renounce his village and go into the woods. (This last one is puzzling.)
  • Six things to never renounce: truth, charity, diligence, benevolence, forgiveness and patience.
  • Six things that are instantly destroyed if neglected: cows, service, agriculture, a wife, learning, and the wealth of a Sudra.
  • Six kinds of people who are habitually disloyal: educated disciples forget their teachers; married people forget their parents; sexually satisfied men forget women; successful people forget those who helped them in need; a man who has crossed a river forgets the boat; and patients who have been cured forget their physicians.
  • These six give men happiness: health, not being in debt, living at home, companionship with good people, possessing a secure means of livelihood, and living without fear.
  • These six kinds of men are always miserable: the envious, the malicious, the discontented, the irascible, the suspicious, and those whose fortunes depend on the fortunes of others.
  • Happiness of men manifests itself in these six forms: acquisition of wealth, uninterrupted good health, a loving spouse, an obedient son, and knowledge that is lucrative.

Advice for Dhritarashtra

Dhritarashtra is not content with listening to so much philosophizing, so he asks Vidura, ‘Tell me what can be done by a person who cannot sleep on account of his anxieties and guilt, Brother.

‘What is the most productive path forward for the Kurus, and what is the most beneficial of recourses open to Yudhishthir? I spend an inordinate amount of time looking back over my past mistakes. Can you tell me what is in Yudhishthir’s mind?’

Vidura replies, ‘You do not have to mention specifically that I should speak for the good of the Kuru house, O King. I do that as a matter of course. Grief that arises out of failure is a common cause for anxiety, even when the processes you use are fair and proper.

‘But in your case, Dhritarashtra, the actions you think back to were foul and unjust. A king who cannot measure the consequences of his actions before he commits them cannot remain king for long.

‘The human body is like a chariot, Dhritarashtra, and the soul is the driver. The five senses are the horses pulling it, sometimes in this direction, sometimes in that, and with only patient training can they be tamed so that we might stay on the path of virtue.

‘A man who is sensually intoxicated cannot differentiate between good and evil, O King. How, then, will such a man differentiate between happiness and misery? He will drive like a madman toward a pot of gold, only to find that it is empty and broken.’

Rivals for Kesini

During the Draupadi disrobing incident, Vidura narrates the tale of Virochana and Sudhanvana, who fight for the hand of a maiden named Kesini. But at that time he sketches only the outline of the story. Here, to Dhritarashtra, he tells it in full.

Virochana is the son of Diti and Prahlada. Sudhanvana is the son of Angirasa the sage. On the occasion of Kesini’s groom-choosing, she asks the former, who is a chief of the Daityas:

‘Who is superior, O King? The sons of Diti or the sons of the Saptarishis? Must you take the highest seat in court or shall we give it to Sudhanvana?’

Virochana replies, ‘We have sprung from the person of Prajapati himself, O Princess. The creator has placed us at the top of all beings. The world is ours by all means. The gods and the Brahmins are insignificant compared to us.’

(There is typical Daitya bravado in these words; but not all of Virochana’s confidence is misplaced. His son, Bali, would later go on to conquer the three worlds, and would require Vishnu to take up the Vamana avatar.)

Kesini says, ‘Sudhanvana is expected to arrive on the morrow, O King. Let us wait for him, and once he comes, I would like to see you meet one another. I will then decide which one of you is superior.’

Seeking Prahlada

Virochana agrees, and on the next day, after Sudhanvana arrives, Kesini welcomes the Brahmin and gives him the arghya. But when Virochana rises to share his seat with the sage, the latter says:

‘I thank you, O son of Prahlada. And I touch your golden seat with the tip of my fingers. But I cannot accept your offer of being seated as your equal.’

This angers Virochana. ‘A wooden plank, a piece of animal skin, or a mat of grass and straw – these are the seats, O Sudhanvana, that are fit for you. You do not deserve a golden throne such as this.’

Sudhanvana replies, ‘A father and son can be seated together on the same seat. Men of the same order who are equal in age and learning – be they Kshatriyas, Vaishyas or Sudras – can sit together too.

‘But otherwise, this cannot happen. You are a mere child, Virochana; your father used to pay his respects to me, taking a lower seat than mine. How, then, do you argue that you, his son, could be my equal?’

‘Stop all this pomposity, O Brahmin!’ thunders Virochana. ‘Let us right now repair to my father and ask him this question. May we wager our kine, gold, horses, or any kind of wealth that you want.’

Sudhanvana raises a calm hand. ‘What does all the wealth of the world mean to me, a sage? Keep your horses to yourself, Prince, and your gold too.

‘Let us wager our lives on this question – if you win, I shall never show my face to the gods or to any king for the rest of my life. If I win, will you do the same?’

Virochana agrees, and they both approach Prahlada with their question.

Prahlada’s Judgement

Prahlada notices Virochana and Sudhanvana approach his palace, and thinks to himself: these two have never been companions, and now they come to me abreast of each other, like two angry snakes. Have they become friends? Or enemies?

‘No, Father,’ says Virochana, divining the king’s thoughts. ‘There is no friendship at all between me and this Brahmin. But we have pledged our lives to the truthful answering of a question we desire to ask you. Please help us.’

‘First things first,’ says Prahlada, clapping his hands for attendants. ‘Bring water, honey and yoghurt to be offered to this pious Brahmin.’

Then he turns to Sudhanvana. ‘There is a fat cow ready to be taken away to your hermitage, O Sage. She will give you all the milk you desire.’

Sudhanvana accepts these presents with a nod, but even he is eager to ask Prahlada the question. ‘Who do you think among is superior, O King? Your son or I?’

Prahlada joins his hands immediately and says, ‘This is my only son, O Rishi. How can I answer this when both of you are here in person, and when it is apparent that you are both consumed by anger?’

Sudhanvana’s Response

‘Remember, O King,’ says Sudhanvana, ‘that a person who speaks a lie knowingly pines like a lonely wife, like a person who has lost everything at dice, and who is weighed down by innumerable anxieties.

‘He who speaks a lie for the sake of an animal causes five of his ancestors to drop from heaven. He who lies for the sake of a cow casts down ten of his ancestors.

‘A lie on the account of a horse brings down a hundred, and a lie on the account of another human being causes a full thousand of one’s Pitris to fall.

‘An untruth for the sake of gold ruins all members of one’s race, both born and unborn, while a lie for the sake of one’s land ruins everything and everyone that lives off it.’

Hearing these consequences of speaking a lie, Prahlada decides that he must be truthful. He tells his son, ‘Angirasa is superior to me, O Virochana, and Sudhanvana’s mother is superior to your mother.

‘Therefore, I have no qualms in admitting that he is superior to you in all respects. According to your wager, now your life is in Sudhanvana’s hands.’

But Sudhanvana is pleased with Prahlada for his adherence to truth. ‘I am pleased with you, O King,’ he says. ‘I therefore grant your son’s life without claiming it. However, I desire that Prahlada must wash my feet in the presence of the lady Kesini.’

Vidura Concludes

Concluding this story, Vidura reminds Dhritarashtra that the latter must not yield to the temptation of lies and deceit. ‘Follow the example of Prahlada, O King, who favoured truth and virtue over the love of his son.

‘Give the Pandavas their rightful share of the kingdom, so that the entire Kuru race might prosper.’

Vidura tells Dhritarashtra further that Manu, the son of Prajapati who creates human beings and populates the earth with them, has spoken about seventeen kinds of fools. They are as follows.

Seventeen Kinds of Fools

Vidura notes seventeen kinds of fools:

  • He who seeks control of a person or thing that cannot be controlled
  • He who is content with small gains
  • He who humbly serves his enemies
  • He who seeks to restrain women
  • He who seeks gifts from those who should never be asked
  • He who boasts about his achievements
  • He who performs deeds that are deemed sinful by his order and by his family
  • He who is weak and always wages war with those who are more powerful
  • He who does not listen to wiser men, or does so with a note of mockery
  • He who desires that which is unattainable
  • He who, as a father-in-law, jests lewdly with his daughter-in-law
  • He who seeks help or assistance from a woman and boasts about it
  • He who scatters his seeds in another’s field (Does this mean fathering children of another man’s wife?)
  • He who speaks ill of his own wife
  • He who forgets the good turn done to him by others
  • He who performs acts of charity and boasts about them to his friends
  • He who strives to prove the truth of that which is false

All these men, we are informed through Vidura’s words, are going straight to hell. ‘One must behave toward another just as the other behaves toward one,’ he tells Dhritarashtra.

‘If you have been subject to deceit by a man, have no qualms about treating him deceitfully, but when you have received nothing but good behaviour from someone, do not punish them by acting harshly out of the blackness of your heart.’

Puppet or Master?

Now Dhritarashtra takes refuge in the argument that everything has been destined by outside forces, and that he is a mere puppet. ‘I have heard, Vidura, that man is a powerless doll in the hands of the twin forces of Destiny and Fate.

‘What can I do when circumstances place me in such a position, where I am to choose between my son and the sons of my dead brother? Do you have any answer to this particular predicament?’

Vidura replies: ‘By speaking words out of season, O King, even Brihaspati himself invites reproach and disrepute.’

The meaning of this, of course, is that even if you are the preceptor of the gods – and therefore with all the power of destiny behind you – you still have to follow certain rules in order to hope for a contented life.

‘One who is naturally agreeable remains so all his life, Your Majesty,’ Vidura continues, ‘and one who is destined to be cruel cannot indeed escape the clutches of his own character.

‘If you remember, when Duryodhana was born, many of your wise advisors – me included – told you to cast him away, that the portents of his birth were altogether too ominous to ignore.

‘So a part of what you say is true, Brother, that a man is ruled by destiny. But it would be wrong to take refuge in it to shirk one’s duty, like you seem to do so often.’

Virtue Alone

Vidura continues: ‘In all of life, O King, it is virtue alone that is everlasting. Pleasure and pain are transitory. Life is long, but its many phases are short and fleeting.

‘Do not allow yourself to be focused on things that are ephemeral, and adopt the care of everything that is everlasting. May you seek contentment, and not all contentment is caused by acquisition, Brother.

‘The highest form of contentment comes from the secure knowledge of having done that which you know is right.

‘It is in this very act that your future life and reputation lies, Dhritarashtra. Forsake Duryodhana immediately, and bring Yudhishthir back to the forefront of the Kshatriya race.

‘If nothing else, give them at least five small villages to maintain and rule; out of those will they fashion the next great kingdom of Aryavarta. So powerful are the sons of Pandu.’

After listening to everything that Vidura has to say, Dhritarashtra acknowledges the wisdom spoken by his minister. ‘Whenever I hear you speak, my mind inclines toward the Pandavas,’ he says.

‘But then I come in contact with Duryodhana, and my love for him overcomes all. No creature is able to avert fate. This, I am afraid, appears to be mine.’

On that defeatist note ends the Prajagara Parva.