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 Adivansavatarana Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
Suktimati and Girika
The sages of Naimisha now ask Sauti to tell them all that Vaisampayana, Vyasa’s disciple, told Janamejaya during the snake-sacrifice. Among other things, this includes the Mahabharata.
Vaisampayana begins the story in Chedi, with the just and virtuous king Uparichara, who was on such friendly terms with Indra that he would ride the God’s chariot through the skies.
One day, when he is in the midst of one such trip, he spots a river by name Suktimati, trapped on all four sides by a mountain range called Kolahala.
Uparichara frees the river by striking the mountain with his foot and boring a hole in its side.
As a gesture of gratitude, Suktimati gives Uparichara two of her children: a boy who remains nameless and becomes a general in Uparichara’s army, and a girl named Girika who becomes the king’s wife.
The Seed of Uparichara
A few days later, after Girika’s period of the month is past and the time has come for their union, Uparichara’s ancestors appear before him and command him to slay deer.
Thinking that disobeying his Pitris would have undesirable consequences, Uparichara sets out into the forest.
But thoughts of Girika do not leave him. At one particularly arresting meadow filled with nature’s beauty, desire conquers him, and his seed leaves his body.
Since the seed of great men is not to be wasted, he gives it to a nearby hawk with instructions to carry it back to the capital where his wife resides.
On the way, the hawk gets into a fight with another hawk, and amid the altercation the seed of Uparichara drops into the Yamuna.
Birth of Satyavati
Now living in the Yamuna is an apsara who is serving a curse to live in the body of a fish. This apsara swallows the seed, and ten months later, gives birth to a boy and a girl. This act returns her to her original form, after which she makes her way back to heaven.
The fishermen who lived on the riverbank take the two children to the king. The male child is taken into Uparichara’s court, and in time grows up to become a famed ruler of the Matsya kingdom.
However, we’re more concerned with the girl, because she would be fostered in the fishing settlement as the daughter of the chief, and in time she would become the sweet-smelling Satyavati.
Her sons, Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya, would each rule Hastinapur in turn, the latter after the death of the former.
And when the city is left without a king after Vichitraveerya’s death, it is her son Vyasa who fathers the three boys – Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura – who would become the cornerstones of the Mahabharata story.
When Satyavati was a young girl plying her father’s boat across the Yamuna to ferry passengers to and fro, she smelled of rotting fish and was called Matsyagandhi instead. Her life changes, though, when she meets the wandering sage, Parashara.
When Parashara first lays eyes on Satyavati on a sunny morning aboard the canoe, he finds himself smitten by desire.
He approaches her even as the boat leaves the shore of the Yamuna and makes for deep waters, and says, ‘O Beauteous One, please accept my embraces.’
Satyavati’s first response is to demur. But Parashara convinces her with two promises:
- First, that the union between the two will not result in Satyavati’s losing her virginity. Parashara tells her that her virginity ‘will be restored’.
- Second, as a gift of gratitude, Parashara promises that the foul smell on Satyavati’s person will be replaced by a divine fragrance.
Satyavati thus becomes a sweet-smelling damsel.
The union of Parashara and Satyavati gives rise to a son who is born on a fog-covered island in the Yamuna.
The sage’s powers ensure that the boy grows in Satyavati’s womb in a matter of a day, and once he exits her body, he grows to the size of a walking boy in a few hours.
They call him Dwaipayana (the island-born), and in later years he embarks upon a massive project of arranging the Vedas into their current form. For this he is called Veda Vyasa (the compiler of the Vedas), or simply, Vyasa.
Parashara takes Dwaipayana with him when he leaves the island. Dwaipayana promises Satyavati that he will come to her aid whenever she thinks of him.
The Rise of Evil
Janamejaya asks Vaisampayana why there was a sudden explosion of evil on the Earth during the Krita Yuga which led to the great cleansing in the form of the Kurukshetra war.
Vaisampayana gives two complementary reasons for this: one, the great thirst of Parashurama for Kshatriya blood.
‘The son of Jamadagni wiped out the race of Kshatriyas from the Earth twenty one times, O king,’ says the sage. ‘But each time he killed all the men, the women would seek out Brahmins to father sons that would continue their line.’
This gave rise to a new generation of Kshatriyas who would establish virtue on Earth.
And it is said in the Krita Yuga, no Brahmin ever taught for money, no man ever milked his kine while they suckled their calves, and no merchant ever sold his wares by false scales.
There was an overabundance of virtue in the world; and Parashurama, pleased by his actions, hung up his axe.
The Second Reason
The second reason for the rise of evil is that at this time, the sons of Diti, the Daityas (also called the Asuras), began to be born in the land of men into Kshatriya families.
After having lost battles in the hands of the Devas, the Asuras looked down at the virtuous Earth and saw that it is ripe for the picking.
Over the period of the Krita Yuga, then, thousands upon thousands of Asuras descended to Earth and polluted it with their vile acts.
Indeed, an abundance of virtue is necessary for sin to thrive, and an abundance of sin is necessary for the return of virtue.
The Burden of Bhoomi
The Earth (Bhoomi), thus oppressed by the weight of all this insolence, goes to Brahma for a solution. The Creator, having divined the purpose of Bhoomi’s visit, tells her that the time has come for a large number of gods to take birth in the land of men.
‘Do not fret, O Mother of all human beings,’ he tells Bhoomi, ‘for this state of sin will not continue for much longer.’
After Bhoomi leaves, satisfied, Brahma then calls a council of the gods and proposes that a number of them shall go down to Earth and see to it that order is once again restored.
Indra agrees, and asks Vishnu to lead them in this mission. Vishnu replies, ‘It will be so.’ With this proclamation of Vishnu ends the Adivansavatarana Parva.