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 Jambukhanda Nirmana Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
The very first sub-section of the Bhishma Parva is called the Jambukhanda Nirmana Parva, which attempts to build a model of the world as the Vedic Indians saw it.
Included in this parva are basic lessons in botany, zoology, geology, cosmology and geography. It is important for modern readers to remember while reading some of this that the scientific veracity of many of these facts has long been proven otherwise.
They are to be read for their literary value only.
At the very beginning of this parva, Janamejaya asks Vaisampayana about the way in which the warriors fought in Kurukshetra.
We are told in the sage’s reply that the Pandavas fought from the western edge of Kurukshetra, facing the east, while the Kauravas fought from the eastern edge, facing the west.
The whole earth seemed at that time to be devoid of men, because all of them were engaged in the war. Only the elderly, women and children seemed to live in their respective homes.
Yudhishthir is said to have fixed diverse watch-words for each of the divisions of his army, so that they could be used in the midst of battle for easy communication without divulging information to the enemy.
The Pandavas and the Kauravas, then, make certain agreements on what constitutes dharma during battle and what does not.
Rules of War
Here are a few of the rules that are to be followed by all warriors:
- People who belong to more or less equal circumstances should fight each other, and fairly. (This means that they are equal in status, weapons, valour and rank.)
- If, having fought fairly for a while, both warriors intend to withdraw peacefully, that is allowed.
- Those who are engaged in verbal jousts should be fought with words only, not with weapons.
- Those that leave the ranks of his army should not be attacked.
- A chariot must engage with a chariot, an elephant with an elephant, a horse with a horse, and a footman with another footman.
- One should strike another for the first time after announcing that he intends to. No one should strike another who is unprepared, panic-stricken or retreating.
- An unarmoured man must not be attacked. Charioteers, horses yoked to chariots, men engaged in the transport of weapons, players of drums and blowers of conches – these should not be attacked.
We must note that these are guidelines only. During the course of the war, a number of these rules are summarily broken.
Vyasa now visits Dhritarashtra and tells him that the war is about to begin. ‘O King, that which we have feared for a long time has come to pass. But I must tell you not to lose heart, because this war has been written into the destiny of Aryavarta.
‘No one can stop it. I am a trikaala gyaani, which means I can see the past, the present and the future all at the same time. If you would like to see the happenings on the battlefield, I can grant you the gift of divine sight.’
Dhritarashtra replies, ‘I cannot bear to see my kinsmen kill one another this way, O Sage. But I would like to hear of the battle in some way.’
Vyasa then gives the divine eye to Sanjaya, Dhritarashtra’s minister. ‘This man here will narrate to you events of the battle as they occur. He will see everything that happens.
‘He will even peer into the minds of various warriors, and explain to you the motivations behind their actions wherever possible. He will be blessed with deep knowledge of every aspect of the war, O King, and he will transmit it all to you.’
Having made this arrangement, Vyasa now tells Dhritarashtra of the various omens that have appeared, signalling the end of the Dwapara Yuga.
‘Hawks and vultures,’ says Vyasa, ‘crows and herons, together with cranes, are alighting on the tops of trees and clustering together in flocks, Your Highness.
‘Carnivorous beasts and birds are lurking around the battlefield, licking their lips at the feast of dead elephants and horses that will soon be fed to them.
‘Both at dawn and dusk, I have begun to see the sun during his rising and setting to be covered by headless trunks. (A headless trunk is a symbol of Ketu, who swallows the sun and causes the solar eclipse.)
‘The images of gods and goddesses sometimes laugh, sometimes vomit blood, and sometimes they sweat and fall down. Birds such as koels, woodpeckers, jaws, parrots, crows and peacocks emit harsh cries throughout the day and night.
‘Hordes of insects sweep the air every morning and buzz around in the morning light, uncertain of where to go.
‘The Arundhati constellation has retreated into the corner of the sky, O King, and it seems to have carried Vasishtha on its back. Shani has consumed the constellation of Rohini. The sign of the deer in the moon has deviated from its usual position.
‘A great terror is about to befall us. Even though the skies are cloudless, a terrible roar is often heard that brings to mind clashing of rainclouds. The animals are all weeping.’
Signs of Victory
Dhritarashtra then asks Vyasa what indications will occur to those who are victorious in this battle. Vyasa replies with the following words:
‘The sacred fire will assume a cheerful radiance, O Dhritarashtra, and its light will ascend upwards. Its flame will bend toward the right. It does not emit any smoke. The libations poured into it will give rise to a divine fragrance.
‘Conches and cymbals will yield sounds that are deep and musical. The sun and the moon will bathe the earth in pure rays. The cries of birds will be pleasant, not harsh. Elephants and horses that are part of the battle will not utter shrieks and neighs.
‘Instead, they will stand their ground and support their human companions. The victors will utter kind words to the enemy even deep within their ranks, and will strike only after fair warning has been given.
‘It takes only one panic-stricken soldier to fill an entire army with fright, O King. And when an army takes to fright in that manner, even heroic warriors will flee.
‘The victor of this war will be the king who is able to rally his troops at all moments without letting them become victims of their own fear.’
Vyasa then tells Dhritarashtra about the three kinds of victory.
Three Kinds of Victory
‘Strength in numbers, therefore, Your Majesty, does not always lead to victory. Witness the various feats of Vinata’s son, Garuda, who single-handedly routed the army of the gods when besotted by a desire to free his mother from captivity.
‘Sometimes, O King, it is the fiercer will that wins. Even fifty brave men who are united can rout an entire army of warriors who are disunited and chaotic.
‘There are three forms of victory, Your Highness. One that is born out of negotiation is often considered the best. One that is gained by sowing discord in the enemy is indifferent.
‘And one that is procured by an act of war is considered the worst. This is because war forces out the worst in man, and results in the slaughter of innumerable innocent men.
‘In this form, even the victor is said to be equal unto the vanquished, because he also must sustain heavy losses.’
With these words, Vyasa takes his leave, and Dhritarashtra and Sanjaya sit down to explore the latter’s newly acquired gift of sight.
Botany and Zoology
Sanjaya begins with an introductory course in plant and animal life. ‘Creatures in the world are of two kinds,’ he says, ‘mobile and immobile. Mobile creatures are of three kinds: oviparous, viviparous, and those engendered by heat and damp.
‘Of viviparous animals, the foremost are men and the lower animals.
‘Fourteen species of animals exist in the world, O King. Seven of these are wild, and the other seven domestic. Lions, tigers, boars, buffaloes, elephants, bears and apes are considered among the wild beasts.
‘Cows, goats, sheep, men, horses, mules and asses are considered among the domestic ones. Of animals that are wild, lions are the most powerful whereas among animals that are domestic, men wield power over the rest.
‘Plants are said to be immobile beings, and they come in four species: trees, shrubs, creepers and grasses. Therefore, if you count all mobile and immobile creatures, there are nineteen kinds in all.
‘All nineteen of these contain the same five constituents inside them. And the five combine in twenty-four different ways to create the sacred Gayatri (or the Universe).’
The Prime Element
Sanjaya goes to name Earth as the prime element that gives rise to everything there is, and to which everything returns. ‘Earth is the stay and refuge of all creatures, Your Majesty,’ he says,
‘And it is eternal. He who has control over earth can control everything. This is why men desire it with such ferocity, to the extent of even slaying one another to obtain it.’
Dhritarashtra now asks Sanjaya to explain to him the composition of the universe, along with names and measures of things that make up Earth in its entirety, with its mountains and rivers and forests.
The Five Elements
Sanjaya replies thus: ‘There are five elements that make up everything – seen and unseen – in the universe, O King. These elements are space, air, fire, water, and earth. Their respective attributes are sound, touch, vision, taste and smell.
‘Each of these elements contains attributes of other elements that come before it. The earth, therefore, is the most complex of them all because it contains parts of all four other elements.
‘There are four attributes, for instance, in water. Smell does not exist in it. Fire has three attributes: sound, touch and vision. Air contains sound and touch, whereas space has sound alone.
‘When there is homogeneity in the universe, all five elements exist separately and independently. But when there is a disturbance and two or more elements need to combine, they do so in order to give rise to life, furnished with bodies.
(Here the implication is that before life came into being, there was harmony in the universe, with all five elements existing separately.
Spontaneous occurrence of life is – according to this line of thought – a departure from that harmony into disharmony [stable to metastable, to borrow a couple of terms from physics].
This process, however, is temporary, and when a living being encounters death, the five elements that make up its body return to their harmonious state.)
To the North of Meru
Dhritarashtra asks Sanjaya to tell him details of the regions to the north and east of the Meru. ‘Tell me also of the mountains of Malayavata,’ he says.
‘On the south of the Nila mountain and on the north of Meru are the sacred Northern Kurus, O King. Here live the Siddhas in all their glory. The trees here bear sweet fruit, and are always covered with flowers and rich green leaves.
‘All the flowers are fragrant, and some trees yield fruits according to the wishes of the plucker.
‘Some fruits that blossom on these trees contain precious gemstones buried deep in them for human use. The entire land abounds with fine golden sand. The weather here is pleasant throughout the year, with no excess of either heat or cold.
‘All the tanks and lakes of this place are forever filled to the brim with crystal-clear water. The men born here, dropped from the abode of the celestials, are all of pure birth and are extremely handsome in appearance.
‘Ten thousand and ten hundred years they live, O King, free of illness and always cheerful. A class of birds named Bharunda, furnished with sharp beaks and possessed of great strength, carry people away when they are dead and throw them into mountain caves.
‘Another distinctive trait of the Northern Kurus is that there are an inordinate number of opposite-sex twins in this land, O King. I am told that these pairs grow up equally and without a care in the world.
‘They never quarrel, and are always found to be companionable toward one another.’
East of Meru
Now Sanjaya describes the eastern side of Meru. ‘In the eastern region, Your Majesty, there is a place called Bhadraswa, where there is a large forest of Bhadra trees.
‘In the middle of this forest is a huge tree called Kalamra. It is a yojana in height and is adored by the Siddhas and the Charanas.
‘The people of Bhadraswa are moon-white in complexion, O King. The women have the colour of lilies, and are possessed of the radiance of the moon. Their bodies are as cool as moonbeams, and they are all accomplished in the arts of music and dance.
‘Drinking the juice of the Kalamra fruits, they retain their youth for eternity.
‘Similarly, on the south of the Nila, there is a Jambu tree that grants wishes, after which the division has gained the name of Jambudwipa.
‘They say that the height of this tree is a thousand and a hundred yojanas, and that its topmost branches touch the very heavens. The fruit of that tree, when ripe, covers a circumference of two thousand and five hundred cubits.
‘When these fruits fall to the ground, they make a loud noise and pour out a silvery juice that becomes a river and flows circuitously around Meru. The Northern Kurus drink this juice and keep themselves youthful throughout their long lives.
‘At the foot of this Jambu tree is produced a type of gold called the Jambunada, with which celestial ornaments are made, brilliant and bright, with the complexion of Indragopaka insects.’
The Malyavata Mountains
Sanjaya finishes with a short description of the Malyavata mountains. ‘On top of the summit of Malyavata, O King, one can always see the eternal fire called Samvartaka that blazes forth at the end of the yuga for the destruction of the universe.
‘The mountain range is measured in eleven thousand yojanas, and the dwellers there have the complexion of gold. They undergo the severest of penances, and for the protection of the rest of the world, at the end of their lives, they enter the sun.
‘There are sixty six thousand of them, and for sixty six thousand years, they stay heated within the sun, after which they enter the lunar disc and live there for an equivalent period.’
The Bharata Varsha
Sanjaya begins the description of Bharata Varsha by proclaiming it the favourite region of Indra. ‘It is not the sons of Pandu who are covetous of this land, O King, but your son Duryodhana is guilty of the greed that you lament so.
‘Shakuni and all the other cruel Kshatriyas are bent upon draining the earth here of her life blood, and indeed, the Pandavas intend to restore her to her past glory.
‘Bharata is the beloved land, also, Your Majesty, of Manu the son of Vivaswat, of Prithu, of Vainya, of the high-souled Ikshvaku, of Yayati, of Ambarisha, of Mandhatri, of Nahusha, of Muchukunda, and many others.
Sanjaya ends this part of Bharata Varsha’s exploration with an allusion to the Earth Mother.
‘If her resources are developed according to her qualities and powers, O King, she is an ever-yielding cow, from which the threefold fruits of virtue, profit and pleasure can be procured.
‘Desirous of enjoying her, however, the kings of Earth have become like dogs that snatch meat away from each other. It is for this reason that the battle of Kurukshetra is about to occur.’
The Yuga Cycle
Dhritarashtra asks Sanjaya about the people of Bharata Varsha now. ‘Tell me about the period of life, the strength, the good and bad things, the future, the past and the present of the residents of this region, O Sanjaya,’ he says.
Sanjaya replies, ‘There are four yugas in the Bharata timeline, O King: Krita, Treta, Dwapara and Kali. The yuga that sets in first is the Krita. Next comes the Treta, then the Dwapara, and at last the Kali Yuga.
‘The first goes on for four thousand years, the second for three thousand, the third for two thousand and the fourth for a thousand.’
(Sanjaya does not give details of the individual lifespans, but instead says, ‘People live for a period of four thousand years in the Krita Yuga.’ This cannot be true because the entire epoch lasts for four thousand years.
Just one generation of human beings can hardly be expected to live through it. He makes a similar reference to the other three yugas.)
The Fall of Dharma
Sanjaya tells us that in the Krita Yuga, many hundreds of thousands of great kings and sages are born who are virtuous, high-souled and truthful in speech.
In the Treta Yuga, the Kshatriyas rise to become rulers of the land, staking a claim to every inch of the earth from ocean to ocean. In the Dwapara, all four orders become powerful in their own way, and fissures begin to appear in society.
In the Kali Yuga, people are endued with little energy, are highly wrathful, covetous and untruthful. Also in the Kali Yuga, there is no fixed limit of life’s measure, says Sanjaya, because the time is such that thousands of people die while in the womb.
With this ends the Jambukhanda Nirmana Parva.