The Anushasana Parva of the Mahabharata occurs right after the Shanti Parva, as the conversation between Yudhishthir and Bhishma evolves to cover diverse topics such as politics and law.
And here it is! From a lizard-king to a six-headed child destined to save the world, we have it all. Enjoy!
Table of Contents
- Respect for Women
- Different Kinds of Sons
- On Fatherhood
- Chyavana’s Test
- The Prophecy
- Krishna and Nriga
- Different Kinds of Heroes
- Agni Unites with Ganga
- Child of Six Mothers
- Bhishma Takes Leave
- Ganga Mourns
- Further Reading
Respect for Women
Bhishma now recites an old verse that is supposedly written by Daksha, which speaks primarily of how women are to be respected.
‘If the wife is treated such that she does not like her husband’s house, from such despair and joylessness no man can hope to have children that will carry forward his lineage.
‘Where women are treated with respect, O King, the very deities are said to reside in joy. Where women are not respected, all acts become fruitless. If the woman of a family grieves and sheds tears, that family will soon become extinct.
‘Houses that are cursed by women meet with destruction and ruin, as if scorched by some fire from the Atharva Veda. There are women who are covetous, wily and weak, but that is true of men as well. Women, on the whole, deserve to be honoured.
‘The gods have decreed that men should protect women at all times. This command should be obeyed. Righteousness of men depends upon women. All pleasures and enjoyments that accrue to men have women at their centre.
‘Women have no sacrifices ordained for them. They are called upon to perform no Srardhas. They do not need to perform penances in order to attain heaven. The only duty that they have is to serve and care for their families. Through the discharge of this one task alone they can attain everything.
‘Women are precious, and are therefore coveted by all. In her childhood, her father protects her. In her youth, her husband protects her. In her old age, her sons protect her. In return, women bestow upon their families untold prosperity and peace.’
(One must remember to read Bhishma’s words in the context of his times. Some of what he says above will of course not apply to the modern world.)
Different Kinds of Sons
In another conversation, Bhishma tells Yudhishthir about the different kinds of sons (and daughters) that can result from intermixture of the various castes.
‘There are many kinds of sons that a man can have, O King. The son born of one’s wife by a man who has been invited for the purpose is called a Niruktaja. If a son is born to one’s wife without one’s permission, such a son is called Prasritaja.
‘A son begotten by one’s wife with the aid of a man who has fallen away from his status is called a Patitaja. The son born of a maiden while she is in her father’s house – outside wedlock – is called a Kanina.
‘Besides these, there are six other kinds of sons called the Apadhwansajas, and six others called the Apasadas.
‘The sons born of a Brahmin from spouses of the three lower orders, of a Kshatriya from his spouses of the two lower orders, and of a Vaishya from his spouse of the one order lower than his – six kinds in total – are called Apadhwansajas. These are sons whose mothers are inferior in status to their fathers.
‘As for Apasadas, listen to their enumeration. The son begotten by a Sudra man with a Brahmin woman is called a Chandala. The son born of a Kshatriya woman by a Sudra man is called a Vratya.
‘The son born of a Vaishya woman by a Sudra man is called a Vaidya. When a Vaishya man unites with a Brahmin woman, the resulting son is called a Magadha.
‘A son born of a Vaishya man and a Kshatriya woman is called a Vamaka. Finally, when a Kshatriya man impregnates a Brahmin woman, the son is called a Suta. These six kinds of sons – whose fathers are inferior in status to their mothers – are called Apasadas.’
Yudhishthir has a question. ‘I have heard of another type of son called Adhyudha, which describes a son born of a man’s wife but fathered by another, conceived before the wedding. What responsibilities – if any – accrue to the father in this case? Also, what are the general responsibilities of fatherhood, O Grandsire?’
Bhishma replies, ‘The son called Adhyudha belongs to the man from whose seed he has sprung. However, if the owner of the seed abandons the son born of it, then he relinquishes his rights over him.
‘The son then belongs to the man who has become the husband of his mother. This is what the law declares.
‘Vital seed alone cannot dictate fatherhood, O Yudhishthir. When a man who desires to have a son marries a woman who is pregnant, and in due course the woman brings forth a child, the child belongs to the husband of the woman, not to the father who owns the seed.
‘The son who is born of a man’s soil but not his seed bears all the physical marks of the original father, but his character is shaped by his foster father. Though by sight a stranger might conclude that this boy is not the foster father’s son, in every other respect, the boy will grow up resembling him.
‘Similarly, when a man adopts and rears a child found on the wayside, abandoned by the true mother and father, and if the man fails at finding the parents after due search, he becomes the father of the child.
‘Without anyone to lay a claim on him, he becomes the property of the man who raises him. Such a son comes to be regarded as belonging to the same order as his adoptive father.’
Parashurama’s birth is discussed between Bhishma and Yudhishthir during the Anushasana Parva. Bhishma tells the story from the perspective of Chyavana the sage, who visits King Kusika and puts him through a test.
A series tests, to be more accurate.
- Chyavana asks Kusika that the king himself should attend to him personally, accompanied by his wife.
- He asks for the most comfortable bed to be brought for him, and sleeps on it without waking for twenty one days.
- He asks for oil to be rubbed on his body, and causes himself to appear and disappear incessantly with his magic.
- He commands Kusika to take him around the kingdom, and distributes gold from the king’s treasury to subjects on the street.
In general, he tries his best to anger Kusika, but the king and queen prove themselves to be calmer than the most high-souled Brahmins.
Chyavana therefore tells Kusika, ‘I have come here to curse you upon your failure of my tests, O King, but you are as detached from wrath as the gods themselves! I will therefore leave you with a prophecy: in the future, the Kshatriya and Brahmin lines will intermix. And in your dynasty will be born a man who will not just be a Brahmin but also a great sage.’
Kusika is pleased to have this view of the future, but some aspects of it puzzle him, so he asks Chyavana to elaborate further about what might happen.
Chyavana replies as follows.
‘It is well known, O King,’ says Chyavana, ‘that Kshatriyas should always have the assistance of the Bhargavas in performing sacrifices and other things. But through an irresistible decree of destiny, there will be quarrels between the two groups. The Kshatriyas will slay the descendants of Bhrigu. They will not even spare infants in their mothers’ wombs.
‘Then there will spring a sage in the line of Bhrigu by the name of Aurva. He will be competent enough to avenge the extermination of his race. For a little while he will ball up the rage that burns within him and place it inside the mare’s mouth that wanders the oceans, but it will soon take the form of a son called Richika. This boy, well-versed in the whole science of arms, will give birth to a sage called Jamadagni.’
(The story of Aurva and Vadavamukha is told in more detail in the post: 12 Mahabharata Stories from the Adi Parva.)
Chyavana continues: ‘Jamadagni will take for his wife the daughter of Gadhi, O King, born in your own line. And he will sire a son called Rama who will be endued with Kshatriya accomplishments. At the same time, in your race will be born a prince named Vishwamitra, who will grow up to be one of the great sages the worlds have ever seen. He will become equal unto Brihaspati himself in Vedic splendour.
‘The reason for exchange of the attributes that will define these two men will be two women, O King, one who is the wife of Gadhi, and the other who is the wife of Jamadagni. These two women will be mother and daughter.
‘All of this will happen at the command of the grandsire, so there is no chance to avert it. Look how I have tried and failed! So do embrace this prophecy, O Kusika, and celebrate that one of your descendants will become known as a maharishi!’
(You can read Jamadagni’s side of this narrative in The Birth of Jamadagni. See: 26 Epic Stories From Mahabharata That Kids (of all ages) Will Love.)
Kusika is pleased by this knowledge, and he accepts the boon with joy. ‘It is indeed a matter of great honour, O Sage,’ he says, ‘that the status of Brahminhood will be bestowed upon one of my grandsons. I ask one further boon from you, however; please grant that my dynasty will never fall away from the path of righteousness.’
Chyavana says, ‘So be it!’ and bids farewell to the king and his wife.
Krishna and Nriga
In a discussion about Brahmins, Bhishma tells Yudhishthir an interesting story of a lizard-king named Nriga.
Certain young men of Yadu’s race, we are told, once go searching for water, and they come upon an old well covered with grass and creepers. In order to draw water from it, they clear the mouth of the well, only to find a large lizard residing within it.
They try to rescue the animal from its prison, but the lizard proves to be too heavy for their efforts. So they return to the palace in Dwaraka and tell Krishna everything about what they found.
Krishna comes to that spot and helps the lizard out of the well. After the reptile had been cleaned and fed, Krishna asks it, ‘Who are you, O Lizard? And why have you come to reside in this well in this manner? Did you perform any unrighteous acts in your previous life that you were punished thus?’
The lizard replies that it is in fact a king of ancient times called Nriga. ‘O Krishna, Prince of Dwaraka,’ he says, ‘on one occasion in my previous life, a cow belonging to a Brahmin who regularly worshipped his domestic fire had entered my flock. The keepers of my cattle mistakenly took possession of that cow, and in due course of time, I gave away that very cow unto another Brahmin as a gift.
‘Then the true owner of the cow came to claim his animal from me, but the other Brahmin was not willing to give it up. So one of them thought of me as a robber, and the other thought of me as a false giver of gifts. I was thus burdened with a double sin.
I first offered the second Brahmin a hundred other cows in exchange for the one I had given him, but he refused saying that he had come to like the animal for its sweet milk and gentle disposition. At the same time, the first Brahmin also refused to accept any number of cows in exchange for the one that I had taken from him.’
After his death, Nriga ends up being punished by Yama to live as a lizard for a thousand years. It is Krishna who frees him of the curse.
Finishing the tale, Bhishma reiterates how difficult it is for a king to make decisions that are right for all parties. And yet, that is exactly what he is expected to do without fearing censure in this life or the next.
Different Kinds of Heroes
Yudhishthir now asks Bhishma about the various rewards that accrue to different kinds of people: Brahmins who study the Vedas properly, people who commit the Vedas to memory, those who obey the dictates of their orders without question, those who are valorous in battle and never show their back to the enemy – and so on.
Bhishma replies as follows: ‘A person who has studied the Vedas, O Yudhishthir, is seen to sport in felicity in both this world and the next. Of people in general, the virtue of self-restraint is the highest one.
‘A self-restrained person is happy everywhere, and they are competent to go anywhere at will. They are able to destroy every foe, and they obtain everything that they seek. Self-restraint, I am told, is an even higher merit than charity.
‘As for obeying the dictates of one’s order, there is no higher duty than that, O Bharata. A Kshatriya who dedicates his life to the protection of the three orders, the Sudra who is committed to the service of the three orders, and the Vaishya who is engaged deeply in the practice of trade and agriculture – they all attain to high places in heaven.
‘You have asked me about heroes, my son. Know that there are many different kinds of heroes. There are heroes of sacrifice, heroes of self-restraint, heroes of truth, heroes of battle, heroes of gifts, heroes of Sankhya, heroes of Yoga – and so on. There are others who are regarded heroes of the forest-life, some are heroes among ascetics, others are heroes of intellect, yet others are heroes of renunciation.
‘There are heroes of righteousness, heroes of the Vedas, heroes of devotion, heroes in respect to obedience of their parents, heroes of reverence shown toward their preceptors.
‘There are heroes who have performed great sacrifices, and heroes that are wedded to the truth. So there are many kinds of heroes, all of whom get their rewards in the proper time and place. There is not one way to be a hero, O Yudhishthir.
‘But of all the heroic deeds that are possible to a man, it has been said that Truth is the highest ideal and forgiveness the highest virtue. The vow of Brahmacharya is said to be the highest vow, and obedience of parents and preceptors is said to be the highest act.
‘A man who follows these four precepts will be rewarded with heaven.’
Agni Unites with Ganga
While plumbing the mystery of the birth of Kartikeya, Bhishma tells Yudhishthir about how Agni combines with Ganga and gives birth to a ‘golden seed’ that gives rise to the future killer of Tarakasura.
The prelude to this incident is the marriage of Uma with Shiva, after which the gods of the pantheon convince Shiva that it may not be a good idea to father children. ‘You and Uma are the foremost sources of energy in the universe, Lord,’ they say. ‘We fear that your child will be more powerful that anything we’ve ever seen.’
Shiva sees the wisdom of this and keeps his seed to himself, but he does not bother to communicate this decision to Uma.
When she finds out, she is so enraged that she curses all the gods with barrenness. The only god that escapes this fate is Agni, who at the time happens to be away on exile.
(On his return from this exile, Agni burns the forest of Khandava. See Story 12 in the post: 12 Mahabharata Stories from the Adi Parva.)
At about the same time, the gods of the universe are locked in a losing battle against Taraka, an especially powerful Asura. Taraka has a boon from Brahma that he can only be killed by a son of a god. Now that all the gods have been cursed to become barren, Agni becomes their only hope.
Brahma decrees that Agni should unite with Ganga, and that the resultant ‘seed of gold’ will bring about the death of Taraka. Brahma also reveals that when Rudra cast off his seed, a portion of it fell into Agni and got consumed by him.
Child of Six Mothers
However, after she becomes pregnant with Agni’s child, Ganga finds that carrying him to full term is a tough proposition. The fetus is so heavy and so imbued with energy that the river goddess seeks permission from Brahma to cast it off inside a cave on Mount Meru.
Agni takes care of the seed for a little while, but later enlists the help of six goddesses called Krittikas to carry him in their wombs. Agni divides the fetus into six equal parts, and gives each part to one Krittika.
The six goddesses each give birth at the same moment to an identical fetus with a single head. When the infants fuse into a single being, the resultant boy has six heads. Since he had been mothered by the Krittikas, he comes to be known as Kartikeya.
Since he has taken form from the cast off seed of Agni and Rudra, he earns the name of Skanda. And because he was cast off by Ganga in a cave in solitude, he is known as Guha. (The word Guha means secret.)
All the gods arrive at the time of Kartikeya’s birth, and they all bless him with success. Shiva and Uma adopt him as their son. Yama and Mitra and Aryaman and all the other celestial denizens come bearing varied gifts such as weapons, flowers, chariots and armour.
Seeing the son of Agni growing up, Taraka tries many ruses to get to him and to kill him, but he is unable to make any dent to the supreme energy that the boy possesses.
In due course of time, Kartikeya is made the general of Indra’s forces, and aided by the many weapons he receives from the gods, and by his own immeasurable valour, he kills Taraka and all the Asuras following him.
Bhishma Takes Leave
The time has come for Bhishma to bid goodbye to the world of men. We are now in the final stages of the Anushasana Parva, as Vyasa addresses the son of Santanu and says, ‘O Gangeya, the Kuru chief Yudhishthir has been restored to his true state along with the rest of his brothers. He now seeks your permission to return to the city.’
Bhishma calls Yudhishthir to his side. ‘Go back to your people, O King,’ he says. ‘Let the fever of grief be dispelled from your heart. Devote yourself to the practices of Kshatriyahood, and honour all your well-wishers at all times.
‘When the hour approaches for my departure, when the sun stops its southward course and turns northward, come back here so that I might bid farewell to you.’
Yudhishthir and his brothers go to Hastinapur, but on the designated day at the correct time, they return to say their final goodbyes.
Bhishma says, ‘By my good luck, O Yudhishthir, king of Hastinapur, you have come here with all your ministers. Surya has begun his northward course. I have remained on this bed of arrows for fifty eight nights.
‘But the pain has made it seem longer than a hundred years! The lunar month of Magha has arrived. The long discussions with you on various matters have made my final few days in this world pleasurable. I thank you for this.’
To Krishna: ‘O Devadeva, O holy one! It is indeed your grace that the sons of Pandu have seen such victories. I counselled Duryodhana to see the truth, that you are the embodiment of virtue upon this planet, but he was not destined to listen.
‘You are the Narayana of Vadari, who sports in the company of Nara amid birdsong and gentle breezes. Sage Narada told me all about you and Arjuna, O Vasudeva. With your leave now, I shall cast off my body. Permit me to attain the end that I deserve.’
‘I give you leave, O Shantanava!’ says Krishna. ‘You have not been guilty of a single transgression in your life. You are a royal sage though you have never held the position of king. You are a second Markandeya. It is for this reason that your death comes upon you at your wish. Even death waits upon you, O Bhishma, like a slave eager to serve.’
As celestial kettle-drums play and flowers begin to rain upon Bhishma’s dead body, the siddhas and rishis become filled with delight, and they utter exclamations of wonder. Then Yudhishthir and Vidura wrap him with a silken cloth and numerous garlands of flowers.
Yuyutsu holds an umbrella over the grandsire’s head, while Bhima and Arjuna hold in their hands two white yak tails each. The sons of Madri follow with head gears, even as Yudhishthir and Dhritarashtra take two Palmyra fans and fan Bhishma’s body gently.
As the people of Hastinapur gather around the fallen regent, Ganga appears in her embodied form and addresses the Kurus in a quiet voice.
‘O sinless ones,’ she says, ‘listen to me as I say unto you what has occurred with respect to my son. He was endued with wisdom and high birth. He was the benefactor of his race. He could not be vanquished by even Rama of Bhrigu’s race. Alas, he was slain by Shikhandi.
‘At the groom-choosing of Kasi, he vanquished all the assembled Kshatriyas of the land while fighting from a single chariot. My heart grieves as I recall the manner in which he was slaughtered by that prince of Panchala.’
Krishna steps up to console the lamenting woman. ‘Amiable one, please be comforted. Do not yield to grief. Your son was one of the Vasus, O Goddess! I have no doubt that he has already reached a region of high felicity.
‘It was only through a curse that he had to take birth in the world of men. He was slain not by Shikhandi but by Dhananjaya. The very king of the gods could not slay Bhishma in battle, O Ganga. Indeed, even all the gods assembled together could not defeat him.
‘Do not grieve for him, my lady, for your son – the supreme scion of the Kuru race – has gone to heaven.’
Hearing these words, Ganga is placated, and in due course of time all the kings present there, headed by Krishna, depart from her banks and return to Hastinapur.
This brings to a close the Anushasana Parva of the Mahabharata.
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