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 the test of Oghavati to a short treatise on marriage, we have it all. Enjoy!
The Princess of Mahishmati
Yudhishthir asks Bhishma to tell him what the foremost duty of a householder is. Bhishma responds with a short history of a lineage of kings born into the Ikshvaku line as descendants of Manu.
One of these rulers is a man named Duryodhana (not to be confused with the son of Dhritarashtra), who rules over the kingdom of Mahishmati.
Duryodhana is a much-loved king, and so desirable is he that the river Narmada herself courts him in her human form. Their union produces a lotus-eyed daughter by name Sudarshana.
This princess inherits all the good qualities of both her parents, and when she grows into a maiden, all the men of the land vie for her attention. Even Agni, the lord of fire, is smitten, and he comes to ask Duryodhana for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
However, Agni takes the form of a Brahmin when he raises the proposal, and Duryodhana is unable to bring himself to marry his daughter off to a pauper.
However, after much deliberation and some crafty negotiations by Brahmins in Duryodhana’s court – who know of the true identity of the suitor – the marriage is fixed.
Duryodhana asks Agni for a gift as dower for his daughter. ‘Please ensure, O Lord,’ he says, ‘that you shall always remain in the city of Mahishmati, and that you will defend it with all your might if it is attacked.’
Agni agrees, and it is thus that when Sahadeva arrives in the city to annex it to Yudhishthir’s kingdom during the time of the Rajasuya, he finds himself facing the lord of fire in battle.
(See The Subjugation of Mahishmati in: 12 Mahabharata Stories from the Sabha Parva.)
In any case, the union between Agni and Sudarshana gives rise to a son who is also named Sudarshana. When he comes of age he is married to the princess Oghavati, the daughter of King Oghavat. The newly-wedded couple live in Kurukshetra, and the son of Agni begins to lead the life of a householder, dutifully performing all his tasks.
The Brahmin who arrives at the house of Sudarshana bears all the auspicious marks on his body. Just a look at him and Oghavati can tell that he has amassed plenty of spiritual wealth by his penances.
Accordingly, she welcomes him into the house, gives him a seat, and washes his feet. After all the rituals are complete, she tells him, ‘Pray what can I do for you, O Sage? My husband is not home, but I shall do anything in my power to give you what you wish.’
The Brahmin looks up at her with a smile and replies, ‘I want nothing from you, O Oghavati, except that I wish to experience the pleasure of physically uniting with you. That and that alone is my desire. I now impel you to stay true to your promise and fulfil it.’
The princess at first declines the proposal and offers numerous other gifts in lieu of it. But the Brahmin is adamant. Seeing that her guest’s mind is made up, Oghavati remembers that it is the duty of a host to see to the pleasure of the guest. So while overcome with shame, she nods at the Brahmin as if to say, ‘So be it.’
Some time later, Sudarshana returns home and finds that he cannot see Oghavati anywhere. He looks for her everywhere and calls out her name. But because she is inside, on the cot in the arms of the Brahmin, and because she is covered in shame, she does not respond to his calls.
As the son of Agni continues to look for his wife, the Brahmin comes to the front door and explains to him that Oghavati is inside, and that she had offered herself to him at his behest.
‘I told her that all I wanted was to unite with her,’ he tells Sudarshana, ‘and the lady accepted. What do you propose to do now?’
Sudarshana smiles at his guest and joins his hands together in a gesture of respect. ‘What my wife has done is no doubt right and righteous, O Sage. It is indeed the duty of a householder to satisfy all desires of his guest. My life, my possessions and my wife are all yours. So I consider myself fortunate that my wife also follows in the path laid out by Dharma.’
As expected, it turns out that the Brahmin guest is in reality the god of Dharma himself, who has come to test Oghavati and her husband. He blesses the princess that no sin of adultery will attach itself to her as a result of their union, and he also decrees that Oghavati becomes a mighty river.
Exertion and Destiny
‘Of exertion and destiny, O Grandsire,’ Yudhishthir says now, ‘which is the more powerful force?’
Bhishma replies that the same question had once been asked by Sage Vasishtha of Brahma while the latter was seated atop the primeval lotus. ‘Is it the Karma of a man acquired in his current life – also called exertion – or the Karma carried over from his past life – also called destiny – the more important force in determining his future, O Lord?’
Brahma says, ‘Nothing comes into existence without a seed. Without a seed, no fruit can grow. From the fruits that grow of a seed, other seeds will emerge. Will a piece of land give rise to any crop no matter how much it is tilled, if it is not first sown with seeds?
‘One’s own acts are like the soil, and destiny is the seed. From the union of these two factors does the harvest grow. Neither can work without the other.
‘A man of great destiny will still not realize it if he does not act. If a man is not destined for a certain thing, no matter how much he exerts himself, he will not achieve it. Both of these notions are true, and we see examples of both of them in the world. So it is not to be thought, O Sage, that one of exertion and destiny is more important than the other. A man needs both in order to fulfill his objectives.
‘If one’s exertions did not bear fruit, men will all become idlers and survive on the strength of their destinies alone.’
(This answer by Bhishma combines well with the Pravritti-Nivritti story from 12 Mahabharata Stories from the Shanti Parva – Part 2.)
Yudhishthir now Bhishma a rather delicate question. ‘Between man and woman, O Grandsire,’ he says, ‘who derives the higher amount of pleasure from the act of union?’
Bhishma replies by narrating the story of Bhangaswana, a king who performs a sacrifice called the Agnishtuta, which gives him a hundred sons. However, Indra is disapproves of this, and resolves to curse the king.
One day, when Bhangaswana wanders off into the woods and comes upon a lake filled with lotuses, he decides to have a bath. But as soon as he emerges from the lake, he discovers that he had been transformed into a woman.
The female Bhangaswana makes arrangements for his kingdom to be ruled by his sons, and then retreats into the woods with the intention of performing some austerities. But here he meets a sage and has a hundred sons with him.
So King Bhangaswana finds himself in the curious position of having given birth to a hundred sons as a man, and a hundred sons as a woman.
Later, when Indra’s anger is assuaged and he wishes to return Bhangaswana to his natural form, the king refuses. When Indra asks why, Bhangaswana replies, ‘Because the act of sex is more pleasurable as a woman than it is as a man, O Lord.’
(One must, of course, not take this story too seriously. Since pleasure (a) not measurable, and (b) a subjective experience, one cannot ever answer this question with certainty. Also, it is telling that Yudhishthir asks this question of Bhishma, a life-long celibate.)
Qualities of Mahadeva
The Anushasana Parva contains a particular frame story in which Jambavati, Krishna’s wife, asks her husband for a son that is equal in prowess to the gods. Krishna sets out to perform some penances for this, and meets a sage named Upamanyu.
Upamanyu tells Krishna that the only way to receive a son so powerful is by praying to Shiva. In telling Krishna how great Shiva is, Upamanyu gives us a description of some of the Destroyer’s qualities.
‘He is the source of all operations in the universe, my son,’ he says. ‘Sometimes he assumes the form of Hiranyagarbha, who is without beginning, without end, and without birth. He lives in the heart of every creature. He is the prana. He is the Jiva. He is the Supreme Soul.
‘He sometimes laughs and sometimes sings and sometimes dances most beautifully. Surrounded by innumerable spirits and ghosts, he sometimes plays on musical instruments.
‘He may be seen on the sacrificial platform or in the sacrificial stake; in the midst of the cow-pen or in the fire. He may not again be seen there. He may be seen as a boy or as an old man.
His hair is long and stands erect. He is perfectly naked, for he has the horizon for his garments. He is endued with terrible eyes. He is fair, he is darkish, he is dark, he is pale, he is of the colour of smoke, and he is red.
‘Sometimes he recites sacred mantras in worship of other gods. At other times, he becomes the god for which mantras have to be recited. He sometimes performs penances, and at other times he is the object of all penances.
Sometimes he loses himself within his own yoganidra, and at other times, he takes the form of the yoganidra of other yogis.
‘He is purity in his very essence. He is incapable of being comprehended by the senses. One can only sense him through the eye of the soul. He has a hundred thousand eyes.
He sometimes assumes the guise of one that is mad, and sometimes of one that is intoxicated, and he sometimes utters words that are exceedingly sweet.
Endued with appalling fierceness, he sometimes laughs loudly, frightening all creatures with his eyes. He sometimes sleeps and sometimes remains awake and sometimes yawns as he pleases.
The Eight Boons
Krishna manages to pray to Shiva with enough fervor so as to make the god appear in front of him along with Parvati. Krishna asks Shiva for eight boons: firmness in virtue, victory over foes in battle, the highest fame, the greatest might, devotion to Yoga, devotion to you, and hundreds of children.
(Observant readers will note that there are only seven boons in that list, not eight. But no mention is made of the missing wish by either Krishna or Maheshwara. So we will not quibble.)
‘So be it,’ replies Shankara, and after that Uma addresses Krishna.
‘Mahadeva has granted you a son who shall be named Samba, O Krishna,’ she says. ‘I also wish to give you eight boons, so choose anything that is in your heart and it shall be yours.’
(Incidentally, it is this Samba who earns the curse of the three sages during the events of the Mausala Parva. He becomes, in effect, responsible for the destruction of the Yadava race. See: 12 Mahabharata Stories from the Mausala Parva.)
Krishna bows reverentially to the mother of the universe and says, ‘Kindness toward Brahmins, grace of my father, a hundred sons, the highest of life’s pleasures, love for my family, the grace of my mother, the attainment of tranquillity, and cleverness in every act – these are the eight boons that I want from you, O Goddess.’
Thus, armed with sixteen boons (fifteen by our count), Krishna returns to Dwaraka and fulfills Jambavati’s wish.
Some Names of Mahadeva
‘Hear, O Krishna,’ says Upamanyu now, ‘a few names uttered by Brahma himself about that giver of boons, that adorable deity, that god who has the universe for his form, and who is possessed of supreme wisdom. These names that I shall recite are extracted from the ten thousand that the great Grandsire has written down in the days of yore.
‘As ghee is extracted from curd, as gold is extracted from rocky mountains, as honey represents the essence of flowers, even so have these names been extracted from and represent the essence of those ten thousand names.’
‘You are called Sthira (immobile), Sthanu (fixed), Bhanu (terrible), Pravara (the foremost), Varada (giver of boons), Sarvatma (the soul of everything), Sarvavikhyata (celebrated by everyone), Sarva (everything), and Sarvakara (the doer of all deeds).
‘You are called Jaticharmi, the wearer of matted locks on your head. You are Shikhandi (the wearer of animal skins), Sarvanagaha (he who has the whole universe for his limbs), Sarvabhavana (he who finds expression in everything), and Sarvabhootahara (he who is the destroyer of all things).
‘You are Pravritti from which all actions flow. You are Nivritti which is the non-existence of acts. You are Smashaanaachaari, the preceptor of the crematorium. You are Svayambhu because you were born of yourself. You are Viroopaksha, because you comprise of eyes without form. You are Nakshatrasadhaka, because you are the lord of all the stars in the firmament.’
The Many Forms of Indra
The context for this story is that a sage called Devasharma has a wife named Ruchi who is exceedingly beautiful. Devasharma suspects that Indra, the king of the gods, has an eye on his wife.
On the occasion of once leaving on a long pilgrimage, he instructs Vipula, his prime disciple, to protect Ruchi at all costs. In doing this, he warns Vipula of all the various ways in which Indra may try to deceive him.
‘The killer of Paka, O Sage,’ says Devasharma to Vipula, ‘is full of illusion. Sometimes he wears a diadem and holds the thunderbolt. Sometimes, armed with the thunderbolt and wearing a crown on his head, he adorns himself with earrings, and in a moment transforms himself into a Chandala.
‘Sometimes he wears coronal locks on the head, and the next moment he appears in matted locks. His person is clad in the most elegant clothes one moment and in tattered rags the next.
‘Sometimes he is fair in complexion, at other times he is dark. Sometimes he appears ugly and at other times he is beautiful. He could be young or old.
‘Sometimes he will visit you as a powerful Kshatriya, and at other times he will don the appearance of a Brahmin. He might come dressed as a Vaishya or a Sudra as well.
‘Sometimes he appears as a parrot, at other times as a crow, sometimes as a swan, and sometimes as a cuckoo. He is also known to have assumed the forms of a lion, a tiger or an elephant.
‘Sometimes he reveals himself as a god. At other times he becomes a Daitya. Sometimes he wears the guise of a great and rich king, while at other times he appears as a dwarf, short and plump.
‘He is sometimes a cripple, at other times a quadruped. He might be a bird, an idiot or a fly or a gnat. No one can make him out, O Vipula, due to the innumerable disguises that he possesses.
‘The very Creator of the universe is considered incapable of recognizing Indra when he is under a disguise. He can make himself invisible when he chooses. Sometimes he transforms into the wind. He is incapable of being seen except with the eye of knowledge.
‘Therefore, Vipula, have your wits about you. Protect this slender-waisted spouse of mine with great care.’
Vipula devises a strategy to protect Ruchi from Indra, one he believes is fool proof. We will see what it is in the next story.
The predicament of the young disciple is this: if he leaves Ruchi’s side even for a moment, Indra is apt to seize the opportunity and make his move. So he decides that the only way to perform this task is to ensure that he is always with her.
However, what about moments of privacy during which Ruchi will be alone? Indra is the master of illusion and trickery; he can easily transform himself into an insect or a gnat and enter Ruchi’s bedchamber or bathroom.
So Vipula decides that the only way to perform this task successfully is by entering Ruchi’s body and living inside her for the duration of Devasharma’s absence.
He first approaches Ruchi reverentially and asks her to sit down on the mud floor of her cottage. He then seats himself down by her side and discourses her upon the topics of righteousness and truth.
Directing his eyes to hers at the right moment, and uniting the rays of light that emanate from her organs with those of his, he enters the lady’s body just like wind enters and fills up space. Penetrating her eyes with his, and her face with his, he stays, without moving, deep inside her as if he were her shadow.
Irregular as this method is, it works. When Indra approaches Ruchi, thinking her alone, Vipula speaks to the king of the gods from within her, and shames him enough that he returns to Amaravati without laying a hand on the woman.
When Devasharma returns, though, Vipula tells him that the task he had given him is complete: Ruchi has been protected from Indra. Devasharma does not ask the details and rewards his disciple.
However, this small omission brings Vipula some grief. We will see how in the next story.
A Curse upon Vipula
After a few days, Vipula is sent away on an errand of picking flowers, and in the forest he sees a couple of sights that shake him to his core.
- First, he sees a couple – a man and a woman – following one another around a sacred fire, apparently participating in a wedding ritual. As Vipula approaches, they fall out of step with one another and begin quarrelling. The man angrily tells the woman: ‘Whoever among us is lying, he or she is as sinful as that Vipula!’
- On moving deeper into the forest, Vipula sees six men playing dice with one another. Here too an argument breaks out between the players, and one of them declares: ‘Whoever among the six of us dying will be as accursed as Vipula is!’
Now this confuses the young man; after all, he had taken the risk of his life and thwarted Indra himself in protecting the wife of his preceptor. What more could anyone ask of him? Why is he considered a sinner?
He returns to the hermitage deep in thought, and when the time is right he asks Devasharma about it.
Devasharma replies, ‘Your sin is not that you entered my wife’s body, my son, but that you did not tell me about it. Whether it is out of shame, guilt or fear, you chose to keep it a secret. You thought that since you performed the act in secret, no one would know.
‘But the man and woman you saw in the forest – they are Night and Day. And the six people who were playing dice – they are the six seasons. They are always watching every action of every man. On your walk today, they reminded you of this.’
Devasharma explains that Vipula has no choice but to suffer the consequences of his sin, and allows the disciple to leave his hermitage.
Bhishma tells this story to Yudhishthir in order to reinforce the importance of being truthful at all times to one’s preceptor.
Breach of Marital Promises
In a conversation about marriage, Yudhishthir asks Bhishma: ‘After the father of a girl has received dower from a prospective bridegroom, or after he has paid the dower to one, what happens if he comes across another boy who he thinks is more suited to his daughter?’
(This conversation also includes a mention of the eight forms of marriage, which Bhishma repeats for Yudhishthir’s benefit. See: 12 Mahabharata Stories From the Adi Parva.)
Bhishma replies, ‘A gift or a dower does not cause the status of wife to attach to the girl. This is well-known to the person paying it. He is simply paying the dower as price for the girl.
‘You should also remember, Yudhishthir, that good men do not bestow their daughters tempted by the dowers that they attract. The father of a bride demands dower only from grooms that are wanting in some respect.
‘If the groom is deserving in every way, the father of the bride instead insists on giving away his daughter without expectation of any dower.
‘In any case, declarations and promises do not amount to marriage, until the girl’s hand is given and accepted in accordance to due rites. So the father of a bride, if he finds a better bridegroom after accepting dower from a man, should have no scruples about choosing the more suitable match. But he must also return the dower that he has taken.
‘It is said that of all the sins in the world, the practice of a girl living with a man she does not like is said to be the greatest. By all means must this be avoided.
‘No sin will attach itself, therefore, to the father who seeks to do right by his daughter when a situation arises as you have described it.’
This concludes Part 1 of our exploration into the stories of Anushasana Parva. Part 2 will have more.
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