12 Excellent Mahabharata Stories From the Ashwamedhika Parva

Mahabharata stories from the Ashwamedhika Parva - Featured Image - Picture of a horse decorated with armor

The Ashwamedhika Parva of the Mahabharata contains a description of Yudhishthir’s Ashwamedha sacrifice performed after his victory in the war. It contains a number of stories and philosophical treatises.

Following on from the Stree Parva post, I have put together a dozen Mahabharata stories from the Ashwamedhika Parva, which will add to our growing repository of Mahabharata stories.

And here it is! From Krishna’s warning to Yudhishthir to the curse of a blue-eyed mongoose, we have it all. Enjoy!

Table of Contents

  1. The Enemies Within
  2. A Warning from Krishna
  3. Alarka
  4. Janaka’s Dominion
  5. The Test of Uttanka
  6. The Birth of Parikshit
  7. Dusshala Intervenes
  8. Babruvahana
  9. The Curse of the Vasus
  10. Giving Away the Earth
  11. The Blue-eyed Mongoose
  12. The Curse upon Anger
  13. Further Reading

The Enemies Within

At his Ashwamedha ceremony, Yudhishthir relapses into a crestfallen mood because of all the deaths he has caused, and Krishna seeks to bring him out of the depths of sorrow with the following words.

‘All crookedness of heart leads to destruction, O Yudhishthir,’ he says, ‘and all rectitude leads to Brahman, or spiritual excellence. This is the one and only aim of all true wisdom. Why, then, does your mind become distracted so easily?

‘Your karma has not been destroyed yet, nor have your enemies been subjugated. What you do not realize is that your strongest enemies lie within you.’

‘Let me narrate, in this context, the tale of how Indra defeated Vritra. In ancient times, an Asura called Vritra encompassed all of Earth with his being. Seeing this, and knowing that he should protect the three worlds from this demon, Indra hurled at him his thunderbolt.

‘Vritra consumed each of the five elements in turn, as he got smitten by the thunderbolt again and again. At the end, while Indra was contemplating attacking the Asura once again with his weapon, Vritra entered Indra’s own body and absorbed all of its prime attributes.

‘At this time, with Indra thus thoroughly afflicted by the Asura, he went to Sage Vasishtha, who consoled him with his wisdom. The sage also used his ascetic powers to craft an invisible thunderbolt that was able to enter Indra’s body and worm out the contagion that was Vritra’s essence. In this way the Asura was killed.’

Finishing the story, Krishna reiterates that all of Yudhishthir’s greatest enemies now lie within him. ‘It is thus that we know that what afflicts you, O King, is what lies inside you.

‘It is with wisdom and careful thought that these inner diseases of the soul ought to be cleansed. Until that is done, no matter how many victories you achieve in the outer world, you will not know peace.’

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A Warning from Krishna

Krishna now has a bit of a veiled warning for Yudhishthir, but it is cloaked in some questionable science. My refrain to readers is to extract the underlying message from what follows, not the literal meaning of the words.

‘The three attributes of the soul are Sattwa, Rajas and Tamas. The presence and proportion of each of these qualities give rise to the health of the soul. But if one of them predominates, it is necessary to bring about equilibrium by force.

‘Happiness, for instance, is overcome by sorrow, and sorrow by pleasure. Some people, in moments of sadness, desire to recall past happiness while others, in moments of happiness, desire to recall past sorrows.

‘But you, Yudhishthir, do not seem to recall any moments of your past. You seem to move from one instant in time to the next without appreciating the connection between them.

‘Do you remember how Draupadi was made to stand in the middle of the assembly dressed in a single piece of cloth? Do you remember the trouble caused you by the Saindhavas in the war, by which Abhimanyu was killed? What of the impediments placed in your path by Kichaka?

‘All those battles are in your past, O King, and you have won them all. Perhaps they do not seem like victories to you now. But I must tell you that you are about to embark upon another battle, one that you must fight alone with your own mind. With the help of your own karma, you must reach the other side of this vast and mysterious ocean that we call the mind.

‘In this war there will be no need for missiles or friends or allies or enemies. Everything you need – and everything you must fight – is within you.’

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Alarka

At the time of Parashurama taking revenge upon the Kshatriya race for killing his father, a divine voice appears and narrates to him the following story in a bid to make him put down his axe.

Alarka is said to be a royal sage who, after conquering the whole of Earth with his bow, sits down to sort out the knots of subtlety. Sitting at the root of a tree, he says to himself, ‘I intend to conquer my mind now. Like I shot numerous arrows at my foes in order to vanquish them, I will shoot arrows at my mind in order to gain victory over it.’

The mind replies, ‘But those arrows will never pierce me, O Alarka. They will only pierce your own vital parts, and will lead to your death. Look for other kinds of arrows in order to conquer me.’

‘Smelling many perfumes,’ says Alarka, looking around him, ‘the nose hankers after them. I shall shoot whetted arrows at the nose.’

And the nose says, ‘These arrows will never reach me, Alarka. You will only end up hurting yourself. Look for other arrows in order to destroy me.’

‘The tongue,’ says Alarka, ‘enjoys savoury tastes and hankers after them. I shall shoot whetted shafts at it!’

The tongue also reproves the king in similar tones. In the same way, Alarka professes a desire to conquer his other senses as well with his arrows, but gets admonished gently by the concerned sense that he must look for other means if he is to achieve victory.

Then Alarka, understanding that this battle with himself is very different to all those he had fought and won with physical weapons, begins on a journey of austere penances.

By the use of Yoga, he sets his mind on the object of entering his soul, and immediately succeeds in conquering his senses. Filled with wonder at this, he exclaims how stupid it is that men seek to accomplish acts that are external. ‘Alas,’ he says, ‘that I have realized the beauty of Yoga only after spending much of my life in foolish pursuits. There is nothing in this world higher than Yoga.’

After listening to this tale, Parashurama also decides that the time has come to stop his bloodshed.

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Janaka’s Dominion

Once a Brahmin visits the court of King Janaka and asks him a question. ‘What are the limits to the territories, O King,’ he says, ‘which are subject to your rule?’

That apparently simple question stumps the king, and in no time at all he is seen to be sighing in visible effort. For a while he does not speak, choosing instead to work out for himself the meaning of all the thoughts that are assailing him.

Then he says, ‘A large inhabited tract of land has been given me by my ancestors, O Sage. Yet I do not know my dominion, searching as I am through the whole earth.

‘However, my failed journeys have brought wisdom. I have come to the realization that I have no dominion, but also that everything is my dominion. This body itself is not mine, O Sage, and yet the whole earth is mine. But as much as it belongs to me, it belongs to all the others who live on it with me.’

The Brahmin asks, ‘How have you come to the realization, O King, that everything and nothing is in your dominion? This idea interests me greatly. Will you please be kind enough to elaborate upon it?’

‘All the affairs that I now preside over,’ replies Janaka, ‘I have now understood to be terminable and temporary. Hence I could not find anything that was mine. I could not find anything in the world that I could rightly call mine alone. So I said my dominion contains nothing.

‘However, I also note that the sights, the tastes, the touches, the smells and the thoughts that come to me are unique. Even though I do not wish them for myself, they accost me and bind me to this world. No one senses this world as I do. So this entire world that I perceive is mine, and mine alone. It is therefore the case that everything I sense is mine.’

The Brahmin then reveals himself as Yama in disguise, and rewards Janaka for his wisdom.

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The Test of Uttanka

When Krishna leaves Hastinapur’s Ashwamedha and journeys toward Dwaraka, his path crosses with that of Uttanka the sage. When Krishna pays the old man his respects and asks what he may give him, the sage replies:

‘Let it be that I shall never be without access to water, O Lord. In this desert, water is as precious as nectar. Please make it so that whenever I pine for water, I should get it. By your grace, may I never suffer from the harsh pangs of burning thirst.’

Krishna gives Uttanka the boon. After a few days, it so happens that the sage finds himself with his vessel of water empty, with only dry sand and cloudless skies in all directions. He closes his eyes and prays, hoping that Krishna’s words would not go in vain, and true enough, a hunter comes up to him.

‘You seem to be aching for water, O Sage,’ says the hunter. ‘Please accept some of mine; the gods have willed that I should have more than I need.’

But the hunter is a Chandala, and Uttanka rejects the offer in a moment of indignation. The hunter merely smiles and goes on his way.

His throat still parched, Uttanka calls out to Krishna. ‘What trickery is this, O Madhusudana?’ he says. ‘When I asked for water, you gave it to me in the form of a hunter’s urine! Do you wish that I should defile myself for the sake of slaking my thirst? Why do you play with your devotees so?’

Krishna appears once again and comforts Uttanka. He reveals to the sage that it had all been a test. The hunter was in fact Indra in disguise, and the ‘urine’ he had offered Uttanka was actually the divine Amrit. ‘I had asked Indra to give you the nectar of immortality, O Sage,’ Krishna says, ‘but he said you weren’t ready. I see now that he was right.’

Uttanka is suitably forlorn, but Krishna soothes him with another boon. ‘From now on,’ he says, ‘whenever you are consumed by thirst, a bunch of clouds will cover the desert and rain water upon you. These clouds will go by the name of Uttanka Megha, and thus you will gain immortality in this land of men.’

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The Birth of Parikshit

With the Ashwamedha proceeding as scheduled, the Yadavas arrive as guests at the auspicious time. Krishna is now accompanied by Balarama, Satyaki and other such Vrishni heroes. After they are welcomed into Hastinapur and given their seats, Kunti comes into the assembly and addresses Krishna directly.

‘O Prince of Dwaraka,’ she says, ‘we welcome you into the city named after the elephant. We have heard before that you are the saviour of the Kuru race. However, a ghastly incident has occurred yesterday in our ladies’ quarters, one which you should help us rectify.’

Krishna, though he can guess what Kunti is referring to, feigns ignorance and says, ‘What is it that I can do for you, Aunt?’

‘Uttara, the wife of Abhimanyu,’ says Kunti, ‘has given birth to a son yesterday. But stricken as he was in the womb by the powerful weapon of Ashwatthama, he is as still as a rock. No blood flows in his veins. He is the future of the Kuru kingdom, O Govinda. Without him, the line of Pandavas is as good as extinct!’

After this, Subhadra also comes to the assembly and speaks to Krishna. ‘The race of the Kurus has thinned due to the war, Brother,’ she says, ‘and now their only hope lies in this poor little boy born to Uttara, still and feeble. The blade of grass that the son of Drona hurled at Uttara still lies buried within her, and a fragment of it has found a way into the boy’s heart.

‘For the sake of the Pandavas, for the sake of Draupadi who had to give up so much for the continuation of the Kuru dynasty, for the sake of Uttara who is still grieving for her lord, and for the sake of all these kings who will be fatherless without a king on the throne of Hastinapur – arise, O Krishna, and perform your duty.’

Krishna, of course, does not need to be persuaded so much. He visits Uttara in her chambers, and with a palm resting on little Parikshit’s chest, utters a silent incantation that brings him back to life.

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Dusshala Intervenes

After the Ashwamedha begins, Arjuna is the warrior tasked with following the horse wherever it goes so that he can challenge the kingdoms into which the beast wanders. One of the cities that fall in his path is Sindhu.

The Saindhavas (once ruled by Jayadratha) do not surrender to Arjuna at first, and just as they’re about to fight, Dusshala, the widow of Jayadratha and sister to Duryodhana, appears on the scene.

She enters the battlefield with an infant in her arms. When Arjuna sees her approach, he bids all fighting to stop and lowers his bow. He receives his sister with comforting words and asks her, ‘This is no place for a woman, Dusshala. Why are you here? Pray, what do you wish me to do?’

Dusshala shows the baby in her arms to Arjuna. ‘This is my grandson, O Partha,’ she says, ‘the son of Jayadratha’s son Suratha. This young boy wishes to salute you with all respect. Please look into his eyes.’

Arjuna does so, but he also asks Dusshala what has happened to Suratha.

‘When he heard of Jayadratha’s death at your hands, Arjuna,’ replies Dusshala, ‘Suratha gave up his life, smitten as he was by grief. Now he has left the future of his clan in my hands, and I have come to tell you that the Saindhavas will become friends to the Pandavas, O Gudakesha. Let this fighting stop, for there is nothing to be gained from it.’

Struck by just how far-reaching the consequences of war had been, Arjuna descends from his chariot, and clutches Dusshala in a warm embrace. After blessing her grandson, he assures her that the fighting will stop.

The Saindhavas also cast away their weapons and pledge their allegiance to Arjuna.

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Babruvahana

Arjuna next goes to the kingdom of Manipura, where Babruvahana, his son by Chitrangada, is ruling. As soon as the prince gets to know that his father has come into the city, he sets out in the garb of a priest with a retinue of courtiers in order to invite him in with all honours. But Arjuna does not take kindly to this gesture.

‘Are you a true Kshatriya, my son?’ he asks, quite harshly, when the prince extends his arms of welcome. ‘I have come following the sacred horse of Yudhishthir, and we have trespassed into your city. Is this how you have been taught to deal with unwelcome visitors to your land?

I wished that you will encounter me with bow and arrow, not with a plate of gifts! Indeed, you look like a woman in these robes!’

While Babruvahana is weighing his options in the face of this unexpected speech from his father, another surprise visitor appears there. Ulupi, another wife of Arjuna (by whom he has a son named Iravan, who dies in the Mahabharata war), springs out of the earth and addresses her step-son with the following words.

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‘My name is Ulupi, O Baburavahana,’ she says, ‘and I am the daughter of the Naga king that rules the kingdom that lies west of here. Do not doubt whether or not you must fight your father today, for it is in the performing of your order’s dictates that you make yourself worthy of your throne. Fight your sire!’

(This also is strange behaviour on the part of Ulupi. Why is she instigating Baburuvahana against Arjuna? This part of the mystery will be revealed in the next story.)

Thus advised by his step-mother to fight against his father, Babruvahana reluctantly picks up his weapon and challenges Arjuna to a duel.

The king of Manipura proves himself to be an able warrior in this encounter, and in fact he defeats Arjuna. One of his arrows pierce the armour of the Pandava and renders him unconscious.

When Ulupi rushes to hold him in her arms, she finds that Arjuna’s breathing had stopped.

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The Curse of the Vasus

Ulupi does not panic when she sees Arjuna dead. With a silent chant she revives him, and everyone is puzzled by the turn of events.

Arjuna himself is confused by it all, and he asks Ulupi what is going on.

Ulupi smiles upon Arjuna and replies, ‘Neither you nor Babruvahana has done me any wrong, my lord. Nor has this prince’s mother done me any harm. All that I have done today is for your own good. Listen carefully as I tell you the reason behind my visit.

‘In the great war of the Bharatas, you had slain the grandsire Bhishma by unfair means. You did not rely on the might of your own arms to defeat him, O Pandava, but you used deceit by hiding behind Shikhandi. This act of yours has incurred the wrath of the Vasus – the brothers of Bhishma – and that of Ganga, his mother.

‘They have decreed that you, Arjuna, will have to meet your death at the hands of your son, and with that death the sin of having killed Bhishma will leave you. If you are to ascend to Heaven without performing this cleansing ritual, you will not be admitted to heaven.

‘When I heard this, I hurried over here because I knew you were protecting the sacrificial horse. It was therefore my intention to see to it that Babruvahana and you fight each other, my lord, and that you die at his hands. I wanted to be here at that moment because I can then use the jewel of the Nagas to bring you back to life.’

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Giving Away the Earth

In this story, we will look at the core ritual that makes up the Ashwamedha sacrifice.

At the appropriate time, the sacrificial horse is brought to the pulpit and killed. After cutting it into pieces, Draupadi is brought to sit near the divided animal. The Brahmins then cook the horse, allowing the smoke arising from the burning of the marrow to be breathed in by the five Pandavas. The remaining limbs are poured into the fire by the sixteen sacrificial priests.

(If you’re an animal lover, the preceding passage is apt to make you cringe. I apologize.)

After the horse has been sacrificed, Yudhishthir gives away many thousand gold coins to the attending priests, and to Vyasa he gives away the whole earth of which he has been proclaimed monarch.

‘The Dakshina ordained in the scriptures for the great Ashwamedha is the Earth itself. I have therefore given away unto the priests all the land that has been conquered on my behalf by Arjuna. Now that I have given up my possessions, I intend to leave for the woods. Please divide all this wealth among yourselves.’

And his brothers and wife say, ‘Yes, just so.’

Of course, this is all a ritualistic gesture. Yudhishthir and the Pandavas have no intention of giving away the Earth in truth to the officiating priests.

Playing his part, Vyasa accepts the gift given by Yudhishthir, and says, ‘We are Brahmins, O King. We have no need for earth. The true owner of earth is a Kshatriya. Please give us gold and cows, for with that wealth we will set up our hermitages.’

Yudhishthir accepts the returned gift with good grace, and gives millions of gold coins in its place to all the Brahmins congregated there. With that as cue, the gift-giving part of the sacrifice begins in earnest, with all the kings and common men being given gold and jewels and clothes.

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The Blue-eyed Mongoose

When Yudhishthir is performing his Ashwamedha sacrifice, a golden mongoose with blue eyes appears on the scene and begins to speak ill of proceedings. ‘None of the gifts that King Yudhishthir is giving away are valuable,’ it says. ‘I have seen another sacrifice that is much more meritorious than this.’

The assembled sages ask the animal the details of this other sacrifice, and the mongoose replies with a story.

It concerns a poor Brahmin with a wife, a son and a daughter-in-law who is visited one night by a guest. Even though the family is a poor one, each individual member of it agrees to give up their share of food in order to feed the guest properly. The mongoose declares that the offering thus made by the family to their guest was richer than all the gifts given away by Yudhishthir.

It of course turns out that the guest visiting the Brahmin is a god in disguise, and for this show of generosity the family receives the gift of entry into heaven. In giving this reward, the guest says:

‘The deity of righteousness is not gratified by things of value, O Brahmin, but by things of meaning. And what can be more meaningful than the last four handfuls of grain in a household of starving people?’

Having thus insulted the Ashwamedha of Yudhishthir, the mongoose vanishes from there. The point it has made, of course, is that not all charity is equal in merit. Charitable acts performed by poor people are considered to be much more valuable than those performed by wealthy kings.

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The Curse upon Anger

To round off the Ashwamedhika Parva, Janamejaya asks Vaisampayana about the true identity of the blue-eyed mongoose who voiced its disapproval at Yudhishthir’s sacrifice.

Vaisampayana tells the following story.

Once upon a time, Sage Jamadagni wishes to perform a religious rite, and for the occasion he milks his Homa cow himself and places the milk inside a vessel. As it happens, the deity Dharma, assuming the form of Anger, enters that vessel and spoils the milk with the intention of testing the sage.

Jamadagni is enraged at this act from Anger, but the latter assumes the form of a Brahmin woman, and bowing to the sage, says, ‘I have been told that the Bhrigus are wrathful, but I stand here today, subdued by you, praying for your forgiveness. Please, O Rishi, treat me with kindness.’

And Jamadagni says, ‘I have seen you, Anger, in your embodied form! Go wherever you like without any anxiety. You have not caused me any harm today, and I have no grudge against you. I extracted this milk for the highly blessed Pitris. Present yourself before them and ascertain their intentions.’

The Pitris of Jamadagni, though, are less forgiving than the sage himself. They curse Anger to become a mongoose, and when the animal asks them how the curse might be lifted, they tell it, ‘Only by speaking disrespectfully of Dharma will you be returned to your normal form.’

Ever since then, says Vaisampayana, finishing the story, the mongoose keeps visiting all the great sacrifices and speaking ill of them. The last sacrifice he visits is the one of Yudhishthir, where it makes light of the Pandava’s charitable donations by referring to the Brahmin from Kurukshetra.

On this rather puzzling note (because we do not know exactly if the storyteller agrees with the mongoose or not), the Ashwamedhika Parva ends.

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Further Reading

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Enjoy!