Today I sat down to write yet another post of Mahabharata stories, and I asked myself: why not begin at the beginning? Why not categorize these posts by parva so that by the end, we will have one big repository to refer to whenever we wanted?
Why not indeed? So I said: let me, for now, put together a post containing my favourite Mahabharata stories from the Adi Parva, and then I can do a post each for all the other eighteen parvas as well.
And here’s the result. From mighty eggs to horse-faced balls of anger, from lakes of blood to the cause of Agni’s indigestion, these dozen stories will speak to the Mahabharata nerd in you. Enjoy!
Mahadivya, the Mighty Egg
Very early in the Adi Parva, we encounter the story of Mahadivya, the mighty egg which is the inexhaustible seed for all created beings. It is the starting point of all creation, the Big Bang of Hindu cosmology.
At the beginning of the yuga, Brahma is the first to emerge from the Mahadivya, followed by Suraguru (Vishnu) and Sthanu (Shiva). The twenty-one Prajapatis, the Adityas, the Vasus, the twin Ashwins, and the sages were then created, who together gave rise to the world as we know it.
The theory is that at the end of every yuga, everything in the universe will compress into the form of Mahadivya, only to be released at the beginning of the next yuga. There is no beginning or end to this expansion and contraction cycle. Everything that comes into being must be destroyed, and everything thus destroyed must take birth later in a different form.
The Five Lakes of Blood
In the interval between the Treta and the Dwapara yugas, Parashurama, the son of Jamadagni, embarks upon a campaign of annihilation directed toward the Kshatriya race.
Twenty one times he wipes them off the face of the Earth. Anger still not sated, he offers oblations to his ancestors with the blood of his slain enemies. The five lakes of Samantapanchaka are turned red due to this.
When Parashurama’s ancestors appear and declare themselves pleased with his reverence, the sage asks for a boon that he might be absolved of all the sins he has accrued due to his Kshatriya-killing. This land of five gory lakes, from then on, becomes venerated as a holy place.
This mass killing of Kshatriyas at the beginning of the Dwapara serves as a portent of things to come, for toward the end of Dwapara, eighteen Akshauhinis of soldiers from all over Aryavarta assemble at this very place, and they all get slain over an eighteen-day cleansing ritual that we now call the battle of the Mahabharata.
What is an Akshauhini?
An Akshauhini is a unit of army that is made up of the following divisions:
One chariot, one elephant, five foot-soldiers and three horses form one Patti.
Three pattis make one Senamukha.
Three senamukhas are together called a Gulma.
Three Gulmas form a Gana. (An aside: the ganas of Shiva are led by Vinayaka, thus his name Ganesha.)
Three ganas make one Vahini.
Three vahinis are together called a Pritana.
Three pritanas form a Chamu.
Three chamus to one Ankini.
And ten Ankinis, when assembled, is called an Akshauhini.
An Akshauhini contains 21870 chariots, the same number of elephants, 109350 soldiers that fight on foot, and 65610 horsemen.
Eighteen such Akshauhinis gather in Kurukshetra for the Mahabharata war, seven on the side of the Pandavas and eleven on the side of the Kauravas.
How Agni Became the Eater of All Things
The sage Bhrigu, one of the Saptarishis created by Brahma, has a wife named Puloma. When she becomes heavily pregnant with their child, one day Bhrigu leaves her alone at their hermitage and goes to perform his ablutions.
At this time, a Rakshasa, also by name Puloma, appears at their house and gets besotted by the sage’s wife.
Now it so happens that Puloma (the woman) was in the past first promised to Puloma (the Rakshasa) before she was given in marriage to Bhrigu. The Rakshasa questions the live sacrificial fire burning at the hermit’s hut whether this is fair or right.
‘This woman has first been promised to me, O Agni,’ says the Rakshasa, ‘and now I have to watch her bear another man’s children.’
Agni does not reply at first, for he does not wish to lie by denying the Rakshasa’s words, nor does he wish to earn Bhrigu’s wrath by admitting their truth. But on further goading from the Rakshasa, Agni relents and concedes that yes, Puloma was indeed first promised to him but was later given in marriage to Bhrigu.
This response from the god of fire angers the Rakshasa further, and in a fit of rage, he assumes the shape of a boar and carries Puloma away.
The speed with which the boar carries away the maiden is so great that it causes the child of Bhrigu, lying in her womb, to slip and drop to the ground. A premature child is called a ‘chyut’ in Sanskrit, so the son of Bhrigu came to be known as Chyavana.
The Rakshasa, meanwhile, takes one look at the infant Chyavana, and is turned into a heap of ashes. Puloma picks up her son and returns home. Beholding this, Brahma creates a river with all the tears that Puloma has shed during the ordeal, and shapes its path so that it flows by the hermitage of Bhrigu.
This river is named Vadhusara.
For his trouble, Agni ends up earning a curse from Bhrigu all the same. After the sage returns and hears from his wife how the fire god betrayed them by siding with the Rakshasa, Bhrigu decrees that Agni will ‘eat of all things’.
Sesha, the Virtuous Serpent
Sesha is one of the Naga sons of Kadru, the second of wife of Kashyapa. With Kadru earning a curse from the son of Vinata that her sons will all one day be burnt at the sacrifice of Janamejaya, Sesha breaks away from the group and heads to Gandhamadana to perform penances in praise of Brahma.
At last, Brahma appears to him and says, ‘Your hard penances are affecting the well-being of the creatures of Earth, Sesha. Tell me what it is that your heart desires and I shall grant it.’
‘Lord,’ replies Sesha, ‘my brothers are all wicked of heart. They show no kindness to Vinata and her sons. Garuda, the fair-feathered bird, is our brother, but the other serpents think of him with hatred. I do not wish my destiny to be entwined with theirs just because they’re my siblings. So I have come to this part of the world to cast off my old life and lose myself in your worship.’
Brahma smiles down at the serpent. ‘All of what you say has already been pre-ordained, my son. Even this conversation between you and me. So do not grieve for the destinies of your brothers. Ask of me a boon that will serve your future, for I can see that your path is going to be a virtuous one.’
‘All I ask, O Brahma,’ says Sesha, ‘is that my heart never yields to temptation, and that it forever remains steadfastly twined with peace and love.’
Pleased with the snake’s request, Brahma decrees that Sesha holds the Earth steady on the ocean of milk. ‘With her many mountains and rivers and forests and towns, Mother Earth crumbles and undulates at the most inopportune moments, my son,’ he says. ‘Upon my command it shall be your job to now bear her weight upon your strong body so that she might find the balance she seeks.’
‘I shall do it, Lord,’ replied Sesha. ‘Gladly!’
Entering a hole provided just for the purpose, Sesha now goes to the other side of the Earth, the bottom, and props her up with his head, while encircling her protectively with the rest of his body.
Ever since accepting this burden of carrying and supporting the weight of the Earth on his head, Sesha came to be known as Ananta Sesha, and sometimes as Adi Sesha.
The Birth of Vyasa
Satyavati, the daughter of Uparichara, becomes famous in her fullness of youth for the sweet fragrance that her body exudes. Because she can be smelled from as far away as a yojana (about thirteen kilometers), she is sometimes called Yojanagandhi.
But she was not always thus. When she 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 says, ‘O Beauteous One, please accept my embraces.’
Satyavati’s first response is to demur, citing the number of people that are watching them in broad daylight from the riverbank. ‘There are many eyes fastened upon us at this moment, O Sage,’ she tells him. ‘How, then, shall I grant you your wish?’
Parashara raises his arms in reply, his face set in a grim expression. In no time at all a dense fog descends upon the Yamuna and cloaks them. ‘Now no one can see us, fair maiden,’ says the sage. ‘Not even the gods.’
He begins to advance, but Satyavati holds up the oar in meek protest. ‘But O Sage, I am but a virgin, and a daughter of a chief. If I am to lose my virginity, how will I be able to return home? Will my father’s reputation among his men not suffer?’
‘It need not suffer at all, my girl,’ says Parashara. ‘I shall see to it that your virginity is restored after our union.’
‘You are kind beyond words,’ replies Satyavati. ‘I have indeed dreamed of knowing the love of a man such as you. But – my body –’
‘Not even Menaka has a body as beautiful as yours,’ Parashara says in a murmur, advancing one more step.
‘It smells of foul things.’ Satyavati looks at the sage, the oar still held firmly in place. ‘Can you make it so that instead of such a rotten stench, my body emanates a pleasant fragrance?’
‘Indeed, I can,’ says Parashara. ‘Will that be all?’
A smiling Satyavati pushes away the oar. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘That will be all.’
The union of Parashara and Satyavati gives rise to a son who is born on a fog-covered island in the Yamuna. He 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).
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 Eight Forms of Marriage
In the story of Shakuntala and Dushyanta, when the king meets the maiden in the woods for the first time and tries to woo her, he tells her about the eight forms of marriage that have been approved by scripture:
- The first form, the Brahma, is when the father of the bride chooses a groom fit for his daughter, and invites him to his house. He then gives his daughter, adorned with ornaments and dresses, to the boy along with some dakshina in the form of gifts.
- The second form, the Daiva, is when the father of a bride, after having waited in vain for proposals to arrive for his daughter, gifts her to a suitable priest.
- The Arsha form of marriage is when the father of a bride gives his daughter away to a sage who lives an austere form of life. Here the dakshina is limited: all that the groom gets from the bride’s family is a cow and a bull.
- In the Prajapatya form, the focus is on progeny. During the wedding ceremony, the bride’s father takes a promise from the groom that he will never become a Sanyasi. In return the bride promises her husband that she will accompany him always.
- The Gandharva style is when the man and the woman, having confessed their feelings for each other, get married without any witnesses besides the elements such as air, water and fire.
- The Asura form describes a situation in which a man effectively purchases a woman by giving a high bride-price to the girl’s father. After thus satisfying the father’s cupidity, the groom takes the girl away and marries her.
- The Rakshasa form of marriage occurs when the bride is carried away by force. Sometimes, when this abduction happens during the groom-choosing ceremony, the abductor throws an open challenge to the other suitors to stop him from carrying the girl away.
- The Paishacha is a variant of the Rakshasa form, whereby an unconscious or sleeping girl is carried away.
After telling Shakuntala about the eight forms of marriage, Dushyanta suggests that the two of them should consummate their union according to the Gandharva code.
Needless to say, this causes many problems in the future for Shakuntala.
The Left Lap is for the Wife
Pratipa is the father of Shantanu. When he is a younger man engaged in austerities in the Himalayas for a son, he meets Ganga in her human form.
The goddess, at that time, is keen to fulfill the conditions of the curse of Vasishtha on the eight Vasus, so she asks the Kuru king if he would have children with her.
And Pratipa replies, ‘Fair maiden, I do not lie with women who are not of my order. It is a vow that I have taken in my youth, and I am but bound by it.’
‘I am not inauspicious, O King,’ Ganga says, an edge to her voice. ‘I am the river Ganga, the most auspicious of all the women who have ever offered themselves to you. I am a celestial maiden, far above the station of other women of Earth. So do not make the mistake of refusing me, my lord.’
This is where Pratipa brings up a rather interesting point. ‘By sitting on my right thigh, my girl,’ he tells Ganga, ‘you have already become my daughter or daughter-in-law. As you know, the left lap is for wives and other women with whom one might lie.
The right lap, on the other hand, is reserved for pious and pure relationships – like that of a father and a daughter – where sexual union is not even thought of. But I shall tell you what I will do. Since you have already become my daughter-in-law by sitting on my thigh, I will accept you as wife for my son.’
Ganga agrees to this proposal, and tells Pratipa to instruct his son to wait for her arrival in his life. ‘Also tell your son that he must not question the propriety of my acts at any time, O King. This is the condition upon which I will marry him.’
And it comes to pass that Shantanu, in a few years, meets Ganga on the riverbank, and asks her to be his wife.
They have eight children together, the first seven of whom are killed by Ganga (according to plan). The eighth, an incarnation of Prabhasa, is named Devavrata. He later comes to be known as Bhishma.
Dirghatamas is a blind sage who arrives at the city of King Vali floating by on a river, tied to a raft. When the king asks after his welfare, the rishi replies that his wife and sons had forsaken him because he’s blind.
(The story of Dirghatamas’s blindness is also interesting. When he is in his mother Mamata’s womb, Brihaspati – who later becomes the preceptor of the gods – forces himself on the pregnant, woman. The fetus warns Brihaspati that he was performing a sin by desiring another man’s pregnant wife. Brihaspati responds by cursing the baby with blindness.)
Now, King Vali happens to be craving children at this time, and he asks Dirghatamas to father children of his wife Sudeshna. Just by touching her the sage grants them five sons: Anga, Vanga, Kalinga, Pundra and Suhma.
All five children grow up to be great kings. In due course, kingdoms of Aryavarta are named after them.
This story is told by Bhishma to Satyavati after the death of Vichitraveerya, in order to drive home the point that in case of kings dying heirless, it is normal for sages to impregnate their wives in order to keep the dynasty alive.
With the precedent, Satyavati summons Vyasa to father Dhritarashtra and Pandu with Ambika and Ambalika.
Interestingly, in the story of Dirghatamas, Sudeshna first sends a Sudra woman to Dirghatamas’s bedchamber because she is unwilling to sleep with a Brahmin. In the same way, Ambika sends a Sudra woman to lie with Vyasa – who gives birth to Vidura.
Swetaketu and Madayanti
The stories of Swetaketu and Madayanti are told by Pandu to Kunti during their exile. The context is this: Pandu has been cursed with impotence by Kindama. He wishes Kunti to beget sons off a sage. Kunti is not too eager.
So Pandu makes a three-pronged argument:
- First, he tells his wife the tale of Swetaketu, the son of Sage Uddalaka, whose claim to fame is to lay down the first rules of sexual behaviour between men and women. Among his many tenets is this one: a woman who refuses to do her husband’s bidding to raise offspring by another man will be considered sinful.
- Second, he gives Kunti the example of Madayanti, the wife of King Saudasa, who gives birth to a son named Asmaka with Vasishtha.
- Third, he reminds her that his own existence is owed to the practice of niyoga by his mother Ambika. ‘With all these instances before you of virtuous people adopting it in times of need,’ he asks, ‘do you still view niyoga as sinful?’
Kunti is convinced, and agrees to go through with the chore – but of course, with her own twist. She would not choose mere Brahmin men as fathers to her children. She would seek gods.
Aurva and Vadavamukha
Aurva is a sage born of the thigh of his mother. In the days of extreme hatred between Brahmins and Kshatriyas, when the latter massacred the former in great numbers, the mother of Aurva conceals him in embryo-form in her thigh.
She carries him for a hundred years.
She teaches him the Vedas while he is still a fetus, and when he takes birth he is accompanied by such a blinding flash of light that the Kshatriyas are all blinded.
The thigh-born boy is angered at all the violence that had preceded his birth, and he takes a vow that he will destroy the entire world.
However, his own ancestors appear to him and assuage his fury. ‘It is not without reason that the Kshatriya killed us in such great numbers, Son,’ they tell him. ‘We had forgotten our purpose in life and were engaged in pursuits of the flesh. That shedding of Brahmin blood was approved by the gods.’
Aurva replies, ‘But what do I do with the vow I have taken, and this rage that resides in me?’
The ancestors advise Aurva to cast the fire of his wrath into the ocean, at Varuna. This fire grows like a large horse’s head, ever desirous of consuming the ocean. But since it is surrounded by water, it never succeeds.
This ball of fire that represents the rage of Aurva is called Vadavamukha (‘horse-headed’).
Swetaki and Agni’s Indigestion
We know that Agni consumed the Khandava forest to cure his indigestion. How he comes to suffer indigestion in the first place is thanks to a king named Swetaki.
Born long before the events of the Mahabharata take place, Swetaki is consumed with an obsession to perform the hundred-year-sacrifice. When he propitiates Lord Shiva and asks for help with this undertaking, the lord tells him, ‘Spend the next twelve years incessantly pouring clarified butter into the fire in my honour, at the end of the period, I shall grant you your wish.’
Swetaki does as he is told. At the end of the twelve years, Shiva instructs Sage Durvasa to assist Swetaki in the hundred-year-ceremony, and in due course the king achieves his happy ending by ascending to Heaven.
However, the twelve-year diet of oil and butter gives Agni a significant bloat. He goes to Brahma and asks him what he must do in order to cure his indigestion, and the grandsire replies: ‘Go feast on the forest of Khandava, with the wood and the fat of all the beings living in it.’
Thus Agni goes to Krishna and Arjuna in the garb of a Brahmin, and extracts from them a boon that oversees the destruction of Khandava, which in turn brings to an end the Adiparva of the Mahabharata.
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