The Sabha Parva of the Mahabharata begins with the rise of the Pandavas – Yudhishthir becomes the emperor – and ends with their defeat in the game of dice.
Following on from the Adi Parva post, I have put together a dozen Mahabharata stories from the Sabha Parva, which will add to our growing repository of Mahabharata stories.
And here’s the result. From great treasures to prophecies, from debates on dharma to vengeful vows taken in anger, these twelve stories have a bit of something for everyone. Enjoy!
The Treasures of Vindu
As you know, the Adi Parva ends with Agni devouring the forest of Khandava. Can’t blame him; he has a case of indigestion!
He does not consume everything that resides in Khandava, however. He spares three entities:
- A Naga by name Aswasena. He is the son of Takshaka, and he makes an appearance at the very end of the Mahabharata war, when Arjuna and Karna are fighting to the death.
- An Asura by name Maya. He falls on Arjuna’s feet as Agni approaches, and secures a promise of mercy. He later builds for Yudhishthir a great hall called the Maya Sabha. Indeed, it is this Maya Sabha that is being referred to when one says ‘Sabha Parva’.
- Four Sarngaka (a type) birds – one mother named Jarita and three of her fledglings. Jarita is the wife of a sage named Mandapala who pleases Agni with his penances and earns a boon that during the destruction of Khandava, the lord of fire would not harm the three on which Jarita’s nest is perched.
Maya, after being briefed by Krishna on the kind of hall he is to build for Yudhishthir, travels to a mountain in the north called Mainaka where, on the shore of Lake Vindu is buried a treasure once owned by the Asuras.
As a token of gratitude, he brings the treasure back and turns it over to Yudhishthir.
He also gifts a new mace to Bhimasena, and gives Krishna a conch called Devadatta, which the latter uses during the Mahabharata war.
In the hall that Maya builds, eight thousand Rakshasas are employed, and in fourteen months, it is ready for occupation. Amidst the golden archways and jem-encrusted walls, Maya places a tank (an indoor swimming pool, for us modern readers) whose banks are overlaid with pearl-set marble. The bottom of this tank shines with a steady golden light.
It is into this tank that Duryodhana falls, beginning a sequence of events that culminates in Draupadi’s disrobing.
A few days after Yudhishthir’s entry into the Maya Sabha, Narada pays him a visit.
There is a description in this part of the text of the sage’s many accomplishments. We generally do not know much about Narada and think of him as nothing more than a rabble-rouser, but as we see below, he has more feathers in his cap than that.
- To start off, he is conversant with the Vedas and the Upanishads and the Puranas. This is pretty much default state for any sage of that time.
- He is a historian, which means he has uncanny knowledge of all that has occurred through the various epochs (kalpas).
- He knows all the tenets of the nyayashastra, the science of morality and ethics.
- He possesses knowledge of the six Angas: pronunciation, grammar, prosody, comprehension of terms, description of religious rites, and astronomy.
- He is an expert at studying contradictory texts and reconciling them.
- He is a logician: distinguishing between correct and incorrect statements, drawing inferences from evidence, distinguishing between inferior and superior things.
- He is an accomplished debater; he is capable of successfully matching Brihaspati in argument, in matters as diverse as politics, philosophy, religion, wealth, pleasure and salvation.
He is a good musician as well, and along with Tumbura is used to giving recitals in Indra’s court. He carries a deep love for learning and art.
The Five Halls
During Narada’s stay at Yudhishthir’s new hall, among other things the king asks the sage: ‘In your travels far and wide, O Rishi, have you ever seen a hall that matches or surpasses this one in grandeur?’
And Narada replies, with a touch of diplomacy: ‘Not in the world of men, King. But in the realm of the gods, I have seen four.’
The first of these is called Pushkaramalini, the hall of Indra. It is capable of going anywhere at will with the help of Indra’s magic, and its dimensions are a hundred and fifty yojanas in length, a hundred yojanas in breadth, and five yojanas in height.
The second is the hall of Yama – the name of which Narada does not give. This hall is bright as burnished gold, and covers an area more than a hundred yojanas. It is neither very cool nor very hot, and there is no grief or weakness of age or hunger or thirst.
Varuna, the god of the sea, also has a palace called Pushkaramalini. The theme here appears to be white, which is in sharp contrast with the kind of people who wait upon the lord here: the Daityas, the Nagas, and generally races that you would classify as unpleasant.
Fourth is the mansion of Kubera – in his capital city Alaka – which is a hundred yojanas in length and seventy in breadth. Kubera is the lord of some of the lesser known races of human beings in that time: the Yakshas, the Kinnaras and the Kimpurushas.
Rounding off the list is the hall of Brahma, which Narada describes as indescribable. Its dimensions are indeterminate, and its shapes are fluid and malleable. ‘This hall of Brahma is the grandest of all in the three worlds, Yudhishthir,’ declares Narada, ‘but of course, what you have here in Indrapastha is the best of what one can find on Earth.’
The Death of Jarasandha
We read about the birth of Jarasandha in a different post. Here we’ll confine ourselves to how he dies.
When Yudhishthir convinces himself to perform the Rajasuya, Krishna tells him about the existence of an emperor of Magadha named Jarasandha. Long story short, he says that until Jarasandha is killed, Yudhishthir’s overlordship over Aryavarta can never be certain.
So Krishna, Arjuna and Bhimasena travel to Magadha disguised as Brahmins, and after earning an audience with the king, challenges him to a wrestling match with any one of them. As luck would have it – or perhaps driven by pride – Jarasandha picks Bhima.
After a long and arduous battle in the official wrestling arena of Magadha, Bhimasena picks up Jarasandha in his arms, and breaks his backbone upon his knee.
In some versions of this tale, Bhima kills Jarasandha multiple times, but each time he comes back to life. Then Krishna takes a blade of grass and tears it open meaningfully down its length, tossing pieces in opposite directions. Bhima takes the hint. Remembering the earlier story of how Jarasandha was born, he tears him open along the length of his body, and throws the fragments on opposite directions.
This leaves the coast clear for Yudhishthir to become the emperor of Aryavarta.
The Subjugation of Mahishmati
In the Digvijaya Parva, where the four brothers of Yudhishthir lead armies in four different directions to conquer the world on his behalf, we come across a small story of how Sahadeva subjugates a kingdom by name Mahishmati.
Mahishthami is ruled by King Nila. The story goes that the lord of fire had once fallen in love with a daughter of Nila, and the maiden returned his affection. Disguised as a Brahmin, Agni used to visit his beloved in her chambers in secret.
But one day, Nila catches the couple in a private moment and proceeds to give an order to punish the transgressing man. But when Agni flares up in his true form, the king relents and offers his daughter’s hand to the god in marriage.
Pleased with this turn of events, Agni says to Nila, ‘Ask me for a boon, O King, on this happy occasion.’
‘Grant me, O lord, that you will protect the city of Mahishmati from all invaders.’
And so it comes to pass that Agni himself defends Mahishmati against any kingdom that takes up arms against it. Sahadeva, after realizing that he cannot win a battle against the lord of fire himself, sits down on a patch of kusa grass and begins to sing his praises instead.
Agni smiles at the young Pandava, and while he does not allow Sahadeva to conquer Mahishmati, he speaks to King Nila on behalf of Yudhishthir, and in due course of time Mahishmati willingly becomes a Kuru vassal state.
One interesting tidbit about Mahishmati is that owing to its being protected by Agni at all times, no kingdom is interested in fighting it, and no one wishes to be married to the women of the city.
And Agni, with his boon, grants them sexual liberty so that they may roam about at will, unbound by bonds such as marriage.
At the Rajasuya, the second of the two important deaths of the Sabha Parva occurs: that of Chedi king Sisupala.
Enraged at the act of the Pandavas honouring Krishna with the prime offering at the sacrifice (though the real reason for his anger might have been the killing of Jarasandha, with whom he shared a profitable friendship), Sisupala goes on a tirade insulting just about everyone in the assembly with words and threats.
Here is a quick summary of the ground he covers:
- Krishna is not deserving of being the first recipient of Yudhishthir’s offerings (says Sisupala) because he is not (a) a king, (b) a senior person by age, (c) a great warrior, (d) a sage, or (e) a god.
- There are many men in the assembly who are more deserving: for instance Bhishma, Vyasa, Kripacharya and Shalya to name a few.
- When Bhishma undertakes to defend Yudhishthir’s right to choose his chief guest, Sisupala begins to insult Bhishma and calls him impotent.
- He then belittles all the past exploits of Krishna like the killing of Putana and the lifting of the Govardhana.
- He curses Bhishma saying, ‘The very people you’re clutching to your bosom as loved ones, O Grandsire, will one day strike you down without mercy.’ (This curse, indeed, comes true. Bhishma meets his death at the hands of Arjuna and Krishna in the Mahabharata war.)
- Then he challenges Krishna openly to a duel. ‘Come and fight me, O Gopala,’ he says. ‘You’re neither a king nor a warrior. If the world thinks greatly of you, it is my duty to peel those scales off and uncover you. Come!’
Krishna does accept Sisupala’s challenge, and with one swipe of the Sudarshana Chakra, in almost a laughably one-sided fight, beheads Sisupala and proclaims Yudhishthir the emperor of Aryavarta. However, some attendees of the ceremony wonder why Krishna had tolerated so many insults of Sisupala before acting.
The explanation is below.
‘Forgive My Son a Hundred Times’
Sisupala’s mother Srutashrava, the queen of Chedi and wife of King Damaghosha, is a sister of Vasudeva and therefore Krishna’s paternal aunt.
At the birth of Sisupala, Srutashrava comes to know that Krishna is the man destined to kill her son. So when her nephews come over to Chedi on a visit, she asks Krishna to grant her a boon that he would never harm Sisupala.
Krishna smiles and says, ‘I cannot pardon every mistake of his, Aunt. But for your sake I will forgive him a hundred sins that are serious enough to get him slain otherwise. So set your mind at rest.’
During the course of Sisupala’s life, therefore, Krishna exhibits almost superhuman patience toward the Chedi prince’s actions. For instance:
- Sisupala one burns the city of Dwaraka when Krishna and Balarama are away at Pragjyotisha.
- He imprisons King Bhoja when the latter is hunting on the foothills of the Raivataka.
- When Vasudeva performs the Ashwamedha, Sisupala steals the sacrificial horse.
- He ravishes the wife of Akrura and tricks a princess called Bhadra into sleeping with him.
- And at the Rajasuya, he insults everyone and ruins the stature of the occasion.
But at the end, after the hundred sins are up, Krishna wastes no time in punishing Sisupala for his crimes.
The Prophecy of Vyasa
Soon after the Rajasuya, Vyasa comes to visit Yudhishthir, and amidst all the happy news, he makes a prediction that shocks the Pandavas to their core.
‘Yudhishthir, Lord of Indraprastha, Lord of the Earth,’ says Vyasa. ‘Over the last few months, all the Kshatriyas of the land have come together in your name. But I foresee a moment in time thirteen years hence when they will all be destroyed in your name. In the meantime, the portents you speak of will awaken, come alive, and bear enormous consequences – both to you and to the world at large.
‘You will see Shiva in your dream, O Yudhishthir, atop the Nandi, attired in tiger skin, gazing unceasingly toward the south, and drinking blood off a human skull. If this vision visits you, Your Majesty, do not grieve, for it is all happening as ordained. The Destroyer awaits the day of annihilation, for he is the one who must oversee it. You rule over the Earth with all the vigilance and patience that has been granted you by your actions.’
In response to this prophecy, Yudhishthir makes a decision that he will never speak a harsh word to the Kauravas or to any other kings of Aryavarta. ‘I shall live under the command of my relatives,’ he says, ‘always obeying their orders. By banishing disagreement from our lives, we will prevent war.’
Or so he thinks. By deciding to be ever-compliant of everything that Duryodhana and Dhritarashtra asks, Yudhishthir walks into the game of dice. And by banishing disagreement, he allows himself and his brothers – and his wife – to be exiled out of their own kingdom.
The Judgement of Vikarna
During the disrobing of Draupadi, she stands in the middle of the hall and asks all the elders of court a simple question: ‘Have I or have I not been won?’
Vikarna, one of the brothers of Duryodhana, is the first in the assembly to address the question directly. He says, ‘There are four matters of consideration here. First: the king staked Draupadi while being under the influence of dice. And gambling is said to be one of the four great vices of kings. People do not consider decisions taken while under the influence of a vice to be of any great authority.’
‘Second: Draupadi is not the sole property of Yudhishthir. She is the common wife of all five Pandavas. So Yudhishthir did not have the right to pledge her in the way he did.
‘Third: Yudhishthir placed Draupadi as stake not of his own free will but in response to the cajoling of Shakuni. This act, therefore, does not carry the same authority as one performed by the king on his own.
‘Fourth: As Draupadi herself has pointed out, the king lost himself first and became a slave with no possessions of his own. At that very moment, he lost every right he ever held over Draupadi.
‘So taking these four factors into consideration, I consider Draupadi as not won. She is free.’
The person on the other side of this debate, interestingly, is Karna.
(There is a sense of irony that a brother of Duryodhana is speaking on behalf of Draupadi and a brother of Yudhishthir is speaking against her.)
‘You speak with all the immaturity of your age, Vikarna,’ he says, standing up at his seat. ‘You say that the king was under the influence of dice. But he was not placed under its influence by force. Yudhishthir entered the game of his own free will.
‘As for your second point, it is true that Draupadi is not the sole property of Yudhishthir. But she is the queen, and in that position, Yudhishthir has more of a right to her than anyone else. Why, during the Rajasuya, did she not sit next to him and perform all the necessary rites?
‘Your third point once again places the responsibility completely on Shakuni, whereas in reality, once Yudhishthir entered the game, he had to play it until it is called to an end. If he knew in advance the rules of the sport and he entered it willingly, how does the question of force or cajoling arise?
After rebutting Vikarna’s points thus, Karna goes one step too far by making a final, conclusive statement:
‘And for those of you who think that bringing a woman here out into the open in a single piece of cloth is improper, remember that all our scriptures have ordained just one husband for one woman. Indeed, it has been said that a woman who takes five paramours is equivalent to a prostitute.
‘Such a woman is already unchaste, and it is not at all an unchaste act to bring her into the open view of men in an assembly such as this, even if she is dressed in a single cloth, even if she is menstruating.’
He then proceeds to order Duhsasana to remove the clothes of Draupadi and the Pandavas.
The Four Vows
The incident of Draupadi’s disrobing ends without resolution, and Yudhishthir plays Shakuni at a second game of dice with the kingdom and their freedoms at stake. When he loses this game too, Duhsasana mocks the Pandavas by dancing in a lewd manner, at which four of the Pandava brothers take public vows that will come true later during the Mahabharata war.
Bhimasena is first: ‘It does not behove you, son of Dhritarashtra, to boast so of a kingdom that you have won by unfair means. I promise everyone present in this assembly and all my dead ancestors that I shall one day drink the life-blood of this wretch after tearing open his chest with my bare hands.’
Arjuna: ‘I take a vow in the presence of everyone here that I shall slay the foul-mouthed Karna with my shafts. The mountains of Himavat might be removed from where they stand. The sun might lose his brightness, the moon its cool, but these words of mine will forever remain sacred until I fulfill them.’
Sahadeva to Shakuni: ‘You are a disgrace to the great kings of Gandhara. You think we are defeated, but your victory is only temporary, O King. Do all the deeds that you wish before that morning of the fourteenth year, for I shall assuredly slay you and all your followers in battle.’
Nakula: ‘I shall certainly send to the abode of Yama all the sons of Dhritarashtra who, out of malice, have insulted Yajnaseni in this assembly under the garb of a game of dice.’
The only Pandava who does not feel compelled to take an oath in anger is Yudhishthir. After his brothers have finished speaking, he gathers them together along with Draupadi and approaches the throne of Dhritarashtra to take his blessings.
‘How Did the Pandavas Leave?’
A short while after the Pandavas leave, Dhritarashtra summons Vidura to his side and asks him, ‘How does Yudhishthir proceed on his way to the forest? How do Arjuna and Bhimasena carry themselves? How does Draupadi accompany them? Tell me all, Vidura.’
And Vidura replies: ‘While leaving the city, Yudhishthir covered his face with a cloth. Bhimasena went away looking at his own mighty arms. Arjuna followed his king, throwing sand-grains all around them. Sahadeva besmeared his face, and Nakula stained himself with dust. The beautiful Krishnaa covered her face with her disheveled hair, weeping. And Dhaumya led them into the woods, O King, a clutch of kusa blades in hand, uttering the mantras of the Sama Veda that relate to Yama.’
Though his heart delights at the desolate state of the Pandavas, Dhritarashtra asks anxiously what these gestures mean.
Vidura says, ‘Yudhishthir is overcome by wrath, Your Highness, though he does not show it. He is afraid that if he opens his eyes, the fire that burns his heart might spill out and destroy everything he sees. So he covers his face with a cloth.
‘Thoughts of vengeance envelop Bhimasena’s mind, O King. He is thinking to himself that no one on Earth is as strong as he is, and he is thinking of all the ways in which he would use his arms on his foes in his quest for regaining all that they have lost.
‘Arjuna’s scattering of sand-grains is symbolic, my lord, of the rain of arrows that he intends to unleash upon the world. Sahadeva has smeared his face so that no one in the city might recognize him, and Nakula covered himself in dust so as to prevent the possibility of ladies losing their hearts to him.
‘And do not think that Draupadi is mourning for herself, Your Majesty. She is indeed mourning, but for the future deaths of all the men who have treated her thus today. She is shedding tears for the plight of all the women of Hastinapur’s royal court who will be widowed due to the sinful acts that we have allowed.’
This brings to a close the Sabha Parva of the Mahabharata.
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