The Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata occurs right after the Stree Parva, as Yudhishthir is preparing himself to ascend the throne of Hastinapur after his victory in the Mahabharata war.
And here it is! From the Pandavas mourning for Karna to Bhishma’s wisdom, we have it all. Enjoy!
Yudhishthir and his brothers have just finished paying respects to the dead, and the women of the Kuru household have repaired to their respective apartments, having mourned the loss of their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers. The Pandavas continue to live on the bank of the Bhagirathi for a month longer, during which they receive visits from some celestial sages.
Narada is among them. He addresses Yudhishthir and asks him, ‘You have won the earth, O King, and your brothers have helped you become the most powerful emperor in the world. Why, then, do you still wear this expression of sorrow?’
Yudhishthir’s lament is a familiar one. ‘There is heavy grief that settles on my heart, O Sage,’ he says, ‘because through covetousness, I have caused this dreadful destruction of the Kuru people.
‘The son of Subhadra is no more. The sons of Draupadi, who were meant to succeed us to the throne of Indraprastha, have all died. We have killed our grandfathers, our uncles, our preceptors even! After such colossal loss of life, how am I to feel victorious?’
His thoughts, then, turn to one particular hero.
‘Every day I think of Karna, O Sage,’ he says, ‘and how we have been fated to kill our very own elder brother. When we were offering oblations on the riverbank, our mother Kunti told us about the secret of Karna’s birth, that he was born the son of Surya.
‘He was noble in death, too, because he promised my mother that he would try and kill only Arjuna in battle, so that Kunti would be left with five sons in any case.
‘If only Arjuna and Karna were both on my side, O Sage, we would have had the world at our feet. Alas, it was destined that we should kill our uterine brother in this war.’
He then tells Narada about the time Karna opposed them in the Kuru assembly.
‘I remember not feeling angry at Karna in the slightest even when he was hurling abuses at Draupadi on the day of her disrobing,’ he says. ‘I remember looking down at his feet and thinking, his feet look exactly like Mother’s! Then I wondered why it is that I feel this strange kinship toward the man. Alas. Now I know!’
Yudhishthir then proceeds to ask Narada to narrate to him some details of Karna’s life which had led him to become the Pandavas’ enemy. The celestial sage agrees, and tells the following stories.
Narada tells Yudhishthir many details in the life of Karna. Chiefly, the subjects he touches upon are as follows:
- During his tenure as student under Parashurama, Karna one inadvertently shoots at a cow running in his direction. This cow happens to belong to a Brahmin, who curses Karna that during an important battle, the earth will swallow the wheel of his chariot.
- Also around the same time, Karna earns a curse from his preceptor Parashurama, who learns that the ‘Brahmin’ boy he has taken on is in reality the son of a charioteer. Parashurama decrees that the Brahmastra, which he had taught Karna, will desert the young warrior when he needs it most.
- One of the kings that Karna defeats in single combat during his time as Anga’s ruler – is Jarasandha. Jarasandha is considered by many as one of the most powerful wrestlers in the world, so this is indeed a noteworthy victory. Jarasandha gives Karna the kingdom of Malini as tribute for this loss.
- Karna also helps Duryodhana during a groom-choosing ceremony of an unnamed princess of the Kalingas, for which Duryodhana presents his friend with the kingdom of Champa.
- So Karna rules over these three kingdoms, and comes to be known as a wise and just king in his own right.
The trouble, according to Narada, begins with Indra visits Karna and requests him for his divine armour and earrings. Despite warnings from his father, Surya, Karna chooses to honour Indra’s wish, knowing full well that this would weaken him against Arjuna.
So all these factors – the Brahmin’s curse, the curse of Parashurama, the boon he himself gave to Kunti, the cruel insults he faced at the hands of Bhishma, the sharp word-darts of Shalya, the extent of Krishna’s powers, and lastly the skill and strength of Arjuna and his Gandiva – all these factors combine to slay the son of Vikartana.
Upon hearing this story, Yudhishthir begins to shed copious amounts of tears for his dead brother. Kunti, herself moved by grief, steps forward in an attempt to console her son.
‘O mighty-armed one,’ she sas, ‘it does not become you to give in to sorrow thus. Listen to what I say. I tried in the past to tell Karna the truth about his birth. The sun god also did the same in a number of dreams that he sent to that great warrior.
‘But Karna would never allow himself to be swayed against Duryodhana, either by me or by his father. What can one do when faced with the remorseless forces of Destiny? When I saw that he was bent on causing you and your brothers injury, I ceased my attempts at peacekeeping.’
Yudhishthir is not amused by this explanation by Kunti. In an agitated voice, he proclaims a curse on womankind. ‘In consequence of yourself having concealed all these secrets within your breast,’ he tells Kunti, ‘this great affliction has overtaken us. Henceforth, may it be so that no woman should succeed in keeping a secret!’
Yudhishthir then goes on to complain to Arjuna that all the wealth he has earned is impure because they had to kill their elder brother for it. All the Pandavas – and Draupadi – take turns convincing Yudhishthir that he is the rightful king, and that he must ascend the throne of Hastinapur.
One concept that Arjuna refers to is the rod of chastisement (or punishment), which we will see below.
The Rod of Punishment
‘The rod of chastisement, Brother,’ Arjuna says, ‘governs all subjects and protects them. It is awake when everyone else is asleep. The wise have characterized it as Righteousness (Dharma) itself. It is the means by which one can achieve the triple goals of life: religion, pleasure and profit.
‘Take up the rod of chastisement, therefore, O King, and wield it in order to establish the rule of virtue upon the world. Some men desist from sin out of fear for the rod in the king’s hands. Others desist from sin out of fear for the rod in the hands of Yama.
‘Yet others allow the fear of society’s censure to dictate their moral choices. It is fear, therefore, O King, that keeps men steadfast on the straight and narrow path of dharma.
‘The rod of chastisement has been so named because it restrains the ungovernable and punishes the wicked. It is said that chastisement of Brahmins should be by word of mouth. Kshatriyas should be chastised by giving them only enough food to support their life.
‘Vaishyas should be punished with fines and confiscation of property. And for Sudras, there is no punishment.
‘For keeping men awake to their duties and for the protection of their property, ordinances have been introduced in the world, O King, under the guise of legislation. Wherever Chastisement stands, dark-complexioned and red-eyed, in a stance of readiness, and if it is backed by a righteous king, the subjects of such a kingdom never forget themselves.
‘The brahmacharin and the householder and the mendicant and the recluse all walk along their respective paths only because of the rod of chastisement.
‘Men kill other men, O King. That is the way nature intended us to live. Strong animals prey upon the weak. A mongoose devours mice. The cat devours the mongoose. The dog devours the cat. The dog is devoured by the spotted leopard.
‘And all these animals are devoured by the Destroyer when the time comes. The entire universe is composed of this violence, where living beings prey on one another for power, wealth and for satiation of hunger.
‘The wise man is not stupefied by this natural occurrence, O King. But you can control this instinctive behaviour of men by deft use of the rod of chastisement. Without the fear of chastisement, I am afraid that we will all devolve into jungle-beings.
‘So step up to the altar of your destiny, Brother. Carry the rod of chastisement in your hand. Wield it with firmness, so that you can rule this great kingdom well, and so that your subjects will love and respect you till the end of time.’
Sankha and Likhita
Vyasa arrives on the scene now and supports Arjuna. He tells Yudhishthir a story of two brothers named Sankha and Likhita.
The brothers live in separate dwellings situated on the bank of the stream called Vahuda. Both these residences are adorned with trees teeming with fruits and flowers. Once, Likhita comes to the house of his brother Sankha when the latter is not present. And seeing that the garden is left unguarded, he proceeds to pluck a few fruits from Sankha’s tree and eat them.
While he is in the process of eating, though, Sankha returns and asks his brother, ‘Where did you get these fruits?’ To which Likhita replies, ‘I got them from your retreat.’
This sends Sankha into a rage, and he admonishes his brother for what is effectively a robbery. ‘Your virtue has deserted you, Brother, and you need to be punished for this. Go to the king right away and confess your act.’
Likhita does as he is told. He goes to King Sudyumna and tells him of what he had done. Though the king had great respect for the sage, he fulfills his duty by wielding the rod of chastisement as it had to be wielded.
After hearing the sage’s confession, he commands the man’s two hands to be cut off.
Likhita bears this punishment with good grace, and goes back to his brother. ‘I have been punished thus by the king, Brother,’ he says. ‘I have now borne the fruits of my actions, so I wish that you would pardon me.’
Sankha places his hands on the shoulders of his brother. ‘I am not angry with you, Likhita,’ he says. ‘Nor did I wish to see you harmed. It’s just that you were slipping from the high standards of ethics that you set yourself.
‘Now go to Vahuda and wash yourself in its waters. Offer oblations to the Pitris, the sages and to the gods. Vow to never again set your heart in sin.’
Likhita does as he was told, and in no time at all, his arms grow back. He runs back to Sankha and asks him, ‘If you had such powers, why did you not punish me yourself?’
Sankha replies, ‘It is not my station to punish you, Likhita. It is the preserve of the ruler to chastise. The ruler himself has acquired much merit in this matter by giving you the punishment you deserve. I did what my duty was, to pardon my brother of a small wrong he committed in error.’
Finishing this story, Vyasa once again tells Yudhishthir, ‘It is therefore the duty of a king to wield the rod of chastisement, O King, not to shave his head and go into the forest.’
Narada and Parvata
After Krishna has had his say, the sage Narada stands up and proceeds to tell Yudhishthir the story of Suvarnashtivin. The tale begins with two foremost rishis named Narada and Parvata, the former being the maternal uncle of the latter.
The two sages are said to descend to Earth together during one particular time, with the intention of eating clarified butter made in the houses of human beings. For many years they roam the world of men, subsisting on food offered them by their hosts.
During this time they make an agreement with each other that whatever wish is entertained by one of them should be disclosed to the other, and failing this, he will be subject to the other’s curse.
Some days after this compact is made, they visit the court of King Srinjaya, where the princess Sukumari – the daughter of the king – is tasked with looking after the needs of the two sages. By and by, she attracts the romantic interest of Narada, but overcome by shame, he does not confide in his nephew about his carnal desires.
However, the signs are there for all to see, and Parvata has access to ascetic powers to boot. He reads Narada’s mind, and resolves himself to curse his lovesick uncle.
‘Having of your own accord made the compact with me that you will share everything on your mind, you have violated it. Now hear my curse. This princess will become yours as you desire. But from the instant of your marriage, both she and all the men of the world will see an ape whenever they set eyes on you!’
Narada is not one to take such a curse lying down from his nephew. He places a return-curse on Parvata. ‘Even though you are a man of high ascetic prowess,’ he says, ‘until I release this curse, the doors of heaven will be permanently closed to you!’
As time goes by, Narada succeeds in persuading Sukumari to marry her, and as per Parvata’s curse, turns into an ape whenever the princess lays eyes on him. However, Sukumari still stays devoted to the sage, and does not even in her heart desire anyone else for a husband.
A few months after this, Narada meets Parvata in a forest quite by chance, and the latter is in sorry shape, forlorn over his plight of being earthbound even though deserving in every way of being a heaven-dweller. He falls on Narada’s feet and begs him for forgiveness.
Narada also is contrite that a silly agreement has led to this fight between him and his nephew. After a bit of mutual consolation, they agree to release their respective curses.
However, Sukumari is shocked into a state of fear when she sees Narada’s true form, because she has gotten used to living with an ape-like figure. It takes much persuasion from Parvata for her to accept Narada as her husband once again.
This is the prelude to the story of Suvarnashtivin, which we will see in the next story.
Yudhishthir addresses Narada then and says, ‘I wish to hear the tale of the birth of the child whose excreta were gold, O Sage.’
Narada says, ‘It was during the time Parvata and I came to Earth and stayed at the court of Srinjaya. After we had spent the season of rains in his abode, Parvata came to me and said that we should give Srinjaya a gift for having received us with such warmth.
I asked him (Narada continues) to choose any gift of his own. ‘Parvata,’ I said, ‘I am happy with any boons you wish to confer upon the king. Or, if you so choose, let him be crowned with success that comes from having gained ascetic merit from both of us.’
Parvata then approached Srinjaya and said to him, ‘You have pleased us with your hospitality, O King. With our permission, think of a boon that you can solicit from us. Let the boon, however, be such that it may not imply enmity to the gods or destruction to men. Accept, O King, any boon that satisfies that condition.’
And Srinjaya answered, ‘I desire a son that will be heroic and possessed of great energy, firm in his vows, of long life, highly blessed, and possessed of splendour equal to that of Indra himself.’
Parvata gave the king his wish. ‘Your desire is fulfilled, O King,’ he said. ‘He shall rival Indra in splendour and valour, so you will do well to protect him from the wrath of the chief of the deities.’
Srinjaya suddenly becomes nervous at this proclamation, but I (Narada) consoled him with a boon of my own. ‘Even if Indra were to kill your son, O King,’ I told him, ‘just think of me and I shall bring him back to life.’
Sure enough, in due course, a son was born to Srinjaya by the name of Suvarnashtivin, and he had the remarkable magical ability to excrete gold. The kingdom of Srinjaya was thus prosperous in the extreme for five years, when the king and his wives took their child on a picnic to the forest.
Indra, who had been keeping an eye on the young boy all these years, took his chance. He sent Thunder in the form of a tiger to kill the boy. Suvarnashtivin fought the tiger with all the valour that he could muster, but he was only five years old. The beast mauled him and took his life, plunging the king and his wives into grief.
But the moment he called for me, O Yudhishthir, I went to his aid and revived Suvarnashtivin. But in his second life he was born without his magical ability, with some of his splendour reduced. He still lived to be a great emperor in his lifetime, and enhanced the reputation of his dynasty by ruling his kingdom justly.
Yudhishthir and his brothers enter the city of Hastinapur with great pomp and show. The people welcome him warmly, and wherever he goes there is much uproar and a general sense of celebration. Aided by Dhaumya, the king calls for a day of sacred rites that is to commemorate the official beginning of the Pandavas’ reign.
On this day, amid the various sounds of Brahmins’ chants and citizens’ revelry, there appears a Brahmin called Charvaka. He is in reality a Rakshasa, one of Duryodhana’s friends, with a trident-like staff in his hand. He does not bother to first pay his respects to the assembled sages, and instead addresses Yudhishthir in that assembly directly.
‘All these men,’ he says, looking around, ‘have elected me as their representative, O King. They are all saying that you are a wicked man, unworthy of this throne. You have killed your own kinsmen, caused the destruction of the very race that gave you birth.
‘You have slain your preceptor and your grandfather! After performing all these acts, you now wish to wash away your sins with such displays of sainthood? No, Your Majesty. The only way out of this maze of misdeeds for you is to give up your life.’
The crowd is shocked at these words from a stranger, but for Yudhishthir it is all confirmation of his deepest worries. He stands up humbly and bows to Charvaka. ‘You are by all evidence a great Brahmin. Please do not curse me for what I have done. I shall soon lay down my life as per the will of the people.’
The sages surrounding Yudhishthir quickly offer him comfort, and they tell him that the Brahmin was lying. Dhaumya penetrates Charvaka’s disguise with the help of his spiritual eye, and then announces to everyone’s benefit the true identity of their visitor.
‘This is the Rakshasa Charvaka,’ he says. ‘He is a friend of Duryodhana. Having donned the garb of a religious mendicant, he seeks the good of his dead friend by instilling anxiety in the mind of our king.’
He turns to Yudhishthir. ‘Do not let these anxieties consume you, O King. Let prosperity descend upon you and your brothers.’
The Brahmins now unite in cursing Charvaka with the utterance of one holy word. Charvaka falls down dead, like a tree struck down by the thunderbolt of Indra.
On his return from Hastinapur to Dwaraka, Krishna narrates the story of Parashurama killing the Kshatriyas. Here we will see what happens after Parashurama has renounced his axe.
After having performed yet another genocide in the name of ‘cleansing the earth’, Parashurama gives away the whole earth – that he now owns – to Sage Kashyapa. The latter accepts this gift, and points Parashurama to the Southern Ocean.
After Rama’s departure, Kashyapa again breaks up the earth into small parts and gives them away as gifts to various Brahmins before retreating into the woods.
Without kings to rule, anarchy sets in. Three orders begin to live misguided, confused lives. The earth quickly sinks to the lowest of depths, with crime and despair weighing upon her people. She comes to Kashyapa and asks for deliverance.
The sage picks her up lovingly and places her on his lap to comfort her. It is said that because of this act of placing the earth on his thigh (called ‘uru’), the earth came to be known by the name of Urvi.
Earth tells Kashyapa, ‘There are, O Sage, some foremost of Kshatriyas concealed by me among women. They were born in the race of the Haihayas. Let them rise back to power, and let them protect me. There is a boy of Puru’s race, the son of Viduratha, who is being brought up in the Rikshavat mountains. Another one by name Sarvakarmana, the son of Saudasa, is being fostered at the hermitage of Parashara.
‘Vatsa, the son of Pratardana, is being brought up among calves in a cowpen. Sage Gautama, meanwhile, has protected the son of Diviratha and is raising him on the bank of the Ganga. His name is Vrihadratha. The son of Sibi, a prince by name Gopati, is also being brought up among wolves in the mountains of Gridhrakuta.
‘In this manner, many Kshatriya boys are being secretly raised by goldsmiths and artisans, O Sage. Seek them out and place them in positions of power, and allow them to protect me from this calamity.’
Kashyapa agrees, and himself sets out to the various places pointed to by Earth, and finds the Kshatriya princes hiding under the garb of shepherds and cowherds and weavers. He instates them all on the thrones of the kingdoms they had been taken from, and thus returns peace and order to the world.
The Four Modes of Life
After Yudhishthir becomes king of Hastinapur, he goes to Bhishma – who is still alive on his bed of arrows – for advice. Among other things, the grandsire tells the new king about the four modes of life.
‘The four modes of life that are universally accepted, O Yudhishthir,’ says Bhishma, ‘are Brahmacharya, Garhastya, Bhaikshya and Vanaprastha. After an early period of education in which a man serves under a preceptor and learns of the world, he enters – after a rite signifying rebirth – the world of Garhastya.
Here he attempts to live with his wife and children, wrestling with worldly problems of running a house. After this, he enters a state of Bhaikshya, where he is dependent on other people’s kindness for the continuation of his life.
After this, he enters the forest and renounces everything he has, attempting to reconnect with the higher self by meditation and penance. When the time comes, this forest recluse renounces life itself and combines with the eternal soul.
‘During Brahmacharya, a Brahmin is a wanderer, and he sleeps at whatever place he comes to during the moment of sunset. He is without desire of bettering his situation, without a home, subsisting on whatever food is obtained, given to contemplation, self-restraint, and attempts to gain control over his burgeoning senses.
‘During Garhastya, the person has already studied the Vedas and is now committed to a life led according to the religious scriptures. He should beget children and enjoy all worldly pleasures and comforts. With careful attention he should accomplish the goals set for this period of life by ascetics.
‘This mode of the householder takes up much of a man’s adult life, Yudhishthir, and it is during this phase that he is accosted by many different pressures – financial, emotional, physical and psychological. It is a man’s behaviour during this mode of life that is held to the highest amount of scrutiny in the hereafter, and a man who conducts himself well during this phase is considered the best of men.’
The King Makes the Age
Yudhishthir has a question for Bhishma now. ‘On one hand, Grandsire,’ he says, ‘there is the science of punishment, but on the other hand there is the pleasure and happiness of subjects. To which of these two does a king pay more attention?’
Bhishma explains to Yudhishthir that these two things are not mutually exclusive. ‘It is from wielding the rod of chastisement in accordance with the scriptures that the happiness of your subjects is assured, my son,’ he says.
‘Only when the king performs his role as the chief punisher, only when citizens are able to ward off all fear of wickedness or injustice, only when the three higher orders are committed to living according to their duties, will your subjects know happiness.
‘I have been asked before whether it is the age that makes the king or the king that makes the age. Without a doubt, Yudhishthir, know that it is the latter.
‘When a king rules with a complete and strict reliance on the science of chastisement, the foremost of the ages, the Krita, will again set in. Righteousness walks on all four legs during this age, and it all flows from the willingness of a king to adhere to Kshatriya Dharma.
‘When the king relies on only three of the four parts of the science of chastisement, the Treta age will begin, in which the earth yields crops but waits to be tilled. The herbs and plants grow only after the earth is tended for.
‘When the king observes the great science by only a half, the age that sets in is called the Dwapara. A great wave of unrighteousness washes over earth during the Dwapara, as we saw in our own lifetimes. The earth requires to be tilled, and even then it only yields half the crop that it can.
‘Finally, when the king abandons the science of chastisement by three parts, the age that dawns upon the earth is one known as Kali. And toward the end of the Kali age, the king has abandoned the science completely.
‘This age is characterized by a number of sinful acts and incidents: Sudras live lives of mendicancy while Brahmins serve others; intermixture of the four orders takes place with regularity; the clouds do not shed rain; crops fail; wives become widows; many cruel men are seen walking about.
‘Therefore, keep in mind that it is the king who creates the Krita age. It is the king who causes the fall of Dharma across the ages, and it is the king who sets in motion this relentless cycle of the epochs. If he causes the Krita, he acquires heaven for an unlimited period.
‘If he causes the Treta, he reaches heaven for a temporary period. If he presides over the ushering in of the Dwapara, he is sent to heaven or hell in accordance with his actions. And finally, if he causes the Kali age, he incurs a great load of sin.’
Chandalas among Brahmins
Yudhishthir now Bhishma about those Brahmins who do not seem to follow the dictates of their order. ‘There are some among the Brahmin order, Grandsire,’ he says, ‘who are engaged in other duties and who do not seem to practice all that you have said they should. What is the difference between these men and those regenerate ones who follow all that they have been told?’
Here, Bhishma reiterates the idea that appears on a few occasions throughout the Mahabharata, that a person who we call ‘Brahmin’ is not a title conferred upon a person at birth. He becomes a Brahmin by virtue of what he does.
‘People who are committed to learning, and who are able to see everything in the world with an equal eye, O Yudhishthir, are said to be born of Brahman, and they are called Brahmins. A Sudra who displays these qualities is equal to the highest of Brahmins, and a Brahmin who falls prey to his base impulses is equal to the lowest of Sudras.
‘Brahmins who become Ritwikas, Purohits, counsellors, envoys and messengers become equal to Kshatriyas, O Yudhishthir, and they are to be judged by Kshatriya Dharma alone. Similarly, those who ride horses, elephants or chariots, and those who become foot-soldiers, become equal to Vaishyas. If he serves the higher orders as a servant without payment, and if he gives up all his property to the master, he becomes a Sudra.
‘It is said that the king is the lord of the wealth belonging to all orders except that of Brahmins. But with respect to Brahmins of this sort who have fallen away from their orders, the king can levy taxes on them and expect contributions from them to the royal treasury.’
We’re not done yet with stories from the Shanti Parva. There will be more in Part 2.
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