The Vana Parva of the Mahabharata begins with the departure of the Pandavas into the forest, and ends with their return after thirteen years of exile.
And here’s the result. From kings who sacrifice their only sons to sages who subdue mountains, these twelve stories have a bit of something for everyone. Enjoy!
Somaka is a king who sacrifices his one son in order to gain a hundred.
It is said that he has a hundred wives, but only one son called Jantu, born after a long period of childlessness. Not surprisingly, he grows up as the apple of his mothers’ eyes, and one day, when he is bitten by an ant, the queens set up a wail so loud that it carries all the way to the king, who comes running to see what the matter is.
When the servants tell him, he consults his ministers and says, ‘See the plight of a man who has but one son. Every little incident like this gets blown into an issue, and one must live in constant fear. I wish there was something I could do to have a hundred sons.’
The chief priest replies, ‘There is one way, Your Majesty.’
‘But how?’ asks the king. ‘I chose to marry a hundred wives after due inspection. (Let us not speculate about the nature of this inspection). And all they could give me is one son! Is there some sacrifice that we can perform, O Priest, that will give me what I seek?’
‘Indeed there is, Your Majesty,’ says the priest, nodding. ‘I know of a rite whereby if you sacrifice your one child and burn his fat on the fire, and make your queens smell the smoke arising from it, they will each bring forth a son of their own, brave and strong. And the son you sacrifice will be born again to the same mother, but this time he will bear on his back a mark of gold.’
Somaka, blinded by desire for a hundred sons, agrees to this barbarous proposal, and Jantu is sacrificed amid all his mothers howling in grief. At the first whiff of his burnt fat, they swoon away.
But exactly ten months after the ceremony, all hundred wives of Somaka give birth to a son each, and to the same mother who had given birth to Jantu the first time is born another son with a mark of gold on his back.
Usinara and the Hawk
Indra and Agni once set out to test King Usinara, who is performing a yajna on the banks of the Yamuna.
Indra takes the form of a hawk while Agni becomes a pigeon. The latter flies into the sacrificial compound and falls on the thigh of Usinara, with the hawk in close pursuit. The bird then asks the king to bestow his protection upon it, and Usinara gives his word.
The hawk then raises a logical point. ‘O King,’ it says, ‘by giving that pigeon your vow, you have harmed my chances of satiating my hunger. Is this right? It is but natural that a hawk will hunt down a pigeon. By interfering with the natural law of Brahma, you are indeed hurting one class of animals by protecting others.’
Usinara replies, ‘The pigeon has sought my protection, O hawk, before I knew what it was running away from. It is the primary duty of a king to offer protection to those who seek it. So I cannot allow you to kill this pigeon, alas.’
‘At my death, O King,’ says the hawk, ‘for I shall surely die of hunger if I cannot eat this pigeon, my wife and children will die too. For the sake of protecting one life – that of this pigeon – you are willing to forsake the lives of five other beings. And what is my sin? That I sought to eat the way god willed me to?’
Usinara thinks over the words of the hawk, and makes a decision. ‘I shall make sure that you do not die of hunger,’ he says, getting up. ‘I will give you your choice of food from all of my granaries – grain, maize, fish, or meat of any kind. Give up this pigeon, that is all I ask.’
The hawk shakes its head. ‘What need have I of the food in your granary, O King, when that which is mine is being denied me? I will have the pigeon or nothing.’
‘Do not be so stubborn, O Suparna,’ pleads Usinara. ‘You can have anything in return for the pigeon. My kingdom. My wealth. The produce of all my fields for the whole year!’
‘It appears that this little bird has won your affection, King,’ says the hawk. ‘If you truly love it as much as you do your own person, let it be that you give me a piece of your flesh that weighs the same amount as the pigeon.’
This strikes Usinara as a fair bargain, and he cuts open his thigh to place a chunk of bleeding flesh on a weighing scale with the pigeon on the other side. But the bird somehow weighs more.
He cuts open his other thigh too and tosses in another pound of torn muscle onto the scales. The pigeon still outweighs it.
Realizing that there is some hidden game afoot, Usinara steps into the scale himself, signifying that he is willing to give himself up for the bird, and that moment, the hawk stops him and changes form.
‘O King,’ he says, ‘I am Indra, and the pigeon who sought refuge under you is none other than Agni. We came here to see how great your virtue is, and we admit defeat. I hereby grant that you will return to your full form immediately, and as long as kings rule the Earth, your name will be spoken of in glowing terms.’
Baladhi and Medhavi
There was once a sage called Baladhi, who, out of grief for a son who met with a premature end, worshipped the gods for an immortal child. The gods were pleased with the sage, but told him that no human could be given the gift of immortality. ‘The most we can do is give you a child whose immortality is conditional.’
Baladhi looks around him at those words, and beholds the mountain next to him. ‘Then may you grant me a son that will live as long as this mountain stands.’
The gods said, ‘So be it.’ And to Baladhi is born a son named Medhavi, endowed with that boon. The boy learns of it when he’s young, and he grows haughty on its account, knowing that nothing can harm him.
He becomes quite a mischief-maker as a youth, and one day, he earns the wrath of Sage Dhannushaksha. The ascetic curses him saying, ‘Be reduced to ashes, O Medhavi.’ But the boy remains unharmed because of the gods’ boon.
Then, divining with his yogic eye the details of the matter, Dhannushaksha summons a large herd of buffaloes and orders it to shatter the mountains. As soon as it breaks down, Medhavi drops to his death, much to the grief of Baladhi.
The sages gather all around them and chanted in mourning: ‘No mortal can ever change the course of destiny. Look how Dhannushaksha has succeeded in felling a mighty mountain with a herd of buffaloes!’
Hanuman’s Boon to Bhimasena
Toward the latter part of the Vana Parva, Bhimasena sets out on a quest to find a certain flower in the mountains that has captured the heart of Draupadi.
This search leads him to the tallest peak of the Gandhamadana, where at the mouth of a cave he meets with Hanuman, his brother.
Hanuman engages in some play with Bhima first, pretending to be a weak old man who cannot even move his tail. After Bhima’s arrogance has been pegged down a couple of notches, Hanuman reveals his true identity.
He helps Bhimasena with three specific things:
- First, he narrates the Ramayana to Bhima and assures him that the Pandavas will regain their lost glory just like Rama did.
- Second, he tells Bhimasena about the four yugas that make up the cycle of epochs: the Krita, the Treta, the Dwapara and the Kali.
- Third, he gives the Pandavas a boon that he will fight alongside them in the Mahabharata war by sitting atop Arjuna’s flagstaff in the form of a flag.
Thus assured, Bhimasena goes to the Saugandhika woods, collects his flowers, and takes them back to Draupadi.
Arjuna’s Exploits in Amaravati
Arjuna wages two main battles when he is at Amaravati: one with the Nivatakavachas and the other with Rakshasas on a floating mountain called Hiranyapuri. We will look at them both in turn.
The last time we met Arjuna in Amaravati, he was busy learning dance from Chitrasena and earning curses from Urvasi. Now, after his training with the Gandharva is complete, he is back in the court of Indra, and all the celestials shower him with weapons of all kinds.
Taking them, and ascending the chariot with Matali holding the reins, Arjuna goes into battle with the Nivatakavachas.
These Asuras live under the ocean, in the abode of Varuna, and fight with great skill from within the water using powers of illusion. They try doing that with Arjuna, but the combination of his valour and the weapons prove too strong.
There occurs a moment in the battle when the Daityas disappear out of sight and rain weapons down on the Pandava from behind the cloak of invisibility.
This fells Matali as well, and the chariot becomes unstable. But Arjuna regains control with the use of the Vajrayudha, Indra’s thunderbolt, and destroys all the Nivatakavachas.
While they are leaving the city, Arjuna asks Matali, ‘This is a beautiful place. Why do the gods not reside here?’
And Matali replies, ‘The Nivatakavachas appeased the Grandsire by means of their many austerities, and asked for two boons, O Arjuna. One, they wished for this city to become theirs, and two, that none of the celestials must be able to vanquish them in battle. It is for that reason Sakra bestowed all those weapons upon you, so that you, a mortal, could perform the desired task.’
On their return to Amaravati, however, they chance upon a mighty mountain floating in mid-air. Arjuna points to it and asks, ‘What is that wondrous sight, Matali?’
‘That, O Pandava,’ says Matali, ‘is the city of Hiranyapuri. A number of Asuras live there, protected by the boons earned by Pulama and Kalaka, two Daitya women of yore. Their wish was to procure a divine aerial city furnished with gems and gold.
‘They also asked the Grandsire to grant them a boon whereby they are invincible at the hands of gods, Rakshasas and Nagas. That leaves just you, a man, to defeat them.’
Arjuna obliges here too, and after a long battle, with a little help from the Pasupatastra, wins back Hiranyapuri on behalf of Indra.
Yudhishthir Rescues Bhimasena
During the narration of the Pandavas’ exile, Sage Vaisampayana mentions in passing that Yudhishthir once saves Bhimasena from the clutches of a snake.
What happens is this: Bhimasena once wanders about in the Himalayan hills and comes upon a cave which contains a serpent by name Nahusha. The snake captures Bhima and coils around him, and is about to dig his fangs into his neck when Yudhishthir arrives on the scene.
Yudhishthir joins his hands, bows to Nahusha, and introduces himself. ‘My younger brother here, sir, is not always tactful of tongue. But he means no harm, I assure you. Is there anything I can do to persuade you to let him go?’
‘You speak like a schooled man,’ says Nahusha, and in his mind the suspicion deepens that this might be the deliverer of his curse. ‘I have a few questions for you. If you answer them to my satisfaction, I will let your brother go. But if you do not, I shall eat him and you both.
‘Who is a Brahmin and what is the only knowledge that is worth knowing?’
Yudhishthir replies, ‘A Brahmin is he within whom we see the following traits: truth, charity, forgiveness, good conduct, benevolence, and observance of rites in accordance with his order. As for knowledge, we must all strive to know the eternal Brahman, in which there is neither happiness nor misery.’
Nahusha asks, ‘What if the qualities you name are present inside a Sudra? Will you consider him a Brahmin as well? And what is this thing that you speak of that contains neither happiness or misery? I have not encountered such a being anywhere.’
‘He who contains those qualities, O Serpent,’ says Yudhishthir, ‘can never be a Sudra. He is without doubt a Brahmin, even if he belongs to the Sudra order by birth. On the other hand, he who does not possess these traits cannot be called a Brahmin even if he is one by birth.
‘About your question of knowledge, it is indeed true that in times of heat, cold does not exist, and in times of cold, heat does not exist. But there are times, are there not, during which heat and cold are in such harmony that they can both be claimed to not exist? That is the nature of the Brahmic state, in which your misery and happiness combine with such perfection as to annihilate each other.’
Nahusha gives some thought to Yudhishthir’s answers, and decides that they please him. ‘You have proven to be a man wise beyond your years and station, O King,’ he says. ‘As reward, I free your brother Vrikodara.’
A Day of Brahma
Brahma is considered the Self-existent, Primordial Being. He is the Grand Mover and Framer of all things. He is without beginning or end, and he does not deteriorate.
In the Vana Parva, Markandeya the sage gives an account of a single day of Brahma:
There are four thousand years in the Krita Yuga, with its dawn and eve consisting of four hundred years each. The Treta Yuga lasts for three thousand years, its dawn and eve accounting for three hundred years each.
The Dwapara consists of two thousand years, with a dawn and eve of two hundred years each. The Kali Yuga is expected to last for a thousand years, with a hundred years on either side signifying the start and end.
After the end of the Kali Yuga, the Krita Yuga begins again. One full cycle of yugas comprises, therefore, of twelve thousand years. And a thousand such cycles make up one day of Brahma.
At the end of this day, it is said, Brahma will go to sleep, before which he will cause the Ultimate Destruction of the universe. After he wakes up, he will take to creating everything once again in its order, thus setting into motion another supercycle of epochs and ages.
The events of the Mahabharata happen during the fag end of the Dwapara Yuga, and the death of the Pandavas signify the passing of the age into the Kali Yuga.
Many scholars believe that we are still in the Kali Yuga. The argument is that until Kalki appears and creates a minor destruction event, one cannot proclaim the age to have ended.
However, others point out that the Kali Yuga is meant to last only for a thousand years, so Kalki must have already come and gone about two thousand years ago.
The Frog Princess
In the Vana Parva, the sage Markandeya tells Yudhishthir a number of stories that are meant to enhance the Pandava’s readiness to take back his throne.
Of these, there is a tale of Parikshit and the frog princess.
Parikshit is a king of Ayodhya, and on a hunting expedition, as kings are wont to do, he meets a beautiful maiden by the side of a lake. This lake is surrounded by fresh mud, but there are no footprints, he notices, leading up to where the woman is sitting. He approaches her and asks, ‘Are you a goddess? Did you appear here out of thin air imbued with the magic of heaven?’
‘No, Your Majesty,’ the girl replies. ‘I am a maiden.’
‘Then I wish you to be my wife,’ says the king.
The girl places a strange condition for the wedding, though. ‘Make it so, O King, that I should never see water again, and I will marry you.’
Parikshit does not understand the reason for this bizarre promise, but he is smitten enough to grant the woman her wish.
He takes her back to his kingdom and keeps her in perfect privacy, not allowing her to come in contact with water bodies of any kind. Over time, the king’s interest in the kingdom dwindles in the presence of his new wife, and his ministers come together to hatch a plan to break Parikshit out of the spell.
They find out from the private maids of the queen about the nature of the promise that she received from the king. Then they build an artificial forest in which is hidden a secluded tank with water as clear as nectar.
Presenting this as a gift to Parikshit, they say, ‘Your Majesty, please repair into this forest with your queen. There is no water body anywhere in sight.’
Shortly after they go to the forest, though, the girl discovers the tank and enters the water without the knowledge of Parikshit. By the time Parikshit realizes her absence and arrives at the pool, she has disappeared.
Concerned that she may have drowned, he orders for the tank to be emptied and searched, but they find only a single green frog.
Parikshit thinks that the frog ate up his queen. ‘Capture all the frogs in Ayodhya and have them killed,’ he orders his ministers. ‘Anyone who seeks my audience from now on should pay me a tribute of a dead frog.’
This large-scale massacre continues for a while, but when their numbers drop to alarmingly low levels, the king of frogs approaches Parikshit and asks him the reason for his hatred toward the amphibians. Parikshit tells him the whole story.
The frog-king understands all. ‘Your wife was not eaten by a frog, O king. She is none other than my daughter, Susobhana, who has fooled many kings before you just like this. But I shall offer her to you if you promise to stop this killing of my race.’
Parikshit accepts the proposal and marries Susobhana again in an official ceremony.
The Golden Plough
Toward the end of the Vana Parva, Karna sets out on an expedition of conquest and brings back tribute in the name of Duryodhana from all the kingdoms of Aryavarta.
After the return of the king of Anga, Duryodhana summons his Brahmins and tells them, ‘All the kings of the world pledge allegiance to me, O Brahmins. I wish to perform the Rajasuya now.’
But the Brahmins advise the king against it, saying that until Yudhishthir is alive, another person cannot perform the Rajasuya.
So as a consolation, they give Duryodhana this idea: ‘Out of all the gold that you have amassed, O King, order for a plough to be made. With it, plough the sacrificial compound while the sages are chanting verses. This will surely bring you as much merit as would a Rajasuya.’
Though the people of Hastinapur are not keen on the idea, Duryodhana carries on with the plan and performs this ritual. He thus earns he title of ‘emperor’ during the Pandavas’ twelfth year of exile. And Karna declares that a bigger sacrifice will be performed in the near future. ‘Once the Pandavas are slain, my friend,’ he says, ‘I will see to it that your wish of performing the Rajasuya comes true.’
Vyasa tells Yudhishthir the story of Sage Mudgala, who refuses to accept entry into Heaven after having listened from Narada a list of its attributes.
Narada tells Mudgala of how Heaven works. ‘It is a place one attains to enjoy the fruits of one’s good deeds, Mugdala,’ he says. ‘Here there is no suffering of mind or body. Only unending peace and pleasure.
‘However, you must know that while a person lives in Heaven, he cannot add to the good deeds that he has performed in order to get there. Since he attains Heaven as a result of his time on Earth – which is finite – his time in Heaven is also finite. Once all the merits of his deeds are exhausted, he returns to Earth in the hope of accumulating merit again.’
Mugdala is unimpressed by this. ‘I wish not to extend myself in the hope of attaining a flawed state,’ he says. ‘Is there a region that is free of all defects?’
And Narada replies, ‘Above the house of Brahma, there is a realm that goes by the name of Para Brahma. This is the supreme seat of Vishnu, and this is the highest plane of existence known to man.
‘Here, people train their mind by long periods of meditation, where they eschew distractions of the outside world in order to listen to the voice of their inner bodies, from where the creator speaks to them.’
Mudgala then decides that he can do this on his own, in his hermitage on Earth. He bids farewell to Narada and goes back to his hut, and resolves to live a life of meditation and detachment, in which he treats happiness and misery the same. He begins to see the universe for what it is – a neutral leveller of everything, where the highest intelligence and a mote of dust are equally important.
A Theory of Happiness
In a discussion between Yudhishthir and Markandeya, the king asks the sage a question about how one can balance spiritual growth and material possessions.
Markandeya proposes the following four kinds of men in the world:
- Those who do not attain pleasure in this life or the next. These are foolish men who are incapable of experiencing pleasure.
- Those who attain pleasure in this life, but not in the next. These are men addicted to carnal vices, who have immense wealth and are enjoying the fruits of their previous life’s deeds. But they have forgotten the path of virtue in this one.
- Those who do not attain pleasure in this life, but do in the next. These are people who choose a life of spiritual meditation and the study of the Vedas, endure much hardship during this life, but are rewarded with pleasure in the next.
- Those who get pleasure both in this life and the next. These are balanced men who live a pious life but also acquire wealth and material possessions in the right time in the right manner.
- They enjoy the comforts of their current life, but do not lose sight of the path of virtue. They speak the truth, they perform acts of charity, and they have invested enough of their time in spiritual pursuits such as studying the Vedas and performing sacrifices.
Markandeya prescribes this path for us all: a path in which we engage with the material world without being attached to it.
Agastya Subdues Vindhya
At the time when Lomasa tells Yudhishthir the tale of Agastya and Lopamudra, the sage mentions in passing that once upon a time, the Vindhya mountain range had decided to increase its bulk and rise up to the sky, and that it was thwarted by Agastya.
Yudhishthir says, ‘This tale sounds interesting, O Sage. Please tell me in detail what happened.’
The story goes that Vindhya once sees the sun revolving around the mountain Meru every day, and gets envious. He addresses Surya thus: ‘O maker of light, you honour Meru on a daily basis by circumambulating him. I am as deserving of such respect as he is; I wish that you would worship me as well in the same way.’
‘I do not do this out of my will, Vindhya,’ Surya replies. ‘This path has been ordained for me by the creator, Brahma. If you wish me to change my path, please ask him to command me and I shall do so.’
This angers Vindhya, and with a desire to block the path of the sun and the moon, he begins to swell and grow in the direction of the firmament. All the gods try to dissuade him from this act, but he does not listen. Finally they go to Agastya and ask for his help.
At this time, Agastya’s hermitage is located in the northern part of the country. He makes his way to the mountain and says, ‘O Vindhya, you are of course all-powerful and all-knowing. Do what you must; I have not come here to stop you. But I do intend to make a journey to the south.
‘If you regain your original form and allow me to pass, and if you wait for my return in a few days, then you might resume your quest to block the path of the heavenly bodies.’
Thus extracting a promise from Vindhya that he would wait for the sage’s return, Agastya proceeds southward and sets up a new permanent abode over there. Vindhya continues to wait, and Agastya continues to live in his new home, knowing that his return to the northern lands will mean calamity for the rest of the world.
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