Mahabharata Episode 21: Nahusha the Serpent

Nahusha the Serpent - Featured Image - Picture of a serpent slithering across the canvas

In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes. This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.

(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 20: Adventures of Arjuna. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

Here’s what we will cover in this episode:

Bhima Runs into Trouble

During their stay in Kubera’s place, just before the return of Arjuna from his many quests, Bhima happens to go exploring around the mountainside and finds some trouble in a cave.

This cave happens to be infested with snakes, and the smaller reptiles slither away at his arrival. But the king of the cave, a long and mighty serpent, coils himself around Bhimasena before he can leap away, and even after securing its grip, does not let go in spite of the Pandava’s fervent exertions. 

This surprises Bhima, because after all he is the strongest man in the world and yet here he is, helpless in the hands of a mere snake.

‘O Snake,’ he says, addressing his captor, ‘I have the might of the world in my arms, yet you overpower me. You must be a celestial, or a Rakshasa who is strong beyond imagination. How is it that I have come to face defeat in your hands?’

The snake hisses in half-laughter. ‘It is due to the boon of Agastya that I am blessed with enough strength to capture you, O Bhimasena. For better or for worse, you were destined to become my food on this day. Indeed, I shall inject my poison into you without delay, so that I might feast upon your meat in leisure.’

‘But who are you, O Serpent?’ Bhima asks. ‘What did you do to earn the curse of Agastya?’

Here the snake introduces himself and tells Bhima his story.

Nahusha

‘My name is Nahusha,’ replies the serpent. ‘You must have heard of me. I am in fact one of your ancestors, born to Ayu and his wife Indumati.

‘Some unfortunate events have led to my being cursed by Agastya, and I was told that a wise man that knows the relationships between the soul and the Supreme Being would one day come and free me from my punishment.’ The snake leans in closer, takes another look at Bhimasena. ‘You are not that wise person, are you?’

Bhima shakes his head. ‘I have been called many things, O Snake,’ he says, ‘but never that. Perhaps this is what has been written in my destiny, notwithstanding all the prophecies that the gods have made in my favour. This is fate playing her cruel hand. What else can one do but submit to it?’

He goes on to lament at length about how his brothers and wife would be left upon his death without a protector, and how the Pandavas might even forgive the Kauravas without his constant goading.

Just as the serpent is about to strike out with its fangs, though, Yudhishthir arrives at the mouth of the cave and says, ‘Halt!’

A Challenge for Yudhishthir

One look at the king standing at the mouth of the cave and Nahusha realizes that this could be the wise man that Agastya referred to all those years ago. His grip on Bhima loosens a touch, and he turns his head to face the eldest Pandava.

‘Yes?’ he says, forked tongue slipping over shiny scales. ‘I am in the middle of my daily meal. Unless you have come to offer yourself too –’

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?

‘He will bring back enough meat to last you a whole season on my orders, I promise. He is the prince of a Great Kingdom. Why must you kill him when you can satiate your hunger on any stray beast?’

‘You speak like a schooled man,’ says Nahusha, and in his mind the suspicion deepens that this might be the deliverer of the 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. Do you agree to those terms?’

Yudhishthir looks around him at the dark cave. ‘I am in your lair, sir. Do I have a choice?’

‘You do not,’ agrees Nahusha, and proceeds to ask the first question.

Nahusha’s First Question

Nahusha begins with: ‘Who is a Brahmin and what is the only knowledge that is worth knowing?’

‘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 Brahma, in which there is neither happiness nor misery. Do you agree?’

Nahusha replies, ‘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’s Second Question

Nahusha is satisfied with the latter answer but still challenges the former. ‘If you recognize a Brahmin by his conduct alone, then why do we have the distinction of caste? Is it not futile?’

‘A person’s caste, O Serpent,’ replies Yudhishthir, ‘cannot be determined with any certainty because there is much promiscuity between the four orders. Men of all castes beget children on women of all castes.

‘Character and conduct, therefore, are the only true ways by which one can ascertain a person’s caste. Indeed, the natal ceremony of an infant is performed while it is still attached to the umbilical cord, and every person is assumed to be a Sudra until he or she is initiated into the Vedas.

‘So whoever conforms to the rules of pure and virtuous conduct, I have no qualm about proclaiming him a Brahmin, no matter what order he was assigned at birth.’

Nahusha gives some thought to Yudhishthir’s answer, and decides that it pleases 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.’

The Four Virtues

Yudhishthir does not leave immediately with Bhimasena. His penchant for learning encourages him to strike up another conversation with the serpent, who strikes him as quite a wise being too.

After Vrikodara comes over to his side, Yudhishthir joins his hands once more and says, ‘You appear to be learned in the Vedas and the Vedangas. Will you tell me, sir, what one must do to attain salvation?’

‘My belief,’ the serpent replies, ‘is that a man must do four things in order to attain salvation. He must bestow alms on proper recipients. He must be kind in word and deed. He must tell the truth at all times. And he must abstain from doing injury to any creature.’

Yudhishthir is not contented with receiving a mere list. ‘Will you tell me which is the higher merit, O Serpent, between the telling of truth and giving of alms? Also, between kind behaviour and doing no harm to creatures, which is the bigger virtue and which is smaller?’

Nahusha smiles at the king’s question. ‘Alas, Your Highness,’ he says. ‘The relative merits of these four qualities ought to be weighed and valued depending on the situation. That is what makes the path of virtue such a treacherous one.

‘Only a wise man can traverse it with calm. All I can say for certain is that all four are equally important, but in some circumstances, some of them are deemed to be more important than others.’

The Three Conditions

Yudhishthir asks, ‘Now tell me, O Snake, how one can understand the soul’s translation into heaven, and its return to the world of men in accordance with the actions of its past life.’

Nahusha answers: ‘By his own acts, a man can attain one of three different conditions of human existence. If he has lived a virtuous life, he will attain heaven. If he has given in to anger and lust and avarice and malice, he will be born again as a lower animal.

‘If he has done just enough things right, he is born as a human being again. Even the animals can attain a higher status and be born as men in future births. Cows and horses, for example, can even become divine in their natural bodies.’

‘And what of the soul, sir?’ asks Yudhishthir. ‘How does it become cognizant of sound, touch, form, flavour and taste in the absence of bodily sensory organs?’

‘The mind is the seat of all perception, my son,’ says Nahusha. ‘The intellect and the soul are receptacles of all senses; our bodily organs are mere servants of the first two.’

Mind and Intellect

‘What is the difference between the mind and the intellect, O Respected One?’ asks Yudhishthir. ‘I have understood them to be the same, but speaking with you has raised this doubt in me.’

‘Intellect is all that you consciously think and say, O Yudhishthir, whereas the mind exists on its own accord. The intellect is brought into existence by acts of perception and speech.

‘It does not cause anything; it only interprets. The mind, however, causes sensations such as pain and pleasure, and is responsible for the life force that flows in your body.’

Yudhishthir thinks for a while about the answers he has received, and asks a final question. ‘You have attained heaven by your deeds, O Snake. I can tell, because a mere Earth-dweller cannot possess such wisdom. How, then, did you come to be here, among the lowly?’

Nahusha then tells the Pandava the story of his fall from grace.

Nahusha’s Story

‘Even those who attain heaven are susceptible to vices, O King,’ Nahusha says wistfully. ‘Wealth and prosperity – both of which are present in such abundance in the land of the gods – can intoxicate the wisest, most valiant men.

‘I, too, was overpowered with this infatuation, and had to serve this period of punishment to rediscover myself.

‘I possess a power by which I can drain away the energy – both physical and mental – of the person I set my eyes upon. That is indeed why Bhimasena was unable to take recourse to the strength of his muscles when I captured him.

‘It is due to this very same power that I rose to the status of a powerful king in heaven. All the Brahmarshis and the Rajarshis used to draw my chariot. I made them do it, you see, so that everyone would know that they were mere slaves to my will.

‘It was this arrogance that led to my downfall. One day, my foot touched the back of the high-souled Agastya, and he, consumed by rage, cursed me so that I would become a serpent and spend the rest of my life in a dark cave here on Earth.

‘I fell on his feet and asked for forgiveness, of course, at which his heart warmed, and he said, “A virtuous king of your own clan will come to free you of this prison caused by your vanity.” I thought Bhimasena was the person who would deliver me, but when I saw you, Yudhishthir, I was certain.

‘May you and your brother encounter all the good luck in the world, and may you abide with utmost happiness in this land of men. When the time comes, I am certain that we will meet again in heaven. For now, let me take your leave.’

Yudhishthir Turns Saviour

In the absence of Arjuna, Bhima takes on the role of protector of his wife and brothers. In this incident concerning Nahusha, the roles are reversed and Yudhishthir has to step up with his wisdom in order to rescue Bhima.

He will do this again in the future, after Arjuna has returned, in a more comprehensive manner by resurrecting all of his dead brothers. We will cover that in more detail in a future post. In our next episode, we will summarize all that Draupadi and the four Pandavas do during the five year absence of Arjuna.

That will bring us up to speed with the happenings of the twelfth year of exile.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!