Mahabharata Episode 15: The Rajasuya

Rajasuya - Featured Image - Picture of the back of a newly appointed emperor

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 14: Exile 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:

Emulating Harishchandra

Soon after Arjuna returns from his exile, Narada visits Yudhishthir and tells him some stories about the court of Indra. He casually mentions the name of King Harishchandra who is sitting with the celestials and participating in discussions.

Yudhishthir is intrigued by this. He asks Narada, ‘How did King Harishchandra, despite being a man, gain access to the court of Indra?’

‘Only he among thousands of kings of Aryavarta had the purity and strength of mind and body to perform the Rajasuya yajna, Yudhishthir,’ says Narada. ‘And therefore, he alone among thousands of kings has been invited to sit in Indra’s hall.’

Narada also tells Yudhishthir that he had had occasion to speak to Pandu just before he left from heaven. ‘He told me to remind you of the benefits of performing this sacrifice, my son.

‘Remember that all your Pitris will profit from this deed, no matter where they might be. Your father Pandu might even be allowed into the land of Indra due to the virtue accrued by your deeds.’

Saying so, Narada leaves, and for a long time, Yudhishthir allows this thought to stew in his mind. Meanwhile, he implements much of the advice given to him by Narada on the conduct of a king and on good governance.

With Indraprastha thriving, Yudhishthir turns his attention back to the Rajasuya, and this time he invites Krishna home to discuss it. Krishna is encouraging of Yudhishthir’s ambition, but tells him that as long as one king remains alive, Yudhishthir will not be able to capture the amount of wealth and land that is needed for the ceremony.

That king is Jarasandha of Magadha.

A Rival for the Rajasuya

‘You have all the necessary qualities to perform the Rajasuya successfully, Yudhishthir,’ says Krishna, ‘and there is no king as deserving as you in all of Aryavarta of being called emperor. But there is one other man who is seeing the same dreams as you, and until you vanquish him, I am afraid that you shall not be able to even begin the sacrifice.’

‘Who is this king you speak of, Krishna?’ asks Yudhishthir.

‘You may have heard of Jarasandha,’ Krishna replies. ‘He has a stronghold in Magadha, but over the last few years, he has been securing allies and subjugating kingdoms incessantly, and now he has grown so powerful that calling him the emperor of the middle kingdoms is not a stretch.

‘He is the overlord in Mathura, and he has caused the people of Shurasena and Kunti to flee westward. Why, he even forced us to vacate Mathura and make for ourselves a new home in Dwaraka.’

Yudhishthir wonders how he might be able to defeat a king who has made Krishna and Balarama flee, but Krishna comes up with a plan to complete this quest.

Birth of Jarasandha

In describing Jarasandha’s weakness, Krishna tells the Pandavas about the king’s birth.

Jarasandha’s father, Vrihadratha, is married to twin sisters. After trying in vain over many years for a son, he goes to a sage named Chandakaushika for advice. This meeting happens to take place under a mango tree.

While the king and sage are conversing, a ripe mango falls into the lap of Chandakaushika. He offers it to Vrihadratha and says, ‘Give this fruit to your queen to eat. You will have your son.’

Whether Chandakaushika knew that Vrihadratha had two wives or not is uncertain. But what happens in effect is that Vrihadratha, after returning home, cuts the mango in two parts and gives one each to his wives.

To his delight, both women become pregnant, and for ten months Vrihadratha pats himself on the back for having procured for himself two sons for the price of one boon. But when the women deliver, he is aghast to see that they each have given birth to one half of a male infant.

The sisters mourn their stillborn sons, and ask their maids to cast them away. The discarded half-infants are found in the forest by a demon called Jara, who accidentally holds them together in her hands only to see them bind together to form one live boy.

She brings the boy to the court of Vrihadratha, who happily takes possession of his son. He also gives him the name, Jarasandha. The word means ‘joined by Jara’.

Death of Jarasandha

Jarasandha grows up to be a far more resourceful ruler than Vrihadratha, using a variety of tactics – both military and political – to bring many of the middle kingdoms under his control.

Just as he is on the cusp of collecting his hundred kings to sacrifice for the benefit of Shiva, Arjuna, Bhima and Krishna arrive in Magadha, disguised as Brahmins.

To make a long story short, they gain an audience with the king without too much trouble, and when Jarasandha sees through their ruse and asks them who they really are, Krishna tells him:

‘I am the prince of Dwaraka, the brother of Balarama, and these are Arjuna and Bhima, the sons of Kunti. We have come to challenge you to an unarmed duel; you may pick whichever among the three of us you want to fight.’

Jarasandha chooses Bhima, as Krishna earlier predicts that he would due to his pride. After a long fight, one which happens ‘officially’, with a priest anointing the two warriors in a public arena, watched by thousands of Magadha’s citizens, Bhima manages to pick up the king in his arms and break his backbone upon his knee, thus killing him.

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 so that they would not be able to come together again.

Some Questions

This story about how Jarasandha is killed – as it is told in the Mahabharata – is a little unrealistic. It is difficult to believe that a man of Jarasandha’s intellect would readily agree to a challenge of this sort thrown by random Brahmins who have arrived at his court.

Contrary to popular opinion, Kshatriya Dharma does not compel a king to accept any and all challenges. On the contrary, a king is discouraged from fighting in any situation other than on a battlefield. Even in the middle of a war, a king is supposed to fight only with a challenger who is also a king.

Even if Jarasandha is foolish enough to accept a challenge thrown by Krishna, one would imagine that he would have ministers and advisors who would dissuade him.

A more realistic version of this story would have Krishna, Arjuna and Bhima going on a more elaborate quest and killing Jarasandha by underhanded means.

Subterfuge is almost certainly involved, because for three men to kill the king of a city as powerful as Magadha using nothing but fair play is impossible. Also, in a later episode, Shishupala, the king of Chedi, taunts Bhima for having killed Jarasandha using deceit.

However, the Mahabharata doesn’t tell us that story. We’re left with this one.

An Expedition of Conquest

Following the fall of Jarasandha, Yudhishthir sends his four brothers in all four directions to conquer every kingdom that they encounter.

Each of the four brothers sets out (Arjuna to the north, Bhima to the east, Sahadeva to the south and Nakula to the west), and they present Yudhishthir’s announcement of overlordship to every kingdom. If a king accepts it, he will pay tribute. Otherwise, he has to fight. There are no other options.

In due course of time, all the kingdoms of the world come under Yudhishthir’s reign. The four brothers return to Indraprastha and empty untold wealth into its coffers.

This appears to be a fairly peaceful process: we must note that kingdoms like Panchala, Dwaraka, Hastinapur, Madra and Gandhara are already close allies to Indraprastha. So are Shurasena and Kunti.

The only opposition for this alliance would have been the empire that was in the process of being built by Jarasandha (with Mathura, Chedi, Pragjyotisha and other middle kingdoms being united under one banner). But with the emperor of Magadha now dead, there is nothing to stand in Yudhishthir’s path.

The Rajasuya

After the four Pandavas return from their respective campaigns with good news, Yudhishthir consults his priests and decides upon a day on which he will perform the Rajasuya. To this, he will invite all his new ‘partners’: the kings who have pledged allegiance to him.

(Interestingly, the word ‘Rajasuya’ means ‘envy of kings’. So the ceremony seems to acknowledge with its very name that it will stoke the envy of onlookers. This is instructive because it is Duryodhana’s envy, roused during his visit to the yajna, that will shape events of the future.)

Vyasa, the son of Satyavati, functions as the Brahma of the sacrifice, which means he is the chief preceptor. Susama, born in the Dhananjaya race, is the designated chanter of hymns.

Yajnavalkya becomes the Adhyaryu and Paila became the Hotri. All these sages have their disciples and sons accompanying them, fulfilling their roles as Hotragatas.

On the final day, when the time comes for the giving away of Arghya (an offering made usually to an ascetic), there occurs a discussion on who should receive it.

Yudhishthir consults Bhishma on the issue, and the grandsire says, ‘I believe that among all of us present here, it is Krishna that deserves the offering the most. Our sacrificial mansion has become illuminated due to his presence, as though a sunless region by the sun. If I were you, Yudhishthir, my child, I shall give the Arghya to none other than the prince of Dwaraka.’

The Pandavas are overjoyed at Bhishma’s recommendation, because they have in their minds also wanted to pick Krishna for the honour. Sahadeva then makes the offering to the prince of Dwaraka in accordance with all the require rites, and Krishna accepts it.

Shishupala Protests

The most dramatic part of the ceremony occurs, however, when Shishupala, the king of Chedi, openly insults the Pandavas for choosing a person like Krishna as the recipient of the Rajasuya’s main offering.

Shishupala is a former ally of Jarasandha, so he has an axe to grind against Krishna and Bhima. He is also a cousin of Krishna’s and has received a promise from him that a hundred of his sins will be forgiven. A number of threads come together during the scene of Shishupala’s monologue, which ends with Krishna beheading him with the Sudarshana Chakra.

We’ll see more of that in the next episode.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!