As the Bhagavata opens, Krishna is bidding farewell to the Pandavas as he is returning the Dwaraka. The fratricidal war is over. Yudhistira has been crowned the king. Krishna has saved the womb of Uttara from the killer-missile sent by Asvaththama. Kunti Devi is now the Queen Mother. She expresses her gratitude to Krishna for having protected her children throughout the calamitous happenings in their family:
“O Hrishikesa, master of the senses and Lord of lords, You have released Your mother, Devaki, who was long imprisoned and distressed by the envious King Kamsa, and me and my children from a series of constant dangers. My dear Krishna, Your lordship has protected us from a poisoned cake, from a great fire, from cannibals, from the vicious assembly, from sufferings during our exile in the forest, and from the battle where great generals fought. And now You have saved us from the weapon of Asvaththama. I wish that all these calamities would happen again so that we could see You again and again, for seeing You means that we will no longer see repeated births and deaths.” 25
A very strange prayer, but Kunti’s words reveal a heart laden to the brim with deep faith and devotion. That is the essence of bhakti yoga: whether the Lord is going to give joy and sorrow, it hardly matters. The Lord alone is real. Experiencing his presence in one’s heart and surroundings is all that matters in life. The rest change and pass. It is also a mild indictment of people who think of God only when they are in trouble. During their times of prosperity, they do not seem to have much time for meditating upon the Divine.
Truly speaking, Kunti seems to have been born to suffer. That is the lot of millions of sheerly good people. Kunti was the daughter of Surasena, king of the Yadu dynasty. She was named Prutha. Soon she was given in adoption to Surasena’s cousin, Kuntibhoja as he was childless. Kuntibhoja brought her up and hence she is generally known as Kunti. In Kuntibhoja’s palace, she used to look after the comforts of visiting holy men. She was such a good attendant that even rishi Durvasa was pleased when he had come on a visit. The rishi gave her a curious boon. The divine mantra he would teach her could bring to her the deity she wanted. This person would bestow a son upon Kunti.
The Mahabharata tells us that Kunti who was delighted invoked the Sun (devam arkam aajuhaava). Immediately Surya came there and revealed his identity and said that he had come to give her a son on the command of Sage Durvasa. Poor Kunti was taken aback. She confessed that it was a moment of ecstasy for her when Durvasa gave her the mantra and she had invoked accordingly without realizing the consequences. She would bow to him in deep humility and request him to forgive her this trespass on his time. When he said to her comforting words and that he would have to carry out Durvasa’s wishes, she declined to accede to his advances because she was yet a virgin and this act would be a sin. Surya said:
“Sucismita, sweet-smiling one,
lovely-eyebrowed, lovely-speaking one,
the son you will bear
will have Aditi’s divine ear-rings,
He will be born with my armour.
no weapons will pierce it,
nothing will harm him,
no one will withstand him.
He will gift to Brahmins
whatever they ask.
He will be strong-minded
and noble. Even if I ask him
to do anything ignoble,
he will refuse. He will be himself.
By my grace, no blame will attach
to you, O rani,
for uniting with me.” 26
So was born Karna but Kunti only thought of the ignominy attached to such a birth. So she placed the newborn babe in a box and let it sail away in the waters. It was certainly not an easy thing to do for the innocent girl brought up in an atmosphere of shastraic injunctions. An unwed mother! This must have left a life-long scar on her psyche. Like the vow of brahmacharya undertaken by Bhishma, the abandoned Karna’s presence in the Kuru party would be a tragic flaw stalking the epic tale. Meanwhile she continued to be the fine princess and soon many royal offers came for her hand. Hence Kuntibhoja arranged for a swayamvara. She chose Pandu, the son of Vichitravirya by Ambalika. Presently Bhishma planned to strengthen the ties of the Kuru kingdom with other royal houses. He went to King Salya of Madra kingdom and requested for his sister’s hand. On Salya referring to a Madran custom that a girl’s parents should be given ample gifts in return for the kanya, Bhishma agreed happily and gave Salya a huge well-appointed army. Pleased, Salya sent Madri away with Bhishma after endowing her with plenty of jewels. The marriage of Pandu and Madri took place in Hastinapura. Kunti, Madri and Pandu lived a life of togetherness happily. Pandu went on a digvijaya and brought laurels to his kingdom. It was all Ananda in his household.
Alas! Our happiest moments are wrought with some dreadful shadow. After the sounds of war had subsided, and peace reigned, Pandu decided to spend sometime in the Himalayas with his wives and enjoy the natural scenery. While out hunting Pandu struck at a deer which was mating with its beloved. The deer was actually the rishi Kimdama who was sporting with his wife in disguise. The rishi cursed Pandu that he too would die if he chose to have pleasure with his wife, and then died.
Stricken with remorse, Pandu retired to the forest with his wives where they lived a peaceful life. However, one sorrow afflicted him. He would have no sons to help him avoid the hell which is meant for childless people. Having learnt from Kunti about the existence of Durvasa’s boon, Pandu asked Kunti to make use of it so that they could have a son. So it happened and Kunti invoked Yama-Dharmaraja. Yudhistira was born. At Pandu’s insistence she had Bhima by invoking Vayu and Arjuna by Indra. The ever kindly Kunti also taught Madri the mantra. Madri invoked the Ashvin gods and had Nakula and Sahadeva. They grew up into strong and handsome boys. Kunti’s brother, Vasudeva, brought Purohitas to the forest and performed the naming ceremony. Meanwhile Dhritarashtra who had become the king married Gandhari and had one hundred sons and a daughter, Duhsala. All seemed well for the future as the five sons of Pandu and one hundred sons of Dhritarashtra “grew up rapidly like a cluster of lotuses in a lake.”
Kunti’s life was not easy till now but she must have pushed back the memory of Karna as she found happiness in her five sons born in the forest. Pandu was a gracious husband and she had no complaints. Then came a day when it was spring time and Pandu found himself alone with Madri. Not heeding her protests warning him of Rishi Kimdama’s curse, he seized her in passion and soon was dead. Kunti came running on hearing Madri’s piteous cry. By then it was all over. As the first wife, Kunti wished to commit suttee but Madri, even in that tragic moment, spoke truthfully and wisely that Kunti alone could bring up the five boys as if all of them were her own. Madri then ascended Pandu’s pyre.
Under Bhishma’s guidance the one hundred and five princes began the term of their studentship in Hastinapura. Quite early, Duryodhana found it impossible to stand the prowess of Bhima which always found the Kaurava princes at the receiving end. Like the vow of brahmacharya taken by Bhishma, like the abandoned Karna in the heart of Kunti, Duryodhana’s jealousy of Bhima became a major underlying conflict for the fratricidal conflict.
“He thought: Wolf-waisted Bhima,
son of Kunti, second Pandava,
surpasses us in strength.
I must somehow destroy him.
The man’s so powerful,
single-hnded he dares
to challenge a hundred of us.
I must break his strength.
Perhaps when he’s sleeping
in the palace gardens,
I’ll throw him in the Ganga.
then imprisoning Yudhistira
the eldest, and Arjuna the youngest
I’ll rule the earth.
Duryodhana planned this wickedness
and waited for an opportunity.” 27
From now begin the trials of Kunti as a mother of the five Pandavas. When Bhima is thrown into the Ganga river and is feared lost, we hear her first fear-laden maternal lament for the first time. She has been watching all the boys of the palace and knows of Duryodhana’s dislike of Bhima. Duryodhana spiteful, jealous, low-minded, covetous of the kingdom and shameless (krurosau durmatih kshudro, rajyalubdhoanapatrapah). Kunti symbolizes the sufferings of all the mothers of the world, going through a number of dark experiences. A major shock was the attempt to kill the Pandavas and Kunti by setting fire to the house of lac in which they were asked to stay. Again and again, Kunti’s words give the right direction to the brothers. Their love for the all-suffering mother is total. After several experiences all of them come to the town of Ekachakra. Here we see the great love Kunti bore for her children and at the same time her compassion for all humanity.
Having decided to live a quiet life away from Hastinapura where Duryodhana remained in ignorance of their escaping the burning house of lac, the Pandavas and Kunti sojourned in Ekachakra for some time. The young men dressed as Brahmin mendicants and gave to Kunti what was given to them when they went out a-begging. She divided the food according to the needs of her sons. The Brahmin owner of the house was kindly towards them. One day they heard weeping from the rooms of the Brahmin. Kunti owing to her kindly and gentle nature (karunyat sadhubhavascha) told her sons that they must help the Brahmin who had been very good to them. She rushed into the brahmin’s apartment like a cow rushing towards its calf tethered to a post (baddhavatseva saurabhi) and asked the houseowner the cause of the family’s distress. Kunti was told of the terrible rakshasa Bakasura who had to be fed with a human being from each family and today was the brahmin’s turn. Whom could they give up? The Brahmin, his wife, daughter or son? It is the poor who know the distress of the poor; and only those who are constantly in fear of danger to their lives can gauge the terror of possible death. Kunti told the Brahmin not to worry and that one of her sons would go to the rakshasa instead of the Brahmin’s boy.
This the Brahmin could not accept. But she argued that he had only one son while she had five and could well spare one. Not that any son was less dear to her, but she was sure her son could kill the asura himself. When she told Bhima, he agreed gladly to substitute as the brahmin’s son. Yudhistira was angry but Kunti was firm in her resolve:
“Immediately after birth
he fell from my lap.
The stone-slab he fell on
shattered under his weight.
From that day, O son of Pandu,
I knew how strong he was.
IIt is for this reason I chose Bhima
to repay the Brahmin.
I’m not foolish; don’t think me ignorant;
I’m not being selfish.
I know exactly what I am doing.
This is an act of dharma.
If you ask me, I would say
tthat a Ksatriya who helps a Brahmin
gets the highest heaven
in his after-life.” 28
Such compassion and nobility and maternal love which embraced all her children equally (and this included Nakula and Sahadeva) was to tie a strange knot in her life that could never be unravelled. The Pandavas and Kunti had gone from Ekachakra to the capital city of Panchalas where they stayed in a potter’s house. The Pandavas went out to watch the swayamvara of Draupadi and Arjuna alone could shoot down the target and win her hand. They returned home with Draupadi (also known as Krishna) and called out to Kunti that they had brought the day’s alms:
“And Kunti who was there within the room and saw not her sons, replied, saying, 'Enjoy ye all (what ye have obtained).' The moment after, she beheld Krishna and then she said, 'Oh, what have I said?' And anxious from fear of sin, and reflecting how every one could be extricated from the situation, she took the cheerful Yajnaseni by the hand, and approaching Yudhishthira said, 'The daughter of king Yajnasena upon being represented to me by thy younger brothers as the alms they had obtained, from ignorance, O king, I said what was proper, viz., 'Enjoy ye all what hath been obtained. O thou bull of the Kuru race, tell me how my speech may not become untrue; how sin may not touch the daughter of the king of Panchala, and how also she may not become uneasy.'” 29
For Yudhistira a mother’s command was holy. And Kunti was anxious that her words must not be rendered untrue. Was it childishness on her part? Well, the word had been uttered. What next? After long deliberations among the brothers, Kunti, Drupada, Sri Krishna and Dhrishtadhyumna and the counsel of Vyasa, it was decided that Draupadi would be the wife of all the five brothers. Strangely enough, this did not lead to any problem in the Pandavan domestic life. One can only say that having unwittingly spoken a command, Kunti did not waste her time regretting it. Instead she set about managing a perfect household of fraternal amity. The Pandavas became lords of their portion of the Kuru kingdom and built a new capital for themselves, Indraprastha. Panchali gave birth to children and so did Subhadra become the mother of Abhimanyu. Arjuna had Iravan by Ulupi and Babhruvahana by Chitrangada. Bhima became the father of Ghatotkacha through Hidimbi. So many grandsons! Kunti must have been the happiest grandmother, thinking that all her days of misery were a thing of the past.
Kunti’s happiness did not last long. The fatal dice-game in which Yudhsitira indulged himself on the invitation of Dhritarashtra meant the undoing of all this castle of joy. The Pandavas and Draupadi prepared to go into exile and went to Kunti to obtain her blessings. Kunti was racked by anguish yet spoke to Draupadi in noble terms. Draupadi had been a wonderful wife and daughter-in-law and she should continue to be so. It was the great luck of the Kauravas that they had not been burnt by Draupadi’s fire of anger. Interestingly, like any mother, Kunti was worried about her last child. While you are in the forest, do look after my child Sahadeva with extra care as he can easily be disheartened!
Sahadevascha me putrah sadhavekshyo vane vasan
Yathedham vyasanam prapya nayam sidhenmahamatih
Madri was absolutely right. Only Kunti could be so equal-minded and teach her sons also to be such, for later on Yudhistira would ask the Yaksha for Nakula’s return from death and not Bhima or Arjuna.
Like a typical mother, unti cries out in misery for clinging on to life even thus. Or, had Yama forgotten about her existence?
“Oh, it is all my fault,
I gave you birth!
And so you suffer today,
inspite of your excellent virtues!
You have energy, skill, patience, and power,
I know –
but how will you survive in the forest
If I had known you would be exiled
in the forest,
I would not have left Satasringa
and come to Hastinapura.
Now I realise how fortunate
your tapasya-performing father was –
to be spared this –
and go to heaven instead.
Now I realise how fortunate
was noble and wise-in-dharma Madri –
foreknowing this would happen,
she chose death.” 30
So the years passed by when Kunti remained in Hastinapura, enduring the egoistic men in power who gloated over the fall of the Pandavas. Then came the day of revelation, the Pandavas had successfully passed the test of thirteen years of exile and were set up in Upaplavya of Virata kingdom. Apparently Kunti preferred to remain in Hastinapura. When Krishna goes as an ambassador to the Kaurava court, he meets Kunti, who is incidentally his aunt (being Vasudeva’s sister), it turns out to be full of Kunti’s tears. She wants to know from Krishna all about the life of her sons in the forest. She is most vocal about Sahadeva whom she praises as the best among fighters, one who is full of reverence for his elder brothers and Kunti. Nakula, handsome, youthful, heroic, verily the external life of the Pandavas. She remembers again the harsh day when the blameless Draupadi was dragged by her tresses into the Kuru Court: When the eminent King Drupada's daughter who is so pure and full of good qualities is condemned for such sorrow, apparently there is no connection between one’s acts and the fruits thereof! It is a long speech spanning the whole of the ninetieth Canto. In spite of her sorrow-laden days, her aim is clear: the upholding of Kshatriya dharma by her sons. They must fight! Was Kunti worried Krishna may give in to calls of peace? She reminded him of the great insult to a royal princess, to womanhood, to Dharma, when Duhshasana dragged Draupadi by her tresses:
“It is not the kingdom’s loss
that grieves me;
not the defeat at dice;
not even the exile of my sons –
What hurts is the way dark-skinned Draupadi,
dressed in a single cloth,
was dragged into the sabha
and filthily demeaned.
Her husbands were alive, but none to protect
lovely-thighed Krsna-Draupadi in her period
who always abided by the dictates
of Ksatriya-dharma!” 31
Coming out of this temporary clouding of the mind due to intense sorrow, Kunti told Krishna to do what he considers to be dharma. Krishna’s ambassadorship was aborted because of Duryodhana’s guile. Indestructible, Krishna emerged unscathed out of the trap laid by Duryodhana and returned to Kunti to take her leave before going back to the Pandavas. It is then that she gave him a message to her sons in the form of Vidula’s story.
The Vidulopakhyana, which is in the form of an extended conversation, covers four cantos (133-136). The upakhyana is fierce, unyielding, wisdom-encrusted. Vyasa’s Vidula is bold and strong like Kunti and knows what true love is. If she should keep silent owing to a mother’s sentimental love to see her son ‘safe’, hers would be the love of a she-mule, khari vatsalyamahuh. It is her duty to urge her son to action, and she does it with appropriately scorching words.
“Conquered by the King of Sindhu, hurled down from his lofty throne,The next scenario of Kunti’s appearance in the Mahabharata finds Vidura and Kunti in converse. Vidura reports that Krishna’s peace talk has failed and a destructive war is certain. Kunti feels terror-stricken. Apparently Bhishma, Drona and Karna are going to be on Duryodhana’s side. This would lessen the chances of an easy victory for the Pandavas. After much heart-searching she decides to reveal herself to Karna and goes to him. We now come across one of the most poignant scenes in the entire epic.
As he lay unnerved and abject, came she to her warlike son,
Vidula, the passionate princess, and she spoke with burning eyes,
Scourging him with words like flakes of fire, bidding him arise.
“Son," she cried, "no son of mine to make thy mother's hearth rejoice!
Hark, thy foemen mock and triumph, yet to lye is still thy choice.
Nor thy hero father got thee, nor I bore thee This my womb,
Random changeling from some world of petty souls and coward gloom!...
Out to battle, do thy man's work, falter not in high attempt.
So a man is quit before his God and saved from self-contempt.” 32
Karna is saying his prayers to the midday sun on the banks of the Ganges. Kunti waits till he completes his prayers. When he sees Kunti he is surprised and announces himself: Radheyoham Adhirathih, I am the son of Radha and Adiratha. Kaunteysthvam na Radheyo Kunti replies. You are the son of Kunti, not Radha. Like a damburst words flood forth as she lays bare his birth and abandonment. He must not go about as a vassal of somebody else. He is the eldest born to her and must reveal himself and join his brothers. A disembodied voice comes from the Suryamandala assuring him that Kunti had spoken the truth ands he must listen to his mother.
But fate is incorrigible. Karna bases himself on what he considers to be his dharma. She had abandoned him when he needed her and had now come to him because she needed his help. His words are spoken respectfully but the harshness is clear. Truth always stings! Karna will not prove false to Duryodhana’s faith and will certainly fight the Pandavas unto the last. But a lady’s entreaty should not go in vain. He will not kill any of the brothers except Arjuna. Rabindranath Tagore’s Karna and Kunti based on this conversation is quite famous. He makes a few changes, of course. Karna is not harsh as in Vyasa; he is more like a Shakespearian tragic hero when he tells Kunti:
“When I was born, Mother, from me you tore
mother, brothers, royal family – all at one go.
If today I cheat my foster-mother, her of charioteer caste,
and boldly address as my own mother a royal materfamilias,
if I snap the ties that bind me to the lord
of the Kuru clan, and lust after a royal throne,
then fie on me!” 33
Kunti has no answer. Nor can the true Kshatriya lady try to deflect her own son from Kshtriya dharma which cannot countenance the betrayal of faith. Karna will have to remain in the camp of Duryodhana. She who was born for sorrow, will have to endure putra-soka as well. Whether it is Karna or Arjuna, it would be for her an equal tragedy. She must needs return bemoaning the fate of all women who have to endure such losses in the name of dharma:
Blessed are you, my son, for you are
truly heroic. Alas, Dharma, how stern your justice is!
Who knew, alas, that day
when I forsook a tiny, helpless child,
that from somewhere he would gain a hero’s powers,
return one day along a darkened path,
and with his own cruel hands hurl weapons at those
who are his brothers, born of the same mother!
What a curse this is!” 34
The war is over. Kunti’s eldest born is no more. He had been felled by Arjuna in the battle. Horrifying and heart-tugging scenes in the Mahabharata are innumerable. The Stri Parva is one long lamentation as the living come to the banks of the Ganges to offer tarpana to the dead. Even as the offerings are made into the flowing waters, Kunti weeps and speaks softly addressing her sons who are alive:
‘That hero and great bowman, that leader of leaders of car-divisions, that warrior distinguished by every mark of heroism, who hath been slain by Arjuna in battle, that warrior whom, ye sons of Pandu, ye took forth, Suta’s child born of Radha, that hero who shone in the midst of his forces like the lord Surya himself, who battled with all of you and your followers, who looked resplendent as he commanded the vast force of the Duryodhana, who had no equal on earth for energy, that hero who preferred glory to life, that unretiring warrior firm in truth and never fatigued with exertion, was your eldest brother. Offer oblations of water unto that eldest brother of yours who was born of me by the god of day. That hero was born with a pair of earrings and clad in armour, and resembled Surya himself in splendour!” 35
The Pandavas were shocked. So it had come to this! Yudhistira who rarely exhibited anger even under the most provoking conditions was aghast and breathed like a serpent, nishvasanniva pannagah. Was this true? Was she really the mother of this heroic personality “who was like an ocean having shafts for his billows, his tall standard for his vortex, his own mighty arms for a couple of huge alligators, his large car for his deep lake, and the sound of his palms for his tempestuous roar, and whose impetuosity none could withstand save Dhananjaya”? If true, how did it come about? In his anger, for once, Yudhistira loses his balance. He who had sought to follow his mother’s injunctions even when it meant the seemingly unnatural sharing of Arjuna’s bride among the brothers, now berates her publicly, the one moment when she needed protective love from the sons for whom she had suffered life-long.
“Alas, in consequence of the concealment of this affair by thee, we have been undone! By the death of Karna, ourselves with all our friends have been exceedingly afflicted. The grief I feel at Karna’s death is a hundred times greater than that which was caused by the death of Abhimanyu and the sons of Draupadi, and the destruction of the Pancalas and the Kurus. Thinking of Karna, I am burning with grief, like a person thrown into a blazing fire. Nothing could have been unattainable by us, not excepting things belonging to heaven. Alas, this terrible carnage, so destructive of the Kurus, would not have occurred.’ 36
How can this middle-aged Kshatriya warrior know of the problems of a young unwed mother? Silently she endures these last lashings for a heart that has been tried sorely all these years ever since she had set adrift the box containing her infant Karna on the waves of the river. Such is her life of unremitting tragedy. How can we ever forget the tragic beating of a mother’s heart as she stands listening to Yudhistira and watching her living sons perform tarpana for her eldest son, as all the assembled women wail loudly—women belonging to the fallen heroes. Vyasa gives the numbers of those slain on the Kurukshetra field: One billion 660 million and 20,000 men! sahasraani cha vimsatih kotyah shahtischashast chaiva. So many Kuntis then! Sorrowing lies womanhood in the Mahabharata.
Arjuna remains the superb romantic hero of folk literature. He is equally so in the Mahabharata. After all, there could have been an Ur-Mahabharata, an earlier version created by fusing together folk lore from all regions of India. Often, such has been the progress of a legend from real life to literary immortality. A real life incident becomes a ballad and later on the ballad gets elevated into a myth. India’s cultural history has a spread of several millennia and Arjuna walks all over India. He is as much a hero in North India as he is in the southernmost parts of the nation.
Granted each of Kunti’s conceptions had a bit of drama about it, the one of Arjuna speaks of a tapasya undertaken by Pandu as well. After the birth of Yudhistira and Bhima, Pandu wanted a son as powerful as Indra. He asked Kunti to observe a propitious vow for one whole year, while he himself remained standing on one leg throughout the day in meditation. It was as well. Unlike Surya, Dharma and Vayu who quickly responded to Kunti’s incantation, Indra took his own time to descend. Then he went to Pandu and assured him that pleased by his tapasya, he was going to bless Kunti with a son who will be ever victorious and of course very handsome. Presently he responded to Kunti and she became a mother.
Vyasa says that when the child was born, a disembodied voice proclaimed loudly that Kunti’s son would be as strong as Kartavirya and Shiva, invincible like Indra and bring great joy to Kunti. He will subjugate powerful kingdoms like Chedi and Kasi and enhance the prosperity of the Kurus. He will give the Khandava forest as food for Agni. He will propitiate Shiva and gain the Pasupata missile. He will destroy the enemies of gods known as Nivatakavachas.
Great rishis and gods came to pay respect to the newborn child and Kunti was happy. Singing by gandharvas went on as apasaras came to dance. It is a wonderful beginning for the future hero and lover. In fact, one could say, next to Bhishma, Arjuna pervades the entire epic and covers a geographically wider area as well because of his travels. Naturally his life-incidents recounted by Vyasa are numerous and yet a few remain always in the limelight of our memory.
After Pandu’s death, the five brothers come to Hastinapura. As the one hundred and five cousins grow up under Bhishma’s charge, it is Bhima who is in the news all the time. However, there are memorable incidents in Arjuna’s life that have entered deep into the psyche of the nation. However, the first and foremost was a touch of poison. Arjuna was a good boy but when it came to his skill in archery, he could be jealous of anyone who might outdo him in this martial art. Unfortunately, the person of whom he became jealous was Ekalavya, the son of the King of the Nishadas. Perceiving Ekalavya’s dexterity when the Nishada prince sent seven arrows into the mouth of a barking dog before it could shut its mouth, he complained to his teacher, Drona. Though Ekalavya was no direct student of Drona, the former considered himself to be one and showed exemplary guru-bhakti. Now, how can there be a student of Drona who could be considered superior (visishta) to Arjuna?
Since Drona was hoping to train Arjuna to wreak vengeance on King Drupada, he immediately asked Ekalavya for a grim gurudhakshina: angushto dakshino dhiyatam, give the thumb of your right hand! Ekalavya immediately cut off his thumb and offered it to Drona. Arjuna was no doubt freed from jealousy by this action of Ekalavya, but all his victories get shadowed by this wilful destruction of an unsuspecting hero. Ekalavya was too pure and innocent to utter a curse, but his guardian angel could not have remained silent! Not a particle of sand gets moved on earth without disturbing the eco system in someway, for better, for worse.
A pleasanter incident of Arjuna’s student days follows immediately after the Ekalavya episode. We watch a class of Drona which trains students to hit at a target. Here is a perfect teacher. An artificial vulture is set upon the top branch of a tree. Drona asks his students one after another. What do they see? Their answer is the same. We see everything! There is the bird, there is the tree, there are the teacher and the fellow-students. Finally Arjuna is made to stand up. When Drona asks him the question, Arjuna who is a perfect student says that he can see no tree, nor his fellow-students, not even his teacher. He can see only the bird. Drona is happy and asks him further: If he sees the bird, can he describe its limbs? Arjuna replies that he cannot as he sees only the head of the bird which is his aim, and not its limbs, siram pasyami bhasasya na gatram. Thrilled to the roots, Drona said, ‘shoot’ and Arjuna shot the bird down with his arrow called Kshura. Drona embraced Arjuna and was now certain that he would be able to avenge the insult meted out to him by Drupada who will be defeated along with his friends and relatives by Arjuna.
Drona was now ready. He asked for his gurudakshina from the disciples. “Bring Drupada to me as your prisoner”. As simple as that! There is a mighty battle and Arjuna is crowned with success when he is able to fell the Panchala King and bring him bound to Drona. Such is the intricate interweaving in the epic that by this very act, the humiliated Drupada decides to avenge his defeat, leading to the birth of Dhrishtadhyumna and Draupadi. And it is in Draupadi’s swayamvara mandapa that we see Arjuna again, in the robes of a poor Brahmin.
The Pandavas had been presumed dead in the fire that engulfed the House of lac. Actually they had escaped the lair with Kunti, and after residing in Ekachakra for a while, they come to Panchala and attend the swayamvara. Dhrishtadhyumna explains the famous lakshyabheda and announces his sister Draupadi as the prize.
“Hear me, O kings!
Here is the bow!
Here is the target!
The test: with these arrows
hit the target through
the hole in the machine.
And I give my word –
handsome and strong
king who succeeds
today takes to wife
my sister Krsna-Draupadi.
After this (continued Vaishamapayana)
Drupada’s son turned to his sister,
and enumerated the names, gotras and feats
of the royal competitors.” 37
The kings came forward and tried one after another and failed. Karna then came up to the trap, picked up the bow and strung it.
“Seeing the son of the Sun,
Karna of the Sutas –
ready to shoot at the target,
the five Pandavas feared
the target as good as pierced.
Draupadi saw him too
and said in a loud voice:
‘No Suta will marry me’.
Karna smiled bitterly.
He glanced up at the sun,
and flung aside the bow.” 38
Arjuna wins but the kings are not happy. A Brahmin carry away this Kshatriya princess? They attack the Panchalas and the Pandavas. Karna and Arjuna are locked in a bitter fight in which Radheya is defeated. However, already Krishna and Balarama among the audience had recognized the Pandavas, and the former gently persuades the kings to stop the war. The Pandavas go away with Draupadi to their dwelling place where Kunti had been waiting for their return.
The mighty epic tale moves forward like a royal elephant. Presently, Dhritarashtra is persuaded to give part of the Kuru kingdom to the Pandavas. They build a new capital for themselves, Indraprastha. The brothers live in perfect amity despite having to share even a wife. This they managed by making a rule that when one brother was closeted with Draupadi, if any other brother should trespass, he would have to go on a self-exile to the forest for twelve years.
It so happened that once a Brahmin whose cows had been stolen came to Arjuna and wailed. The young hero found himself in a dilemma. For Yudhistira and Draupadi were conversing all alone in the armoury. If he went in, Arjuna would have to undertake vanavasa. If not, the Brahmin would be wronged. Preferring to suffer in such a dharma-sankata, Arjuna went into the armoury and got his bow. The brahmin’s kine were restored. In spite of Yudhistira remonstrating with him, Arjuna then went away into the forest. A great hero, but also one who based himself firmly on truth, for he told Yudhistira that he would never swerve from truth, na satyat vichalishyami!
Who does not love Arjuna’s adventures in his self-exile? Later on there would be another wandering in the forest, but that would be with his brothers and wife. Now he is all alone, free, the typical hero of romance. During his vana-vasa, Arjuna happened to get into the Ganga river for his bath. Just as he was going up the bank, he was dragged back into the waters by the Naga Princess, Ulupi. Finding himself in the palace of the Naga King Kauravya, Arjuna saw Agni glowing in a place and performed the fire-ritual which pleased Agni. Then Arjuna asked Ulupi:“O beautiful one! Why did you do this act? Who are you? Whose is this palace?”
“There is a Naga king Kauravya who has come in the race of the Airavata Naga. I am his daughter and a snake-princess. My name is Ulupi. When you descended into Ganga who loves the Ocean, I saw you and was overcome with love. I am suffering the pangs of desire. I have not thought so of any body else. Kindly fulfill my desire.” 39
“I am following brahmacharya for twelve years, following the command of Yudhistira. Hence I am not on my own and cannot marry you. I want to please you. I have never uttered a lie. You think of a way in which you can be pleased, my vrata will be intact and I will not be accused of uttering an untruth.”
“I know all about the command and why you are wandering on the earth. By doing the bigger dharma of saving me, the smaller sin of having transgressed Yudhistira’s command will vanish. For if you do not accept me, I will certainly die and that would be a big sin. Remember, I have surrendered to you.” 40
Arjuna accepted the argument and lived with Ulupi for the night. The next morning Ulupi brought Arjuna from the palace to the mouth of Ganga (Haridwar) and left him on the bank. Because of their union a very fine and strong son, Iravan was born to them.
Subsequently, Arjuna visited Manipur, married its princess Chitrangada and became the father of Babhruvahana. There was also the incident of the crocodile-infested waters where he helped the crocodiles gain their original apsara form, the lovely celestials Varga and her friends Saurabheyi, Samichi, Vudvuda and Lata. It was during these wanderings that he met Krishna again, fell in love with his sister Subhadra and married her with the help of Krishna. The marriage coincided with the end of his exile.
As we always associate Kodanda with Rama, Arjuna is always visioned as carrying the Gandiva. Towards the close of Adi Parva, Krishna and Arjuna were wandering on the banks of Yamuna when they were met by Agni as a Brahmin. Agni revealed his true identity and said that he was not able to burn Khandava forest as his food because it was guarded by Indra and Dhakshaka and other nagas living here. He needed to burn it because having taken part in the rich yajnas of King Svetaki, Agni had drunk too much ghee over twelve years and was not able to accept the offerings at other yajnas. Hence he had become pale. He had to cure himself by burning up the Khandava forest. He then sought the help of Krishna and Arjuna. Arjuna said that he needed to have a strong bow. Agni meditated upon Varuna who appeared. On Agni’s request he gave Arjuna the Gandiva bow, two inexhaustible quivers and a chariot flying the Hanumat-dhwaja. As Krishna and Arjuna positioned themselves to readiness, Agni, with his seven-tongued flame began a vast destruction of the Khandava forest. Indra sent heavy rains which were stopped by Arjuna. Takshaka’s wife tried to escape from the fire by going out after having swallowed her son, but Arjuna cut off her head. Indra cast a spell on Arjuna and saved Takshaka’s son Ashvasena. Garuda and other birds as well as great Nagas now converged angrily on Khandava to stop Arjuna but were powerless. So were Indra and the gods who came to his help. Indra withdrew after he realized Takshaka was safe in a far away place. And the burning of Khandava came to an end.
The digvijaya that follows is something routine for the Kshatriya warrior. With his four brothers fanning out into the directions and acquiring wealth through their victories everywhere, Yudhistira was very happy and now decided to perform a Rajasuya sacrifice. The Pandavas are now truly at the apex of power. Too soon the Pandavan glory collapses with the Game of Dice between Yudhistira and Sakuni at Hasatinapura. There are but mechanical reactions from the younger brothers who are forced to follow the moves of Yudhistira. Even the losing of Panchali in the dice game has only Bhima almost losing his self-control:
“Bhima said: ‘Yudhisthira,
many gamblers keep loose women in their houses.
but they don’t stake them.
In fact, they care for them.
The wealth, the ornaments
the king of Kasi gave us;
the jewels, gems, animals,
which other kings presented us –
our kingdom, yourself, us –
all these have been lost
in the dice-game.
I did not mind. I checked my anger.
but to stake Draupadi –
this I consider
as grossly wrong.
We are her husbands – does our trusting wife
deserve this from us?
You are responsible for the way
these vicious men insult her.
Raja! Because of her,
I am filled with disgust for you.
I’ll burn your hands!
Sahadeva, bring me some fire!” 41
It is a terrible moment, for the Pandavas had always presented a united stand. That has been their major strength during all the earlier ordeals. Arjuna is wise, he knows this is not the time for fraternal disagreement or mutual complaints. He says quietly:
“‘Bhima,’ said Arjuna,
‘what’s wrong with you?
You’ve never spoken like this before.
to your sense of dharma?
Have your foes destroyed it?
Don’t fall into their trap,
follow the highest dharma.
Should anyone ever go against
a dharma-following elder brother?
The Kauravas summoned raja Yudhisthira
according to the Ksatriya vow,
he gambled, though unwillingly.
This looks like maha-glory to me.’” 42
As far as Pandavan unity is concerned, the critical moment is passed thanks to Arjuna. During the period of exile, Arjuna engaged himself constantly in acquiring new weapons for he knew that Duryodhana would never give up the kingdom. This could only lead to war, for who can forget the dishonour done to Draupadi? So many Arjuna-centric scenarios pass us by. Arjuna battling with Shiva who comes disguised as a hunter and then gaining Pashupata missile; acquiring weapons from Varuna and Kubera; his holiday in swarga, spent in learning singing and dancing from Chitrasena the chief of the Gandharvas; the episode involving Urvasi when he gets cursed by the heavenly damsel to become a eunuch; and the rescue of Duryodhana from the Gandharva chief. Dramatic all of them, Arjuna as the eunuch Brihannala is not easily forgotten.
In the thirteenth year of their exile, the Pandavas had to remain incognito. They chose Virata country for their stay. Arjuna decided to use the curse of Urvashi for this year’s duration and became Brihannala, the dance teacher in the palace of King Virata. If there is one rasa which is rare in Vyasa, it is hasya. Vyasa’s is a granite style and there is no place in it for the vibgyor colours of easy laughter. Brihannala is a rare exception. We all know it is our handsome hero Arjuna and yet look at him now! As breathtaking a eunuch too! Such is the impression he creates on the king that he is ready to make Brihannala his successor!
Two major occurrences mark the Virata Parva. One involves the killing of Kichaka by Bhima. The other is Arjuna’s part in rescuing the Viratan prince from ignomy. Following a well-hatched plan, the Kauravas attack Virata land when the king is away battling the Trigarthas. Prince Uttarakumara is in charge of the defence. Now begins the Vyasan narrative that sparkles with humour as a concealed echo. Uttara Kumara is more of a pampered prince full of self-commendation. Showing off that he is ready to go to battle if only he could get a good charioteer, he is all grandiloquence:
“I will leave, with my flag hoisted,
the moment anyone
can find me a charioteer
expert in chariot-combat.
I will pierce the Kauravas’ ranks
of elephants, horses and chariots,
and return with all our cattle.
Duryodhana, Santanu’s son Bhisma,
Surya’s son Karna, Krpa and drona,
and Drona’s son Asvatthaman,
and other maha-bowmen –
I will strike fear in them all,
as Vijrabhrt-Indra struck fear with his thunderbolt
among the Danava anti-gods
and I will recover the cattle.
No one is there to stop the Kauravas
from robbing our cattle.
What can I do from here?
I have to be there in person.
But the gang of Kauravas will today
see my war-skill, and wonder:
Is it Partha-Arjuna himself
battling against us?” 43
This is great fun mixed with high seriousness. Brihannala is in form; he sends word to Uttara Kumara through Draupadi that the dance master maybe suggested as a charioteer. Draupadi must tell the Prince that Brihannala had been once the capable charioteer of Arjuna. Agreeable, Uttara Kumara asks the Princess Uttara to negotiate on his behalf and after some ‘reluctance’ Brihannala agrees to be Uttara Kumara’s charioteer. More fun awaits us, and it is a wonderful change for those in the Virata palace and also for Vyasa’s readers:
“Though he knew everything (Vaisampayana said),
deliberately committed silly mistakes
in order to amuse Uttara.
He jerked the armour up
and tried to put it on;
The large-eyed girls watched him
Seeing him all bewildered and upset,
in a magnificent suit of armour.
His own armour had the splendour and dazzle
of the sun.
He raised his lion-emblem flag and,
his charioteer, and equipping himself
with the most expensive bows
and beautiful arrows,
heroic Uttara marched out.
Uttara and the other sakhis said:
do bring us
all the super-fine fabrics
you can find – you know, for our dolls,
the soft, lovely cloths
you can lay hands on,
after defeating Bhisma and Drona.’
Pandu’s son Partha-Arjua smiled and,
putting on his gruffest voice,
like a cloud roaring or dundubhi-drum beating,
said to the girls:
‘I will certainly get you
all the lovely cloths you want
if Uttara can vanquish
all those maha-chariot-heroes.’” 44
We smile and giggle through Uttara Kumara’s fright and Arjuna revealing himself, watch the fierce battle between Kauravas and Arjuna and the latter’s victory. They return and when the king comes to know the truth he is amazed, duly grateful and respectful towards the Pandavas. He even offers the hand of Princess Uttara to Brihannala who is now transformed back to his original form as Arjuna. Arjuna’s reply is an ideal lesson in teacher-student relationship in the field of arts. How can he marry Uttara as she has been his student and so has been like a daughter to him?
“'O king, I receive your daughter as my daughter-in-law and thus let there be an alliance between the Matsyas and Bharathas, thy daughter as my daughter-in-law. A matrimonial alliance of this kind between the Matsya and the Bharatas is most welcome."
As said earlier, Arjuna’s presence permeates the Mahabharata. Which feature may we choose? Arjuna being driven to Kurukshetra by Krishna. Krishna says: utter a prayer to Durga before proceeding to fight. As Krishna reins the horses, Arjuna gets down, stands with hands folded and recites a memorable, 13-verse, Durga Stotra:
Namaste simhasenaani arye mandaravasini
Kumari Kali Kapali Kapile Krishnapingale
Arjuna attacked by sorrow. Arjuna overwhelmed by the cosmic form of the Lord. Arjuna anguished by putra-shoka with the loss of Abhimanyu. Arjuna vowing to kill Jayadratha by sunset. Arjuna and Bhishma. Arjuna saved repeatedly by Krishna. Arjuna’s killing Karna. So many episodes. So many names. Dhananjaya, Bhibhatsu, Vijaya, Savyasachi… We love each one of them. We follow Arjuna south of the Vindhyas and he is in action again, giving ample space for the free imagination of playwrights. To this genre belong folk narratives like Alli Arasani Malai, Pavalakkodi, Arjunan Kuram.
Arjuna’s part did not end with the death of Karna. For Yudhistira’s Ashvamedha Sacrifice, he was once again in action going to various lands. Why, he battles with his own son, Babhruvahana! And then the Yadava race indulges in self-extermination. There was no point in continuiong to live on earth once Krishna was gone. Though it is all aftercourses, we do tarry for a few moments when the Pandavas and Draupadi leave their country for their last peregrination in Mahaprasthana Parva. Flaming Agni appears before them and addresses Yudhistira:
“Your brother Phalguna-Arjuna
is free to proceed
but first he must give up
his supreme weapon.
He has no use now
for the Gandiva bow.
That gem of a weapon,
the unique cakra
of mahatma Krishna
has vanished from the world.
When needed again
it will return to his hand.
The magnificent Gandiva
was brought by me
to give to Partha-Arjuna.
It must now be returned
to Varuna.” 45
Arjuna obediently casts the Gandiva and the two inexhaustible quivers into the waters and the Pandavas and Draupadi walk away from the green crests of earthly life.
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