Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic, by W.J. Wilkins, , at sacred-texts.com
As these heroes are so intimately connected with each other, a separate account of each would necessitate frequent repetition; they will therefore be noticed together, in a brief outline of the main story of the Mahābhārata. *
In the fifth generation from Soma (the Moon), the progenitor of the Lunar race, who reigned at Hastināpur, came two sons, Puru † and Yadu; from whom proceeded two branches of the Lunar line. In the account of Krishna and Balarāma, who were born in the Yadu tribe, we have seen the end of that branch of the family. Sixteenth from Puru, the founder of the other
branch, came Bharata, from whom India takes its name, Bharatvarsha (the country of Bharata), in the present day. Twenty-third from Bharata came Sāntanu. This Sāntanu had two sons, Bhishma, by the goddess Gangā (the Ganges), and Vichitravīrya, by Satyavati. * Satyavati had a son named Vyāsa before her marriage with Sāntanu; so that Bhishma, Vichitravīrya, and Vyāsa were half-brothers. Bhishma became a Brahmācharī (i.e. took a vow of celibacy). Vyāsa retired to the wilderness to live a life of contemplation, but promised his mother that he would obey her in everything.
Now it so happened that Vichitravīrya died childless, and Satyavati was therefore obliged to ask her son Vyāsa to marry the childless widows. The result was that the one wife, Ambikā, had a son who was born blind, named Dhritarāshtra. This blindness is said to have been caused by the fact that Vyāsa, coming in from his ascetic life, was so repulsive in appearance that Ambikā kept her eyes closed all the time he remained with her. The other wife, named Ambālika, had a son who was born of a pale complexion, and named Pāndu; this paleness was the result of the fear that Vyāsa caused to the mother. Satyavati, not satisfied with either of these children, wished for another and perfect child. But Ambikā, dressing up one of her slaves, sent her to Vyāsa in her stead; the result was that this girl had a son who was called Vidura. After fulfilling his
mother's commands, Vyāsa returned to his ascetic life in the forest.
Bhishma, the uncle of these children, conducted the government of Hastināpur in their name during their minority, and their education was also entrusted to him. Dhritarāshtra, though blind, is described as excelling the others in strength; Pāndu, as being skilled in the use of the bow; and Vidura, as pre-eminent in virtue and wisdom.
When the boys came of age, Dhritarāshtra was disqualified for the throne by reason of his blindness; Vidura could not be king because his mother was a Sudra; Pāndu was therefore installed as king. Dhritarāshtra married Gāndhāri (also called Saubaleyi, or Saubali), daughter of Subala, King of Gāndhāra. Pāndu married Prithā (or Kunti), the adopted daughter of Kuntibhoja. This Prithā, "one day, before her marriage, paid such respect and attention to a powerful sage named Durvāsas, a guest in her father's house, that he gave her a charm, and taught her an incantation, by virtue of which she might have a child by any god she liked to call into her presence. Out of curiosity, she invoked the Sun, by whom she had a son who was born clothed in armour. But Prithā, fearing the censure of her relatives, deserted her offspring, after exposing it in the river. It was found by Adhirata, a charioteer, and nurtured by his wife Rādhā; whence the child was afterwards called Rādheya, though named by his foster-parents Vasushena. When he was grown up, the god Indra conferred upon him enormous strength, and changed his name to Karna." He is also called Vaikartana, being the son of Vikartana (the Sun).
Pāndu, at his uncle Bhishma's request, next marries Mādrī, sister of Salya, King of Madra. Soon after this
marriage, Pāndu undertook a great campaign, and extended his kingdom to the dimensions it had reached in the time of his great ancestor Bharata. He then, with his two wives, retired to the woods, that he might indulge in his passion for hunting. The blind Dhritarāshtra, with Bhishma as regent, ruled in his stead.
Dhritarāshtra had a hundred sons. The story of their birth is as follows: "One day, the sage Vyāsa was hospitably entertained by Queen Gāndhāri, and in return granted her a boon. She chose to be the mother of a hundred sons. After two years she produced a mass of flesh, which was divided by Vyāsa into a hundred and one pieces, as big as the joint of a thumb. From these, in due time, the eldest, Duryodhana, was born. The miraculous birth of the remaining ninety-nine occurred in due course. There was also one daughter, named Duhsala." These sons of Dhritarāshtra are generally called "The Kurus," or Kauravas.
Pāndu's children were of divine origin. This circumstance happened in the following manner: Pāndu, as noticed above, was addicted to hunting. One day, he "transfixed with five arrows a male and female deer. These turned out to be a certain sage and his wife, who had assumed the form of these animals. The sage cursed Pāndu, and predicted that he would die in the embraces of one of his wives. In consequence of this curse, Pāndu took the vow of a Brahmācharī, gave all his property to the Brāhmans, and became a hermit."
Upon this, Prithā, his wife, with his approval, employed the charm and incantation given to her by Durvāsas, and had three children: by the god Dharma, Yudhishthira; by Vāyu, Bhīma; and by Indra, Arjuna. Mādrī, the other wife of Pāndu, was now anxious to have children, and, acting on the advice of Prithā, she
thought of the Asvins, who appeared to her according to her wish, through whom she became the mother of twin sons, Nakula and Sahadeva. Soon after this, Pāndu, forgetting the curse of the sage, died in the embraces of his wife Mādrī, who was burned with the dead body of her husband.
Prithā and the five children, generally known as the Pāndus, or Pāndavas, now returned to Hastināpur, and informed Dhritarāshtra of the death of his brother; he seemed to be deeply moved by the event, and the Pāndus were allowed to live with his own sons, the Kurus.
But even when the cousins were children, enmity arose, and on one occasion the jealousy of Duryodhana was excited to such a pitch that he tried to poison Bhīma, and, when under its effect, threw him into the water. "Bhīma, however, was not drowned, but descended to the abode of the Nāgas (or serpent demons), who freed him from the poison, and gave him a liquid to drink which endued him with strength of ten thousand Nāgas. From that moment he became a second Hercules." Several schemes were formed for the destruction of the Pāndus, but without success.
"The characters of the five Pāndavas are drawn with much artistic delicacy of touch, and maintained with general consistency throughout the poem. The eldest, Yudhishthira (the son of Dharma, virtue), is the Hindu ideal of excellence—a pattern of justice; calm, passionless composure; chivalrous honour and cold heroism." As the name implies (firm in battle), "he was probably of commanding stature and imposing presence. He is described as having a majestic, lion-like gait, with a Wellington-like profile and long lotus-eyes.
"Bhīma (the son of Vāyu) is a type of brute courage and strength; he is of gigantic stature, impetuous,
irascible, somewhat vindictive, and cruel even to the verge of ferocity, making him, as his name implies, 'terrible.' It would appear that his great strength had to be maintained by plentiful supplies of food, as his name Vrikodara, 'wolf-stomached,' indicates a voracious appetite; and we are told that at the daily meals of the five brothers, half of the whole dish had to be given to Bhīma. But he has the capacity for warm, unselfish love, and is ardent in his affection for his mother and brothers.
"Arjuna (the son of Indra) rises more to the European standard of perfection. He may be regarded as the real hero of the Mahābhārata, of undaunted bravery, generous, with refined and delicate sensibilities, tender-hearted, forgiving, and affectionate as a woman, yet of superhuman strength, and matchless in arms and athletic exercises. Nakula and Sahadeva (sons of the Asvins) are both amiable, noble-hearted, and spirited. All five are as unlike as possible to the hundred sons of Dhritarāshtra, who are represented as mean, spiteful, dishonourable, and vicious." Karna (the son of the Sun), though half-brother of these five Pāndus, in the great conflict is a valuable ally of the Kurus; though in character he is entirely their opposite. "He exhibited in a high degree fortitude, chivalrous honour, self-sacrifice, and devotion. Especially remarkable for a liberal and generous disposition, he never stooped to ignoble practices, like his friends, the Kurus, who were emphatically bad men."
The cousins were educated together at Hastināpur by a Brāhman named Drona; all were instructed in arms, but Arjuna, "by the help of Drona, who gave him magical weapons, excelled all." Both Bhīma and the Kuru Duryodhana learnt the use of the club from their
cousin Balarāma; Prithā, Bhīma's mother, was a sister of Vasudeva, and therefore aunt of Krishna. When their education was completed, a tournament was held, in which the youths displayed their skill in archery; in the management of chariots, horses, and elephants; in sword, spear, and club exercises, and in wrestling. "Arjuna, after exhibiting prodigies of strength, shot five arrows simultaneously into the jaws of a revolving iron boar, and twenty-one arrows into the hollow of a cow's horn, suspended by a string." When he had accomplished this feat, Karma came and did precisely the same deeds of skill, and challenged Arjuna to single combat; but as he could not tell his parentage, he was not considered worthy to enter the lists with the royal youth.
After the tournament was over, Yudhishthira was installed as heir apparent, and soon made his name even more famous than his father's had been. The people wished Yudhishthira to be crowned king at once, but the Kurus tried hard to prevent it. First of all, the Pāndus and their mother were sent to a house at Vāranāvata, in which a quantity of combustible materials was placed, with the intention of burning the whole family. The Pāndus were informed of this by Vidura, and escaped; but the man who conducted them, and a woman with her five sons, whom Bhīma led there in a state of intoxication, were consumed instead. By this device, the Kurus were under the impression that their plan had been successful. The brothers, with their mother, now hastened to the woods, where Bhīma slew a giant named Hidimba, and then married his sister.
By the advice of Vyāsa they now went to live in the city of Ekachakrā, disguised as mendicant Brāhmans. Near this city was a Rākshas named Vaka, who
compelled the citizens to send him a dish of food daily, and the messenger who took it was devoured as the daintiest morsel of the whole. One day it happened that the turn came to a Brāhman to supply the Rākshas with a meal. The man determined to go himself, but his wife and daughter each asked to be allowed to go with him. Lastly, the little son, too young to speak distinctly, in prattling accents said, "Weep not, father; sigh not, mother." Then, breaking off and brandishing a pointed spike of grass, he exclaimed, "With this spike will I slay the fierce, man-eating giant." Bhīma, overhearing this, offered to go; he went, and killed the giant.
After this occurrence, Vyāsa appeared to his grandsons, and informed them that Draupadi, the daughter of Drupada, King of Panchāla, was destined to be their common wife. This girl, in a former birth, was the daughter of a sage, and had performed a most severe penance in order that she might have a husband. Siva, pleased with her devotion, said, "You shall have five husbands; for five times you said, 'Give me a husband.'" When the brothers returned from Draupadi's Svayambara (a tournament in which the princess chose for herself a husband), Arjuna having been selected from amongst many suitors on account of his skill in archery, their mother, hearing their footsteps, and, fancying they were bringing alms, said, "Divide it amongst yourselves." The word of a mother could not be set aside, so Vyāsa showed them that it was appointed that Draupadi should be the wife of each. At this tournament Arjuna displayed great skill in the use of the bow, by piercing a fish that was suspended in the air, without looking directly at the object; he saw its image only, reflected in a pan of water on the ground.
Vyāsa, seeing the discrepancy between the conduct of
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ARJUNA SHOOTING AT THE FISH
the five brothers having a wife in common and that which prevailed in his day, explains it by the fact that Arjuna was really a portion of the essence of Indra, and his brothers portions of the same god, whilst Draupadi herself was a form of Lakshmi; as, therefore, the five brethren were parts of Indra, there was no impropriety in their having but one wife. It is a fact to be noticed, that to this day polyandry prevails amongst some of the hill-tribes of India. Draupadi is said to have had a son by each of the brothers, and the brothers had other wives besides Draupadi. It was noticed above that Bhīma married Hidimbā. Arjuna married Krishna's sister, Subhadrā, and also a serpent-nymph named Uludi, and Chitrāngadā, daughter of the King of Manipura.
When the Pāndus, by their marriage with Draupadi, had allied themselves with the King of Panchāla, they threw off their disguise, and their uncle Dhritarāshtra divided the kingdom: to his sons he gave Hastināpur; to the Pāndus a district near the Yamuna (Jumna), called Khāndavaprastha. Here they built Indraprastha (Delhi), and, under Yudhishthira, their kingdom grew.
Arjuna wandered in the forest alone for twelve years, in fulfilment of a vow, and there met Krishna, who invited him to Dwāraka, where he married Subhadrā. Krishna was invited to a great festival in honour of the inauguration of Yudhishthira as sovereign. Acting on Nārada's advice, Bhishma proposed that an oblation should be made to the best and strongest person present, and selected Krishna. Sisupāla objected, and, as he openly reviled Krishna, the deity struck off his head with his discus.
After this, a festival was held at Hastināpur, to which the Pāndus were invited. Yudhishthira was induced to
play; and having staked his kingdom, his possessions, and, last of all, Draupadi, he lost everything. A compromise was effected. Duryodhana was made ruler over the whole kingdom for twelve years; whilst the Pāndus with Draupadi were to live in the forest for the same period, and to pass the thirteenth year under assumed names, in various disguises. Whilst enjoying this forest life, Arjuna went to the Himalayas to perform severe penance in order to obtain celestial arms. "After some time, Siva, to reward him and prove his bravery, approached as a Kirātā, * or wild mountaineer, at the moment that a demon named Mūka, in the form of a boar, attacked him. Siva and Arjuna shot together at the boar, which fell dead, and both claimed to have hit him first. This served as a pretext for Siva to have a battle with him. Arjuna fought long with the Kirātā but could not conquer him. At last he recognized the god, and threw himself at his feet, when Siva, pleased with his bravery, gave him the celebrated weapon Pāsupata, to enable him to conquer Karna and the Kuru princes in war."
In the thirteenth year of exile the Pāndus journeyed to the court of King Virāta, and entered his service in disguise. Yudhishthira called himself a Brāhman, and took the name of Kanka. Arjuna called himself Vrihanalā, and, pretending to be a eunuch, adopted a sort of woman's dress, and taught music and dancing. One day when Virāta and four of the Pāndus were absent, Duryodhana and his brother attacked Virāta's capital, and carried off some cattle. Uttara, the king's son, followed them, having Arjuna as his charioteer. When
they came in sight of the enemy, Uttara's heart failed him. Arjuna changed places with him, having told him who he was. This gave him courage, the Kuru army was defeated, and the stolen cattle reclaimed. Arjuna asked Uttara to keep the secret of his real character for the present. A short time afterwards, at a great assembly called by Virāta, the Pāndus took their places amongst the princes, and were welcomed heartily by the king.
A council of princes was soon held, at which Krishna and Balarāma were present, to consider how the Pāndus could regain their possessions. Some were for immediate war; Krishna and Balarāma urged that attempts at negotiation should first be made. This advice was acted upon, but without result. In the mean time, Krishna and his brother returned to Dwāraka. Not long after his arrival at his capital, Duryodhana, the Kuru prince, visited Krishna to ask his aid in the coming struggle; and on the same day, Arjuna, the Pāndu prince, arrived there for the same purpose. And " it happened that they both reached the door of Krishna's apartment, where he was asleep, at the same moment. Duryodhana succeeded in entering first, and took up his station at Krishna's head; Arjuna followed, and stood reverently at his feet." Krishna, on awaking, first saw Arjuna; and when the cousins mentioned the object of their visit, he gave the right of choice to Arjuna. He offered himself to one side, but said he should not himself fight; and to the other side his army of a hundred million warriors. Arjuna at once chose Krishna, and Duryodhana was delighted with the prospect of having Krishna's immense army on his side. Duryodhana then asked Balarāma's aid, but was informed that both the brothers had decided to take no active part in the
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BATTLE OF THE KURUS AND PĀNDAVAS
conflict. Krishna, however, consented to act as Arjuna's charioteer, and joined the Pāndus at Virāta's capital.
Fresh negotiations were commenced, and Krishna himself went as mediator to the Kurus; but although in the assembly he assumed his divine form, and "Brahmā appeared in his forehead, Rudra on his breast, the guardians of the world issued from his arms, and Agni from his mouth"—although the other gods were visible in and about his person—his attempt at reconciliation failed. War was determined on between the cousins. Bhishma was made the commander-in-chief of the Kuru army; and Dhrishtadyumna, son of Drupada, was the leader of the Pāndus. Vyāsa offered to give sight to Dhritarāshtra, to enable him to witness the conflict, but, as the blind man declined the offer, he gave to his charioteer, Sanjaya, the faculty of knowing everything that took place, made him invulnerable, and bestowed on him the power to transport himself by a thought to any part of the field of battle.
The armies met on Kurukshetra, a plain to the north-west of the modern Delhi, and we are told that "monstrous elephants career over the field, trampling on men and horses, and dealing destruction with their huge tusks; enormous clubs and iron maces clash together with the noise of thunder; rattling chariots dash against each other; thousands of arrows hurtle in the air, darkening the sky; trumpets, kettledrums, and horns add to the uproar; confusion, carnage, and death are everywhere."
The Pāndus are described as performing prodigies of might. Arjuna killed five hundred warriors simultaneously, covered the plain with dead, and filled rivers with blood: Yudhishthira "slaughtered a hundred men" in a mere twinkle: Bhīma annihilated a monstrous
elephant, including all mounted upon it, and fourteen foot soldiers besides, with one blow of his club: Nakula and Sahadeva, when fighting from their chariots, cut off heads by the thousand, and sowed them like seed upon the ground. Of the weapons employed, about a hundred are named; and the conch shell which served as the trumpet of each leader had its distinct name, as had also the weapons of each of the chiefs.
The first great single combat was between Bhishma and Arjuna, which resulted in Bhishma being so transfixed with arrows that "there was not a space of two fingers’ breadth on his whole body unpierced. Falling from his chariot, his body could not touch the ground, as it was surrounded by countless arrows, and thus it reclined on its arrowy couch. He had received from his father the power of fixing the time of his own death, and now declared that lie intended retaining life till the sun entered the summer solstice. The warriors on both sides ceased fighting that they might view the wonderful sight and do homage to their dying relative. As he lay on his uncomfortable bed, with his head hanging down, he begged for a pillow, whereupon the chiefs brought him soft supports; these the hardy old soldier sternly rejected. Arjuna then made a rest for him with three arrows, which Bhishma quite approved; and soon afterwards asked him to bring a little water. Arjuna struck the ground with an arrow, and forthwith a pure spring burst forth, which so refreshed Bhishma that he called for Duryodhana, and begged him, before it was too late, to restore half the kingdom to the Pāndavas."
Drona, the tutor of the princes, is appointed to take the command of the Kuru army after the fall of Bhishma; and a number of single combats are described. Bhīma's
son by the Rākshasi Hidimbā is slain by Karna; Drupada's son, Dhrishtadyumna, the leader of the Pāndus, overcomes Drona; Drona being a Brāhman, when overpowered by his foe, voluntarily laid down his life, and is conducted to heaven "in a glittering shape like the sun," to save Dhrishtadyumna from the enormous crime of killing a Brāhman. Karna was then made leader of the Kurus in place of Drona. Bhīma next slew Duhsāsana, and remembering how this prince had insulted Draupadi, he drank the blood of his fallen foe. Arjuna then slew Karna, and Salya, King of Madra, was appointed to fill the vacant post. Bhīma challenges Salya, and the following is the account of their encounter:—
Yudhishthira then fought with and eventually slew Salya. After suffering continual reverses, the Kurus rallied for a final charge, which led to so great a slaughter, that only four of their leaders, Duryodhana, Asvatthāman (son of Drona), Kritavarman, and Kripa remained, whilst "nothing remained of eleven whole armies." Whereupon Duryodhana resolved upon flight, and taking refuge in a lake, by his magical power supported it so as to form a chamber round his body. The Pāndus discovered his retreat; but when taunted by them, he told them to take the kingdom, as, his brothers having all been slain, he had no pleasure in life. At last, enraged by the sarcasms of his cousins, he came forth and fought with Bhīma, from whom he received his death-wound. The remaining three Kuru chiefs left their wounded companion and took refuge in a forest.
Whilst resting under a tree at night, Asvatthāman, seeing an owl approach stealthily and kill numbers of sleeping crows, the thought occurred to him that in this manner he might destroy the Pāndu forces. Accordingly
he quietly entered their camp, leaving Kripa and Kritavarman to watch the gates. Under cover of darkness they slew the whole army: the Pāndu princes and Krishna, happening to be stationed outside the camp, alone escaped. These three then return to Duryodhana, and tell him what they had done. Hearing their narrative, his spirit revived for a moment; he thanked them, bade them farewell, and expired.
The funeral obsequies of the chief are performed, and Yudhishthira is installed as King of Hastināpur. But he is most unhappy as he thinks of the great slaughter that has taken place. Acting on Krishna's advice, he and his brothers visit Bhishma, who is still lingering on his " spiky bed." For fifty-eight nights he had lain there, and ere his departure gave utterance to a series of most lengthy didactic discourses, after which his spirit ascended to the skies.
As Yudhishthira was entering the capital in triumph, an incident occurred to lessen his joy in victory. A Rākshas named Chārvāka, disguised as a Brāhman, met him and reproached him for the slaughter he had caused; but the Brāhmans, discovering the imposture, consumed the Rākshas to ashes with fire from their eyes. Yet even now the spirit of the king is not at rest. After a little time, he resigns his kingdom, and, together with his brothers and Draupadi, starts on his journey towards Indra's heaven on Mount Meru,
These went, "bent on abandonment of worldly things;
their hearts yearning for union with the Infinite." In their journey they reach the sea, and there Arjuna cast away his bow and quiver. At last they came in sight of Mount Meru, and Draupadi "lost hold of her high hope, and faltering fell upon the earth." One by one the others fall, until only Yudhishthira, Bhīma, and the dog are left. Bhīma cannot understand why such pure beings should die: his brother informs him that Draupadi's fall was the result of her excessive affection for Arjuna; that Sahadeva's death was the result of pride in his own knowledge; that Nakula's personal vanity was his ruin, and that Arjuna's fault was a boastful confidence in his power to destroy his foes. Bhīma now falls, and is told that the reason of his death is his selfishness, pride, and too great love of enjoyment. Yudhishthira, left alone with the dog, is walking on:
Indra informs him that the spirits of Draupadi and his brothers are already in heaven, but that he alone is permitted to enter in bodily form. The king asks that the dog may accompany him. But as this is refused, he declines to go alone. Indra says, "You have abandoned your brothers; why not forsake the dog?" Yudhishthira replies, "I had no power to bring them back to
life: how can there be abandonment of those who no longer live?" It now appears that the dog was no other than his father Dharma in disguise; who, assuming his proper form, enters with him.
On reaching heaven, though Duryodhana and his cousins are already in bliss, as he does not see Arjuna and the rest, Yudhishthira declines to remain there without them. An angel accompanies him to hell, where he hears their voices calling upon him for help. He therefore bids the angel depart, as he prefers to suffer in hell with his brethren rather than to remain in heaven without them. As soon as his resolution is taken, the scene suddenly changes, and it appears that this was simply a trial of his faith. He bathes in the heavenly Ganges, and in heaven, with " Draupadi and his brothers, finds the rest and happiness that were unattainable on earth."
411:* This account of the Mahābhārata is taken in an abbreviated form almost entirely from Lecture XIII. of Monier Williams's "Indian Wisdom."
411:† An interesting story is told of Puru. His father, Yayāti, married Devayāni, daughter of Sukra, the preceptor of the Daityas. Her husband loving her servant Sarmisthā also, Puru was born as their youngest son. The wife being highly indignant at the unfaithfulness of her husband, returning to her father's home, so excited the old priest that he cursed Yayāti with old age; but afterwards consented to withdraw the curse provided one of his sons would bear it for him. They all refused to do this excepting Puru. As a reward for his piety, his father disinherited his other sons, and made Puru sole heir to his dominions.
412:* Satyavati was the daughter of an Apsaras named Adrikā, who was condemned to live on earth in the form of a fish. Parasāra, a sage, met her daughter as he was crossing the river Yamunā, and Vyāsa was the result. He was born on an island of the river, and hence he had the name Dwaipāyana (who moves on an island). Vyāsa is said to have been the arranger of the Vedas, the compiler of the Mahābhārata and the Purānas, and the founder of the Vedanta system of philosophy.
421:* The Kirātās were mountaineers, or foresters. In the Rāmāyana they are described as "islanders, who eat raw flesh, live in the waters, and are men-tigers."