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Mahābhārata – Episode 33 – Pāṇḍavas set out on a Pilgrimage

This article is part 33 of 36 in the series Mahābhārata


The Pāṇḍavas longed for the company of Arjuna and were getting bored without him[1]; they set out on a tīrthayātra (pilgrimage) with the intention of acquiring puṇya and also to get rid of the boredom.[2] They reached Naimiṣāraṇya, took a dip in the river Gomatī, and travelled around several famous and sacred spots. They finally reached the āśrama of Agastya. There Lomaṣā narrated the story and greatness of Agastya to them.

Agastya married Lopāmudrā, the princess of Vidarbha.[3] To run his family he wanted to acquire wealth and travelled around the world. He came across the abode of Ilvala, who generously hosted Agastya and killed a goat to feed him. The goat was his brother Vātāpi in disguise. It was a part of Ilvala’s treacherous scheme to get his brother to take the form of a goat, cook that meat, and offer it to their guest; once the meat was consumed, he would call out, “Vātāpi, come out!” Vātāpi would come out bursting open the belly of the guest. The brothers then consumed the flesh of the dead guest. However, Agastya who probably knew this scheme said after consuming the meat, “Vātāpi, get digested now!” Vātāpi was digested in Agastya’s stomach. When Ilvala called out for his brother, he did not come out. Later Agastya burnt Ilvala to death.[4]

After Vṛtrāsura was killed by Indra[5], his evil associates called the kāleyas hid themselves in the oceans and troubled the ṛṣis at night.[6] To fulfil the prayers of the devatās, Agastya drank the ocean and emptied it. This helped the devatās to quickly eliminate the kāleyas.[7]

Sagara’s yajñāśva (sacrificial horse) vanished into this dry ‘ocean.’ His sixty-thousand sons went in search of it and ended up in pātāḻa. There they found that the horse was in the company of the sage Kapila. When they tried to attack him to get back the horse, they were all reduced to ashes by the strength of his tapas. A few generations later, a person named Bhagīratha was born in their lineage; out of his intense tapas he brought Gaṅgā down to earth. Gaṅgā flowed over the ashes of Sagara’s sons and liberated them. The ocean was filled up.

The Vindhya mountain kept growing higher and higher and it obstructed the path of the sun and the moon, making it difficult for them to move. The devatās sought Agastya’s help, who went there along with his wife Lopāmudrā and addressed the mountains, “Revered Mountain King! I have to go to the South for some work. I request you not to grow any higher until I am back.” With these words he crossed the Vindhyas and the mountains stopped growing. As Agastya never returned to the North, the Vindhya didn’t grow higher.

The Pāṇḍavas left the āśrama of Agastya and bathed in two sacred rivers – Nandā and Aparanandā. They visited Hemakūṭa and came to the shore of the river Kauśikī. There they visited the āśrama of Sage Vibhāṇḍaka, whose son was Ṛṣyaśṛṅga. Lomaṣā narrated his story.[8]

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Sukanya near the ant-hill

There lived a king called Lomapāda. There was a great drought in his kingdom due to prolonged lack of rainfall. They were advised to invite Sage Ṛṣyaśṛṅga, upon whose arrival it was said that the land would be filled with rain. The sage had a pure heart and was extremely honest. King Lomapāda did not know how to bring the sage to his kingdom. Ṛṣyaśṛṅga was not worldly-wise. He knew no one except his father Vibhāṇḍaka. Lomapāda sent a few courtezans to the abode of Ṛṣyaśṛṅga, when his father was away. They tactfully brought him to the kingdom of Lomapāda. As per the prophecy it rained and the country was full of water. Lomapāda got his daughter Śāntā married to him and requested his son-in-law to live in his palace.

The Pāṇḍavas continued further and reached the Mahendra mountain. That region was called Paraśurāma-kṣetra. They heard the story of Paraśurāma and Kartavīrya.[9] There it was said that on the fourteenth and the eighth day of the month, Paraśurāma would show himself to the tapasvis. The Pāṇḍavas reached there on a day before the caturdaśī (fourteenth day of the lunar month) and stayed on to have a vision of the great warrior-sage. They continued further after having seen him.

The Pāṇḍavas then passed through the city of Prabhāsa[10] and reached the shores of the river Payoṣṇi. Gaya is said to have performed seven Aśvamedha-yāgas at that place and is supposed to have shared large parts of his wealth with the needy. His donations were innumerable, just as the stars in the sky, the showers of rain, and the grains of sand on earth. They continued further and arrived at the Vaiḍūrya mountain. The sage Cyavana was performing tapas on the shores of a lake nearby. An anthill had grown around him. One day, Śaryāti came there with his wife and children. His little daughter Sukanyā was roaming about the area and came across the anthill. Peeping inside, she found something glittering like two gems. Curious, she poked them with a thorn. They were the eyes of Cyavana. His eyes started bleeding and all the blood flowed out from his body. Śaryāti’s retinue had their excreta blocked in their body, which caused them tremendous trouble. Śaryāti met Cyavana and begged his pardon for the mischief of his daughter Sukanyā. Cyavana said that he would forgive her only if her hand was given in marriage to him.

Śaryāti agreed and left his daughter behind with the sage. Sukanyā took great care of her blind husband. One day, the aśvini-devatās came to the hermitage and desired her. Sukanyā did not respond to their advances. Impressed by her chastity, they had her husband bathe in the lake, which made him regain his sight and his handsome features. Later on, he performed a yāga and offered soma to the aśvini-devatās. When Indra tried to interrupt the yāga by stopping the sage from offering soma, the sage bravely held Indra’s shoulder and continued with the ritual.

Thereafter, they went to a spot near Maitragiri where the king Māndhāta had performed yāgas and then having visited the Somakāśrama and Markāṇḍeyāśrama, they reached a place near the rivers Jalā and Upajalā.[11] That was the place where the emperor Śibi had performed his yāga. The emperor was renowned for his acts of dāna and dharma. On one occasion, Indra and Agni came to the yajña in the form of an eagle and pigeon, respectively with a view to test him. The pigeon, terrified of the eagle sought refuge from Śibi. The eagle said ‘O dharmātmā! What you’re doing is against dharma. Ravaged by hunger, I was chasing my prey; why have you hidden it away from me? Let it go!” Śibi said that when a creature has come to him fearing life, seeking refuge, he cannot let it go. The eagle argued with Śibi. “O king! In your quest to save a life, you will incur the sin of killing several. If I die out of hunger without getting an opportunity to eat this pigeon, soon after me, my wife and children will die. Therefore, your act is opposed to dharma. Dharma is that which does not oppose dharma; and the act that obstructs dharma is adharma. Think about this and then take a decision!” Śibi said, “All you want is food, is it not? In place of this pigeon, I shall give you a cow, a young bull, a pig, a deer, or a buffalo. What do you want? The eagle did not agree. “The natural food for an eagle is a pigeon. This is divinely ordained. What shall I do with the meat of a cow, a young bull or a pig?” Finally, the eagle agreed with Śibi’s proposition that he would give a pound of his own flesh equal in weight to the pigeon. Accordingly, Śibi had a weighing scale brought there, placed the pigeon on one side and on the other, placed the flesh he constantly chopped from his body. However many slices of his own flesh he placed on the scale, it did not weigh as much as the pigeon. Finally Śibi himself sat on the scale. Then Indra and Agni took their real forms and granted him all the boons that he desired before going away.

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Ashtavakra

After this they came to the Śvetaketu āśrama. Śvetaketu was one who had debated with Goddess Sarasvatī herself. He and his sister’s son Aṣṭāvakra went to the capital of the king of Videha, defeated Vandi in a debate, and had him drowned.[12] Prior to this, Vandi had defeated Aṣṭāvakra’s father Kahoḍa in a similar debate and had had him drowned. Aṣṭāvakra bathed in the Samaṅgā river and all the crookedness in his body disappeared, making him normal.

Travelling thus over many days, the Pāṇḍavas traversed several regions, crossing Uttarakuru, and visited the Kailāsa mountain, Naranārāyaṇāśrama, and Badarīvṛkṣa. The clear and cool waters of the river Bhāgīrathī (Gaṅgā) was flowing in the vicinity. Divine flowers and juicy fruits oozing with essence were there; brāhmaṇas and maharṣis were there. They spent six days there, involved deeply in various ritualistic activities like bathing, performing the daily worship, offering tarpaṇa to the deities and to the ancestors.

To be continued…

This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada classic Vacanabhārata by Arjun Bharadwaj and Hari Ravikumar published in a serialized form. Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh for his review and astute feedback.

Footnotes

[1] During this period, the Pāṇḍavas hunted animals with non-poisonous arrows and fed the meat to several brāhmaṇas.

[2] When the Pāṇḍavas are feeling dejected and bored without the company of Arjuna, Sage Nārada comes to meet them. Yudhiṣṭhira asks him about various tīrthakṣetras (pilgrimage spots; typically near water bodies). Nārada then narrates to them the details about the various tīrthakṣetras just as Sage Pulastya had once described to Bhīṣma. (In the course of the narration, there are many references to the rivers Sarasvatī and Sindhu, both of which flowed into the Western Ocean at that point.) Then Nārada instructs Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers along with Draupadī to go on a pilgrimage. Yudhiṣṭhira then tells his preceptor Dhaumya about him sending away Arjuna to procure divine weapons for the impending war and seeks permission to set out on a tīrthayātra. Dhaumya gives his blessings and suggests a travel plan. Then Sage Lomaṣā comes there from the world of Indra and tells the Pāṇḍavas about Arjuna – how he obtained celestial weapons from Rudra, Indra, Yama, Varuṇa , and Kubera and how he learnt several arts including music and dance. Lomaṣā then shares Arjuna’s message to his brothers and wife – All of you must go on a pilgrimage. Accompanied by Dhaumya and Lomaṣā as well as a small retinue of brāhmaṇas, the Pāṇḍavas and Draupadī set out on a tīrthayātra after paying their respects to Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana Vyāsa who appears there at the time of their departure.

[3] Ilvala, the daitya (demon) had killed several of Agastya’s ancestors and they requested him to beget a child to grant them liberation. That is the reason Agastya goes in search of a suitable wife.

[4] After this episode, Lomaṣā tells Yudhiṣṭhira the story of the encounter of Dāśarathi Rāma and Paraśurāma.

[5] Unable to withstand the attacks of Vṛtrāsura, Indra went to Brahmā who instructed him to go to Sage Dadīci and ask for his bones out of which the powerful Vajra weapon was made. It is with the help of this celestial weapon that Indra defeated Vṛtra.

[6] The kāleyas (or kālakeyas) massacred thousands of brāhmaṇas during the nights.

[7] After the kāleyas were destroyed, the devatās went to Agastya and requested him to fill up the ocean. But Agastya said that he had digested all that water and they now had to find some other means to fill the ocean.

[8] Once when the sage Vibhāṇḍaka was bathing in a lake, he saw the apsarā Ūrvaśī and ejaculated semen. A doe licked it and conceived; a child was born to that doe with a single horn on his head and he was named Ṛṣyaśṛṅga. He grew up to be a great ṛṣi of rigid vows.

[9] Akṛtavarma, a disciple of Paraśurāma, tells them the story.

[10] When the Pāṇḍavas were at Prabhāsa, Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma along with the Vṛṣṇis come to meet them.

[11] Through the course of their travels, Lomaṣā narrates the story of Māndhāta, who was born directly to his father and Somaka, who sacrificed his son in order to gain a hundred (as well as the life of the sacrificed son).

[12] Aṣṭāvakra was a child prodigy; he takes revenge for his father’s death by arguing with Vandi and winning the debate. Their discussion brings to mind the yakṣapraśna episode; it is interesting that Yudhiṣṭhira hears the story narrated by Lomaṣā before his encounter with the Ajagara (in the forest) or the Yakṣa (in the enchanted lake).

Series Navigation << Mahābhārata – Episode 32 – Naḻopākhyāna: Naḻa and Damayantī reuniteMahābhārata – Episode 34 – Bhīma gets the Saugandhika Flowers; Yudhiṣṭhira-Ajagara Conversation >>
A R Krishna Sastri mahabharata Mahābhārata – Episode 33 – Pāṇḍavas set out on a Pilgrimage ark

A R Krishna Sastri

Prof. A R Krishna Sastri was a journalist, scholar, polyglot, and a pioneer of the modern Kannada renaissance, who founded the literary journal Prabuddha Karnāṭaka. His 'Vacana-bhārata' and 'Kathāmṛta' are classics of Kannada literature while his 'Saṃskṛta-nāṭaka' and 'Bankimacandra' are of unrivalled scholarship.
A R Krishna Sastri mahabharata Mahābhārata – Episode 33 – Pāṇḍavas set out on a Pilgrimage ark