SHORT STORIES FROM THE MAHABHARATA
Some of the stories told here are by various elders like Bhishma. They are parables, designed to illustrate a point. Some others are events that take place in The Mahabharata.
In a forest near his village a farmer was grazing his cow. A tiger suddenly appeared in the scene. The farmer sat down and started to cry. The tiger was puzzled at the farmer’s behavior. Out of curiosity he asked the farmer what was the reason for his grief. The farmer told the tiger, “O lord of the jungle. I have a beautiful and highly accomplished daughter. It is time to get her married. I have been searching everywhere but could not find a match for her.” The tiger asked the farmer, “What kind of a boy are you looking for?” The farmer replied, “He should be handsome, strong and intelligent. In fact he should be someone like you.” “Why then,” the tiger said. “I can marry her myself.” “That is precisely what I was thinking,” the farmer said.” But you and I belong to different species. Even if I am agreeable, my kith and kin might oppose the idea. I shall therefore go to the village and consult my friends and relatives whether they would accept your proposal.” The farmer left the tiger and returned after some time. “O noble tiger,” he said. “My kinsmen are delighted at the prospect of having you as a 'groom. I am however yet to ask my daughter.” The tiger bade the farmer to go post haste to his daughter and get her consent. The farmer disappeared for a short while. When he reappeared, he had a worried look on his face. He told the tiger, “O King among animals, my daughter is agreeable but she is afraid of your claws and teeth. They should not injure her while you lovingly embrace her.” It was then agreed that the tiger would make himself less dangerous. The farmer went to the village and this time fetched a carpenter. The carpenter chiseled the claws and teeth of the tiger. The next moment the farmer took a stick and showered a few blows on the tiger. The beast who had lost his teeth and claws had to run away to save himself.
Five Friends were passing through a forest. On the way they came across a river swollen with floods. In the middle of the river they observed a dark bundle floating. They could not have known that it was in fact a bear which was struggling to keep afloat. One of the friends, always known to brag about his own prowess, told the others that he could jump into the river and, swimming to where the bundle was, bring it to the shore. “It may contain riches,” he said. He then jumped into the river and easily reached the bundle. He put his hands around the object and started to pull it towards himself. The bear, in desperation, caught hold of the man hoping that would keep it afloat. What followed was a struggle between the man and the bundle. The friends on the shore realized that something had gone wrong. They shouted, “Leave the bundle and get back to the shore.” The man in the water shouted in reply, “I am prepared to leave it, but it is not prepared to leave me.”
Brahma first created all that was found in the universe – mobile and immobile. He, however, found that once created, he had no control over these objects. Wrath filled him as he realized that none of his creation could be destroyed. In anger, he let go a terrible fire which raged over the universe, destroying everything that came its way. The fire blazed for eons, until Lord Siva became concerned. He appeared before Brahma and counselled him to cool his anger. After much persuasion Brahma regained his composure. He then created from his own body, a maiden who was dark, with red eyes and red tongue, wearing diverse ornaments. Brahma called her Death and ordered her to go to the universe and slay all the creatures that he had created. But Death, being a lady, became sad at having to deprive creatures of their lives, for she thought that she could cause much sorrow by her action. Her prayer to Brahma, not to be given this task, went unheard. She therefore performed a severe penance which lasted many billion years. At last Brahma appeared before her and asked what she wanted. Death again requested that she should be excused from causing the end of all creatures. Brahma told her, “I am pleased with your penance. But the work I have given you has to be done. I understand your feelings. But you need not experience any sorrow as I ordain that creatures would bring their own death. You will be assisted by Yama. Disease, fights and natural calamities would cause creatures to die by themselves. It would be realized that whatever is born, has to die. There could be no escape from death.” This assuaged Death’s feelings and she has set about her task faithfully ever since.
Story 1. A greedy hunter chanced upon a strange animal in the forest, which he had never seen before. He killed the creature without remorse. The creature roared aloud as it fell down. Immediately angels from above showered flowers on the hunter. The animal he had killed was a dangerous demon in disguise who had eluded the gods for a long time. For his act of killing an animal he did not even recognize, the hunter earned a place in heaven.
Story 2. There was once a sage living in the forest who had sworn to tell the Truth, whatever the circumstances. One day a few men who were pursued by robbers ran past his hermitage. The robbers who followed accosted the sage and asked him about the fugitives. The sage, true to his vow to always tell the Truth, pointed out to the robbers where the fugitives were hiding. The robbers caught the men, killed them and made away with the loot. By speaking the Truth, the sage had only committed a sin for which he was sent to hell.
The Kuru prince Bhishma abducted the three Kasi princessess in order to marry them to his brother, Prince Vichitravirya. While the prince married the younger two sisters, he rejected the eldest, Amba as that princess was in love with the Saubha king. However, Saubha would not have her back. She complained to the great warrior, Parasurama, who tried to bring about a reconciliation between Amba and Vichitravirya. Since that was not possible, he asked Bhishma to marry Amba. Bhishma, due to his vow not to marry, refused. An enraged Parasurama took up arms, but Bhishma subdued him. When even Parasurama could not vanquish Bhishma, a dejected Amba did severe penance in several holy places. When she performed her penance on the banks of River Ganga, the goddess appeared before her and asked what she wanted. Amba narrated her tale to Ganga and asserted her desire to kill Bhishma. The River Goddess became furious on hearing Amba’s words and cursed her, “Your thoughts are crooked. May you be born a crooked river, infested with crocodiles and unfit for the performance of religious rites.” When Amba reached the holy spot called Vatsabhumi, half her body became a crooked river, filled only during rain, inaccessible and full of crocodiles. It was thanks to the merits she had accumulated by her penances that the other half of her body helped her retain her maiden form. Bhishma, incidentally, was the son of Ganga through King Santanu.
Surabhi, the celestial cow, was found weeping by Indra, the lord of the gods. Indra asked the cow the reason for her sadness. Surabhi said, “Glorious lord. I am well fed and everybody treats me with affection. But on earth my son is being ill treated by the farmer. This bull is yoked along with another and the farmer is ploughing the land. While the other bull is strong, this one is lean and without strength. The farmer is beating my son with a stick to make him work.” Indra asked Surabhi, “You have thousands of sons. Why then do you grieve for this one alone?” Surabhi replied, “I grieve for any son of mine who is in pain.” Indra realized what a mother’s love meant. Using his Vajra weapon, he released heavy rain on the field so that the farmer had to stop ploughing.
The Kalakeyas, a tribe of demons, along with Vritra, fought against Indra and defeated him. Indra, followed by all the gods who were under his protection, went to Brahma for help and advice. Brahma told them to seek the sage Dadachi on the banks of the River Saraswati. The sage was performing a severe penance but willingly helped Indra. From out of his body he removed all the bones and handed them to Indra. With those bones a mighty six-edged weapon was made called the Vajra. When released, the weapon would make a thunderous noise and destroy the most powerful enemy. Indra used this weapon to destroy Vritra. He retained the weapon after his victory.
A fowler laid his net in which two birds were trapped. The birds intelligently caught the net in their beaks and started flying. The fowler began running after the birds which were carrying the net. A sage observed this and asked the man, “How can you chase on earth the birds which are flying in the air?” The fowler replied, “O sage, I know for certain that these two birds would quarrel amongst themselves and would then fall to earth.” Just as the fowler predicted, the birds started arguing between themselves and neglected to keep the net in the air. They fell down and became an easy prey to the hunter. Moral? Fights between kinsmen would lead to danger and destruction.
The ten-headed Ravana became all-powerful due to the boon he received from Brahma. The gods rushed to Brahma and sought relief from the demon. Brahma told them that only the Supreme God, Vishnu, could slay Ravana. Accordingly Vishnu was born to Dasaratha as Rama, and Sakra was sent to earth to beget monkeys and bears to help him. All the other gods were asked to choose their roles in the drama to be played. Brahma asked a Gandharvi (demi-god), Dundhubi by name, to be born as Manthara. Her mission? To create confusion and trouble. Her success? Rama's coronation was cancelled and he was sent to the forest for fourteen years.
A wicked cat reached a convenient spot in the forest where he pretended to do penance. He was engaged thus for several days and became lean in the process. First the birds, and then the mice, took him to be a true sage and started to move around him without fear. They became so impressed with him that they started calling him uncle. As the cat became emaciated and weak, the mice became concerned about his health. They asked him what they should do to help him recover. The cat told them, “Let one of you come everyday and lead me to the riverside. If I drink the running water I shall be cured.” Accordingly, a mouse was sent everyday to accompany the cat to the river. The cat would swallow the mouse as soon as they reached the river. The cat grew fatter and fatter every day whereas the mice population kept dwindling. A wise mouse, Kilika, reasoned on these factors and decided to investigate. One day he secretly followed the cat being led by the mouse to the river. When the two were near the river, the cat caught the mouse and swallowed it. Kilika rushed back and told his friends the truth about the cat. The mice scattered and learned once more to keep away from the cat. The cat had to move to another part of the forest in search of food.
Yudhishthira, the victor in the Kurukshetra War, ruled the Kuru kingdom wisely. After some time, he, his brothers and Draupadi decided to retire to the forest to lead an austere life. On the day they were leaving, two Brahmins approached Yudhishthira. Brahmin A told him that he had bought a piece of land from Brahmin B for building a house and,having paid the money, he had legally registered the deed. When he started to dig the land for laying the foundation he discovered a pot of gold. Brahmin B came to know about this and was claiming the gold as it was his ancestors who had left the treasure there. Brahmin A, however, insisted that once he had obtained the title for the land, whatever was found in the land automatically belonged to him. Yudhishthira heard the two Brahmins and turned to Bhima who was nearby. He wanted to know what Bhima thought of the dispute. Bhima told his brother, “Respected elder brother. Yesterday these two Brahmins came to me with the same problem. Brahmin A, the new owner of the land, said that he had only bought the land and hence had no claim over the treasure. But Brahmin B would have nothing of it. The treasure came from the land which now belonged to Brahmin A, he said. In fact, their plaints were completely the opposite of what they are presenting today. This means that from today Dwaparayuga is over and Kaliyuga is born.” Of the four yugas or ages, the first, Krita, is totally free from sins. The two yugas following Krita, namely, Treta and Dwapara, find sin and dishonesty slowly taking over. In Kaliyuga, where we live, morals are completely dead.
Between the Treta and Dwapara yugas, Parasurama, son of the sage Jamadagni, wrought vengeance on the Kshatriyas (warrior class) for their cruelty towards his father. He destroyed them over and over again twenty one times. From the blood that flowed from the slain Kshatriyas he formed five lakes where he performed penance. These were the Samantha-panchakas or the five holy lakes. Parasurama’s ancestors appeared before him and, pleased with his devotion, absolved him from the sin of killing the Kshatriyas. The lakes became famous and were the scene of the Kurukshetra War.
Amrita or the divine elixir was churned out of the milky ocean together by the gods and the demons. But the gods contrived to keep the elixir to themselves, much to the anger and outrage of the demons : once the gods partook of the elixir, they could never be vanquished. One demon, Rahu by name, managed to get into the ranks of the gods through clever disguise in order to sip the magic potion. The gods Surya (Sun) and Soma (Moon) discovered Rahu and reported him to the Supreme Lord. Mahavishnu was angered by this deceit and he let go his discus weapon at Rahu. The disc severed Rahu’s head which flew into space. There the head remained and even today it tries to swallow the sun and the moon. This is what causes eclipses.
The sage Kashyapa had two wives, Kadru and Vinata. To Kadru was born the snakes of the world and to Vinata was born a splendid kite. The bird was so enormous that as he flew in the sky, the shadow from his wings engulfed wide areas in darkness. Through a wager, Kadru tricked Vinata into becoming her slave. When the bird came to know of this, he negotiated with the snakes to free his mother from bondage. The snakes agreed to free her if the kite could bring to them the nectar which was churned from the milky ocean but was now in the possession of the gods. Vinata’s son immediately left on his mission to obtain the nectar. He knew that this task required great strength. So he swallowed 10,000 Nishadas (a tribe of hunters). Even then he felt that he lacked the necessary strength. His father, Kashyapa, saw his plight and advised him as follows. ”My son, do not despair. I shall show you a pond where there live a gigantic elephant and an equally big tortoise. These two are in fact two brothers who were sages who had fallen out with each other over a matter of property. They have turned into these animals to try and kill each other. Catch these animals and eat them. You would become strong.” The bird followed his father’s directions. Catching the two animals by his claws he took off to find a place where he could sit and eat them. He observed a big banyan tree and descended towards it. But the flapping of his wings caused so much disturbance that a big bough broke away from the tree. The bird quickly observed that there was a row of sages, Valikhilyas, who were hanging upside down in the bough and performing penance. Because of his great respect for ascetics, the bird caught the bough in his beak and started flying. He now had an elephant and a tortoise hanging from his legs while the bough with the sages was held by his beak. The sages observed this admirable feat and told the bird, “Thou art truly a great carrier of heavy weight, Garuda.” Garuda found a safe place to leave the bough with the sages and another place where he could sit and eat the elephant and the tortoise.
There was a big tree in a dense forest, in one of whose branches there lived a cat. In the same tree, in a hole near the root, there lived a mouse. They seldom crossed each other’s path and therefore could live happily. One day a hunter saw the cat and immediately thought, “I could catch the cat and have a nice dinner.” He laid a net for the cat on the ground and left. The cat, unaware of the peril that was awaiting him, fell into the net. Struggling in vain to free himself, he spied the mouse scampering nearby. He called his little neighbour and appealed for help. The mouse was wary of helping the cat, but the cat reassured him, “I give my word that I would not harm you in any way if I come out of this net.” The mouse was of a generous nature. So he cut the net with his teeth and set the cat free. When the hunter returned he saw that his prey had escaped. He went away disappointed. The cat thanked the mouse profusely and proposed that the two of them should be friends. The mouse replied, “I am honoured by what you say. But a person in my station cannot be friends with the cat-king. So please let me go my and you go your way.” The cat saw the wisdom in the mouse’s words. He left that part of the forest and took up residence elsewhere.
Ekata, Dwaita and Trita were three brothers born to the sage Gautama who led an austere life on the banks of the River Saraswati. Gautama taught his sons to be ascetic and left the world. Of the three brothers, Trita followed the most righteous path and came to be worshipped by sages and kings. His mind was always fixed on doing penance. Ekata and Dwaita, however, became materialistic and desired to be wealthy. Knowing the respect that Trita commanded over his devotees, the two brothers started collecting gifts from them, mainly cattle. After acquiring a huge herd, Ekata and Dwaita, out of greed, pushed Trita into a deep, dry well and ran way. Trita tried his best to come out of the well but was unsuccessful. He then sat at the bottom of the well and did penance. The gods were pleased by his action and appeared before him. Trita was told to seek any boon from them. He told the gods, “I am indeed fortunate that you have appeared before me and are offering me a boon. I was worried that I would die before doing sufficient penance to propitiate my forefathers. I would therefore like to be rescued from this pit.” The gods got him out of the well. Trita quickly sought his brothers. He was enraged by their attempt to kill him as he did not want to die before fulfilling his obligations on earth. He cursed the two brothers, “It is greed that drove you to this treacherous action. May you become jackals and roam the forest forever seeking food.” The two brothers have since become jackals and are roaming in the forest on Saraswati’s banks.
Matali was Indra’s charioteer. He had a pretty and accomplished daughter Gunakeci, for whom he was keen to find a good husband. He roamed the three worlds, the sky, the earth and the nether. He finally located a suitable groom when he saw a Naga (snake) prince, Sumukha, in the deep ocean. When Matali made his proposal to the prince, the latter said, “I am willing to marry your daughter. But how could I come out of the netherworld without being attacked and killed by the kite Garuda who is the sworn enemy of snakes?” Not prepared to give up Sumukha, Matali took him to Indra and appealed for his help. Indra found that protection to Sumukha was beyond his competence, because Garadu was very powerful and was also Mahavishnu’s vehicle. To their luck, Mahavishnu just then came to Indra on a visit. This gave Matali an opportunity to appeal to the Supreme Lord for the protection of Sumukha from Garuda. Mahavishnu granted Sumukha the boon that Garuda would not attack him. Gunakeci and Sumukha were happily married. When Garuda came to know about the boon, he became furious. He rushed to his master, Mahavishnu, and accosted him. “Knowing fully well my relationship with the dwellers of the netherworld, how could you grant such a boon to Sumukha? What sin have I committed to deserve this?” Mahavishnu smiled and said, “My faithful bird. I have perhaps erred in offering protection to Sumukha. Let me go to the netherworld, meet Sumukha and withdraw the boon. Please therefore arrange for my chariot to get ready.” Garuda said, “My master, why do you want your chariot? Can I not carry you on my back?” The Lord replied, “Of course you can. Lower your wings so that I can mount.” Garuda did accordingly and Mahavishnu sat on his back. The bird then tried to flap his wings and take off. Suddenly the weight seemed so immense for him that he could not lift himself even by an inch. It dawned on Garuda that in his pride he had dared to question the act of the Lord himself. He sought forgiveness from Mahavishnu.
WHEN THE EMBODIMENT OF TRUTH LIED
The Bharatha War was between two factions, with the Kauravas, led by Duryodhana, on the one side and the Pandavas, the eldest of who was Yudhishthira, on the other. Duryodhana was the evil prince who usurped all that was due to Yudhishthira and his four brothers. The war was fought for 18 days. During the first 11 days the Kauravas were invincible, thanks to the leadership of the great warrior prince, Bhishma. When finally the Pandavas brought down Bhishma, more by strategy than by valour, the command of the Kaurava army fell on Drona’s shoulder. Drona had no equal among the Pandavas, and once again the five brothers, on Krishna’s advice, decided to work on the general’s weakness. Drona, the Pandavas knew, could be killed only if he lays down his arms. He would do that only if he is overwhelmed with the most grievous news. In the midst of the battle, Bhima shouted out that Aswatthama had been killed. Aswatthama was the name of Drona’s only and dear son. It was also the name of an elephant. Drona was successfully deceived. He thought that it was his son who was killed. He lay down his arms and became an easy target for the Pandavas. Before Drona accepted the news, he turned to Yudhishthira for his confirmation about his son’s death. Yudhishthira was the very embodiment of truth and Drona had full faith in him. On Krishna’s urging (A lie is justified if it leads to the triumph of truth ultimately, was Krishna’s advice) Yudhishthira lied to Drona that his son was dead, an act which brought Drona’s end. Till that day, thanks to Yudhishthira’s unswerving attachment to truth, the four wheels of his chariot were not touching the ground. But after his first and only lie he was no more truth personified. The chariot wheels came to the ground.
DAMAYANTHI WEDS NALA
Everything divine, be it an object or a god roaming the earth as a human, defies gravity. In other words, they need not be in contact with the ground. Since the chariot of Yudhishthira was carrying a divine person, its wheels were not touching the ground. Only when Yudhishthira lied did the wheels come down.
Damayanthi, was the princess of Vidharbha, known for her beauty and many accomplishments. Nala was the prince of the hunting tribe, the Nishadas. He was also very handsome and skillful with the bow. The two fell in love with each other and swore to marry each other, although they had not met even once. The King of Vidharbha held a Swayamvara where Damayanthi was to choose her husband from the various suitors who were assembled.
The gods Indra,Yama, Agni and Varuna took a fancy for Damayanthi, and each wanted to marry her. They also knew that Damayanthi would choose only Nala from the assembled suitors. So they all disguised themselves and appeared exactly like Nala. On seeing five persons who looked like Nala, Damayanthi was confused and was brought to tears. She addressed the five persons and said, “I love only Nala and I know that four of you are gods. I pray to you four to help in uniting me with Nala.” The gods were moved by her devotion to Nala and immediately took their real forms. They looked splendid, their eyelids did not bat, they had no perspiration, they cast no shadows and their feet did not touch the ground. Damayanthi now threw the garland around the real Nala’s neck and they both received the gods’ blessings.
That the couple were soon to be subjected to severe trouble and tribulations is another story.
SHOOTING THE MESSENGER
Rewarding the messenger or shooting him, depending on the kind of news he brings, is known to have been practiced by kings in the past. While the former is quite acceptable, the latter does not project the king in a good light. In accordance with the wager they had with the Kauravas, the Pandavas who had lost their second dice game, went into exile for twelve years and remained incognito for one year. They now wanted their kingdom back. But Duryodhana was in no mood to give them even a needlepoint of land. Krishna therefore undertook to be their ambassador and went to the Kaurava capital Hasthinapura to meet Duryodhana. The Kaurava prince welcomed Krishna and invited him for dinner. Krishna declined the invitation saying, “Noble prince. A good envoy never accepts gifts or entertainment until his object is fulfilled.” He instead dined with Vidhura, the noble uncle of Duryodhana.
The next day, while Krishna came to the Kaurava court, Duryodhana planned to nab him and put him in prison. He thought, with Krishna in prison, he could dictate terms to the Pandavas. Krishna however knew Duryodhana’s intention and warned him that he was surrounded by all his forces, although they were invisible to the Kaurava prince. Krishna then showed himself to Duryodhana in a form which covered the universe. A frightened Duryodhana immediately gave up the idea of harming Krishna.
Krishna's mission, however, was a failure as Duryodhana was in no mood to relent. Both camps started preparing for the war.