National Epics
By Kate Milner Rabb

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Public Domain Books

The Story of the Mahâ-Bhârata

Long ago there dwelt in India two great Rajas who were brothers, the Raja Pandu and the blind Raja, Dhritarashtra. The former had five noble sons called the Pandavas, the eldest of whom was Yudhi-sthira, the second Bhima, the third Arjuna, and the youngest, twin sons, Nakalu and Sahadeva. All were girted in every way, but Arjuna was especially noble in form and feature.

The blind Raja had a family of one hundred sons, called the Kauravas from their ancestor, Kura. The oldest of these was Duryodhana, and the bravest, Dhusasana.

Before the birth of Pandu’s sons, he had left his kingdom in charge of Dhrita-rashtra, that he might spend his time in hunting in the forests on the slopes of the Himalayas. After his death Dhrita-rashtra continued to rule the kingdom; but on account of their claim to the throne, he invited the Pandavas and their mother to his court, where they were trained, together with his sons, in every knightly exercise.

There was probably jealousy between the cousins from the beginning, and when their teacher, Drona, openly expressed his pride in the wonderful archery of Arjuna, the hatred of the Kauravas was made manifest. No disturbance occurred, however, until the day when Drona made a public tournament to display the prowess of his pupils.

The contests were in archery and the use of the noose and of clubs. Bhima, who had been endowed by the serpent king with the strength of ten thousand elephants, especially excelled in the use of the club, Nakalu was most skillful in taming and driving the horse, and the others in the use of the sword and spear. When Arjuna made use of the bow and the noose the plaudits with which the spectators greeted his skill so enraged the Kauravas that they turned the contest of clubs, which was to have been a friendly one, into a degrading and blood-shedding battle. The spectators left the splendid lists in sorrow, and the blind Raja determined to separate the unfriendly cousins before further harm could come from their rivalry.

Before this could be done, another event increased their hostility. Drona had agreed to impart to the Kauravas and the Pandavas his skill in warfare, on condition that they would conquer for him his old enemy, the Raja of Panchala. On account of their quarrel the cousins would not fight together, and the Kauravas, marching against the Raja, were defeated. On their return, the Pandavas went to Panchala, and took the Raja prisoner.

After Yudhi-sthira had been appointed Yuva-Raja, a step Dhrita-rashtra was compelled by the people of Hastinapur to take, the Kauravas declared that they could no longer remain in the same city with their cousins.

A plot was laid to destroy the Pandavas, the Raja’s conscience having been quieted by the assurances of his Brahman counsellor that it was entirely proper to slay one’s foe, be he father, brother, or friend, openly or by secret means. The Raja accordingly pretended to send his nephews on a pleasure-trip to a distant province, where he had prepared for their reception a “house of lac,” rendered more combustible by soaking in clarified butter, in which he had arranged to have them burned as if by accident, as soon as possible after their arrival.

All Hastinapur mourned at the departure of the Pandavas, and the princes themselves were sad, for they had been warned by a friend that Dhrita-rashtra had plotted for their destruction. They took up their abode in the house of lac, to which they prudently constructed a subterranean outlet, and one evening, when a woman with five sons attended a feast of their mother’s, uninvited, and fell into a drunken sleep, they made fast the doors, set fire to the house, and escaped to the forest. The bodies of the five men and their mother were found next day, and the assurance was borne to Hastinapur that the Pandavas and their mother Kunti had perished by fire.

The five princes, with their mother, disguised as Brahmans, spent several years wandering through the forests, having many strange adventures and slaying many demons. While visiting Ekachakra, which city they freed from a frightful rakshasa, they were informed by the sage Vyasa that Draupadi, the lovely daughter of the Raja Draupada of Panchala, was going to hold a Svayamvara in order to select a husband. The suitors of a princess frequently attended a meeting of this sort and took part in various athletic contests, at the end of which the princess signified who was most pleasing to her, usually the victor in the games, by hanging around his neck a garland of flowers.

Vyasa’s description of the lovely princess, whose black eyes were large as lotus leaves, whose skin was dusky, and her locks dark and curling, so excited the curiosity of the Pandavas that they determined to attend the Svayamvara. They found the city full of princes and kings who had come to take part in the contest for the most beautiful woman in the world. The great amphitheatre in which the games were to take place was surrounded by gold and jewelled palaces for the accommodation of the princes, and with platforms for the convenience of the spectators.

After music, dancing, and various entertainments, which occupied sixteen days, the contest of skill began. On the top of a tall pole, erected in the plain, was placed a golden fish, below which revolved a large wheel. He who sent his arrow through the spokes of the wheel and pierced the eye of the golden fish was to be the accepted suitor of Draupadi.

When the princes saw the difficulty of the contest, many of them refused to enter it; as many tried it only to fail, among them, the Kaurava Duryodhana. At last Arjuna, still in his disguise, stepped forward, drew his bow, and sent his arrow through the wheel into the eye of the golden fish.

Immediately a great uproar arose among the spectators because a Brahman had entered a contest limited to members of the Kshatriya, or warrior class. In the struggle which ensued, however, Arjuna, assisted by his brothers, especially Bhima, succeeded in carrying off the princess, whose father did not demur.

When the princes returned to their hut they went into the inner room and informed their mother that they had brought home a prize. Supposing that it was some game, she told them it would be well to share it equally. The mother’s word was law, but would the gods permit them to share Draupadi? Their troubled minds were set at rest by Vyasa, who assured them that Draupadi had five different times in former existences besought Siva for a good husband. He had refused her requests then, but would now allow her five husbands at once. The princes were well satisfied, and when the Raja Draupada learned that the Brahmans were great princes in disguise, he caused the five weddings to be celebrated in great state.

Not satisfied with this, the Raja at once endeavored to make peace between the Pandavas and their hostile cousins, and succeeded far enough to induce Dhrita-rashtra to cede to his nephews a tract of land in the farthest part of his kingdom, on the river Jumna, where they set about founding a most splendid city, Indra-prastha.

Here they lived happily with Draupadi, conquering so many kingdoms and accumulating so much wealth that they once more aroused the jealousy of their old enemies, the Kauravas. The latter, knowing that it would be impossible to gain the advantage of them by fair means, determined to conquer them by artifice, and accordingly erected a large and magnificent hall and invited their cousins thither, with a great show of friendliness, to a gambling match.

The Pandavas knew they would not be treated fairly, but as such an invitation could not be honorably declined by a Kshatriya, they went to Hastinapur. Yudhi-sthira’s opponent was Shakuni, the queen’s brother, an unprincipled man, by whom he was defeated in every game.

Yudhi-sthira staked successively his money, his jewels, and his slaves; and when these were exhausted, he continued to play, staking his kingdom, his brothers, and last of all his peerless wife, Draupadi.

At this point, when the excitement was intense, the brutal Dhusasana commanded Draupadi to be brought into the hall, and insulted her in every way, to the great rage of the helpless Pandavas, until Dhrita-rashtra, affrighted by the evil omens by which the gods signified their disapproval, rebuked Dhusasana for his conduct, and giving Draupadi her wish, released her husbands and herself and sent them back to their kingdom.

To prevent the Pandavas from gaining time to avenge their insult, the Kauravas induced their father to invite their cousins to court to play a final game, this time the conditions being that the losing party should go into exile for thirteen years, spending twelve years in the forest and the thirteenth in some city. If their disguise was penetrated by their enemies during the thirteenth year, the exile was to be extended for another thirteen years.

Though they knew the outcome, the Pandavas accepted the second invitation, and in consequence again sought the forest, not departing without the most terrible threats against their cousins.

In the forest of Kamyaka, Yudhi-sthira studied the science of dice that he might not again be defeated so disastrously, and journeyed pleasantly from one point of interest to another with Draupadi and his brothers, with the exception of Arjuna, who had sought the Himalayas to gain favor with the god Siva, that he might procure from him a terrible weapon for the destruction of his cousins.

After he had obtained the weapon he was lifted into the heaven of the god Indra, where he spent five happy years. When he rejoined his wife and brothers, they were visited by the god Krishna and by the sage Markandeya, who told them the story of the creation and destruction of the universe, of the flood, and of the doctrine of Karma, which instructs one that man’s sufferings here below are due to his actions in former and forgotten existences. He also related to them the beautiful story of how the Princess Sâvitrî had wedded the Prince Satyavan, knowing that the gods had decreed that he should die within a year; how on the day set for his death she had accompanied him to the forest, had there followed Yama, the awful god of death, entreating him until, for very pity of her sorrow and admiration of her courage and devotion, he yielded to her her husband’s soul.

Near the close of the twelfth year of their exile, the princes, fatigued from a hunt, sent Nakalu to get some water from a lake which one had discovered from a tree-top. As the prince approached the lake he was warned by a voice not to touch it, but thirst overcoming fear, he drank and fell dead. The same penalty was paid by Sahadeva, Arjuna, and Bhima, who in turn followed him. Yudhi-sthira, who went last, obeyed the voice, which, assuming a terrible form, asked the king questions on many subjects concerning the universe. These being answered satisfactorily, the being declared himself to be Dharma, the god of justice, Yudhi-sthira’s father, and in token of his affection for his son, restored the princes to life, and granted them the boon of being unrecognizable during the remaining year of their exile.

The thirteenth year of their exile they spent in the city of Virata, where they entered the service of the Raja,–Yudhi-sthira as teacher of dice-playing, Bhima as superintendent of the cooks, Arjuna as a teacher of music and dancing to the ladies, Nakalu as master of horse, and Sahadeva as superintendent of the cattle. Draupadi, who entered the service of the queen, was so attractive, even in disguise, that Bhima was forced to kill the queen’s brother, Kechaka, for insulting her. This would have caused the Pandavas’ exile from Virata had not their services been needed in a battle between Virata and the king of the Trigartas.

The Kauravas assisted the Trigartas in this battle, and the recognition, among the victors, of their cousins, whose thirteenth year of exile was now ended, added to the bitterness of their defeat.

Their exile over, the Pandavas were free to make preparations for the great war which they had determined to wage against the Kauravas. Both parties, anxious to enlist the services of Krishna, sent envoys to him at the same time. When Krishna gave them the choice of himself or his armies, Arjuna was shrewd enough to choose the god, leaving his hundreds of millions of soldiers to swell the forces of the Kauravas.

When their preparations were completed, and the time had come to wreak vengeance on their cousins, the Pandavas were loath to begin the conflict. They seemed to understand that, war once declared, there could be no compromise, but that it must be a war for extinction. But the Kauravas received their proposals of peace with taunts, and heaped insults upon their emissary.

When the Pandavas found that there was no hope of peace, they endeavored to win to their side Karna, who was really a son of Kunti, and hence their half-brother, though this fact had not been made known to him until he had long been allied with the Kauravas. In anticipation of this war, the gods, by a bit of trickery, had robbed Karna of his god-given armor and weapons. However, neither celestial artifice, the arguments of Krishna, nor the entreaties of Kunti were able to move Karna from what he considered the path of duty, though he promised that while he would fight with all his strength, he would not slay Yudhi-sthira, Bhima, and the twins.

The forces of the two armies were drawn up on the plain of Kuruk-shetra. The army of the Kauravas was under the command of the terrible Bhishma, the uncle of Pandu and Dhrita-rashtra, who had governed the country during the minority of Pandu.

Each side was provided with billions and billions of infantry, cavalry, and elephants; the warriors were supplied with weapons of the most dangerous sort. The army of the Kauravas was surrounded by a deep trench fortified by towers, and further protected by fireballs and jars full of scorpions to be thrown at the assailants.

As night fell, before the battle, the moon’s face was stained with blood, earthquakes shook the land, and the images of the gods fell from their places.

The next morning, when Arjuna, from his chariot, beheld the immense army, he was appalled at the thought of the bloodshed to follow, and hesitated to advance. Krishna insisted that it was unnecessary for him to lament, setting forth his reasons in what is known as the Bhagavat-gita, the divine song, in which he said it was no sin to slay a foe, since death is but a transmigration from one form to another. The soul can never cease to be; who then can destroy it? Therefore, when Arjuna slew his cousins he would merely remove their offensive bodies; their souls, unable to be destroyed, would seek other habitations. To further impress Arjuna, Krishna boasted of himself as embodying everything, and as having passed through many forms. Faith in Krishna was indispensable, for the god placed faith above either works or contemplation. He next exhibited himself in his divine form to Arjuna, and the warrior was horror-stricken at the terrible divinity with countless arms, hands, and heads, touching the skies. Having been thus instructed by Krishna, Arjuna went forth, and the eighteen days’ battle began.

The slaughter was wholesale; no quarter was asked or given, since each side was determined to exterminate the other. Flights of arrows were stopped in mid-air by flights of arrows from the other side. Great maces were cut in pieces by well-directed darts. Bhima, wielding his great club with his prodigious strength, wiped out thousands of the enemy at one stroke, and Arjuna did the same with his swift arrows. Nor were the Kauravas to be despised. Hundreds of thousands of the Pandavas’ followers fell, and the heroic brothers were themselves struck by many arrows.

Early in the battle the old Bhishma was pierced by so many arrows that, falling from his chariot, he rested upon their points as on a couch, and lay there living by his own desire, until long after the battle.

After eighteen days of slaughter, during which the field reeked with blood and night was made horrible by the cries of the jackals and other beasts of prey that devoured the bodies of the dead, the Kauravas were all slain, and the five Pandavas, reconciled to the blind Raja, accompanied him back to Hastinapur, where Yudhi-sthira was crowned Raja, although the Raj was still nominally under the rule of his old uncle.

Yudhi-sthira celebrated his accession to the throne by the performance of the great sacrifice, which was celebrated with the utmost splendor. After several years the unhappy Dhrita-rashtra retired with his wife to a jungle on the banks of the Ganges, leaving Yudhi-sthira in possession of the kingdom. There the Pandavas visited him, and talked over the friends who had fallen in the great war. One evening the sage Vyasa instructed them to bathe in the Ganges and then stand on the banks of the river. He then went into the water and prayed, and coming out stood by Yudhi-sthira and called the names of all those persons who had been slain at Kuruk-shetra. Immediately the water began to foam and boil, and to the great surprise and terror of all, the warriors lost in the great battle appeared in their chariots, at perfect peace with one another, and cleansed of all earthly stain. Then the living were happy with the dead; long separated families were once more united, and the hearts that had been desolate for fifteen long years were again filled with joy. The night sped quickly by in tender conversation, and when morning came, all the dead mounted into their chariots and disappeared. Those who had come to meet them prepared to leave the river, but with the permission of Vyasa, the widows drowned themselves that they might rejoin their husbands.

Not long after his return to Hastinapur, Yudhi-sthira heard that the old Raja and his wife had lost their lives in a jungle-fire; and soon after this, tidings came to him of the destruction of the city of the Yadavas, the capital of Krishna, in punishment for the dissipation of its inhabitants.

Yudhi-sthira’s reign of thirty-six years had been a succession of gloomy events, and he began to grow weary of earth and to long for the blessings promised above. He therefore determined to make the long and weary pilgrimage to Heaven without waiting for death. According to the Mahâ-Bhârata, the earth was divided into seven concentric rings, each of which was surrounded by an ocean or belt separating it from the next annular continent. The first ocean was of salt water; the second, of the juice of the sugar-cane; the third, of wine; the fourth, of clarified butter; the fifth, of curdled milk; the sixth, of sweet milk; the seventh, of fresh water. In the centre of this vast annular system Mount Meru rose to the height of sixty-four thousand miles.

Upon this mountain was supposed to rest the heaven of the Hindus, and thither Yudhi-sthira proposed to make his pilgrimage. His brothers and their wife Draupadi insisted on going with him, for all were equally weary of the world. Their people would fain have accompanied them, but the princes sent them back and went unaccompanied save by their faithful dog. They kept on, fired by their high resolves, until they reached the long and dreary waste of sand that stretched before Mount Meru. There Draupadi fell and yielded up her life, and Yudhi-sthira, never turning to look back, told the questioning Bhima that she died because she loved her husbands better than all else, better than heaven. Next Sahadeva fell, then Nakalu, and afterwards Arjuna and Bhima. Yudhi-sthira, still striding on, informed Bhima that pride had slain the first, self-love the second, the sin of Arjuna was a lie, and Bhima had loved too well the good things of earth.

Followed by the dog, Yudhi-sthira pushed across the barren sand until he reached the mount and stood in the presence of the god. Well pleased with his perseverance, the god promised him the reward of entering into heaven in his own form, but he refused to go unless the dog could accompany him. After vainly attempting to dissuade him, the god allowed the dog to assume its proper form, and lo! it was Dharma, the god of justice, and the two entered heaven together.

But where were Draupadi and the gallant princes, her husbands? Yudhi-sthira could see them nowhere, and he questioned only to learn that they were in hell. His determination was quickly taken. There could be no heaven for him unless his brothers and their wife could share it with him. He demanded to be shown the path to hell, to enter which he walked over razors, and trod under foot mangled human forms. But joy of joys! The lotus-eyed Draupadi called to him, and his brothers cried that his presence in hell brought a soothing breeze that gave relief to all the tortured souls.

Yudhi-sthira’s self-sacrifice sufficiently tested, the gods proclaimed that it was all but an illusion shown to make him enjoy the more, by contrast, the blisses of heaven. The king Yudhi-sthira then bathed in the great river flowing through three worlds, and, washed from all sins and soils, went up, hand in hand with the gods, to his brothers, the Pandavas, and

  “Lotus-eyed and loveliest Draupadi,
   Waiting to greet him, gladdening and glad.”


Preface  •  The Râmâyana  •  The Story of the Râmâyana  •  Selections From the Râmâyana  •  The Story of the Mahâ-Bhârata  •  Selections From the Mahâ-Bhârata  •  The Iliad  •  The Story of the Iliad  •  Selections From the Iliad  •  The Story of the Odyssey  •  Selections From the Odyssey  •  The Kalevala  •  The Story of the Kalevala  •  Selections From the Kalevala  •  Selection From the Aeneid  •  Beowulf  •  The Story of Beowulf  •  Selection From Beowulf  •  Selections From the Nibelungen Lied  •  The Story of the Song of Roland  •  Selections From the Song of Roland  •  The Story of the Shah-Nameh  •  Selections From the Shah-Nameh  •  The Story of the Poem of the Cid  •  Selections From the Poem of the Cid  •  The Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  Selections From the Divine Comedy - Count Ugolino  •  Selection From the Orlando Furioso  •  The Lusiad  •  The Story of the Lusiad  •  Selections From the Lusiad  •  The Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of the Jerusalem Delivered  •  Selection From the Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of Paradise Lost  •  Selections From Paradise Lost  •  Apostrophe to Light  •  The Story of Paradise Regained  •  Selection From Paradise Regained