National Epics
By Kate Milner Rabb

Presented by

Public Domain Books

Selections From the Mahā-Bhārata


The beautiful princess Sāvitri of her own choice wedded the prince Satyavan, son of a blind and exiled king, although she knew that he was doomed by the gods to die within a year. When the year was almost gone, she sat for several days beneath a great tree, abstaining from food and drink, and imploring the gods to save him from death. On the fateful day she accompanied him to the forest to gather the sacred wood for the evening sacrifice. As he struck the tree with the axe he reeled in pain, and exclaiming, “I cannot work!” fell fainting.

  Thereon that noble lady, hastening near.
  Stayed him that would have fallen, with quick arms;
  And, sitting on the earth, laid her lord’s head
  Tenderly in her lap. So bent she, mute,
  Fanning his face, and thinking ’t was the day–
  The hour–which Narad named–the sure fixed date
  Of dreadful end–when, lo! before her rose
  A shade majestic. Red his garments were,
  His body vast and dark; like fiery suns
  The eyes which burned beneath his forehead-cloth;
  Armed was he with a noose, awful of mien.
  This Form tremendous stood by Satyavan,
  Fixing its gaze upon him. At the sight
  The fearful Princess started to her feet.
  Heedfully laying on the grass his head,

  Up started she, with beating heart, and joined
  Her palms for supplication, and spake thus
  In accents tremulous: “Thou seem’st some God;
  Thy mien is more than mortal; make me know
  What god thou art, and what thy purpose here.”

  And Yama said (the dreadful god of death):
  “Thou art a faithful wife, O Sāvitrī,
  True to thy vows, pious, and dutiful;
  Therefore I answer thee. Yama I am!
  This Prince thy lord lieth at point to die;
  Him will I straightway bind and bear from life;
  This is my office, and for this I come.”

  Then Sāvitrī spake sadly: “It is taught
  Thy messengers are sent to fetch the dying;
  Why is it, Mightiest, thou art come thyself?”

  In pity of her love, the Pityless
  Answered–the King of all the Dead replied:
  “This was a Prince unparalleled, thy lord;
  Virtuous as fair, a sea of goodly gifts,
  Not to be summoned by a meaner voice
  Than Yama’s own: therefore is Yama come.”

  With that the gloomy God fitted his noose
  And forced forth from the Prince the soul of him–
  Subtile, a thumb in length–which being reft,
  Breath stayed, blood stopped, the body’s grace was gone,
  And all life’s warmth to stony coldness turned.
  Then, binding it, the Silent Presence bore
  Satyavan’s soul away toward the South.

  But Sāvitrī the Princess followed him;
  Being so bold in wifely purity,
  So holy by her love; and so upheld,
  She followed him.

                     Presently Yama turned.
  “Go back,” quoth he. “Pay for him funeral dues.
  Enough, O Sāvitrī, is wrought for love;
  Go back! Too far already hast thou come.”

  Then Sāvitrī made answer: “I must go
  Where my lord goes, or where my lord is borne;
  Naught other is my duty. Nay, I think,
  By reason of my vows, my services,
  Done to the Gurus, and my faultless love,
  Grant but thy grace, I shall unhindered go.
  The sages teach that to walk seven steps
  One with another, maketh good men friends;
  Beseech thee, let me say a verse to thee:–

  “Be master of thyself, if thou wilt be
  Servant of Duty. Such as thou shall see
  Not self-subduing, do no deeds of good
  In youth or age, in household or in wood.
  But wise men know that virtue is best bliss,
  And all by some one way may reach to this.
  It needs not men should pass through orders four
  To come to knowledge: doing right is more
  Than any learning; therefore sages say
  Best and most excellent is Virtue’s way.”
  Spake Yama then: “Return! yet I am moved
  By those soft words; justly their accents fell,
  And sweet and reasonable was their sense.
  See now, thou faultless one. Except this life
  I bear away, ask any boon from me;
  It shall not be denied.”

                              Sāvitrī said:
  “Let, then, the King, my husband’s father, have
  His eyesight back, and be his strength restored,
  And let him live anew, strong as the sun.”

  “I give this gift,” Yama replied. “Thy wish,
  Blameless, shall be fulfilled. But now go back;
  Already art thou wearied, and our road
  Is hard and long. Turn back, lest thou, too, die.”

  The Princess answered: “Weary am I not,
  So I walk near my lord. Where he is borne,
  Thither wend I. Most mighty of the Gods,
  I follow wheresoe’er thou takest him.
  A verse is writ on this, if thou wouldst hear:–

  “There is naught better than to be
  With noble souls in company:
  There is naught better than to wend
  With good friends faithful to the end.
  This is the love whose fruit is sweet,
  Therefore to bide within is meet.”
  Spake Yama, smiling: “Beautiful! thy words
  Delight me; they are excellent, and teach
  Wisdom unto the wise, singing soft truth.
  Look, now! Except the life of Satyavan,
  Ask yet another–any–boon from me.”

  Sāvitrī said: “Let, then, the pious King,
  My husband’s father, who hath lost his throne,
  Have back the Raj; and let him rule his realm
  In happy righteousness. This boon I ask.”

  “He shall have back the throne,” Yama replied,
  “And he shall reign in righteousness: these things
  Will surely fall. But thou, gaining thy wish,
  Return anon; so shalt thou ’scape sore ill.”

  “Ah, awful God! who hold’st the world in leash,"
  The Princess said, “restraining evil men,
  And leading good men–even unconscious–there,
  Where they attain, hear yet those famous words:–

  “The constant virtues of the good are tenderness and love
  To all that lives–in earth, air, sea–great, small–below, above;
  Compassionate of heart, they keep a gentle thought for each,
  Kind in their actions, mild in will, and pitiful of speech;
  Who pitieth not, he hath not faith; full many an one so lives,
  But when an enemy seeks help, a good man gladly gives.”
  “As water to the thirsty,” Yama said,
  “Princess, thy words melodious are to me.
  Except the life of Satyavan, thy lord,
  Ask one boon yet again, for I will grant.”

  Answer made Sāvitrī: “The King, my sire,
  Hath no male child. Let him see many sons
  Begotten of his body, who may keep
  The royal line long regnant. This I ask.”

  “So shall it be,” the Lord of Death replied;
  “A hundred fair preservers of his race
  Thy sire shall boast. But this wish being won,
  Return, dear Princess; thou hast come too far.”

  “It is not far for me,” quoth Sāvitrī,
  “Since I am near my husband; nay, my heart
  Is set to go as far as to the end;
  But hear these other verses, if thou wilt:–

  “By that sunlit name thou bearest,
  Thou, Vaivaswata! art dearest;
  Those that as their Lord proclaim thee,
  King of Righteousness do name thee:
  Better than themselves the wise
  Trust the righteous. Each relies
  Most upon the good, and makes
  Friendship with them. Friendship takes
  Fear from hearts; yet friends betray,
  In good men we may trust alway.”
  “Sweet lady,” Yama said, “never were words
  Spoke better; never truer heard by ear;
  Lo! I am pleased with thee. Except this soul,
  Ask one gift yet again, and get thee home.”

  “I ask thee then,” quickly the Princess cried,
  “Sons, many sons, born of my body; boys;
  Satyavan’s children; lovely, valiant, strong;
  Continuers of their line. Grant this, kind God.”

  “I grant it,” Yama answered; “thou shalt bear
  These sons thy heart desireth, valiant, strong.
  Therefore go back, that years be given thee.
  Too long a path thou treadest, dark and rough.”

But sweeter than before, the Princess sang:–

  “In paths of peace and virtue
  Always the good remain;
  And sorrow shall not stay with them,
  Nor long access of pain;
  At meeting or at parting
  Joys to their bosom strike;
  For good to good is friendly,
  And virtue loves her like.
  The great sun goes his journey
  By their strong truth impelled;
  By their pure lives and penances
  Is earth itself upheld;
  Of all which live and shall live
  Upon its hills and fields,
  Pure hearts are the protectors,
  For virtue saves and shields.

  “Never are noble spirits
  Poor while their like survive;
  True love has gems to render,
  And virtue wealth to give.
  Never is lost or wasted
  The goodness of the good;
  Never against a mercy,
  Against a right, it stood;
  And seeing this, that virtue
  Is always friend to all,
  The virtuous and true-hearted,
  Men their protectors call.”
  “Line for line, Princess, as thou sangest so,"
  Quoth Yama, “all that lovely praise of good,
  Grateful to hallowed minds, lofty in sound,
  And couched in dulcet numbers–word by word–
  Dearer thou grew’st to me. O thou great heart,
  Perfect and firm! ask any boon from me,–
  Ask an incomparable boon!”

                              She cried
  Swiftly, no longer stayed: “Not Heaven I crave,
  Nor heavenly joys, nor bliss incomparable,
  Hard to be granted, even by thee; but him,
  My sweet lord’s life, without which I am dead;
  Give me that gift of gifts! I will not take
  Aught less without him,–not one boon–no praise,
  No splendors, no rewards,–not even those sons
  Whom thou didst promise. Ah, thou wilt not now
  Bear hence the father of them and my hope!
  Make thy free word good; give me Satyavan
  Alive once more.”

  And thereupon the God–
  The Lord of Justice, high Vaivaswata–
  Loosened the noose and freed the Prince’s soul,
  And gave it to the lady, saying this,
  With eyes grown tender: “See, thou sweetest queen
  Of women, brightest jewel of thy kind!
  Here is thy husband. He shall live and reign
  Side by side with thee, saved by thee,–in peace
  And fame and wealth, and health, many long years,
  For pious sacrifices world-renowned.
  Boys shalt thou bear to him, as I did grant,–
  Kshatriya kings, fathers of kings to be,
  Sustainers of thy line. Also thy sire
  Shall see his name upheld by sons of sons,
  Like the immortals, valiant, Mālavas.”


The shadow of the Great War hung over King Yudhi-sthira, whose reign was one long succession of gloomy events, culminating in the death of the blind Raja and his wife in a jungle fire, and the destruction of the capital city of Krishna because of the dissipation of its inhabitants.

  On tidings of the wreck of Vrishni’s race,
  King Yudhi-sthira of the Pandavas
  Was minded to be done with earthly things,
  And to Arjuna spake: “O noble prince,
  Time endeth all; we linger, noose on neck,
  Till the last day tightens the line, and kills.
  Let us go forth to die, being yet alive."
  And Kunti’s son, the great Arjuna, said:
  “Let us go forth! Time slayeth all.
  We will find Death, who seeketh other men."
  And Bhimasena, hearing, answered: “Yea,
  We will find Death!” and Sahadev cried: “Yea!"
  And his twin brother Nakalu; whereat
  The princes set their faces for the Mount.


  So ordering ere he went, the righteous King
  Made offering of white water, heedfully,
  To Vasudev, to Rama, and the rest,–
  All funeral rites performing; next he spread
  A funeral feast....

  And all the people cried, “Stay with us, Lord!"
  But Yudhi-sthira knew his time was come,
  Knew that life passes and that virtue lasts,
  And put aside their love....

  So, with farewells
  Tenderly took of lieges and of lords,
  Girt he for travel with his princely kin,
  Great Yudhi-sthira, Dharma’s royal son.
  Crest-gem and belt and ornaments he stripped
  From off his body, and for broidered robe
  A rough dress donned, woven of jungle bark;
  And what he did–O Lord of men!–so did
  Arjuna, Bhima, and the twin-born pair,
  Nakalu with Sahadev, and she,–in grace
  The peerless,–Draupadi. Lastly those six,–
  Thou son of Bharata!–in solemn form
  Made the high sacrifice of Naishtiki,
  Quenching their flames in water at the close;
  And so set forth, midst wailing of all folk
  And tears of women, weeping most to see
  The Princess Draupadi–that lovely prize
  Of the great gaming, Draupadi the Bright–
  Journeying afoot; but she and all the five
  Rejoiced because their way lay heavenward.

  Seven were they, setting forth,–Princess and King,
  The King’s four brothers and a faithful dog.
  Those left Hastinapur; but many a man,
  And all the palace household, followed them
  The first sad stage: and ofttimes prayed to part,

  Put parting off for love and pity, still
  Sighing, “A little farther!” till day waned;
  Then one by one they turned.


                                 Thus wended they,
  Pandu’s five sons and loveliest Draupadi,
  Taking no meat and journeying due east,
  On righteousness their high hearts fed, to heaven
  Their souls assigned; and steadfast trod their feet–
  By faith upborne–past nullah ran, and wood,
  River and jheel and plain. King Yudhi-sthir
  Walked foremost, Bhima followed, after him
  Arjuna, and the twin-born brethren next,
  Nakalu with Sahadev; in whose still steps–
  O Best of Bharat’s offspring!–Draupadi,
  That gem of women paced, with soft dark face,–
  Clear-edged like lotus petals; last the dog
  Following the Pandavas.


                      While yet those heroes walked,
  Now to the northward banding, where long coasts
  Shut in the sea of salt, now to the north,
  Accomplishing all quarters, journeyed they;
  The earth their altar of high sacrifice,
  Which these most patient feet did pace around
  Till Meru rose.

                    At last it rose! These Six,
  Their senses subjugate, their spirits pure,
  Wending along, came into sight–far off
  In the eastern sky–of awful Himavat;
  And midway in the peaks of Himavat,
  Meru, the mountain of all mountains, rose,
  Whose head is heaven; and under Himavat
  Glared a wide waste of sand, dreadful as death.

  Then, as they hastened o’er the deathly waste,
  Aiming for Meru, having thoughts at soul
  Infinite, eager,–lo! Draupadi reeled,
  With faltering heart and feet; and Bhima turned,
  Gazing upon her; and that hero spake
  To Yudhi-sthira: “Master, Brother, King!
  Why doth she fail? For never all her life
  Wrought our sweet lady one thing wrong, I think.
  Thou knowest; make us know, why hath she failed?”

  Then Yudhi-sthira answered: “Yea, one thing.
  She loved our brothers better than all else,–
  Better than Heaven: that was her tender sin,
  Fault of a faultless soul: she pays for that.”

  So spake the monarch, turning not his eyes,
  Though Draupadi lay dead,–striding straight on
  For Meru, heart-full of the things of Heaven,
  Perfect and firm. But yet a little space
  And Sahadev fell down; which Bhima seeing,
  Cried once again: “O King, great Madri’s son
  Stumbles and sinks. Why hath he sunk?–so true,
  So brave and steadfast, and so free from pride!”

  “He was not free,” with countenance still fixed,
  Quoth Yudhi-sthira; “he was true and fast
  And wise; yet wisdom made him proud; he hid
  One little hurt of soul, but now it kills.”

  So saying, he strode on, Kunti’s strong son,
  And Bhima; and Arjuna followed him,
  And Nakalu and the hound; leaving behind
  Sahadev in the sands. But Nakalu,
  Weakened and grieved to see Sahadev fall–
  His dear-loved brother–lagged and stayed; and then
  Prone on his face he fell, that noble face
  Which had no match for beauty in the land,–
  Glorious and godlike Nakalu! Then sighed
  Bhima anew: “Brother and Lord! the man
  Who never erred from virtue, never broke
  Our fellowship, and never in the world
  Was matched for goodly perfectness of form
  Or gracious feature,–Nakalu has fallen!”

  But Yudhi-sthira, holding fixed his eyes,–
  That changeless, faithful, all-wise king,–replied:
  “Yea, but he erred! The god-like form he wore
  Beguiled him to believe none like to him,
  And he alone desirable, and things
  Unlovely, to be slighted. Self-love slays
  Our noble brother. Bhima, follow! Each
  Pays what his debt was.”

                            Which Arjuna heard,
  Weeping to see them fall; and that stout son
  Of Pandu, that destroyer of his foes,
  That Prince, who drove through crimson waves of war,
  In old days, with his milk-white chariot-steeds,
  Him, the arch hero, sank! Beholding this,–
  The yielding of that soul unconquerable,

  Fearless, divine, from Sakra’s self derived,
  Arjuna’s–Bhima cried aloud: “O King!
  This man was surely perfect. Never once,
  Not even in slumber, when the lips are loosed,
  Spake he one word that was not true as truth.
  Ah, heart of gold! why art thou broke? O King!
  Whence falleth he?”

                        And Yudhi-sthira said,
  Not pausing: “Once he lied, a lordly lie!
  He bragged–our brother–that a single day
  Should see him utterly consume, alone,
  All those his enemies,–which could not be.
  Yet from a great heart sprang the unmeasured speech,
  Howbeit a finished hero should not shame
  Himself in such a wise, nor his enemy,
  If he will faultless fight and blameless die:
  This was Arjuna’s sin. Follow thou me!”

  So the King still went on. But Bhima next
  Fainted, and stayed upon the way, and sank;
  But, sinking, cried behind the steadfast Prince:
  “Ah, Brother, see! I die! Look upon me,
  Thy well beloved! Wherefore falter I,
  Who strove to stand?”

                          And Yudhi-sthira said:
  “More than was well the goodly things of earth
  Pleased thee, my pleasant brother! Light the offence
  And large thy spirit; but the o’erfed soul
  Plumed itself over others. Pritha’s son,
  For this thou fallest, who so near didst gain.”

  Thenceforth alone the long-armed monarch strode,
  Not looking back,–nay, not for Bhima’s sake,–
  But walking with his face set for the Mount;
  And the hound followed him,–only the hound.

  After the deathly sands, the Mount! and lo!
  Sakra shone forth,–the God,–filling the earth
  And Heavens with the thunders of his chariot wheels.
  “Ascend,” he said, “with me, Pritha’s great son!"
  But Yudhi-sthira answered, sore at heart
  For those his kinsfolk, fallen on the way:
  “O Thousand-eyed, O Lord of all the gods,
  Give that my brothers come with me, who fell!
  Not without them is Swarga sweet to me.
  She too, the dear and kind and queenly,–she
  Whose perfect virtue Paradise must crown,–
  Grant her to come with us! Dost thou grant this?”

  The God replied: “In Heaven thou shalt see
  Thy kinsmen and the Queen–these will attain–
  And Krishna. Grieve no longer for thy dead,
  Thou chief of men! their mortal coverings stripped,
  These have their places; but to thee, the gods
  Allow an unknown grace: thou shalt go up,
  Living and in thy form, to the immortal homes.”

  But the King answered: “O thou wisest One,
  Who know’st what was, and is, and is to be,
  Still one more grace! This hound hath ate with me,
  Followed me, loved me; must I leave him now?”

  “Monarch,” spake Indra, “thou art now as we,–
  Deathless, divine; thou art become a god;
  Glory and power and gifts celestial,
  And all the joys of heaven are thine for aye:
  What hath a beast with these? Leave here thy hound.”

  Yet Yudhi-sthira answered: “O Most High,
  O Thousand-Eyed and Wisest! can it be
  That one exalted should seem pitiless?
  Nay, let me lose such glory: for its sake
  I cannot leave one living thing I loved.”

  Then sternly Indra spake: “He is unclean,
  And into Swarga such shall enter not.
  The Krodhavasha’s wrath destroys the fruits
  Of sacrifice, if dog defile the fire.
  Bethink thee, Dharmaraj; quit now this beast!
  That which is seemly is not hard of heart.”

  Still he replied: “’Tis written that to spurn
  A suppliant equals in offence to slay
  A twice-born; wherefore, not for Swarga’s bliss
  Quit I, Mahendra, this poor clinging dog,–
  So without any hope or friend save me.
  So wistful, fawning for my faithfulness;
  So agonized to die, unless I help
  Who among men was called steadfast and just.”

  Quoth Indra: “Nay, the altar flame is foul
  Where a dog passeth; angry angels sweep
  The ascending smoke aside, and all the fruits
  Of offering, and the merit of the prayer
  Of him whom a hound toucheth. Leave it here!
  He that will enter Heaven must enter pure.
  Why didst thou quit thy brethren on the way,
  And Krishna, and the dear-loved Draupadi,
  Attaining firm and glorious to this Mount
  Through perfect deeds, to linger for a brute?
  Hath Yudhi-sthira vanquished self, to melt
  With one pure passion at the door of bliss?
  Stay’st thou for this, who did not stay for them,–
  Draupadi, Bhima?”

                     But the King yet spake:
  “’T is known that none can hurt or help the dead.
  They, the delightful ones, who sank and died.
  Following my footsteps, could not live again
  Though I had turned–therefore I did not turn;
  But could help profit, I had stayed to help.
  There be four sins, O Sakra, grievous sins:
  The first is making suppliants despair,
  The second is to slay a nursing wife,
  The third is spoiling Brahmans’ goods by force,
  The fourth is injuring an ancient friend.
  These four I deem not direr than the crime,
  If one, in coming forth from woe to weal,
  Abandon any meanest comrade then.”

  Straight as he spake, brightly great Indra smiled;
  Vanished the hound, and in its stead stood there
  The Lord of Death and Justice, Dharma’s self!
  Sweet were the words which fell from those dread lips,
  Precious the lovely praise: “O thou true King,
  Thou that dost bring to harvest the good seed
  Of Pandu’s righteousness; thou that hast ruth
  As he before, on all which lives!–O Son!

  “Hear thou my word! Because thou didst not mount
  This car divine, lest the poor hound be shent
  Who looked to thee, lo! there is none in heaven
  Shall sit above thee, King! Bharata’s son!
  Enter thou now to the eternal joys,
  Living and in thy form. Justice and Love
  Welcome thee, Monarch! thou shalt throne with us!"
                         ARNOLD: Indian Idylls.


Preface  •  The Rāmāyana  •  The Story of the Rāmāyana  •  Selections From the Rāmāyana  •  The Story of the Mahā-Bhārata  •  Selections From the Mahā-Bhārata  •  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