Mahabharata, Vol. 3, translated by Bibek Debroy

This volume contains most of and completes the Aranyaka Parva. The Pandavas’ time in the forest is spent mostly in listening to the words of the wise, and in going on  pilgrimages. To some extent, much of the content in this parva seems like later insertions, simply because there is little here that advances the story, and little that happens in this parva has a direct bearing on the story, with three exceptions. Having said that, the stories that are recounted in this parva are themselves well-known and probably owe their survival in no small way to their inclusion in the Mahabharata.

This volume completes the Aranyaka Parva, the third Parva (as per the 18-parva classification), which began in Vol 2, and is a time of learning for the Pandavas. While Arjuna treks to heaven to obtain knowledge of weapons and dance from Indra, Yudhishtra is educated on dharma by a host of learned men, primary among them being sage Markandeya.

From the Aranyaka Parva, this volume contains Sub-Parvas 33 through 44, chapter 33 being the “Tirtha Yatra” parva, and Sub-Parva 44 being the “Araneya” parva  (within the 100-parva classification). The very first sub-parva, “Tirtha Yatra” is massive, clocking in at 2,422 shlokas, and is by far the longest sub-parva in the epic so far. (However, there seems to be some anomaly when adding up the shlokas in the Teertha Parva. The table in the Introduction states the Tirtha Parva as having 2422 shlokas, while page 1, where the Tirtha Parva starts, states that it has 2294 shlokas.) This sub-parva however is going to be eclipsed in length by nine sub-parvas before the epic ends!

After the almost frenetic pace of the Sabha Parva, which sets the frame for the war to take place and also where several pivotal incidents take place, the Aranyaka Parva is almost glacial in pace. There are possibly three major episodes in this volume of note which have a direct bearing on the story. One is Arjuna’s departure to Indraloka in search of divine weapons, that Yudhishtra has determined will be needed if the Pandavas are to win against the might of the Kurus. This episode, while part of the Aranyaka Parva, is present in Vol. 2.

Vol. 3 therefore has two major episodes. The first is the kidnapping of Droupadi by her brother-in-law, Jayadratha, the husband of Duhshala, sister of the 100 Kaurava brothers. This is recounted in the Droupadi-Harana Parva, the 42nd sub-parva, and runs for more than 1200 shlokas. Letting Jayadratha go alive has a very direct bearing on the happenings on the 13th day of the battle in Kurukshetra. This parva also sees the retelling of two tales – the Ramayana, and the story of Savitri and Satyavan, as a result of Yudhishtra’s lament on the state of affairs. The stories are recounted by sage Markandeya in response to two specific questions by Yudhishtra. When Yudhishtra laments, “Is there any other man who is more unfortunate than I? Have you seen, or heard of, any such person earlier? ” Markandeya tells the story of Rama and his travails in 18 chapters. Yudhishtra’s second question, in response to which the story of Savitri is recounted, is, “Have you ever seen, or heard of, a woman as immensely fortunate and as devoted to her husbands as Drupada’s daughter?” Perhaps sage Markandeya was trying, gently, to tell Yudhishtra about the circle of time – what is happening has happened before, and what is to happen will also have happened in the past.

The second major episode is even more critical to the epic. It is the Kundala-harana Parva, and is recounted immediately after the Droupad-harana Parva. In this parva, Indra, Arjuna’s celestial father, disguised as a brahmana, comes down to earth to ask, beg, rob, Karna of his armour, his “kavacha”, that make him invincible in battle. Karna parts with them – and gets an unanswerable, use-once, weapon from Indra in return, and which will return to Indra after it has killed one person it is fired at. Therefore, we can see that several fates have been sealed as a result of this exchange. Karna is now no longer invincible. He will die on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The weapon that Karna has obtained will kill one of the mighty warriors on the Pandava side. While Karna intended to use it on Arjuna, he would end up using it on Ghatotakacha, the mighty son of Bheema. Arjuna’s life will be spared as a result. Whatever hope the Kuru army, and Duryodhana, may have harboured of victory till that point will vanish.

Apart from these two well-known stories, some of the other stories recounted in this volume, and parva, are that of sage Agastya, Lopamudra Ilvala and Vatapi, Indra and Vritra (and which is expounded upon in greater detail in Vol. 4), Ganga, sage Rishabha, sage Kashyap’s son Rishyashringa, who was born as the son of a deer, sage Jamadagni, his wife Renuka, and their fifth son Parshurama, Sage Chyavana and Sukanya, King Shibi, and Ashtavakra. One gets the feeling that the Aranyaka Parva became, over time, the repository of stories that were deemed important and needed to be made part of the Mahabharata to ensure their permanence. While you have sections in the epic that serve as mini-philosophical treatises, tales as those found in this Parva may have been acutely incongruous elsewhere. The Pandavas have to spend twelve years in the forest, so telling and hearing stories to pass the time seems quite a natural thing to do.

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Abhinav Agarwal

Abhinav Agarwal

Son. Husband. Father. IIM-B gold medalist. Analytics product manager. Reading and photography hobbies.