Thursday, August 18, 2016

Reading Guide: Nivedita. Mahabharata.

Title: Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists: Mahabharata
Author: Sister Nivedita
Year: 1914

Comments: This is a nice one-week version of the Mahabharata by Sister Nivedita, who focuses both on the exciting adventures of the plot and also on their religious significance. Sister Nivedita also devotes a lot of attention to the story of Amba / Shikhandin.

Free Online: See all the links at Freebookapalooza; the links below are to the Internet Archive edition of the book.

Bizzell Stacks. The book is also available for checkout from Bizzell: 294 N66h (click the link to check availability).

Length: one week. I've divided the reading into two parts: Part A - Part B.

Reading Guide: There is a detailed reading guide below with notes, links, and images. I have provided links in the Reading Guide to the Internet Archive copy of the book, with additional links to Wikipedia if you want to learn more about the characters.

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Reading Part A
(Part B begins below at Section 9).


When the sons of Pandu (Pandavas) and the sons of Dhritarashtra (Kauravas) are playing ball, the balls rolls into a well. A brahmin agrees to get the ball out and throws in his ring as well. He then uses a mantra to turn grass into darts, making a chain that draws up the ball.

The Recovery of the Ring. Then Drona, the brahmin, shoots an arrow into the well and the arrow comes back with the ring. The boys go tell Bhishma, their great-uncle. He knows about Drona and his supernatural powers. Drona had recently gone to his childhood friend, Drupada, now King of Panchala, to ask for help, but Drupada scorned Drona as a brahmin beggar. He wants revenge against Drupada, and he is seeking the best pupils to train. Bhishma is glad to employ him to teach the young princes.

The Promise to Drona. Drona makes the princes promise to help him after they are trained; the Pandava prince Arjuna agrees eagerly, and he becomes Drona's favorite. Other noble princes come to train with Drona, as does a strange boy, the adopted son of a charioteer: Karna. Karna becomes Arjuna's rival already in their training.

Ekalavya. A low-caste, non-Aryan (non-noble) Nishada boy named Ekalavya wants to join the school, but Drona rejects him. Ekalavya goes into the forest and makes a clay statue of Drona, regarding it as his guru. He trains to become an excellent archer. One day he shoots seven arrows into the mouth of a barking dog. He claims to be Drona's pupil. Drona thus commands his teacher's fee: the thumb of Ekalavya's right hand. Dutifully, Ekalavya complies, and he loses his skill at archery.

The Triumph of Arjuna. Drona tests the boys with a target in the shape of a bird on top of a tree. He then calls the princes one by one to ask what they see. Because he is displeased with their answers, he dismisses them without a shot. Finally Arjuna says that he sees the bird and nothing else; he only sees the head of the bird in fact. Drona lets Arjuna shoot and of course he hits the target.


Drona arranges a tournament so his pupils can demonstrate their skills. The princes stage a great performance. The Pandava Bhima and Duryodhana, eldest of the Kauravas, fight so fiercely that Drona has to separate them. Arjuna proves himself the best with sword and bow and mace.

The Entry of Karna. Karna enters, and Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, is shaken: she recognizes that he is the child she had long ago and abandoned, a child of Surya, the sun-god (you will learn more about that story later). Karna then matches all of Arjuna's feats and asks to duel with him.

Karna and Arjuna. Arjuna is the son of Indra, the storm god, and clouds and a rainbow surround him, while Karna is illuminated by the sun, his divine father. The master of ceremonies recites Arjuna's lineage, and then asks Karna to do the same, but he cannot, being the son of a charioteer, so Duryodhana makes him King of Anga. An old man then enters, Adhiratha the charioteer, Karna's foster father, and Karna bows to him. Bhima scoffs at Karna, but Duryodhana defends him. The sun sets and the crowd disperses. Yudhishthira, eldest of the Pandavas, is shocked that Karna can rival Arjuna; Kunti rejoices that her secret son is now a king.

3. The Teacher's Fee. As his teacher's fee (dakshina), Drona asks the princes to captured King Drupada. Arjuna tells the Pandavas to hold back and let their Kaurava cousins make the first attack, and Drupada fights back fiercely, wounding both Duryodhana and Karna, so that the Kaurava princes flee in retreat.

The Might of Arjuna. The Pandavas then launch a fierce attack, and Arjuna seizes Drupada, bringing him back to Drona.

The Vengeance of Drona. Drona does not kill Drupada, but he makes Drupada give him half of the Panchala kingdom so that Drona can also be a king. Drupada agrees, but he now seeks to have a son who can seek revenge against Drona.


King Dhritarashtra decides to make Yudhishthira his successor, recognizing that his own brother, Pandu, had a truer claim to the throne, and thus Dhritarashtra sets aside the claim of his eldest son, Duryodhana. This decision and the popularity of the Pandavas make Duryodhana even more jealous. Vidura, brother of Dhritarashtra and Pandu, urges the Pandavas to be careful. Duryodhana plots with Dhritarashtra to send the Pandavas away so that Dhritarashtra can make Duryodhana king in their absence.

The Princes are Banished. Dhritarashtra contrives to send the Pandavas away to Benares (modern Varanasi), and they depart together with their mother, Kunti. Duryodhana's minister, Purochana, has gone ahead to build a house of lac, a beautiful palace that will easily catch on fire. Vidura discovers the plot and makes sure that Yudhishthira has an escape route prepared.

The Princes Arrives at Benares. When the Pandavas enter the house of lac, they smell the lac, tar, and oil. They hide their suspicions and build an escape tunnel.

The Escape of the Pandavas. After a year, Bhima sets fire to the house and they make their secret escape, not knowing that six drunken party guests are trapped in the fire. The people send word to Dhritarashtra that the Pandavas and their mother died in the fire. Meanwhile, the Pandavas, with Vidura's help, go far away to the town of Ekachakra, where they live disguised as brahmin beggars.


The Pandavas decide to go to the swayamvara of Princess Draupadi of Panchala in Kampilya. After Drona's attack, Drupada has wanted to ally himself with Arjuna by marriage, so he sets up an archery challenge specifically intended for Arjuna.

The Contest. The princes cannot manage to string the bow. Karna is ready to try, but Draupadi scorns him as the son of a charioteer. Arjuna, still disguised as a brahmin, strings the bow and shoots the target. The royal suitors are enraged and attack, but Arjuna and Bhima drive them back.

The Pandavas are Recognized. In the crowd, Krishna recognizes Arjuna and Bhima despite their disguises. The fight escalates, and Karna duels with Arjuna, and finally tempers cool. Kunti is glad to see her sons home and tells them to enjoy together whatever they have won, and so Draupadi becomes the bride of all five. Draupadi's brother Dhrishtadhyumna sees all these events from a hiding place and reports their true identity to his father. King Drupada is delighted, and Vidura reports to King Dhritarashtra that the Pandavas are alive after all, and that they have powerful new allies.

SKIP6. THE STORY OF SHISHUPALA. This a great part of the story (you get the whole story of Shishupala's very weird birth and also his death at the hands of Krishna), but it is not essential for the overall plot, so you can read this section if you want, or you can move on to The Fatal Dice.

Skip pp. 149-157.

The Story of Shishupala
The Return of the Pandavas
The Counsel of Krishna
The Quarrel for Precedence
Bhishma's Story
The Death of Shishupala


When Duryodhana and his maternal uncle Shakuni visit the palace of the Pandavas, he mistakes a crystal floor for water and vice versa. He is furious at this humiliation and he is jealous of the Pandavas' wealth. Shakuni, a skilled gambler, knows that Yudhishthira cannot refuse any challenge, including a challenge to play dice. Knowing Yudhishthira is a terrible dice player, Shakuni plans to defeat him in a game of dice.

The Challenge. Yudhishthira is reluctant but agrees to come to the gambling match. He recklessly gambles and loses all his possessions, but King Dhritarashtra does not stop the match.

The Loss of Draupadi. Yudhishthira then gambles away his brothers, then himself, and then Draupadi. Summoned to come before Duryodhana now as his slave, Draupadi protests that if Yudhishthira had lost himself, he had no right to gamble her away. A howling jackal and other bad omens make King Dhritarashtra afraid and he grants Draupadi a boon. She asks that Yudhishthira be free. He grants her another boon, and she asks for the freedom of Yudhishthira's four brothers and the return of his possessions. Dhritarashtra asks her to make another wish, but she declines. Even Karna is impressed by Draupadi's actions. Dhritarashtra tells them to return home and bear them no ill will. Duryodhana protests and proposes one more throw of the dice. Although everyone at court tries to stop him, Dhritarashtra agrees to Duryodhana's proposal.

The Renewal of the Contest. The Pandavas return, and Shakuni wins once again. The Pandavas must go into twelve years of exile and a thirteenth year spent in disguise.

8. The Kirat-Arjuna.

On the advice of a holy man, Yudhishthira sends Arjuna to seek celestial weapons. In the Himalayas, Arjuna finds meets another holy man, who is really his father, the god Indra, in disguise. Indra tests his resolve to seek the divine weapons and then sends him up higher into the mountains where he practices austerities that generate great spiritual heat (tapas).

The Boar. Arjuna has made a clay statue of the god Shiva which he worships. During his prayers, a wild boar rushes at him, and Arjuna slays the boar. A kirata (tribal person) appears — hence the title of this episode, Kiratarjuniya — and the tribal hunter insists the boar is his prize. They fight to decide who will take the prize, and as they fight, Arjuna realizes the huntsman is Shiva in disguise. Shiva gives Arjuna mantras and other weapons, including the bow Gandiva.

* * *



King Drupada begs Shiva for a son to help defeat Drona. Shiva grants his prayer but says he will have a child that would first be a daughter, and then a son. The queen has a child, and she raises the girl as a boy, trusting in Shiva's promise. The queen names her Shikhandini, but she uses the male form of that name instead: Shikhandin. Drupada arranges for Shikhandin to marry a princess, but when the princess's father finds out Shikhandin is really Shikhdanini, he is outraged and threatens to wage war on Drupada.

The Resolve of Shikhandini. Shikhandini feels badly to be the cause of all this strife and so she runs away into the forest. She hides in an abandoned house where a yaksha named Sthuna happens to live. The yaksha likes her and offers to help if he can. Shikhandini asks the yaksha to make her into a man.

Shikhandini Attains Her Desire. Sthuna agrees to trade genders temporarily, provided that Shikhandini come back when King Drupada has made peace with his enemy. They trade genders: Sthuna becomes a female yaksha, and Shikhandini is now Shikhandin and goes back to rescue King Drupada. Meanwhile, Kubera, the God of Wealth, comes to visit Sthuna and decrees that the change will be permanent: Sthuna will remain a female yaksha until Shikhhandin dies. Shikhandin returns at promised, and the yaksha explains that it is now Shikhandin's destiny to live as a man. In addition, Bhishma learns that this Shikhandin is the reincarnation of Amba, a woman who vowed to bring about his destruction.


Many years earlier, Bhishma attended the swayamvara of three sisters — Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika — in order to win brides for his half-brother, the king. Amba, however, had secretly agreed to marry another man, King Shalva.

The Challenge. Bhishma seizes the three sisters and carries them off. Before the wedding, Amba tells Bhishma that she is already betrothed to the King Shalva. Bhishma releases her to go to her beloved.

Amba is Rejected. The king rejects Amba, and she now has nowhere to go. She retreats to a forest hermitage (ashram) and vows to destroy Bhishma.

Amba and Bhishma. Bhishma is such a great warrior that even the mighty Parashurama cannot defeat him in battle, but Amba nevertheless vows that she will kill him. She practices great tapas, generating cosmic heat. The goddess Ganga, Bhishma's mother, begs Amba to relent, but Amba persists. The god Shiva tells Amba she will be reborn and as a fierce warrior she will defeat Bhishma. Amba throws herself into a funeral pyre to pass to the next life in which she will kill Bhishma.


While the Pandavas spend thirteen years of exile after the gambling match, Duryodhana gathers allies so that he can wage war on the Pandavas. Bhishma commands Duryodhana's army, while Draupadi's brother Dhrishtadyumna commands the Pandava army.

The Battle. The battle begins, and all the warriors fight fiercely, with Bhishma fighting most fiercely of all. On the tenth day, though, Bhishma falls, and Drona takes up the command of the Kaurava army.

The Deception of Bhima. Bhima seeks to take away Drona's will to live by making him think his son Aswatthaman is dead. Bhima kills an elephant named Aswatthaman and then shouts, "Aswatthaman is dead!" Drona asks Yudhishthira if this is really true, and Yudhishthira repeats that "Aswatthaman is dead," only whispering that it was Aswatthaman the elephant. In despair, Drona puts aside his weapons, and Dhrishtadyumna cuts off Drona's head. Karna takes command of the Kaurava army, but after eighteen days, all the Kaurava army has been wiped out, and the Pandavas are victorious.

Sister Nivedita now backs up and explains in more detail just how the Kauravas lost the war, going back to the very first day when Arjuna refuses even to fight.

SKIP: The Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita (Lord's Song) is a body of religious teaching contained in the epic, but it is not part of the actual plot. Sister Nivedita goes back to the first day of the war, when Arjuna refuses to fight against Bhishma and his other relatives along with his guru Drona. Krishna persuades Arjuna that it is Dharma was a warrior to fight in the war. If you want to read this section, please do so (and there are complete translations of the Gita that you can choose to read for this class later on). If you would rather carry on with the plot, you can move ahead to The Bed of Arrows.


After Krishna persuades Arjuna that he must fight in the war, the Pandavas have to discover by what means Bhishma can be killed. They decide to ask Bhishma himself to tell them.

The Answer of Bhishma. Bhishma explains that he cannot fight anyone who was born a woman, and the only people who can kill him would be Krishna or Arjuna. Arjuna despairs, and Krishna again reminds him of the warrior's Dharma. On the tenth day of the war, Shikhandin rides out against Bhishma, with Arjuna and Arjuna's brother Bhima accompanying him. Bhishma fights back but he recognizes Shikhandin and calls him by his old name: Shikhandini. He will not fight Shikhandin, as he was born a woman.

Shikhandin and Bhishma. Shikhandin shouts that he will kill Bhishma, and while Shikhandin attacks, Arjuna also attacks Bhishma relentlessly. Finally, Bhishma falls. Swans sent by his mother Ganga circles around the fallen Bhishma, and he lies there on a bed of arrows, waiting to die at the time of the winter solstice.

13. KARNA.

Karna also had a strange birth story: he is the son of Surya the Sun God and Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, who gave birth to Karna before she married King Pandu. When he is born, Karna has earrings and armor, showing that he cannot be killed. Kunti sets him adrift in a river, and the charioteer Adhiratha finds the baby and adopts him. Karna grows up to be such a formidable warrior that Indra worries that Karna will kill his son Arjuna, so Indra decides to deprive Karna of the supernatural protection he enjoys thanks to his earrings and armor. Indra disguises himself as a brahmin and begs Karna to give him the earrings and armor. Karna sees through the disguise, recognizing Indra. He offers to give Indra the earrings and armor in exchange for an invincible weapon.

The Arrow of Death. Indra gives Karna a deadly dart which Karna can use only once. Karna then cuts off his natural-born armor and his earrings, giving them to Indra.

The Mission of Krishna. Before the war starts, Krishna tries to keep the peace by telling Karna that his mother is Kunti, making him Yudhishthira's older brother. Karna, however, is loyal to Duryodhana, and he is loyal to his adopted parents and also to his own wife and children. He asks Krishna to keep his birth a secret so that the war can play out as Karna foresees that it will.

Pritha and Karna. Kunti then appeals to Karna, telling him that he is her son. Karna tells her that he cannot desert Duryodhana, but he promises that he will spare all Kunti's sons, except for Arjuna. That way, no matter what happens, Kunti will have five sons after Karna and Arjuna face each other in battle.

Karna Leads the Host. Karna becomes Duryodhana's general after Drona dies on the fifteenth day of the battle.   He keeps his promise to spare the other Pandavas, while still being intent on killing Arjuna. Arjuna kills Vrishasena, Karna's own son. Karna then launches an attack on Arjuna.

The Supreme Struggle. Karna and Arjuna fight fiercely, Arjuna uses his bow Gandiva and Karna uses his bow Vijaya, and they both have other supernatural weapons that they command. The snake (naga) Ashwasena offers himself as an arrow for Karna to shoot at Arjuna because Arjuna had killed Ashwasena's mother (when he burned Khandava Forest). Krishna understands what is happening and causes Krishna's chariot wheel to sink in the ground, so the arrow only knocks off Arjuna's crown. Ashwasena offers to be Karna's arrow again, but Karna will not use the same arrow twice. Karna asks Arjuna to let him free the wheel, but Arjuna refuses and kills Karna.


After the war is over, Yudhishthira becomes king, while Dhritarashtra, his wife Gandhari, and Kunti go into retirement in the wilderness. Vyasa summons up the ghosts of their children and relatives who died on both sides in the war.

The Procession. All the dead emerge from the waters of the Ganges: Duryodhana and his brothers, Bhishma and Drona and Karna, and also Shikhandin and Drupada, and the blind king Dhritarashtra for the first time actually sees his sons with his own eyes. All make peace with one another, and at dawn the ghosts return into the river's waters.

SKIP: 15. YUDHISHTHIRA AND THE DOG. You can read Sister Nivedita's remarks about the history of religion in India here if you are interested in that context; otherwise, you can move right on the next section of the story: The Pilgrimage of Death.

The Pilgrimage of Death. After ruling the empire for thirty-six years, the Pandavas and Draupadi decide to leave the world, and a dog follows them on their journey. As they climb the Himalayas to reach the heavens, they fall one by one; only Yudhishthira survives the climb, together with the dog. Indra appears in his chariot to take Yudhishthira to heaven, but without the dog. Yudhishthira will not abandon the dog.

The Dog. Indra pleads with Yudhishthira, but he will not enter heaven without the dog. The dog then reveals that he is Dharma, Yudhishthira's own father, and Yudhishthira enters heaven in his mortal body. In heaven, though, Yudhishthira sees his enemies, but not his brothers or his wife. To see them, he goes to a place of darkness (naraka, hell), and there he hears souls in pain.

Yudhishthira in Hell. Yudhishthira is angry and says he will remain in hell to comfort his brothers and wife and friends. Then he finds himself in heaven (svarga) again, where he and his family and friends enjoy happiness without grief.

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