MBK: 1.13: Arjuna’s Pilgrimage
It was more than a year since Nārada Ṛṣi’s visit. The Pāṇḍavas’ power and influence had increased and they had brought many other kings under their sway. They ruled with one aim: to keep the people on a path of piety and truth. By their own example they showed how happiness follows a life of virtue. In everything they did they accepted the guidance of spiritually advanced Brahmins. Indraprastha flourished and became more than the equal of Hastināpura in the world’s eyes. Due to his unswerving adherence to virtue, Yudhiṣṭhira became known as Dharmarāja, the king of religion.
Draupadī pleased her five husbands with her feminine graces and expert attentions. According to their agreement, each of the brothers was allotted time in which to be alone with her. One day it so happened that while Draupadī was alone with Yudhiṣṭhira, a Brahmin came to the Pāṇḍavas’ palace. Standing by the gate, he cried out, “O King, a Brahmin’s wealth is being robbed by wicked and despicable men. Alas, how can it be that in the kingdom of the virtuous Pāṇḍavas the Brahmins are not protected? A king who takes his taxes but fails to protect the people is considered the most sinful of men. O heroes, take me by the hand and deliver me from this burning anguish.”
In anger and grief the Brahmin repeatedly cried out. Arjuna heard his cries and called down, “Do not fear.” He went quickly to fetch his weapons in order to punish the thieves, but discovered that Yudhiṣṭhira was alone with Draupadī in the room which held the weapons chest. Arjuna hesitated. How could he intrude upon his elder brother, especially as they had made their agreement? But here was an afflicted Brahmin. If he did not protect him, then Yudhiṣṭhira’s fame would perish and he would be tainted by sin. Arjuna could not stand by and watch his brother be accused of irreligion. He had to get the weapons, even though it meant he would be exiled to the forest. He felt that even if he died in the forest it would be preferable to being covered by sin.
Arjuna resolved to enter the chamber and gather his weapons. He knocked on the door and walked in. Looking straight ahead of him, he strode quickly toward the weapons. Yudhiṣṭhira smiled to see his younger brother. He knew Arjuna must have an important reason for entering. Arjuna then explained the situation, took his bow and rushed out of the palace. Taking the Brahmin and mounting his chariot, he pursued the robbers. When he saw them in the distance, Arjuna released infallible arrows, striking down the thieves as they made off with the Brahmin’s cows. Having dealt swift justice to the robbers, Arjuna restored the property to the grateful Brahmin and returned to the city.
Yudhiṣṭhira greeted his brother warmly as he entered the palace. Along with his other brothers he applauded Arjuna for saving the Brahmin. Arjuna bowed before Yudhiṣṭhira and said, “O lord, please give me permission to observe the vow as we have agreed. I shall leave for the forest at once.”
Yudhiṣṭhira’s heart was pierced by grief when he heard Arjuna’s statement. He immediately replied, “Why should you go? O sinless one, if I am your authority, then heed my words now. I was not in the least disturbed by your entering the room. There is no need for you to leave for the forest.”
Yudhiṣṭhira looked tearfully at his handsome, curly-haired brother. How could he face separation from this virtuous and gentle soul? He explained to Arjuna that the scripture sanctioned a younger brother entering a room where his elder brother sat with his wife. It was only when the elder brother intruded upon the younger that it was condemned. Arjuna had entered the room only in pursuance of duty and in service to Yudhiṣṭhira.
But Arjuna was adamant. “My lord, I have heard from you that virtue must be practiced without hesitation or quibble. I shall not waver from truth. Truth is my weapon and virtue my strength. Grant me permission to leave and I shall proceed to the forest today.”
Despite the other Pāṇḍavas’ repeated pleas, Arjuna could not be swayed. Finally Yudhiṣṭhira relented and gave his permission. Although it would be painful to think of his younger brother in exile for so long, it must somehow be the arrangement of Providence. Surely the Lord had some inscrutable purpose which would ultimately prove to their benefit. He watched sadly as Arjuna left the city accompanied by Brahmins chanting sacred hymns and by servants carrying wealth for him to distribute as charity while he traveled.
The young prince went on foot toward the north. He had decided to first follow the Ganges’ course toward the Himālayas, then proceed eastward to the coast. Following the coastline in a great circle, he would finally return to Indraprastha.
Arjuna traveled at a leisurely pace. He saw charming woodlands, lakes and gardens. There were countless hermitages along the banks of the Ganges where
As he traveled Arjuna also performed fire sacrifices to please Viṣṇu and the gods. One evening, just as the Brahmins were kindling the sacred fire, Arjuna entered the Ganges in order to bathe. He was just about to then leave the river when he suddenly felt himself being drawn underwater by an unseen force. Despite his efforts to free himself, he was dragged deeply into the river. He then found himself mystically transported to a celestial palace. Arjuna looked around and saw a sacred fire burning in the room he had entered. The prince immediately sat before the fire and offered libations of ghee into the flames, fearlessly reciting the
Just as Arjuna was completing his evening rituals in that strange place, a beautiful girl entered the room. She glanced coyly at Arjuna and smiled. He recognized her at once to be a maiden belonging to the celestial Nāga race. Arjuna understood at once what had happened. The Nāgas have the power to transfer humans to their own heavenly dimension of existence. Obviously this girl had become attracted to him and had drawn him down to her abode. He smiled back and said, “O beautiful maiden, you have been bold indeed. Who are you and where is this divine region?”
The girl replied that she was the daughter of a Nāga king named Kauravya. Her name was Ulūpī. “When you entered the river for your bath I was moving through the waters in my ethereal form. I was struck by Cupid’s arrow as soon as I saw your godlike form. O descendent of Kuru, I am yet unmarried. Therefore accept me as your wife, give yourself up to me and gratify me today.”
Arjuna said that he was bound by a vow of celibacy for one year. He could not therefore accept her as his wife. Still, as she was a Nāga, he knew she must have already known this by her celestial intelligence. She would not have asked him to marry her if her request did not somehow conform to the codes of virtue. Indeed, the scriptures enjoined that a
Arjuna asked her how he could satisfy her desire while at the same time maintain his truthfulness. Ulūpī replied, “I know of your vow, O hero. You and your brothers made a rule in regard to Draupadī. This is well known to the gods. But that rule pertained only to your wife. It is her with whom you must not consort for the next year. There will be no sin in accepting another woman.”
Filled with desire for the powerful Pāṇḍava hero, Ulūpī beseeched him to accept her. She explained that such an act would be his highest duty under the present circumstances. The Nāga princess knew that Arjuna would act only when impelled by virtuous motives. She told him that if he did not take her as his wife, she would destroy herself. Thus he would be saving her life by accepting her. That was certainly a greater virtue than observing celibacy. Even if his piety suffered a slight loss by his going with her, he would gain greater merits by having saved the life of a helpless woman who had approached him for shelter.
Arjuna thought carefully. He decided that the Nāga maiden was speaking the truth and that he would not be acting wrongly to accept her as his wife. He smiled and nodded in assent. Ulūpī quickly fetched two celestial garlands which she and Arjuna duly exchanged to signify their acceptance of one another. Having sealed their union according to scriptural injunctions, Arjuna then spent the night with her in Kauravya’s palace. Ulūpī waited upon him and offered him every kind of celestial food and drink. They then lay together on a golden bed in the heavenly mansion and conceived a child.
In the morning Arjuna rose just before sunrise. Ulūpī brought him back through the Ganges to the place where he had bathed the night before. Before leaving him, Ulūpī blessed Arjuna, “You shall be invincible in water. Every aquatic creature will be vanquished by you in a fight.”
After telling Arjuna that she would return to him later when he was back in his own kingdom, Ulūpī vanished into the Ganges waters, leaving Arjuna to be greeted by his followers. The ascetic Brahmins had seen by their own divine sight how the prince had been taken to the region of the Nāgas. They met him as he returned and offered him their blessings. Arjuna related to them everything that had happened.
The party continued on to the Himālayas and soon arrived at the Bhṛgu mountain where the famous Vasiṣṭa Ṛṣi had once had his hermitage. Many Brahmins lived on that hill and Arjuna distributed much charity to them. After bathing in a sacred lake on the Bhṛgu mountain he walked on, visiting numerous other holy sites. Arjuna went toward the east, gradually descending from the Himālayan range. He reached the forest of Naimisharanya, said by the
Desiring to increase his piety, Arjuna traveled from one pilgrimage site to another along with his retinue. He performed many sacrificial ceremonies and gave away much wealth. When he reached the border of the kingdom of Kalinga on the eastern coast, he bade farewell to most of his followers and entered the kingdom with only a few attendants. Arjuna journeyed through forests, woodlands and numerous towns and villages. He passed the great Mount Mahendra and arrived finally in Maṇipur, where he visited King Chitravahana in his city of Manalur. The king had an attractive daughter named Citrāṅgadā. Arjuna saw her one day in the palace gardens and was struck with desire. He approached the king and asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
Chitravahana replied that he would be delighted to see his daughter wed an illustrious heir of the Kuru race. Arjuna was famous throughout the world as a hero without equal. But the king had one condition. Years ago his ancestors had prayed to Śiva for a child. The deity had granted their request, saying, “You shall have a child, and from now on all of your descendents will have a child--but one child only--to continue your race.”
Chitravahana had only a daughter. If Arjuna begot a son with his daughter, he must leave the boy to become the next king of Maṇipur. Arjuna happily accepted the condition and was married to the princess with all due ceremony. He remained in the city for three months. When he saw that Citrāṅgadā had conceived, he took his leave from her and the king, setting out again on his travels. Before leaving he promised Citrāṅgadā that he would return and bring her to his home in Indraprastha.
Arjuna then made his way south along the coast. When he reached the southern coast he found a large community of
Arjuna saw an opportunity to serve the ascetics. He remembered his boon from Ulūpī. Going to the lake named Agastya--after the famous
The maiden stood before Arjuna with folded palms. “O mighty hero, I am the Apsarā named Varga, ever beloved of Kuvera.”
Varga explained that she had once been going with four of her friends to see Kuvera. As they traveled through a heavenly woodland region they saw a Brahmin meditating in a lonely place. He was extremely handsome and he lit up the woods with his bodily luster. The five Apsarās playfully tried to disturb his meditation. They danced and sang before him, trying to tempt him away from his ascetic practices. Although unmoved by lust, the Brahmin was angered by their behavior. He then cursed them, “As you attack me now without compunction, you five shall become crocodiles, whose business is attacking others.” The maidens at once came to their senses. Showing contrition, they begged the Brahmin for mercy. He relented and told them that they would soon be delivered from their crocodile bodies by a powerful man. At that moment the great sage Nārada Ṛṣi arrived there and told them to enter the five sacred lakes on Bharata’s south coast. Soon Arjuna would come and release them from their bondage.
Varga bowed before the Pāṇḍava and thanked him for delivering her. She then asked him to save her four friends, who lived in each of the four other lakes. Arjuna smiled and went quickly to each holy lake. He pulled out all the other crocodiles and each time he watched as a maiden of shining beauty came out of the fierce reptilian body. The five Apsarās came together and, after offering Arjuna their respects, rose up to the heavens. Having made the lakes safe again, Arjuna took his leave from the
* * *
Arjuna traveled up Bharata’s western coast until he arrived at Prabhāsa. In the sea near Prabhāsa, Kṛṣṇa had constructed a city called Dwārakā. Arjuna could see the splendid fortress city from a distance, shining like the sun on the horizon. It could only be reached by passing along a heavily guarded bridge. When he reached the bridge Arjuna sent word of his arrival to Kṛṣṇa, who immediately came out of the city to see His dear friend. They embraced with joy. News of Arjuna’s exile from Indraprastha had already reached Dwārakā and Kṛṣṇa had been expecting him to arrive before the year was up. He knew that Arjuna was interested in gaining the hand of His sister Subhadrā. Arjuna had heard much about the princess from Gada, Kṛṣṇa’s cousin who had studied under Droṇa along with the Pāṇḍavas. Gada had described her as being incomparably beautiful and endowed with every womanly qualification. Just by hearing the descriptions, Arjuna’s heart had become attracted. He had resolved even then to somehow win her as his wife. And that would forge an alliance between the Pāṇḍavas and their beloved Lord, Kṛṣṇa.
Arjuna told Kṛṣṇa about his travels to the holy places and the Vrishni hero replied, “This is all good. Your piety and virtue are ever increasing.”
The Pāṇḍava prince turned quickly to the subject of Subhadrā. He asked Kṛṣṇa how she might be won. Kṛṣṇa smiled. “This princess is worthy of you in every way, O tiger among men, but who knows what would be her decision at a
Kṛṣṇa added that His brother Balarāma was intent on seeing her married to Duryodhana, even though no one else in Dwārakā was very keen on this suggestion. Kṛṣṇa especially did not like the idea. He would much prefer Arjuna to take His sister’s hand. But Balarāma was the city father and Kṛṣṇa’s elder brother and Kṛṣṇa did not want to go against His wishes. He told Arjuna to be patient. They would devise a plan. In the meanwhile, they could spend some time together. Arjuna still had four months remaining of his exile. He could spend it at Dwārakā.
Kṛṣṇa suggested that Arjuna keep his identity concealed. If he entered the city openly, he would not get a chance to see Subhadrā. She lived in Balarāma’s palace and was never seen in public. Her first appearance would be at her marriage. If Arjuna went into the city dressed as a renunciant, however, Balarāma would doubtlessly invite him for meals. Kṛṣṇa knew that His elder brother was fond of entertaining ascetics and
Kṛṣṇa went back into His city and Arjuna waited for a few more days outside before entering. Kṛṣṇa’s plan had sounded good. The Pāṇḍava wanted a chance to see Subhadrā and also for her to see him. Pious, he did not want to steal her against her desire. If she were not attracted to him, he would leave her in peace. He tied his hair in a knot above his head and put on the dress of a renunciant. Taking up the triple-rodded staff traditionally carried by Vaiṣṇava
When Arjuna reached the city he was stunned by its opulence. Symmetrically arranged around the city center were sixteen thousand white palaces, one for each of Kṛṣṇa’s sixteen thousand queens. Each palace was bedecked with gold and jewels and each rivalled the celestial Mount Meru in its size and opulence. Magnificent temples rose up on all sides and the sounds of sacred chants could be heard everywhere. Beautiful music filled the air and billows of fragrant incense wafted on the breeze. Shining chariots and great elephants moved here and there. Attractively dressed citizens strolled about the wide avenues, which were inlaid with priceless emeralds and interspersed with gardens stocked with celestial flowers. In the midst of the delightful gardens jeweled fountains stood in lotus-filled lakes. Trees bearing blossoms of every color stood along the roadsides. All around the city a massive fortified wall, a full one hundred miles long, rose up from the sea. Arjuna gazed about in wonder as he made his way to the Brahmins’ quarter of the city.
Kṛṣṇa had arranged that His friend be given a large house for his residence. He told him that he would inform Balarāma of the arrival of a Vaiṣṇava
As Kṛṣṇa had expected, Balarāma arranged for Arjuna to be brought to His palace and offered varieties of delicious food. He had His sister Subhadrā serve the
Arjuna tried not to stare at her as he accepted the golden dishes she placed before him, but the princess caught his glance and saw the sparkle in his eyes. She looked more carefully at the
Over the coming weeks Balarāma invited Arjuna to his palace on numerous occasions. Each time Subhadrā served him, and their attraction for one another grew. One day in confidence Kṛṣṇa spoke with his sister on the subject of her marriage. She told him of her feelings for the strange
Subhadrā was suddenly excited. If only she could become the wife of that famous Kuru hero. But Kṛṣṇa cautioned her to remain quiet about his identity. If Balarāma learned the truth there would be trouble. She should be patient. Arjuna would surely find a way to marry her.
It was almost the end of the monsoon season. Balarāma invited the
When the meal was over Balarāma gave gold and jewels to the
Arjuna’s eyes lit up as Kṛṣṇa, sitting next to him on the couch, explained His plan. “O best of men, I do not see any way you can obtain Subhadrā other than by kidnapping her from the midst of her friends and relatives. The festival will provide an opportunity for you, as the powerful heroes of the Yadu dynasty will be at ease and not expecting trouble.”
The festival was to be held in a few days and Kṛṣṇa arranged for swift messengers to ride to nearby Indraprastha. Arjuna wanted to obtain Yudhiṣṭhira’s permission before snatching away Subhadrā. Such an act would likely arouse the anger of the mighty Balarāma, and might even precipitate a fight between the Pāṇḍavas and the Yadus, but Kṛṣṇa told him not to fear. He would pacify Balarāma when the time came. “I will convince My irascible brother of the propriety and excellence of an alliance with your house, O Pārtha. You need only take the maiden and make off with her with all speed.”
When Yudhiṣṭhira’s permission arrived, Arjuna prepared himself to kidnap the princess. On the day of the festival, Subhadrā came out of the city surrounded by her relatives. All the great personalities of Dwārakā were present--King Ugrasena, Akrūra, Gada, Saraba, Babhru, Sātyaki, Uddhava and many others--and they resembled an assembly of the gods. The Gandharvas also appeared and they played sweet celestial music as Apsarās danced. Dwārakā’s citizens came out on their golden chariots and on the backs of great elephants. Above them hovered the aerial cars of the Siddhas and Cāraṇas, uttering auspicious Vedic hymns in praise of Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma, who shone in the midst of the assembly like the sun and the moon. From the sky the gods showered celestial flowers and played their heavenly instruments.
As evening approached, Arjuna came unnoticed out of the city. He had changed his dress and put on armor. His year of exile was over and he had cut his hair and resumed his normal appearance. Kṛṣṇa met him and gave him a chariot drawn by Śaibya and Sugrīva, two of Kṛṣṇa’s celestial steeds. As the Yadus sported and enjoyed themselves in the fragrant woodlands on the Raivataka, Arjuna mounted his chariot. Then he saw Subhadrā surrounded by her friends and maidservants standing near a temple of Viṣṇu. Without delay Arjuna spurred the horses and rushed toward the princess.
Subhadrā looked up in surprise as she heard the clatter of the fast approaching chariot. Holding the reins was Arjuna, with a great bow slung on his back and a sword hanging from his belt. Subhadrā’s heart leapt. The prince was heading straight for her. In less than a minute he had taken hold of her hand and pulled her onto the chariot. Before anyone could react he raced away to the north, back to Indraprastha.
As they realized what had happened the Yadus became incensed. How dare anyone kidnap their princess before their eyes? Who could have been so bold? Some of them said it was Arjuna from Indraprastha. The Yadu warriors ran about in all directions, trying to find their weapons and chariots. In Dwārakā the chief officer of the court stood in the central square of the city and blew his golden trumpet. It was a call to arms. A council of war was hastily assembled in the Yadu court. As the ministers and generals quickly took their places in the Sudharmā assembly hall, Balarāma spoke. His angry voice echoed around the hall. “Why has Arjuna insulted us in this way? Did he not consider us worthy of a peaceful approach? He has stolen Subhadrā without even speaking to any of us. Surely this means war!”
Balarāma glared around the assembly with eyes reddened with fury. The thousands of Yadu warriors present rose like so many fires blazing up when fed with oil. “Bring my armor!” “Fetch my weapons!” “Yoke my chariot and I shall give chase to the insolent Pāṇḍava!”
Amidst the uproar, only Kṛṣṇa remained unmoved, seated upon His beautiful, jewel-encrusted throne at the head of the assembly. Seeing this, Balarāma again spoke. With His pure white complexion, blue robes and wildflower garlands, He resembled a white mountain covered with blossoms. His voice again echoed around the hall. “Stop! O senseless men, what are you doing while Kṛṣṇa remains silent? Cease your roaring and let us hear what is on His mind before we act. His words are always our surest guide.”
Balarāma looked across at His brother. “O Janārdana, Arjuna is Your friend, but it appears that he has insulted us. By snatching away My sister he has placed his foot upon My head. O Govinda, how shall I bear it? I will rid the earth of the Kurus by Myself today. I will never brook an insult from them lightly!”
The whole assembly erupted again as Balarāma spoke, roaring in approval. Kṛṣṇa only smiled. As the sound died down He said, “I do not feel that Arjuna has insulted us. Indeed, My feelings are that he has enhanced our glory. Pārtha knows that we would not accept payment or gifts for our princess. What man on earth would sell his child to another? Nor would Arjuna accept the maiden as a gift, as if she were an animal. He has therefore selected the method always favored by powerful heroes.”
The hall remained silent as Kṛṣṇa continued to speak. He said He considered an alliance with the Pāṇḍavas, and especially with Arjuna, as proper. Arjuna had been born in the noble Bharata race. He was the son of the illustrious Kuntī, from their own house. No man on earth was capable of vanquishing Arjuna in battle. He was now proceeding on Kṛṣṇa’s own chariot and would be difficult to check. Subhadrā and Arjuna were a good match. Better that they send swift messengers to bring him back in peace and arrange for a proper wedding. That would avoid the disgrace of being defeated by Arjuna and would enhance the alliance forged by the marriage. After all, there was now no question of Subhadrā being accepted by another man.
Having concluded his speech, Kṛṣṇa looked around the assembly. Some of the the Yadus voiced doubts, but Kṛṣṇa answered them all expertly. Gradually the mood changed. The Yadu heroes looked at one another in affirmation of Kṛṣṇa’s words. His points were good. Arjuna was the world’s greatest warrior and his dynasty were world emperors. His marriage to Subhadrā was the arrangement of Providence for the good of the Yadus. They immediately sent messengers after Arjuna. He was brought back and received with honor. The city was decked out in flags and festoons and a great ceremony took place. Arjuna accepted Subhadrā’s hand before the sacred fire with the blessings of the