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Chapter 17

The Rājasūya Sacrifice

Arjuna was becoming successful in his conquests. He first overpowered the king of the Kulindas, then the Anastas, then the Kalkuttas. He defeated the many kings on the island continent of Sakala, then encountered King Bhagadatta, a powerful warrior. The battle with Bhagadatta lasted eight days, but finally when the king found himself overpowered, he agreed to accept Yudhiṣṭhira’s rule.

Arjuna continued toward the north. He reached the mountains and vanquished the many barbarian tribes. Arriving in Kashmir, he subdued the region’s kṣatriyas, then passed over the Himālayas. To the north of the mountains lay the land inhabited by the Kimpuruṣas, semi-celestial beings born of Yakṣa women. Incensed at the approach of a human army, they fought a fierce battle, but finally Arjuna subdued them. The Pāṇḍava then conquered the land of the Guhakas, another tribe of celestial fighters, followed by a region inhabited by Gandharvas.

Finally Arjuna arrived in Harivarṣa, the land where the Northern Kurus dwelt. At the border, a number of powerful, large-bodied guards stopped him. They said, “O Arjuna, this land cannot be entered by humans. If you try you will perish along with your army. Indeed, even if you were able to enter, you would not see anything, because human eyes cannot see this land or its residents. Go back. There is nothing to be conquered here. Your conquests are already sufficient. We are pleased with you and will happily offer you a gift. What would you like?”

Arjuna bowed respectfully to the divine beings and said, “I desire Yudhiṣṭhira’s imperial dignity. If you accept him as the emperor of this wide earth, then please give something as a tribute.”

The Northern Kurus immediately offered Arjuna a large number of celestial clothes and ornaments, saying, “We know you and your brothers to be great servants of the Supreme Lord. Go now with our blessings. May you always gain victory.”

Taking all the wealth he had won, Arjuna returned to Indraprastha and reported his success to Yudhiṣṭhira.

Bhīma had in the meanwhile marched to the east with a powerful army. He first encountered the Pañchālas who happily accepted Yudhiṣṭhira’s rule. Then he overcame in battle the Gandakas, Videhas and Dasharnas. One by one Bhīma subdued the many kings in the east. When he reached Chedi he was received graciously by its king, Śiśupāla, who enquired, “My dear Pāṇḍava, what are you bent upon doing?”

Bhīma told him about the Rājasūya and Śiśupāla smiled. He agreed to attend and offer tribute to Yudhiṣṭhira. Although he had an old enmity with Kṛṣṇa, he respected the Pāṇḍavas as righteous and powerful rulers. The king offered Bhīma his hospitality for some days, then the Pāṇḍava continued on his way.

Bhīma overpowered the kingdoms of Kumāra, Kośala and Ayodhya. He reached the wetlands at the foot of the Himālayas and subjugated all the kings in that area. Moving on from there, Bhīma encountered the mighty races of the Matsyas and the Malavas. Such noble kṣatriyas had never known defeat, and out of pride in their strength and reputation, they felt obliged to resist Bhīma’s request that they surrender to Yudhiṣṭhira, although they bore the Pāṇḍavas no enmity. Eventually, however, Bhīma vanquished them in battle.

Either by diplomacy or force, Bhīma subjugated dozens of kings. Many of them then joined him as he marched on, bringing tribute to offer to Yudhiṣṭhira in Indraprastha. Those kings who did not surrender were slain by the Pāṇḍava. Others gave him profuse wealth. Bhīma amassed enormous quantities of gold, silver, gems, valuable cloth, sandalwood, blankets, carpets, coral and ivory, all of which he packed on the backs of a long train of elephants and asses. Bhīma even subjugated the powerful Karṇa, ruler of Aṅga, as well as all the other kings in the region who were loyal to him and Duryodhana. After conquering many barbarian tribes he finally returned to Indraprastha and offered everything he had acquired to Yudhiṣṭhira.

On his expeditions to the south Sahadeva had defeated many kings: Surasena, Ādirāja, Dantavakra. He reached Kuntībhoja’s kingdom and his grandfather received him with great affection. From there he went on to conquer the kingdoms of Jambaka, Sheka and Avantī. After crossing the Narmada River he arrived at Bhojakota where he fought a long battle with King Bhīṣmaka. Although Bhīṣmaka was favorable to the Pāṇḍavas and had been happy to see his daughter Rukmīṇī become Kṛṣṇa’s principal queen, he wanted to test the Pāṇḍavas’ power. After two days fighting, he admitted defeat at Sahadeva’s hands.

Like his other brothers, Sahadeva subdued numerous kingdoms by both diplomacy and force. When he came to Māhiṣmatī, he encountered King Nīla, who was a friend of the fire-god Agni. As Sahadeva stood in battle against the king, it appeared as if he and his entire army were on fire. Flames sprang from the earth and surrounded them on all sides. Thousands of soldiers and chariots were reduced to ashes. Sahadeva saw even his own life threatened as the fire swept toward him. He could understand that Agni was assailing him. The Pāṇḍava quickly dismounted from his chariot and knelt in prayer to the fire-god. “O exalted one, you are the mouth of the gods into which all oblations are placed. You sanctify everything, from you the Vedas have sprung and you are sacrifice itself. O greatest of gods, please endow me with your energy. O bearer of all sacrificial offerings, do not place obstacles before Yudhiṣṭhira’s sacrifice.”

As Sahadeva prayed, the flames gradually died down. Agni then appeared in person before him and said, “O descendent of Kuru, rise up. I was only trying you. I understand your purposes and those of your brother, Dharmarāja. I always protect this city, but I shall help you to accomplish your aims.”

Agni then went to King Nīla and told him to receive Sahadeva with honor and offer Yudhiṣṭhira tribute. The king explained how his beautiful daughter had won Agni’s heart, and now they were married. Thus he protected the city. On his order, however, the king would gladly accept Yudhiṣṭhira’s rule.

Sahadeva moved on to conquer various cannibal races, including one powerful tribe known as the Kalamukhas. They were a cross between Rākṣasas and humans. He also fought a long battle with the Vanaras at Kiṣkindhyā, headed by Mainda and Dvivida, until they finally agreed to accept Yudhiṣṭhira’s righteous rule. The tribes of Niṣadhas, Yavanas, Pandyas, Dravidas, Andhas, Talavanas and many others were all subjugated. At last, he returned to Indraprastha with vast amounts of wealth.

In the west Nakula conquered the hilly countries, followed by the deserts. The Mattamayurakas, Sivis, Trigartas, Amvashtas and Karṇatas were all subdued. He reached Madras where his uncle Śalya received him affectionately and gave him great wealth for the sacrifice. Then he went on to conquer the mleccha and Yavana tribes on the west coast. Having fully established Yudhiṣṭhira’s supremacy in that direction, he too returned to Indraprastha.

Yudhiṣṭhira joyfully received all his brothers back from their expeditions. None now stood in opposition to his authority. His treasury was also so full that it could not be emptied even in a hundred years.

It was almost time for the Rājasūya. Kṛṣṇa, as promised, returned to Indraprastha accompanied by His wives and relatives. The great Yadu and Vrishni army also arrived with Him, and as they entered the city they filled it with the rattle of chariot wheels and the blast of conchshells. The already inexhaustible ocean of gems the Pāṇḍavas possessed was filled to overflowing when Kṛṣṇa presented His gifts.

When Kṛṣṇa and His relatives had all been properly received, Yudhiṣṭhira sat with Him in his assembly hall and said, “O Kṛṣṇa, it is for You alone that this vast earth has been brought under my sway. Indeed, only by Your grace has this been possible. I wish now to devote all my wealth to the Brahmins and to Agni, the carrier of sacrificial offerings. Please grant me permission to perform the Rājasūya sacrifice.”

Kṛṣṇa praised Yudhiṣṭhira’s many virtues. “You deserve the imperial dignity without any doubt. Perform the sacrifice. If it is successful, I shall consider it My own success. I am always seeking your good and will do whatever I can to assist. Appoint Me in some office and I shall obey your commands.”

Yudhiṣṭhira asked Vyāsadeva to take charge of the sacrifice. Thus Vyāsadeva himself became the chief priest. Then he appointed Yājñavalkya, Soshama, Paila and Dhaumya Ṛṣis as his assistants. Together they constructed the six sacrificial altars in the vast compound marked out at a sacred place near the city.

Yudhiṣṭhira had arranged for the construction of mansions to house the thousands of kings in attendance, as well as quarters for the other classes of men. Innumerable Brahmins were streaming into Indraprastha, and each was received with gifts of wealth and offered comfortable accommodation.

When the party from Hastināpura, headed by Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Bhīṣma, arrived, Yudhiṣṭhira personally received them with love. He bowed at his elders’ feet and said, “All my wealth and my dominions are yours. Please command me as you desire.”

Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Kṛpa lifted Yudhiṣṭhira from his obeisance and embraced him. They shed tears of happiness to see his opulence and success. From their first hearing that Yudhiṣṭhira was planning the sacrifice they had been overjoyed. Even Dhṛtarāṣṭra was happy, sending word of his approval to Yudhiṣṭhira. After all, the Pāṇḍavas were enhancing the glory of their dynasty, firmly establishing the Kurus’ position as world emperors--a position which had been lost since Pāṇḍu’s demise.

Holding Yudhiṣṭhira by his shoulders, Bhīṣma said, “It is fortunate indeed that we see you today ready to perform the great Rājasūya sacrifice. Surely this is by the Supreme Lord’s grace. You are a fit person to acquire the imperial dignity. Please allow us to be your servants and give to us some post in the sacrifice.”

After consulting with Vyāsadeva, Yudhiṣṭhira asked Bhīṣma and Droṇa to oversee the organization for the sacrifice. Dushashana was put in charge of food distribution, while Aśvatthāmā was solicited to look after the Brahmins. Duryodhana was appointed to receive all the gifts that were brought for Yudhiṣṭhira, and Vidura became the master of the treasury. Kṛṣṇa, with a desire to gain their blessings, personally undertook the task of washing the Brahmins’ feet as they arrived.

The sacrificial arena was soon crowded with effulgent ṛṣis chanting hymns from the Sāma Veda. Among the sages assisting the sacrifice were Bharadvāja, Gautama, Asita, Vasiṣṭha, Viśvāmitra, Paraśurāma, Kaśyapa and many others who had descended from the higher regions of the universe. The celestials, seated upon their shining chariots, came in person as the offerings of ghee were poured into the fires with utensils made entirely of gold. Before everyone’s eyes, the gods, headed by Brahmā, Śiva and Indra, took their places in the arena. The gold platforms around the sacrificial arena, being crowded with celestials and ṛṣis, looked as beautiful as the sky studded with innumerable stars.

Nārada Ṛṣi attended the sacrifice and he gazed in wonder at all the personalities in attendance. Amid the thousands of kings he saw Kṛṣṇa shining like the brilliant sun. Nārada marvelled at how the original Supreme Person was present on earth in human form. The ṛṣi knew that Kṛṣṇa must be working out some divine plan.

After many days, Yudhiṣṭhira was crowned as emperor. On the final day of the sacrifice, the Brahmins prepared the juice of the soma plant to offer to the great personalities in attendance. First they would be worshipped with due ritual, then invited to partake of the divine beverage. Bhīṣma said to Yudhiṣṭhira, “You should now select the most important person at this assembly and worship him with arghya. The guru, the priest, the relative, the snataka, the friend and the king--these six all deserve this worship. Therefore worship all these kings and Brahmins, starting with he whom you consider foremost.”

Yudhiṣṭhira asked his counselors who they felt was fit to receive the worship. There was some uncertainty. Some suggested Brahmā, while others Śiva and some Vyāsadeva. Yudhiṣṭhira then asked Bhīṣma, “O Kuru chief, who do you consider to be the best of all those present here today? Who should receive the first worship, the agra-pūjā?”

Bhīṣma replied, “As the sun shines among all luminous objects, so Kṛṣṇa shines among all kings. He is without doubt the most worthy of the first offering.”

Yudhiṣṭhira agreed fully, as did Sahadeva, who, on Bhīṣma’s command, stood up and announced to the assembly, “Emperor Yudhiṣṭhira would like to offer the agra-pūjā to Kṛṣṇa. Even though the principal gods are present, they are all subordinate to Kṛṣṇa. He is the ultimate goal of all yogīs and ascetics who aim for self-realization. But what need is there for me to speak of His glories? All you exalted personalities are well aware of Kṛṣṇa’s position. Indeed, Kṛṣṇa is the Supersoul of all. Therefore, by satisfying Him we will satisfy all created beings.”

Sahadeva continued to glorify Kṛṣṇa for several more minutes. When he stopped speaking, the ṛṣis, celestials and assembled kings resoundingly approved.

Seeing his decision confirmed by the Brahmins and gods, Yudhiṣṭhira began to worship Kṛṣṇa with tears in his eyes. Showers of flowers fell from the sky as he offered Him the arghya and the soma-rasa. Everyone cheered and stood in respect as Kṛṣṇa was worshipped.

But a few monarchs had not agreed. Śiśupāla in particular was outraged, and he remained seated while the offering was made to Kṛṣṇa. He was seething. Kṛṣṇa was his enemy. Śiśupāla had once been about to marry the beautiful Rukmīṇī, but Kṛṣṇa had kidnapped her on her wedding day and married her Himself. From that day forward, his enmity toward Kṛṣṇa had only increased. This offering of honor was too much to tolerate! He suddenly leapt to his feet and began to roar angrily. “Surely destiny is supreme. Otherwise how could this injustice have occurred? How could those present have been influenced by the words of a foolish boy? I cannot agree with Sahadeva’s statements. There are many personalities here much more worthy of the worship than Kṛṣṇa. The great ṛṣis, the gods and all the earth’s kings are present. Kṛṣṇa is not even a king. He is nothing but the son of a cowherd man. We cannot even ascertain His caste or social position. He seems to care nothing for Vedic injunctions and principles. How then can he be worshipped in this assembly?”

Śiśupāla frowned. His coppery eyes challenged those in the assembly. “Kṛṣṇa is neither the eldest, the wisest nor the most powerful person present. There are many others present who are more qualified than Kṛṣṇa in every way. Yudhiṣṭhira could have worshipped any one of them before selecting Kṛṣṇa.”

Placing his hand on the long sword hanging from his belt, the Chedi king furiously concluded, “We have paid tribute to Yudhiṣṭhira thinking him to be virtuous. That was clearly a mistake. He has insulted us today by worshipping Kṛṣṇa, who most unrighteously had Jarāsandha killed. Now we can see what sort of men are Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers, as well as Bhīṣma, who has approved of this madness.”

Śiśupāla turned to address Kṛṣṇa. “As for You, Kṛṣṇa, why have You allowed Yourself to be worshipped like this? You are exactly like a dog that has stolen the offerings of ghee meant for a sacrifice and is licking them up in solitude. As a wife is to an impotent man, or a beautiful sight to a blind man, so is this worship to You, who are not even a king.”

Śiśupāla strode toward the gate of the arena, followed by several other kings who were in agreement. Other kings rose in anger upon hearing Śiśupāla’s words. Some left the assembly censuring the Chedi king, while others took up their swords and shields in order to fight with him.

Bhīṣma at once stood up and justified the selection of Kṛṣṇa. He spoke fearlessly, checking Śiśupāla as he walked away. “He who does not approve of the worship of Kṛṣṇa, who is the oldest person in the universe, deserves no respect at all. O King of Chedi, we do not worship Kṛṣṇa out of material motivations. Many times I have heard from those very advanced in knowledge that Kṛṣṇa is the Supreme Person, in whom the universe itself is established. Foolish men like you can never understand this.”

Bhīṣma gave numerous reasons why Kṛṣṇa should be worshipped. He described the many wonderful feats Kṛṣṇa had achieved. Even as a child He had slain the many powerful demons Kaṁsa had sent to kill Him. In the end He had even killed Kaṁsa himself. Once Kṛṣṇa had lifted a great hill with one hand and held it for a full week. Bhīṣma challenged any king to match Kṛṣṇa’s prowess in battle, or any wealthy man to display more riches. No one could show more knowledge or wisdom than Kṛṣṇa. In every way Kṛṣṇa was possessed of superlative opulences.

When Bhīṣma stopped speaking Sahadeva rose and lifted his left foot. He was angry, and his voice boomed, “If there is any man here who feels Kṛṣṇa should not be worshipped, then let him step forward. I shall place my left foot on his head. Who will give me a reply?”

As Sahadeva spoke the sky reverberated with voices crying, “Excellent! Well spoken!” and showers of flowers fell on his head.

Nārada then spoke. “Those men who will not worship Kṛṣṇa should be considered dead even though breathing. They should not even be gazed upon.”

Śiśupāla became even angrier. He turned toward his supporters and shouted, “Here I am ready to lead you. What needs to be considered? Let us stand in battle against the Yadus and the Pāṇḍavas.”

Many kings had been agitated by Śiśupāla’s speech. They now gathered around the Chedi king. Weapons clashed as they were drawn and armor clanked as it was donned. Śiśupāla continued to stir his supporters, “Let us act quickly so that this sacrifice may not be concluded successfully. Everyone should know that we did not agree to Kṛṣṇa being worshipped.”

Yudhiṣṭhira’s supporters also prepared themselves for battle. The assembly of monarchs looked like the ocean rising at the full moon. Yudhiṣṭhira was alarmed to see his sacrifice about to be spoiled, even as it had almost reached its conclusion. He turned anxiously to Bhīṣma and said, “O grandsire, these kings are seized by wrath and seem bent upon battle. What should I do to avoid my sacrifice being spoiled and my subjects being harmed?”

Bhīṣma laughed and replied in a voice which Śiśupāla could hear clearly. “O best of Kurus, have no fear that Śiśupāla can create any disturbance in Kṛṣṇa’s presence. He and his supporters are like a pack of dogs barking at a sleeping lion. Only as long as Madhava does not act can they exhibit their valor. He is the creator and destroyer of all beings in the universe. Śiśupāla has very little intelligence. He will surely take all these kings with him to Death’s abode. It seems that Kṛṣṇa now desires to take back to Himself the power He gave to Śiśupāla. That is why the Chedi king’s intelligence has become so perverse.”

Śiśupāla could not tolerate Bhīṣma’s words and he screamed in response, “O most infamous wretch of your race, are you not afraid to speak such words in front of all these kings? With you as their leader the Kurus are like blind men being led by another blind man. You have simply given us pain by describing the deeds of the powerless cowherd Kṛṣṇa. Arrogant and foolish as you are, it is a wonder that your tongue does not split into a hundred parts.”

Śiśupāla railed on, insulting both Bishma and Kṛṣṇa. In his opinion, the so-called wonderful deeds Bhīṣma had described were nothing. Anyone could have done them. What was so amazing about lifting a small hill for a few days, or killing a few inferior demons. “O wretch, although you pose as virtuous and learned, we can see your real nature. You are sinful and ignorant. Only because you are impotent have you taken your famous vow of celibacy. You deserve to die at the hands of these kings.”

Hearing his noble grandfather insulted so grievously, Bhīma became enraged. His large eyes, resembling lotus petals, expanded even further in anger, and they turned coppery-red. His brow wrinkled into three lines and he ground his teeth. He stood up, appearing like Death preparing to swallow every creature at the end of the yuga. But Bhīṣma caught him by the hand and restrained him. He appeased Bhīma with gentle counsel. Like the ocean unable to transgress its shores, Bhīma felt unable to disobey the Kuru elder. He sat down again, glaring at Śiśupāla.

Śiśupāla laughed. “Release him, Bhīṣma. Let all these kings see him burnt down by my prowess as an insect is destroyed by fire.”

Bhīma again started up, but Bhīṣma stopped him with a glance. Fixing Śiśupāla with his angry eyes, he then began to narrate the Chedi monarch’s history. Śiśupāla had been born with three eyes and four arms. As soon as he took birth he screamed and brayed like an ass. An invisible voice from the heavens prophesied that he would grow up powerful and fearless, but that one day he would be killed by a great hero. When Śiśupāla’s mother had asked the voice who that hero would be, the voice replied that the child’s extra arms and third eye would disappear when he was placed upon the lap of the person who would one day kill him. This came to pass when young Śiśupāla was placed upon Kṛṣṇa’s lap.

Horrified when she realized that Kṛṣṇa would kill her son, Śiśupāla’s mother had begged, “Please grant me a boon, O Kṛṣṇa. Pardon my son for the offenses he may commit against You. I desire his welfare and long life.”

Kṛṣṇa replied, “O blessed lady, even when Śiśupāla deserves to be killed I will forgive him. Indeed, I shall tolerate one hundred offenses from him.”

Bhīṣma concluded, “This wretch is thus destined to be killed by Kṛṣṇa. His time has come. Therefore he roars like this, caring nothing for ourselves or the infallible and unknowable Kṛṣṇa. A man on the verge of death loses his senses and will say anything.”

Śiśupāla again attacked Bhīṣma, delivering another harsh speech. Bhīṣma waited for him to finish and replied calmly, “O Chedi King, cease your rantings. There will never be an end to arguments, for words may always be answered with words. Here is Govinda. Let anyone who opposes Him stand now before Him in battle. Thus you will attain liberation, your soul entering His transcendental body.”

Śiśupāla roared like an enraged lion. Then Kṛṣṇa spoke so that everyone could hear. “This cruel-hearted man is My aunt’s son, yet he always wishes Me and My relatives ill. Once when I was away from Dwārakā he came and set fire to My city. He killed many citizens and took away many more in chains. This wretch even stole saintly Akrūra’s wife.

“On another occasion, cunningly disguising himself, he ravished the princess of Viśāla, who was the intended bride of the Kurusha king. Obviously desiring a speedy death, he even tried to possess the chaste Rukmīṇī. I have tolerated these and numerous other insults at his hands, only because I made a promise to My aunt. But I promised to bear only one hundred insults. That number has now become full. I shall therefore slay Śiśupāla now in your presence.”

Having heard Kṛṣṇa’s words, the kings reproached Śiśupāla, but he merely laughed and said, “O Kṛṣṇa, how do You speak of Rukmīṇī, who was intended for me but whom You stole by slyness and deceit? You cannot call Yourself a man. Do whatever You will! Whether You are angry or friendly, what harm can You do me?”

As Śiśupāla spoke, Kṛṣṇa thought of His discus weapon, the Sudarśana chakra. It immediately appeared in His hand and Kṛṣṇa raised it above His head. Releasing the chakra He said, “I have kept My promise to My aunt. Śiśupāla’s offenses have now exceeded the number specified and now I will kill him.”

The chakra left Kṛṣṇa’s hand and streaked toward Śiśupāla even as he continued his tirade. The king tried desperately to draw his sword to fend off the chakra, but the powerful disc weapon was too swift. It caught him on the neck and immediately severed his head from his body. The mighty king fell like a cliff struck by a thunderbolt. As he dropped to the ground, a fearful effulgence was seen to leave his body and enter into Kṛṣṇa. Rain fell from a cloudless, thundering sky, and the earth trembled. No one spoke. Śiśupāla’s supporters were angry, but dared say nothing.

The ṛṣis, however, were pleased by Kṛṣṇa’s act and praised him for it. Gradually the assembly became peaceful again. Yudhiṣṭhira ordered his brothers to perform Śiśupāla’s funeral ceremony without delay. He then installed Śiśupāla’s son as king of Chedi and the last ceremonies were performed to complete the Rājasūya. Along with Draupadī, Yudhiṣṭhira took the final ritualistic bath in the sacred Yamunā and the sacrifice was over.

After some days the kings departed for their own kingdoms. The Pāṇḍavas accompanied them to the outskirts of Indraprastha, then bid them farewell. Yudhiṣṭhira begged Kṛṣṇa to stay longer, however, and He consented, although He sent His party back to Dwārakā, while He and His queens remained behind.

During His stay in Indraprastha, Kṛṣṇa was personally served by Draupadī and He developed much affection for the Pāṇḍava queen. One day when she had served Him some fruits, He began paring them with a knife. Suddenly the knife slipped and He nicked His finger. Blood flowed from the cut and seeing this, Draupadī immediately tore a piece from her fine sari and handed it to Him to bandage His finger. Taking the cloth Kṛṣṇa smiled and said, “O gentle lady, I will surely repay this gift of your sari.” Draupadī looked down modestly and thanked Kṛṣṇa, who wrapped His finger with the strip of silk. He then stood up and left the room.