Yudhiṣṭhira’s Ashvamedha Sacrifice
In Hastināpura the Pāṇḍavas settled into their lives as rulers. Yudhiṣṭhira was the embodiment of justice and virtue. None could fault him. Due to the gods’ cooperation, who were pleased by the people’s piety under Yudhiṣṭhira’s care, there was never a shortage of rain. The earth produced abundant crops and supported countless cows, who moistened the ground with the milk that dripped from their full milk bags. The people felt they had everything they desired and were free from anxiety. They were not afflicted by disease, mental agony, or excessive heat and cold. Sons always outlived their fathers and no women became widows.
Some months after Kṛṣṇa’s departure, Uttarā, who was staying with Kuntī and Draupadī, gave birth to her son. She named him Parīkṣit. After Dhaumya had performed his birth and naming ceremonies, Yudhiṣṭhira asked them, “O Brahmins, please tell me if this child will become a saintly king, as famous and glorified in his achievements as his noble predecessors?”
Dhaumya replied that the boy, who had been saved from death by Kṛṣṇa while still in the womb, would certainly be famous as a great devotee of the Supreme Lord. “He will be known as Viṣṇurata, or one who is always protected by the Lord. Endowed with all good qualities, he will be exactly like Ikṣvāku, Manu’s famous son, in maintaining the people. For following religious principles and for his truthfulness, he will be exactly like Rāma, the son of king Daśaratha. He will give charity and protect the helpless. As a warrior, he will be as irresistible as the mighty ocean, possessing skills in archery equal to those of Arjuna. Indeed, O King, he will expand the fame of his family like Bharata himself.”
Yudhiṣṭhira was overjoyed. Here was a worthy heir to the Kuru line. The Pāṇḍavas still sorrowed at the loss of their own sons, but seeing Parīkṣit solaced them. He was clearly marked by auspicious lines on his body. Yudhiṣṭhira arranged for much charity to be distributed on the boy’s behalf. The sages who had attended the birth ceremony received the wealth but gave most of it away. Then they left for the mountains, their minds set on their ascetic practices.
Soon after Parīkṣit’s birth, Yudhiṣṭhira began to think of the sacrifice he would like to perform. He still desired to atone for the killing at Kurukṣetra, and the ṛṣis had recommended that he perform the Ashvamedha. As with the Rājasūya, the sacrifice would give him the opportunity to again establish his position as the earth’s emperor. He would have to send out the sacrificial horse to all parts of the land. Anyone not accepting his rule would be obliged to fight.
Although he had no personal ambition to rule the earth, Yudhiṣṭhira wanted to ensure that the world was on the path of peace and religion. There could not be another Kurukṣetra. It was also Kṛṣṇa’s desire that the virtuous Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers be clearly established as the earth’s foremost rulers. Yudhiṣṭhira thus set about making his preparations.
Knowing that the performance of an Ashvamedha requires immense wealth, Yudhiṣṭhira was anxious. The treasury had been seriously depleted by the war. The Pāṇḍava revealed his anxiety to Vyāsadeva, who told him of a great store of wealth lying in the North. The sage told Yudhiṣṭhira about a former emperor of the earth, named Marutta, who had possessed almost unlimited wealth. He had pleased Śiva by performing a sacrifice and the god had given him a mountain made of gold. From that mountain he had fashioned sacrificial altars of pure gold, as well as vast numbers of gold plates and other utensils. These were now lying in a cave in the Himālayas. Vyāsadeva instructed Arjuna how to find the cave and Arjuna left at once, returning after a month with the immense riches carried on a seemingly endless line of bullocks and elephants.
Yudhiṣṭhira then invited rulers from around the world to attend the sacrifice. He wanted to establish peaceful relations with all kings, but he knew that there would be a lot of inimical feelings left from the war. There were many kings who had not participated in the Kurukṣetra war who would likely be neutral, but there were also some kings whose fathers or brothers had been killed by the Pāṇḍavas and who harbored enmity with them. Knowing this, Yudhiṣṭhira asked Arjuna to follow the sacrificial horse. Anyone seeing the horse and not agreeing to Yudhiṣṭhira’s rule would have to face Arjuna. The Pāṇḍava put on his golden armor and prepared himself for the expedition.
After being blessed by the Brahmins, Arjuna set off in pursuit of the horse. He was followed by a large body of warriors, as well as a number of sages who would perform the sacred rites to invoke auspiciousness and ensure his success. Yudhiṣṭhira had earnestly entreated Arjuna not to kill anyone unless it was absolutely unavoidable. Remembering this, he first tried to establish peaceful relations through diplomacy; but in some cases, he was forced to take up arms. He fought a battle with the Trigartas, who bore him enmity for having slain their king and his brothers during the war. After they had been overpowered, another fierce fight took place between Arjuna and king Vajradatta, the son of Bhagadatta. That battle lasted for three days, with Arjuna finally defeating Vajradatta but sparing his life. After the king had agreed to bring tribute for Yudhiṣṭhira’s sacrifice, Arjuna moved south.
A powerful battle took place with the Sindhus, who were grieving Jayadratha’s death. Tens of thousands of warriors came out to contend with Arjuna. He attacked them with arrows from the Gāṇḍīva, cutting their weapons to pieces and forcing them to flee.
In the Sindhu capital, Duryodhana’s sister Dushala lived. When she saw that Arjuna was crushing her troops, she came hastily out of the city holding an infant in her arms. Seeing her rushing onto the field with her child, the warriors lowered their weapons. She fell before Arjuna, crying. “Stop, O hero! Do not destroy the last of our race. See here this child, who is your own relative, the son of my son. Out of sheer grief for Jayadratha’s death, the father of this boy has given up his life. Now you, Jayadratha’s killer, are bent upon annihilating the rest of his family and followers. O Arjuna, pray forget the sins of this child’s grandfather and have mercy on him.”
Seeing the weeping Dushala, whom he regarded as a sister, Arjuna cast aside his bow. He censured the life of a kṣatriya and cried out, “Fie on the wicked Duryodhana! That mean person, so covetous of the kingdom, has brought about the death of all my kinsmen.”
Arjuna got down from his chariot and consoled Dushala. She turned to the Sindhu warriors and told them to put down their weapons and make peace with Arjuna. They complied. Arjuna then dismissed her and she returned to the city, leaving him to continue his travels.
The horse reached Maṇipur, where Arjuna was greeted peacefully by his own son Babhruvahana, whom he had conceived with the princess Citrāṅgadā. As Arjuna had agreed at the time of his birth, Babhruvahana had remained at Maṇipur, ruling that kingdom and not taking any part in the great war. He came to Arjuna with offerings of gold and gems, but Arjuna was nevertheless clearly displeased. His mind was seized with anger and he shouted out to his son, “Why, O child, have you come in peace when an antagonist has entered your land? This is never in keeping with kṣatriya duties. You have acted like a woman! I have come here bearing arms and you should have challenged me with heroic words. O wretched boy, take up your weapons and give me battle.”
Babhruvahana was surprised by his father’s reaction. He tried to appease him, but Arjuna would not listen. He repeatedly goaded his son to fight.
As that exchange was taking place, Ulūpī suddenly appeared from the earth. The daughter of the Nāga king, and Arjuna’s wife, stood before Babhruvahana and said, “Listen, O prince. I am Ulūpī, your mother, and have come here desiring to do both you and your father good. Fight with him, for this will please him and you will then acquire merit.”
Hearing his stepmother’s words as well as the repeated urgings of his father, the prince agreed. After putting on his blazing armor and mounting a chariot, he stood before his father ready for battle. Seeing the sacrificial horse nearby, Babhruvahana had some of his men seize it and take it into his city. Arjuna was incensed and he rained down arrows on his powerful son.
A terrible fight took place between father and son. Both showed no quarter, releasing countless arrows at one another. Arjuna was suddenly struck on the shoulder by a steel shaft that pierced him deeply and made him almost lose consciousness. He leaned on his standard pole. When he regained his senses, he praised his son. “Excellent! Well done! O son of Citrāṅgadā, I am pleased with you for your prowess and power. Now stand fearlessly, for I will let loose my terrible shafts.”
Arjuna fought relentlessly, shooting arrows which smashed his son’s chariot and killed his horses. Jumping to the ground, the prince stood fearlessly before his father. In a moment he took out a long golden arrow bedecked with jewels and kanka feathers and fired it from his fully drawn bow. That arrow sped toward Arjuna and struck him on the chest, piercing his armor.
Gasping in pain, Arjuna fell from his car and lay on the earth. Babhruvahana, himself pierced all over by Arjuna’s shafts, was seized with grief upon seeing his father killed. Overpowered, he too fell to the ground.
Citrāṅgadā heard that her husband and son had both fallen on the battlefield. She rushed out of the city. Seeing them lying there, she too fainted. When she had recovered her senses, she saw Ulūpī standing before her. Knowing that Babhruvahana had fought his father at her behest, she said, “O Ulūpī, see our ever-victorious husband slain as a result of your instructions to my son. Do you not know the practices of respectable women? Are you not devoted to your husband? If Arjuna has offended you in some way, you should have forgiven him. Why are you not grieving? O snake-lady, you are a goddess. I beseech you to revive our husband.”
Citrāṅgadā ran over to Arjuna and fell to the ground weeping. With the arrow protruding from his chest and blood seeping from the wound, he seemed like a hill with a tree on the summit and its rocks running with red oxide. The Maṇipur princess placed Arjuna’s feet in her lap and cried uncontrollably.
Regaining consciousness, Babhruvahana got to his feet and ran over to his father. Along with his mother, he too began to cry. In a choked voice he lamented, “Alas, what have I done? What is the atonement for one who has killed his father? I should doubtlessly suffer every sort of misery for such a sin. Indeed, I cannot continue my life. I will sit by my father’s side, abstaining from food and drink, until death takes me. Let me follow the path taken by Arjuna.”
The prince cried for some time, then fell silent. He sat in a yogic posture next to Arjuna and prepared to observe the Praya vow of fasting until death.
Seeing both her co-wife and stepson overcome by sorrow, Ulūpī approached them. By her mystic power she fetched from the Nāga kingdom a celestial gem that had the power to revive the dead. Taking the effulgent gem, which shone with a hundred different hues, she went over to Babhruvahana and said, “Rise up, O son. You have not killed Arjuna. Indeed, neither man nor god can slay him. He is an eternal ṛṣi of indestructible soul. His apparent death is simply illusion. O child, take this gem and place it on your father’s chest and he will rise.”
The prince did as he was told and, almost at once, Arjuna opened his eyes. His wound healed and he sat up and looked around. Babhruvahana sighed with relief. He bowed at his father’s feet and begged forgiveness. Kettledrums resounded in the sky and a shower of flowers fell. Voices in the heavens called out, “Excellent! Excellent!”
Arjuna stood up and embraced his son with affection. “What is the cause of all these signs?” he asked. “Why has your mother Citrāṅgadā come onto the field? Why do I also see the Nāga princess here?”
Babhruvahana told his father to ask Ulūpī. Arjuna looked at her, the question in his eyes. “What brings you here, O daughter of the Nāgas? Have you come here desiring to do us good? I hope neither I nor my son have done you any injury.”
Ulūpī smiled and reassured Arjuna that she had not been offended. She had urged the prince to fight to serve both him and Arjuna. “Listen to my words, O mighty-armed Arjuna. During the war you deceitfully killed Bhīṣma, placing Śikhaṇḍī before you when you approached him. For that sin you would have fallen into hell, but your sin has been expiated by your son’s actions.”
Ulūpī explained that soon after Bhīṣma’s fall, she had seen the Vasus come to the river Ganges to bathe. While they were there, they called for the goddess Gaṅgā and said, “Arjuna has unfairly slain your son. For this we will curse him to die.” Gaṅgā had agreed. Seeing all this, Ulūpī had gone before her father in anxiety. She told him what she had seen and her father, king of the Nāgas, went at once to the Vasus. He begged them to be merciful to Arjuna, his son-in-law, and they replied, “Dhanañjaya has a youthful son who is now king of Maṇipur. That king will cast his father down in battle and free him from our curse.”
Ulūpī continued, “It is for this reason that you were slain by your son. Indeed, not even Indra could kill you, but it is said that the son is one’s own self. After he killed you, I revived you with this celestial gem.”
Ulūpī showed Arjuna the brilliant jewel and he cheerfully replied, “Everything you have done is agreeable to me, O goddess. You have not committed any fault.”
Babhruvahana beseeched Arjuna to spend a night in the city with his two wives, but Arjuna declined, saying that he could not rest until the sacrificial horse returned to Hastināpura. He took leave from his wives and his son, who said he would soon come to Yudhiṣṭhira’s sacrifice. After telling his wives to join him in Hastināpura, he continued on his way in pursuit of the horse.
Arjuna next came to Rajagriha, the city where he had long ago gone with Bhīma and Kṛṣṇa to kill Jarāsandha. Jarāsandha’s grandson, Meghasandhi, still only a boy, but observing the duty of a kṣatriya, came out and offered to fight with Arjuna with bold and heroic words. “It seems this horse is protected only by women,” he challenged, and a great fight ensued. During the battle, Meghasandhi’s chariot was smashed and he was finally overpowered. Arjuna said, “At the command of Yudhiṣṭhira I will not slay those kings whom I defeat if they acquiesce to his rule.”
Meghasandhi agreed to attend Yudhiṣṭhira’s sacrifice and offer tribute, and Arjuna continued on his way. He fought with several other monarchs, obliging them to accept Yudhiṣṭhira as emperor, before the horse at last reached the road leading back to Hastināpura.