Stories from the Mahabharata

Stories from the Mahabharata.  Many of the stories and legends underlying the art of Angkor are contained in the Indian epic called the Mahabharata.  Examples are the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, the Battle of Lanka, and Garuda’s persecution of the Nagas.  The Khmer artists of Angkor also depicted Hindu stories not contained in the epic, as well as Buddhist stories, as well as stories from Khmer history and legend.  Other stories from the Mahabharata that must have been known to the medieval Khmer were not depicted.  Here are some of those stories.


The Story of Drona and Ekalavya.

Drona was a renowned weapons-master. The greatest of monarchs sent their male progeny to study at his feet. Among Drona’s pupils were the young Arjuna (the hero of the Mahabharata) and his brothers. Of all Drona’s pupils, Arjuna showed the most promise.

Unbeknownst to his pupils, Drona nursed a profound and toxic grudge. Drona’s childhood playmate had been a boy named Drupada, who had later grown up to become a powerful king. Though blessed with an abundance of knowledge and skill, Drona had found himself destitute, and had gone for help to Drupada, reminding the king of their boyhood friendship. Drupada, however, had scorned him, while pontificating that persons of unequal social station could never be true friends. Drona had bitten his tongue, but had sworn revenge.

Drupada’s slight remained ever on Drona’s mind. One day he called his pupils together, informed them that he bore a special purpose, and asked their pledge to accomplish that purpose of his behalf, once they became skilled in fighting. Not knowing the nature of Drona’s purpose, the princes prudently remained silent. Perhaps overcome by the awkwardness of the moment, perhaps seeing an opportunity to distinguish himself in the master’s eyes, Arjuna alone stepped forward to give his pledge. Overcome with joy, Drona made the young man into his favorite. As Arjuna grew in skill, Drona promised him that he would do whatever it took to guarantee that Arjuna would be the greatest of archers.

The mutual promises of Drona and Arjuna had already been given, and their mutual affection established, when Ekalavya, quite unknowingly, came onto the scene. Ekalavya was a young prince of the lowly Nishada tribe. He too was eager to excel at archery, and he approached Drona with the request that he be allowed to study as Drona’s pupil. Drona, however, rejected him on account of his humble birth.

Undeterred, Ekalava went alone into the forest and there erected a clay image of Drona. Ceaselessly he practiced and honed his skill as an archer in the presence of the clay image. Soon his fingers became exceedingly nimble, and his eyes as keen as those of a bird of prey. One day, Arjuna and his brothers were in the forest, when one of their dogs came upon Ekalavya and began to bark. Before the surprised dog could dodge to the side or even close its mouth, Ekalavya had fired seven arrows in rapid succession into its throat. As the high-born princes marvelled speechlessly at his prowess, Ekalavya declared that he was a student of Drona.

Jealousy filled the heart of Arjuna. Hadn’t Drona promised that he would be the greatest of archers? Now it seemed that this lowly urchin from the forest would excel him! And to think that this urchin claimed Drona as his teacher! Arjuna went to Drona and complained bitterly. Cognizant of his pact with the young prince, Drona decided to take action.

Together with his high-born students, Drona wended his way into the forest. When he found Ekalavya, the young interloper was ceaselessly firing arrows and exhibiting the greatest nimbleness of hand and keenness of eye. Upon seeing Drona, however, Ekalavya prostrated himself at the master’s feet.

In those days, it was the custom that a pupil offer his teacher a payment for the teacher’s service. The cunning Drona, reminding Ekalavya that he claimed him as his teacher, asked the young man whether he would now make the required payment. The loyal Ekalavya replied that he would give anything for his teacher. Whereupon, thinking only of his promise and affection for Arjuna, Drona demanded the thumb of Ekalavya’s right hand. It was a moment of terrible import. Without the use of his thumb, Ekalavya’s skill as an archer would be irreparably impaired, and his prospects ruined. Nevertheless, and without hesitation, Ekalavya cut off his thumb and presented it to Drona, who promptly left the forest with his entourage of high-born princes. For his part, Arjuna was relieved of the terrible jealousy that had plagued him. He pursued his studies in the knowledge that he was, once again, Drona’s foremost pupil.

You can find this story in the online English translation of the Mahabharata at sacred-texts.com.


The Story of Indra and Vipula.

By the Angkorian period, Indra was no longer an object of religious veneration, but rather a colorful figure of legends preserved in the Mahabharata, which characterizes him as a relentless carouser and womanizer.  On one occasion, for example, he is described as approaching in his chariot, “followed by masses of clouds, celestial singers, and several bevies of celestial dancing girls.”  The epic also portrays Indra as being suspicious and fearful of the power generated by ascetics through their austere practices and chastity.  On some occasions, Indra takes action to undermine such austerities.  For example, when the Asura Karambha engages in a course of rigid penance underwater, Indra turns himself into a crocodile and eats him.  Not all of Indra’s encounters with ascetics and sages are resolved to the god’s advantage, however, and many such encounter ends with the ascetic gaining the upper hand.

Devasarman, a great sage, had married Ruchi, a woman unequalled for her beauty.  Though wise and restrained in most respects, the jealous sage obsessed about his wife’s chastity, fretting especially about the threat posed by the philandering Indra, who was known already to have cast a lustful eye upon her.

One day, Devasarman had to leave the house in order to perform a sacrifice.  Fearing that Indra would attempt to seduce Ruchi in his absence, he summoned his favorite disciple Vipula and charged him with protecting the lady’s chastity.  Before leaving, he impressed Vipula with the need to employ the utmost of vigilance, since the cunning Indra was capable of assuming any shape that he thought would serve his purpose.  “Do thou,” said the sage to his disciple, “take every care for seeing that the chief of the celestials may not defile this spouse of mine like a wretched dog licking the Havi kept in view of a sacrifice.” (Havi was the clarified butter poured upon the sacrificial fire.  For a dog to lick the butter would be to defile it and render it unsuitable for use in the sacrifice.)  Trusting in Vipula, the great sage left his home.

Vipula mused long and hard on what strategy he would employ to thwart Indra.  Finally, he decided to use his Yoga-powers in order to enter Ruchi non-physically and to possess her spiritually.  Sitting down next to the unsuspecting lady, he began to lecture her on matters of sexual morality, while gazing deeply into her eyes.  “Directing his eyes then to hers and uniting the rays of light that emanated from her organs of vision with those that issued from his, Vipula (in his subtle form) entered the lady’s body even as the element of wind enters that of ether of space. Penetrating her eyes with his eyes and her face with his face, Vipula stayed, without moving, within her invisibly, like her shadow. Restraining every part of the lady’s body, Vipula continued to dwell within her, intent on protecting her from Indra. The lady herself knew nothing of this.”  Of course, Vipula’s intentions in so entering his master’s wife were entirely honorable and beyond reproach.  “I shall stay within her and yet not touch her person,” the disciple told himself, “like a drop of water on a lotus-leaf which lies on it and yet does not drench it at all.”

Indra arrived soon enough.  He had adopted the form of exquisite beauty which he regarded as most conducive to his purpose of seduction.  Entering the sage’s dwelling, he found Vipula and Ruchi sitting, motionless, side by side.  Vipula was “immovable as a stake, and with eyes destitute of vision, like a picture drawn on the canvas.” As for Ruchi, she was “possessed of full and rotund hips, and having a deep and swelling bosom. Her eyes were large and expansive like the petals of the lotus, and her face was as beautiful and sweet as the moon at full.”  Though she desired to greet the comely stranger, she could not, since Vipula was restraining her.  Speaking through her lips, Vipula challenged Indra and asked him why he had come.  It was then that Indra saw Vipula within Ruchi, like a reflection on a mirror.  Ashamed, the god was taken with fear of the sage’s curse.  Seeing him trembling thus, Vipula returned to his own body and began to rebuke Indra with sharp words.  “Thou thinkest that thou art an immortal and that, therefore, art at liberty to proceed in this way. Do not, however, disregard the Brahmanas. Know that there is nothing unattainable by penance.”  Mortified, Indra made himself invisible and fled.  Devasarman, however, was greatly pleased upon his return from the sacrifice, and granted Vipula the boon that he would never swerve from the path of righteousness.

You can find this story in the online English translation of the Mahabharata at sacred-texts.com