At over 1.8 million words, the Mahabharata (Figure 1) is the longest of the Sanskrit epics of ancient India: ten times the length of the Odyssey and the Iliad combined! The story of Sukanya comes from Book 3, Vana Parva (Book of the Forest).
Below are three accounts of the story, firstly an outline synopsis, then an English translation from the original Sanskrit and finally a twentieth century interpretation in the graphic novel format that has been so popular with children in India for generations.
The Story of Sukanya: Outline
Chyavana, a young man, is meditating in the forest. His meditation becomes so deep that ants begin to build a nest around him. Time passes and a huge ant hill is formed. Eventually local people advise each other: “don’t disturb this mound – my grandfather said a sage is meditating under there”.
One beautiful spring day King Saryati comes to the forest with his retinue for a spring festival. His only daughter Sukanya notices the ant hill and seeing what looks like two jewels glowing from within, pokes them with a sharp stick.
There is a scream from inside the ant hill, the glow goes out and Sukanya, terrified, runs away. The weather changes, and the king and his entourage begin to feel ill. Sukanya senses that it is something to do with the jewels in the ant hill and confesses. They investigate the huge ant hill. Chyavana, now a Sage and a very old man is revealed beneath, he has been blinded, and as compensation asks for Sukanya’s hand in marriage.
The King, aware of Chyavana’s spiritual stature agrees. Sukanya lives with the sage happily and faithfully in the forest for many years
One day she is spotted by the Aswini Devas, two beautiful youthful demigods. They ask: “why are you with this old man when you could marry one of us and live in paradise?”
Sukanya politely refused the offer, confirming her devotion to her husband. The young gods spoke again. “You should know that we are the physicians of heaven. We have a deal for you. We shall make your husband young and handsome and looking exactly like one of us. You must then choose one among the three”. Sukanya was willing to take this test.
The youths asked her to bring her husband to a nearby lake. The sage and the young gods immersed themselves completely in the water at the same time. When they rose up Sukanya found three identically looking handsome youths. As there are several different permutations of the story at this point – all will be revealed in the world premiere, watch this space!
THE MAHABHARATA OF KRISHNA-DWAIPAYANA VYASA
Translated into English prose from the original Sanskrit Text.
BY PRATAP CHANDRA ROY, C* I. E.
SECTION CXXII (Tirtha-yatra Farm continued)
“Lomasa said, ‘A son was born to the great saint Bhrigu, Chya- vana by name. And he, of an exceedingly resplendent form, began to practise austerities by the side of yonder lake. And, Pandu’s son ! O protector of men ! he of mighty energy assumed the posture called Vira, quiet and still like an inanimate post, and for a long period, remained at the same spot of ground. And lo was turned into an ant-hill covered over with creepers. And after the lapse of a long period, swarms of ants enveloped him. And covered all over with ants, the sagacious saint looked exactly like a heap of earth. And he went on practising austerities, enveloped on all sides with that ant-hill. Now after the lapse of a long space of time, that ruler of earth, Saryati by name, for amusement visited this pleasant and excellent lake. With him were four thousand females, espoused by him, son of Bharata’s race ! there was also his only daughter endowed with beautiful brows, named Sukanya. She surrounded by her maids, and decked out with jewels fit for the celestials, while walking about, approached the anthill where Bhrigu’s son was seated. And surrounded by her maids, she began to amuse herself there, viewing the beautiful scenery, and looking at the lofty trees of the wood. And she was handsome and in the prime of her youth ; and she was amorous and bent on frolicking. And she began to break the twigs of the forest trees bearing blossoms. And Bhrigu’s son endued with intelligence beheld her wandering like lightning, without her maids, and wearing a single piece of cloth and decked with ornaments. And seeing her in the lone forest, that ascetic of exceeding effulgence was inspired with desire. And that regenerate Rishi possessing ascetic energy, who had a low voice, called the auspicious one, but she heard him not. Then seeing the eyes of Bhrigu’s son from the ant-hill, Sukanya from curiosity and losing her sense, said, ‘What is this T and with thorns pierced the eyes (of the Rishi). And as his eyes being pierced by her, he felt exceeding pain and became wroth. And (from anger) he obstructed the calls of nature of Saryati’s forces. And on their calls of nature being obstructed, the men were greatly afflicted. And seeing this state of things, the king asked, ‘Who is it that hath done wrong to the illustrious son of Bhrigu, old and ever engaged in austerities and of wrathful temper ? Tell me quick if ye know it’. The soldiers (thereupon) answered him saying, ‘We do not know whether any one hath done wrong to the Rishi. Do thou, as thou list, make a searching enquiry into the matter. Thereupon that ruler of earth, using (as he saw occasion) both menace and conciliation, asked his friends (about the circumstance). But they too did not know anything. Seeing that the army was distressed owing to the obstruction of the calls of nature, and
also finding her father aggrieved, Sukanya said, ‘Roving in the forest, I lighted in the ant-hill here upon some brilliant substance. Thereupon taking it for a glow-worm I neared it, and pierced it (with thorns).’ Hearing this Saryati immediately came to the ant-hill, and there saw Bhrigu’s son, old both in years and austerities. Then the lord of earth with joined hands, besought (the ascetic) saying, *It behoveth thee to forgive what my daughter through ignorance and greenness, hath done unto thee/ Chyavana, the son of Bhrigu, addressed the monarch saying, ‘Disregarding me, this one, filled with pride hath pierced my eyes. Even her, king, endued with beauty and who was bereft of her senses by ignorance and temptation even thy daughter would I have for my bride, I tell thee truly, on this condition alone will I forgive thee.’
Lomasa said, “Hearing the words of the sage, Saryati, without pausing, bestowed his daughter on the high-souled Chyavana. Having received the hand of that girl, the holy one was pleased with the king. And having won the Eislms grace, the king went to his city, accompanied by his troops. And the faultless Sukanya also having obtained that ascetic for her husband, began to tend him, practising penances, and observing the ordinance. And that one of a graceful countenance, and void of guile worshipped Chyavana, and also ministered unto guests, and the sacred fire.”
SECTION CXXIII (Tirtha-yatra Parva continued)
“Lomasa said, ‘Once on a time, O king, those celestials, namely the twin Aswins, happened to behold Sukanya, when she had (just) bathed, and when her person was bare. And seeing that one of excellent limbs, and like unto the daughter of the lord of celestials, the nose-born Aswins neared her, and addressed her, saying, ‘O thou of shapely thighs, whose daughter art thou ? And what doest thou in this wood ? auspicious one, thou of excellent grace, we desire to know this, do thou therefore tell us.’ Thereupon she replied bashfully unto those foremost of celestials, ‘Know me as Saryati’s daughter, and Chyavana’s wife.’ Thereat the Aswins again spake unto her, smiling, ‘What for, fortunate one, hath thy father bestowed thee on a person who is verging on death ? Surely, timid girl, thou shinest in this wood like lightning. Not in the regions of the celestials themselves, girl, have our eyes lighted on thy like. O damsel, unadorned and without gay robes as thou art, thou beautifiest this wood exceedingly. Still, thou of faultless limbs, thou canst not look so beautiful, when (as at present) thou art soiled with mud and dirt, as thou couldst, if decked with every ornament and wearing gorgeous apparel. Why, excellent girl in such plight servest thou a decrepit old husband, and one that hath become incapable of realising
VANA PAKVA 267
pleasure and also of maintaining thee, thou of luminous smiles ? O divinely beautiful damsel, do thou, forsaking Chyavana accept one of us for husband. It behoveth thee not to spend thy youth fruitlessly.’ ”
“Thus addressed Sukanya answered the celestials saying, ‘I am devoted to my husband, Chyavana ; do ye not entertain any doubts (regarding my fidelity).’ Thereupon they again spake unto her, ‘We two are the celestial physicians of note. We will make thy lord young and graceful. Do thou then select one of us, viz., ourselves and thy husband, for thy partner. Promising this do thou, O auspicious one, bring hither thy husband.’ O king, agreeably to their words she went to Bhrigu’s son and communicated to him what the two celestials had said. Hearing her message, Chyavana said unto his wife, ‘Do thou so.’ Having received the permission of her lord, (she returned to the celestials) and said, ‘Do ye so.’ Then hearing her words, viz., ‘Do ye so,’ they spoke unto the king’s daughter, ‘Let thy husband enter into water.’ Thereat Chya- vana desirous of obtaining beauty, quickly entered into water. The twin Aswins also, king, sank into the sheet of water. And the next moment they all came out of the tank in surpassingly beautiful forms, and young and wearing burnished ear-rings. And all, possessed of the same appearance pleasing to behold, addressed her saying, ‘0 fortunate one, do thou choose one of us for spouse. And beauteous one, do thou select him for lord who may please thy fancy.’ Finding, however, all of them of the same appearance she deliberated ; and at last ascertaining the identity of her husband, even selected him,
“Having obtained coveted beauty and also his wife, Chyavana, of exceeding energy, well pleased, spake these words unto the nose-born celestials : ‘Since at your hands, an old man, I have obtained youth, and beauty, and also this wife of mine, I will, well pleased, make you quaffers of the Soma juice in the presence of the lord of celestials himself. This I tell you truly.’ Hearing this, highly delighted, the twins ascended to heaven ; and Chyavana and Sukanya too passed their days happily even like celestials.”
SECTION CXXIV (Tirtha-yatra Parva continued)
“Lamasa said, ‘Now the news came to Saryati that Chyavana had been turned into a youth. And well pleased he came, accompanied by his troops, to the hermitage of the son of Bhrigu. And he saw Chyavana and Sukanya, like two children sprung from celestials, and his joy and that of his wife were as great as if the king had conquered the entire world. And the ruler of earth together with his wife was received honourably by that saint. And the king seated himself near the ascetic, and entered into a delightful conversation of an auspicious kind. Then, king, the son of Bhrigu spake to the king these words of a soothing nature : ‘I shall, O king, officiate at a religious ceremony to be performed by thee : let the requisite articles, therefore, be procured.’ Thereat, that protector of earth Saryati, experienced the very height of joy, and great king, he expressed his approbation of the proposal made by Chyavana. And on an auspicious day, suitable for the commencement of a sacrificial ceremony, Saryati ordered the erection of a sacrificial shrine of an excellent description and splendidly furnished with all desirable things. There Chyavana, the son of Bhrigu, officiated for the king as his priest. Now listen to me relating the wonderful events which happened at that spot. Chyavana took up a quantity of the Soma juice, in order that he might offer the same to the Aswins, who were physicians to the celestials. And while the saint was taking up the intended offering for those celestial twins, Indra pronounced his interdiction, saying, ‘These Aswins both of them in my opinion have no right to receive an offering of the Soma juice. They are the physicians of the celestials in heaven, this vocation of theirs hath disentitled them (in the matter of Soma).’ Thereupon Chyavana said, ‘These two are of mighty enterprise, possessed of mighty souls, and uncommonly endued with beauty and grace. And they, Indra, have converted me into an eternally youthful person, even like unto a celestial. Why shouldst thou and the other celestials have a right to the distilled Soma juice, and not they ? lord of the celestials, O demolisher of hostile towns ! be it known to thee that the Aswins also rank as gods/ At this, Indra spake saying, ‘These two practise the healing art, so they are but servants. And assuming forms at their pleasure they roam about in the world of mortal beings. How can they then rightfully claim the juice of the Soma ?’
‘Lomasa said, When these very identical words were spoken again and again by the lord of celestials, the son of Bhrigu, setting Indra at naught, took up the offering he had intended to make. And as he was about to take up an excellent portion of the Soma juice with the object of offering it to the two Aswins, the destroyer of the demon Vala (Indra) observed his act, and thus spoke unto him, ‘If thou take up the Soma with
VANA PABVA 269
a view to offering it to those celestials, I shall hurl at thou my thunderbolt of awful form, which is superior to all the weapons that exist.’ Thus addressed by Indra, the son of Bhrigu, cast at Indra a smiling glance, and took up in due form a goodly quantity of the Soma juice, to make an offering to the Aswins. Then Sachi’s lord hurled at him the thunderbolt of awful form. And as he was about to launch it, his arm was paralysed by Bhrigu’s son. And having paralysed his arm, Chyavana recited sacred hymns, and made offerings on the fire. His object gained, he now attempted to destroy that celestial. Then by the virtue of that saint’s ascetic energy, an evil spirit came into being, a huge demon, Mada by name, of great strength and gigantic proportions. And his body was incapable of being measured either by demons or by gods. And his mouth was terrible and of huge size, and with teeth of sharpened edge. And one of his jaws rested on the earth, and the other stretched to heaven. And he had four fangs, each extending as far as one hundred yojanas. And his other fangs were extended to the distance of ten yojanas, and were of a form resembling towers on a palace, and which might be likened to the ends of spears. And his two arms were like unto hills, and extended ten thousand yojanas, and both were of equal bulk. And his two eyes resembled the sun and the moon ; and his face rivaled the conflagration at the universal dissolution. And he was licking his mouth with his tongue, which, like lightning, knew no rest. And his mouth was open, and his glance was frightful, and seemed as if he would forcibly swallow up the world. The demon rushed at the celestial by whom a hundred sacrifices had been performed. And his intent was to devour that deity. And the world resounded with the loud and frightful sounds uttered by the Asura.’ ”
(Tirtha-yatra Parva continued)
“Lomasa said, ‘When the god who had performed a hundred sacrifices (Indra) beheld the demon Mada of a frightful mien, coming towards him with open mouth, his intention being to devour him, and looking like the god of death himself, while his own arms remained paralysed, he through fear repeatedly licked the corners of his mouth. Then the lord of the celestials, tortured with fright, spake to Chyavana saying, ‘O Bhrigu’s son ! O Brahmana ! verily I tell thee as truth itself, that from this day forward the two Aswins will be entitled to the Soma juice. Be merciful tome! My undertaking can never come to naught. Let this be the rule. And I know, O saint of the sacerdotal caste ! that thy work can never come to nothing. These two Aswins will have a right to drink the Soma juice, since thou hast made them entitled to the same. And, Bhrigu’s
son, I have done this to spread the fame of thy powers, and my object was to give thee an occasion for displaying thy powers. My other object was that the fame of the father of this Sukanya here might spread every- where. Therefore be merciful to me : let it be as thou wishest.’ Being thus addressed by Indra, the wrath of Chyavana of mighty soul was quickly appeased, and he set free the demolisher of hostile cities (Indra).