[I bow to thee, Shiva]
The Khandava forest reverberated with the nightingale’s rhapsody, as its inhabitants stirred awake at the first faint sign of dawn. Under the tutelage of the banyan tree sat a man, cross-legged. His eyes were closed in deep meditation, and the incessant chirping of the birds had no bearing on him, as he chanted mantras dedicated to Lord Shiva.
His matted hair was tied in a bun atop his head, held in place firmly with a beaded string. His swarthy complexion and gaunt body spoke of the lengthy period he had spent in the forest. However, his furrowed brow hinted at a discomfort he harboured inside his heart. Stray thoughts invaded his mind, trying to break his faltering concentration. After what seemed like an eternity, his facial muscles loosened up, and his breathing returned to normal.
The Gandiva bow lay inert next to him. Its 108 strings craved for action, but waited patiently for its owner to rise. A rumble emanating from the man’s midsection broke through the barrier imposed by the meditation, and his eyes opened. He gazed at the sun above him, shining with all its might.
It’s noon! No wonder my body is protesting.
He rose swiftly, and hefted the bow and quiver containing two arrows onto his shoulders. The abrasive hemp strap bit into his scarred skin, but being a true kshatriya, he didn’t wince one bit. He headed towards the spring. Sitting by a boulder, he munched on the kosam berries, spitting out the seeds one by one.
Bhratashree would have lectured me about the seed, and the oil it ekes out. I miss him. I miss my brothers.
Hunger satiated; Arjuna got up, cupped the gurgling water into his palm, and drank it.
[Thou art the super soul, situated within the heart of all living beings]
An odd rustling sound piqued his interest. His senses on full alert, he cocked his head, trying to focus on the source. There it is! The leaves crackled. Quickly, Arjuna retrieved an arrow from his quiver, and raised his Gandiva. A spotted deer came into view, and in the blink of an eyelid, vanished before the Pandava’s peripheral vision could process it. Frowning, he walked back to his place under the banyan tree.
Arjuna woke up with a start, fidgeting. A nightmare, of which he could recollect nothing, had marred his sleep. A gust of cold wind blew, drying up the beads of sweat on his body, and he shivered involuntarily.
It’s no use going back to sleep. It’s already Brahma-Muhurut. Picking up his weapons, he slipped his feet into the paduka, and walked to the spring again. He took a dip in the water, and greeted the Sun God with folded hands.
Dear Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned.
The shrill crowing of a rooster pierced the morning haze and grew to a crescendo, until Arjuna rose with a disgruntled groan. I must change my tactics. He picked up the Gandiva, and set his sights on a dead tree. Breathing evenly, he closed his eyes, tensed the bow, and released the arrow. Bull’s eye! I am the best! He beamed, and continued his archery practice till the shadows grew longer and visibility became a challenge.
Darkness swooped down upon the forest. As Arjuna lay down, his thoughts flitted to Draupadi. I wonder what she is doing now. Does she miss me? He reminisced about the sensuous caresses of her shapely fingers over his bare torso, while he writhed in pleasure. Suddenly, he got up. That feeling wasn’t a figment of his imagination. Something slimy did run over his chest. Maybe a snake! But remnants of the sleep tugged at him, and without further ado, he drifted off to a dreamless sleep.
The next morning, Arjuna woke up to find a single peacock feather by his side. He hadn’t even discerned the slightest movement of a seemingly large bird in his vicinity! Am I losing my concentration? Lost in thoughts, he went to the spring to perform his morning ablutions.
Om Namah Shivaya! Feeling rejuvenated, he sat near the bank of the waters, and picked up the berries.
A loud splash interrupted his frugal meal, and before he could react, he was soaked to the skin. Instinctively, he reached for his bow, and turned to face the enemy who had dared to douse him. It turned out to be a baby elephant, its tiny trunk wobbling in a languid pace. A wide grin broke out on Arjuna’s face, and petting the pachyderm, he left the scene. Its mother must be nearby.
The archery session continued in full swing, the banyan tree witnessing the phenomenal skills of Dronacharya’s favourite pupil. Afterwards, the warrior relaxed in the lotus position. His lips mumbled in an inaudible prayer. The rest of the day was uneventful.
The sky turned a wondrous shade of saffron. No sooner had Arjuna got up when he heard a roar. Stiffening, he looked around for the wildcat. Nothing! His brows knitted. Something is not right here! I keep hearing sounds or catching glimpses of elusive animals. Even the nights are not spared. My dreams are suffused with the sounds and visions of someone… or something. I can sense it. What’s happening here?
His chest heaved with fury. I’m Arjuna. The land’s greatest archer. Nothing can defeat me. I’ll prove it to my detractors. He stood on one leg; his hands raised above his head. He would maintain this position until darkness set in.
“Everyone prays to Lord Shankar. But they forget, they must walk past me to reach his divine presence,” a bovine voice addressed him.
Now a talking cow? “Who are you?” murmured Arjuna, eyes closed. I will not break my meditation, come what may!
“Didn’t you recognise me, O Warrior? I am Nandi. Better known as Lord Shiva’s bull.”
Arjuna opened his eyes instantly, and finding no one there, plonked down under the tree. O Kedarnath! Are you testing me? He looked heavenward. The quietude in the forest acted as the perfect foil to the storm brewing in his heart. The sweet aroma of a lotus wafted in, teasing his nostrils. Arjuna swivelled and staggered back, as his eyes took into the creature that stood before him.
Tottering on three limbs, a pair of beady eyes peered at him from the head of a rooster, its red comb erect, and the wattle swaying in the breeze. The head tapered into the slender indigo neck of a peacock, which culminated into a bull’s hump resplendent with Lord Shankar’s crescent moon. One of its hind legs was that of a tiger, complete with yellow-black stripes, while the other resembled the sinewy limb of a deer. Next to the hump, the torso was as muscular as a lion. A slithering, hooded serpent completed the rear section, swaying furiously from side to side like a swishing tail. One of its forearms belonged to an elephant. A human hand holding a fresh, pink lotus sprung out from its neck.
“Greetings!” The voice was as dulcet as the notes from a flute.
“W… who are you?” stammered Arjuna, as his mind registered the events of the past couple of days, connecting the dots.
The creature smiled. “I’m Navagunjara.”
Arjuna blinked. He stretched his quivering hand out to touch the creature, but it dissolved into the ether, taking with it the aroma of the holy flower.
I’m losing my mind. Perhaps loneliness is getting to me. I have come across many animals, but none like the one my mind just conjured up. With an audible sigh, he lay down. He knew sleep would be impossible.
[ The Lord pervades this universe]
Arjuna’s thoughts ran amok. Navagunjara. I haven’t heard the name before. Navagunjara! Nine old virtues? What does that even mean? Is it a subtle hint for me to adopt these nine qualities? But what are these? And what sort of an animal was that? Is my conscience trying to lead me somewhere?
The next morning, he decided to undertake an arduous journey deeper inside the forest, hoping for a respite from his rogue thoughts. As he walked further, the trails became narrower, the branches snagged his hair, and scratched his arms and face. Dead leaves crunched under his foot, as squirrels and lizards scrabbled away to safety at the approach of an intruder amidst them. Finally, Arjuna located a clearing and rested for a while. The forest felt alive, humming with energy, as the insects chirped, and the earthy smell mixed with the aroma of the herbs. Arjuna inhaled the heady fragrance deeply, and felt calmness enveloping him. He untied the bun, allowing his hair to cascade down his shoulders. At a distance, he could hear the faint burbling of a waterfall. Feeling refreshed, he rose and headed towards it.
On reaching there, he cupped his hands to drink the clear water. His reflection stared back at him. His face appeared haggard, and there were circles under his eyes, He picked up a stray pebble and flung it on an impulse. As it skipped over the water, his image splintered into fragments, only to reunite when the surface became still again. Arjuna sat there transfixed. Navagunjara! Sum of many parts? Nine animals make up this creature. So, should I examine it as a whole?
His reverie was interrupted by a now familiar voice.
“Greetings, Arjuna!” It was the same dulcet tune.
It isn’t real, just a figment of my imagination.It even knows my name.
Arjuna turned around. His arms sought his Gandiva, and his fingers curled around it.
“Do you doubt my existence, Arjuna?”
Navagunjara’s head was cocked, while its eyes stared back at him. It didn’t emit any negative vibes, but its very presence made the Pandava uncomfortable. His mind found it difficult to process the creature. Which body part should I concentrate on? How can it talk?
“Who are you? Why do you keep disturbing me? Answer me!”he hollered.
The vision of the creature blurred before him, as if a veil of mist had descended on the forest. Arjuna took a step forward, his ears alert to any creaking of dead leaves or the rustling of the wind. And as suddenly as it had appeared, the mist cleared. Arjuna’s eyes welled up in tears. He dropped his Gandiva, and fell down on his knees, prostrating before the dark-skinned cowherd.
[May thou illumine our mind and understanding]
Krishna’s smile was beatific. His eyes glinted mischievously, yet they held warmth and compassion.
“O Parth! Get up!” He placed his hands gently on Arjuna’s shoulders.
The Pandava got up and wiped his eyes. “I know there is a reason behind this behaviour of yours. But it’s unfathomable to me. O Devakinandan! Has there been a lapse in my training? Have I sinned? Please tell me!”
“Sabyasachi! You are the one of the greatest archers our land has ever witnessed. But you are not without your vices.” Krishna paused. Arjuna was all ears. The Lord continued, “A warrior lives to fight. And to die in the battlefield. But a true king is one who has conquered his vanity.”
Arjuna looked down. Realisation hit him like arrows.
“Human beings believe that they possess the wisdom to rule lands spanning huge areas. But they forget! They are just a minuscule drop in the infinite universe. The endless realms of knowledge that elude them would fill up the abode of the Devas. Tell me, Parth! You hesitated when you saw Navagunjara. Didn’t you doubt your sanity for a moment? What happened to your education you had gathered from your guru? Shoonya!”
“Pardon me, O Kanha! I forgot that I am not God.” Arjuna’s voice quivered.
“Parth! You are destined for greatness. But cast aside your pride, and acknowledge others’ skills too. Embrace humility. Remember the basic tenet on which our sanatana dharma is based. Never, I repeat, never, raise your weapon against an unarmed creature. The unknown is not necessarily your fiend. Keep your mind open.”
“I have erred. You have taught me a lesson and punished me for my transgression.”
“You are human, Dhananjay. A wise man learns from his mistakes, and doesn’t repeat it. I have always reposed my full faith in you, my friend! I am confident that you will forever be on the side of righteousness. My blessings will always trail you like a shadow.”
Arjuna touched Krishna’s feet. “Is Navagunjara one of your divine forms?”
The Lord smiled. “When the time comes, I will reveal my universal form.” With that, he placed his hand on Arjuna’s head.
[One Year Later]
The five brothers huddled together in front of their makeshift cottage, and spoke in undertones. Draupadi stood at a distance, her lustrous long hair let loose. It served as a constant reminder to her husbands the ignominy she had been subject to in the Kauravas’ court.
Yudhistira gaped at Arjuna. “Are you sure, brother?”
Bheema wiped his tears. “If only I had cracked open Duryodhana’s skull that day, we wouldn’t have had the misfortune to see this moment.”
Nakula and Sahadeva nodded in agreement, but didn’t speak a word.
“Let him experience what its like to be at the receiving end of a man’s lewd gaze.” As usual, Draupadi’s acerbic tongue hit the nail on the head.
The twelfth year of their exile was coming to an end, and as per the stakes of the game of dice played between Yudhistira and Shakuni, the Pandavas had to spend the thirteenth year in incognito. The eldest brother decided to don the role of a Brahmin, and become king Virata’s companion. Bheema, the wielder of the mighty mace, opted for the pots and the pans in the royal kitchen. The twins wanted to tend to the horses and the cows. Draupadi’s decision to serve the queen in the capacity of a maid broke the Pandavas’ hearts, but there was nothing they could do to prevent it.
However, it was Arjuna’s idea that left them shell-shocked. “I will be Brihannala, Princess Uttara’s dance teacher!” he had declared.
“How can a mighty warrior like you become effeminate?” Bheema thundered, his chest heaving in fury.
“It’s all in the mind, my kid brother. We are all humans. In front of the Almighty, we are equal. Yet, we are as insignificant as a speck of dust in this universe. We claim to be rational and intelligent. But are we aware of the binaries of gender? Or, if it really matters! Moreover, we have to ensure that Duryodhana doesn’t get the slightest hint of where, or for that matter, how we are staying. Everything is fair in dharma. Shouldn’t we avenge Draupadi’s disrobing?”
Tears welled up in Yudhishtira’s eyes. “Arjuna! You might be younger than me in age, but in wisdom, you have surpassed me.”
“I have to thank Navagunjara for it.”
Ten pairs of eyes peered at Arjuna quizzically. He gave a lopsided smile. “When the time comes, I will narrate my memorable encounter with him.”
The brothers laughed, and slapped each other’s backs. A faint smile formed over Draupadi’s lips, and she went inside her cottage. Arjuna hadn’t spoken a word about what had transpired in the Khandava forest, but she could feel it in her bones. Her sakha Krishna had definitely played a role there. She turned around. Her eyes met Arjuna’s for a fleeting second. Not a word was exchanged between then. But she had got her answer.
Krishna had woven his magic yet again. The wisdom emerging from Arjuna had its origin in him. She was confident that the meeting with Navagunjara would make one fine story.
Authors’ Notes –
The episode of Navagunjara finds mention in the Odia version of the Mahabharata. Our story is a fictional take on the events preceding and after Arjuna’s encounter with the creature. We have taken utmost care to ensure that the sanctity of the great epic hasn’t been tampered with.
Adambhitvam – sans pride
Brahma Muhurta – a period before sunrise
For #Artales-21 by –
Team Soul Sistahs
Members – Natasha Sharma & Narayani V Manapadam