Pandava Ajnatavasa: Three Interpretations

Recently I happened to read an article on the internet where the ajnatavasa incident of virata parva in the mahabharata was used to interpret human psychology. The author felt that the roles that each pandava put on was an “attempt to accept their disowned sides”. So yudhisthira becoming kanka was an attempt to “get in touch” with his gambling addiction, bhima becoming valala was getting in touch with his greed and lust and arjuna got in touch with his feminine side by becoming brihannala.

The beauty of the mahabharata is that it allows for a variety of interpretations. Without a doubt, each such interpretation is driven by the swaroopa and samskara of the querist. However, for those who seek to indulge in the mahabharata as an aide in their spiritual journey, attempts at interpretation on the strength of one’s own understanding can be risky. Humans are, after all, extremely defective — dOshapoorna! Without the aid of shAstra and shAstrajnas, we are bound to misinterpret scriptures and head in the wrong direction.

It is, therefore, very important we take the help of our great acharyas who have left a treasure-trove of works related to our scriptures and attempt understanding them.

The three interpretations of mahabharata

In the jaya itself, maharishi veda vyasa has mentioned that every incident in the epic can be interpreted in (at least) three different ways.

  1. aastikadi — आस्तिकादि
  2. manvadi — मन्वादि
  3. uparicharadi — उपरिचरादि

The interpretation of the grantha treating it as a story of believers — aastikas — involving the characters of pandavas etc — is known as the aastikadi meaning.

The interpretation of the grantha treating its characters representing various gunas and doshas is known as manvadi. For e.g.

  • Yudhisthira represents dharma.
  • Bhima represents bhakti, jnana, bala and 7 other virtues.
  • Arjuna represents shravana and manana.
  • Nakula represents sheela.
  • Sahadeva represents vinaya.
  • Draupadi represents vidya.
  • Duryodhana represents ajnana.
  • Dushashana represents mithyajnana.
  • Shakuni represents nastikya (atheism).

The interpretation of the entire mahabharata and every incident in it as being a story and praise of narayana is known as the uparicharadi meaning.

Based on the details given by Sri Madhwacharya in his mahabharata-tatparya-nirnaya, let us attempt to look at the roles taken up by the pandavas and draupadi as per the three interpretation styles possible.

Astikadi interpretation of the ajnatasvasa roles

Yudhisthira had already performed the rajasuya yaga when the ajnatavasa came up. He was a chakravarti, albeit one who had been deceived of his kingdom. Yet he could not bow to anyone else owing to his excess punya as a result of the yaga. Sri Madhwa indicates that one to whom he bowed would face difficulty for having made such a punya-jeevi bow to him. Hence yudhisthira chose to put on the role of kanka — a tridandi sanyasi.

Bhima’s most important oath was that he would always abide by the ‘bhagavata dharma’ — the path of paramatma. This meant a strict adherence to shAstra and complete surrender to the path laid down by bhagavanta. As a grihastha and a kshatriya, eating others’ food was strictly forbidden for him. ‘para-anna varjana’ was an important vrata in bhagavata dharma. He also had to take on a role where he wouldn’t be required to display his jnana — knowledge. The role of valala, a cook in the palace, suited these requirements perfectly.

Draupadi was an ideal saha-dharmani. It was her duty to take on a role in the same varna as her husband — bhimasena. Hence she chose the role of a sairandhri by name malini.

Arjuna had to redeem the curse given by urvashi when he had visited swarga during the vana parva. Indra had modified the curse and made it applicable for only an year. But arjuna still had to spend at least one year as a shanDa — transgender. Hence he chose this opportunity to complete that requirement. Arjuna became brihannala — a dance and music teacher.

Nakula and sahadeva genuinely wanted to hide themselves from the kauravas and not be discovered. Hence they chose to become a charioteer by name damagranthi and a cowherd by name tantripala respectively.

Manvadi interpretation of the ajnatasvasa roles

In the manvadi interpretation, we need to look at the reasons for the roles taken up based on the gunas each of the pandavas represented. In each case, the question to be asked is — “what is to be done if the particular guna is to be protected and enriched further?” Unless the particular approach is followed, each of the gunas will end up being discovered and nullified by the doshas that are represented by the kauravas.

Dharma — represented by yudhisthira — needs detachment if it has to increase. Dharma calls for sacrifice — vairagya. Moha or attachment prevents one from discharging his or her duty. Hence vairagya is the path to dharma. For this reason, Yudhisthira chose to become a yati — where he can practice vairagya.

Bhakti, jnana and bala — represented by bhima — need cultivation or maturing — for them to flourish. They need to be cooked — soodana — or practiced — for bhakti and jnana and bala to become pakva (ripe or mature). Hence the symbolism of bhima taking on the role of a sooda — cook.

Vidya — education — represented by draupadi — needs seva — service for it to be acquired. This is the reason young students are subject to intense routine in traditional gurukulas. Activity for the body ensures sharp senses leading to increased acquisition of information. Hence draupadi chose the role of a sairandhri.

Arjuna — shravana/manana — represented by arjuna — needs teaching. One’s indulgence increases with teaching. Hence arjuna took on the role of a dance and music teacher representing the manana performed.

Sheela — character — represented by nakula — needs intense self-control for sustenance. In shastra, horses are representative of our sense-organs — indriyas. A charioteer controls horses. This represents an attempt at keeping ones sense-organs under control — indriya nigraha— leading to pure character. Hence the role of a charioteer by nakula.

Vinaya — humility — is a trait of one who has control over his speech. The word ‘go’ in sanskrit also means sarasvathi or vaak. Hence the symbolic meaning of sahadeva becoming a go-paala is to develop control over one’s words. This is the hallmark of one who displays humility.

Uparicharadi interpretation of the ajnatasvasa roles

In this interpretation, the entire incident is seen in the light of obtaining the blessings of narayana.

The word ajnata can also be interpreted to mean “one who is not known”. Shastra declares paramatma as one who can never be known completely. His gunas are infinite. Therefore the knowledge, about him, that even lord brahma has, is close to zero. Hence the word ajnata fits paramatma very well.

Ajnatavasa therefore is the attempt a satvika jeeva makes to reach him — or stay close to him.

For this to happen, a jeeva needs to be away from the influence of kali. In other words, duryodhana and the other kauravas should not be able to find him.

What then are the practices one should follow in life to keep kali away and succeed in staying close to ‘ajnata’?

Just as they are about to enter the kingdom of virata, yudhisthira declares that he will keep engaging the king in matters of dharma, purana, jyotisha and other shastras in his role as kanka, the yati. Hence yudhisthira represents ‘swadhyaya’ in our pursuit of paramatma.

Bhima, in his role as valala, performs the vaishwanara yajna every day. Bhima’s role is therefore indicative of ‘yajna’ needed to reach paramatma. Bhima also keeps training himself with various other wrestlers and even wild animals in preparation for the final war. His efforts therefore represent the ‘tapas’ required to attain paramatma.

Draupadi performs the role of a loyal servant as malini. She represents the ‘seva’ or ‘shushrusha’ that one must engage in — to make spiritual progress.

Arjuna constantly engaged in imparting musical knowledge to uttara and other students. He represents the ‘daana’ required to be performed to attain Hari.

Nakula in his role as the master of horses attempts indriya-nigraha. In the uparichara interpretation, this is representative of ‘upavasa’ as a vrata needed to please narayana.

Sahadeva performed the role of a cowherd or go-pala. All the kshetras in bharata-khanda are represented in a go-mata. The caring of cows therefore is equivalent to performing ‘tirthayatra’.

Thus, the five pandavas and draupadi represent swadhyaya, yajna, tapas, shushrusha, daana, upavasa and tirthayatra — the most important limbs of one’s spiritual sadhana!

|| sri krishnarpanamastu ||

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