Marriage of Arjuna,

Kakawin Indonesian Mahabharata – Part-1

In an earlier article written more than 10 years back (“Variations in Indonesian Mahabharata”), I discussed on some interesting variations in Indonesian Mahabharata, focusing more on the characters than on narratives. The source of information in that article was mostly the Indonesian puppet tradition – Wayang Puppet show. However, Indonesia, other than the tradition of puppetry, has a very rich tradition of literature of different poets narrating episodes of Mahabharata and particularly episodes of Arjuna’s life and deed.

In this present article, I will discuss Arjunawiwaha (‘Marriage of Arjuna”) which was written by Mpu Kanwa sometime between AD 1028 and 1035. This period, from the beginning of the 11th century can be regarded as the Golden Period or Renaissance in Indonesian History from various perspectives.

Indonesians regard the Ramayana and Mahabharata as their great cultural heritage and have kept the tradition alive in their heart with pride and honour. Indonesia is indeed a great lesson to the world that different religions and cultures can co-exist peacefully and meaningfully. Personally, the Indonesian fascination with Arjuna wonders me and makes me joyous; and this is one reason why I have chosen to discuss on a Kavya on Arjuna first.

Now, Kavya of the genre in which Arjunawiwaha is composed, is called Kakawin in Indonesia. It is a long narrative poem written in Old Javanese. Like Anushtup Chanda Shlokas in which Sanskrit Classical Mahabharata (henceforth to be mentioned as Mbh.) is predominantly written, Kakawin is verse of four lines with measured syllables in each line. The syllables contain both long vowel (Guru) and short vowel (Laghu). Kakawin is known in Bali as Kawi. One can easily detect the resonance with Kavi or Kavya. The technique of Kakawin owes much to Sanskrit literature, but surely not everything.

Kakawin Arjunawiwaha is written in a metre called Shaarduulawikriidita, each line containing 19 syllables. Shaarduula means Tiger. One interesting connection with Mbh. is that, in Vedic literature and Mbh., Vashishtha (whose grandson Vyasa is) is identified with tiger. I am not reading too much into this connection, yet I cannot overlook it too.

The period in which Arjunawiwaha is written has already been bearing the legacy of a rich cultural period that saw the construction of architectural wonders like the Buddhist Borobudur and Hindu Prambanan Temples (or, commonly known as Loro Jonggrang). Arjunawiwaha too is represented in bas-reliefs in East Javanese temples (called Candi in Indonesia) of Candi Kedaton in Probolinggo Regency, Candi Surawana near Kediri, and Candi Jago near Malang. Arjunawiwaha is believed to have been influenced in some parts by Bhaaravi’s Kiraataarjuniiya (6th century CE). I will come to that. Arjunawiwaha has more to it.

Mpu Kanwa’s patron was King Airlangga who had re-established his position as king in East Java. On the mainland, this was the time of the reign of Suryavarman I in Cambodia and Jayasinghavarman II in Champa. Another important historical event of the time is that, in 1025 the kingdom (or confederation of kingdoms) of Shrivijaya had been attacked and seriously weakened by the Cholas. Arjunawiwaha is believed to have been composed as an allegorical biography of King Airlangga, Mpu Kanwa’s concern being to depict the Ideal Kshatriya or Ideal King. Interestingly, Airlangga was one great patron of Wayang Puppet show.

Let us now straight to Arjunawiwaha.

Mpu Kanwa begins Canto-1 with a beautiful verse appealing for its universal wisdom –

“The mind of the scholar who understands the highest truth has already penetrated the Void and passed beyond.
His intentions do not flow from a desire for the objects of the senses, as if he were concerned with the things of this world,
But his aim is to succeed in winning fame for deeds of valour, and it is the happiness of the world that he longs for,
Content to remain veiled from the divine Cause of the World.” (1.1)

Mpu Kanwa bows his head “in the dust of the sandals of the man who is indeed thus” and begins his narrative. He introduces the context that Indra, at that time, has been troubled by the giant Nivaatakavaca whose stronghold has been at the southern foot of Mount Meru. Nivaatakavaca has been planning to shatter Indra’s abode from there. He is invincible because he has received a boon from God that he would not be killed by any God, demi-God or demon; but as in Indian Puranas, like Brahmaa granting boon to Asuras, the God also kept a lacuna in the boon – “But as for a mighty man, you just be careful!”

That “mighty man”, of course, has to be Arjuna.

In the meantime, Indra is aware that Arjuna is performing austerities in the mountains in search of weapons. In Mbh., the setting is at Vana Parvan. Arjuna, receiving blessings of Yudhishthira, his brothers and particularly of Draupadi, leaves them in their post-Dice Game Forest Exile in Kamyaka Forest, and travels to the Himalayas. Vyasa describes Arjuna’s penance as follows:

“And the delighted Arjuna of fierce energy and high soul then devoted himself to rigid austerities in that delightful and woody region. Clad in rags made of grass and furnished with a black deerskin and a stick, he commenced to eat withered leaves fallen upon the ground. And he passed the first month, by eating fruits at the interval of three nights; and the second by eating at the interval of the six nights; and the third by eating at the interval of a fortnight. When the fourth month came, that best of the Bharatas--the strong-armed son of Pandu--began to subsist on air alone. With arms upraised and leaning upon nothing and standing on the tips of his toes, he continued his austerities. And the illustrious hero's locks, in consequence of frequent bathing took the hue of lightning or the lotus.” (trans. KMG. Vana Parvan- 38)

Mpu Kanwa’s narrative begins with Arjuna already on the mountains.

Regarding ascesis and Bhakti, Mpu Kanwa gives us another beautiful verse full of universal wisdom–

5 Prayers and sacred syllables are worthless if their power is dulled by passions and mental darkness,
But if meditation on Shiwa is firm, then the Lord’s approval is assured,

For a mind unattached to the senses is pure, and appears to be free in its enjoyment of spiritual pleasures –
The difference from striving for supreme yogi-ship is one only of degree.

Indra already contemplates taking Arjuna’s help, but that cannot be without testing Arjuna’s merit. If Arjuna fails in the test, then Indra will have to look for help elsewhere. Thus seven Nymphs are chosen, their leaders being Tilottamaa and Suprabhaa.

Mpu Kanwa thus makes a creative variation from Mbh. where, during his penance, Shiva-Mahaadeva first tests him in Kiraata form, and the name Nivaatakavaca is introduced in Shiva’s voice. Shiva blesses Arjuna: “Thou shalt also defeat those Danavas of fierce prowess that have been born amongst men, and those Danavas also that are called Nivatakavachas.” (trans. KMG. Vana Parvan-41)

Now, Mpu Kanwa’s Tilottamaa is the one whom we find in the Sunda-Upasunda narrative by Narada to Pandavas in Adi Parvan (Section-210). Narada narrates the tale to establish the Narada-rule – that Pandavas have to be monogamous in relation to Draupadi even within the polyandrous marriage. Mpu Kanwa remembers the Indian narrative with a slight variation, and describes how Brahmaa develops four faces and Indra develops many eyes to drink Tilottamaa’s beauty. In Mbh., “Indra and the illustrious Sthaanu (Mahadeva) were the only ones that succeeded in preserving their tranquillity of mind.” (KMG. Adi Parvan- 213), implying Brahmaa too is affected; however, it is Mahadeva who develops faces on all sides in utmost desire to see Tilottamaa, and Indra develops thousand eyes.

In a unique variation, Mpu Kanwa sends Tilottamaa to Arjuna. Nothing can be more fitting. If Arjuna is to be tested, it has to be the most beautiful woman in the universe.

Mpu Kanwa’s Indra even mischievously introduces jealousy and competitive spirit in the heart of Tilottamaa et al. when he tells them that they must surpass in beauty Arjuna’s two beautiful wives – Subhadra and Uluupi. This should keep us wondering why Indra does not mention Draupadi, but no way can we have any answer now. As we shall see, despite Indra’s ‘omission’, the Apsaraas cannot forget Draupadi.

The seven Apsaraas headed by Tilottamaa start at once and descend on approaching Mount Indrakiila. How beautifully Mpu Kanwa introduces Shr?gaara Rasa with sensuous description of the Apsaraas and merging their beauty with nature –

And the cinnamon trees looked as if they were calling out to them,
their young leaves swaying to and fro,
As though challenging the redness of their breasts and lips
to a contest in sweetness and attraction (1.12)

The Apsaraas appear near a “cave of white stones”, and feel that it greets them with smiles, “While the sky above contained a rainbow that inspired feelings of love when the fine rain was lit by the sun.” (14) Mpu Kanwa gives a beautiful description of the natural setting complete with different birds, colourful flowers and waterfall.

The sight of the hermitage only increases their fatigue as they walk along. They have already started imagining Arjuna according to each one’s nature, and their heart is already “possessed by the power of Love.” (2.3) They reach a river and take rest under an Arjuna tree (- I would say, very significantly!). Each gets busy in different activity; one frowns, one swing her legs in the river, one washes her face, one looks into her own eyes in the mirror of the river and practices how to torment Arjuna.

Then the Apsaraas sit together, chatting, and planning how they would approach Arjuna. Finally they decide to approach him at night when the full Moon will be at her splendor. In course of chatting, some make a pleasant pastime of discussing beautiful ladies and the outward signs of what they are like (2.7). These beautiful ladies are variously named according to their nature and inclination or Svabhaava, like – “mask” (2.8), “painting” (2.9), “mistress” (3.1), “young lady” (3.2) and “noble” (3.3). This description reminds us of Vatsyaayana’s Kamasutra in which there is similar (but differently termed) categorization of women like Shankhini, Padmini etc. The description in the voice of Apsaraas is no doubt Mpu Kanwa’s pretext to flaunt his knowledge of Kamasutra, may be some Indonesian version.

But more than that, I would say, Mpu Kanwa strikes a very significant chord (for which, I believe he is one rare genius who really understood Vyasa’s spirit), that is frequently overlooked even by many ardent lovers of Mbh.; that is, Vyasa’s depiction of Kshatriya war, or say, male-male war, as parallel to Gender War, or say male-female war. Now, I am not using the phrase “male-female war” in a very literal sense (though Mbh. has plenty of that too). What I mean is: Gender Relation has an inherent dimension of Power, which, despite all sweetness of love and attractiveness of Kama, cannot be denied; and if denied, it is only to be denied at one’s peril. I am aware that this may not be sounding Politically Correct; however, our concern being Mahabharata, I would invite readers to think and feel how intrinsically Vyasa weaves Kshatriya (or male-male) War and Gender War in an inseparable warp and woof of intricate design.

The seven Apsaraas discuss on “womanly ways”, serving as a preparation for the action they are going to take (3.4). As the sun’s rays begin to fade, their attendant servants arrive to dress them. They heighten their sweetness in various ways, “each with her own kind of beauty, no two the same,/ Like fragrant mangosteen, or resembling syrup, or like honey crystalized.” Then they set out and see the fine East-facing cave that serves as Arjuna’s hermitage. They feel that the winking leaves overgrowing the narrow cave tells them “that the one they were scheming against was there, ripe to be overpowered.” (3.5)

Now, each of the Apsaraas is beginning to be affected by longing for Arjuna and feelings of deep emotion, and now as they look down the cave, they are amazed to see a “golden image or the moon at the full.”


And here is Arjuna in meditative posture having “already attained a state of mental concentration without object.” Arjuna’s hands are on his lap, and he is absolutely focused on the tip of his nose; his subtle body has passed away, and the sacred syllable AUM has ceased to be heard and has already taken an immaterial form (3.7).

However, the Apsaraas are proud in their beauties and have the feeling that they can overcome and overpower Arjuna when they set about their test. Their confidence convinces them that Arjuna would not be able to resist them when he sees them (3.8). Mpu Kanwa blasts their confidence to inform us, readers (and the Apsaraas are not aware of that) -

“They did not realize that the pleasures of congress are as insignificant
as the mustard seed compared to a mountain,

And compared to superior knowledge with its three branches,
the supreme happiness cannot be characterized at all” (3.8)

The Apsaraas are however, on their way. They bring forth the tricky cards from their sleeves. One of them goes before Arjuna and says, “My lord, the daughter of Drupada has died of heartache, and has turned into me here, coming to you. Returning to Heaven, I did not find rest, though I followed you to find favour, So from Heaven I have run away secretly with my companions in order to pay homage to you (9). And come, for whom are you making such efforts? What are you achieving with your observances? Your brothers are already dead, humiliated and defeated by Suyodhana (3.10).” This Apsaraa also accompanies her words with sobs and adorns with weeping with her tears running “down her cheeks and headed straight for her nipples.”

This Apsaraa’s mention of Draupadi is significant. She surely knows Arjuna and Draupadi's deep love for each other, and thus pretends to be Draupadi herself. I am tempted to think that Mpu Kanwa has the Vana Parvan narrative in mind where Draupadi's tears similarly runs down her breasts, when she cries before her husbands and Krshna and earns the promise from Krshna and Arjuna that the Kauravas would be destroyed. (See - Mahabharata: Draupadi, Body Language, Eyes, and Vyasa’s Poetry).

Mpu Kanwa describes how the Apsaraas try to be seductive in their dress and hair style. One wears a “filmy dress (that) could be seen rising up and brushing her breasts.” (11) Another has fairly loose jacket around her chest, that takes the shape of her breasts, and the way she wears her dress is too short yet measured out, so that it would blow open at the same time at the first breath of wind. (12)

Another Apsaraa with dress “as thin as the transparent mist that veils the disk of the Moon”, goes around behind Arjuna and presses her breasts against him, puts his hand around her neck and brushes it against her waist and breathes heavily; however, her breasts “warm and rubbed with fragrant saffron” fail to have the desired effect (15).

Another Apsaraa reclines on Arjuna’s thigh and looks into his eyes. Mpu Kanwa comments that “it is forbidden to look into the face of a young man adept in the art of love”, and the Apsaraa only makes her own love-fire visible in her eyes. (16)

Now the inevitable happens.

Well, it is not that Arjuna is tempted, but -

“It appeared that in their urgent desire to look upon the noble Partha’s form,
Far from tempting him, they themselves were seduced by their desire for him” (4.2)

Mpu Kanwa, a great wise poet that he is, reveals the secret of woman’s heart; that her love and desire flares up for the man whom she is unable to attain, or that, whom she fails to overpower with her womanly charms and ways.

Again, Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra comes to mind that reveals the same secret that woman loves the man with firm self-control and control over senses, and before whom woman feels dis-empowered. In Mbh., Shri-Lakshmii says that she stays with the man who has control over his senses. Draupadi is hailed as Shri-incarnate. The connection is obvious.

Vyaasa, in Mbh., gives us this secret of woman’s heart in narrative form; for example, through Draupadi, the Evolutionary Woman, that she never could be attracted to or love a man who is Kaamavashagah (slave of Kama) – like Jayadratha or Kichaka, or a man who is a vain boaster of manliness – like Karna. Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra mentions the same flaw of Kichaka and Ravana.

Valmiki gives us the same message in Ramayana. In the Ravana-Sita Gender War, Ravana loses because he is Kaamavashaga?. Ravana, the man of immeasurable prowess, is reduced to mere insignificance before the Evolutionary Woman Sita.

Jayadratha and Kichaka, in trying to tempt Draupadi with Artha and Power, and Ravana in trying the same with Sita, make jokers of themselves before the mighty Evolutionary Woman.

On the other side, we have Evolutionary Man like Rama, Krshna and Arjuna, who are always loved and desired by women; and the only reason is that they have Balance of Purushaarthas, and are never Kaamavashaga?. Mpu Kanwa’s Arjuna is apt rediscovery of Vyasa’s Arjuna.

Mpu Kanwa goes on to narrate various temptation-techniques of the Apsaraas, but alas, these now make the Apsaraas appear more and more comic as they cut pathetic figures in their vain attempts. Mpu Kanwa indeed gives a powerful message on the inanity of woman’s physical manipulative techniques.

One Apsaraa tries to coax Arjuna by squeezing his hands, and even playfully cupping them over her breasts (4.4); one pillows her head on his lap and feigns to sleep (6); one even frantically invokes the Moon –

“Come, holy moon, let me call on your charms and sweetness for aid,
Let me shatter his deep concentration, the monk who is freed from passions” (4.7)

The irony is poignant. Arjuna, the Soma-Vamshii, is indeed himself the Full Moon, that the Apsaraas have felt in their first meeting with Arjuna.

And what is Arjuna’s reaction? It is better to render the verse (though the English translation falls short of the original’s beauty) –

“Thus they spoke, but the worthy Arjuna was untouched by stain of desire,
And his five senses were fearful to behold their former objects.
He was able to hear, and was able to see, but was still unshaken,
And they ceased to invade his peace of mind even for a moment” (4.8)

For three nights, the Apsaraas continue their efforts with renewed vigour, but grow weary at the end failing to disturb Arjuna’s resolution. And as I would repeat, the inevitable happens –

“So they returned home of one accord, their hearts filled with thoughts of Arjuna” (4.9)

The failed Apsaraas having fallen in love with Arjuna, then return to Svarga and report to Indra.

This is what Indra has actually wanted.

“The whole of Heaven was overjoyed and applauded with cries of ‘Saadhu!’,
While many made an obeisance in the direction of Mount Indrakiila.” (4.10)

Indra and the Devas are assured that they have reposed faith in the right man, and feel that Nivaatakavaca’s days are numbered.

But “one doubt remained to sully their joy” (5.2)

Arjuna has passed the test of temptation. What is the doubt about Arjuna then?

(to be continued ….)

All translations used in this article are from Robson, Stuart (2008) ed. “Arjunawiwaaha, Old Javanese text and translation” in Arjunawiwaaha: The Marriage of Arjuna of Mpu Kanwa.. Brill


More by :  Indrajit Bandyopadhyay

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