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Arjuna receives the Pashupatastra from Shiva. Painting by Raja Ravi Varma, 19th century.

Kirātārjunīya (Sanskrit: किरातार्जुनीय, Of Arjuna and the kirata) is an epic poem by Bhāravi, written in Sanskrit.[1] Believed to have been composed in the 6th century or earlier, it consists of eighteen cantos describing the combat between Arjuna and Shiva (in the guise of a Kirati, or "mountain-dwelling hunter"). Along with the Naiṣadhacarita and the Shishupala Vadha, it is one of the larger three of the six Sanskrit mahakavyas, or great epics.[2] It is noted among Sanskrit critics both for its gravity or depth of meaning, and for its forceful and sometimes playful expression. This includes a canto set aside for demonstrating linguistic feats, similar to constrained writing. Later works of epic poetry followed the model of the Kirātārjunīya.



Arjuna fights with the Kirata-Shiva

The Kirātārjunīya predominantly features the Vīra rasa, or the mood of valour.[3][4] It expands upon a minor episode in the Vana Parva ("Book of the Forest") of the Mahabharata: While the Pandavas are exiled in the forest, Draupadi and Bhima incite Yudhishthira to declare war with the Kauravas, while he does not relent. Finally, Arjuna, at the instruction of Indra, appeases Shiva with penance (tapasya) in the forest. Pleased by his austerities, Shiva decides to reward him.

Kirata-Arjuna, by Nandalal Bose, 1914

When a demon named Muka, the form of a wild boar, charges toward Arjuna, Shiva appears in the form of a kirata, a wild mountaineer. Arjuna and the kirata simultaneously shoot an arrow at the boar, and kill it. They argue over who shot first, and a battle ensues. They fight for a long time, and Arjuna is shocked that he cannot conquer this kirata. Finally, he recognises the god, and surrenders to him. Shiva, pleased with his bravery, gives him the powerful weapon, the Pashupatastra. Apart from Arjuna, no one possessed Pashupatastra in the Mahabharata.[5][6]

The Cantos[edit]

Arjuna, with the army of celestial maidens (apsaras) and musicians (Gandharvas) approaching. Kangra watercolour, Himachal Pradesh, c. 1820.

The following canto-by-canto description of the work is from A. K. Warder.[7] Bharavi's work begins with the word śrī (fortune), and the last verse of every canto contains the synonym Lakshmi.

I. A spy of the exiled king Yudhishthira arrives and informs him of the activities of the Kauravas. Yudhiṣṭhira informs the other Pandavas, and his wife Draupadi attempts to incite him to declare war, upbraiding him for stupidly accepting the exile rather than breaking the agreement and declaring war to regain what is rightfully theirs.
II. Bhima supports Draupadi, pointing out that it would be shameful to receive their kingdom back as a gift instead of winning it in war, but Yudhiṣṭhira refuses, with a longer speech. Meanwhile, the sage Vyasa arrives.
III. Vyasa points out that the enemy is stronger, and they must use their time taking actions that would help them win a war, if one were to occur at the end of their exile. He instructs Arjuna to practise ascetism (tapasya) and propitiate Indra to acquire divine weapons for the eventual war. Arjuna departs, after being reminded by Draupadi of the humiliation she has suffered.
V. Arjuna is led by a yaksha to the Indrakila mountain, which is described in great detail. Arjuna begins his intense austerities, the severity of which causes disturbance among the gods.
VI. Meanwhile, a celestial army of nymphs (apsaras) sets out from heaven, in order to eventually distract Arjuna.
VII. Description of their passage through the heavens.
VIII. The nymphs enjoy themselves on the mountain.
IX. Description of the night, with celebrations of drinking and lovemaking.
X. The nymphs attempt to distract Arjuna, accompanied by musicians and making the best features of all six seasons appear simultaneously. However, they fail, as instead of Arjuna falling in love with them, they fall in love with Arjuna instead.
XI. Finally, Indra arrives as a sage, praises Arjuna's asceticism, but criticises him for seeking victory and wealth instead of liberation — the goddess of Fortune is fickle and indiscriminate. Arjuna stands his ground, explaining his situation and pointing out that conciliation with evil people would lead one into doing wrong actions oneself. He gives a further long speech that forms the heart of the epic, on right conduct, self-respect, resoluteness, dignity, and wisdom. Pleased, Indra reveals himself to his son, and asks him to worship Shiva.
XII. Arjuna begins severe austerities, and, on being implored by the other ascetics, Shiva takes the form of a kirata and arrives to meet Arjuna.
XIII. Both Arjuna and the kirata shoot the boar. Arjuna goes to retrieve his arrow, and one of the kiratas quarrels with him.
XIV-XVIII. Arjuna and Shiva fight. Arjuna fails and finally realizes whom he is facing, and surrenders to Shiva and wins his benediction.[7]


The work was popular among critics, with more than 42 commentaries written on it. The style of his work, with cantos 4 to 9 having no relation to the plot but instead being merely an excuse for beautiful descriptive poetry, was influential on all later Sanskrit epic poetry, in which the action was often ignored entirely.[8] Over a tenth of the verses from this work are quoted in various anthologies and works on poetics. The most popular verse is the 37th from the eighth canto, which describes nymphs bathing in a river, and is noted for its beauty. Another verse from the fifth canto (utphulla sthalanalini...) is noted for its imagery, and has given Bharavi the sobriquet of "Chhatra Bharavi",[9][10] as he describes the pollen of the lotus flowers being blown by the wind into a golden umbrella (Chhatra) in the sky. Thus, for having verses that are pleasing to lay people as well as clever verses appreciated by scholars, the work is considered to have 'harmony' or 'appropriateness' at all levels, and has been said to possess samastalokarañjakatva, the quality of delighting all the people.[11]

The Kirātārjunīya is the only known work of Bharavi and "is regarded to be the most powerful poem in the Sanskrit language".[12] A. K. Warder considers it the "most perfect epic available to us", over Aśvaghoṣa's Buddhacarita, noting its greater force of expression, with more concentration and polish in every detail. Despite using extremely difficult language and rejoicing in the finer points of Sanskrit grammar, Bharavi achieves conciseness and directness. His alliteration, "crisp texture of sound", and choice of metre closely correspond to the narrative.[7]

Linguistic ingenuity[edit]

The work is known for its brevity, depth (arthagauravam), and verbal complexity. At times, the narrative is secondary to the interlaced descriptions, elaborate metaphors and similes, and display of mastery in the Sanskrit language.[10] Notably, its fifteenth canto contains chitrakavya, decorative composition, including the fifteenth verse with "elaborate rhythmic consonance"[13] noted for consisting of just one consonant:[7][14][15]

Translation: "О ye many-faced ones (nānānanā), he indeed (nanu) is not a man (na nā) who is defeated by an inferior (ūna-nunno), and that man is no man (nā-anā) who persecutes one weaker than himself (nunnono). He whose leader is not defeated (na-nunneno) though overcome is not vanquished (nunno'nunno); he who persecutes the completely vanquished (nunna-nunna-nut) is not without sin (nānenā)."[16]

The 25th verse from the same canto is an example of the form of verse that the Sanskrit aestheticians call sarvatobhadra, "good from every direction": each line (pada) of it is a palindrome, and the verse is unchanged when read vertically down or up as well:[7]

Translation: "O man who desires war! This is that battlefield which excites even the gods, where the battle is not of words. Here people fight and stake their lives not for themselves but for others. This field is full of herds of maddened elephants. Here those who are eager for battle and even those who are not very eager, have to fight."[17]

Similarly, the 23rd verse of the fifteenth canto is the same as the 22nd verse read backwards, syllable for syllable.[7]

The 52nd verse of the 15th canto is an example of Mahāyamaka, or the great Yamaka, where all four feet of the verse are the same, but each foot has a different meaning.

Translation: "The arrows (mārgaṇāḥ), of the king (jagatīśa) Arjuna spread out (vikāśam īyuḥ). The arrows (mārgaṇāḥ), of the lord of the earth (jagatīśa) [i.e. Śiva], spread out (vikāśam īyuḥ). The Gaṇas (gaṇāḥ) who are the slayers of demons (jagatīśamār) rejoiced (vikāśam īyuḥ). The seekers (mārgaṇāḥ) of Śiva (jagatīśa) [i.e. the deities and sages], reached (īyuḥ) the sky (vikāśam) [to watch the battle]. "[18]

Offshoots and commentaries[edit]

The earliest commentary of Kiratarjuniya was likely on Canto 15, by Western ganga king Durvinita in Kannada, however, this work isn't extant.[19][20]

Bharavi's "power of description and dignity of style" were an inspiration for Māgha's Shishupala Vadha, which is modelled after the Kirātārjunīya and seeks to surpass it.[21] While Bharavi uses 19 different types of metres, Māgha uses 23; while Bharavi praises Shiva, Māgha extols Vishnu; and he has his own instances of one-consonant (dādadoduddaduddādī…) and sarvatobhadra palindromic verses.[10]

A vyayoga (a kind of play), also named Kirātārjunīya and based on Bharavi's work, was produced by the Sanskrit dramatist Vatsaraja in the 12th or 13th century.[22]

The authoritative commentary on the Kirātārjunīya, as on the other five mahakayvas, is by Mallinātha (c. 1500 CE). His commentary on the Kirātārjunīya is known as the Ghaṇṭāpatha (the Bell-Road) and explains the multiple layers of compounds and figures of speech present in the verses.[23]

The first Western translation of the poem was by Carl Cappeller into German, published by the Harvard Oriental Series in 1912.[24] There have since been six or more partial translations into English.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Singh, M. P. (2002). Encyclopaedia of teaching of history (1st ed.). Lucknow: Institute for Sustainable Development. p. 297. ISBN 81-261-1243-3. OCLC 631660227.
  2. ^ Har 1983, p. iii
  3. ^ Amaresh Datta, ed. (2006), The Encyclopaedia Of Indian Literature Volume One (A To Devo), Sahitya Akademi, p. 462, ISBN 978-81-260-1803-1
  4. ^ Rajarajan, R.K.K. (2021). "From Purāṇic to Folk: the 'Kirātārjunīyam Ballade' and Visuals". Eikón / Imago. 10: 355–366. doi:10.5209/eiko.74158. S2CID 237980745.
  5. ^ John Telford; Benjamin Aquila Barber (1876), William Lonsdale Watkinson; William Theophilus Davison (eds.), The London quarterly review, Volume 46, J.A. Sharp, p. 324
  6. ^ Sures Chandra Banerji (1989), A companion to Sanskrit literature: spanning a period of over three thousand years, containing brief accounts of authors, works, characters, technical terms, geographical names, myths, legends, and several appendices (2 ed.), Motilal Banarsidass Publ., p. 215, ISBN 978-81-208-0063-2
  7. ^ a b c d e f A. K. Warder (2004), Indian Kāvya literature, Part 1, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., p. 225, ISBN 978-81-208-0445-6
  8. ^ Sisir Kumar Das; Sahitya Akademi (2006), A history of Indian literature, 500-1399: from courtly to the popular, Sahitya Akademi, pp. 71–72, ISBN 978-81-260-2171-0
  9. ^ Lal, p. 4126
  10. ^ a b c Moriz Winternitz (1985), Subhadra Jha (transl.) (ed.), History of Indian literature, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., p. 71, ISBN 978-81-208-0056-4
  11. ^ Warder, pp. 230–232.
  12. ^ Husain, S. Abid (1961). The national culture of India. Bombay, London: Asia Publishing House. p. 68. OCLC 316088831.
  13. ^ Bharavi: Encyclopædia Britannica Online
  14. ^ Sir Monier Monier-Williams (1875), Indian wisdom: or, Examples of the religious, philosophical, and ethical doctrines of the Hindūs: with a brief history of the chief departments of Sanskṛit literature, and some account of the past and present condition of India, moral and intellectual (2 ed.), W.H. Allen, p. 452
  15. ^ Canto 15, Verse 14
  16. ^ Sir Monier Monier-Williams; Henry Hart Milman (1860), Nalopákhyánam: story of Nala : an episode of the Mahá-bhárata : the Sanskrit text, with a copious vocabulary, grammatical analysis, and introduction, University Press, p. xxiv
  17. ^ Gems of Sanskrit literature Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine, Dr. Sampadananda Mishra, Sanskrit Research Coordinator, Sri Aurobindo Society, Pondicherry
  18. ^ Pandit Durgaprasad; Kasinath Pandurang Parab (1895), The Kirātārjunīya of Bhāravi - With the commentary of Mallinātha and various readings, Tukaram Javaji, p. 252
  19. ^ "JSTOR", Wikipedia, 2023-01-29, retrieved 2023-02-12
  20. ^ "Durvinita", Wikipedia, 2023-02-03, retrieved 2023-02-12
  21. ^ Sailendra Nath Sen (1999), Ancient Indian History and Civilization, New Age International, p. 230, ISBN 978-81-224-1198-0
  22. ^ Mohan Lal (2006), Encyclopaedia of Indian literature, Volume 5, Sahitya Akademi, p. 4515, ISBN 978-81-260-1221-3
  23. ^ P. G. Lalye (2002), Mallinātha, Sahitya Akademi, ISBN 978-81-260-1238-1
  24. ^ Bhāravi; Carl Cappeller (1912), Bharavi's poem Kiratarjuniya: or, Arjuna's combat with the Kirata, Harvard University
  25. ^ Tuvia Gelblum, Review, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 50, No. 1 (1987)

Further reading[edit]

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