Poetry in the Mahabharata

The Mahābhārata is famed for many things, but rarely for its lyricism. Nevertheless, as this verse adequately illustrates, there is room in this capacious epic for poetry too. Here Vyāsa plays on two words, kumbha (an elephant’s temple) and kuca (a woman’s breast), whose similarity in sound is matched by the similarity in shape their physical forms take, to bring out the sad incongruence of elegantly dressed young men being embraced by death rather than by their lovers.





Youthful warriors,

decked out in their finest earrings,

cut each other to pieces with sharp arrows

and fell prey to sleep

clasping the rounded temples of their elephants

as though cradling the rounded breasts of their wives.

7.159.4 Mahābhārata

Thanks to Chris Gibbons at the University of Queensland for spotting and sending us this verse.


Kumbha, which can also mean a water pitcher and thus by extension a pitcher-shaped breast, is exploited to full effect in battle scenes such as these by later poets, including Gaṅgādevī in her Madhurā Vijaya (4.61):

वीराः कुञ्जरकुम्भेषु शायिनः शत्रुसायकैः ।

प्राबुध्यन्त सुरस्त्रीणां कुचकुम्भेषु तत्क्षणात् ॥

Brave soldiers

put to sleep by the shafts of their foes

upon pillows formed of elephants’ temples,

awoke the next moment

upon pillows formed of apsarases’ breasts.*

*Warriors killed fighting heroically in battle are fast-tracked straight to heaven.

4 thoughts on “Poetry in the Mahabharata

  1. What an amazing coincidence. I happen to have reached to just about this point in my reading through of the Mahabharata. I’m on the lookout for this verse now.

  2. Not sure how rare such verses are, really. Yesterday I found these two almost right next to each other in Dronaparva 156. What’s true though (and I guess that this is what you must have meant) is that the kavya-like erotism of the verse you quote is very rare in Mahabharata, which is generally a pretty unromantic book.

    भुजंगा इव वेगेन वल्मीकं क्रोधमूर्छिताः।
    ते शरा रुधिराक्ताङ्गा भित्त्वा शारद्वतीसुतम्।
    विविशुर्धरणीं शीघ्रा रुक्मपुङ्खाः शिलाशिताः॥

    घटोत्कचस्ततस्तूर्णं दृष्ट्वा चक्रं निपातितम्।
    द्रौणिं प्राच्छादयद्बाणैः स्वर्भानुरिव भास्करम्॥

  3. Another nice one found today in Dronaparva that’s a bit more like what you find in the erotic kavya:

    ते तु पङ्क्तीकृता द्रौणिं शरा विविशुराशुगाः।
    रुक्मपुङ्खाः प्रसन्नाग्राः सर्वकायावदारणाः।
    मध्वर्थिन इवोद्दामा भ्रमराः पुष्पितं द्रुमम्॥

  4. It happens that Dronaparva 163 (in the edition of Nilakantha), which I reached today, contains what is for me one of the epic’s most hauntingly lyrical passages, the description in trishtup verses of the battle by night.

Leave a Reply