Kirata Avatar

Kirata Avatar is a brilliant story of Arjun and Mahadev, testing the limits of human will and revealing the transformative power of devotion.

In the rich tapestry of Indian mythology, the story of Kirata Avatar—a manifestation of Lord Shiva—illustrates profound lessons of devotion, perseverance, and divine intervention. It is a tale where mortal resolve clashes with celestial trials, ultimately leading to spiritual enlightenment and empowerment.

Our tale unfolded in the shadow of an impending clash, as the Pandavas, amidst their 13-year exile, foresaw the inevitable Battle of Kurukshetra. Advised by the venerable sage Veda Vyasa, Arjuna embarked on a journey to the sacred Indrakeel mountain in the mighty Himalayas. His quest: to undergo rigorous penance and claim the legendary Divyastras—celestial weapons destined to shape the fate of empires.

Kirata Avatar: The Entrance Test

Upon reaching the sacred Indrakeel mountain, the skies echoed with a booming command, ordering Arjuna to halt. And,
तच्छ्रुत्वा सर्वतो दृष्टिं चारयामास पाण्डवः । अथापश्यत् सव्यसाची वृक्षमूले तपस्विनम् ।।
ब्राह्मया श्रिया दीप्यमानं पिङ्गलं जटिलं कृशम् । सोऽब्रवीदर्जुनं तत्र स्थितं दृष्ट्वा महातपाः ।।
-VanaParva, Mahabharat
-The son of Pandu, ever vigilant, cast his gaze around him. There, beneath an ancient and venerable tree, he beheld a great ascetic, his form radiant with an otherworldly light. His skin was the color of flame, his hair long and matted, and his body lean from the rigors of endless penance.

With eyes that seemed to pierce the very soul, the ascetic spoke:
“Who are you, O bold wanderer? This hallowed ground is the domain of sages, those who seek the higher truths of existence. What purpose brings you here, armed for battle, to a place sanctified by peace? Lay down those arms—arrows, bows, swords, and shield. Cast them aside and embrace the path of penance. These lands, untouched by the blight of violence, demand serenity and spiritual devotion. Never before have I seen a mortal so imbued with the light of the divine.”

Time and again, the ascetic, glowing like the setting sun, urged Arjuna to release his weapons. Yet despite the sage’s fervent entreaties, Arjuna’s grip on his Gandiva bow remained steadfast, unmoved by the ascetic’s words.

Seeing Arjuna’s unshakable resolve, the ascetic transformed, revealing his true form: he was none other than Indra, the mighty Lord of the Gods. A warm smile spread across Indra’s face as he spoke:

“Oh dear one, I am Indra, and I am greatly pleased by your steadfastness. Ask of me any boon you desire, and it shall be yours.” With reverence, Arjuna replied, “O Lord Indra, I seek the Divyastras, the celestial weapons.”

प्रत्युवाच महेन्द्रस्तं प्रीतात्मा प्रहसन्निव । इह प्राप्तस्य किं कार्यमस्त्रैस्तव धनंजय ।।
कामान् वृणीष्य लोकांस्त्वं प्राप्तोऽसि परमां गतिम् ।
-Then Mahendra (Indra) smilingly proclaimed, ‘Arjuna! When you have reached here, what do you want to do with these celestial weapons? Now ask for the best world as per your wish; because you have attained the best destination.

एवमुक्तः प्रत्युवाच सहस्राक्ष धनंजयः। न लोभान्न पुनः कामान्न देवत्वं पुनः सुखम् ।।
न च सर्वामरैश्वर्यं कामये त्रिदशाधिप। भ्रातुंस्तान् विपिने त्यक्त्वा वैरमप्रतियात्य च ।।
अकीर्ति सर्वलोकेषु गच्छेयं शाश्वतीः समाः ।।
-Hearing this, Arjuna said to the king of gods, “O Lord! I do not desire divinity, happiness, or the wealth of all the gods out of greed or desire, if it means leaving my brothers in the forest and not seeking revenge. If I do that, I will gain great infamy in all the worlds forever.” Pleased with his resolve and his choice of duty over divine happiness, Lord Indra instructed Arjuna to perform penance for Mahadev. “When Mahadev appears before you,” Indra said, “the doors to the celestial weapons will open for you.”

Kirata Avatar
Kirata Avatar, Halebidu, Karnataka

This scene resonates beautifully with the intricate panels of the Hoysaleshwara Temple in Halebidu. One panel vividly captures Arjuna standing on one foot in deep penance atop the mountains. To his left lay his weapons, symbolizing his warrior spirit momentarily set aside for his spiritual quest. On his right, disguised as a sage with dreadlocks, Lord Indra tests Arjuna, attempting to persuade him to abandon his quest for celestial weapons in favor of divine knowledge. Surrounding them, other sages engage in their own acts of penance, echoing the timeless pursuit of spiritual enlightenment amidst the natural beauty of the Himalayas.

With unwavering resolve, Arjuna journeyed into a dense, formidable jungle nearby. This forest teemed with various species of animals and beautiful birds, creating a serene yet wild backdrop. Finding a suitable spot, he commenced his rigorous austerities to please Lord Mahadev, embodying the essence of spiritual dedication and inner strength.

दर्भचीरं निवस्याथ दण्डाजिनविभूषितः। शीर्णं च पतितं भूमी पर्ण समुपयुक्तवान् ।।
पूर्ण पूर्ण त्रिरात्रे तु मासमेकं फलाशनः। द्विगुणेन हि कालेन द्वितीयं मासमत्ययात् ।।
तृतीयमपि मासं स पक्षेणाहारमाचरन्। चतुर्थे त्वथ सम्प्राप्ते मासे भरतसत्तमः ।।
-Clad in humble garments of straw and deer skin, and bearing a simple staff, Arjuna embarked on his penance with unwavering determination. Embracing a life of asceticism, he ate only dry leaves that had fallen to the ground. For the first month, he sustained himself by consuming fruits once after every three nights. In the second month, his devotion deepened, and he partook of fruits only once every six nights. By the third month, his discipline grew even more profound, and he ate only once every fifteen days. In the fourth month, the great Arjuna, the noblest of the Bharatas, subsisted solely on air, embodying the pinnacle of spiritual dedication and inner strength.


Kirata Avatar, Kedareshwara Temple, Halebidu, Karnataka
Kirata Avatar, Kedareshwara Temple, Halebidu, Karnataka

This sacred scene is splendidly carved on the outer walls of the Kedareshwara Temple in Halebidu. On the left side, you witness Arjuna standing upon the boulders, balancing on one foot, his hands gracefully joined in Namaste Mudra. Beside him, his quiver filled with sharp arrows and his world-famous Gandiva bow rest carefully, symbolizing his warrior spirit set aside for his spiritual quest. The way he stands on one foot speaks volumes about his unwavering dedication, masterfully captured by an unknown sculptor of the Kedareshwara Temple. This exquisite depiction not only illustrates Arjuna’s physical endurance but also his profound commitment to his divine pursuit.

वायुभक्षो महाबाहुरभवत् पाण्डुनन्दनः । ऊर्ध्वबाहुर्निरालम्बः पादाङ्गुष्ठाग्रविष्ठितः ।।
Without raising both his arms up, he stood on the tip of his toe without any support just consuming the air and nothing else.

Mook and Kirata

Arjuna’s radiance began to emit smoke, choking all nearby living beings. Irritated, many ascetics went to Mount Kailasa, requesting Lord Mahadev to interfere in Arjuna’s penance. Taking his powerful Ganas, along with Parvati and her servants, Mahadev transformed into Kirata, a forest dweller, and went to the forest where Arjuna was performing his Tapasya.

There, the lord saw a fearsome demon named Mook, who had taken the form of a pig and was about to attack Arjun. Without hesitation, Arjun took up his Gandiva bow and a deadly poisonous arrow. As the bowstring resonated, Arjuna declared, “You have come here to kill an innocent person. Today, I will send you to Yamaloka.”

Seeing Arjuna ready to attack, Lord Shankar, in the form of KiratA, suddenly stopped him. “I have already made this boar my target, so you should not kill it.” But Arjuna ignored Kirata’s words and attacked the demon anyway.

किरातश्च समं तस्मिन्नेकलक्ष्ये महाद्युतिः । प्रमुमोचाशनिप्रख्यं शरमग्निशिखोपमम् ।।
तौ मुक्तौ सायकौ ताभ्यां समं तत्र निपेततुः । मूकस्य गात्रे विस्तीर्णे शैलसंहनने तदा ।।
यथाशनेर्विनिर्घोषो वज्रस्येव च पर्वते । तथा तयोः संनिपातः शरयोरभवत् तदा ।।
स विद्धो बहुभिर्बाणैर्दीप्तास्यैः पन्नगैरिव । ममार राक्षसं रूपं भूयः कृत्वा विभीषणम् ।।

-At that moment, the powerful KiratA also shot an arrow as bright as lightning and as fierce as fire at the same target. Both arrows struck the massive, mountain-like body of the demon Mook simultaneously. The impact sounded like thunder and lightning crashing against a mountain. Wounded by the two arrows, the demon, now revealing his terrifying true form, died, his body falling lifeless to the ground.

Seeing both arrows hit the target, Arjuna became furious. The Kirata, testing Arjuna’s resolve, claimed the boar as his own, asserting that his arrow had struck it first. Arjuna warned the Kirata not to touch his kill and advised him to walk away while he could. Ignoring the warnings, the Kirata attempted to carry the boar, sparking a fierce battle between the two.

The first wave of terrifying Ganas, who had never been defeated in battle, attacked Arjuna with all their might. But they had never faced a warrior like Arjuna. With his extraordinary archery skills, Arjuna swiftly defeated the first wave of fearsome Ganas. Under the relentless storm of arrows, the Ganas fled in all directions. Seeing them scatter, their commander, Lord Kartikeya, cursed and criticized them. This dramatic scene is beautifully described by the great poet Bharavi in his epic.

Kiratarjuniya By Bharavi

Bharavi, the renowned Sanskrit poet, is celebrated for his masterful command of language and profound philosophical insights. His magnum opus, the “Kiratarjuniya,” is acclaimed for its intricate wordplay, sophisticated metaphors, and stylistic elegance. Bharavi’s work stands out for its intellectual depth and complexity, showcasing his ability to weave intricate narratives with deep moral and spiritual lessons. His contributions to Sanskrit literature have left an enduring legacy, marking him as one of the great poets of classical India. In the fifteenth Sarga of Kiratarjuniya, Bharavi writes,

न नोननुन्नो नुन्नोनो नाना नानानना ननु । मुन्नोऽनुघ्नो ननुन्नेनो नानेना नुन्ननुन्ननुत् ॥
-O many-headed primeval ones, he who conquers the weak is not a true man, and he who is defeated by the weak is also not a true man. Yet, this vile man has not defeated you, and still, you flee from him in fear. What should I say to you? Until a warrior’s master is defeated, the servant should never accept defeat. One who inflicts pain on the victim is not superior; rather, he is a very lowly creature.

Just like the Gana’s attack, those words became useless, and Lord Mahadev himself had to come to the battle with Arjuna. In that moment, Arjuna’s fury ignited. He unleashed a volley of arrows with unbridled rage. Yet, the Kirata, with a serene smile, caught each arrow effortlessly and taunted, “Fool! More arrows, more arrows! Let me see your best!”

Enraged, Arjuna released another barrage, but the Kirata remained unfazed. Both warriors, consumed by anger, began to wound each other with serpentine arrows. Their battle was fierce, each shot intensifying their war fever.

Kirata Fighting with Arjun, Hoysaleshwar Temple, Halebidu, Karnataka

Kirata Fighting with Arjun, Hoysaleshwar Temple, Halebidu, Karnataka

This scene is depicted on a small panel at the Hoysaleshwara Temple in Halebidu, created by an unknown sculptor. On the right, you can see Lord Mahadev in his Kirata Avatar. On the left side, Arjuna is shown attacking him with a line of arrows. Arjuna is identifiable by his crown, dagger on his belt, and the action of drawing an arrow from his quiver, which seems to have an endless supply. The arrows depict the ascetics who came to Kailasa to complain to Lord Shiva about Arjuna’s penance. Between these two warriors, you can see the demon Mook in boar form attacking Shiva’s warriors, the Ganas. Behind Arjuna, there are monks and ascetics with headgear and long beards, fear evident in their eyes as they witness the intense battle between Arjuna and the formidable Kirata. This sculpture is remarkable for packing so much detail into such a small space on the ancient Hoysaleshwara temple.

Arjuna, determined to overpower his foe, unleashed a storm of arrows upon the Kirata. Yet, to his amazement, Lord Shankar, disguised as the Kirata, stood firm. The Pinakdhari Shiva absorbed every arrow without flinching, his body unscathed and immovable like a mountain.

Arjuna, stunned by the Kirata’s resilience, grew more desperate. Grabbing the Kirata by the quiver, he tried to drag him down and pummel him with thunderbolt-like fists. But the Kirata remained unyielding.

With a sharp sword, Arjuna struck at the Kirata’s head, only to see the blade vanish upon contact. Frustrated, he resorted to hurling trees and rocks, but Lord Shankar absorbed these too.

Undeterred, Arjuna continued his assault with thunderous fists, his face ablaze with anger. Yet, the Kirata, embodying the calm strength of Lord Shiva, absorbed every blow, standing invincible before the mighty Arjuna.

ततः शक्राशनिसमैर्मुष्टिभिर्भृशदारुणैः । किरातरूपी भगवानर्दयामास फाल्गुनम् ।। ५६ ।।
ततश्चटचटाशब्दः सुघोरः समपद्यत । पाण्डवस्य च मुष्टीनां किरातस्य च युध्यतः ।। ५७ ।।
सुमुहूर्त तु तद् युद्धमभवल्लोमहर्षणम् । भुजप्रहारसंयुक्तं वृत्रवासवयोरिव ।। ५८ ।।
-Afterward, assuming the form of Kirata, Lord Shiva began tormenting Arjuna with punches as powerful as Indra’s thunderbolts. The mighty Arjuna, son of Pandu, clashed fiercely with Shiva in a gripping hand-to-hand battle, their blows echoing thunderously. This intense combat, reminiscent of the legendary duel between Vritrasura and Indra, raged on for two hours.

Kirata Overpowering Arjun, Hoysaleshwar Temple, Halebidu, Karnataka
Kirata Overpowering Arjun, Hoysaleshwar Temple, Halebidu, Karnataka

Where can you find such a scene? It’s none other than the majestic Hoysaleshwara Temple in Halebidu, Karnataka. Here, a remarkable sculpture unfolds a gripping tale. One figure, nearer to the ground, is Lord Mahadev, disguised as Kirata Avatar, unmistakable with his four arms, holding a trident and drums, and adorned with dreadlocks. The other figure is Arjun, engaged in an intense struggle with the divine. This dramatic encounter is set in a dense forest, cleverly depicted by two trees flanking the scene. On the left, a female figure stands, holding a stick and a basket atop her head—Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva. This sculpture is a testament to its creator’s skill, hiding countless details within its apparent simplicity. Take a moment with these temple walls to uncover the intricate storytelling woven into every inch of this artwork.

Arjuna lay motionless on the ground, pinned down by the Kirata. His breath held, he resembled one lifeless, remaining in that state for two hours before regaining consciousness. Rising to his feet, his body drenched in blood, Arjuna felt deep sorrow and agitation. In his despair, he fashioned an earthen altar for Lord Shiva and adorned it with garlands of flowers, to seek help from Lord Mahadev.

To his astonishment, the garland he placed on the altar of Shiva vanished, only to reappear upon the head of the Kirata. Realizing this divine play, Arjuna, the illustrious Pandava, found solace and understood it as Lord Shiva’s test, which he had successfully endured.

Lord Mahadev then manifested in his true form before Arjuna. Bowing reverently, Arjuna praised Shiva and beseeched him for the Pasupatastra, seeking it for righteous purposes and protection. In response, Lord Shiva imparted the secret and the essence of the Pasupatastra to Arjuna.

With Lord Mahadev’s consent, Arjuna proceeded to ascend to the heavens, where he would receive further training in celestial weapons, accompanied by the Astra now in his service in human form.

Arjun-Kirata Fight, Kedareshwar temple, Halebidu, Karnatak
Arjun-Kirata Fight, Kedareshwar temple, Halebidu, Karnataka

What lessons can we draw from the Kirata Avatar story in the Mahabharata?

Devotion and Persistence: Arjuna’s journey exemplifies unwavering devotion and persistence in his quest for spiritual enlightenment and celestial weapons. Despite facing immense challenges and divine tests, he remains steadfast in his pursuit, demonstrating the importance of dedication on the spiritual path.

Divine Intervention: The narrative highlights the role of divine intervention and guidance. Lord Indra and ultimately Lord Shiva himself intervene in Arjuna’s journey, testing his resolve and granting him blessings based on his sincerity and commitment to his dharma.

Inner Strength and Discipline: Arjuna’s rigorous penance symbolizes profound inner strength and discipline. His ability to withstand physical hardships and maintain focus on his spiritual goals underscores the importance of discipline in achieving spiritual growth and enlightenment.

Tests of Character: The encounters with Indra and later with Lord Shiva in the Kirata Avatar serve as tests of Arjuna’s character. These tests challenge his priorities, offering him choices between material gain and spiritual fulfillment. Arjuna’s decisions reflect his moral integrity and commitment to righteous conduct.

Divine Grace: Ultimately, Arjuna’s journey illustrates the grace of the divine. Despite his flaws and occasional lapses in judgment, his sincerity and devotion earn him the blessings and teachings of Lord Shiva, empowering him with celestial knowledge and weaponry for noble purposes.

In essence, the story of Kirata Avatar encourages reflection on themes of devotion, perseverance, divine grace, and the transformative power of spiritual discipline in one’s journey towards self-realization and higher consciousness.

Mahabharat Panel, Kailasa Cave, Ellora, Maharashtra
Mahabharat Panel, Kailasa Cave, Ellora, Maharashtra
Kirata Avatar Panel, Kailasa Cave, Ellora, Maharashtra
Kirata Avatar Panel, Kailasa Cave, Ellora, Maharashtra

The philosophical context of Bharavi’s Kiratarjuniya:

Kiratarjuniya is deeply rooted in the classical Indian thought systems, particularly those articulated in the Mahabharata and other major Indian philosophical traditions. Several key philosophical themes and contexts can be identified:

The Nature of Dharma: In Kiratarjuniya, Arjuna’s quest and his encounter with Shiva reflect the complex and multifaceted concept of dharma (righteousness, duty). Arjuna’s penance and his unwavering dedication to achieving his goal embody the principles of personal and warrior dharma. The poem explores the idea that true dharma often requires great personal sacrifice and is aligned with cosmic order and divine will.

The Path of Penance and Devotion: Arjuna’s severe penance (tapas) is a central theme in the poem. It highlights the importance of austerity, self-discipline, and devotion in spirituality. This reflects the Hindu belief in the importance of tapasya (austerity) to gain divine favor and spiritual power. It emphasizes that true dedication and focus can lead to divine intervention and blessings.

The Concept of Divine Grace: The encounter with Shiva, who tests Arjuna in the guise of a hunter, underscores the concept of divine grace (Anugraha). Despite Arjuna’s strength and valor, it is ultimately Shiva’s grace that bestows upon him the powerful Pashupatastra (a divine weapon). This theme reflects the philosophical idea that human effort must be complemented by divine grace to achieve ultimate success.

Illusion of Duality: Shiva’s disguise as a kirāta (hunter) serves to illustrate the philosophical notion. It says that the divine can manifest in any form and that distinctions based on appearances are illusory. This resonates with the Advaita Vedanta philosophy, which emphasizes the non-dual nature of reality and the unity of the individual soul (atman) with the supreme soul (Brahman).

The Triumph of the Human Spirit: Arjuna’s confrontation with Shiva symbolizes the inner struggle of the human spirit against ignorance and ego. The victorious outcome represents the triumph of the soul in realizing its divine potential and achieving spiritual enlightenment. This can be linked to the Sankhya and Yoga philosophies, which focus on the discipline of the mind and body to overcome ignorance and attain self-realization.

Karma and Free Will: The epic of Kirata Avatar delves into the interplay between karma and free will. Arjuna’s actions are driven by his past karma and his present choices. The intervention of Shiva highlights that divine will can alter the course of karma, suggesting a complex relationship between human effort, destiny, and divine intervention.

In conclusion, Kiratarjuniya is a rich tapestry of philosophical themes that reflect the depth and complexity of classical Indian thought. Bharavi uses the narrative to explore profound ideas about duty, devotion, divine grace, the nature of reality, and the path to spiritual enlightenment, making his epic not only a literary masterpiece but also a work of significant philosophical importance.

Arjuna and Celestials, Folio from a Kirata-Arjuniya, India, 
Himachal Pradesh, Kangra, circa 1820 Drawings; watercolors
Arjuna and Celestials, Folio from a Kirata-Arjuniya, India,
Himachal Pradesh, Kangra, circa 1820 Drawings; watercolors
Kirata Avatar, 1820 (circa), Andhra Pradesh.
Kirata Avatar
Kirata Avatar, MutualArt, Kangra School, 19th Century, Attributed to Purkhu, AN ILLUSTRATION FROM A KIRATA ARJUNIYA SERIES: ARJUN SLAYS MUKASURA, CIRCA 1820
Kirata Avatar, MutualArt, Kangra School, 19th Century, Attributed to Purkhu, AN ILLUSTRATION FROM A KIRATA ARJUNIYA SERIES: ARJUN SLAYS MUKASURA, CIRCA 1820.
An Illustration from a Kirata Arjuniya Series: Arjuna visited by Apsaras and Gandharvas, India, Punjab hills, Kangra, circa 1820
An Illustration from a Kirata Arjuniya Series: Arjuna visited by Apsaras and Gandharvas, India, Punjab hills, Kangra, circa 1820

References:

1. Arjuna and Celestials, Folio from a Kirata-Arjuniya (Arjuna and the Kirata [Hunter]), India, Himachal Pradesh, Kangra, circa 1820, Drawings; watercolours , LCMA.
2. Kirata Avatar, 1820 (circa) Painted in: Andhra Pradesh   © The Trustees of the British Museum. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence.
3. Kirata Avatar, MutualArt, Kangra School, 19th Century, Attributed to Purkhu, AN ILLUSTRATION FROM A KIRATA ARJUNIYA SERIES: ARJUN SLAYS MUKASURA, CIRCA 1820.
4. Kirat Bhilli : Raja Ravi Verma Lithograph : Lonavala : C 1940.
5. Mahabharat Volume 2, Geeta Press, Gorakhpur.
6. संस्कृत साहित्याचा सोपपत्तिक इतिहास, विनायक करंबळेकर, नागपूर: श्री शारदा प्रकाशन.
7. An Illustration from a Kirata Arjuniya Series: Arjuna visited by Apsaras and Gandharvas, India, Punjab hills, Kangra, circa 1820

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