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Title: Kirātārjunīya  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Bharavi, Shishupala Vadha, Kirati people, Sanskrit poetry, Magha (poet)
Collection: 6Th-Century Books, Epic Poems in Sanskrit, Sanskrit Poetry
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Arjuna recognises Shiva and surrenders to him. Painting by Raja Ravi Varma, 19th century.

Kirātārjunīya (Sanskrit: किरातार्जुनीय, Of Arjuna and the Kirāta) is a Sanskrit kavya by Bhāravi, written in the 6th century or earlier. It is an epic poem in eighteen cantos describing the combat between Arjuna and lord Shiva at Indrakeeladri hills in present day Vijayawada in the guise of a kirāta 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.[1] 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.


  • Synopsis 1
  • Appraisal 2
  • Linguistic ingenuity 3
  • Offshoots and commentaries 4
  • Notes 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7


Arjuna fights with the Kirata-Shiva

The Kirātārjunīya predominantly features the Vīra rasa, or the mood of valour.[2] It expands upon a minor episode in the Vana Parva ("Forest book") in the Mahabharata: While the Pandavas are exiled in the forest, Draupadi and Bhima incite Yudhisthira to declare war with the Kauravas, while he does not relent. Finally, Arjuna, at the instruction of Indra, propitiates god Shiva with penance (tapasya) in the forest. Pleased by his austerities, Shiva decides to reward him. When a demon named Muka, in the form of a wild boar, charges toward Arjuna, Shiva appears in the form of a Kirāta, a wild mountaineer. Arjuna and the Kirāta 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 Kirāta. Finally, he recognises the god, and surrenders to him. Shiva, pleased with his bravery, gives him the powerful weapon, the Pashupatastra, which later in the Mahabharata aids him against Karna and the Kauravas during the Kurukshetra war.[3][4]

The following description of the work is from A. K. Warder.[5] Bharavi's work begins with the word śrī (Fortune), and the last verse of every canto contains the synonym Lakshmi. In the first canto, a spy of the exiled king Yudhiṣṭhira 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. In the second canto, 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. In the third canto, 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. In the fifth canto, 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.

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

Meanwhile, in the sixth canto, a celestial army of maidens (apsaras) sets out from heaven, in order to eventually distract Arjuna. The seventh canto describes their passage through the heavens. In the eighth canto, the nymphs enjoy themselves on the mountain. The ninth canto describes night, with celebrations of drinking and lovemaking. In the tenth canto, 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. Finally, in the eleventh canto, 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 indscriminate. 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. In the twelfth canto, Arjuna begins severe austerities, and, on being implored by the other ascetics, Shiva takes the form of a Kirāta and arrives to meet Arjuna. In the thirteenth canto, they both shoot the boar. Arjuna goes to retrieve his arrow, and one of the kiratas quarrels with him. In the remaining five cantos, Arjuna and Shiva fight, Arjuna fails and finally realises whom he is facing, and surrenders to Shiva and wins his benediction.[5]


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.[6] 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",[7][8] 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.[9]

The Kirātārjunīya is the only known work of Bharavi. It "is regarded to be the most powerful poem in the Sanskrit language".[10] 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.[5]

Linguistic ingenuity

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.[8] Notably, its fifteenth canto contains chitrakavya, decorative composition, including the fifteenth verse with "elaborate rhythmic consonance"[11] noted for consisting of just one consonant:[5][12][13]

न नोननुन्नो नुन्नोनो नाना नानानना ननु ।
नुन्नोऽनुन्नो ननुन्नेनो नानेना नुन्ननुन्ननुत् ॥
na nonanunno nunnono nānā nānānanā nanu ।
nunno'nunno nanunneno nānenā nunnanunnanut ॥
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)."[14]

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:[5]

देवाकानिनि कावादे
वाहिकास्वस्वकाहि वा ।
काकारेभभरे का का
निस्वभव्यव्यभस्वनि ॥

devākānini kāvāde
vāhikāsvasvakāhi vā ।
kākārebhabhare kā kā
nisvabhavyavyabhaasvani ॥

de ni ni de
hi sva sva hi
re bha bha re
ni sva bha vya vya bha sva ni
(and the lines reversed)
ni sva bha vya vya bha sva ni
re bha bha re
hi sva sva hi
de ni ni de

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."[15]

Similarly, the 23rd verse of the fifteenth canto is the same as the 22nd verse read backwards, syllable for syllable.[5]

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.

विकाशमीयुर्जगतीशमार्गणा विकाशमीयुर्जगतीशमार्गणाः ।
विकाशमीयुर्जगतीशमार्गणा विकाशमीयुर्जगतीशमार्गणाः ॥

vikāśamīyurjagatīśamārgaṇā vikāśamīyurjagatīśamārgaṇāḥ |
vikāśamīyurjagatīśamārgaṇā vikāśamīyurjagatīśamārgaṇāḥ ॥

Translation: "The arrows (mārgaṇāḥ), of the king (jagatīśa) Arjuna spread out (vikāśam īyuḥ). The arrows (mārgaṇāḥ), of the lord of the earth (jagatīśa), Lord Śiva, spread out (vikāśam īyuḥ). The Gaṇas (gaṇāḥ) who are the slayers of demons (jagatīśamār) rejoiced (vikāśam īyuḥ). The seekers (mārgaṇāḥ) of Lord Śiva (jagatīśa), i.e. the deities and sages, reached (īyuḥ) the sky (vikāśam) [to watch the battle]. "[16]

Offshoots and commentaries

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 .[17] 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.[8]

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.[18]

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.[19]

The first Western translation of the poem was by Carl Cappeller into German, published by the Harvard Oriental Series in 1912.[20] There have since been six or more partial translations into English.[21]


  1. ^ Har 1983, p. iii
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b c d e f
  6. ^
  7. ^ Lal, p. 4126
  8. ^ a b c
  9. ^ Warder, pp. 230–232.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Bharavi: Encyclopædia Britannica Online
  12. ^
  13. ^ Canto 15, Verse 14
  14. ^
  15. ^ Gems of Sanskrit literature, Dr. Sampadananda Mishra, Sanskrit Research Coordinator, Sri Aurobindo Society, Pondicherry
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ Tuvia Gelblum, Review, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 50, No. 1 (1987)

Further reading

  • A bibliography, as of 1912

External links

  • Original text with Sanskrit commentary:
  • Transliterated text at GRETIL
  • Kairata Parva, translation of the part of the Vana Parva that contains the story.
  • The Hunter and the Hero: a very slightly abridged verse translation of the Kirātārjunīya into English by Romesh Chunder Dutt, in his Lays of Ancient India
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