Reading the Mahabharata………
When Arjuna arrived in the land of the Nagas under the guise of Brahminhood, their widowed princess Ulupi did not believe that such a handsome man could have suddenly attained enlightenment simply by studying the Vedas by the banks of the Ganges. Her spies soon told her that this was the third Pandava. Arjuna was unhappy at having to share Draupadi with his brothers. On top of that had come the twelve years of celibacy he was given as a punishment for walking in on Draupadi and eldest brother Yudhisthira. When the Naga princess introduced herself to him his answers were tempered by a sense of decorum as were Ulupi’s initial remarks. She requested Arjuna to perform the Agnihotra sacrifice for her. When Arjuna asked her why she wished to perform the yajna and expressed his inability, Ulupi revealed her real demand – that of a child.
( Arjuna greets the handmaiden, ahead of his marriage to Ulupi of the snake people.)
Arjuna is bound by his vows on the one hand and by his attraction to this princess who makes her wishes very clear on the other. He says, ‘Brahmacharyamidam bhadre mama dwadosh-barshikam…I must remain chaste for twelve years but I also want to fulfill your wishes. Think about a way that will satisfy both my conditions and your wishes – Tobo chapi priyang kartumicchami jalachari.’
Thus he shifts responsibility to Ulupi. She is already aware of his identity and informs him that she knows how the five brothers share one wife and about his vow of celibacy. She now says, ‘Why must you keep the vow of celibacy with me? That was meant only for the woman Draupadi and to preserve amity between the five brothers – Tadidang Draupadihetoronyonyoshyo prabasanaam – why should it affect me?’
Ulupi deals a masterful stroke and asks, ‘Are you not a Kshatriya? Is rescuing people not part of your creed? Now rescue me!’ She knows her argument about the vow of celibacy is weak and so she appeals to the king in Arjuna. She asks him to give her a chance at life as her father-in-law the Naga king does not seem to care that she is young and lonely ever since the death of his son.
Arjuna overcomes his remaining qualms and spends the night with Ulupi. He then returns to celibacy. There is no further mention of this liaison till Sanjaya begins describing the battle at Kurukshetra to the blind Dhritarashtra, saying, ‘This is Iraban. Arjuna’s son by the daughter-in-law of the Naga king; Snushayang Nagarajashya Jatoh Partheno dhimota.’
This entire incident seemed so improbable to the translators of the Mahabharata such as Haridas Siddhantabagish that they denied this was a sign of emancipation or alliances between castes or an example of widow remarriage. They portrayed Ulupi as a seductress who trapped Arjuna into giving her a child and forced him to break his vows of celibacy.
Sanitising an epic may make for neat endings by sweeping inconvenient truths under the table, it certainly doesn’t add to their appeal across all sections of society.