The epic of Mahabharatha tells the story of the five Pandava brothers who fought a great war against their hundred cousins – the Kauravas. The Pandavas and the Kauravas fought this war for deciding on who would be the ruler of the prosperous kingdom of Hastinapur.
Much before this war, the eldest Pandava – Yudhishtara, played the game of dice with Shakuni – the maternal uncle of the Kauravas.
Yudhishtara lost the game.
Not only was Shakuni a formidable player of the dice and it was rumoured that Shakuni played with a loaded dice - Yudhishtara was an abysmally bad player.
In his continuous foolishness, Yudhishtara bet on his kingdom, his brothers and even Draupadi – the common wife of the five Pandava brothers, in the game of dice and Yudhishtara lost it all.
Worse, Yudhishtara did not play this game once, but twice.
Because after losing the dice game for the first time, Draupadi argued brilliantly and got back the kingdom which Yudhishtara had lost.
Foolishly, Yudhishtara played the game of dice for the second time with Shakuni and this time for losing the game of dice, the five Pandavas and Draupadi were exiled to the forests.
During their exile in the forests, the Pandavas were a dejected lot.
Adding to the misery of the other Pandavas, the third Pandava – Arjuna – went to the Himalayas to obtain divine weapons from the Devas. That was because after their treatment at the hands of the Kauravas, it was obvious that after the exile was completed, there was going to be war between the two sides.
Arjuna was one of the best warriors of the Pandavas and he wanted to be better prepared by getting more celestial weapons from the Devas.
The remaining four brothers with Draupadi were even more unhappy.
So in order to make them happy, many sages came to their hermitage and told them different stories and strange sights that the sages had seen from around the world.
One such time Sage Markandeya came to the hermitage of the Pandavas.
The Pandavas received him warmly.
Markandeya in turn told them lively stories.
Markandeya was a brilliant sage. But he looked as young as a sixteen year old boy. Markandeya was the one who had conquered death by the grace of Lord Shiva.
The first thing that struck the Pandavas on seeing the sage was that the sage looked not a day older than the day he had conquered death - the age of sixteen.
But the great sage's eyes were the only giveaway. The sage's eyes spoke of a man with infinite wisdom and of a man who had seen and heard things that others had not even dreamt of.
As they listened to the stories, the Pandavas realized that the man before them was... ancient....someone who had been there long before them and had seen things they did not even know existed.
Yudhishtara in jest, asked a question to the great sage. "Is there anyone who is older than you, sir?"
Markandeya looked amused at the question as he laughed quietly. "I will tell you a story. Then you can decide for yourself."
The Pandavas were bewildered as Markandeya continued.
"I will tell you something I saw many years back."
Markandeya said looking outside the hermitage with glazed eyes.
‘Once I had just returned from a long pilgrimage and I was back home, when I saw a man suddenly appear before me, out of nowhere. He appeared without any warning. Just like that. When he appeared before me, the man himself looked surprised like he could not believe what he was seeing. The man looked shocked and was muttering to himself.’
‘Despite being shocked, the man looked regal and powerful. He had an ancient aura around him, one that I could not define or understand.’
‘I ran towards him and helped him up.’
‘"Who are you, great one?" I asked.’
‘The man was now looking anguished and sad.’
‘"I have fallen." He mumbled.’
‘I looked at him without understanding when the man continued.’
‘"Long ago, I was a human and I led a good life. I helped people whenever I could. After my death, because of all the good deeds that I had done, I was chosen to go to Indraloka, in the Skies. As you know, after your death, you spend the time in the various realms, depending on the works that you have done. If you do good, you go to one of the swargas – one of the heavens. You can stay there till your good merits last. If you do bad deeds, you stay in the lower realms. The minute your merits get over, you come back to earth for another cycle of birth and death."’
‘The man looked crestfallen.’
‘"It looks like all the merits that I have done have been forgotten. Which is why I have fallen back on earth."’
‘"Who are you sir?" I asked.’
‘"I am Indradhyumna." The man said unhappily.’
‘I looked sympathetically at the man when the man suddenly looked at me with a strange expression on his face.’
‘"You are Markandeya. You are a Chiranjeevi, someone who lives forever. Have you never seen me before?"’
‘I was surprised and shook my head. "I rarely stay in the same place for more than a day. There is no way I would know about you, sir."’
‘The man looked unhappy for a few seconds when he brightened again. "Do you know anyone who is older than you? Someone who may remember me and my good deeds."’
‘I nodded my head.’
‘"In Himavat, there is an owl by name Pravarkarna. He is older than me. He may know you. But he lives far away from here."’
‘As soon as I said these words, Indradyumna changed himself into a horse. Indradhyumna carried me and we reached Himavat very soon.’
‘There we found Pravarkarna.’
‘Indradyumna transformed into a human and asked the owl without any preamble.’
‘"Have you ever seen me before?"’
‘The owl looked shocked for a few seconds and then looked at the man up and down. "I am afraid, I have not seen you, sir."’
‘"Then is there anyone who is older than you?" Indradhyumna immediately asked the owl.’
‘The owl looked at the king for a few seconds.’
‘"What is your name, sir?"’
‘"Indradyumna." The king replied.’
‘The owl looked shocked.’
‘The man suddenly looked eager as the owl continued. "Strange though it may sound there is a lake by name Indradyumna nearby. Near the lake, lives a crane called Nadijangha. He is older than me. He may know you."’
‘Then me, the sage and the owl went to Nadijangha, the crane, and asked him the same question.’
‘Unfortunately the crane also did not know Indradyumna.’
‘But then the crane smiled.’
‘"In this very lake, there is a very old tortoise. The name of the tortoise is Akupura. He is older than me."’
‘Nadijangha turned to the lake and shouted. "Akupura. Please come here. We need to ask you something."’
‘The tortoise came out of the lake and the first person the tortoise saw was Indradyumna.’
‘Seeing the king, the tortoise started trembling with joy and he was weeping uncontrollably.’
‘"I never thought I would see you again." Akupura said looking at Indradyumna. "My king, I am so grateful to you."’
‘All of us looked astonished at the tortoise as it continued. "He is a great king. He was the most generous man ever." The tortoise said looking at Indradyumna with shining eyes. "Do you know how this lake was formed? It was formed from the hooves of the cattle that this king gave away as gifts to other people. These cattle that kept walking in the land, that was what had formed this depression in the land and that created this pond. I have lived here, since then." Akupura finished.’
‘No sooner had the tortoise finished the tale, a vehicle came whizzing to the place as a heavenly voice said. "As long as your good deeds are remembered, you will live in heaven. The tortoise still lives because of your merits. Come. Come back to the higher heavens."’
‘Happily’ Indradyumna dropped me and the owl back at our places and then rode away on the vehicle, going to the heavens, which he deserved.’
Markandeya looked at the Pandavas with playful eyes. "Does that answer your question, my friends?"