King Pṛthu chases the Earth

Pṛthu chases the goddess earth, from an illustrated manuscript of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa; Pahari School; attributed to the artist Manaku, circa 1740, Guler, Punjab Hills. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

King Pṛthu is said to have manifested from the Supreme Lord Viṣṇu’s power as the ruler of the earth, as the first King of the world, destined for greatness and wide renown.

In the Mahābhārata, once, Yudhiṣṭhira learns from Nārada that he should consider the Rājasūya as a means to empire (sāṃrājyam); Kṛṣṇa says that he has the qualities (guṇas) to be emperor (sāṃrāj) and to make himself emperor of the Kṣatra (kṣatre saṃrājyam ātmanam kartum arhasi;2.13.60), but must first defeat Jarāsandha who has obtained empire by birth (sāṃrājyam jarāsandhaḥ prapto bhavati yonitaḥ; 2.13.8). Then, once the Pāṇḍavas win the war and Yudhiṣṭhira considers renouncing the kingdom, Kṛṣṇa urges him to dispel his grief by telling him the “Story of the Sixteen Kings” of old, among whom were seven (including Rāma) who performed the imperial Rājasūya and/or Aśvamedha sacrifices, four who held sway over the whole earth, two who raised the only royal umbrella to signify subjugation of all other kings, and one, Pṛthu, with whom Kṛṣṇa ends his account, who was consecrated by the great Ṛṣisto be the first king of the earth.

In the form of King Pṛthu, Viṣṇu was born to protect the people of the world. The goddess of fortune, His constant companion incarnated as Arci, to become King Pṛthu’s queen. All the brāhmaṇas praised and glorified King Pṛthu, and the musicians of Gandharvaloka chanted his glories. The inhabitants of Siddhaloka showered flowers, and the apsaras in heaven danced in ecstasy. He was duly coronated and praised by sages and brāhmaṇas. Upon ascending the throne, an unfortunate and tragic famine struck the people of his kingdom. They approached the king and recounted their plight and state of starvation due to the scarcity of food grains. King Pṛthu blamed the earth for not producing sufficient food grain, and in great anger, took his bow and arrow and aimed at the earth, just as Lord Śiva, destroyed the whole world out of anger. When the earth saw that King Pṛthu had aimed his bow and arrow at her to destroy her, Bhū Devi, afraid of King Pṛthu, took the shape of a cow and began to run. Since a cow could not and should not be killed as it is a terrible sin to kill a cow, mother earth thought it wise to take the form of a cow in order to evade King Pṛthu’s arrows. King Pṛthu, however, ignored this fact, and angry at seeing her flee, his eyes red as the early-morning sun, he did not stop chasing the cow-earth wherever she ran.

सा दिशो विदिशो देवी रोदसी चान्तरं तयो: ।
धावन्ती तत्र तत्रैनं ददर्शानूद्यतायुधम् ॥
ŚB 4.17.16

The cow-shaped earth ran in all four directions, towards heaven and earth and also in between them; yet wherever she ran, whether here or there, the King followed her with his weapons drawn.

Though she ran haphazardly through the three worlds, she could not find escape, just as man cannot escape death. After long, the earth, fearful and with her heart aggrieved, turned around, and, addressing the opulent King Pṛthu as the knower of religious principles (dharmajña) and asks for her life to be spared, as it was his duty to do so as the protector of all living beings and the King of the planet — reminding the King Pṛthu of the fact that Dharma dictates that a woman, a cow, a child, a brāhmaṇa and an old man must all be given protection, especially by a king.

The cow-form of earth continued: “O King, I am like a strong boat, supporting the entirety of the world. If you break me to pieces, how can you protect yourself and your subjects from drowning in the deluge?”

King Pṛthu replied : “O Earth, you have disobeyed my orders. You have accepted your share of the yajña and scarifices we performed, but in return you have not produced sufficient food grains to sustain the people. For this reason I must kill you. Now, with the help of my arrows, I shall destroy you, and with your flesh satisfy the hunger-stricken citizens, who are now crying for want of grains.”

Pṛthu Mahārāja, in his anger, grew to resemble Yamarāja, and beholding his form, the earth began to tremble. She surrendered, understanding the power of Pṛthu and his true nature as the Supreme Lord Viṣṇu, and thus, with folded hands, spoke as follows.

“I offer my obeisances unto your transcendental energy and inconceivable potencies whose various forms are the source of the three modes of material nature. Through the agency of Brahmā, You have created this universe. You are the very creator of cosmic manifestation, and therefore You have created me — the planet earth — the resting place of all living entities. You are ready to kill me with Your weapons, but before that, tell me — who I should take shelter in, and resort to for protection in my final moments? By Your energy You manifest this entire cosmic creation, maintain it and dissolve it. Through Your energy alone everything is sometimes manifest and unmanifest. You are therefore the Supreme being, the cause of all causes. I offer my respectful obeisances unto You.”

स वै भवानात्मविनिर्मितं जगद्भू तेन्द्रियान्त:करणात्मकं विभो ।
संस्थापयिष्यन्नज मां रसातला- दभ्युज्जहाराम्भस आदिसूकर: ॥ ŚB 4.17.34

“O Lord! You are certainly He who has created and maintains this world, the physical elements; the senses; the mind and the heart; He who is unborn; He who rescued me from the waters in the bottom of rasātala.”

O Lord, you are known as Dharādhara, “He who holds the planet earth on His tusks as the boar” — yet you are poised to kill me.

After the earth finished offering her obeisances, King Pṛthu was still not pacified, and his lips trembled in anger. Although frightened, she made up her mind to convince the King and began to speak as follows:

“O King, an intelligent person, like a bumblebee, gathers nectar from everywhere. To benefit all of mankind, not only in this life but in the next, the great seers and sages prescribed various yogāḥ to be observed, in order to be conducive to the prosperity of people in general. One who follows the principles and instructions enjoined by the Vedas and great sages can truly enjoy the fruits of their activities. He who neglects traditions and is concerned only with self-gratification, will fail time and again. However, the seeds, roots, herbs and grains, which were created by Lord Brahmā in the past, are now being used by unbelievers who are devoid of all interest in spiritual practice. I am being neglected, and consequently I have hidden all these grains, which were meant for the performance of yāga.”

“O mighty-armed one, protector of living beings, if you desire to relieve the people of your kingdom by supplying them with food grain, and if you desire to nourish them by taking milk from me, make arrangements to bring a calf and a pot in which the milk can be kept, as well as a milkman. O king, you will also have to make the entire surface of the earth level, so that the water that falls from the sky by the mercy of Indra, does not flow away even after the rainy season has ended.”

On hearing the auspicious and pleasing words of the earth, the King was pleased. He transformed Svāyambhū Manu into a calf and milked all the seeds and grains from the earth who was in the form of a cow, and held them in his cupped hands. Others took the opportunity to take from their earth what they desired.

ऋषयो दुदुहुर्देवीमिन्द्रियेष्वथ सत्तम ।
वत्सं बृहस्पतिं कृत्वा पयश्छन्दोमयं शुचि ॥ ŚB 4.18.14

The great sages transformed Bṛhaspati into a calf, and making the senses into a pot, they milked from the earth-cow all of Vedic knowledge, which serves to purify words, mind and hearing.

The demigods then turned Indra, the King of the Gods, into a calf, and from the earth they milked the nectarine divine elixir sõma, which bestows strength of the mind and body, into a golden pot.

The sons of Diti and the demons transformed Prahlāda, who had taken birth into a family of asuras, into a calf, and extracted various kinds of liquor and intoxicants, which they put into an iron pot.

The inhabitants of Gandharva and Apsara lōkas turned Viśvāvasu into a calf, and they drew milk from the earth into a lotus-flower pot which then took the form of sweet music, art and beauty.

The fortunate inhabitants of Pitṛloka, who preside over funeral ceremonies, made Aryamā into a calf and with great faith they milked kavyaṁ, food offered to the ancestors, into an unbaked earthen pot.

After this, the inhabitants of Siddhaloka, as well as the inhabitants of Vidyādhara-loka, transformed the great sage Kapila into a calf, and turning the entire sky into a pot, they milked from the earth specific yogic mystic powers, beginning with aṇimā. The inhabitants of Vidyādhara-loka thus acquired the ability of flying in the sky.

The inhabitants of planets known as Kimpuruṣa-loka made the demon Māya into a calf, and milked mystic powers by which one could disappear from another’s vision and reappear in a different form.

Then the Yakṣas, Rākṣasas, ghosts and witches, who were habituated to eating flesh, transformed Lord Śiva’s incarnation Rudra [Bhūtanātha] into a calf and milked out a drink made of blood and put them in skull-cups.

Thereafter, cobras and snakes without hoods, scorpions and other poisonous creatures made a calf out of Takṣaka and milked poison from the earth as their milk and kept this poison in snake holes.

The four-legged animals like cows made a calf out of the bull who carries Lord Śiva, Vṛṣabha and made a milking pot out of the forest. Thus they received fresh green grasses to eat. Ferocious predators like tigers transformed a lion into a calf, and were able to receive flesh as their milk. The birds made a calf of Garuḍa and took milk from the earth in the form of insects, plants and grasses.

The trees made a calf of the banyan tree, and derived milk in the form of delicious saps. The mountains transformed the Himālayas into a calf, and they milked a variety of minerals into a pot made of the peaks of hills. The planet earth thus supplied everyone their respective sustenance, which was symbolized as milk.

King Pṛthu was very satisfied with the planet earth, for she sufficiently and generously supplied food to all living beings.


  1. Canto 4 of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa
  2. Rethinking the Mahabharata: A Reader’s Guide to the Education of the Dharma King by Alf Hiltebeitel

3. read the same episode, recounted by B. N. Goswamy for the Tribune, with additional paintings from the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, Jodhpur:


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