This story is about Arjuna, who was the third of the Pandava brothers. He wanted to go on a pilgrimage. Everybody knows that if you embark on a pilgrimage and if you pray and meditate at certain sacred places, then you get special blessings from the cosmic gods and goddesses. In Arjuna’s case, he wanted to acquire the power to destroy his enemies.
Arjuna set out alone. There were five very important places of pilgrimage on the shores of the southern sea that he wished to visit. He went to each of these famous places but was extremely disappointed in each place, for he could not find even one person praying and meditating. “Something is wrong,” he said. “Either I have come to the wrong places by mistake or something has gone wrong with these holy places.”
After visiting the fifth and last site, Arjuna started on his homeward journey. His mind was filled with sadness. He had not gone very far when he saw a sage meditating. Arjuna approached the sage and said, “O sage, I have just visited the five sacred places of pilgrimage. How is it that nobody was praying and meditating along the banks of the rivers there?”
“There is a special reason,” answered the sage.
“Please enlighten me as to the cause of this mystery,” requested Arjuna.
The sage told Arjuna, “Here is the reason. If you go there, you are supposed to bathe in the river before you begin your worship. But as soon as people enter into the waters, a terrible creature comes and devours them. It lives inside the water. Once you go into the water, you can never come out again. This happens at each sacred place. That is why nobody goes there to pray and meditate anymore. They are afraid. They know that they must first take a bath in the waters, and they do not want to be killed by those water creatures.”
“Oh, is that the reason?” said Arjuna. “Then I will go back and see for myself. I am not afraid!”
Arjuna went to the nearest site and entered into the water. Immediately, an enormous crocodile caught him in its jaws and began pulling him down. The crocodile wanted to devour Arjuna, but Arjuna had tremendous strength and he began wrestling with the crocodile. A great struggle took place under the water, and finally Arjuna defeated the crocodile. He came out of the water dragging the crocodile behind him. As soon as the crocodile emerged from the river, it changed into a most beautiful apsara, or divine nymph.
Arjuna was astonished. “How is it possible?” he cried. “You fought with me so fiercely in the form of a crocodile and now you have become so beautiful!”
The nymph bowed to Arjuna. “You have saved me, you have saved me! Now I am begging you to release the four other crocodiles. They are my friends.”
“How did this fate befall you?” asked Arjuna.
The nymph replied, “Once a great sage was meditating at one of the sacred sites. He was meditating so intensely that the cosmic gods became worried. They asked us to disturb his meditation, for otherwise he would surpass them in spiritual and occult power. We obeyed those great cosmic gods and came before the sage. But when we tried to disturb his meditation, he got furious and cursed us to take crocodile incarnations. He said that we would be forced to live here in the rivers of these five sacred places, killing and devouring all the pilgrims who entered into the water. We would have to remain here until somebody who was very religious and, at the same time, extremely powerful came to visit the sacred places. The sage told us that we would not be able to devour this man. He would fight with us and defeat us. Then, when he brought us out of the water, we would once again become apsaras. We have waited so long for your coming! Today you have saved me and I am so grateful to you. Please, please save my friends also!”
Arjuna knew that he had to release the four other nymphs from their sad fate. He went to each place, entered into the water and fought with the huge crocodiles that attacked him. One by one, he defeated them all and brought them out of the water. In this way, he was able to release them from the curse of the sage and give them back their beautiful forms.