Introduction: Introduction

I expect that most people taking the time to read this introduction are newcomers to the text. For those already familiar with the story, no introduction is needed. They will want to immediately enter the deep waters of Mahābhārata, waters which are at once soothing and stimulating to both heart and mind. If this is your first reading, however, although it is a cliche, I have to say, "Welcome to the wonderful world of the Mahābhārata."

Welcome to a world where gods and heroes walk the earth, where virtuous kings lead the people, where our lifetimes are seen as simply one step along an eternal path leading to worlds of unending bliss. Here is a story which will enthrall you and at the same time deliver profound lessons about every aspect of life. It was first composed in Sanskrit about five thousand years ago by Vyasadeva, a mystic residing in the Himalayas. Its central theme is the true story of the lives of five powerful rulers, the Pandavas. Woven throughout the story are other tales. We meet sages, warrior kings, and a host of other colorful personalities. Among them is Krishna, a divine incarnation and, as you will discover, the pivotal character in the book. It is due to Krishna's presence that the work is revered as a sacred text. It does, in fact, contain the Bhagavad-gita, which Krishna spoke and which has become a spiritual treatise still read daily by millions of people (as indeed is the Mahābhārata itself).

My rendition is not an academic one, nor is it unabridged. Rather, I have written it as a novel in an attempt to bring my readers into the action and to help them experience the majestic mood of ancient times. In my experience, even readers who strongly desire to read Mahabharata find themselves unable to go through the very lengthy texts of unabridged scholarly translations that are available. I have therefore attempted to make the text as accessible as possible to all kinds of readers, but without sacrificing any of the essential details of the story. I have remained faithful to the translations to which I had access, and I believe that my book is as authentic a rendition as you are likely to find.

I will not delay your reading further. I have written a note at the end giving more background information, and you will also find glossaries and appendices delineating the Mahābhāratas many characters. Now I will leave you to immerse yourself in the great ocean of the Mahābhārata. All I can add is that the book has captivated me with its sublime message, making my life richer and fuller. I pray that it may give you as much pleasure as it has given me in my many readings.

dharme charthe cha kame cha mokshe cha Maratarshabha yad ihasti tad anyatrayan nehasti na tat kvachit

"In the realm of dharma, artha, kama, and moksha, (ethics, economic development, pleasure, and liberation), whatever is found in this epic may be found elsewhere, but what is not found here will be impossible to find anywhere else." (Mahābhārata, Adi Parva 56.33)

Krishna Dharma September, 1998

Part One - The Die is Cast

Chapter 1: Birth of the Kuru Elders

Ambikā peered curiously into the mirror as her maidservants finished adorning her in preparation for the nuptial bed. She had lost none of her beauty despite her months of mourning. Her skin was flawless and as white as milk. Curling jet-black hair framed her oval face. Bow-like eyebrows arched over her black eyes, which curved like two lotus petals. No wonder Vicitravīrya had been so enamored of her, rarely leaving her side. While he was alive her maidservants had adorned her each evening, just in case her lord had desired to approach her. As Ambikā again put on her ornaments and fine dress her mind drifted sadly back to the days she had spent with her husband. After having lain in that great hero’s powerful arms, how strange to now be preparing to meet another man!

Ambikā balked at the prospect, and she felt herself growing increasingly restless. She dismissed the maidservants as they fussed around her. She needed to be alone to think. When Vicitravīrya had died in such an untimely way, she had wanted to ascend his funeral pyre and follow him to the heavens. She could not imagine living without him. But Satyavatī, the queen mother, had restrained her--she still had a duty to perform. Despite the fact that they had enjoyed so much pleasure together, after seven years of marriage they had not produced a child. Without leaving an heir the king was guilty of neglecting a prime duty. How, then, would he be able to reach the higher regions?

Satyavatī had convinced Ambikā and her co-wife Ambālikā to stay and fulfill their husband’s duty and thereby secure the welfare of his soul. The scriptures allowed that in times of emergency a man’s elder brother could conceive children in his wife if he was unable. This was such an emergency. Ambikā suddenly felt more peaceful. Her union with Bhīṣma would not be a betrayal of the love she felt for her husband, but a service to him and to the kingdom. She stopped her restless pacing and lay down on the ivory bed in bashful anticipation. Bhīṣma was a powerful and righteous man. Who better to sire the future king? She should ensure that he felt completely honored by her.

There was a knock at the door. Ambikā looked up shyly. The door opened and a tall man entered. Ambikā’s blood turned cold. This was not Bhīṣma. There in her bedchamber stood a wizened, ugly and filthy ascetic. His matted locks hung about his gaunt face and he stared at her with fierce eyes. His teeth were only slightly less black than his complexion. Around his waist was a soiled loin cloth, his only garment. His hairy body was encrusted with dirt. Without any delay he came toward her and sat by her side. She instantly recoiled from the foul stench emanating from his body. Who was this person? She knew of no brother-in-law other than Bhīṣma. She prayed to the gods that she might lose consciousness, for how could she endure this fearful man’s touch? As he put his hands on her dress she closed her eyes, barely able to repress her urge to scream.

Satyavatī blamed herself. If it had not been for her father’s greed, Hastināpura would not be in such a precarious situation now. Here sat the powerful Bhīṣma, son of the goddess Gaṅgā. There was no greater hero on earth. As the eldest son of the righteous King Śantanu, he was the natural heir to Hastināpura’s throne, but the kingdom’s good fortune had been thwarted by her foolish father on her behalf.

She could still vividly picture the events. It had seemed to be like any other day. She was sitting by the river’s edge, waiting to row travelers across. Her father, leader of the fishermen, had given her that duty so she would gain the religious merits born of service to travelers. On this particular day, however, the emperor of the world, the mighty Śantanu, had been hunting in the nearby forests and was seduced by the alluring fragrance that emanated from her body. Having sought out the source of that celestial scent, he had become bewitched by her beauty. From his gaze it was obvious he desired to marry her. Upon hearing that she was still unmarried, he had hurried to her father’s house to ask for her hand.

When she herself had arrived home, she saw Śantanu leaving their humble hut in dismay. Her father had stipulated that he could only marry her if he promised the throne to her son. But the emperor already had a qualified son in Devavrataḥ, and he had already been consecrated as the prince regent. The king was not prepared, simply for his own pleasure, to wrong his worthy and beloved son. Thus he left, his heart torn by desire.

Satyavatī too had pined for many days, praying to the gods to arrange her union with the king. Then one day, unknown to Śantanu, Devavrataḥ appeared at their hut to solicit her hand on the emperor’s behalf. Her father repeated his condition and Devavrataḥ agreed. He would never ascend Hastināpura’s throne; the crown could go to Satyavatī’s children. Still her father hesitated. He had heard enough about court intrigues to know that if Devavrataḥ relinquished the throne, then Devavrataḥ’s children might feel cheated and oppose Satyavatī’s son. The fisher-king voiced his doubts. Hearing them, Devavrataḥ uttered a terrible vow. He would never accept a wife but would maintain life-long celibacy. In order to secure his father’s happiness, he said, he was ready to renounce all personal enjoyment. Satyavatī now recalled that when Devavrataḥ made that vow, flowers had rained from the sky and a thunderous voice had echoed from the heavens: “From this day his name shall be Bhīṣma, one of a terrible vow.”

Satyavatī looked at Bhīṣma now as he sat respectfully before her. She spoke his name and he looked up, ready to execute her command. Maybe she could yet convince him. He had always been obedient to her, even more so since Śantanu’s death.

“My dear Bhīṣma, please think again,” the queen said as she pulled her fine silk sari over her plaited hair. “You made your vow simply to secure the interests of your father and me. I now absolve you of that vow. You have always been fixed in virtue. Please consider our present situation. Just as you made your vow to serve your elders, you should now serve them by acting for the welfare of our line. Surely this is your duty. Ascend Hastināpura’s throne and beget powerful sons to secure this ancient kingdom’s future.”

Bhīṣma shook his head in exasperation. “Mother, please do not ask me to stray from the path of truth. It can never be as you suggest. The sun may renounce its splendor, water its wetness and the sky its sound, but Bhīṣma will never renounce truth.”

Bhīṣma asked Satyavatī to consider the deeper cause of the unexpected emergency facing the kingdom. It was due to all-powerful destiny. How else could it have come to pass that although Satyavatī had borne two powerful sons, both had died without producing an heir to the throne? All the kings on earth had paid tribute to Satyavatī’s eldest son, Citrāṅgadā. His reputation for prowess in battle and unwavering virtue had reached the heavens. It was thus that the mighty king of the Gandharvas, who bore the same name, became envious upon hearing his glories. The jealous Gandharva could not allow another famous and powerful Citrāṅgadā to live. He came to earth and challenged his rival to battle. After years of fighting, the valorous son of Satyavatī was slain and the proud Gandharva returned triumphant to the heavens.

Then the powerful Vicitravīrya ascended the throne, but suddenly died from an illness after only seven years of ruling. Neither he nor his brother left a child.

Bhīṣma stood up and looked out of the latticed window. A full moon illumined the palace gardens, casting a silver light across the broad sandstone paths where Vicitravīrya had loved to walk with his queens. He turned back to Satyavatī and continued, “Mother, we cannot thwart Providence by acting immorally. In all circumstances a virtuous man acts in obedience to the will of God. Auspiciousness and victory always attend virtue, while grief is the sure result of unrighteousness. Therefore, please do not ask me to abandon my vow.”

Satyavatī sat silently. Bhīṣma’s adherence to truth and virtue was unshakeable. He had spoken well. She bowed her head as he went on, “In any event, Mother, it seems destiny has provided us with a solution quite in keeping with religion. If the illustrious Vyāsadeva produces offspring upon the queens, we shall be saved. Let us pray that everything goes well.”

Satyavatī nodded. It was she who had summoned the powerful Ṛṣi Vyāsadeva, her first-born son. It had taken some courage for her to reveal how she had given birth to that sage even in her maidenhood. Out of fear of public censure she had hidden this fact for years, but she still remembered how the celestial Ṛṣi Parāśara had one day come onto her boat and begotten the great Vyāsadeva in her womb. Parāśara had told her that Providence had destined her for greatness. He was giving an illustrious son who would play an important part in that great destiny. Parāśara had then granted her the boon of keeping her maidenhood even after union with him--and it was he who had blessed her with the celestial fragrance which had captivated Śantanu.

Satyavatī slowly paced the mosaic floor. Hundreds of golden oil lamps lit up the great hall. Along the high walls hung fine paintings of her ancestors, going all the way back to the mighty King Kuru. All of them had been powerful emperors of the globe. Surely the Kuru dynasty would not end now. The queen said, “I have been praying for the kingdom ever since my sons’ demise. I have faith that Vyāsadeva will prove a shelter to us all. But seeing the adverse fate afflicting us, I still cannot help but be fearful.”

Satyavatī felt deeply for the kingdom and for Śantanu’s line. She still acted out of her love for the departed monarch. It was certainly providential that Parāśara had given her Vyāsadeva as her son. Vyāsadeva had grown to maturity immediately upon his birth and had left her, saying, “Dear Mother, should you ever be in difficulty, then simply think of me. I shall come to you at once from wherever I may be.”

As Bhīṣma and Satyavatī spoke, Ambikā’s door opened and Vyāsadeva came out. Bhīṣma bowed at his feet and Satyavatī anxiously asked, “Will the princess bear an accomplished son?”

Raising his hand in blessing as Bhīṣma stood up, the sage replied to Satyavatī, “The queen will bear a son who will be as strong as ten thousand elephants. He will be vastly intelligent, wise and prosperous. He will have a hundred sons. But, O pious lady, for the fault of his mother he will be born blind.”

Satyavatī was shocked. “How can one who is blind become a king of the Kuru race?” she asked.

Vyāsadeva explained that he had gone to Ambikā prepared to beget a son worthy in every way, but the queen had closed her eyes in fear when she saw him. When agreeing to produce an heir to the throne, the sage had stipulated that the queen must accept him in his unpleasant condition. Satyavatī had summoned him from the Himālayas and he had come to her directly from his practice of harsh asceticism. He kept himself unwashed and unkempt as a part of his ascetic vows. He said, “I would have come to the queen in a handsome form decked with jewels if she had first accepted a religious vow for one full year. But you asked that she conceive immediately. Therefore I stated my conditions in place of the religious vow.”

Satyavatī cursed herself for her impatience. She had not wanted to wait. Without an heir to the throne the kingdom was in constant danger. In a land without a monarch even the rains would not fall regularly and the gods would not be propitious. Therefore she had begged Vyāsadeva to approach the queen at once. Now this! A blind son. How could he ever become the king?

“You must give another king to the Kuru race,” she implored. “Please approach the other queen, Ambālikā.”

Vyāsadeva looked upon his anxious mother with compassion. He soothed her fears. Soon he would return again to beget another child. She need only summon him when Ambālikā was prepared to receive him. Vyāsadeva then disappeared from the spot. Satyavatī turned and spoke to Bhīṣma. “This is what I feared. I must now ask Ambālikā to receive the sage. I pray that she will be more successful than her sister.”

Within a month, Vyāsadeva was called. Once again he came from his austerities and appeared in a repulsive condition. Satyavatī led him to Ambālikā’s bedchamber and the sage at once entered. Even though she had been warned by her sister what to expect, the princess was still struck with horror when the grim ascetic approached her. She turned pale with fright, although she kept her eyes open as she conceived. Vyāsadeva then said to the horrified princess, “As you have turned pale upon seeing me, so your son shall also be pale. He will therefore be named Pāṇḍu, the ‘pale one’.” The ṛṣi then left the room. He met his mother outside and she asked about the child. Vyāsadeva replied to her that a greatly powerful boy would be born but he would be pale.

Satyavatī again felt anxious. The child would be pale? What did Vyāsadeva mean? Something was still not right. And in any event, even if everything was fine with this child, with only one qualified prince the kingdom would still be in a precarious position. Vyāsadeva should try once more. She asked him to again approach Ambikā. This time the princess, knowing what to expect, would keep her eyes open. Vyāsadeva smiled and replied, “Be it so. I shall return again shortly after she has delivered her first child.”

In due course of time Ambikā gave birth to a blind child who was named Dhṛtarāṣṭra. Ambālikā delivered a pale child who was nevertheless effulgent and endowed with many auspicious marks on his body, and who was named Pāṇḍu in accord with Vyāsadeva’s words. Soon after, the sage again came to the palace in order to approach Ambikā for a second time.

The queen was alarmed at the prospect of meeting again with the terrible-looking ṛṣi. She went to a maidservant who was an intimate friend and asked that she take her place. Giving the servant her own ornaments and adorning her with the finest robes, she had her wait in the bedchamber for the sage.

Although he knew everything the ṛṣi entered the chamber as before. As soon as she saw the exalted sage the maidservant rose up respectfully. She bowed at his feet and had him sit down comfortably. After gently washing his feet, the girl offered him many kinds of delicious foodstuffs. Vyāsadeva was pleased. After laying with the girl, he said, “O good-natured girl, you shall be a maidservant no longer. Your son from our union will be wise, fortunate and the foremost of all intelligent men upon this earth.”

Again Satyavatī was waiting outside the bedchamber. Vyāsadeva told her, “The queen deceived me and sent instead her servant. That simple girl received me with all respect. She will therefore bear an auspicious child. O Mother, I shall now go and continue my asceticism. I will return when you need me again, but I will not beget any more children.” Vyāsadeva vanished, leaving Bhīṣma and Satyavatī reflecting on his words.

The maidservant gave birth to a child named Vidura, who later became the chief minister and advisor of the Kuru house. He was raised alongside his two brothers, and the three boys grew up like resplendent gods. Everyone was satisfied that the kingdom was secure. Happiness and prosperity were everywhere as the gods showered their blessings on the kingdom. Bhīṣma ruled as regent while the boys grew up.

Although Dhṛtarāṣṭra was the eldest, his blindness disqualified him from becoming the king. Nor could Vidura assume the throne, as he was born of a servant girl. But Pāṇḍu was a worthy monarch in every way; and when he came of age, he was installed on the Kuru throne. Pāṇḍu excelled all men in archery, and he soon became skilled in the Vedic science of leadership and diplomacy.

All three brothers were given the best education and were raised with affection by Bhīṣma. As predicted by Vyāsadeva, Dhṛtarāṣṭra displayed immense bodily strength and Vidura was naturally wise even from childhood. His devotion to religion and morality could not be matched by anyone. When he reached maturity, even the learned Bhīṣma would seek his counsel. It was thus that one day Bhīṣma approached Vidura and said, “O wise one, we should take steps to ensure that our noble line does not again face extinction. The two princes are ready for marriage. I have heard that there are three princesses worthy of being allied to our house. Tell me your thoughts on this, O Vidura.”

Bhīṣma said that there was a princess in the Yadu house named Kuntī, another named Gāndhārī, who was a daughter of the mountain king Suvala, and a third princess named Mādrī, in Madra. He suggested that two of these girls could be sought for Pāṇḍu and the other for Dhṛtarāṣṭra.

Vidura folded his hands and replied, “My lord, you are our father, our protector and our preceptor. You should do whatever you feel is proper for the welfare of our dynasty.”

Bhīṣma paced up and down his palace chamber. He had heard that Gāndhārī had received a boon from Śiva, who had said she would have one hundred sons. Surely she would make a good wife for Dhṛtarāṣṭra, who had also been blessed in a similar way by Vyāsadeva. A hundred sons from that powerful prince would be a great asset to the kingdom and would ensure the perpetuation of the Kuru dynasty. Bhīṣma at once arranged for messengers to go to Suvala and ask for the hand of Gāndhārī.

When King Suvala heard Bhīṣma’s request, he was hesitant. How could his daughter marry a blind prince? But Suvala reflected on the possibility. Dhṛtarāṣṭra belonged to the glorious Kuru house. They had ruled the world for thousands of years. Considering the fame, nobility and virtue of the Kurus, Suvala assented to the marriage. He had his son Śakuni bring Gāndhārī to Hastināpura. When the princess heard that she was to marry the blind Dhṛtarāṣṭra, she took a cloth and bound her own eyes, not wanting to be in any way superior to her lord.

Śakuni gave away his beautiful sister to Dhṛtarāṣṭra along with many gifts sent by Suvala. After being duly respected by Bhīṣma, he then mounted his golden chariot and returned to his kingdom. Gāndhārī became immediately devoted to her husband. She pleased him in every way by her attentions, she never even referred to other men in her speech, and her eyes were always covered by the cloth.

With Dhṛtarāṣṭra married, Bhīṣma turned his mind to Pāṇḍu’s marriage. He had heard that the princess Kuntī would soon select a husband at a special ceremony known as a svayaṁvara. That princess was famous for her beauty and womanly qualifications, and she belonged to the noble Yadu race. Bhīṣma told Pāṇḍu to leave at once for the svayaṁvara and try to win Kuntī’s hand.

The king mounted a great dark stallion and rode swiftly to the southern kingdom of Kuntībhoja, the father of Kuntī. Like a proud lion, he strode into the svayaṁvara arena. When the many other kings assembled there saw Pāṇḍu, broad-chested and with eyes like a furious bull, they considered him to be a second Indra. He outshone all the other monarchs like the sun rising in the morning and obscuring the stars. When Kuntī saw the powerful Hastināpura monarch gazing at her, her mind became agitated. Trembling with emotion, she walked slowly toward him and shyly placed the nuptial garland around his neck.

Although there were many kings and princes desirous of Kuntī’s hand, and although a svayaṁvara would almost always end up in a fight, the kings abandoned any thought of competing with the mighty Pāṇḍu for the princess. Mounting upon their steeds and chariots, they simply returned the way they had come. King Kuntībhoja came down from the royal platform into the arena, his face bright with delight. There could be no better match for his daughter. The king immediately arranged for the wedding ceremony, and he presented Pāṇḍu with gifts of great wealth.

After a few days the couple left for Hastināpura, accompanied by a large retinue bearing many colorful pennants which waved in the breeze. The soldiers beat drums and blew loudly upon their conchshells as they proceeded toward Pāṇḍu’s capital. Seated with Kuntī upon a shining golden chariot and surrounded by Brahmins offering benedictions, Pāṇḍu entered Hastināpura in state.

Bhīṣma was overjoyed to see Pāṇḍu married to the gentle and beautiful princess, but he also felt that the king needed another queen. Although Gāndhārī had received the benediction that she would bear a hundred sons, Kuntī had no such boon. Bhīṣma wanted to ensure that the virtuous monarch was blessed with powerful sons. He went personally to the kingdom of Madra to seek the hand of Mādrī for Pāṇḍu. She was under her brother’s, King Śalya’s, protection.

King Śalya received with all honor Bhīṣma and his retinue of ministers, Brahmins and ṛṣis. He brought Gaṅgā’s son into his palace and offered him a seat of white ivory studded with precious gems. Then the king bathed his feet and offered him arghya. His reception completed, Bhīṣma said to King Śalya, “O King, you should know that I am here to seek a maiden. I have heard that you have an illustrious and chaste sister and I have chosen her for King Pāṇḍu. Please tell me if you approve of this arrangement.”

King Śalya replied that the Kuru house was more than worthy of being allied with his house. There was, however, an ancient custom in his family that no girl could be given in marriage unless the suitor offered a tribute.

Bhīṣma had already heard of this custom because it dated back to the great Brahmā himself. He had come prepared and thus replied to Śalya, “There is no fault in this custom as it has the approval of the self-born creator, Brahmā. Therefore, please accept the gifts I have brought in exchange for the princess.”

Bhīṣma’s men then carried in heaps of gold coins, pearls, corals and gems of various colors, and set them before Śalya. Bhīṣma also presented the king with hundreds of elephants, horses and chariots.

Śalya received all the wealth with a delighted heart. He then gave Mādrī to Bhīṣma, who then soon returned to Hastināpura and performed the wedding ceremony.

Pāṇḍu established each of his wives in their own splendid palaces and gave himself up to enjoyment with them both. He sported in the palace groves and gardens, appearing like a celestial with two beautiful consorts.

Chapter 2: Pāṇḍu Cursed and Blessed

Although possessed of all material opulences, Pāṇḍu was by nature disinterested in sensual enjoyment. Having enjoyed with his two wives for only a short while, he found his mind turning to other things. Although the Kuru dynasty had for many thousands of years been emperors of the globe and had upheld religious codes, their hold over other kings had begun to slip with the death of Śantanu and his two sons. Some of the kings were now becoming arrogant, exceeding their own boundaries and antagonizing weaker kings.

Pāṇḍu felt impelled to take action. Going before Bhīṣma, he said, “My lord, our dynasty’s greatness has suffered diminution. The world is straying from the path of righteousness established by our ancestors. Irreligion is rising. It is my duty to our noble house, and indeed to the Supreme Lord himself, to go out and check the offenders.”

Bhīṣma smiled. Here indeed was a worthy descendent of the great Bharata, after whom the very earth had been named. He replied, “Your desire befits our line and is praiseworthy in every way. Take blessings from the Brahmins and then leave with an army. May victory attend you!”

Pāṇḍu quickly assembled a vast force consisting of infantry, horsemen, elephants and chariots. As he left Hastināpura he looked like the king of the gods surrounded by his celestial army. Pāṇḍu marched to the east and defeated the king of the Dāśārhas, who was becoming averse to Hastināpura’s rule. Moving south toward Maghada, where the powerful King Dirgha was assailing many surrounding countries, Pāṇḍu attacked the proud king at his capital, Rajgriha, and killed him.

After that Pāṇḍu subjugated several other warlike kings. He ranged across the globe like a fire, his far-reaching arrows and the splendor of his weapons resembling brilliant flames. As his fame spread, monarchs submitted without resistance. Soon all the world’s kings recognized him as the most powerful ruler on earth. They bowed to him with joined palms and offered tribute of various kinds.

After this one-year campaign, Pāṇḍu returned to his capital with the wealth he had obtained. All the Kurus, with Bhīṣma at their head, came out to greet him. They viewed with delight the train of elephants, oxen, camels, horses and chariots, all laden with riches and stretching farther than the eye could see. Pāṇḍu then presented to the Kuru elders the precious stones, pearls, coral, gold and silver piled in heaps, along with millions of cows, horses and other animals. He showed them innumerable costly blankets, rugs and skins from the rare black renku deer.

Pāṇḍu bowed at Bhīṣma’s feet as he presented all this wealth, and Bhīṣma tearfully embraced the young king. Surrounded by Brahmins uttering prayers and benedictions, the two men then mounted a golden chariot and proceeded to the royal palace, heralded by a fanfare of trumpets, conches and kettledrums.

Pāṇḍu ensured that his two brothers were each given much wealth. He had little personal interest in wealth, being more attracted to forests and plains than to the luxurious palace life. He loved to mount his stallion and ride out on long hunting expeditions. Thus, a few months after returning to Hastināpura, he decided to make his permanent residence upon a hilly slope of the Himālayan range. Taking his two wives with him, he left his magnificent palace and moved to a simple dwelling on the mountainside. The local people would see the monarch roaming the woods with his wives. Encased in beautiful blazing armor and armed with bows and swords, he resembled a god wandering on earth.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra officiated as the king in Hastināpura on behalf of his younger brother. At his command, the forest people would supply Pāṇḍu with every object of enjoyment. Pāṇḍu had mastered his senses, so although he gracefully accepted their gifts, he continued to live simply.

One day Pāṇḍu went out hunting. He saw a couple of large deer mating. They bolted when they saw the king, but he quickly fired five swift arrows after them. As the golden-feathered shafts pierced the male deer, it fell down crying. To the king’s surprise the dying deer began to speak in a pained voice.

“Oh, how shameful! Even degraded men who are slaves to their senses never act so cruelly. No man’s judgment can ever prevail against the ordinance of scripture. How then have you, the king and a descendent of the noble Bharata race, acted so, in conflict with Vedic ordinance?”

Pāṇḍu stood before the deer, which was weeping bitterly, and replied, “As a king it is my duty to hunt. I thus control the forest, making it safe for the ṛṣis. At the same time, I am able to practice the kingly art of weaponry. Furthermore, even great sages in the past have killed deer in the forest by offering them in sacrifice. O deer, why do you reprove me?”

The deer replied that it did not condemn Pāṇḍu for injuring it, but for not taking into consideration that it was mating. The deer then told Pāṇḍu that it was a ṛṣi named Kindama. He had assumed the form of a deer to mate with his wife in the woods. The ṛṣi had no dwelling and could not unite with his wife in a human form as people would criticize. He had therefore transformed himself and his wife into deer. The king had killed him just as he was about to beget a child in his wife’s womb. Kindama continued, “No creature should be attacked at the moment of intercourse. Your act was extremely cruel and sinful, and is liable to lead you to hell. It is especially reproachful as you are a king and are meant to chastise the wicked and protect the tenets of religion.”

Pāṇḍu gazed at Kindama in shocked silence. He had spoken correctly. It had certainly been sinful to shoot at the deer as it mated. How had he allowed himself to be so overcome with passion? And what would come from having killed a ṛṣi? This was a calamity. The king hung his head in shame.

Seeing Pāṇḍu’s crestfallen condition, Kindama said, “You need not fear the sin of killing a Brahmin, as you did not know my true identity. But as you killed me when I was indulging in pleasure, so too shall you meet your death at such a time.”

The ṛṣi wanted to free Pāṇḍu from his sin. By cursing the king, Kindama knew that Pāṇḍu would immediately receive the reaction for his misdeed and thus not have to suffer after death. Struggling to speak as his lifeblood ebbed away, Kindama uttered his fearful imprecation.

“When next you approach your wife out of desire, you will immediately fall dead. O King, as I was plunged into grief when I was happy, you shall also meet with grief at such a time.”

The deer then gave up its life. Pāṇḍu stood for some moments unable to move. As he gazed at the deer’s dead body hot tears ran down his cheeks. Gathering his wits, he returned to his hut. He immediately told his wives what had happened. Afflicted by sorrow, the king wept aloud with his two queens. He condemned himself again and again. Holding his head and lamenting, the king spoke in an anguished voice: “I have heard that my father, although born of a virtuous man, was himself a slave of lust and died as a result. Having been begotten in the wife of a lustful king, I too have become afflicted with lust. I have become devoted to sin. My life is simply spent in killing innocent creatures. The gods have forsaken me and I stand cursed.”

Pāṇḍu resolved to live a life of austerity. He declared that from that moment he would accept a vow of celibacy, as Bhīṣma had done. He would seek salvation by renouncing all sexual pleasure, the great impediment to spiritual understanding. Pāṇḍu spoke to his horrified wives, “I shall shave my head and cover my body with dust. Sorrow and joy will be equal to me. I will entirely renounce anger and I shall be devoted to the good of all creatures. I will accept no gifts and I will obtain my food by begging. In this way, I shall transcend the dualities of this world and rise to the highest regions, where the Lord himself resides.”

The king asked his wives to return to the capital and inform his elders of the turn of events. They should gratify the Brahmins on his behalf, giving them much wealth. For his part, he would immediately retire into the wilderness and leave society forever.

Kuntī and Mādrī were torn by grief. They could not face the prospect of separation from their husband. In piteous voices they begged that he allow them to follow his path. Both queens were prepared to accept whatever austerities he accepted. On behalf of them both, Kuntī said, “Let us together accept the order of vānaprastha, retirement in the forest. We shall be happy practising asceticism with you. If you leave us today, we shall not bear our lives any longer.”

Pāṇḍu relented, but he made it clear that he intended to perform the strictest austerities. His wives were not deterred. They wished only to be with him wherever he went.

Pāṇḍu resolved to embark on his ascetic life immediately. He would not return to the city. He removed all his royal ornaments and gave them, along with his riches, to the Brahmins. Then he said to his attendants, “Go back to Hastināpura and inform Bhīṣma of everything that has occurred.”

The royal attendants and Brahmins left sorrowfully for Hastināpura. The citizens lamented loudly when they learned of Pāṇḍu’s plight. Dhṛtarāṣṭra was especially afflicted. Thinking of Pāṇḍu living so austerely in the forest, he could no longer derive pleasure from the comforts of his beds, servants and royal opulences. He continually wept and brooded over Pāṇḍu.

After the Brahmins and attendants had left, Pāṇḍu made his way into the forest with his wives. They walked steadily north for many days and finally arrived at Saptasrota, the hundred-peaked mountain. There the king constructed a wooden hut and began to engage in severe penance. Many ṛṣis, Siddhas and Cāraṇas lived in that region and Pāṇḍu soon endeared himself to them by his qualities of humility, self-control and devotion to his elders and to God. They would frequently visit his hut to converse with him.

With his mind fixed only on salvation, Pāṇḍu lived quite simply at Saptasrota. He ate only fruits and roots and drank clear water from mountain springs. His two wives accepted the same vows he had taken, and thus all three lived joyfully on the mountain like celestials descended from the higher regions.

Gradually over time Pāṇḍu thought more about his situation. One day he spoke to the ṛṣis, revealing his fears. “O greatly learned ones, I have heard that a sonless man cannot attain heaven. By having sons one pays his debts to his ancestors. If I die without issue, my forefathers will surely perish, as the śraddhā offerings will cease. I am thus filled with apprehension because I cannot beget children.”

Pāṇḍu was anxious. He would often perform the śraddhā ceremony for the welfare of his departed ancestors. The Vedas state that such food offerings made to the gods on their behalf ensure their continued happiness in heaven. Pāṇḍu was concerned. What would happen when he died? If he left no children, who would continue the offerings to his forefathers and, indeed, to himself? He folded his palms in supplication. Could the ṛṣis beget children in his wives, just as Vyāsadeva had begotten him and his brothers?

Smiling, one of the ṛṣis replied, “By our ascetic powers we have seen that you will undoubtedly have children like the gods themselves. Indeed, your progeny will fulfill the purpose of the celestials. All this can be seen clearly by us. Therefore you should certainly act in such a way as to somehow produce children.”

Pāṇḍu reflected on the ṛṣi’s words. It seemed the sages were amenable to his suggestion. He went to Kuntī and spoke with her in private. “O lady of sweet smiles, I desire offspring, but due to my vicious behavior I have lost my power of procreation. In such instances the scriptures sanction that another worthy man may beget children on my behalf. Please, therefore, accept another man and conceive a child for me.”

Pāṇḍu pointed out that even he and his brothers had been conceived in this way. Kuntī should thus accept a qualified Brahmin, who was superior to himself, in order to have a child.

The noble Kuntī did not like Pāṇḍu’s suggestion. She looked down and spoke softly in reply, “O virtuous one, please do not request this of me. I am your lawful wife, ever devoted to you. I shall certainly not accept another’s embrace, even in my imagination. O King, embrace me to beget offspring. I shall ascend to heaven with you. Who is there superior to you?”

Kuntī recited to her husband an ancient history she had heard. There was once a powerful king who had died without issue. His lamenting wife had embraced his dead body and by the arrangement of the gods she conceived children. Three qualified sons were born of her union with her dead husband. Kuntī asked Pāṇḍu to emulate that king.

Pāṇḍu replied that he did not possess such power. He preferred she conceive a child by uniting with a ṛṣi. He assured her that no sin was attached to such an act. It was his responsibility, as he was commanding her as her husband, and she should not hesitate to comply with his request. The monarch tried in many ways to convince his wife.

At last, Kuntī, seeing her husband’s determination, said to him, “I shall tell you of a boon I received while in my maidenhood, which may yet prove to be our deliverance. When I was a girl in my father’s house, he would engage me in serving guests there. One day the powerful mystic Durvāsā arrived. By my service and constant attention to all his needs I greatly pleased that ṛṣi. As he was leaving he called me aside and said, ‘O gentle one, I shall confer upon you a boon. Listen as I recite a mantra. This mantra, uttered by you, will summon any of the celestials you desire. Whether agreeable or not they will then be obliged to do your bidding.’”

Kuntī already had experience of the mantra’s power. As soon as she had uttered it once and thought of Sūrya, that blazing deity had appeared before her. He had then conceived a son. Kuntī therefore knew that she could summon other gods to produce further children. She had not wanted to reveal this secret, being reluctant to unite even with the gods in place of her own husband. But this was an emergency. It seemed that the time to make good use of Durvāsā’s mantra had come.

Pāṇḍu, who had known nothing about the boon, was overjoyed upon hearing Kuntī’s words. This was surely the Lord’s arrangement. Sons from the gods would be far superior to any born of earthly men.

Kuntī asked her husband which of the deities she should call.

Pāṇḍu thought for some moments and then said to his wife, “O beautiful lady, you should call the great Dharma, the god of justice. He will never be able to pollute us with sin and his son will undoubtedly be qualified in every way.”

Kuntī assented to Pāṇḍu’s request. She sat in meditation and thought of Dharma, reciting the mantra Durvāsā had given her. Within moments the deity appeared, riding on a resplendent chariot. Shining like the sun, he smiled and said to Kuntī, “What should I do for you at this time?”

Awed by the god’s splendor, Kuntī replied in a trembling voice, “I desire a child by your illustrious self.”

Dharma at once united with her in his spiritual form and then disappeared. Kuntī conceived and in due course gave birth. During the eighth month of the year, at noon on a full moon day, when the auspicious star Jyeṣṭhā was in the ascendant, she brought forth a lustrous son. As soon as he was born a celestial voice was heard in the sky: “This child will be the best and most virtuous of men. He will be devoted to truth, highly powerful and famous throughout the three worlds. Known as Yudhiṣṭhira, this boy will rule the earth.”

Pāṇḍu was overjoyed. The gods had not forsaken him after all! Here was a child worthy of his great dynasty. He no longer had to be anxious.

Then he began to consider the situation. He saw that by Durvāsā’s boon Kuntī could obtain more powerful sons, born of the gods themselves, who would ensure the Kuru’s welfare and become great leaders in the world. Pāṇḍu approached Kuntī again, a year after Yudhiṣṭhira’s birth, and said, “The wise have declared that a ruler should possess strength as well as righteousness. Therefore, please invoke the wind-god, Vāyu, the strongest of the gods. By him we shall get a son who will be the most powerful man upon this earth.”

Kuntī folded her palms and bowed in assent. She again sat in meditation, this time calling for Vāyu. In moments the god appeared, riding a huge deer. In a voice that sounded like thunderclouds, the effulgent god said with a smile, “O Kuntī, what do you desire from me?”

Kuntī was bashful as she replied, “O best of the celestials, please give me a son who will possess immense bodily strength, and who will be capable of humbling the pride of everybody.”

The god agreed, and by his yogic power he approached Kuntī and conceived a child within her womb. When Vāyu’s child took his birth a voice was again heard from the sky, saying, “This child will be the best of all those endowed with strength and power.”

Pāṇḍu and Kuntī were even more joyful to see their second son, whom they named Bhīma. Along with Mādrī, and in the company of the ṛṣis and Siddhas, they lovingly raised their children in the remote and beautiful woodlands on the mountainside.

Some months after Bhīma’s birth, Kuntī was sitting near the edge of a mountain cliff with Bhīma asleep on her lap. Suddenly a tiger roared nearby. She jumped up in fear and the baby rolled from her lap over the cliff edge. Struck with horror, Pāṇḍu quickly descended the cliff. When he reached the bottom he saw the child lying unharmed amid a pile of rocky fragments. The baby had landed upon a large rock and had smashed it to pieces. In amazement Pāṇḍu gently lifted his child and took him back to Kuntī.

Even with two sons, Pāṇḍu continued to reflect on the future of his dynasty. He thought, “Success in this world depends upon exertion, but exertion is always subordinate to destiny. Yet even destiny is controlled by the will of the Supreme Lord. How then can I obtain a son who will be the best of all those devoted to the Lord?”

Pāṇḍu thought of Indra, the king of all the gods and a famous devotee of the Lord. Indra had formerly performed a thousand sacrifices for Lord Viṣṇu’s pleasure, and he possessed immeasurable might, prowess and glory. From him would surely come a son who would be superior to all.

Pāṇḍu consulted with the ṛṣis and was advised that he and Kuntī should practice an ascetic vow for one year to please Indra. At the end of that period Kuntī should summon the god with her mantra.

The monarch and his wife then accepted a vow of standing on one leg from sunrise till sunset, taking neither food nor water. They kept their minds absorbed in meditation and prayer for one complete year, with an aim to please Indra. At the end of the year Indra spoke to Pāṇḍu in his meditation. “I have become pleased with you, O King. I shall give you a son who will protect religion and chastise the wicked. He will delight his friends and relatives and slay his foes. Indeed, this boy will be the best of men.”

Following Pāṇḍu’s request, Kuntī again chanted her mantra. Indra appeared immediately, his bodily luster lighting up the whole region. By the power of the thousand-eyed Indra, Kuntī conceived, and in time a dark-complexioned child was born. For the third time the heavenly voice was heard, resounding over the mountainside: “O Kuntī, this child will be equal in strength to Indra and indeed Śiva himself. He shall be called Arjuna and he will spread your fame everywhere. He will subjugate many powerful kings and greatly increase the prosperity of your dynasty. Agni, Śiva and Indra will all be gratified by this boy’s service. He shall have no equal in prowess and will be famous throughout the three worlds.”

Overhearing this as well as other prophecies regarding Arjuna’s future greatness, the ṛṣis on that mountain were filled with joy. They uttered blessings while the celestial drums reverberated and showers of flowers fell from the sky. Many gods and heavenly sages appeared before Kuntī and offered the child benediction. Only the ascetic ṛṣis could see them as they appeared in their ethereal forms, standing in chariots and on mountain peaks. The ṛṣis were astonished by that wonderful sight and they stood with folded palms.

Pāṇḍu was delighted. He now had three matchless sons. Seeing the wonderful result of Durvāsā’s boon, he decided to ask Kuntī to use the mantra a fourth time and summon yet another powerful god. When he approached her again, however, Kuntī refused. “O learned man, even in times of emergency it is never sanctioned by scripture for a woman to have intercourse with more than three men. Have you forgot the ordinance? I would become debased if I again conceived by another.”

The king fell silent. Kuntī was right. He decided not to ask for any more sons and continued to live peacefully in the forest with his two wives. Their three sons grew luxuriantly in their care.

Then one day Mādrī approached Pāṇḍu privately. “My lord, I do not complain that you treat me less favorably than Kuntī. Even though I am of a higher birth, I still have no complaint. My one grief is that you have no sons by me.”

Mādrī found her position unbearable. No princesses in her line had ever gone without issue. Kuntī had three sons. Mādrī had heard that Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s wife, Gāndhārī, had given birth to a hundred sons in Hastināpura. Yet she, the lawful wife of a great hero, was childless. She asked Pāṇḍu to request Kuntī to teach her the mantra. Mādrī explained that she was too shy to ask her directly, since Kuntī was her rival.

Pāṇḍu smiled. He felt compassion for his younger wife. “O Mādrī, I had already been considering this myself. I was reluctant to ask you because I was not sure how you might feel. Now that I know your mind, I shall certainly speak with Kuntī. I do not think she will refuse.”

The monarch approached Kuntī immediately. He told her of Mādrī’s sorrow and asked her to be gracious to her co-wife. Pāṇḍu made it clear that he also desired more sons to secure more fully the good of his race, including that of himself and indeed Kuntī.

Kuntī assented to her husband’s request and told Mādrī, “O gentle lady, I shall recite the mantra for your benefit. Please think of some deity from whom you desire offspring.”

Mādrī thought carefully. Most probably Kuntī would allow her to use the mantra only once. If she summoned the inseparable twin Aśvinī gods, she would get two sons at once. Even as she thought of the two gods they appeared before her, aglow with celestial splendor. Bashfully, she asked that they unite with her to conceive children and they immediately agreed. They begot upon Mādrī two boys of incomparable beauty who were named Nakula and Sahadeva. Upon their birth the divine voice said, “These virtuous and accomplished sons will transcend in energy and beauty even their celestial fathers.”

The ṛṣis performed all the rites of passage for the five boys and they grew up swiftly. Even at age one, they appeared as if they were five years old. Pāṇḍu was overwhelmed with happiness at seeing his sons’ extraordinary strength, beauty, energy and wisdom. All the boys became favorites of the ṛṣis and they sported like five Gandharvas descended to earth.

Pāṇḍu wondered if he might again have another son through Mādrī. But when he asked Kuntī if she would permit Mādrī to use the mantra again, Kuntī became angry and replied, “My lord, I was deceived by that wicked woman. Although I gave her the mantra only once, she obtained two sons. If I give it to her again I fear she may surpass me in the number of children. Pray do not ask me for this favor any more.”

Pāṇḍu reconciled himself to the fact that he would have only five sons, but he was not disappointed. His boys grew up like gods. They were all as handsome as the moon-god, Soma, and as powerful as Indra. They all became fearless bowmen who were capable, even in their early youth, of facing furious mountain lions. The ṛṣis schooled them in every facet of Vedic knowledge. The ascetics were astonished to see the boys growing so rapidly, like lotuses blooming in a lake. Pāṇḍu and his wives offered prayers of thanks to Lord Viṣṇu for their great fortune, and they went on living in the Himālayan region, raising their children with affection.

Chapter 3: The Pāṇḍavas Come to Hastināpura

In Hastināpura, Dhṛtarāṣṭra had performed five sacrifices with the wealth Pāṇḍu had bestowed upon him. He gave charity to hundreds of thousands of Brahmins and satisfied the gods with his offerings. The kingdom flourished and the citizens had everything they desired. They were devoted to virtue, sacrifice and truth. Bearing love and affection for one another, they grew in prosperity. Hastināpura was like the ocean filled with numerous palaces and mansions. There were golden arches and crystal fountains everywhere. Between broad, paved highways lay beautiful gardens and the air was filled with the sweet fragrance of blossoming trees. The clatter of horses’ hooves and chariot wheels mixed with the trumpeting of elephants and the blare of conchshells which mark the beginning of sacrificial performances. Holy chants uttered by numerous Brahmins emanated from tall and exquisitely carved temple buildings, which graced the city in their thousands. Hastināpura appeared like Indra’s celestial capital, and each day dozens of feudal kings would arrive bringing tribute.

Assisted by Bhīṣma, Dhṛtarāṣṭra ruled over the kingdom on Pāṇḍu’s behalf. After hearing of Pāṇḍu cursed and his subsequent retirement, Dhṛtarāṣṭra, despite his blindness, was officially installed as monarch. He thought sadly of his brother and missed him greatly, but in his absence he competently managed all the affairs of state.

It once came to pass that Vyāsadeva arrived hungry and thirsty at Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s palace. Gāndhārī attended to him conscientiously. Vyāsadeva was pleased with the girl and blessed her, “You shall soon have one hundred sons as powerful as your husband.” In due course of time Gāndhārī conceived. For two years she bore the embryo within her womb, becoming increasingly anxious. Then one day news reached her that Kuntī had given birth in the forest to a boy as effulgent as the morning sun. Out of frustration and anger at her own excessively long gestation, she struck violently at her womb. She then brought forth a hard mass of flesh that resembled an iron ball. As her nurses informed her of the stillbirth, she was afflicted by grief and thought of Vyāsadeva and his boon.

At once the sage appeared before her and said, “What have you done?”

Gāndhārī told him how she had become overwhelmed with envy and frustration when she had heard of Kuntī giving birth to Yudhiṣṭhira. With tears in her eyes she said, “I struck my womb and this lump of flesh came out. What then was the meaning of your boon?”

Vyāsadeva replied that his words could never prove false. He asked the servants to bring one hundred one pots filled with ghee. He then sprinkled cool water on the lump of flesh and it gradually divided into one hundred and one parts, each the size of a thumb. These were placed in the pots which were then sealed and placed in a concealed spot. Vyāsadeva instructed that the pots should be opened only after two more years had passed. He then departed for his lonely mountain ashram.

Exactly after the two years had elapsed the pots were opened one by one. From the first came a child who was named Duryodhana. At the moment he was brought out of the pot the sound of braying asses and screaming vultures was heard. Jackals howled and the wind blew fiercely. Without any apparent cause, fires sprang up all around the city and raged in all directions.

The frightened King Dhṛtarāṣṭra summoned the Brahmins, Bhīṣma, Vidura and other ministers and counselors. He asked them the meaning of the omens. “The eldest of the princes is undoubtedly Yudhiṣṭhira and he should inherit the kingdom. I do not dispute that. But will my own son become the king after him? O wise ones, please tell me what is right and lawful.”

As Dhṛtarāṣṭra spoke the terrible sounds began again from all sides. Hearing this, Vidura replied to the king, “When these omens are seen at the birth of a child, it is evident that he will be the exterminator of his race. Our prosperity and future depend upon his being abandoned. Do not hesitate, O King. This child must be cast away at once.”

Vidura told Dhṛtarāṣṭra that he would still have ninety-nine other sons. There would be no sin in abandoning this child, as the scriptures clearly state that an individual can be abandoned for the sake of a family. Indeed, a family can be abandoned for the sake of a village, a village for the sake of a city and the world itself can be abandoned for the sake of the soul.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra was unable to accept Vidura’s counsel. He could not allow his son to be cast away. He shook his head slowly and said nothing in reply. As the nurse stood by holding the baby, the king waved her toward Gāndhārī and the child was handed to her. Bhīṣma and Vidura looked at one another but said nothing. Dhṛtarāṣṭra was the monarch; his word was final.

Over the course of the next month, all the pots were opened and one hundred boys and one girl were brought out. All the boys bore the signs of being great warriors and rulers. The king and queen rejoiced in their good fortune. Dismissing the evil omens, they dwelt contentedly in Hastināpura, attended by Bhīṣma and Vidura.

On Saptasrota Mountain, spring had arrived. Pāṇḍu, surrounded by his five youthful sons, felt young again. He sported with the boys in the hills, scaling rock faces and challenging lions in their caves. They dived and played in mountain pools and climbed tall trees. Wrestling and laughing together, they rolled about the soft grassy slopes.

One evening Pāṇḍu went into the woods with Mādrī to fetch roots and fruits for their evening meal. As they strolled, they saw countless varieties of blossoming trees and bushes. The air was heavy with scent and the sounds of cuckoos and other birds filled the air. Black bees swarmed about the many-colored flowers that surrounded lakes overgrown with lotuses. The celestial atmosphere awoke romance in Pāṇḍu’s heart. He gazed at the beautiful Mādrī, his mind influenced by Cupid. It was a hot day and Mādrī was clad in a long silk robe. In the bright sunshine, Pāṇḍu could see the outline of her exquisite form, which resembled that of a goddess. The soft breeze made her dress cling to her body, revealing her slender waist and firm, round breasts.

Pāṇḍu could not suppress his desire. He had kept himself in check for twelve years and had not dared to contemplate embracing his wives. Kindama’s curse was always uppermost in his mind and he had resigned himself to practising celibacy with the determination of a ṛṣi. It seemed ages ago when he had been able to enjoy conjugal love with his wives. Now Pāṇḍu again felt those stirrings moving his heart. His mind was confounded and he moved closer to Mādrī, gently placing his hand on her arm.

Mādrī at once understood what was in Pāṇḍu’s heart. She was seized by conflicting emotions. How was her lord suddenly approaching her in this way? Out of fear of the curse he had carefully avoided any physical contact with either her or Kuntī for a long time. Although she herself had longed for his embrace, she had scrupulously avoided any situation that might entice her husband. She did not even apply cosmetics or perfumes. But as the powerful Pāṇḍu embraced her, she felt her resolve weaken. Delight and fear seized her heart at once. As her emotions clashed, her mind was petrified. What about the curse! If Pāṇḍu did not stop, he would doubtlessly be destroyed. She had to prevent him.

Mādrī tried to push her husband away. Pāṇḍu smiled, incited further by her protests. His mighty arms, deeply tanned and marked with scars from his bowstring, closed around her like serpents. Overpowered by desire, he could not even hear her as she reminded him about the curse. He pressed her lips with his and dropped down to a grassy slope with the beautiful queen held tightly in his arms. Lifting her robes, he pushed himself firmly against her soft body. Mādrī’s struggles only inflamed his passion more.

As if impelled by the lord of death himself, the monarch entirely lost his reason under the influence of lust. No thought of Kindama’s curse entered his mind as he lost himself in enjoyment with his fair-skinned wife. Even as he tried to consummate the act with Mādrī, the ṛṣi’s words took effect. Pāṇḍu’s chest was seized with a terrible pain and a shocked look crossed his face. His body stiffened and went slack.

As Pāṇḍu’s body fell from hers, Mādrī let out a wail of sorrow. Her worst fears had been realized. Despite all her protests she had not been able to prevent her husband’s death. The distraught queen repeatedly embraced her dead husband and lamented loudly.

Kuntī heard Mādrī’s cries and ran over to where she lay. As Kuntī approached, the tearful Mādrī told her to come alone, without children. Kuntī quickly sent the boys back to the ashram, then rushed to Pāṇḍu’s side. She dropped to the ground. Kuntī realized at once what had happened, and she cried out, “My lord!” Tears welled into her eyes as she turned to Mādrī. “O noble one, how have you allowed this to happen? I was always so careful to protect our lord from this very danger. How did he embrace you, knowing of the ṛṣi’s curse? Why did you tempt him when you were alone together? He was always grave in our company as he thought of Kindama’s words. How did he become so careless?”

Mādrī wept, unable to reply. Kuntī tossed about on the ground next to her. The two beautiful ladies embraced their husband’s dead body and shed profuse tears. Kuntī again addressed Mādrī. “O princess of Madra, you are surely more fortunate than I, for you saw our lord’s face light up with joy as he approached you in this lonely place.”

Gathering her senses, Mādrī replied, “O sister, with tears in my eyes I tried to resist him, yet he could not control himself. He seemed bent on fulfilling the ṛṣi’s curse.”

Kuntī prayed for strength. Somehow this was God’s arrangement. The ways of Providence were always mysterious. But what should be done now? What was her duty? She gently stroked the head of her younger co-wife and said, “O Mādrī, there is only one recourse for me. Please allow me to ascend to heaven with our lord. Rise up and raise our children. Give me the body and, tightly embracing it, I shall enter fire.”

Mādrī shook her head. She pleaded with Kuntī, “The monarch died as he approached me for intercourse. His desire was not satiated. Should it not be I who goes to the region of the dead to gratify him? I am still clasping him even now and will not allow him to go without me. O Kuntī, please let me go!”

Mādrī felt incapable of bringing up the children by herself. Kuntī would be a far better mother. Mādrī had seen her gentle dealings with the boys. She would surely treat them all equally. Mādrī begged Kuntī’s permission to enter the fire with Pāṇḍu. “O Kuntī, the king sought me with desire. Grant me leave to fulfill that desire. You would be doing me the greatest good. I shall leave my sons in your care without any fear.”

Kuntī looked compassionately upon Mādrī as she lay with her arms around Pāṇḍu and bathing him with her tears. The noble Kuntī felt her heart torn. Although as the elder wife it was her privilege to choose to follow the king to the next world, how could she deny Mādrī? It was to her that Pāṇḍu had been attracted. If Mādrī were to live, she would live with the memory of that brief and terrible moment all her life. Guilt would consume her, along with the anguish of being unable to fulfill her lord’s last desire. Although she longed to follow her husband, Kuntī could not be so cruel to her co-wife. She touched Mādrī gently and said, “So be it.” Kuntī then went with a heavy heart toward the ashram.

When the boys heard of their father’s death they were struck with grief. They ran crying to where he lay and fell to the ground, like powerful lions rolling on the earth. Mādrī blessed them tearfully and told them that she would be ascending the pyre with her husband. She asked her two sons to remain with Kuntī and to serve her steadfastly. The boys were too shocked to reply. They watched as the ṛṣis built a pyre next to the king’s body, then, while reciting mantras, placed his body upon the pyre. They asked Yudhiṣṭhira to step forward. The prince, blinded by tears, set fire to the pyre and stood back. As the flames rose, Mādrī folded her palms and fell upon her lord’s body, holding tight as the fire consumed them both. Within minutes both she and Pāṇḍu were gone.

The griefstricken Kuntī then asked the ṛṣis what she could do. The ṛṣis advised Kuntī to return to Hastināpura with her boys as soon as possible. They also told her they would accompany her, carrying the remains of Pāṇḍu and Mādrī with them

The large number of ṛṣis, Siddhas and Cāraṇas formed a procession, walking ahead of Kuntī and her sons. By their mystical powers, they all arrived at Hastināpura within a short time. Kuntī then presented herself at the northern gate and messengers ran swiftly to inform the king.

Upon hearing of her arrival, Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Bhīṣma, Satyavatī and all the other Kuru elders hurried to the gate, followed by a large number of citizens, who had heard that an assembly of celestials had arrived. Everyone was struck with wonder to see the brilliant ṛṣis surrounded by Siddhas and Cāraṇas. People came out in the thousands to see those divine beings.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra, along with his one hundred sons, bowed before the ṛṣis. Bhīṣma and the others also offered their obeisances to the sages and, after offering them seats, they sat before them on silk mats spread out on the ground. When the crowd was finally settled, Bhīṣma went forward and worshipped the ṛṣis by bathing their feet and offering them arghya. He answered their enquiries about the kingdom’s welfare, saying that everything was well. Then one of the leading ṛṣis stood up and addressed the Kuru elders. “The virtuous monarch went to the Saptasrota mountain to observe the vow of celibacy. Somehow by the Lord’s inscrutable plan and the arrangement of the gods, his five sons were born.”

The ṛṣi then introduced each of Pāṇḍu’s sons and revealed the identities of their divine fathers. He told them how the boys had been trained in Vedic knowledge and had grown to youthhood in the company of ṛṣis and Siddhas. Glancing around the large concourse of men who had assembled outside the city, the ṛṣi said, “Steadily adhering to virtue, and leaving behind him these children, Pāṇḍu has ascended to the higher worlds. The chaste Mādrī has gone with him. Now his sons should be accepted as the kingdom’s rightful heirs.”

The ṛṣi pointed to a bier lying nearby, covered with a white cloth. “Here are the remains of Pāṇḍu and his wife. Perform the funeral rites and accept his sons as if they were your own. We shall now depart.”

When the ṛṣi stopped speaking he, along with all the other ṛṣis and celestial beings, vanished. In astonishment the citizens returned to their homes. Bhīṣma then led Kuntī and the boys into the city and arranged for their accommodation in a royal palace. Dhṛtarāṣṭra ordered the funeral rites to be performed and declared a state of mourning in the city for twelve full days.

The Kurus were distracted with grief over Pāṇḍu’s loss. Pāṇḍu had been dearly loved by all the citizens and they loudly lamented. Pāṇḍu’s five sons, known as the Pāṇḍavas, lay on the bare ground for twelve days, giving full vent to their grief. They did not accept royal comforts or beds, and they wept along with the Kuru elders.

At the end of the mourning period, the Kurus performed Pāṇḍu’s śraddhā. They distributed vast amounts of food and wealth to the Brahmins on behalf of the departed souls. Then life returned to normal in Hastināpura and Pāṇḍu’s sons took their place in the royal family.

It was at that time that Vyasa chose to again appear in the city. He spoke privately to the bereaved and sorrowful Satyavatī. “O Mother, fearful and terrible times lie ahead. The dark age of Kali now approaches. Sin increases day by day. Soon, by the evil acts of the Kurus, your race will be destroyed and a great havoc will be wrought in the world.”

Vyasa advised his mother to immediately retire to the forest rather than staying to witness the pain and horror that would soon follow. She should devote herself to yoga practice and meditation.

After Vyasa left, Satyavatī reflected on his words. She decided to follow his advice. She then told her two daughters-in-law of her intentions, and asked Pāṇḍu’s distraught mother, Ambālikā, to accompany her. The two royal ladies soon left for the forest to dedicate themselves to asceticism. In time they gave up their bodies and went joyfully to the higher regions. Ambikā remained at Hastināpura with her son, Dhṛtarāṣṭra.

Chapter 4: Duryodhana Begins His Evil Schemes

The Pāṇḍavas began to enjoy life in Hastināpura. They sported with the hundred sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra, who became known as the Kauravas. Pandu’s sons excelled the Kauravas in all areas: in strength, knowledge and prowess with weaponry. Bhīma was especially powerful and he took delight in defeating the Kauravas in sport. They could not equal him in anything. The exuberant Bhīma possessed the indefatigable power of his divine father. At wrestling and fighting he was unapproachable and could easily hold off the attacks of any number of Kauravas. Out of a boyish sense of fun he would often play practical jokes on them, laughing when they became angered and tried futilely to get back at him.

Duryodhana in particular found Bhīma’s antics and power intolerable. As the eldest son of the blind king, Duryodhana had enjoyed the most prestige in the Kuru house. The Kuru elders had carefully raised him and trained him in the kingly arts, thinking of him as the potential future world emperor. Mindful of the omens seen at his birth, the elders were especially careful to teach him moral codes. The prince was both powerful and capable in all areas of weaponry and politics, and was accustomed to being the center of attention in the royal palace since his birth. When the Pāṇḍavas arrived, however, all that changed. Pandu’s sons were gentle, modest and devoted to their elders. They soon became dear to Bhīṣma, Vidura and the other senior Kurus. Their behavior was a welcome change from that of Duryodhana and his brothers, who tended to be self-centered and proud, and often quite arrogant. Duryodhana quickly became envious of his five cousins. His envy grew up like an oil-fed fire when he saw Bhīma’s pranks.

After another day of humiliation at Bhīma’s hands, Duryodhana felt he could take no more. He spoke with Dushashana, the next eldest of the hundred Kauravas. “Dear brother, this Bhīma is a constant thorn in our sides. He challenges all hundred of us at once and throws us about like pieces of straw. We cannot better him at anything. Why, even at eating he humbles us by consuming as much as twenty of us put together. Something has to be done to check his pride.”

Duryodhana’s eyes narrowed as he spoke. His intentions were vicious. The prince was inclined to wicked acts, and he had been spurred on by his uncle Shakuni, who had taken up residence in Hastināpura. The Gandhara prince had been offended by Bhīṣma’s decision to give his sister to the blind Dhṛtarāṣṭra rather than to Pandu. Now he wanted revenge. He involved himself in court intrigues in order to find a way to avenge himself against Bhīṣma. Hurting the Pāṇḍavas, who were obviously dear to Bhīṣma, was one good way. And, of course, he would simultaneously be advancing the cause of his sister’s sons. Duryodhana was a willing accomplice. The boy saw his scheming uncle as a mentor. When Duryodhana had come to him complaining about Bhīma it did not take much to convince him to do something terrible to the Pandava boy.

Duryodhana revealed his heinous plan to Dushashana. “Tomorrow I shall feed Bhīma an enormous poisoned feast. When he falls unconscious after eating I shall bind his limbs and toss him into the Ganges. With Bhīma gone the other brothers are helpless. We can easily deal with them. Thus my claim to the throne will be unchallenged.”

Dushashana smiled in agreement. He too found Bhīma’s behavior intolerable and, like Duryodhana, had also found his own status in the Kuru house diminish since the Pāṇḍavas’ arrival. He put his arm around his brother and the two of them made their way back to their palace, laughing together as they walked the forest path.

The next morning Duryodhana suggested that all the princes go to the river for some water sports. Soon they mounted their shining chariots, which resembled cities and had great wheels which rumbled like thunderclouds as they headed out, sending up clouds of dust. Upon arriving on the river bank, the mighty youths dismounted from their cars, laughing and joking, and entered the large pleasure house Dhṛtarāṣṭra had built for them.

The elegant palace was built of white marble and it stood seven stories high. Many-colored pennants flew from tall golden flagstaffs on its roof. There were dozens of rooms offering every kind of luxury. Each room was tastefully decorated with tapestries, fine paintings, and ivory and coral furnishings, studded with gems and covered with golden cushions. Royal musicians and dancers stood by, ready to entertain the princes, and a hundred of the king’s select force of bodyguards stood ready to protect them.

Once inside Duryhodhana invited everyone to enjoy the great feast he had arranged for them. He led them through the mansion and out into the central gardens. The boys looked with pleasure upon the large ponds filled with red and blue lotuses and surrounded by soft, grassy banks. Crystal waterfalls made tinkling sounds that blended with the singing of brightly colored exotic birds. The heady scent of numerous blossoms filled the air. Fine cushions had been arranged in lines on the grass and many servants stood by, waiting to serve the feast.

Duryodhana chose the seat next to Bhīma. Then he ordered the servants to bring the food. The dishes were exquisite. Duryodhana had personally mixed the poison with the food he had brought to him. He then offered the plate to Bhīma, feigning love and feeding him with his own hand. The guileless Bhīma suspected nothing and he cheerfully consumed his normal amount. Duryodhana rejoiced within as Bhīma hungrily swallowed the poisoned cakes, pies, creams, drinks and other preparations.

When the feast was over, Duryodhana suggested they all go down to the river for sport. The boys raced to the river in great joy. They wrestled and rolled about on the ground, tossing each other into the clear blue water of the river. As usual, Bhīma was the most energetic. The poison did not appear to have affected him. The prince, who stood head and shoulders above his peers, was a peerless wrestler. Anyone who approached him quickly found themselves sailing through the air and landing in the water. Bhīma would then dive in and create huge waves by thrashing his arms. The other princes were then dunked under the waters by the playful Bhīma.

Late in the afternoon the boys began to tire. They came out of the water and dressed themselves in white robes, adorned with gold ornaments. Then they wearily made their way back to the mansion to spend the night.

Bhīma had consumed enough poison to kill a hundred men, but it was not until evening that the wind-god’s son began to feel its effects. As night fell he felt so drowsy that he decided to lay down by the river and rest. Gradually he lapsed into a deep sleep.

When the other princes had gone back to the mansion, Duryodhana saw his opportunity. Along with Dushashana, he bound Bhīma’s arms and legs with strong cords. Looking furtively around, the brothers quickly rolled the unconscious prince into the river.

Bhīma sank to the bottom of the river and was carried by underwater currents. The celestial abode of the divine serpent beings, the Nāgas, could be reached through the Ganges, and Bhīma was swept along a mystical path right into their midst. At once the snakes began to bite the human so suddenly arrived among them. Their virulent poison proved to be the antidote to the plant poison Duryodhana had administered. Bhīma slowly came back to his senses as the effect of the poison wore off. He woke to find himself on a strange river bank, surrounded by large serpents baring their fangs.

Bhīma burst the cords binding his limbs. He picked up the snakes and dashed them to the ground. He pressed some into the earth with his feet and hurled others to a distance. Seeing him render dozens of snakes unconscious, the others fled away in terror.

The Nāgas went quickly to their king, Vāsuki. With fearful voices they said, “O king, a human fell among us, bound with cords. Perhaps he had been poisoned, for he was unconscious. When we bit him he regained his senses and overpowered us. You should go to him at once.”

Vāsuki assumed a human form, rose from his bejeweled throne, and walked gracefully out of his palace. Arka, a Nāga chief, went with him. Arka had long ago lived upon the earth in human society. He was Kuntī’s great grandfather and he immediately recognized Bhīma as his great-grandson. Smiling, he introduced himself and embraced the prince.

Seeing this, Vāsuki was pleased and said to Arka, “What service can we render this boy? Let us give him an abundance of gems and gold.”

Arka looked at the powerful Bhīma and replied, “I think this prince would be best served by us if we let him partake of our rasa.”

Vāsuki agreed. Bringing Bhīma back to his palace, he arranged for pots of the ambrosial rasa to be brought for him. This drink was distilled from celestial herbs and by drinking even one pot a man would become permanently endowed with the vigor and strength of a thousand elephants. The Nāgas placed a number of pots in front of Bhīma and invited him to drink. Bhīma sat facing the east and, as he always did before eating or drinking, offered prayers to the Lord. He then lifted one of the large pots of rasa and quaffed it down in one gulp.

The Nāgas watched in amazement as Bhīma drank eight pots of the divine elixir, each in a single draft. Even the most powerful among them would not have been capable of such a feat. After Bhīma had satisfied himself with the rasa, he again felt drowsy. Vāsuki offered him a celestial bed and the prince lay down. He remained in deep sleep for eight days as his body assimilated the rasa. On the ninth day he awoke, feeling strong beyond measure. The Nāgas told him that the rasa had given him the strength of ten thousand elephants. He would now be invincible in battle. Vāsuki told Bhīma to bathe in the nearby sacred waters of the Mandakini, then dress himself in the robes the Nāga king had brought for him. He should then quickly return to his home as his kinsfolk were in much anxiety about him.

After he had bathed and eaten the celestial foods the Nāgas provided, Bhīma, dressed in white silks and gold ornaments, was led to the river. They entered with Bhīma and within moments they brought him out of the water near the place where he had been pushed in. Filled with wonder, Bhīma ran back to Hastināpura.

In the city Kuntī saw her sons arrive back without Bhīma. The other princes were surprised that he was not already there. They had assumed he must have gone ahead without them. Duryodhana and Dushashana feigned concern, but secretly they rejoiced, thinking Bhīma to be dead.

The virtuous-minded Yudhiṣṭhira believed that others were as honest as he was. Suspecting nothing, he told his mother, “We searched for Bhīma in the gardens and mansion for a long time. We went into the woods and called out for him. Finally we concluded he must have already left.”

Yudhiṣṭhira became fearful. Perhaps Bhīma had been killed. Kuntī shared his fears and she asked him again to go to the mansion with his brothers and search for the missing Bhīma. When her sons left, she summoned Vidura and said, “O wise one, I am afraid for Bhīma’s safety. He did not return with the others. I often see an evil look in Duryodhana’s eye. I know he is filled with malice toward Bhīma. Perhaps he has killed him.”

Kuntī hoped Vidura would give her solace. His words were always deeply considered and comforting. Vidura did not disappoint her. He replied, “Do not think in this way, O gentle lady. The great rishi Vyāsadeva has said that your sons will be long-lived. His words can never be false. Nor indeed can those of the gods, who have predicted a great future for your sons.”

Still, Vidura remembered the omens surrounding Duryodhana’s birth. He warned Kuntī to be on her guard. The evil prince might try anything.

For eight days Kuntī and her sons waited anxiously for any news of Bhīma. Then early on the ninth day they saw him running toward them, his white silks flowing in the wind. He came straight to Kuntī and bowed at her feet. As he rose each of his brothers embraced him warmly. With tears of joy they eagerly asked where he had been.

Bhīma knew everything about the circumstances by which he had come to be in the river. When he had found himself bound with cords he had suspected the envious Duryodhana. Vāsuki had confirmed his suspicions. The Nāga king could see everything by virtue of his divine sight. Bhīma related the whole story to his brothers--how he had gone to the Nāga kingdom and been given the rasa. The brothers could understand that even though the Kauravas had plotted Bhīma’s death, somehow by the arrangement of Providence he had become most fortunate.

Yudhiṣṭhira was shocked to learn of his cousins’ antagonism. He considered the situation carefully. If their elders were informed of what had ocurred, then there would be open enmity between the princes. Duryodhana would certainly try to dispose of them as quickly as possible. And the Pāṇḍavas’ position was not strong. Their father was dead and Dhṛtarāṣṭra was the king. He doted on Duryodhana and his other sons, and it was unlikely he would side against his own sons, to protect his nephews. Yudhiṣṭhira ordered his brothers to remain silent. They should tell no one about what had occurred.

Kuntī, however, confided in Vidura. He advised her to follow Yudhiṣṭhira’s suggestion. Thus the Pāṇḍavas said nothing, but from that day forward they became vigilant, always watching the Kauravas, especially Duryodhana and Dushashana.

Besides Gandhari’s one hundred sons, Dhṛtarāṣṭra had conceived another son by a servant maid who had waited on him during his wife’s lengthy pregnancy. Unlike his half-brothers, this boy, Yuyutsu, felt no envy or antagonism toward the Pāṇḍavas. One day he secretly informed Yudhiṣṭhira that Duryodhana, who had been deeply disappointed to see that his plan to kill Bhīma had failed, had again cooked a large quantity of the deadly datura poison into Bhīma’s enormous meal.

Bhīma laughed when he heard the news. Having drunk the Nāgas’ celestial elixir, he had no fear of Duryodhana. He sat down before him and cheerfully consumed the entire quantity of poisoned food. Duryodhana was amazed to see that Bhīma was not in the least affected. He gazed at the Pandava with open hatred.

Although the Kaurava princes detested the Pāṇḍavas, Bhīṣma and Vidura loved them and would spend much time with the five virtuous and gentle princes. Bhīṣma had been especially fatherly toward them since the time they had arrived from the forest. He had been fond of Pandu; now he felt the same fondness for Pandu’s sons. The boys reciprocated his love, and served him in various ways.

The Pāṇḍavas were also favored by their military teacher, Kṛpa. Kṛpa was the noble-minded son of a brahmin who had adopted the warriors profession. He told the princes his history. His father, a rishi named Gautama, had been engaged in fierce austerities and weaponry practice, for which he had an affinity. Gautama’s asceticism and martial skills were so great that even Indra feared the rishi might exceed him in power and usurp his position in heaven. That anxious god therefore sent a beautiful Apsarā, a heavenly nymph, to divert Gautama from his asceticism. When the rishi saw the semi-clad Apsarā before him, he lost control of his mind and semen fell from his body. It landed in a clump of heath, and from it two children were born. Gautama fled after seeing the Apsarā, not realizing that he had miraculously sired the children. Soon after he left, some of the king’s soldiers found the two babies and brought them into Hastināpura.

Some time later, Gautama, understanding everything by his mystic power, came to the city and explained to the king what had happened. The rishi taught his son all his military skills and in time Kṛpa became the teacher of the princes.

Bhīṣma was pleased with Kṛpa’s teaching. The boys were becoming highly adept at weaponry. But he wanted them to learn the secrets of the celestial weapons as well so that they would be unmatched in warfare. Kṛpa did not have this knowledge. Bhīṣma had therefore been searching for a suitable teacher to take the princes further in military science. None he had seen had impressed him as qualified to train the princes.

Then one day the boys ran to Bhīṣma with a strange tale to tell. They had been out playing ball in the woods. The ball fell into a deep, dry well and the princes could not recover it. As they stood by the well looking at one another in embarrassment, a dark man approached them. He was a brahmin, appearing emaciated and poor, but with a bright effulgence and glowing eyes. The princes surrounded the brahmin and asked if he could help them. Smiling a little, the brahmin said, “Shame upon your prowess as warriors. What use is your skill in arms if you cannot even retrieve a lost ball? If you give me a meal I’ll recover the ball, as well as this ring of mine.”

He then took off his ring and threw it into the well. Yudhiṣṭhira said to him, “O brahmin, if you can recover the ball and the ring, then, with Kṛpa’s permission, we shall ensure that you are maintained for your whole life.”

The brahmin took a handful of long grasses and said, “Watch as I invest these grasses with the power of weapons. With these I shall pierce the ball and bring it to the surface.” He chanted mantras and threw the grasses one by one into the well. The first one pierced the ball and each subsequent blade he threw stuck into the last one to form a long chain. The brahmin then pulled the ball out of the well.

The princes were astonished. “This is truly wonderful, but let us now see you raise the ring.”

The brahmin borrowed one of the princes’ bows and shot a single sharp-pointed arrow into the well. With it, he brought up the ring, caught on the arrow’s head. The princes crowded around him and asked him to reveal his identity. They had never seen such skill. The brahmin told them to go to Bhīṣma and describe what they had seen. He would know his identity. The brahmin said he would wait there until they returned.

Thus the boys ran back to the city and told Bhīṣma everything. When he heard the tale his eyes shone with joy. Surely this could only be Droṇa, the disciple of his own martial teacher, Paraśurāma. Bhīṣma had heard much about Droṇa from the rishis. This was certainly providential. The princes could have no better teacher. Bhīṣma went in person with the boys to see the brahmin. Finding as he had suspected that it was Droṇa, Bhīṣma immediately offered him the position of a royal teacher. Droṇa accepted and went to Hastināpura with Bhīṣma.

When they were back in the city Bhīṣma had Droṇa tell everyone of his history. Droṇa looked around at the eager-faced princes. They wanted to know everything about this unusual brahmin. He was the son of Bharadvaja, the all-powerful rishi who had dwelt for thousands of years in the deep forest and who, not long ago, had finally ascended to heaven. Although he too was a brahmin, Droṇa was inclined toward martial arts. While living in his father’s hermitage he had learned the science of arms from Agnivesha, another powerful rishi. He had also received knowledge of the celestial weapons from the great Paraśurāma. Despite having such great learning, however, Droṇa remained a poverty-stricken brahmin. He could hardly maintain his family. Thus he had been on his way to Hastināpura hoping to be engaged as the princes’ teacher.

Bhīṣma said, “Make your residence here in the city. You shall enjoy every luxury along with the Kurus. Indeed the Kurus are at your command. Whatever wealth, kingdoms and followers that belong to our house are also yours. O best of brahmins, it is our good fortune you have arrived here.”

Droṇa was given a large, well-furnished house, stocked with everything enjoyable and attended by many servants. He then brought his wife and son to Hastināpura to live among the Kurus with him, and he accepted both the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas as his disciples.

Droṇa taught the princes everything he knew about weaponry. The boys practiced every day from dawn till dusk. As the news of his martial school spread, princes from other kingdoms also came to learn from the famous Droṇa. The Vrishnis, the Andhakas and other famous and powerful dynasties sent their princes to Droṇa and he accepted them all as his pupils. Soon Droṇa had thousands of students.

Among all the boys Arjuna excelled at his lessons. He remained always at Droṇa’s side, eager to learn any little skill or extra tips. His ability, speed, perseverance and determination were unequalled by the other princes. Arjuna became foremost; Droṇa felt none could match his skills.

Out of his natural fatherly affection, Droṇa also wished to impart extra lessons to his own son, Aśvatthāmā. He gave all the princes narrow-mouthed water pots and asked them to fill them at the river, but to his own son he gave a wide-mouthed pot so he could return first and receive extra teaching. Arjuna realized Droṇa’s intentions and he filled his own pot with a celestial water weapon, and thus returned before Aśvatthāmā. Droṇa smiled when he saw Arjuna’s determination. His desire to learn from his preceptor was beyond compare. Arjuna always carefully worshipped Droṇa and was attentive to his every command. Because of his devotion to studies and his guru, he became Droṇa’s favorite student.

Once Arjuna was eating his meal at night. Suddenly the lamp blew out. It was pitch black. Arjuna continued to eat as if nothing had happened. As he did so, he realized that simply by habit he was able to place the food in his mouth, although he could see nothing in the darkness. He then began to practice with his bow and arrows in the night, aiming at invisible targets. When Droṇa saw this dedication he was overjoyed. He told Arjuna, “I shall make you unmatched upon the earth. No warrior shall be your equal.”

Droṇa then taught Arjuna how to fight on horseback, on an elephant, from chariots and on the ground. He showed him all the skills of fighting with clubs, swords, lances, spears and darts, as well as many other types of weapons. Droṇa also taught him how to contend with any number of warriors fighting at once. As Droṇa promised, his skill soon became without compare on earth.

One day, a prince of the Nishada tribe of forest dwellers asked Droṇa to teach him. His name was Ekalavya. Droṇa replied that his school was only for kings and princes. Ekalavya went away dismayed. Strongly desiring greatness in martial sciences, he practiced alone in the woods. He built an effigy of Droṇa and worshipped him daily, praying to him for skills at weaponry. Gradually he became an expert archer.

Once, as he was practicing, a dog began to bark loudly and disturb him. Immediately he released seven arrows, even without seeing the dog, and sealed the animal’s mouth.

It so happened that Arjuna and his brothers were in the woods at the time and they saw the dog, its mouth closed with arrows. They marvelled at this and wondered who was responsible for such a feat. Soon they came upon Ekalavya and, seeing the dark-skinned Nishada, smeared with filth, his hair matted, they asked him who he was. He replied, “I am Ekalavya of the Nishadas, a disciple of Droṇa. I practice alone in these woods with a desire to become the best of archers.”

Arjuna was seized with anxiety. This boy posed himself as a disciple of Droṇa, even though he had been rejected by him. It was completely against all religious principles. No one could claim to be a disciple of a guru unless he was accepted as such by that teacher. And Ekalavya had even flouted his so-called guru’s order. Droṇa had told Ekalavya that he could not be his student. The Nishadha clearly had no devotion to Droṇa, despite his outward show of dedication, as he did not accept Droṇa’s order. How then could he be allowed to present himself as Droṇa’s disciple--and practically his best one at that? His skills were astonishing, but they had been gained by disobedience. Arjuna went at once to his guru to inform him.

After bowing at Droṇa’s feet, Arjuna said, “O master, embracing me to your bosom you told me that I shall be the best of all your students. By your grace this has become true. But I see you have another disciple, the mighty Nishada prince Ekalavya, whose skills approach mine. The warrior practices alone in the forest, worshipping your holy feet. Has he become my equal?”

Droṇa was immediately perturbed. He remembered dismissing Ekalavya and he could understand Arjuna’s intimations and anxiety. After thinking for some moments he replied, “Come with me, Arjuna. We shall see today what caliber of disciple is this prince.”

Droṇa went at once with Arjuna into the woods. When Ekalavya saw them approach he fell to the ground and touched Droṇa’s feet. Then he stood before Droṇa with folded palms, saying, “My lord, I am your disciple. Please order me as you will.”

Droṇa looked with surprise at Ekalavya and at his own effigy nearby. He recalled the day the forest prince had come to him and been turned away. Droṇa was angered that he was now claiming to be his student. The Kuru preceptor had not desired to impart any martial skills to Ekalavya. Generally the lower caste tribespeople lacked the virtuous qualities of royalty, and they did not follow the Vedic religion. To give a low-class man great martial power could be dangerous. Droṇa had been especially concerned about Ekalavya, as the Nishadha tribe did not cooperate with the Kuru’s virtuous rule. Droṇa would not accept any princes into his school if they belonged to races antagonistic to the Kurus.

Droṇa stood thinking for some time. His first assessment of Ekalavya had obviously been correct. The Nishadha had shown himself to be lacking in virtue by falsely posing as his disciple. Clearly he desired only to be great, known as a student of the famous teacher, but not to actually obey him.

Smiling a little, Droṇa said to the Nishada, “O hero, if you really wish to be my disciple then you must give me some dakṣiṇa. The disciple should be prepared to give anything to his guru. Therefore I ask you to give me your right thumb.”

Droṇa knew that this was asking a lot from Ekalavya. The loss of his thumb would impair his skill at bowmanship. But if he wanted to be known as Droṇa’s disciple, he could not refuse. Droṇa also wanted to show that one cannot please his teacher and achieve perfection by dishonest means. By taking Ekalavya’s thumb, he was also removing any threat he or his race might pose to the Kurus.

Droṇa looked expectantly at the Nishadha prince. Ekalavya immediately took out his hunting knife. Although he had been unable to accept Droṇa’s first order, the prince did not want to be considered at fault for failing to give dakṣiṇa to his guru. And he knew that all his knowledge and skills would be nullified if he refused Droṇa’s request. Without the least hesitation, he cut off his thumb and handed it to Droṇa.

Droṇa took the thumb and thanked the prince. Raising his hand in blessing he turned and walked quickly away, followed by a relieved Arjuna. With his firm action, Droṇa had clearly upheld religious principles.

Chapter 5: The Martial Exhibition

Among Droṇa’s pupils, Bhīma and Duryodhana, deadly rivals, both became matchless in mace fighting. Yudhiṣṭhira was the greatest spearman and chariot fighter, Nakula and Sahadeva were the best swordsmen and Aśvatthāmā showed the greatest ability at mystical weapons. Arjuna, however, excelled everyone in all respects. He became an atiratha, a warrior capable of fighting sixty thousand other warriors simultaneously. This only increased the envy Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons felt toward him, as well as toward his brother, the mighty Bhīma.

One day, Droṇa decided to test his students’ abilities. He placed an artificial bird high in a tree. Calling together all the princes, he said to each of them, “Take your bows and aim for the bird’s eye. One by one I shall call you forward to shoot.”

The first to be called was Yudhiṣṭhira. When he had placed an arrow on his bow and aimed, Droṇa said, “O prince, tell me what you see.”

Yudhiṣṭhira replied that he saw his brothers, Droṇa, the tree and the bird. Droṇa asked him again and again what he saw and each time received the same reply. Droṇa then reproached him and told him to stand down without firing his arrow. “You will not be able to hit the mark,” he said with annoyance.

Duryodhana was the next to be called. When he was ready to fire Droṇa asked him the same question. The prince replied as Yudhiṣṭhira had replied, and again Droṇa told him to stand down. One by one the princes were called and each responded to Droṇa similarly and was not allowed to shoot at the bird.

Finally Arjuna was called. When he was prepared to shoot and was standing with his bow drawn in a semicircle, Droṇa said, “Tell me what you see. Can you see myself, your brothers and the tree?”

Arjuna replied, “I see only the bird. I cannot see you or my brothers, nor the tree.” Droṇa was pleased. He waited a moment and asked, “If you see the bird, then please describe it to me.”

Arjuna responded, “I see only the bird’s head. I cannot see its body.”

Droṇa felt his hair stand on end with delight. He said, “Shoot!”

Arjuna released his arrow and it struck the wooden bird in the eye, sending it tumbling to the ground. With tears of joy Droṇa embraced his disciple as Duryodhana and his brothers looked on in anger.

Some time after that Droṇa went with the princes to the Ganges to bathe. As he entered the water he was seized by a fierce crocodile. Although capable of freeing himself, Droṇa cried out, “O princes, quickly kill this beast and rescue me!”

The princes were confounded with sorrow at seeing their teacher held by the crocodile. They froze in fear--all except Arjuna. He instantly fired five arrows which struck the reptile under the water and cut it to pieces. Its mouth fell open and released Droṇa’s leg. Droṇa came to the river bank and took Arjuna aside. He said to him, “I wish to give you the greatest of weapons. Take from me the knowledge of the brahmāstra, the irresistible missile endowed with Brahmā’s power. This weapon should only be used against supernatural foes, for if released against others it may destroy the very world.” Droṇa then told Arjuna that no one would ever become superior to him with a bow. He was now invincible.

Seeing that the princes had become expert in arms and warfare, Droṇa went to Dhṛtarāṣṭra and said, “O King, your sons have completed their education. With your permission they may now display their proficiency. Let me therefore arrange an exhibition.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra thanked Droṇa for instructing the princes and said, “I envy those who will be able to witness the prowess of my sons. I shall attend the display with Vidura who will be my eyes. With his assistance please make the preparations, O best of Brahmins.”

Droṇa and Vidura then went outside of the city and selected a large, flat piece of land. After sanctifying the spot with prayers and offerings to the gods, Droṇa had skilled architects construct a great stadium. It had a vast central area and platforms rising on all four sides. Wealthy merchants sponsored the installation of thousands of beautiful seats carved from wood and inlaid with ivory and pearls. Rows of golden thrones encrusted with coral and gems were built on the royal platform. The stadium’s sides reached up to the sky and were adorned with tall white flagstaffs bearing colored pennants that fluttered in the breeze.

On an auspicious day determined by the royal astrologers, the citizens entered the stadium eager to see the princes display their power. Bhīṣma and Vidura, leading Dhṛtarāṣṭra by the arm, walked at the head of the procession. They were immediately followed by Droṇa and Kṛpa, along with other members of the royal party such as Bāhlika, Somadatta and other kings visiting from surrounding kingdoms. The royal ladies came out of the city dressed in dazzling robes and ornaments, accompanied by numerous maids-in-waiting. The ladies ascended the royal platforms like goddesses ascending the holy Mount Meru.

Crowds of citizens of all four castes thronged into the stadium and marvelled at its beauty. Large sections were built of pure gold and were studded with priceless vaidurya gems. It was decorated with countless garlands of bright flowers and strings of pearls. The sound of people filling the stadium was like the surging ocean. Trumpets were blown and drums beaten, mixing with the blasts of thousands of conches and the excited talk of the people.

When everyone was seated, Droṇa entered the arena with his son Aśvatthāmā. He wore white robes and white garlands, and his body was smeared white with sandalwood paste. His hair and beard were also white, and with his powerful son he looked like the moon accompanied by Mars. The noise of the crowd subsided as Droṇa entered. Droṇa then had a large number of Brahmins perform auspicious rites in the arena. The mantras echoed around the stadium. Expert musicians simultaneously played their instruments, creating a sound that pleased and calmed the audience, who sat in expectation.

The princes then entered the arena, headed by Yudhiṣṭhira and striding like proud and mighty lions. They were clad in brilliant armors and equipped with every kind of weapon. Droṇa ordered them to show off their different skills. Beginning with Yudhiṣṭhira, the princes stepped forward one by one. They mounted swift horses and rode them expertly, wheeling about the arena and hitting both still and moving targets with arrows engraved with their respective names.

Thousands of arrows sped in all directions, and some of the citizens ducked in fear. Others were fearless, their eyes wide with wonder. Sounds of “Excellent! Well done!” resounded through the stadium. The princes’ weaponry skills, horseback riding and chariot driving were breathtaking. After displaying all these skills, they pulled out their gleaming blue swords and rushed, shouting, at one another. They thrust and parried, adroitly dodging each others’ attacks. The people saw with delight the grace, speed and strength of all the princes.

Droṇa then had Bhīma and Duryodhana step forward to display mace fighting. The two heroes glared at each other and bellowed like furious bulls. Holding aloft massive iron maces they circled, each with his gaze fixed on the other. As Vidura described the scene to Dhṛtarāṣṭra, and Kuntī to Gāndhārī, the two princes aimed terrific blows at each other. Their maces collided with thunderous crashes, sending showers of sparks into the air.

The crowd became divided. Some supported Bhīma while others supported Duryodhana. Shouts of “Behold the mighty Bhīma!” and “Just see the powerful Duryodhana!” filled the stadium. Droṇa realized that the fight was becoming too earnest, and he also saw that the people were becoming too excited. He told his son to step between the roaring rivals and stop them. Aśvatthāmā obeyed his father and, moving quickly forward, managed to separate the two princes.

When Bhīma and Duryodhana had stood down, still glaring at each other, Droṇa stepped into the middle of the arena. He stopped the musicians and spoke in a voice that resounded like thunder. “Behold now Arjuna’s abilities. He is dearer to me than my own son. This son of Indra is incomparable at every kind of martial skill.”

As Droṇa spoke Arjuna entered the arena. Clad in golden armor, with a large golden quiver of arrows on his back, the lustrous prince appeared like a cloud reflecting the rays of the evening sun and illumined by a rainbow and flashes of lightning. The invincible prince walked with the gait of a lion, and as he glanced about the arena, he terrified all those upon whom his eyes fell.

A cry of joy went up from the audience. People blew conches and played musical instruments. “This handsome youth is Kuntī’s third son, and he is the best of all virtuous men and the most powerful,” some people said. “He is the son of the mighty Indra and the best protector of the Kuru race,” others added. All kinds of praises were heard from the crowd. Hearing these, Kuntī felt milk flow from her breasts and, along with her tears, it drenched her bosom.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra asked Vidura why the people were shouting so joyously. When Vidura told him that it was because Arjuna had appeared, Dhṛtarāṣṭra said, “How blessed I am by Kuntī’s three sons. They are like three sacrificial fires and Kuntī is like the sacred fuel.”

But Dhṛtarāṣṭra burned secretly within himself. Why had the people not cheered his own sons in this way? Was not Duryodhana Arjuna’s equal? If only he could see what was happening.

Vidura described the scene to the blind king. Arjuna displayed one celestial weapon after another. With the Āgneya weapon he produced fire; with the Varuṇa weapon he produced volumes of water; with the Vāyavya weapon he caused a great wind to blow; and with the Parjanya weapon he created a huge downpour of rain. Arjuna created land with the Bhouma weapon and with the Parvatya weapon he made a hill appear in the arena. Then, by invoking the antardhāna weapon, he made all those things disappear.

As the citizens gasped, the prince displayed all kinds of mystical powers. One moment he appeared as tall as a massive palm tree and in the next he became as small as a thumb. In an instant he went from standing on his chariot to standing on the ground a distance from his chariot. Droṇa had a mechanical iron boar run swiftly across the arena and Arjuna shot five arrows into its mouth as if they were one shaft. He shot twenty arrows into the hollow of a cow’s horn swinging on a rope around a pole. After showing his skill with a bow, Arjuna took out his sword and mace, demonstrating many dexterous moves with them both.

The exhibition was almost over. The music had stopped and the crowd’s excitement had cooled. Suddenly they heard at the stadium gate the sound of someone slapping his arms with great force and roaring like an enraged elephant. Obviously some hugely powerful man had arrived. The people looked around for the source of the sounds. “Are the mountains cracking asunder? Is the earth itself splitting apart?” Others thought that some jealous god had come there wishing to display his might.

Droṇa jumped up and stood surrounded by the five Pāṇḍavas, resembling the moon surrounded by bright stars. Duryodhana stood with his hundred brothers like Indra with the celestials. Everyone looked toward the gate. Coming toward them was a warrior who looked like the blazing sun. He had a brilliant coat-of-mail which was a natural part of his body, and was adorned with earrings that shone like fire. The earth resounded with his steps and he seemed like a moving hill. The crowd was motionless. They stared at the new arrival. Who was this?

The handsome youth strode straight up to Droṇa. He bowed somewhat indifferently at his feet, then offered his respects to Kṛpa. Turning again to Droṇa, he spoke in a voice that could be heard in every part of the stadium. “I am Karṇa. With your permission, O Brahmin, I shall show skills equal to those of Arjuna. Indeed, I shall excel all the feats displayed by Kuntī’s son. Watch them and be amazed.”

The crowd stood up together as if lifted by some instrument. They roared and cheered. Arjuna felt abashed and angry. He clenched and unclenched his fists, which were covered with iguana-skin finger protectors. His eyes seemed on fire as he glared at Karṇa.

Droṇa nodded his assent and Karṇa moved to the center of the arena. At once he began to show his skills. He matched every feat Arjuna had displayed and the crowd shouted their approval. When he had finished, Duryodhana went over and warmly embraced him. Here was someone who could stand against that haughty Arjuna. The Pāṇḍava prince had been the center of attention for too long. Here was his equal. Duryodhana laughingly said to Karṇa, “You are welcome, O mighty hero. By good fortune you have come here today. Tell me, what can I do for your pleasure? I and the Kuru kingdom are at your command.”

Duryodhana had seen Arjuna’s anger. He smiled at the Pāṇḍava as Karṇa replied, “By your words I already consider my desire fulfilled. I only wish for your undying friendship. But I have one request: please allow me to engage in single combat with Arjuna.”

Arjuna stiffened and grasped his bow. The minute he had seen the obviously arrogant Karṇa he had felt an intense rivalry. Maybe he would get the chance to end it immediately.

Duryodhana laughed. “Enjoy with me the good things of life, O hero,” he replied. “Together we shall reside in happiness.”

Arjuna had heard enough. He interrupted Duryodhana in a thunderous voice. “O Karṇa, the path belonging to the unwelcome intruder or the uninvited speaker shall now be yours.”

Karṇa smoldered like a glowing ember. “O Pārtha, this arena is not meant for you alone. It is open to all heroes, including those superior to you. Why do you argue with words alone? Those who are strong do not waste words. Speak with your arrows and I shall sever your head before your guru’s eyes.”

Arjuna turned to Droṇa who nodded slightly. Fixing his gaze on Karṇa, the Pāṇḍava advanced for combat. Duryodhana embraced Karṇa who went before Arjuna, his weapons at the ready. Suddenly the sky was filled with heavy clouds and bright flashes of lightning. Indra’s great rainbow appeared overhead. The clouds above Karṇa, however, dispersed, and the sun shone brightly, lighting up his form. Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons stood behind Karṇa, while Droṇa, Kṛpa and Bhīṣma stood behind Arjuna.

In the terraces the crowd became divided. The royal ladies also could not choose between the two heroes. As they faced each other, Kuntī was filled with horror and fainted. Vidura was surprised to see this and raised her gently, sprinkling her face with cool water. He asked her what was wrong, but Kuntī said nothing. She sat holding her head. How could she tell anyone the secret she had kept hidden for so long? Seized by fear she looked at the arena and, feeling helpless, prayed silently.

Just as the two warriors were about to duel, Kṛpa, who knew all the rules of combat, stepped forward and asked, “This son of Pāṇḍu is the child of Kuntī and a descendent of the royal Kuru race. Let us hear from his opponent what is his lineage and race. Once he knows this, Pārtha may decide whether or not to fight.” Kṛpa looked at Karṇa. Duels were fought only among equals.

Karṇa blushed and said nothing. It was clear that he was not from a royal line. Seeing his discomfiture, Duryodhana spoke out. “Nobility does not depend only upon birth. Those who are heroes and leaders of soldiers may also claim nobility, even if not born in royal lines. But if Arjuna will duel only with another king, then I shall immediately give Karṇa a kingdom.”

Without delay Duryodhana arranged for a ceremony right there in the arena. He sent someone to fetch sanctified water and sprinkled it upon Karṇa’s head. “You shall become the king of Aṅga.” The crowd cheered as Brahmins chanted the appropriate mantras and offered Karṇa rice, flowers and holy water. Karṇa sat upon a golden seat and was fanned with yak-tail whisks. He was deeply moved by Duryodhana’s gesture of friendship and said in a choked voice, “What can I ever do to repay you, O King? I shall always be at your command.”

Duryodhana replied, “Your friendship alone is all that I desire.”

The two men embraced each other, and the citizens became even more excited. Then, just as the duel between Karṇa and Arjuna seemed about to commence, another man suddenly ran into the arena. He was trembling with age and supported himself on a staff. Perspiring and with his cloth hanging loosely from his body, he moved quickly toward Karṇa. At once Karṇa got down from his seat and placed his head, still wet from the coronation, at the man’s feet. He stood up and said to the inquisitive Duryodhana, “This is my father, Adhiratha.”

Adhiratha had been present in the crowd and wanted to congratulate his son upon his coronation. He was a charioteer and was instantly recognized as such by both his dress and his name. He embraced his son tightly and shed tears of happiness.

Seeing all this Bhīma jeered, “O son of a charioteer, you do not deserve death at Arjuna’s hands. You had best take up the whip and guide a chariot. Indeed, you no more deserve the kingship of Aṅga than a dog deserves the sacrificial offerings of ghee meant for the gods.”

Karṇa looked down in embarrassment. Duryodhana rose up in anger from the midst of his brothers, like an infuriated elephant rising out of a lake full of lotuses. “O Bhīma, you should not speak such words. How can someone like this be of inferior birth. A hero’s first quality is his strength and prowess. We have all seen Karṇa’s power today.”

Duryodhana then named different gods and heroes whose births had been unusual. Droṇa himself was said to be born from a pot, Kṛpa from a piece of heath and the great god Kārttikeya from a clump of reeds. Even the Pāṇḍavas’ birth was mysterious. “Can a deer bring forth a lion? Look at this man, his natural coat of armor and his marks of auspiciousness. I do not consider him to be a charioteer at all.”

Duryodhana gazed defiantly at the Pāṇḍavas. “If anyone dislikes my having crowned Karṇa, then let him step forward and bend his bow in combat.”

The crowd was roused by Duryodhana’s heroic speech. They cheered and sat expectantly. Now there would surely be a great duel between two mighty heroes. But during Duryodhana’s speech the sun had set. The dispute would have to be settled another day. Duryodhana took Karṇa by the hand and led him out of the arena, which was now lit by countless lamps. The Pāṇḍavas also left, along with Droṇa, Kṛpa and Bhīṣma. Then the citizens returned to their homes. Some of them named Arjuna and some Karṇa, while others pointed to Duryodhana, as the victor of the day.

Kuntī thanked the Lord within herself. As she watched Karṇa leave the arena her mind went back to the day of his birth. She had only wanted to test Durvāsā’s boon. She had no idea the mantra would prove so powerful. Kuntī remembered how she had been lying on her couch watching the brilliant sun rise over the Ganges. What if she could call the sun-god to her? The mantra had come to mind and almost at once the blazing Sūrya was standing before her. Kuntī had been amazed, then horrified when he told her that he could not leave without giving her a child. “I am yet a maiden,” she protested. “What will everyone say?” Sūrya smiled. By his power she would conceive a son and still remain a maiden.

And so it had happened. The god left and in due course the boy was born. Kuntī had marvelled at the baby’s natural golden armor and earrings, the same armor and earrings she had seen on Karṇa as he marched into the arena. She recalled how that armor had shone in the morning sun as the boy floated away in his basket on the river. Kuntī wept again as she recalled how she could not tell anyone she had given birth and how, blinded by tears, she had pushed the baby out into the flowing river. Adhiratha must have found the basket and raised her son. As Karṇa strode off with Duryodhana, Kuntī led Gāndhārī back to the palace.

Chapter 6: The Kauravas’ Hatred Grows

It was now time for the princes to leave Droṇa’s school. To complete their training they had to pay their guru’s fees by offering him dakṣiṇa. Traditionally, the dakṣiṇa was determined by the guru himself. Droṇa assembled the princes and said, “There is only one thing I want. You should take King Drupada prisoner. Then bring him before me as your captive.”

The princes replied, “So be it.” They knew of their guru’s enmity with the king. Drupada and Droṇa had lived together as children under the Ṛṣi Agniveśya. Drupada had promised that when he inherited his kingdom he would bestow half of it on his dear friend Droṇa. Later, when they had both grown to maturity, Droṇa went to Drupada and reminded him of their friendship and the promise. Seeing the poor Droṇa standing before him, Drupada had said, “O luckless Brahmin, how do you consider me as your friend now? Past friendships are meaningless. Only equals can be friends. I am a great king and you are an indigent Brahmin. Do not try to invoke a long-dead relationship.”

Drupada had then laughed at Droṇa and offered him a little charity. Deeply insulted, Droṇa had left Pañchāla, Drupada’s vast kingdom, his mind fixed on revenge. The time for that revenge had arrived. Droṇa looked about at his accomplished students and knew that Drupada would soon regret his arrogance.

The princes mounted their chariots and sped toward Pañchāla. Accompanied by a large force of horsemen, they soon arrived at Drupada’s capital, Kāmpilya. Duryodhana and his brothers vied with one another to lead the attack. They rushed toward the city gates with weapons raised. Sending up cries, they burst into Kāmpilya along its main highway while the terrified citizens hid in their houses.

Outside the city Droṇa waited with the Pāṇḍavas. Arjuna had suggested to his brothers that they not accompany the Kauravas. “They will not be able to overpower the mighty Drupada,” Arjuna had said. “We should make our attack after theirs has been repulsed.”

Drupada heard the attacking Kauravas crashing through his city and came straight out of his palace, mounted on his huge, white chariot. Roaring with joy at the chance for battle, he charged at the head of his army to defend the city. He showered his enemies with forceful arrows. His speed and lightness of motion were such that the Kauravas thought they were facing many Drupadas. He careered fearlessly in his chariot and entered into their midst, his bow constantly drawn to a circle and his searing shafts flying in all directions.

The Pañchālas sounded thousands of conches, trumpets and drums, creating a noise that sounded like the roar of a tremendous lion. Drupada struck the Kuru princes with his arrows and sent them reeling. Seeing their king in the forefront of battle, the citizens came out of their houses to hurl clubs, maces and other missiles at the Kurus. The princes were surrounded by thousands of assailants and they felt oppressed and overwhelmed. They fled howling from the city with the Pañchālas in pursuit.

The Pāṇḍavas laughed. Arjuna said scornfully to Yudhiṣṭhira, “Here come the proud Kauravas, put to flight by Drupada. They are strong in words only. It is time for us to fight. You stay here. I shall go with the others.”

Yudhiṣṭhira remained behind with Droṇa. His four brothers flew toward Kāmpilya. Bhīma bounded along with mace held aloft, while Arjuna raced behind him on a chariot with Nakula and Sahadeva on either side. The Pañchālas were waiting for them and had blocked the city gates with a row of elephants. Bhīma struck at them with his club. With their heads smashed and covered in blood, the elephants fell to the ground like cliffs broken off by thunderbolts. Bhīma spun like a furious tornado amid the Pañchāla warriors. Elephants, chariots and infantrymen fell in the thousands. The Pāṇḍavas drove the hostile force back as a herdsman drives cattle.

Arjuna, keen to please his preceptor, released volleys of arrows at the immense Pañchāla forces. His straight-flying shafts came in an endless stream and sped unerringly at the enemy warriors. Arjuna resembled the all-devouring fire that appears at the end of an aeon. Protected on either side by his two brothers, he felled thousands of fighters.

Drupada raced to the head of his troops and they rallied with lion-like roars. Led by their king, they mounted a powerful counterattack against the Pāṇḍavas. Arrows, darts, spears and clubs rained down on the four brothers. Arjuna repelled all their missiles with his arrows. The Pañchālas enraged him with their furious attack and fought with redoubled energy. His foes could not mark any interval between his pulling an arrow from his quiver and bending his bow to fire it. All they saw was a constant stream of shafts speeding toward them. The mighty Pañchāla warriors shouted praises at Arjuna for his prowess.

Along with his commander-in-chief Satyajit, Drupada personally rushed toward Arjuna. Like the king, Satyajit was a warrior capable of contending with thousands of other warriors at once. He struck Arjuna with a hundred fierce arrows and sent up a great roar. Not tolerating the attack, Arjuna pierced Satyajit with ten arrows and simultaneously cut his bow to pieces with three more shafts. Seeing this wonderful feat, the other warriors cheered. Satyajit grasped another bow and immediately pierced Arjuna’s steeds as well as his charioteer. Arjuna again split Satyajit’s bow, then killed his horses and smashed his chariot to pieces.

Drupada came quickly to his commander’s assistance. A powerful exchange of arrows and other missiles followed between the king and Arjuna. Gradually Arjuna overpowered Drupada. He shattered the king’s bow, tore off his armor, felled his flagstaff and killed his horses. Seeing Drupada confounded, Arjuna threw down his own bow and took up a huge scimitar. He leapt down from his chariot and jumped onto Drupada’s, seizing him and holding the sword to his throat.

Bhīma had meanwhile been wreaking havoc among Drupada’s troops. Arjuna shouted to him to withdraw. They had achieved their aim and captured Drupada. The troops saw their king’s plight and fled in fear. Arjuna then dragged Drupada onto his own chariot and rode back toward Droṇa.

When Droṇa saw the captive king, he smiled. “So, O mighty king, do you now desire to revive our old friendship? It seems that your kingdom and wealth have become mine.”

Drupada squirmed and blushed. He looked down as Droṇa continued, “You need not fear for your life for I am a Brahmin and it is my duty to be ever forgiving. Indeed, I have always cherished an affection for you since we were children.”

Droṇa then ordered Arjuna to release Drupada. The king listened in silence as Droṇa continued. “I still desire your friendship, Drupada, but how can one who is not a king be a king’s friend? Therefore I have decided to allow you to keep half your kingdom. I shall take the other half.”

Drupada was in no position to argue. He knew that Droṇa’s martial power far exceeded his own--especially as he now had the mighty Kurus as disciples. There would be no question of defeating him in battle. Drupada nodded in assent. “You are a truly noble soul to act in this way, Droṇa,” he replied, summoning all his patience. “Great personalities like yourself are always magnanimous. I, too, desire your friendship. Let us live peacefully, each ruling his own half of the Pañchāla kingdom.”

Drupada had Brahmins perform appropriate rituals and bestowed the northern half of his kingdom upon Droṇa, who then left with the Pāṇḍavas for Hastināpura. Drupada burned with humiliation. Somehow he had to avenge his honor. Absorbed in thought, the king returned to his palace.

As they returned to Hastināpura, Droṇa rode on Arjuna’s chariot and spoke to him affectionately. He loved this prince as dearly as his own son, and he knew there was nothing Arjuna would not do for him. Droṇa said, “O hero, you are now the best of all bowmen in this world. Although you have repaid me by defeating Drupada, I will ask one more thing from you as dakṣiṇa. You must fight with me when I come to fight with you.”

Arjuna was surprised. How could he ever fight with his teacher? Still, he replied without hesitating, “It shall be so. I am always your servant.”

The Kurus had heard of a wonderful occurrence in Mathurā, the city where Kuntī had been born. Kuntī had a brother named Vasudeva who had been imprisoned by the wicked King Kaṁsa. This powerful monarch had been viciously terrorizing Brahmins and other kings. Hearing a divine prophesy that Vasudeva’s eighth child would kill him, Kaṁsa imprisoned both Vasudeva and his wife Devakī. He then killed their first six children at birth. But somehow, despite Kaṁsa’s vigilance, the seventh and eighth children, Balarāma and Kṛṣṇa, had escaped death. By some mystical arrangement Kṛṣṇa had been carried away from Mathurā and raised in Vṛndāvana, a small village of cowherds, by its leader, Nanda. The great ṛṣis said that Kṛṣṇa was in fact the Supreme Lord and that it had been by his own divine arrangement he had gone to Vṛndāvana. The Kurus were amazed to hear from the sages that God himself had appeared in the neighboring kingdom of the Yadus.

When he became a youth, Kṛṣṇa had returned to Mathurā and killed Kaṁsa with his bare hands. This tremendous deed astonished all those who saw it and confirmed for them Kṛṣṇa’s divine identity. Kaṁsa had struck fear even into the gods’ hearts. There had been no earthly king capable of standing against him. But the young Kṛṣṇa, still only a boy, and His brother, Balarāma, had overpowered Kaṁsa’s troops and generals, finally killing the king along with his evil ministers. The two brothers then became chiefs of the Yadu dynasty. They maintained a friendship with the Kurus in Hastināpura, taking a special interest in the welfare of their Aunt Kuntī and her five fatherless sons.

Balarāma, also said by the ṛṣis to be a manifestation of the Supreme Godhead, became famous as a peerless mace fighter. At Droṇa’s request, he agreed to train Bhīma and Duryodhana in the skills of handling a mace. Thus Balarāma spent time in Hastināpura. While there, he learned of the fierce rivalry and envy the Kauravas felt toward their cousins. When Kṛṣṇa heard this, He became concerned for Kuntī and her sons. Therefore He asked one of his advisors, Akrūra, to visit Hastināpura and assess the situation, and to see if he could be of any help.

The Kurus received Akrūra in friendship. Kuntī was overjoyed to see him. She inquired about her kinsmen and friends in Mathurā. Kuntī especially wanted to know everything about Kṛṣṇa, whom she accepted as the Supreme Lord. “Does my nephew Kṛṣṇa think of me and my sons?” she asked. “Does he know how I am suffering in the midst of my enemies, like a doe in the midst of wolves?”

Akrūra asked her to tell him more about the situation in the city and she began explaining everything. Kuntī knew that Duryodhana and his brothers were always intriguing against her sons. The Kauravas could not tolerate the Pāṇḍavas’ superior prowess. The humiliation they had recently received at Kāmpilya had made them even more keen to dispose of Pāṇḍu’s sons. Kuntī spoke to Akrūra with tears in her eyes, “Will Kṛṣṇa come here to console me? I always pray to that all-powerful protector of the universe. Indeed, I see no other shelter for myself and my sons.”

Kuntī cried out to Kṣṇa in front of Akrūra. He gently reassured her that Kṛṣṇa was often speaking about her and had sent him to analyze the situation. Both Akrūra and Vidura comforted Kuntī and reminded her about her sons’ extraordinary birth. The Pāṇḍava boys were expansions of the gods. There was no way that the evil Kaurava princes could overcome them.

Akrūra remained in Hastināpura for several months. Then, when he felt he had understood the situation fully, he decided it was time to return to Mathurā. Before leaving, however, he met with Dhṛtarāṣṭra to offer some advice. Ultimately the blind king was responsible for his sons’ acts and he could certainly check their behavior if he chose. Akrūra said, “My dear King, you have obtained the throne only because your brother Pāṇḍu passed away prematurely. Therefore Pāṇḍu’s sons have first claim on the throne. You should not discriminate against them in favor of your own sons.”

Akrūra also advised Dhṛtarāṣṭra to rule the kingdom strictly according to moral principles. He should treat all his subjects equally, what to speak of the Pāṇḍavas, his own nephews and heirs to the throne. Over-attachment for one’s close relatives is simply born of ignorance. Every creature in the world is born alone and dies alone. He experiences the results of his own good and evil deeds and in the end leaves the present body to accept another. The belief that one person is the relation of another is nothing more than illusion.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra listened in silence as Akrūra spoke. He understood the implications of his words. Akrūra had made it clear that the Pāṇḍavas’ cause was righteous and that by opposing them he would reap only grief. Dhṛtarāṣṭra bowed his head as Akrūra concluded, “By favoring your own sons, O lord of the earth, you are acting out of ignorance. How then can you hope for any good result? Ignorance always leads to sorrow. Therefore, act virtuously and deal with Pāṇḍu’s sons as they rightfully deserve.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra sighed, “O wise one, your words are like the immortal nectar of the gods. I could go on hearing them forever. You have surely spoken the truth. But just as a person on the verge of death cannot be saved by nectar, so your instructions do not stay in my heart.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra admitted that he was prejudiced by affection for his sons. He told Akrūra that he felt helpless to overcome that affection. Like Kuntī, the king also understood Kṛṣṇa’s position. “Surely everything moves according to the will of the Supreme Lord. No man can influence the Lord’s will. Now he has appeared to relieve the earth’s burden and that will surely happen. What then can I do? Destiny is surely all-powerful.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra had heard the sages describe how Kṛṣṇa’s mission was to destroy the large number of demonic kings who had begun to populate the earth. Pāṇḍu had managed to check them, but since his retirement they had formed alliances and built huge armies, posing a constant threat to world security.

Akrūra could understand that Dhṛtarāṣṭra was set upon a course that would lead to his ruin. By favoring his own sons over the Pāṇḍavas, the king would ultimately ignite a conflict between them which would result in the destruction of the Kuru race. Akrūra felt there was nothing more he could do. Dhṛtarāṣṭra refused to accept responsibility for his acts. Taking his leave from the king, Akrūra made his way back to Mathurā.

When Akrūra was gone, Dhṛtarāṣṭra pondered on his words. It was true that Pāṇḍu’s sons were the rightful heirs to the kingdom. That could not be denied. It was especially clear that the eldest of them, Yudhiṣṭhira, was qualified to be the king. The king had seen how the prince was noted for his honesty, patience, kindness and unswerving adherence to duty. Along with his brothers, he was a firm favorite of the people. The citizens had loved Pāṇḍu and it seemed to them that he returned to live among them as his sons. Everywhere people were speaking of their desire to see Yudhiṣṭhira installed as the king. Dhṛtarāṣṭra had heard of their talks: “Now we have a qualified prince. Why should the blind Dhṛtarāṣṭra remain king? Let us place the pious Yudhiṣṭhira on the throne. He will surely be a righteous and benevolent ruler.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra consulted with Bhīṣma, Vidura and the Brahmins. They all decided that Yudhiṣṭhira should be installed as prince regent. The ceremony was soon performed and the people rejoiced.

Duryodhana, however, was seething. How had his father bypassed him to make Yudhiṣṭhira prince regent? When Bhīma sneered at his distress, making it even more unbearable, he went with Karṇa and Dushashana to discuss with Śakuni a way to eradicate the Pāṇḍavas.

Śakuni’s eyes narrowed as Duryodhana and the others vented their rage. He pressed his fingertips together to think. “The only answer,” he said finally, “is to get the Pāṇḍavas out of Hastināpura to a place where they can be killed without interference. We should somehow contrive to have them burned to death, making it seem like an accident.”

Duryodhana smiled, but Karṇa was not so sure. He did not like Śakuni’s devious ways. “Only cowards resort to deceit and underhanded methods. Powerful men favor open combat. If the Pāṇḍavas are our enemies, then let us march out to the battlefield and settle this dispute.”

Śakuni’s lips tightened. Then he smiled slightly. “My child, you are powerful but foolish. It seems you have forgotten Bhīma’s superhuman strength. And do you not remember the incident at Kāmpilya? All of the Kaurava princes, with you by their side, could not overpower Drupada. But with only four fighting, the Pāṇḍavas were successful. It is unlikely that we will win in a confrontation with those five brothers. Take heed of my words.”

Reminded of Kāmpilya, Karṇa was embarrassed. He let out an angry shout. They had been taken by surprise there. Drupada had been stronger than they expected. The Pāṇḍavas had the advantage, confronting Drupada after having witnessed his actual power. Next time, if the Pāṇḍavas confronted the Kauravas directly, things would be different. Karṇa shook his head and left the room. “Do what you will, but I cannot be a party to such cowardice.”

The cunning Śakuni had carefully assessed the situation. He pressed Duryodhana to approach his father and ask for the Pāṇḍavas to be sent away. He knew that Dhṛtarāṣṭra would not refuse his son anything. Duryodhana nodded slowly. He trusted Śakuni’s judgment. Together they worked out the details of their plan. Then Duryodhana went to see the king.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra knew well of his sons’ hatred for the Pāṇḍavas. He knew that Yudhiṣṭhira’s installation as the heir-apparent had been a bitter blow to Duryodhana. The king thought about what he could do for his sons. He had spoken with Śakuni. His brother-in-law, knowing that Dhṛtarāṣṭra never acted without counsel, had suggested that he seek advice from Śakuni’s Brahmin friend, Kaṇika. This Brahmin, Śakuni had said, was an expert in statecraft and politics. Śakuni then personally brought Kaṇika to see Dhṛtarāṣṭra.

Kaṇika told Dhṛtarāṣṭra that he should feel no compunction about rooting out his enemies before they harmed him. If he saw the Pāṇḍavas as his enemies, then he should destroy them without hesitation by any means possible. Because they were stronger than his own sons, a direct confrontation would probably fail. Better to employ some devious means. In the meantime the king should continue to appear as the Pāṇḍavas’ well-wisher. Then as soon as an opportunity arose, he should strike.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra thanked the Brahmin for his advice and dismissed him. He sat alone in his chamber for some time. The thought of killing Pāṇḍu’s sons distressed him. Perhaps there was some way they could be removed from Hastināpura. While they were present his own sons would never be happy. Duryodhana complained constantly about his cousins. Now the monarchy was about to pass back to Pāṇḍu’s line. Dhṛtarāṣṭra had enjoyed his opportunity to occupy Hastināpura’s throne as the world emperor. Although the firstborn son, and thus the first in line for the throne, he had thought his blindness had forever denied him the chance to be king. But in the years since Pāṇḍu’s departure he had become accustomed to holding the reins of power. It would not be easy to let go.

As Dhṛtarāṣṭra sat in his darkened room, Duryodhana came to see him. He heard his son’s heavy steps approaching and his sighs as he sat before him. Dhṛtarāṣṭra gently greeted the prince and asked what ailed him.

“I am hearing ill news of the kingdom, Father. The citizens are growing restless. They want you to soon hand over the throne to the Pāṇḍavas. ‘Why should we have the blind king now that Yudhiṣṭhira is grown?’ are the words they utter. They care not for you or for myself.”

Duryodhana stood up sharply and began to pace, his gold ornaments jangling. As he strode about, he punched his hand with his clenched fist.

“Soon we shall become dependent upon the Pāṇḍavas. They will be the kings and after them their sons will inherit the throne. Thus our line will be plunged into misfortune. We shall become powerless and lose the honor we have long enjoyed. What could be more painful for us? I have been considering how to deliver us. Listen as I explain my idea.”

Duryodhana first suggested the Pāṇḍavas be sent to a distant city. On the pretext of sending them on holiday, they could be sent to Vāraṇāvata, where a splendid festival honoring Śiva would soon be celebrated. The town was noted for its attractions. The Pāṇḍavas would surely be pleased to visit it. Once they left Hastināpura, perhaps they would never return.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra immediately understood what was on his son’s mind. How could he possibly agree? “Pāṇḍu was always devoted to virtue,” he said. “He did not care for wealth. My pious brother was devoted to me. He gave me everything, including this wide and prosperous kingdom. How could I hurt his sons?”

Besides that consideration, said Dhṛtarāṣṭra, the people love the Pāṇḍavas. They would be angered if the Kurus sent them away. Perhaps they would rise up against their leaders and remove them by force. And certainly Bhīṣma and the other senior Kurus would favor the Pāṇḍavas.

Duryodhana was ready for this objection. Before sending the Pāṇḍavas away, the Kurus should try to win over the people by various means. By bestowing wealth and honors on them they would gain their love and trust. Then, in the Pāṇḍavas’ absence, it would be possible for Duryodhana to become king. The prince went on, “Once my position is established in Hastināpura, Kuntī and her sons could even return. Do not fear for their welfare.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra sat up and leaned toward his son. “This very thought has been on my mind, but I have not spoken it because it is a sinful thought. I am still doubtful. How do you propose that we deal with Bhīṣma, Vidura, Droṇa and Kṛpa? They love the Pāṇḍavas as if they were their own sons.”

Duryodhana smiled. “Bhīṣma will remain neutral, as he always does. Droṇa’s son is my staunch supporter. His father will never go against him. Droṇa has married Kṛpa’s sister. Therefore Kṛpa’s support is assured. Vidura is the only one we cannot trust--he will certainly side with the Pāṇḍavas--but what harm can he alone do to us?”

Duryodhana implored his father to agree. If the Pāṇḍavas were allowed to remain in Hastināpura, he would not be able to live. His heart was burning and he lived in constant anxiety.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra was torn. He sat sighing for some moments. Finally, he gave his assent. Everything lay in the hands of Providence. What could he, a mere mortal filled with desire and fears, do against destiny? The king called his servants and retired for the night.

Chapter 7: The Pāṇḍavas Sent Away

During the weeks that followed, Duryodhana and his brothers slowly began to win over the people. They distributed wealth and honors liberally and provided the citizens with all kinds of amenities and pleasures. At the same time, Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s ministers spoke continuously in the court about Vāraṇāvata, as they had been instructed by the king. The Pāṇḍavas heard them describe the city’s attractions. “The festival of Pāśupāta is starting soon. The procession has no equal anywhere in the world. The decorations, gems, jewels and entertainments delight the heart.”

The young princes were attracted. When Dhṛtarāṣṭra saw that their curiosity had been aroused, he said, “I have been hearing a lot about Vāraṇāvata of late. It occurred to me that you boys would derive much pleasure from visiting that city. Why not make a state visit? Bestow charity on the people and take your leisure. After enjoying yourselves there, you may return here whenever you please.”

Yudhiṣṭhira, however, was intelligent; he understood that this was simply a ploy to remove them from the city. Why did the king not ask his own sons to go to Vāraṇāvata? Yudhiṣṭhira had seen the unusual kindness that Duryodhana had been displaying toward the people lately, and he knew that he was hatching a plot. But he felt helpless. He decided it would be better to do as the king suggested for the time being. Their position was not strong. The Pāṇḍavas had few friends or supporters and the king’s sons were constantly inclined to harm them in any way they could. Perhaps a time away from Hastināpura would help.

A date was set for the Pāṇḍava’s departure. Duryodhana was overjoyed that the Pāṇḍavas had agreed to go, and immediately began to make plans. He summoned his confidential counselor, Purochana. Taking him by the hand, the prince said, “This world and all its wealth is as much yours as it is mine. You should act so it will be protected. You are my most trustworthy supporter. I am completely dependent on you. Listen as I tell you what must be done, and done secretly. Do not repeat to anyone what I shall now say to you.”

Duryodhana asked Purochana to go at once to Vāraṇāvata. Using skilled and trusted artisans, he should construct a spacious mansion for the Pāṇḍavas. It should be elegant and full of rich furnishings, but it should be made entirely of flammable materials. “Mix ghee and oil with earth and a large quantity of lac. Plaster the walls with it and then paint over it carefully. Then scent the house so no one will suspect anything.”

The prince also instructed Purochana to leave pots of ghee and oil in the house. He wanted to ensure that the building would burn to ashes within minutes. Duryodhana then revealed to Purochana the whole plan he had made with Śakuni. Purochana should meet the Pāṇḍavas as soon as they arrived in Vāraṇāvata. He should then show them to their quarters. He should be sure they knew that the house had been built for them on the king’s orders. Purochana should live with them to help allay their suspicions. Then, when they were least suspecting it, Purochana should set fire to the house while they were asleep.

Duryodhana squeezed his minister’s hand. “Everything depends upon you, Purochana. Know that I shall reward you with unlimited wealth if you do me this favor. Leave immediately, for the Pāṇḍavas will be there soon.”

Purochana promised to do everything he had been asked. Gathering a number of his men, he left immediately for Vāraṇāvata on a swift chariot drawn by asses. They began work on the house the moment they arrived.

On the day of their departure, the Pāṇḍavas went before their elders and bowed down in respect. They touched Bhīṣma and Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s feet, and embraced their equals with love. Taking leave of the ladies, they walked respectfully around them with folded palms. Then they mounted their fine, golden chariots. The citizens crowded around them as they made preparations to leave, then followed the chariots as they slowly made their way out of the city. The young princes felt sorrow at leaving their homes and loved ones. Seeing their grief, some of the people spoke out. One Brahmin said, “King Dhṛtarāṣṭra does not have equal vision. He favors his sons over these virtuous princes. Pāṇḍu’s sons will never commit any sin. They are blameless and pure and do not deserve to be sent away.” Some of the people censured Bhīṣma for allowing it to happen, while others condemned the blind king and his son. Many of them declared that they would go with the Pāṇḍavas to Vāraṇāvata rather than remain with the cruel-minded monarch.

But Yudhiṣṭhira checked them. “The king is our father, our preceptor and our superior. He is always worthy of our worship and should be obeyed without question. This is the eternal injunction of scripture and we should abide by it with a peaceful mind.” When the time came, he said, they could render his brothers and him service in another way. The citizens then circumambulated the chariots and departed, tears flooding their eyes.

When the Pāṇḍavas reached the edge of the city, Vidura met them. Vidura had learned of Duryodhana’s scheme through his palace spies. He wanted to warn Yudhiṣṭhira without anyone else understanding his message. Going before the prince who was still in the people’s midst, he spoke to him in the language of the mleccha tribes people. Speaking cryptically, Vidura said, “One who knows there are sharp weapons capable of cutting the body although not made of metal is not injured by them. He survives who understands that the consumer of wood and straw does not reach the dwellers of a hole in the forest. Always stay alert. One who keeps his senses under control can never be overcome by any enemy.”

Vidura spoke for some minutes and Yudhiṣṭhira, who was versed in many languages, understood his meaning, although the message was not understandable by others. When Vidura finished, Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “I understand.” Vidura smiled, then walked respectfully around the princes. Bidding them farewell, he left for his own house.

On the road to Vāraṇāvata, Kuntī asked Yudhiṣṭhira what Vidura had said. Yudhiṣṭhira replied that Vidura had told him that their house in Vāraṇāvata would be burned down. He had also told the prince that the means of escape would be revealed to him. “The learned Vidura then said that he who is self-controlled wins the sovereignty of the earth.”

When the citizens of Vāraṇāvata heard that the famous Pāṇḍava brothers were approaching their city, they came out in the thousands to greet the princes. The people saw Yudhiṣṭhira leading his brothers, like Indra leading the celestials. They worshipped and welcomed the princes and led them into their city to the accompaniment of trumpets, drums and conchshells. Cheers filled the air as the brothers proceeded slowly along the road. Reaching the city’s main concourse, they got down from their chariots and went first to meet the Brahmins. Then they met with the city officials, then the warriors, the trades people and finally the workers and servant classes.

After the greetings were over, the Pāṇḍavas were received as guests of one of the city’s chief officials. Remembering Vidura’s warning and unsure of what to expect, they remained there for ten days. Then Purochana told them that their own residence was ready. He personally led the princes and Kuntī to the house he had named ‘The Blessed Dwelling’. As they entered the house Yudhiṣṭhira said quietly to Bhīma, “From the odors I detect here it is evident that this house has been made of lac and other materials soaked in ghee and oil. Without doubt Purochana intends to burn us to death in this place. It is just as Vidura told me. Duryodhana has obviously entrusted Purochana with the job of killing us.”

Bhīma replied, “Then why should we live in this death-trap? Let us return to where we have already been staying.”

Yudhiṣṭhira did not think Bhīma’s idea to be a wise one. “If we let Purochana realize we suspect him, then he may try anything in order to kill us. Obviously he is without scruples and is determined to do the will of the ruthless Duryodhana. We should not give him any indication that we are aware of his wicked intentions.”

When Purochana left the brothers spoke openly together. Yudhiṣṭhira said they should dig a tunnel under the house in order to escape when the time came. That was what Vidura had instructed. Bhīma and Arjuna wondered why they should live in fear of Duryodhana. Why not challenge him outright? Bhīma was especially angry, remembering the times when Duryodhana had tried to poison him. He slapped his biceps and said menacingly, “Just order me, dear brother, and I shall immediately crush the Kauravas with my bare hands.”

No, Yudhiṣṭhira said, their position was in no way equal to that of their cousins. “They are one hundred and we are five. They have rank, power, friends, allies and wealth. Dhṛtarāṣṭra will never abandon his sons, and Bhīṣma and Droṇa will always stand by the king. We cannot challenge the Kurus directly.”

The twins suggested that they immediately fly from Vāraṇāvata. Yudhiṣṭhira again disagreed. “Once he knows we are running in fear, Duryodhana will use spies and agents to find us and kill us by any devious means.”

Yudhiṣṭhira decided that their best hope lay in living in the lac house seemingly unaware of the danger. Remaining constantly alert, they should prepare an escape tunnel under the house. They should also spend their days hunting in the woods and looking for a route that would take them away from the city. When Purochana set light to the house, they could escape without anyone knowing. Duryodhana would think them dead and would not then pursue them.

His brothers agreed. They then searched the house for a place to dig the tunnel. As they were looking, a man came to the house and introduced himself as a friend of Vidura. He told Yudhiṣṭhira that he was a skilled miner and had been sent there by Vidura, who had informed him that on a new moon night, Purochana planned to set light to the door of their house.

Yudhiṣṭhira looked at the man carefully. Was this yet another of Duryodhana’s deceits? The miner reassured him by mentioning the incident when Vidura had spoken to him in the mleccha dialect. Yudhiṣṭhira then welcomed him warmly and replied, “We are ever protected by the virtuous Vidura. It is our good fortune that you have come here. The wicked and sinful Duryodhana has had this house constructed from all sorts of flammable materials. In command of wealth and allies he pursues us relentlessly.”

The miner said he would begin construction of a subterranean passage immediately. He began to dig from the center of the house and covered the hole with planks and a large rug.

As the miner worked, the Pāṇḍavas spent their days wandering in the surrounding woods. They soon ascertained a route leading away from Vāraṇāvata through the forest. While living in the house the brothers gave to Purochana the appearance of being peaceful and happy so as not to arouse his suspicions, but at night they slept with their arms at the ready, one of them always remaining alert in case Purochana made an unexpected move. No one but the miner knew of their plans.

A full year passed in this way. Purochana was satisfied, thinking the Pāṇḍavas unaware of his intentions. When Yudhiṣṭhira saw that the minister suspected nothing and trusted them completely, he said to his brothers, “Let us pre-empt Purochana before he can enact his plan. I think we should ourselves set light to the house and make our escape.”

The tunnel was complete. Yudhiṣṭhira considered that their best hope lay in deceiving Duryodhana into thinking his plan had succeeded. That would allow the brothers to escape without being pursued. They would then have time to consider their next move. After discussing all the angles, the brothers decided that they would set fire to the house the next night.

The following day a festival was being celebrated in Vāraṇāvata. Kuntī distributed food and wealth to the Brahmins, and many poor people came to the Pāṇḍavas’ mansion to beg charity. By the arrangement of Providence, a niṣāda tribeswoman also arrived with her five sons. The servants Kuntī had placed in charge of distributing the food sat the woman and her sons down, then brought them food and a large quantity of wine. Gradually they became drunk and fell asleep where they had been eating. The servants, unable to rouse them, decided to leave them there for the night, although the Pāṇḍavas were unaware of this.

Outside as night fell, a storm blew up. The Pāṇḍavas sat together in their room waiting until they were sure that Purochana, who occupied the room by the door of the house, was asleep. Yudhiṣṭhira then instructed Bhīma to set the house on fire. Bhīma then took a torch and lit the door and several other places, as his brothers and Kuntī made their way along the tunnel. He followed them quickly, and in moments the whole house was ablaze.

Hearing the roar of the fire, the citizens of Vāraṇāvata all came out and saw with horror the blazing mansion. They were aware of the rivalry between Duryodhana and the Pāṇḍavas and they immediately guessed what had happened. “This is undoubtedly Duryodhana’s doing,” they said. “He has employed his evil minister to destroy the innocent and unsuspecting sons of Pāṇḍu. Fie upon that wicked man, whose understanding is so crooked!”

The bewailing people of the city surrounded the burning mansion and remained through the night. When morning came they threw water onto the embers and searched the burnt-out ruins. They found the remains of Purochana and also of the niṣāda woman and her sons. Concluding that the Pāṇḍavas were dead they lamented loudly, censuring Duryodhana and his father. Some of them even condemned Bhīṣma, Droṇa and the other Kuru elders for allowing such a terrible thing to happen.

The miner, who was present among the citizens, ensured that the searchers did not find the tunnel. Thus no one in Vāraṇāvata even guessed that the Pāṇḍavas were alive, and that they were at that time making their way through the forest. The city leaders then sent messengers to Hastināpura with the news of the Pāṇḍavas’ death.

When Dhṛtarāṣṭra heard the messengers from Vāraṇāvata he cried out in grief. “Alas, my brother Pāṇḍu has died again today because his heroic sons and their illustrious mother have been killed. What a cruel destiny! How can I face life without my gentle nephews?”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra then ordered that the royal Brahmins go immediately to Vāraṇāvata to perform the funeral rites for Kuntī and her sons. Along with Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Kṛpa and the other elders, the king went to the Ganges to offer sacred water to the departed souls. As they stood in the river they cried out, “O Yudhiṣṭhira! O Bhīma! O Arjuna!” Others called out the names of Kuntī and the twins. Thousands of grieving citizens came out of Hastināpura to offer oblations. Sounds of wailing and sorrow filled the air. Bhīṣma was particularly afflicted as he remembered the young princes, who had always been like sons to him. Only Vidura did not lament, as he knew the truth. But still, he did not speak about it to anyone. He knew he could not risk telling even Bhīṣma, who was always loyal to the king and Hastināpura.

The Pāṇḍavas and Kuntī emerged from their tunnel some distance from Vāraṇāvata. As their eyes became accustomed to the darkness they proceeded in the direction they had already charted. They were tired and afraid, and they found it difficult to hurry. Seeing this, the tireless Bhīma lifted them all onto his vast frame. To everyone’s astonishment, he placed his mother on his shoulders, the twins on his two sides and Yudhiṣṭhira and Arjuna on each arm, then ran through the forest, knocking down trees and treading down bushes and brambles.

At dawn they arrived at the Ganges, where another of Vidura’s emissaries met them. This man was sitting in a boat and he called out to the Pāṇḍavas as they stood measuring the depth of the river with a stone tied to a creeper. Startled, the brothers looked around. Yudhiṣṭhira approached the man in the boat, who told them that he been told by Vidura to wait there for them. He had been there every night for months, carefully watching for signs of the brothers. The man assured Yudhiṣṭhira of his credentials by repeating to him the conversation the prince had had with Vidura in the mleccha tongue. Explaining that he had come to ferry them across the river and help them on their way, the man said, “Vidura has sent his embrace and said that you will surely be victorious over your enemies. He said that you should remain always alert and depend upon the Lord, by whose arrangement auspiciousness will always attend you. Get into this boat quickly and I shall take you far from here.”

Propelled by an engine and sails, the boat moved swiftly through the flowing river toward the south. The Pāṇḍavas journeyed for some hours and were finally set down on the opposite bank near a broad path leading into the woods. The boatman wished them success and departed, taking with him a message of thanks for Vidura.

The brothers continued south. They soon entered a dense forest. Feeling tired and hungry, they sat down. Yudhiṣṭhira said in an anguished voice, “What could be more painful? Here we are lost in some deep and fearful forest. We do not know if the sinful Purochana has somehow survived and informed Duryodhana of our escape. What dangers lay ahead for us now?”

Kuntī was exhausted and could walk no further. She sat on a tree root, glancing around fearfully. Her sons searched about for a way to go deeper into the jungle. It appeared virtually impregnable with its huge trees and bushes enmeshed in a tight network of creepers. The cries of birds and animals filled the air. Yudhiṣṭhira gazed into the forest and said to Bhīma, “O mighty son of Vāyu, you must again carry us into these dreadful woods. I can see no other way for us to continue.”

Bhīma bowed his head in respect to his elder brother. Once again he placed his mother and four brothers on his powerful body. When they were all holding on tightly, he ran straight into the forest. He bounded high into the air and broke trees with his feet, clearing a path as he progressed. Tall flowering trees fell on all sides with great cracking sounds, sending up showers of blossoms. Forest animals fled in all directions as the prince crashed through the woods. He seemed like an angry elephant king charging through the jungle. So swift was his movement that Kuntī and her sons almost fainted. Still carrying the five of them, Bhīma also swam the streams and lakes that crossed his path.

As evening fell they stopped for the night under the shelter of a large banyan tree. Bhīma set down his mother and brothers and they fell to the ground overwhelmed by fatigue, hunger and thirst. Kuntī asked Bhīma to bring her some water. He replied, “I hear the sweet singing of waterfowl not far from here. Undoubtedly there is a lake nearby.”

The unflagging Bhīma went at once toward the sound and soon found the lake. After bathing and drinking deeply, he soaked his upper garment and went back to the banyan tree. But by the time he returned his mother and brothers had fallen into a deep sleep. Seeing them lying on the bare ground, Bhīma lamented to himself. “What more painful sight could there be? Here are my five brothers, who could not even sleep in Vāraṇāvata on the costliest of beds, sleeping now on the cold earth. My gentle mother, as delicate and resplendent as the filament of a lotus flower, lies exhausted on the hard forest floor.”

Bhīma wrang his hands in anguish and frustration. If only the Kauravas were present before him now. They would regret their treachery. It was only by the grace of God that Yudhiṣṭhira did not command him to kill them all. Bhīma looked at his sleeping elder brother. Surely he deserved to rule the entire earth. He never abandoned virtue or gave way to anger. Only because of this were the Kauravas still alive.

Bhīma sighed and looked around. They had traveled many miles through the forest. Perhaps there was a town or village not far away. He would remain awake guarding his brothers and in the morning they could continue. The prince sat on a root of the banyan tree with his mind and senses alert to danger.

Not far from where the brothers had stopped was a massive sal tree on which lived a Rākṣasa named Hiḍimba. He had slept through the day and was just awakening as the Pāṇḍavas were falling asleep. Yawning and stretching his enormous arms, he sniffed the night air. At once he detected the scent of humans nearby. He sat up quickly and called out to his sister, who lived on the same tree. “Hiḍimbī! Wake up. I smell human flesh. It has been a long time since we tasted our favorite food. My mouth is already watering. Quickly find the humans and, after killing them, bring them here. Tearing their necks with my long fangs I shall quaff their hot, foaming blood. Both of us shall eat our fill and then dance happily.”

The Rākṣasa woman shook her long, orange hair and opened her blood-red eyes. She cackled and looked at the long claws protruding from her black fingers. Hiḍimbī and her brother had often slain and eaten hapless travelers. Swinging down from the branch she went silently through the trees, following the scent. In a few minutes she arrived at the spot where the Pāṇḍavas lay. The Rākṣasī saw the invincible Bhīma seated nearby. As soon as her eyes fell upon him, her heart was moved by desire. The prince looked like a god. His skin was the color of molten gold and his shoulders resembled those of a lion. His neck resembled a conch and his eyes were like large lotus petals.

Hiḍimbī decided immediately that he should be her husband. If she killed him, she and her brother would enjoy the brief pleasure of eating his flesh; but if she united with him, her pleasure would be far greater. Deciding to ignore her brother’s order, Hiḍimbī assumed the form of a beautiful woman. Decorated with celestial ornaments and clothed in crimson silks, she walked slowly up to Bhīma. With a bashful smile she said, “O best of men, who are you and what brings you to this dark and dangerous forest? Who are these godlike men laying on the ground, and who is that woman of transcendent beauty lying with them?”

Bhīma looked at her in surprise. Was she the forest deity? What was such a beautiful woman doing alone at night in such a place? He listened carefully as Hiḍimbī continued. “This forest belongs to my brother Hiḍimba, a powerful man-eating Rākṣasa. With the intention of eating your flesh he sent me here to kill you.”

She raised her hand as Bhīma suddenly stood up. “Do not fear. I have been smitten with desire upon seeing you, who are as handsome as a god. Please accept me as your wife, for I am being victimized by Cupid’s shafts.”

Hiḍimbī told Bhīma that she would save him from her brother. She would carry him through the sky and far away from Hiḍimba. Then they could enjoy together in a celestial mountain region.

Bhīma sat down again. He shook his head. “O Rākṣasī, how do you expect me to abandon my sleeping mother and brothers simply to gratify my lust?”

Hiḍimbī looked down at the sleeping Pāṇḍavas and Kuntī. “Wake them up. I shall carry you all away from this place.”

Bhīma shook his head again. “I shall not wake my mother and brothers out of fear of any Rākṣasa. There is no Rākṣasa, Yakṣa or Gandharva able to withstand my strength. O beautifully shaped lady, you may stay or go as you please. Or if you like you may send your man-eating brother to me.”

As they were speaking together, Hiḍimba was becoming impatient. Where was his foolish sister? Why had she not returned? The Rākṣasa jumped down from his tree and moved toward the human scent.

Hiḍimbī sensed her brother’s approach and she became alarmed. She pleaded with Bhīma. “Please do not argue with me. My brother is coming. Do not tarry here and become his meal. Wake up the others and allow me to rescue all of you.”

Bhīma simply smiled. “This cannibal presents no problem to me. Indeed I shall kill him here before your eyes. Do not consider me an ordinary human being. My two arms are like the trunks of mighty elephants and my thighs resemble iron clubs. My prowess is no less than Indra himself. I fear nothing.”

Hiḍimbī was still doubtful. She had seen the Rākṣasa giants prove their superiority over men on many occasions. They were more on a level with the celestials than with humans. It was a rare human who could overpower a Rākṣasa.

Bhīma looked over Hiḍimbī’s shoulder and saw her brother approaching. He was as dark as a rain cloud and he had hideous features. His ears were shaped like arrows and the shock of red hair on his head stood erect. His powerful body, clad in a loin cloth, was covered in wiry red hair. The Rākṣasa was as tall as a tree and had broad shoulders. His arms, thick like tree trunks, reached down to his knees. His huge mouth was open, revealing rows of fearful fangs. He opened his crimson eyes in surprise as he saw his sister standing in a human form next to Bhīma. Seeing her so beautifully bedecked with celestial ornaments, Hiḍimba immediately understood that she had become lustful toward the human. He spoke angrily.

“Who is so foolish as to create obstacles for me when I am hungry? O sister, have you become so senseless that you do not fear my anger? Fie upon you, O unchaste woman! Simply out of lust you are ready to do me an injury and sacrifice the very honor of our race. I shall kill you along with these humans.”

Pressing his teeth together, Hiḍimba ran at his sister with his arms raised. Bhīma stood up at once and stepped forward. His voice boomed out. “Stop! How dare you awaken my peacefully sleeping brothers. Nor should you attack this innocent woman. O wicked-minded one, your sister is not in control of herself. She has been brought under Cupid’s control. Therefore, she should not be punished.”

Bhīma smiled scornfully at the cannibal. Challenging him to a fight, the prince said, “Today you shall reach the land of the dead. I will pound your head to pieces. Your sister shall see me drag your mountain-like frame even as a lion drags an elephant. Hawks, vultures and jackals will then gleefully tear apart your corpse. Today this forest shall be rendered safe for all travelers.”

Hiḍimba flared up. He laughed at the human’s impudence. Advancing toward Bhīma, the cannibal screamed, “What use is this boasting? First accomplish all this and then speak. You think yourself strong but you shall learn the truth today. For now your brothers may sleep peacefully. First I shall kill you, O foul-mouthed one. After drinking your blood I will then slay the others.”

The Rākṣasa rushed at Bhīma with his arms outstretched. Bhīma immediately seized the giant’s arms and, not wanting to disturb his sleeping brothers, dragged him away a full thirty-two cubits, even as a lion might drag a small deer.

Hiḍimba broke free from Bhīma’s hold and wrapped his arms around him. He tightened his grasp and tried to crush him to death. Bhīma was unharmed. Even while held in the Rākṣasa’s powerful grip, Bhīma pulled him still further away so that his terrible yells might not disturb the others. He then burst free from Hiḍimba and clasped him in turn. The two fighters displayed their might as they lifted and hurled each other violently. They crashed about like two great elephants fighting for supremacy. Huge trees were smashed and splintered. The noise awoke the other princes and their mother. They sat up and looked around. They were astonished to see the extraordinarily beautiful Hiḍimbī. Kuntī addressed her with gentle words.

“O celestial maiden, who are you? To whom do you belong? Why have you come to this forest? Are you the forest deity or an Apsarā? Please tell me everything.”

Hiḍimbī explained who she was and how she had come to be standing there. Pointing to the combatants, she said, “I have chosen your golden-hued and immensely powerful son as my husband. Greatly angered by this, my brother has attacked him. See now how they struggle together, man and Rākṣasa, filling the forest with their roars.”

Yudhiṣṭhira and the other Pāṇḍavas stood up hastily and looked across at Bhīma. He was pounding Hiḍimba with his fists, making a sound like thunder claps. The Rākṣasa pressed forward and reached for Bhīma’s neck with his large hands. As they grappled, a dust cloud rose and covered them. They appeared like two cliffs enveloped in mist.

Arjuna ran over and, with a smile on his lips, said to his brother, “O mighty-armed one, why did you not wake me? I can see that you are growing tired fighting this terrible Rākṣasa. Rest now and I shall kill him. Nakula and Sahadeva will protect our mother.”

Arjuna was taunting his brother only to incite his anger, and his words had the desired effect. Bhīma blazed up with fury and replied, “You need only be a spectator, dear brother. Have no fear. Now that this evil cannibal has entered my clutches he shall not escape with his life.”

Arjuna urged Bhīma to make haste. Twilight was approaching and the Rākṣasa’s strength would be doubled. Bhīma should kill him at once before he was able to use mystic powers and illusions to fight.

Bhīma summoned his father Vāyu’s latent power. With a roar he lifted the Rākṣasa above his head. Whirling him around, Bhīma said, “O cannibal, you have led a life of sin. Your existence has been in vain. Therefore you deserve an unholy death. Now I shall slay you like the beast you are, thereby freeing this forest from its thorny plant.”

Bhīma whirled the Rākṣasa one hundred times and dashed him to the ground. Hiḍimba let out a terrible roar which reverberated around the forest like a massive drum. Now Hiḍimba was only semi-conscious. Bhīma lifted him again and, by smashing him onto the trunk of a large sal tree, broke his back in two. He then stood up and smiled at his brothers, who by then had gathered around him. They embraced him and, looking at the lifeless form of the giant Rākṣasa, congratulated him for his incredible feat.

Chapter 8: Ghaṭotkaca Born and Baka Slain

Soon after Bhīma had killed Hiḍimba, the sun rose and the brothers could see paths through the forest. They decided to continue south. They were bound to come to a town at some point.

As they walked off with Kuntī between them, Hiḍimbī followed behind. Bhīma became concerned and said, “The Rākṣasas are known to avenge themselves on their enemies. They use deceptions and illusions. Therefore, O Hiḍimbī, you shall go the way your brother has gone.”

Bhīma turned menacingly toward Hiḍimbī. He did not fear her in the least, but wished only to scare her away before she tried any trickery. But Yudhiṣṭhira stopped his younger brother. “O Bhīma, you should never kill a woman even in anger. The attainment of virtue is always a higher duty than the protection of one’s body. Besides this, what harm can this woman do to us? You have already slain her more powerful brother.”

Hiḍimbī folded her palms to Yudhiṣṭhira and thanked him. She approached Kuntī and said with tears in her eyes, “Noble lady, you know well the suffering of a woman afflicted by desire. The god of love has pierced me with his shafts and I am consumed by desire for your son Bhīma. If he does not accept me as his wife, I will not be able to live. Do not doubt this.”

Hiḍimbī begged Kuntī to be merciful and allow her to marry Bhīma. She would carry all of them to a celestial region where they could rest for some time. There she could sport alone with Bhīma. Hiḍimbī promised Kuntī that she would always be available to serve the Pāṇḍavas. They had only to think of her and she would appear before them at once. Kneeling before Kuntī, Hiḍimbī said, “Please do not kill me by saying no. My request is in accord with virtue and indeed saving one’s life by any means is always considered virtuous by the wise. Virtue itself protects and sustains life; therefore grant me my desire, for it is not sinful.”

Yudhiṣṭhira smiled. He was impressed by Hiḍimbī’s knowledge of religion. She would be a good wife for Bhīma, whom he had noted was not above her sidelong glances. Yudhiṣṭhira said, “You have spoken well. O highly attractive lady, it must be as you say. You shall become Bhīma’s wife. Remaining with him by day, you may sport with him as you please. At night, however, he should always be returned to our presence.”

Hiḍimbī’s face blossomed with happiness. She looked at Bhīma with eyes full of love. The prince smiled at her and said, “I agree to this union, but I shall make one condition. As soon as you obtain a son I shall depart and leave you alone. My brothers and I have much to achieve in order to win back our father’s kingdom.”

Hiḍimbī agreed. Then, assuming a large form, she carried them all to a high mountain lake called Salivahana. In that beautiful woodland region the brothers constructed a wooden hut on the lake shore. There they lived peacefully. Hiḍimbī took Bhīma with her during the daytime. She soared through the sky to celestial places and showed Bhīma the numerous exquisite gardens frequented by Siddhas and Gandharvas. There they lay together on the sandy banks of crystal streams covered with blue and red lotuses. Hiḍimbī also took him to the land of the Guhakas, which was situated on the shore of the divine Mānasa lake. Bhīma saw beautiful towns full of shining mansions and palaces and groves of blossoming trees and heavenly flowers, whose fragrance completely enchanted the mind.

Hiḍimbī was as dazzling as a goddess. She adorned herself with fine gems and gold ornaments and she constantly poured forth sweet song. Bhīma was captivated by her and the seven months they enjoyed together seemed to pass as quickly as if it were seven days. At the end of the seven months she gave birth to a son named Ghaṭotkaca. Within days of his birth the boy grew to youthhood and he took on the terrible form of a Rākṣasa. His huge body was fearsome, with knotted muscles, a head as bald as a pot, terrible red eyes, a long pointed nose and ears like sharp arrows. His chest was broad and he stood as tall as a palm tree.

Although a Rākṣasa by nature, Ghaṭotkaca was inclined to virtue and he became a great favorite of the Pāṇḍavas. He was devoted to their service and they looked on him as a younger brother. Taught by the Pāṇḍavas, the boy quickly became proficient at weaponry and fighting. After a couple of months he asked permission from his parents to leave for the northern regions where Yakṣas and Rākṣasas dwell. He promised the Pāṇḍavas that they need only think of him and he would return to render them any service they required. After touching the feet of his mother and of all the Pāṇḍavas, he rose up to the sky and departed.

The time had come for Bhīma to leave Hiḍimbī. She embraced the Pāṇḍava tearfully and asked if she would ever again see him. Bhīma assured her that in the future, after he and his brothers had overcome their obstacles and were free from danger, they could be reunited.

Leaving Hiḍimbī in their mountain dwelling, the Pāṇḍavas and Kuntī resumed their travels. They disguised themselves as ascetics by matting their hair and wearing tree-bark garments. Bhīma carried his mother as they traveled through the many different lands. Going from forest to forest they passed through the countries of the Matsyas, the Trigartas and the Pañchālas. No one recognised them. They proceeded slowly, unsure of what to expect and awaiting the Lord’s indication as to what they should do next. While travelling they studied the Vedic scriptures together and all five brothers imbibed the science of morality and many other subjects described in the Vedas.

One day as they sat in the forest by their sacred fire, Vyāsadeva came to see them. After being received with due worship, the ṛṣi sat down and said, “I have been aware of the Kauravas’ unjust behavior toward you. Although I see both the Kauravas and yourselves equally, I feel a greater affection for you brothers due to your misfortune. I have therefore come here wishing to do you some good.”

Vyāsadeva informed them of a nearby village called Ekacakra. He instructed them to live there for some time, saying that he would come again to give them further directions. The ṛṣi then reassured the sorrowing Kuntī. Her sons would in time rule the world. The virtuous Yudhiṣṭhira, protected by his powerful brothers, would certainly become king. Soon he would perform the great Rājasūya sacrifice, establishing himself as the emperor of the entire globe.

The sage personally led them to Ekacakra. He brought them to a Brahmin’s house where they were received as guests. Vyāsadeva then took his leave, telling them again that he would return to them before long.

The Pāṇḍavas surveyed their new abode. The little village of Ekacakra was situated amid beautiful woodlands. The Brahmin had kindly given the brothers two rooms in his house for their residence. He had taken a vow that he would always receive any travelers who came to his door. By day they went about the village begging for food and, due to their gentleness and humility, they soon became dear to the people there. Everyone accepted them as wandering ascetics staying briefly in the village and they gladly gave them alms.

Every night the brothers offered their mother whatever alms had been collected. She would then prepare their meal. Half of the food was given to Bhīma, and the rest was divided among the other four brothers and Kuntī.

When the brothers went out begging, a different one of them would remain behind each day to protect Kuntī. One particular day it was Bhīma’s turn to stay back. He was sitting with his mother when they heard loud crying in the house. Hearing the piteous lamentations, Kuntī’s heart was moved and she spoke to Bhīma. “O son, due to this Brahmin’s kindness we are living here peacefully with no fear of Duryodhana and his brothers. I am always thinking how we might repay this gentle Brahmin. A virtuous man should always return the good done to him with an even greater good. Perhaps now our chance has come.”

Kuntī could understand that the Brahmin had fallen into some great distress. Bhīma told her to try to ascertain the cause. He would then try to remove it, no matter how difficult a task it may prove to be.

Kuntī slipped quietly into the inner apartments where the Brahmin lived with his family. She stood unnoticed by the door while the Brahmin and his wife and children sat with downcast faces. As Kuntī watched, the Brahmin said to his wife, “Fie upon this wretched life which affords one only misery. To live is to experience nothing but disease and pain. Pursuing in turn religion, wealth and pleasure, one endeavors much but receives little happiness. While everything leads to salvation, that is an impossible goal to achieve. Those who desire riches suffer, while those who have riches suffer even more. Alas, why do I live?”

Kuntī listened in silence as the Brahmin continued to condemn himself and his misfortune. He spoke of a terrible danger that had befallen them. His wife wept as he censured her, blaming their present predicament upon her wish to remain in the village due to affection for her now dead relatives. The Brahmin held his head in anguish. “How can I abandon you to save my own life? You were given to me by your parents. It is my duty to protect you. You have always served me and borne my children. I can in no way let you go. Nor can I abandon my only son or daughter. I shall go. Or maybe we should all die together.”

The Brahmin fell to the ground sobbing. His wife lifted him gently and said, “This lamentation does not befit a learned man like yourself. No one should lament inevitable death. Nor shall you or our children die. I shall go. Indeed, a woman’s highest duty lies in sacrificing her life to serve her husband. Undoubtedly such an act will confer upon me regions of eternal bliss.”

Kuntī was curious. The Brahmin’s wife continued to implore her husband to allow her to die. She said that neither she nor her children could possibly survive in his absence. If she were left a widow, she would become a prey to dishonorable men, who would seek her just as crows descend upon a piece of meat left on the ground. How then could she protect their two young children and keep them on the path of truth and virtue? She folded her hands and begged her husband for permission to leave. He could then accept another wife, while she would earn undying religious merits by her final service.

The Brahmin sat with his head in his hands and made no reply. Then his daughter began to speak. “O father, why are you sorrowful when you have me? Allow me to go and thus save yourself. It is a child’s duty to save the parent. This is why the wise have called one’s child putra, one who delivers the parents from hell. My duty to my forefathers is to bear a son to offer them the sacred śraddhā, but by the grace of Providence I may now serve my forefathers by saving my father. O Father, you will one day have to abandon me. Therefore do not hesitate to do so now.”

The girl wept along with her parents. The Brahmin’s small son then said in broken speech, “None of you should cry. Send me and I shall kill the cannibal Rākṣasa in a moment.” The boy smiled and brandished a piece of long grass as if it were a weapon.

Although they were grief-stricken, they all laughed at the young boy’s words. Kuntī took the sudden change of mood as an opportunity to inquire about the cause of their distress. Could she do anything to help? The Brahmin replied that their grief could not be removed by any human being. The country where they lived was protected from enemies by a powerful Rākṣasa named Baka. He had long terrorized the people, who found no protection from their weak king. The Rākṣasa used to come whenever he wanted and kill them for his food. Finally the people went to Baka and proposed that if he would stop attacking them at will, then each week one of them would go to him with a large cartload of food. In turn he should protect them from attackers. The cannibal agreed, but he demanded that he also eat the man who delivered his food.

The Brahmin told Kuntī that the turn of each man in their country came only after many years. Tomorrow it was his turn. He did not know what to do. He could not leave his young family alone, nor could he send them to their deaths. Therefore they would all go to meet the demon. Perhaps Baka would show compassion and spare them. Or they would all be devoured at once.

Kuntī said, “I see a means by which you may be delivered from this fear. Although you have but two children, I have five sons. Therefore let one of them go with the Rākṣasa’s tribute.”

The Brahmin was shocked. “I can never cause the death of a guest and a Brahmin to save my own life. Even the most sinful man would not do this. Rather, one should sacrifice himself and his children for the sake of a Brahmin.”

Kuntī was grave. “I am of the same opinion that Brahmins should always be protected, but you need not fear for my son. The Rākṣasa will not be able to kill him. He is powerful and knows the science of mantras.”

Kuntī told the Brahmin that she had already seen her son kill a powerful Rākṣasa. Baka would prove no problem to him. She asked the Brahmin not to disclose to anyone else what she had told him. If others learned of her son’s powers, they would harass him for his knowledge and the power of the mantras would be diminished if they were given to others.

The Brahmin looked carefully at Kuntī’s expression. She was obviously speaking the truth. Her son must surely possess some extraordinary powers. With tears in his eyes he assented to her suggestion.

Kuntī went to Bhīma and told him everything. She asked him to go to Baka. Bhīma agreed at once. His eyes lit up at the thought that he would be able to exercise his strength, while at the same time show their gratitude to the gentle Brahmin and his family.

Just as Kuntī and Bhīma finished speaking, the other Pāṇḍavas returned. Yudhiṣṭhira caught Bhīma’s eye and sensed at once that his younger brother was contemplating something wonderful. He sat by his mother and asked quietly, “What does Bhīma have on his mind? It seems he is about to do some extraordinary deed. Is it something you have ordered, or is it some plan of his own?”

Kuntī told her son what had transpired. When Yudhiṣṭhira learned that Bhīma was about to go out to meet Baka he became alarmed. “O Mother, you have made this Brahmin a rash promise. Surely it is never sanctioned to sacrifice one’s own son for that of another. All my hopes of overpowering Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons and regaining the kingdom are dependent on Bhīma’s power.”

Kuntī smiled slightly and reassured Yudhiṣṭhira. She reminded him of Bhīma’s superhuman prowess--how even as an infant he had crushed a great rock to powder, how he had easily carried all of them through the forest while running at the speed of the wind, how he had slain the immensely strong Hiḍimba. “It was not out of foolishness that I made my offer to the Brahmin. It is always a ruler’s duty to protect the Brahmins. By this act we will achieve two things: we will reward the Brahmin’s kindness toward us, and we will earn much religious merit.” Kuntī told her son that she had been wondering how to repay the Brahmin for some time. This opportunity was obviously the Lord’s arrangement for them.

Yudhiṣṭhira pondered Kuntī’s words. Looking across at the smiling Bhīma, he replied, “You have spoken well. Your decision is well considered. Because of your compassion toward the Brahmin, Bhīma will surely kill the demon Baka, but you must ensure that no one comes to know that it was him.”

Yudhiṣṭhira was not sure if the Kauravas knew that he and his brothers were still alive. Their spies would soon inform them of Baka’s death. They may well suspect that it was Bhīma who had killed him. Few other men were capable of killing such a powerful Rākṣasa.

That night while the village slept Bhīma quietly left the Brahmin’s house. He drove the cart loaded with food toward the forest where Baka dwelt. The aroma of the food was overpowering. After living for so long on meager forest fare and whatever alms the brothers were able to collect, Bhīma was ravenous. He began to eat the food from the cart. On his way into the forest, he shouted Baka’s name.

The Rākṣasa heard Bhīma’s approach and became inflamed with anger. He ran toward the Pāṇḍava, yelling, “I am Baka!”

Bhīma saw him emerge from among the trees. The earth resounded with his footsteps and his shouts were deafening. He had a huge body, red eyes, red beard and red hair. His mouth opened from ear to ear, and his forehead was furrowed into three lines as he looked upon Bhīma eating his food. Baka stopped near the cart and thundered, “Who is this fool who desires to be dispatched at once to death’s abode by eating in my presence the food intended for me?”

Bhīma glanced derisively at the Rākṣasa and smiled. He ignored his challenge and continued eating.

Baka roared in fury. He rushed at Bhīma with his arms upraised. Still the Pāṇḍava continued to eat. Baka brought his two fists down upon Bhīma’s back with the force of a thunderbolt. Without flinching, Bhīma went on eating. He did not even look at the Rākṣasa. Baka roared again and tore up a huge tree. As he whirled it above his head, Bhīma stood up and washed his hands from the pitcher of water on the cart. Then he leapt down from the cart and faced the infuriated demon.

Baka hurled the tree at Bhīma with all his strength. Bhīma smilingly caught it in his left hand and threw it back. The Rākṣasa uprooted one tree after another and hurled them at Bhīma, who caught each of them and sent them back. Soon the whole area was cleared of trees. Screaming out his own name again and again, Baka threw himself upon Bhīma and seized him. Bhīma also gripped the demon with his own powerful arms. The two dragged each other violently, each trying to kick the other’s legs out from underneath him. Then they fell to the ground, still locked in one another’s arms. They rolled about, making the ground tremble. Bhīma tightened his grip. He repeatedly smashed the demon’s head with his own forehead.

Gradually, Baka tired. Bhīma pulled free of his grasp and pounded the demon with his fists. He pressed down on Baka’s chest with his knees and struck him crushing blows which made the earth shake. Baka fell unconscious and Bhīma rolled him onto his stomach. Placing one knee on his back, he seized his neck with one hand and his waist-cloth with the other. With great force Bhīma broke the demon’s back in two. As he died Baka vomited blood and let out a fearful yell which filled the forest.

Hearing him scream, Baka’s friends and relatives came out of their houses. They looked with horror at his mountainous form lying in a pool of blood. Bhīma reassured the terrified Rākṣasas that he was not going to attack them. “This one has been killed due to his excessive fondness for human flesh. Give up killing men. Otherwise this fate awaits you all.”

The Rākṣasas immediately assented saying, “It shall be so.” Then they ran from that place, leaving Bhīma with Baka’s body. From that time on the people of Ekacakra noticed the Rākṣasas became peaceable toward them.

Bhīma lifted Baka’s corpse and placed it on the cart. Unseen by anyone, he deposited it by the town gates and then returned to the Brahmin’s house. His mother and brothers were relieved to see him, and he described to them all that had happened.

Chapter 9: The Gandharva Aṅgaraparna

When the sun rose the people of Ekacakra found Baka’s dead body. They were astonished to see it lying there in a twisted mess, its mouth and eyes wide open. The citizens’ hair stood on end and their mouths fell open in amazement. Thousands of people gathered, all asking who had killed him. Gradually they realized that it had been the Brahmin’s turn to take food to the demon the previous night. A noisy crowd soon gathered outside the Brahmin’s house. While the Pāṇḍavas remained inside, the Brahmin spoke to the people.

“Yesterday as I sat by the roadside weeping at the thought of mine and my family’s plight, a Brahmin came by. When he found out the cause of my distress, he promised to deliver me and the town from this constant danger. Learned in the incantations that invoke celestial weapons, the Brahmin assured me that he would take the food to Baka on my behalf and kill him. He must have been successful at this inconceivable feat, because Baka now lies dead.”

The people looked at one another in wonder. Then they laughed and shouted in joy. They declared a festival to the Rākṣasa’s death.

The Pāṇḍavas continued to live at the Brahmin’s house as Vyāsadeva had instructed them. It had been months since the sage had last spoken with them. They expected his return at any time, and they passed their days in begging alms and studying the Vedic scriptures.

One day a wandering ascetic came to the Brahmin’s house and accepted his invitation to stay for a few days. After he had been duly worshipped and fed by the Brahmin and his family, the ascetic told stories from his travels. The Pāṇḍavas listened along with the Brahmin’s family. They heard about a great svayaṁvara ceremony soon to be held in Kāmpilya for Draupadī, King Drupada’s daughter. This princess, the ascetic said, was not born of a woman but had been born, along with her brother Dṛṣṭadyumna, from the sacrificial fire.

The Pāṇḍavas were intrigued. They asked, “Please tell us how it is possible that Draupadī and her brother could appear from the fire. We desire to hear everything you know.”

The ascetic first told them about Droṇa. The sage Bharadvāja had once seen Gritachi, a divinely beautiful Apsarā, and as a result he had dropped his vital seed. He caught his seed in a pot and from that seed Droṇa was born. As a child Droṇa had been friends with Drupada, who had come to study at Bharadvāja’s hermitage.

Some time after Drupada left the hermitage, Droṇa heard that the invincible Brahmin-warrior Paraśurāma was retiring to the forest and was giving away all his possessions. Droṇa approached him and asked for charity. Paraśurāma replied, “Having once won this wide earth from the ruling class, I am now without wealth. I have already given it to the Brahmins. I possess only my body and my weapons. Which of these would you prefer, O Brahmin?”

Droṇa asked Paraśurāma for his celestial weapons, along with the knowledge to use them. The ṛṣi bestowed his weapons upon Droṇa, who then left to again see his friend Drupada. By then, Drupada had become the king of Pañchāla.

The Pāṇḍavas listened as the ascetic told them what they had already heard from Droṇa himself--how Drupada had insulted his friend most terribly. Not knowing that it was the Pāṇḍavas who were listening, the ascetic told them how Drupada had then been overpowered by the Pāṇḍavas at Droṇa’s command.

After being humiliated by Droṇa and losing half his kingdom, Drupada thought only of revenge. He knew he could never defeat Droṇa in battle, so he had gone to the forest to seek out a powerful Brahmin. He knew that only a Brahmin’s spiritual power could match Droṇa’s strength.

After some time Drupada came across two Brahmin brothers named Yaja and Upayaja, descendents of Kaśyapa, a powerful son of Brahmā. The king worshipped and served the two Brahmins for some time, then asked for their assistance. He approached the younger of the two, Upayaja, first, knowing him to be the more powerful. Drupada asked him to conduct a sacrifice that would give the king a son capable of killing Droṇa. Drupada offered him ten thousand cows as payment, but the Brahmin replied, “I shall not perform any act directed toward material gain, either for myself or for another.”

The disappointed Drupada continued serving Upayaja in the hope that he might relent. Finally after a full year had passed the Brahmin took pity on him and said, “I once saw my elder brother take up and eat a fruit from the ground without considering whether or not it was clean. When we were both boys studying in our guru’s house I often saw him eat the remnants of other people’s food. One who has no regard for purity in one thing will not have such regard in another. Therefore approach him, for he will surely perform your sacrifice.”

The Brahmin’s words proved true and Yaja agreed to Drupada’s proposal. The Brahmin, realizing what difficult a task the king had requested, engaged his younger brother to assist him. Although Upayaja had no personal desire to perform Drupada’s sacrifice, he could not refuse his elder brother’s request. Thus the two Brahmins went to Kāmpilya to perform a fire sacrifice intended to propitiate the gods headed by Lord Viṣṇu. Thus Drupada would be able to get a son capable of killing Droṇa.

As the sacrifice commenced the king again spoke with Yaja. Remembering the day he had been overpowered by Arjuna, he asked the priest if, as well as a son, he might obtain a beautiful daughter whom he could offer to Arjuna as his wife. Drupada thought that if Arjuna became his son-in-law, his happiness would be complete. Yaja replied, “It shall be so,” and Drupada joyfully sat down by the sacrifical fire with his queen.

As the ritual neared completion Yaja called for Drupada’s wife. “Come quickly, O queen. A son and daughter have now come for you.”

The queen replied, “O Brahmin, I am not pure. My mouth is filled with saffron and my body is smeared with perfumes. I am not ready to receive the sacrificial ghee.”

Yaja replied, “Whether or not you are ready the object of this sacrifice, which I have prepared and Upayaja has sanctified, cannot be thwarted.”

Yaja had then poured the oblation into the fire. Immediately there arose from the flames a god-like boy. He was encased in brilliant golden armor and he shone like fire. He wore a bright crown on his head and held a long bow and a sword. That youth was terrible to behold and he rose from the fire roaring. Stepping clear of the flames, he mounted the king’s chariot and immediately rode about, displaying all kinds of skill.

The people of Kāmpilya had shouted with joy upon seeing this boy who would fulfill the king’s desire and kill his enemy. As their cries of happiness resounded a celestial woman appeared from the fire. Her complexion was dark and her smiling eyes were shaped like lotus petals. Her long and curling hair was bluish in color and it fell down her back as she emerged from the flames. She had rising breasts and tapering thighs. At the end of her graceful fingers were nails that shone like bright copper. Her body emanated the sweet fragrance of blue lotuses which could be perceived at a distance of two miles. That divine woman captivated the mind of every man who saw her. She had no equal even among the gods or the Gandharvas.

The ascetic then told his attentive audience how a heavenly voice had spoken from the skies as soon as the boy and girl had appeared. Booming like thunder it had said, “This dark-skinned beauty will be the best of all women and she will be the cause of the destruction of the world’s warriors. The boy shall be called Dṛṣṭadyumna and he shall slay Droṇa.”

Droṇa heard about this prophesy, but, considering destiny to be supreme, he neverthless agreed to train Drupada’s son in martial arts. The noble Droṇa did this to repay Drupada for taking half his kingdom.

The ascetic stopped. Having heard that Dṛṣṭadyumna would kill their beloved teacher, the Pāṇḍavas felt as if their hearts had been pierced. Kuntī saw their perplexity and, after they had retired for the night, said to Yudhiṣṭhira, “We have lived here for many months. I think it would be wise to leave now. You are all restless. I also sense that you desire to go to Pañchāla for Draupadī’s svayaṁvara.”

Kuntī had seen her sons’ eyes open wide when the ascetic had described Draupadī’s celestial beauty. Therefore she suggested that they leave the next day for Pañchāla. All five brothers agreed to her proposal, and the following morning they made their farewells to the Brahmin and his family. Walking in a line with Kuntī in their middle, they then headed toward Pañchāla, traveling again through the forest.

On the first evening of their journey, as they sat around their fire, Vyāsadeva arrived. Upon seeing him, the Pāṇḍavas prostrated themselves at his feet. They then stood with their palms folded as Vyāsadeva offered them blessings. When everyone was seated, Vyāsadeva said, “O conquerors of foes, are you following the path of virtue enjoined in the scriptures? Do you worship the Brahmins? I hope you always honor those worthy of your respect.”

The ṛṣi spoke for some time, giving the attentive princes various instructions. At the end of his discourse, Vyāsadeva told them that they should try to win the hand of the princess of Pañchāla. Her father was setting an archery test in order to find her a qualified husband. Arjuna should enter the contest.

Vyāsadeva then stood up to leave and, after again receiving obeisances from the Pāṇḍavas, vanished into the woods.

Reassured by Vyāsadeva’s directions, the brothers continued their journey the next day with joyous hearts. They walked day and night, eager to arrive at Pañchāla in time for the svayaṁvara. It was just after nightfall several days later when they came upon the gently flowing waters of the Ganges. Arjuna was leading the party with a torch in his hand to light their way. They all bowed respectfully to the sacred river before walking along her banks, searching for a place to cross.

Suddenly, from out of the darkness, they heard a loud voice. “Halt! Who dares approach this river at such a time? The night belongs to Yakṣas, Gandharvas and Rākṣasas. Only during the first portion of night, the twilight time, are other beings allowed to bathe. You appear to be human beings, therefore return the way you have come.”

A shining figure emerged from the waters, rose into the air, and descended onto a golden chariot. Clasping a huge bow he continued to address them in a thunderous voice, “I am the Gandharva Aṅgaraparna, friend of Kuvera, treasurer of the gods. I am bathing here. Not even the gods or demons would dare come to this river when I am bathing. How then have you humans been so bold? Leave quickly or I will kill you. I fear no one.”

Arjuna could not tolerate the Gandharva’s haughty speech. “O wretch, rivers and mountains are never barred to anyone at any time. There is no such thing as a special time when we are not allowed to approach this sacred river, nor do we care for your threats. Only the weak would fear someone like you. Make way, because we are now going to bathe in this river.”

Aṅgaraparna blazed with anger. He drew his bow and shot a hundred arrows at the brothers. Arjuna moved with blinding speed and struck down all those shafts simply with the torch he was holding. He laughed at the Gandharva. “Do not attempt to frighten those who are skilled in warfare. Your weapons simply vanish like froth on the ocean when hurled at more powerful opponents. O sky-ranger, I know you are superior to men in prowess. Therefore I shall use a celestial missile against you. The fire-weapon I will now discharge was first given to Bharadvāja by Bṛhaspati. Bharadvāja then gave it to Agniveśya, who gave it to my preceptor Droṇa. Droṇa gave it to me. Guard yourself from its power if you can.”

Chanting the incantations to invoke the Āgneyāstra, Arjuna imbued his torch with its tremendous power. Angrily he threw it at Aṅgaraparna and his chariot was immediately destroyed, burnt black. The Gandharva fainted from the missile’s force and fell headlong from the smoking chariot. Arjuna seized him by his hair, which was adorned with garlands of flowers, and dragged him before Yudhiṣṭhira.

Suddenly a celestial woman rushed out of the water and approached Yudhiṣṭhira. Folding her palms she said, “O exalted one, I am Kumbhinashi, Aṅgaraparna’s wife. Please bestow your mercy upon me and set him free. I seek your protection.”

The Gandharva came to his senses and sat up before Yudhiṣṭhira, who said to him, “O Gandharva, who would slay one who has been vanquished in battle, who stands deprived of his fame, who is unable to protect himself, and who is being protected by a woman? You may go.”

Aṅgaraparna stood and offered his respects to Yudhiṣṭhira. He spoke with humility. “My pride has been crushed by your younger brother. My celestial chariot lies burnt to ashes. I had been known as Citraratha, ‘one of the beautiful chariot’ but from now on I shall call myself Dagdharatha, ‘he of the burnt chariot’.”

Aṅgaraparna thanked Arjuna for not killing him, even though able. In return for Arjuna’s mercy, Aṅgaraparna offered him the divine knowledge possessed by the Gandharvas along with a team of celestial horses. Smiling, Aṅgaraparna said, “This knowledge, known as Chakshushi, will give you the ability to see anything within the three worlds, along with that thing’s intrinsic nature. It is this knowledge that gives the Gandharvas the powers that make them superior to men.”

Aṅgaraparna waved his hand toward the river bank and the Pāṇḍavas saw there a group of lustrous white steeds. “These are the horses I wish to give you. They will go anywhere at their owner’s will. They are said to be a portion of Indra’s thunderbolt and will always unfailingly fulfill your desire.”

Arjuna said, “O Gandharva, if you desire to give your knowledge and these horses in return for your life, then I shall not accept them. It was my duty to release you on my brother’s order. I cannot accept charity, for that is never the duty of the ruling class.”

Aṅgaraparna smiled again. “This need not be charity. O best of the Bharata race, I desire to learn from you how to throw the fire weapon which you used to overpower me.”

Arjuna agreed to this exchange, but said he first wanted to know why the Gandharva had challenged him and his brothers, although they were all virtuous men, learned in the Vedas and born in a noble line of kings.

The Gandharva replied, “O Arjuna, I have heard from Nārada Ṛṣi of your ancestors’ great accomplishments. I also know your fathers personally because Dharma, Vāyu, Indra, the Aśvinīs and even Pāṇḍu all reside in heaven. Although I knew you are all high-souled, virtuous, powerful and obedient to your vows, I nevertheless censured you. No man, possessed of strength and arms, ought to tolerate a confrontation in front of his wife. I was overpowered by wrath.”

Aṅgaraparna went on to explain why Arjuna had been able to defeat him although he was a celestial. “Because you have been observing a vow of celibacy, O hero, your power became insurmountable. If a warrior engaged in satisfying his desires fights with the Gandharvas at night, he will not escape with his life.”

Aṅgaraparna said that even a warrior who is not celibate could defeat a powerful enemy if he is accompanied by a Brahmin priest. The Gandharva concluded, “Men with learned and self-controlled priests can conquer the earth and acquire every good fortune, finally attaining even heaven itself. Therefore, O descendent of Tapati, you should seek out a qualified priest as your guide.”

Arjuna was listening carefully. He was curious that Aṅgaraparna addressed him as a descendent of Tapati. He asked, “As the sons of Kuntī we are known as the Kaunteyas. Why did you address us as Tapatyas? I have not heard this before.”

It was a long story. Aṅgaraparna invited the brothers to sit comfortably on the river bank while he recited the history of their distant ancestor, Tapati, daughter of the sun-god. Tapati had descended from the heavens and married Saṁvaraṇa, an early king in the Pāṇḍavas’ line. The Gandharva narrated this history, along with many other incidental stories. He spoke for much of the night and the enthralled brothers could see the first faint glow of dawn when he finished his narration. Arjuna then said to him, “O Gandharva, you know everything and can see everything by your divine sight. Please tell us where we can find a Brahmin who knows the Vedas and can become our priest.”

Aṅgaraparna replied that not far from there was a forest ashram called Utkachaka. A Brahmin named Dhaumya, the younger brother of the famous Ṛṣi Devala, resided there. They should approach him and ask that he become their preceptor.

Seeing the Gandharva’s friendship toward them and grateful for his advice, Arjuna gave him the mantra by which he could call the Āgneyāstra. In return Aṅgaraparna again offered him the horses. Arjuna replied, “I will not take anything from you now. I do not desire your knowledge and we cannot take the horses at present. O best of the Gandharvas, your friendship is sufficient. Perhaps if a time comes when we need these steeds, we shall then take them.”

Aṅgaraparna and the Pāṇḍavas saluted one another respectfully and took their leave. The Gandharva and his wife disappeared into the sky, leaving the Pāṇḍavas to continue on their journey.

After Aṅgaraparna left, the Pāṇḍavas went north along the bank of the Ganges, toward where the Gandharva had indicated they would find Dhaumya’s ashram. The sun had risen, and they could now see many ṛṣis bathing in the river, wearing a single piece of cloth and with their matted locks tied in knots on their heads. The brothers could hear the sages reciting sacred hymns from the Vedas--some in praise of the sun-god Sūrya, some worshipping Śiva, the mighty destroyer, and others praying to the supremely powerful Lord Viṣṇu. The Pāṇḍavas took their own baths in the Ganges. Using the sacred clay from the river bank, they daubed their bodies with markings that showed them to be Vaiṣṇavas, devotees of Viṣṇu. Kuntī entered the water fully clothed and then changed her dress in a secluded place. She thought constantly of Kṛṣṇa, praying that He would help them through their difficulties.

The sages told the brothers where to find Dhaumya’s hermitage. They then approached Dhaumya and fell at his feet. Yudhiṣṭhira said, “O greatly learned one, we are Pāṇḍu’s sons, traveling with our mother Kuntī. On the Gandharvas’ advice we seek your shelter. Please become our guide and protector. We are your servants.”

The effulgent Dhaumya smiled and bade them be seated. His disciples brought them offerings of wild fruits and water. As he looked upon the five young princes and the gentle Kuntī, the ṛṣi felt affection rise in his heart. He could see that they worshipped Viṣṇu, his own deity, and this too attracted him. Therefore he consented to become their priest. The Pāṇḍavas were overjoyed and felt as if their wealth and kingdom had already been regained and Draupadī won. Dhaumya then formally accepted them as disciples by initiating them with Vedic mantras.

The many sages in Dhaumya’s ashram offered the princes their blessings. Seeing such godlike boys, the ṛṣis felt that the brothers, by their own accomplishments, would soon become rulers of the earth. Accompanied by Dhaumya, the Pāṇḍavas continued on their journey to Pañchāla.

Chapter 10: Draupadī’s Svayaṁvara

After a few days journey the forest paths brought the Pāṇḍavas and Dhaumya onto the road leading to Pañchāla. As they made their way along that broad stone highway, they met a group of Brahmins. The Brahmins asked, “Who are you and where are you going?” Yudhiṣṭhira replied that they were five brahmacārīs, celibate students, who had come from Ekacakra along with their teacher. The Brahmins then exhorted the brothers to attend Draupadī’s svayaṁvara. “Accompany us. We are going straight there. The magnanimous King Drupada will be distributing vast wealth to the Brahmins on his divine daughter’s behalf.”

Again the Pāṇḍavas heard of the extraordinary birth and beauty of Draupadī, as well as details of her impending svayaṁvara. All of Kāmpilya would be celebrating. There would be actors, singers, dancers and expert reciters of the ancient Vedic histories. Powerful wrestlers would compete, and athletes would give wonderful displays. Food and drink of the best quality would be served in abundance. And at the end of the celebration Draupadī would then select a husband from among the kings and princes, who had been assembling from all parts of the world. The Brahmins told the Pāṇḍavas that they had heard that Drupada had set a most difficult task for the man who would win his daughter’s hand. The kings who were coming to compete would also be distributing much charity to the Brahmins in hopes of invoking auspiciousness for themselves and obtaining victory at the svayaṁvara.

The Brahmins laughed as they spoke. They pointed to the simple cloth the Pāṇḍavas were wearing. “It seems you boys could use some new cloth. Follow us. Having received all that you require, you may return with us or go wherever you will.” Inviting the five brothers to travel with them, the Brahmins continued, “Who knows? The princess may even select one of you boys, all as handsome as the celestials.” They pointed to Bhīma. “This godlike youth has a body like a thunderbolt. Surely he will win much wealth if he enters the wrestling competitions.”

Yudhiṣṭhira smiled. “We shall all accompany you to Kāmpilya. Pray lead the way!”

The party proceeded. They traveled by day and at night stopped in roadside woods or on lakeshores. With their gentle speech and amiable behavior the Pāṇḍavas endeared themselves to whomever they met, but no one recognized them. As they reached the outskirts of the city they came to a small village. Walking from house to house to find accommodations, they were soon admitted by a potter and his family. The brothers settled there and lived by begging, just as they had done in Ekacakra. They learned from the villagers that the svayaṁvara was to take place in a few days. The king had set a stiff test for winning Draupadī. A small target had been placed on top of a tall pole. Beneath it was a rotating plate with one small hole in it. An arrow had to be shot through that hole at the moment it was aligned with the target. The king had also determined that a particular bow should be used, one which an ordinary man could barely lift. Only an extraordinary warrior would be able to pass the test and win the divine Draupadī’s hand.

Arjuna was enlivened. He prayed to Kṛṣṇa that he might have the chance to try for the princess. From Vyāsadeva’s words it seemed that she was destined to be the wife of one of them, and by such a union the brothers would gain the friendship and alliance of the powerful Drupada. That would probably prove useful in the future. Arjuna eagerly awaited the svayaṁvara.

Drupada had made lavish preparations for the ceremony. A huge stadium had been constructed. In its massive sandstone walls were one hundred gates, each one inlaid with gold and precious gems. Each gate was wide enough to admit crowds passing through. Within the stadium were gently sloping terraces made of coral and lapis lazuli. At the front of these terraces were hundreds of jewel-encrusted thrones arranged for the many monarchs in attendance. All around the stadium the king had built white mansions for their residence. The buildings were many-storied and looked like the cloud-kissing peaks of Mount Kailāsa. The windows of those mansions were covered with gold lattices and the walls studded with diamonds and emeralds. Costly rugs were spread on their marble floors.

When the day of the svayaṁvara arrived, the kings were invited into the stadium. They came through the northern gate and took their seats on the golden thrones. As the monarchs entered, thousands of trumpets blared and kettledrums resounded throughout the stadium. Many ṛṣis, all of them shining like the sun, entered through the eastern gate. The terraces, adorned with countless wreaths and garlands, were filled with Pañchāla’s citizens. As they flooded into the stadium the colorfully dressed people made a sound like the roar of the ocean. The scent of black aloe and frankincense wafted throughout the stadium as everyone settled into their places.

The Pāṇḍavas entered with the Brahmins and took their place in their midst, unnoticed by anyone. They looked around the arena. At the head of all the assembled kings sat Duryodhana and his brothers, resembling a blazing planet surrounded by a hundred bright stars. Bhīma felt his anger rising but Yudhiṣṭhira checked him with a glance. They could not risk being discovered--yet.

The ceremony had begun. Actors and dancers were entertaining the crowd. Brahmins were performing fire sacrifices. Drupada was distributing charity. All of this continued for fifteen days and, with each day, the attendance swelled. The Pāṇḍavas were astonished to see Drupada’s affluence. The Pañchāla king was distributing heaps of gold and gems to the Brahmins. Although dressed as Brahmins, the Pāṇḍavas did not go forward to collect charity, but remained in their places, awaiting the day when Draupadī would appear.

On the sixteenth day the princess, dressed in robes of shining yellow silk and adorned with brilliant ornaments, entered the arena. In her hands she held a golden dish containing the nuptial garland, which she would place around the neck of the man who successfully passed the test her father had set. Gentle music from the flute, tabor and vīṇā played as Draupadī walked toward her seat next to her father. Seeing her beauty, the kings and princes suddenly stood up and brandished their weapons. They boasted to one another in loud voices: “I shall win this princess!” “None can equal my strength and prowess!” “Draupadī will be mine!”

That host of princes seemed like an agitated ocean as they rose and boasted of their power. Afflicted by the god of love and staring at one another in jealousy, they slapped their arms and held aloft their bows and swords, looking like so many Himālayan elephants maddened by desire while in rut.

The celestial chariots of the gods--led by the guardians of the four quarters of the universe, Yamarāja, Indra, Kuvera and Vāyu--settled above the arena. Siddhas, Cāraṇas, Nāgas, Rudras, Daityas, Dānavas and Guhakas assembled in the canopy of the sky, curious to witness Drupada’s sacrifice and the selection of Draupadī’s husband. The great ṛṣis, headed by Nārada, Aṅgirā and Parvatya, stood in the sky among the gods, appearing like suns.

When the five Pāṇḍava brothers saw Draupadī’s dark and lovely face, they felt their hearts pierced as if by darts. They stood up from their seats and gazed at her exquisite form as she moved gracefully to her father’s side. On the opposite side of the arena were the Yādavas from Mathurā. Sitting in their midst, Kṛṣṇa noticed the Pāṇḍavas stand. He looked closely at the five brothers and, turning to Balarāma, said, “In My opinion, those five men over there are the Pāṇḍavas.” Kṛṣṇa indicated the brothers with a slight nod of His head. “I heard a rumor that My cousins survived the fire in Vāraṇāvata. This now seems true. What is Your opinion, Rāma?”

Balarāma carefully observed each of the five brothers. There was no doubt. They were Kuntī’s sons. He turned and smiled at Kṛṣṇa, who returned His smile, but They remained silent about Their discovery.

By now, all the princes were gazing only at Draupadī and her father. None of them noticed the Pāṇḍavas in their midst. Drupada waved to them and, biting their lips in anger and envy toward one another, they sat down. As celestial flowers fell from the sky, the sound of countless conches and kettledrums filled the stadium. Draupadī’s brother Dṛṣṭadyumna stood up like a golden flagstaff raised in honor of Indra. The stadium fell silent as he announced the names of all the kings and princes present. He first named the princes from Hastināpura, then those from Mathurā, then all those attending from hundreds of other countries and provinces.

Dṛṣṭadyumna held his sister’s arm and said in a voice that rumbled like thunder, “This princess will be won today by he who can hit the mark.” The prince pointed to the huge bow lying on a golden table. “There is the bow and the arrows you must use. Truly do I say that whoever shoots an arrow through the device and into the target will win Draupadī’s hand. Only one of noble birth and great prowess will be capable of this feat.”

Dṛṣṭadyumna sat down near his father. Drupada instructed his priest to kindle the sacrificial fire for the svayaṁvara ceremony. The sounds of thousands of Brahmins reciting Vedic prayers filled the arena. The king looked around at the assembled princes. He was not impressed. None of these proud monarchs looked like a suitable match for his daughter. The king thought of Arjuna. If only that prince were still alive. He had heard a rumor that the Pāṇḍavas had escaped the fire, but where were they now? This test could only be passed by someone of Arjuna’s ability. Drupada had deliberately devised a test that only Arjuna could pass in hopes that the Pāṇḍava might appear. Yaja had promised him he would obtain a daughter from his sacrifice who would become Arjuna’s wife. How could the ṛṣi’s words prove false? Drupada looked on anxiously as each king and prince was called to try the test.

With their crowns and golden earrings glinting in the warm sunshine, the kings and princes strode up one by one to the bow. It was only with considerable effort that they were able to even lift the massive weapon from the table. Having somehow managed that, and finally getting it upright, they then had to bend and string it. These kings could not manage the task even in their imaginations. The bow would bend slightly, then spring back with great force. The princes were thrown to the ground, their bodies bruised and their crowns and garlands scattered. As they each took their turn and were, in turn, humiliated, they returned to their fine golden thrones, straightening their shining ornaments as they walked. Panting for breath, their romantic ardor dispelled, the princes sat silently shaking their heads.

Karṇa’s turn came. Seeing him march toward the bow like a golden mountain entering the arena, the Pāṇḍavas considered that the target had been struck and the princess won. As he approached the bow, however, Draupadī stood up and said in a loud voice, “I shall not accept a charioteer’s son as my husband.”

Knowing that Karṇa was the son of Adhiratha, leader of the sutas who generally acted as chariot drivers, Draupadī exercised her prerogative and denied him the opportunity to attempt the test.

Karṇa blushed deeply and laughed in vexation. Glancing at the sun, he turned and strode back to his seat. He ground his teeth and wrung his hands in anger, but said nothing.

The powerful king of the Cediś, Śiśupāla, was next. With great effort he bent the bow into a semi-circle, then lost his grip as he tried to string it. He was thrown onto his back and lay there exhausted for several moments before returning to his seat, defeated. Then Jarāsandha, lord of the Magadha country and scourge even of the gods, took his turn. He bent the bow and held it in one hand while trying to string it with the other. Again the bow resisted and he was thrown to his knees.

Sneering at the other monarchs’ weakness, Duryodhana strode up. A silence fell upon the assembly as the king of Hastināpura bowed to Drupada. The king nodded slightly and Duryodhana lifted the bow. He strung it deftly and placed on its string one of the golden-shafted arrows. Taking careful aim he loosed the arrow. It sped upwards and passed cleanly through the rotating hole but missed the target by a hair’s breadth. The prince angrily threw down the bow and returned to his seat.

Knowing that it was Draupadī’s destiny to marry Arjuna, none of the Yādava kings, including Kṛṣṇa and Rāma, attempted the test. They simply watched and laughed as the bow hurled each of the princes to the ground. They breathed a sigh of relief when Duryodhana’s arrow whistled past the target. That wicked man did not deserve a prize like Draupadī. But where was Arjuna? Only Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma felt no apprehension. They looked across at the Brahmins’ compound.

Now all the kings had tried and failed. Draupadī was still holding the bright red garland on its golden dish. Dṛṣṭadyumna called for any last contestants. Arjuna looked at Dhaumya who smiled and nodded. The prince stood up and walked into the center of the arena. The assembled Brahmins roared in joy and waved their deerskins. Maybe a simple Brahmin would succeed where even the proud, mighty kings of the earth could not. And if any Brahmin could succeed, it would be this one. Arjuna looked like a dark cloud as he advanced toward the bow. He moved like a lion.

Not all the Brahmins agreed. Some of the elder Brahmins were doubtful. Fearing that Arjuna would humiliate the Brahmin class by this rash act, they spoke out loudly. “How can one untrained in arms and lacking strength succeed where even the lords of this world have failed? Stop that youth! It is merely out of childish impetuosity or vanity that he is attempting this impossible task. We shall all be made to look ridiculous.”

Other Brahmins demurred. “Just look more closely at this boy. His arms and thighs resemble the trunks of mighty elephants. His shoulders are broad and he appears as powerful as a maddened lion. He may well succeed. Surely he would not have gone forward if he lacked energy and power.”

Some of them described the power of Brahmins. Whether possessed of physical strength or not, Brahmins were always powerful by virtue of their spiritual strength. No Brahmin should ever be disregarded. Once all the earth’s warriors had been annihilated by Paraśurāma, who was a Brahmin. The great Ṛṣi Agastya had drunk the entire ocean. There was nothing a Brahmin could not achieve. This youth should not be checked. “Yes! Let him go forward. He will easily string the bow and strike down the target.”

The elders replied, “So be it,” and again took their seats.

Arjuna reached the center of the arena and, after bowing to the king, spoke in a voice that echoed around the stadium. “Is it permissible for a Brahmin to attempt this test?”

Drupada looked curiously at the Brahmin, then gave his assent. “It is never disgraceful for rulers to be subordinated by the power of Brahmins,” the king replied. “Indeed, they are protected by that power even as Viṣṇu protects the gods.”

Arjuna turned to the bow and, folding his palms, bowed low before it. Within his mind he prayed to Kṛṣṇa. Having walked respectfully around the bow three times, he took it up in his right hand. In moments he had strung it and placed a golden arrow on the string. A complete hush fell over the stadium as Arjuna stood absolutely still with the bow drawn to a full circle. He knelt and aimed upwards at the target. Suddenly he released the arrow and it shot up with blinding speed. Passing cleanly through the hole it struck the target in its center. As the target clattered to the ground with the arrow sticking from it, the stadium erupted. The people rose to their feat and cheered, while musicians played innumerable instruments. Drums, trumpets and conches resounded and bards immediately composed poems glorifying Arjuna’s achievement. The gods praised Arjuna and sent down showers of celestial flowers. The Brahmins rose in a body, waving their garments and water pots and leaping about in joy. But the kings and princes were seized with shame and they uttered exclamations of grief and despair. Drupada, his eyes expanded in happiness, gazed in wonder as the mysterious Brahmin walked toward the royal dais. Who was he? Could it actually be Arjuna? The king noticed the other monarchs becoming agitated. There was clearly going to be a fight. Drupada turned to his chief minister and commanded that his army stand ready. He then told Draupadī to accept the Brahmin as her husband.

The princess looked at Arjuna as he approached the dais. She was immediately attracted by this god-like youth with the gentle demeanor. Maybe he was Arjuna, as Yaja had promised. Even if he were not, there was certainly no shame in marrying him. He was a Brahmin and Brahmins were always considered superior to the ruling class, or kṣatriyas. And, although he appeared to be a Brahmin, he was especially powerful and obviously self-controlled. This union was surely sanctified by the presence of Kṛṣṇa, the all-powerful Lord of the creation. Draupadī approached Kuntī’s son and joyfully placed the garland around his neck.

Seeing Draupadī actually accept the Brahmin further infuriated the kings. Yudhiṣṭhira decided it was time to leave. He rose up with his brothers and walked toward the stadium gates. Arjuna followed behind with Draupadī. The Brahmins cheered and praised him as he walked past.

From amid the enraged kings, Duryodhana called out, “How does this Drupada dare offend us in this way? He has passed over all the lords of the earth to bestow his daughter upon a poor and unqualified Brahmin. Brahmins should never be allowed to compete in a svayaṁvara, which is meant only for the royal order. It seems Drupada invited us here only to insult us.”

The kings roared in agreement. Some of them waved their weapons. Śiśupāla then said, “The Pañchāla king is so proud that he thinks none of us his equal. He deserves to be punished at once. Let us act so that other svayaṁvaras do not end in a similar way.”

The kings stood up with their weapons at the ready. They glared at Drupada and moved in a body toward him. Seeing the overwhelming odds, Drupada backed away in fear.

Yudhiṣṭhira was observing the scene from the gate. Realizing that Drupada, now his father-in-law, was in danger, he ordered Bhīma and Arjuna to assist him. The brothers quickly ran up to the dais and placed themselves between Drupada and the other kings. Arjuna still held the sacrificial bow. Bhīma tore up a tree from the side of the arena and brandished it menacingly. The two princes looked like Indra and Yamarāja standing against the massed force of Daityas and Dānavas. The hundreds of kings stood back warily as they looked at the two heroes facing them.

Kṛṣṇa remained unmoved. Watching the two Pāṇḍavas preparing to fight, He turned to Balarāma and said quietly, “Any doubts there may have been about the identity of these princes should now be gone. None but Bhīma could have torn up that sal tree and who but Arjuna could have struck down the target? O Saṅkarṣaṇa, these are surely the Pāṇḍavas.”

Balarāma looked at Bhīma and Arjuna as they prepared to ward off the maddened kings. “This is certainly true,” He smiled. “It is fortunate indeed that Our aunt and her young sons have escaped from the fire in Vāraṇāvata.”

Many Brahmins ran forward to support the two Pāṇḍavas. They waved their water pots and deerskins, crying out, “Fear not! We shall fight these arrogant monarchs.”

Arjuna smiled and gently restrained them. “Stand aside and watch,” he said. “With my sharp arrows I shall stop them just as so many snakes are checked by the power of mantras.”

Karṇa advanced to the head of the kings. He shouted, “Although the royal order should not attack Brahmins, it is permissible if those Brahmins stand ready for battle.”

Karṇa stopped at a distance from Arjuna and shot arrows at him. Arjuna, who was supplied with a large number of shafts by Drupada’s soldiers, immediately countered all of Karṇa’s arrows with his own. King Śalya of Madras fought with Bhīma and they appeared like two huge elephants colliding together. Duryodhana and the other kings contended lightly with the other Brahmins who still challenged them. They easily held off the ascetic sages, but did not injure them.

Arjuna sent a number of swift arrows at Karṇa. They pierced his limbs and stunned him with their force. Karṇa looked upon his opponent with surprise. He had not expected such dexterity and martial power. Guarding himself more carefully, he replied with hundreds of straight-flying shafts, but Arjuna again knocked down all his arrows before they reached him. Seeing his expertise, the other kings cheered him on. This infuriated Karṇa. He released thousands of arrows. They filled the air like a flock of golden birds. Still Arjuna countered them, invoking celestial weapons and creating a mass of arrows that sped toward Karṇa.

The two combatants fought with astonishing skill. As they battled they called out to one another in the language of heroes: “Behold the strength of my arms!” “Guard yourself, if you can.” “See how I counter your moves!” “Stand ready, for I shall release even more deadly weapons!”

The other kings stood by and watched open-mouthed, praising both warriors as they displayed their skills.

Karṇa soon realized he was not to gain the upper hand in the fight, so he stopped his attack and addressed Arjuna in a loud voice. “O best of Brahmins, I am pleased with your prowess. Are you the science of arms personified? Perhaps you are Paraśurāma or Indra, or maybe even the infallible Lord Viṣṇu. When I am angered there are none who can fight with me but these personalities--or the son of Kuntī, Arjuna.”

Arjuna smiled. “I am neither Indra nor Paraśurāma. Nor am I any god or divine being. Know me to be a simple Brahmin who has become proficient in arms by his guru’s grace. Having mastered both earthly and celestial weapons, I stand here ready to vanquish you in battle.”

Karṇa lowered his weapons and became pensive. This was no ordinary Brahmin. It would be better to desist from the fight. A Brahmin’s spiritual power was always greater than a kṣatriya’s martial power. The great king Viśvāmitra, even though well-versed in every divine weapon, could not overpower Vasiṣṭa Ṛṣi, and the Brahmin Paraśurāma single-handedly defeated all the kings of the earth. Karṇa bowed to the mysterious Brahmin and turned away from the battle.

Elsewhere, Bhīma and Śalya were still engaged in a fierce hand-to-hand combat. Locked together, they stamped and rolled about the arena like a pair of maddened elephants fighting for supremacy. Their roars and the sound of their blows filled the stadium. Sometimes pushing, sometimes dragging and sometimes throwing the other down, they fought with unflagging energy. They struck each other with the force of thunderbolts, laughing loudly as they fought. Suddenly Bhīma lifted Śalya high above his head and whirled him around. He threw the king to a distance and left him lying stunned. Remembering him to be the brother of Mādrī, Bhīma did not continue his attack upon Śalya.

The kings were amazed to see both Karṇa and Śalya matched by the two Brahmins. They looked in awe upon Bhīma and Arjuna, who stood together ready for further assaults. “Surely these two are not Brahmins. Who could fight with Karṇa except Droṇa or Arjuna? Who could throw down Śalya other than the mighty Balarāma or Bhīma? None could face Duryodhana except the unconquerable Kṛṣṇa. Let us establish their lineage before we continue.”

The other kings agreed. It was not wise to fight with Brahmins, even if they were offensive; but if these two proved to belong to another class, then the fight could continue with full force.

Seeing the kings hesitating, Kṛṣṇa came forward and spoke to them. “O monarchs, the maiden has been fairly and wonderfully won by the Brahmin. There is no need for further fighting. Let us not blight this sacred occasion by unnecessary bloodshed, especially by assaulting the Brahmins.”

With gentle words and arguments Kṛṣṇa succeeded in dissuading the kings from further aggression. Gradually they put away their weapons and left the arena. As they went out they talked together in amazement, wondering who the two mighty-armed Brahmins might be.

Chapter 11: The Pāṇḍavas Wed Draupadī

Bhīma and Arjuna, both bruised and bloody from the battle with the kings, turned and walked toward the stadium’s southern gate. They were surrounded by Brahmins, who praised them with great joy. With difficulty the two brothers pushed their way through the crowd and out of the arena, appearing like the sun and the moon emerging from behind clouds. Some way from the stadium by the roadside the other Pāṇḍavas and Draupadī were waiting for them. Seeing them returning safely from the fight, they embraced the two heroes and together proceeded to the potter’s house.

At the house Kuntī, who had not accompanied her sons to the svayaṁvara for fear of discovery, was feeling great anxiety. It was past sunset and her sons had still not returned. What could have delayed them? Perhaps the Kauravas had recognized them and had them killed, or maybe the Rākṣasas had come together to avenge the killing of Hiḍimba and Baka. Kuntī remembered Vyāsadeva’s assurances. Could the great sage have been wrong?

As Kuntī sat in the still evening air lost in thoughts of affection for her children, Arjuna suddenly entered the hut and called out, “O Mother, we have returned bringing excellent alms. Just see the wonderful jewel we have obtained today!”

Filled with relief and happiness to hear her son’s voice, Kuntī called back, “Share among yourselves whatever you have acquired.” She looked up and saw Arjuna enter her room accompanied by Draupadī, who immediately bowed low at her feet. The princess had discovered the identity of the brothers and was joyful to know she had been won by Arjuna. She greeted the venerable Kuru queen with appropriate words of respect.

When Kuntī saw the white-robed princess bowing before her, she gasped in horror. “What have I done! How can you all share this woman?” Kuntī caught the still smiling Draupadī by the hand and went out to see Yudhiṣṭhira. “My words have never been false. Indeed, I cannot utter untruth. When Arjuna said he had brought alms I had no idea he meant this princess and I thus said, ‘Share it among yourselves.’ It must therefore be so. What then should be done?”

Kuntī felt her religious principles threatened. She valued truth above all else. Even in jest she never lied. Fearful that her virtue had suffered a diminution, she looked anxiously at Yudhiṣṭhira. “Tell me, dear son, how my words may prove true and at the same time this princess may not be touched by sin.” It was virtually unheard of for a woman to marry more than one man. Marrying five men was unthinkable.

Yudhiṣṭhira looked thoughtful. He consoled his mother and assured her that neither she nor Draupadī would be touched by sin. He turned to Arjuna and said, “Dear Phālgunī, you have won this maiden. It is therefore proper that you marry her with due ritual. Kindle the sacred fire and accept her hand with the blessings of the Brahmins.”

Arjuna was surprised. “O King, do not hurl me onto the path of the wicked. Your command is not consistent with virtue, in my view. How could I accept this princess in your presence while you remain unmarried? Surely you should accept her hand. Then, if you so command, Bhīma may marry her and only then myself and the twins.”

Hearing Arjuna’s respectful words, the other Pāṇḍavas glanced at Draupadī. They had all expected that she would become Arjuna’s wife, but as they looked at her, the Pañchāla princess returned their glances. All the brothers felt their hearts invaded by love. They had never seen such a maiden. It was as if she had been personally fashioned by the Creator himself. She was as resplendent as the Goddess Lakṣmī, Viṣṇu’s eternal consort.

Yudhiṣṭhira could understand his brothers’ minds. He recalled Vyāsadeva’s words. Even though he had advised Arjuna to try to win Draupadī’s hand, the sage had seemed to intimate that Draupadī should become the wife of all of them. Although rare, such an act need not be unrighteous if sanctioned by an authority like Vyāsadeva, especially if it was performed in order to preserve some other, higher religious purpose. If Draupadī became the wife of only one of them, it would most certainly create rivalry and dissension among them. And Kuntī’s words would also become false. This seemed to be a divine arrangement. Making up his mind, Yudhiṣṭhira said, “We shall all marry the blessed Draupadī.”

Upon hearing Yudhiṣṭhira’s words, all the brothers became joyful. Yudhiṣṭhira was equal to their father Pāṇḍu. His authority was final, his word to them non-different from an order given by the Supreme Lord Himself. Draupadī must surely become their wife. They all now glanced openly at her, and she looked down shyly. As they pondered the import of Yudhiṣṭhira’s command, the potter came to inform them that they had visitors: Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma were at the door.

The two Yādava heroes entered the room and saw Yudhiṣṭhira seated on the floor surrounded by his brothers. With his powerful shoulders and well-developed arms, the handsome prince resembled Indra sitting amid the principal gods. Kṛṣṇa folded His palms and said, “I am Kṛṣṇa and this is Baladeva, My elder brother.” The Pāṇḍavas were delighted to see their cousins. They stood up at once and Kṛṣṇa touched Yudhiṣṭhira’s feet in respect. He embraced Bhīma and Arjuna and received the twins’ respect. Both Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma also touched Kuntī’s feet as she shed tears of happiness upon seeing Them.

After they had all exchanged appropriate greetings according to their status, the Pāṇḍavas gazed at Kṛṣṇa. They marveled at how, although He was the Supreme Lord of the entire creation, He had accepted the role of a human being and was now their relative and friend. Kṛṣṇa enquired after their welfare. Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “We are all well, O Kṛṣṇa, but tell me, how did You manage to trace us?”

Kṛṣṇa smiled, “Fire is always visible even when covered. Who but the Pāṇḍavas could have performed such feats at the svayaṁvara? O conquerors of foes, by sheer good fortune you have escaped from the fire. By the same good fortune have Duryodhana’s sinful plans come to nothing. Be blessed. May you grow in prosperity as a fire in a cave gradually grows and spreads itself around.”

Kṛṣṇa then said He had best leave before He drew attention to the brothers and gave away their disguise. He and Balarāma stood and left quietly. The Pāṇḍavas sat for some time thinking about Kṛṣṇa. They were heartened by His show of support and encouragement. They felt sure they would soon be restored to their proper position in Hastināpura.

Unknown to the brothers, Dṛṣṭadyumna had also followed them back and was now lying concealed near the hut. He watched in surprise as Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma came and went. Who were these Brahmins that the two all-powerful Yādava heroes felt the need to visit? They must not be ordinary ascetics. Dṛṣṭadyumna cautiously moved closer and peered through the window. Kuntī was in the middle of instructing Draupadī how to prepare the Pāṇḍavas’ meal. She told the princess that after having offered the food to the Lord and giving a portion to the Brahmins, she should divide what was left into two parts. She should then give one-half to Bhīma and divide the rest between the other four brothers and themselves.

Dṛṣṭadyumna watched as his sister cheerfully did as she was instructed, giving half of the food to the huge-bodied youth who had thrown Śalya down in the arena, and distributing the remainder to the others. After they had all eaten they lay down to sleep on beds of deerskins spread over soft grass, their heads pointing toward the south. Kuntī lay across the line of their heads and Draupadī lay at their feet. Dṛṣṭadyumna saw her smiling in great happiness as she accepted her new, apparently humble, position. As they lay there the brothers began to speak together. From his position at the window the prince heard them talking about celestial weapons, chariots, elephants, bows, arrows and swords. They discussed the battle with the kings in the stadium, laughing as they described how Bhīma and Arjuna had routed the bellicose monarchs.

The prince had seen and heard enough. It was obvious that these men were powerful warriors. Surely they were royalty in disguise. Dṛṣṭadyumna quietly left and went back to his capital to inform his father of everything he had witnessed.

Back in Pañchāla, King Drupada was anxious. His beloved daughter was gone but he did not know who had taken her. He pondered on the day’s events. Who was that man who had hit the target? Was he really a Brahmin? Maybe it had been simply by luck that he had succeeded in the test. Perhaps he was a vaiśyā or even a śūdra, casting Drupada’s noble line into disrepute. Or maybe he was a great hero of the royal order. Then why would he have disguised himself as a Brahmin? Perhaps he was actually Arjuna, somehow survived from the terrible fire at Vāraṇāvata. Surely that was too much to hope.

As the king sat absorbed in thought, his son entered his chamber. After bowing at his father’s feet the prince described everything he had seen. Dṛṣṭadyumna was convinced it was the Pāṇḍavas who had won Draupadī, and he happily explained how he had followed them to a hut on the city’s outskirts, how Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma had visited, and how he had heard them speak the language of warriors.

“The two Brahmins who fought in the hall left and joined three others. They appear to be brothers. In their midst was a lady who shone like fire. I believe she is their mother. They spoke together in voices as deep as black thunderclouds. There is no doubt that these men are neither śūdras nor vaiśyās. They are certainly of the royal order. In my opinion they are the Pāṇḍavas, who are living in disguise since escaping Vāraṇāvata.”

Drupada was extremely pleased by his son’s words. As soon as dawn broke, he called for his priest and asked him to go to the potter’s hut to ascertain the Brahmins’ identities. The priest left at once and, arriving at the hut, applauded the Pāṇḍavas for their prowess. Then he said, “O worshipable ones, the great King Drupada desires to know your names. Please tell me your family name and race. Are you by any chance the Pāṇḍavas? It was ever the king’s wish that his daughter be united with Arjuna. If this has transpired, then nothing could be more conducive to our fame and virtue.”

Yudhiṣṭhira turned to his brothers and said, “Bring water and wash this Brahmin’s feet. He is worthy of our worship. Because he is Drupada’s royal priest, we should especially respect him.”

Bhīma immediately did as his elder brother had directed. He had the priest sit comfortably, then offered him arghya. Yudhiṣṭhira then said, “O Brahmin, the king fixed a certain price for gaining his daughter. She was not given freely. Therefore he has nothing to say about the lineage of the man who has passed his test. All his questions about our family and race have been answered by the stringing of the bow and the striking down of the target.”

Yudhiṣṭhira smiled. He assured him that Drupada need have no regrets. His long-cherished desire would soon be fulfilled. Draupadī was clearly endowed with the auspicious marks of one who would be married to kings. The Pāṇḍava continued, “What man of low birth or one unaccomplished in arms could have shot down the mark? It was done fairly and there is no one who can now undo that act. The king should not grieve.”

As Yudhiṣṭhira spoke, another messenger arrived to tell them that a great feast had been prepared in the city. He asked the Pāṇḍavas to please come with him to the king’s palace where the wedding ceremony could be properly performed.

Yudhiṣṭhira assented and the messenger showed the brothers to a couple of golden chariots which Drupada had sent. After placing Kuntī and Draupadī on one of them, they mounted the other and all of them left for Kāmpilya. The white steeds drawing the chariots soon brought them to Drupada’s palace. As the Pāṇḍavas dismounted they were greeted by the king’s ministers, who led them to the hall where the feast was waiting. Headed by Yudhiṣṭhira, the brothers entered the vast chamber which was spread with costly rugs. Many long tables lined the walls, which were studded with countless gems. On one table the king had placed various items associated with Brahminical life--sacrificial paraphernalia, holy books and garlands. On another were items used by the vaiśyā class--farming implements, ropes, seeds and the like. On yet another were weapons, armor, shields, rockets and other instruments of war, and expensive cloths, gold ornaments and other fine things of different types.

Everyone gazed at the brothers as they strode into the hall. Seeing those powerful men clad in black deerskins--each with the gait of a sportive lion, broad shoulders, long and well-muscled arms resembling serpents, eyes like furious bulls--the king and his relatives, ministers and attendants were gladdened. Without hesitation the heroes, in order of age, fearlessly sat upon seats of gold furnished with silk and provided with footstools. At once well-dressed servants and maids fetched many kinds of delicious foods on gold and silver plates. The brothers dined with pleasure on the rich preparations brought before them--food worthy of kings.

When the meal was over they rose and went to the table containing the weapons and royal items. They carefully examined all the pieces, discussing them among themselves. To Drupada and his sons and counselors it was obvious that the brothers belonged to the royal order.

Drupada approached Yudhiṣṭhira and said, “Sir, are we to know you as Brahmins or kṣatriyas of the royal order? Are you vaiśyās? Or even śūdras? Perhaps you are celestials who have assumed the disguise of Brahmins and are roaming the earth. Please truly tell us. Truth becomes monarchs even more than sacrifice or charity. Once we have ascertained the order to which you belong, we can arrange an appropriate wedding ceremony.”

Yudhiṣṭhira looked at the king and smiled. He spoke in a voice as deep as the rumbling of clouds. “O King, you may dispel your doubts and be cheerful. There is no doubt that your desire has been fulfilled. We five are royalty, the sons of the illustrious Pāṇḍu. I am Yudhiṣṭhira. Your daughter was won by Arjuna who, along with Bhīma, fought with the other kings. She is like a lotus that has been transplanted from one clear lake to another. With Draupadī in the ladies’ chamber is Kuntī, our mother.”

Yudhiṣṭhira folded his palms and said that he had told the king everything that needed to be told. Surrounded by his brothers, he added, “O King, you are our revered elder and superior. We now take shelter of you. Tell us, what should be done?”

Drupada was filled with delight. Tears flowed from his eyes and he was unable to speak. He stood for some moments with all his limbs trembling. Finally he managed with great effort to suppress his joy. He said, “O hero, I cannot express my happiness in words. Today my birth stands fulfilled and my dreams are realized. This is indeed an auspicious day. Tell me, how did you all escape from the fire at Vāraṇāvata?”

Drupada and his two sons, Dhṛṣṭadyumna and Śikhaṇḍī, listened as Yudhiṣṭhira narrated the story. When he had finished they censured Duryodhana and his weak father. Drupada gave every assurance to Yudhiṣṭhira, vowing that he would somehow restore him to his rightful position as king in Hastināpura. He gave the brothers accommodations in his own palace and treated them with all respect.

The following day Drupada again spoke to Yudhiṣṭhira. “O mighty-armed one, today is a day marked by favorable stars. Let Arjuna take my daughter’s hand with all due rites.”

Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “O King, if my younger brother is to marry today, then I shall also have to accept a bride, for that is the religious ordinance.”

Drupada nodded understandingly. “Then you must accept the hand of Draupadī in the sacred marriage ceremony. Or give her to whichever of your brothers as pleases you.”

Yudhiṣṭhira said, “The princess shall become the wife of us all. Our mother has ordered this. It was Dhanañjaya who won your jewel of a daughter, but the rule among us is that we share equally any jewels we obtain. Therefore Draupadī may accept each of us, one after another, according to age.”

Drupada stepped back, his eyes wide with surprise. “O mighty-armed hero, I have heard that a man may accept many wives, but never that a woman may accept more than one husband. You are famed for your virtue. How then can you approve an act so contrary to tradition and indeed scriptural injunction?”

The king was surrounded by his sons and ministers and they all listened carefully as the Pāṇḍava prince replied. He told them that morality was subtle and its application was dependent upon circumstances. One therefore had to follow the authorities. His mother had ordered them all to marry the princess and that order had found acceptance in Yudhiṣṭhira’s mind, which had never entertained thought of sin in his life. The prince was certain there would be no sin if Draupadī married all five brothers.

Drupada was still not convinced. He wanted more time to think. It was entirely unprecedented that a woman could marry many men at the same time. He asked Yudhiṣṭhira if they could discuss the matter further with Kuntī, Dhṛṣṭadyumna and the learned Brahmins in his court. Yudhiṣṭhira agreed and sat in the king’s council chamber for the discussion.

They had only been speaking a short while when the palace attendants announced Vyāsadeva’s arrival. As the sage was shown in, everyone present offered their respectful obeisances at his feet. Vyāsadeva greeted them in return and offered blessings to Drupada and the Pāṇḍavas. After they had taken their seats, Drupada asked, “O illustrious one, is it possible for one woman to marry many men without being defiled by sin? Please tell me truly.”

Vyāsadeva replied that such a practice was certainly opposed to both the direction of the Vedas and tradition. Although practiced in former ages it had long become obsolete. The sage looked at Drupada and Yudhiṣṭhira and asked both of them for their opinions. Drupada revealed his doubts. He could not see any way by which the five brothers could all become Draupadī’s husband. It would mean that the elder brother would be approaching his junior’s wife. According to scripture, that would be the same as approaching his daughter.

Yudhiṣṭhira replied that his heart, which could never turn to sin, felt no misgivings about the proposed marriage. He cited a historical example of a Brahmin girl named Jatila who had married seven ṛṣis at once. There was also the case of the famous ascetics known as the Pracetās. They too, being brothers, had accepted one woman as their shared wife. These examples were found in the Vedas and were not considered sinful. In certain circumstances even established rules may be broken in order to preserve a higher religious principle.

Kuntī agreed with her son and asked the sage how she could be saved from untruth. Vyāsadeva replied, “O gentle lady, you shall certainly be saved from sin. This is eternal virtue.”

The sage turned to Drupada and said, “I wish to speak with you in confidence, O King.” Vyāsadeva rose and took hold of Drupada’s hand. They went into the king’s chamber while everyone waited outside. When they were alone Vyāsadeva explained to the king why the marriage conformed with virtue. The ascetic told Drupada that Draupadī had been the daughter of a ṛṣi in a previous life. She had prayed to Śiva for a husband. In her prayer she asked the deity five times for a powerful husband. Śiva had replied, “Since you have asked me five times, in your next birth you shall have five husbands.” Śiva could not possibly ordain a sinful act.

Vyāsadeva further explained that the princess was an expansion of the Goddess Lakṣmī. She had appeared from the sacrificial fire in order to become the Pāṇḍavas’ wife, who themselves had all been gods in their past lives. In fact, the sage explained, all the brothers had been incarnations of Indra in different millenniums.

Vyāsadeva bestowed upon the king the divine sight to see the Pāṇḍavas as they had been in previous lives. In his inner vision Drupada saw the blazing form of Indra that each brother had possessed--their celestial bodies adorned with golden crowns and garlands.

Struck with wonder, Drupada folded his palms and said to the sage, “O great Ṛṣi, there is nothing outside your knowledge or capabilities. My mind is now satisfied. What has been ordained by the celestials must always come to pass. We are all instruments in the hands of destiny. Let my daughter accept all five brothers as her husbands.”

The king and the sage rejoined the others and informed them of Drupada’s change of heart. Vyāsadeva said, “Today the moon has entered the auspicious constellation of Puṣyā. The first ceremony should be performed at once and Yudhiṣṭhira can accept Draupadī’s hand.”

Drupada ordered his ministers and priests to make all the arrangements. A sacred fire was lit in the vast inner courtyard of the king’s palace. Rows of pennants bearing the emblems of the gods lined the sacrificial arena, which was full of Brahmins chanting hymns. A beautiful altar was constructed from coral and gold and bedecked with sparkling jewels. Fragrant garlands were draped everywhere and the aroma of costly incenses wafted throughout the courtyard.

The king with his relatives and friends took their places in the compound, which lay next to a large lake of lotuses. Citizens of all classes assembled in the courtyard to observe the ceremony--Brahmins with their heads covered by simple cloths, wealthy merchants shielding themselves from the bright sunshine with decorated parasols, and śūdras in their brightest clothes. All watched as the five brothers, dressed in silk robes and adorned with shining gold earrings, entered the compound like mighty bulls entering their pen. Dhaumya walked at their head. His bodily luster was as brilliant as the sun. He sat by the fire and offered libations of ghee. As the flames rose he chanted mantras invoking the presence of Viṣṇu and the prinicipal deities. Then he called Yudhiṣṭhira to come forward and accept Draupadī’s hand. The dark-complexioned princess, clad in bright yellow silks and decorated with many precious jewels, her long curling hair adorned with flowers, stood to receive Yudhiṣṭhira. The bride and groom took each other’s hand and walked around the sacred fire seven times, sealing their union.

On the days following Yudhiṣṭhira’s wedding, each of the brothers married the Pañchāla princess. Vyāsadeva informed the king that by the gods’ arrangement, his daughter regained her virginity each day after a marriage and before the next marriage took place. When all five weddings had been sanctified, Drupada sat before the sacred fire and gave the brothers charity. To each of them he gifted one hundred golden chariots drawn by four excellent steeds, one hundred mature elephants and one hundred maidservants adorned with ornaments and flower garlands. He also gave them large amounts of gold, various precious stones and many valuable robes. Like so many celestials the brothers began passing their days in joy in Pañchāla, the king’s capital. For his part, having formed an alliance with the Pāṇḍavas, Drupada did not fear even the gods in heaven.

After arriving back at Mathurā, Kṛṣṇa arranged for vast amounts of wealth to be sent as a gift to the Pāṇḍavas. Great heaps of unworked gold bricks and piles of precious stones, including numbers of priceless vaidurya gems, soon arrived at Kāmpilya and were offered to the brothers. Costly carpets, robes, blankets and skins were placed before them in piles. Kṛṣṇa also sent them thousands of maidservants--all young, beautiful and highly accomplished. Well-trained elephants and horses, as well as hundreds of chariots, were also presented.

Out of love for Kṛṣṇa, Yudhiṣṭhira graciously accepted the wealth and sent back a message of gratitude. Secure in the knowledge of Kṛṣṇa’s friendship and blessings, all the brothers felt their good fortune assured in every way.

Chapter 12: Dhṛtarāṣṭra Gives Half the Kingdom

As the kings left the svayaṁvara for their respective countries, they marveled at what they had seen. The illustrious Pāṇḍavas were still alive! It was Arjuna who had shot down the target and won the princess, and it was Bhīma who had faced the kings with complete fearlessness and thrown down the mighty Śalya. The kings censured Bhīṣma and Dhṛtarāṣṭra for having allowed the Pāṇḍavas to be persecuted and deprived of their rightful kingdom.

Duryodhana was depressed at this turn of events. As he made his way back to Hastināpura, he pondered on the situation. How had his cousins escaped the fire? Now they were more powerful than ever. Allied with Drupada and Kṛṣṇa, they were a force to be reckoned with. And their own prowess was obviously exceptional. Just two brothers had successfully taken Draupadī from the midst of hundreds of kings. Even the invincible Karṇa had been more than matched. Hot tears ran down Duryodhana’s cheeks. By his side Dushashana said consolingly, “Do not grieve, brother. It was only because the Pāṇḍavas disguised themselves that they managed to win Draupadī. They took us all by surprise. Clearly destiny is supreme and human effort is useless. Despite our exertions, the Pāṇḍavas are alive and flourishing .”

Duryodhana frowned. “This is all the fault of the useless Purochana. He let us down badly. At least he perished in the fire.”

The Kauravas entered their capital sorrowful and ashamed. They were also anxious. Drupada was a powerful enemy. As Duryodhana entered his palace he was met by Vidura. Hearing the news from Pañchāla, Vidura’s face lit up with delight. Despite Duryodhana’s machinations, the Pāṇḍavas were thriving! Surely the Lord was protecting those virtuous princes.

Vidura went at once to Dhṛtarāṣṭra and said, “By good fortune the Kurus have been successful and are prospering.”

The blind king replied joyfully, “What luck! What luck!” Not knowing that Vidura was referring to the Pāṇḍavas, he thought that perhaps Duryodhana had won Draupadī. He immediately ordered ornaments to be made for Draupadī and asked that she and Duryodhana be brought into the palace in great pomp. Then Vidura informed him of the facts: Draupadī had chosen the Pāṇḍavas for her lords, and now the five heroes were strongly allied with Drupada and his many relatives and friends. Dhṛtarāṣṭra sat forward in surprise. “This is wonderful news. Those boys are dearer to me than they were to Pāṇḍu. My affection for them is now greater than it ever was. Their success and good fortune is mine also.”

Vidura smiled. “O King, may your present feelings remain for one hundred summers.” He then left to give the good news to Bhīṣma.

The king was left alone with Duryodhana and Karṇa. Both had remained silent as Vidura had spoken, but as soon as he left they jumped to their feet, loudly criticizing him.

Clasping his sword in its ornate scabbard by his side, Duryodhana said, “O best of men, how are you considering your good fortune to be our enemies’ success? That is foolish. We need to weaken the Pāṇḍavas and deprive them of their fortune, not rejoice in it. Otherwise they will surely swallow us all with our kinsmen, armies, friends and wealth.” Karṇa growled in agreement and both he and Duryodhana stood in front of the king, waiting for his reply.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra was silent for some time. Finally, wringing his hands he said, “I desire exactly as you desire. However, I did not want to reveal my feelings to Vidura. He should not even be able to know what I am thinking by my demeanor. Therefore I praised the Pāṇḍavas in his presence.”

The king asked Duryodhana how he and Karṇa planned to handle the situation. The prince replied that they should employ every diplomatic and devious means to bring about the Pāṇḍavas’ downfall. He suggested that spies be employed to create disunity between the five brothers, or that Drupada and his ministers be swayed from supporting the Pāṇḍavas by tempting them with wealth. Perhaps Draupadī could be turned against them if beautiful women were used to seduce the brothers. Or maybe Bhīma could be secretly killed; he was the mainstay of the Pāṇḍavas’ power and without him they could easily be overpowered.

Duryodhana concluded, “O Father, use whatever means you deem best. Somehow we must bring the Pāṇḍavas under our control without delay. Their strength increases with every passing day.”

The Kaurava prince turned to Karṇa and asked him for his opinion. Karṇa raised a clenched fist. His voice boomed out in reply. “O Duryodhana, in my view your suggestions are not well considered. I do not think that any intrigues will succeed against the Pāṇḍavas. You have already tried and failed in this way on various occasions. It will surely fail again.”

Karṇa pointed out that the Pāṇḍavas had formerly been living near them in Hastināpura. They had been mere children, without allies or friends, and still Duryodhana’s scheming had not been successful. Now the brothers were grown up, had secured powerful allies, and most importantly, were on their guard against the Kauravas. They would detect and thwart any plan Duryodhana set in motion. Nor would the Kauravas be able to break Draupadī’s affection for her husbands. She chose them when they appeared as poor Brahmins. How would she reject them now that they were prosperous? Nor would the virtuous Drupada abandon them for the sake of wealth--even if the Kauravas offered him their entire kingdom.

Karṇa’s eyes flashed as he spoke. His natural golden armor gleamed in the shafts of sunlight that shone through the palace windows. He turned to the king and continued, “O sire, here is what I think we should do. Before the brothers are fully established let us strike them down on the battlefield. We must challenge them before Drupada has time to assemble his allies to fight alongside them, and before Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma can bring the mighty Yādava hosts from Mathurā.”

Karṇa went on to praise strength and prowess as the cardinal virtues in kṣatriyas. He disliked Duryodhana and Śakuni’s treacherous methods and would rather settle the issue in an honest trial of arms. That was the only noble way to tackle the Pāṇḍavas. The other three means of diplomacy--conciliation, bribery or dissension--would all prove useless. The Kurus should immediately gather an army and march on Drupada’s capital, crushing both him and the Pāṇḍavas at the same time. Then the world would be theirs to command, freed of thorns.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra praised Karṇa for his courageous speech. Turning his blind eyes toward the king of Aṅga, he said, “Such words, full of heroism and power, surely befit you, O heroic one, but let us consult Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Vidura before taking any action. These men will always counsel what is in our best interests.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra summoned his counselors. One by one Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Kṛpa and Vidura arrived and sat upon the golden seats around the king’s throne. When they were all settled in their places, the king told them the views of both Duryodhana and Karṇa and asked for their opinions. Bhīṣma spoke first. “O Dhṛtarāṣṭra, I can never consent to a quarrel with the Pāṇḍavas. Pāṇḍu’s sons and your sons are equally dear to me. They deserve my protection equally. The Pāṇḍavas should be given half the kingdom. Of this there is no doubt. As much as you feel this kingdom to be your property, so too do the Pāṇḍavas feel it to be theirs. If it is not their birthright, then how can it ever be yours? Indeed, their claim comes before yours. Therefore conclude a treaty and hand over half of this kingdom to them. Do this for your own good.”

Bhīṣma then explained what would happen if they declined to make peace with the Pāṇḍavas. The Kauravas would be covered with dishonor. All virtuous men would censure them. Having lost their reputation, their existence would become useless. Bhīṣma looked around the council chamber as he spoke. “It is fortunate for us that Kuntī’s sons still live. It is fortunate that Kuntī herself still lives. And it is fortunate that the sinful Purochana met his end. From the day I heard that Kuntī and her sons had perished in the fire, I could not face any living creature.”

Bhīṣma asked Dhṛtarāṣṭra if he knew how the citizens felt. They had blamed the Pāṇḍavas’ death on the king. That the brothers had survived would repair his reputation. Dhṛtarāṣṭra should now take advantage of that good fortune and make amends with the Pāṇḍavas by awarding them their kingdom. They were virtuous, united, and ever protected by the Supreme Lord. Even Indra with all the gods could not deprive them of their rights. “If you desire justice, the welfare of all, and my pleasure, then give half the kingdom to these boys.”

Bhīṣma sat down, looking across at Duryodhana who breathed heavily and ground his teeth. The prince stared at the floor as Droṇa stood up to speak. “O sire, it is said that counselors should always speak what is right, true and conducive to the king’s welfare and fame. My opinion then is the same as Bhīṣma’s. Return the kingdom to the Pāṇḍavas. Send a messenger skilled in diplomacy to Drupada, along with many gifts, and tell him how the alliance of his house with the house of Kuru has enhanced your power and dignity. O King, this will undoubtedly be in your best interests.”

Droṇa advised that Drupada be told how happy both Dhṛtarāṣṭra and his son have become by all that has happened. The Pāṇḍavas should be brought back in state to Hastināpura. They should then be installed in their paternal kingdom. This was the people’s desire. The Pāṇḍavas are no less Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons than his own offspring. He should treat them equally.

When Droṇa finished speaking Karṇa sprang from his seat. He could take no more. Breathing heavily, his brow furrowed, he thundered, “How surprising that these two so-called ministers should tender such advice! Although you have supported them, O King, they do not look to your good. While concealing the wickedness in their hearts they speak words purporting to be in your interests.”

Karṇa fumed. Bhīṣma and Droṇa’s advice was useless. A man’s happiness and distress depend upon destiny alone. Another person’s acts could in no way affect anyone. Everything was fixed by fate. If in the course of destiny Dhṛtarāṣṭra had acquired the throne, then who could oppose that? Why should they fear the Pāṇḍavas? Dhṛtarāṣṭra had become king by fate’s arrangement and if fate decreed it, then he would remain in that position, no matter what anyone said or did.

Karṇa looked angrily at both Bhīṣma and Droṇa as he concluded his speech. “These two have spoken out of fear of, or favoritism toward, the Pāṇḍavas. O King, judge for yourself the motives of your ministers, then do what you feel is right.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra remained silent, but Droṇa again spoke out. “Karṇa, you have spoken only out of envy of the Pāṇḍavas. Due to your attachment for Duryodhana you desire only to injure the Pāṇḍavas. You should know that what I have said is certainly for the benefit of this house. If we act otherwise, then in my opinion the Kurus will be exterminated.”

Vidura had been observing the situation closely. Now it was his turn to speak. He could see by Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s demeanor and silence that he was uncertain. The intelligent minister stood and addressed the king. “O sire, after careful consideration I cannot think of anyone who are better friends to you than Bhīṣma and Droṇa. They have spoken what is for your certain good, but you do not accept their advice. The foolish Karṇa may disagree with them, but their words are meant only for your welfare. It has never been seen that they gave you bad advice at any time. They are experienced, wise and learned in scripture. Neither of them are in any way less than Rāma, the great son of Daśaratha. They regard your sons and the Pāṇḍavas with equal eyes. Why then do you disregard their counsel?”

Vidura then gave his own views of the situation. Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s partiality toward his own sons would lead to his downfall. The Pāṇḍavas were powerful and they were fixed in virtue. They could not be overcome by force. Indeed, they were capable of withstanding even the gods in battle. Besides the mighty Drupada, they had Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma as allies. There was no doubt that wherever there was Kṛṣṇa there would be victory.

Standing before Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Vidura spoke firmly. “Wash away, O King, the stain of ill repute brought about by the incident at Vāraṇāvata. Please the citizens of this state. Do what is just and proper and give to the Pāṇḍavas what is rightfully theirs. If you listen to the sinful advice of Duryodhana, Śakuni and Karṇa, your kingdom and fortune will surely be annihilated.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra remained silent for some minutes. As much as he desired the advancement of his own sons over that of the Pāṇḍavas, he could not deny the truth of Vidura’s words. Placing his hand upon his sceptre he said, “The learned Bhīṣma, the Ṛṣi Droṇa and your illustrious self, O Vidura, have all spoken the truth about what is good for me. The Pāṇḍavas are certainly my sons and are entitled to this kingdom. Go, O Vidura, and bring them here along with their mother. Bring too the celestial beauty, Draupadī. By good fortune the Pāṇḍavas live. By good fortune have they obtained Drupada’s daughter as their wife. By good fortune our strength has now increased, and by good fortune the wicked Purochana is dead.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra dismissed the assembly. Duryodhana and Karṇa stormed out, closely followed by Dushashana and the other Kaurava princes. Vidura left and made preparations to go immediately to Kāmpilya, while the blind king was led back to his chambers by his servants.

Early the next morning Vidura departed for the Pañchāla kingdom. He took with him numerous jewels and various kinds of wealth for Drupada, the Pāṇḍavas and Draupadī. A large contingent from Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s army accompanied him as he made his way along the smooth forest roads. Vidura had heard that Kṛṣṇa had gone to Kāmpilya to visit the Pāṇḍavas, and he felt excited at the prospect of seeing that all-powerful personality, as well as his beloved nephews.

When he arrived at Kāmpilya, Drupada received him with honor and the Pāṇḍavas were overjoyed to see him. They greeted him with tears in their eyes and touched his feet. The old minister embraced each of the brothers warmly. Kṛṣṇa then came forward and bowed before Vidura, who embraced Him, feeling a surge of ecstatic love. He gazed at Kṛṣṇa for some moments and the Yādava smiled affectionately at him. Vidura then offered Draupadī brilliant golden ornaments studded with diamonds and rubies, and Drupada a heap of shining gems.

When they were all seated in Drupada’s council chamber, Vidura said, “O King, along with your sons and ministers please hear the message I bring from Dhṛtarāṣṭra. He and his sons and ministers have repeatedly asked after your welfare. Your beloved friend Droṇa has mentally embraced you and sent his warmest greetings. All of the Kuru elders are overjoyed at our new alliance. They feel as if they have acquired a new kingdom. Knowing all this, O sire, please permit the Pāṇḍavas to go to Hastināpura. The Kurus long to see them again.”

Vidura described how much the people in Hastināpura were anxious to see the brothers return with their new bride. He hoped the Pāṇḍavas themselves were desiring to again see their own home. Would Drupada allow them to enter their own city in state?

Drupada smiled. “O wise Vidura, it is surely proper for these boys to return to their ancestral kingdom, but it is not proper for me to tell them to leave. Let them decide for themselves. Let us also consult Kṛṣṇa, for He is always interested in what is best for the Pāṇḍavas.”

Yudhiṣṭhira stepped forward and said that he and his brothers were now dependent upon Drupada. They would do whatever the king commanded. Kṛṣṇa said, “In my view the Pāṇḍavas should go to Hastināpura, but we should all abide by Drupada’s opinion, for the king is learned in all aspects of virtue.”

Drupada agreed with Kṛṣṇa. “These princes are now as dear to me as they are to Vāsudeva. No one is more their well-wisher than Kṛṣṇa and He will only counsel what is for their own good. Let them depart for Hastināpura.”

Soon they were ready to leave. The Pāṇḍavas made their fond farewells to Drupada and his sons. The old king and his wife shed tears as their daughter mounted the chariot with Kuntī. They stood with the other Kuru elders outside the palace as the Pāṇḍavas proceeded slowly down the royal highway toward the city gate. Kṛṣṇa went with them on His own splendid golden chariot, and with great pleasure they all journeyed together to Hastināpura. They entered the city like a line of celestials entering Amarāvatī, Indra’s splendid city.

The citizens thronged the streets. Everyone longed to see the Pāṇḍavas again. They crowded around the brothers as the procession moved slowly along the main road toward Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s palace. The Pāṇḍavas could hear people’s exclamations. “The best of men, Yudhiṣṭhira, has returned at last! That exalted soul knows the precepts of virtue. He regards us as if we were his nearest relatives. Today it seems that Pāṇḍu himself, beloved of the people, has come back from the forest. If we have ever given charity, if we have ever performed sacrifice, if we have any ascetic merits--then let the Pāṇḍavas live here for one hundred years.”

The brothers smiled and raised their hands in blessings. Their eyes streamed with tears as they again saw their city and its people. Soon they saw Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Bhīṣma, who had come out on the road to meet them. The king and his minister embraced the Pāṇḍavas, who in turn greeted their elders with due reverence, touching their feet and bowing before them with folded hands. Yudhiṣṭhira then enquired after the welfare of the kingdom and its people and was told that everything was flourishing . Gradually the party moved into Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s palace. Having been worshipped by the Kuru elders, Kṛṣṇa followed behind them.

Duryodhana’s wife, Dushala, met Draupadī and Kuntī and accompanied them into Gāndhārī’s quarters. As Gāndhārī embraced Draupadī she thought of the prophetic voice that had spoken when Draupadī first stepped out of the fire. It was said that she would be the death of the world’s kṣatriyas. The blindfolded queen had developed a powerful inner vision due to her austerities. She could understand that Draupadī was destined to cause her sons’ destruction. Still, Gāndhārī felt no malice toward Draupadī. She had resigned herself to the eventuality of fate. Duryodhana was wicked and selfish. His brothers followed him blindly. Surely they shall reap their rightful reward. All-powerful Providence controlled everything. Men were simply her instruments, driven by desire and hate. The queen blessed Draupadī and then warmly greeted her old friend Kuntī.

In Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s council chamber the king spoke before the Pāṇḍavas in a trembling voice. “It is with joy that I sit here today with Pāṇḍu’s sons. The gods have surely been merciful to the Kurus in that these five heroic brothers still live. So that no futher disputes may arise between us, I want to give the Pāṇḍavas half the kingdom. O Yudhiṣṭhira my child, go to Khāṇḍavaprastha; this shall be your half of the kingdom. Live there peacefully.”

Bhīṣma and Vidura looked at one another but said nothing. Kṛṣṇa, who was sitting upon a splendid seat of gold and jewels, and who appeared like the sun illuminating the assembly, smiled when He heard the king’s proposal. He knew the region the king was so generously offering to the Pāṇḍavas. Khāṇḍavaprastha was a vast area, and it was certainly half the kingdom, but it was nothing but jungle and desert. There were no cities, not even any settlements. Although it had once been the site of the Kurus’ capital, a ṛṣi had long ago cursed that land when he felt offended by a Kuru king. It was now a wasteland.

Yudhiṣṭhira looked respectfully at Dhṛtarāṣṭra. He felt no anger or resentment at the unfairness of the settlement. His elders represented the Supreme; their orders should be followed without question. The prince looked across at Kṛṣṇa, who was still smiling. Yudhiṣṭhira was sure with His assistance they would be able to make the Khāṇḍava region habitable land. With palms folded the Pāṇḍava acknowledged Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s gift. “It shall be so, my lord.”

The next day the king arranged for Yudhiṣṭhira’s coronation. With all pomp and ceremony the prince became king of Khāṇḍavaprastha, with Vyāsadeva appearing in time to perform the rituals.

After the coronation the Pāṇḍavas arranged to depart. Having worshipped the gods and taken their leave from the Kuru elders, they left with Kṛṣṇa at the head of their procession. The sage Vyāsadeva also accompanied them as they journeyed to the northern region of Khāṇḍava. With his assistance the brothers selected an auspicious tract of land upon which to found a city. He performed the appropriate Vedic rites to invoke the gods’ presence. Then Kṛṣṇa sat with the ṛṣi and summoned Indra. The deity appeared, blazing like fire. He bowed before Kṛṣṇa and asked, “What shall I do for You at this time, my lord?” Kṛṣṇa asked him to arrange for a city to be constructed for the Pāṇḍavas. He told Indra to sprinkle his heavenly nectar across the land so that it would again become rich and fertile. Saying, “So be it,” Indra called for Viśvakarmā, the architect of the gods. After being instructed by Indra he began work on the city.

All around the site granite walls rose to the skies. Viśvakarmā constructed white palaces and mansions, whose windows looked like the divine eagle Garuḍa’s outstretched wings. The city was protected by massive dark gates that resembled clouds. No weapon could assail them. Deadly darts and other missiles were placed along the tops of the defensive ramparts. The turrets were filled with powerful men, all highly trained in warfare and with all weapons at their disposal. The city was then surrounded by delightful woods full of blossoming and fragrant trees. Everywhere were lakes crowded with swans and lotus flowers. The city streets were wide and well-designed, with pleasant groves and gardens between them. Pleasure houses stood in the vast public concourses and there were countless temples dedicated to Viṣṇu and the heavenly deities. The Pāṇḍavas’ own palace appeared like the heavenly Mount Meru. Full of every opulence, it stood in the center of the city surrounded by garrisons of warriors.

Soon Brahmins began to be attracted to the city, which had become known as Indraprastha. They opened institutions wherein they taught all the Vedic sciences. Vaishyas also began to arrive, hoping to earn money by selling their goods. Gradually craftsmen and artisans arrived and within a short time the city was populated with pious citizens. It resembled Amarāvatī in the heavens. Being ruled with justice and compassion by Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers, Indraprastha’s people had everything they desired. They came to regard the Pāṇḍavas as affectionate fathers.

Out of friendship for the Pāṇḍavas, Kṛṣṇa remained in the city for some days. Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa were especially close and they spent much time together. Draupadī would also take every opportunity to serve Kṛṣṇa, and she became very dear to Him.

A few days after Kṛṣṇa’s departure the celestial seer Nārada came to Indraprastha. Seeing the well-known ṛṣi, dressed in a black deerskin and with his golden hair knotted on his head, Yudhiṣṭhira got off his throne and offered his obeisances. He then presented Nārada with a fine golden seat encrusted with jewels and personally offered him the sacred arghya. King Yudhiṣṭhira washed the ṛṣi’s feet and welcomed him with gentle words. At Yudhiṣṭhira’s command, Draupadī came before the sage and stood with folded palms. Nārada offered the beautiful queen blessings and then dismissed her.

When Draupadī had returned to her quarters, Nārada said, “This illustrious princess is the wedded wife of all of you. You must establish a rule so that no dissension may arise between you over her. Listen as I tell you the ancient history of two celebrated Asuras named Sunda and Upasunda.”

The two Asuras belonged to the powerful race of Dānavas, the celestial demons. They were both sons of Nikumbha, a deadly enemy of the gods. The brothers were like one person divided into two. They lived together, ate together and moved about together. They always entertained the same purpose and were always equal to one another in both happiness and distress. By virtue of their long practice of rigid austerities, Sunda and Upasunda became extremely powerful. Having received a boon from Brahmā that they could only die at each other’s hands, they felt free to terrorize the universe. The gods could not check them. Finally, Brahmā devised a way to destroy them. He created a woman of indescribable beauty, whom he named Tilottamā. On Brahmā’s order this Apsarā went before the two brothers one day when they were intoxicated. Seeing her faultless form moving gracefully before them, both brothers immediately desired her. They began to argue. “This woman shall be my wife and your sister!” “No, brother, I saw her first. She is mine!” The argument became heated and soon they fell upon one another with their fierce weapons. At last they simultaneously smashed one another with their huge clubs and both fell to the ground dead.

Nārada concluded, “Thus those two Asuras, although ever united and inspired with the same desires, killed one another for the sake of a woman. You should make an agreement so that no such quarrel may arise among yourselves.”

The Pāṇḍavas consulted one another in the ṛṣi’s presence. Finally they agreed that they would each spend a certain amount of time with Draupadī. If any of them saw another when he was alone with her, there would be a severe consequence; the offender would have to go to the forest for one year and have no contact with Draupadī during that time.

After the Pāṇḍavas had made this rule, Nārada took his leave, disappearing before their eyes. Carefully keeping their agreement, the brothers continued to live peacefully at Indraprastha.

Chapter 13: Arjuna’s Pilgrimage

It was more than a year since Nārada Ṛṣi’s visit. The Pāṇḍavas’ power and influence had increased and they had brought many other kings under their sway. They ruled with one aim: to keep the people on a path of piety and truth. By their own example they showed how happiness follows a life of virtue. In everything they did they accepted the guidance of spiritually advanced Brahmins. Indraprastha flourished and became more than the equal of Hastināpura in the world’s eyes. Due to his unswerving adherence to virtue, Yudhiṣṭhira became known as Dharmarāja, the king of religion.

Draupadī pleased her five husbands with her feminine graces and expert attentions. According to their agreement, each of the brothers was allotted time in which to be alone with her. One day it so happened that while Draupadī was alone with Yudhiṣṭhira, a Brahmin came to the Pāṇḍavas’ palace. Standing by the gate, he cried out, “O King, a Brahmin’s wealth is being robbed by wicked and despicable men. Alas, how can it be that in the kingdom of the virtuous Pāṇḍavas the Brahmins are not protected? A king who takes his taxes but fails to protect the people is considered the most sinful of men. O heroes, take me by the hand and deliver me from this burning anguish.”

In anger and grief the Brahmin repeatedly cried out. Arjuna heard his cries and called down, “Do not fear.” He went quickly to fetch his weapons in order to punish the thieves, but discovered that Yudhiṣṭhira was alone with Draupadī in the room which held the weapons chest. Arjuna hesitated. How could he intrude upon his elder brother, especially as they had made their agreement? But here was an afflicted Brahmin. If he did not protect him, then Yudhiṣṭhira’s fame would perish and he would be tainted by sin. Arjuna could not stand by and watch his brother be accused of irreligion. He had to get the weapons, even though it meant he would be exiled to the forest. He felt that even if he died in the forest it would be preferable to being covered by sin.

Arjuna resolved to enter the chamber and gather his weapons. He knocked on the door and walked in. Looking straight ahead of him, he strode quickly toward the weapons. Yudhiṣṭhira smiled to see his younger brother. He knew Arjuna must have an important reason for entering. Arjuna then explained the situation, took his bow and rushed out of the palace. Taking the Brahmin and mounting his chariot, he pursued the robbers. When he saw them in the distance, Arjuna released infallible arrows, striking down the thieves as they made off with the Brahmin’s cows. Having dealt swift justice to the robbers, Arjuna restored the property to the grateful Brahmin and returned to the city.

Yudhiṣṭhira greeted his brother warmly as he entered the palace. Along with his other brothers he applauded Arjuna for saving the Brahmin. Arjuna bowed before Yudhiṣṭhira and said, “O lord, please give me permission to observe the vow as we have agreed. I shall leave for the forest at once.”

Yudhiṣṭhira’s heart was pierced by grief when he heard Arjuna’s statement. He immediately replied, “Why should you go? O sinless one, if I am your authority, then heed my words now. I was not in the least disturbed by your entering the room. There is no need for you to leave for the forest.”

Yudhiṣṭhira looked tearfully at his handsome, curly-haired brother. How could he face separation from this virtuous and gentle soul? He explained to Arjuna that the scripture sanctioned a younger brother entering a room where his elder brother sat with his wife. It was only when the elder brother intruded upon the younger that it was condemned. Arjuna had entered the room only in pursuance of duty and in service to Yudhiṣṭhira.

But Arjuna was adamant. “My lord, I have heard from you that virtue must be practiced without hesitation or quibble. I shall not waver from truth. Truth is my weapon and virtue my strength. Grant me permission to leave and I shall proceed to the forest today.”

Despite the other Pāṇḍavas’ repeated pleas, Arjuna could not be swayed. Finally Yudhiṣṭhira relented and gave his permission. Although it would be painful to think of his younger brother in exile for so long, it must somehow be the arrangement of Providence. Surely the Lord had some inscrutable purpose which would ultimately prove to their benefit. He watched sadly as Arjuna left the city accompanied by Brahmins chanting sacred hymns and by servants carrying wealth for him to distribute as charity while he traveled.

The young prince went on foot toward the north. He had decided to first follow the Ganges’ course toward the Himālayas, then proceed eastward to the coast. Following the coastline in a great circle, he would finally return to Indraprastha.

Arjuna traveled at a leisurely pace. He saw charming woodlands, lakes and gardens. There were countless hermitages along the banks of the Ganges where sages lived, and each evening Arjuna would stop and recite prayers in their company. He would also listen as the sages narrated tales from the ancient scriptures about the pastimes of the Supreme Lord in His many incarnations. Arjuna often thought of his cousin and dear friend Kṛṣṇa as he walked. He hoped to visit Him toward the end of his exile. The Pāṇḍava listened as the sages described how Kṛṣṇa was the unborn original Personality of Godhead, appearing on earth to destroy demonic men and to establish the eternal religion, pure love of God.

As he traveled Arjuna also performed fire sacrifices to please Viṣṇu and the gods. One evening, just as the Brahmins were kindling the sacred fire, Arjuna entered the Ganges in order to bathe. He was just about to then leave the river when he suddenly felt himself being drawn underwater by an unseen force. Despite his efforts to free himself, he was dragged deeply into the river. He then found himself mystically transported to a celestial palace. Arjuna looked around and saw a sacred fire burning in the room he had entered. The prince immediately sat before the fire and offered libations of ghee into the flames, fearlessly reciting the mantras.

Just as Arjuna was completing his evening rituals in that strange place, a beautiful girl entered the room. She glanced coyly at Arjuna and smiled. He recognized her at once to be a maiden belonging to the celestial Nāga race. Arjuna understood at once what had happened. The Nāgas have the power to transfer humans to their own heavenly dimension of existence. Obviously this girl had become attracted to him and had drawn him down to her abode. He smiled back and said, “O beautiful maiden, you have been bold indeed. Who are you and where is this divine region?”

The girl replied that she was the daughter of a Nāga king named Kauravya. Her name was Ulūpī. “When you entered the river for your bath I was moving through the waters in my ethereal form. I was struck by Cupid’s arrow as soon as I saw your godlike form. O descendent of Kuru, I am yet unmarried. Therefore accept me as your wife, give yourself up to me and gratify me today.”

Arjuna said that he was bound by a vow of celibacy for one year. He could not therefore accept her as his wife. Still, as she was a Nāga, he knew she must have already known this by her celestial intelligence. She would not have asked him to marry her if her request did not somehow conform to the codes of virtue. Indeed, the scriptures enjoined that a kṣatriya should never refuse a maiden who supplicated herself to him.

Arjuna asked her how he could satisfy her desire while at the same time maintain his truthfulness. Ulūpī replied, “I know of your vow, O hero. You and your brothers made a rule in regard to Draupadī. This is well known to the gods. But that rule pertained only to your wife. It is her with whom you must not consort for the next year. There will be no sin in accepting another woman.”

Filled with desire for the powerful Pāṇḍava hero, Ulūpī beseeched him to accept her. She explained that such an act would be his highest duty under the present circumstances. The Nāga princess knew that Arjuna would act only when impelled by virtuous motives. She told him that if he did not take her as his wife, she would destroy herself. Thus he would be saving her life by accepting her. That was certainly a greater virtue than observing celibacy. Even if his piety suffered a slight loss by his going with her, he would gain greater merits by having saved the life of a helpless woman who had approached him for shelter.

Arjuna thought carefully. He decided that the Nāga maiden was speaking the truth and that he would not be acting wrongly to accept her as his wife. He smiled and nodded in assent. Ulūpī quickly fetched two celestial garlands which she and Arjuna duly exchanged to signify their acceptance of one another. Having sealed their union according to scriptural injunctions, Arjuna then spent the night with her in Kauravya’s palace. Ulūpī waited upon him and offered him every kind of celestial food and drink. They then lay together on a golden bed in the heavenly mansion and conceived a child.

In the morning Arjuna rose just before sunrise. Ulūpī brought him back through the Ganges to the place where he had bathed the night before. Before leaving him, Ulūpī blessed Arjuna, “You shall be invincible in water. Every aquatic creature will be vanquished by you in a fight.”

After telling Arjuna that she would return to him later when he was back in his own kingdom, Ulūpī vanished into the Ganges waters, leaving Arjuna to be greeted by his followers. The ascetic Brahmins had seen by their own divine sight how the prince had been taken to the region of the Nāgas. They met him as he returned and offered him their blessings. Arjuna related to them everything that had happened.

The party continued on to the Himālayas and soon arrived at the Bhṛgu mountain where the famous Vasiṣṭa Ṛṣi had once had his hermitage. Many Brahmins lived on that hill and Arjuna distributed much charity to them. After bathing in a sacred lake on the Bhṛgu mountain he walked on, visiting numerous other holy sites. Arjuna went toward the east, gradually descending from the Himālayan range. He reached the forest of Naimisharanya, said by the sages to be the very hub of the universe. From there he crossed over the rivers Nanda, Upananda and the famous Kauśika, where the great Ṛṣi Viśvāmitra had performed asceticism for thousands of years in ancient days.

Desiring to increase his piety, Arjuna traveled from one pilgrimage site to another along with his retinue. He performed many sacrificial ceremonies and gave away much wealth. When he reached the border of the kingdom of Kalinga on the eastern coast, he bade farewell to most of his followers and entered the kingdom with only a few attendants. Arjuna journeyed through forests, woodlands and numerous towns and villages. He passed the great Mount Mahendra and arrived finally in Maṇipur, where he visited King Chitravahana in his city of Manalur. The king had an attractive daughter named Citrāṅgadā. Arjuna saw her one day in the palace gardens and was struck with desire. He approached the king and asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Chitravahana replied that he would be delighted to see his daughter wed an illustrious heir of the Kuru race. Arjuna was famous throughout the world as a hero without equal. But the king had one condition. Years ago his ancestors had prayed to Śiva for a child. The deity had granted their request, saying, “You shall have a child, and from now on all of your descendents will have a child--but one child only--to continue your race.”

Chitravahana had only a daughter. If Arjuna begot a son with his daughter, he must leave the boy to become the next king of Maṇipur. Arjuna happily accepted the condition and was married to the princess with all due ceremony. He remained in the city for three months. When he saw that Citrāṅgadā had conceived, he took his leave from her and the king, setting out again on his travels. Before leaving he promised Citrāṅgadā that he would return and bring her to his home in Indraprastha.

Arjuna then made his way south along the coast. When he reached the southern coast he found a large community of ṛṣis. He asked them to point out the local pilgrimage sites, and the ṛṣis informed him that there were five sacred lakes in that region, which could not be approached because they were infested with crocodiles. These lakes could confer great merits upon anyone who bathed in them, but as soon as a man entered the water he would be carried away by one of the powerful reptiles.

Arjuna saw an opportunity to serve the ascetics. He remembered his boon from Ulūpī. Going to the lake named Agastya--after the famous ṛṣi who had once lived there--he dived into the water. Arjuna’s leg was immediately seized by a great crocodile. Feeling the divine strength conferred by Ulūpī, he grasped hold of the animal and pulled it out of the water. Arjuna dashed the creature onto the shore. It suddenly became limp and a beautiful celestial maiden came out of its body. Seeing the wonderful sight, Arjuna asked, “Who are you, O beautiful one? Why have you committed such sins in this lake, carrying away holy ascetics?”

The maiden stood before Arjuna with folded palms. “O mighty hero, I am the Apsarā named Varga, ever beloved of Kuvera.”

Varga explained that she had once been going with four of her friends to see Kuvera. As they traveled through a heavenly woodland region they saw a Brahmin meditating in a lonely place. He was extremely handsome and he lit up the woods with his bodily luster. The five Apsarās playfully tried to disturb his meditation. They danced and sang before him, trying to tempt him away from his ascetic practices. Although unmoved by lust, the Brahmin was angered by their behavior. He then cursed them, “As you attack me now without compunction, you five shall become crocodiles, whose business is attacking others.” The maidens at once came to their senses. Showing contrition, they begged the Brahmin for mercy. He relented and told them that they would soon be delivered from their crocodile bodies by a powerful man. At that moment the great sage Nārada Ṛṣi arrived there and told them to enter the five sacred lakes on Bharata’s south coast. Soon Arjuna would come and release them from their bondage.

Varga bowed before the Pāṇḍava and thanked him for delivering her. She then asked him to save her four friends, who lived in each of the four other lakes. Arjuna smiled and went quickly to each holy lake. He pulled out all the other crocodiles and each time he watched as a maiden of shining beauty came out of the fierce reptilian body. The five Apsarās came together and, after offering Arjuna their respects, rose up to the heavens. Having made the lakes safe again, Arjuna took his leave from the ṛṣis and proceeded on his journey.

Arjuna traveled up Bharata’s western coast until he arrived at Prabhāsa. In the sea near Prabhāsa, Kṛṣṇa had constructed a city called Dwārakā. Arjuna could see the splendid fortress city from a distance, shining like the sun on the horizon. It could only be reached by passing along a heavily guarded bridge. When he reached the bridge Arjuna sent word of his arrival to Kṛṣṇa, who immediately came out of the city to see His dear friend. They embraced with joy. News of Arjuna’s exile from Indraprastha had already reached Dwārakā and Kṛṣṇa had been expecting him to arrive before the year was up. He knew that Arjuna was interested in gaining the hand of His sister Subhadrā. Arjuna had heard much about the princess from Gada, Kṛṣṇa’s cousin who had studied under Droṇa along with the Pāṇḍavas. Gada had described her as being incomparably beautiful and endowed with every womanly qualification. Just by hearing the descriptions, Arjuna’s heart had become attracted. He had resolved even then to somehow win her as his wife. And that would forge an alliance between the Pāṇḍavas and their beloved Lord, Kṛṣṇa.

Arjuna told Kṛṣṇa about his travels to the holy places and the Vrishni hero replied, “This is all good. Your piety and virtue are ever increasing.”

The Pāṇḍava prince turned quickly to the subject of Subhadrā. He asked Kṛṣṇa how she might be won. Kṛṣṇa smiled. “This princess is worthy of you in every way, O tiger among men, but who knows what would be her decision at a svayaṁvara? For a hero the surest way to win a maiden is to carry her away by force. This is always the way of the powerful, and it is sanctioned by holy scripture.”

Kṛṣṇa added that His brother Balarāma was intent on seeing her married to Duryodhana, even though no one else in Dwārakā was very keen on this suggestion. Kṛṣṇa especially did not like the idea. He would much prefer Arjuna to take His sister’s hand. But Balarāma was the city father and Kṛṣṇa’s elder brother and Kṛṣṇa did not want to go against His wishes. He told Arjuna to be patient. They would devise a plan. In the meanwhile, they could spend some time together. Arjuna still had four months remaining of his exile. He could spend it at Dwārakā.

Kṛṣṇa suggested that Arjuna keep his identity concealed. If he entered the city openly, he would not get a chance to see Subhadrā. She lived in Balarāma’s palace and was never seen in public. Her first appearance would be at her marriage. If Arjuna went into the city dressed as a renunciant, however, Balarāma would doubtlessly invite him for meals. Kṛṣṇa knew that His elder brother was fond of entertaining ascetics and sages, and also that He always arranged for Subhadrā to serve them so that she might be blessed and increase her virtue. Arjuna should therefore disguise himself as a renunciant, a member of the sannyāsa order. No one would recognize him if he matted his hair and kept his beard, especially when he was dressed in the saffron robes of a sannyāsī. Then he could live in Dwārakā during the coming months, and await an opportunity to win the beautiful Subhadrā. The rainy season was just upon them and it was customary for wandering ascetics to stay in cities till the rains had passed.

Kṛṣṇa went back into His city and Arjuna waited for a few more days outside before entering. Kṛṣṇa’s plan had sounded good. The Pāṇḍava wanted a chance to see Subhadrā and also for her to see him. Pious, he did not want to steal her against her desire. If she were not attracted to him, he would leave her in peace. He tied his hair in a knot above his head and put on the dress of a renunciant. Taking up the triple-rodded staff traditionally carried by Vaiṣṇava sannyāsīs, those worshippers of Viṣṇu in the renounced order, Arjuna entered Dwārakā. The unsuspecting gatekeepers allowed the ascetic to pass, folding their palms in respect as he walked by. Arjuna made his way along the huge golden bridge that spanned the ocean to the city, and which was encrusted with precious stones. At intervals the bridge opened out onto spacious platforms where well-armed soldiers stood guard. None of them recognized Arjuna as he passed.

When Arjuna reached the city he was stunned by its opulence. Symmetrically arranged around the city center were sixteen thousand white palaces, one for each of Kṛṣṇa’s sixteen thousand queens. Each palace was bedecked with gold and jewels and each rivalled the celestial Mount Meru in its size and opulence. Magnificent temples rose up on all sides and the sounds of sacred chants could be heard everywhere. Beautiful music filled the air and billows of fragrant incense wafted on the breeze. Shining chariots and great elephants moved here and there. Attractively dressed citizens strolled about the wide avenues, which were inlaid with priceless emeralds and interspersed with gardens stocked with celestial flowers. In the midst of the delightful gardens jeweled fountains stood in lotus-filled lakes. Trees bearing blossoms of every color stood along the roadsides. All around the city a massive fortified wall, a full one hundred miles long, rose up from the sea. Arjuna gazed about in wonder as he made his way to the Brahmins’ quarter of the city.

Kṛṣṇa had arranged that His friend be given a large house for his residence. He told him that he would inform Balarāma of the arrival of a Vaiṣṇava sannyāsī, and that Arjuna could expect to soon be invited to Balarāma’s palace where he would see Subhadrā. Arjuna felt as if he had ascended to Indra’s abode in the heavenly planets. The gods were even seen frequenting Dwārakā and it seemed as if its residents were celebrating a never-ending festival.

As Kṛṣṇa had expected, Balarāma arranged for Arjuna to be brought to His palace and offered varieties of delicious food. He had His sister Subhadrā serve the sannyāsī so that she might receive his blessings. The princess stole Arjuna’s mind away. She was everything he had heard she was. Subhadrā was as beautiful as Viṣṇu’s divine consort Lakṣmī. With her blue silk garments, gold earrings and ornaments, and long curling black hair, she could capture the hearts even of the celestials. She moved about with grace and poise as she served the ascetic.

Arjuna tried not to stare at her as he accepted the golden dishes she placed before him, but the princess caught his glance and saw the sparkle in his eyes. She looked more carefully at the sannyāsī. He did not resemble the other ascetics Balarāma had brought to the house. This ascetic looked more like a prince. Beneath his thin cotton cloth Subhadrā could see his broad and powerful shoulders. As he accepted the dishes she offered, she noticed his long, well-muscled arms, which resembled a pair of five-hooded serpents. She could see that behind his beard the young sannyāsī was extremely handsome. His dark eyes pierced hers and she felt her heart move. It was obvious that he desired her. Perhaps he was looking for a bride. She knew that Balarāma was trying to arrange her marriage to Duryodhana, but the young sage seemed a better prospect than that conceited Kuru prince. Subhadrā wondered who this ascetic might be.

Over the coming weeks Balarāma invited Arjuna to his palace on numerous occasions. Each time Subhadrā served him, and their attraction for one another grew. One day in confidence Kṛṣṇa spoke with his sister on the subject of her marriage. She told him of her feelings for the strange sannyāsī and Kṛṣṇa smiled. He asked her how she felt about Duryodhana. The princess’s features twisted disdainfully. Then Kṛṣṇa mentioned Arjuna’s name, telling her that the Pāṇḍava was desirous of becoming her husband. Indeed, he had come to Dwārakā to seek her hand. Subhadrā looked at him intently. Suddenly she realized what He was saying. The handsome ascetic was Arjuna. Why had she not guessed? The so-called sannyāsī, who walked like a powerful lion and spoke with a voice resembling a thundercloud, could only be a great ruler.

Subhadrā was suddenly excited. If only she could become the wife of that famous Kuru hero. But Kṛṣṇa cautioned her to remain quiet about his identity. If Balarāma learned the truth there would be trouble. She should be patient. Arjuna would surely find a way to marry her.

It was almost the end of the monsoon season. Balarāma invited the sannyāsī to his palace for a final visit. Again Subhadrā served him. By glances and smiles she made her feelings clear to the Pāṇḍava. Arjuna’s heart pounded. He could hardly eat. He prayed that he would soon get a chance to take the princess as his bride.

When the meal was over Balarāma gave gold and jewels to the sannyāsī and sent him home. Arjuna left with his mind in turmoil. He had to somehow gain Subhadrā’s hand. During the last weeks of the rainy season his mind remained fixed on the princess. Finally the rains ended and it was time for Arjuna to leave Dwārakā. Kṛṣṇa came to see him and told him that there would be a festival on the Raivataka hill, which skirted the mainland coastline around Dwārakā. All of the Yadus would attend. The beautiful Subhadrā would also be there. Kṛṣṇa suggested that this might be the time for which Arjuna had been waiting.

Arjuna’s eyes lit up as Kṛṣṇa, sitting next to him on the couch, explained His plan. “O best of men, I do not see any way you can obtain Subhadrā other than by kidnapping her from the midst of her friends and relatives. The festival will provide an opportunity for you, as the powerful heroes of the Yadu dynasty will be at ease and not expecting trouble.”

The festival was to be held in a few days and Kṛṣṇa arranged for swift messengers to ride to nearby Indraprastha. Arjuna wanted to obtain Yudhiṣṭhira’s permission before snatching away Subhadrā. Such an act would likely arouse the anger of the mighty Balarāma, and might even precipitate a fight between the Pāṇḍavas and the Yadus, but Kṛṣṇa told him not to fear. He would pacify Balarāma when the time came. “I will convince My irascible brother of the propriety and excellence of an alliance with your house, O Pārtha. You need only take the maiden and make off with her with all speed.”

When Yudhiṣṭhira’s permission arrived, Arjuna prepared himself to kidnap the princess. On the day of the festival, Subhadrā came out of the city surrounded by her relatives. All the great personalities of Dwārakā were present--King Ugrasena, Akrūra, Gada, Saraba, Babhru, Sātyaki, Uddhava and many others--and they resembled an assembly of the gods. The Gandharvas also appeared and they played sweet celestial music as Apsarās danced. Dwārakā’s citizens came out on their golden chariots and on the backs of great elephants. Above them hovered the aerial cars of the Siddhas and Cāraṇas, uttering auspicious Vedic hymns in praise of Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma, who shone in the midst of the assembly like the sun and the moon. From the sky the gods showered celestial flowers and played their heavenly instruments.

As evening approached, Arjuna came unnoticed out of the city. He had changed his dress and put on armor. His year of exile was over and he had cut his hair and resumed his normal appearance. Kṛṣṇa met him and gave him a chariot drawn by Śaibya and Sugrīva, two of Kṛṣṇa’s celestial steeds. As the Yadus sported and enjoyed themselves in the fragrant woodlands on the Raivataka, Arjuna mounted his chariot. Then he saw Subhadrā surrounded by her friends and maidservants standing near a temple of Viṣṇu. Without delay Arjuna spurred the horses and rushed toward the princess.

Subhadrā looked up in surprise as she heard the clatter of the fast approaching chariot. Holding the reins was Arjuna, with a great bow slung on his back and a sword hanging from his belt. Subhadrā’s heart leapt. The prince was heading straight for her. In less than a minute he had taken hold of her hand and pulled her onto the chariot. Before anyone could react he raced away to the north, back to Indraprastha.

As they realized what had happened the Yadus became incensed. How dare anyone kidnap their princess before their eyes? Who could have been so bold? Some of them said it was Arjuna from Indraprastha. The Yadu warriors ran about in all directions, trying to find their weapons and chariots. In Dwārakā the chief officer of the court stood in the central square of the city and blew his golden trumpet. It was a call to arms. A council of war was hastily assembled in the Yadu court. As the ministers and generals quickly took their places in the Sudharmā assembly hall, Balarāma spoke. His angry voice echoed around the hall. “Why has Arjuna insulted us in this way? Did he not consider us worthy of a peaceful approach? He has stolen Subhadrā without even speaking to any of us. Surely this means war!”

Balarāma glared around the assembly with eyes reddened with fury. The thousands of Yadu warriors present rose like so many fires blazing up when fed with oil. “Bring my armor!” “Fetch my weapons!” “Yoke my chariot and I shall give chase to the insolent Pāṇḍava!”

Amidst the uproar, only Kṛṣṇa remained unmoved, seated upon His beautiful, jewel-encrusted throne at the head of the assembly. Seeing this, Balarāma again spoke. With His pure white complexion, blue robes and wildflower garlands, He resembled a white mountain covered with blossoms. His voice again echoed around the hall. “Stop! O senseless men, what are you doing while Kṛṣṇa remains silent? Cease your roaring and let us hear what is on His mind before we act. His words are always our surest guide.”

Balarāma looked across at His brother. “O Janārdana, Arjuna is Your friend, but it appears that he has insulted us. By snatching away My sister he has placed his foot upon My head. O Govinda, how shall I bear it? I will rid the earth of the Kurus by Myself today. I will never brook an insult from them lightly!”

The whole assembly erupted again as Balarāma spoke, roaring in approval. Kṛṣṇa only smiled. As the sound died down He said, “I do not feel that Arjuna has insulted us. Indeed, My feelings are that he has enhanced our glory. Pārtha knows that we would not accept payment or gifts for our princess. What man on earth would sell his child to another? Nor would Arjuna accept the maiden as a gift, as if she were an animal. He has therefore selected the method always favored by powerful heroes.”

The hall remained silent as Kṛṣṇa continued to speak. He said He considered an alliance with the Pāṇḍavas, and especially with Arjuna, as proper. Arjuna had been born in the noble Bharata race. He was the son of the illustrious Kuntī, from their own house. No man on earth was capable of vanquishing Arjuna in battle. He was now proceeding on Kṛṣṇa’s own chariot and would be difficult to check. Subhadrā and Arjuna were a good match. Better that they send swift messengers to bring him back in peace and arrange for a proper wedding. That would avoid the disgrace of being defeated by Arjuna and would enhance the alliance forged by the marriage. After all, there was now no question of Subhadrā being accepted by another man.

Having concluded his speech, Kṛṣṇa looked around the assembly. Some of the the Yadus voiced doubts, but Kṛṣṇa answered them all expertly. Gradually the mood changed. The Yadu heroes looked at one another in affirmation of Kṛṣṇa’s words. His points were good. Arjuna was the world’s greatest warrior and his dynasty were world emperors. His marriage to Subhadrā was the arrangement of Providence for the good of the Yadus. They immediately sent messengers after Arjuna. He was brought back and received with honor. The city was decked out in flags and festoons and a great ceremony took place. Arjuna accepted Subhadrā’s hand before the sacred fire with the blessings of the ṛṣis. Then he remained in the city for a few more days. Finally, taking permission from Balarāma and Kṛṣṇa, he returned home. After a year away Arjuna longed to see his brothers again and introduce Subhadrā to them.

Chapter 14: Burning the Khāṇḍava Forest

The Yadus bestowed vast amounts of wealth on Arjuna, and he left Dwārakā accompanied by a long train of chariots and elephants as well as hundreds of thousands of cows decorated with silk and gold. Subhadrā rode with him on a fine golden chariot drawn by tall white steeds. They soon arrived at Indraprastha and Arjuna went straight to Yudhiṣṭhira. He clasped his feet and then worshipped him according to the Vedic injunctions. Arjuna then worshipped Dhaumya and the other ṛṣis in the royal court. When the ceremonies were complete his other brothers embraced him with tears in their eyes and asked him to relate to them all his adventures.

After spending time with his brothers, Arjuna went to see Draupadī. As he entered her chamber, she turned away from him and said, “O Arjuna, what brings you here at this time? You should go and be with your new bride. That daughter of the Satvata race must be missing you now.” Draupadī was annoyed. Arjuna was her favorite among the Pāṇḍavas and she feared he might come to prefer Subhadrā. The Pāṇḍava repeatedly begged her forgiveness and assured her that his love for her was in no way diminished. Draupadī continued to sulk. “A second tie always relaxes the first one, no matter how strong it may have been.”

Arjuna tried to console the beautiful Draupadī, but she remained silent, always looking away from him. Seeing that he could not win her over, he left her chamber and went to Subhadrā. He asked her to dress herself as a cowherd girl. He wanted to remind Draupadī that Subhadrā was the sister of Kṛṣṇa, Draupadī’s beloved Lord. Kṛṣṇa had begun His life as a cowherd boy in a small village. By having Subhadrā appear as a cowherd girl Arjuna hoped that Draupadī’s natural affection for Kṛṣṇa would be awakened and directed toward His sister.

The Yadu princess was brought into Draupadī’s chamber attired in simple red silk. The servant girls who showed her in said, “This maiden has asked if she could become your servant.” Subhadrā immediately bowed before Draupadī and said, “I am here to do your bidding.” Draupadī had never seen Subhadrā and did not realize who she was, but seeing her humble demeanor and being reminded of her Lord by Subhadrā’s rustic dress, Draupadī’s heart melted. She raised her hands and blessed her, saying, “May you become the wife of a hero and the mother of a hero. May you be without a rival.”

Subhadrā replied, “May it be so.” She then introduced herself. “I am Subhadrā, Kṛṣṇa’s sister.” Draupadī smiled and embraced her co-wife. Her jealousy and anger were dissipated by Subhadrā’s gentleness. She asked Subhadrā to tell her everything about Dwārakā and Kṛṣṇa. They spoke together for hours. Then Draupadī took Subhadrā by the hand and led her to meet Kuntī. The two Pāṇḍava queens soon became close friends and would spend much time together, discussing the activities of Kṛṣṇa and His associates.

A few days after Arjuna’s return, Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma came to Indraprastha. Accompanied by His sons and ministers and riding at the head of a great army, Kṛṣṇa entered the Pāṇḍavas’ city where He was greeted at the gates by Nakula and Sahadeva. As they proceeded in state down the main highway, thousands of citizens stood along the roadside. They cheered and worshipped Kṛṣṇa and His elder brother as they moved slowly toward Yudhiṣṭhira’s palace. The Yadus gazed around them at the city. The roads were immaculately swept and sprinkled with perfumed water. Fences draped with bright garlands ran down the sides of the wide avenues. On the tops of tall white mansions flew countless flags and standards. The sweet scent of burning aloes filled the air and the sound of musical instruments could be heard.

Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma entered the Pāṇḍavas’ palace and went before Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers. Yudhiṣṭhira worshipped Balarāma with all due ceremony and embraced Kṛṣṇa with affection. Kṛṣṇa offered His respects and worship to Yudhiṣṭhira and Bhīma, then took His seat in the assembly hall. Many important personalities from Dwārakā also took their places in the hall, including Akrūra, Uddhava, Sātyaki, Kṛtavarmā, Sāraṇa and Kṛṣṇa’s sons Pradyumna, Sāmba and Aniruddha.

Kṛṣṇa then gave Arjuna all the bridal gifts for Subhadrā that her relatives in Dwārakā had sent. He gave heaps of gold bricks and precious gems to Yudhiṣṭhira. Kṛṣṇa also presented the king with one thousand chariots adorned with rows of golden bells, each of them yoked to four steeds driven by well-trained charioteers, ten thousand milk-bearing cows, one thousand moonlike white horses with golden harnesses, and a thousand white mules with black manes, which could run at the speed of the wind. As well as this, Balarāma gave Arjuna as a wedding gift one thousand elephants, each resembling a hill and decked with golden ornaments and bells. Innumerable other items were offered to the Pāṇḍavas, being brought before them by Kṛṣṇa’s servants. Placed outside the hall, the wealth given by the Yādavas looked like a sea stretching in all directions.

Yudhiṣṭhira graciously accepted the gifts and then arranged for all the Yādavas to be accommodated in his palace. They and the Pāṇḍavas passed many days together in happiness, and when it came time for them to leave, the Pāṇḍavas in turn presented them with brilliant gems as gifts. With Balarāma at their head, the Yadus headed back to Dwārakā, but Kṛṣṇa decided to remain behind to spend some time alone with Arjuna.

One day Arjuna suggested, “O Kṛṣṇa, the days are hot. Let us go for some time to the banks of the Yamunā. We have constructed many fine pleasure houses there.”

Kṛṣṇa agreed to his proposal and they set off. They soon arrived at a charming spot amid groves of tall trees. High white mansions stood along the river banks, looking like a city of the gods. Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna entered one of the houses where they were served varieties of exquisitely flavoured food and drinks. They lay down upon golden couches spread with silk covers. After relaxing for some time they decided to go for a walk in the woods. The two heroes wandered along the riverbank, discussing martial arts and past battles they had each fought.

Having walked for a distance, they sat down upon an ivory bench that had been placed near the edge of a dense forest. As they continued to talk a Brahmin suddenly emerged from the woods. They looked at him in surprise. He resembled an old sal tree with a complexion like molten gold. His beard and hair were bright yellow and he shone like the morning sun. His two eyes were like lotus leaves, and his body was well-formed and powerful. As the Brahmin approached them, blazing like fire, Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna stood up and awaited his order.

In a resonant voice the Brahmin said, “I know you two to be the foremost of all men. I myself am a voracious Brahmin who eats much. I have therefore approached you in order to beg my food and to be gratified by you.”

Both Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna folded their palms and asked the Brahmin what food he would like. The Brahmin replied, “I do not eat ordinary food. Know me to be Agni, the fire-god. Give me food that suits me. Please help me to devour this Khāṇḍava forest.” He indicated the jungle by which they were standing. Although he had already made many attempts to consume the forest, his efforts had been repeatedly thwarted by Indra. This was because Indra’s friend, the Nāga Takṣakaḥ, lived in the forest. Whenever Agni blazed up and began to cover the forest, Indra would send torrents of rain to stop him. The fire-god continued, “Both of you are experts in arms. By your prowess you will be able to prevent Indra from stopping me. Thus I shall consume this great forest. O heroes, this is the food I desire to have from you.”

Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna looked at each other in surprise. They assured Agni that they would do everything in their power to help him, but they were curious as to why he wanted to consume this particular forest. The deity explained that the Khāṇḍava forest contained numerous varieties of medicinal herbs. He needed the herbs because he was suffering a malady due to having eaten excessive amounts of ghee. There had been a great sacrifice performed by a king named Swetaki in which so much ghee was offered into the fire that Agni became ill. Brahmā then told him that he could be cured if he ate the herbs in the Khāṇḍava forest. When Agni failed in his attempts to consume the forest, Brahmā told him that he would succeed if he could gain the assistance of Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna.

Brahmā had said, “In a previous incarnation, these two men were in fact the ancient and infallible deities Nara and Nārāyaṇa. They have appeared on the earth to accomplish the celestials’ purpose. Therefore, ask for their help.”

Agni concluded, “I now depend upon you two. I must eat this forest. Brahmā has also informed me that the living beings within the forest are sinful and should be destroyed. Therefore do not harbor any doubts. This act is sanctioned by authority.”

Arjuna replied, “I possess many celestial weapons, but I have no bow capable of bearing their power. If I am to achieve the task you have set, I will require an inexhaustible quiver of arrows and a chariot drawn by celestial steeds. If you can provide all this, then we will surely accomplish your desire.”

Agni meditated upon Varuṇa, god of the nether worlds, and the deity immediately appeared and said, “What shall I do for you?”

Agni knew that Varuṇa kept many celestial weapons in the depths of the ocean. Therefore he asked him to present Arjuna with the celestial bow Gāṇḍīva as well as two inexhaustible quivers of arrows. Agni also asked that Varuṇa bring forth a chariot belonging to Soma, the moon-god. Varuṇa agreed and caused all those things to appear at that spot.

Arjuna looked with wonder at the Gāṇḍīva bow. It appeared like a rainbow embedded with celestial gems. As tall as a man, it was flawless. The Pāṇḍava took up the shining bow and forcefully twanged its string. A sound like the crash of thunder resounded throughout the forest, terrifying all the creatures. Holding the bow, the joyful Arjuna next approached the huge, golden chariot. It was filled with varieties of celestial weapons as well as the two inexhaustible quivers Agni had requested. The chariot was yoked with golden harnesses to silvery steeds from the land of the Gandharvas. These horses were capable of going anywhere within all the worlds and could move with the speed of the wind or the mind. Above the chariot flew a banner bearing an image of Hanumān, Rāma’s great monkey servant. Hanumān seemed to be burning everything that fell within his gaze. Other flags flew on the chariot bearing images of fierce beasts. All the creatures roared terribly from their standards.

Arjuna circumambulated the chariot and then mounted it like a virtuous man ascending to heaven. He put on the suit of celestial armor that lay there. As he stood with the Gāṇḍīva in his hand, he resembled the sun shining from behind an evening cloud. He then drove the chariot around, smiling as he heard the loud rumble of its wheels.

Varuṇa also gave Kṛṣṇa a club called Kaumodakī, which roared loudly when wheeled about and which could crush even Daityas and Dānavas. Kṛṣṇa then mounted Arjuna’s chariot, saying that he would become the driver.

Arjuna again addressed Agni, “O fire-god, we are now ready to satisfy your request. Armed with the Gāṇḍīva and assisted by Kṛṣṇa, I am able to withstand the entire host of gods united with the Asuras--what then to speak of Indra! Therefore, blaze up as much as you like and surround this forest.”

Agni immediately expanded himself around the forest and began to consume it with his seven kinds of flames. He assumed the fearful appearance he assumes at the end of an aeon which he uses to destroy all things. Kṛṣṇa then began to drive the chariot around the forest. It moved with such speed that it appeared to be continuously present on every side of the forest. Whenever Arjuna saw a creature trying to escape from the conflagration he immediately shot it down. Being slain in the presence of Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Deity, all the creatures dying in that forest assumed spiritual forms and ascended to the highest regions of transcendence.

The roar of the fire could be heard for miles. Red, orange and blue flames shot high into the sky. The lakes and ponds in the forest were boiled dry and the rocks melted. No creature was able to escape from the blazing Khāṇḍava forest and their screams mixed with the crackling of the fire. It blazed up to such an extent that it caused fear even to the celestials, who went in a body to Indra and said anxiously, “O lord of the immortals, why does Agni burn all creatures below? Has the time come for the world’s destruction?”

Indra looked himself to see what was happening on the earth. Feeling concern for his friend Takṣakaḥ, he set out at once to stop the fire. He sent down torrents of rain, which fell in columns as thick as tree trunks. But the rain was turned to steam by the heat of the fire even before it reached the forest below. Indra then became angry and amassed huge clouds over the forest which doubled the volume of rain. With its flames and smoke rising up, and with lightning and sheets of water falling from the sky, the forest became terrifying.

Arjuna saw Indra’s attempt to put out the fire and he sent hundreds of thousands of arrows in a tight network over the forest. That net of arrows acted as a vast umbrella and completely checked the falling rain.

The Nāga king Takṣakaḥ was not present in the Khāṇḍava, but both his wife and son were caught in the blaze. They flew swiftly upwards and were seen by Arjuna. He instantly fired an arrow which severed the snake lady’s head. He then trained another arrow upon Takṣakaḥ’s son, Aśvasena. Seeing this, Indra raised a violent wind around Arjuna which temporarily deprived him of his senses. Aśvasena escaped and disappeared into the sky.

As he regained his senses, Arjuna became angry with Indra. He shouted a challenge to the god and covered the sky with his arrows. Indra too became angry with Arjuna and released his tremendous thunderbolt weapon. Without delay Arjuna invoked the Vāyavya weapon which dispersed the huge black clouds. That powerful wind weapon completely dispelled the energy of Indra’s thunderbolts and lightning flashes. The sky became clear and a gentle breeze began to blow. Agni blazed up even more, fanned by the breeze and fed with the fat of bodies burning in the forest. He filled the sky with his roars.

Indra summoned many other celestials to fight with Arjuna. Hosts of powerful heavenly fighters appeared and began to send their weapons at both him and Kṛṣṇa. Blazing iron balls, bullets, rocks and countless arrows shot toward them. Arjuna countered all the missiles with his arrows--at the same time he cut down his assailants, who fell screaming into the fire. Arjuna was unconquerable as he stood on the battlefield releasing his deadly arrows, with Kṛṣṇa skillfully guiding the chariot.

Indra then mounted his celestial elephant, Airāvata, and rushed down upon Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa, shouting, “These two are killed.” He raised his personal weapon known as the Vajra and urged on his elephant. Seeing Indra advance the other principal gods followed him. Yamarāja took up his death-dealing club, Kuvera his mace and Varuṇa his noose. The commander of the celestial army, Skanda, raised his Śakti weapon, and Sūrya came with his brilliant dart. The other gods charged behind Indra with their own weapons raised. The Viśvadevas, Sādhyas, Rudras, Vasus and Marutas all advanced in a body toward Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa, who stood fearlessly below.

Even though they exerted themselves with full force, however, the celestials were unable to overpower Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna. Struck by Arjuna’s mystical arrows, the gods were forced to retreat. Indra smiled. He was pleased with Arjuna who was, after all, his son, and he also understood Kṛṣṇa’s position. Indra knew that no one could overcome Kṛṣṇa or anyone supported by Him. Obviously Kṛṣṇa desired that Agni consume the forest and, at the same time, He was enhancing the fame and glory of His friend Arjuna.

Then, desiring to test Arjuna’s power further, Indra sent down a thick shower of boulders. Arjuna quickly reduced the stones to dust with his swift arrows. Indra then tore off the peak of a massive mountain and hurled it at Arjuna. Not disturbed in the least, Arjuna cut the flying mountain peak into a thousand pieces which rained down upon the forest below.

Indra was gladdened by Arjuna’s prowess. He ordered the celestials to withdraw and, as he did so, an invisible voice was heard in the sky: “O Indra, your friend Takṣakaḥ is not in the forest at present. Nor will it be possible for you to defeat in battle Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa. These two are Nara and Nārāyaṇa, the immortal and invincible ṛṣis. They are worthy of even the gods’ worship. Desist from the battle, for the burning of the Khāṇḍava has been ordained by fate.”

Having heard that voice, which they knew belonged to the universal creator Brahmā, the gods retired to their own abodes. For fifteen days Agni continued to consume the forest along with its inhabitants. As the forest was destroyed, hordes of Rākṣasas, Dānavas and Nāgas rushed out in fear. Arjuna cut them down with volleys of arrows. None could even look at him as he stood releasing his searing shafts. Gradually the forest was reduced to ashes and Agni was gratified.

There was a leader of the Asura race named Maya, who had been dwelling in the Khāṇḍava. Having hid himself underground, he now rushed out of the forest and tried to escape. Agni chased the Asura and Kṛṣṇa raised His discus weapon, Sudarśana, ready to kill him. The intelligent Maya ran to Arjuna and fell at his feet. “O Arjuna, I seek your protection. Save me! I supplicate myself before you.”

Arjuna raised his hand and replied, “Do not fear.” He could not refuse to protect anyone who sought his shelter. He turned toward Kṛṣṇa and asked Him to spare the Asura’s life. Kṛṣṇa lowered His weapon and Agni also stood back.

As the flames in the forest died down, Indra again appeared before Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa. Agni stood next to him as he said, “O Pārtha, O Keśava, you have achieved that which could not be achieved by any celestial. Please ask from me any boon you desire. I am very much pleased.”

Arjuna asked Indra for all his celestial weapons. Indra smiled and replied that he would indeed give him the weapons--but not yet. When Śiva would give Arjuna his Pāśupāta weapon, then Indra would bring him to heaven and give him all the fire and wind weapons. That time would come in the future.

Kṛṣṇa then asked that His friendship with Arjuna might last forever and Indra said, “It shall be so.”

Finally, Agni said, “I also wish to give you a boon. Just as I pervade this universe, so by my power will you be able to go anywhere you desire within the universe.” The gods then returned to the heavens.

As Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna made their way back to their mansion, Maya approached them. He bowed at Arjuna’s feet and said, “O son of Kuntī, you have saved me from the angry Kṛṣṇa and the hungry Agni. Tell me what I can do for you in return.”

Arjuna replied, “I cannot take anything from you to repay me. This is my firm principle. I act only out of duty. It was my duty to save you and therefore you bear me no obligation. Go in peace.”

Maya praised Arjuna’s virtue, but he insisted upon doing something for the Pāṇḍava. “I simply wish to please you, O Pārtha. You need not see it as repayment.”

Arjuna again said that he could not accept anything from Maya. “I do not want to frustrate your desire. If you want to please me, then do something for Kṛṇa. That will be more pleasing to me than anything else.”

Maya turned and looked expectantly at Kṛṣṇa who was smiling softly. After reflecting for a moment he said, “You are the architect of the celestial demons. If you wish to please Me, then build a splendid assembly hall for Yudhiṣṭhira. The like of this hall should not be found anywhere in the world. It should contain the features of celestial architecture and be impossible for anyone else to emulate.”

The Asura’s skills were well known to Kṛṣṇa. Maya had constructed many wondrous edifices in the higher planets for the Daityas and Dānavas. Maya then assented to Kṛṣṇa’s request and accompanied Him and Arjuna back to Indraprastha, where he was introduced to Yudhiṣṭhira. The eldest Pāṇḍava marveled as Arjuna narrated the story of how the Khāṇḍava forest was burnt. He received Maya with honor and discussed the hall with him. After much thought Maya drew up a design. He then began to consider where to find the necessary materials for constructing the celestial hall. He told the Pāṇḍavas that he needed to go to the Himālayas. “I have left there a large quantity of rough diamonds and other precious stones of every description, including those not found on this earth. I shall go to fetch them.”

Maya explained that he had formerly been engaged by Vṛṣaparvā, king of the Dānavas, to construct sacrificial altars for the Asuras. He had gathered all kinds of celestial materials which he had stored at Vṛṣaparvā’s house high up on the Maināka mountain. There was also a great club with which Vṛṣaparvā had once withstood the gods in battle. Maya would bring that club, equal to one hundred thousand ordinary clubs, and give it to Bhīma. He would also fetch from the depths of a lake on Maināka the large celestial conch shell known as Devadatta for Arjuna. If Arjuna blew that conch on the battlefield, it would shatter his opponents’ hearts.

Having gained Yudhiṣṭhira’s permission, the Asura left quickly for the north. He found all his wealth guarded by Yakṣas and Rākṣasas, and with their assistance he brought it back to Indraprastha. After presenting the club to Bhīma and the conch shell to Arjuna, he commenced work.

Chapter 15: The Celestial Hall

Soon after Maya began his work on the hall, Kṛṣṇa approached Yudhiṣṭhira and asked his permission to return to Dwārakā. He had been away for months and now desired to again see His relatives. Yudhiṣṭhira gave his permission reluctantly, knowing he would miss his beloved friend. Kṛṣṇa then said His farewells, first going to Kuntī and touching her feet in respect.

Shedding tears, Kuntī embraced Kṛṣṇa and said, “My dear Keśava, You are the Supreme Soul of this universe. You are always kindly disposed toward everyone but You especially protect Your devotees. From the day that Akrūra arrived in Hastināpura I knew You were thinking of the welfare of myself and my sons. I am confident that whatever difficulties we may experience are arranged by Providence for our ultimate good.”

Kṛṣṇa smiled at Kuntī and then left her, promising that He would return before long. He then went to see His sister Subhadrā and bid her an affectionate farewell. After that Kṛṣṇa went to Draupadī, who cried at the thought of His departure. Like her husbands and mother-in-law, Draupadī thought constantly of Kṛṣṇa. She bowed at His feet and worshipped Him, praying that He might soon return.

After performing the due rites of departure, and after offering charity to the Brahmins, Kṛṣṇa mounted His chariot along with Sātyaki, who had remained with Him in Indraprastha to learn archery from Arjuna. Surrounded by the five Pāṇḍavas, Kṛṣṇa looked like Indra surrounded by the gods. He proceeded slowly along the royal highway toward the city gate. Thousands of citizens lined the streets shouting and waving as Kṛṣṇa departed in His chariot, drawn by Śaibya and Sugrīva and bearing the sign of Garuḍa. Yudhiṣṭhira mounted the chariot and personally took the reins. Arjuna stood on the chariot fanning Kṛṣṇa with a golden handled chamara whisk. Bhīma held a white parasol over Kṛṣṇa’s head and Nakula and Sahadeva walked ahead on either side of His chariot, clearing the way.

The Pāṇḍavas accompanied Kṛṣṇa out of the city for four miles. Kṛṣṇa then told them to return home. He bowed to Yudhiṣṭhira, who tearfully raised Him and said with affection, “My dear Kṛṣṇa, I do not know what kind of pious activities we must have performed in previous lives so that You are now so gracious toward us. Even highly renounced yogīs and mystics attain a sight of You only with great difficulty. Yet we are householders engaged in politics and worldly affairs. I do not understand why You are so kind to us.”

Kṛṣṇa smiled and asked Yudhiṣṭhira if He could leave for Dwārakā. Yudhiṣṭhira assented and with great difficulty Kṛṣṇa persuaded the Pāṇḍavas not to follow Him. He told them that He would always be ready to assist them whenever they needed Him. They need only think of Him. Kṛṣṇa then urged His horses onwards and the five brothers stood together gazing at His chariot as it disappeared into the distance. They then slowly returned to Indraprastha, their minds absorbed in thoughts of their friend from Dwārakā.

A few days after Kṛṣṇa left, Maya, having completed all his designs and plans, began his actual construction. On an auspicious day marked by favorable stars the Asura measured out a piece of land five thousand cubits square. Before commencing work, he distributed charity to thousands of Brahmins. He arranged for them to be fed with the finest of foods and gave them wealth, invoking their blessings before he began.

Maya then erected thousands of golden pillars upon which he constructed a splendorous assembly hall. After fourteen months the hall was completed. It appeared like a mass of new clouds rising in the sky, and its celestial effulgence seemed to darken the sun’s rays. It was spacious, cool, delightful and filled with wealth. With its golden walls and archways inlaid with celestial gems, and its crystal stairways worked with coral, the hall surpassed even the Yadus’ Sudharmā hall. In its center was a beautiful artificial pond filled with lotuses and lilies whose stalks were made of brilliant gems, and with other flowers and leaves made of gold and silver. On its clear waters there were also real lotuses in full blossom. Swans, kāraṇḍavas and chakravarkas swam about on its surface and golden-colored turtles played on its bottom. The sides of the pond were set with costly marble slabs studded with pearls, and all around it were celestial flowers shivering in a gentle breeze. The hall was adorned with gardens full of ever-blossoming trees, and the air was filled with a delicious fragrance that mixed with the scent of the lotuses on the lake.

Maya arranged for eight thousand powerful Rākṣasas, known as Kiṅkarās, to guard that hall. Keeping themselves invisible, the well-armed Rākṣasas, who had massive bodies and fearful faces, arrow-shaped ears and blood-red eyes, stationed themselves all around the hall, ever alert to danger. The Asura then reported to Yudhiṣṭhira that the hall was ready for occupation.

Yudhiṣṭhira consulted with the Brahmins and selected an auspicious day to enter the hall. He fed and gave charity to thousands of Brahmins and, along with his brothers, worshipped Viṣṇu and the gods. A ceremony was arranged and actors, bards, singers and wrestlers exhibited their skill for the Pāṇḍavas’ pleasure. A feast was then distributed to all of Indraprastha’s citizens. Precisely at noon the Pāṇḍavas, followed by crowds of ṛṣis, entered their hall through the enormous golden doors at its eastern entrance. They took their places on the jewel-encrusted thrones at the head of the main hall. Around them sat the ṛṣis and many kings who had been invited from other countries. In that assembly were seen numerous famous ṛṣis such as Asita, Devala, Vyāsadeva, Maitreya, Parvata, Mārkaṇḍeya, Jaimini, Bhṛgu and hundreds of others. All the virtuous sages had their mind and senses under full control and they looked like so many full moons shining amid the assembly.

The Pāṇḍavas listened respectfully as the ṛṣis recited Vedic histories to invoke auspiciousness. The kings in attendance then stepped forward one by one to make offerings to Yudhiṣṭhira and to worship him with all honor. Citrasena, the Gandharva leader, arrived with the Apsarās. Along with the Cāraṇas descended from the heavens, they entertained the assembly with celestial music and dance. Worshipped and entertained by such beings, Yudhiṣṭhira resembled Brahmā seated in his own hall on the highest planet in the universe.

Suddenly, the Pāṇḍavas saw Nārada Ṛṣi appear by his mystical power. Dressed in a black deerskin, with his golden hair knotted on top of his head, he seemed like a brilliant sun rising in the hall. Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers immediately stood in respect. They bowed low to Nārada, who was accompanied by Pārijāta, Raivata and Sumukha, three other powerful sages. Yudhiṣṭhira offered all the ṛṣis seats and they sat peacefully as the Pāṇḍavas worshipped them with sacred offerings as well as with precious gems and jewels. Gratified, the sages were joyous to behold the wonderful assembly hall.

Nārada said, “O King, is your wealth being spent properly for the protection of the people? Is your mind fixed in virtue? Are you enjoying the pleasures of life? I trust that you do not sacrifice religion for the sake of profit, nor profit for the sake of religion, nor indeed both religion and profit for the sake of pleasure, which easily tempts men.”

Nārada continued to question Yudhiṣṭhira on a variety of subjects, his questions effectively constituting a number of instructions on the art of kingship. Yudhiṣṭhira sat with folded palms and listened attentively. The entire assembly remained silent as Nārada, the foremost of the ṛṣis, spoke. His knowledge and wisdom were famed throughout the universe. Nārada was fully acquainted with every aspect of the Vedic teachings, and he was renowned as a great devotee and servant of the Supreme Lord. He knew the Lord’s desire, and his movements and actions were always arranged to assist the divine plan. The Pāṇḍavas were reverent as he instructed them. The whole aim of the monarch, Nārada explained, was to keep his people on the path of progressive spiritual life, helping them advance toward life’s ultimate goal of emancipation, while ensuring that they were protected and had all their material needs provided.

As Nārada finished his instructions, Yudhiṣṭhira thanked him and said, “O great sage, you have asked me if my study of scripture, my wealth and my marriage are all successful. Please tell me how I can succeed in these things.”

Nārada, who had ended his speech with those three questions, replied, “Scriptural knowledge is successful when it results in humility and good conduct, wealth is successful when it is both enjoyed and given away in charity, and marriage is successful when the wife is enjoyed and bears offspring.”

Concluding his instructions, the ṛṣi said, “O great king, be sure that you are always free of the five evils which assail men: excessive sleep, fear, anger, weakness of mind and procrastination.”

Yudhiṣṭhira again bowed to Nārada and took hold of his feet, saying, “I shall surely do all that you have said. My knowledge has been increased by your wise words.”

Yudhiṣṭhira replied in detail to all of Nārada’s questions. When he finished the sage blessed him by saying, “That king who properly performs his duties will pass his days in happiness and at the end of his life he surely ascends to the regions of heavenly happiness.”

Yudhiṣṭhira became curious to learn from Nārada about the assembly halls possessed by the gods. He wondered if there were any equal to the one Maya had built for him. In the presence of the many kings and sages in his hall Yudhiṣṭhira asked, “O great ṛṣi, you can travel with the speed of the mind and go anywhere within the universe. Please tell me of all the assembly halls you have seen. Do any of them equal mine?”

The Pāṇḍava asked Nārada to describe in detail the other halls as well as who was to be found in them. Who waited upon Indra in his hall and who upon Yamarāja? Which fortunate souls attended Brahmā in his hall? Yudhiṣṭhira’s enquiry was pointed. He wanted to know where his ancestors, the great kings of the past, had gone. He was especially eager to hear of his father, Pāṇḍu. Had Pāṇḍu attained the highest heaven? Yudhiṣṭhira waited expectantly for Nārada to reply.

Nārada described the great halls belonging to all the principal gods, beginning with that of Indra. Indra’s hall is one hundred and fifty yojanas long, more than a thousand miles, and a hundred yojanas wide, and it shines with the splendor of the sun. It is capable of dispelling grief, fatigue, fear and weakness. Indra sits there in a magnificent, ethereal form adorned with a brilliant crown and bracelets, and wearing effulgent white robes. He is decorated with celestial garlands of many hues. By his side sits personified Beauty, Fame and Glory. Nārada named all the ṛṣis and other personalities who wait upon the king of the gods. Faith, Intelligence and Learning are all present in his court, as are Sacrifice, Charity, Religion, Profit and Pleasure. But there was only one earthly king from the past, the royal sage Hariścandra.

Nārada went on to describe Yamarāja’s hall. His hall is a full hundred yojanas square and is delightful in every way. No pain of any kind exists within that hall and it contains every object of desire, both celestial and human. It could travel anywhere in the universe according to its owner’s will. Time and Death personified sit on either side of Yamarāja, and countless ṛṣis surround him. Gandharvas and Apsarās entertain the occupants of the hall with music and dance. The scent of divine perfumes fills the air. Nārada named the personalities who wait upon Yamarāja, which included all the monarchs in Yudhiṣṭhira’s line, ending with Pāṇḍu.

Nārada then described Varuṇa’s hall, and then that of Kuvera, the lord of wealth. Both those halls were opulent beyond imagination, being filled with gold and gems, and inhabited by numerous gods and ṛṣis and their shining consorts. Nārada told Yudhiṣṭhira about Brahmā’s hall. The actual form of that mystical hall cannot be ascertained as it can assume various indescribable forms from moment to moment. The hall is made of celestial gems which constantly change hue, and it appears to be suspended in the firmament by its own power. The self-effulgent hall knows no deterioration and it continuously increases the happiness of its occupants. Brahmā sits there surrounded by the personified forms of Mind, Space, Knowledge, Sound, Touch, Form, Taste, Scent, Nature, all the elements and the Prime Causes of the universe. Present also are the Sun, Moon, all the stars and constellations, Joy, Aversion, Asceticism, Understanding, Patience, Wisdom, Forgiveness, Fortune and all the Vedas.

Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers sat in rapt attention as Nārada spoke about the immeasurable splendor and opulence of Brahmā’s hall. He named all the chief progenitors and all the principal gods and goddesses who waited upon Brahmā.

When Nārada stopped speaking, Yudhiṣṭhira began to question him further. He wanted to know why only Hariścandra, out of all the great kings of the past, had attained to Indra’s abode. He also wanted Nārada to tell him about his meeting with Pāṇḍu. What did Pāṇḍu say to the sage? How was he faring now in Yamarāja’s assembly?

Nārada explained that Hariścandra had reached Indra’s planet because he had performed the great Rājasūya sacrifice. That sacrifice involved subjugating all other kings and distributing charity to hundreds of thousands of Brahmins, and it had set Hariścandra apart from the other kings. Nārada then told Yudhiṣṭhira that Pāṇḍu had given him a message for his son. If Yudhiṣṭhira could also perform the Rājasūya, then both he and Pāṇḍu could reach Indra’s kingdom. Pāṇḍu felt that his sons were now capable of performing such an incomparable sacrifice. If they were successful, then father and sons would be reunited in heaven.

Both Nārada and Pāṇḍu understood that the gods had their own purposes to fulfill through Yudhiṣṭhira’s performance of the Rājasūya. It was part of a divine plan meant to free the world of demonic influences. There were presently many evil kings and kṣatriyas inhabiting the earth. Before beginning the sacrifice, Yudhiṣṭhira would need to overpower them. Only then would he be able to perform the Rājasūya, and only then would he be able to establish piety and virtue throughout the world. Nārada looked around at the five brothers who sat humbly before him. He knew they were dear to Kṛṣṇa, who wanted to use them as instruments to fulfill His own desire to reestablish religion upon the earth.

Nārada concluded, “Therefore, O King, you should perform the Rājasūya sacrifice. The celestials have ordained it. I shall return when the sacrifice begins. Now I am going to Dwārakā, for I desire to see Kṛṣṇa, under whose will this entire universe is moving.”

Nārada stood up to leave and Yudhiṣṭhira requested him to ask Kṛṣṇa to again visit Indraprastha. Nārada agreed and the Pāṇḍavas bowed before him and his companions. The ṛṣis then disappeared into the sky by their mystic power.

After Nārada’s departure, the Pāṇḍavas continued to live peacefully at Indraprastha, but Yudhiṣṭhira was contemplating how he might perform the Rājasūya sacrifice. He knew that it required vast wealth. It also necessitated his being able to establish his indisputable power over all other kings. How would it ever be possible? There were certain kings who would never accept him as their emperor--the mighty Jarāsandha of Magadha, for example. Jarāsandha was wicked, and he had already conquered all the districts surrounding his kingdom. Yudhiṣṭhira had even heard that Jarāsandha imprisoned the kings he defeated, with the intention to sacrifice them to Śiva. Jarāsandha was ambitious. He already had designs on the emperor’s seat, and he was not an easy opponent to defeat. Yudhiṣṭhira realized that he would only be able to perform the Rājasūya with Kṛṣṇa’s help.

Yudhiṣṭhira’s kingdom was flourishing under his leadership, and his citizens were devoted to piety. They had everything they desired. The Pāṇḍavas saw the citizens as family. Yudhiṣṭhira was more than a father to them, and no one in the kingdom entertained any hostile feelings toward him. Gradually he became known as Ajātaśatru, “one without an enemy.” And due to his religious leadership the gods were also pleased, and thus the kingdom was not afflicted by fire, disease or other natural disturbances.

Still thinking about the sacrifice, Yudhiṣṭhira called an assembly of ministers and advisors. When they were all seated in the great council chamber of the Pāṇḍavas’ hall, which was called the Mayasabha, Yudhiṣṭhira began to address them, his voice resounding like a bass drum. “I wish to perform the Rājasūya. Having been asked to do so by the great sage Nārada, I can understand that the gods must surely desire it. I do not want dominion over this earth for myself, but I wish to fulfill the gods’ purpose, and especially that of the Supreme Lord.”

Yudhiṣṭhira also considered that if he invited Kṛṣṇa to the sacrifice, he could arrange that He be honored as the chief person present. That would establish the Lord’s fame and position all over the world. Kṛṣṇa was superior to even the greatest gods, such as Brahmā and Śiva. Yudhiṣṭhira expected those gods to attend his sacrifice, so if people saw them worshipping Kṛṣṇa as supreme, then His position above those deities would be established.

Then Dhaumya spoke. “O King, you are worthy to become the emperor of this world. Therefore perform this sacrifice and establish yourself as such. We shall light the six fires and chant the sacred mantras. But first you must gain the acquiescence of the worlds’ monarchs. After that you will surely become the undisputed king of this wide earth.”

Having gained the permission of his priest and counselors, Yudhiṣṭhira discussed the means by which he might proceed. They all agreed that he should immediately consult Kṛṣṇa. Kṛṣṇa would certainly provide infallible advice. Yudhiṣṭhira then thought of Kṛṣṇa all the more intensely, praying that He might soon come to his assistance.

Chapter 16: Mighty Jarāsandha

After leaving Indraprastha, Kṛṣṇa had traveled quickly back to Dwārakā. As He entered the city He was greeted by His relatives, friends, and countless citizens. After approaching King Ugrasena to offer respects, Kṛṣṇa saluted Balarāma and then went to see His wives and sons. Finally He entered the palace of His principal queen, Rukmīṇī, to rest.

During the coming months He heard about the Pāṇḍavas’ incomparable assembly hall. He also heard that Subhadrā’s first son had been born, and that they had named him Abhimanyu. Kṛṣṇa was joyful to hear that the Pāṇḍavas were flourishing and He began to desire to see them again.

Each day Kṛṣṇa went to the Sudharmā assembly hall to meet with the citizens. Viśvakarmā, the architect of the gods, had constructed this hall, and it had the special quality of freeing those who entered it from the six kinds of material sufferings: hunger, thirst, lamentation, illusion, old age and death. When Kṛṣṇa entered the hall, He would bow before King Ugrasena, then take His seat on a bejeweled golden throne. Although not Dwārakā’s king, Kṛṣṇa was nevertheless respected as the most important person present. The city’s inhabitants understood His divine status. They regarded Him as their natural leader, especially after He had personally deposed the previous king, Kaṁsa, Ugrasena’s cruel son, and freed them from his reign of terror.

Once everyone was settled in the hall, jesters, dancers and musicians were called out to entertain the Yādavas. Brahmins recited Vedic texts or chanted hymns and prayers, and one could hear the sounds of mṛdaṅga drums, flutes and bells around the hall, as well as blasts from numerous conch shells. Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma enjoyed the various performances, and they resembled the sun and moon amid so many shining planets.

One day, soon after Kṛṣṇa had received news of the opening of the Mayasabha, a stranger arrived at the Sudharmā hall. Kṛṣṇa gave him permission to enter and he stepped forward with folded palms. The man introduced himself as a king from a distant territory--one that Jarāsandha had conquered. He explained how the Magadha king had become more and more aggressive, how he imprisoned the thousands of kings he conquered, and how he kept them in a wretched condition until he was ready to kill them. He had managed to escape and had come as a messenger on the other kings’ behalf.

“O Kṛṣṇa, O unlimited one. We beg You to deliver us from our miserable condition. Jarāsandha is as powerful as ten thousand elephants. He has therefore been able to imprison us just as a lion captures a flock of sheep. You are the most powerful person and are always kindly disposed to those who seek Your shelter. Therefore, please act for our good fortune.”

It was well known that Kṛṣṇa had fought and defeated Jarāsandha many times, but the evil monarch had somehow escaped with his life. Jarāsandha hated Kṛṣṇa for his killing of Kaṁsa, who was both Jarāsandha’s friend and his son-in-law. In an attempt to avenge Kaṁsa, Jarāsandha had marched against the Yadus again and again at the front of a vast army, but each time his army had been destroyed and he had returned in shame to his kingdom to rebuild his forces, still burning with hatred for Kṛṣṇa.

Kṛṣṇa looked compassionately at the messenger. As He was about to reply, Nārada Ṛṣi suddenly entered the hall. The sage came before Kṛṣṇa, who immediately rose with His ministers to offer His heartfelt obeisances.

Kṛṣṇa offered the sage a seat and personally worshipped him with arghya. He then said, “O sage among the gods, it is fortunate indeed that we see you here today. You are able to travel freely throughout the worlds and therefore you know everything. Please tell us how the Pāṇḍavas are faring at present and what are Yudhiṣṭhira’s plans?”

Kṛṣṇa’s question was significant. By His mystic power He understood that Yudhiṣṭhira was desiring to perform the Rājasūya sacrifice, which would entail his having to conquer Jarāsandha.

Nārada replied, “My dear Lord, I know that nothing is beyond Your knowledge, yet still You act like an ordinary man and question me. I can therefore tell You that Yudhiṣṭhira is as well established in his kingdom as Indra is in Amarāvatī. He now desires to perform the great Rājasūya sacrifice, and he is making the necessary preparations. Even now he is praying that You will go to Indraprastha and assist him. Indeed, he has asked me to come and invite You.”

Kṛṣṇa thanked Nārada for the information and turned to His chief advisor Uddhava. “What should be done?”

Uddhava replied, “It seems that You can achieve two things at once. By going to Indraprastha You will both enable Your cousin to perform the sacrifice and bring about Jarāsandha’s destruction. Jarāsandha has now amassed such a large army that the only way we can defeat him is in a one-on-one encounter. Only one person is capable of facing him in hand-to-hand combat: Bhīma. If Bhīma approaches Jarāsandha disguised as a Brahmin, then he can beg from him a fight. Jarāsandha is famous for never refusing a Brahmin’s request. My dear Kṛṣṇa, You should accompany Bhīma to Magadha. He will certainly be successful in the fight if You are there to guide him.”

The assembly voiced their approval. The Yadus had already been planning how to kill the belligerent Jarāsandha. This seemed like a good solution. Thus Kṛṣṇa agreed to go to Indraprastha. Reassuring the imprisoned kings’ messenger, He took permission from King Ugrasena and His father Vasudeva to depart, then rose and left the assembly.

Kṛṣṇa decided to travel in state with all His family members to Indraprastha, so He had arranged the Yadus in a long procession around Him. Amid the sounds of bugles, drums, trumpets and conch shells, the party left Dwārakā on thousands of golden chariots adorned with jewels, silks and flags. Soldiers armed with swords and lances and mounted upon great black horses protected them on all sides. The noble ladies proceeded in their palanquins; behind them, bulls, mules and asses carried supplies and paraphernalia for the long journey. Kṛṣṇa and Rukmīṇī traveled in the center of the procession on a chariot driven by Dāruka and Jaitra, His two personal servants.

The party passed through the provinces of Anartha, Sauvīra and Kurukṣetra. They crossed the rivers Drishadvati and Sarasvatī and then passed through the districts of Pañchāla and Matsya. Finally they arrived at the outskirts of Indraprastha and sent an advance party to inform the Pāṇḍavas that they would soon arrive.

When Yudhiṣṭhira heard that Kṛṣṇa had arrived, he cried out in joy. Along with his brothers he immediately ran out of the city to greet Him. He ordered the royal musicians to play and learned Brahmins to recite sacred hymns from the Vedas. The Pāṇḍavas then embraced Kṛṣṇa with affection and led Him into Indraprastha. Kṛṣṇa saw that the city was festively decorated with festoons, streamers and colorful garlands. Thousands of citizens crowded in the streets as He passed by with the Pāṇḍavas on His way to their palace. The procession of Yādavas following Him moved with difficulty through the thick crowds. They were all led to the royal quarters by Indraprastha’s chief citizens and leaders.

After Kṛṣṇa had rested and refreshed Himself, and His family had been settled, Yudhiṣṭhira approached Him to discuss the Rājasūya. “My dear Kṛṣṇa, I desire to perform this sacrifice but I wonder if I shall be successful. Please tell me what is best for me. I know You will never speak out of any motive other than for my welfare. Therefore I shall depend entirely upon Your words in deciding my course of action.”

Yudhiṣṭhira sat in his hall surrounded by his brothers. An iridescent glow from the thousands of celestial gems set in the walls lit up their faces as they looked at Kṛṣṇa, awaiting His advice. In the expectant silence of the hall the soft murmur of Brahmins chanting hymns could be heard drifting in from nearby temples.

Kṛṣṇa sat peacefully with His hands in His lap. Maidservants adorned with bright gold ornaments fanned Him gently with cāmaras and fans made of peacock feathers. Turning to Yudhiṣṭhira, He said, “You are fit in every way to perform the Rājasūya sacrifice and become the world emperor, but You will first have to overthrow the powerful Jarāsandha, who has formed a near invincible alliance with numerous other monarchs. He has extended his influence and control throughout the middle portion of the earth and has designs on the rest. He is the biggest stumbling block to your plans.”

Kṛṣṇa then listed the names of the many kings subservient to Jarāsandha. All were Kṛṣṇa’s enemies, and many of them had been defeated by Him and Balarāma in various battles over the years. Now they had come together under Jarāsandha’s leadership. With these kings united, their armies would be impossible to defeat. “What then do you think should be done, O descendent of Kuru? How will you overpower Jarāsandha?”

Bhīma leapt to his feet. “It would not be wise to send out an army to oppose Jarāsandha in his own province. We should challenge him to single combat. I have the strength to defeat him, and You, Kṛṣṇa, are expert in policy. Arjuna always brings victory. Therefore let us three go to Magadha and challenge him. I am confident of success.”

Kṛṣṇa replied, “This is My thought also. Indeed, the wise Uddhava advised Me in the same way. I for one am prepared to accompany Bhīma and Arjuna to Magadha to bring about the sinful Jarāsandha’s death.”

Yudhiṣṭhira was uncertain. He moved uneasily on his throne. “How can I allow You to go on my behalf?” he asked. “How too can I risk the lives of Bhīma and Arjuna? They are my eyes and You are my mind, O Kṛṣṇa. Bereft of any of you I could not possibly continue to live. Do not go. I think that even Yamarāja would not be able to face Jarāsandha. Pray desist from this determination to fight with him. I shall give up my desire to perform the Rājasūya. It seems an impossible goal.”

Yudhiṣṭhira’s voice was pleading. His love for Kṛṣṇa overpowered any thought of Kṛṣṇa’s divinity and unassailable position.

Arjuna then spoke. “We are born in a race famous for its valor and prowess. How can we, like weak men, shrink back in fear of an enemy? We are kṣatriyas. Our duty is to fight and--if necessary--lay down our lives in battle. There can be no higher act for us than to fight Jarāsandha and try to rescue the imprisoned kings. If we do not go, men shall revile us as worthless. Such dishonor would be worse than death.”

Kṛṣṇa agreed. “Arjuna has shown the mood of one born in the Bharata race. We do not know when death will overtake us, nor have we heard that immortality has been obtained by desisting from battle. The wise have decreed that one should, by taking recourse in strength and policy, confront his enemies. Let us therefore encounter Jarāsandha. Either we shall kill him or, being ourselves killed, ascend to heaven.”

Yudhiṣṭhira then became curious to know more of Jarāsandha’s history. Kṛṣṇa explained that he been born to King Bṛhadratha, a powerful ruler of Magadha, when a ṛṣi had blessed the king to attain a son. The ṛṣi had given Bṛhadratha a charmed mango to give to his senior queen, but the king divided it into two so that both his queens might conceive. Both wives then gave birth to only half a child. The sorrowing queens threw the two halves into the forest, where a Rākṣasa woman named Jara had picked them up. She put them together and the child suddenly came to life with a roar. Jara returned the baby to the king, who named him Jarāsandha, or “one who was joined by Jara.”

Kṛṣṇa added, “The time has now come to destroy this Jarāsandha. Without a doubt Bhīma will defeat him in single combat. Jarāsandha will not refuse to fight. Therefore, O King, grant us your permission to depart.”

Yudhiṣṭhira assented to Kṛṣṇa’s desire. “Seeing Your mind set upon this purpose, O Keśava, I consider Jarāsandha already killed and all the imprisoned kings released. You will certainly lead Bhīma and Arjuna to victory over that evil monarch. O Kṛṣṇa, what cannot be accomplished by one who has You as his guide?”

The three heroes decided to set off immediately. They dressed themselves as snatakas, students just finishing their education and seeking charity. Leaving Indraprastha they resembled the sun, the moon and the fire-god joined together. Their wrath toward Jarāsandha inflamed, their bodies appeared to blaze. When the people saw the three of them resolutely heading out, they considered Jarāsandha already killed.

They traveled east for many days. At last they came to the Goratha hill, from where they could see Jarāsandha’s capital, Girivraja. Sitting amid forest land, the city was beautiful with its lakes and grazing cattle. Fine mansions and palaces shone from the city center, and five large hills covered with blossoming trees surrounded it. Kṛṣṇa told the two Pāṇḍavas that this region had long ago been developed by Manu himself, the father of mankind.

The largest of the five hills, Chaityaka, protected the city’s main gate. The three heroes ascended this hill and began to tear down its peak with their bare hands. They hurled boulders and created a landslide. At the foot of the hill was a massive drum made from the skin of a Rākṣasa that Jarāsandha had slain. Having been struck once, the drum would vibrate for a full month, and Jarāsandha had it continually sounded to warn anyone who even thought of attacking the city. Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa smashed the drum to pieces.

Climbing down the hill they clambered over the wall surrounding the city to gain entrance. The guards stood back in surprise as the three apparent Brahmins made their unusual entrance. Bhīma led them along the streets toward the king’s palace. They saw numerous, attractive well-stocked shops. As they walked past the flower vendors, they snatched garlands and put them on. They strode into Jarāsandha’s palace and made their way to the central courtyard, where the king was performing a sacrifice.

Girivraja’s learned Brahmins had been witnessing fearful omens portending calamity. Thus they had advised the king to fast and to perform sacrifice to ward off evil. As Jarāsandha sat before the blazing fire, he saw three powerful men, dressed as snatakas and adorned with garlands, approaching him. Accepting them as Brahmins he immediately rose to greet them, saying, “You are welcome.”

Kṛṣṇa told the king that His two friends were observing a vow and would not speak until midnight. At that time, they would tell him the purpose of their visit. Kṛṣṇa knew that the king had himself made a vow that he would give to any Brahmin whatever he asked, even if he came at midnight. Jarāsandha had them quartered in his palace and said he would visit them at midnight.

That night, Jarāsandha entered their room and worshipped his three guests with proper ceremonies, offering them gifts of milk-bearing cows.

But his guests refused his worship and gifts. Kṛṣṇa said, “O King, we have come seeking a special kind of charity from you, who are famous for giving the Brahmins whatever they want. For a great man there is no charity that cannot be given. Even the body may be sacrificed for a proper cause. Therefore, please grant us our request.”

Jarāsandha looked at them closely. With their colorful robes and bright garlands they did not look like any Brahmins he had ever seen. But as they had come to him in that guise and were asking charity he could not refuse. He said, “I will give you whatever you may ask. However, you three do not appear to be Brahmins, dressed as you are and decorated with flowers. Your long arms, smeared with fragrant sandal paste, resemble tree trunks. Your hands carry scars from a bowstring. You tore down the peak of the Chaityaka hill and entered the city as enemies do, avoiding the gate. You have also refused my worship. Such behavior befits an enemy. I think you are kṣatriyas. Tell me honestly, for truth is the ornament even of kings.”

Kṛṣṇa returned the king’s icy stare with a smile. “Your observations are accurate. We are not Brahmins. The snataka vow may be followed by kṣatriyas as well as Brahmins. And you have surmised correctly that we are enemies. Thus we have entered your city violently and declined your worship. We have come to beg from you a duel.”

Jarāsandha was surprised. “I do not recall ever having done you any harm. Indeed, I am innocent of any crime. One who assails an innocent man receives sinful reactions which will send him to hell. I always observe the duties of my order, protecting the people and rendering them no harm. Why then do you see me as an enemy?”

Angry, Kṛṣṇa replied, “O King, we represent one who desires to uphold the dignity of a royal line and establish religion throughout the world. How do you consider yourself religious when you have imprisoned so many kings? You even intend to offer them as human sacrifices to Rudra. To treat these kings as if they were beasts--who could do such a thing except someone as sinful as yourself? You will certainly reap the results of your sinful acts, for the law of karma is infallible. Although you consider yourself without an equal, we will soon crush your pride. We wish to free the captive kings. Know Me to be Kṛṣṇa and these two to be Bhīma and Arjuna. Follow now your kṣatriya duty and fight with us today. Either free the kings or go to Yamarāja’s abode.”

Jarāsandha laughed. “I should have guessed. My old enemy Kṛṣṇa, come in disguise to try to kill me after failing so many times. What sin have I committed by capturing kings for Śiva’s pleasure? I defeated all of them fairly in battle. Therefore it is my prerogative to do with them whatever I please. I will not release them out of fear of You or these other two. I will fight, either by placing my troops in battle array, or by standing alone against the three of you. Or, if you prefer, I will fight whichever one of you most desires death at my hands.”

Kṛṣṇa looked at his two friends. “It is your choice, Jarāsandha. Select any one of us for single combat and let that settle our dispute.”

Jarāsandha preferred to fight with Bhīma. He considered Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna no match for his strength. Only Bhīma seemed powerful enough.

Bhīma smiled grimly and clenched his fists. He furrowed his brows and glared at Jarāsandha. They agreed to meet at sunrise and the king left to make preparations for the fight.

Jarāsandha had Brahmins utter auspicious Vedic hymns over him, and he smeared his body with sacred unguents that had been offered to the gods. He then placed his son upon the throne and bound his hair in a tight knot. Removing his royal robes, he donned only a loin cloth. As the sun rose he went out of the city along with Bhīma, for whom Kṛṣṇa had performed the propitiatory ceremonies to invoke the gods. The king had two massive clubs fetched from his armory. The two fighters took hold of the clubs and entered a large roped-off arena just outside the city gates. They appeared like two mighty lions staring at each other in fury. At a signal given by a Brahmin, they rushed at each other, shaking the earth with their steps.

The two powerful heroes roared as they came together. They each swung huge blows, creating fearful sounds and a shower of sparks as their maces met. Wheeling and dodging, they resembled two dancers on a stage. Onlookers were dazzled by their expertise with the club. They smashed one another with all their strength but neither gave way. Each was as powerful as ten thousand elephants and they merely laughed as the mace struck them. Soon both clubs were shattered and they threw them aside, continuing the fight with their bare hands.

They seized each other’s necks and dragged one another around the arena. Each looked for an opportunity to throw his opponent down. Bhīma grabbed his enemy and tried to crush him with his arms. Jarāsandha broke free and swung out his leg, trying to unbalance Bhīma. Sometimes they raised their arms, sometimes dropped them and sometimes held them close. Lifting their fists they aimed blows at particular parts of their opponent’s body, and then suddenly brought them down somewhere else. The arena resounded with their shouts and the sounds of their slaps and punches. Both were expert wrestlers, and again they exhibited many wonderful movements. They clasped each other’s arms and waists and pressed with great force. Roaring like clouds they fought relentlessly like a pair of maddened elephants.

By now a large crowd had formed around the arena. Citizens of every class came to see the fight, and they gasped in astonishment as the two men grappled. The sound coming from the arena resembled claps of thunder or a falling cliff. The earth shook violently as they rolled about, locked together. Neither showed any sign of fatigue as the fight continued throughout the day and up until sunset. As darkness fell, the fight was stopped until the next morning. Jarāsandha invited Bhīma and his two friends back to his palace and entertained them as honored guests. Even though they were enemies, Jarāsandha felt duty bound to respect them.

The next morning the fight resumed. Again it continued for the entire day without either fighter gaining an advantage. And as evening fell they again returned to the king’s palace.

The fight went on for twenty-eight days. Bhīma began to feel it would never end. There seemed to be no way to overpower Jarāsandha. The king too felt respect for his opponent. Jarāsandha had never before been equalled in single combat, but it appeared that the Pāṇḍava was invincible. On the twenty-eighth day, Kṛṣṇa considered how Bhīma might end the fight. Since Jarāsandha had been joined at birth by the Rākṣasī, Kṛṣṇa knew that he would be weak along that join. Bhīma should tear him in two. When Bhīma was able to see him, Kṛṣṇa picked up a twig and split it right down the middle. Bhīma took the hint. Finding an opportunity, he threw Jarāsandha to the ground and stood on one his legs. He then took hold of the other leg and pushed it forward. With a tremendous roar, he tore Jarāsandha in two from the anus to the head.

The king died with a scream that echoed throughout his entire city. The citizens were shocked by the cry and they rushed to see what had happened. They found Bhīma standing over the two halves of the slain monarch. As all the citizens cried out “Alas!” Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna came forward to embrace Bhīma. The three of them then went back to the city and ordered Jarāsandha’s son, Jayatsena, to release the imprisoned kings from the mountain fortress where they were held. The kings came down to the city and offered their respects and worship to Kṛṣṇa.

As Kṛṣṇa and the two Pāṇḍavas sat within Jarāsandha’s palace, all of the many thousands of captive kings bowed before them. On behalf of all of them one king addressed Kṛṣṇa, “My Lord, we can understand that our sufferings at Jarāsandha’s hands is the result of our own past sinful activities. We can now realize that Jarāsandha’s humiliation of us was actually providential, for it has forced us to give up our false prestige. We were proud of our strength and positions, and we simply engaged in fighting other kings for supremacy and wealth, thereby causing the death of so many people. Now we are in a helpless and wretched condition and can only depend upon You. This is our great fortune.”

Kṛṣṇa accepted their worship and arranged for them to be given food and clothing. He then told them to return to their kingdoms and accept Yudhiṣṭhira as the world’s emperor. Soon the Pāṇḍavas would perform the Rājasūya sacrifice, and they should all attend.

Jayatsena also agreed to accept Yudhiṣṭhira’s authority, and after being properly installed by Kṛṣṇa as the king of Magadha, he arranged transport back to Indraprastha for Kṛṣṇa and the Pāṇḍavas. Upon their arrival, Kṛṣṇa went to Yudhiṣṭhira and said, “O best of kings, by good fortune Jarāsandha has been killed and the imprisoned kings freed. Both Bhīma and Arjuna are unharmed.”

Yudhiṣṭhira joyfully embraced his two younger brothers and Kṛṣṇa. “By Your grace, dear Kṛṣṇa, anything can be achieved,” he said. “Indeed, it is only by Your power that anyone else can exhibit power. We are kings and rulers only as long as You permit; yet although You are the unlimited Supreme, devoid of mundane desire and hatred, You still appear as an ordinary human being.”

Kṛṣṇa smiled and asked Yudhiṣṭhira for permission to depart. Yudhiṣṭhira then set a date to begin the Rājasūya and Kṛṣṇa agreed to return at that time. First, however, the Pāṇḍavas would have to subjugate the other monarchs of the earth. Having bade farewell to Kuntī and Draupadī, Kṛṣṇa mounted His chariot and headed back to Dwārakā.

After Kṛṣṇa had departed, Arjuna said to Yudhiṣṭhira, “O King, I possess the Gāṇḍīva bow and inexhaustible quivers of arrows, as well as the prowess to use them in your service. I would like to go out and make the kings of the world pay you tribute. Allow me to go north and conquer all those kingdoms.”

Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “You have my permission, O Dhanañjaya. Leave on an auspicious day after gaining the Brahmins’ blessings. You will doubtlessly gain victory over all.”

Arjuna gathered a large number of troops and soon left for the north. Bhīma, surrounded by a similar number of men, went east, while Sahadeva went south and Nakula west.

Yudhiṣṭhira was thrilled at the prospect of soon being able to perform the Rājasūya. So many things would thus be achieved. His noble father would be raised to the highest heaven, the world would be placed firmly on the path of religion and, most of all, Kṛṣṇa would be honored above all others as the Supreme Person. Soon the king was consulting with Dhaumya and the other exalted Brahmins in his kingdom as to the preparations for the sacrifice, and Vyāsadeva arrived to further advise the king.

Chapter 17: The Rājasūya Sacrifice

Arjuna was becoming successful in his conquests. He first overpowered the king of the Kulindas, then the Anastas, then the Kalkuttas. He defeated the many kings on the island continent of Sakala, then encountered King Bhagadatta, a powerful warrior. The battle with Bhagadatta lasted eight days, but finally when the king found himself overpowered, he agreed to accept Yudhiṣṭhira’s rule.

Arjuna continued toward the north. He reached the mountains and vanquished the many barbarian tribes. Arriving in Kashmir, he subdued the region’s kṣatriyas, then passed over the Himālayas. To the north of the mountains lay the land inhabited by the Kimpuruṣas, semi-celestial beings born of Yakṣa women. Incensed at the approach of a human army, they fought a fierce battle, but finally Arjuna subdued them. The Pāṇḍava then conquered the land of the Guhakas, another tribe of celestial fighters, followed by a region inhabited by Gandharvas.

Finally Arjuna arrived in Harivarṣa, the land where the Northern Kurus dwelt. At the border, a number of powerful, large-bodied guards stopped him. They said, “O Arjuna, this land cannot be entered by humans. If you try you will perish along with your army. Indeed, even if you were able to enter, you would not see anything, because human eyes cannot see this land or its residents. Go back. There is nothing to be conquered here. Your conquests are already sufficient. We are pleased with you and will happily offer you a gift. What would you like?”

Arjuna bowed respectfully to the divine beings and said, “I desire Yudhiṣṭhira’s imperial dignity. If you accept him as the emperor of this wide earth, then please give something as a tribute.”

The Northern Kurus immediately offered Arjuna a large number of celestial clothes and ornaments, saying, “We know you and your brothers to be great servants of the Supreme Lord. Go now with our blessings. May you always gain victory.”

Taking all the wealth he had won, Arjuna returned to Indraprastha and reported his success to Yudhiṣṭhira.

Bhīma had in the meanwhile marched to the east with a powerful army. He first encountered the Pañchālas who happily accepted Yudhiṣṭhira’s rule. Then he overcame in battle the Gandakas, Videhas and Dasharnas. One by one Bhīma subdued the many kings in the east. When he reached Chedi he was received graciously by its king, Śiśupāla, who enquired, “My dear Pāṇḍava, what are you bent upon doing?”

Bhīma told him about the Rājasūya and Śiśupāla smiled. He agreed to attend and offer tribute to Yudhiṣṭhira. Although he had an old enmity with Kṛṣṇa, he respected the Pāṇḍavas as righteous and powerful rulers. The king offered Bhīma his hospitality for some days, then the Pāṇḍava continued on his way.

Bhīma overpowered the kingdoms of Kumāra, Kośala and Ayodhya. He reached the wetlands at the foot of the Himālayas and subjugated all the kings in that area. Moving on from there, Bhīma encountered the mighty races of the Matsyas and the Malavas. Such noble kṣatriyas had never known defeat, and out of pride in their strength and reputation, they felt obliged to resist Bhīma’s request that they surrender to Yudhiṣṭhira, although they bore the Pāṇḍavas no enmity. Eventually, however, Bhīma vanquished them in battle.

Either by diplomacy or force, Bhīma subjugated dozens of kings. Many of them then joined him as he marched on, bringing tribute to offer to Yudhiṣṭhira in Indraprastha. Those kings who did not surrender were slain by the Pāṇḍava. Others gave him profuse wealth. Bhīma amassed enormous quantities of gold, silver, gems, valuable cloth, sandalwood, blankets, carpets, coral and ivory, all of which he packed on the backs of a long train of elephants and asses. Bhīma even subjugated the powerful Karṇa, ruler of Aṅga, as well as all the other kings in the region who were loyal to him and Duryodhana. After conquering many barbarian tribes he finally returned to Indraprastha and offered everything he had acquired to Yudhiṣṭhira.

On his expeditions to the south Sahadeva had defeated many kings: Surasena, Ādirāja, Dantavakra. He reached Kuntībhoja’s kingdom and his grandfather received him with great affection. From there he went on to conquer the kingdoms of Jambaka, Sheka and Avantī. After crossing the Narmada River he arrived at Bhojakota where he fought a long battle with King Bhīṣmaka. Although Bhīṣmaka was favorable to the Pāṇḍavas and had been happy to see his daughter Rukmīṇī become Kṛṣṇa’s principal queen, he wanted to test the Pāṇḍavas’ power. After two days fighting, he admitted defeat at Sahadeva’s hands.

Like his other brothers, Sahadeva subdued numerous kingdoms by both diplomacy and force. When he came to Māhiṣmatī, he encountered King Nīla, who was a friend of the fire-god Agni. As Sahadeva stood in battle against the king, it appeared as if he and his entire army were on fire. Flames sprang from the earth and surrounded them on all sides. Thousands of soldiers and chariots were reduced to ashes. Sahadeva saw even his own life threatened as the fire swept toward him. He could understand that Agni was assailing him. The Pāṇḍava quickly dismounted from his chariot and knelt in prayer to the fire-god. “O exalted one, you are the mouth of the gods into which all oblations are placed. You sanctify everything, from you the Vedas have sprung and you are sacrifice itself. O greatest of gods, please endow me with your energy. O bearer of all sacrificial offerings, do not place obstacles before Yudhiṣṭhira’s sacrifice.”

As Sahadeva prayed, the flames gradually died down. Agni then appeared in person before him and said, “O descendent of Kuru, rise up. I was only trying you. I understand your purposes and those of your brother, Dharmarāja. I always protect this city, but I shall help you to accomplish your aims.”

Agni then went to King Nīla and told him to receive Sahadeva with honor and offer Yudhiṣṭhira tribute. The king explained how his beautiful daughter had won Agni’s heart, and now they were married. Thus he protected the city. On his order, however, the king would gladly accept Yudhiṣṭhira’s rule.

Sahadeva moved on to conquer various cannibal races, including one powerful tribe known as the Kalamukhas. They were a cross between Rākṣasas and humans. He also fought a long battle with the Vanaras at Kiṣkindhyā, headed by Mainda and Dvivida, until they finally agreed to accept Yudhiṣṭhira’s righteous rule. The tribes of Niṣadhas, Yavanas, Pandyas, Dravidas, Andhas, Talavanas and many others were all subjugated. At last, he returned to Indraprastha with vast amounts of wealth.

In the west Nakula conquered the hilly countries, followed by the deserts. The Mattamayurakas, Sivis, Trigartas, Amvashtas and Karṇatas were all subdued. He reached Madras where his uncle Śalya received him affectionately and gave him great wealth for the sacrifice. Then he went on to conquer the mleccha and Yavana tribes on the west coast. Having fully established Yudhiṣṭhira’s supremacy in that direction, he too returned to Indraprastha.

Yudhiṣṭhira joyfully received all his brothers back from their expeditions. None now stood in opposition to his authority. His treasury was also so full that it could not be emptied even in a hundred years.

It was almost time for the Rājasūya. Kṛṣṇa, as promised, returned to Indraprastha accompanied by His wives and relatives. The great Yadu and Vrishni army also arrived with Him, and as they entered the city they filled it with the rattle of chariot wheels and the blast of conchshells. The already inexhaustible ocean of gems the Pāṇḍavas possessed was filled to overflowing when Kṛṣṇa presented His gifts.

When Kṛṣṇa and His relatives had all been properly received, Yudhiṣṭhira sat with Him in his assembly hall and said, “O Kṛṣṇa, it is for You alone that this vast earth has been brought under my sway. Indeed, only by Your grace has this been possible. I wish now to devote all my wealth to the Brahmins and to Agni, the carrier of sacrificial offerings. Please grant me permission to perform the Rājasūya sacrifice.”

Kṛṣṇa praised Yudhiṣṭhira’s many virtues. “You deserve the imperial dignity without any doubt. Perform the sacrifice. If it is successful, I shall consider it My own success. I am always seeking your good and will do whatever I can to assist. Appoint Me in some office and I shall obey your commands.”

Yudhiṣṭhira asked Vyāsadeva to take charge of the sacrifice. Thus Vyāsadeva himself became the chief priest. Then he appointed Yājñavalkya, Soshama, Paila and Dhaumya Ṛṣis as his assistants. Together they constructed the six sacrificial altars in the vast compound marked out at a sacred place near the city.

Yudhiṣṭhira had arranged for the construction of mansions to house the thousands of kings in attendance, as well as quarters for the other classes of men. Innumerable Brahmins were streaming into Indraprastha, and each was received with gifts of wealth and offered comfortable accommodation.

When the party from Hastināpura, headed by Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Bhīṣma, arrived, Yudhiṣṭhira personally received them with love. He bowed at his elders’ feet and said, “All my wealth and my dominions are yours. Please command me as you desire.”

Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Kṛpa lifted Yudhiṣṭhira from his obeisance and embraced him. They shed tears of happiness to see his opulence and success. From their first hearing that Yudhiṣṭhira was planning the sacrifice they had been overjoyed. Even Dhṛtarāṣṭra was happy, sending word of his approval to Yudhiṣṭhira. After all, the Pāṇḍavas were enhancing the glory of their dynasty, firmly establishing the Kurus’ position as world emperors--a position which had been lost since Pāṇḍu’s demise.

Holding Yudhiṣṭhira by his shoulders, Bhīṣma said, “It is fortunate indeed that we see you today ready to perform the great Rājasūya sacrifice. Surely this is by the Supreme Lord’s grace. You are a fit person to acquire the imperial dignity. Please allow us to be your servants and give to us some post in the sacrifice.”

After consulting with Vyāsadeva, Yudhiṣṭhira asked Bhīṣma and Droṇa to oversee the organization for the sacrifice. Dushashana was put in charge of food distribution, while Aśvatthāmā was solicited to look after the Brahmins. Duryodhana was appointed to receive all the gifts that were brought for Yudhiṣṭhira, and Vidura became the master of the treasury. Kṛṣṇa, with a desire to gain their blessings, personally undertook the task of washing the Brahmins’ feet as they arrived.

The sacrificial arena was soon crowded with effulgent ṛṣis chanting hymns from the Sāma Veda. Among the sages assisting the sacrifice were Bharadvāja, Gautama, Asita, Vasiṣṭha, Viśvāmitra, Paraśurāma, Kaśyapa and many others who had descended from the higher regions of the universe. The celestials, seated upon their shining chariots, came in person as the offerings of ghee were poured into the fires with utensils made entirely of gold. Before everyone’s eyes, the gods, headed by Brahmā, Śiva and Indra, took their places in the arena. The gold platforms around the sacrificial arena, being crowded with celestials and ṛṣis, looked as beautiful as the sky studded with innumerable stars.

Nārada Ṛṣi attended the sacrifice and he gazed in wonder at all the personalities in attendance. Amid the thousands of kings he saw Kṛṣṇa shining like the brilliant sun. Nārada marvelled at how the original Supreme Person was present on earth in human form. The ṛṣi knew that Kṛṣṇa must be working out some divine plan.

After many days, Yudhiṣṭhira was crowned as emperor. On the final day of the sacrifice, the Brahmins prepared the juice of the soma plant to offer to the great personalities in attendance. First they would be worshipped with due ritual, then invited to partake of the divine beverage. Bhīṣma said to Yudhiṣṭhira, “You should now select the most important person at this assembly and worship him with arghya. The guru, the priest, the relative, the snataka, the friend and the king--these six all deserve this worship. Therefore worship all these kings and Brahmins, starting with he whom you consider foremost.”

Yudhiṣṭhira asked his counselors who they felt was fit to receive the worship. There was some uncertainty. Some suggested Brahmā, while others Śiva and some Vyāsadeva. Yudhiṣṭhira then asked Bhīṣma, “O Kuru chief, who do you consider to be the best of all those present here today? Who should receive the first worship, the agra-pūjā?”

Bhīṣma replied, “As the sun shines among all luminous objects, so Kṛṣṇa shines among all kings. He is without doubt the most worthy of the first offering.”

Yudhiṣṭhira agreed fully, as did Sahadeva, who, on Bhīṣma’s command, stood up and announced to the assembly, “Emperor Yudhiṣṭhira would like to offer the agra-pūjā to Kṛṣṇa. Even though the principal gods are present, they are all subordinate to Kṛṣṇa. He is the ultimate goal of all yogīs and ascetics who aim for self-realization. But what need is there for me to speak of His glories? All you exalted personalities are well aware of Kṛṣṇa’s position. Indeed, Kṛṣṇa is the Supersoul of all. Therefore, by satisfying Him we will satisfy all created beings.”

Sahadeva continued to glorify Kṛṣṇa for several more minutes. When he stopped speaking, the ṛṣis, celestials and assembled kings resoundingly approved.

Seeing his decision confirmed by the Brahmins and gods, Yudhiṣṭhira began to worship Kṛṣṇa with tears in his eyes. Showers of flowers fell from the sky as he offered Him the arghya and the soma-rasa. Everyone cheered and stood in respect as Kṛṣṇa was worshipped.

But a few monarchs had not agreed. Śiśupāla in particular was outraged, and he remained seated while the offering was made to Kṛṣṇa. He was seething. Kṛṣṇa was his enemy. Śiśupāla had once been about to marry the beautiful Rukmīṇī, but Kṛṣṇa had kidnapped her on her wedding day and married her Himself. From that day forward, his enmity toward Kṛṣṇa had only increased. This offering of honor was too much to tolerate! He suddenly leapt to his feet and began to roar angrily. “Surely destiny is supreme. Otherwise how could this injustice have occurred? How could those present have been influenced by the words of a foolish boy? I cannot agree with Sahadeva’s statements. There are many personalities here much more worthy of the worship than Kṛṣṇa. The great ṛṣis, the gods and all the earth’s kings are present. Kṛṣṇa is not even a king. He is nothing but the son of a cowherd man. We cannot even ascertain His caste or social position. He seems to care nothing for Vedic injunctions and principles. How then can he be worshipped in this assembly?”

Śiśupāla frowned. His coppery eyes challenged those in the assembly. “Kṛṣṇa is neither the eldest, the wisest nor the most powerful person present. There are many others present who are more qualified than Kṛṣṇa in every way. Yudhiṣṭhira could have worshipped any one of them before selecting Kṛṣṇa.”

Placing his hand on the long sword hanging from his belt, the Chedi king furiously concluded, “We have paid tribute to Yudhiṣṭhira thinking him to be virtuous. That was clearly a mistake. He has insulted us today by worshipping Kṛṣṇa, who most unrighteously had Jarāsandha killed. Now we can see what sort of men are Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers, as well as Bhīṣma, who has approved of this madness.”

Śiśupāla turned to address Kṛṣṇa. “As for You, Kṛṣṇa, why have You allowed Yourself to be worshipped like this? You are exactly like a dog that has stolen the offerings of ghee meant for a sacrifice and is licking them up in solitude. As a wife is to an impotent man, or a beautiful sight to a blind man, so is this worship to You, who are not even a king.”

Śiśupāla strode toward the gate of the arena, followed by several other kings who were in agreement. Other kings rose in anger upon hearing Śiśupāla’s words. Some left the assembly censuring the Chedi king, while others took up their swords and shields in order to fight with him.

Bhīṣma at once stood up and justified the selection of Kṛṣṇa. He spoke fearlessly, checking Śiśupāla as he walked away. “He who does not approve of the worship of Kṛṣṇa, who is the oldest person in the universe, deserves no respect at all. O King of Chedi, we do not worship Kṛṣṇa out of material motivations. Many times I have heard from those very advanced in knowledge that Kṛṣṇa is the Supreme Person, in whom the universe itself is established. Foolish men like you can never understand this.”

Bhīṣma gave numerous reasons why Kṛṣṇa should be worshipped. He described the many wonderful feats Kṛṣṇa had achieved. Even as a child He had slain the many powerful demons Kaṁsa had sent to kill Him. In the end He had even killed Kaṁsa himself. Once Kṛṣṇa had lifted a great hill with one hand and held it for a full week. Bhīṣma challenged any king to match Kṛṣṇa’s prowess in battle, or any wealthy man to display more riches. No one could show more knowledge or wisdom than Kṛṣṇa. In every way Kṛṣṇa was possessed of superlative opulences.

When Bhīṣma stopped speaking Sahadeva rose and lifted his left foot. He was angry, and his voice boomed, “If there is any man here who feels Kṛṣṇa should not be worshipped, then let him step forward. I shall place my left foot on his head. Who will give me a reply?”

As Sahadeva spoke the sky reverberated with voices crying, “Excellent! Well spoken!” and showers of flowers fell on his head.

Nārada then spoke. “Those men who will not worship Kṛṣṇa should be considered dead even though breathing. They should not even be gazed upon.”

Śiśupāla became even angrier. He turned toward his supporters and shouted, “Here I am ready to lead you. What needs to be considered? Let us stand in battle against the Yadus and the Pāṇḍavas.”

Many kings had been agitated by Śiśupāla’s speech. They now gathered around the Chedi king. Weapons clashed as they were drawn and armor clanked as it was donned. Śiśupāla continued to stir his supporters, “Let us act quickly so that this sacrifice may not be concluded successfully. Everyone should know that we did not agree to Kṛṣṇa being worshipped.”

Yudhiṣṭhira’s supporters also prepared themselves for battle. The assembly of monarchs looked like the ocean rising at the full moon. Yudhiṣṭhira was alarmed to see his sacrifice about to be spoiled, even as it had almost reached its conclusion. He turned anxiously to Bhīṣma and said, “O grandsire, these kings are seized by wrath and seem bent upon battle. What should I do to avoid my sacrifice being spoiled and my subjects being harmed?”

Bhīṣma laughed and replied in a voice which Śiśupāla could hear clearly. “O best of Kurus, have no fear that Śiśupāla can create any disturbance in Kṛṣṇa’s presence. He and his supporters are like a pack of dogs barking at a sleeping lion. Only as long as Madhava does not act can they exhibit their valor. He is the creator and destroyer of all beings in the universe. Śiśupāla has very little intelligence. He will surely take all these kings with him to Death’s abode. It seems that Kṛṣṇa now desires to take back to Himself the power He gave to Śiśupāla. That is why the Chedi king’s intelligence has become so perverse.”

Śiśupāla could not tolerate Bhīṣma’s words and he screamed in response, “O most infamous wretch of your race, are you not afraid to speak such words in front of all these kings? With you as their leader the Kurus are like blind men being led by another blind man. You have simply given us pain by describing the deeds of the powerless cowherd Kṛṣṇa. Arrogant and foolish as you are, it is a wonder that your tongue does not split into a hundred parts.”

Śiśupāla railed on, insulting both Bishma and Kṛṣṇa. In his opinion, the so-called wonderful deeds Bhīṣma had described were nothing. Anyone could have done them. What was so amazing about lifting a small hill for a few days, or killing a few inferior demons. “O wretch, although you pose as virtuous and learned, we can see your real nature. You are sinful and ignorant. Only because you are impotent have you taken your famous vow of celibacy. You deserve to die at the hands of these kings.”

Hearing his noble grandfather insulted so grievously, Bhīma became enraged. His large eyes, resembling lotus petals, expanded even further in anger, and they turned coppery-red. His brow wrinkled into three lines and he ground his teeth. He stood up, appearing like Death preparing to swallow every creature at the end of the yuga. But Bhīṣma caught him by the hand and restrained him. He appeased Bhīma with gentle counsel. Like the ocean unable to transgress its shores, Bhīma felt unable to disobey the Kuru elder. He sat down again, glaring at Śiśupāla.

Śiśupāla laughed. “Release him, Bhīṣma. Let all these kings see him burnt down by my prowess as an insect is destroyed by fire.”

Bhīma again started up, but Bhīṣma stopped him with a glance. Fixing Śiśupāla with his angry eyes, he then began to narrate the Chedi monarch’s history. Śiśupāla had been born with three eyes and four arms. As soon as he took birth he screamed and brayed like an ass. An invisible voice from the heavens prophesied that he would grow up powerful and fearless, but that one day he would be killed by a great hero. When Śiśupāla’s mother had asked the voice who that hero would be, the voice replied that the child’s extra arms and third eye would disappear when he was placed upon the lap of the person who would one day kill him. This came to pass when young Śiśupāla was placed upon Kṛṣṇa’s lap.

Horrified when she realized that Kṛṣṇa would kill her son, Śiśupāla’s mother had begged, “Please grant me a boon, O Kṛṣṇa. Pardon my son for the offenses he may commit against You. I desire his welfare and long life.”

Kṛṣṇa replied, “O blessed lady, even when Śiśupāla deserves to be killed I will forgive him. Indeed, I shall tolerate one hundred offenses from him.”

Bhīṣma concluded, “This wretch is thus destined to be killed by Kṛṣṇa. His time has come. Therefore he roars like this, caring nothing for ourselves or the infallible and unknowable Kṛṣṇa. A man on the verge of death loses his senses and will say anything.”

Śiśupāla again attacked Bhīṣma, delivering another harsh speech. Bhīṣma waited for him to finish and replied calmly, “O Chedi King, cease your rantings. There will never be an end to arguments, for words may always be answered with words. Here is Govinda. Let anyone who opposes Him stand now before Him in battle. Thus you will attain liberation, your soul entering His transcendental body.”

Śiśupāla roared like an enraged lion. Then Kṛṣṇa spoke so that everyone could hear. “This cruel-hearted man is My aunt’s son, yet he always wishes Me and My relatives ill. Once when I was away from Dwārakā he came and set fire to My city. He killed many citizens and took away many more in chains. This wretch even stole saintly Akrūra’s wife.

“On another occasion, cunningly disguising himself, he ravished the princess of Viśāla, who was the intended bride of the Kurusha king. Obviously desiring a speedy death, he even tried to possess the chaste Rukmīṇī. I have tolerated these and numerous other insults at his hands, only because I made a promise to My aunt. But I promised to bear only one hundred insults. That number has now become full. I shall therefore slay Śiśupāla now in your presence.”

Having heard Kṛṣṇa’s words, the kings reproached Śiśupāla, but he merely laughed and said, “O Kṛṣṇa, how do You speak of Rukmīṇī, who was intended for me but whom You stole by slyness and deceit? You cannot call Yourself a man. Do whatever You will! Whether You are angry or friendly, what harm can You do me?”

As Śiśupāla spoke, Kṛṣṇa thought of His discus weapon, the Sudarśana chakra. It immediately appeared in His hand and Kṛṣṇa raised it above His head. Releasing the chakra He said, “I have kept My promise to My aunt. Śiśupāla’s offenses have now exceeded the number specified and now I will kill him.”

The chakra left Kṛṣṇa’s hand and streaked toward Śiśupāla even as he continued his tirade. The king tried desperately to draw his sword to fend off the chakra, but the powerful disc weapon was too swift. It caught him on the neck and immediately severed his head from his body. The mighty king fell like a cliff struck by a thunderbolt. As he dropped to the ground, a fearful effulgence was seen to leave his body and enter into Kṛṣṇa. Rain fell from a cloudless, thundering sky, and the earth trembled. No one spoke. Śiśupāla’s supporters were angry, but dared say nothing.

The ṛṣis, however, were pleased by Kṛṣṇa’s act and praised him for it. Gradually the assembly became peaceful again. Yudhiṣṭhira ordered his brothers to perform Śiśupāla’s funeral ceremony without delay. He then installed Śiśupāla’s son as king of Chedi and the last ceremonies were performed to complete the Rājasūya. Along with Draupadī, Yudhiṣṭhira took the final ritualistic bath in the sacred Yamunā and the sacrifice was over.

After some days the kings departed for their own kingdoms. The Pāṇḍavas accompanied them to the outskirts of Indraprastha, then bid them farewell. Yudhiṣṭhira begged Kṛṣṇa to stay longer, however, and He consented, although He sent His party back to Dwārakā, while He and His queens remained behind.

During His stay in Indraprastha, Kṛṣṇa was personally served by Draupadī and He developed much affection for the Pāṇḍava queen. One day when she had served Him some fruits, He began paring them with a knife. Suddenly the knife slipped and He nicked His finger. Blood flowed from the cut and seeing this, Draupadī immediately tore a piece from her fine sari and handed it to Him to bandage His finger. Taking the cloth Kṛṣṇa smiled and said, “O gentle lady, I will surely repay this gift of your sari.” Draupadī looked down modestly and thanked Kṛṣṇa, who wrapped His finger with the strip of silk. He then stood up and left the room.

Chapter 18: Duryodhana’s Envy

Duryodhana had also decided to stay on for a while in Indraprastha with Śakuni. The prince burned from envy of the Pāṇḍavas’ success. They had far exceeded him in their power and influence. Duryodhana could not stand the fact that Yudhiṣṭhira was now the emperor of the world, a position he felt should belong to him. He gazed with astonishment at the unlimited wealth piled in Yudhiṣṭhira’s treasury. The Kaurava had never seen such opulence.

Duryodhana was especially intrigued by the Mayasabha, and he wanted to take a closer look. Thus he and Śakuni examined the hall. The Kaurava saw celestial designs which he had never seen before anywhere else. He was amazed by the workmanship and splendor of the palace. It was as if he had gone to the heavenly planets. Bright gems sparkled on all sides of the spacious hall, and Duryodhana could feel a cool breeze which carried a mixture of celestial fragrances. Ivory and gold seats stood by the side of lotus-filled lakes. The walls were inlaid with exquisite carvings depicting the gods and their consorts.

Duryodhana slowly made his way through the hall, his many golden ornaments jangling together as he walked. As he saw Maya’s intricate and wonderful workmanship he became even more jealous. He snapped angrily at the palace servants walking in front of him. With his golden-helmeted head held high, he walked casually, trying not to show any signs of being impressed.

Gradually he came to the large crystal pond at the center of the palace. The water was perfectly clear and still. At first glance it appeared to be a continuation of the marble floor leading up to it, and Duryodhana made that mistake. Fully clothed and with his eyes wide open he fell straight into the water. The Pāṇḍavas were standing on a golden balcony above the pond. Seeing Duryodhana falling in with his arms and legs akimbo, Bhīma laughed aloud. Many of Kṛṣṇa’s queens were also present and they too laughed.

The Kaurava prince hauled himself out of the lake, helped by Śakuni. He did not even look at the Pāṇḍavas or Kṛṣṇa and His queens. Their laughter was unbearable. Yudhiṣṭhira saw Duryodhana’s embarrassment and told his brothers not to laugh. Kṛṣṇa smiled but said nothing as Yudhiṣṭhira arranged for dry clothes to be brought and offered to the angry prince. Duryodhana quickly put them on and continued his tour, trying hard to conceal his feelings. Everything was intolerable to him--the magnificence of the palace, the incomparable beauty of the queens who moved about within it, and particularly Draupadī. Duryodhana was still burning from his failure to win the Pañchāla princess. She was a jewel among women. She too had laughed when he had fallen into the lake. This was agony. Suddenly he again found himself a victim of the deceptive designs of the palace; he walked into an apparently open door, then avoided another because he thought it was closed when it was actually open. The palace attendants were struggling to restrain their laughter. Humiliated and angry, the prince stormed out.

Yudhiṣṭhira felt sorry to see Duryodhana’s pain. He tried to console him in various ways, but Duryodhana just laughed. He bade the Pāṇḍavas farewell and left for Hastināpura followed by his large retinue, his mind bent upon revenge.

Then Kṛṣṇa also decided to return home. As He was departing He spoke affectionately to Yudhiṣṭhira. “O King, cherish all your subjects with ceaseless vigilance and patience. As the cloud is to all creatures, or the large tree to the birds, so should you become the refuge to your dependents.”

After Kṛṣṇa’s departure the Pāṇḍavas approached Vyāsadeva, who had not yet left. Yudhiṣṭhira asked him if the sacrifice had been successful. The ṛṣi replied, “O Kuru child, this sacrifice will yield great results for thirteen years. You shall be the undisputed emperor of this wide earth, but at the end of that period you will be the cause of a war which will rid the world of kṣatriyas.”

Yudhiṣṭhira was alarmed. Seeing his expression, Vyāsadeva said, “Do not be aggrieved. No one can overcome the influence of time. Everything is arranged by the Supreme for the ultimate good of all. This war will be Duryodhana’s fault, not yours. I shall now go to the mountains, but you will see me again in times of need.”

The ṛṣi then stood up and left, surrounded by all the other sages. When they were gone Yudhiṣṭhira spoke to his brothers. “The sage’s words cannot prove false, but I do not wish to be the cause of suffering in the world. From this day on I shall not speak a harsh word to anyone. I shall always practice virtue and shall see no difference between my own sons and those of others, and I shall follow my elders’ commands without the least hesitation. In this way I shall avoid disagreements, for they are the cause of war.”

Yudhiṣṭhira continued to think about Vyāsadeva’s words. It seemed that the Lord’s plan was unfolding. Although the Pāṇḍavas had asserted their rulership over the world, it was still a fact that many impious kings were exploiting the earth’s resources. Yudhiṣṭhira saw at the sacrifice that many had supported Śiśupāla against Kṛṣṇa, although they were afraid to oppose Him openly. Who knew what evil schemes Duryodhana and his brothers would dream up? All of this was no doubt Kṛṣṇa’s arrangement to rid the world of ungodly elements. Yudhiṣṭhira remained immersed in thought of Kṛṣṇa and His mysterious plans.

As he made his way back to Hastināpura, Duryodhana sat brooding and miserable in his chariot. Śakuni asked, “What ails you, O King? Why are your sighing again and again?”

The prince looked distractedly at Śakuni. “O Uncle, I am filled with jealousy to see the world under the Pāṇḍavas’ sway. Having witnessed their astounding sacrifice and seeing them shining like gods in heaven, my heart burns day and night. Indeed I am drying up like a shallow pool in the summer sun.”

Duryodhana gazed out of his chariot at the rolling countryside with its well-tilled fields and blossoming orchards. Groups of villagers stood and watched as the royal procession moved along the road. The prince continued, “When Kṛṣṇa killed Śiśupāla no kings dared to speak. They were all awed by the Pāṇḍavas’ might, or else how could they have tolerated such an injustice?”

Duryodhana wrung his hands. “I cannot tolerate it. I shall therefore enter fire, drown myself or swallow poison. What man who possesses any prowess at all can bear to see his enemies prosper? How can I ever equal their power and opulence? Who can help me achieve such influence? Fate is supreme and men’s exertions useless. All my efforts to destroy the Pāṇḍavas have failed. Instead, they flourish like lotuses in a lake. Therefore I should die! Know that I am in the grip of grief, O Uncle, and please inform my father.”

Śakuni moved closer to his nephew. “O Duryodhana, do not envy the Pāṇḍavas. They are receiving what is rightfully theirs, due to their own deeds. They have their half of the kingdom, and with Kṛṣṇa’s help and Drupada’s alliance they have grown rich. What is there to be sorry about?”

The Gandhara ruler smiled as he spoke. His eyes narrowed slightly and he fingered his jeweled rings. “Your cousins have conquered the world and now possess limitless wealth. Why do you grieve? This wealth can now become yours. You said there are none to help you, but I do not agree. You have one hundred brothers, the greatly powerful Droṇa, Karṇa and the invincible chariot-warrior, Kṛpa. And my brothers, along with the mighty Somadatta, stand ready at your command. Take the earth and rule it without a rival.”

Duryodhana’s eyes widened. He sat up straight on the leather upholstered seat. Perhaps his uncle was right. The Kauravas’ strength was hard to rival. Droṇa, Bhīṣma, Kṛpa, Karṇa--who could face these men when they stood together in battle? Duryodhana spoke eagerly, “O King, if you think it wise, then I shall conquer the Pāṇḍavas. This whole world shall be mine, along with the magnificent Mayasabha.”

Śakuni slowly shook his head. He played with the set of dice he carried with him everywhere. “Do not be rash, O King. There are many ways to overcome an enemy apart from battle. We cannot conquer in battle the Pāṇḍavas, especially when they are united with Kṛṣṇa. Not even Indra with all the celestials could overpower them. I was thinking of another way by which they can be defeated.”

Śakuni suggested that they challenge Yudhiṣṭhira to a game of dice. He knew Yudhiṣṭhira was fond of playing, and also that he was not expert. At dice Śakuni had no equal anywhere in the world. “Without a doubt Yudhiṣṭhira will accept your challenge,” Śakuni continued, his arm resting on Duryodhana’s shoulder. “He cannot resist the game, and with a little encouragement, he will surely gamble away all his possessions. Thus I will win for you his entire kingdom and wealth.”

As they entered Hastināpura, Duryodhana suggested that they go at once to Dhṛtarāṣṭra and get his permission for the plan. Arriving before the blind king, Śakuni said, “O great monarch, here is your son Duryodhana. He is pale and emaciated with grief. You should ask him the cause and try to find a remedy.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra was surprised. “Why are you sad, my son? You have at your disposal everything enjoyable, no less than the gods. Vast wealth, the best of clothes, the finest food, beautiful women--all these await your pleasure. How then have you become depressed?”

Duryodhana at once admitted that he was consumed by jealousy of the Pāṇḍavas. Even though he had wealth, their wealth--his enemy’s wealth--was superior. The Kaurava then described to his father what he had seen in Indraprastha. “During the sacrifice, Yudhiṣṭhira was given so much tribute that it became necessary to turn some of it away. He had been offered millions of elephants, horses, cows and camels. Heaps of gems and golden ornaments were stacked up like mountains. The Pāṇḍava provided thirty servant maids for each of 88,000 snataka Brahmins. He arranged to feed one hundred thousand Brahmins at a time during the sacrifice and when they were fed conches were blown. O Father, I heard those conches sounding all through the sacrifice.”

Duryodhana told the king how he had even seen the gods at the Rājasūya. Samudra, the ocean deity, had personally offered Yudhiṣṭhira celestial ambrosia drawn from the depths of the sea. This beverage is superior even to the soma-rasa that Indra enjoys. It was impossible for Duryodhana to describe to his blind father all that he had seen. As he remembered it, however, Duryodhana’s heart burned with the fire of envy.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra remained silent. Then Śakuni spoke: “O King, I know a means by which your son may win all this wealth for himself. I propose that you invite Yudhiṣṭhira to a game of dice. No one can defeat me at dice. I will win easily. In this way we shall acquire all that Yudhiṣṭhira possesses.”

“Father, please grant us your permission to carry this out. Let us conquer our enemies and enjoy this earth.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra was uncertain. “Let me consult the wise Vidura. He will only advise us for our own good.”

“Vidura will certainly block our plan,” Duryodhana replied. “And if he does, then I shall take my own life. Then you and Vidura may live here happily. What need do you have for me anyway?”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra was pained. Duryodhana was his most dear son. How could he ever refuse his requests? The king decided he would talk with Vidura and convince him. He then ordered that a palatial hall be constructed for the match. It should have a thousand pillars and a thousand gates. Covering two square miles it should be set with countless gems. When it was complete they could invite the Pāṇḍavas for the game.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra was still uneasy. He knew the evils of gambling. He called for Vidura and said, “I have decided to invite the Pāṇḍavas for a friendly game of dice with my sons. They can gamble a little and thus sport together. I am building a fine hall for their pleasure.”

Vidura frowned. “I do not approve of this, O King. Gambling always brings with it dispute and fighting. You should be careful that no dissension arises between your sons and the Pāṇḍavas, for that may cause destruction.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra tried to reassure his brother. “When you, me, Bhīṣma and Droṇa are here, what evil can befall us? In any event, destiny is supreme. Whatever has been ordained by the supreme power will come to pass. What can our efforts do to avert it? I have already arranged for this gambling match for my son’s pleasure. Please do not try to change my mind.”

Vidura sighed. “Fate is surely all-powerful, O King, but we nevertheless receive the results of our own acts. We have free will. The supreme power simply reciprocates with our desires. It is the consequences of our acts which are inevitable, not the acts themselves. O lord, consider carefully your motivation in allowing this gambling match.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra remained silent and Vidura slowly left his chamber with a heavy heart. He could understand that Kali-yuga, the dark age of quarrel and suffering, was beginning. The gambling match would certainly set in motion the events that would lead to the annihilation of the world’s rulers. Vidura remembered the Rājasūya and the kings who had supported Śiśupāla against Kṛṣṇa. He was apprehensive, but he felt helpless. Although the king was not a fool, he was controlled by his covetous and mean-minded son. Vidura’s counsel, although aimed at the good of all, was falling on deaf ears.

During the coming weeks, as the hall was being built, Dhṛtarāṣṭra reflected on Vidura’s words. He disliked countermanding his brother’s advice, because he knew Vidura never gave faulty counsel. The impending dice match was undoubtedly fraught with danger. If it led to a battle between the Kauravas and the Pāṇḍavas, that would be a disaster.

The king decided to try once more to change his son’s mind. Sitting alone with him in his chamber, he said, “O son of Gāndhārī, there is no need to gamble with your cousins. Vidura does not approve of it and I do not like it either. Gambling inevitably leads to dissension. Everything we now have could be ruined. If you desire wealth equal to that of the Pāṇḍavas, then let us perform a sacrifice similar to theirs. Then the world’s kings will bring you tribute as they did Yudhiṣṭhira. Why must you take Yudhiṣṭhira’s wealth from him? Yudhiṣṭhira is gentle. He will never attack you or cause you pain. Give up your envy and do not grieve. Enjoy life with all the good things you already possess.”

Duryodhana would not accept his father’s advice. He told him about the incidents in the Mayasabha--how the Pāṇḍavas, and especially Draupadī, had laughed at him. As he remembered it again his anger was inflamed. In a choked voice he described the incidents to his father. “Seeing what I thought to be a door, but which was really a solid piece of crystal, I walked straight into it and smashed my head. As I stood with my brains swimming, the twins came up and supported me. Sahadeva led me by the hand, smiling and saying repeatedly, ‘This is the door, O King.’ I felt like dying then and there.”

The Kaurava prince also gave more details about the Pāṇḍavas’ wealth. The Kauravas could never equal that wealth even if they performed one hundred sacrifices. Duryodhana had never even heard of many of the shining gems he had seen at Yudhiṣṭhira’s palace. For weeks an endless line of kings and chieftains arrived at Indraprastha, each bringing huge amounts of tribute in an attempt to excel the others in charity. Seeing all the gold, gems, weapons, animals, clothes, rugs, silks, skins, serving maids, perfumes and incenses, Duryodhana was shocked. When he saw Samudra fetch Varuṇa’s massive golden conch, which Kṛṣṇa then used to bathe Yudhiṣṭhira in the final sacrificial ablution, the Kaurava prince all but lost his senses.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra listened in silence as his son continued. “O Father, the Pāṇḍavas have even spread their dominion to the far northern regions of Harivarṣa where no man can go. The residents of that land gave them hundreds of celestial conches, and I heard them being blown during the sacrifice. The tremendous sound made my hair stand erect. Weaker kings fainted upon hearing the noise.”

Duryodhana’s voice became increasingly urgent as he pleaded with his father. “I cannot live as long as the Pāṇḍavas possess such incomparable opulence. If they are allowed to flourish it will only be a matter of time until they overpower the Kauravas. They are our enemies. It is only right that we should attack them and take their wealth. This is the kṣatriya code. Either I will gain control of the earth or I will die. This gambling match is the safest and surest way to achieve my ends.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra thought for some moments, then replied, “O son, I hate such enmity, especially when you bear it towards those who are powerful. Such hostility brings about a change of feelings and is thus itself a painful weapon, although not made of steel. Do you realize that what you are suggesting will certainly cause a fearful war?”

Duryodhana paced impatiently in front of his blind father. “What violence is there in a simple dice game? If Yudhiṣṭhira chooses to gamble and lose his wealth, then how can anyone blame us? We have nothing to lose. Śakuni will win every game. O Father, please grant me permission to invite the Pāṇḍavas for this match.”

The king rose from his seat and called for his servants. As they led him away he said, “Your words do not find favor with me, O prince, but do what you will. You will surely repent your rashness later, for deeds fraught with impiety never bring prosperity. I shall ask Vidura to invite the Pāṇḍavas.”

A few days later the king heard that the hall had been completed. He called for Vidura and said, “Please leave at once for Indraprastha and bring Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers. Invite them for a friendly game of dice with their cousins in our new hall.”

Vidura tried one last time to dissuade the king. “This match will bring about the destruction of our race. Clearly your son wants only the Pāṇḍavas’ wealth and has contrived this means to take it. Dissension among our family members will cause our ruin. O King, stop it now while you have the chance.”

But Dhṛtarāṣṭra had already made up his mind. “O brother, everything lies in the hands of destiny. If destiny so wills it, then we will not be harmed; and if by the course of fate we are to suffer, then what can be done? Everything happens according to Providence. Therefore please go to Indraprastha and return with Kuntī’s invincible sons.”

Vidura looked despairingly at the blind monarch. It was hopeless to try to change his mind. His attachment for Duryodhana was too strong. Even though he could obviously see the results of acquiescing to his son, Dhṛtarāṣṭra still did not refuse him. Fearing the worst, Vidura left the palace and prepared for his journey.

Chapter 19: The Dice Game

After the Rājasūya, Indraprastha had become unlimitedly opulent. The roads, streets and lanes were sprinkled daily with perfumed water. Huge white mansions stood along the sides of the wide avenues. Jeweled gates and arches, golden waterpots at their sides, stood at the city’s crossroads. All the citizens were dressed in colorful silks and adorned with garlands and gold ornaments, and they felt secure under the Pāṇḍavas’ rule. Every day, more and more kings were arriving in Indraprastha from other countries, coming to pay tribute.

Yudhiṣṭhira sat in the Mayasabha with his brothers. When they were not engaged in affairs of state, they enjoyed hearing spiritual instructions from the Brahmins. As they were seated one day listening to the ṛṣis recounting ancient Vedic histories, a guard arrived to announce Vidura’s arrival. Yudhiṣṭhira immediately stood up to receive him. He loved Vidura, who had always shown them so much care from childhood. With tears in his eyes Yudhiṣṭhira bowed at his uncle’s feet. As he rose he saw Vidura’s expression and said, “O Khattwa, your mind seems disturbed. Do you come in peace? Is the king well? Are his sons obedient to their old father and the people obedient to his rule?”

Taking his seat close to the Pāṇḍavas, Vidura replied, “The illustrious monarch and his relatives are well. Surrounded by his sons and ministers he reigns like Indra. But he is bent upon his own aggrandizement. The king ordered me to first enquire after your welfare and then to inform you that he has constructed a hall equal to yours. He wishes you to come and see it and to enjoy a game of dice with your cousins.”

Yudhiṣṭhira glanced across at his brothers and then back to Vidura. He was immediately apprehensive. “O Khattwa, if we gamble, we shall probably fight. How can I possibly consent to the king’s proposal? What do you think I should do?”

“Gambling is the root of all misery,” Vidura said. “I tried to dissuade Dhṛtarāṣṭra, but he could not hear my advice. Thus he has sent me here to bring you to Hastināpura. It seems that Duryodhana desires a game in which Śakuni will match his skills with yours. The blind king has granted his permission and he now wishes you to come at once.”

Knowing that it was Dhṛtarāṣṭra who had sent the invitation, Yudhiṣṭhira felt obliged to go. He had vowed never to refuse his elders’ orders. Even though he was now emperor of the world, Dhṛtarāṣṭra was a respectable superior. He said, “I have no desire to gamble, but if I am challenged I will not be able to refuse, because the kṣatriya code is to always accept a challenge. Surely this world moves according to the will of supreme Providence. All-powerful fate deprives us of our reason and we move according to its dictates as if bound by a rope. I will come to Hastināpura on King Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s command.”

Yudhiṣṭhira knew that Śakuni was a gifted dice player. The Gandhara monarch was familiar with every secret of the game. But Yudhiṣṭhira also knew that he could only win if the Lord ordained it. No one moved independently of the Lord’s desire. If the Lord desired that Yudhiṣṭhira lose his wealth, then what could he do? He simply had to accept it as part of a divine scheme meant ultimately for his own good. He ordered his brothers to make themselves ready to travel.

The party left the following day. With the Brahmins walking before him, Yudhiṣṭhira proceeded on a golden chariot, followed by his brothers. Attired in royal robes and golden ornaments, they entered Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s palace, where they were greeted by the king and his sons, along with Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Karṇa, Kṛpa and the other kings whom Dhṛtarāṣṭra had invited. They were then shown to beautifully furnished rooms where they settled for the evening. After going through their daily physical exercises and their religious rites, they were offered the best of food. Dancers and singers entertained them as they ate. Then, after Brahmins had blessed them, they retired for the night.

The women from Indraprastha entered the ladies’ quarters. All of Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s daughters-in-law were filled with envy to see their beauty and prosperity. After exchanging greetings with the Kaurava women, Draupadī and the other Pāṇḍava queens rested for the night on ivory beds covered with soft mattresses and spread with pure white silk.

In the morning the Pāṇḍavas were brought to the new assembly hall. Amid the sound of drums and other instruments, they took their places on jeweled seats covered with costly rugs. The hall was crowded with kings from many provinces, with Dhṛtarāṣṭra sitting at their head. Duryodhana and Śakuni sat opposite the Pāṇḍavas, both smiling. When Yudhiṣṭhira was settled, the assembly became silent and Śakuni said, “We have all been waiting for you, O King. The hall is full and we are eager to play dice.”

Yudhiṣṭhira answered, “O King, there is no prowess to be found in deceitful dice playing. Indeed, it is bereft of morality. Why then do you wish us to play?”

Śakuni raised his eyebrows. “We do not wish to be deceitful, O Yudhiṣṭhira. It is simply a friendly match. We can fix the stakes so that no one is injured.”

“The great Ṛṣi Devala has intructed me that one should not engage in playing with a professional gamester,” Yudhiṣṭhira replied. “O Śakuni, do not try to take from me the wealth with which I wish to serve the Brahmins. Even enemies should not be vanquished by desperate stakes in deceitful play. And I have no desire to win more wealth by gambling, so why should I play with you?”

Śakuni laughed. “O King, obviously one plays at dice to win something. If you are afraid of me, or if you feel I have dishonest motives, then do not play.”

Yudhiṣṭhira looked up at the Kuru elders. They were all sitting silently. Both Bhīṣma and Vidura sat with their heads down. After Vidura, Bhīṣma had also tried unsuccessfully to dissuade the king from allowing the match, and he had attended it reluctantly. Dhṛtarāṣṭra sat on his splendid throne, listening carefully to the discussion.

Yudhiṣṭhira said, “O Śakuni, when challenged I never refuse. This is my vow. Fate is all-powerful. We are all under the sway of destiny, and whatever is ordained will surely come to pass. With whom can I play in this assembly? Who can stake equally with me?”

Yudhiṣṭhira knew that Śakuni, although more skilled at the game, could not match his wealth and was thus not a suitable opponent for him. But Duryodhana said quickly, “I shall supply gems, gold and other wealth, O King. Let Śakuni cast the dice on my behalf.”

Yudhiṣṭhira raised his eyebrows. It was exactly as he had feared. Obviously this was no friendly match. He raised his objections in a firm voice. “I have never heard that one man plays while another stakes, O Duryodhana. This is not within the rules of the game.”

Yudhiṣṭhira again looked at the elders, but none of them spoke. Duryodhana laughed and repeated that if Yudhiṣṭhira was afraid then he need not play. Śakuni smiled and rolled the dice in his hands. The sound of the ivory dice striking together rose above the silence in the hall. Seeing Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s complicity, Yudhiṣṭhira said, “If it is your desire, Duryodhana, then let the play begin.”

The Pāṇḍava took a priceless string of pearls from his neck. “Here is my stake, O King. With what shall you wager against me?”

Duryodhana replied, “I have wealth counted in the millions and tens of millions but I am not proud of it. I shall equal all that you stake. Throw the dice, Śakuni, and let us see who wins.”

Śakuni called out a number and threw the dice. As the dice came to a stop on the number he had called, he cried out, “See, I have won!”

Yudhiṣṭhira said, “In a game contrived only for my defeat you have won by unfair means, O King. Do you feel happy? Let the game continue. I have many beautiful jars each filled with a thousand gold coins. These shall be my next stake.” Yudhiṣṭhira cast the dice and called his number, but they fell differently. Śakuni again took up the dice. He closed his eyes and held them tight, then called for an eight. The dice rolled across the polished wooden board and came to a stop on eight.

Śakuni pointed to the dice like an excited child. “See, I have won again.” His laughing voice echoed round the hall.

Yudhiṣṭhira remained impassive. He had little chance of defeating Śakuni at the game. The Gandhara king had practically made dice his life and soul. He played always with experts. Backed by Duryodhana’s resources he would also be impossible to overcome at staking. Yudhiṣṭhira said, “I shall stake my sacred, victorious and splendid chariot, equal to one thousand other chariots. It is made of refined gold and covered with tiger skins. Its wheels resound like thunder when it is driven, it is adorned with a thousand bells, and it is drawn by eight steeds as white as moonbeams and swifter than the wind itself.”

It was Śakuni’s turn to cast first again. He called out his number and the dice fell as if at his command. “I win!” His voice mixed with the laughter of Duryodhana and his brothers. They taunted Yudhiṣṭhira, “What will you stake next, O Emperor?”

Yudhiṣṭhira sat surrounded by his brothers. All of them glared at Duryodhana. Arjuna reached over and touched Yudhiṣṭhira’s shoulder. He shook his head slightly as his elder brother turned toward him, but Yudhiṣṭhira said, “I have one hundred thousand serving girls who are all young and richly adorned with costly garments and gold ornaments, and who are all skilled in the sixty-four arts of service, especially dancing and singing. At my command, they wait upon celestials, Brahmins and kings. These shall be my next stake.”

“Consider it matched,” said Duryodhana with a smile. Once again Yudhiṣṭhira failed to throw the number he called, but Śakuni rolled the dice with consummate skill and won the throw. “Ha, I win again!”

On the royal podium Dhṛtarāṣṭra leaned forward and eagerly asked Vidura, “What was the stake? What has been won?” Vidura moved uneasily. He could not tolerate seeing the Pāṇḍavas being robbed by such deceitful means. He watched in pain as Yudhiṣṭhira lost throw after throw. The Pāṇḍava staked thousands of elephants, chariots, celestial horses and countless other draught animals. He put up hundreds of thousands of soldiers with all their weapons and armory. Precious stones, gold and other valuable metals were staked by Yudhiṣṭhira as he became gripped by the fever of the game. All that could be heard was Yudhiṣṭhira calling out the stake, Śakuni crying out, “I have won!” and then the Kauravas’ loud laughter.

Bhīma was seething with anger. From the time that Duryodhana had tried to poison him, he had longed to face the Kaurava prince in an open and fair fight. This kind of devious and cowardly antagonism was unbearable. Without Yudhiṣṭhira’s order, however, he could say or do nothing. Arjuna also longed to string his bow and challenge his guileful cousins to open combat, but he too felt constrained by Yudhiṣṭhira. He could only watch in agony as they were humiliated by the sneering Duryodhana and his brothers.

Vidura could tolerate no more. He stood up suddenly and, within everyone’s hearing, said to Dhṛtarāṣṭra, “O King, listen carefully. I shall say something which will be disagreeable to you as medicine is to a dying man. When the sinful wretch Duryodhana was born and he cried like a jackal, I told you then to reject him. You did not accept my advice, although it was clear he would cause the destruction of our house. Can you not now see that prophesy coming to pass?”

The game stopped. All the kings stared at Vidura. Duryodhana scowled, but his father remained silent. Vidura continued, “Hear the ancient advice of Sukra, the celestial ṛṣi. Those who seek to collect honey from a high place become so absorbed in their aim that they do not see the drop that awaits them. Ascending to dangerous heights they fall and perish. Your son, maddened by gambling, is the collector of honey. Creating hostilities with the powerful Pāṇḍavas, he does not see the fall which awaits him.”

Vidura looked straight at the blind king as he spoke. He reminded him of how the evil king Kaṁsa had been rejected and slain by his own people in order to save their dynasty. Similarly, the Kauravas should reject Duryodhana. The king should order Arjuna to kill him at once. “In this way, O King, purchase these peacocks, the Pāṇḍavas, at the cost of this crow. Do not sink into an ocean of grief for the sake of one crooked family member. There was once a bird that vomited gold. A foolish king obtained this bird and out of greed killed it in order to enjoy the gold more quickly. Thus he destroyed both his present and future happiness. O Dhṛtarāṣṭra, do not imitate that king by persecuting the Pāṇḍavas for the sake of their wealth. Instead, be like the flower-seller who cherishes his trees with affection and thus picks flowers from them continuously.”

Vidura warned the king of the consequences of forming an enmity with the Pāṇḍavas. Not even the celestials could face them in battle. “If the gambling continues there will be war wherein the Kauravas and all their allies will be destroyed. You will be the cause of this war, O King, because you alone have the power to stop your son. Still you remain silent. I can see that you are enjoying your son’s success. A man who follows another’s heart even against his own better judgment sinks into affliction, like a man going to sea in a boat guided by a child. Do not, O King, follow a wretch into the terrible fire that has blazed forth. When Ajātaśatru and his brothers are robbed of their kingdom and become angry, who will be your refuge in that hour of confusion? Why do you seek the Pāṇḍavas’ wealth? You can earn as much as you like without gambling. Win instead these tigers among men who are worth more than any amount of wealth! Send Śakuni back to Gandhara. Do not wage a war that will destroy you to your roots.”

Duryodhana could take no more. He leapt to his feet. Seeing that his father remained silent, he rebuked Vidura harshly. “Now we can see your true nature. Rejecting those who maintain you, you side with the enemy. O Khattwa, there is no greater sin than injuring one’s supporter. How do you not fear this sin? You are shameless, ungrateful and disobedient to your elders. Why do you accuse me? Where is my fault? As water flows downwards, so I act how my nature dictates. I have received my nature from the Supreme. He controls all men’s actions. You may go wherever you please. We cannot shelter enemies or those who are envious of their own protectors. An unchaste wife, however well treated, always forsakes her husband.”

Vidura shook his head in despair. He again addressed Dhṛtarāṣṭra. “O King, tell me honestly what you think of those who reject the advice I have given? Surely a king’s heart is unsteady. They grant protection one moment, then strike with weapons the next.”

Vidura turned toward Duryodhana. “O prince, you consider me foolish, but consider instead him to be a fool who ignores a well-wisher’s advice. There are plenty of sinful men in this world who will speak agreeable words, but one who speaks what is disagreeable but beneficial is rare. Such a man is a king’s true friend who, without considering what is agreeable or not, speaks and acts only according to virtue.”

Duryodhana laughed derisively. “Fie on old Khattwa! What good can he do for us?”

Ignoring Duryodhana’s rebuke, Vidura pointed to the Pāṇḍavas. “Here are five enraged serpents with venom in their eyes. Do not rouse them further. O great King, drink that which is drunk by the honest and shunned by the dishonest: humility. Humility is a bitter, pungent, burning, unintoxicating and revolting medicine, but drink it deeply and regain your sobriety. I bow to you and wish you well. Act swiftly to avert the calamity that has arrived at our door.”

Vidura took his seat near Dhṛtarāṣṭra, but still the blind king remained silent. Duryodhana laughed and turned back to the game. He told Śakuni to continue and the Gandhara king asked Yudhiṣṭhira, “O King, you have lost much wealth. Tell me, do you still have more which you can stake?”

Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “O son of Suvala, I have gold counted in tens of thousands, millions, tens of millions, billions, hundreds of billions and even more. All of this I shall stake here now. Throw again.”

Śakuni smiled and cast the dice. As if charmed, they fell upon whatever number he called. Again and again his voice rose above the silence in the hall. “I have won!” Yudhiṣṭhira played like a man possessed. He seemed intent on losing everything. He staked all of his innumerable cows, horses, goats, sheep and other animals. Having lost his entire wealth, he then staked his kingdom itself. That too was lost and Śakuni said, “It appears that you have lost everything, O King.”

Yudhiṣṭhira’s head hung down and sweat covered his face. Surely it was time to end the game, but something within him impelled him to continue. He thought of Kṛṣṇa. If only He was present, He would certainly save the situation. But Kṛṣṇa was the supreme controller of everything. Perhaps He may still arrange for him to get back all that he had lost. Yet what was there left to stake? Yudhiṣṭhira looked at his brothers.

The hall remained silent as Yudhiṣṭhira replied to Śakuni, “Here is the youthful and fair-complexioned Nakula, adorned with gold and jewels and shining like a celestial. This mighty-armed prince shall be my next stake.”

Moments later Śakuni’s voice was heard again, “Lo, I have won him.”

Yudhiṣṭhira breathed heavily. By his side Bhīma and Arjuna both clenched their fists in silent fury as Yudhiṣṭhira turned toward Sahadeva. “This handsome prince Sahadeva administers justice exactly like Yamarāja and has acquired a reputation for learning in this world. Although he does not deserve to be staked, still I shall play with such a dear object as my stake.”

The dice were rolled and the monotonous voice rang out again, “See, I have won him also.”

Śakuni looked at Yudhiṣṭhira with cunning in his eyes. “It seems that Bhīma and Arjuna are more dear to you than Mādrī’s sons, for they have not yet been staked.”

Yudhiṣṭhira’s eyes turned red with anger. “Fool! Disregarding morality you sinfully try to create disunion among us who are all of one heart.”

Śakuni, not wanting the game to end, replied hastily, “O King, in the excitement of play a gambler may say things which he would never otherwise utter. I bow to you. You are senior to me in every way. Let us now continue.”

Yudhiṣṭhira looked at Arjuna. Surely Kṛṣṇa would not allow His own dear friend to be lost. “He who takes us like a boat to the other shore of battle, who is ever victorious over foes and who is the greatest hero in this world--with that prince as my stake do I now play.”

Duryodhana leaned forward eagerly as Śakuni threw the dice. Karṇa sat silently next to him. He was happy to see his friend winning the game, but he would have preferred a fair fight with the Pāṇḍavas on the battlefield. Dushashana and the other brothers of Duryodhana rubbed their hands in glee as the dice stopped and Śakuni cried, “I have won!”

Śakuni gathered up the dice and looked at Yudhiṣṭhira, who sat downcast and shocked. “We have now won this foremost of bowmen, O King. Stake the powerful Bhīma, the only wealth you have left.”

Yudhiṣṭhira shook his head. There was no turning back. Slowly he replied, “Although he does not deserve to be staked, I now play with this prince, who is our leader, who fights like the thunder-wielder Indra. This illustrious hero with the lion-like neck, arched eyebrows and expansive eyes, who cannot tolerate an insult, whose prowess is unmatched in this world, and who grinds all foes--he is now staked. Roll the dice.”

Bhīma looked at Duryodhana with narrowed eyes. He longed to grasp the sneering prince by the neck, but without Yudhiṣṭhira’s permission he remained still. The dice rolled inexorably onto the number called by Śakuni. Bhīma was lost.

Laughing again, Śakuni said, “O King, you have lost your gold, your jewels, your animals, your kingdom and even your brothers. Is there anything still remaining that you can stake?”

Yudhiṣṭhira looked up at Śakuni. “I alone am left, the eldest of my brothers and beloved by them all. If you win me, then I shall do whatever a slave is obliged to do.”

Śakuni released the dice and called out, “You are won!” He turned to all the kings in the assembly and proudly boasted how he had won the Pāṇḍavas one by one. Then he smiled at Yudhiṣṭhira and said, “You have lost even yourself, O King, an act worthy of a sinful man. When you still have wealth, you should not stake yourself. You still have one stake dear to you. Bet Draupadī, the princess of Pañchāla, and with her win yourself back.”

Yudhiṣṭhira ground his teeth in silent anguish. His thoughts were in turmoil. How could he stake Draupadī? But there was nothing else left. His kingdom was gone and he had cast his brothers and even himself into slavery. That had been a terrible mistake. How had he let himself get so carried away? Now Draupadī was his only chance to turn things round. He had to bet her. What else could he do? What shelter did she now have anyway? All her husbands were lost. Confused and praying fervently to Kṛṣṇa, the Pāṇḍava looked up at the laughing Śakuni.

“I shall now stake she who is neither short nor tall, neither lean nor corpulent, who has bluish-black curly hair and whose eyes resemble the leaves of an autumn lotus. That princess whose fragrance is like a lily and who is as beautiful as the goddess Lakṣmī, who possesses every accomplishment, who is the last to take rest and the first to rise due to caring for us all, and who is such that anyone would desire her--she shall be my final stake.”

When Yudhiṣṭhira said this his brothers were horrified. The Kuru elders loudly called out, “Fie! Fie!” The whole assembly became agitated and the pious kings present there began to grieve with tears flowing from their eyes. Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Kṛpa were all covered in perspiration. Vidura sat sighing like a snake. But Dhṛtarāṣṭra, glad at heart, was unable to conceal his emotions and he asked repeatedly, “Is the stake won?”

Śakuni’s face was flushed with excitement. Once more the dice obeyed his command and he shouted, “She is won! She is won!” Duryodhana and Karṇa laughed and slapped their hands together. Mocking the anguished Yudhiṣṭhira, Śakuni jeeringly repeated again and again, “You still have one stake dear to you. Bet her, O Yudhiṣṭhira,” rolling the dice as he spoke.

Duryodhana turned to Vidura. “Come, O Khattwa. Bring Draupadī, the Pāṇḍavas’ dear wife. Let her be forced to sweep the chambers. Let the unfortunate woman now live with the serving maids.”

Vidura retorted, “O wicked man, you do not see that by such words you are tying a noose around your neck. Do you not realize that being but a deer, you are provoking the anger of so many tigers? You have placed on your head five venomous snakes. Do not agitate them further or you will soon go to Yamarāja’s abode.”

Vidura looked around the assembly as he continued. “Draupadī cannot be considered a slave because Yudhiṣṭhira lost her after losing himself. He was therefore not in a position to stake the princess. Like the bamboo which bears fruit on the point of death, the foolish Duryodhana wins treasures at dice. Completely intoxicated, he does not see the terrors that this game will bring.”

Vidura went before Dhṛtarāṣṭra. “You should check your son now, O King. Only low-class men utter painful words which offend others. Kuntī’s sons never use the kind of harsh speech in which Duryodhana indulges. His behavior is condemned by those who are learned. Stones may float and boats may sink, but this foolish prince will never heed good advice. He does not see that dishonesty is one of the fearful gates to hell through which he is leading his brothers and the entire Kuru race. He will certainly be the cause of our destruction.”

Duryodhana laughed. “Fie on Khattwa,” he sneered. Looking around he saw the chief servant of the palace and he called out to him, “Pratikamin, bring Draupadī here. You have nothing to fear from the Pāṇḍavas. It is only Vidura who raves in fear.”

The Pāṇḍavas sat with their heads bowed. In the presence of Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Bhīṣma and Droṇa, Yudhiṣṭhira remained silent, as they had done. He was stupefied with sorrow. His attachment for gambling had brought about utter ruination. Now, before everyone’s eyes, the chaste Draupadī was about to be humiliated. Yet what could he do? With the sole exception of Vidura, his elders were saying nothing. If they, and especially Dhṛtarāṣṭra, approved of Duryodhana’s acts, then he was helpless. He had never transgressed their orders. To him, his superiors were as good as God. He accepted their commands as coming directly from the Supreme Lord. The terrible events unfolding must somehow be the Lord’s arrangement. Seeing Yudhiṣṭhira sitting silently, his brothers also remained passive, although they yearned to stop Duryodhana from his intention to insult Draupadī.

Chapter 20: Draupadī Dragged to the Assembly

The pratikamin went quickly to the ladies’ chambers. Standing before Draupadī, he said in a trembling voice, “O Queen, mad- dened by dice, your husband has lost you to Duryodhana. Therefore come with me to Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s assembly, where you will be engaged in some menial work.”

Draupadī stood up swiftly and dismissed the maid who had been tending her hair. Surprised, she said, “O pratikamin, how can this be true? Who would stake his own wife in a gambling match? Surely the king was intoxicated. Could he find nothing else to stake?”

“When he had already lost all his wealth, including his brothers and even himself, he staked you, O blessed princess.”

Draupadī became angry. “Go back to the hall, pratikamin, and ask that gambler who has lost even himself if he was still my lord when I was staked. When I know the answer to this, I shall go with a sorrowful heart.”

The servant assented to Draupadī’s request and returned to the hall. Seeing him return alone, Duryodhana yelled, “Where now is the Pañchāla princess, foolish man?”

“She has sent me back with a question, O King,” the pratikamin replied. “Draupadī has asked whose lord Yudhiṣṭhira was when he staked her in the game? Did he lose himself first or her?”

Yudhiṣṭhira said nothing. He shook his head from side to side, seeming as if demented or deprived of his reason.

Duryodhana smiled slightly. “Let Draupadī come here and ask her question directly to Yudhiṣṭhira. We shall all hear his reply.”

The pratikamin again left the hall. Tears fell from his eyes as he approached Draupadī’s room for the second time. He stood before the queen unable to speak. She asked him what Yudhiṣṭhira had said in reply. With difficulty the servant said, “O princess, the assembly is summoning you. It seems the destruction of the Kurus is close at hand. When the weak-brained Duryodhana wishes to take you before the assembly, he will surely no longer be able to protect his prosperity.”

Draupadī looked with compassion upon the distressed servant. “He who is the great ordainer of the world has ordained this without doubt. Happiness and misery come in turn to both the wise and the unwise. Morality is said, however, to be the highest object in this world. If we preserve morality, it will pour blessings upon us. Let not that morality now abandon the Kurus. Go back, O suta, and speak these words to the virtuous Kuru elders. I am ready to obey whatever command those moral-minded men may give, for they are conversant with all the precepts of virtue.”

The servant folded his palms and bowed his head. He turned and left the queen’s chamber and went again to the hall. Standing before Dhṛtarāṣṭra, he repeated Draupadī’s words. No one replied. Seeing now Duryodhana’s eagerness and Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s complicity, they all sat with downcast faces. Yudhiṣṭhira then said to the servant, “Go to the bitterly weeping Pāñcālī and tell her that she should appear here, even though she is in seclusion and attired in only a single cloth. This is Duryodhana’s command.”

The Pāṇḍavas looked up at the Kuru elders who, even after hearing Yudhiṣṭhira’s words, all remained silent. The brothers could not determine what to do. They were ready to challenge Duryodhana and his one hundred brothers to a fight, but seeing Yudhiṣṭhira still silent, they did not move. Bhīma, however, could barely contain himself, and Arjuna, breathing like a serpent, seemed to be on fire.

Duryodhana laughed, enjoying every moment of his victory. He again addressed the pratikamin. “Go, O suta, and fetch the princess. She now has Yudhiṣṭhira’s order.”

The servant looked perplexed. He was always obedient to Duryodhana but he feared Draupadī’s anger. He spoke hesitantly, “What shall I say to the queen for a third time?”

Duryodhana snorted angrily. He turned to Dushashana. “O brother, this foolish servant is afraid of Bhīma. Go and bring Draupadī here. What can the Pāṇḍavas do now that they have become dependent on our will?”

Dushashana immediately rose and went straight to Draupadī like a dog entering a lion’s den. He said, “Come, O princess, we have won you honestly. Cast aside your modesty and go before your new master Duryodhana. O beautiful lady, now you must accept the Kauravas as your lords.”

Draupadī stood up, weeping loudly. She covered her pale face with her hands and ran toward Gāndhārī’s chambers. Dushashana roared in anger and ran after her. He grabbed hold of her long, wavy hair and forcibly pulled her along with him. As he dragged Draupadī by her bluish locks, the shameless prince recalled how that same hair had been sprinkled with the sanctified water of the Rājasūya. Ignoring her plaintive cries, he pulled her out into the palace passageways. Draupadī spoke to him in a low voice. “O rude one, O wretch, you should not take me before the assembly. How can I appear there in my present condition, dressed only in a single cloth.”

Dushashana laughed. “It does not matter, O Pāñcālī, whether you are attired in one cloth or naked. We have won you and you must now live among our servant women as best you can.”

The Kaurava then dragged the wailing Draupadī into the assembly hall. She prayed piteously to Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna. Dushashana threw her before Duryodhana, where she fell with her cloth in disarray and her hair dishevelled. The Kuru elders could hardly look at her. Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Vidura were unable to maintain their composure and they wept openly. Dhṛtarāṣṭra asked, “What is happening now? Is the Pañchāla princess here?”

Then Draupadī rose up like a flame and addressed the assembly in an angry voice. “All the persons in this assembly are learned in the scriptures and devoted to sacrifice. Some are my elders and gurus. How can I stand before them in this state? The high-souled son of Dharma is bound by the subtle rules of morality. Only those with clear vision can understand those rules. I am therefore unable to admit even an atom of fault in my husband.”

Draupadī looked toward Dhṛtarāṣṭra, her eyes filled with tears. By his side she saw Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Vidura, their faces torn by anguish. Everyone remained silent as she continued to reprimand them. “How do you all say nothing as this wretch drags me into the hall? Surely then you are all of the same mind. Shame on you! The Kurus’ high morality has been destroyed by this act. Droṇa, Bhīṣma, Khattwa and the king have lost their greatness, for none of them condemn this most vile deed.”

Draupadī fell to the floor of the hall, crying in helplessness and distress. The slender-waisted princess glanced at her enraged husbands. They were incensed to see her in such a state, and her glance inflamed them even more. Even the loss of their kingdom and wealth did not pain them as much as Draupadī’s glance, which was full of modesty and anger.

When Dushashana saw Draupadī look at her husbands, however, he again dragged her toward the Kurus. “Slave, slave,” he shouted. Duryodhana, Karṇa and Śakuni all applauded Dushashana and laughed along with him. Apart from those three, everyone else in the hall was afflicted with sorrow to see the princess treated in this way.

Shaking his head, Bhīṣma fought back tears and said to Draupadī, “O blessed lady, knowing that one who has no wealth of his own cannot stake that belonging to others, but knowing also that wives are always at the command of their husbands, I am unable to answer the point you raised. The ways of morality are subtle. Yudhiṣṭhira can abandon the whole world full of wealth, but he will never sacrifice morality. The Pāṇḍava played with Śakuni even though he knew that no one could defeat him at dice. He has staked and lost both himself and you, O princess. Therefore I am confused upon this matter.”

Bhīṣma looked up at Dhṛtarāṣṭra, but the king remained ever silent. Draupadī spoke again, “Yudhiṣṭhira was summoned to this assembly by the king, and although he does not possess skill at dice, he was made to play with a skillful, wicked and deceitful gambler. How then can he be said to have staked anything voluntarily? He has been deprived of his senses by the contrivances of sinful men acting together. This act lacks all propriety and will be condemned by all wise men. Here in this hall are many leaders of the Bharata race. Let them reflect on my words and answer my question.”

Dushashana began to harshly insult Draupadī. She wept grievously and looked toward her helpless husbands. Bhīma was afflicted beyond all endurance. Finally, giving vent to his anger, he said to Yudhiṣṭhira, “Gamblers have in their houses many loose women but they never stake even those women at dice. They always remain kind toward them. You have staked and lost all of our gems, jewels, gold, armors, animals, weapons and whatever other wealth we possessed, including our very selves. Even at this my anger was not excited. But I consider your gambling with Draupadī abominable. Having obtained us as her husbands, this innocent girl does not deserve to suffer in this way. Only because of you is she now being persecuted by these low, despicable, cruel and mean-minded Kurus. Although you are my lord, I can hardly control my anger toward you.”

Bhīma turned his massive shoulders toward the twins. “I shall burn Yudhiṣṭhira’s hands. Sahadeva, bring fire.”

Arjuna quickly caught hold of his brother. “O Bhīma, do not speak in this way. You have never uttered such words before. Your morality has certainly been destroyed by these cruel foes. Do not fulfill our enemies’ wishes. Practice the highest virtue and remain obedient to your elder brother. Remembering a kṣatriya’s duties, he has played today only on the king’s command and against his own desire. Such an act will surely make him famous.”

Bhīma calmed himself. Checked by Arjuna’s reproach, he felt ashamed. “You are right, O Dhanañjaya. Our brother has surely acted in accordance with duty. Had I not known this, I would long ago have snatched his arms and burnt them in a blazing fire.” Both brothers looked at Yudhiṣṭhira in his distress. They knew he felt obliged by the presence of Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Bhīṣma. If those two elders did not speak out against what was happening, then Yudhiṣṭhira would not object to the proceedings.

Duryodhana’s hearty laughter rang out again. He was relishing his cousins’ discomfort. He was especially enjoying Draupadī’s distress, remembering how she had laughed at him in the Mayasabha.

Draupadī buried her head in her hands and wept. Her husbands glared furiously at the insolent Duryodhana, but still the Kuru elders remained silent.

Finally, Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s son, Vikarṇa, spoke out. “O kings, answer Draupadī’s question. If we do not decide a matter referred to us in the royal assembly, then we shall descend into hell. Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Bhīṣma, Vidura--you are the eldest of the Kurus, yet you do not say anything. Why are Droṇa and Kṛpa silent? Let the kings who have assembled here from all directions leave aside their anger and give Draupadī a reply.”

Vikarṇa looked around the assembly, but still no one spoke. He repeatedly asked that Draupadī’s question be answered. Had she been won or not? Was she now the Kauravas’ slave?

The silence in the great hall was broken only by Draupadī’s sobs. After another agonizing minute had passed, Vikarṇa said, “If no one will respond, then I shall say what I consider just and proper. O best of men, it is said that there are four vices to which kings are prone: hunting, drinking, womanizing and gambling. The man addicted to these vices lives by forsaking virtue. Therefore, that which is performed by one under the sway of any of these sins cannot be taken seriously. Madly under the influence of gambling, and urged on by the sinful Śakuni, Yudhiṣṭhira staked this princess. She belongs to all the Pāṇḍavas and was lost after Yudhiṣṭhira had already lost himself. Nor was Yudhiṣṭhira playing the game willingly. Rather, the king invited him here to oblige him to play an unfair match. Considering all this, I say that Draupadī has not been won.”

As Vikarṇa sat down, the assembly was in an uproar. Practically everyone applauded him and censured Śakuni.

Karṇa at once leapt up and waved his huge arms about to silence the assembly. His angry voice boomed. “O Vikarṇa, I have observed many improper things in this assembly, and your words are an example of one of them. Like fire springing from a log, your anger will simply consume you. All the great personalities among the Kurus are silent. Obviously this means they consider Drupada’s daughter fairly won. You are immature. Therefore you rail in anger even though you do not know the laws of morality and speak like a fool. Yudhiṣṭhira has staked her as a fair bet and lost her.”

Karṇa, like Duryodhana, still remembered his humiliation when Draupadī refused to allow him to compete in her svayaṁvara. The pain of that refusal still rankled. “Well,” he thought, “the proud princess is now getting what she deserves.” He turned to the assembly and argued that there was no sin in bringing Draupadī into the hall in her present state. After all, she had already accepted five husbands. What kind of moral woman was she? In his opinion, she was unchaste. He pointed to Draupadī as he spoke. “For such a woman there is nothing wrong even if she is brought naked into an assembly. Indeed, she now belongs to the Kauravas and must obey our command. O Dushashana, why not take off her robes? And remove also the Pāṇḍavas’ royal dress, too. They are no longer kings.”

Bound by morality, the Pāṇḍavas slowly removed their upper garments and threw them down. They sat silently as Dushashana approached the wailing Draupadī. The Kaurava took hold of the end of her cloth and pulled on it forcefully. Draupadī held her sari tightly in an attempt to protect herself, but it was useless. Her strength was nothing compared to Dushashana’s. She looked again at her five husbands. It was obvious that they could not help her. As Dushashana pulled harder, she looked around the hall like a frightened deer assailed by a lion. There was only one person now who could save her: Kṛṣṇa. The Supreme Personality saw everything and was always her shelter. Draupadī fixed her mind on Kṛṣṇa, threw up her hands and cried, “O Govinda! O Keśava! O beloved of the gopīs and Lord of Vṛndāvana! O Janārdana, You are the destroyer of all affliction. I am sinking into the Kuru ocean. O Lord, O soul of the universe, O creator of the world! Save me who am distressed and losing my senses in this evil assembly!”

From where He was seated in Dwārakā, Kṛṣṇa heard Draupadī’s piteous cries. He expanded Himself by His inconceivable power and went swiftly to Hastināpura. By His mystic potency He immediately entered the assembly hall. Without being seen by anyone He provided Draupadī with an unlimited supply of cloth to cover her. Dushashana pulled and pulled at her sari, and as he did so the princess spun around--but he could not disrobe her. There seemed to be no end to her sari. The astonished prince pulled with even more strength, but Draupadī remained covered. Soon a large heap of cloth lay piled on the floor.

Seeing this wonderful event, all the kings praised Draupadī and censured Dushashana. The prince was exhausted from his futile attempt to undress the Pāṇḍavas’ wife. He sat down, perspiring heavily. Bhīma leapt up and raised his arms. “O kings of the world,” he thundered, “listen to my words! I shall now make a vow unlike any that has been made before. Nor shall such a vow be made in future. If I do not forcefully tear open the breast of this sinful wretch on the battlefield and drink his blood, then may I not obtain the path of my ancestors.”

Hearing Bhīma’s terrible words, the kings applauded him and again censured Dushashana. A clamor arose. Shouts of “Shame, shame!” filled the hall.

Vidura once more brought silence to the hall. He turned to Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Bhīṣma. “O learned men, you do not answer Draupadī’s question and thus in this assembly we persecute religion. A distressed person comes to an assembly of good men like a man feeling the heat of a blazing fire. The assembly should extinguish his fire and cool him with truth and morality. The distressed man asks about his rights according to morality and he is entitled to an answer. O King, Vikarṇa has offered one answer to Draupadī’s question according to his own knowledge and judgment. Now you should also reply.”

Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Kṛpa looked expectantly at Dhṛtarāṣṭra. They were unable to tolerate any more from Duryodhana. Still the blind king maintained his silence. Vidura continued, “One who knows the rules of morality yet sits in an assembly without properly answering a question receives a sinful reaction. Listen as I recount the ancient history of Prahlāda and the son of a ṛṣi named Aṅgirāsha.”

Vidura described how Prahlāda’s son, Virocanā, had once quarreled with a ṛṣi named Sudhanva for the sake of a bride. They had both gone to Prahlāda and asked, “Which of us is superior? Answer us truthfully.”

Prahlāda looked at both of them but said nothing. Sudhanva became angry and said, “If you do not answer or if you answer falsely, then your head will break into a hundred pieces.”

Trembling with fear, Prahlāda then consulted the celestial sage Kaśyapa. “O exalted one, tell me what regions are obtained by one who, being asked a question, does not reply or answers falsely.”

Kaśyapa said, “He who knows but does not answer out of temptation, anger or fear is bound by Varuṇa’s thousand nooses. He who is called as witness but who speaks falsely is similarly punished. After one full year, one of the nooses is loosened. Therefore one should speak the truth as he knows it. If virtue, pierced by sin, goes to an assembly, it is the duty of every man there to remove the dart. If they fail to do so, then they will be pierced by that same dart. In an assembly where a censurable act is not rebuked, every member of that assembly is afflicted by sin. Grief will overcome them all in due course.”

After hearing Kaśyapa’s words, Prahlāda said to his son, “Sudhanva is undoubtedly your superior, as much as his father Aṅgirāsha is mine.”

Sudhanva immediately blessed Prahlāda, “As you have spoken the truth without being moved by affection for your son, may he live for one hundred years.”

Vidura concluded, “Hearing this great instruction about religion, let all those present deliberate on what should be done. Draupadī should be given an answer.”

Still there was silence in the hall. Seeing the Kuru elders saying nothing, and considering this tacit approval of her condition, Karṇa spoke to Dushashana. “Take the servant-woman to the inner apartments.”

Dushashana again grabbed Draupadī’s hair and began to drag the helpless princess, who was trembling and crying piteously to her husbands. Pulling herself free from his grasp, she addressed the assembly in tearful words. “Wait a little, O worst of men. I have not as yet offered my respects to my superiors. Forgive me. It was not my fault as I was forcibly dragged here by this low wretch, this disgrace of the Kurus. The morality of the Kuru house has been lost forever today. Never before have we heard of a married woman being brought in this state before an assembly. She who was never before seen even by the wind or the sun has now been exposed before all men. Indeed I am being publicly persecuted by wicked men.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra listened with his head bowed as she went on. “What could be more distressing for me than that? Although I am high-born and chaste, the Pāṇḍavas’ wife and Kṛṣṇa’s friend, I am nevertheless dragged into this assembly. Where is the religion of all these kings? O Kauravas, answer me truthfully. Am I, Dharmarāja’s lawful wife, born in the same order to which he belongs, to be considered a servant woman or not? I shall be obedient to your command. O Kurus, this despicable destroyer of Kuru fame is cruelly dragging me. I cannot tolerate it any longer. Tell me what I should do and I will happily obey you.”

Bhīṣma shed tears as Draupadī spoke. He looked at her with compassion and said, “O blessed lady, I have said that the ways of religion are subtle. Even wise men find it hard to understand them. Sometimes what a great and powerful man calls religion is accepted as such, even though it may not normally be so. What a weak man says, no matter how moral it may seem, is generally disregarded. From the importance of the matter you have raised, its intricacy and subtlety, I find myself unable to answer you.”

Bhīṣma stopped and looked around at the silent assembly. Turning back to Draupadī he continued, “It is certain that as the Kurus have become slaves of greed and folly, our race will soon be destroyed. O Pāñcālī, that even under today’s circumstances you would turn to religion shows how worthy you are and adds glory to our house. Your husbands are equally praiseworthy. They do not deviate from virtue in such difficulty. The Kauravas, however, sit with downcast faces. They look as if they are dead. I do not think they are going to answer you. You should ask your question of Yudhiṣṭhira. He alone should say whether or not you have been won.”

Draupadī wept like a female osprey. Still the kings remained silent. They appeared to be afraid of Duryodhana’s power. The Kaurava prince continued to smile, even after hearing Bhīṣma’s words. Rising, he said to Draupadī, “O Pāñcālī, I agree with Bhīṣma. The answer to your question depends upon your husband. Let the illustrious Yudhiṣṭhira, resembling Indra himself and ever devoted to virtue, state whether or not he acted rightly. If he declares himself to have gambled you away falsely, because he was no longer your lord at the time, I shall free you. I will also free his brothers if he makes the same declaration about them. Let Yudhiṣṭhira tell us first, however, that he lost his discrimination. After Yudhiṣṭhira has spoken, O thin-waisted lady, then you should accept either ourselves or the Pāṇḍavas as your lords. All the Kurus here are floating in the sea of your affliction. They are naturally magnanimous. Therefore, looking at your unfortunate husbands, they are unable to answer your question.”

Again the assembly erupted. Many kings applauded Duryodhana’s words. Others cried out, “Alas!” and “Oh!” But each now turned to look at Yudhiṣṭhira, eager to hear what he would reply.

As the hum of voices gradually died down, Bhīma stood suddenly. His voice filled the hall. “If the high-souled Dharmarāja were not our lord and guru, then we would not pardon the Kuru race. But he is the lord of all our religious and ascetic merits. Indeed, he is the lord of our lives. If he considers us won, then we are won. If it were not so then who is there among mortal creatures on this earth who could escape with their life after touching the hair of the Pañchāla princess? Look at my two arms. They are maces of steel. Having come within their grasp, who could escape? Not even Indra himself! Bound by the ties of virtue, and by the reverence due our elder brother--and because I am being repeatedly urged by Arjuna to remain silent--I do nothing. If but once commanded by Yudhiṣṭhira I would, by means of my slaps alone, kill Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sinful sons as a lion kills a flock of small animals.”

Hearing Bhīma speak, Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Vidura said with alarm, “Be peaceful, O Bhīma. Anything is possible for you.”

Karṇa then jumped up from his seat. “It seems that Khattwa, Bhīṣma and Droṇa are independent,” he exclaimed, his face red with anger. “They always censure their master and never wish for his prosperity. I shall say what is right in this case. The slave, the son and the wife are always dependent. Whatever they possess belongs to their master. O Draupadī, you are the wife of a slave who is now incapable of possessing anything of his own. Go then to the king’s inner quarters and serve his relatives. Select another husband who will not lose you at gambling. Your husbands are all slaves and cannot be your masters any longer. Obviously Yudhiṣṭhira considers that life and manhood are useless, as he has offered Drupada’s daughter as a stake in the presence of this assembly.”

Bhīma glowered at Karṇa. Breathing heavily, it seemed he was about to leap forward at any moment. Still, he remained obedient to Yudhiṣṭhira. Bound by virtue he did nothing. Looking around as if to burn everything with his blazing eyes, he turned to Yudhiṣṭhira and said, “My lord, I cannot become angry at the words of the suta’s son since we are now slaves. O King, could our enemies ever have spoken in this way in my presence if you had not staked this princess?”

Yudhiṣṭhira sat silently, stunned. Duryodhana laughed and said, “Come, O King, tell us the truth. Is Draupadī won or not?”

Reveling in his cousins’ anguish, Duryodhana smiled at Karṇa. To further insult and incite Bhīma, the Kaurava prince then uncovered his right thigh, which resembled the trunk of an elephant, and showed it to Draupadī. “Sit here upon the lap of your new lord, O princess. What have you to do with the Pāṇḍavas now?”

Bhīma could take no more. He exploded. “Hear this, you wretch! If I do not break that thigh in battle, then let me not attain the regions of my ancestors.” Fire was emanating from every part of Bhīma’s body as he spoke, and his heavy chest rose and fell like the ocean.

Vidura jumped up and addressed the assembly. “O kings, observe the danger we are now in from Bhīma. A calamity threatens to overtake our race. This has been sent by destiny. Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons have gambled deceitfully. Now they are quarreling over a woman. This kingdom’s prosperity is at an end. Alas! The Kurus have given way to iniquity. This entire assembly is now polluted by sin. O kings, take to heart the precept I shall declare: having first lost himself, Yudhiṣṭhira was unable to lose Pāñcālī. She cannot be considered a slave.”

Duryodhana looked at the agonized Pāṇḍavas. “I am willing to abide by the decision of Bhīma, Arjuna and the twins. Let them declare that Yudhiṣṭhira is no longer their master and I will free Draupadī.”

Arjuna retorted, “Yudhiṣṭhira was certainly our lord and master before he began to play. Having lost himself, let the Kurus decide whose master he is now.”

As Arjuna spoke a jackal suddenly cried out in Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s nearby sacrificial chamber. Asses brayed in response and fearful birds cried in all quarters of the sky. Seized by anxiety, Bhīṣma and Droṇa cried out, “All peace!” Vidura urged the king to do something before total disaster overtook them.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra at last accepted that things had gone too far. He had remained silent long enough. Raising his hand he silenced the assembly, which was in chaos because of the evil omens. The blind king said, “O wicked-minded Duryodhana, O wretch, you are already as good as dead now that you have insulted a wife of the Kuru chiefs in this way, especially the Pāṇḍavas’ wife, Draupadī.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra knew that they now faced grave danger. If he did not appease the Pāṇḍavas, then united with the invincible Kṛṣṇa, they would wreak a terrible vengeance upon the Kauravas. The king attempted to console Draupadī. “O Pāñcālī, please ask from me any favor you may desire. Chaste and always devoted to virtue, you are the foremost of all my daughters-in-law.”

Draupadī looked up at Dhṛtarāṣṭra, who had said nothing while she was being persecuted. She knew he had relented only out of fear. Still, this was her opportunity to rectify the situation. She bowed before the king and said, “O best of the Bharata race, if you desire to do me good then let Yudhiṣṭhira be freed from slavery. He is the father of my son, Prativindya. Let not people speak of that boy, born and raised as a royal prince, as if he were the son of a slave.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra replied, “O blessed girl, it shall be so. Ask for another favor. I am not satisfied by giving you only one boon.”

“Then also free Bhīma, Arjuna and the twins, along with their chariots and weapons.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra again granted the favor without hesitation. Then he asked Draupadī to request a third boon. This time the princess said, “O King, greed destroys virtue. I dare not ask a third favor. Indeed, the scriptures ordain that a kṣatriya woman may ask no more than two boons. My husbands, being freed from slavery, will be able to obtain prosperity by their own virtuous acts.”

Karṇa broke out laughing. “Just see how these great heroes have been saved by a woman. When they were sinking in a boatless ocean of distress, this beautiful princess became the boat of their salvation. I have never heard of such a thing before today.”

Bhīma flared, but again Arjuna checked him. “Desist, brother. Great men never care for the harsh words uttered by inferior men. Even if able to retaliate, they do not take seriously acts of hostility, preferring instead to remember even a little good that their enemies may have done them.”

Bhīma was hardly pacified by Arjuna’s words. He spoke in a low voice to Yudhiṣṭhira. “I shall at once kill all these foes. What need is there for further discussion? O lord, you may then rule the earth without a rival.”

Bhīma repeatedly cast angry glances at the Kauravas, even as a lion looks at a herd of small animals. Arjuna restrained him with appealing looks, placing his hand on his brother’s heaving shoulder. Smoke, sparks and flames issued from Bhīma’s ears, mouth and nostrils as he fought to restrain himself. With his furrowed brows and red eyes he appeared like Yamarāja at the time of universal destruction. Yudhiṣṭhira embraced him and said, “Be peaceful, brother.” He then turned to Dhṛtarāṣṭra, “O King, you are our lord. Command us what we should do now.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra replied, “Go in peace, Ajātaśatru. You are full of humil-ity and you wait upon your elders. Therefore you are wise. Those who are wise do not remember an enemy’s hostility. Instead, they see only the good in them. Only the worst of men use harsh words in a quarrel, while superior men do not react when provoked. Knowing their own feelings, they can understand the feelings of others. Therefore they always act with compassion, even toward their enemies.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra then begged Yudhiṣṭhira to forget Duryodhana’s harshness and to try instead to remember whatever kindness the king and his wife Gāndhārī had shown him. He told Yudhiṣṭhira that he had allowed the gambling match in order to examine the strengths and weaknesses of his children and the Pāṇḍavas. The king concluded, “In you, O Yudhiṣṭhira, is virtue, in Bhīma, prowess, in Arjuna, patience, and in the twins there is pure reverence for and service toward superiors. Go then, all of you, and live in peace. Return to your own kingdom. Let there be brotherly love between yourselves and my sons. Be ever fixed in virtue.”

The Pāṇḍavas bowed before the king and then left. They ascended their chariots with Draupadī and started for Indraprastha. The assembly broke up and all the kings retired to the palatial mansions provided for them by Dhṛtarāṣṭra. As they left the hall, some of them praised Yudhiṣṭhira and others Duryodhana. The blind king was led away by Vidura. As he recalled the heinous wrong committed by his sons toward the Pāṇḍavas, and especially toward their wife, he became gripped by fear. Giving them their property could hardly repair the damage that was done by the insult to Draupadī. Bhīma would certainly never forget his vows and, at the first opportunity, would doubtlessly take his revenge. Sighing, the Kuru monarch entered his chambers and began his evening prayers.

Chapter 21: The Pāṇḍavas Exiled

After everyone had left the gambling match, Dushashana said to Duryodhana, “O great hero, that old man gave everything back that we strived so hard to acquire. The Pāṇḍavas have been sent back to their kingdom and we are back where we started.”

The two brothers consulted Karṇa and Śakuni. They condemned the blind king for his softness. How could he have been so foolish as to show kindness to such powerful enemies? That was a serious mistake. Unless they acted quickly to reverse the situation, they would soon be facing a great danger. Their spies had already reported how the five brothers were proceeding toward Indraprastha. Bhīma was whirling his massive mace, Arjuna was repeatedly twanging the Gāṇḍīva, Nakula and Sahadeva were waving their great swords, and Yudhiṣṭhira held aloft his spear. It was clear that they were ready to fight.

On Śakuni’s suggestion, Duryodhana again approached his father. Their only hope, Śakuni said, was another gambling match. This time, the Kauravas should win something. The Gandhara monarch revealed his plan and Duryodhana immediately went to Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s chambers.

Duryodhana found the king seated on a golden couch. Sitting at his feet he said, “Father, we must recall the Pāṇḍavas for another game before it is too late. We have stirred to anger a number of venomous serpents. How can we possibly expect them to tolerate the insult we offered to their wife? A powerful enemy must be destroyed by any means. We have started something which we cannot now stop.”

Duryodhana told his father that if the Pāṇḍavas could somehow be sent away, then it would give him time to find allies and build his strength. Using the Pāṇḍavas’ vast wealth, he could make his position unassailable. First, however, Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers had to be removed from the scene. Duryodhana described the plan Śakuni and he had contrived. The king should call the Pāṇḍavas back for one final game of dice. It was clear that they and the Kauravas would not be able to co-exist peacefully. Therefore, whoever lost the dice game should live in the forest in exile for thirteen years. During the final year, they could emerge from the forest but had to remain incognito. If they were discovered, then they would have to again go into the forest for a second twelve years. Such would be the stakes for this final game.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra remained silent after his son had stopped speaking. It was true that the Pāṇḍavas were now a real threat. Who could gauge the outcome of a war between those powerful brothers and his own sons? But another gambling match? What would Vidura and Bhīṣma say? It would probably be wiser to let things stand as they were for the present. Yudhiṣṭhira was virtuous and would keep his brothers in check.

Seeing his father’s hesitation, Duryodhana implored him. The king felt himself weakening. It was almost impossible for him to refuse his son. And if Duryodhana were to win the final match, as seemed likely, then the Kauravas would become the undisputed rulers of the earth. He himself would sit at their head. Even though Yudhiṣṭhira was the world’s emperor, if he agreed to the stakes and lost he would certainly feel honor-bound to enter the forest. Considering that everything lay in the hands of fate, the king agreed to Duryodhana’s proposal. He ordered that the Pāṇḍavas should be brought back to play one last game in which everything would be settled.

When they learned of this, the other Kuru elders objected strongly, but Dhṛtarāṣṭra would not listen. He ignored their counsel and messengers were sent from Hastināpura to find the Pāṇḍavas.

Seeing her husband’s blind acceptance of Duryodhana’s dark plans, Gāndhārī became anxious. She had been mortified to learn of Draupadī’s ordeal in the assembly hall. It seemed that Duryodhana lacked all moral scruples. How could the king support him? How could he possibly have sat in silence as the gentle Pāṇḍava queen was so harshly abused? When Dhṛtarāṣṭra was alone, the blindfolded queen approached him. “Do you not recall Vidura’s advice when Duryodhana was born? He warned us that if we did not cast aside that disgrace of our race, he would surely cause our destruction. It seems this is now coming to pass. O ruler of men, do not for your own fault sink into an ocean of calamity. Do not accept the counsel of wicked-minded persons who are but boys. Who would rekindle a great fire after it has been extinguished? Who could be so foolish as to again provoke Kuntī’s peaceful sons?”

The king remained impassive. Gāndhārī was wise and thought always of his welfare and the good of the Kuru house, but her advice now was like a bitter medicine. He could not swallow it. She continued, “You alone have caused the disaster we now face. Lead your sons on the right path. Do not watch them rush towards death. Abandon Duryodhana now. The affection you bear for him will destroy this kingdom. Let your mind, guided by wise counsels, follow its natural inclination toward peace and virtue. Surely you know that prosperity acquired through wickedness is soon lost, while that which is gained through honest means takes root and descends from generation to generation.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra sighed and stood up to leave. “If it is time for the destruction of our race then, what can I do? If it is God’s will, then let it take place without hindrance. How can I influence events ordained by destiny? Let the Pāṇḍavas return and again gamble with my sons.”

The queen said nothing more. It was hopeless. Surely the end of the Kurus was nigh, since no one could sway the king from his folly. She called for her servants and was led back to her quarters.

The Pāṇḍavas had gone a considerable distance from Hastināpura when to their surprise they saw a group of messengers from Hastināpura, headed by the pratikamin, approaching them. Yudhiṣṭhira dismounted from his chariot and the servant stepped forward and said, “O Yudhiṣṭhira, your uncle has ordered, ‘O best of the Bharatas, the assembly awaits you again. Come back for one final game of dice.’”

Yudhiṣṭhira could immediately understand Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s intention. He turned to his brothers and said, “All creatures receive the good or evil fruits of their work as ordained by the Supreme. Whether I play another dice game or not, the fruits of my past activities are unavoidable. Although I know the Kauravas wish to destroy me, I cannot ignore the summons. A living creature made of gold had never before been seen, yet Rāma allowed himself to be fooled by a golden deer. When calamity approaches, men’s minds become confused. Surely the path of religion is subtle and highly difficult to ascertain.”

Yudhiṣṭhira turned and retraced his steps back to Hastināpura. He was fearful. Despite his best efforts to follow the orders of his elders and avoid conflict, still a war seemed inevitable. To refuse Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s summons would only bring the conflict into the open more quickly. But what would be the result of another dice game with Duryodhana?

The five brothers soon arrived back at Hastināpura. To the consternation of their friends and well-wishers, they again entered Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s great hall. Although he knew full well that he had no chance of success, Yudhiṣṭhira sat down to play dice with Śakuni one last time. When the Pāṇḍavas were again seated in the hall, Śakuni said, “O Yudhiṣṭhira, the old king has returned your wealth. That is well. Now let us play with a stake of greater value. If we are defeated, we shall accept exile in the forest. We will wear deerskins and remain there for twelve years. During the thirteenth year we will live in a city, town or village. If you should discover us, however, we shall be exiled in the forest for another twelve years. If you are defeated, you and your brothers, along with Draupadī, will accept the same conditions.”

Śakuni’s mouth curved into a sinister smile. The ivory dice in his hand clacked as he explained the stakes. Whichever side was the loser would be expected to surrender their kingdom to the winner. The kingdom would be returned when the thirteen-year period was over.

As the stakes were described, all those in the hall cried out, “Alas! Shame upon Duryodhana’s friends that they do not warn him of the danger he brings upon himself!” Some of them turned to Dhṛtarāṣṭra and said, “Whether or not Duryodhana understands his foolishness, you should order him to stop. He will bring down only death and destruction. Check him at once. This is your duty.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra said nothing and Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “O King, how can one like me who always observes a kṣatriya’s duty refuse your challenge? Everyone knows this about me. Besides, it is Dhṛtarāṣṭra, my father and guru, who orders me to play. What can I do but accept the stakes?”

The game began. Everyone in the hall sat breathless as it moved toward its inevitable conclusion. Finally, Śakuni’s “I have won!” echoed round the hall again. The Kuru elders cried out, “Alas! Shame! This ancient house is doomed!”

Duryodhana laughed and ordered that deerskins be brought immediately for the Pāṇḍavas. When the brothers had put on the ascetic garb and were preparing to leave for the forest, Dushashana spoke in great happiness. “Now Duryodhana’s unopposed and absolute sovereignty shall begin. The Pāṇḍavas stand vanquished. Indeed they are miserable. Whether or not we have acted sinfully does not matter. It is clear that the gods have bestowed their grace upon us, for today we have defeated our enemies. Kuntī’s sons are deprived of happiness and kingdom forever. Those who laughed at Duryodhana shall now abandon their royal robes and armor and go to the forest possessing nothing.”

Relishing the moment to the full, Dushashana continued to taunt the Pāṇḍavas with cruel words. Seeing the five brothers in their black deerskins resembling five powerful ṛṣis, he said, “Although the Pāṇḍavas look like wise men installed in a sacrifice, they should now be considered unworthy to perform any sacrifice.”

Dushashana then turned toward Draupadī. “King Drupada did not act well when he bestowed this princess upon the Pāṇḍavas, who are impotent men. O Draupadī, what joy will you get from serving your husbands in the forest? Select a better husband from among the Kauravas so that this calamity may not overwhelm you. Do not waste any more time waiting upon the Pāṇḍavas.”

Bhīma rushed toward Dushashana like a Himālayan lion might rush toward a jackal. “O crooked wretch, you rave in words uttered only by the sinful. You have won today only by Śakuni’s skill, yet still you dare to boast. As you pierce our hearts with words as sharp as arrows, so shall I pierce your heart in battle to remind you of your words today. Then I shall send you to Yamarāja’s abode along with your followers.”

Giving up all shame Dushashana laughed and danced around in the Kuru’s midst, singing, “O cow, O cow.”

Bhīma restrained himself, with difficulty, by fixing his mind on virtue. He spoke again to the sneering Dushashana. “Wretch, how do you dare to use such harsh words, having won by foul means? I shall surely tear open your chest and drink your life-blood in battle, or I will never attain to the regions of bliss. My anger shall be pacified only when I have slain all of Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons.”

Yudhiṣṭhira headed for the door, followed by his brothers and Draupadī. In great joy Duryodhana walked alongside Bhīma, mimicking his powerful lion-like gait. Half-turning toward him, Bhīma said, “Do not think that by this you have gained anything over me. I will be back to kill you and all your followers. Neither of us will forget what has happened today.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra was still silent. Bhīṣma, Vidura, Droṇa and Kṛpa, all of whom were shedding tears to see the Pāṇḍavas go into exile, called out, “Fie! Fie!” They looked helplessly at the blind king.

Before the Pāṇḍavas left the hall, they stopped before the king and Bhīma spoke again. “I shall kill Duryodhana and all his brothers, O King. Arjuna will slay Karṇa, and Sahadeva will kill the evil Śakuni. My words will be made good by the gods. When I have beaten Duryodhana to the ground with my mace, I will then place my foot on his head.”

Arjuna added, “The promises of superior men are not empty words. You will see all this come to pass on the fourteenth year. As Bhīma directs, I will kill Karṇa, who is malicious, jealous, harsh-speeched and vain. I will also slay all kings who foolishly stand against me in battle. If my vow is not carried out, then so shall the Himālayas be moved, or the sun’s rays become cool. I will not fail. This will come to pass in fourteen years if Duryodhana does not return our kingdom.”

Arjuna felt sure that Duryodhana would never return their kingdom. The war was inevitable. All the brothers knew it. As Arjuna finished speaking, Sahadeva, sighing like a snake, his eyes red with anger, said, “O Śakuni, you have destroyed the fame of your race. What you call dice are actually pointed arrows aimed at your heart. If you have anything left to do in this life, do it now, for I shall certainly kill you in battle when we return from the forest.”

Nakula also vowed to rid the earth of Duryodhana’s followers. Having made their promises, the brothers turned toward Dhṛtarāṣṭra. Yudhiṣṭhira said, “I bid you farewell, O King, and also you, O Kuru elders. I shall see you all again upon my return. I bow to you and ask your blessings.”

The elders were too ashamed to reply. They prayed for the Pāṇḍavas’ welfare. Then, after a moment, Vidura spoke. “Your mother, the revered Kuntī, is a royal princess and should not be made to go to the forest. She is delicate and old. Let that blessed lady remain in my house while you are gone.”

Yudhiṣṭhira agreed, saying, “You are our uncle and as good as our father. Let it be as you say, O learned man. We are all obedient to you. Without doubt you are our most respected guru. Please command us what else should be done.”

“O Yudhiṣṭhira, best of the Bharata race,” Vidura replied, “do not feel pained by this turn of events. There is no shame in being defeated by sinful means. You five brothers will reside happily in the forest, enjoying each other’s company along with the company of the virtuous Draupadī. You have already received many instructions from ṛṣis and saints. This exile will be a further opportunity to receive spiritual training. The learned Dhaumya and the godly Ṛṣi Nārada will instruct you as you lead a simple forest life. Actually, you will be benefited by your withdrawal from worldly affairs and wealth.”

Vidura wished them well, praying that they would return in safety. He blessed them that they might obtain from the gods their various opulences: victory from Indra, patience from Yamarāja, charity from Kuvera, sense control from Varuṇa, strength from Vāyu, forbearance from the earth and energy from the sun-god. Finally Vidura said, “Leave then with our permission, O son of Kuntī. None can accuse you of ever having acted sinfully. Farewell.”

Yudhiṣṭhira thanked his uncle for his blessings and bowed low before him, Bhīṣma and Droṇa. Each of his brothers then offered their respects to the Kuru elders, who in turn blessed them. They then made their way out of the hall.

Before following her husbands, Draupadī approached Kuntī to ask her leave. As she entered the inner chambers a loud cry went up from all the ladies there. They were plunged in grief to see the Pañchāla princess about to enter the forest. Draupadī saluted and embraced them all according to their status. She bowed before Kuntī, who lifted her up and embraced her.

With tears in her eyes, Kuntī said, “O child, do not grieve for this great calamity which has overtaken you. The hearts of good women are never moved by the inevitable influence of destiny. Knowing all your duties, you should follow your husbands with a happy heart and continue to render them service. You are chaste and accomplished, and you adorn the ancient Kuru race. It is fortunate indeed for the Kurus that they were not burnt by your wrath. O sinless one, go now in safety, blessed by my prayers. Protected by your own virtue, you will soon obtain good fortune.”

Kuntī’s voice was choked. She had never been separated from her sons before. How could she face thirteen years away from them? Sobbing loudly, she asked Draupadī, “O child, take particular care of Sahadeva. That gentle boy holds a special place in my heart.” Draupadī replied, “So be it,” and, still wearing a single blood-stained cloth, her hair disheveled, she left the inner apartments in tears. Kuntī followed close behind. As she came out she saw her sons, shorn of their royal robes and clad in deerskins. They were surrounded by rejoicing foes and pitying friends. Overwhelmed by motherly affection, Kuntī embraced them and said with difficulty, “You are all virtuous and well-behaved. You are devoted to the Lord and ever engaged in the service of your superiors. How then has this calamity overcome you? I do not see whose sin has fallen upon you. Surely it is due to your having taken birth in my womb that you now face this reversal despite your numerous excellent qualities.”

Kuntī lamented loudly for her sons. How would they survive in the wilderness? She decided that Mādrī had been the more fortunate wife. She had already attained her liberation. Surely she had forseen this terrible disaster and had entered Pāṇḍu’s funeral fire in relief. If Kuntī had known that this was to happen, she would never have brought her sons from the mountains to Hastināpura.

Kuntī let out an anguished cry. “O great creator! Have you forgotten to ordain my death? Surely that is why I am still living although faced with such tragedy. O my sons, I obtained you after so much difficulty. How can I leave you now? I shall accompany you to the forest.”

Folding her hands, she prayed aloud to Kṛṣṇa, “O Kṛṣṇa, O You who dwell in Dwārakā, where are You? Why do You not save me and my sons, the best of men? Those who are wise say that You always protect those who think of You. Why is this now proving false?”

Kuntī then censured the Kuru elders who could stand by and watch as her virtuous sons were exiled to the forest. Weeping, she turned to Sahadeva. “O my son, you should not go. Stay behind and earn the fruit of the virtue of serving the mother. Let your pious brothers fulfill the terms of the vow.”

The Pāṇḍavas were pained to see their mother grieving. They consoled her as best they could, then took their leave. Vidura gently took Kuntī by the hand and led her toward his house. Gāndhārī and the other ladies of the royal house also wept, covering their faces with their lotus-like hands.

With difficulty the brothers made their way along Hastināpura’s crowded streets. The news of their exile had spread quickly, and the streets were filled with grieving citizens. Led by Dhaumya, they left the city and the people they loved, unable to say anything to anyone.

Chapter 22: Into the Forest

When the Pāṇḍavas were gone, Dhṛtarāṣṭra became prey to anxiety. Thinking of the dangers awaiting his sons he could not enjoy peace of mind. He brooded in his rooms for some time, then called for Vidura. When his brother arrived the king timidly asked, “I desire to hear how Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers left the city. How did Draupadī proceed? What was the exalted Dhaumya doing as they left the city?”

Vidura replied, “Yudhiṣṭhira walked with his face covered by a cloth. Bhīma was looking at his mighty arms and Arjuna was scattering sands as he walked. Sahadeva smeared his face with dirt and Nakula covered his body with ashes. The lotus-eyed Draupadī followed them with her face bathed in tears and her hair disheveled. Dhaumya walked before them, carrying kusha grass and uttering fearful mantras from the Sāma Veda relating to Yamarāja.”

Intrigued by this description, Dhṛtarāṣṭra enquired further, “Tell me why they have assumed these various guises, O Vidura.”

“Although your sons persecuted him and deprived him of his kingdom by foul means, the wise Dharmarāja has not deviated from the path of virtue. Thus he covered his face, thinking, ‘I may consume innocent citizens by looking at them with eyes made fearful by anger.’ Bhīma strode forth from the city repeatedly stretching his arms and thinking how none could equal him in strength. He desires to do to his enemies acts worthy of those arms. Arjuna, who is capable of drawing his bow with both hands, scattered sands to symbolize the countless arrows he will let loose in battle. Sahadeva smeared his face thinking, ‘None should recognise me in this hour of calamity. The incomparably handsome Nakula covered himself with ashes thinking, ‘I should not steal the hearts of women as I walk exposed along the public highway.’”

Hearing of Bhīma and Arjuna’s belligerence, the blind king became even more fearful. What would become of Duryodhana and his brothers now? Dhṛtarāṣṭra listened with growing concern as Vidura continued his description.

“The chaste Draupadī, attired in a single piece of cloth, her hair bedraggled due to Dushashana’s touch, went along saying, ‘The wives of those who have reduced me to this plight will, in fourteen years from now, have to lament as I am lamenting. Bereft of their husbands and sons, they will enter the city by this road, having offered oblations of water to their dead relatives at the river.’

“O Dhṛtarāṣṭra, the learned and self-controlled Dhaumya, holding blades of kusha pointed south, uttered the Sāma Veda, thinking, ‘When all the Kauravas are killed their priests will sing these same mantras.’”

Vidura told the king how Hastināpura’s citizens were condemning the Kuru chiefs and wailing with sorrow. While the brothers were leaving, everyone saw the many evil omens. Lightning flashed from a cloudless sky and the earth trembled. The sun was eclipsed and meteors fell. Jackals yelped from all directions, and vultures and ravens shrieked from the temples of the gods. “All these signs portend the destruction of our race, O King. This is only the result of your own evil desires.” Vidura looked at Dhṛtarāṣṭra, who sat wringing his hands and saying nothing.

Just at that moment the great Ṛṣi Nārada suddenly appeared, surrounded by other powerful sages. He stood before Dhṛtarāṣṭra and said gravely, “On the fourteenth year from now, for Duryodhana’s fault, Bhīma and Arjuna will destroy the Kauravas.”

After saying this, Nārada rose upwards into the sky with the other ṛṣis and disappeared. All the Kurus were gripped by fear. Nārada’s words could not prove false. Seeing war as inevitable, Duryodhana, Karṇa and Śakuni approached Droṇa to offer him command of the army. Droṇa said, “The Brahmins have said that the Pāṇḍavas are of divine origin and cannot be killed. Out of fear of those heroes, however, you have sought my shelter and I cannot refuse. Destiny is supreme. I shall do everything in my power to protect you, even though the Pāṇḍavas are allied with Drupada, whose son was born to kill me. Thus I too must be about to die. O Kurus, enjoy while you can. Offer sacrifice and give charity freely. At the end of fourteen years, calamity will overtake us all.”

Droṇa spoke in Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s hearing. The old king found himself more and more anxious as he thought of the injustice for which he had been responsible. Now his son had everything he wanted, but how long could it last? Enmity with the Pāṇḍavas would be dangerous even for the gods. Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s thoughts went back to the day Duryodhana was born. Why had he not then listened to Vidura’s advice? Even then his affection for his son had overpowered all his judgment and reason. Now he was about to face the consequences for his sentimental weakness.The king called for his secretary Sañjaya, who, although a charioteer and śūdra by birth, was Vyāsadeva’s disciple and his own friend. Sañjaya had often been able to console Dhṛtarāṣṭra with his wisdom. When he arrived he saw the king sitting with his head bowed, sighing repeatedly. With a wry smile the charioteer said, “O King, you have now obtained the whole earth and all its wealth. Why then do you grieve?”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra shook his head. “What do they not have to grieve for who will have to meet in battle those foremost of fighters, the Pāṇḍavas?”

Sañjaya spoke frankly. “This, O King, is your own fault. You have created a hostility which will destroy the world. Although Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Vidura condemned Duryodhana’s behavior, your wicked son had the beloved and virtuous Draupadī dragged into the assembly hall and cruelly insulted. Why did you not check him? Surely the gods deprive that man of his reason to whom they have ordained defeat and disgrace. He sees everything in a strange light. When destruction is at hand, his mind is polluted by sin and evil then appears as good. That which is improper appears proper, while that which is proper appears otherwise.”

Sitting alone with his secretary, Dhṛtarāṣṭra listened sorrowfully to his words, which he knew were moral and true. The king held his head as Sañjaya continued.

“By dragging the chaste and ascetic Pāñcālī into the hall, the Kauravas, wretches that they are, have brought upon themselves wholesale destruction. Who else but Duryodhana and his wicked allies could have so abused Drupada’s divinely born daughter, dragging her into the hall when she was in her season and covered with blood? There she saw her husbands, robbed of their wealth, kingdom and even their dress, and forced into slavery. Bound by ties of virtue they were unable to exert their prowess. But, O King, the time will soon come when we shall see their power displayed.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s voice faltered as he replied. “O Sañjaya, Draupadī’s pained glances can consume the whole world. What chance is there for even one of my sons to survive? All the Kuru women, headed by Gāndhārī, sent up a frightful wail when Dushashana seized Draupadī. Even now they weep along with my subjects. Enraged at Draupadī’s persecution, the Brahmins refused to perform their fire sacrifices. We see fearful omens all around the kingdom. It seems our destruction is near at hand. Surely this is the influence of all-powerful destiny.”

After speaking in this way for some time, the king dismissed Sañjaya and sat alone in his chamber throughout the night, the gambling match replaying in his mind again and again.

The Pāṇḍavas left Hastināpura by the northern gate, accompanied by a number of servants. As they were leaving the city, the crowds looked on and openly criticized the Kuru elders.

“When the wicked Duryodhana aspires to this kingdom we are all lost. Our wealth, families, homes and even our selves are gone. Ruled by that sinful, malicious, avaricious man, who is aided only by other sinful men, we are doomed. How can we find any happiness? Let us follow these virtuous heroes to the forest.”

A few citizens approached Yudhiṣṭhira. “Where will you go leaving us behind? We are distressed to learn of your defeat by deceitful means. Take us with you. We do not wish to meet with destruction by living in the kingdom of a sinful king. By such association we will be polluted by sin, whereas by associating with you, we will be uplifted to the highest level of virtue.”

Yudhiṣṭhira folded his palms and replied, “We are indeed blessed, as the people, with the Brahmins at their head, credit us with merits we do not possess. I, with all my brothers, would ask you to do one thing for the sake of the love you bear us. The king along with our grandfather Bhīṣma, the wise Vidura, our mother Kuntī and our friends are in Hastināpura. Please stay here and cherish them. Only this will satisfy me.”

The citizens cried out in pain. Sorrowfully they unwillingly retraced their steps back into the city, thinking only of the Pāṇḍavas.

When the citizens were gone, the Pāṇḍavas ascended their chariots and moved toward the north. At dusk they arrived on the bank of the Ganges and found the great banyan tree known as Pramāṇa. They decided to spend the night there and thus dismounted their chariots and bathed in the Ganges. As darkness fell the many Brahmins who had followed the brothers lit their sacred fires, which cast an orange glow into the blackness of the night. Those holy ṛṣis sitting around the fire chanting Vedic mantras in melodic tones soothed the Pāṇḍavas. Surrounded by such self-realized souls, Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers again shone resplendent like celestials in the heavens.

In the morning the brothers prepared to enter the forest. They sat before the sacred fire and offered prayers to the gods to invoke auspiciousness. Then they asked the Brahmins to bless them and allow them to leave. Yudhiṣṭhira spoke sorrowfully. “We were robbed of our kingdom, wealth and everything else we possessed. O best of men, we will not be able to maintain you as is our duty. In the forest we will have to subsist on fruits and wild roots. The forest is also filled with dangerous beasts and serpents. Please therefore return to Hastināpura. The suffering of Brahmins can overwhelm even the gods, what to speak of ourselves. I do not wish to be the cause of your privations, O holy ones.”

The Brahmins’ leader, Shaunaka, replied, “O King, we will go with you. Do not be anxious about how we will survive. We shall procure our own food and take great delight in an ascetic life. By our prayers and meditations we shall do you good, and we shall keep you entertained with our recitations from the holy scriptures.”

“I do not doubt that it must be as you say,” replied Yudhiṣṭhira. “I am always pleased to be in the company of Brahmins. But now I am destitute. My brothers are anguished on my account and I see myself as reproachable. How shall I now see you, who do not deserve to suffer, subsist on food you have procured yourself. Alas! Fie upon Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s wicked sons.”

Yudhiṣṭhira sat and wept with his head in his hands. In Indraprastha he had maintained tens of thousands of Brahmins. Now he could not provide food for even a few.

Seeing the king feeling so dejected, Shaunaka consoled him by speaking from the Vedas. “A thousand causes of grief and a hundred causes of fear overwhelm the ignorant day by day, but they never overwhelm those who are learned. O King, intelligent men like you are never cast into illusion. You cannot be bewildered by reverses, knowing full well the eternal truths of the Vedas. Bring that wisdom to mind now, O Yudhiṣṭhira.”

Shaunaka explained how the root of suffering is attachment to matter. As a fire in the hollow of a tree consumes the whole tree to its roots, so a small attachment, if nurtured, can destroy a man. One who has renounced attachment, even though living in the world, becomes free from evil passions and the suffering they produce.

Yudhiṣṭhira listened attentively, taking delight in the knowledge he had heard spoken so many times. He never tired of hearing it. Shaunaka told him that the desire for wealth and opulence, which could never be alleviated, is man’s worst enemy. The highest happiness comes from contentment, while the struggle for wealth, fame, followers and the association of loved ones is the cause of bondage and ultimately pain.

“Therefore, O King, you should not covet anything. Do not desire to accumulate wealth even for virtuous purposes. It is better never to have touched mud than to wash it off after being covered in it. If you wish to acquire virtue, then free yourself from all desires for wealth.”

Yudhiṣṭhira was puzzled. “O Ṛṣi, I do not desire anything for myself. I only wish to have enough wealth to support the Brahmins. What use is there in leading a householder’s life if he cannot cherish and support his dependents? Is it not the duty of a householder to maintain both his family members and the brahmacārīs and renunciants? So too should a householder welcome guests and travelers. This is said to be the path to religious merit. What is your opinion, O learned Brahmin?”

“Alas, this world is full of contradictions,” Shaunaka replied. “That which makes the good and honest ashamed pleases the wicked. Moved by ignorance and passion men act simply to gratify their stomachs and sex organs. When the senses come in contact with their objects a desire springs up in the heart to enjoy those objects. Blinded by desire, men become absorbed in following the dictates of the senses, which they mistake for real happiness.”

Shaunaka explained that even pious men may be overpowered by desires when associating with the world and its enjoyable objects. Yudhiṣṭhira had already achieved success in his householder life. Now, without attachment or material desire, he should concentrate on his practice of yoga and austerity in order to attain full spiritual success. By his spiritual power he would then be able to support the Brahmins.

Yudhiṣṭhira thanked the ṛṣi for his instructions, which he said he would follow. Then, still desiring to find the means by which he could maintain those ascetics who wished to accompany him into the forest, the king asked Dhaumya’s advice. “O great sage, I cannot abandon the Brahmins, but at the same time, I have no power to provide for them. What should I do?”

Dhaumya reflected on Yudhiṣṭhira’s question for some minutes, then he replied, “Long ago all created beings were afflicted by hunger. Thereupon Sūrya took compassion upon them. Drawing up water with his rays he stayed over the earth. Then the moon, by his cooling powers, converted the resultant vapors into clouds. Then rain fell, and by the combination of sun and rain food was brought forth from the earth. Thus all beings are actually supported by the sun. Take shelter of the sun-god, O King, and you will be able to fulfill your purposes.”

Dhaumya explained to Yudhiṣṭhira how the great kings of the past had all protected and delivered their subjects by virtue of their own ascetic meditation and vows. The Pāṇḍava immediately understood. In order to secure the means to support the Brahmins, he should worship the sun-god with an ascetic vow. Thus he asked the sage what means he should follow.

Dhaumya instructed Yudhiṣṭhira in the 108 names of the sun, as well as the Vedic prayers he should recite. Then Yudhiṣṭhira entered the Ganges, stood facing the sun, and offered numerous prayers and worship to its deity. He took neither food nor water for several days, and controlled his breathing through the process of prāṇāyama-yoga. Renouncing sleep, the king continuously praised the sun-god from the waters of the Ganges.

Three days later the blazing sun-god appeared before Yudhiṣṭhira and said, “I am pleased with your prayers and austerities, O King. You shall get all that you desire. I shall provide you with food for the twelve years of your exile in the forest.”

The god gave to Yudhiṣṭhira a large copper plate with the following instruction: “When Pāñcālī has cooked a meal she should place the food on this dish. That food will then be inexhaustible in quantity until the time when she herself eats. You can thus feed any number of men from this plate, O King.”

The god then rose into the sky and vanished, adding, “You will regain your kingdom in fourteen years from now.”

Yudhiṣṭhira came out of the river with the plate and took hold of Dhaumya’s feet in worship. With great happiness he embraced his brothers and then handed the mystical plate to Draupadī. She immediately cooked a meal and placed it upon the dish. After offering the food to the Lord with appropriate prayers, she served the Brahmins. To her amazement and delight she saw that as she served from the plate, the food was immediately replenished. It was only when she took her own meal after serving her husbands that she saw the dish finally empty.

When they had eaten, the Pāṇḍavas, blessed by auspicious rites and Vedic prayers, set out for the forest of Kāmyaka, accompanied by hundreds of Brahmins.

Chapter 23: Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s Anxiety

In Hastināpura Dhṛtarāṣṭra was becoming increasingly sorrowful. Needing solace, he called for Vidura and said, “O Khattwa, your intelligence is no less than that of the great Bhārgava. You are acquainted with all the subtleties of dharma. You regard all the Kurus equally; tell me therefore what is good for me and for them. Now that things have taken this course, what should we do? How can we again secure the citizens’ faith and love? And especially, how can we avoid total annihilation of our race?”

Vidura replied, “O King, religion, as well as economic development and sense pleasure, depend upon virtue. A kingdom’s success also rests upon virtue. Therefore, O best of men, cherish and love both your own sons and the sons of Pāṇḍu. You destroyed virtue when you allowed your sons, headed by Śakuni, to play dice with Yudhiṣṭhira. The only way you can now atone for this evil and win praise in this world is to return the Pāṇḍavas their kingdom. Be satisfied with what is rightfully yours and do not covet others’ possessions.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra shifted uncomfortably in his seat. This was not the advice he had wanted to hear. He was more interested in knowing how the Kauravas could secure their present position. Destiny had conferred upon them sovereignty of the entire earth. Now they needed to strengthen their position in order to rule it successfully. What help would it be to concede the kingdom to their most powerful enemies? Dhṛtarāṣṭra felt his anger rising as Vidura continued to speak.

“O descendent of Bharata, I once told you to abandon Duryodhana. Had you listened to me then you would not be repenting now. You can still do it. Cast aside Duryodhana and bring Yudhiṣṭhira back as the monarch. Let your sons and their followers wait upon the Pāṇḍavas. Have Dushashana apologize to Draupadī in the open court, and he should also beg Bhīma’s pardon. This will be good for all of us and it will also save the kingdom from destruction. What else can I advise you at such a time?”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s anger boiled over. It seemed that Vidura always sided with the Pāṇḍavas and never favored him or his sons. Placing his hand on his bejeweled scepter, he said, “O Vidura, you speak only to please the Pāṇḍavas and do not care to please me. I do not approve of your words. How do you expect me to abandon my own flesh and blood for another’s sake? Although the Pāṇḍavas are as good as my sons, Duryodhana has sprung from my body. You ask me to leave my own body aside in order to favor another’s. Although I hold you in great esteem, today I find your words crooked. I therefore reject them. You may stay here or go away as you please. I no longer require your advice. However well an unchaste wife is treated, she always forsakes her husband.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra rose suddenly and stalked off into his inner chambers. Vidura shook his head sadly and said, “This race is doomed.” He decided to follow the Pāṇḍavas into the forest and made preparations for his departure.

Leaving aside their chariots and carrying only their weapons, the Pāṇḍavas had begun to travel in a westerly direction, going from forest to forest. They passed through Kurukṣetra and crossed over the rivers Yamunā, Drishadwati and Sarasvatī. Finally, on the banks of the Sarasvatī, they saw the great Kāmyaka forest. Many ascetics lined the river bank while performing their sacrifices and austerities. The Pāṇḍavas entered the Kāmyaka and built thatched huts in which to live. In the company of the Brahmins they began to devote their time to sacrifice and scriptural study.

One evening, as they sat by the sacred fire listening to Brahmins recite Vedic histories, the brothers heard a chariot approaching. They looked up and saw Vidura coming toward them. Surprised, Yudhiṣṭhira said to Bhīma, “Why is Vidura here? Has he been sent to fetch us for yet another game of dice? Does the mean-minded Śakuni wish to take from us even our weapons?”

The Pāṇḍavas rose from the fire and greeted Vidura with all respects. They settled him in their midst and after inquiring about his welfare, Yudhiṣṭhira offered Vidura refreshments and a place to rest. The following day, Vidura related to the brothers what had transpired in Hastināpura.

“O Ajātaśatru, I told the king what was beneficial for him, but he did not care to listen. As the unchaste wife of a noble man can never be brought back to virtue, so the king will not take to the right path. He will never meet with good fortune. As water falling upon a lotus leaf rolls off, so my counsel had no effect on him. He has sent me away with harsh words.”

The Pāṇḍavas consoled Vidura, and he said, “I shall now tell you what, in my opinion, will be conducive to your ultimate success. You should bide your time patiently and find ways to increase your strength. Perform asceticism and worship the gods. This will help you gain power. Always speak the truth and be kind to your dependents and followers. Share your food with them and never boast in their presence. This conduct increases the prosperity of kings.”

Yudhiṣṭhira thanked Vidura for his advice, which he said he would follow. Then another chariot was heard approaching. This time it was Sañjaya coming toward them. Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s charioteer bowed before Yudhiṣṭhira and was graciously received with kind words of welcome. When he was comfortably seated, he explained to Yudhiṣṭhira why he had come.

“Having dispatched Vidura with cruel words, the king is consumed by repentance and sorrow. This morning he entered the assembly hall and fell senseless to the floor. When he regained consciousness he said to the assembled kings, ‘My brother Vidura is like the god of justice, Yamarāja. Remembering him, my heart burns with anguish and grief.’”

Sañjaya continued, “The king told me to fetch Vidura back to Hastināpura. He said, ‘Go quickly, O Sañjaya, and see whether my brother, whom I angrily sent away with harsh words, lives or not. He has never done me the slightest wrong. Rather he has suffered at my hands. Bring him here soon before I give up my life.’”

Sañjaya turned to Vidura. “O descendent of Kuru, please return to the city and revive the king. This is his order.”

Even though Dhṛtarāṣṭra seemed quite unable to heed his good advice, Vidura decided to return. He loved his elder brother. He knew that Dhṛtarāṣṭra was intelligent, despite his foolish behavior. Vidura felt that if he was near the king and able to offer counsel, then at least there would be a chance that he would come to his senses.

After taking Yudhiṣṭhira’s permission, Vidura returned to Hastināpura and went to see Dhṛtarāṣṭra who was overjoyed to see him. The king said, “O virtuous and sinless one, by good fortune have I got you back. I could not sleep last night, thinking I was lost.”

Vidura replied that he had forgiven Dhṛtarāṣṭra his insult. “You are my guru and worthy of my highest respect. I came here swiftly when Sañjaya told me of your desire. O King, it is only natural that any virtuous man feels inclined toward helping the distressed. Both your sons and those of Pāṇḍu are equally dear to me, but because the Pāṇḍavas are now in distress I feel compassion more for them.”

With apologetic words the two brothers continued speaking together for some while, happy to be reunited.

Duryodhana, however, was not pleased to see Vidura return. He summoned Śakuni, Karṇa and Dushashana and said, “The intelligent Vidura has returned. He is always inclined toward the Pāṇḍavas. Before he manages to convince the king to bring the Pāṇḍavas back, let us consider what should be done. If I ever again see the Pāṇḍavas flourish, I shall not be able to maintain my life.”

Śakuni laughed. “What folly are you speaking, O King? The Pāṇḍavas have already left for the forest. They will be gone for the next thirteen years. They agreed to accept the wager and will never deviate from truth. Even if your father does ask them to return, they would not agree to do so until their exile has expired. Anyway, we do not need to be afraid. We need only to pretend that we agree with your father and await an opportunity to overcome them again.”

Dushashana applauded Śakuni’s words. “I like your advice, uncle.”

Karṇa looked at Duryodhana, who was still uneasy. “O King, all of us here are your friends and well-wishers. We shall always support you against the Pāṇḍavas. You have nothing to fear. But I agree with Śakuni. The brothers will not break their vow. If somehow they do return, then we can find some means to again defeat them.”

Duryodhana turned away from his counselors. He stood and looked out the latticed window at the beautiful palace gardens. He breathed heavily and ground his teeth. How could he be happy as long as those Pāṇḍavas were still alive?

Karṇa said, “I know what you are thinking, O ruler of men. I share your feelings. We must root out the Pāṇḍavas once and for all. The dice game has not settled the issue, because the Pāṇḍavas still live.”

Karṇa’s handsome face contorted with anger as he thought of Arjuna, his old rival. He longed to face him in battle. Thirteen years was a long time to wait. Striding back and forth, Karṇa went on passionately. “Here is my honest opinion, O King. Now let us put on our armor and take up our weapons, mount our chariots and go in force to the forest. We will find the Pāṇḍavas and kill them. This is a good time, while they are destitute and weakened by sorrow. They have no power and no influence. We will easily be able to defeat them.”

Everyone was stirred by Karṇa’s strong words. His was the right solution. Without hesitation Duryodhana arranged for a large force to accompany him; with Karṇa and his brothers by his side, he set out for the forest.

On their way out of the city, however, they met Vyāsadeva. The sage had seen Duryodhana’s plan by his spiritual vision. He ordered Duryodhana to return to the palace. The prince felt chastened, but he dared not defy the ṛṣi’s order, fearing the power of his curse.

Vyāsadeva then went to see Dhṛtarāṣṭra. When he had been properly received and worshipped, he said, “O greatly wise Dhṛtarāṣṭra, listen as I tell you what is best for the Kurus. I am not at all pleased that the Pāṇḍavas have been sent to the forest through dishonest means. If you do not return their kingdom, then, at the end of the thirteen years, they will not have forgotten their enmity. Without doubt they will kill the Kauravas.”

Vyāsadeva sat upon an elevated seat in the Kuru assembly. He looked at the king, who sat surrounded by his ministers and counselors. They all listened respectfully as the sage continued. “Your foolish son now desires to slay the Pāṇḍavas. You should check him. If he tries to kill those heroes in the forest, he will lose his own life. O descendent of Bharata, Duryodhana regards the Pāṇḍavas with such envy that unless you interfere in his schemes, he will cause the Kuru race to be destroyed.

“O King, why not send Duryodhana to the forest to serve the Pāṇḍavas? He will then be out of harm’s way. Perhaps the virtuous Pāṇḍavas will even come to like him, although I am doubtful. The nature a man acquires at birth stays with him all his life. It seems impossible that Duryodhana would ever be able to humble himself before the Pāṇḍavas or before anyone else.”

The sage looked around the assembly. “What do Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Vidura think? What is your view, O King? You should do the right thing immediately, otherwise your happiness will be destroyed.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra lifted a hand decked with gleaming rings and placed it against his forehead. Sighing, he replied, “O illustrious one, I did not like this gambling business from the beginning. I think I was forced to give my consent by irresistible destiny. Neither Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Vidura, nor the Queen Gāndhārī, liked the dice game. I have no doubt that it happened under the Lord’s deluding potency, maya. I knew all this at the time, but due to my paternal love I was unable to abandon the envious Duryodhana.”

“O King, I can understand how you feel. The son is always a man’s most dear object. But why do you not also see the Pāṇḍavas as your sons? They are suffering distress. Why do you not feel compassion for them now? I am now addressing you as my own son. I feel the same love for my other two sons, Pāṇḍu and Vidura. You have one hundred and one sons and Pāṇḍu has only five. When I think of Pāṇḍu’s sons I wonder only how I may help them. O best of men, if you wish to keep all the Kurus alive, then order Duryodhana to make peace with the Pāṇḍavas.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra slowly shook his head, his brilliant crown catching the sun rays pouring through the windows. “O wise Ṛṣi, it is exactly as you say. I know it well, as do all these kings. I have already heard the same advice from Bhīṣma, Vidura and Droṇa. Somehow, I cannot follow that advice. Please therefore be gracious to the Kurus and instruct my wicked son to take the righteous path.”

Vyāsadeva, who could see past, present and future, said, “Soon the illustrious Ṛṣi Maitreya will visit after having visited the Pāṇḍavas. He will admonish your son for the sake of the Kuru’s welfare. Follow his advice without hesitation. Otherwise he will curse your son.” Vyāsadeva then stood and left the assembly.

As Vyāsadeva predicted, Maitreya Ṛṣi soon arrived. The itinerant ascetic, who carried only a staff and a water pot, was received with all respect by Dhṛtarāṣṭra and his sons. They worshipped him with offerings of arghya and other rites. Dhṛtarāṣṭra then offered him a jewel-encrusted seat in the assembly. When the sage was seated comfortably the king asked, “O illustrious one, was your journey from the forest a pleasant one? Are the heroes, the five Pāṇḍava brothers, living there happily? Will they spend the full thirteen years there? How will the brotherly affection between my sons and nephews be restored?”

Maitreya looked around the assembly. “While on a pilgrimage I came to the Kāmyaka forest and met Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers. They now wear deerskins and have matted their hair, and they live there surrounded by ṛṣis. I heard from them of the grave errors Duryodhana committed and of the terrible danger that you now face as a result. Therefore, I have come here to offer some advice. My affection for you is great and I always wish you well.”

The sage asked how it was possible that the king was overlooking Duryodhana’s evil acts. How could both Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Bhīṣma have allowed him to create such enmity with the Pāṇḍavas?

“You are the monarch here,” the ṛṣi said solemnly. “You are thus able to punish wrong-doers. For having allowed wicked acts to be perpetrated in your own assembly hall, O King, you have been condemned by the sages. Do you not fear the consequences?”

Maitreya turned toward Duryodhana, who scowled at his words. The sage spoke softly. “O mighty-armed hero, I utter words meant only for your good, as well as that of the Kurus, the Pāṇḍavas and indeed the whole world. Do not quarrel with the Pāṇḍavas. They are all as powerful as thousands of mighty elephants. They are virtuous and possessed of great prowess. With his bare hands, Bhīma has slain three powerful Rākṣasas, enemies of the celestials who were capable of assuming any form at will. He killed these three--Hiḍimba, Baka and Kirmira--as easily as a tiger kills small deer. Do you remember how that same Bhīma killed, in single combat, the invincible Jarāsandha? Who is foolish enough to create enmity with such heroes, having as they do Kṛṣṇa, Drupada and Drupada’s sons as their allies? Take my advice, dear child, and make peace with them. Do not bring this danger upon yourself.”

Duryodhana looked away and made no reply. He exposed his thigh and slapped it loudly, then hung his head. Then stretching his leg as if bored, he scratched the ground with his foot.

When he saw Duryodhana’s impudence, Maitreya’s eyes turned red with anger. He touched holy water and, holding the sacred thread hanging from his shoulder, said in a voice like thunder, “O insolent one, since you slight my words and pay no heed to my advice you shall soon reap the result. In the great war which will spring from the wrongs you have perpetrated, Bhīma will smash your thigh with his mace.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra immediately became alarmed. He sought to console and gratify Maitreya with gentle words, asking him to be merciful toward Duryodhana. Maitreya said that if Duryodhana made peace with the Pāṇḍavas, the curse would be lifted. Otherwise it would not be reversed.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra felt a little relieved, having managed to mitigate Maitreya’s curse. He then said, “O Ṛṣi, we have heard how Bhīma destroyed Hiḍimba and Baka, but not Kirmira. Who was this demon? What was his strength and how was he killed? We wish to know everything.”

Maitreya replied, “I will not speak any further to this assembly because Duryodhana has rejected my words. Vidura knows well the history of Kirmira.” And with that the sage rose and left the city.

When the offended sage was gone, Dhṛtarāṣṭra asked Vidura to relate the story. Vidura replied, “O King, I heard this story from Yudhiṣṭhira when I spoke to him in the forest. Having left Hastināpura the Pāṇḍavas traveled for three days and nights, finally arriving at the Kāmyaka forest. As they moved through this forest during the fearful hours of the night they encountered a terrible Rākṣasa with flaming eyes. He stood as tall as a tree and held a blazing torch. With arms and legs outstretched like the branches of a huge sal tree, he blocked the Pāṇḍavas’ path. He had eight fangs protruding from his wide open mouth, and his eyes were the color of copper. His flaming red hair stood erect and he resembled a mass of clouds charged with lightning and adorned by a flock of cranes. Roaring like thunder he spread the Rākṣasa illusion and confounded the Pāṇḍavas’ senses.”

The assembly listened spellbound as Vidura told the story. “Birds and other creatures dropped down everywhere simply from hearing the demon’s awful cries. Deer, buffaloes, leopards and bears fled terrified in all directions. The forest itself seemed to be moving due to all the fleeing creatures. A violent wind blew up and dust clouds swirled. Even as grief is the greatest enemy of the five senses, so that Rākṣasa appeared to the five Pāṇḍavas. “Spying the brothers from a distance, clad in their deerskins and carrying weapons, the Rākṣasa obstructed their path like the Maināka mountain. When Draupadī saw the horrifying creature, she closed her eyes and stood amid her husbands like an agitated river amid five hills. Dhaumya at once uttered Vedic mantras to counter the demon’s illusions, and the wind ceased and the dust settled. Seeing his power checked, the Rākṣasa opened his eyes in anger--he looked like Death himself.

“Yudhiṣṭhira was stern. ‘Who are you? What do you want of us?’

“The Rākṣasa replied, ‘I am Kirmira, the brother of Baka. I live comfortably in this uninhabited forest. I eat all men foolish enough to come here. Who are you that have come today to become my food?’

“‘We are the five sons of Pāṇḍu,’ Yudhiṣṭhira answered. ‘We have been exiled from our kingdom and desire to spend our time in this forest, which is your dominion.’

“When their identity was disclosed, the Rākṣasa bellowed in joy. ‘Ha! What good luck. Fate has today accomplished my long-cherished desire. I have wandered around in the hope of finding Bhīma, my brother’s killer. Now he stands here before me at the dead of night, when my power is greatest, and when I am hungry. Disguised as a Brahmin this wretch slew my brother and stole his sister. I shall now wreak my vengeance on him. I will kill him and offer his blood to Baka’s departed soul. In this way, I shall be freed of my debt to my brother. I shall devour Bhīma, digesting him even as Agastya digested the Asura Vātāpi.’

“Yudhiṣṭhira rebuked the Rākṣasa. ‘This can never be.’ The mighty Bhīma at once tore up a huge tree and stripped it of its branches, and in the twinkling of an eye Arjuna had strung his bow and stood with an arrow at the ready. But Bhīma stopped his brother and advanced alone to face the demon. Tightening his waist cloth, he shouted an angry challenge. ‘Stay and fight!’ Armed with the tree he rushed toward him. As Indra hurls his thunderbolt Bhīma brought down the tree with force upon the Rākṣasa’s head. The tree smashed to pieces while the demon remained unmoved. He hurled his flaming brand at Bhīma and it flew toward him like a streak of lightning. Bhīma dropped quickly to the ground and turned the torch away with his left foot.

“Roaring terribly the Rākṣasa himself tore up a great tree and rushed at Bhīma like Yamarāja bearing his death-dealing staff. The two combatants pulled up tree after tree and hurled and smashed them together as they fought. The battle resembled the fight of old between Vāli and Sugrīva and soon a large area of the forest had been stripped of trees. The angry demon then lifted and hurled a massive rock at Bhīma, who caught the boulder and tossed it back. Kirmira rushed at Bhīma with outstretched arms, even as Rāhu goes to devour the sun. They grappled together, rolling about on the earth like a couple of infuriated bulls locked in mortal combat.

“The fight was fierce and hard, lasting for almost an hour. Bhīma, proud of his strength, was conscious of Draupadī watching him. Then he remembered Duryodhana’s insults toward the princess. Looking at the demon as if he were the Kaurava, Bhīma’s anger swelled. He seized the Rākṣasa like one maddened elephant seizing another. Kirmira also seized the Pāṇḍava, but Bhīma lifted him and threw him down violently. He then took hold of the demon by the waist and began to shake him as trees are shaken by the wind. Even as he was being shaken, the demon reached up and with all his strength grasped hold of Bhīma by the neck. Bhīma repeatedly lifted and smashed the Rākṣasa down, even as the demon gripped him with hands like steel vices.

“The earth shook and the forest echoed with the sound of Kirmira’s body striking the ground. He roared fearfully like a discordant trumpet. Bhīma lifted him and whirled him around with tremendous power. Seeing that the Rākṣasa had fallen unconscious, Bhīma threw him to the ground. He placed his knees on his chest and strangled him. As the demon died, Bhīma said, ‘O sinful wretch, you need no longer wipe away the tears of Baka and Hiḍimba’s relatives, for you are now going to join them.’

“Leaving Kirmira’s body lying on the path, devoid of clothes and ornaments, Bhīma rejoined his brothers. They gathered round him and praised him. Again placing Draupadī in the center of their party, they entered deeper into the forest.”

The assembly was amazed to hear this story. Vidura concluded, “This is what I heard from Yudhiṣṭhira. When I was passing through the forest I saw for myself the Rākṣasa’s body after being smashed by Bhīma’s blows.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra sighed and said nothing. He was becoming increasingly anxious. Bhīma had promised to kill all his sons. Who or what could ever prevent him from fulfilling his promise? The king’s heart burned with fear and anguish.

Chapter 24: Yudhiṣṭhira’s Moral Instructions

When Kṛṣṇa heard the news that the Pāṇḍavas had been exiled, He decided to go and see them in the forest. He invited Balarāma, Dṛṣṭadyumna, Śikhaṇḍī and many other kings to accompany Him, along with Subhadrā and her son, and together they rode to the Kāmyaka forest. Seeing Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers dressed in deerskins and stripped of their kingdom, both Balarāma and Kṛṣṇa were enraged.

Kṛṣṇa said, “I cannot tolerate this injustice. The earth shall drink the blood of Duryodhana, Karṇa, Śakuni and that fourth one, Dushashana. After we kill them and their followers, we will install Dharmarāja on the throne. Those cunning men deserve to be slain. This is quite in accord with the eternal morality.”

Kṛṣṇa’s anger blazed. It seemed as if He were about to consume the creation. Arjuna quickly sought to pacify Him by recollecting His many wonderful deeds.

“O Kṛṣṇa, the great Ṛṣi Vyāsadeva has told me that You are the cause of creation, the mover of all minds and the beginning and end of all things. All asceticism rests in You, who are the embodiment of all sacrifice and the eternal Supreme Person. All the gods depend upon You and You are the origin of the universal creator Brahmā. O mighty-armed Keśava, You have appeared many times on earth in different incarnations.”

Accepting Kṛṣṇa as the cause of even the almighty Viṣṇu, Arjuna described the various Viṣṇu-avatāras who had appeared in past ages. “O Kṛṣṇa, as Narasiṁha You slew the mighty Asura Hiraṇyakaśipu; as Aditi’s son, Vāmana, You spanned the entire universe with three steps. O soul of all beings, covering the heavens, You dwell in the body of the sun and imbue him with Your own effulgence.”

Arjuna went on to describe Kṛṣṇa’s activities in His present appearance. “You have killed numerous demonic kings who were fierce enemies of even the gods. O Janārdana, You have manifest here on earth the sacred and eternal city Dwārakā, which abounds in opulence and is always crowded with ṛṣis. Envy, untruth, malice and cruelty are absent in You, who are always the well-wishing friend of all creatures. Nārada has told me that at the end of the yuga all things, mobile and immobile, will enter Your body. O Kṛṣṇa, there is no limit to Your glories. I have spoken of only a minute part.”

As he spoke, Arjuna felt himself becoming overpowered by transcendental ecstasy. His voice choked up and he was unable to continue. Pleased and pacified by Arjuna’s expression of love, Kṛṣṇa said, “You are Mine and I am yours. All that is Mine is yours. He who hates you also hates Me, and he who follows you also follows Me. Formerly you were Nara and I was Nārāyaṇa. Though individuals, we are as one. No one can understand our oneness and difference.”

Draupadī, her dark beauty enhanced by her soft deerskin clothes, came forward with folded palms and said to Kṛṣṇa. “O irrepressible one, all the great ṛṣis have described You as the Supreme Person. The entire universe exists in You and You are the refuge of all ascetics and sages. Even as children sport with their toys, so do You sport with the celestials. Those seeking Your protection are never overcome by calamity. O slayer of demons, how is it then that one like me, the wife of the Pāṇḍavas, the sister of Dṛṣṭadyumna and Your friend, could have been so insulted by the Kauravas?”

Draupadī’s dark eyes filled with tears as she spoke. Subhadrā also wept as she stood with her arm around Draupadī’s shoulder. As she recalled the dice game Draupadī became angry. “Why, O Kṛṣṇa, did my five powerful husbands sit silently while I was humiliated by wicked men of no importance? Fie upon Bhīma’s arms and Arjuna’s celebrated Gāṇḍīva, for they could not protect a woman in distress, not even their wife. Fie upon Bhīṣma and Dhṛtarāṣṭra! Although I am their daughter-in-law they were prepared to see me a slave.”

Draupadī hid her face with her soft hands, which resembled lotus buds. Her shoulders shook as she cried. Regaining her composure after a few moments, she took a deep breath and concluded, “O Kṛṣṇa, You are my only shelter. I deserve Your protection for four reasons: due to our family relationship, our friendship, the respect You bear for me and the fact that You are my Lord.”

Kṛṣṇa replied, “O fair lady, you will see the wives of those with whom you are angry weep as you now weep when their husbands lie dead on the battlefield, their bodies covered with arrows and weltering in blood. Do not grieve. I shall do for the Pāṇḍavas whatever lies within My power. You shall be the queen of kings. I speak the truth. The heavens may fall and the Himālayas move, the earth may be rent and the ocean dry up, but know for certain, O Draupadī, that My words will never prove false.”

Draupadī was solaced by Kṛṣṇa’s words. She did not doubt that He acted only for her ultimate welfare. The princess glanced across at Arjuna, who said, “O lotus-eyed lady, do not weep. What Kṛṣṇa has said will come to pass. It cannot be otherwise.”

Standing by his sister’s side Dṛṣṭadyumna declared, “I shall slay Droṇa, our brother Śikhaṇḍī will kill Bhīṣma, Bhīma will kill Duryodhana and Arjuna will kill Karṇa, who offered you such unbearable offense in the sabha. Dear sister, with Rāma and Kṛṣṇa’s assistance even Indra cannot conquer us. What then can be said of Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons?”

All present now turned again toward Kṛṣṇa. Looking at Yudhiṣṭhira, Kṛṣṇa said, “O lord of the earth, had I not been otherwise engaged at the time, I would have personally come to prevent the gambling match. By pointing out the evils associated with gambling I would have gained the support of Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Kṛpa and Bāhlika. Between us we would surely have swayed the blind king from his crooked purpose.”

The Brahmins present gathered around to hear Kṛṣṇa speak and He glanced at them with affection. “Indulgence in illicit sex, gambling, hunting and intoxication are the four evils which beset men and deprive them of their prosperity. Gambling is particularly marked by the destruction of property, by misfortune and by the squandering of wealth. It leads only to harsh words and enmity.”

Kṛṣṇa said He would have pointed this out to Dhṛtarāṣṭra and if the king did not listen, He would have used force to bring him to his senses. “And if anyone had supported the king in his ignorance, I would have destroyed them all. All this would surely have taken place, O King, if I had not been away from Dwārakā at the time. It was only upon My return that Sātyaki informed Me of the events in Hastināpura. Immediately upon receiving the news I came here. My heart is pained to see you now, overtaken by calamity and sunk into misfortune.”

Yudhiṣṭhira asked Kṛṣṇa where He had been during the gambling match. Kṛṣṇa explained that He had gone to do battle with a king named Shalva, a friend of Śiśupāla. When Shalva heard that Kṛṣṇa had killed Śiśupāla, he went to Dwārakā and attacked the city while Kṛṣṇa was in Indraprastha. Shalva owned a great airship which resembled a flying city. He had received this wonderful airship as a gift from Śiva. In battle he used it as a base from which to attack his foes. Raining down weapons of every kind, he had challenged Kṛṣṇa, not realizing He was absent from Dwārakā. After wreaking havoc in Dwārakā, he had returned to his own city.

Because Yudhiṣṭhira was interested, Kṛṣṇa described in detail the fight that had taken place between Shalva and Dwārakā’s warriors. He then told the Pāṇḍava how, after returning to Dwārakā and hearing of Shalva’s attack, He had gone personally to fight him. A terrible battle ensued. Shalva had acquired great mystic power through his performance of asceticism. While he was fighting with Kṛṣṇa, he created an illusion and seemingly killed Kṛṣṇa’s father Vasudeva right on the battlefield. By his mystic power Shalva also sent showers of arrows, clubs, winged darts, lances, thunderbolts, bullets, rockets, swords, axes and other weapons down upon Kṛṣṇa and His forces. In the end, Kṛṣṇa killed Shalva and destroyed his airship with the Sudarśana chakra.

Kṛṣṇa concluded His narration. “That is why, O Yudhiṣṭhira, I was unable to come to Hastināpura. The dice match took place just after I had slain Shalva and was engaged in restoring Dwārakā back to its former condition. If I had come, Duryodhana would not now be alive and the gambling match would never have taken place. What can I do now? It is difficult to stem the tide when the dam is broken.”

Kṛṣṇa stood up to leave. He could do nothing for the Pāṇḍavas until the end of the thirteen years. He knew that Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers were too virtuous to break their word. They would doubtlessly remain in the forest for the full period. Kṛṣṇa therefore told them that He would return to see them at the end of their exile. If Duryodhana did not return their kingdom, He said, then He knew there would be a battle in which the Kaurava and his followers would be annihilated.

The Pāṇḍavas bade Kṛṣṇa and His party farewell, and Arjuna especially bid an affectionate goodbye to Subhadrā and their young son Abhimanyu. Closely followed by Dṛṣṭadyumna and the other monarchs, Kṛṣṇa left the forest on His golden chariot, which shone like the sun. As the thunderous sound of the chariot wheels died away into the distance, Yudhiṣṭhira ordered his brothers to make ready for their own departure. He wanted to enter more deeply into the Kāmyaka forest and find a suitable place where they might spend their exile.

Still accompanied by hundreds of Brahmins, the brothers made their way into the forest. After some time they came to a great lake called Dwaitavana. Swans, chakravarkas and other graceful birds swam in its waters and the lake’s edges were crowded with red, blue and white lotuses, which were so fragrant that the air was heavy with their perfume. Numerous fruit trees, loaded with golden fruits, grew all around the lake. Peacocks, cakoras, cuckoos and other birds, all singing beautiful songs, played in the trees. The brothers also saw many Siddhas and Cāraṇas sporting in the woods and on the lakeshore, and numberless ṛṣis sitting motionless at the water’s edge, their minds fixed on the supreme Brahman.

Yudhiṣṭhira was delighted. The area was beautiful. They would live there. The brothers rested beneath a large banyan tree, looking like five great elephants sitting by the side of a mountain. Dhaumya then performed sacred rituals to sanctify the place where they would build their cottages, and then they began construction.

Living in that forest, the Pāṇḍavas resembled a number of Indras amid the celestials. They served the ṛṣis and Brahmins by offering them excellent fruits and roots. Dhaumya and other priests would perform daily sacrificial rites in honor of the gods and the Pāṇḍavas’ ancestors. They thought constantly of Kṛṣṇa and passed their time hearing the Brahmins recite Vedic texts.

Soon after their arrival at Dwaitavana, the ageless Ṛṣi Mārkaṇḍeya visited them. It was said that Mārkaṇḍeya had lived since the dawn of creation and knew of everything that had occurred in the history of the universe. He greeted the Pāṇḍavas with affection and accepted their worship. The ṛṣi, whose body was effulgent with spiritual light and who appeared to be a youth of sixteen, smiled to see them. They reminded him of Rāma and Lakṣman, who had been exiled to the forest hundreds of thousands of years previously. The sage had also visited them.

Since arriving in the forest, Yudhiṣṭhira had felt grief at what he had caused beginning to engulf him. Seeing Mārkaṇḍeya smiling, he asked, “O illustrious one, all these ascetics here are sorry to see our plight. How is it that you alone smile with delight?”

“I am not delighted, my child. Rather, I am amazed at how much your situation resembles the life of Daśaratha’s son, Rāma. He too suffered due to His unfailing truthfulness, and He too lived in the forest, exiled for some years. I remember seeing Him thousands of years ago wandering Mount Rishyamukha with His bow. Like you, Rāma was high-souled and innocent, and like you, He lived in the forest out of filial obedience to His father. This is why I am smiling. No matter how powerful each of us may be, we cannot avoid the calamities that arrive through destiny. No one, therefore, should ever act unrighteously, thinking, ‘I am powerful.’”

Mārkaṇḍeya then assured Yudhiṣṭhira that, like Rāma, he too would regain his kingdom from the Kauravas when his period of exile was over. After promising to come again while they were in the forest, he headed to the north.

While the Pāṇḍavas dwelt at Dwaitavana the air was constantly filled with the sounds of Vedic recitations. The entire region was as holy as Brahmā’s abode. The sounds of mantras from the Yajur, Ṛg and Sāma Vedas, charming and delightful to the mind, were mingled with the twang of the Pāṇḍavas’ bowstrings. They honed their martial skills by hunting dangerous forest animals. In accordance with scriptural codes, they maintained the population of tigers, boar, buffaloes and other beasts in the Kāmyaka forest, protecting the ṛṣis from attack as they engaged in meditation and sacrifice.

Yudhiṣṭhira loved the company of Brahmins. Now that he lived in their midst, his mind felt serene and his grief dissipated. All the world’s greatest ṛṣis had come to Dwaitavana to be with him--Nārada, Vyāsadeva, Vasiṣṭa, Bhṛgu, Aṅgirā, Kaśyapa and others--and they all worshipped Yudhiṣṭhira as the celestial sages worship Indra in heaven. Yudhiṣṭhira also returned their worship and spent his time discussing with them about spiritual topics. He was actually starting to enjoy forest life. In many ways he found it preferable to the onerous and often harsh duties of being a king. The gentle son of Dharma was happy to live a simple life of spirituality, but he always kept in mind his God-given duty as a kṣatriya. That responsibility could not be whimsically abandoned--even if unpleasant, duty must always be done for the Lord’s pleasure. It was thus with mixed feelings that Yudhiṣṭhira dwelt in the forest, awaiting the day when he could again resume his duties as a ruler.

Draupadī, however, was still sorrowful. She found the course of events that led up to their exile difficult, and she burned with the humiliation they had all received at Duryodhana’s hands. Sitting alone one evening with Yudhiṣṭhira, she revealed her feelings. “O King, when I think of the wicked Duryodhana and his followers living happily in Hastināpura, after having sent you to the forest, my heart burns. Without doubt he is delighting in our misfortune. When you set out for the forest all the Kurus cried except the wretched Duryodhana, Karṇa, Śakuni and that vicious Dushashana.”

Draupadī again found herself weeping. She remembered her parting words with Kuntī and Gāndhārī. Both of them had grieved at her humiliation. How long would it be before she was avenged and the wrong-doers punished?

“Seeing you seated here on this grass mat, and remembering your ivory throne crusted with jewels, I feel such anguish that I can hardly look at you. Your body is smeared with mud from the riverbank when once it was daubed with the finest sandalwood paste. You once wore costly silk garments: now you wear deerskins and tree bark. How can I bear to see my other husbands, who were once waited upon by numerous servants, now scouring the forest for food?”

Draupadī’s sorrow suddenly turned to anger. “All this is due to the evil schemes of sinful men. O King, does your plight not arouse anger in you? Why are you so peaceful? Look at Bhīma, glancing at you again and again. Constrained only by his love for you, he does not rise up and destroy the Kauravas. Honoring your promise he sits containing his anger. Look too at Arjuna. He understands Bhīma’s mind and is forever pacifying him. By the power of Arjuna’s bow thousands of kings were obliged to wait upon the Brahmins at your Rājasūya. Now that same Arjuna has become grief stricken. Does this not make you angry? And look at Mādrī’s youthful sons. They are as dear to you as they are to your mother Kuntī. Now they are forced to live the hard lives of ascetics. Does this not make you angry?

“I cannot understand why you have not risen up to destroy the Kauravas. Surely after all that has happened such a response would be in accord with morality. Is your discrimination failing? It is always appropriate for a kṣatriya to show anger when sin is committed, and sin has surely been committed by the Kauravas. How can you sit here as if you forgive them? If a king cannot distinguish between the time to be angry and the time to forgive, then he is lost.

“I also know the scripture. Scripture states that Duryodhana and his brothers deserve to be punished. Scripture states that the humble and ever-forgiving person is always neglected, while he who is powerful and assails others at the proper time is respected as a king.”

Yudhiṣṭhira looked with compassion upon his wife. She had suffered so much, and if anything stirred his heart, it was her suffering, for which he felt he had been the cause. Yes, his heart still burned when he thought of how she was dragged into the assembly hall. The pain of that moment would stay with him for the rest of his life. But this was not the time to make war. Draupadī could not understand the entire situation. He replied gently, “O intelligent lady, through anger we may sometimes gain wealth, but anger ultimately destroys mankind. Real prosperity crowns one who conquers anger and brings adversity to one whom anger controls. Anger is the root of all destruction. An angry man commits sin blindly. An angry man will kill even his preceptor and insult his elders. He cannot distinguish between right and wrong. There is nothing an angry man might not say or do, even to the point of sending himself to Death’s abode. Knowing this, I will not indulge in anger, Draupadī. Rather, I will strive to control it.”

Draupadī listened respectfully. She knew her husband’s grasp of religion and morality was unsurpassed. He was capable of instructing even the gods. Sitting on a simple mat of kusha grass, Yudhiṣṭhira continued.

“When a weak man is oppressed by one more powerful, he should not display anger--lest he bring about his own destruction. There are no blessed regions in the hereafter for those who destroy themselves. Thus the weak should always control their anger. Only fools praise anger, considering it equivalent to energy. The wise keep anger at a distance. The man consumed by anger does not easily acquire generosity, dignity, courage, skill or the other attributes possessed by men of character. The wise consider him a man of character who restrains his wrath. The pious always praise such a man because they understand that the forgiving man is always victorious. One who represses his anger even when antagonized rejoices in the next world. For this it is said that a wise man, whether strong or weak and even if in difficulty, should always forgive his persecutor.”

By now Yudhiṣṭhira’s brothers had gathered and were listening. Yudhiṣṭhira went on describing the glories of forgiveness. “If there were not persons in this world who exercised forgiveness, then chaos would soon prevail. If kings and other superiors give way to anger, then the distressed people would quickly meet with ruin. If inferiors do not tolerate their superiors’ admonishments, then sin will take root and destroy mankind. I shall cite to you the verse spoken in ancient times by the Ṛṣi Kaśyapa: ‘Forgiveness is virtue, forgiveness is sacrifice and forgiveness is the Vedas. Forgiveness is purity and penance; it is truth, piety, religion, and the holy Nārāyaṇa. Through forgiveness the universe is sustained, and by practising forgiveness a man can attain to everlasting regions of bliss.’

“How then can I renounce forgiveness, O Draupadī, in which is established spirituality, truth, wisdom and the three worlds? Both this world and the next belong to the forgiving person. Therefore forgiveness is considered the highest virtue.”

Yudhiṣṭhira smiled at his wife. “Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Vidura, Kṛpa and the other Kuru elders desire peace. Vyāsadeva and the other ṛṣis also praise peace, Pāñcālī. Therefore let us first try for a peaceful settlement. If Dhṛtarāṣṭra yields to temptation and does not return our kingdom, then the Bharata race will be destroyed. But let me not be the cause, princess. Forgiveness and humility, both of which are unknown to Duryodhana, are the qualities of the self-controlled. They constitute eternal virtue. I shall therefore adopt them.”

Draupadī was still doubtful. If virtue conferred victory and success on a man, then how could Yudhiṣṭhira have undergone such a calamity? He had never strayed from virtue at any time. Even during the gambling match he acted only with virtuous intentions. Now he was cast into misfortune, while the sinful Duryodhana enjoyed prosperity. The princess said, “It seems to me, O King, that although you always protect virtue, virtue has not protected you. Even the celestials know that you live only by virtue. I am sure you would abandon me and your brothers before abandoning virtue. You serve the Brahmins with everything you possess. You never disregarded your elders, equals or even inferiors. Although you conquered the earth, you did not become proud. You have performed great sacrifices and given unlimited charity. Even now while living a life of hardship in this forest, your virtue has suffered no diminishment.”

Draupadī looked her husband in the eyes as she made her point. “Despite all this, still your intelligence was perverted by destiny and you gambled away everything--your wealth, kingdom, brothers, even me. How could one like you, who are simple, gentle, modest, liberal and truthful, be drawn to gambling? Gambling is a vice. I just cannot understand how it is possible.”

Although Draupadī understood that everything was under the control of the Supreme Lord, she felt her faith challenged by Yudhiṣṭhira’s seemingly inexplicable situation.

“Surely, O King, all creatures are made to act by the Lord, even as a puppet is moved by its controller. No one can pass a moment independently. God ordains our happiness and distress in accord with the results of our past actions. Everyone depends upon the Lord. He brings us together and uses us as instruments to fulfill each other’s karma. It thus seems to me that it is the Lord who has brought about your calamity. But how has He sanctioned such injustice, so contrary to the ways of virtue and truth? And if He is not to blame, then it means that the controlling principle is who has the most power. If actions are not bound with God-given consequences, then I lament for those who are not powerful.”

Yudhiṣṭhira could see that his wife was bewildered by grief and sorrow. “O gentle lady born from sacrifice, although your speech is sweet and well articulated, it is atheistic. None should ever perform virtue with a desire to gain its fruits. Such a sinful trader of virtue will never reap the results. I practice virtue only because I desire to follow the Vedas and satisfy the Lord. The Vedas state that he who doubts virtue is destined to be born among the brutes. He who doubts religion, virtue, and the words of the ṛṣis is excluded from the regions of immortality and bliss. Such a person is considered lower than a thief.”

Draupadī bowed her head as her husband continued. “O thin-waisted lady, you have seen with your own eyes the results of virtue in such immortal sages as Mārkaṇḍeya, Vyāsadeva, Maitreya and the celestial sage Nārada. All these shining and ever-blissful ṛṣis describe virtue as the foremost duty. If the pieties practiced by the virtuous bore no fruits, then this world would long ago have been covered by darkness. None would have pursued liberation nor cared to acquire knowledge or even wealth. All men would have lived like beasts and the world would be thrown into confusion.”

The Brahmins, who had by now also come to hear Yudhiṣṭhira’s speech, nodded in agreement. Darkness had set in and fires now burned in the great clearing where they sat. Draupadī could hear the flames crackling as well as the sounds of crickets as Yudhiṣṭhira continued. “Do not doubt virtue because you do not see its results, Pāñcālī. Without doubt the fruits will manifest in time, as will the fruits of sin. The fruits of true virtue are eternal and indestructible, leading one to the highest regions of happiness. Therefore do not speak ill of God. Try to understand the Supreme Being and His desires. O Draupadī, always bow to Him. This will be for your own good.”

Tears fell from Draupadī’s eyes. She knew her husband’s words were true. Surely God was infallible and always the well-wishing friend of all living beings. But who could understand God? His activities were inscrutable. No one can understand His plans. The apparent reversal of the virtuous Pāṇḍavas--and even that the reversal had seemingly come through Yudhiṣṭhira’s own inexplicable actions--was incomprehensible and quite incredible.

Draupadī sighed. “I accept what you have said, O best of men. The Lord is certainly bestowing upon all beings the fruits of their own work. Even if some sudden calamity or good fortune befalls us, we must understand it to be the results of some action in a former life. But besides destiny there is exertion. A man who does not exert himself will eventually be ruined. I feel you should exert yourself now to recover your kingdom. Even if you fail you will at least have satisfied everyone that you did all that human endeavor can accomplish. Although the results are not in our hands, we should still perform our work. The wise always condemn inaction. Why then do you remain inactive? This is my doubt.”

Draupadī fell silent. Then stirred by her words Bhīma felt impelled to speak. He too was angry and found the forest almost unbearable. It was not the austerity he minded but the thought of Duryodhana and his brothers enjoying their ill-gotten gains. Why did Yudhiṣṭhira suffer in silence? Draupadī was right. It was time for them to act. Bhīma burst out, “O Yudhiṣṭhira, what do you hope to gain by living like an ascetic? You are not a yogī but a king. You should walk the path of kings. Duryodhana robbed you of your kingdom. He is like a weak, offal-eating jackal stealing the prey of lions. How do you tolerate it? How can you abandon the wealth that was both our source of virtue and pleasure, in exchange for this trifling virtue called ‘keeping your promise’? Surely you fail to see what is of true value.”

Yudhiṣṭhira remained calm while Bhīma vented his long pent-up anger. The forest reverberated with his words, his voice as deep and powerful as a kettledrum. “O King, it was only due to your carelessness that we lost our kingdom. Only to please you did we allow Duryodhana and his brothers to wrest from us our wealth and afflict us with such pain. On your command we now pain our friends and enliven our enemies. Surely it was folly that we did not kill the Kauravas then and there. Instead we have meekly come to the forest--an act worthy only of weak men. Kṛṣṇa does not approve, nor does Arjuna, the twins or myself. O King, has your despair led you to lose your manliness on the plea of virtue? Only cowards cherish despair, being unable to win back what they have lost.”

Bhīma argued that so-called virtue which produced calamity was not virtue at all. What use was virtue for its own sake? Kings should practice virtue to make their kingdoms prosperous and to achieve pleasure. All three things--virtue, profit and pleasure--should be pursued equally. None of them should be sought at the cost of the others. “Have you lost sight of your proper duty? You are a powerful warrior supported by other powerful men. Use that power to regain your rightful kingdom. When you have established your rule, then acquire religious merit by ruling piously and giving charity to the Brahmins. By giving up this promise to stay in the forest you will be casting aside an inferior principle for the greater good.”

Bhīma softened, “The Brahmins and the people want you to rule them. They all despise Duryodhana. You are capable of taking back your kingdom, and you have Arjuna and myself to help you. Who can withstand us in battle? Let us use strategy and strength to win back what is ours. This is our duty.”

Yudhiṣṭhira remained silent for some moments as he summoned patience. He looked up at Bhīma. “O descendent of Bharata, I cannot reproach you for giving me pain with your arrow-like words. It is true that due to my folly I have brought this calamity upon us. I knew I could not defeat Śakuni at dice, yet I allowed myself to be drawn into the game. I should have exerted greater control over myself. O Bhīma, the mind cannot be controlled when it comes under the influence of manliness, pride and prowess. I do not censure you for what you have said, but I do consider what has happened to us to be preordained.”

Yudhiṣṭhira made it clear that he would not break his promise. “Do you recall the conditions of the final dice game? Śakuni said, ‘He who loses this game shall go to the forest and remain there for thirteen years. The winner shall take his kingdom and return it when the forest term has expired.’ I then uttered, ‘So be it.’”

Yudhiṣṭhira hung his head and fell silent as he remembered that day. What had overcome him? He had thought he was acting only for virtue, but as a result all his loved ones had suffered. Still, he was resolute. No matter how painful their present situation, there was no turning back. He would not abandon his promise. The agreement would be kept.

Yudhiṣṭhira was firm. “How then, O Bhīma, shall I now falsify my word for the sake of wealth? To me nothing is greater than truth. For a respectable person it is better to die than to transgress his word. Let us pass our days here in peace. Better days will come. A farmer scatters seeds and awaits the harvest. In the same way, virtue and truth always bring results in time. Do not doubt this principle.”

Bhīma was not convinced. His heart was too full of anger. He had not even been able to sleep since coming to the forest. Neither could he face the prospect of waiting so many years before he could vent his rage on the Kauravas. What virtue had they ever observed? Why then should Yudhiṣṭhira treat them as honorable? Did he think they respected his virtue and adherence to truth? They saw him as weak and were laughing at him. If only Yudhiṣṭhira would see sense and order them to gear up for battle. Bhīma tried again to convince him.

“O great King, how can any mortal make a promise that is dependent on the passage of time? No one knows when his life will end. We have now been in the forest for thirteen months. Let that be our thirteen years. Indeed the Vedas state that in certain circumstances a month can substitute for a year. Let us go now and crush our enemies. Even if we were to go to hell on that day, that hell will feel like heaven. Although only Draupadī and I have revealed our hearts to you on this matter, Arjuna, the twins, Kuntī, and our many allies share the same feelings. Only because they seek to please you do they remain silent. It is only weakness that forces you to adhere to your pledge, dear brother. No one is praising you for your kindly disposition toward our enemies.”

Bhīma stood silhouetted by the fire. His huge frame resembled a blazing mountain. “O King, although remaining fixed in virtue, you still cannot see the truth, like an ignorant man who has memorized the Vedas without knowing their meaning. You are a kṣatriya, yet you act like a Brahmin. A king’s duties are fraught with crookedness and cunning. You know this well.”

Bhīma had another concern: how would they be able to live incognito for the thirteenth year? They were known throughout the world, and Duryodhana had many supporters. Numerous kings who had been subjugated by the Pāṇḍavas at the time of the Rājasūya now backed the Kauravas. Duryodhana would have his spies looking for them everywhere. Bound by Yudhiṣṭhira’s promise, they would be living in the forest forever. Force would be the only way out, sooner or later. Bhīma implored Yudhiṣṭhira, “Please give the order for battle, O hero. There is no higher duty for a kṣatriya. If there be any sin in this course, then you can counteract it later by sacrifice and charity.”

Yudhiṣṭhira sighed again, but did not speak. Bhīma was overcome by passion, he thought, and not thinking carefully. Could he not understand that their suffering had been somehow ordained by the Supreme Lord? All they could do now was follow their religious duties as prescribed by God, leaving the results in his hands. They could not please the Lord by abandoning religion, and to please God was always everyone’s prime duty. Surely Bhīma knew that.

But there was another consideration. Yudhiṣṭhira’s was a calm voice as he explained his mind to Bhīma. “O mighty-armed hero, when a man performs sinful deeds depending upon his own power, such deeds become only a source of pain for him; but if he reflects carefully before action, he will attain success. Listen as I tell you what is likely to happen if we follow your suggestion, born as it is of pride and mental unrest.”

Yudhiṣṭhira then listed the many kings allied with Duryodhana. There was Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Kṛpa--out of obligation they would certainly side with Duryodhana. Then there was Aśvatthāmā, Karṇa, Vahlika, Bhūriśravas and Duryodhana’s brothers. There were hundreds of other kings who would fight alongside the Kauravas because they had been previously defeated by the Pāṇḍavas. Duryodhana’s treasury was full, especially as he now had control of Indraprastha. He could easily and quickly amass a vast army. On the other hand, the Pāṇḍavas had no position, no wealth, no army and only a few allies.

“Duryodhana’s forces are virtually unassailable. The Kuru chiefs are masters of the celestial weapons. I doubt that even Indra and all the gods could vanquish them. I especially fear Karṇa, who is impetuous, angry, invincible, accomplished in every weapon and encased in impenetrable armor.”

Yudhiṣṭhira remembered how Karṇa had been born with a natural coat of armor on his body. Although he appeared to be a charioteer’s son, it was obvious that his origin was in some way divine. For some reason he harbored a deep envy of Arjuna. One day, Yudhiṣṭhira knew, Karṇa and Arjuna would wage a great battle to settle their enmity. The skirmish at Draupadī’s svayaṁvara had been nothing. Karṇa had not wanted to exert himself against what he thought was a Brahmin, but if he displayed his full power, then who could be sure that Arjuna would be able to defeat him.

“Thinking of Karṇa and the danger he poses, I cannot sleep at night. Without overcoming him, as well as all the other heroes I have mentioned, we will not be able to defeat Duryodhana. O best of men, consider all this carefully.”

Hearing his brother’s admonition, Bhīma became pensive. Yudhiṣṭhira was right, of course, and he could not argue with him. Although Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Kṛpa and the other kings in Hastināpura had always been their friends and well-wishers, it was different now. If it came to war they would surely side with the Kauravas. The thought of fighting against those invincible heroes was daunting, especially because he felt so much affection for them. Bhīma sat down, defeated.

As the Pāṇḍavas sat together in silence, Vyāsadeva appeared out of the forest. They quickly stood up and bowed before the ṛṣi. After taking a seat among them, the ṛṣi said to Yudhiṣṭhira, “O mighty-armed one, I have divined your thoughts. I wish to help you, and therefore I have come. I will destroy the fever in your mind by telling you how to defeat Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Kṛpa, Karṇa, Duryodhana, and all his followers. Listen carefully.”

Vyāsadeva then took Yudhiṣṭhira aside and spoke to him in private. He taught him the mystical skill called Pratismriti, then instructed him to teach the same skill to Arjuna. This skill allowed the practitioner to travel great distances in a short time. Thus Arjuna could go to the Himālayas, approach the gods, and receive from them their special weapons.

“Due to his asceticism and prowess, he is quite capable of approaching the celestials,” Vyāsadeva said. “Indeed, he is Nārāyaṇa’s eternal associate. Indra, Rudra and all the principal gods will surely bestow their weapons upon Arjuna, and he will perform tremendous deeds by receiving them.”

After giving Yudhiṣṭhira the Pratismriti mantras, Vyāsadeva left. Just before leaving, he also told Yudhiṣṭhira to move to a different forest. Otherwise the brothers might disturb the animal population in the Dwaitavana by hunting them excessively. Having lived there more than a year, they had killed many deer, tigers, boar and other wild animals. Accompanied by the Brahmins whom they were supporting, Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers moved to another part of the great Kāmyaka forest, this time on the banks of the river Sarasvatī.

Chapter 25: Arjuna Goes to Heaven

When the Brahmins determined an auspicious day, Yudhiṣṭhira taught Arjuna the Pratismriti mantras. The king had delayed teaching him as he knew that Arjuna would leave for the Himālayas as soon as he had the knowledge. It would be difficult to live without him. But it was Vyāsadeva’s desire that he go, so Yudhiṣṭhira knew the separation could not be avoided forever. Ultimately, it was probably their only chance to be successful in recovering their kingdom.

Taking Arjuna aside, Yudhiṣṭhira held him by the hands and said, “O descendent of Bharata, the four divisions of the science of arms are held by Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Kṛpa, Karṇa and Aśvatthāmā. They have all received divine instructions and know how to use every sort of weapon. Having been honored, gratified and supported by Duryodhana, they always seek to do him good. We should not doubt that they will support him in battle. The whole world is now under Duryodhana’s sway, and he is our avowed enemy. You are our sole refuge. Depending on you we shall regain our kingdom from Duryodhana. Listen now as I tell you what should be done.”

Yudhiṣṭhira then informed Arjuna of Vyāsadeva’s instructions. He told him that he should leave as soon as possible for the Himālayas and, by meditating on the mantras he was now going to repeat, he should seek the gods’ audience in order to receive their weapons. “Allow me to initiate you today, O virtuous one, and go at once to propitiate Indra. Being pleased with you I am sure Indra will give you his weapons and, by his order, so will the other gods.”

Arjuna fully controlled his mind and senses. Then, with due rites, Yudhiṣṭhira bestowed the Pratismriti mantras on him. When he was finished Yudhiṣṭhira stood up, with tears pricking his eyes as he thought of Arjuna’s separation. “Now go, dear brother.”

With his arms and hands clad in iguana skin gauntlets and gloves, and his body covered in golden mail, Arjuna took up his Gāṇḍīva bow and his two inexhaustible quivers and stood ready to depart. Brahmins and Siddhas uttered blessings upon him and, not knowing how long he would be gone, he bade an affectionate farewell to his brothers.

As Arjuna was about to depart, Draupadī came before him and said, “O mighty-armed Dhanañjaya, may all that the noble Kuntī desired at your birth, and all that you yourself desire, be accomplished. May none of us ever take birth again in this terrible kṣatriya order. I offer my respects to the ascetic Brahmins, who are detached from this miserable world. My heart still burns with Duryodhana’s insult, but today I grieve even more because you are departing. In your absence we will spend our time thinking only of you. There will be no joy without you. All our hopes rest in you, O hero. May the Lord and all His energies protect you at all times, and may success be yours. Go now and attain your goal.”

Arjuna smiled at Draupadī, circumambulated his brothers and Dhaumya, and then began running swiftly along the path, frightening creatures along the way with his speed. By chanting the mantras Yudhiṣṭhira had given him, he felt himself travelling over mountains and forests at the speed of mind. By the end of the first day he arrived at the great Mandara mountain. Arjuna stopped and looked around. The mountain was beautiful with its bluish stone rising up into the clouds. It was covered with blossoming trees, their many-colored flowers creating rich tableaus and their scent captivating his mind. The sound of peacocks, cranes and cuckoos filled the air, and he could see Siddhas and Cāraṇas sporting on the mountain slopes. Arjuna decided to climb the mountain and begin his austerities there.

Upon reaching a plateau high on the mountain, he suddenly heard a voice resounding in the sky. “Stop!” Arjuna looked around and saw an ascetic sitting at the foot of a tree. The tawny-colored Brahmin had a brilliant aura. His lean body was covered in deerskin and his matted locks hung down to his shoulders. The ascetic said, “O child, who are you? You appear to be a kṣatriya. Do you not know that this is the abode of peaceful Brahmins who are free from anger? Even to have been able to reach this spot indicates that you already attained a high state of purity. Now perfect your life. You have no need of weapons here. Throw them away.”

Arjuna made it clear that he had no plans to renounce his weapons. “I need my weapons to serve my elder brother Yudhiṣṭhira, who has been wrongfully deprived of his kingdom. O Brahmin, I will not cast them aside.”

Seeing Arjuna’s dedication to duty, the ascetic replied, “O slayer of foes, I am pleased with you. Know me to be Śakra, king of the gods. Ask me for a boon.”

Arjuna was overjoyed. Here was Indra! With folded hands he said, “O exalted one, the boon I desire is that you bestow all your weapons upon me.”

Indra smiled. “O Dhanañjaya, I can grant you life in the celestial regions of bliss. Ask for this. Why do you desire only my weapons?”

“How could I incur the world’s condemnation by not avenging myself on the enemy and by abandoning my brothers in the forest?” Arjuna’s anger rose as he remembered Duryodhana’s treachery.

Indra spoke gently. “O child, when you meet Śiva, I will give you all my weapons. Try to propitiate him, for he is the greatest of the gods. By seeing the three-eyed wielder of the trident, all your desires will be fulfilled.”

After saying this Indra disappeared, and Arjuna was left alone. He decided to remain where he was and begin his austerities and worship of Śiva. He took off his armor and set his weapons down by the same tree where Indra had sat. The tree was situated next to a flowing river, and Arjuna bathed in its clear waters, then sat down to meditate. As he did so, conchshells were heard in the sky and showers of flowers fell from the heavens. Arjuna was pleased by the auspicious sign, and he sat with half-closed eyes, controlled his breathing, and began to intone prayers to Śiva.

During the first month of his meditations, Arjuna ate only fruit on every third day. During the second month, he ate fruit only on every sixth day, and during the third month he ate fruit once a fortnight. During the fourth month he lived only on air, standing on the tips of his toes with his arms upraised. He bathed three times a day and kept his mind and senses under perfect control. As a result of his austerities, Arjuna began to glow like the sun.

In the heavens the celestial ṛṣis grew anxious. They approached Śiva and said, “Arjuna has become greatly effulgent due to his austerities on the breast of the Himālayas. The earth is becoming heated by his asceticism and is sending forth smoke. O chief of the gods, you should stop him before he upsets the universal order by the power of his penance.”

Śiva replied, “You need not feel anxiety on account of Phālgunī. He does not wish to attain heaven or prosperity. I know his purpose and will satisfy him today.”

The ṛṣis bowed before Śiva and returned to their own abodes. Śiva then assumed the form of a tall, powerful, golden-hued hunter, and descended to the place where Arjuna was meditating. Umā, his consort, accompanied him in a similar costume, and many of his goblin followers, who assumed various forms and wore bright garments, followed them. Many of the female goblins assumed the forms of beautiful women and also descended. As Śiva appeared on the mountainside with his followers, the mountain seemed ablaze with beauty. Strangely, however, all nature became silent. Even the springs and waterfalls ceased their sounds.

As Śiva arrived, he saw a Dānava assume the form of a boar and charge at Arjuna. The demon intended to kill Arjuna, and he roared loudly in challenge. Arjuna heard the boar’s roar and quickly lifted and strung his bow. Placing a virulent arrow on his bowstring, Arjuna called out, “I have done you no harm. As you seek to kill me, I shall certainly send you to Yamarāja’s abode.”

At the same moment Śiva also trained his arrow on the boar and shouted to Arjuna, “Stop! This dark-colored boar is mine. I saw him first and have already aimed my arrow at him.”

Arjuna ignored Śiva’s claim and released his arrow, which sped toward the massive boar. Śiva simultaneously released his arrow and the two shafts both struck the Dānava at the same time. There was a sound like thunder as the arrows hit the demonic boar’s rock-like body. Assuming his natural form, the demon gave up his life with a terrible cry.

Arjuna looked around at the hunter. His body shone like a golden mountain. He was surrounded by hundreds of women. Arjuna glared at him. “Who are you, dressed like a hunter and wandering in this solitary forest surrounded by your followers? Are you not afraid? Why have you pierced this boar which I targeted first? Do you not know that this is against all accepted practices in hunting. Indeed you have insulted me and so I will punish you by taking your life.”

The hunter replied with a smile, “O hero, you need not be concerned about me. I always dwell in the forest. But what brings you here? You are obviously royalty, used to living in luxury. How is it that you have adopted an ascetic life?”

Arjuna held his bow tightly. “Depending on the strength of my arms, I live in this forest. See how I killed this fearful Rākṣasa who was intent on killing me.”

The hunter laughed derisively. “It was I who killed this one, not you. I saw him first, and it was by my arrow that he was sent to Death’s abode. You are overly proud of your strength. Do not accuse others when you yourself are at fault. O wicked-minded wretch, you have wronged me and will therefore not escape with your life. Stand and receive my arrows. Try to defend yourself, if you can.”

Infuriated, Arjuna immediately struck the hunter with a cluster of swift arrows, but he simply smiled and received Arjuna’s shafts without flinching. He called out, “O wretch! Send your fiercest arrows, those that are capable of piercing to the heart.”

Arjuna released another volley of shafts. Becoming angry, Śiva sent back hundreds of his own arrows. A great battle then ensued. Showers of snake-like arrows sped back and forth. As Arjuna countered the hunter’s arrows, he was surprised to see that, although struck by countless shafts, his adversary was not affected. The Pāṇḍava increased the force of his attack, but the hunter stood unmoved. Seeing that he could not shake his foe, Arjuna called out in admiration, “Excellent! Well done!”

Arjuna looked with wonder at the hunter. Clearly this was not an ordinary man. No one could withstand the force of thousands of arrows shot from the Gāṇḍīva without being moved. Perhaps he was a celestial. Arjuna decided to use his mystical weapons. No matter who this was--even if he was a Gandharva or a Yakṣa--unless he was actually Śiva himself, Arjuna intended to kill him.

Arjuna then invoked weapons which fired thousands of arrows blazing like the sun. Śiva cheerfully received all his shafts as a mountain receives a downpour of rain. Then to Arjuna’s amazement he found that his celestial quivers were suddenly exhausted. How was that possible? Who was this who swallowed up all his arrows? With what could he fight now? Arjuna raised his great bow like a club and rushed at the hunter. He struck him a number of heavy blows, but Śiva snatched away his bow and drew it into his body. It simply vanished. Arjuna then drew his sword and brought it down upon the hunter’s head with all his strength, but it shattered to pieces.

Arjuna was afraid, but he continued to fight. This time he lifted rocks and boulders and threw them at the hunter. He tore up trees and slung them at the hunter. Still he made no impression. Arjuna’s mouth smoked with wrath. He rushed at his foe and pummeled him with his fists. Śiva struck him back and a hand-to-hand fight ensued. They struck one another and grappled furiously, each seizing the other and shoving him with full force. Sparks and smoke flew from their bodies.

Finally, the hunter released Arjuna and he fell back, dazed, almost unconscious. Arjuna looked at the hunter in astonishment. He had failed to make the least impression on him. Surely this must be the exalted god Śiva. No one else could have fought with such power.

Arjuna retreated to a distance and quickly fashioned an image of Śiva from the earth. He worshipped it with flowers and as he did so, he saw flowers falling onto the hunter’s head. Now he had no doubt. This was the deity he was seeking. Arjuna fell headlong at the god’s feet, and as he did so he felt all his fatigue dispelled.

Śiva was pleased with Arjuna and he spoke to him in a voice as powerful as roaring clouds. “O Phālgunī, today you have satisfied me. There is no warrior equal to you in courage or patience. O best of the Bharata race, your strength is practically equal to mine. You were formerly a ṛṣi and have now taken birth to serve the Supreme Lord’s purposes. Soon you will acquire the weapons with which to defeat your enemies, even if they be celestials. I shall bestow upon you my own irresistible weapon. Now I will give you the eyes to see me in my original form. Behold!”

Arjuna looked up and saw Śiva with his three eyes, holding a trident, a divine serpent draped around his bluish neck. Arjuna bowed down and prayed, “O great god, O highly exalted one, you are the refuge of all the celestials. The very universe has sprung from you. You are Viṣṇu in a different form and are unconquerable by gods, demons or men. O Śaṅkara, pray forgive me. It was only to receive your audience that I came to this mountain. Please pardon me for my rashness in fighting with you. I seek your protection.”

Śiva lifted Arjuna to his feet and embraced the Pāṇḍava. “I have pardoned you. You are Nara, the friend of Nārāyaṇa. Previously you two chastised the demon hordes at Indra’s coronation. Kṛṣṇa is that Supreme Nārāyaṇa, and with Him you will again punish the wicked. O Pārtha, take back your Gāṇḍīva bow. Your quivers will again become inexhaustible. There is no man on earth equal to you. Ask from me whatever you desire.”

Śiva handed the Gāṇḍīva bow to Arjuna and Arjuna said, “O lord, if you are pleased with me, then I humbly ask that you bestow upon me your irresistible personal weapon known as the Pāśupāta. You destroy the universe with this weapon at the end of creation, and with it I may be victorious over Rākṣasas, Dānavas, Gandharvas, Nāgas, ghosts and spirits. It will enable me to emerge successfully from the battle I shall fight against Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Kṛpa, and the son of the suta, Karṇa.”

Śiva replied, “O son of Kuntī, I will give you this weapon. You are capable of holding, throwing, and withdrawing it. Not even Indra, Yama, Kuvera, or Varuṇa knows the mantras to this weapon--what to speak of any man. However, you must use it only against celestial fighters. The Pāśupāta should never be released at lesser enemies or else it may destroy the creation. This weapon is discharged by the mind, eyes, words, or a bow. No one in the three worlds of moving or nonmoving creatures can withstand its force.”

Arjuna then bathed for purification and stood before Śiva to receive the mantras. The god gave his weapon to Arjuna and it then waited upon him just as it waited upon Śiva himself. When the celestials saw the fearful weapon standing in its embodied form by Arjuna’s side, the earth trembled and terrible winds blew in all directions. Thousands of conches and trumpets were heard resounding in the sky. Śiva said, “Now go to heaven and receive Indra’ weapons.” He then departed with Umā and his many followers.

When Śiva was gone, Arjuna stood for a few moments gazing at the sky, awed by what had just transpired. He had seen the god of gods. The unknowable deity had touched him with his own hand. Arjuna now considered his enemies already vanquished and his ends accomplished. He possessed Śiva’s irresistible weapon. Although he could not discharge the Pāśupāta at human foes, its very possession made him feel invincible.

While Arjuna stood absorbed in thought, Varuṇa appeared before him accompanied by the rivers personified and many Nāgas, Siddhas and other lesser gods. Kuvera was also in attendance, his body resembling pure gold and seated upon a splendid chariot. Kuvera was accompanied by countless Yakṣas. They stood before Arjuna, illuminating everything with their bodily effulgence. Arjuna also saw in the sky the god of justice, Yamarāja, approaching on his chariot with mace in hand and flanked by the personified forms of Death and Time.

On a nearby mountain summit, Arjuna saw Indra and his queen Śacī seated on the back of the celestial elephant Airāvata and appearing like the rising sun. A white umbrella was being held over his head and he was surrounded by Gandharvas and ṛṣis, who were eulogizing him with Vedic hymns.

Arjuna chanted numerous prayers in praise of the gods and offered them fruits and water. As he stood gazing in amazement, Yamarāja spoke, his voice as deep as autumnal rain clouds. “Behold, O Arjuna, that all the world’s protectors, the Lokapālas, have come here. We shall bestow upon you divine eyes. O sinless one, you were formerly the Ṛṣi Nara. At Brahmā’s behest, you have taken your birth as a mortal. You shall vanquish in battle the powerful Bhīṣma and the many other fierce warriors headed by Droṇa. The enemies of the gods, Daityas and Dānavas, have taken their birth in the world of men. These shall all be slain in a great battle in which you will play the main role. Your fame on earth shall be eternal.”

Yamarāja offered his personal weapon, a celestial mace, to Arjuna. The Pāṇḍava received the weapon along with the mantras for hurling and withdrawing it. After that, Varuṇa gave Arjuna his inescapable Nāgapasha nooses. Arjuna also received Kuvera’s weapon, the antardhāna, which could baffle and render unconscious even mighty Asuras. Then Indra spoke: “O subduer of enemies, you shall perform a great work for the gods. Now you must ascend to heaven. There I will give you my own weapon and other irresistible astras belonging to the celestials. My chariot, driven by my servant Mātali, will soon carry you there.”

The Lokapālas then vanished, leaving Arjuna alone. As he looked up, he saw what appeared to be a second sun gradually increasing in brilliance in the sky. The whole region vibrated as the radiance increased. Arjuna realized that this was Indra’s chariot descending to earth. The chariot was huge, and it was drawn by ten thousand celestial horses of greenish and golden hue. Mātali, in golden armor, was holding the reins. As the chariot approached, Arjuna could see upon it innumerable swords and maces, as well as all kinds of missiles. Axes, darts, lances, and spears of every kind were placed all around the chariot. Celestial thunderbolts and brilliant lightning bolts glowed from its sides. Huge-bodied, fierce Nāgas with fiery mouths were seated on the chariot, along with great silver canons furnished with wheels and capable of sending celestial missiles a vast distance.

Arjuna saw Indra’s dark blue flagstaff, the Vaijayanta, standing in the middle of the chariot as straight as a bamboo and as tall as a great palm tree. Then the chariot halted and Mātali stood before Arjuna. Bowing low, he said, “O fortunate one, I have been instructed to take you to Śakra. Your father, encircled by the celestials, ṛṣis, Gandharvas and Apsarās, wishes to see you in heaven. Śiva has also ordered me. Ascend this chariot and come to the heavenly regions.”

Arjuna again bathed for purification, then offered prayers to Mount Mandara: “O king of mountains, you are the refuge of pious sages seeking heaven. You have sheltered me and I have lived here happily. I offer you my thanks and bid you farewell.” With that, Mātali led Arjuna to a flight of crystal steps leading up to the chariot.

Mātali urged the steeds which drew the chariot with the speed of the mind high into the sky. As they entered the celestial regions, Arjuna saw thousands of wondrous chariots carrying shining beings of great beauty. He saw kings and warriors who had been slain in battle and had attained effulgent celestial forms. As they moved along the paths of the gods, Arjuna saw Siddhas, Cāraṇas, ṛṣis, Guhyakas and Apsarās. The region glowed with a brilliance born of the ascetic merits of such beings. Amazed, Arjuna inquired into their identities. The charioteer replied, “These are pious persons, O son of Kuntī, stationed in their respective spheres. You have seen their shining abodes from the earth as stars in the firmament.”

The chariot passed through the gate of Indra’s planet, where Arjuna saw Airāvata, the great white elephant with four tusks. The elephant resembled Mount Kailāsa with its four summits. Passing through divine regions meant for pious men who had performed great sacrifices and asceticism, they arrived at last in Amarāvatī, Indra’s capital city.

Arjuna gazed with wide open eyes at the astonishing city. Flowers from all the seasons bloomed simultaneously, and there were groves of sacred trees. Fragrant breezes moved among their golden leaves, creating cascades of brilliant light. Countless mansions and palaces stretched into the distance. Arjuna saw the famous Nandana gardens, in which the gods sported with Apsarās.

“Those who turn their backs in battle can never see this place,” Mātali said, seeing Arjuna’s amazement. “Neither can those who are wicked-minded, who have not performed sacrifice, who have not abstained from liquor and meat, who have not bathed in holy rivers nor given charity to Brahmins ever reach this abode.”

As they proceeded through the city, Arjuna beheld celestial cars traveling by the occupants’ wills. Gandharvas and Apsarās eulogized Arjuna as he passed. He heard the sound of celestial music and of thousands of conchshells and drums. Arjuna entered Indra’s magnificent assembly hall and met with the Sādhyas, Maruts, Viśvadevas, and twin Aśvinīs. He saw the Adityas, Vasus, Rudras, and the many royal saints headed by King Dilīpa. Nārada Ṛṣi was also present along with the Gandharva leader, Tumbaru.

After offering his respects to the assembled personalities, Arjuna approached his father, the king of the gods. Indra was seated beneath his white umbrella and was being fanned by golden-handled and perfumed cāmaras. Many pure Brahmins praised him with hymns from the Ṛg and Yajur Vedas, and the Gandharvas and Cāraṇas played celestial instruments of all descriptions for his pleasure.

Arjuna prostrated himself before Indra, who got down from his throne and embraced him. The thousand-eyed god took Arjuna by the hand and led him back up the flight of golden steps to his bejeweled throne. Indra then had his son sit next to him on the throne, where he shone like a second Indra. With his perfumed hand, Indra affectionately stroked Arjuna’s head. Out of love, Indra gently patted and rubbed his arms, which were like gold columns. The deity gazed without satiation at his son’s face. Seated together on the throne, Arjuna and Indra appeared like the sun and the moon together in a clear sky.

Indra gave Arjuna the celestial sight to perceive Amarāvatī’s divine beauty. The city was unimaginably opulent. The Pāṇḍava looked around at the numerous effulgent ṛṣis who sat reciting sacred texts from the Vedas. Groups of Gandharvas headed by Tumbaru sang hymns in voices which entirely captivated the mind. As they sang, Apsarās performed exquisite dances full of gestures and sidelong glances. They shook their breasts and moved their broad hips.

The celestials offered Arjuna the sacred arghya and washed his feet. At Indra’s command, Arjuna was then escorted to Indra’s palace. Arjuna took up residence there and Indra instructed him in how to use the celestial weapons, and especially the irresistible thunderbolt weapon, Vajra, and Indra’s powerful lightning flashes.

Although living amid splendor and opulence, Arjuna could not forget his brothers in the forest, and he longed to return to them. Whenever he thought of his brothers, he also remembered the circumstances that had brought them to the forest, and he remembered Śakuni, Dushashana, Duryodhana and Karṇa. Arjuna had no peace. As he was equipped with one powerful weapon after another, he thought only of the inevitable battle that would take place in the future. No one would be able to stand against him now. Those wicked-minded men would be punished. Draupadī would be avenged and Yudhiṣṭhira’s kingdom would be recovered.

When Arjuna had become adept at using all the weapons, Indra told him, “You should go to your friend Citrasena and learn singing and dancing from him. He can teach you such music that does not exist in the world of men and is known only to the celestials. This knowledge will prove useful to you in the future.”

Arjuna thus learned the Gandharva skills. The Pāṇḍava did not know why Indra had requested him to study such subjects, but he was sure the god could see by divine intelligence that such knowledge would surely be helpful in the future.

Arjuna lived in Amarāvatī for five years, thinking always of his brothers. As the time for him to leave approached, Indra summoned Citrasena and spoke with him in private. “O chief of the Gandharvas, I have seen Arjuna casting glances at Urvaśī. Go to her and have her wait upon the Pāṇḍava with all her feminine graces and skills. As you have taught him all the arts of music, so now you should teach him the art of associating with women.”

Citrasena said, “So be it,” and went at once to Urvaśī and described Arjuna’s many virtues.

“O lady of fair hips, know that I have come here on Indra’s command to ask from you a favor. There is one now living in heaven who is renowned among men for his grace, behavior, beauty, vows and self-control. He is famous for his might and his prowess, and he is respected by the pious. He is also endowed with presence of mind, is a genius, and possesses great energy. That mighty hero is forgiving and without malice. He knows all the Vedas with their many branches, is devoted to his elders, is never boastful, sees even small things as if they were important, and is always the shelter of his dependents. His name is Arjuna, and his father Indra brought him to heaven. O blessed lady, Arjuna seems inclined toward you. Please go to him and allow him to obtain you.”

Urvaśī cheerfully replied, “Having heard of Arjuna’s virtues, how could I fail to be attracted? Indeed, thinking of that hero I am already stricken by the god of love. O Citrasena, go now wherever you like and I shall go to him.”

Having succeeded in his mission, the Gandharva left. Urvaśī then prepared to meet Arjuna. She bathed and smeared her body with perfumed unguents. Dressing with layers of diaphanous silks, she adorned herself with jewels and gold ornaments, as well as fragrant garlands of brightly colored flowers. She was absorbed in thoughts of Arjuna and her heart was pierced with Cupid’s arrows. Inflamed by desire, she imagined herself lying with Arjuna on a soft, wide bed laid over with silk sheets.

Setting out at a time when the moon began to rise, the thin-waisted Urvaśī went toward Arjuna’s abode. As she walked, her long black braids, which she had decorated with bunches of flowers, swung around her beautiful white face. Her two finely tapering breasts, adorned with a string of diamonds and pearls and smeared with fragrant sandalwood paste, trembled as she walked gracefully through the gardens. Her high, round hips, covered with thin cloth and decked with golden chains, moved from side to side. The rows of golden bells around her ankles tinkled gently. She defied the splendor of the full moon and was quite capable of breaking the vows of great ascetics. Exhilarated by the little liquor she had drunk and full of desire, she cast glances from side to side and seemed even more alluring. Seeing her pass, the Siddhas and Cāraṇas considered her the finest sight in heaven. She soon arrived at Arjuna’s door and sent word to him through the doorkeeper.

Arjuna immediately invited her into his house. He was anxious that the goddess had come to see him at night. Seeing her incomparable beauty he closed his eyes out of modesty. Arjuna worshipped her as if she were his superior and said, “O foremost of Apsarās, I bow down to you. What is your command? I am your servant.”

Hearing his words, Urvaśī was overjoyed. Her voice rang out like tinkling bells. “O best of men, I will tell you what brings me here. When you first came to heaven, a large assembly was convened during which we celebrated your arrival. All the gods and celestials were present, and you were seated by Śakra’s side. You saw me then, dancing in the midst of the chief Apsarās. Your gaze rested upon me for some moments and Indra noticed your attentions. Thus he has sent me here through Citrasena. I have come to wait upon you, O hero. My heart is stolen by your virtues and I am under the control of Kāmadeva. This is my wish: let me possess you tonight.”

Arjuna at once covered his ears in shame. “O blessed lady, O most charming one, it is not proper for me to hear you speak such words. You are the wife of my superior. As the illustrious Kuntī or the beautiful Śacī, Indra’s consort, is to me, so too are you, O goddess. Do not doubt what I say. O lady of sweet smiles, I did indeed gaze upon you, but not out of desire. There was quite another reason.”

Arjuna had heard of Urvaśī while at home on the earth. Thousands of years previously she had become Pūrurava’s wife, who was one of Arjuna’s ancestors. It was her son who had been the forefather of Arjuna’s dynasty. Arjuna told Urvaśī that he thus felt quite unable to make her his lover. “O blessed one, when I gazed at you I was simply amazed to see the mother of my dynasty. You should not entertain any other feeling for me than that of your son.”

Urvaśī smiled. “O son of Indra, we of the heavenly realms are not fettered by human morality. You need not see me as a superior. I have sported with other sons and grandsons of the Pūru dynasty without incurring sin. Be favorable toward me. I am burning with desire and feel devoted to you. Do not reject me, for that is not the practice of virtuous men.”

But Arjuna could not change his attitude. “O beautiful lady, hear what I tell you and let the four directions and all the celestials also hear. You are no different to me than Kuntī, Mādrī or Śacī. I bow my head to you as my mother. Please protect me as your son.”

After Arjuna had spoken in this way, it was clear to Urvaśī that he was firm in his determination. Rejected and insulted, she became angry. With knitted brows and quivering lips, she exclaimed, “As you insult a woman who has come to you at your father’s command and out of her own desire--a woman pierced by Cupid’s arrow--you shall lose your manhood and live as a dancer in the company of women. O Arjuna, you shall become a eunuch and lose all respect.”

With that, Urvaśī turned and left Arjuna.

Arjuna thought carefully. Surely Indra must have known that this would happen. Why then had he asked Citrasena to send Urvaśī to him? Arjuna went at once to Citrasena and told him what had transpired, repeatedly mentioning the curse. Citrasena then went to Indra and informed him of the situation. Indra called for Arjuna and spoke to him in private.

“O best of men, because you are her son, Kuntī is the most glorious mother. You have defeated even the ṛṣis by your self-control and patience. Do not worry. Urvaśī’s curse will be for your good and will prove useful. You will need to pass your final year of exile incognito. At that time, Urvaśī’s curse will take effect and, living as a eunuch, no one shall discover you. Having passed one year without your manhood, you shall regain it at the end of that period.”

Arjuna was relieved. The Pāṇḍava then stopped worrying about the curse and continued to live happily in the heavens with his father and Citrasena.

Chapter 26: To Badarīkā Ashram

In Hastināpura Dhṛtarāṣṭra sat in his chamber, his head in his hands. As time passed he was becoming increasingly anxious. What would happen at the end of the Pāṇḍavas’ exile? Would they not return with blazing weapons to seek vengeance? How would any of the Kauravas survive? If only Duryodhana would give up his envy. Yudhiṣṭhira would certainly live peacefully with his cousins if they were willing to share the kingdom, but that seemed unlikely. It appeared that nothing could change Duryodhana’s attitude. Even he could not sway him.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s anxiety doubled when he heard from Vyāsadeva that Arjuna had gone to the heavens to obtain weapons. Seeking comfort, the king called Sañjaya; when he was seated before him, he said, “O Suta, have you heard anything more about Arjuna’s activities? That powerful hero has ascended to heaven in his own body. My son is Arjuna’s sworn enemy. Their enmity will surely destroy the world. Aided by Arjuna, Yudhiṣṭhira can conquer the three worlds. Who among mortals can stand before Arjuna as he rains down virulent arrows?”

Tears flowed from the king’s blind eyes as he continued. “I do not see my son becoming successful even though Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Karṇa support him. None of these warriors can equal Arjuna, the infallible Kṛṣṇa’s friend. The man who can slay Arjuna does not exist, nor can anyone live long after coming within the range of his arrows. It seems to me that our armies have already fled in all directions upon hearing the fearful rumble of his chariot wheels. Surely Brahmā created that hero to become the destruction of our race.”

Sañjaya said nothing. He had heard the king make similar statements on many occasions, but still Dhṛtarāṣṭra did nothing to control his sons. It was as if he was hoping that Duryodhana and his followers could defy the inevitable outcome of their sinful activities. The old king was no fool, but he was so attached to his son that he allowed his attachment to overpower his reason.

After some moments Sañjaya said, “O King, your words are all true. Nothing you have said is wrong. When they saw their wife insulted in the sabha, the Pāṇḍavas became consumed by wrath. I do not see how they will ever forgive your sons. I have heard from Vyāsadeva that Arjuna satisfied the immortal Śiva and received from him his weapon. Your race now faces disaster.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra continued to lament. The annihilation of the Kauravas was certain, he said. Allied with Kṛṣṇa, the Pāṇḍavas were invincible. Duryodhana and Karṇa were the causes of the calamity he now faced. “O Suta, when I shall hear that my armies have been crushed by Arjuna and Bhīma, I, forever obedient to Duryodhana’s desires, shall then recall all the good advice my well-wishers gave me which I should have heeded.”

With a wry smile Sañjaya replied, “O King, again you have spoken the truth. You do not care for good advice. Therefore, it is only by your own fault that you now lament. You could have stopped Duryodhana, but you chose not to do so. Now we shall all suffer the reaction.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra fell silent. He now felt that the events were beyond his control. It was true. He was too attached to Duryodhana. He could not refuse his son anything. His half-hearted attempts to check Duryodhana were simply a waste of time. His sons laughed at his weakness. They knew they could sway him in the end. The blind king held his forehead and sighed. Would he ever see his son seated on the emperor’s throne? That right had become his only due to Pāṇḍu’s retirement. If only Duryodhana could win that right for himself. But how? Destiny seemed all-powerful. Feeling helpless, the king remained awake throughout the night, as he had on so many occasions.

After Arjuna had left for the Himālayas, his brothers and Draupadī continued to live in the Kāmyaka. They missed him sorely, and they had no idea how long he might be away or whether or not he would ever return. But they knew they would only be successful in their fight to regain the kingdom with Arjuna’s assistance. Thus they prayed for his safe passage to the mountains and for his success in gaining the celestial weapons.

Yudhiṣṭhira felt especially anguished. Bhīma would frequently remind him of the gambling match. That mighty Pāṇḍava wanted only to take up arms and chastise the Kauravas. Despite his brother’s counsel, he could not see the point of acting honorably toward dishonorable persons. Nor could he see how they would ever gain success by peaceful means.

“As soon as we leave the forest,” Bhīma said one day to Yudhiṣṭhira, “the sinful Śakuni will immediately challenge you to another game of dice. You will not refuse, although you are still unskilled at the game. Surely you will lose your senses and we shall again be consigned to the forest. O great prince, simply command me and I shall destroy Duryodhana right now, even as a fire consumes a pile of grass.”

Yudhiṣṭhira consoled his brother. He never allowed himself to become angered by his words, which he knew were spoken out of affection. Bhīma wanted nothing more than to see his elder brother as emperor of the world.

As the Pāṇḍavas discussed, the Ṛṣi Vrihadashwa approached them. He emerged from the woods as the sun comes out from behind a dark cloud. The brothers immediately bowed before him and offered him a seat, arghya, and other items.

The sage was clad in deerskin and had matted hair. Yudhiṣṭhira folded his hands and said, “O almighty one, due to the nefarious schemes of evil-minded gamblers, I have been deprived of my wealth and kingdom. Now my brothers are suffering and my wife has been humiliated. We are all exiled. My mind burns both with the remembrance of my enemies’ cruel words and my own foolishness, and I feel sorrow to think of my relatives and subjects. Now I have been deprived of Arjuna’s company, who is dearer to me than life. I remain awake whole nights feeling his absence. Have you ever heard of any king or prince more unfortunate than myself?”

Vrihadashwa replied that he knew the history of an ancient king who had ruled the Niṣadha tribespeople. He too had been defeated at dice by his brother and exiled to the forest with his wife. The king’s name was Nala, and his wife was called Damayantī. This story, the sage said, destroyed evil in people’s minds and pacified their hearts. Yudhiṣṭhira requested him to please narrate the story in detail. It turned out that Nala and Damayantī’s plight had been even worse than that which they were now experiencing. After losing everything and being sent to the forest, the king and his wife had also been separated, and both had wandered alone for a long time before finally being reunited and regaining their kingdom.

“You, on the other hand, O Yudhiṣṭhira, are here with your brothers and wife and are surrounded by Brahmins. Do not grieve. Men of your caliber always understand that material happiness and distress come and go according to destiny. It is beyond human exertion to change it.”

The ṛṣi assured Yudhiṣṭhira that he could help him never again to fall victim to Śakuni. “I am acquainted with the science of dice, O virtuous hero, and I shall pass this knowledge unto you.” Vrihadashwa then taught Yudhiṣṭhira the skills of the game and took his leave.

The Pāṇḍavas passed their days discussing spiritual topics and the art of kingship, and hearing the Brahmins’ recitation from scripture. They also underwent a daily regimen of physical training to keep themselves fit as warriors. Draupadī cooked wild roots and vegetables gathered in the forest, then placed everything on the sun-god’s dish and offered the food to the Lord. From the inexhaustible plate she then fed the hundreds of sages, then her husbands, and after everyone else had eaten, she accepted her own meal.

Besides the Brahmins who resided near the Pāṇḍavas, many traveling Brahmins stopped to see Yudhiṣṭhira. From them, Yudhiṣṭhira learned that Arjuna was performing severe asceticism in the Himālayas. The Pāṇḍavas and Draupadī felt pained to hear of it and prayed that he would soon achieve the goal of his mission and return.

One day Yudhiṣṭhira saw the effulgent Ṛṣi Nārada standing before him. After the Pāṇḍavas had worshipped him, the sage offered his blessings and asked if there was anything he could do for them. Yudhiṣṭhira bowed before Nārada and said that he wished to travel to various pilgrimage sites. He asked Nārada which sites would be most beneficial for them to visit. Nārada told Yudhiṣṭhira of the many holy places he should visit with his brothers. He also asked Yudhiṣṭhira to request the ṛṣis who were living with the Pāṇḍavas to accompany them. “In this way, O king, you will receive great merit. The paths to the tirthas I have described are infested with Rākṣasas. Only you are able to visit such holy places and thus enable these Brahmins to see them as well.”

Nārada assured Yudhiṣṭhira that by traveling to the holy places, the Pāṇḍavas would have the opportunity to meet such glorious ṛṣis as Vālmīki, Kaśyapa, Atri, Vasiṣṭha, Mārkaṇḍeya and others. “Soon the powerful sage Lomaśa will come here. Go with him to the tirthas, O King. In this way you will attain everlasting fame equal to that of the kings Mahavisha, Yayāti and Pūrurava. You will destroy your enemies and recover all that is rightfully yours. Like Bhagīratha, Manu, and even Lord Rāma, you will rule the earth and shine among kings as the sun shines among stars.”

Just after Nārada departed, Lomaśa Ṛṣi arrived. The sage was radiant in his black deerskin, and he carried only a water pot. Receiving him with honor, the Pāṇḍavas sat around him and asked him to tell of his travels. Lomaśa replied, “O heroes, while journeying throughout the worlds I went to Amarāvatī, Indra’s great city. There I saw the exalted king of the celestials and, to my astonishment, your brother Arjuna sharing his throne. Indra asked me to come to you and to assure you of Arjuna’s welfare. Thus I have come with all speed.”

Lomaśa told the Pāṇḍavas how Arjuna had acquired the celestial weapons, including Siva’s famous weapon. He had also learned to sing and dance from the Gandharvas. He would be returning soon. “Your brother asked me to lead you to the tirthas so that you may gain pious merits. Indra also made this request, and it is my desire as well. Although I have already been to all the tirthas twice, I shall go for a third time with you.”

Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers were overjoyed to hear of Arjuna’s success. Yudhiṣṭhira said, “O exalted Brahmin, your words are like a shower of nectar. Who could be more fortunate than one who is remembered by the king of the celestials? Now having you as our guide, our fortune is complete. Be pleased, O Ṛṣi, to show us all the holy places.”

Yudhiṣṭhira then addressed the Brahmins who were staying with them. “O best of men, let those mendicants, Brahmins and yogīs who are incapable of bearing hunger, thirst, and the fatigue of travel and severe climate desist from following me.”

Yudhiṣṭhira knew that the journey to the tirthas would be difficult. He did not want to expose the Brahmins to unnecessary suffering. He continued, “All those desiring regular meals and living upon cooked food should stay back. You may now go to King Dhṛtarāṣṭra for your maintenance. The king of the Pañchālas will also provide for you. With your permission, we shall now depart.”

Sorrowfully, a number of Brahmins took their leave and traveled toward Hastināpura. Only a few hundred ascetic Brahmins remained to travel with Lomaśa, Dhaumya and the Pāṇḍavas. They chose a day to begin their pilgrimage which was marked by favorable constellations. Then before leaving, the brothers put on armor over their deerskin and bark garments. They took up their weapons with the expectation of meeting Rākṣasas. As they began their journey, Yudhiṣṭhira said to Lomaśa, “O foremost of celestial ṛṣis, I do not think that I am without religious merit, but still I am afflicted with sorrow. On the other hand, I see that my enemies lack all merit but yet they prosper. How can such apparent contradictions exist?”

“O son of Kuntī, you should never grieve for such things. A man may be seen to prosper in sin, obtain good fruits or vanquish his enemies, but he is finally destroyed to the root. I have seen many Daityas and Dānavas prosper by sin, but I have also seen them overtaken by utter destruction. O ruler of the earth, I saw all this in the Satya-yuga especially.”

Lomaśa narrated how during Satya-yuga, the first in the cycle of ages, the Asuras pridefully refused to perform religious acts while the Devas practiced virtue and engaged in sacrifice. At first the Asuras, seeking only wealth, became powerful and wealthy, but it did not last. “From the possession of ill-gotten wealth there arose every kind of evil propensity, and from that arose shamelessness. All good behavior disappeared and for want of good conduct and virtue the Asuras could no longer express forgiveness or morality. They lost their prosperity because the goddess of fortune, Lakṣmī, left the Asuras and sought out the celestials--while the goddess of adversity, Alakshmi, sought out the Asuras. When afflicted by adversity the Asuras became angry and became possessed by Kali, the god of quarrel and destruction, who influenced them toward more and more sin. Destitute of all sacrifice and religious ritual, they soon met complete ruin.

“On the other hand, the virtuous Devas visited holy places and engaged in sacrifice, charity and asceticism. Thus the prosperity they attained was lasting.

“Therefore, O best of men, you too will gain good fortune by visiting the tirthas and by your ascetic life in the forest. Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons, addicted to sin, will certainly be destroyed exactly as the Asuras were destroyed.”

Reassured by Lomaśa’s words, Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers, along with Draupadī, followed the ṛṣi through the forest. Behind them walked their attendants, headed by Indrasena, the brothers’ long-time intimate servant who had gone with them into the forest. The Brahmins followed the servants, and the party formed a long line through the undergrowth.

Gradually they visited the many sacred tirthas and bathed in numerous holy rivers and lakes. They offered oblations to their ancestors and heard spiritual instructions from the ascetics living at the sacred sites. The brothers also heard the fascinating accounts of kings and ṛṣis of former ages associated with all the holy places.

When they reached the Himālayas, Lomaśa warned the party to proceed with caution. “There is Mount Meru and the peaks of Kailāsa, Gandhamādana, Triśṛṅga and Makaragiri,” he said, pointing ahead to the splendid mountain rising into the clouds. “Here reside thousands of invisible celestial beings. The Kimpuruṣas, Yakṣas, Kinnaras, Suparṇas, Nāgas and Rākṣasas, all as swift as the wind and as powerful as a thousand mighty elephants, move about on these mountain ranges. Sinful men cannot gain access here, for they will be destroyed by the celestials.”

As Lomaśa prayed to the gods for protection, Yudhiṣṭhira said to Bhīma, “Carefully guard Draupadī, dear brother. She always seeks and deserves your protection when she is afraid. We shall now proceed into these sacred mountains. By virtue of our asceticism and the pious merits we have earned through sacrifice, we may all be allowed to approach this holy region.”

Lomaśa had told the brothers that they would meet Arjuna in the mountains as he descended from heaven onto the summit of the Gandhamādana mountain. They decided to go there and await Arjuna’s arrival. The path to the mountain peak, however, was fraught with danger. Lomaśa asked Yudhiṣṭhira to tell his servants and most of the Brahmins to stay back. Bhīma then placed Draupadī on his shoulders, and the party, with only a few Brahmins, made their way into the Himālayan range along the craggy mountain paths.

The terrain was rugged and the climb arduous. At last they came to the Alakanandā river, said to descend to earth from the heavens. They worshipped the holy river and bathed in its crystal clear waters. The brothers looked around at the brilliant scenery that surrounded them on the high mountain plateau. It seemed as if they had arrived on a heavenly planet. Blossoming trees of every color gave off celestial fragrances. The ground was carpeted with soft bluish grasses and expanses of wild flowers. Transparent lakes filled with blue lotuses and crowded with swans and chakravarkas lay amid groves of fruit trees. The musical sounds of cuckoos, peacocks and countless other birds filled the air. Lomaśa told the Pāṇḍavas that Indra came daily to this region to perform his rituals and prayers.

The brothers saw in the distance what appeared to be a number of massive white mountains, but Lomaśa told them it was the bones of Naraka, a mighty Asura whom Viṣṇu had slain in a past age. The ṛṣi related the story as they traveled onward toward Gandhamādana. As they approached the mountain, the path became increasingly difficult. Leaving behind the heavenly terrain, they moved slowly along snow-bound and rocky paths. Suddenly, a violent wind blew up filling the air with dust and dried leaves, blinding the Pāṇḍavas. Bhīma held onto Draupadī, who became terror stricken as she heard great trees crashing to the ground all around them. It felt as if the mountain itself were being torn asunder by some celestial power. Each of them sought whatever shelter they could find beneath rocks and huge sal trees. When the dust storm subsided, rain fell in torrents. Rivulets and streams began to flow everywhere, covered in froth and mud. As the rain continued, the streams grew louder and wider and began to carry away trees and bushes. The sky was thick with black clouds throwing out quick lightning which, despite the ferocity of the storm, seemed to play with grace upon the mountainside.

Gradually the storm abated and the sky cleared. The sun shone brightly and steam began to rise from the ground. The travelers emerged from their hiding places and, reunited, continued toward Gandhamādana.

But Draupadī was exhausted and felt she could not go any further. Overwhelmed, she fainted and fell to the ground like a plantain tree uprooted by the wind. Nakula rushed forward and caught her as she fell, and laid her gently on the deerskin Sahadeva spread out. Yudhiṣṭhira said, “How can this beautiful lady, accustomed to every luxury, sleep now on the ground? Her delicate hands and feet have turned blue with cold, and she lies there exhausted. Alas, this is all my doing. Addicted to dice I have acted foolishly and brought great suffering on those I love. King Drupada bestowed this princess upon us in the hope that she would be happy. Now she lies prostrate on the ground in this fearful wilderness.”

Lomaśa and Dhaumya recited mantras capable of destroying all ills. Nakula gently fanned Draupadī while Sahadeva massaged her feet. As she slowly regained consciousness, Yudhiṣṭhira consoled her. He looked at Bhīma. “How shall we carry on, O mighty-armed one? Many rugged and icy paths lie ahead. I do not think that Draupadī will be able to tolerate the journey.”

Bhīma suggested that they summon Ghaṭotkaca. “My son is powerful and can carry us through the skies. O King, simply order me and I shall bring him here by thought alone.”

Yudhiṣṭhira agreed and Bhīma sat down and meditated upon his son. As soon as he was remembered, Ghaṭotkaca appeared before Bhīma and stood with folded palms. He bowed at his father’s feet and saluted the other Pāṇḍavas reverently. After an affectionate welcome he said, “O sinless ones, my father has summoned me and I am ready to do your bidding. Please command me.”

Bhīma embraced his son. “O invincible hero, O child, we are proceeding to the peak of Mount Gandhamādana where we shall again see our brother Arjuna. Your mother is worn out with fatigue and cannot continue. Nor shall we find it easy ourselves to follow the tortuous mountain paths, covered as they are by ice and snow. You should therefore carry us through the skies.”

Ghaṭotkaca bowed. “With pleasure. I have at my command hundreds of sky-ranging Rākṣasas. O Father, I shall carry my mother Draupadī, while other Rākṣasas will carry you and your brothers and all these Brahmins.”

Ghaṭotkaca gently placed Draupadī on his shoulders. He looked upon her as he would look upon his own mother, Hiḍimbī. Other huge-bodied Rākṣasas suddenly appeared and picked up the travelers. Lomaśa, however, rose unaided into the sky by his own mystic power, appearing like a second sun.

The Rākṣasas flew swiftly through the heavens along the Siddha’s path. As the party traveled they saw beneath them the beautiful lands inhabited by Vidhyadharas, Kinnaras, Kimpuruṣas, Gandharvas, and other divine beings. They saw great forests intersected by rivers and filled with elephants, bears, apes, rurus, surabhi cows and buffaloes. They passed over the country of the Uttarā-Kurus. Finally, they all arrived at the Gandhamādana mountain. The Rākṣasas took them high onto the mountain to Badarīkā Ashram, the ancient hermitage of Nara and Nārāyaṇa Ṛṣis.

The Pāṇḍavas gazed around in wonder. Even though they were high in the mountains the entire region was adorned with celestial trees in full blossom. They saw the great Badarī tree spread out like a vast umbrella of lush green foliage, from which the Ashram had derived its name. The tree exuded freshness and calm, and it invited shelter beneath its boughs. Its branches were loaded with ripened fruits. Colorful birds, intoxicated with the honey falling from the fruits, flew in and out of the tree, filling the air with music.

The Pāṇḍavas approached the Badarī tree with folded palms. It was surrounded by soft bluish-green grass. Countless thatched cottages, the dwellings of numerous ṛṣis, stood around the tree. The whole region was lit by its own effulgence, requiring neither sunlight nor moonlight, and it was free from excessive heat and cold. The brothers felt both their physical pains and their mental anxieties dissipating. Even their hunger and thirst abated as their minds filled with a deep peace.

As they looked about, they noticed the many sacrificial altars tended by ascetics, and they heard Brahmins chanting in melodious voices. Nearby, the cool and clear waters of the Ganges flowed on its way to Bharata, after having descended from heaven.

Some of the foremost ṛṣis living in the hermitage came forward to receive the travelers. By their mystic vision they already knew who their guests were, and after accepting their obeisances, they honored them with offerings of pure water, fruits and flowers.

Yudhiṣṭhira thanked Ghaṭotkaca and his followers and asked them to remain with them until they returned to the Kāmyaka. On the advice of Lomaśa and Dhaumya, the Pāṇḍavas took up residence with the ṛṣis to await Arjuna’s arrival, passing their time hearing the many ṛṣis’ spiritual discourses.

Chapter 27: Bhīma Meets Hanumān

The Pāṇḍavas remained in Badarīkā Ashram for six days and nights. On the seventh day, a wind blew up from the northeast, carrying a single celestial lotus. The flower fell at Draupadī’s feet. The princess looked in wonder at the golden thousand-petalled flower. Its fragrance delighted her mind and she was charmed by its beauty. She had never seen anything like it and she showed it to Bhīma. “Just behold this flower, O mighty-armed one. Have you ever seen anything so wonderful? It gladdens my heart and I desire to give it to Yudhiṣṭhira. Please discover where it came from and bring others so that we may take them back to our hermitage in Kāmyaka.”

Draupadī looked at Bhīma with her dark eyes, which were covered with long, curling lashes. Feeling her gaze upon him, Bhīma felt commanded. He was overjoyed at the opportunity to do something for her pleasure. She had suffered so much over the past years. The gentle princess was not suited to forest life, and she still felt the agony of the insults she had suffered in Hastināpura. Now she suffered even more due to Arjuna’s absence. He had always been her favorite among the Pāṇḍavas. Bhīma said, “It will be done. O blessed lady, you will see me return with an armful of these golden flowers.”

Bhīma faced the wind and began to climb the mountain. He traveled swiftly, resembling a furious elephant crashing through the forest. All creatures fled away in fear as he raced ahead, thinking only of Draupadī.

The region through which Bhīma passed became increasingly beautiful. Not only were the trees in full bloom, but the rocks were black stone inlaid with gems. It seemed to Bhīma as if the Goddess Earth had raised her arm adorned with sparkling ornaments in the form of this mountain. Bhīma felt a cool breeze fanning his body, and his energy increased. On all sides he saw numerous Gandharvas and Siddhas sporting on the mountain slopes with their consorts, the beautiful celestial maidens turning their heads sideways to look at the Pāṇḍava as he rushed past. Bhīma scoured the mountainside as he ran, looking everywhere for the lotuses, but he did not find the flowers. He continued higher into the mountain, roaring with exultation at his own strength and power. Hearing the tremendous noise, animals at a distance became afraid. The mountain tigers left their dens and ran about. Some of them tried to attack Bhīma, but he slapped them aside as he ran. He lifted elephants and tossed them at other elephants, clearing his path.

Bhīma then came to a plantain forest. He entered it with force and broke some of the tall trees by hitting against them with his arms and thighs. He was still shouting, and his roars now mixed with the terrified cries of the forest animals. The tumult he created carried for miles.

Suddenly, Bhīma noticed aquatic birds rising into the air not far off, frightened by the noise. Realizing there must be water nearby, and that lotuses grow on water, he made his way toward the birds. Soon, he saw a delightful lake. The Pāṇḍava went down to the water which was adorned by innumerable lotuses and lilies. He dived in and swam about like a maddened elephant. Refreshed and enlivened, he rose from the water and let out a terrific blast from his conch shell. Examining the lotuses, however, he realized that they were not the same as the one Draupadī desired. He set off up the mountain again, following a path leading up from the lake.

He heard a loud noise just ahead of him. The sound echoed all around the mountain and made Bhīma’s hair stand on end. He ran forward to see what could have made such a noise and he found a huge monkey lying across the path, lashing the ground with his long tail and making the earth tremble. The monkey was effulgent and resembled a blazing hill of copper. He had broad shoulders and a slender waist. His face shone like the full moon, and behind his thin lips, Bhīma could see sharp, pearl-white teeth.

Seeing him obstructing his path like a hill, Bhīma roared at him. The monkey, however, did not seem impressed. He slowly opened his reddish eyes and looked lazily at Bhīma. “Why have you awakened me? I am ill and deserve your kindness. Indeed, as a human you should know the codes of religion and show kindness to all lower creatures. O hero, it seems you do not know virtue because you have come here forcefully, destroying animals on your way. Who are you? Where are you going? Do you not know that you cannot proceed further? This path leads to heaven and men cannot access it. Only those who are successful in ascetic practices can go to the celestial regions. Therefore, give up your quest and turn back. Or rest here awhile first and partake of the sweet fruits and cool water. O foremost of men, do not try to force your way past and thus die for nothing.”

Intrigued, Bhīma responded politely. “Who are you, O respectable one? Why are you in the form of a monkey? I myself belong to the royal order. I am a descendent of Kuru and the son of King Pāṇḍu, and I was born in the Lunar dynasty from the union of Kuntī and Vāyu. My name is Bhīma.”

“I am simply a monkey. I shall not allow you to pass. Turn back now. Do not meet with destruction.”

Bhīma felt his anger rising. Who was this ape? “O monkey, I do not ask that you give me permission, nor am I interested to hear your thoughts about my destruction. Stand aside. Do not experience grief at my hands.”

The monkey, still speaking in a lazy voice, said, “I am ill and cannot move. If you must pass me, then step over my body.”

Bhīma shook his head. “How can I step over you when I know that the all-pervading Supersoul, the Lord of all, resides in your heart as he does in the hearts of every being? I cannot disregard him.”

Bhīma looked closely at the monkey and he thought of the great Hanumān, Lord Rāma’s devoted servant. Could this be him? But that monkey had lived in a long past age. How could he still be alive? That would mean he was now almost a million years old. No, it was impossible. Bhīma continued, “Had I not been aware of the Supersoul I would have leapt over you as well as the entire mountain, even as Hanumān leapt across the ocean.”

The monkey turned toward Bhīma and opened his eyes wide. “Who is this Hanumān who leapt over the ocean? Tell me if you can.”

“He was my brother, begotten by the wind-god and endowed with intelligence and strength. He was the best of monkeys and he is celebrated in the Rāmayana. For the sake of Rāma’s wife, Sītā, he leapt a hundred yojanas over the sea to Lanka. I am equal to him in strength and prowess and am thus able to chastise you. Arise, O monkey, and give way. Otherwise, I shall send you to Yamarāja’s abode.”

The monkey remained calm. “I have grown old and cannot move. Please move my tail and make your way past.”

Bhīma moved toward the monkey. This was surely not Hanumān, for Hanumān’s power was limitless. This monkey was simply some insolent and powerless being who deserved to be punished for obstructing his path and refusing to move. Perhaps he was even a Rākṣasa assuming a disguise and waiting for a chance to attack. Bhīma decided to take him by the tail and whirl him around till he died. The Pāṇḍava bent over and carelessly took hold of the monkey’s tail with his left hand. To his surprise, he found that he could not budge the tail.

Placing both hands firmly around the monkey’s tail, Bhīma pulled hard. Still it could not be moved. Bhīma struggled with all his strength. His face was contracted, he was covered with perspiration, and his eyes rolled. Despite his efforts, however, Bhīma could not shift it at all. The Pāṇḍava realized that this was not an ordinary monkey or even a demon as he had supposed. Bowing his head in shame, he stood before the creature with joined palms and said, “Forgive me my harsh words. Are you a Siddha, a Gandharva, or a god? I am curious. Who are you in the shape of a monkey? I seek your refuge and ask you in the mood of a disciple. If it is no secret, then be pleased to tell me.”

The monkey sat up. “O chastiser of enemies, as you are curious I shall tell you. Know me to be the son of that life of the universe, Vāyu, born in the womb of Keshari. I am the monkey named Hanumān whom you mentioned earlier.”

As Bhīma listened in amazement, Hanumān told him in brief the famous history of the Rāmayana, which the Pāṇḍava already knew well. When Hanumān finished speaking, tears fell from Bhīma’s eyes and he fell to the ground to offer his obeisances. Rising up again, he spoke joyfully to the monkey chief. “No one is more fortunate than me, for I have seen my famous and powerful brother. O great one, I have only one desire. Please show me the form with which you jumped over the ocean. I shall then have full faith in your words.”

Hanumān replied, “That form cannot be seen by you or anyone else. When I leapt over the ocean, things were quite different than they are now. It was a different age, and everything was greater. Now that Kali-yuga is about to begin, all things have diminished. I can no longer display that gigantic form because every being must obey the dictates of time. I am no exception. Therefore, please do not ask me to reveal that form.”

Hearing Hanumān speak, Bhīma became curious to learn more from his ancient brother. “Please tell me, O Hanumān, what are the different manners and customs of each age? You have been alive almost since the first age. How have people pursued religion, economic development, pleasure, and liberation in each of the yugas?”

Hanumān began with Satya-yuga. At that time, every living being was self-realized and devoted to the Supreme Lord’s service. With the onset of each successive age, however, everything diminishes and becomes more degraded. Virtue, which was fully manifest in the first age, was diminished by a quarter in each successive age. By now, Hanumān explained, virtue and religion were three-quarters lost. By the end of Kali-yuga, it will have disappeared entirely. Hanumān concluded, “As the ages progress and virtue diminishes, so the nature and abilities of men undergo diminishment. Everything becomes inauspicious. Even the performance of religious acts in this last age produces contrary results. How then can I show the form with which I leapt over the great ocean? And even if I could, why should a wise man such as yourself ask to see something so unnecessary?”

But Bhīma was insistent. He sensed that Hanumān was able to show his most powerful form despite his reluctance. The Pāṇḍava greatly desired to see it and he declared that he would not leave until he was satisfied.

At last the monkey chief relented. Telling Bhīma to stand back, Hanumān rose up from his resting place and expanded his body to massive proportions. He covered all sides and towered above Bhīma, looking like a second Vindhya mountain. In a voice which resounded through the forest he spoke to the awestruck Pāṇḍava.

“O Bhīma, this is the extent to which you are able to see my form. I could go on expanding myself almost without limit. My size and power increase amid foes according to their strength. Rāma’s devoted servants can never be overcome by any enemy.”

Bhīma felt his hair standing erect. Dropping to his knees he said, “O lord, O greatly mighty one, I have seen your form to my satisfaction. You resemble the Maināka mountain. As you are able to show such power, how was it that Rāma had to exert himself to fight with Rāvaṇa? With you by his side, what need was there for him to do battle with that Rākṣasa? It seems to me that you could have immediately and single-handedly crushed Lanka with all its warriors, elephants and chariots.”

Hanumān returned to his normal size and replied solemnly. “O mighty-armed descendent of Bharata, it is exactly as you say. That wretch Rāvaṇa was no match for me, but if I had slain him, then the glory of Daśaratha’s son would have been obscured. By killing the king of the demons and rescuing Sītā, my Lord Rāma has established his fame and glory among men.”

Hanumān then told Bhīma to go back to his brothers. Bhīma explained that he first had to find the source of the thousand-petalled lotuses and Hanumān showed him the way to the forest where they grew. “There is the path which leads to the Saugandhika forest, and there you will see Kuvera’s gardens, which are guarded by the Yakṣas and Rākṣasas. In a great lake lie the flowers which you seek for your wife.”

Hanumān came forward and embraced Bhīma with affection. He briefly instructed him in the science of kingship and then said, “O Bhīma, having once again come in contact with a human I have felt in my mind the presence of my Lord Rāma, who is Viṣṇu incarnate and who is the blazing sun to the lotus, Sītā, and to the darkness called Rāvaṇa. Therefore, I wish to give you a boon. Ask of me whatever you desire. If you wish, I shall go to Hastināpura and kill Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s insignificant sons and grind their city to powder. Or, I can bind Duryodhana and bring him here. Tell me, what can I do for you?”

Bhīma replied that he felt assured of success if Hanumān would simply lend his support and blessings. Even his presence on the battlefield would guarantee victory. Hanumān replied, “When you rush forward for the fight, sending forth lion-like roars, I will add my roars to yours. Remaining on the flagstaff of Arjuna’s chariot, I will strike fear into the hearts of your foes by my terrific yells.”

After embracing his brother once more, Hanumān told him to depart for Saugandhika. Seeing the glint in Bhīma’s impetuous eyes as he made ready to leave, Hanumān held him by the arms and said, “Do not take the flowers forcefully, child. The celestials should always be respected. In this way they will bestow their blessings upon you. As a kṣatriya, you should perform your duty to protect other living beings humbly and keep your passions under control. Go in peace. I bid you farewell.”

Hanumān disappeared and Bhīma headed toward Saugandhika. As he walked he reflected on the majestic form Hanumān had shown him. Who could imagine such a sight either on heaven or on earth? Bhīma also remembered Rāma’s glories and the great battle he had fought for Sītā with Hanumān’s help. Millions of Rākṣasas had been slain. Bhīma knew a similar fight awaited the Pāṇḍavas. Again the all-powerful Lord, the original Supreme Person, would take part in the fight. The world would then be rid of unwanted elements. Duryodhana and his brothers were no better than the sinful Rākṣasas which Kṛṣṇa had destroyed as Lord Rāma. How could they then rule the world? Surely it was the Lord’s desire that they be annihilated.

Soon Bhīma’s mind again drifted to his surroundings. He was moving swiftly again, but the beauty of the woodlands, groves, orchards, lakes and rivers was not lost on him. Still the cool breeze carried that captivating fragrance from the blossoming trees. Herds of wild elephants roved about like masses of clouds, while buffaloes, bears, leopards and deer moved here and there.

Bhīma pressed on. Just after noon, he at last arrived in the Saugandhika region. There he saw the lake filled with fresh golden lotuses, exactly like the one that had blown to Draupadī’s feet. Swans swam upon the lake, and other water birds mingled with them, all making delightful sounds. The lake seemed to be fed by mountain springs that fell into it in cascades that sparkled in the sun. A canopy of green and golden trees, which swayed gently in the breeze, provided shade along the sandy lakeshore. Heaps of precious stones lay here and there. Along with the thousand-petalled lotuses, other charming flowers of a dark blue hue grew on stalks made of vaidurya gems. Bhīma’s mind was stolen by their beauty.

But the thousands of Yakṣa and Rākṣasa guards Kuvera had deployed to protect his lake saw Bhīma arrive. They moved toward him, and their leader shouted, “Who are you, O effulgent one? Why have you come here clad in deerskin yet bearing weapons? We are the Krodhavaśās, guardians of this lake.”

“I am Bhīmasena, Pāṇḍu’s son. I have come with my elder brother Dharmarāja to Badarīkā Ashram. There too is my dear wife, Draupadī. The breeze brought to her an excellent Saugandhika lotus, and she asked me to bring her more. O night-rangers, I have thus come here in order to satisfy that lady of faultless features, for her wish is always my order.”

The Rākṣasa placed his spear on the ground and replied, “O foremost of men, this place is Kuvera’s favorite playground. Humans may not sport here, nor may they take away the flowers and fruits. Only the celestials are permitted to use this lake. Others who try, disregarding the lord of wealth, certainly meet destruction. As you desire to take away the lotuses belonging to Kuvera without his permission, how can you say that you are Dharmarāja’s brother? Do not perform an irreligious act. First ask Kuvera’s permission and then you may enter the lake.”

Bhīma did not care for the warning. He had little regard for Rākṣasas and was certainly not going to be told what to do by them. Completely forgetting Hanumān’s admonishment, he placed his hand on his mace and boomed out, “O Rākṣasas, I do not see the illustrious Kuvera here, and even if I did, I would not pray for these flowers. It is not the duty of kṣatriyas to beg. In any event, this lake has sprung up on the mountain breast and belongs to everyone. Kuvera did not make it, nor did he create the lotuses. Why then should I ask his permission?”

Having said this, Bhīma plunged into the lake and began to gather the lotuses. The Krodhavaśās advanced, shouting at him to desist. Bhīma ignored them. As far as he was concerned the lotuses were the property of their creator, God, not any lesser god. Bhīma felt he had as much right to take them as did Kuvera. The Pāṇḍava knew that Draupadī would first offer them to the Lord before giving them to anyone else.

Seeing Bhīma taking the flowers despite their warnings, the guards charged.

“Seize him!”

“Cut him up!”

“Bind him!”

The Rākṣasas entered the shallow waters and Bhīma stood to receive them. Taking hold of his mace, inlaid with gold and resembling the mace Yamarāja carries, Bhīma shouted back, “Stand and fight!”

The guards surrounded Bhīma. Bhīma whirled his mace and met the advancing Rākṣasas with blows. Heroic and courageous, Vāyu’s son was devoted to virtue and truth and was thus incapable of being vanquished by any enemy through prowess. He killed the Krodhavaśās by the hundreds, beginning with the foremost among them. Many of them fell into the water, their arms and legs broken. Bhīma was a furious whirlwind now. The Rākṣasas could hardly look at him as he fought. They began to flee in fear, taking to the skies.

Seeing the guards retreating, Bhīma lowered his mace and continued to gather lotuses. He drank the lake’s clear water, which tasted like celestial nectar and which restored his energy and strength. As he picked the lotuses, he presented them mentally to Draupadī.

The Krodhavaśās ran back in terror to Kuvera and told him what had happened. The god only smiled and said, “Let Bhīma take as many lotuses as he likes for Draupadī. I already knew he would be coming.”

Hearing their master’s words, the guards returned to the lake and saw Bhīma sporting alone in its waters with a number of lotuses lying near him on the bank. They watched him in silence, keeping a safe distance.

Chapter 28: Kuvera Offended

At Badarīkā, Yudhiṣṭhira suddenly noticed the appearance of fearful omens. A violent wind blew up, lashing sand and pebbles into the Pāṇḍavas’ faces. Meteors fell from the sky and the sun became obscured by darkness. The earth trembled, dust fell in showers, and explosions were heard in the sky. All around them the brothers could hear the shrieks of birds and beasts.

Yudhiṣṭhira looked around. Where was Bhīma? Had his brother gone off on some adventure? These omens obviously indicated that something powerful was occurring somewhere. Not seeing Bhīma anywhere, Yudhiṣṭhira feared that he might be the cause of the portents. He spoke anxiously to his brothers, “O invincible ones, arm yourselves. It seems that the time for us to display our prowess has arrived.”

Yudhiṣṭhira turned to Draupadī, “Do you know where Bhīma is? Is he intent on performing some terrible act? Or has he already achieved a tremendous feat? These omens clearly indicate battle.”

“O hero, this morning I presented to you a golden lotus. I requested Bhīma to fetch more of those flowers, and he left at once for the higher reaches of this mountain.”

Yudhiṣṭhira could immediately understand that Bhīma had disturbed the celestials by attempting to take the lotuses from them. He went quickly to Ghaṭotkaca and said, “O sky-ranger, you are like a celestial in prowess and ability. We need your help. It seems my younger brother has gone upward to the regions of the gods. By his own power Vāyu’s son can leap into the sky and come down at will. He moves with the speed of the wind and has left to find the celestial lotuses. Please carry us to the place where they grow so that I may see what Bhīma has done.”

Replying, “So be it,” Ghaṭotkaca and his followers carried the Pāṇḍavas, Draupadī and the Brahmins to Saugandhika. Ghaṭotkaca had already been there a number of times, and he knew the way well. As they descended to the ground near the lake, they saw Bhīma standing on the shore holding his mace. At a distance they saw the large-eyed Krodhavaśās watching him. A number of them lay on the ground and in the water with their heads and limbs smashed.

Yudhiṣṭhira was shocked. He went over to Bhīma, embraced him and said, “O son of Kuntī, what have you done? Be blessed. But if you wish to do good to me, then you should never again be so rash as to offend the celestials.”

Seeing Yudhiṣṭhira there, the Yakṣa guards folded their palms and bowed their heads in humility. The Pāṇḍava apologized for his brother’s acts and consoled them with gentle words. Looking around at the beauty of the region, Yudhiṣṭhira desired to remain there for some time with his brothers. He asked the guards to request Kuvera’s permission for them to stay. Hearing that Pāṇḍu’s sons had come there, Kuvera was pleased and he gave his assent. Thus Yudhiṣṭhira and his party remained for some time on the high slopes of Gandhamādana, enjoying the heavenly atmosphere.

After a few days, Yudhiṣṭhira desired to see Kuvera. Sitting by the lakeside one morning, he told Bhīma. “O brother, we have seen all the holy places with Lomaśa and the other Brahmins. Let us now see that most holy of places, Kuvera’s abode, always frequented by Siddhas and ṛṣis. Can you think of some way by which we can enter the heavenly region?”

But as Yudhiṣṭhira finished speaking, a celestial voice resounded in the sky: “O King, you will not be able to go to the inaccessible abode of Vaishravana by this way. Go back to Badarīkā Ashram. From that place you will go to the hermitage of Vṛṣaparvā, and then to the hermitage of Arstishena. From there you will see Kuvera’s abode.”

As the divine voice spoke, a cool, fragrant breeze blew down a shower of flowers. Dhaumya said, “This order of the gods cannot be ignored. We should leave immediately.”

During the last few weeks before Arjuna’s return, the Pāṇḍavas spent their time in the company of ṛṣis, but Bhīma often roved about the mountain with Ghaṭotkaca. One day, while the two heroes were absent, a powerful Rākṣasa appeared at Badarīkā Ashram. He had actually been there all along, having assumed the form of a Brahmin and living unrecognized by the brothers. He wanted to steal Draupadī. Seeing his chance, he manifested his monstrous form, grabbed Yudhiṣṭhira and the twins in one arm and Draupadī in the other. He also seized the Pāṇḍavas’ weapons. Then he rushed into the forest. Sahadeva managed to extricate himself and snatch his sword known as Kauśika. Then he chased the demon while calling loudly for Bhīma.

Yudhiṣṭhira reprimanded the Rākṣasa. “O fool, virtue decreases in you and yet you care nothing. What good result do you hope to attain by your vile behavior? In this material world the celestials, Pitṛs, Siddhas, animals, and even worms and ants depend upon men for life. Even your race depends upon men.”

Yudhiṣṭhira instructed the Rākṣasa about the interdependence of all beings. By sacrifice and religious performances, mankind satisfied the gods and the Supreme Lord, who in turn supplied them and all creatures their necessities. If men suffered and were unable to practice religion, then everyone was affected.

Yudhiṣṭhira warned, “O wretch, as you have shown ingratitude for our having maintained you for so long, and as you are now trying to steal our wife, you will surely meet with destruction.”

The Rākṣasa felt Yudhiṣṭhira becoming unbearably heavy. He was forced to slow his pace. Sahadeva was then able to catch up to him. Yudhiṣṭhira called out, “Do not be afraid of this Rākṣasa, brother. I have checked his speed and I sense that Bhīma is not far away.”

Sahadeva stood before the Rākṣasa and said, “Stay and fight! Only after killing me can you carry this lady away into the forest. Otherwise, you will die. I am Pāṇḍu’s son Sahadeva, and I am here to punish you.”

As Sahadeva brandished his sword, Bhīma arrived wielding his mace. Seeing his brothers and Draupadī in the Rākṣasa’s grip, he blazed with fury and roared, “O sinful wretch, I found you out long ago when I saw you scrutinizing our weapons, but as I apprehended no fear from you and as you were disguised as a Brahmin, I took no action against you. He who kills such a person living as a guest, even if he knows him to be an enemy, goes to hell. Nor could you be killed before your time had arrived. Today, you have touched the sinless Draupadī and thus destroyed your life duration. You have swallowed the hook fastened to the line of fate and, like the fish, will meet your destruction. Go now to where Hiḍimba and Baka have already gone.”

The Rākṣasa became alarmed and let Draupadī and her husbands go. His lips trembled in anger as he rebuked Bhīma. “It is you who are sinful. I know of your having slain those Rākṣasas. Today I will offer them oblations of your blood. Come and fight. I am waiting.”

Without saying more, Bhīma rushed at the demon. Seeing him unarmed, he put down his mace and took hold of the Rākṣasa with his bare hands. The demon met him like the Asura Vṛtra met Indra. As they fought in fury the earth vibrated with their heavy steps.

The twins came forward to help, but Bhīma checked them. “I am more than a match for this demon. By my religious merit, my sacrifices, and by my brothers, I swear that I shall kill this one today.”

The battle between man and Rākṣasa raged. They tossed each other about and aimed terrific blows at one another. Their colliding fists sounded like thunderclaps. As they rolled about, locked in combat, they broke down gigantic trees. They then lifted those trees and fought with them. The air was filled with fragments of wood as the trees were smashed to pieces. When the entire area was denuded of trees, they fought with rocks and boulders.

Without a moment’s pause the two fought intensely, each seeking the other’s death. They appeared like a mountain and a mass of clouds coming together. As they hurled boulders at one another, it seemed as if meteors were falling from the heavens. Even though repeatedly struck on the head and body by the rocks, neither fighter flinched. They wrestled like a pair of infuriated elephants, gnashed their teeth and roared.

The dreadful fight lasted for almost thirty minutes. Finally Bhīma raised his fist, which resembled a five-hooded serpent, and dealt the Rākṣasa a terrible blow on the neck. He fainted and Bhīma caught hold of him as he fell. He raised the Rākṣasa up with his two mighty arms and dashed him to the ground. Bhīma pounded his fallen foe into a lifeless lump of flesh. With his bare hands he tore off the demon’s head and threw it aside. That blood-smeared head, with wide-open eyes and bitten lips, rolled away like a huge jackfruit.

Spattered with the demon’s blood, Bhīma came to Yudhiṣṭhira and bowed before him with folded hands. Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers praised Bhīma, even as the Maruts praise Indra in heaven.

The brothers then returned to the ashram.

It was almost five years since Arjuna had departed. Lomaśa told the Pāṇḍavas that they could expect him to return shortly. He thus instructed them to go to a higher part of the mountain to meet him. Taking up their few possessions, and with Dhaumya, Lomaśa and a handful of other Brahmins accompanying them, the Pāṇḍavas climbed to a high plateau on Gandhamādana. As the celestial voice had predicted, they came to the ashrams of the royal sage Vṛṣaparvā and the great Ṛṣi, Ārṣṭiṣeṇa. Remaining with them for some time, the Pāṇḍavas received spiritual instructions from them.

Ārṣṭiṣeṇa told them that it would not be possible for them to go further up the mountain. “Above here lies the path to the higher planets. No man can go there unless he is entirely pure and sinless. Along that path you will find the gods’ sporting ground. Even from here we can hear the sound of their kettledrums, tabors and vīṇās.”

Ārṣṭiṣeṇa told the brothers that he had been to the mountain’s summit and seen the gods for himself. He’d also seen the Gandharvas, Vidhyadaras, Kimpuruṣas and other heavenly beings consorting with the Apsarās. The great lord of wealth Kuvera could often be seen there being worshipped by the best of the Yakṣas. “At that time, this entire region resounds with the melodic chanting of the Sāmaveda. Daityas, Dānavas and Siddhas alike join in the worship of that illustrious Lokapāla, Kuvera.”

The ṛṣi suggested that the brothers should reside peacefully at his ashram until Arjuna returned. Looking especially at Bhīma he said, “Do not be restless here. Rather, live at ease. Be peaceful. The time will come soon enough for you to display your strength. Without doubt you will crush your enemies and govern the earth.”

Surveying the region, the Pāṇḍavas felt as if they had already gone to the heavenly planets. Every kind of tree was present, all of them blossoming and bending with the weight of ambrosial fruits. Sweetly singing birds played in the lush foliage while peacocks, with their tails outspread, appeared like the trees’ crowns. The lakes teemed with waterfowl and were adorned with lotuses, and the air rang with the hum of maddened bees who drank the nectar falling from the lotus cups. The brothers were fanned by a balmy breeze that carried celestial fragrances and fine drops of cooling spray. There were countless varieties of animals, all of them peaceful and harmless.

One day, as the Pāṇḍavas and Draupadī were seated on the shore of a lake, they saw the great eagle Garuḍa descending toward its waters. The bird blazed with a golden effulgence. His huge wing-beats created a wind that tossed the forest and sent showers of blossoms to the ground. Trees closest to the lake were crushed by the force of his descent and the mountain trembled. He flew with the speed of the wind and before the Pāṇḍavas’ eyes carried away a mighty Nāga serpent who lived in the lake. Having taken hold of the Nāga in his talons, Garuḍa rose high into the sky above the mountain and disappeared into the distance.

As the eagle went north, the wind from his wings blew many flowers from the mountaintop down to where the Pāṇḍavas sat. Seeing the celestial flowers of five colors, Draupadī said to Bhīma, “O best of the Bharatas, see here the exquisite blossoms which have fallen from the mountain peaks. Surely they have come from Kuvera’s abode. O hero, how I wish to see that heavenly place! But it is heavily guarded by Rākṣasas, Yakṣas and other powerful beings. If only Arjuna were here! When Agni burned the Khāṇḍava, your invincible brother held at bay the entire host of gods with their celestial army.”

In this way, Draupadī playfully taunted Bhīma. Bhīma frowned as Draupadī went on, “Surely you too are capable of standing against any foe, human or celestial. O Bhīmasena, send all the Rākṣasas fleeing to the ten directions by the mere force of your arms. Let all of us approach this mountain peak without fear. I have cherished this thought in my mind for some time. Protected by your prowess, I long to see this mountaintop.”

Bhīma looked like a wounded bull. He could not stand Draupadī’s words. Without delay, he rose up, took his weapons, and made his way up the mountainside. Moving with the gait of a lion, that mighty man--as tall as a young sal tree, having a complexion of burnished gold, with broad shoulders and a neck like a conch shell--rushed with full force toward the sheer rock face which led to the mountain summit.

Quickly, Bhīma found a narrow passage by which he could scale the mountain, which was inaccessible to ordinary men. Grasping hold of creepers and crevices in the rocks, he climbed swiftly. As he reached the summit he came to a vast plateau where he beheld Kuvera’s abode. It was adorned with glowing golden and crystal buildings of celestial design. The heavenly mansions were surrounded by high golden walls encrusted with gems of every color.

Bhīma leaned on the end of his bow and gazed in wonder at the city. Ramparts and towers stood all around it and it was graced by huge gates and rows of tall flagstaffs, their colorful pennants fluttering in the wind. In the gardens outside the city lay heaps of gems, and along its walls garlands were hung. The trees were beyond human imagination, and around them Bhīma saw many beautiful Apsarās dancing to the strains of heavenly music.

The sight of Kuvera’s opulence sorrowed Bhīma as he remembered the wealth Yudhiṣṭhira had once possessed. Then he again became angry as he remembered Duryodhana’s crimes. He took out his conch shell and blew it with the full force of his lungs. The sound echoed around the mountain summit and struck terror into the hearts of all creatures.

From the ramparts the startled Yakṣa and Rākṣasa guards saw Bhīma standing with his bow, sword and mace. They swarmed out in the thousands and rushed him, shouting in anger. Their upraised clubs, maces, swords, javelins, spears and axes seemed to blaze up as they advanced. Bhīma shot numerous arrows at them, cutting off their weapons and striking down the Rākṣasas who were on the ground and in the sky.

The Yakṣas hemmed Bhīma in on all sides. He now appeared like the sun enveloped by clouds. Without fear, he took out his sword and severed the arms, legs and heads of his assailants. As he fought with the roaring Yakṣas, he was drenched in showers of blood. Although they atta