Mahabharat Episode 16: Duryodhana’s Murder Plots
This is how Duryodhana, a brave, fearless, no-two-ways kind of man, became deceitful. He had always been filled with jealousy, hatred and rage, but it was Shakuni who taught him the art of deceit. So Duryodhana befriended the five brothers, particularly Bhima. They all thought Duryodhana really had a change of heart, and that he loved them. Only Sahadeva, the wisest of the lot, did not fall for it and kept his distance.
This is how Sahadeva had acquired his wisdom: One day, while sitting in the forest at the campfire, their father Pandu told the boys, “These sixteen years, I have not only stayed away from your mothers, I have done the sadhana of brahmacharya, which has given me enormous inner power and a tremendous amount of insight, vision and wisdom. But I am not a teacher. I do not know how to transmit all this to you. But the day I die, all you have to do is take a piece of my flesh and eat it. If you make my flesh a part of your flesh, you will have the wisdom that I have gathered without having to work for it.”
When Pandu died and his cremation was happening, overcome by emotions, almost everyone completely forgot about this. Only Sahadeva, the brooding youngest of the lot, when seeing an ant carrying a small piece of Pandu’s flesh, remembered what his father had said. He grabbed this little piece of flesh from the ant and ate it. His wisdom and strength grew. He could have become a sage among kings, but Krishna saw that this wisdom would stop the flow of destiny. That is why he intervened and told Sahadeva at some point, “This is my command: never express your wisdom. If someone asks you a question, always answer them with another question.”
From then on, Sahadeva always answered questions with questions that very few had the wisdom to understand. Those who understood saw how wise he was. Those who did not understand thought he was only trying to create ambiguity about everything. A whole shastra, called “Sahadeva’s Wisdom,” accrued from that. Even today, in South India, if someone is acting too wise, they say, “He is acting like Sahadeva.” This is because people thought he was trying to act wise by answering in questions. But in reality, he was following Krishna’s command to never reveal his wisdom and always answer questions with questions, so that they did not understand that he was answering them, unless they had the wisdom to grasp what he meant.
A Poisonous Mistake
Only Sahadeva was able to look into Duryodhana’s heart, and he saw pure poison. The other four brothers were too enamored with him. Duryodhana showered gifts on them. The one gift that Bhima really cared for was food. Duryodhana fed him as much as he wanted. Bhima’s gluttony was such that the moment food was served to him, he forgot everything else. Whoever gave him food was his friend. He was eternally hungry, so he ate and ate and became bigger and bigger.
One day, Duryodhana suggested a picnic. Shakuni carefully worked out the plan. They arranged a pavilion on the riverbank in a place called Pramankoti. All of them went there, and food was served in excess. Duryodhana played the host to the hilt. He came to every Pandava and fed them by hand. Bhima was served a similar quantum of food as all the others together. Everyone splurged. The fools were smitten – only Sahadeva sat in a corner and watched.
When it was time for the dessert, Bhima was served a full plate of it. It was poisoned with a particular type of venom that would slowly take effect. Bhima ate the whole plate. Then they all went to the river. They swam and played around. At some point, Bhima came out of the water and lay down on the river bank. Everyone else went back to the pavilion to continue the fun and tell stories. After some time, Duryodhana went back to the river and found Bhima semi-conscious. He tied up Bhima’s hands and legs and rolled him into the river. Bhima sank down to a place that was full of venomous snakes.
The snakes bit him hundreds of times and their venom acted as an antidote to the venom that he had already consumed. This is common knowledge in South Indian Siddha Vaidya, where venom is treated with venom, which is also how vaccines work in modern medicine. When the antidote started to work, it slowly revived him. When the snakes saw that, they accepted him as one of them. The king of the Nagas took this boy, who was the son of Vayu, aside and said to him, “See, you have been poisoned. Fortunately, they rolled you into the river. Had they left you on the riverbank, you would be dead now.”
This is the way of deceit – it will try to overdo things. They could have just left him at the riverbank to die, but they did not want to take a chance, so Duryodhana rolled him into the river and achieved just the opposite of what he had intended. The Nagas said to Bhima, “We will give you an elixir that no one else knows, except in this part of the world,” and they prepared a combination of various types of venoms, mercury, and certain types of herbs. It is known as Nava Pashana or nine deadly poisons in South India today, and is used as medicine.
Preparing Nava Pashana takes extraordinary care – one drop too much of one thing or one drop less of something else could kill a man. They carefully prepared the elixir and gave it to Bhima. After consuming it, his strength rose to almost superhuman levels. In the meantime, the other four brothers noticed that Bhima was missing and were distraught. They realized that they had been conned, but they could not openly express it because Duryodhana seemed to be heartbroken. He was running around, pretending to look for Bhima, and crying, “Where is my beloved brother, my only companion?” Sahadeva said, “They have done him in.” With the awareness that they had been taken in by gifts and food, and now lost their brother because of that, the four brothers went back home in utter shame. They told their mother Kunti what had happened.
Kunti sat down and sank into meditation for three days. Then she said, “My son Bhima is not dead. Look for him.” The four brothers and their friends ranged the forest, dived into the river – they searched everywhere, but they could not find him anywhere. Eventually, they gave up. Kunti began to doubt her vision that he is still alive, and they prepared for the fourteenth day death ritual for Bhima. Duryodhana arranged for a big ceremony in memory of Bhima. He hired cooks and prepared a huge meal to break the mourning on the fourteenth day, as was the tradition. In his heart, he was celebrating – on the outside, he was mourning.
Then Bhima came back to the palace, to the joy of his brothers and his mother. Duryodhana and his brothers could not believe it, and Shakuni was in terror. He did not know if Bhima was alive or if he was a ghost. Bhima was just about to go on a rampage when Vidura came and advised them, “This is not the time to bring your enmity out in the open. Right now, they are still trying to do it undercover, which means you still have some safe space. If you show enmity, they will outright kill you in the palace. You are just five. They are one hundred plus a whole army of soldiers.”
Bhima and his brothers contained their rage. After fourteen days in the Naga Loka, the elixir had made him strong, but it had also made him enormously hungry. When he saw that they had been in the process of preparing a big meal but then abandoned the task when he, the presumably dead, had come back, he put all the cut vegetables that were there in a cauldron and made a dish. In the Aryan culture, it is the norm that certain vegetables are not mixed, but he put everything together and made a dish out of it, which even today is one of the favorites in certain parts of South India, where it is called aviyal, which means mixture.
The enmity between the two parties grew. The five brothers were on guard and started building their own defenses, bringing their own people into the palace. Until then, they had not understood the intrigues of the palace – they had behaved like boys. But now, they entered a serious fight for a kingdom.
To be continued
Editor's Note: A version of this article was originally published in Isha Forest Flower, March 2016.