Mahabharat Episode 33: The Forest Exile
What has happened so far: After the infamous game of loaded dice, the Pandavas and Draupadi are forced into exile for thirteen years. An enraged Draupadi vows to keep her hair unkempt until it is washed with the blood of Dushasana. Bhima, in solidarity, swears in time to drink Dushasana’s blood and shatter Duroyodhana’s thigh. And, Krishna to Draupadi says, “The heavens may fall. The Himalaya may be leveled. The seas may run dry as a dead man’s bones. The earth herself may burst asunder, but I will keep my oath to you. To avenge the crime against you, there will be a war to end all wars.”
When they set out to go into the forest, instead of wearing royal robes, they appropriately dressed in simple hermit’s clothes. As they walked out of Hastinapur, people gathered and wailed. A large number of people loved the Pandava brothers, particularly Yudhishthira, because he had earned the reputation of being the most evenhanded ruler that they had ever seen. So when the Pandavas and Draupadi left, a lot of people wanted to go with them to the forest. If you are going into the forest and a lot of people come with you, it is not of help, it is a lot of trouble. It took a lot of convincing to make people understand and get them to stay away. People walked behind them for miles. But they were turned away except for Dhaumya, their family priest and a little over a dozen other brahmins, to take care of the ritual part of their lives.
They went into the Kamakhya Vana, a forest that was about a day’s travel away. By evening, they reached the forest and camped near a river. Now, these brahmins who had come with them set up their rituals and things to support the family. No one spoke to anyone. Everyone was distraught except Yudhishthira – he looked around the forest and started enjoying it. While the others were grief-stricken because they had lost everything, Yudhishthira looked at the green forest, the chirping birds – everything was so beautiful, far more beautiful than the palace. He started going around with a smile on his face. Looking at the smile upon his face, Bhima and particularly Draupadi got incensed. She was angry because of what had happened to her, because of losing the comfort, clothes, and conveniences they had in the palace. A woman is generally more dependent on those things than a man, because of the very way she is made. A house is a lot more important for the feminine than the masculine. Men would rather sleep under a tree.
Draupadi was grief-stricken, enraged, and thirsting for revenge. Bhima always resonated with her. Whatever she wanted was his mission. The others were quiet. Sahadeva did not say a word for weeks on end. But Yudhishthira could not help enjoying the forest. The next day, they moved a little deeper into the forest and tried to set up a camp for themselves. But within a few days, the grains and other provisions ran out. As kshatriyas, they could go out hunting a deer or a boar and eat. But it became a big challenge to feed the over a dozen brahmins. They even begged them to go back because they could not feed them. Particularly Draupadi was pained by that. When they lived in Indraprastha, she always enjoyed giving and feeding people so much. Whenever possible, she fed whoever came to town.
In this culture, in ancient times, anywhere you went, someone would serve you food. You did not have to go to a restaurant. Even today, in many temples, particularly in southern India and in some places in northern India as well, they serve simple but good meals every day to anyone who comes. Food is seen as something so fundamental that you should not deprive anyone of it. They can eat whatever they want. So, Draupadi used to uphold this tradition in Indraprastha. Now, when she could not feed these brahmins who accompanied them, she was deeply pained. Then, sage Vyasa came by and he advised her to pray to the sun god, because there was a possibility to organize food through him.
With the appropriate rituals and prayers, the sun god appeared and Draupadi said, “I’m not asking for my kingdom back. I’m a queen, but I’m not asking for jewels, clothes, or any other things. All I want is to see that whoever comes as guest to us should not go hungry. When people come, I must be able to feed them.” And because the Pandavas were who they were, people kept coming to see them. The sun god gave her a bowl and said, “With this bowl, you can serve whatever food you wish to whoever comes. The food will keep coming out of this bowl, endlessly. The only thing is you must be the last one to eat. The moment you eat, food will stop for that day. The next day, it will come again.”
Blessed with this bowl, feeding the brahmins and other guests was not a problem anymore. Slowly, everyone began to enjoy being in the forest and became a part of it. Different people take different amounts of time to see its beauty and experience what a comfort and joy it is to be with nature. Slowly, everyone fell into place and all of them started enjoying the process of living in the forest, going out to gather food, arranging things, and all that. No burdens of running a nation, no intrigues of Hastinapur palace, no constant fights with your cousins – life was good. It became a fantastic vacation in the wild for them.
As they were relaxing into the forest life, many sages and saints started visiting them. Now that they had an inexhaustible amount of food, they could welcome and feed them all, and Yudhishthira loved to listen and converse with the sages. He never had an opportunity like this before. From the time he came to Hastinapur at the age of fifteen or sixteen, it was all about the training in arms and administration. After that, it was a continuous cold war with the Kauravas. And then they built a city afresh. Now, he really started enjoying being in the forest. No one had ever seen him so happy. He spent days and nights sitting, speaking, and listening to the guests and sages. He almost completely forgot why he was in the forest, and what he was supposed to do after that. Of course, their return was still thirteen years away, but others began to fear that Yudhishthira was relaxing too much. When someone begins to enjoy the space so much, he may renounce his original purpose altogether.
Duryodhana was very satisfied with the result he and his accomplices had achieved, but still worried that the Pandavas may rethink, “What the hell – it’s our kingdom. Just because we lost a game of dice, we are supposed to stay in the forest!?” Spies were sent to travel with the Pandavas or be around in the forest, to keep Duryodhana informed. “What is their condition? How are they doing? Are they suffering enough?” The latter was a very important issue for him. When the spies reported that these guys, particularly Yudhishthira, were really enjoying their forest life, Duryodhana continued worrying, “If they’re so happy, what are they up to? They could gather the Panchala and Yadava armies and come back to fight for their kingdom,” so additional spies were sent to Panchala and Dwaraka to find out if any alignment was happening. “Are they going to launch a surprise attack?” because now all the rules were broken, no one talked dharma anymore. When his spies came back and said there was no sign of any alignment or the like, and that the Pandavas had resigned to being in exile for thirteen years, Duryodhana relaxed a bit. But he still felt that if they are so happy in the forest, it would be better their lives end in the forest. And of course he wanted to give a helping hand.
Duryodhana and Karna sat down and came up with a plan. They wanted to go for a hunt in the same forest where the Pandavas were unarmed and hunt them down like wild animals. But they could not leave without Dhritarashtra’s permission for the mission, which also meant getting Bhishma’s okay. Bhishma and Vidura got wind of it, and both of them tried to dissuade Dhritarashtra. They said, “You cannot allow that. We have taken away everything that was theirs, stripped them down to nothing and sent them to the forest. At least let them live there. There is no need to go after them.” But Duryodhana and Karna still wanted to go for the hunt.
To be continued...
Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published in Forest Flower, August 2017.