Mahabharat Episode 20: Of Ploy, Humiliation and Revenge
In this Mahabharat episode, the Pandavas make a daring escape from the fiery trap set by the Kauravas. Their journeys in the forest bring them face to face with ferocious rakshasas and gandharvas. We also watch as Drupada inflicts a devastating insult upon Drona by refusing to honor a promise made many years prior, which leaves Drona filled with rage and vowing revenge.
What has happened so far: Shakuni came up with a plan to get rid of the Pandavas. The Kauravas set up a palace in Kashi for the Pandavas, which was made of highly combustible material, and Dhritarashtra suggested that the Pandavas go there for their spiritual pursuit. The five brothers and their mother Kunti went to stay in this palace. Vidura sent them a concealed warning, and someone to dig a tunnel for them to secretly escape from the palace.Sadhguru: Kunti made friends with a Nishada (a hill tribe) woman who had five sons, invited them often to the palace, fed them well, and took care of them. One fateful night, she spiked the drinks of the guests – the Nishada woman, her five sons, and a spy whom the Kauravas had sent. Once the guests were put to sleep, the Pandavas and their mother escaped through the tunnel and set fire to the palace. The spy, the tribal woman, and her five sons were burnt to death.
Vidura had sent people who helped the Pandavas escape. There is an incredible description in the Mahabharat that says, “They got into a boat where a veiled accomplice was waiting. Bhima was looking for the oars, but there were none. The accomplice handled a few levers, and the boat started humming quietly and moving upstream.” They were amazed. They did not know if this was real or if they were already dead.
We do not know if they imagined this, if they really had one, if they imported one from elsewhere, or if someone had such a forward-looking vision that they could see that after five thousand years, someone will build a motor boat. Anyway – they went upstream and then deep into the jungle. When the palace burnt down and they secretly escaped, the whole town came and mourned the presumed death of the Pandavas. In Hastinapur, Dritharashtra acted out grief. Duryodhana pretended not to eat for three days, but he ate in private.
Everyone went into mourning, and big prayer meetings were held. The Pandavas and Kunti had done everything to make it look like an accidental fire. The Kauravas and their allies did not know that their adversaries were still alive. The burnt bodies of the Nishada woman and her sons made it look like the Pandavas and Kunti had died. When Kanakan, the tunnel digger, saw the charred bodies of the Nishada woman and her five sons, he wondered if Kunti and her sons would ever be absolved of this crime. Kunti’s cold calculation was that if they did not find dead bodies, the Kauravas would know they escaped and hunt them down. So she had to leave six dead bodies, and she had no qualms about doing that.
Birth of Ghatotkacha
They covered their tracks and retreated into the jungle. Many things happened there. One important event was that one day, a rakshasa, a wild, man-eating beast of a man, saw the five brothers and their mother and wanted to eat them. But instead of that, Bhima killed him in a big fight, and the rakshasa’s sister, Hidimbi, fell in love with Bhima. She was a forest creature. Bhima civilized her a little bit, trimmed her hair and made her look attractive, fell in love with her, and wanted to marry her. He lusted after her but felt a little guilty because his elder brother was not yet married.
Yudhishtira absolved him. He said, “Yes, the convention says the elder brother should marry first, but the heart follows no convention, and we bow down to that. You can marry Hidimbi.” No one else wanted to have anything to do with her though. Hidimbi stayed with Bhima for a year and bore a child who was completely bald at birth and had a head like a pot or ghatam. They called him Ghatotkacha, which means pot-headed and hairless. He was a huge baby. Later on, he was very useful in battle, because he became a great warrior of enormous strength.
Kunti saw that Bhima was getting too domesticated. She knew if he continued to live with his wife, the brothers would separate at some point. If the brothers separated, they would never get the kingdom. So she came up with a stricture: “You cannot live with this rakshasa woman – she is not an Arya.” And she took Bhima and the other brothers from the forest to a small town called Ekachakra.
Rakshasas and Gandharvas
When the Pandavas and Kunti were staying in Ekachakra, a man-eating rakshasa named Bakasura established himself near the town. He started ravaging the city. He picked up people, animals, and whatever came his way, and ate them all up.
Then the town council made a deal with him, that once a week, they will send a cartload of food, and two bullocks and a man along with it. So he had the food and the man as a dessert. It was agreed upon that in turn, the man-eater would not attack the town anymore and spare the rest of the people. Within the town, they made an arrangement that every week, one family had to cook a cartload of food and had to send two bulls and a man from their family. But Bakasura’s appetite was insatiable. Bhima volunteered to go to him. In a fierce fight, he defeated and killed Bakasura.
After almost a year had passed since the palace of resin burnt down, the Pandavas knew that they had to come out from their hiding place. Since they were presumed dead, someone could easily kill them without anyone suspecting anything, so they had to plan their return very cautiously.
Once, they were in the forest and came near a lake. They wanted to drink water from it, but there was the gandharva, Angaraparna, who claimed he owned the lake. Knowing that Arjuna was a great archer, he challenged him to a duel, saying, “You have to duel with me before you drink water from my lake.” After a fierce duel, the gandharva was defeated and fell unconscious. Arjuna, according to his dharma as a warrior, had to put him to death, because leaving a man defeated was considered putting him to shame. A Kshatriya usually did not want to live on after being defeated – he would rather die.
Arjuna got ready to behead him. But Angaraparna’s wife came and begged Arjuna, “He is not a Kshatriya. He has no problem with continuing to live after being defeated. I am begging you, please spare his life because his dharma is not yours, nor is your dharma his. So he need not be killed.” Arjuna spared his life. When the Gandharva returned to consciousness, out of gratitude, he offered many gifts to Arjuna, including one hundred horses and other things that a Kshatriya values, and he told them one hundred stories of wisdom. Out of these stories, we will pick one that is particularly significant for the Pandavas and their future.
Angaraparna narrated the story of Shakti, the son of the legendary sage Vashishta, who plays an important role in the Ramayana. Shakti was travelling through the forest and at some point came to a stream with a narrow bridge. When he was just about to get on the bridge, he saw a king named Kalmasapada had already entered it from the other side. One of them had to make way. The king said to Shakti, “I came here first. Make way for me!” Shakti, who was full of pride about who his father was, said, “You make way! I am a Brahmin – I am higher than you.” And he cursed Kalmasapada to become a rakshasa. The king turned into a man-eating rakshasa and devoured Shakti on the spot.
Vashishta was despondent about having lost his son, particularly because it was he, Vashishta, who had empowered him with the ability to give boons and curses. Shakti gave the wrong curse to the wrong man, and as a result, got eaten up himself.
Shakti’s son, Parashara, grew up under the tutelage of his grandfather, Vashishta. When he came to know about what had happened to his father, the young boy wanted to take revenge. He planned to perform a yagna that would destroy all the man-eating tribes in the land. Vashishta urged him to drop this idea: “Your father cursed someone, and that curse ate him up. If you try to take revenge now, it will lead to an endless spiral of revenge. Do not pursue the rakshasa – pursue what is valuable to you.” Parashara took his advice and became a great sage and the father of Vyasa, who plays an important role in the whole story of Mahabharat. Angaraparna told this story to the Pandavas because he saw the rage and hatred in their hearts.
They were deceived many times, in many different ways. Above all, several attempts were made upon their lives, and this most recent, particularly blatant one was aimed at all five of them, including their mother. They were raging for revenge. After telling them this story, Angaraparna concluded by giving them the following advice: “Don’t waste your time and energy on revenge. You can be kings. So first get yourself a priest, then get a wife, then get land, build your own city, and be kings. Don’t pursue revenge.”
After hearing this story, they became a little more cautious about taking revenge, but it did not leave their hearts. First, they looked for a priest. They went to Dhaumya, Devala Muni’s younger brother, who lived in a nearby ashram, and asked him to become their family priest. In Dwapara Yuga, it was very important to have a family priest, because powerful yagnas needed to be performed for every occasion. They found a competent and effective priest in Dhaumya, who was always by their side from that moment onwards.
Drupada and Drona
Then the Pandavas heard that King Drupada of Panchala had called for a swayamvara, which means a princess would choose her husband from an assembly of suitors. As a young boy, Drupada had studied along with Drona under the tutelage of the sage Bharadwaja, Drona’s father. Drupada and Drona became close friends. One day, when they were thirteen years of age, Drupada and Drona promised each other, “Whatever wealth we gather, whatever we achieve in our lives – we will share it with each other.”
After the years of training were over, Drupada went back to Panchala to become the king. Drona went out to make his own life and got married to Kripi, Kripacharya’s sister. They had a son whose name was Ashwatthama. He was called Ashwatthama because when he was born, he laughed like a horse. Ashwa means a horse – so he was the one who laughed or expressed himself like a horse.
In those pastoral societies, milk was almost like the staple food. But Drona’s family was so poor, having neither land nor cows, that this young boy had never even seen milk. Once when he went to town, he saw other boys drinking milk and asked them what it was. They realized he had never seen milk before. So they mixed some rice dough in water and gave it to Ashwatthama. He drank it happily, thinking that it was milk.
The other boys made fun of him, because he did not even know what milk was. When Drona came to know about this incident, he became very angry and desperate. Then he remembered that his friend Drupada, who was a great king now, had promised him that he would share everything with him. He went to Drupada’s court and said, “You remember the promise we made each other. You must give me one half of your kingdom.”
Many years had passed since that promise. Drupada looked at Drona and said, “You are a poor Brahmin. You are incensed because of the insult that happened to your son. I will give you a cow. Take it and go. If you want more, I will give you two. But how can you as a Brahmin come up to me and ask me for half of my kingdom?” Drona said, “I am asking for half of your empire, not for a cow. I do not want your charity. I have come here because we are friends.” Then Drupada said, “Friendship happens between equals. An emperor and a beggar cannot be friends. You can only take charity. If you want, take the cow – otherwise leave.” Burning with rage, Drona left, and swore revenge.
To be continued…
Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published in Isha Forest Flower September 2016. Download as PDF on a “name your price, no minimum” basis or subscribe to the print version.