Mahabharata Episode 10: Conspiracy in Varanavata

Conspiracy in Varanavata - Featured Image - Picture of a wormhole representing the tunnel the Pandavas take to escape Varanavata

In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes. This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.

(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 9: Invasion of Panchala. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

Here’s what we will cover in this episode:

A Pleasure Trip

A year after Drona has been given his guru dakshina, Duryodhana overhears a stray conversation of a few citizens of Hastinapur, in which they say that they prefer Yudhishthir to be the next king of Hastinapur.

Returning to the palace, he, along with Shakuni, Karna and Dushasana, chalks out a plan for killing the Pandavas.

In order to set the wheel in motion, the eldest Kaurava goes to Dhritarashtra and asks him to send the Pandavas to a town called Varanavata on some pretext.

‘But if we exile them,’ says Dhritarashtra, ‘all the elders of the court will protest.’

‘Ah,’ replies Duryodhana, ‘in that case we will send them on a pleasure visit.’

So, under instructions of Dhritarasthra, a few courtiers begin to sing praises of the beauty of Varanavata. ‘There is a festival of the lord Pasupati that happens there at this time of the year, Your Majesty,’ they tell him. ‘The procession and festivities are second to none that occur anywhere on Earth.’

Hearing these tales, the Pandavas feel curious to see this town and witness the Shiva festival. Dhritarashtra then addresses the Pandavas and gives them leave to go to Varanavata and spend as long as they wish over there.

Purochana

While preparations are on for the Pandavas to leave Hastinapur, Duryodhana sends a trusted aide called Purochana on a chariot in advance to make arrangements for the visitors to stay in Varanavata.

‘Build a quadrangular palace in the neighbourhood of the town’s centre,’ he tells his man, ‘rich in materials and furniture. In erecting this house, make sure that you use great quantities of hemp and resin.

‘Dampen the earth with clarified butter before using it in the walls, and reinforce the panels and ceilings with wax. We shall make this house one that is inflammable with the smallest fire, Purochana; I rely on you for this task.’

And Purochana, bowing, says, ‘I shall see to it, my prince.’

The Warning of Vidura

At the time of leaving, the people of Hastinapur gather about to say goodbye to the Pandavas. As the chariots are about to start, Vidura makes his way to Yudhishthir, and in the tongue of the Mlechcha people (so that they may not be overheard), says the following words:

‘O King, the man who forever stays one step ahead of the contrivances of his foes should act in ways to ward off all danger. The wise man understands that there exist weapons that are not forged of metal, and these weapons cause severe bodily harm too.

‘Learning of such weapons and knowing how to dodge them is an important skill.

‘He who acquires this soft weapon from his foes can escape it by making his abode more like that of a jackal, with many exits. By travel a man might acquire the knowledge of the streets, and by the stars he can ascertain the direction of his path.

‘Remember that no man who has gained restraint over his five senses can ever be vanquished by his enemies.

‘The consumer of straw and wood (Agni) and the drier of the dew (the Sun) are often blamed for the burning of trees and birds. But remember that if there is a fire, then it must have been started by someone.

‘A blind man does not see his way; if he reaches his destination, it is just by happy accident. Keep your eyes open, O King, for unseen paths that will deliver you from danger to safety.’

And Yudhishthir replies, ‘I have understood.’

Meaning of Vidura’s Words

It is difficult to tell right at this point how much Yudhishthir has understood. Let us put ourselves in Yudhishthir’s shoes for a moment – without the benefit of hindsight – and puzzle out some meaning from Vidura’s words.

The first part of Vidura’s monologue refers to weapons that are not made of metal. Presumably he is drawing Yudhishthir’s attention to deceit, trickery and betrayal that have often been used in the past to assassinate powerful people.

In asking Yudhishthir to build an abode like a jackal’s (with many exits), Vidura is encouraging the Pandavas to create a secret exit in case the real one is blocked. He also seems to be recommending the brothers to explore the streets of Varanavata in order to ascertain the lay of the land.

By reminding Yudhishthir of the importance of the five senses, he is asking the eldest Pandava to remain calm through this episode.

‘If there is a fire, it must have been started by someone.’ This is a direct warning that misfortune is about to befall the Pandavas in Varanavata. It will be described as an accident, but in truth it will be a conspiracy.

To finish off, Vidura reminds Yudhishthir to keep his eyes open for ‘unseen paths’ that will transport the Pandavas to safety. This is a reiteration of the importance of a secret exit.

Construction of a Tunnel

Soon after arrival in Varanavata, Yudhishthir and Bhimasena notice that the house in which they are staying smells of butter and other inflammable things. Purochana, the guard who is looking after their needs, they realize, is in fact Duryodhana’s aide.

A miner is secretly sent to Yudhishthir by Vidura, who gets a tunnel dug from one of the inner chambers of the palace to a safe location some distance away.

While this happens, he Pandavas spend the time hunting far and wide in the woods surrounding the town in order to get a better idea of what lies where.

Once the tunnel is complete, Yudhishthir calls his brothers and sets a date on which they will set fire to the house.

Death of Six Nishadas

On the appointed day, Kunti arranges for an alms-giving event and feeds a large number of Brahmins and their wives. Toward the evening, as luck would have it, a Nishada woman and five of her sons arrive at their door, asking for food.

The Pandavas take them in, and give them liquor to go with the sumptuous delicacies, causing them to fall asleep. They also give Purochana the required amount of intoxicants to render him unconscious.

Then, after moving the unfortunate woman and her children to their own quarters, the Pandavas begin to set fire to the building themselves. And having made sure the flames are strong enough to claim the house completely, they escape through the tunnel and reach the riverbank.

Later, the Kauravas find these six charred bodies in the ashes (one woman, five young men) and conclude that the Pandavas and Kunti have met their deaths.

This gives us another indication (the first being the treatment of Ekalavya by Drona) of how ruthless the Pandavas can be when it suits their purposes. And on the receiving end is often a Nishada, who are among the most powerless people of those times.

The Anger of Bhimasena

On the northern shore of the Ganga they meet another man sent by Vidura, and this man, after identifying himself, directs the Pandavas to a boat that is lying in wait in the darkness. Taking this boat, aided by a favourable wind, they reach the other side of the river and enter a deep forest.

Here, not knowing where they are going, they continue to walk, and one by one they are consumed by fatigue. Seeing this, Bhimasena picks up all four of his brothers and his mother in his arms and carries them deep into the woods, until he is certain that they have reached an adequate hiding spot.

His heart torn at the sight of Kunti sleeping on bare ground, he laments, ‘She who has borne sons of the gods themselves, she who has ever slept on the softest silks fanned by maids, now sleeps on the harsh ground covered by leaves and pebbles.

‘Her feet bleed! She is consumed by hunger and exhaustion, and here I sit, her son, unable to reduce her suffering.

‘Look at the Ashwin twins, renowned for their beauty. Look at the virtuous Yudhishthir, the heroic Arjuna, all lying in this forest like beggars. This is all because of you, O Kauravas, led by Duryodhana, blessed by Dhritarashtra.

‘Enjoy your temporary victory, and soak in its warmth, for I, Bhimasena, the seond-born son of Kunti, shall see to it that you are sent to the abode of Yama at the right time.

‘A day will come, O sinful ones, when even the calm Yudhishthir will lose patience with you, and on the day he gives me his command, your days on this Earth will end.’

Hidimbi Falls in Love

Not far from the Pandavas are sleeping, two cannibals, brother and sister, by names Hidimba and Hidimbi, live atop a sala tree. The brother detects the scent of human flesh in his nostrils and sends his sister to investigate who had come.

‘If they are people you can kill yourself,’ he tells her, ‘do so and bring the corpses to me, Sister, and we shall feast on them. Otherwise, you may return and we shall hunt them together.’

Hidimbi comes to the foot of the banyan tree and spots Bhimasena. She falls in love with him at first sight and thinks to herself:

If this man is killed, my brother and I shall have but momentary enjoyment which would last only until the next time hunger strikes us. But if I could make this man mine, eternal pleasure of his company awaits.

So using her dark powers, she transforms into a beautiful human maiden, and steps into the clearing, her head lowered demurely. She addresses Bhima and says,

‘O handsome one, if you have chosen this place to rest among the many that are available in these woods, then you must not be from these parts, for here is where the fierce rakshasa Hidimba dwells. And he is known for his love of human meat. Make haste, therefore, and come with me. I shall protect you against the wrath of my brother.’

Bhima Kills Hidimba

Bhima replies, ‘I need no protection against any rakshasa, fair maiden. Indeed, I am awake to protect my mother and brothers who sleep in the shade of the tree. And our words might also awaken them, so please leave us alone, and do not worry for our safety. As long as I draw breath, no rakshasa can touch even a hair on my mother’s head.’

While this conversation between Hidimbi and Bhima is going on, Hidimba, wondering why his sister is taking so long to return, alights from his home and comes to the Banyan, following the trail of his scent.

Upon arriving on the scene and seeing that Hidimbi is decked in the form of a human maiden, he guesses that she has taken a liking for the mountain-like man standing next to her.

‘How dare you allow your lust to dictate your duty towards your race, Hidimbi,’ he says, snarling in anger and advancing toward her. ‘Watch. I shall now kill all of these men, and then punish you for your unchaste behaviour.’

Bhima steps between brother and sister and raises his hand. ‘You shall not harm a woman in my presence, O Rakshasa. If you indeed wish to engage in battle, get through me first before you sacrifice the good name of all rakshasas in the world with your spiteful nature. Come, let me see your strength.’

Thus begins the fight between Bhima and Hidimba. After a prolonged duel, during which the Pandavas and Kunti wake up and find the beautiful Hidimbi among them, Bhima kills the rakshasa.

Bhima Marries Hidimbi

Hidimbi then bows to Kunti. ‘Mother,’ she says, ‘who better than you knows a woman’s heart? I have fallen in love so deeply with your son that I was willing to forsake my brother for him. Even now, I am prepared to renounce everything in my life for his sake. Let me unite with him while you stay in these woods; I promise that I shall bring him back to you whenever you wish.’

To this Yudhishthir says, ‘You can take him with you wherever you want during the day, O Hidimbi. But you shall bring him back every day at nightfall without fail.’

Hidimbi and Bhima both agree to this arrangement, and thus did Bhima gain for himself a wife, and for the Pandavas a powerful rakshasa tribe as future ally.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!