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 18: Yudhishthir Loses Everything.
To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
Praying to Surya
A number of Brahmins follow the Pandavas out into the woods, and despite Yudhishthir discouraging them, they refuse to budge. Yudhishthir asks Dhaumya how he may feed all these Brahmins when he himself has nothing.
Dhaumya replies that Surya the sun god is the allayer of all hunger. ‘In the days of old, O King,’ he says, ‘all the animals of Earth were afflicted with hunger, for there was no food on the planet. Beholding this, Surya began to use the heat of his rays to extract water from all the oceans, and stored it within himself.
‘Then, Soma, the moon, created clouds and filled them with the water that Surya had taken. The resultant rain gave birth to all the plants that bear fruits and vegetables blessed with the six tastes.’
(Though the intervention of the moon is a little off, this is a reasonably accurate description of the water cycle as we know it today.)
Thus encouraged by Dhaumya to propitiate Surya, stations himself in the Ganges and sings the praises of the god in various different ways. After a suitable amount of time has passed, Surya appears before the Pandava, and rewards him with a copper vessel.
The Akshaya Patra
‘Accept this vessel, O King,’ says the god. ‘It will multiply all the food that is made in your kitchen such that it will never exhaust its contents. Only after Panchali has eaten will the vessel become empty, only to fill up the next day once again.’
Yudhishthir and the Pandavas thus procure what is called the Akshaya Patra (‘indestructible [or inexhaustible] vessel’) a means by which they will not have to worry during their exile about their food.
Yudhishthir tests it on the first day by placing in it the food that Draupadi has made: a little amount of beaten rice. And in front of them appear large quantities of different delicious items.
After the Brahmins and the Pandavas have eaten, Draupadi has the last meal of the day, after which the leftover food duly disappears.
The Curse of Maitreya
A short while after the Pandavas receive the Akshaya Patra, a travelling sage called Maitreya arrives at the court of Dhritarashtra, having visited the hermitage of Dhaumya and seen how Yudhishthir and his brothers are coping.
Dhritarashtra and Duryodhana receive him with all due respect, and ask him how the Pandavas are doing. After the pleasantries have passed, Maitreya addresses Duryodhana and says:
‘The Pandavas might appear weak at this moment, my son, but they are very powerful. Bhimasena has killed Rakshasas like Hidimba and Kirmira with his bare hands. Arjuna is in possession of the great bow Gandiva, and they say that his quivers never run out of arrows.
‘Yudhishthir is steadfast on the path to virtue, and it is well known to all that the truly virtuous cannot be vanquished. So do the right thing, O Kaurava, and bring back your brothers from the forest. Ask for their forgiveness and invite them to rule their kingdom.’
Duryodhana listens to Maitreya’s advice, and then smiles and rubs his foot against the ground carelessly, in the manner of a stubborn bull.
Angered by this, Maitreya curses Duryodhana with these words: ‘For your impertinence, Prince, I curse you that when the time of the great battle comes, Bhimasena will shatter those very thighs on which you stand.’
The vow taken by Bhima at the dice game, therefore, becomes doubly potent with the curse of Maitreya.
Bhima Kills Kirmira
The Pandavas first set up their residence in the forest of Kamyaka at the hermitage of Dhaumya the sage.
Here, one of the first tasks they perform is to kill a demon called Kirmira and to free the denizens of Kamyaka from his tyrannical grasp.
With the Pandavas making their way toward the Kamyaka forest, as they enter the deep section of the woods, a fearsome giant of a Rakshasa waylays their path and howls at them.
The five Pandavas surround Draupadi protectively, and Yudhishthir asks their oppressor: ‘Who are you and where have you come from?’
‘My name is Kirmira,’ the Rakshasa says, ‘and I am the brother of Bakasura. I inhabit these parts of the woods and kill passing travellers for my food. Who are you to have foolishly ventured into my domain?’
Yudhishthir gives details of his lineage, and also introduces his brothers. When Kirmira hears the name of Bhimasena, his eyes light up.
‘Ah!’ he says. ‘I have been searching for you all these years to no avail. Now fate has placed you in my path. Come and fight me, O Pandava. Let me avenge the death of my brother whom you so ruthlessly killed in Ekachakra.’
Arjuna begins to string his Gandiva at these words, but Bhima steps forward with a smile, stretching his arms. ‘Leave this fight to me, Partha,’ he says, and uproots a tree to use as a mace.
They hurl trees at each other, then rocks, then break off parts of mountains, and at the end wrestle with their bare arms. The fight ends with Bhima strangling Kirmira, and as the light leaves the Rakshasa’s eyes, he says:
‘You do not have to think of avenging the deaths of Hidimba or Baka anymore, because I am sending you to reside with them in the mansion of Yama.’
The Anger of Draupadi
After the Pandavas have had a chance to settle down in Kamyaka, the Vrishnis and the Panchalas come to visit them. Here, surrounded by her kinsmen, Draupadi allows her passions to bubble over.
‘Fie upon the Pandavas,’ she says, ‘and fie upon the Panchalas and upon the Yadavas, who have all stood by watching while Duryodhana committed such wild atrocities upon my person. What were you waiting for, Krishna?
‘Why was I left to fend for myself? Why did my five husbands – those who can win the world if they desire it, I am told – sit by with hung heads while the enemy proceeded to remove the one piece of cloth covering my body?
‘Why is it that Karna, the king of Anga, that son of a charioteer, was allowed to insult me with such cruel words? Why was it left to the blind eye of virtue to clothe me, to protect me?
‘Why did it have to be Mother Nature that had to call the game of dice to a stop? Where were my brothers? Where was my father? I have no one but myself, O Keshava.’
She breaks into tears, and Krishna comes up to console her.
Wiping Draupadi’s face clean of tears, Krishna tells her, ‘The wives of those who have committed these offences against you and your husbands will one day weep like you are today, Panchali.
‘The men whom you have named will perish to the arrows of Arjuna, and their blood will wet the earth of this land. I shall exert all my powers to make these words come true, and even if the Himavat was to split in two, I shall not relent in giving you your vengeance.’
He then turns to Yudhishthir. ‘If I had been in Dwaraka,’ he says, ‘and if news of this game had reached me in time, I would not have allowed it to happen. I would have used all my powers of persuasion to prevent Dhritarashtra from taking such a step. It is unfortunate that I got to know of what had happened only after I had returned to Dwaraka, and by then it was already too late.’
When Yudhishthir asks Krishna where he was during this time, Krishna replies that he was otherwise engaged in defending Dwaraka against the army of King Salwa of Saubha.
Might or Forgiveness?
After the Vrishnis and the Panchalas have gone back, Draupadi and Yudhishthir have a bit of an argument on whether a wrong act ought to be punished or forgiven.
Draupadi, unsurprisingly, prefers punishment and action whereas Yudhishthir stresses on the importance of patience and kindness.
Bhima enters the conversation and takes Draupadi’s side. The atmosphere in the hut gets a little heated for a while, and Yudhishthir finally resorts to a practical matter.
‘We can defeat Duryodhana in battle for sure, Bhima,’ he says. ‘But remember that Bhishma and Drona will fight on his side. Are we strong enough to fight them and win?’
Bhima retreats thoughtfully at this, and the Pandavas collectively realize that they do not possess the skills or weapons required to mount an offensive against the Kuru army. At least not yet.
Just as the argument ends, Vyasa arrives on the scene and takes Yudhishthir aside. ‘I know what you seek, O King,’ he says. ‘I shall give you a mantra that I know you have the capability to receive. Pass it on to Arjuna, and send him to the northern mountains in search of Indra.
‘The king of gods will equip his son with all the weapons that he needs to vanquish foes like Bhishma and Drona.’
Yudhishthir receives the mantra from Vyasa, and at an appropriate time, gives it to Arjuna and asks him to journey to the mountains beyond the Gandhamadana.
The Brahmins at the hermitage perform the required rituals, and on an auspicious day, Arjuna sets out – with the Gandiva and the two quivers – toward the north.
In due course, he crosses the Gandhamadana and reaches a spot known as Indrakila. Just as he is about to settle under a tree, Indra appears in the guise of a Brahmin and asks him to make a wish.
‘I want to gain knowledge of all the weapons in the world,’ says Arjuna.
Indra smiles and replies, ‘You are in Indrakila, O Prince. This is a place where men attain utter purity of the heart. What need have you here of weapons? Ask for something else. Something more valuable.’
Arjuna shakes his head. ‘I do not desire a state of bliss, my lord. For a Kshatriya, weapons and war are the greatest sources of happiness. My thirst for revenge for all the wrongs heaped upon my brothers and wife has driven me here. It surpasses all my other desires.’
Indra says, ‘If that is what you seek, that is what you will get. But I can give you this knowledge only after you have worshipped and pleased Shiva, the holder of the trident. So devote yourself, my son, to obtaining the blessings of the Pasupati, and only then will I grant you your wish.
The exile of the Pandavas can therefore be broken into three character arcs or strands: one each for Arjuna, Bhimasena and Yudhishthir.
(Draupadi, Nakula and Sahadeva emerge on the other side of the twelve-year period almost entirely unchanged. While they perform several important tasks and – in the case of Draupadi, at least – will be present in many pivotal future scenes, the amount of change they undergo during the exile is minimal.)
- During much of the exile, Arjuna is separated from the rest of the Pandavas, and goes away on his own quest to procure powerful weapons that will enable him to defeat Bhishma and Drona.
- Bhima grows into the role of protector of his brothers and wife.
- Yudhishthir spends almost all of his time learning and listening to the sages at various hermitages. And by the end, he becomes the wisest of men.
We will examine all three of these strands in turn. Let’s begin in the next post with the exploits of Arjuna.
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- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered