by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

Elizabeth Seeger’s The Five Sons of King Pandu: The Story of the Mahabharata




They Come to Hástina

The chariot of the thousand-rayed sun was rising from the eastern hills when the five sons of King Pandu with their mother, Kunti, came to the gates of their father's city. They were brought there by the holy sages who dwelt on the Mountain of the Hundred Peaks, where the sons of King Pandu had been born and where they spent their childhood. The boys had known no home but the deep forest, and as they drew near to the city, they beheld it with wonder. Its high white walls, the arched gateways as dark as storm clouds, and the countless palaces, surrounded with flowering trees, were all touched by the first light of the sun, the maker of the day. This was Hástina, the city named after the elephant, the capital of the kingdom of the Bhárata folk.

The eldest of the sages knocked at the gate, summoning the porter, who looked with amazement at the company that stood before him. He saw the stately lady Kunti and the five boys, as beautiful as gods, who stood beside her with the bearing of young lions. Around them stood those mighty sages who had cared for them and brought them to the city. They were holy men who rarely came down from their sky-piercing mountains into the world of men. Their bodies were thin from fasting and clad only in deerskins bound round their loins; their unkempt hair fell on their bare shoulders; but an inner light shone through their thin bodies, and their flashing eyes were terrible to behold. The porter had heard tales of sages such as these. They were men who had freed their hearts of anger and fear and all desire and had gained such power of soul that they could live as long as they wished; they could travel a thousand miles in the wink of an eye and could behold the whole universe as if it were a plum on the palm of the hand. The porter bowed down before them and awaited their orders.

"Go at once to the king," said the eldest of the sages. "Tell him that we await him here."

The man ran quickly to the palace and was admitted to the audience hall, where the blind King Kuru sat, surrounded by his counselors and the elders of his family. Breathlessly the porter gave the message, describing those who sent it. The king rose at once and gave orders that the court follow him to the city gate. The ladies of the royal household came after him, one of them leading the queen, who wore over her eyes a cloth gathered into many folds, because she wished to share her husband's blindness. The young sons of the king, clad in rich robes, were led by the eldest, a proud and handsome lad. The citizens, meanwhile had heard of those who stood at the gate, and they came forth in crowds, with their wives and children. They bowed low before the sages and waited, silent and reverent, to see what would come of this visit.

The king's uncle, Bhishma, was the eldest of the Bháratas; therefore he welcomed the holy ones, offering them water to wash their feet and honey, curds, and rice to eat, while the king and his followers saluted them. When they had refreshed themselves, the eldest sage arose and addressed all those who were assembled there, saying, "You know that your former king, Pandu, went to the forest many years ago, with his two wives, to hunt the deer. A great misfortune befell him there, for one day he killed a stag that was mating with a doe, and the dying stag put a curse upon him; that he should never beget a son. Then in great grief King Pandu gave up his kingdom to his brother, Kuru, and left the treasures of the world and went into the deep forest; he ate only fruit and roots and rid his heart of fear and anger and desire, so that his soul might be free of sin. His two wives, Kunti and Madri, stayed with him and they traveled far together, reaching at last the Mountain of a Hundred Peaks, where they abode with us. He studied with us and served us, treading the path of virtue and wisdom.

"His line did not die out, in spite of the deer's curse. Because of his virtue and that of his two wives, the gods themselves gave him sons. This eldest child, named Yudhistra, who stands at his mother's right hand, was begotten by the God of Righteousness himself. This second one, named Bhima, who will be the strongest of men, is the Wind-God's son. This third son of Kunti, standing at her left, was born of Indra, Lord of Heaven, chief of all the gods who protect the earth; his name is Arjuna, and he will humble all those who use the bow. Look here upon these tigers among men, the twin sons of Madri, King Pandu's younger wife. They are children of the lovely Gods of Twilight and of Dawn. The older of the two is called Nákula and the younger Sadeva. These boys are our pupils; you will be well pleased with them.

"Seventeen days ago King Pandu died. His wife, Madri, seeing him placed upon the funeral pyre, threw herself upon it and was burned with him, going with her lord to the realms of the blessed. Here are their ashes. Here are their children, with their mother, Kunti. Receive them with due honor, for they are to you as your sons, your brothers, and your friends."

Then the sages vanished before the very eyes of the people who, filled with wonder, returned to their homes.

The king received his brother's sons with great joy, caressing each one of them, and the queen embraced Kunti lovingly, as an elder sister welcomes a younger one after a long absence. Then the king found a blessed spot on the bank of the river Ganges for the funeral rites of Pandu. Priests came out of the city carrying the sacred fire, its smoke fragrant with incense and spices, and they poured libations upon it. The ashes of King Pandu and his wife Madri were placed upon a bier covered with rich hangings and garlands of flowers. It was carried on men's shoulders, the white canopy of state was held above it, and yak tails waved around it. All the royal household, with Kunti and her sons, followed it, weeping; hundreds of people from the city streamed after it, and gifts of fine cloth and jewels and cattle were given to them for the good of Pandu's soul. When they reached the river bank, the last ceremonies were performed and the ashes of the dead were laid upon the breast of the sacred river. The sons of King Pandu and their mother stayed there for the twelve days of mourning. sleeping on the bare ground, and many of the citizens stayed with them to mourn with them and to comfort them.


When they had been cleansed by these rites from the impurity of death, the five Pándava brothers entered their father's city. They saw for the first time--their eyes wide with wonder--the busy streets filled with fine shops, some full of excellent foods or garlands of flowers, others overflowing with finely woven cloths, jewelled ornaments, perfumes, and goods of every sort. They passed through squares shaded by flowering trees, for it was spring; they saw countless spacious houses, groves of trees and pools of clear water, where the citizens played and refreshed themselves.

They saw also the four castes of men. They knew well the Brahmans, the highest caste, for these were the priests who knew and taught the holy books, the Vedas, and performed all the sacrifices to the gods; many of them had lived and studied in the forest where the boys grew up. But they had never seen those of their own caste, the Kshatrias, the warriors and rulers of men, until they met their uncle, the king, and his councilors. They had not seen the merchants and workmen, the farmers and herdsmen of the Vaisya caste, nor the dark-skinned Shudras, who were the servants of all. In the city called after the elephant, the four castes lived in harmony together, each doing its own work. The people were honest and happy, for the king ruled them justly and protected all living creatures in his realm.

As the Pándava brothers went through the streets, the citizens thronged out to see them, crying out, "Welcome to the sons of Pandu! Through the gods' grace we behold them! May they live among us forever!"

Then the boys entered their father's palace, and King Kuru feasted them and gave them princely dwellings and fine attire. He made no difference between them and his own sons and they grew up with their cousins as lotuses lift their heads above the waters of a pool. They saw much of their great-uncle, Bhishma, and soon loved him dearly, as indeed everyone did who knew him. He was the uncle of Kuru and Pandu and might have been king himself, but he had vowed when he was young never to marry and never to take the throne, but to devote himself to study and meditation. He was now an old man, with snow-white hair and beard, but he had won such power of soul that the gods had granted him the boon that he would not die until he himself desired death. He was the wisest and most beloved of all the leaders of the Bháratas, and the king sought his advice in everything that he did. He taught the boys many wise things and made his teaching gay with stories of birds and beasts, of gods and kings.

They found a friend and teacher also in their uncle Vidura. He was the younger brother of Kuru and Pandu and was much loved, for he was wiser than any man except Bhishma and was also a trusted adviser of the king. He helped the Pándavas when they needed counsel, as their father might have done if he had been with them. The elders of the Bháratas were pleased with these boys, for they had been well taught by the sages. Yudhistra, the eldest, was serious and pure of heart; Bhima, broad of arm and shoulder and strong as a yearling bull, was devoted to his elder brother and his mother and would do anything for them; Arjuna, slender and dark-skinned, with curling hair, was quick and clever in all that he did, but always courteous and generous. The twins, Nákula and Sadeva, beautiful as the twin gods, their fathers, were loved for their sweet natures and their humility.

It was only with their cousins, the Kúravas, that the five brothers were not always happy. Whenever they played together, these five outdid their cousins at every game they played, for they were stronger, swifter, and more skillful. Bhima alone could beat all the Kúravas put together, for they were no match for that son of the Wind-God. He was proud of his great strength and often used it mischievously, not because he wanted to harm them, but merely to show off and to tease them. He could throw them about so easily that he often hurt them without meaning to; when they were swimming together he would seize several of them by the hair and hold them under water so long that they nearly drowned; and if they climbed a tree to pick the fruit, he would shake it with his foot, laughing, until the fruit and the fruit-pickers tumbled down together. Duryodha, the eldest of the King Kuru, was just Bhima's age, a year younger than Yudhistra, and he hated all the Pándavas, for he was proud and jealous.


Bhima is Poisoned

When Duryodha was born, his cries were so loud and harsh that asses brayed and jackals howled in answer, while crows and vultures, cawing and croaking, gathered round the room where he was lying. King Kuru was terrified by these evil omens and summoned Bhishma and Vídura and some learned Brahmans to ask them what these sounds might mean.

They said to him, "O lord of earth, these omens mean that your son will be the ruin of his people. Cast him out, O King! Give up this one child for the good of the world! Wise men have said that one person should be cast out for the sake of a family; a family should be cast out for the sake of a village; a village may be destroyed for the sake of the country, and the whole world abandoned for the sake of the soul." But the king had not the heart to follow their advice. Indeed, he always favored Duryodha above his other children, and the boy grew up to be vain and evil-minded.

Now, when Duryodha saw the might of Bhima, he thought to himself, "No one can equal this second son of Pandu; he is stronger than all the rest of us together. Therefore I must do away with him by treachery. When he is gone, I can imprison Yudhistra and Arjuna, and then there will be no one to trouble me." For Duryodha was afraid that when his father died, the people might prefer Yudhistra to him and demand that the son of Pandu be made king. He could not rest until he had thought of a way to kill Bhima.

After much thought he made a plan. He had a pavilion built on the bank of the Ganges and called it the Water Sports Pavilion. It was built with graceful archways and pleasant rooms, their walls painted with designs of birds and beasts; gay flags waved from its roof, and in it were all the things that were needed for water sports and for games to be played indoors. When it was finished, Duryodha invited his brothers and his cousins to go to his new pavilion for a day's pleasure on the river, and all the Kúravas and the Pándavas mounted elephants or chariots and rode out of the city to the river.

When they arrived they walked about, admiring the gardens and the lotus pools, the fountains and the groves of pleasant trees; then they entered the pavilion where Duryodha had prepared a feast for them. They sat down and played games for a while and then ate, laughing together and feeding one another with the foods they liked the best.

Now Duryodha had mixed a deadly poison with a portion of the food which he had before him. He sat next to Bhima and, pretending to be very friendly, fed him with the poisoned dish until Bhima had eaten all of it; then feeling that his evil purpose was accomplished, he was pleased and continued to make merry with his cousins. When they had eaten, they played in the water until they were tired; afterwards they rested and played games in the pavilion.

Bhima, as usual, had led them all and beaten them in their sports, and he was the last to leave the water. When he stepped out, he felt so very tired and heavy that he lay down on the bank of the river and immediately lost his senses, for the poison was working in his body. The other boys had run into the pavilion, excepting Duryodha, who stayed behind to watch Bhima. As soon as Bhima was unconscious, he bound his hands and feet with cords and threw him into the river.

Bhima sank down through the water until he reached the realm of the Nagas, those mighty, wrathful serpents that dwell beneath the waters. The Nagas rushed at him and bit him with their poisonous fangs all over his body; but their venom destroyed the poison that was in him, and he woke up. He broke the cords that bound him and crushed the serpents under his feet. A few of them escaped and fled to their king, crying piteously, "O king of snakes, a boy sank through the water, bound and unconscious, but when we bit him he came to life and began to kill us. Pray find out who he is." And the king, with his courtiers, followed them to where Bhima stood.

Now by good fortune, one of the serpents was a friend of Kunti's father, and he knew the boy. He came forward and embraced him and presented him to the king, who was pleased with Bhima's strength and courage.

"What can we do for this young hero?" he asked his courtiers. "Shall we give him gold and jewels?"

"O lord of serpents," said Bhima's friend, "if you are pleased with him, he will have no need of wealth. Let him, rather, drink of your nectar, which will give him the strength of a thousand elephants and make him invincible in battle."

"So be it," said the king.

The Nagas took Bhima to the king's palace, where they performed the proper ceremonies while he purified himself. Then he sat down, facing the east, and drank the nectar they offered him. He drained at one breath a cup of it and then drank seven more until he could not hold another drop. The Nagas prepared a couch for him, and he lay down at his ease and slept deeply.

Meanwhile, the other princes had searched the groves and gardens for Bhima, and when they could not find him, they set out for home without him, thinking that he had gone ahead of them. Duryodha, sure that Bhima was dead, made light of his absence and joked and laughed with the others. But Yudhistra, as the eldest, always felt responsible for his brothers, and as soon as he arrived, he ran to his mother, asking, "Has Bhima come home? We looked everywhere for him, but could not find him. Have you seen him, dear Mother?"

Kunti was stricken with fear. "No," she cried, "I have not seen him. O go back quickly and look for him again!"

She sent for the wise Vídura, whom she trusted. "Bhima is missing, O noble one," she said. "All the others have come back from the river and he is not among them. Duryodha hates him, and I fear that he has slain my son."

"Do not fear, blessed lady," answered Vidura. "The sages have said that all your sons will live long and happily. Bhima will surely return. Wait patiently, and do not accuse Duryodha, lest he work further mischief."

Bhima slept for a long time, and when he awoke he felt strong beyond measure. The Nagas said to him, "The nectar has given you the strength of a thousand elephants, and no one will ever be able to vanquish you in battle, O bull of the Bháratas! Bathe now in this sacred water and return home, for your mother and your brothers are anxious because of you."

So Bhima bathed, put on the white robes and flowery garlands that were given to him, and ate the sweetened rice that the Nagas brought him. He saluted them and thanked them and received their blessing. Then he rose up through the water and hastened back to the city.

He went immediately to his mother's rooms, where she and his brothers awaited him. He told them all that had happened to him, and Yudhistra said, "Only Duryodha could have done this. Do not speak of it to anyone, but from this day on. let us protect one another constantly." After that they were very careful, and their uncle Vidura also watched over them and gave them wise advice.


Drona's Teaching

King Kuru saw that the young princes were spending their time idly and getting into mischief, so he began to look about for a master who could teach them the duties of their caste and all the science of warfare. For this task he sought a man of godlike strength and knowledge.

Now it happened that a Brahman named Drona had come to the kingdom of Kuru a short time before this and was living quietly in the house of a friend, with his wife and his son. He was famous throughout the three worlds for his knowledge of the Vedas and his skill in the use of the bow and of all other weapons, human and divine.

One day the Pándavas and their cousins ran out of the gate of the city and began to play ball, with much laughter and shouting. Suddenly their ball fell into a dry well. The boys did their best to get it out, but all their efforts failed. Then they saw a Brahman, lean and dark skinned, standing near them, leaning on a bow and watching them; so they went to him and crowded round him, asking for his help.

He smiled at them and said, "Shame upon you! You are Kshatrias, born of the Bhárata folk. How is it that you cannot get your ball from the bottom of that well? Promise me a good dinner, and I will bring back the ball you have lost and this ring as well." With these words he took a ring from his finger and tossed it down the well.

Then, bending down, he picked some long blades of grass and said, "I shall turn these blades by my spells into powerful weapons. I shall pierce the ball with one of them, and then pierce that blade with a second, and that one with a third, until I have formed a chain of blades that will bring the ball up from the well."

He did just what he said he would do, and the boys' eyes were round with delight and amazement. "Now, O learned one," they cried, "bring back your ring!" And the stranger, taking up his bow, pierced the ring with an arrow which returned to his hand, carrying the ring with it.

The astonished princes bowed to him with folded hands, and Yudhistra said, "We salute you, O holy one! We have never seen such skill as yours. Who are you and what can we do for you? You have asked us for a dinner, but that is only a trifle. Pray, stay with us always!"

"Go to your great-uncle, the wise Bhishma," said the Brahman. "Tell him how I look and what I have just done. That mighty one will know me."

So the boys ran to Bhishma and told him all that they had seen, and Bhishma knew at once that the Brahman must be Drona, the best teacher that could be found for them. So he sought out the stranger, who was indeed Drona, and brought him with honor to the palace. "What good fortune has brought you to Hástina, O wisest of men?" he asked.

"When I was young," answered Drona, "I studied with a great sage who taught me the science of war and the use of all weapons, human and divine. At the same time, the son of the ruler of the neighboring kingdom of Panchala came to the hermitage of my master, and for many years we lived and studied together and became great friends. He used to say to me, 'Drona, I am my father's heir and shall be king after he dies. When the kingdom is mine, I will share it with you, dear friend; my wealth and my happiness will also be yours.' When he finished his studies he went back to his own country, but I always remembered what he had said to me.

"Not long after that I married, and my wife gave birth to a boy as splendid as the sun. One day this child saw some children drinking milk and he cried for it. At this I was overcome with grief and shame, because I was not rich enough to give him milk. I tried in many ways to acquire wealth, but all my attempts failed. Then I remembered my former friend who was now king of Panchala, and thought myself blessed. I went to him and said, 'Behold the friend of your boyhood, O tiger among men!'

"But he laughed at me scornfully and cast me off as if I were a vulgar fellow. 'You are not as clever as I thought you,' he said, 'if you think yourself my friend. Time destroys all things, friendship among them. There cannot be friendship between a poor man and a rich one; a king can never be the friend of one who is not a king. However, I will give you food and shelter for a night.' I left him at once, my heart filled wit anger, and vowed to avenge myself upon him. I have come to Hástina to find devoted and able pupils who will help me to fulfill my vow."

"You have come to us in a lucky hour, O learned one," said Bhishma, "for we have need of you as you have of us. String your mighty bow and teach the Bhárata princes all the science of war, and when that is done your vow shall be fulfilled."

Then Bhishma gave Drona a neat and spacious house, well filled with food and every comfort, and Drona accepted the sons of Kuru and of Pandu as his pupils. They were initiated into the Kshatria caste of warriors and rulers of men; they studied the Vedas as well as the science of war and became skilled in all athletic sports. Among them all, Arjuna was the most devoted to the study and use of weapons; he stayed close to Drona's side and excelled all the others in skill and perseverance. Indeed, in lightness of hand he became the foremost of the princes, although they all received the same teaching.

Now Drona's own son was one of his best pupils, and he began to favor his son in the hope that he might equal or surpass Arjuna. For instance, when the boys went to fetch water, he gave his son a wide-mouthed jar and to all the others jars with narrow mouths. Therefore his son could fill his far more quickly than the others and return to his father for some added teaching. There was a certain skill that Drona wished to teach only to his son; so he said to the cook who prepared the young princes' food, "Never give Arjuna his food in the dark; and do not let him know that I have given you this command."

Shortly afterwards, when Arjuna was eating his evening meal, a wind arose and blew out his lamp; yet he did not stop eating, for his hand went, from habit, to his mouth. He thought to himself, "If I can eat in the dark, my hand finding its way so easily to my mouth, why can I not shoot in the dark, my arrows also finding their way to the target?"

So he began to practice with his bow at night. And when Drona heard the twang of his bowstring, his heart melted toward Arjuna; he ran to him and took him in his arms, and said, "Truly, no one on earth can equal you. I shall give you such teaching that you shall surpass every man that draws a bow." And after that time Arjuna was the favorite of his master, dearer to him than his own son.

Drona taught his pupils to fight on horseback, in chariots, on the backs of elephants, and on foot. He taught them the use of the mace, the sword, the spear, and the dart, as well as the bow and arrow. He taught them to use many weapons one after another, to break or turn aside the weapon of an enemy, to fight against many men at once.

He taught them also the Kshatria code of honor: that a warrior may never refuse a challenge, even to a game; that he must fight only against his equals--that is, if he is mounted upon a chariot, he may fight only against another chariot warrior; if he is on horseback, he fights another horseman. If two warriors are engaged in single combat, no one may interfere, and both sides must accept the outcome of the fight; two or more must never fight against one. If a warrior is wounded so that he can no longer fight, his adversary must also lay down his arms and allow the friends or the charioteer of the wounded man to carry him away. Even if his adversary is thrown from his horse or his chariot and is still able to fight, he must wait until the man has mounted again and is on equal terms wit him. It would be a stain upon his honor if he ever attacked a man who was unarmed or off his guard and no army would attack a town or a camp at night when the soldiers slept.

The fame of Drona's teaching spread to all the kingdoms of the world, and kings and princes came to Hástina to learn from him. Bhima and Duryodha, who were always jealous of one another, became very skillful with the mace; Drona's son excelled in the strategy of war, the twins in the handling of the sword, and Yudhistra in the use of the chariot. But Arjuna surpassed them all, for he was skillful in every weapon. and he surpassed them also in quickness and in imagination and perseverance. His fame spread over all the earth to the edge of the sea.

One day when their education was finished, Drona wished to test them in the use of the bow. He had an artificial bird set on the top of a tree as a target; then he called them all together and said, "Take up your bows and arrows and stand here beside me, with your arrows fixed on the bowstring, aiming at the bird. When I give the order, shoot at the bird's head. I shall give each of you a turn, my children."

He first addressed Yudhistra, since that prince was the eldest. "Behold," he said, "the bird on yonder tree."

"I see it," answered Yudhistra.

But Drona spoke again to the young prince standing bow in hand. "What else do you see, O Yudhistra? Do you see the tree, or me, or your brothers?"

"I see the tree and you, my brothers and the bird," replied the eldest son of Pandu.

The master asked the same question of all the sons of Kuru, one after another, and of Bhima and the twins and the other pupils who had come to him from afar. The answer was always the same, "I see the tree and you, my comrades and the bird." They were all reproachfully told by their teacher to stand aside.

Then Drona turned smiling to Arjuna, saying, "You must hit the target; therefore turn your eyes to it with an arrow fixed on the string." Arjuna stood aiming at the bird as the master had commanded, and Drona asked him, "Do you see the bird, the tree, and me?"

"I see only the bird," answered Arjuna, "not the tree or you."

Then Drona, well pleased, said, "If you see the bird, describe it to me."

Arjuna said, "I see only the head of the bird, not its body."

At these words Drona's hair stood on end with delight. "Shoot!" he commanded, and Arjuna instantly let fly his arrow and struck off the bird's head. The master clasped him to his heart, exclaiming, "You will never be vanquished by any foe, and you will win everlasting fame."


Seeger, The Five Sons of King Pandu, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 3-19.