by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

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




The Princes Show Their Skill

When his pupils had mastered every weapon, Drona said to the king, "Your children have finished their education, O best of kings. Let them now show their skill before you in a tournament."

"You have taught them well, O wisest of Brahmans," answered the king. "Arrange the place, the time, and the manner in which the tournament shall be held, just as you desire, for everything you command shall be done. My blindness makes me envy those who will behold my children's skill in arms."

Then Drona measured out a wide and flat piece of land, clear of trees and thickets. Upon this the king's workmen prepared a splendid arena, according to the rules laid down in the Vedas. On one side they raised a pavilion, shielded from the sun by a canopy of many-colored designs, the poles covered with gold and silver and wound with jewels. Beside it was another, equally beautiful, for Queen Gandhari and the ladies of her household. All round the arena the citizens built stands with seats for themselves, and the richer people pitched high and spacious tents with gay pennants flying from their tops.

Drona chose a day on which the moon and the stars would be favorable, and on the morning of that day the king, with his ministers and his warriors, entered the arena and took his seat in the pavilion. Queen Gandhari and Kunti, with the other ladies of the palace, also took their places, and the citizens, eager to behold the spectacle, came out from the city. So impatient were they that they assembled in no time, and as they surged into the arena with the sound of many voices, the blowing of trumpets and the beating of drums, the great crowd was like a tossing ocean.

When they were all seated, Drona, in white robes, with his white locks and beard, and with garlands of white flowers around his neck, came into the arena with his son; they looked like the moon and the planet Mars in a cloudless sky. He offered sacrifices to the gods, and Brahmans celebrated the rites with sweet music.

Then those mighty warriors, his pupils, entered, carrying their bows and quivers, dressed in shining mail, their fingers protected by finely wrought gloves. Yudhistra led the way, and the others followed in the order of their ages; they saluted Drona and the king and began to show their skills. At first they mounted swift horses, and as they rode expertly at different speeds around he arena, they struck targets with arrows marked with their names. Then they called for their chariots and displayed their skill in driving and maneuvering them; after that they handed the reins to their charioteers, picked up their bows again and struck the targets while driving at full gallop. The spectators were delighted and shouted, "Well done! Well done!" Later, on foot, they took their swords and shields, and in pairs, practiced every thrust and parry, each attack and defense, while those who looked on admired their strength and grace and calmness and their mastery of the weapons. Vídura told the blind king all that they did, and Kunti described it to the queen, whose eyes were ever covered out of love and respect for her husband.

Bhima and Duryodha, eager for a fight, came in carrying heavy maces. They swung these weapons and maneuvered for place, moving faultlessly according to the science of arms and roaring like two angry elephants fighting for a mate. As the crowd watched them, some cried, "Behold, Bhima!" and others, "Behold Duryodha!" and suddenly there was an uproar as each man cheered his favorite.

Drona perceived the danger in this division and said to his son, "Go quickly and forbid those warriors to fight, lest the crowd takes side and gets angry." And when they heard the message, the two cousins lowered their weapons unwillingly and forbore the fight.

Then Drona raised his hand and spoke with a voice as deep as thunder, "Behold now Arjuna, the master of all weapons! Behold the son of Indra, the lord of heaven, who is dearer to me than my own son!" And Arjuna, dressed in golden mail, his quiver full of arrows and his bow in hand, came forward looking like a storm cloud lit by the setting sun.

The whole assembly was delighted, and shouts arose, "This is the son of the mighty Indra! Behold the third son of Pandu!"

When Kunti heard these shouts, she wept for joy, and the king asked Vidura, "What is this uproar that rises suddenly and rends the skies?"

"Arjuna has just entered the arena, O King," answered Vidura.

"I have been blessed, favored, and protected," said Kuru, "by the three fires that have sprung from Kunti, who is herself the sacred fuel."

The people were silent as Arjuna displayed his skill with bow and arrow, sword, and mace. From his chariot and on foot he struck the center of every target, using his right and his left hands with equal ease, shooting his arrows so swiftly that they seemed to flow in a stream from his bow. He let five shafts at once fly from his bowstring into the mouth of a moving iron boar; he shot twenty arrows into the hollow end of a cow's horn swinging on a rope. Then he took up the heavenly weapons whose use Drona had taught him. With one he created fire and with another water, with a third he created wind and with a fourth clouds, and with still another he caused all these to vanish. The people shouted with joy when he finished; conchs were blown and instruments struck up their music.


Karna Appears

When the tournament was nearly over, and the excitement of the crowd had cooled, a sound like thunder was heard at the gate of the arena. All the people turned their eyes toward it, wondering whether a thunderstorm had arisen or whether the sound betokened an earthquake. But those of the Kshatria caste knew what the sound meant, for when one warrior challenged another, he smote the hollows of his armpits with the palms of his hands, and they could tell from this thundering noise that a mighty warrior had come unbidden to the tournament. Drona rose, surrounded by the Pándavas, like the moon crowned with five planets; and Duryodha stood facing the gate with his haughty brothers around him.

Then the challenger entered and the people fell back, making way for him. He was as tall as a palm tree and handsome as the full moon; he was clad in golden mail and wore flashing rings in his ears; he bore himself as a bull or a lion or the leader of a herd of elephants. He looked round the assembly and bowed coolly to Drona, while a murmur arose like the wind in a grove of trees, "Who is he?" "Who is this unknown hero?"

Only Kunti, her heart leaping in her bosom, knew him to be her first-born son.


When Kunti was a girl in her father's palace, she made it her duty to serve his guests. There was one Brahman, fierce and splendid to behold, who often visited her father and who was very hard to please. He said he would come at one time and then appeared at another; he asked for food and drink and then refused it, asking for something else; he often woke in the night and demanded one thing or another that was hard to find at that hour. Yet Kunti always served him sweetly and kindly, and he was pleased with her. One day he taught her a spell, saying, "With this spell you may summon any one of the gods to do your pleasure."

She woke one morning at sunrise, and as she lay in bed she pondered, "What sort of spell did the high-souled Brahman teach me? Sometime I shall try it." As she wondered thus, the sun rose and poured its beams into her room and across her bed. She was overjoyed by its beauty and decided to summon the Sun-God, Surya, the maker of the day, to her presence.

As soon as she spoke the spell, that glorious god, the seer of all things, appeared before her and said, "Behold me, gentle maiden, in response to your summons! Tell me, what shall I do for you?"

Kunti was abashed and frightened by the glory of the god and her own impertinence; she rose and stood with joined palms and said humbly with downcast eyes, "Forgive me, O radiant one! I summoned you from curiosity, to test a spell that a Brahman taught me. A woman must always be forgiven for foolishness, O lord of day."

Surya smiled at her. "The Brahman who taught you that spell," he said, "knew that you would bear celestial children. Now you shall have from me a splendid son, born with golden mail and shining earrings, who will become the strongest warrior in the world."

Now Kunti feared that she would be shamed in the eyes of her family if she bore a child in her maidenhood; therefore she told no one what had happened except her nurse. When her son was born he was radiant as a god and wore a coat of mail and earrings. She laid him in a wicker basket caulked with wax and spread with soft cloth and a silken pillow. In the dead of night she and her nurse carried it to the river bank and there, weeping piteously, she laid it on the water.

The basket floated from one stream into another until it came to the Ganges River, where the wife of a charioteer was washing her garments. She saw the basket and drew it to the shore, calling to her husband the while. They opened it and were amazed to see the beautiful child and believed that the gods had sent him to them. They called him Karna, and brought him up as their own son. He studied under a great master and became a warrior skilled in the use of all weapons. Everyone believed him to be the son of the charioteer, who belonged to the Suta caste, formed by the marriage of Brahmans and Kshatrias. Kunti had sent a trusted servant to watch her son and to tell her all that happened to him as he grew up, but she never saw him or claimed him as her own.

Now, when she beheld that great warrior as he appeared at the tournament, radiant with beauty, she knew him because of the golden mail and the earrings that he had been born with, but she still kept silent.


Karna spoke to Arjuna in a voice as deep as thunder, "O son of Indra, I shall perform feats before this gazing multitude that will surpass those of yours. You yourself will be amazed when you behold them." He asked leave of Drona, and then as he had promised, he did all that Arjuna had done, with equal grace and skill, and a murmur arose among the citizens and cries of "Well done! Well done!"

Now Duryodha had been watching him with delight. Here was a warrior equal to and perhaps greater than any of the princes, and it was clear that he had come to challenge Arjuna. Duryodha hoped that this stranger would become his friend and an ally against his cousins; therefore he went forward and embraced Karna, saying, "Welcome, O wielder of weapons! A lucky day has brought you here. Stay with us and share the kingdom of Kuru!"

"I will gladly do so," answered Karna, "for I long for your friendship. I also long for single combat with Arjuna."

"Both your desires will be fulfilled," said Duryodha. "May you bring joy to your friends, and, O consumer of foes, may you put your foot upon the heads of all your enemies!"

Arjuna was shamed by the prowess displayed by the newcomer, and his anger blazed. He went to Karna and said to him, "You shall now suffer the fate of all those who come where they are not wanted and who boast of their might, O stranger. I challenge you to single combat."

"This tournament is open to all, Arjuna, not to you alone," answered Karna. "The Kshatria respects deeds; words are the weapons of the weak. Let your arrows speak for you until you are silenced my mine."

Arjuna's brothers came to him and embraced him and prepared him for battle, while Duryodha and his brothers did the same for Karna. Kunti, seeing her two sons about the fight to the death, fell back fainting, and serving maids hastened to her, sprinkling water upon her face and rubbing her hands and feet with perfume. But Drona, beholding the two warriors with their bows strung, was mindful of the rules of single combat and said to Karna, "This third son of King Pandu and of Kunti belongs to the royal line of the Bháratas. Tell us the names of your father and mother and the kingdom to which they belong. Then the battle may begin, for the sons of kings may not fight against men of inglorious birth."

Then Karna's face looked like a lotus flower pale and torn under the pelting showers of the rainy season. He hung his head and was silent, but Duryodha said, "O master, if Arjuna may not fight one who is not of royal blood, I will give this warrior the Kingdom of Anga." Then and there he ordered servants to bring a golden seat and offerings of rice and flowers and much gold, and he summoned Brahmans to perform the rites of coronation. A royal canopy was held over Karna's head and yak tails waved around him; the Brahmans poured sacred water on his head and enthroned him as the king of Anga. While this was being done, Kunti came to her senses, and seeing her eldest son made a king, she was well pleased.

"What can I give you that can compare with the gift of a kingdom, O tiger among men?" said Karna to Duryodha. "Command me and I will do whatever you desire."

"Your friendship is all that I desire," answered the son of Kuru, and they embraced one another joyfully.

At this moment Karna's old foster father, the charioteer of the Suta caste, entered the arena, trembling and perspiring, leaning on his staff. As soon as Karna saw him, he left his throne and went to meet him; he bowed his head, still wet with ceremonial water, before his father, who embraced him with tears of joy. Seeing this, Bhima jeered at him, saying, "O son of a charioteer, you are not worthy of death at the hands of Arjuna. Lay down your bow and take up a whip instead! You are not fit to rule the kingdom of Anga, even as a dog is not fit to eat the sacrificial food."

Karna, with quivering lips, sighed deeply and looked at the god of day, whose chariot was fast disappearing over the western hills; it seemed as if he knew his real parentage. But Duryodha rose up in wrath from among his brothers, as a mad elephant rises up from a bed of lotuses. "It ill behooves you to speak such words, O Bhima," he cried. "Might is the only virtue that a Kshatria needs; if he possesses that, no one should scorn to fight him. The birth of heroes is often hidden, like the sources of mighty rivers. Karna must be of royal birth, for a doe cannot bring forth a tiger; he deserves to rule the whole earth, not only Anga. If there is anyone here who does not like what I have done this day for Karna, let him mount his chariot and bend his bow against me!"

By this time the sun had already set, and the fight could not take place. Duryodha took Karna's hand and led him out of the arena, lighted now by countless lamps. The son of Drona went with them, for he was angered by what his father had said about Arjuna, and from this time on Karna sided with Duryodha against the Pándavas. Yudhistra and his brothers waited with Drona for the king and returned with him to the palace. As the people came away, some hailed Arjuna and some Karna as the victor of the day. The Kúravas rejoiced at having won so powerful a friend and were no longer afraid of the prowess of their cousins, while the Pándavas were troubled, and even Yudhistra believed that there was no warrior greater than Karna.


The Teacher's Fee

The time had come when Drona could ask for his teacher's fee. He called his pupils together and said to them, "You remember what I asked of you in return for these years of teaching. Capture the king of Panchala and bring him before me. He is a mighty warrior, my children; it will not be an easy battle." They all shouted for joy and prepared for the fight, fastening their weapons to their chariots and putting on their armor.

Led by Drona, they marched out to the kingdom of Panchala and attacked its capital city. Duryodha, his brothers, and Karna, all vying with one another to be first in the attack, entered the city in their chariots, followed by horsemen. Arjuna, seeing their pride, said to Drona, "We shall fight after the others have shown their prowess. The king of Panchala will not be defeated by such as these." And he, with his brothers, waited outside the walls of the town.

Meanwhile the king, hearing the clamor, came out of his palace and was at once assailed with a shower of arrows. He mounted his chariot and rushed forth against the Kúravas, pouring upon them such fierce shafts from his bow that they thought a hundred kings were fighting them. While the arrows of the king fell on all sides, conchs and drums and trumpets sounded the alarm, and the Panchala army came forth, roaring like a thousand lions, while the twang of their bowstrings sounded like thunder. The citizens also showered upon the Bháratas all sorts of missiles; young and old rushed forth to battle, while the king careered among them like a wheel of fire, smiting Duryodha and his brothers and the mighty Karna and quenching their thirst for battle.

At last they fell back before the fury of the king and fled to the gate, where the Pándavas were waiting. Then Arjuna, begging Yudhistra not to fight, drove forward in his chariot with the twin sons of Madri guarding his wheels on either side, while Bhima, mace in hand, ran on ahead. Roaring like the ocean in a tempest, Bhima rushed toward the elephants and cavalry, while Arjuna assailed the host of the Panchalas with his arrows. Bhima drove the chariots and elephants before him as a herdsman drives countless cattle, and Arjuna, like a consuming fire, slew hundreds of the warriors.

The king of the Panchalas, seeing his army driven back, aimed all his arrows at Arjuna; but that son of Kunti cut the king's bow in two with a broad-headed arrow, broke his flagstaff, and finally pierced his horses and his charioteer with five arrows loosed at one time from his bow. Then he drove close to the king and with a great shout leapt from his chariot upon that of his foe and seized the king as an eagle seizes a mighty snake. The Panchala troops fled in all directions when they saw their king made captive.

The Pándava princes took the king of Panchala to Drona, who had been watching the battle. And Drona, seeing his enemy defeated and humbled, said to him with a faint smile, "I have conquered your kingdom and your capital city, O brave King. But you need not fear for your life; we Brahmans are always forgiving. My love for you has increased with the years, ever since we studied and played together in our master's hermitage. You told me once that none but a king could be the friend of a king; therefore I am keeping half of your realm, but as a boon, I give you back the other half. You are king of all that lies on the southern side of the Ganges, while I become king of that which lies on the north. Henceforth, O Panchala, let us be friends!"

"You have a noble heart, O Brahman, and, besides, great skill in war," the king answered. "I am not surprised at what you have done. Indeed, I desire your everlasting friendship."

After that, the king lived sorrowfully in the southern provinces of his former kingdom. He knew that he could not defeat Drona by force of arms, although they were equal in skill, for now Drona could call upon the invincible strength and ability of the Pándavas, Therefore the king began to do penance and to make sacrifices so that he might have a son who could defeat the sons of Pandu in battle. Drona remained in the capital city and ruled over the northern territory, rich in towns and cities, which the Pándavas had won for him.

One day he called Arjuna to him and said, "The master who taught me all the science of arms gave me a weapon more powerful than lightning that can burn up the whole earth. I give it to you now; you need only summon it and it will appear to you and do your bidding. Never use it against a human foe, for, if used unworthily, it might destroy the world; but if any superhuman foe attack you, you may use it then in battle. Cherish it with care, for it has not a peer in the three worlds. And now grant me what I ask of you in return for this gift."

"O master," answered Arjuna, "I will gladly grant whatever you may ask of me."

"This is the boon that I demand of you," said Drona. "If ever I should fight against you, you must fight to your utmost against me." And Arjuna, touching his master's feet, pledged his word that he would do so.

Now that they were warriors, trained and tried, the princes went forth to war; for it was the duty of Kshatrias to rule their kingdoms justly and to protect them, and to strike fear into the hearts of any enemies, lest they should feel free to attack the borders of the kingdom or to raid the outlying villages. The sons of King Kuru were great warriors, but the Pándavas surpassed them in battle just as they had beaten them in games when they were boys. Nákula, the elder son of Madri, became a great chariot warrior and an expert swordsman; his twin brother, Sadeva, was equal to him and always fought beside him. Sadeva also loved learning and became so wise that his older brothers came often to him for counsel. Bhima rejoiced in battle and defeated kings whom even Pandu, his father, had been unable to conquer, and vassals who had not been obedient to the Bháratas felt the power of his mace. Arjuna, with the twins at his side, challenged all the kings of the west and made them vassals of his uncle, King Kuru; then he turned to the south, and its rulers, who had heard of his prowess, sent tribute to Kuru. Arjuna returned, followed by a great train of horses, camels, elephants and carts laden with all kinds of wealth.

The Kurava princes were filled with jealousy as they beheld this booty and heard of the victories of the Pándavas; even King Kuru's love for his nephews was poisoned, and he could not sleep because he was jealous for his sons.


Seeger, The Five Sons of King Pandu, Print edition, op. cit., pp.20-32.