by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

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




The Pándavas Are Banished

King Kuru's heart burned with jealousy; he loved the sons of Pandu, but he loved his own more dearly, and especially the eldest, the evil-minded Duryodha. Therefore he sent for one of his councilors, a Brahman, expert in the art of politics.

"O learned one," said the king, "the Pándavas overshadow the earth and I fear them because of my sons. Shall I have peace or war with them? Advise me truly, I pray you, for I shall do as you bid me."

The clever Brahman answered him in words as sharp as arrows: "Listen to me, O King, and do not be angry with me when you have heard me out. A king must always be ready to destroy his enemies. He must watch their every move but hide his own purposes as a tortoise hides his body under its shell. He must win their trust and then spring upon them like a wolf. He must hold them in his hands so that when the time comes he can cast them down and break them in pieces as an earthen pot is smashed against a stone. He must have no pity, but use any means, open or secret, to rid himself of them: lies or bribery or treachery or force may all be used to destroy a foe."

"Tell me truly, O best of Brahmans," said the king, "how an enemy can be destroyed by deceit or treachery or a bribe."

"Listen, O King, to the story of a jackal who lived in the forest a long time ago. This wise jackal lived with four friends, a tiger, a mouse, a wolf, and a mongoose; and they hunted together. There was in the forest a deer that they could not catch because of its swiftness and strength. So they met together, and the jackal said, 'O tiger, you have often tried to catch this deer but all in vain, because it is young, swift and very clever. Now let the mouse eat into its feet when it lies asleep; then you will be able to catch it.'

"They did as he said: the mouse ate into the feet of the deer so that it could not run, and the tiger killed it. Then the jackal said to his companions, 'Go and wash yourselves in the river, while I watch over the deer.' And they all went down to the stream while the jackal sat there, pondering deeply what he should do.

"The tiger returned first and , seeing the jackal plunged in thought, asked him, 'Why are you so sorrowful, O clever one? Let us enjoy ourselves and eat the deer.'

"But the jackal replied, 'I cannot enjoy it, O mighty one. The mouse has just been here, boasting that it was he who killed the deer and that we should feast because of the power of his teeth. I cannot eat what a mouse has slain.'

"'My pride is also wounded,' answered the tiger. 'After this I will kill my own food.' And he went away.

"The mouse came next and the jackal said to him, 'The mongoose has been here and says that the carcass of this deer is poisoned by the tiger's claws. He also said that he would eat you instead; therefore be warned!' The mouse was frightened by these words and ran into his hole.

"Then the wolf came and the jackal said to him, 'The king of beasts, who slew this deer, is angry with you; he has gone to get his wife and will be back in a short time. I am telling you this so that you may save yourself.' The wolf, though he was hungry, ran away with his tail between his legs, making himself as small as possible.

"Last of all, the mongoose returned. 'Behold,' said the jackal, 'I have defeated all the others and they have run away. Fight with me now and, if you win, eat all that you desire.'

"'If the tiger, the wolf, and the clever mouse have all been put to flight by you,' replied the mongoose, 'I do not care to fight you.' And with these words he took himself off. Then the jackal, well pleased with the success of his plans, ate the meat all by himself.

"If kings act in this way, deceiving the strong and frightening the weak, they can be happy. O King, if your son, friend, or brother, if even your teacher becomes your enemy, slay him without mercy! The sons of Pandu are stronger than your sons. Therefore protect yourself from them; free yourself and your sons from any fear of them!"

When the Brahman had given this evil advice, he returned to his home, leaving the king sad and thoughtful.

Duryodha was also vexed in spirit, as he saw Bhima surpass everyone in strength and as he heard Arjuna praised as the best of all bowmen. He and his brothers, with Karna, tried in various ways to bring about the death of the Pándavas; but those heroes were watchful and with the help of their uncle, Vidura, they avoided the traps set for them and did not let anyone know that they perceived them.

At this time the citizens of Hástina were talking about the sons of Pandu in the streets and in the market places and whenever they met in public gatherings. They praised Yudhistra for his kindness and his honesty and said openly that he should rule the kingdom. "King Kuru," they said, "did not become our king in his youth because he was born blind; his younger brother Pandu reigned over us. Why then should he be our king now that Pandu's son is grown? Let us put Yudhistra upon the throne, for he is young, wise, truthful, and kind. He will always care for the old king and his sons and share with them the wealth of the kingdom.

Duryodha was told about these words of the citizens and his anger blazed. He plotted with his brother Dushasa and with Karna, and these evil-minded men decided that the king must exile the Pándavas to some distant place, so that they would be out of the way and the people would forget them. He went to the king and said to him, "O Father, I hear that the people are saying evil and dangerous things about us. They wish the eldest son of Pandu to be king and to set him above both you and me. If Yudhistra reigns, his son will reign after him and the kingdom will descend in Pandu's line, while we, O lord of earth, will be despised by all men. I beg of you to exile the sons of Pandu to Varanávata. We can find some good reason to send them there, and then we shall no longer have to fear them. O King, let us never suffer poverty and shame; let us not depend on others for our food!"

King Kuru thought for a moment and then answered, "My brother Pandu was always dutiful to his family and most kind to me, for he gave everything to me, even the kingdom. His son is as good as he was and is beloved by the people. How can we exile him from his father's kingdom? The ministers and soldiers of the state, their sons and grandsons, were all cherished and supported by Pandu. Will they not slay us, my son, with all our friends and kinsmen, if we injure Yudhistra?"

"All that you say is true, my Father," Duryodha replied, "but we must protect ourselves from the danger that looms above our heads. We can win over the people with wealth and honors; the treasury and the ministers of state are still under our control. Therefore, banish the Pándavas now, making some reasonable excuse for their leaving. Then make me your heir, equal to you in power, and we shall have nothing to fear."

"That very thought has been in my mind," his father said, "but I have not spoken of it because of its wickedness. Neither Bhishma nor Vidura, nor yet Drona, will ever agree to the exile of he Pándavas. In their eyes, dear son, we and the Pándavas are equal; those wise ones make no difference between us. "

"Bhishma cares for us both and will therefore be neutral," answered his son. "The son of Drona is on my side and where the son is, the father will be also. Vidura secretly favors our enemies but he alone can do nothing. Besides, all of them depend on us for their living. Therefore exile the Pándavas without fear and without delay, my Father! If you do this, you will rid me of the grief that burns me like a blazing fire, that robs me of sleep and has pierced my heart like an iron dart."

The king could never gainsay this favorite son, and he agreed to the evil plan. Duryodha, with his brothers and Karna, began to win the people over to his side with gifts of wealth and honors. He spoke of the things that he would do when he became king and in subtle ways spoke evil of the sons of Pandu. When he thought that the time had come to set the trap, he told some courtiers who were his friends to praise the town of Varanávata as a pleasant place to live in. They obeyed him, and one day when the court was assembled, they spoke much about the town, saying how charming it was and adding, "The festival of Shiva, the creator of the world, is being held there now, and we have heard that the procession is most beautiful and the festival the gayest imaginable."

The Pándavas questioned them about the place, and the king, seeing that they were curious, said to them, "I have often heard that Varanávata is the pleasantest town in the world. If you wish to see it, my children, and to enjoy the festival of Shiva, go there with your friends and followers. Enjoy yourselves like gods; take pearls and jewels to give to the Brahmans and musicians and actors assembled there, and stay as long as you desire."

Now Yudhistra and his brothers kept their eyes and their ears alert, for they knew that they were in constant danger. They and their uncle Vidura had heard rumors of what was being planned against them, and they knew that the king's words did not mean that they should go to Varanávata for a pleasant holiday, but that they were to stay there in exile. They had no wealth, for they were dependent on the king, and if he were against them they were powerless; they had no friends or allies outside the kingdom that could help them. Therefore Yudhistra bowed before his uncle and said, "So be it!" Then he turned to all the others assembled there--Bhishma and Vidura and Drona, the councilors and Brahmans of the court--and said slowly, "We shall go to Varanávata, as the king commands us. Give us your blessing that we may not be touched by sin."

And the elders all blessed them, saying, "May all the elements protect you along the way, you sons of Pandu, and may not the slightest evil befall you!"

Duryodha was overjoyed when he saw his plan so easily carried out. He called a courtier of his, who was a builder of palaces, and said to him secretly, holding his right hand, "O friend, this world so full of wealth and pleasure is now mine, but I will share it with you if you do as I bid you. Go this very day to Varanávata in a chariot drawn by swift mules. Build there a palace rich in materials and furniture and guard it from prying eyes. In building it use hemp and resin and all other inflammable materials that you can find. Mix earth with oil and fat for plaster and cover the walls with varnish from the lac tree. Leave, in places where they will not be seen, shavings of wood soaked in oil and lac so that no one, even if he looks closely, may see that the house is dangerous. When it is finished, invite the sons of Pandu to live in it, and when you are sure that they are sleeping there without suspecting anything, then set fire to the house, starting it at the outer door. The Pándavas must be burned to death and the people must think that the fire was an accident.

The builder said, "So be it!" He drove swiftly to Varanávata and began at once the building of the house.


The House is Burned

Meanwhile the sons of Pandu and their mother, Kunti, prepared for their journey and then took leave of the king and of the elders of their family, sorrowfully touching the feet of Bhishma and Vidura and of Drona, their master. They saluted reverently the older men of the king's court and embraced those who were of their own age; they bowed before the queen and her ladies, and the children ran to them to say farewell.

Many of the citizens followed the chariots of those tigers among men, and Vidura went with them to the city's gate. The citizens said to one another, "Fie upon King Kuru! He does not honor virtue and justice. The royal sage, Pandu, cared for us as if we were his children, but now that he has gone to heaven, the king cannot abide these princes, Pandu's sons. Let us all leave this city and follow Yudhistra wherever he goes."

But Yudhistra, though he was full of sorrow, said to them, "The king is a father to us, our spiritual guide and our leader. We must do with trusting hearts whatever he bids us do. Give us your blessing now and return to your houses. When we need your help, then, truly, we shall ask you for it."

The citizens blessed the Pándavas and slowly returned homeward, praising those heroes and remembering all their good deeds. Then Vidura spoke to Yudhistra, for he was able to read the heart by outward signs and he had guessed Duryodha's evil designs by watching his face. He knew the language of the forest people, which Yudhistra also spoke, and he used that language now so that Yudhistra alone would understand him. "He who knows his enemy's plans may escape them," he said. "That which burns straw and wood cannot harm one who makes his dwelling like the jackal's, with outlets under the ground. He who wanders about in the forest finds many paths and can guide his steps by the stars. Be watchful, and remember that he who controls his five senses will never be overcome by his enemies."

"I understand," Yudhistra answered.

When Vidura had bidden them farewell and gone back with the other citizens to Hástina, Kunti said to her son, "I could not understand what Vidura said to you, because there were so many people about and he did not speak clearly. Pray tell us what he said, if it is right for us to know."

"The virtuous Vidura said to me," answered her son, "that the house that is being prepared for us in Varanávata is built of inflammable materials and will be set afire. He told me how to escape from it, and he also said that those who control their five senses can rule the whole world. I told him that I understood him."

They arrived in Varanávata after many days of travel along the sacred river Ganges. The citizens thronged out to meet them, blessing them and crying, "Jaya! Victory!" The Pándavas presented themselves first of all to the Brahmans; then they visited the rulers of the city and the leading men of every caste, even the Shudras. The builder came to them and led them to a house that had been made ready for them; he placed food and drink before them and made them very comfortable, and they lived happily in that town, enjoying the festival of Shiva.

When they had been there for ten days and nights, the builder invited them to see the mansion that he had made for them; he called it "The Blessed House," but in truth it was accursed. Those tigers among men entered it and looked about. Yudhistra smelled the fat and the lac and said to Bhima, "O slayer of foes, this house is indeed meant to be burned; our enemies with the help of trusted workmen, have built it so. The wretched builder is staying here in order to burn us to death as soon as he sees that we trust him."

"Would it not be better to stay where we are living now?" Bhima answered.

"It seems to me that we should live here and pretend to be contented, while we prepare to escape," answered his elder brother. "Duryodha intends to put us to death and will follow us wherever we go. We have no power or favor with the king, while Duryodha has both; we have no armies or allies, while he has both; we have no wealth, while he has in his hands a full treasury. It is better, therefore, to allow him to think that he has killed us and then we can live in peace. And now let us follow the kind Vidura's advice; let us explore the forest paths and dig holes as the jackal does."

Shortly after this, a man came secretly to the Pándavas and said to them, "I am a miner, whom Vidura has sent to serve you. He told me that the builder plans to set fire to your house on the fourteenth night of this month, for this is the dark fortnight of the moon. When you left, O son of Pandu, Vidura spoke to you in the forest tongue and you answered him in the same way. I tell you this as proof that I truly come from him."

"Now I know that you are a true and trusted friend of Vidura," replied Yudhistra, "and therefore our friend, too. Save us from this danger, I pray you, in such a way that Duryodha will not know that we have escaped."

During the nights the miner dug a deep underground passage leading from the House to the forest. The entrance of it was the center of the house, on a level with the floor, so he covered it with planks and a costly rug during the day, for fear of Duryodha's man who kept a constant watch at the door. The Pándavas slept with their weapons beside them, and during the day, they went from forest to forest, finding out all the trails and where each one led. Thus they lived, on their guard, and deceived their enemy, who thought them trusting and contented. The people of Varanávata knew nothing of what was in their minds; indeed no one knew, except the excellent miner.

The treacherous builder was delighted when he saw how cheerfully the Pándavas and their mother lived in their house; and when Yudhistra, who watched him carefully, noticed his pleasure, he called his brothers to him and said, "I believe the time has come for our escape."

There was another festival at this time, at which much alms was given. The Pándavas invited many Brahmans to their house, while Kunti asked many ladies. They all enjoyed themselves, eating and drinking their fill, and then the guests took their leave and returned to their homes. Now it happened that a woman of low caste, with her five sons, saw the lights and heard music and entered the house unnoticed, hoping to find food and drink. She and her sons all took so much wine that they became drunk; they lay down where they were and slept as if they were dead. The builder also drank too much that night and slept within the house; but Kunti and her sons were wide awake.

At midnight a storm arose and a strong wind blew. Bhima got up, lighted a torch and set fire to the house just where Duryodha's friend, the builder, lay sleeping; then he set fire to the door and ran the torch along the walls. When the house was blazing on all sides, the Pándavas entered the underground passage, leading their mother. They went swiftly through it, came out into the night and fled to the forest, unseen by anyone.

The blaze and the crackle of the fire awakened the townspeople. They ran to the house and saw the flames, fed by the lac and oil, leaping into the sky. They watched it until morning, for there was nothing they could do to stop it. When it had burned itself out, they went forward to beat out the last embers, and they could smell materials of which the house had been built. "O shame upon the king's heart, which is so partial to his sons!" they said to one another. "He has burned to death the heroic sons of Pandu as if they were his enemies." They looked among the ashes and found the bodies of the strange woman and her five sons who had come unbidden to the feast and had slept there. The citizens believed that these were the bodies of Kunti and the five Pándavas, and they bewailed with sorrowful hearts the fate of these sinless ones, saying, "now let us send word to King Kuru, 'Your dearest desire has been fulfilled: you have burned to death the sons of Pandu.'" And they sent messengers at once to Hástina.

When the king heard the evil news he wept with great sorrow, for he had not desired the death of his brother's children and knew nothing of the wicked plans of his eldest son. "King Pandu, my noble brother, has died a second time in the deaths of his heroic sons and their mother," he said. "Let priests and courtiers go quickly to Varanávata to perform the funeral ceremonies and let everything be done for the welfare of the souls of the dead."

All the people sorrowed deeply and wailed aloud, some crying, "O Yudhistra, prince of the Bháratas!" others, "Alas Bhima! Alas Arjuna!" and again, "O Kunti; O, the twins!" Duryodha and his friends hid their joy and congratulated one another in secret, and Vidura did not grieve, for he knew the truth.


The Escape

Meanwhile the five brothers and their mother followed the forest paths until they reached the river Ganges. They had not thought that they could cross it, but they found there a boatman who had been sent to them by Vidura and who had been waiting for them. He made himself known to Yudhistra just as the miner had done, by reminding him that Vidura had spoken to him in the forest language when he left Hástina; so the brothers trusted him, and he brought them safely across the great river in his boat. They sent a message by him to Vidura and he returned whence he had come. Then they continued on their way southward along the bank of the river, finding their way by the stars. Soon they came to a deep forest, where even the sky was hidden; they heard the cries of night birds and of those animals that seek their prey in the dark. They were tired and hungry and heavy with sleep, but Yudhistra said to Bhima. "We know now that Duryodha means to kills us; we cannot rest until we are out of his reach. But how can we go further: Even we who are strong are exhausted, and our mother cannot take another step. O Bhima, you are the strongest and the swiftest of us. Help us to go on!"

Then Bhima took his mother on his shoulder, and his brothers clung to him and followed in his wake as he made a way through the forest for them all; for his father, the Wind-God, had given him the speed of storm, and the nectar of the Nagas had given him strength that could never tire. The trees and their branches trembled before him as he broke through them, treading down all that stood in his way, even as the leader of a herd of elephants passes through the forest, trampling down mighty trees if they stand in his path.

Even when the dawn came they went on, stopping now and then to eat the fruits and roots that the woods provided and to drink the water of the rushing brooks. In the afternoon, when they were overcome with sleep and weariness, they came upon a beautiful banyan tree with wide-spreading branches, and there at last they found rest and shelter. As they sat there, Kunti said, "I am the mother of the five sons of Pandu and am with them now, yet I suffer from thirst."

Bhima's heart melted with pity at these words. "Rest here while I go in search of water," he said. "There must be a pool nearby, for I hear the sweet cries of waterfowl." He followed the cries of the birds, and they led him at last to a lake. There he bathed and quenched his thirst; then, mindful of his mother, he soaked his upper garment and held it in his hands, for he had no other way of carrying the water. But when he retraced his stops to the Banyan tree, he found his mother and his brothers lying fast asleep on the ground. As he looked at them his heart was filled with sorrow. He sighed like a snake as he thought to himself. "O how sad it is that our mother, who is beautiful as a lotus flower, delicate and tender, fit only to be on the softest bed, is sleeping now on the bare ground! How sad it is that Yudhistra, who deserves to rule the three worlds, sleeps on the bare ground; that Arjuna, dark-hued as the clouds, unequaled among men, and the twins, beautiful as the Gods of Dawn and Twilight, are sleeping here on the bare ground!

"How happy is the man who has good and loving kinsmen! Even one who has no family at all is better off than we are, who have been forced into exile by our uncle and our cousins and have just escaped a fiery death! Where are we to go now? O you wicked sons of Kuru, you are alive only because Yudhistra has not yet told me to take your lives; else this very day I should send you to the realm of Yama, king of the Dead, you and your friend Karna. But what can I do, you sinful ones, when the eldest son of Pandu is not yet angry with you?" His fury blazed up again, like a half-extinguished fire; he pressed his hands together, sighing deeply. Then, beholding again those who slept so trustingly, he thought, "Since they are all asleep, I will stay awake. When they awake,they can quench their thirst." And he sat there all night watching over his mother and his brothers.

When they rose refreshed in the morning, Yudhistra said, "There must be a town not far from this forest. Let us now leave the woods, for we must be beyond the reach of Duryodha's malice."

As they left the forest, they saw striding toward them the mighty sage Vyasa who was a kinsman of theirs, and therefore watched over them with special care. They saluted him reverently and stood before him with joined palms.

"You bulls of the Bháratas," he said to them, "I knew beforehand that you would suffer this misfortune at the hands of Kuru's wicked son. Do not grieve at what has befallen you; it will all turn to your good fortune. Listen to me! Not far off, ahead of you, is a delightful town where no evil can overtake you. Live there, disguised as Brahmans. I will return when you have need of me."

He comforted them thus and led them into the town and to the house of a Brahman who received them kindly and let them lodge with him. Then the holy Vyasa returned to the regions whence he had come.

The Pándavas dressed themselves in deerskins and let their hair fall on their shoulders after the manner of Brahmans who dwell in the forests and beg for their food. They went to the neighboring villages with begging bowls in their hands, and they saw in their wanderings lakes and mountains, rivers and forests. They studied the Vedas and the science of government and of virtue, and they were beloved by the people of that region, for they were pure in deed, kind, and sweet of speech. When they came back each night from their begging, they placed before Kunti all that they had received and she divided it between them, each one taking the part allotted to him. She gave to four of her sons and herself half of the food; and to the mighty Bhima alone she gave the other half, because he needed it to feed his great strength, on which they all depended. In this way the heroic sons of Pandu lived in that town, unknown to anyone.


Seeger, The Five Sons of King Pandu, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 33-47.