by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

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




The Winning of the Princess

When the Pándavas had dwelt for some time in that place, a wise and holy Brahman came to the house of their host, who was hospitable to strangers and gave him lodging there. The Pándavas begged the Brahman to tell them about his travels and his experiences, and he spoke to them of various countries, shrines, and sacred rivers, of kings and provinces and cities. When he had finished his stories, he told them that a great festival was about to take place in the kingdom of Panchala. At this festival the king's daughter, the beautiful Princess Dráupadi, was to choose her husband from among all the kings and princes who would come to win her hand; it was to be her swayámvara, her bridal choice.

Now the king of Panchala was the very one who had wronged Drona; it was he whom the Pándavas had defeated in battle and brought captive to their master. Therefore, they asked the Brahman to tell them about this king, and he, not knowing who they were, told them all about the king's quarrel with Drona and how he had to give up half his kingdom to his former friend.

"The king never forgot for a single moment how he had been shamed," said the Brahman. "He began to waste away, thinking only of how he might obtain a son who could defeat Drona in battle. He wandered from place to place, seeking some Brahman who, through his knowledge of sacrifice, might induce the gods to give him such a son. At last he found one. The king, with a delighted heart, prepared the sacrifice and had it performed with splendid ceremonies, for he was willing to give all his wealth in order to have what he most desired. And in truth, because of that sacrifice, he obtained twin children, a son and a daughter. The son is strong, beautiful as a god and terrible to behold; he was named Jumna, and the people of Panchala were mad with joy at his birth. Drona himself took the boy into his house and taught him the use of every weapon.

"The daughter, Dráupadi, is exceedingly beautiful. Her eyes are dark and large as lotus leaves, and her hair is black and curling; her waist is slender and her bosom deep; her body is as fragrant as a blue lotus flower. Indeed, she has no equal in beauty on earth. It is she who will choose her husband at the festival that is to be given in the kingdom of Panchala. Kings and princes from many lands, and mighty warriors, young, handsome, and famous, will come to it, eager to win her hand. Actors and dancers, athletes and tumblers, bards and musicians will be there to entertain the guests. The festivities will be like those in the halls of heaven."

When the sons of Kunti heard these words, it seemed as if their hearts had been pierced with arrows. They lost all their peace of mind and became listless and absent-minded. Their mother, watching them, said to Yudhistra, "We have lived for many months in the house of this kind Brahman and have passed our time very pleasantly here. I have seen much of the lovely gardens, the woods, and the rivers of this kingdom, but I have never been to Panchala. If you, too, would like to see it, let us go there forthwith, my son."

Now Yudhistra and his brothers were longing to go to Panchala, so they thanked the Brahman in whose house they had dwelt and set forth on their journey with joyful hearts, their mother walking before them. They traveled slowly, lingering in pleasant places that they found on their way. When they arrived at the royal city of Panchala, they found lodging in the house of a potter, and no one recognized those heroes as they dwelt there in the guise of Brahmans.


The Festival

The king of Panchala, ever since he had fought against Arjuna, had wished that his daughter might marry that son of Pandu, but he had never spoken of this desire to anyone excepting his son. He had heard that all the Pándavas had been burned to death in the blazing house, but he could not believe that they had been so easily tricked. Other warriors who knew the Pándavas thought the same thing, and rumors arose that the sons of Kunti still lived.

Therefore, for his daughter's swayámvara, the king had a bow made that was so strong that no man but Arjuna could bend it; and he set a revolving wheel on a tall pole and above that a golden fish. This was to be the target, and he thought that no one but the third son of Pandu could hit such a mark. Then he proclaimed the swayámvara, saying "He who can string this bow and with these five bright arrows hit the golden fish between the whirling spokes of the wheel may win my daughter for his bride, for she will choose her husband from among those who achieve this feat."

He sent this proclamation to neighboring and to distant kingdoms, and soon princes and warriors and kings with their retinues came from all side into Panchala. Great sages and Brahmans came from many lands to behold the festival. Duryodha and his brothers and Karna came with the others, and all were received with honor.

A level plain northeast of the city had been chosen for the arena, which was enclosed on all sides with high walls pierced with arched doorways. On one side was a pavilion shaded by canopies of bright colors and designs and adorned with flowers; there the king and the spectators would sit to see the contest. Around the other sides mansions were built, white and spotless as the necks of swans or the cloud-kissing peaks of Mount Kailasa. Their doors were wide and the steps easy to mount; the floors were covered with costly carpets, and all the rooms were fragrant with the scent of sandalwood and aloes. In these mansions dwelt the suitors who had come to win the hand of Dráupadi.

When the day of the festival dawned, the citizens and countryfolk, roaring like the ocean, poured into the enclosure and took their places round it. The Pándavas entered unnoticed and sat among the Brahmans. Then the king and all his guests took their seats in the canopied pavilion, in the order of their ages and their honors; clad in their finest garments and adorned with jewels, they looked like the gods themselves. Each day, for fifteen days, actors and dancers, musicians and acrobats delighted the hearts of the spectators; each day the king bestowed gifts and largesse on all and feasted them.

On the sixteenth day, when the gaiety was at its height, the Princess Dráupadi entered the pavilion, led by her twin brother, Jumna. She was richly dressed in silken robes and decked with jewels; she carried in her hands a golden dish with offerings to the gods and a garland of flowers to place around the neck of him whom she would choose as her husband. A holy Brahman lit the sacrificial fire and poured with due rites the libation upon it, uttering blessings as he did so. Then he stopped the musical instruments and the resounding trumpets, and commanded silence.

When the vast crowd was perfectly still, Jumna--that splendid son who had been born to avenge his father--took his sister's hand and spoke in a voice as deep as thunder: "Hear, you assembled kings and warriors! This is the bow, these are the arrows, and there is the target. The bow must be bent and strung, and with these five arrows the target must be struck between the spokes of the whirling wheel. Any man who is nobly born may attempt this feat, and my sister Dráupadi will choose her husband from among those who achieve it."

Then he turned to his sister and told her the lineage and the noble deeds of those assembled lords of earth.

"Duryodha and Dushasa and more of the mighty sons of Kuru, with Karna, the Suta's son, have come to win you for their bride, my sister. Shákuni and his three brothers, sons of the king of Gandhara; the noble Ashvattáma, Drona's son; King Virata and his two sons; that mighty charioteer, the king of Mágadha; Krishna of the Yadu folk, with his brother; and many other Kshatrias of world-wide fame have come, O blessed one, for you. They will vie with one another to hit the mark, and you shall place the bridal garland around the neck of him whom you choose for your husband."

The kings and warriors arose and lifted high their weapons, each thinking himself the mightiest and the most skillful in arms. They were like Himalayan elephants in the mating season, each filled with pride in his beauty and his prowess; each one thought, "Dráupadi shall be mine!" For the hearts of all of them had been pierced by the arrows of the God of Love as they gazed upon the beauty of that maiden. The sons of Kunti and the twin sons of Madri were struck by the same shafts as they looked wide-eyed upon the princess of Panchala.

Then all who desired her as their bride went down into the arena; they bit their nether lips with wrath and looked with jealousy even at their best friends. They began, one by one, to try their strength upon the great bow, but not one of them could bend it. When some of them tried, with swelling muscles, they were tossed on the ground as the bow sprang back from their hands, and they lay there helpless. The powerful king of Madra was thrown to his knees as he tried in vain to bend it, and the proud ruler of Mágadha was also flung down, whereupon he rose and left the arena in a rage. Duryodha and his brothers fared no better.

After many had tried and failed, Karna came forward. He raised the bow and strung it with ease; then he aimed at the mark. The Pándavas beheld that son of Surya with the bow drawn to a circle, and they thought that the day was lost; but Dráupadi cried out, "I will not choose a Suta for my lord!" And Karna, casting an upward glance at the sun, his father, laughed with vexation, flung the bow aside and strode away.

When all the warriors had given up the attempt among the jeering cries of the crowd, Arjuna rose from among the Brahmans who were seated in the assembly. He was clad in deerskin and his hair fell on his shoulders, but he walked like a lion across the arena, while murmurs arose from all sides as people wondered who this Brahman might be who dared to try what kings and warriors had failed to do. He stood for a moment before the bow, his head bowed and his palms joined as he prayed to Shiva, the giver of boons. Then he lifted the bow, strung it in the wink of an eye and shot each of the five arrows between the turning spokes of the wheel, so quickly that they seemed to be but one, and the golden fish fell to the ground.

Then a great uproar arose, for those who had failed cried out in grief and anger; the crowd cheered the winner, musicians struck their instruments, and bards and heralds chanted the praise of the unknown hero. The king looked at Arjuna and was filled with joy; Dráupadi, rejoicing also, rose from her seat and placed the bridal wreath about his neck.

But the kings and warriors who had come to win her looked at one another furiously. "The king is making fools of us," they cried. "He scorns his own caste and gives his daughter to a Brahman!" "He planted the tree and is now about to cut it down just when it is ready to bear fruit!" "A Brahman may not take part in the swayámvara of a Kshatria maiden!" "Let us slay this king who thus insults all kings!"

So saying, they took up their weapons and rushed toward the king to slay him. But he called upon Arjuna, who drew the great bow to a circle and stood beside the king, facing the oncoming warriors. And Bhima, with the strength of thunder, uprooted a young tree, tore off its leaves and stood beside his brother, looking like Yama himself, the mace-bearing king of the dead. Yudhistra did not wish to be recognized at this time and left the arena with the twin sons of Madri, to wait for his brothers outside the gate.

Now Krishna, the wisest of men, a cousin of the Pándavas, was standing with his brother, watching all that happened.

"That hero whose tread is like the lion's, who bent the mighty bow, is no other than Arjuna, the son of Kunti," he said. "It is he, if I am Krishna. And that other, who uprooted the tree, is Bhima, for no one in the world except him could do such a thing. That youth with eyes like lotus leaves, who walks like a lion but is humble withal, is the eldest son of Pandu; he left the amphitheater with two handsome youths who, I suspect, are the twin sons of Madri. I have heard it said that the Pándavas and their mother escaped from the blazing house."

Then Krishna spoke gently to the angry warriors, saying, "This maiden had been fairly won by the Brahman; let there be no quarrel about her choice." At his words they laid down their arms and returned to their dwellings, wondering much at what had come to pass. And all who had come to the swayámvara went away, thinking that the Brahmans had won a great victory, since one of them had won so lovely a maiden.

Bhima and Arjuna made their way with difficulty out of the crowd, and the princess of Panchala, in her bridal array, followed Arjuna, catching hold of his deerskin garment.


In the Potter's House

Now the sons of Kunti, each day after they had watched the festival, had been going on their usual rounds to beg their food and had brought it back to their mother. She did not know that this was the last day of the swayámvara and wondered why they should return so late. As she was thinking about them in the stillness of the late afternoon, her sons came back to the house, bringing Dráupadi with them, and Yudhistra said to her in jest, "Behold the alms we have received today!"

And Kunti, who was inside the house and did not see them, and answered as she always did, "Share it among you and enjoy it together!"

Then she turned and beheld the princess and knew at once, from her beauty and her bridal garments, who she must be. "O, what have I said?" she cried. She took the maiden's hand and said to Yudhistra, "When you presented this maiden to me as the alms that you had received, I spoke before I saw her. Tell me now how my words may be true and yet bring no harm to the princess of Panchala!"

Yudhistra thought for a moment and then said to Arjuna, "It was you who won Dráupadi, O best of bowman. Therefore it is right for you to wed her. Now light the sacred fire and take her hand with all the holy rites."

But Arjuna replied, "Do not command me to do what is wrong, O king of men! You are the eldest of us and must therefore be the first to marry, then Bhima and then myself; after me Nákula and last of all Sadeva, who is the youngest. Bhima and I, the twins and this maiden are all obedient to you. Therefore think carefully and do what will be right in the eyes of the king of Panchala and of his daughter. We shall all obey you."

His brothers listened to these words, so full of love and respect, and they all looked at Dráupadi and she at them; they searched their hearts for an answer to this question. But truly, they could think of nothing but that maiden, for her beauty was greater than that of any other woman, and the God of Love had conquered all of them. Yudhistra, when he looked upon his younger brothers, understood what was passing in their hearts and feared that there might be a division between them. "The blessed Dráupadi shall be the wife of all of us," he said, "even as our mother has decreed." And the others heard these words of their eldest brother with great joy.

At this moment Krishna, who had recognized the Pándavas in the amphitheater, came to the potter's house. He touched the feet of Yudhistra saying, "I am Krishna, the son of Kunti's brother." Then he touched the feet of Kunti and embraced the younger brothers, and they welcomed him with delight.

"How did you find us, O Krishna," asked Yudhistra, "living as we do, in disguise?"

Krishna laughed. "O king of men," he said, "fire cannot be hidden, even when it is covered. Who but the Pándavas could have shown such might as you displayed today at the swayámvara? By good fortune you escaped from the blazing house; by good fortune the wicked sons of Kuru have not succeeded in their mischievous plots. May you be blessed with wealth and joy; may your good fortune increase like a fire that grows and spreads over the ground! Now let me return to my tent, lest the other monarchs find your dwelling place."

When Krishna had departed, the Pándavas went out to beg their food, and when they returned, they gave it to their mother. She said to Dráupadi, "First set aside a portion of this food for the gods and give it to Brahmans and to those who are hungry. Then, O lovely one, divide the rest into two equal portions; give one half to Bhima for this youth, who is strong as a king of elephants, must eat much; divide the other half into six parts, four for these youths, one for me, and one for yourself." The princess did cheerfully all that she was told and they ate the food that she had prepared.

Then Sadeva, because he was the youngest, made a bed of grass upon the ground, and those heroes spread thereon their deerskins and lay down to sleep, with their heads toward the south. And Kunti lay down along the line of their heads, while Dráupadi lay along the line of their feet, as though she were their nether pillow. And the princess, although she lay along the line of their feet, on a bed of grass, grieved not in her heart nor thought unkindly of those brothers. They began to talk together, and their talk was all about heavenly weapons, about chariots and elephants and armies and kingdoms, for each of them was worthy to rule the world.

All all that they said was heard by Jumna, the brother of Dráupadi, who lay hidden in the potter's house.


The Weddings

Jumna wished to know who had won his sister's hand and had followed the Pándavas out of the arena to their lodging, where he had hid himself and so heard all that was said. As soon as morning came, he hastened to tell his father what he had learned and found the king sad and anxious about his beloved daughter. "O, where is Dráupadi?" he cried when he saw his son. "Who took her away?" "They were not Brahmans, of that I am sure. Has anyone of mean descent, has any tax-paying Vaisya won my daughter and so placed his left foot upon my head? O son, has that wreath of flowers been flung away upon a grave? Or are the noble sons of Pandu yet alive? Was it Arjuna who struck the mark?"

"O Father," answered Jumna, "I followed those heroes and my sister to a poor abode on the edge of the city. There sat a lady like a flame of fire who, I suppose, is their mother, for when they entered they touched her feet, and Dráupadi did likewise. After they had begged for their food and eaten it, they laid themselves down to sleep, Dráupadi lying along the line of their feet as their nether pillow; and before they slept they talked in voices as deep as those of storm clouds. O Father, no Vaisya or Brahman or Shudra could talk as those heroes did! I believe that they are Kshatrias, for they spoke only of weapons and of kingdoms. It seems that our hope has been fulfilled, for when I saw him who hit the mark and that other who uprooted the tree, and when I heard their talk, I felt sure that these were the sons of Pandu living in disguise."

The king was greatly cheered by his son's words. He sent messengers at once to the potter's house to say, "The king is preparing his daughter's wedding in the palace. The wedding feast is ready for the bridegroom and his company, and the king begs him to come and partake of it after the morning worship. Do not delay! These chariots adorned with golden lotuses and drawn by fine steeds are worthy of kings and will bring you to the palace!" The Pándavas performed their morning worship; then they placed Kunti and Dráupadi on one of the chariots, mounted the others themselves and were driven swiftly to the royal palace.

Meanwhile the king, in order to make sure of the caste to which his son-in-law belonged, made a collection of the gifts that would please the men of all the castes. He had placed in the courtyard of the palace fruits, cattle, seeds, plows, and other farming tools; bright rugs, finely woven fabrics and cunning jewelry. There were also coats of mail, swords and scimitars of fine temper, chariots and horses, bows and well-feathered arrows.

When the bridegroom's party arrived, Kunti went with Dráupadi into the inner rooms of the palace where the ladies of the royal household were amazed at her stately beauty and saluted her with joyful hearts. And when those five mighty warriors, dressed in deerskin but walking like lions, entered the palace, the king and his son, his ministers, and all his court were exceedingly glad. They offered the brothers handsome seats with carven stools to rest their feet upon, and they noticed that their guests showed no awkwardness or fear in taking those costly seats, one after another, in the order of their ages. Skillful cooks and servants brought them food worthy of the gods, on gold and silver plates, and the sons of Pandu dined and were well pleased.

When the feast was over, the king showed them the gifts that he had prepared. The Pándavas, passing by everything else, looked keenly at all the weapons of war, taking them in their hands and testing their weight and edge and temper, walking round the chariots, while Nákula lingered among the horses, for he loved them and had a special knowledge of them. As the king watched them, he knew that they must be of royal blood; yet he still spoke to Yudhistra as if he were a Brahman. "Tell us truly, O chastisers of foes, are you Brahmans or Kshatrias or are you gods who in disguise are roaming the earth and have sought my daughter's hand? I must prepare her wedding according to the caste to which you belong."

"Let joy fill your heart, O King," said Yudhistra. "Know me to be the eldest son of Pandu and these, who won your daughter among that concourse of princes, to be Bhima and Arjuna. These are the twins, Nákula and Sadeva. We are Kshatrias, and your daughter will be carried from one royal house into another one, as a lotus is carried from one lake to another."

At these words Draupadi's father raised his eyes to ecstasy and for some moments could not speak for joy. Then he answered Yudhistra in fitting words and asked him about the escape from the blazing house and all that had happened to them since that time. He blamed their uncle Kuru for his heartlessness and vowed that he would restore Yudhistra to his ancestral throne. And then he said, "And now let Prince Arjuna take my daughter's hand on this blessed day and we shall perform the marriage rites around the sacred fire."

"That may not be, O king of men," answered Yudhistra, "for I am the eldest of us all and must marry before Arjuna."

"Then, if it please you," said the king, "take my daughter's hand in marriage."

But Yudhistra said, "Your daughter, O lord of earth, shall be the wife of all of us, for so my mother has decreed. Bhima is also unmarried and he is next to me in age. It is true that Arjuna has won this jewel, your daughter, but we have always shared among us anything that we may win. O best of kings, we cannot change our ways. Let Dráupadi become our wedded wife, taking our hands in turn around the sacred fire."

The king was troubled by these words. "One man may have many wives," he said, "but I have never heard that one woman may have many husbands. Yet you are true and know the path of virtue; you can never do a sinful thing that is not in accord with the Vedas."

"The path of virtue is not always clear," answered Yudhistra. "But I know that my heart has never turned to what is wrong, and when my mother told us to share this jewel together, my heart agreed with what she said. Therefore let us obey without fear or scruple."

The king said, "Let us all--your mother, myself, my son and you five brothers--talk together about this matter and decide what shall be done."

Kunti came from the inner apartments and told the king how it had happened that she had said to her sons that they must all marry Dráupadi; she also said that it seemed to her no sin, for she knew that they were all of one heart and mind. While they were talking together, the sage Vyasa, who watched over the Pándavas, came among them and they all rose and saluted him with reverence and asked for his counsel concerning this marriage.

"It is true," Vyasa said, "that such a marriage is looked upon nowadays as wrong, but it was not always so. This proposal of Yudhistra's is without sin because it was ordained of old by Shiva himself, the god of gods, the giver of boons. I will tell you how it came to pass. A noble sage lived long ago in a hermitage with his daughter, who was beautiful and chaste; but no husband came to woo her. She sorrowed over this, and therefore fasted and trained her mind and body in order to please the lord Shiva and to obtain a boon from him. At last the mighty god was pleased and appeared before her, saying, 'Ask whatever you desire, O blessed maiden, for I am Shiva and will grant your wish.'

"In her joy the maiden said again and again, "O give me a husband graced with every virtue!"

"And the god replied to her, 'You shall have five husbands from among the Bhárata princes.'

"'O lord of boons,' she said. 'I want only one husband!'

"'Maiden,' the god replied, 'you have said fully five times, "O give me a husband"; therefore in some future life of yours it shall be even as you have asked.'

"O lord of men, your daughter of celestial beauty is that maid reborn; Dráupadi is destined to be the wife of five husbands. Therefore let these heroes take her hand in turn, with happy hearts, and let the marriage rites be performed."

When Vyasa had thus given his consent, the king and his son joyfully prepared the wedding. Their friends and kinsmen, the ministers of state, many Brahmans and citizens came to witness it. The king brought forth his daughter richly clad, her headdress, her arms and neck and ankles bright with jewels. Then those princes of the Bháratas, adorned with jewels and clad in costly robes scented with sandalwood, entered the hall one after another in the order of their ages, led by a priest of flamelike splendor who lit the sacred fire and poured libations upon it. He first called Yudhistra, and married him and Dráupadi who, hand in hand, walked round the sacred fire.

Day after day, one after the other, those mighty warriors, those princes dressed in splendid robes, took the hand of that most beautiful of women and were united to her in marriage. When the weddings were over, the king gave the Pándavas a hundred chariots set with rows of ringing bells and golden standards, each chariot drawn by four horses with golden bridles; a hundred elephants with marks of good fortune painted on their temples and faces, like a hundred mountains with golden peaks; a hundred serving girls in lovely robes and wreathed with flowers; and to each one of the brothers he gave much wealth, rich robes and jewels.

Now that the Pándavas were his sons-in-law, the king of Panchala no longer feared anyone on earth; indeed he was no longer afraid of the gods. And the five brothers, with Dráupadi as their wife, passed their days in joy and happiness, like so many gods, in the kingdom of Panchala.


Seeger, The Five Sons of King Pandu, Print edition, op. cit., pp.48-63.