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Chapter 21

The Pāṇḍavas Exiled

After everyone had left the gambling match, Dushashana said to Duryodhana, “O great hero, that old man gave everything back that we strived so hard to acquire. The Pāṇḍavas have been sent back to their kingdom and we are back where we started.”

The two brothers consulted Karṇa and Śakuni. They condemned the blind king for his softness. How could he have been so foolish as to show kindness to such powerful enemies? That was a serious mistake. Unless they acted quickly to reverse the situation, they would soon be facing a great danger. Their spies had already reported how the five brothers were proceeding toward Indraprastha. Bhīma was whirling his massive mace, Arjuna was repeatedly twanging the Gāṇḍīva, Nakula and Sahadeva were waving their great swords, and Yudhiṣṭhira held aloft his spear. It was clear that they were ready to fight.

On Śakuni’s suggestion, Duryodhana again approached his father. Their only hope, Śakuni said, was another gambling match. This time, the Kauravas should win something. The Gandhara monarch revealed his plan and Duryodhana immediately went to Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s chambers.

Duryodhana found the king seated on a golden couch. Sitting at his feet he said, “Father, we must recall the Pāṇḍavas for another game before it is too late. We have stirred to anger a number of venomous serpents. How can we possibly expect them to tolerate the insult we offered to their wife? A powerful enemy must be destroyed by any means. We have started something which we cannot now stop.”

Duryodhana told his father that if the Pāṇḍavas could somehow be sent away, then it would give him time to find allies and build his strength. Using the Pāṇḍavas’ vast wealth, he could make his position unassailable. First, however, Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers had to be removed from the scene. Duryodhana described the plan Śakuni and he had contrived. The king should call the Pāṇḍavas back for one final game of dice. It was clear that they and the Kauravas would not be able to co-exist peacefully. Therefore, whoever lost the dice game should live in the forest in exile for thirteen years. During the final year, they could emerge from the forest but had to remain incognito. If they were discovered, then they would have to again go into the forest for a second twelve years. Such would be the stakes for this final game.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra remained silent after his son had stopped speaking. It was true that the Pāṇḍavas were now a real threat. Who could gauge the outcome of a war between those powerful brothers and his own sons? But another gambling match? What would Vidura and Bhīṣma say? It would probably be wiser to let things stand as they were for the present. Yudhiṣṭhira was virtuous and would keep his brothers in check.

Seeing his father’s hesitation, Duryodhana implored him. The king felt himself weakening. It was almost impossible for him to refuse his son. And if Duryodhana were to win the final match, as seemed likely, then the Kauravas would become the undisputed rulers of the earth. He himself would sit at their head. Even though Yudhiṣṭhira was the world’s emperor, if he agreed to the stakes and lost he would certainly feel honor-bound to enter the forest. Considering that everything lay in the hands of fate, the king agreed to Duryodhana’s proposal. He ordered that the Pāṇḍavas should be brought back to play one last game in which everything would be settled.

When they learned of this, the other Kuru elders objected strongly, but Dhṛtarāṣṭra would not listen. He ignored their counsel and messengers were sent from Hastināpura to find the Pāṇḍavas.

Seeing her husband’s blind acceptance of Duryodhana’s dark plans, Gāndhārī became anxious. She had been mortified to learn of Draupadī’s ordeal in the assembly hall. It seemed that Duryodhana lacked all moral scruples. How could the king support him? How could he possibly have sat in silence as the gentle Pāṇḍava queen was so harshly abused? When Dhṛtarāṣṭra was alone, the blindfolded queen approached him. “Do you not recall Vidura’s advice when Duryodhana was born? He warned us that if we did not cast aside that disgrace of our race, he would surely cause our destruction. It seems this is now coming to pass. O ruler of men, do not for your own fault sink into an ocean of calamity. Do not accept the counsel of wicked-minded persons who are but boys. Who would rekindle a great fire after it has been extinguished? Who could be so foolish as to again provoke Kuntī’s peaceful sons?”

The king remained impassive. Gāndhārī was wise and thought always of his welfare and the good of the Kuru house, but her advice now was like a bitter medicine. He could not swallow it. She continued, “You alone have caused the disaster we now face. Lead your sons on the right path. Do not watch them rush towards death. Abandon Duryodhana now. The affection you bear for him will destroy this kingdom. Let your mind, guided by wise counsels, follow its natural inclination toward peace and virtue. Surely you know that prosperity acquired through wickedness is soon lost, while that which is gained through honest means takes root and descends from generation to generation.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra sighed and stood up to leave. “If it is time for the destruction of our race then, what can I do? If it is God’s will, then let it take place without hindrance. How can I influence events ordained by destiny? Let the Pāṇḍavas return and again gamble with my sons.”

The queen said nothing more. It was hopeless. Surely the end of the Kurus was nigh, since no one could sway the king from his folly. She called for her servants and was led back to her quarters.

The Pāṇḍavas had gone a considerable distance from Hastināpura when to their surprise they saw a group of messengers from Hastināpura, headed by the pratikamin, approaching them. Yudhiṣṭhira dismounted from his chariot and the servant stepped forward and said, “O Yudhiṣṭhira, your uncle has ordered, ‘O best of the Bharatas, the assembly awaits you again. Come back for one final game of dice.’”

Yudhiṣṭhira could immediately understand Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s intention. He turned to his brothers and said, “All creatures receive the good or evil fruits of their work as ordained by the Supreme. Whether I play another dice game or not, the fruits of my past activities are unavoidable. Although I know the Kauravas wish to destroy me, I cannot ignore the summons. A living creature made of gold had never before been seen, yet Rāma allowed himself to be fooled by a golden deer. When calamity approaches, men’s minds become confused. Surely the path of religion is subtle and highly difficult to ascertain.”

Yudhiṣṭhira turned and retraced his steps back to Hastināpura. He was fearful. Despite his best efforts to follow the orders of his elders and avoid conflict, still a war seemed inevitable. To refuse Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s summons would only bring the conflict into the open more quickly. But what would be the result of another dice game with Duryodhana?

The five brothers soon arrived back at Hastināpura. To the consternation of their friends and well-wishers, they again entered Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s great hall. Although he knew full well that he had no chance of success, Yudhiṣṭhira sat down to play dice with Śakuni one last time. When the Pāṇḍavas were again seated in the hall, Śakuni said, “O Yudhiṣṭhira, the old king has returned your wealth. That is well. Now let us play with a stake of greater value. If we are defeated, we shall accept exile in the forest. We will wear deerskins and remain there for twelve years. During the thirteenth year we will live in a city, town or village. If you should discover us, however, we shall be exiled in the forest for another twelve years. If you are defeated, you and your brothers, along with Draupadī, will accept the same conditions.”

Śakuni’s mouth curved into a sinister smile. The ivory dice in his hand clacked as he explained the stakes. Whichever side was the loser would be expected to surrender their kingdom to the winner. The kingdom would be returned when the thirteen-year period was over.

As the stakes were described, all those in the hall cried out, “Alas! Shame upon Duryodhana’s friends that they do not warn him of the danger he brings upon himself!” Some of them turned to Dhṛtarāṣṭra and said, “Whether or not Duryodhana understands his foolishness, you should order him to stop. He will bring down only death and destruction. Check him at once. This is your duty.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra said nothing and Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “O King, how can one like me who always observes a kṣatriya’s duty refuse your challenge? Everyone knows this about me. Besides, it is Dhṛtarāṣṭra, my father and guru, who orders me to play. What can I do but accept the stakes?”

The game began. Everyone in the hall sat breathless as it moved toward its inevitable conclusion. Finally, Śakuni’s “I have won!” echoed round the hall again. The Kuru elders cried out, “Alas! Shame! This ancient house is doomed!”

Duryodhana laughed and ordered that deerskins be brought immediately for the Pāṇḍavas. When the brothers had put on the ascetic garb and were preparing to leave for the forest, Dushashana spoke in great happiness. “Now Duryodhana’s unopposed and absolute sovereignty shall begin. The Pāṇḍavas stand vanquished. Indeed they are miserable. Whether or not we have acted sinfully does not matter. It is clear that the gods have bestowed their grace upon us, for today we have defeated our enemies. Kuntī’s sons are deprived of happiness and kingdom forever. Those who laughed at Duryodhana shall now abandon their royal robes and armor and go to the forest possessing nothing.”

Relishing the moment to the full, Dushashana continued to taunt the Pāṇḍavas with cruel words. Seeing the five brothers in their black deerskins resembling five powerful ṛṣis, he said, “Although the Pāṇḍavas look like wise men installed in a sacrifice, they should now be considered unworthy to perform any sacrifice.”

Dushashana then turned toward Draupadī. “King Drupada did not act well when he bestowed this princess upon the Pāṇḍavas, who are impotent men. O Draupadī, what joy will you get from serving your husbands in the forest? Select a better husband from among the Kauravas so that this calamity may not overwhelm you. Do not waste any more time waiting upon the Pāṇḍavas.”

Bhīma rushed toward Dushashana like a Himālayan lion might rush toward a jackal. “O crooked wretch, you rave in words uttered only by the sinful. You have won today only by Śakuni’s skill, yet still you dare to boast. As you pierce our hearts with words as sharp as arrows, so shall I pierce your heart in battle to remind you of your words today. Then I shall send you to Yamarāja’s abode along with your followers.”

Giving up all shame Dushashana laughed and danced around in the Kuru’s midst, singing, “O cow, O cow.”

Bhīma restrained himself, with difficulty, by fixing his mind on virtue. He spoke again to the sneering Dushashana. “Wretch, how do you dare to use such harsh words, having won by foul means? I shall surely tear open your chest and drink your life-blood in battle, or I will never attain to the regions of bliss. My anger shall be pacified only when I have slain all of Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons.”

Yudhiṣṭhira headed for the door, followed by his brothers and Draupadī. In great joy Duryodhana walked alongside Bhīma, mimicking his powerful lion-like gait. Half-turning toward him, Bhīma said, “Do not think that by this you have gained anything over me. I will be back to kill you and all your followers. Neither of us will forget what has happened today.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra was still silent. Bhīṣma, Vidura, Droṇa and Kṛpa, all of whom were shedding tears to see the Pāṇḍavas go into exile, called out, “Fie! Fie!” They looked helplessly at the blind king.

Before the Pāṇḍavas left the hall, they stopped before the king and Bhīma spoke again. “I shall kill Duryodhana and all his brothers, O King. Arjuna will slay Karṇa, and Sahadeva will kill the evil Śakuni. My words will be made good by the gods. When I have beaten Duryodhana to the ground with my mace, I will then place my foot on his head.”

Arjuna added, “The promises of superior men are not empty words. You will see all this come to pass on the fourteenth year. As Bhīma directs, I will kill Karṇa, who is malicious, jealous, harsh-speeched and vain. I will also slay all kings who foolishly stand against me in battle. If my vow is not carried out, then so shall the Himālayas be moved, or the sun’s rays become cool. I will not fail. This will come to pass in fourteen years if Duryodhana does not return our kingdom.”

Arjuna felt sure that Duryodhana would never return their kingdom. The war was inevitable. All the brothers knew it. As Arjuna finished speaking, Sahadeva, sighing like a snake, his eyes red with anger, said, “O Śakuni, you have destroyed the fame of your race. What you call dice are actually pointed arrows aimed at your heart. If you have anything left to do in this life, do it now, for I shall certainly kill you in battle when we return from the forest.”

Nakula also vowed to rid the earth of Duryodhana’s followers. Having made their promises, the brothers turned toward Dhṛtarāṣṭra. Yudhiṣṭhira said, “I bid you farewell, O King, and also you, O Kuru elders. I shall see you all again upon my return. I bow to you and ask your blessings.”

The elders were too ashamed to reply. They prayed for the Pāṇḍavas’ welfare. Then, after a moment, Vidura spoke. “Your mother, the revered Kuntī, is a royal princess and should not be made to go to the forest. She is delicate and old. Let that blessed lady remain in my house while you are gone.”

Yudhiṣṭhira agreed, saying, “You are our uncle and as good as our father. Let it be as you say, O learned man. We are all obedient to you. Without doubt you are our most respected guru. Please command us what else should be done.”

“O Yudhiṣṭhira, best of the Bharata race,” Vidura replied, “do not feel pained by this turn of events. There is no shame in being defeated by sinful means. You five brothers will reside happily in the forest, enjoying each other’s company along with the company of the virtuous Draupadī. You have already received many instructions from ṛṣis and saints. This exile will be a further opportunity to receive spiritual training. The learned Dhaumya and the godly Ṛṣi Nārada will instruct you as you lead a simple forest life. Actually, you will be benefited by your withdrawal from worldly affairs and wealth.”

Vidura wished them well, praying that they would return in safety. He blessed them that they might obtain from the gods their various opulences: victory from Indra, patience from Yamarāja, charity from Kuvera, sense control from Varuṇa, strength from Vāyu, forbearance from the earth and energy from the sun-god. Finally Vidura said, “Leave then with our permission, O son of Kuntī. None can accuse you of ever having acted sinfully. Farewell.”

Yudhiṣṭhira thanked his uncle for his blessings and bowed low before him, Bhīṣma and Droṇa. Each of his brothers then offered their respects to the Kuru elders, who in turn blessed them. They then made their way out of the hall.

Before following her husbands, Draupadī approached Kuntī to ask her leave. As she entered the inner chambers a loud cry went up from all the ladies there. They were plunged in grief to see the Pañchāla princess about to enter the forest. Draupadī saluted and embraced them all according to their status. She bowed before Kuntī, who lifted her up and embraced her.

With tears in her eyes, Kuntī said, “O child, do not grieve for this great calamity which has overtaken you. The hearts of good women are never moved by the inevitable influence of destiny. Knowing all your duties, you should follow your husbands with a happy heart and continue to render them service. You are chaste and accomplished, and you adorn the ancient Kuru race. It is fortunate indeed for the Kurus that they were not burnt by your wrath. O sinless one, go now in safety, blessed by my prayers. Protected by your own virtue, you will soon obtain good fortune.”

Kuntī’s voice was choked. She had never been separated from her sons before. How could she face thirteen years away from them? Sobbing loudly, she asked Draupadī, “O child, take particular care of Sahadeva. That gentle boy holds a special place in my heart.” Draupadī replied, “So be it,” and, still wearing a single blood-stained cloth, her hair disheveled, she left the inner apartments in tears. Kuntī followed close behind. As she came out she saw her sons, shorn of their royal robes and clad in deerskins. They were surrounded by rejoicing foes and pitying friends. Overwhelmed by motherly affection, Kuntī embraced them and said with difficulty, “You are all virtuous and well-behaved. You are devoted to the Lord and ever engaged in the service of your superiors. How then has this calamity overcome you? I do not see whose sin has fallen upon you. Surely it is due to your having taken birth in my womb that you now face this reversal despite your numerous excellent qualities.”

Kuntī lamented loudly for her sons. How would they survive in the wilderness? She decided that Mādrī had been the more fortunate wife. She had already attained her liberation. Surely she had forseen this terrible disaster and had entered Pāṇḍu’s funeral fire in relief. If Kuntī had known that this was to happen, she would never have brought her sons from the mountains to Hastināpura.

Kuntī let out an anguished cry. “O great creator! Have you forgotten to ordain my death? Surely that is why I am still living although faced with such tragedy. O my sons, I obtained you after so much difficulty. How can I leave you now? I shall accompany you to the forest.”

Folding her hands, she prayed aloud to Kṛṣṇa, “O Kṛṣṇa, O You who dwell in Dwārakā, where are You? Why do You not save me and my sons, the best of men? Those who are wise say that You always protect those who think of You. Why is this now proving false?”

Kuntī then censured the Kuru elders who could stand by and watch as her virtuous sons were exiled to the forest. Weeping, she turned to Sahadeva. “O my son, you should not go. Stay behind and earn the fruit of the virtue of serving the mother. Let your pious brothers fulfill the terms of the vow.”

The Pāṇḍavas were pained to see their mother grieving. They consoled her as best they could, then took their leave. Vidura gently took Kuntī by the hand and led her toward his house. Gāndhārī and the other ladies of the royal house also wept, covering their faces with their lotus-like hands.

With difficulty the brothers made their way along Hastināpura’s crowded streets. The news of their exile had spread quickly, and the streets were filled with grieving citizens. Led by Dhaumya, they left the city and the people they loved, unable to say anything to anyone.