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Chapter 22

Into the Forest

When the Pāṇḍavas were gone, Dhṛtarāṣṭra became prey to anxiety. Thinking of the dangers awaiting his sons he could not enjoy peace of mind. He brooded in his rooms for some time, then called for Vidura. When his brother arrived the king timidly asked, “I desire to hear how Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers left the city. How did Draupadī proceed? What was the exalted Dhaumya doing as they left the city?”

Vidura replied, “Yudhiṣṭhira walked with his face covered by a cloth. Bhīma was looking at his mighty arms and Arjuna was scattering sands as he walked. Sahadeva smeared his face with dirt and Nakula covered his body with ashes. The lotus-eyed Draupadī followed them with her face bathed in tears and her hair disheveled. Dhaumya walked before them, carrying kusha grass and uttering fearful mantras from the Sāma Veda relating to Yamarāja.”

Intrigued by this description, Dhṛtarāṣṭra enquired further, “Tell me why they have assumed these various guises, O Vidura.”

“Although your sons persecuted him and deprived him of his kingdom by foul means, the wise Dharmarāja has not deviated from the path of virtue. Thus he covered his face, thinking, ‘I may consume innocent citizens by looking at them with eyes made fearful by anger.’ Bhīma strode forth from the city repeatedly stretching his arms and thinking how none could equal him in strength. He desires to do to his enemies acts worthy of those arms. Arjuna, who is capable of drawing his bow with both hands, scattered sands to symbolize the countless arrows he will let loose in battle. Sahadeva smeared his face thinking, ‘None should recognise me in this hour of calamity. The incomparably handsome Nakula covered himself with ashes thinking, ‘I should not steal the hearts of women as I walk exposed along the public highway.’”

Hearing of Bhīma and Arjuna’s belligerence, the blind king became even more fearful. What would become of Duryodhana and his brothers now? Dhṛtarāṣṭra listened with growing concern as Vidura continued his description.

“The chaste Draupadī, attired in a single piece of cloth, her hair bedraggled due to Dushashana’s touch, went along saying, ‘The wives of those who have reduced me to this plight will, in fourteen years from now, have to lament as I am lamenting. Bereft of their husbands and sons, they will enter the city by this road, having offered oblations of water to their dead relatives at the river.’

“O Dhṛtarāṣṭra, the learned and self-controlled Dhaumya, holding blades of kusha pointed south, uttered the Sāma Veda, thinking, ‘When all the Kauravas are killed their priests will sing these same mantras.’”

Vidura told the king how Hastināpura’s citizens were condemning the Kuru chiefs and wailing with sorrow. While the brothers were leaving, everyone saw the many evil omens. Lightning flashed from a cloudless sky and the earth trembled. The sun was eclipsed and meteors fell. Jackals yelped from all directions, and vultures and ravens shrieked from the temples of the gods. “All these signs portend the destruction of our race, O King. This is only the result of your own evil desires.” Vidura looked at Dhṛtarāṣṭra, who sat wringing his hands and saying nothing.

Just at that moment the great Ṛṣi Nārada suddenly appeared, surrounded by other powerful sages. He stood before Dhṛtarāṣṭra and said gravely, “On the fourteenth year from now, for Duryodhana’s fault, Bhīma and Arjuna will destroy the Kauravas.”

After saying this, Nārada rose upwards into the sky with the other ṛṣis and disappeared. All the Kurus were gripped by fear. Nārada’s words could not prove false. Seeing war as inevitable, Duryodhana, Karṇa and Śakuni approached Droṇa to offer him command of the army. Droṇa said, “The Brahmins have said that the Pāṇḍavas are of divine origin and cannot be killed. Out of fear of those heroes, however, you have sought my shelter and I cannot refuse. Destiny is supreme. I shall do everything in my power to protect you, even though the Pāṇḍavas are allied with Drupada, whose son was born to kill me. Thus I too must be about to die. O Kurus, enjoy while you can. Offer sacrifice and give charity freely. At the end of fourteen years, calamity will overtake us all.”

Droṇa spoke in Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s hearing. The old king found himself more and more anxious as he thought of the injustice for which he had been responsible. Now his son had everything he wanted, but how long could it last? Enmity with the Pāṇḍavas would be dangerous even for the gods. Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s thoughts went back to the day Duryodhana was born. Why had he not then listened to Vidura’s advice? Even then his affection for his son had overpowered all his judgment and reason. Now he was about to face the consequences for his sentimental weakness.The king called for his secretary Sañjaya, who, although a charioteer and śūdra by birth, was Vyāsadeva’s disciple and his own friend. Sañjaya had often been able to console Dhṛtarāṣṭra with his wisdom. When he arrived he saw the king sitting with his head bowed, sighing repeatedly. With a wry smile the charioteer said, “O King, you have now obtained the whole earth and all its wealth. Why then do you grieve?”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra shook his head. “What do they not have to grieve for who will have to meet in battle those foremost of fighters, the Pāṇḍavas?”

Sañjaya spoke frankly. “This, O King, is your own fault. You have created a hostility which will destroy the world. Although Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Vidura condemned Duryodhana’s behavior, your wicked son had the beloved and virtuous Draupadī dragged into the assembly hall and cruelly insulted. Why did you not check him? Surely the gods deprive that man of his reason to whom they have ordained defeat and disgrace. He sees everything in a strange light. When destruction is at hand, his mind is polluted by sin and evil then appears as good. That which is improper appears proper, while that which is proper appears otherwise.”

Sitting alone with his secretary, Dhṛtarāṣṭra listened sorrowfully to his words, which he knew were moral and true. The king held his head as Sañjaya continued.

“By dragging the chaste and ascetic Pāñcālī into the hall, the Kauravas, wretches that they are, have brought upon themselves wholesale destruction. Who else but Duryodhana and his wicked allies could have so abused Drupada’s divinely born daughter, dragging her into the hall when she was in her season and covered with blood? There she saw her husbands, robbed of their wealth, kingdom and even their dress, and forced into slavery. Bound by ties of virtue they were unable to exert their prowess. But, O King, the time will soon come when we shall see their power displayed.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s voice faltered as he replied. “O Sañjaya, Draupadī’s pained glances can consume the whole world. What chance is there for even one of my sons to survive? All the Kuru women, headed by Gāndhārī, sent up a frightful wail when Dushashana seized Draupadī. Even now they weep along with my subjects. Enraged at Draupadī’s persecution, the Brahmins refused to perform their fire sacrifices. We see fearful omens all around the kingdom. It seems our destruction is near at hand. Surely this is the influence of all-powerful destiny.”

After speaking in this way for some time, the king dismissed Sañjaya and sat alone in his chamber throughout the night, the gambling match replaying in his mind again and again.

The Pāṇḍavas left Hastināpura by the northern gate, accompanied by a number of servants. As they were leaving the city, the crowds looked on and openly criticized the Kuru elders.

“When the wicked Duryodhana aspires to this kingdom we are all lost. Our wealth, families, homes and even our selves are gone. Ruled by that sinful, malicious, avaricious man, who is aided only by other sinful men, we are doomed. How can we find any happiness? Let us follow these virtuous heroes to the forest.”

A few citizens approached Yudhiṣṭhira. “Where will you go leaving us behind? We are distressed to learn of your defeat by deceitful means. Take us with you. We do not wish to meet with destruction by living in the kingdom of a sinful king. By such association we will be polluted by sin, whereas by associating with you, we will be uplifted to the highest level of virtue.”

Yudhiṣṭhira folded his palms and replied, “We are indeed blessed, as the people, with the Brahmins at their head, credit us with merits we do not possess. I, with all my brothers, would ask you to do one thing for the sake of the love you bear us. The king along with our grandfather Bhīṣma, the wise Vidura, our mother Kuntī and our friends are in Hastināpura. Please stay here and cherish them. Only this will satisfy me.”

The citizens cried out in pain. Sorrowfully they unwillingly retraced their steps back into the city, thinking only of the Pāṇḍavas.

When the citizens were gone, the Pāṇḍavas ascended their chariots and moved toward the north. At dusk they arrived on the bank of the Ganges and found the great banyan tree known as Pramāṇa. They decided to spend the night there and thus dismounted their chariots and bathed in the Ganges. As darkness fell the many Brahmins who had followed the brothers lit their sacred fires, which cast an orange glow into the blackness of the night. Those holy ṛṣis sitting around the fire chanting Vedic mantras in melodic tones soothed the Pāṇḍavas. Surrounded by such self-realized souls, Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers again shone resplendent like celestials in the heavens.

In the morning the brothers prepared to enter the forest. They sat before the sacred fire and offered prayers to the gods to invoke auspiciousness. Then they asked the Brahmins to bless them and allow them to leave. Yudhiṣṭhira spoke sorrowfully. “We were robbed of our kingdom, wealth and everything else we possessed. O best of men, we will not be able to maintain you as is our duty. In the forest we will have to subsist on fruits and wild roots. The forest is also filled with dangerous beasts and serpents. Please therefore return to Hastināpura. The suffering of Brahmins can overwhelm even the gods, what to speak of ourselves. I do not wish to be the cause of your privations, O holy ones.”

The Brahmins’ leader, Shaunaka, replied, “O King, we will go with you. Do not be anxious about how we will survive. We shall procure our own food and take great delight in an ascetic life. By our prayers and meditations we shall do you good, and we shall keep you entertained with our recitations from the holy scriptures.”

“I do not doubt that it must be as you say,” replied Yudhiṣṭhira. “I am always pleased to be in the company of Brahmins. But now I am destitute. My brothers are anguished on my account and I see myself as reproachable. How shall I now see you, who do not deserve to suffer, subsist on food you have procured yourself. Alas! Fie upon Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s wicked sons.”

Yudhiṣṭhira sat and wept with his head in his hands. In Indraprastha he had maintained tens of thousands of Brahmins. Now he could not provide food for even a few.

Seeing the king feeling so dejected, Shaunaka consoled him by speaking from the Vedas. “A thousand causes of grief and a hundred causes of fear overwhelm the ignorant day by day, but they never overwhelm those who are learned. O King, intelligent men like you are never cast into illusion. You cannot be bewildered by reverses, knowing full well the eternal truths of the Vedas. Bring that wisdom to mind now, O Yudhiṣṭhira.”

Shaunaka explained how the root of suffering is attachment to matter. As a fire in the hollow of a tree consumes the whole tree to its roots, so a small attachment, if nurtured, can destroy a man. One who has renounced attachment, even though living in the world, becomes free from evil passions and the suffering they produce.

Yudhiṣṭhira listened attentively, taking delight in the knowledge he had heard spoken so many times. He never tired of hearing it. Shaunaka told him that the desire for wealth and opulence, which could never be alleviated, is man’s worst enemy. The highest happiness comes from contentment, while the struggle for wealth, fame, followers and the association of loved ones is the cause of bondage and ultimately pain.

“Therefore, O King, you should not covet anything. Do not desire to accumulate wealth even for virtuous purposes. It is better never to have touched mud than to wash it off after being covered in it. If you wish to acquire virtue, then free yourself from all desires for wealth.”

Yudhiṣṭhira was puzzled. “O Ṛṣi, I do not desire anything for myself. I only wish to have enough wealth to support the Brahmins. What use is there in leading a householder’s life if he cannot cherish and support his dependents? Is it not the duty of a householder to maintain both his family members and the brahmacārīs and renunciants? So too should a householder welcome guests and travelers. This is said to be the path to religious merit. What is your opinion, O learned Brahmin?”

“Alas, this world is full of contradictions,” Shaunaka replied. “That which makes the good and honest ashamed pleases the wicked. Moved by ignorance and passion men act simply to gratify their stomachs and sex organs. When the senses come in contact with their objects a desire springs up in the heart to enjoy those objects. Blinded by desire, men become absorbed in following the dictates of the senses, which they mistake for real happiness.”

Shaunaka explained that even pious men may be overpowered by desires when associating with the world and its enjoyable objects. Yudhiṣṭhira had already achieved success in his householder life. Now, without attachment or material desire, he should concentrate on his practice of yoga and austerity in order to attain full spiritual success. By his spiritual power he would then be able to support the Brahmins.

Yudhiṣṭhira thanked the ṛṣi for his instructions, which he said he would follow. Then, still desiring to find the means by which he could maintain those ascetics who wished to accompany him into the forest, the king asked Dhaumya’s advice. “O great sage, I cannot abandon the Brahmins, but at the same time, I have no power to provide for them. What should I do?”

Dhaumya reflected on Yudhiṣṭhira’s question for some minutes, then he replied, “Long ago all created beings were afflicted by hunger. Thereupon Sūrya took compassion upon them. Drawing up water with his rays he stayed over the earth. Then the moon, by his cooling powers, converted the resultant vapors into clouds. Then rain fell, and by the combination of sun and rain food was brought forth from the earth. Thus all beings are actually supported by the sun. Take shelter of the sun-god, O King, and you will be able to fulfill your purposes.”

Dhaumya explained to Yudhiṣṭhira how the great kings of the past had all protected and delivered their subjects by virtue of their own ascetic meditation and vows. The Pāṇḍava immediately understood. In order to secure the means to support the Brahmins, he should worship the sun-god with an ascetic vow. Thus he asked the sage what means he should follow.

Dhaumya instructed Yudhiṣṭhira in the 108 names of the sun, as well as the Vedic prayers he should recite. Then Yudhiṣṭhira entered the Ganges, stood facing the sun, and offered numerous prayers and worship to its deity. He took neither food nor water for several days, and controlled his breathing through the process of prāṇāyama-yoga. Renouncing sleep, the king continuously praised the sun-god from the waters of the Ganges.

Three days later the blazing sun-god appeared before Yudhiṣṭhira and said, “I am pleased with your prayers and austerities, O King. You shall get all that you desire. I shall provide you with food for the twelve years of your exile in the forest.”

The god gave to Yudhiṣṭhira a large copper plate with the following instruction: “When Pāñcālī has cooked a meal she should place the food on this dish. That food will then be inexhaustible in quantity until the time when she herself eats. You can thus feed any number of men from this plate, O King.”

The god then rose into the sky and vanished, adding, “You will regain your kingdom in fourteen years from now.”

Yudhiṣṭhira came out of the river with the plate and took hold of Dhaumya’s feet in worship. With great happiness he embraced his brothers and then handed the mystical plate to Draupadī. She immediately cooked a meal and placed it upon the dish. After offering the food to the Lord with appropriate prayers, she served the Brahmins. To her amazement and delight she saw that as she served from the plate, the food was immediately replenished. It was only when she took her own meal after serving her husbands that she saw the dish finally empty.

When they had eaten, the Pāṇḍavas, blessed by auspicious rites and Vedic prayers, set out for the forest of Kāmyaka, accompanied by hundreds of Brahmins.