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Chapter 4

Duryodhana Begins His Evil Schemes

The Pāṇḍavas began to enjoy life in Hastināpura. They sported with the hundred sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra, who became known as the Kauravas. Pandu’s sons excelled the Kauravas in all areas: in strength, knowledge and prowess with weaponry. Bhīma was especially powerful and he took delight in defeating the Kauravas in sport. They could not equal him in anything. The exuberant Bhīma possessed the indefatigable power of his divine father. At wrestling and fighting he was unapproachable and could easily hold off the attacks of any number of Kauravas. Out of a boyish sense of fun he would often play practical jokes on them, laughing when they became angered and tried futilely to get back at him.

Duryodhana in particular found Bhīma’s antics and power intolerable. As the eldest son of the blind king, Duryodhana had enjoyed the most prestige in the Kuru house. The Kuru elders had carefully raised him and trained him in the kingly arts, thinking of him as the potential future world emperor. Mindful of the omens seen at his birth, the elders were especially careful to teach him moral codes. The prince was both powerful and capable in all areas of weaponry and politics, and was accustomed to being the center of attention in the royal palace since his birth. When the Pāṇḍavas arrived, however, all that changed. Pandu’s sons were gentle, modest and devoted to their elders. They soon became dear to Bhīṣma, Vidura and the other senior Kurus. Their behavior was a welcome change from that of Duryodhana and his brothers, who tended to be self-centered and proud, and often quite arrogant. Duryodhana quickly became envious of his five cousins. His envy grew up like an oil-fed fire when he saw Bhīma’s pranks.

After another day of humiliation at Bhīma’s hands, Duryodhana felt he could take no more. He spoke with Dushashana, the next eldest of the hundred Kauravas. “Dear brother, this Bhīma is a constant thorn in our sides. He challenges all hundred of us at once and throws us about like pieces of straw. We cannot better him at anything. Why, even at eating he humbles us by consuming as much as twenty of us put together. Something has to be done to check his pride.”

Duryodhana’s eyes narrowed as he spoke. His intentions were vicious. The prince was inclined to wicked acts, and he had been spurred on by his uncle Shakuni, who had taken up residence in Hastināpura. The Gandhara prince had been offended by Bhīṣma’s decision to give his sister to the blind Dhṛtarāṣṭra rather than to Pandu. Now he wanted revenge. He involved himself in court intrigues in order to find a way to avenge himself against Bhīṣma. Hurting the Pāṇḍavas, who were obviously dear to Bhīṣma, was one good way. And, of course, he would simultaneously be advancing the cause of his sister’s sons. Duryodhana was a willing accomplice. The boy saw his scheming uncle as a mentor. When Duryodhana had come to him complaining about Bhīma it did not take much to convince him to do something terrible to the Pandava boy.

Duryodhana revealed his heinous plan to Dushashana. “Tomorrow I shall feed Bhīma an enormous poisoned feast. When he falls unconscious after eating I shall bind his limbs and toss him into the Ganges. With Bhīma gone the other brothers are helpless. We can easily deal with them. Thus my claim to the throne will be unchallenged.”

Dushashana smiled in agreement. He too found Bhīma’s behavior intolerable and, like Duryodhana, had also found his own status in the Kuru house diminish since the Pāṇḍavas’ arrival. He put his arm around his brother and the two of them made their way back to their palace, laughing together as they walked the forest path.

The next morning Duryodhana suggested that all the princes go to the river for some water sports. Soon they mounted their shining chariots, which resembled cities and had great wheels which rumbled like thunderclouds as they headed out, sending up clouds of dust. Upon arriving on the river bank, the mighty youths dismounted from their cars, laughing and joking, and entered the large pleasure house Dhṛtarāṣṭra had built for them.

The elegant palace was built of white marble and it stood seven stories high. Many-colored pennants flew from tall golden flagstaffs on its roof. There were dozens of rooms offering every kind of luxury. Each room was tastefully decorated with tapestries, fine paintings, and ivory and coral furnishings, studded with gems and covered with golden cushions. Royal musicians and dancers stood by, ready to entertain the princes, and a hundred of the king’s select force of bodyguards stood ready to protect them.

Once inside Duryhodhana invited everyone to enjoy the great feast he had arranged for them. He led them through the mansion and out into the central gardens. The boys looked with pleasure upon the large ponds filled with red and blue lotuses and surrounded by soft, grassy banks. Crystal waterfalls made tinkling sounds that blended with the singing of brightly colored exotic birds. The heady scent of numerous blossoms filled the air. Fine cushions had been arranged in lines on the grass and many servants stood by, waiting to serve the feast.

Duryodhana chose the seat next to Bhīma. Then he ordered the servants to bring the food. The dishes were exquisite. Duryodhana had personally mixed the poison with the food he had brought to him. He then offered the plate to Bhīma, feigning love and feeding him with his own hand. The guileless Bhīma suspected nothing and he cheerfully consumed his normal amount. Duryodhana rejoiced within as Bhīma hungrily swallowed the poisoned cakes, pies, creams, drinks and other preparations.

When the feast was over, Duryodhana suggested they all go down to the river for sport. The boys raced to the river in great joy. They wrestled and rolled about on the ground, tossing each other into the clear blue water of the river. As usual, Bhīma was the most energetic. The poison did not appear to have affected him. The prince, who stood head and shoulders above his peers, was a peerless wrestler. Anyone who approached him quickly found themselves sailing through the air and landing in the water. Bhīma would then dive in and create huge waves by thrashing his arms. The other princes were then dunked under the waters by the playful Bhīma.

Late in the afternoon the boys began to tire. They came out of the water and dressed themselves in white robes, adorned with gold ornaments. Then they wearily made their way back to the mansion to spend the night.

Bhīma had consumed enough poison to kill a hundred men, but it was not until evening that the wind-god’s son began to feel its effects. As night fell he felt so drowsy that he decided to lay down by the river and rest. Gradually he lapsed into a deep sleep.

When the other princes had gone back to the mansion, Duryodhana saw his opportunity. Along with Dushashana, he bound Bhīma’s arms and legs with strong cords. Looking furtively around, the brothers quickly rolled the unconscious prince into the river.

Bhīma sank to the bottom of the river and was carried by underwater currents. The celestial abode of the divine serpent beings, the Nāgas, could be reached through the Ganges, and Bhīma was swept along a mystical path right into their midst. At once the snakes began to bite the human so suddenly arrived among them. Their virulent poison proved to be the antidote to the plant poison Duryodhana had administered. Bhīma slowly came back to his senses as the effect of the poison wore off. He woke to find himself on a strange river bank, surrounded by large serpents baring their fangs.

Bhīma burst the cords binding his limbs. He picked up the snakes and dashed them to the ground. He pressed some into the earth with his feet and hurled others to a distance. Seeing him render dozens of snakes unconscious, the others fled away in terror.

The Nāgas went quickly to their king, Vāsuki. With fearful voices they said, “O king, a human fell among us, bound with cords. Perhaps he had been poisoned, for he was unconscious. When we bit him he regained his senses and overpowered us. You should go to him at once.”

Vāsuki assumed a human form, rose from his bejeweled throne, and walked gracefully out of his palace. Arka, a Nāga chief, went with him. Arka had long ago lived upon the earth in human society. He was Kuntī’s great grandfather and he immediately recognized Bhīma as his great-grandson. Smiling, he introduced himself and embraced the prince.

Seeing this, Vāsuki was pleased and said to Arka, “What service can we render this boy? Let us give him an abundance of gems and gold.”

Arka looked at the powerful Bhīma and replied, “I think this prince would be best served by us if we let him partake of our rasa.”

Vāsuki agreed. Bringing Bhīma back to his palace, he arranged for pots of the ambrosial rasa to be brought for him. This drink was distilled from celestial herbs and by drinking even one pot a man would become permanently endowed with the vigor and strength of a thousand elephants. The Nāgas placed a number of pots in front of Bhīma and invited him to drink. Bhīma sat facing the east and, as he always did before eating or drinking, offered prayers to the Lord. He then lifted one of the large pots of rasa and quaffed it down in one gulp.

The Nāgas watched in amazement as Bhīma drank eight pots of the divine elixir, each in a single draft. Even the most powerful among them would not have been capable of such a feat. After Bhīma had satisfied himself with the rasa, he again felt drowsy. Vāsuki offered him a celestial bed and the prince lay down. He remained in deep sleep for eight days as his body assimilated the rasa. On the ninth day he awoke, feeling strong beyond measure. The Nāgas told him that the rasa had given him the strength of ten thousand elephants. He would now be invincible in battle. Vāsuki told Bhīma to bathe in the nearby sacred waters of the Mandakini, then dress himself in the robes the Nāga king had brought for him. He should then quickly return to his home as his kinsfolk were in much anxiety about him.

After he had bathed and eaten the celestial foods the Nāgas provided, Bhīma, dressed in white silks and gold ornaments, was led to the river. They entered with Bhīma and within moments they brought him out of the water near the place where he had been pushed in. Filled with wonder, Bhīma ran back to Hastināpura.

In the city Kuntī saw her sons arrive back without Bhīma. The other princes were surprised that he was not already there. They had assumed he must have gone ahead without them. Duryodhana and Dushashana feigned concern, but secretly they rejoiced, thinking Bhīma to be dead.

The virtuous-minded Yudhiṣṭhira believed that others were as honest as he was. Suspecting nothing, he told his mother, “We searched for Bhīma in the gardens and mansion for a long time. We went into the woods and called out for him. Finally we concluded he must have already left.”

Yudhiṣṭhira became fearful. Perhaps Bhīma had been killed. Kuntī shared his fears and she asked him again to go to the mansion with his brothers and search for the missing Bhīma. When her sons left, she summoned Vidura and said, “O wise one, I am afraid for Bhīma’s safety. He did not return with the others. I often see an evil look in Duryodhana’s eye. I know he is filled with malice toward Bhīma. Perhaps he has killed him.”

Kuntī hoped Vidura would give her solace. His words were always deeply considered and comforting. Vidura did not disappoint her. He replied, “Do not think in this way, O gentle lady. The great rishi Vyāsadeva has said that your sons will be long-lived. His words can never be false. Nor indeed can those of the gods, who have predicted a great future for your sons.”

Still, Vidura remembered the omens surrounding Duryodhana’s birth. He warned Kuntī to be on her guard. The evil prince might try anything.

For eight days Kuntī and her sons waited anxiously for any news of Bhīma. Then early on the ninth day they saw him running toward them, his white silks flowing in the wind. He came straight to Kuntī and bowed at her feet. As he rose each of his brothers embraced him warmly. With tears of joy they eagerly asked where he had been.

Bhīma knew everything about the circumstances by which he had come to be in the river. When he had found himself bound with cords he had suspected the envious Duryodhana. Vāsuki had confirmed his suspicions. The Nāga king could see everything by virtue of his divine sight. Bhīma related the whole story to his brothers--how he had gone to the Nāga kingdom and been given the rasa. The brothers could understand that even though the Kauravas had plotted Bhīma’s death, somehow by the arrangement of Providence he had become most fortunate.

Yudhiṣṭhira was shocked to learn of his cousins’ antagonism. He considered the situation carefully. If their elders were informed of what had ocurred, then there would be open enmity between the princes. Duryodhana would certainly try to dispose of them as quickly as possible. And the Pāṇḍavas’ position was not strong. Their father was dead and Dhṛtarāṣṭra was the king. He doted on Duryodhana and his other sons, and it was unlikely he would side against his own sons, to protect his nephews. Yudhiṣṭhira ordered his brothers to remain silent. They should tell no one about what had occurred.

Kuntī, however, confided in Vidura. He advised her to follow Yudhiṣṭhira’s suggestion. Thus the Pāṇḍavas said nothing, but from that day forward they became vigilant, always watching the Kauravas, especially Duryodhana and Dushashana.

Besides Gandhari’s one hundred sons, Dhṛtarāṣṭra had conceived another son by a servant maid who had waited on him during his wife’s lengthy pregnancy. Unlike his half-brothers, this boy, Yuyutsu, felt no envy or antagonism toward the Pāṇḍavas. One day he secretly informed Yudhiṣṭhira that Duryodhana, who had been deeply disappointed to see that his plan to kill Bhīma had failed, had again cooked a large quantity of the deadly datura poison into Bhīma’s enormous meal.

Bhīma laughed when he heard the news. Having drunk the Nāgas’ celestial elixir, he had no fear of Duryodhana. He sat down before him and cheerfully consumed the entire quantity of poisoned food. Duryodhana was amazed to see that Bhīma was not in the least affected. He gazed at the Pandava with open hatred.

Although the Kaurava princes detested the Pāṇḍavas, Bhīṣma and Vidura loved them and would spend much time with the five virtuous and gentle princes. Bhīṣma had been especially fatherly toward them since the time they had arrived from the forest. He had been fond of Pandu; now he felt the same fondness for Pandu’s sons. The boys reciprocated his love, and served him in various ways.

The Pāṇḍavas were also favored by their military teacher, Kṛpa. Kṛpa was the noble-minded son of a brahmin who had adopted the warriors profession. He told the princes his history. His father, a rishi named Gautama, had been engaged in fierce austerities and weaponry practice, for which he had an affinity. Gautama’s asceticism and martial skills were so great that even Indra feared the rishi might exceed him in power and usurp his position in heaven. That anxious god therefore sent a beautiful Apsarā, a heavenly nymph, to divert Gautama from his asceticism. When the rishi saw the semi-clad Apsarā before him, he lost control of his mind and semen fell from his body. It landed in a clump of heath, and from it two children were born. Gautama fled after seeing the Apsarā, not realizing that he had miraculously sired the children. Soon after he left, some of the king’s soldiers found the two babies and brought them into Hastināpura.

Some time later, Gautama, understanding everything by his mystic power, came to the city and explained to the king what had happened. The rishi taught his son all his military skills and in time Kṛpa became the teacher of the princes.

Bhīṣma was pleased with Kṛpa’s teaching. The boys were becoming highly adept at weaponry. But he wanted them to learn the secrets of the celestial weapons as well so that they would be unmatched in warfare. Kṛpa did not have this knowledge. Bhīṣma had therefore been searching for a suitable teacher to take the princes further in military science. None he had seen had impressed him as qualified to train the princes.

Then one day the boys ran to Bhīṣma with a strange tale to tell. They had been out playing ball in the woods. The ball fell into a deep, dry well and the princes could not recover it. As they stood by the well looking at one another in embarrassment, a dark man approached them. He was a brahmin, appearing emaciated and poor, but with a bright effulgence and glowing eyes. The princes surrounded the brahmin and asked if he could help them. Smiling a little, the brahmin said, “Shame upon your prowess as warriors. What use is your skill in arms if you cannot even retrieve a lost ball? If you give me a meal I’ll recover the ball, as well as this ring of mine.”

He then took off his ring and threw it into the well. Yudhiṣṭhira said to him, “O brahmin, if you can recover the ball and the ring, then, with Kṛpa’s permission, we shall ensure that you are maintained for your whole life.”

The brahmin took a handful of long grasses and said, “Watch as I invest these grasses with the power of weapons. With these I shall pierce the ball and bring it to the surface.” He chanted mantras and threw the grasses one by one into the well. The first one pierced the ball and each subsequent blade he threw stuck into the last one to form a long chain. The brahmin then pulled the ball out of the well.

The princes were astonished. “This is truly wonderful, but let us now see you raise the ring.”

The brahmin borrowed one of the princes’ bows and shot a single sharp-pointed arrow into the well. With it, he brought up the ring, caught on the arrow’s head. The princes crowded around him and asked him to reveal his identity. They had never seen such skill. The brahmin told them to go to Bhīṣma and describe what they had seen. He would know his identity. The brahmin said he would wait there until they returned.

Thus the boys ran back to the city and told Bhīṣma everything. When he heard the tale his eyes shone with joy. Surely this could only be Droṇa, the disciple of his own martial teacher, Paraśurāma. Bhīṣma had heard much about Droṇa from the rishis. This was certainly providential. The princes could have no better teacher. Bhīṣma went in person with the boys to see the brahmin. Finding as he had suspected that it was Droṇa, Bhīṣma immediately offered him the position of a royal teacher. Droṇa accepted and went to Hastināpura with Bhīṣma.

When they were back in the city Bhīṣma had Droṇa tell everyone of his history. Droṇa looked around at the eager-faced princes. They wanted to know everything about this unusual brahmin. He was the son of Bharadvaja, the all-powerful rishi who had dwelt for thousands of years in the deep forest and who, not long ago, had finally ascended to heaven. Although he too was a brahmin, Droṇa was inclined toward martial arts. While living in his father’s hermitage he had learned the science of arms from Agnivesha, another powerful rishi. He had also received knowledge of the celestial weapons from the great Paraśurāma. Despite having such great learning, however, Droṇa remained a poverty-stricken brahmin. He could hardly maintain his family. Thus he had been on his way to Hastināpura hoping to be engaged as the princes’ teacher.

Bhīṣma said, “Make your residence here in the city. You shall enjoy every luxury along with the Kurus. Indeed the Kurus are at your command. Whatever wealth, kingdoms and followers that belong to our house are also yours. O best of brahmins, it is our good fortune you have arrived here.”

Droṇa was given a large, well-furnished house, stocked with everything enjoyable and attended by many servants. He then brought his wife and son to Hastināpura to live among the Kurus with him, and he accepted both the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas as his disciples.

Droṇa taught the princes everything he knew about weaponry. The boys practiced every day from dawn till dusk. As the news of his martial school spread, princes from other kingdoms also came to learn from the famous Droṇa. The Vrishnis, the Andhakas and other famous and powerful dynasties sent their princes to Droṇa and he accepted them all as his pupils. Soon Droṇa had thousands of students.

Among all the boys Arjuna excelled at his lessons. He remained always at Droṇa’s side, eager to learn any little skill or extra tips. His ability, speed, perseverance and determination were unequalled by the other princes. Arjuna became foremost; Droṇa felt none could match his skills.

Out of his natural fatherly affection, Droṇa also wished to impart extra lessons to his own son, Aśvatthāmā. He gave all the princes narrow-mouthed water pots and asked them to fill them at the river, but to his own son he gave a wide-mouthed pot so he could return first and receive extra teaching. Arjuna realized Droṇa’s intentions and he filled his own pot with a celestial water weapon, and thus returned before Aśvatthāmā. Droṇa smiled when he saw Arjuna’s determination. His desire to learn from his preceptor was beyond compare. Arjuna always carefully worshipped Droṇa and was attentive to his every command. Because of his devotion to studies and his guru, he became Droṇa’s favorite student.

Once Arjuna was eating his meal at night. Suddenly the lamp blew out. It was pitch black. Arjuna continued to eat as if nothing had happened. As he did so, he realized that simply by habit he was able to place the food in his mouth, although he could see nothing in the darkness. He then began to practice with his bow and arrows in the night, aiming at invisible targets. When Droṇa saw this dedication he was overjoyed. He told Arjuna, “I shall make you unmatched upon the earth. No warrior shall be your equal.”

Droṇa then taught Arjuna how to fight on horseback, on an elephant, from chariots and on the ground. He showed him all the skills of fighting with clubs, swords, lances, spears and darts, as well as many other types of weapons. Droṇa also taught him how to contend with any number of warriors fighting at once. As Droṇa promised, his skill soon became without compare on earth.

One day, a prince of the Nishada tribe of forest dwellers asked Droṇa to teach him. His name was Ekalavya. Droṇa replied that his school was only for kings and princes. Ekalavya went away dismayed. Strongly desiring greatness in martial sciences, he practiced alone in the woods. He built an effigy of Droṇa and worshipped him daily, praying to him for skills at weaponry. Gradually he became an expert archer.

Once, as he was practicing, a dog began to bark loudly and disturb him. Immediately he released seven arrows, even without seeing the dog, and sealed the animal’s mouth.

It so happened that Arjuna and his brothers were in the woods at the time and they saw the dog, its mouth closed with arrows. They marvelled at this and wondered who was responsible for such a feat. Soon they came upon Ekalavya and, seeing the dark-skinned Nishada, smeared with filth, his hair matted, they asked him who he was. He replied, “I am Ekalavya of the Nishadas, a disciple of Droṇa. I practice alone in these woods with a desire to become the best of archers.”

Arjuna was seized with anxiety. This boy posed himself as a disciple of Droṇa, even though he had been rejected by him. It was completely against all religious principles. No one could claim to be a disciple of a guru unless he was accepted as such by that teacher. And Ekalavya had even flouted his so-called guru’s order. Droṇa had told Ekalavya that he could not be his student. The Nishadha clearly had no devotion to Droṇa, despite his outward show of dedication, as he did not accept Droṇa’s order. How then could he be allowed to present himself as Droṇa’s disciple--and practically his best one at that? His skills were astonishing, but they had been gained by disobedience. Arjuna went at once to his guru to inform him.

After bowing at Droṇa’s feet, Arjuna said, “O master, embracing me to your bosom you told me that I shall be the best of all your students. By your grace this has become true. But I see you have another disciple, the mighty Nishada prince Ekalavya, whose skills approach mine. The warrior practices alone in the forest, worshipping your holy feet. Has he become my equal?”

Droṇa was immediately perturbed. He remembered dismissing Ekalavya and he could understand Arjuna’s intimations and anxiety. After thinking for some moments he replied, “Come with me, Arjuna. We shall see today what caliber of disciple is this prince.”

Droṇa went at once with Arjuna into the woods. When Ekalavya saw them approach he fell to the ground and touched Droṇa’s feet. Then he stood before Droṇa with folded palms, saying, “My lord, I am your disciple. Please order me as you will.”

Droṇa looked with surprise at Ekalavya and at his own effigy nearby. He recalled the day the forest prince had come to him and been turned away. Droṇa was angered that he was now claiming to be his student. The Kuru preceptor had not desired to impart any martial skills to Ekalavya. Generally the lower caste tribespeople lacked the virtuous qualities of royalty, and they did not follow the Vedic religion. To give a low-class man great martial power could be dangerous. Droṇa had been especially concerned about Ekalavya, as the Nishadha tribe did not cooperate with the Kuru’s virtuous rule. Droṇa would not accept any princes into his school if they belonged to races antagonistic to the Kurus.

Droṇa stood thinking for some time. His first assessment of Ekalavya had obviously been correct. The Nishadha had shown himself to be lacking in virtue by falsely posing as his disciple. Clearly he desired only to be great, known as a student of the famous teacher, but not to actually obey him.

Smiling a little, Droṇa said to the Nishada, “O hero, if you really wish to be my disciple then you must give me some dakṣiṇa. The disciple should be prepared to give anything to his guru. Therefore I ask you to give me your right thumb.”

Droṇa knew that this was asking a lot from Ekalavya. The loss of his thumb would impair his skill at bowmanship. But if he wanted to be known as Droṇa’s disciple, he could not refuse. Droṇa also wanted to show that one cannot please his teacher and achieve perfection by dishonest means. By taking Ekalavya’s thumb, he was also removing any threat he or his race might pose to the Kurus.

Droṇa looked expectantly at the Nishadha prince. Ekalavya immediately took out his hunting knife. Although he had been unable to accept Droṇa’s first order, the prince did not want to be considered at fault for failing to give dakṣiṇa to his guru. And he knew that all his knowledge and skills would be nullified if he refused Droṇa’s request. Without the least hesitation, he cut off his thumb and handed it to Droṇa.

Droṇa took the thumb and thanked the prince. Raising his hand in blessing he turned and walked quickly away, followed by a relieved Arjuna. With his firm action, Droṇa had clearly upheld religious principles.