The game of dice would be played tomorrow morning.
Night had advanced deeply. The pretty slave girls Duryodhana had arranged to entertain him for the night had finally left his chamber. He was exhausted but sleep still evaded him. His mind was in turmoil, turmoil that he had hoped fatigue would quieten. But, if anything, the fatigue seemed to have made it all the more chaotic. A dark storm blew inside his brain. He heard shrieks inside him – monstrous shrieks, devilish howls that tore at his flesh from within. And in the middle of it all stood Acharya Drona.
“Away!” shouted the acharya. “Apasarpa!” Move away! “Naitat shakyam tvaya veddhum lakshyam.” “You can’t hit this target!” You are not capable of hitting this target! You are incompetent. That is what Acharya had said. Acharya’s face was filled with distaste as he spoke those words. Filled with repugnance. Dark with aversion. With rejection.
He was a boy then, a young boy in the first flowering of his youth. His education under Acharya Drona was nearing completion then, as was the education of his brothers and cousins. One fine morning, on a golden day, the acharya had taken them all to a huge tree. On the tree was an artificial eagle that the acharya had got made without any of them knowing of it. And the acharya had called him out first. He had felt honored it was him the acharya had called out first - not Arjuna as usual. A thrill had passed through him as the acharya had called him out. It was so unusual. And he knew he would be able to hit the eagle on the tree. True he was not as good as Arjuna was. But he was not a bad shooter either. He could definitely shoot the eagle down.
The acharya had asked him to take his stand, to take aim. He had done that. He could see the eagle clearly. Visible on that long branch of the tree. Clear against the background of green.
As he stood there, his arrow aimed at the neck of the bird, the acharya had asked him in his imperious voice,
“Yudhishthira, can you see the eagle on the tree?”
“Yes, Acharya, I can,” he had answered in a clear voice.
“Can you see the tree?”
“Yes, Acharya, I can.”
“Yes, Acharya, I can.”
He had looked at the acharya from a corner of his eye then. And had seen the acharya’s face clouding. He had wondered why. He was seeing the bird, the tree and the acharya.
“Can you see your brothers standing here?”
He could. And he had said, “Yes, Acharya, I can.”
That is when the acharya had shouted, “Away!” Apasarpa! Move away!
Exploding in anger. Reducing him to nothing. Rejecting him completely.
Humiliating him before his brothers, his cousins and all the other princes who were the acharya’s students.
Bheema was there, listening to those words. Arjuna was there. Nakula and Sahadeva were there. And Duryodhana was there. As were Dushshasana and numerous other disciples of the acharya. In their presence, Acharya Drona had shouted those words at him. Shouted aloud. In anger. In contempt.
The loathing in Acharya’s tone had stung him. Stung him like a whiplash.
He knew the acharya had not rejected him for what he had just said. He had rejected him for what he was. For what he had been throughout. A failure. A disappointment. A shame. A shame to the acharya. A shame to the Kurus. A shame to all his ancestors.
Perhaps it would have been better if the acharya had lashed him with a horsewhip.
He was the eldest of the Pandavas. The eldest of the Kurus. A descendant of such mighty emperors as Puroorava, Ayu, Nahusha and Yayati. Of Bharata, Hasti, Ajameedha and Shantanu. Son of Pandu. Scion of the line of the mightiest emperors the world has ever seen. And the acharya had so brutally, so cruelly, without a second thought, in the presence of all his brothers and all his cousins and all the princes from across the land humiliated him. Rejected him completely.
Duryodhana had laughed at the acharya’s words. True that the acharya had a few moments later rejected Duryodhana too. But Duryodhana was not the eldest of the Kuru princes. He was not the son of emperor Pandu. Expectations from Duryodhana were different from expectations from him. Duryodhana was not expected to be the best. He, Yudhishthira, was. As the son of the former emperor and as the next ruler, he was expected to be the best.
A Kshatriya who was not good at arms was no Kshatriya at all. A Kshatriya may have everything else, but if he was not good at arms, then he was nothing, he amounted to nothing. Skill at arms for a Kshatriya was like knowledge of the Vedas for the Brahmin, like wealth for the Vaishya. A Vaishya without wealth was a contemptible creature. A Brahmin without learning was a contemptible creature. And a Kshatriya without skill at arms was an equally contemptible creature. And that is what he was: a Kshatriya without skill at arms. That is what the acharya had said with his words. With his gestures. With the disappointment, anger and contempt in his eyes, on his face.
He knew he had seen the same disappointment in the eyes of others. Maybe not the contempt and anger, but definitely the disappointment. In the eyes of his mother. In the eyes of Grandsire Bheeshma. In the eyes of Duryodhana. In the eyes of Karna. In the eyes of so many others.
He was a disappointment. He was a failure.
He had wished he could please the acharya as Arjuna pleased him. He had seen the twinkle of pleasure that lighted up the acharya’s eyes as he looked at Arjuna. Every time. He had seen it again and again. He had wished he could see it once in the acharya’s eyes as he looked at him. Just once.
After everyone else had been rejected, the acharya had called Arjuna and asked him to take aim. And I noticed the difference in the way Arjuna had pulled the bow tight after he had set an arrow to it. The bow looked as though it formed a circle.
As Arjuna waited for his guru’s order to shoot, Drona had asked him,
“Can you see the bird on the tree, the tree itself and me standing here?”
“No, Acharya,” Arjuna had said. “I don’t see you or the tree. I see just the bird.”
For the first time since that morning, Acharya’s face has started to beam. With a sparkle in his voice, he had asked Arjuna again,
“If you see just the bird, Arjuna, describe to me how it looks?”
And Arjuna had said, “I don’t see the body of the bird, Acharya. I see only its head.”
As Arjuna spoke those words, I saw goosebumps erupting all over the acharya’s body. His voice filled with a rare thrill, the acharya had commanded,
“Let go of the arrow then.”
As the head of the artificial eagle came down, severed neatly by Arjuna’s arrow, the acharya had gathered him in his arms and held him to his heart for what looked an eternity.
Back in his room that day, alone, he, Yudhishthira, had wept silently for hours. It hadn’t consoled him that it was brother, his brother who would readily give his life for him, that had pleased the acharya. He knew as the eldest of the sons of Pandu, as the eldest of Kuru princes, as the future king and emperor, it was for him to be the best.
He knew he had his own strengths. Strengths that none of his brothers or cousins possessed. Strengths that would be great assets for him as a leader of men in future.
For instance, his ability to see the whole picture. True, as a shooter you should see just your target. You should be completely focused. But he knew a king had to be more than a shooter. In the long run, it is not the ability to shoot sharply that is going to count, but the ability to see the whole picture even when you are focused on your target, on your goal. And in that he was superior to Arjuna, superior to everyone else there.
And in so many other qualities, as he knew, as everyone kept telling him. In patience, in kindness, in generosity, in frankness and honesty, in firmness and fortitude, in politeness and good manners, in erudition in the scriptures and in wisdom.
But that did not take away the humiliation, the hurt.
That hurt, that humiliation, that rejection would haunt him all his life. Would come back to him again and again. In spite of his telling himself repeatedly that the skills he had are more important than the skill with arrows. Would come back to him every time someone proved himself smarter than he was.
Perhaps that is why they say the guru is God. The guru can make a man. With a word. With a smile. With a pat on the back. With the sparkle in his voice when he spoke to you, or of you. And the guru can unmake a man too. With a word. With a frown on his face. With a curt dismissal of you. With a turning away from you. With the darkness that gathers on his face as he watched you.
That hurt, that humiliation, that rejection had come back to him when he was trapped into accepting the invitation to go to Varanavat – into accepting his exile to Varanavat, with his mother and brothers, without a word of protest.
Duryodhana had outsmarted him, had made a complete fool of him then. As per a conspiracy hatched by Duryodhana, Shakuni and Karna, to which Dhritarashtra became a party, people started speaking highly of the city of Varanavata and the festival of Shiva to be held there. There is no festival in the world that can vie with that festival, or the beauty of Varanavata at that time – that is what they heard everyone speaking wherever in the palace they were. Naturally, they spoke of their wish to see the city and festival. And then Dhritarashtra called him and his brothers and told them he could go there, with his brothers, relatives and friends if he wished so. “Go and enjoy yourself there like Gods,” that is what Dhritarashtra had said, after saying that no city in the world was equal to Varanavata in beauty. “Spend some time there and come back,” he had said.
Knowing that it was nothing but an order for exile, he had accepted it. He did not know how to reject the offer without sounding that they suspected the offer, suspected Dhritarashtra’s intentions.
The fact that Vidura had chosen him, not his mother or any of his brothers, to give a secret message warning them of the danger they faced was a consolation. But the sting of the fact remained – Duryodhana had made a fool of him. A complete fool.
All the humiliation, the hurt, he had felt at Drona’s words under the tree had come back to him then. In his heart he heard voices – voices that screamed at him from all around: incompetent one, imbecile, halfwit, moron!
True it is he, guided by Vidura’s parting words to him, who had recognized that the house given to them for their stay was made of inflammable substances. True, it is also he who had first devised the plan to set fire to the house on their own before Purochana, who had been sent for this purpose by Duryodhana and had been staying with them under the guise of looking after them, did so. It is he who had suggested that they should set fire to the house with one woman and five men inside, apart from Purochana, so that Duryodhana would conclude that they, the five brothers and Mother Kunti, had died in the fire along with Purochana.
But when it came to setting fire, it was Bheema who did it. And after the house was set fire to, it was as though he, Yudhishthira, was but a helpless child. It was again Bheema who lead them through the underground tunnel and through the jungle.
And when the Rakshasa Hidimba attacked them, it was not he, the eldest brother, who had taken things into his hands and fought and killed him. It was Bheema who did it, bringing pride into mother Kunti’s eyes. As Bheema and Hidimba fought, he was but a helpless spectator to their battle.
To his shame, he had been so tired after the tensions of the evening and after the journey through the tunnel that he had fallen asleep under a tree along with his mother and Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva. When they woke up hearing fierce roars and raging battle cries that filled the jungle, it was to witness a fierce battle going on between Bheema and Hidimba, the Rakshasa. Such was the fury of the battle that the dust raised by their fight rose up into the sky like smoke from a huge conflagration. He just did not know what to do as the two fought like two ferocious lions, making the entire jungle quake under their fury.
To his shame, seeing them battling, Arjuna, with a smile on his face, had said, “Don’t you worry, Bheema. I am here to help you. Leave him to me. Let me kill the Rakshasa. Nakula and Sahadeva will take care of Mother.”
That was a true warrior’s speech! That is how a Kshatriya should have spoken. Arjuna had shown he was a true Kshatriya. A true Kuru prince.
He should have been awake and guarding his mother and younger brothers. He should have been the first to spot the Rakshasa. He should have been the one to challenge him to a battle. He should have been fighting that battle with Hidimba.
But he had been only a helpless spectator! A deplorable, disgraceful spectator.
As Bheema fought valiantly, as Arjuna had smilingly volunteered to take over the fight, he had just stood there, watching it all helplessly.
And what had Arjuna said?
Nakula and Sahadeva would protect their mother!
Bheema was already engaged in battle. Arjuna would take his place. Nakula and Sahadeva would protect their mother. And he? Yudhishthira? What was his role? What was the role of the eldest of the Pandavas? What was the role of the man who should have guarded them all as the eldest?
It was as though Arjuna had forgotten he too existed.
Perhaps he did not count. Arjuna did not remember him even to protect Mother. He could have said Yudhishthira would protect Mother. Or at least that Yudhishthira, Nakula and Sahadeva together would guard Mother. No, he did not say that. All he said was that he would kill the Rakshasa and Nakula and Sahadeva would guard Mother.
He, the eldest of the Pandavas, did not exist when a crisis arose. He did not count. Not for fighting against the Rakshasa, not for guarding Mother.
That hurt! Hurt him as though he had been pierced by a spear. As though a limb had been chopped off by a sword.
And he had heard the acharya shouting at him again. Shouting at him, his faced dark with anger and contempt, with rejection. Apasarpa! Away! Move away! You can’t hit the target! You can’t do it! You can’t do what a Kshatriya is supposed to do, what a Kshatriya is born to do. Incompetent one! Idiot!
A thousand voices picked up the acharya’s words and shouted them at him.
Bathed in shame, he stood there watching Bheema and the Rakshasa pulling out trees by their roots and attacking each other with them. He watched as Arjuna shouted at Bheema to hurry as though a battle with a fierce Rakshasa was nothing more than a simple game. As though it was no more than two children playing in the mud. “Hurry, Bheema, we do not have time. We have to get away from here, Bheema. We can’t stay here long. Make it fast!”
Bheema had then picked up the Rakshasa and flung him on the ground. He had kicked him with his feet and dragged him along the jungle floor. As the Rakshasa’s agonized cries filled the jungle, Bheema had picked up his arms as he lay on his stomach in dust and pulling them backward, breaking the Rakshasa’s back.
A battle with a giant Rakshasa in rage was no more than a child’s sport for Bheema and Arjuna.
But something they cannot even imagine he, their elder brother, could do. Why battle with a Rakshasa, he was not useful even in guarding their mother when one of them fought him.
That battle led to Bheema, though younger to him, getting married before his own marriage.
His role was reduced to that of blessing Hidimbaa as Bheema took her as his wife.
And the eldest of all Pandava children became Bheema’s son Ghatotkacha. The first born of the next generation of Kurus.
It was in Ekachakra where they living in hiding for fear of Duryodhana that for the first time in his life he raised his voice against his mother, shouted her, called her insane.
He had gone out with Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva to collect alms, following the way of Brahmins, since they were living in Ekachakra in the guise of Brahmins. Bheema had stayed back with Mother in the home of the Brahmin in whose house they all lived. When he came back he saw Bheema excited, charged with energy, walking up and down impatiently. One look at him and he understood Bheema was going to do something big on that day, something he is excitedly looking forward to. He asked his mother and she confirmed it: Bheema was going to kill Baka, another Rakshasa.
Baka was a monstrous Rakshasa who terrified the people of Ekachakra. The tribute he demanded from the people of the city in return for his not killing them and eating them up indiscriminately was that each day they provided him with a cartful of food, two oxen who pulled the cart and a man who brought it all to him. He would then eat up all the food, the oxen and the man. Bheema was going to take food to the Rakshasa in place of the Brahmin whose family’s turn it was now to take it to him.
As Yudhishthira heard this from his mother, his fury knew no bounds. “Are you mad, Mother? Have you lost your mind?” he had shouted at her brutally, his mind going berserk at the thought of what would happen to them if something happened to Bheema. Bheema was their hope for winning back their kingdom, all their future depended on him and she was now sending him to his death.
His mother explained to him that there was no danger to Bheema’s life – Bheema was capable of killing that Rakshasa. Bheema had killed Hidimba earlier, was capable of killing Rakshasas however mighty they were. His mother also told him then about an incident that had happened when Bheema was an infant. One day Kunti was carrying him about when he slipped from her hands and fell on a rock. Bheema was unhurt – and the rock had cracked at the impact of the infant Bheema’s fall! Such was Bheema’s might. He had the strength of a thousand elephants in his body. There was nothing to worry. She was just repaying the Brahmin???s for his hospitality and also doing good to the town that had given refuge to them in their need.
But of course Yudhishthira knew all this. He knew there was no danger to Bheema, he was easily capable of killing the Rakshasa. Why did he then shout at his mother? Why did he go berserk when he heard that Bheema was going to encounter the Rakshasa and shout at his mother, calling her insane?
Deep in his heart he knew the answer. Once again he had heard the acharya’s voice in his heart.
Apasarpa! Away! Move away, incompetent one! Moron!
For he knew as the eldest brother it was for him to challenge the Rakshasa and kill him, just as it was he who should have challenged and killed Hidimba earlier. He also knew it had not even occurred to his mother that perhaps her eldest son could do the deed.
No! It was always either Bheema or Arjuna whenever a Kshatriya-like job was involved. It was as though he was not a Kshatriya at all. It was as though he did not know how to wield a weapon, as though he did not know how to fight, how to battle.
As they were leaving Ekachakra and going to Kampilya to seek Draupadi’s hand in the swayamvara, it was again Arjuna who had challenged the Yaksha Chitraratha and vanquished him. He was there of course – but it was not he who was walking in front with a lighted torch in his hand as the evening set in, but Arjuna and it was Arjuna that Chitraratha had challenged and attacked. And it was Arjuna that the defeated Yaksha had befriended and given magical powers.
Every time he went near Draupadi, every time he touched her, he heard the acharya’s words shouted at him from every direction by a thousand voices.
Draupadi. His queen. His proudest possession. The woman who took his breath away every time he looked at her. The most beautiful woman in the world. Daughter of Drupada born from sacrificial fire. Spirited like fire. Woman whose soul was fire.
Draupadi who was neither short nor too tall. The dark one who was neither thin nor plumb. Draupadi with dark, curly, thick, long hair. With eyes like the petals of the autumnal lotus, Beautiful like the very goddess of beauty. The fulfillment of every man’s wildest dreams of what a woman should be. With a waist slender like that of a wasp, lips red like the ruby, breasts as perfect as ever adorned a woman.
Draupadi whose body exuded the fragrance of the autumnal lotus, fragrance that spread for miles around her.
True he had other wives. But it was Draupadi who sat with him on the throne. It is she who sat beside him at the sacrifices.
Every time he looked at her, every time he went near her, touched her, a thousand voices, a million voices, shouted at him. Rising to shrill cries, filled with contempt, filled with anger:
Apasarpa! Move away! Incompetent one!
A Kshatriya’s wife should be the sign of his valor, the sign of his courage, the sign of his skill at arms.
But Draupadi was a gift to him from his younger brother, from Arjuna. No, not a gift, a gift is given away, given away happily. In Draupadi’s case, she was someone he had snatched her away from him.
Arjuna had won her with his valor, with his courage, with his skill at arms. He, Yudhishthira, had run away from the scene of his victory. As soon as Draupadi had garlanded the victorious Arjuna, he had left the swayamvara hall and run away. He wanted her. He wanted her for himself. And yet he knew he could not have won her, he did not deserve her.
He had run away with those voices screaming in his ears.
They, all five of them, had gone to the swayamvara hall in the guise of Brahmins that morning and sat among the Brahmins from where they watched the other kings and princes who had come for the swayamvara. As Draupadi entered the swayamvara hall, the assembly had become turbulent like the ocean as the full moon rose up in the night sky. Lust had enflamed the eyes of each prince and king there, set fire to all their limbs. Each of them had silently screamed ‘Draupadi is mine, Draupadi is mine.” It looked as though each man in the assembly would kill everyone else for her sake.
Among the audience he saw Duryodhana. And Dushshasana and Karna and Shakuni. His blood boiled at the sight of them. These are the men who had sent him, his mother and his brothers into exile, the men who had tried to kill them like you kill wild animals by setting fire to a jungle.
Then the men started attempting to win Draupadi’s hand by shooting arrows at a very cleverly set up revolving target and trying to bring it down. Most of them could not even tie the bowstring, so powerful was the large bow. And those who could, could do no more than tying it.
And then Karna walked into the middle of the hall where the target was and picked up the bow, tied the string and set five arrows on it. All within the time you take to blink your eyes.
As he stood with the arrows aimed at the target, for the first time Yudhishthira heard Draupadi’s voice. “I shall not wed a Soota.”
That is what she had said. Harsh words. Angry words.
And her voice sent a thrill through Yudhishthira’s body. He felt he had never heard a sound as sweet as that ever in his life.
More kings came and tried their hands at the bow. Shalya, Jarasandha, Shishupala… an endless line of mighty kings. All hey all failed and were laughed at by the assembly.
One of the men who failed was Duryodhana. He was one of the princes who could not even tie the bowstring. As he bent the bow and tried to tie the string, the bow straightened back throwing him backwards on the floor of the floor of the hall.
And then, after all the Kshatriyas assembled there had failed, Arjuna had got up. The Brahmins around them started waving their deer hides in excitement seeing one of them, as they thought, got up to win the princess that all the kings and princes had failed to win. He went round the bow, paying respects to it, and then after praying with his head bent, lifted up the bow and before any one could realize it was happening, had tied the bowstring, set the arrows and brought the target crashing down.
What followed was a pure riot. The Brahmins in the hall were excited, assuming one of them had won the princess. They began shouting in exhilaration, waving their upper cloths, dear skins and water pots in the air. It took a moment for the Kshatriyas to realize what exactly had happened. Where the mightiest among them – Jarasandha, Shalya, Shishupala and so on – had failed, a Brahmin youth had won the hand of the most beautiful princess in the world! As Drupada stood up from his throne, his face beaming, a violent fury possessed the kings and princes. He saw them drawing their weapons and moving towards Drupada with murder in their eyes.
He has ever since wondered why he chose exactly that moment to leave the swayamvara hall and go to the potter’s house where his mother was staying, taking Nakula and Sahadeva with him. That’s when he should have stood with his brothers. Then why did he do that?
He knew what was going to happen at that moment. Draupadi would now garland Arjuna and accept him as her husband. That is, if the furious Kshatriyas gave her a chance. Chances were that before she had a chance to do that, she would be killed by the angry mob of royalty. And before that, they would, unable to swallow the humiliation, kill Drupada and all his sons – Yudhishthira had already seen the blindness of their rage as they moved towards Drupada with their blood-hungry swords drawn.
He also knew this was extremely unlikely to happen. For Arjuna was there, with the bow still in his hands. And Bheema of course did not need any weapons – his bare hands were enough. Or if he needed a weapon, any large object lying around would be enough for him. The two of them wouldn’t allow anyone to touch Draupadi, Drupada or any of his sons.
Whatever happened, he had known what his duty was at that moment – to stand by his brothers. Defending them, fighting to defend Draupadi, Drupada and his sons. As the eldest brother, it was his duty to do so.
And yet he had chosen to leave the place, taking Nakula and Sahadeva with him.
Was it because he was so sure that Arjuna and Bheema were enough to handle the situation? Or was it for some other reason? For some dark reason? A reason too dark even to name?
Was he truly happy that Arjuna had won the hand of Draupadi? Truly and fully?
What they had come to Kampilya for had happened. This is exactly what they needed at that time. Alone in the world, with no army, no wealth, with the constant threat to their life paused by Duryodhana, what they needed above all else was a powerful ally – a powerful ally exactly like Drupada. Closely related to the Kurus, a great friend of their father while he was alive, ruler of a neighbouring kingdom, lord of a powerful army, a ferocious warrior, with sons like Dhrishtadyumna and Shikhandi, each of whom was a mighty warrior in his own right.
Why did he then leave the swayamvara hall while the kings and princes were moving towards Drupada with drawn swords, with the intention of killing him, and possibly his sons and Draupadi too?
While he did not have an answer for that question, what he did know is that he had desired the beautiful Draupadi for himself. He had watched her as she came into the swayamvara hall accompanied by her brother Dhrishtadyumna. He had watched her as she stood there, a garland in her hand, as Dhrishtadyumna stated the conditions of the swayamvara and then introduced to her the kings and princes present in the hall. His eyes never left her as each king and prince tried attempted to win her through his skill at the bow. And all the while he had been intoxicated. Intoxicated by her beauty, by her presence. And more than these, by the fragrance that wafted from her: the fragrance of the autumnal lotus. The maddening fragrance that filled the entire swayamvara hall. Filled the entire Kampilya. Filled the entire universe. Filled the entire universe and wiped out everything else from it, leaving just the two of them in it – him and her, Yudhishthira and Draupadi.
And then Arjuna had won her. Arjuna who always won. Always. Everything, everywhere. Vijaya, people called him – the ever victorious one. No, that is not what the name meant. It meant victory. Arjuna was victory itself.
Arjuna had won Draupadi for himself.
All on a sudden the world in which only he and Draupadi had existed, had ceased to be.
A new universe had come into being. A universe in which Draupadi existed only for Arjuna. A universe in which he had no place. He had been thrown out of that universe. Cast out unceremoniously.
Draupadi’s fragrance still intoxicated him. Turned him blind.
And he had heard those word again. Acharya Drona’s words. Shouted at him by a thousand voices. A million voices. All shouting together. Shouting with brute violence. Mercilessly. With savage ruthlessness.
Apasarpa! Away! Move away!
Incompetent one! Imbecile!
The acharya stood with his hand on Arjuna’s shoulder. Blessing him. The acharya’s face was beaming.
He was afraid the acharya would turn his head and look at him. Look at him with contempt in his eyes. His face dark. Humiliating him. Rejecting him.
Apasarpa! Away! Move away! Get away!
He had taken Nakula and Sahadeva with him and left the place as the Kshatriyas with their swords drawn rushed at Drupada and Bheema started walking towards Arjuna, pride in his younger brother’s achievement making his face glow for the first time in months. Love for his younger brother overflowing from him.
His mother had consoled him in the potter’s hut. Draupadi would be his, just as she would be Arjuna’s, she had told him.
And then she had become his wife, Draupadi had, exactly as his mother had told him. His wife before anyone else’s. The elder brother’s privilege. She became wife to all five of them. But before to anyone else, it was to him that she belonged.
But every time he went near her, every time he touched her, he had heard the acharya’s words shouted at him from every direction by a thousand voices. The screaming, brute voices.
Apasarpa! Move away! Away with you! Incompetent one!
And then they had built Indraprastha. The world was mesmerized by its beauty. The most glorious city on earth! Built on what was wild land and deserts occupied by alien people and aboriginals.
While sending them to exile in Varanavata, Dhritarashtra had told them they were going to the most glorious city in the world, there was no city in the world like Varanavata. Now he was king of the most glorious city in the world – of Indraprastha. Hastinapura was no match to the magnificent Indraprastha.
Wide boulevards. Huge, shining mansions. Gardens with every imaginable flowering plant and bush. Ponds and lakes everywhere. Large open spaces. Every possible variety of trees brought from all over the land. Artificial hillocks for the pleasure of the royalty. Animals of all kinds in huge numbers: elephants, camels, horses, cows and bulls. Mighty defensive weapons at every strategic place, with soldiers to manage them. Rich merchants dealing in all kinds of goods from grains to diamonds. Wise men and scholars who spoke every language on the earth. Contented people belonging to all four varnas.
That was Indraprastha.
He became the lord of Indraprastha. King Yudhishthira!
But he knew in his heart who had made him king, who had built up that city. Arjuna and Bheema, with the help of Krishna. Nakula and Sahadeva had helped them.
His own role was to be king. To give them permission for whatever they asked for. Which in their politeness they always did.
Wasn’t he the eldest son of Pandu, after all? Wasn’t he the elder brother of Bheema, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva? They had to seek his permission for whatever they wanted to do.
Even Krishna did that.
As the city expanded, they cleared the forest of Khandava occupied then by wild animals and Rakshasas, Danavas, Pishachas, Yakshas, Gandharvas and Nagas. They meaning Arjuna, with the help of Krishna.
Then Maya built a royal assembly hall for him that had no equal in all the three worlds.
It was then that he desired to conduct the Rajasooya – the royal sacrifice that the mightiest of emperors performed.
Krishna, Bheema and Arjuna went to Magadha to slay the mightiest emperor of the day who stood in his way of performing the Rajasooya successfully: Jarasandha. There Krishna’s wisdom and Bheema’s might achieved the goal that the armies of several kings had not been able to achieve. Bheema killed the powerful emperor with his bare hands. They released the eighty-six kings who had been imprisoned by Jarasandha and kept under chains in the dungeons of Girivraja.
And then Bheema, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva went on a conquest of the land – kings in all four directions had to be subdued if he was to perform the Rajasooya sacrifice. Also, an enormous amount of wealth was required for it. Arjuna went in the northern direction, going right up to China and defeating all the kings on the way and collecting tributes from them. Similarly, Bheema went in the eastern direction, defeating all the kings in that direction and collecting tributes from them. It was the southern direction that Sahadeva conquered. Nakula conquered the west.
When his father Pandu had wanted to conquer the world, he had done it himself. He hadn’t sent others to do it for him. Had Bheema been king in his place, or Arjuna or even Nakula or Sahadeva, they would have gone on their own. But he, Yudhishthira, had to rely on his brothers for the world conquest.
As each of his brothers came back, the bards sang of the glorious victories each had won and the wonderful places each had visited and conquered.
Arjuna had fought a battle that lasted for eight continuous days with the mighty king Bhagadatta, who was once their father’s friend. Along with Bhagadatta had fought Kirata and Chinese warriors as well as warriors from several island nations. Eventually, at the end of eight days, Bhagadatta had stopped the battle and laughing heartily spoken to Arjuna, “Son, you are a son of Indra and the valor and skill you display in war befits your father. I am a friend Indra and in courage, fearlessness and skill, I am no less than him. In spite of that, I am not able to stand before you in war. Tell me what you want.”
He wished such tributes had been paid to him instead of his brother. He would have loved to hear such words from a mighty warrior like Bhagadatta.
Arjuna had gone to Manas Sarovar where he saw, apart from the sacred lake where Shiva sported with Uma, numerous other lakes sanctified by the sages who took bath in them and stayed on their banks. He had gone to the Nishadha Mountains and to Ilavritta, right at the centre of the Jambudvipa. He had seen there splendid men and gorgeous women who looked no less splendid than the Gods themselves. He had visited the golden Mahameru, then Gandhamadana, and the land of the Gandharvas. He had gone to Hiranyakavarsha where the incredibly beautiful women of the land, no less lovely than Goddesses and Apsaras, watching him from their tall terraces as he passed through the streets, had been tempted by his handsomeness and stories of his valor and victories and showered flowers on him.
No less hair-raising were the battles Bheema, Nakula and Sahadeva had fought, no less wonderful and mysterious the lands they had conquered and no less splendid their adventures.
Mountainous was the wealth each had brought. It had required ten thousand elephants to carry the wealth Sahadeva alone had brought! And Arjuna had brought far more!
He had wished these things had happened to him, he had done these things.
But he had stayed back among the comforts of Indraprastha while his brothers faced death and met with thrilling adventures every moment.
Was he jealous of his brothers? He hoped he was not. At the same time he couldn’t help wishing things had been different.
After all, he was the eldest of the Pandavas.
When the Rajasooya began later, it was a glorious affair attended by all the kings from all over the land and from countries outside its borders, near and far. He had eighty-eight thousand scholars attending the sacrifice, apart from numerous sages and wise men. The gifts that kings from far and wide offered Yudhishthira, included tens of thousands of elephants, thirty thousand camels, and endless numbers of horses, cows, donkeys and sheep; heaps and heaps of diamonds, gems, and other precious stones, swords, scimitars, hatchets, battle axes, daggers and maces; bows and arrows in boundless quantities, innumerable chariots, carts, and other vehicles; large quantities of hides of rare animals, priceless blankets inlaid with gold, rare silk and tens of thousands of exquisite, slender-waist young girls with luxuriant hair, all decked in gold, all selected for their beauty and skills. Kings waited in miles-long queues to give their tributes to him. Instructions were given to blow a conch when a hundred thousand Bbrahmins had been fed and the conch kept blowing continuously. The world acknowledged openly: no king on earth possessed a part of the wealth that Yudhishthira possessed.
He made Duryodhana in charge of receiving the gifts. So endlessly did the gifts arrive that receiving them Duryodhana’s arms began to ache.
The streams of kings who came and bowed before him seemed endless. Endless number of crowned heads bowed before him, openly acknowledging him as the most powerful monarch on the earth.
And yet the voices inside him would not keep quiet. Fool, they said. This glory is not obtained by the power of your arms, as a Kshatriya should. They are obtained by the might of your brothers’ arms. This glory belonged not to you, but to Bheema and Arjuna, to Nakula and Sahadeva. And to Krishna. It is they who had vanquished the kings, forced them to pay tributes to him. It is not for fear of him that they bowed down their crowned heads before him, but out of fear for his brothers. And for Krishna, who forever stands by him.
On his own he was nothing. Let Krishna withdraw his support, let his brothers withdraw their support, what would he be then?
Was there a single king who had come, whom he had vanquished, as he should have? As all his ancestors had done, right from Nahusha and Yayati, right from Puroorava and Kuru?
The voices were in his ears throughout.
When Vyasa later predicted the end of the Kshatriyas because of him, he wanted to end his life. He called his brothers together and announced to them that he was going to kill himself, he did not want to live any more. Arjuna prevailed upon him and stopped him from carrying out his decision.
Honestly, he did not want to live.
There was only one thing worth living for a Kshatriya. Keerti. Fame. Lasting glory.
Lasting glory won by his own hands, by his own deeds.
Which was never going to be his.