By Nirooshitha Sethuram
The Pandavas had proved their excellence and superiority to the Kauravas once again by fulfilling Guru Drona’s wish. The display of various martial skills and their distinctive noble qualities gained wide popularity, not only with the elders of the family but among the people of Hastinapura as well.
The good citizens of Hastinapura wanted Pandu’s eldest son Yudhishthira to be declared as Crown Prince. His fine qualities of patience, benevolence, honesty and selflessness made him loved by all. Since he was the eldest of all the princes, Bhishma advised Dhritarashtra to declare Yudhishthira as successor, and to crown him as, the prince first in line to the throne.
This upset Dhritarashtra who was hoping for his son Duryodhana to be his successor. But most of all, Duryodhana was deeply hurt by all this. His dream of becoming Crown Prince was shattered. Unable to tolerate it, burning with jealousy, he again began to plot against the Pandavas in order to safeguard the throne for himself. Even though all his earlier conspiracies had failed miserably, he was not ready to give up his efforts. So he laid out a plot with his brothers, his uncle Shakuni and his best friend Karna.
He went straight to his father and met with him privately, saying, “Father, the people of Hastinapura have lost their minds. They are not even respecting you or grandsire Bhishma. They want to make Yudhishthira the successor. Once Yudhishthira is crowned, that will be end of you and all of us Kauravas. None of us will ever be kings, not even our children.”
This made Dhritarashtra pause and think. Still, he tried to convince Duryodhana, describing Yudhishthira as being like his own brother Pandu, who was very kind and loving. Pandu would never have done anything unjust to the Kauravas, or to anyone for that matter. Dhritarashtra also warned Duryodhana, saying that Pandu was loved by all, which was also the case with Yudhishthira. It would be very hard to convince the people otherwise. Fighting against all of them would never bring the victory Duryodhana was expecting.
Duryodhana reminded his father that Grandsire Bhishma would be always loyal to the throne of Hastinapura, due to his great vow. Thereby Bhishma would always support Dhritarashtra, as long as he was the king. Dhritarashtra finally fell for his son’s plot against the Pandavas. Dhritarashtra had a soft spot for his brother’s children, but his love for his own children often overshadowed that. Because of this weakness, the love of his son Duryodhana, he often knowingly chose the wrong path.
The annual festival held in Varanavata was a great opportunity to accomplish the plot. Duryodhana asked his father to send the Pandavas, along with their mother Kunti, to participate in the annual festival. His request seemed strange at first, but Duryodhana emphasized the importance of sending Yudhishthira in the capacity of the Crown Prince, in accordance with the custom. He told his father that, while the Pandavas were away, he would try to convince those who supported the Pandavas and turn them into his allies. If needed be, by bribing them, as the last resort. Yet, Dhritarashtra was not giving in. It took more convincing from all the accomplices of Duryodhana, before Dhritarashtra agreed to cooperate with the plot.
However, Duryodhana hatched a more dreadful plot with his brothers, his uncle Shakuni and his best friend Karna. He approached Purochana, one of his ministers, for help. Under the strict supervision of Purochana, a beautiful palace was built at Varanavata. Its walls were made of lacquer, a highly flammable substance, while its roof was thatched so that it could catch fire at the slightest contact with a single spark of fire. The plan was to burn the Pandavas while they were sleeping at night, so that nobody would suspect foul play. Thus the death of the Pandavas would pass off as an accident.
Hearing about Varanavata and the famous festival, the Pandavas were thrilled about visiting there. With their mother Kunti, they left for Varanavata after being blessed by the elders and given well-wishes by the others. The people of Hastinapura followed them as far as they could go and then returned home.
Even though Purochana managed to get the palace built, only by bribing the builders, the news of terrible plot somehow leaked out. It reached Vidura’s ears. Knowing about Duryodhana’s plot, Vidura had wisely taken into confidence a builder involved in the construction. With his help, a secret tunnel was constructed as an escape path that led from the palace to an opening on the riverside. The builder managed to finish the task of digging the tunnel so secretly that even Purochana did not know about the underground escapeway.
Vidura alerted the Pandavas well in advance, even before they started off on their journey. As he was unable to meet the Pandavas privately, Vidura tactfully, in the presence of the Kauravas, warned the Pandavas about the imminent danger in an indirect way. On his going away blessings to Yudhishthira and the others, He said some cryptic words, “A weapon not made of steel or any other material element can be more than sharp to kill an enemy. He who knows this is never killed. The substance that devastates a forest and helps with the cold cannot hurt a rat, which shelters itself in a hole or a porcupine which burrows in the earth. The wise man knows his bearings by looking at the stars.”
Vidura’s tactical way of passing the message worked. Yudhishthira understood its meaning, knowing the means to escape the danger, which was imminent. This message made Kunti and her sons sad, that Duryodhana had started his plots to kill them again. All their happiness about going to Varanavata’s famous festival disappeared.
When Pandavas reached Varanavata, they acted as if they knew nothing about the plot. They attended the fair regularly, while spending most of the daytime hunting in the forest. This was to get familiar with the surroundings. At nightfall, they returned to the palace. They slept in the tunnel itself and not inside the palace. They did it in such a way that nobody knew they were not inside the palace at night. They kept close watch on the activities of Purochana.
Purochana was fully confident of the success of Duryodhana’s evil plan. Duryodhana was equally sure that the Pandavas would not be able to escape, and thus would never return back to Hastinapura.
On the last day of the fair, the Pandavas and Kunti performed a special puja and yaj~na, and gave away alms to the poor. That was the night Purochana had been waiting for, to set the fire to kill the Pandavas. It was a moonless dark night. Anticipating the plot, the Pandavas were alert and fully armed.
With a view to having an upper hand, Bheema got up at midnight. He set fire to the palace at different locations. He wanted to kill Duryodhana’s accomplices and weaken his enemy’s strength. Bheema escaped through the tunnel, along with his brothers and mother Kunti. In no time the palace was engulfed in horrible flames and reduced to ashes.
Unfortunately, a poor woman about the age of Kunti had attended the feeding ceremony that morning, along with her five adult sons. She stayed in the palace that night, as she didn’t have any other place to stay, so she and her sons, along with Purochana himself, were killed in the fire. Purochana had gotten caught in the fire when Bheema beat him to setting the palace on fire.
The Pandavas escaped through the underground tunnel and reached the riverbank of Ganga. Vidura had arranged for a boat for them, so when they came to the riverbank they found a boatman waiting for them, ready to ferry them across the river. They boarded the boat and safely landed on the other bank of the Ganga.
When the news about the catastrophe reached Hastinapura, the kingdom was hit by shock waves. Both Dhritarashtra and Duryodhana were pleased, relieved and extremely delighted in their hearts, outwardly they pretended to be very sorrowful and in grief. They were sure that the path to the throne was now clear for Duryodhana. Bhishma and other like-minded royal dignitaries were shocked at the sad happening. Their sorrow was indescribable indeed.
Duryodhana rushed to Varanavata. There he found burned bodies of a woman and five men. The death of Purochana surprised him, as it was he who was to set fire to the house. Duryodhana wondered why Purochana couldn’t save himself. Unfortunately, the burnt woman was the homeless woman with her five sons, who had sought refuge in the palace. After his survey, Duryodhana declared a state of mourning in the kingdom, returning to Hastinapura.
Outwardly Dhritarashtra and the Kauravas acted grief-struck, but in their hearts they were feeling ecstatic. They thought that the road was now clear, that all the hurdles in Duryodhana’s way to the throne had been taken care of. Grandsire Bhishma and other ministers were in state of shock and their sadness was beyond words. They were not in the mindset to suspect any foul play. Only Vidura knew the actual story, but didn’t say anything to anyone, leaving it to the Pandavas to emerge when they wished to. Though he knew they survived the fire, he didn’t know their whereabouts after they landed on the other side of Ganga.
On the other side of Ganga, Kunti and the Pandavas landed with a sigh and a deep breath. They thanked the boatman and disappeared into the jungle. At that point, they knew that Duryodhana was never going to let them live in harmony. At Kunti’s request, they decided they would sacrifice the throne for their mother’s peace of mind.
We had started to talk about the Kuru family, including the Pandavas and Kauravas, some time ago. It was after Krishna and Balarama had rushed to Hastinapura, having heard that their cousins from the Kuru family were in great danger. This was the incident that brought them to Hastinapura.