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Taken from: Flax-golden tales
unit 2: Ancient Tales
Source: The Mahabharata
(Shanta R. Rao’s adaptation)
Another time, it so happened that the Pandava brothers, in pursuit of a deer in the forest, wandered far from their dwelling place. The sun was hot overhead and they grew thirsty. The deer had vanished, and now, footsore and weary, they came at last to a stop, knowing that their search was in vain. Their mouths were parched; they scanned the earth in all directions for some sign of water. But seeing none, they trudged wearily onward until at last Yudhishthira, unable to go any further, sank down under a tree to rest and sent Sahadeva in search of water. The youth went readily enough, but when he did not return for a long time, Yudhishthira grew concerned. He sent Nakula to see what had happened. Nakula obeyed—but he too, like Sahadeva, did not return. Then one by one, Yudhishthira sent his remaining brothers after the others but when they all went and none returned, he grew very anxious, not knowing what evil fate had overtaken them. At last, he decided to go and see for himself. Following their footsteps, he walked on for a distance until he came to a pool in a clearing. Its clear, still waters reflected the blue sky, while the pink, white and blue lotuses that grew in it raised their smiling heads to the sun. But as his eyes looked upon the lovely scene, Yudhishthira saw another sight at which the blood froze in his veins. For there, upon the earth, lay his four brothers, cold and still, either dead or unconscious. Their eyes were closed, and when he called to them they would not answer. Sorrow filled the king’s heart, and he fell on his knees by them and wept bitterly for them, wringing his hands in his grief and crying out to heaven to take him too, for he could not live without his brothers.
Unknown to Yudhishthira, his brothers had failed a strange test at this forest pool. The first to come was Sahadeva. Full of joy at seeing water, he knelt upon the bank and bent down to quench his thirst. Suddenly, a voice broke through the silence of the grove. “Stop, Sahadeva!” said the voice, “Do not drink, for this is an enchanted pool.” Startled, Sahadeva looked about him, but he could see no one. He turned to the water. It looked cool and inviting. He was very thirsty. As he paused, undecided, the voice rang out again.
“I am a Yaksha,” it said, “and this enchanted pool belongs to me. No one may drink of its water until he has answered my questions.”
Sahadeva rose up and waited.
He could still see nobody. He seemed to be alone except for the birds chirping in the trees and the dragonflies zooming over the water.
“It must be my fancy,” Sahadeva thought. “The hot sun makes my imagination work.”
He decided to ignore the voice of the invisible speaker. He was too tired and thirsty to wait. He made a cup of his hands and kneeling down, began to drink. But hardly had the water touched his lips, when he felt himself struck down. Sahadeva’s senses reeled. The world went dark and he fell down unconscious.
When Nakula arrived shortly afterwards, he was grieved and surprised to see his brother in this condition. But so great was his own thirst that he did not wait. He rushed to the water’s edge to drink. But as he stooped, he too heard the Yaksha’s warning voice. However, he too paid no attention. He drank and instantly he too was struck down and rendered unconscious. When Bhima came to the spot, the same fate overtook him, though he was strong and mighty and sent a shower of arrows in all directions in search of the hidden enemy. Arjuna fared no better.
For a long time Yudhishthira wept on the bank. Then feeling his thirst overpower him, he dragged himself to the edge of the water. But as he bent down, Yudhishthira heard the Yaksha’s warning voice. “Who are you?” he called and looked around. “Ask your questions; I shall answer them as well as I can.”
The voice continued: “I am a Yaksha, Yudhishthira, and it is well for you that you heeded my warning. Now listen to my questions.
“What makes the sun shine?”
“The power of God!” Yudhishthira answered.
“What is man’s surest weapon against danger?” Yudhish-thira quickly replied, “Courage! Courage is his surest weapon in danger.”
“What gives more to man than even the earth does? What feeds him and sustains him and makes him strong?” the Yaksha persisted. Yudhishthira did not hesitate. “A mother, surely. It is only a mother who gives a man life, feeds him and sustains him. A mother is more than the earth.”
“When does a man become loved by his fellows?” asked the Yaksha, and Yudhishthira responded, “When he gives up pride.” “What is that which makes a man happy when he has lost it?” the Yaksha went on. “Anger,” said Yudhishthira with certainty, for he knew that when a man gives up anger, he is full of peace. The Yaksha continued. “What can a man give up and immediately become rich?”
“Desire,” answered Yudhishthira. “It is only the man without desires who is really rich. Even if a man has a thousand possessions he will be poor if he is not satisfied.” So it went on, until at last the Yaksha said, “I am well pleased with your answers, and I shall restore to you one of your brothers. Choose who it shall be.”
Yudhishthira looked at the unconscious forms of his brothers. It was hard for him to decide. But he spoke at last.
“Kind Yaksha,” he said, “restore to me my brother Nakula.” “And why Nakula?” the Yaksha’s voice asked. “Is not Bhima more useful to you? Will you not benefit from his great strength in the war that will surely come? And Arjuna—why do you not choose Arjuna? Is he not dearer to you than all? Is he not the most handsome, the most skilled among them all in the use of arms? Why then do you choose Nakula?”
Then Yudhishthira answered: “Listen, Yaksha,” he said. “Righteousness and truth are a man’s only weapon and protection. The strength of Bhima and the skill of Arjuna would be of no use to me if I acted unrighteously. Indeed I would be unrighteous if I looked to my own benefit and begged for Bhima’s life or Arjuna’s in preference to Nakula’s. For Nakula is Madri’s son, and Bhima and Arjuna, like me, are Kunti’s children. Of Kunti’s children I at least live. But if Nakula and Sahadeva should both die, then Madri’s line would end. Therefore, Yaksha, it is right that Nakula’s life should be restored rather than Bhima’s or Arjuna’s.”
When he had said this, in that very moment there appeared before Yudhishthira a shining, crowned person whom he knew at once to be a god. The divine personage was none other than Yama, the God of Justice and Death, Yudhishthira’s heavenly father. Yama embraced Yudhishthira and told him that he had come to help the Pandavas in their hour of need. He told him how pleased he was with Yudhishthira’s noble conduct and wisdom. He restored to life not just one of the brothers, but all of them.
Yudhishthira knelt at his heavenly father’s feet and his heart overflowed with gratitude. Yama blessed him and promised that he and his brothers would be protected by heaven in their hardships.
“No harm shall come to you,” he said. “Neither will you be discovered while you live in hiding during the last and thirteenth year of exile.”
He advised Yudhishthira to go with his brothers and Draupadi to Matsya, where the good king Virata ruled, and to live there in disguise. There they would be safe from their enemies while they awaited the end of their long period of exile.