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Chapter 15: The Escape Of The Pandavas

AFTER taking reverential leave of the elders and embracing their comrades, the Pandavas proceeded to Varanavata. The citizens accompanied them a part of their way and returned unwillingly to the city.

Vidura pointedly warned Yudhishthira in words intelligible only to the prince:

"He alone will escape from danger who forestalls the intentions of an astute enemy. There are weapons sharper than those made of steel. And the wise man who would escape destruction must know the means to guard against them. The conflagration that devastates a forest 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."

Though they had started on their journey in sunshine of joy, they now proceeded in a dark cloud of sorrow and anxiety.

The people of Varanavata were very happy to learn of the coming of the Pandavas to their city and welcomed them. After a brief stay in other houses while the palace specially meant for them was being got ready, they moved into it under Purochana's guidance.

It was named "Sivam" which means prosperity, and that was the name which, in ghastly irony, was given to the deathtrap. Yudhishthira diligently examined the whole place bearing in mind Vidura's warning and verified that the building was without a shadow of doubt constructed with combustible material.

Yudhishthira told Bhima: "Though we know very well that the palace is a trap of death, we should not make Purochana suspect that we know his plot. We should get away at the right moment but escape would be difficult if we gave room for any suspicion."

So they stayed in that house to all appearance free from care. Meanwhile, Vidura had sent an expert miner who met them in secret and said: "My password is the veiled warning Vidura gave you. I have been sent to help you for your protection."

This was meant to indicate to Yudhishthira and to him alone, Duryodhana's hideous plot and the means of escape from danger. Yudhishthira answered that he had grasped Vidura's meaning, and later he communicated it to Kuntidevi.

Henceforward the miner worked for many days in secret, unknown to Purochana, and completed a subterranean egress from the wax house right under and across the walls and the moat, which ran round the precincts.

Purochana had his quarters at the gateway of the palace. The Pandavas kept armed vigil during night, but by day they used to go out hunting in the forest, to all appearance bent on pleasure but really to make themselves familiar with the forest paths.

As has already been said, they carefully kept to themselves their knowledge of the wicked plot against their lives. On his side Purochana, anxious to lull all suspicion and make the murderous fire seem an accident, waited fully a year before putting the plot into effect.

At last Purochana felt he had waited long enough. And the watchful Yudhishthira, knowing that the fated moment had arrived, called his brothers together and told them that now or never was the time for them to escape.

Kuntidevi arranged a sumptuous feast for the attendants that day. Her idea was to lull them to well-fed sleep at night.

At midnight, Bhima set fire to the palace in several places. Kuntidevi and the Pandava brothers hurried out through the subterranean passage, groping their way out in the darkness. Presently, there was a roaring fire all over the palace and a fast swelling crowd of frightened citizens all around in loud and helpless lamentation.

Some bustled aimlessly in futile efforts to put out the conflagration and all joined in the cry: "Alas! Alas! This surely is Duryodhana's work, and he is killing the sinless Pandavas!"

The palace was reduced to ashes.

Purochana's residence was enveloped in flames before he could escape and he fell an unpitied victim to his own wicked plot.

The people of Varanavata, sent the following message to Hastinapura: "The palace which was the abode of the Pandavas has burnt down and no one in it escaped alive."

Vyasa has beautifully described the then mental state of Dhritarashtra: "Just as the water of a deep pool is cool at the bottom and warm on the surface, so the heart of Dhritarashtra was at once warm with joy and chilled with sorrow."

Dhritarashtra and his sons cast off their royal garments in token of mourning for the Pandavas whom they believed consumed in the fire. They dressed themselves in single garments as became sorrowful kinsmen and went to the river and performed the propitiatory funeral rites.

No outward show of heart broken bereavement was omitted. It was noticed by some that Vidura was not so overcome by sorrow as the others and this was set down to his philosophical bent of mind.

But the real reason was that he knew that the Pandavas had escaped to safety.

When he looked sad, he was in fact following with his mind's eye the weary wanderings of the Pandavas. Seeing that Bhishma was sunk in sorrow, Vidura secretly comforted him by revealing to him the story of their successful escape.

Bhima saw that his mother and brothers were exhausted by their nightly vigils as well as by fear and anxiety. He therefore carried his mother on his shoulders and took Nakula and Sahadeva on his hips, supporting Yudhishthira and Arjuna with his two hands.

Thus heavily laden, he strode effortlessly like a lordly elephant forcing his way through the forest and pushing aside the shrubs and trees that obstructed his path.

When they reached the Ganges, there was a boat ready for them in charge of a boatman who knew their secret. They crossed the river in the darkness, and entering a mighty forest they went on at night in darkness that wrapped them like a shroud and in a silence broken hideously by the frightful noises of wild animals.

At last, quite fordone by toil, they sat down unable to bear the pangs of thirst and overcome by the drowsiness of sheer fatigue. Kuntidevi said: "I do not care even if the sons of Dhritarashtra are here to seize me, but I must stretch my legs."

She forthwith laid herself down and was sunk in sleep.

Bhima forced his way about the tangled forest in search of water in the darkness.

And finding a pool, he wetted his upper garment, made cups of lotus leaves and brought water to his mother and brothers who were perishing with thirst.

Then, while the others slept in merciful forgetfulness of their woes, Bhima alone sat awake absorbed in deep thought. "Do not the plants and the creepers of the forest mutually help each other and live in peace?" he reflected; "why should the wicked Dhritarashtra and Duryodhana try to injure us in these ways?" Sinless himself, Bhima could not understand the springs of sinfulness in others and was lost in grief.

The Pandavas marched on, suffering many hardships and overcoming many dangers. Part of the way, they would carry their mother to make better speed.

Sometimes, tired beyond even heroic endurance, they would pause and rest.

Sometimes, full of life and the glorious strength of youth, they would race with each other.

They met Bhagavan Vyasa on the way.

All of them bowed before him and received encouragement and wise counsel from him.

When Kunti told him of the sorrows that had befallen them, Vyasa consoled her with these words: "No virtuous man is strong enough to live in virtue at all times, nor is any sinner bad enough to exist in one welter of sin. Life is a tangled web and there is no one in the world who has not done both good and evil. Each and everyone has to bear the consequence of his actions. Do not give way to sorrow."

Then they put on the garb of brahmanas, as advised by Vyasa, went to the city of Ekachakra and stayed there in a brahmana's house, waiting for better days.