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Chapter 33: Fruitless Penance

IN the course of their wanderings, the Pandavas reached the hermitage of Raibhya on the banks of the Ganga.

Lomasa told them the story of the place:

"This is the ghat where Bharata, the son of Dasaratha, bathed. These waters cleansed Indra of the sin of killing Vritra unfairly.

Here also Sanatkumara became one with God. Aditi, the mother of the gods, offered oblations on this mountain and prayed to be blessed with a son. O Yudhishthira, ascend this holy mountain and the misfortunes, which have cast a cloud on your life, will vanish. Anger and passion will be washed off if you bathe in the running waters of this river."

Then Lomasa expatiated in greater detail on the sanctity of the place.

He began the story thus: "Yavakrida, the son of a sage, met with destruction in this very place."

He continued: "There lived in their hermitages two eminent brahmanas, named Bharadwaja and Raibhya, who were dear friends. Raibhya and his two sons, Paravasu and Arvavasu, learnt the Vedas and became famed scholars.

Bharadwaja devoted himself wholly to the worship of God. He had a son named Yavakrida who saw with jealousy and hatred that the brahmanas did not respect his ascetic father as they did the learned Raibhya. Yavakrida practised hard penance to gain the grace of Indra. He tortured his body with austerities and thus awakened the compassion of Indra, who appeared and asked him why he so mortified his flesh."

Yavakrida replied: "I wish to be more learned in the Vedas than any has ever been before. I wish to be a great scholar. I am performing these austerities to realise that desire. It takes a long time and involves much hardship to learn the Vedas from a teacher. I am practising austerities to acquire that knowledge directly. Bless me."

Indra smiled and said: "O brahmana, you are on the wrong path. Return home, seek a proper preceptor and learn the Vedas from him. Austerity is not the way to learning. The path is study and study alone." With these words Indra vanished.

But the son of Bharadwaja would not give up.

He pursued his course of austerities with even greater rigor, to the horror and the distress of the gods. Indra again manifested himself before Yavakrida and warned him again:

"You have taken the wrong path to acquire knowledge. You can acquire knowledge only by study. Your father learnt the Vedas by patient study and so can you. Go and study the Vedas. Desist from this vain mortification of the body."

Yavakrida did not heed even this second warning of Indra and announced defiantly that if his prayer were not granted, he would cut off his limbs one by one and offer them as oblations to the fire. No, he would never give up.

He continued his penance. One morning, during his austerities, when he went to bathe in the Ganga, be saw a gaunt old brahmana on the bank, laboriously throwing handfuls of sand into the water.

Yavakrida asked: "Old man, what are you doing?" The old man replied: "I am going to build a dam across this river. When, with handful after handful, I have built a dam of sand here, people can cross the river with ease. See how very difficult it is at present to cross it. Useful work, isn't it?"

Yavakrida laughed and said: "What a fool you must be to think you can build a dam across this mighty river with your silly handfuls of sand! Arise and take to some more useful work."

The old man said: "Is my project more foolish than yours of mastering the Vedas not by study but by austerities?"

Yavakrida now knew that the old man was Indra. More humble this time, Yavakrida earnestly begged Indra to grant him learning as a personal boon.

Indra blessed, and comforted Yavakrida with the following words:

"Well, I grant you the boon you seek. Go and study the Vedas; you will become learned."