The Pāṇḍavas wandered from one forest to another for several days.
[Starting from Vāraṇāvata, they travelled through the provinces of Matsya, Trigarta, Pāñcāla, and Kīcaka. They were in the guise of tapasvis – with long matted hair, wearing barks of trees and kṛṣṇājina (deer-hide) for garments. They made use of the time to study the Vedas, the Vedāṅgas, and nīti-śāstras. They met their ancestor Vyāsa and offered their respects to him. Vyāsa said, “Dear children! My heart knew from a long time that those crooked sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra will send you away from the kingdom. Having known that, I’ve come here to help you. I do not discriminate between the Kauravas and you all. But my heart melts for those who are in trouble. So my affection towards you is greater now. I would like to provide assistance to you. Listen to my words. There is a beautiful and safe town nearby. You may stay there in disguise until you see me again. He consoled Kuntī by saying, “Dear daughter, your son through Dharma, Yudhiṣṭhira, will rule over the world and will be hailed as dharmarāja. Mādrī’s sons and your sons will live a peaceful life in their kingdom. They will win over several lands and perform yāgas such as the Rājasūya and the Aśvamedha, but which will involve a lot of sacrifice. They will be wealthy, help their friends and relatives, and enjoy the empire that was built by their ancestors.” Saying so, he took them to Ekacakranagara and made them stay in a brāhmaṇa’s house. Vyāsa then told Yudhiṣṭhira, “Wait for me here. I will come here again. Once you understand the nature of time and place, you will greatly relish life.”]
After many days of roaming about, disguised as brāhmaṇas, they took shelter in the house of a brāhmaṇa in Ekacakranagara. The villagers took a liking to them due to their kind nature. The Pāṇḍavas, who were in disguise, fed themselves by begging for food; half of the food they received as alms was Bhīma’s share and the other half was to be shared by the rest. They spent their time in this manner. One day, there was a loud wail that emanated from the brāhmaṇa’s house. Four of the Pāṇḍavas had gone out seeking alms; Kuntī and Bhīma were at home; Kuntī, who was tender-hearted, was pained upon hearing the wail. She called Bhīma and said, “Look Bhīma, we have been living in this brāhmaṇa’s house with no fear of the Kauravas; he has taken good care of us; I’ve been thinking of a way to return his favour. One should never forget the help received; one must also pay back in a greater magnitude; it seems like the brāhmaṇa is in great trouble; if we help him resolve the problem, we will gain puṇya.” Bhīma said, “Please find out the nature of the calamity that has befallen them! If we get to know what it is, I shall do my best to help them even in the face of adversities.”
As they were talking to each other thus, the cries of the brāhmaṇa and his wife were heard again. Immediately, Kuntī went to the inner-quarters of his house, just as a cow goes looking for its calf which has been tied up. There she saw the brāhmaṇa sitting along with his wife, son, and daughter. She heard him say, “Alas! Such is life – meaningless, useless, full of misery, and lacking freedom. Family life is full of joys and sorrows; if I resort to live alone, I can no longer pursue dharma, artha, and kāma – the puruṣārthas; if I try to do away with those, that will again cause misery. Mokṣa is beyond our reach; we know not of the yoga that can rescue us from this calamity. I could have taken you along with our children and lived a peaceful life in a safe place; I pleaded to you several times that we should go away from here; you would not agree. You said, ‘I was born here, I grew up here; my parents are here.’ Are your parents and relatives here now? They grew old and passed away. You did not listen to me then – you were so attached to your relatives! Look now, there is going to be a huge massacre of all relations – I should rather say that it is going to be my own destruction; how can I remain alive and sacrifice you all? You are a pious lady, an honest wife abiding by dharma; you have been taking care of my well-being like a mother; you are to accompany me to the other worlds too; I have been married to you by my parents; we got formally wedded; you are from a good family and are of good character; a mother and a loyal wife; you have committed no mistake – shall I give away such a wife? How can I sacrifice my daughter? The poor thing is still young of age; she is still so tender; God has gifted her to me. The children she will give birth to will bring great virtue to my ancestors and me; some say that the parents love the son more than the daughter – to me, however, both are the same. I gain pleasure here and hereafter from both my children. If I should fall into the jaws of death, what will be the means of livelihood for you all? Thus, I’m in an extremely difficult situation; I don’t know how we can escape. It is better that we all die together, instead of me sacrificing one of you.”
Listening to his words, his wife said, “My dear! You are learned and yet lament like an ordinary man? Death is inevitable for everyone; why should we be distressed about fate’s natural course? I (your wife), our daughter, and our son live for your sake alone; thus, I shall go there. Be wise and cheer up! The ancient law proclaims that it is the duty of the wife to do whatever is good for her husband; such is the dharma prescribed for a wife. Fulfilling my duty will ensure you happiness in this life; by sacrificing myself, I will not only gain appreciation in the current life but will also obtain eternal joy in the heavens. I have served the purpose of a wife here; you have procured a son and a daughter from me. You will be able to take care of them but I will not be able to do so; if I turn into an abandoned widow, how can I live with dignity with the orphaned children? If proposals that are not worthy come our way and if people who are arrogant wish to marry our daughter, how can I turn them down? A woman without her husband is like a piece of meat thrown on the street; just as birds of prey feast on the meat, people trouble her; how can she lead a dignified life under such circumstances? We have begotten a son and a daughter; if you are gone, how will they grow up and develop good character? If our son grows up to bring dishonour to you and our daughter falls into the hands of a thug, we will be scorned by the society – it would only be befitting for me to take my life in such a situation. Children who have lost their parents in this manner will meet their end in no time, just as fish in a dried up pond. Instead of subjecting the family to such a calamity by your going away, I suggest you send me away. It is a great fortune for a woman to die while her husband is alive; it is better than being dependent on the son after the husband’s death. I gave up my father’s family and relatives for your sake; I am now ready to sacrifice my life, my daughter, and my son. Of what use are worship and other rituals for a woman who leads a life favourable to her husband? What I am going to do now is the best of dharma; it will do good to you and to our family. The learned ones say that one must not hesitate to abandon one’s wife, friends, and wealth when faced with challenges – such is the āpaddharma. Therefore, if you listen to my words, you will survive along with our children. The dharma-śāstras say that women must not be killed; we’ve heard that the rākṣasas too are well-versed in dharma. So it is also possible that he might not kill me and let me go but a man who goes to him is sure to die. I have enjoyed all the pleasures of life meant for me and have executed my duties well. I have given birth to children and nourished them; death does not pain me. Once I die, you can marry again and it will not be adharma; in case you die, however, I will not be able to remarry – that would amount to adharma. Please consider all this and give up thoughts of going to him and permit me to go. You will survive with our children; may this house survive with my sacrifice.” The husband was deeply pained hearing her words; he hugged his wife and both wept uncontrollably.
The daughter was desolate listening to her parents’ words. “Father, why do you cry like you have lost all hope? I shall tell you something; please listen to my words and then decide what the best course of action is. I will need to go away from you one day or another and that is dharma; send me instead and with that the rest of the family can survive. Why do people seek children? Isn’t it because they can give comfort in this life and beyond? The son who I shall bear will bring you great merit after life; instead, why not I be of help to you in this life itself? My brother is still a small child; if you die, will he live for long? If he dies, who will offer the piṇḍa to our ancestors? If my parents and brother are all gone, a series of sorrow will pervade my life. If you and Mother survive, our lineage will be saved and the ancestors will receive piṇḍas at appropriate times too. A son is like the self, and a wife is a permanent companion; it is the daughter who is the cause of all distress. Get rid of this unfortunate one who causes you immense difficulty. That will earn me puṇya too. If you are not alive, I will end up roaming the streets like a tramp. If this household can be saved with my sacrifice, it will be a great service that I perform. Once I die, you will offer me tarpaṇa with water; that will ease my life after death. But if I survive with you dead, troubles are inevitable; if you are gone, we will have to struggle for food like prowling dogs! Ultimately, it will give me joy only if you live!”
The parents and the daughter – all three started crying. Looking at their sorrow, the little boy came forward and said, “Don’t cry, Father! Mother, please stop crying! My dear sister, don’t cry!” Grabbing a stick, he said with enthusiasm, “Using this stick, I will kill the rākṣasa who feeds on humans! Do not cry!” These innocent words of the child cheered up the family that was drowned in an ocean of sorrow. Thinking that this is the right time, Kuntī approached them
Kuntī asked them, “Why are you all crying? Let me know the reason for your sorrow; I shall help in whatever way I can.” The brāhmaṇa said, “Dear mother! It only befits great people like yourself to utter such words; however, this kind of trouble cannot be sorted out by mere humans. There lives a rākṣasa by named Baka near this town; he is a cannibal. He has grown wicked, having constantly fed on humans; he is extremely powerful and controls this territory. Petrified of him, foreign kings and wild animals do not enter this town. We must send him a cartload of food everyday; he consumes the food that is sent, the two buffaloes that pull the cart, as well as the person who drives the cart. Each of us need to do this in turns; this has been going on for several years now. Anyone who tries to escape from the rākṣasa will end up becoming his prey along with their family. Our king is currently in Vetrakīgṛha. He puts no effort to ensure that his citizens live in peace and comfort. We have taken the shelter of a king who cares nothing about his people and we are constantly in anguish. Why should brāhmaṇas seek refuge in another person? They, like birds, keep travelling to places as they wish and live on their virtues. They first need to look for a good ruler; then come wife and wealth. Once these three are stable, then they can seek relatives, friends, and children. In my case, it has been quite the opposite. I need to send the food and a human. I don’t have enough money to buy a man and send him as food for the rākṣasa; I cannot send away any of my relatives. I do not know how to get away from the rākṣasa, and have drowned in a sea of sorrows, I have decided to go along with my wife and children to his abode. Let him eat us all!”
In reply, Kuntī said “O revered one! You don’t need to harbour the slightest worry about this matter. I’ve thought of a means to escape from the rākṣasa. You only possess a son and a daughter. I don’t approve of the idea of you all going to the rākṣasa and giving up your life. I have five sons; let one among them take food for the rākṣasa in your place!”
Taken aback, the brāhmaṇa said, “How is that even possible? I shall never do such a thing just to save my life! Why should someone sacrifice her life or her son’s life for the sake of a brāhmaṇa? Should I have my guests give up their life to protect mine? Even one who is cruel and adharmic will not do such a thing. Although both brahma-hatyā and ātma-hatyā are bad, ātma-hatyā is said to be better. Moreover, I’m not taking my life by will; I have been forced to give up my life. If someone else kills me, where is the mistake on my part? This being the case, if I get a brāhmaṇa killed in my place, will that not be cruel of me? Will I be able to get away from the pāpa that I will incur? You have sought refuge in me and are leading life by begging for food. If I make you a prey to the rākṣasa, it is all the more brutal. The elders who are learned in the āpaddharma say that even in the face of great difficulties, one must not perform an action that is cruel and fit to be condemned. It is only fitting that my family and I give up our lives; I can never consent to the murder of a brāhmaṇa!”
Upon listening to his words, Kuntī said “O revered brāhmaṇa, I have taken a vow to protect brāhmaṇas. Even a person who has a hundred children will not wilfully get one of his sons killed. It is not that I do not want my son! This rākṣasa cannot kill my son, for he is mighty, courageous, and has procured several mantra-siddhis. I’m confident that he will take the food for the rākṣasa and come back alive. He has killed several strong men and rākṣasas in the past. Please do not disclose this to anyone else; people will start pestering him to train them in the mantras if they come to know of his powers. If the mantras are taught without the approval of the teacher, they will lose their power.” The brāhmaṇa finally agreed after listening to her. The husband and wife paid their respects to Kuntī for her words that were like the amṛta, the drink that saves one from death. Kuntī and the brāhmaṇa met Bhīma and requested him to perform the said task and he immediately agreed.
To be continued…
This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada classic Vacanabhārata by Arjun Bharadwaj and Hari Ravikumar published in a serialized form. Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh for his thorough review and astute feedback.
Additional segments from the epic and notes by the translators have been added in the footnotes after going through the Critical Text of the Mahābhārata.
 Translators’ Note: The original says that they wandered about in the forest ‘killing several groups of animals on the way.’
 Translators’ Note: This segment doesn’t appear in Krishna Sastri’s work.