After Dhṛtarāṣṭra spoke to Yudhiṣṭhira [regarding the trip to Vāraṇāvata], Duryodhana was delighted and summoned Purocana to meet him in private. Duryodhana held Purocana’s right hand and said, “Look Purocana! It is now in your hands to make sure that this land, rich with resources will come under my control. There is nobody else who I can trust on this matter and there is no other person who can ever be as helpful as you are; therefore, please maintain utmost secrecy. I request you to act accordingly and extinguish my relatives who want a share of my kingdom. The Pāṇḍavas will proceed to Vāraṇāvata as per the king’s orders to participate in the festival. I suggest that you quickly get a mule-cart ready and rush to Vāraṇāvata; you may spend generously and have a beautiful house built with a compound around it; that can house the weapons; use lac and other inflammable items to build the house; mix a good amount of ghee, oil, lac, latex, and wax with the mortar to build the walls of the house. Let the house be full of dry grass, jute, cotton, ghee, and other wooden items. Ensure that the Pāṇḍavas will not be able to smell the truth even if they look closely; no one else should know that the house is built using inflammable items. Build a house in this manner, invite Kuntī and the Pāṇḍavas to spend a few days there. Let the house contain many comfortable chairs to sit on, beds to sleep on, and vehicles to travel with. Take care of them so well that they live in the city without any sort of trouble. Once you have ascertained that they are well-settled there and do not suspect any untoward incident, light up the door of the house and put it on fire; once they perish, relatives and citizens will remain silent thinking that the Pāṇḍavas died in their house due to a fire accident.” Purocana consented and left for Vāraṇāvata immediately.
Meanwhile, the Pāṇḍavas got ready to depart. They met their elders – Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Vidura, Kṛpa, and others and paid respects by touching their feet. They embraced people of the same age and gave their best wishes to the younger ones. Several citizens and elders of the Kuru family such as Vidura followed them some distance to bid them farewell. Some brāhmaṇas felt sorry looking at the Pāṇḍavas and spoke fearless words: “The vision of a person who is in darkness is always flawed; Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s thoughts are not clean; he does not pay heed to dharma. Yudhiṣṭhira, a dharmātma, never performs a sinful act; Bhīma and Arjuna are sinless. Needless to say, the wise Nakula and Sahadeva are similar. Dhṛtarāṣṭra cannot stand it if the children inherit their father’s kingdom; he is sending them off in this manner. Does Bhīṣma too give his consent to such adharma? In the past, Bhīṣma, Vicitravīrya, and Pāṇḍu took care of us like a father looking after his children. After Pāṇḍu passed away, Dhṛtarāṣṭra has developed contempt for these children; how can we stay quiet looking at all this? Let us give up our houses and the aged – let us go where Yudhiṣṭhira goes!”
Yudhiṣṭhira, who was anguished at the distress of the citizens addressed them with a lot of affection, “It is my duty to execute the words of the elder one, who is like my father, without any misgivings. All of you have a lot of faith in us; I request all of you to kindly bless us and return to your homes. When I need your help, I beseech you all to be kind and generous to me!” Hearing his words, the people agreed and turned back. Then, the wise and caring Vidura, well-versed in dharma, spoke to them and warned them of a possible calamity. He told Yudhiṣṭhira, “Only he is invincible, who knows a weapon, which, though not made of iron, can kill the enemy. That which can destroy dry grass and dew cannot harm an animal that hides in a forest burrow; one who knows this and safeguards himself, will live long. The blind cannot see the path and knows no directions; the fickle cannot procure wealth. Please try and understand my words of caution!” Saying so, Vidura too returned. After everyone left, Kuntī called Yudhiṣṭhira and asked, “What did Vidura tell you? He seemed to hint at something by telling you so in front of the others; you said ‘yes’ in reply. I could not understand what either of you spoke; if it can be shared with me and in case it isn’t wrong to know about it, I wish to know what the conversation meant.” Yudhiṣṭhira said, “Beware of fires; there is certainly an escape route that you know; if you have conquered your senses, you can win over the kingdom – this is what Vidura said. In reply, I said, ‘Understood.’ That is all.” He thus explained the meaning of Vidura’s words to his mother.
The natives of Vāraṇāvata learnt of the arrival of Pāṇḍavas and welcomed them with great fervour. They brought auspicious gifts as a part of the welcome and hailed victory to them. The Pāṇḍavas exchanged pleasantries with the people and entered the town. They met the town chief, visited the houses of the heads of the brāhmaṇas, kṣatriyas, vaiśyas, and śūdras, paid their respects to them, and in return, received their affection. They went to the residence built by Purocana, which was ready with food, drinks, comfortable seats and beds. The citizens came there and took care of the well-being of the Pāṇḍavas. After having spent ten nights in this manner, Purocana took them to a residence, ironically named “Auspicious Abode,” [it was named 'Śiva'] where the evil was to occur. Even as he saw it, Yudhiṣṭhira told Bhīmasena, “This is a house built of lac. You can smell wax, ghee, fat, and other combustible items in the walls. They have also used coir and latex so that it can catch fire easily. Dry grass seems to have been dipped in ghee. Architects who are close to the Kauravas seem to have built this house with great skill. Purocana wants to gain our trust and have us burnt alive. Having known this, Vidura cautioned me. Thanks to his warning, I have come to know the truth behind this place.” Bhīma said, “In that case, let us go to the house where we lived until now.” Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “It’s better that we stay here, without giving a hint of anything; we shall think about what we should do next; if we let out even a clue, Purocana will take control of the situation and have us burnt soon. He has no restraint in performing any kind of evil deed; he has the support of Suyodhana; if we get burnt here, what will our grandfather Bhīṣma do? He might get angry with the Kauravas; but why would he want to develop animosity with them? What will he gain out of it? The other elders might also pretend anger as it is dharma to get angry in such circumstances. If we run away, being scared of fire now, Duryodhana, out of his greed for the throne might get us all killed at once. We have no power or money right now; he has all of it. Therefore, we will need to deceive the malicious Duryodhana and the evil Purocana and spend our days in hiding. We must roam around as hunters; by doing so, we will discover a route to escape. Let us burrow into the earth right away; that will keep us safe from fire. However, neither Purocana nor the citizens should be able to discover this.” They decided to stay there for the time being.
After a few days, an earth-digger, a close confidant of Vidura, met the Pāṇḍavas in secrecy and said, “I’m from Vidura’s side; he has sent me, saying ‘Go and help the Pāṇḍavas discreetly.’ I’m skilled at digging the earth; tell me how I can help you and I shall do my best. On the fourteenth day of the dark half of the month, Purocana is going to set alight the main door of the house. Duryodhana wants to have you all charred to death along with your mother. Vidura is supposed to have given you a cryptic message in muddled words, and in reply you said, ‘Yes, it is so.’ This information is the token of identity for you to have trust in me.” Dharmarāja said, “Oh dear one, I knew that you are an aide of Vidura; I need no other proof of your identity. Just as Vidura is to us, so are you. You will need to help us overcome this danger. It seems to me that Duryodhana had this lac-house built by Purocana just for us; he keeps giving us trouble from time to time; his long time desire will be fulfilled once we get charred to death. They have filled the armoury with a lot of weapons; there is a tall compound surrounding the house. Vidura cautioned us; the danger he had foreseen is now at the door. Therefore you will need to rescue us, making sure that Purocana does not get to know of it.” The earth-digger said, “So be it!” He pretended to repair the moat that surrounded the house but dug an underground passage for their escape. He hid the opening of the passage, lest Purocana might discover it. The Pāṇḍavas lived in this house, with weapons in their hands at night; during the day, they roamed around under the pretext of hunting. Although they have lost faith, they pretended to be faithful; though discontent, they wore the mask of contentment – thus they spent their days, sleeping on thorns. The plan that they had devised was known only to the earth-digger and no one else.
Seeing that the Pāṇḍavas had lived there for about a year, Purocana was happy, thinking that they suspect nothing. Looking at Purocana’s mental state, Yudhiṣṭhira called his brothers and said, “The evil Purocana is now deceived thinking that we’re living here innocently, without having any qualms. And so, this is the right time for us to escape; before we leave, we must set the armoury on fire and kill Purocana too; we will need to have six other people in our place in this house”. Kuntī arranged for a feast for the brāhmaṇas under the pretext of dāna. Many married women partook in the feast and left. It was mere coincidence that a huntress came there with her five sons looking for food. They ate to their fill, got drunk, and slept around, unconscious. At night, when everyone was asleep, Bhīma waited for a moment when there was some wind and lit fire to the place where Purocana was asleep. Immediately, there was a lot of sound and fire; the villagers, who woke up due to the commotion, surrounded the burning house and said, “This sinful man listened to Duryodhana’s words, built this house, burnt it, and invited death for himself too; Dhṛtarāṣṭra has a corrupt mind. Alas! Pāṇḍu had such children, who were of noble character, now charred to death!”
All night, they spoke to each other in this manner. Pāṇḍavas escaped through the underground passage without anyone noticing them. They were sleepy, but scared at the same time. With them was their aged mother; they were not able to walk fast. Bhīmasena then carried his mother on his shoulders, Nakula and Sahadeva on his hip and Yudhiṣṭhira and Arjuna in his arms. He kicked away twigs and sand that came his way and ran at the speed of the wind, carrying them all.
The night passed and the next morning, people came and doused the fire. They discovered that the house was made of lac and Purocana had perished in the fire. They concluded that Duryodhana had come up with this cruel idea only to kill the Pāṇḍavas. “This has taken place with Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s knowledge; he has not stopped Duryodhana because he wanted the Pāṇḍavas killed too. Bhīṣma, Droṇa, and the other elders too don't seem to be adhering to dharma. Let us send Dhṛtarāṣṭra a message: ‘You had the Pāṇḍavas killed in this fire! Is your wish now fulfilled?’ They talked to each other thus. They had discovered the charred remains of the huntress and her five children; in the meanwhile, the earth-digger too pretended to search for something and closed the escape route by filling it with mud.
Once he learnt that Purocana and the Pāṇḍavas had died, Dhṛtarāṣṭra was sad. “My dear brother Pāṇḍu did not die that day. Now, with the death of his wife and his brave sons, it feels like Pāṇḍu actually died today. Rush to Vāraṇāvata and complete their last rites; perform the funeral rites to others who died along with them too. Spend generously and make sure that you give them comfort!” Thus he commanded them and himself offered tarpaṇa as well; the Kauravas cried too. Vidura did not display his emotions much since he knew the truth.
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.