Upon listening to the story of Sāvitrī, Yudhiṣṭhira experienced a great deal of relief; he did not allow any more worries to plague his heart, and after spending some more time in the Kāmyaka forest he returned to the Dvaita forest along with everyone, where he established residence once again. It was there that their twelve-year forest exile came to an end.
During their stint in the Dvaita forest this time, the Pāṇḍavas fell into grave danger while trying to help out a poor brāhmaṇa –
One day when Yudhiṣṭhira was seated along with his brothers, a brāhmaṇa came running to him and said, “I had hung my Araṇi fire-producing sticks on a tree branch; while a deer was rubbing its body against that tree, the fire-sticks got trapped in its antlers; the deer ran away along with the sticks; I shall fail to perform my Agnihotra rites without them; O Pāṇḍavas! Please bring that to me as soon as you can.” Thus he pleaded with them.
The five of them went in search of the deer, armed with their bows and arrows; they chased after the deer and shot a variety of arrows at it; even though it wasn’t far away, the arrows would simply not touch the deer; after a while, it went out of sight. Worried at the turn of events, famished by hunger and thirst, they sat down and rested in the shade of a Banyan tree. Nakula climbed the tree and saw that there was a lake nearby. Yudhiṣṭhira ordered him to go there and bring water for everyone. Nakula went to the lake and when he was about to drink water to quench his thirst, he heard a voice from the sky, “Don’t do this rash act! This lake belongs to me; if you so desire, answer my questions first and then drink water!” Nakula was extremely thirsty; he ignored the heavenly voice and drank the cool water. As soon as he drank the water, he fell to the ground.
After waiting for Nakula for a long time, Yudhiṣṭhira asked Sahadeva to go and find out what happened. When he came upon the lake, he saw that his brother was lying dead! As for him, he was ravaged by an uncontrollable thirst; so he proceeded to drink water from the lake and like the previous time, a heavenly voice was heard asking him not to drink the water; he disregarded the voice, drank the water, and fell dead.
Then Arjuna went there and found his younger brothers lying dead on the ground; he lifted his bow and looked all around; there was not a single animal in sight; when he went to drink the water, he too heard the celestial voice; Arjuna shouted, “Who’s that? Come before me, make yourself seen; I will render you voiceless!” Then he starts shooting special arrows after reciting mantras and by using his skills of śabdavedhi (shooting only by listening to the sound). Soon the air was filled with arrows. Finding that he had shot all those arrows in vain, he got down to drink the water and quench his uncontrollable thirst; soon after he drank the water, he too fell dead. Then Bhīma came and like the rest of them, heard the voice, paid no heed to it, drank the water, and fell to the ground.
Dharmarāja was worried to death. He went in search of his brothers. When he came upon the lake, he found all his brothers lying dead! Seeing that, tears flowed from his eyes and heaving a heavy sigh he said, “What could be the reason for their death? There is no mark of any weapon used on any of them; there are no footsteps of anyone else; some great ghost must have killed them all. Let that be, I will first drink water and then think about it. Is this also one of the evil schemes of Duryodhana or Śakuni? Or have one of their spies done this heinous act? Has someone poisoned this lake entirely? Seeing their smiling faces, I think it’s unlikely that they were killed by poison. Can anyone beside Yama kill them?” With these thoughts, he came near the water and as soon as he got into it, an incorporeal voice from the sky said, “I am crane that lives here, feeding on the fish in this lake. I was the one who killed your brothers. If you don’t pay heed to my words and fail to answer my questions before drinking the water, you too will join your brothers and become the fifth corpse. Don’t commit this rash act! This lake belongs to me. Answer my questions and then drink the water or take it with you.”
Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “Noble sir, who are you? This is not the work of a bird; you must be one of the prominent deities among the Rudras, Vasus, or the Maruts. Else you would not have been able to roll down to the ground these great men like the Himavanta, Pāriyātra, Vindhya, and Malaya mountains. What you have done is something unprecedented and impossible for even the Devas, Dānavas, Gandharvas, and Rākṣasas. I am unable to comprehend your motive behind this. Both fear and curiosity have been aroused in me. The heart is trembling and my head is burning. Who are you, O lord?”
“I am a Yakṣa, not an acquatic bird. I was the one who killed you brothers!” said the voice.
Soon after that, the Yakṣa appeared near the lake; he was huge in size, like a palm tree; he opened his crooked eyes. He spoke in a grave voice resembling lightning and said, “Mahārāja! Your brothers totally ignored my threats and went ahead to drink the water without answering my questions; I killed them. Those who love life and harbour desires shouldn’t drink from this lake. Therefore don’t do anything rash; all this belongs to me; after answering my questions, drink as much as you want and take as much as you like.”
Yudhiṣṭhira said, “O Yakṣa! I do not desire for any object that belongs to you; that is not an act that will evoke praise from the good people; I must not boast about myself; therefore I will give answers to your questions to the best of my abilities; ask, what questions do you wish to pose to me?”
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 review and astute feedback.