A question on the Mahabharata…

So, I finished Vol-3 of Krishnavatara. This one is titled “The Five Brothers”, and is mostly about the Pandavas, Krishna’s involvement with the Kurus, his intention to defuse Duryodhana and to establish Dharma among the Aryas. My question is about the escape of the Pandavas from the “house of lac at Varnavat”. Duryodhana, with the help of the architect of the house Purochana, had deigned to burn the Pandavas to death in the house.

As it turns out, Vidura comes to know of Duryodhana’s evil designs and forewarns the Pandavas. Unknown to all, they make an underground tunnel into the forest. One night, before Purochana could set the house on fire, the Pandavas decide to do away with Purochana, and set fire to the house themselves. In order to make it seem that they had also died in the fire, they set fire to the house when a blind woman and her 5 sons are also staying in the house. The Pandavas escape, but in the fire, Purochana, the blind woman and her sons are charred to death. The people of Varnavat find the charred bodies and think that Kunti and the Pandavas have died.

That’s the story in short. My question has to do with the “dharma” of the Pandavas wilfully killing the old woman and her 5 sons by burning down the house. While Krishnavatara is all about Krishna’s desire to see Dharma established in the land, KM Munshi in the book skims over what seems to be an act of “adharma” by the Pandavas. Is there some justification of that act? Was there something about the woman and her 5 sons that justified the Pandavas burning them to death? My memories of Amar Chitra Katha have also dimmed, so I don’t remember this story all that well.

Can someone who is in the know about this story clarify? Did the Pandavas act against “dharma” or was there some justification to their action?


Posted on June 15, 2005, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. as far as my ACK memories go i dont think they had any reason … but im not sure

    i think, or i thought when i read my ack’s, that krishna’s logic was throughout that there are certain things that seem wrong, cz they are wrong from another perspective … but from ur perspective its right cz its what ur supposed to do … what u have to do to survive.

    yeah … thats what i thought at that time … sounds like a load of rubbish now that i put it down in words 😉

    did u get the mail? just chk’g cz some mails have been bouncing lately


    • Which mail? I had sent you one with the subject ‘sepoy mutiny’. You reply to that? If so, nopes, haven’t got it.

      About the sotry, in this case, Krishna’s logic (if it is as have you put it) is quite a lot of rubbish indeed 🙂 But, maybe there is something else to it.

      • have re sent the mail … let me know if u get it. yes it was in reply to sepoy mutiny

  2. Well, if I get it right, due to their (the Pandavas’) bad karma, they had to suffer later for their actions (wander homeless, etc.), and their sons were killed later by some guy (Ashwatthama, I think). Even Krishna, since he was born as a mortal, was not free from the results of his actions. Apparently, the hunter who shot an arrow through his heel or something was shocked when he realised it was “Krishna”, but Krishna assured him saying that it was just the law of cause and action which acts impersonally for all things that are bound by the law of causation, and that he (K) was suffering for his own actions, not due to any fault of the hunter. At that point in time, Krishna advised the Pandavas to burn the house due to the needs of the moment – Hinduism accepts karma and reincarnation, so probably the ones who were charred might have been born in better circumstances in their future lives. But about this we can only speculate.

    I think the Mahabharata was intended largely as a cushion for the Gita, so people could identify with the sentiments. Throughout, there is no ‘dogmatic’ insistence on morality, maybe at best the reinforcement of the idea that all morality is relative. No one knows if the epic actually took place – some commentaries just explain it as having symbolic content (Krishna as the omniscient, omnipotent soul guiding a confused mind, Arjuna)

    • Hmmm…Interesting…My own thoughts below..

      On their sons being killed, they were indeed killed by Ashwattama after the battle, abetted by Kripacharya and Kritivarma.

      Also, Krishna did not advise the Pandavas to burn down the house. According to this book at least, he was not even in the know about it till much later. He had also assumed that the Pandavas had died. It was Vidura who advised them to do so.

      Isn’t it a bit much to say that the Mahabharata was intended largely as a cushion for the Gita? The Mahabharata in itself is so complex and intricate, that I would doubt it was just a cushion. Not that I know whether it really took place or not, but I am inclined to believe it did. The stories quite possibly are exaggerated, but there are too many traces of the story in our practices, temples (particularly in North India) that there must be some truth to it. KM Munshi in fact discusses a certain community in Uttaranchal where the Pandavas are worshipped, and polyandry is common. There is also another neighbouring community there where Duryondhana is the presiding deity. I have seen a Hidimbaa and Ghatotkacha temple in Manali. Given all this, I would imagine they did roam these parts. Of course, my guess is as good as yours 🙂

      Getting back to the story itself, maybe the Pandavas did suffer later for their actions because of their “adharma”. But I just want to know if there is some place in the epic where that particular action was dicussed in greater detail. If they wilfully committed the act, why so. (Particularly given Yudhishtra’s reputation). If it was not considered adharma, why so.

      • Just to add – the main reason I asked that question was to do with Yudhishtra. From what I have read, Yudhishtra had to suffer hell very briefly, where he is pained to see his brothers, and then is surprised to see the kauravas, karna et. al in heaven. The explanation proffered for that “one minute” experience of hell is Yudhishtra’s only lie in life (that led to Drona’s death in the hands of Dhristadyumna). To my knowledge, that was the only “sin” committed by Yudhishtra in the epic. If that is indeed the case, why wasn’t the Varnavat incident considered a sin?

      • From what I read recently, the Gita contains the essence of the Upanishads. But common folk with no inclination towards erudition wouldn’t have bothered to go through it, or even the Gita, hence a story was woven over it.

        If you even read the Mahabharata, the Gita part stands out separate from it – indeed, there is a hint that both might have been complete sections in themselves, just blended for the common folk to get the significance. Otherwise, talking about Yoga, etc. in the middle of the ground doesn’t seem to gel at all.

        I too had read about Yudi’s one lie being the only sin by him, so maybe he might have been a passive assenter in the killing of those six folks. The story that I’d read was that Yudi, after the war, went to the Himalayas, performed penance, and became enlightened in that lifetime itself. It was said that penance mitigates the effect of previous bad actions…

        So, it is possible that the sin of killing those six folks was accounted by their own sons being killed, and hence they no longer had to suffer for it later – while the other bros (except Yudi) had many other unaccounted-for sins, and hence had to suffer hell.
        About Karna, it was said that his greatness was such that, when Arjuna shot arrows at him, all arrows turned into flowers. Finally, Krishna had to intervene, just to ensure that things happened as they were destined to..

      • Well, about the Gita and the Mahabharata, maybe you are right. Personally, I just find it a little difficult to believe that the Mahabharat is no more than a story around the Gita. But anyway, won’t quibble on that. 🙂 If you know of an authoritative source that believes so, can you point me to the link/book?

        As for the story about Varnavat, I guess, it’s possible they paid for the sin later. Maybe some other version discusses it in greater detail. Anyway…

  3. I think that was the origin of the phrase “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.” *snicker*

  4. There are quite a few instances in the Mahabharatha where this ‘violation’ of dharma happens. One that comes to mind immediately, is when Yuddhistra affirms that Aswathamma is dead, when he’s actually referring to the elephant by the same name.

    • Oh yes, there are quite a few instances. Only reason I asked was because in the Ashwattama case or in other cases, acts of adharma are spelt out clearly, or it is known that the person involved is not an upholder of dharma, or there is some explanation behind what happened. In this case, there doesn’t seem to be anything of that sort. Which, I found surprising.

      But, anyway. 🙂

  5. That’s very much there … an old nishada woman and her five sons all come in to the feast, get dead drunk and pass out. So, they provide a convenient 5 bodies.

    You do need to see stuff like “vanaras” in the ramayana – that’d typically be some kind of neanderthal or at least semi neanderthal tribal, anyway, non aryan.

    I rather suspect that Dharma etc applied only to dealings with aryans, back then.

    • What’s very much there? If they had just come for the feast and were simply convenient, then I guess it was clearly against dharma. I am just a little surprised then that there isn’t enuf of an explanation about it in the Mahabharat. Almost like it slipped Vyasa’s mind 🙂

      Yeah, I guess, vanaras, garudas et. al probably referred to some tribes. When I was in rameswaram, in a sita temple there, the priest tried to pass off a “coral” as a stone (no mere stone, unsinkable stone since it was blessed by Rama) from the bridge that the Vanara army built to Lanka. Makes me wonder if there was a big coral reef there in the distant past.

      But anyway…

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