The throne Dhritarashtra had formally vacated loomed ahead of us as we sat discussing arrangements for our brother’s formal coronation.
Yudhishtira had summoned us to the main hall of Hastinapura. He walked in while we were reviewing the list of friendly kings to invite, and perched on a small stool beneath the dais. Typical of my punctilious brother, I thought – though he was acknowledged the new king of Hastinapura, he would not occupy the throne till he had been officially crowned.
I was wrong.
“I’ve thought long and hard these last few days, and I’ve taken a decision,” Yudhishtira said. “I called you here because I wanted my brothers to be the first to know.”
We looked at each other, mystified by the portentous note. Life had just begun to settle into a routine of sorts. The four of us had busied ourselves with an exhaustive inventory of the treasury, the stocks of cattle and the state of the various trading and artisan communities — a review we were far from completing.
Arjuna and I had taken on an added responsibility – that of figuring out how to quickly augment our dangerously depleted army. As things stood we could hardly raise a single division, and that left us extremely vulnerable to inimical kings or even to random raiding parties.
“Hastinapura is a nation without a heartbeat,” Yudhishtira said, breaking in on my thoughts. “Wherever I go – inside the palace, on the streets – all I see are widows, all I hear is the heart-rending sound of their sorrow. The feeling of guilt, the feeling that all of this is my fault, that none of this would have happened if I had not insisted on my right to the throne, has been growing on me these last few days.
“I have therefore decided to give up the throne and retire to the forest, where I will spend the rest of my life in penance and prayer.”
He held up a hand to silence our protests.
“No, don’t say anything – my mind is made up, there is nothing further to discuss. I have decided that our brother Bhima should be crowned king. It is fitting – it was he who led us all along, he who won the war for us, he who destroyed our enemies, and kshatriya dharma says the kingdom belongs to the victorious warrior.
“Hastinapura today is a dangerously weakened kingdom. With Bhima on the throne and with Arjuna supporting him, no one will dare take advantage of this weakness…”
I was compelled to interrupt. “I don’t agree. Kshatriyas do not fight for themselves but for their king – and right from our days as children in the forest, there has been no doubt in our minds that you are our king. We fought this war to uphold your right to the throne.”
Yudhishtira made as if to speak. I held up my hand. “No, let me finish. From the time we were children, we have been brought up to perform different functions. Arjuna and I were brought up to wage war; Nakula and Sahadeva are masters in the arts of administration; and you alone among us have been trained to rule. You speak of dharma – but how does dharma permit you to abandon this kingdom and its people at the time of greatest distress? I agree we are weak – but you have Arjuna and me to look after our security. We need you to heal the wounds of war, to bring prosperity back to this kingdom.”
“My child, did I not tell you at the outset that my mind was made up? You more than anyone else know I do not make up my mind lightly – I have thought of all of this, I have agonized over what my dharma demands of me. Know this — to be effective a king has to focus on one thing alone, and that is the welfare of his subjects. If he is tormented, distracted by doubt as I am now, he can never make a good king.”
He paced around the room, agitated, while we looked at each other in silence, unsure what we could do, what we could say.
Abruptly, he stopped before me. “I know this has been sudden, that you need time to think. I will leave you now so you can discuss this with our brothers. When your mind is made up, come to me. I have to speak to our uncle Vidura, make sure he understands my decision and gets everything ready for your coronation.”
Yudhishtira turned and strode out of the room. Arjuna was the first to break the silence.
“He is right, brother – we need a strong king now and there is none stronger, more feared than you. You have no reason to worry – not when you have Nakula and Sahadeva to help you in the task of running the kingdom, and me beside you to make sure Hastinapura is strong again …”
“In any case,” Sahadeva cut in, “our brother said his mind is made up, that his decision is final – so what is the point of discussion? He believes you are the best person to rule, and I agree — Hastinapura needs a king and if it is not Yudhishtira, then who better than you?”
I looked across at Nakula, who as usual sat silent, listening to everyone but not venturing any opinion of his own. “And you – what do you think?”
Nakula smiled. “Where is the need for me to say anything? Did you think I would have a different opinion from Arjuna and Sahadeva? Anyway, it is not as if such things haven’t happened before — didn’t uncle Dhritarashtra step down in favor of our father? And when our father thought he was unable to govern, didn’t he give the crown back to Dhritarashtra and retire to the forest?”
“Listen, brother,” Arjuna said, “there is nothing left to discuss. Our minds are made up. You need time to absorb this, so we’ll leave you alone now.”
He came up to me and bent low to touch my feet. Nakula and Sahadeva followed. I hugged all three – an embrace that contained a world of doubt, of questions, and a surge of gratitude for their unquestioning support.
I sat in the empty assembly hall, listening to the sounds of their departing footsteps and gazing at the raised platform in front of me. In the center stood the throne of Hastinapura, flanked by the two giant tusks bound in gold and crusted with precious stones. To its left was the smaller, but equally grand, throne for the queen.
My eyes fixed on the much smaller seat to the right of the throne – a seat set on a lower level of the dais, one without arms and the glittering paraphernalia of royalty.
That was my seat – the one I would, after the coronation, have occupied as Yudhishtira’s heir. Now Arjuna would sit there, to my right, and I…
I walked over to the dais and climbed up to the throne. I looked all around to make sure I was truly alone, and then I sat on the throne of my ancestors – gingerly at first, and then more firmly, with a growing feeling of belonging.
All those years ago, when as a child I had first come to Hastinapura, the first thing I had seen when I entered this hall was uncle Dhritarashtra seated on this throne – an imposing, awe-inspiring figure. From now on, it would be me they would see on the legendary throne of the Kurus. Would I look majestic, I wondered, would I evoke awe in our friends and fear in the emissaries of our enemies?
I looked to my left and, in my mind’s eye, saw Draupadi seated there, her eyes on me as I sat in state, dispensing justice.
My doubts vanished. My mind was made up. I would rule – and with my brothers beside me, I would be a good king, fair and just.
I jumped down from the dais and walked towards my own chambers, my mind in a whirl. I had to go to Yudhishtira and tell him my decision, ask his advice, learn from him all that I possibly could in the little time I had before he left for the forest.
Nakula and Sahadeva would look after the details of the coronation – but what then?
Our wealth of cattle had been depleted by the war – with our soldiers engaged and with no able-bodied men to look after them, large numbers of cattle had wandered off into the forest, and more had been taken away by the small raiding parties that infested the surrounding forests. I must remember to order Arjuna to lead an expedition into those forests, clear them of the raiders – to have them running amok, unchecked, was too big a security risk for us to take.
There was so much to do. Nakula and Sahadeva needed to take stock — we could then figure out ways to consolidate our cattle, get the breeding process started again and oh yes, horses, elephants, we needed to replenish our paddocks and I’d have to find a way to free up Sahadeva’s time so he could visit some of the neighboring kingdoms, find talented artisans to set up silk industries, metal and wood work, all the things we had done in Indraprastha to turn it into a bustling kingdom we would have to do all over again here, and that reminds me there is the question of Indraprastha and Panchala to be decided, what were we going to do with those kingdoms and I wonder if Arjuna had thought of Matsya now that Virat and his son were dead and Uttara was living under our protection, we had to urgently appoint regents who would rule the various kingdoms of our allies under our authority and oh yes I have to send a messenger to Krishna so when he comes for the coronation we can discuss this problem and decide on the right person and I needed to take my brother’s opinion as well before he went off into the forest and out of my reach oh and while on my brother I wonder if we should do the Ashwamedha, in one sense it would mean that everyone accepts our sovereignty and I could rule without the constant threat of war hanging over us but then again there was the risk that if we embarked on the Yaga it could give other kings an excuse to gang up against us at a time when we were not particularly strong, I must ask Yudhishtira what he thinks of this…
I walked on in a trance, my mind whirling with thoughts of all that I had to think of and do, and almost missed the light tinkle of anklets that told me I was no longer alone.
Draupadi walked out of the shadows and bent low to touch my feet. She must have heard, I thought – while she was always careful to greet Yudhishtira in this fashion, she had never done this for me or any of my other brothers until now.
“So have you decided on the date of the coronation?” she asked.
“Yudhishtira has made some decisions, but I am yet to make up my mind,” I said, hiding my elation under an off-handedness I was far from feeling.
“I heard,” she said. “That is why I came.”
To my surprise I saw a glint of tears in the eyes she raised briefly to meet mine before she looked down again.
“All those years I slaved in the forest, and that year in Matsya when I hid in the disguise of a maid, I always consoled myself with the thought that my time would come.” Her voice throbbed with the weight of unshed tears. “I would remember Krishna’s promise that he would one day see me seated on the throne of Hastinapura, and I’d dream of the day my husbands would win a kingdom for me and finally, I would be the queen I was born to be…”
She sighed, a wealth of weariness, of helplessness in the sound. “Maybe it is my destiny to live always in the forest, to live always as a slave…”
“Live in the forest?!” I exclaimed in surprise. “But why..?”
“What then? Would you have me live here instead as serving maid to your queen, to do for Balandhara what I did for Sudeshna?! Is that what you wish for me – me, Panchali, daughter of Drupada, sister to Dhristadyumna, wife to the Pandavas?”
“Balandhara…? But… it is you who will rule here beside me, on the throne of Hastinapura …”
“Fat fool, they call you – and fat fool you are!” The scorn in her voice scoured me like a whip. “I was married first to Yudhishtira – it is he who has the first claim on me and if he goes into the forest, then I must go too, even if I am too young for vanaprastha, even if my mind and heart are not ready yet, not prepared yet to turn my back on life…”
Abruptly she turned and vanished into the shadows, leaving behind a long, shuddering sob that bounced off the walls and echoed down the corridor.
Sick at heart, unsure of what I must do, I hurried to my chambers. I needed to be alone… I needed to think… Balandhara my queen… Draupadi in the forest, wearing the deerskin and bark robes of vanaprastha… how had I overlooked this?
The maids had not yet lit the lamps. In the gloom, I saw two figures waiting for me – uncle Vidura and behind him a woman, her robe pulled over her head to cover her face.
“So your brother wants to go to the forest to do penance?”
It was mother.
“I heard he has decided on vanaprastha – uncle Vidura did his best to persuade him against it, but he seems to have made up his mind.”
I stood there, silent, waiting. She had clearly come for a purpose – and she would get around to telling me about it in her own way.
“The people of Hastinapura have lost everything, my child – and now they are about to suffer their biggest loss.
“Do you remember the day I brought you children here, to the gates of Hastinapura, for the very first time? The people thronged the streets in their thousands then, flowers in their hands, waiting for their first glimpse of the prince who was born to rule them.
“And they have been waiting ever since for the day Yudhishtira will be crowned their king, the day the rule of dharma, of righteousness, will be established in Hastinapura. They have lost everything they had – and now they will lose the one hope that has sustained them all these years…”
I felt the sudden sharp sting of tears, and ground my nails into my palms – a physical pain to take away the sudden sharp agony in my heart as I realized what she had come here to say.
“What do you want me to do, mother?”
“Your brother must become king. You are untrained in the shastras, in dharma shastra and rajya shastra – you are not fit to rule. It is not just me, child – your uncle also thinks as I do. Go to your brother and tell him that – tell him that under no circumstances will you sit on the throne.”
I took a deep breath, fighting back the haze that clouded my mind. And then I laughed – loudly, uproariously. I sank down on a seat and laughed still, slapping my thighs and drumming my feet on the floor.
“Mother,” I gasped, “don’t you know my brother yet? Don’t you know it is just his sense of humor at work, this notion of me – what is it you always called me, fat fool? – as king of Hastinapura? Did you think he was serious?! Don’t worry – Yudhishtira will sit on the throne, you have my word.”
Vidura smiled in sudden relief. “God bless you, child,” he said as he turned and walked away.
Mother eyes were shadowed with doubt, but then she too touched my head in benediction and walked out after my uncle.
Alone in the dark, I thought of that brief moment in the great hall of Hastinapura when I had sat on the throne of Hastinapura — that one fleeing moment when I was king.
And I laughed, loud and long.
I was Bhima, the mightiest warrior of my time. I would not cry.