He had already handed over the kingdom to his grandson, Parikshita, and was on pilgrimage with his brothers and Draupadi. After that they were to go for vanaprastha. They were visiting sacred places, and were in a place called Dharmapuri near Jajpur on the banks of the sacred river Baitarani when he married an Oriya girl called Suhani. It was not because he was overcome with passion for the girl that he married her. On the contrary, he found himself constrained to marry. The wedding was by no means a smooth affair; the god of death, Yama, had to be subdued for the marriage to be held.
One day a trader named Hari Sahu came to pay his respects to the Pandavas with his fifteen-year-old daughter Suhani. Yudhisthira asked him why he hadn’t got his daughter married. Keeping a girl of marriageable age at home was not right; it would bring distress to the ancestors, he told him. Hari Sahu told him that the girl was born in an inauspicious moment and she was destined to die at the time of her wedding, which was why he didn’t get her married. Sahadeva, who had the knowledge of the past, told Yudhisthira that what Sahu was saying was indeed true. Sahu then prayed to Yudhisthira in utmost humility to marry his daughter. It wouldn’t matter to him then whether his daughter lived or died, since he would have the great privilege of having Yudhisthira himself as his son-in-law, he told him. It would be a blessing for not only him but also his entire community.
Yudhisthira explained to him why his proposal was totally unacceptable. He was old and was on pilgrimage prior to vanaprastha. He could not return to live the life of a householder. But Hari Sahu was insistent. Then Sahadeva told Yudhishthira that rejecting a girl being offered for marriage was not in consonance with dharma, and that such an act would bring disgrace to one’s lineage. Therefore he must not reject the proposal. Yudhisthira accepted the advice and gave his consent.
Although it did not worry the girl’s father, Yudhisthira, like any husband-to-be, was quite troubled about the fact that the bride was to die the moment the sacred knot was tied. Arjuna told him not to worry. On an earlier occasion he had obliged Yama, and had developed a very close relation with him. He would now pray to him to spare Suhani, and he was certain that the god of death would grant him his request.
On an auspicious day the wedding ceremony was held. The Pandavas’ family priest, the great Dhaumya, presided over the function. The celebrated sage Vyasa was also present. Arjuna stood behind Suhani. As the ceremony was going on, Kal (literally “time”) and Bikal, the messengers of Yama, appeared. But for Arjuna, they were not even insignificant among the insignificants. He tied them up. Yama’s assistant, Chitragupta, fled and told Yama about the plight of his messengers. Furious at this, the god of death himself appeared on the scene. Yudhisthira was greatly perturbed, as were Dhaumya, Vyasa, Sahadeva and everyone else. There was palpable tension and the ceremony was stopped. But Arjuna told them not to worry and proceed with the ceremony.
Arjuna then humbly prayed to Yama to spare Suhani. The angry Yama ignore him, and proceeded towards the girl. Although he was invisible to everyone else, he couldn’t escape Arjuna’s sight. Now what power did Yama have to be able to frustrate Arjuna? Before he could act, Arjuna tied him up a thousand times over, and dispatched him to the Sumeru mountains.
In our puranas the thwarting of death, in other words, god Yama, is by no means non-existent, neither is return to life from the land of the dead in the same bodily form. In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata itself there are at least two instances of the dead coming back to life. Sahadeva was brought back to life by the divine physicians, the Ashwini Kumaras, and Parikshita, by Krishna. But the god of death was never so disgraced. What was worse was that no god complained. No one advanced an argument against Yama’s incapacitation on grounds of cosmic imbalance. Sarala probably had no interest in arresting the flow of the narrative for the sake of Yama.
The ceremonies were over, and everyone was happy. Then Hari Sahu asked Yudhisthira how his daughter did not die. Sahadeva told him what all had happened when the ceremonies were going on. Sahu wanted to see Yama, and Arjuna and Sahadeva took him to the Sumeru mountains. Hari Sahu fell at the great god’s feet and requested Arjuna to free him. That he readily did, telling Yama that he was freeing him free at the request of the Pandavas’ father-in-law, and extracted word from him that so long as they were there, the place must not be visited by death. Yama also granted a boon to Sahu.
Soon the Pandavas resumed their southward journey. Yudhisthira directed Suhani to go to the Kapilasa hills (in Orissa) and devote herself to the worship of Bhagawan Shiva there. He told her that on his way back, he take her with him to Varanasi.
Suhani’s story ends here. Yudhisthira never met her again. He never returned to Kapilasa. He did not take her with him as he, along with his brothers and Draupadi, proceeded towards the Himalayas on their final journey – mahaajaatraa (“great journey”), as the nineteenth century Oriya poet Radhanath Ray described it. And none of them ever said a word about her.
Neither did she, about herself or her husband and his brothers. For that matter, she didn’t say anything at anytime about the momentous things that had happened to her. The poet says nothing about what thoughts crossed her mind and how she felt as she waited in the Kapilasa hills for her husband to return. If at some point of time she realized that her waiting was doomed to be in vain, the poet says nothing about it. She is probably the first silent character in Oriya literature, and probably the only such!
Did Yudhisthira change his mind, considering probably that she was too young to embark on a journey to death or did tell her a plain lie? However, would his words amount to a lie? Elders often tell children things they know to be false for a variety of reasons. The same do not amount to lying. Could Yudhisthira’s words be seen from that point of view? Whatever it was, Sarala offers no understanding in this regard. Her story does not interest the poet anymore.
Incidentally, she was not the only wife a Pandava had left behind, setting aside the differences of circumstances and motivations in each instance. Bhima left his wife Hidimba in the forests, and Arjunan too left his wives Chitrangada and Ullupi behind in their respective places. They did not share their lives with their husbands either in Hastinapura or Indraprastha. Neither did they join them when they went to the forest after the game of dice incident. Subhadra was the only one who came to the Pandava palace after her marriage to Arjuna – being the sister of Krishna and Balarama, she was no ordinary woman. However she did not go with Arjuna to the forest, nor did she join them in their vanaprastha.
However, these women, who were left behind, entered the story of Mahabharata later, at some stage or the other. Ghatotkacha, for example, fought for the Pandavas and perished in the Kurukshetra battlefield. To take another example, (Bhima’s son) Belalsen’s (called “Barbarik” in some non-Oriya Mahabharatas) severed head watched the proceedings of the war and gave his account of what had actually happened in the war – how the war was nothing but a lila (“divine play”) of Krishna. But Suhani could not enter the story. She related to the Pandavas too late in their life – too late in their story to have some role in it. After Suhani, it was the other world that was beckoning them. To tell that story Sarala did not need Suhani.