There was nothing dramatic about the death of Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva in Sarala Mahabharata. Unlike Bhima’s death. Weak, hungry and tired in the extreme, these three brothers were unable to cope with the terrible weather in the snowy, windy Himalayas and one after another Sahadeva, Nakula and Arjuna in that order slipped as they were following Yudhisthira and fell to their death. Sarala does not give many couplets to them as he winds up their story. Swargarohana Parva is about Yudhisthira – it is his story. Other characters have to disappear from the stage quickly, quietly and of course elegantly, so that the focus remains on the son of Dharma at this stage in the narrative.
Since natural deaths are of no narrative interest, what is of interest about these three brothers here is how they are judged by Yudhisthira – in what way each was a dosi (wrong doer, sinner, in this context) in his eyes – in the eyes of Dharma, that is, at this stage of the story. Sahadeva fell before Nakula and Arjuna, but we will turn to him last. When Nakula hit a slab of snow and fell, Bhima pleaded with Yudhisthira to halt for a while. As one lies dying is the time to mourn him with words of praise. As he wept, Bhima recounted his bravery and his prowess. He was the one who had held the earth on the tip of his spike. For rajaswiya jajna, he had fought and defeated many Southern kings. And didn’t he always have more affection for Nakula and Sahadeva, his co-brothers, than for him and Arjuna, his own brothers, Bhima asked his elder brother. Which spirit had entered him, such an affectionate brother, and such a virtuous person, and had made him so indifferent and callous to them all, Bhima asked – more “wondered” than “asked”. Nakula was so very handsome, Bhima continued and now he looked pale as death was claiming him. But the one to whom his words were addressed was climbing the mountain, taking long steps, without a thought about who was following him and who was dying. Leave Nakula, said Yudhisthira at last; no need to talk about his charms and prowess, which are meaningless when one faces death. In half a couplet Yudhisthira declares his dosa: he endlessly gloated over his charms – …apana sundara apane bakhanai. Leave him, said Yudhisthira to Bhima.
Soon Arjuna fell. Bhima again pleaded with his elder brother to stop and turn to his brother. Unequalled in war, he had won countless victories. He had defeated even Krishna and Balarama at the time of Subhadra’s wedding, had single-handedly defeated the Kauravas in the Virata war, and had pleased the mighty Hanuman by making a bridge of arrows on the sea. He had saved Dwaraka from Gosingha’s attack and Kapilasa (in Odisha), the abode of Shiva, from Kumbheka’s. Kind hearted and generous, he had always empathised with those in distress; he had made many happy. His eyes were closing, said Bhima to Yudhisthira with great urgency in his voice; he must comfort him with his presence, he implored.
Yudhisthira asked Bhima not to grieve; the dead would not return to life in response to the tears shed for him. Arjuna’s punya (good karma) had brought him that far, he said, and that exhausted, he had to die. He was a great sinner: ye bada dosi, said Yudhisthira. He was proud and arrogant and vaunted his glory. He would boast of his victory over Shiva, and was never tired of bragging how he had conquered all in battle – gods, demons and humans, and how because of him, he, Yudhisthira could rule as the emperor. He was an ignoramus, a sinner, he told Bhima.
We must return to Sahadeva now, who we had left behind. He was unable to walk any further, the youngest Pandava told his eldest brother, and in an imploring tone, he suggested to him that they rest there for the day and resume their journey the following morning but even before he could complete, he collapsed. Save me, O Dharma, was all he said before he slipped into silence for ever. Disconsolate, Bhima placed him on his lap. He was wise, Bhima told Yudhisthira, was a man of virtue, of conscience, and a person with exceptional vision, he knew what was to happen. He was his able minister and aided by his knowledge, he had ruled the world, he told him as though he was reminding him of something he had forgotten. He must stop for a while, he pleaded with him; how could he walk ahead when his brother who had served him with such devotion was lying dead? What would he do on the mountain top leaving behind such a brother, he asked him. His dosa was great, Yudhisthira answered; he, Bhima, should not weep over the death of a sinner and resume his climb, he said. Bhima was unhappy and unconvinced. He should tell him what his dosawas, and only then he would leave him, was what he told him. He almost challenged his brother. He had never spoken to him like this – not at the time of Draupadi’s death or Nakula’s or Arjuna’s.
Yudhisthira’s words were pitiless. Sahadeva was the knower of the past and the future, said the eldest Pandava; he could only look at his palm and he would see what was to happen. But he would not utter a word unless someone asked him. He wouldn’t utter a word of warning even when one was on the edge of a precipice, as it were. The game of dice and their exile wouldn’t have happened had he told him what was going to happen. His silence was the cause of their misery and he felt no sorrow on account of his death, he told Bhima. In one stroke he absolved himself from his own indiscretion, lack of perspective and disregard for Bhishma’s advice during the games of dice and put the blame on his younger brother and made him an adhami (one who violates dharma). The son of Dharma seemed to have forgotten that Sahadeva too had undergone exile with his brothers. On many occasions on being consulted, Sahadeva had said things that had benefited the Pandavas immensely. But when it came to making a judgement on him, even the virtuous and the sagacious eldest Pandava remembered only his difficult times for which he held him responsible, but not the many experiences of relief and joy of which that same person was the cause. Even after hearing from Yudhisthira about the dosa of Sahadeva, Bhima did not leave his brother. Instead he begged him to stop and take one last look at his wise minister. Give him up and shed no tears, was all he told Bhima.
In Sarala Mahabharata Sahadeva was not constrained to tell what was going to happen except when asked; here he chose to keep quiet when no one asked him. Yudhisthira strongly condemned his attitude of keeping knowledge to himself when sharing it would have eliminated suffering and pain. He didn’t think that there was any merit in withholding knowledge from others until consulted. Withholding a word that would have helped was a sin, in the judgement of the son of Dharma. Is it possible that he considered this attitude nothing short of plain arrogance? From one point of view, the dosas of these three brothers related to speech: what must be spoken and what must not be. One could enjoy one’s achievements and attributes alone in silence and not speak about the same. And one must not remain silent when speaking would help.
One would think that Yudhisthira’s judgement would have been far harsher had he known what all his younger brother and trusted minister had done, about which he had no knowledge. In the second game of dice that led to the Pandavas’ exile, it was Sahadeva who had rolled the dice for both Yudhisthira and Duryodhana. Gifted with a special vision, he knew that Yudhisthira’s defeat would serve the divine purpose; therefore, he deliberately rolled the dice in order to ensure his brother’s defeat. He sided with the gods but betrayed his trusting brother. Again, later, both Krishna and he had betrayed Yudhisthira when the avatara went to the Kaurava court as his emissary. Peace was not in Krishna’ mind; war was. And in Sahadeva’s too, probably because, being all knowing, he knew that the avatara’s will would prevail, so the best or the only thing he could do was to become an instrument of his will – the cosmic will. Yudhisthira had instructed Krishna to ask for just one village from Duryodhana and he hadn’t asked for any particular village. As Krishna consulted his brothers individually, he found that each brother wanted one village for himself. Nakula wanted two, one for himself and one for Sahadeva. Sahadeva wanted nothing. As the one who had chosen to surrender to Krishna’s will, all he told him was that he must ask for what could simply not be given and thereby ensure war. He named the villages. As he characterized each, it ceased to be an existing village. Each village was a concept to be actualized in terms of new boundaries of space. He would have no place on earth to even stand on, if he decided to give anything to Narayana, warned Sakuni – the one in Sarala Mahabharata who worked for the avatara while creating the impression that he was working against him – and Duryodhana realized how correct his uncle was when Krishna named the villages. But this is no place for details of that episode. There was so much else that Sahadeva was doing without his brother’s knowledge. Just one more example would suffice here: Sahadeva and Sakuni were working together to destroy the Kauravas. Yudhisthira was ignorant about both Sahadeva and Sakuni.
As the narrative leaves Sahadeva in the snowy loneliness of the Himalayan cliffs and proceeds to tell the story about his brothers’ destinies, some of us, Sarala’s audience, distanced from him by more than five centuries, should like to stay for a while with the lifeless body of the youngest Pandava and shed tears for him, uncomfortable with Sarala’s resolution of Sahadeva’s karma. And as we do so, we should like to ask Dharma whether it is ethical to divulge what one knows and whether doing so is an obligation of the knower to his community. As for the argument that one must judiciously do so, isn’t it the case that the knowledge that helps one may harm another? When the fight between a Kaurava and a Pandava was evenly poised in the Kurukshetra war field, didn’t Sahadeva’s special knowledge bring victory to the Pandava and death to his adversary? Was this in consonance with the spirit of agreed code for the Kurukshetra war? Knowing the nature of knowledge, wouldn’t it be ethical not to at least volunteer to share what one knows, especially the potentially dangerous knowledge of what is to come? Isn’t this what Sahadeva did? It’s a different matter when one asks. One, who everyone around him knows to be the knower of the future, cannot remain in sansara(mundane world) and remain silent – one will never be forgiven for it. And if one speaks, dharma of speech would demand that one speaks the truth. As we question Yudhisthira’s condemnation of Sahadeva and mourn over the unfortunate man, we ask the Giver of all knowledge why give one an ordinary man the knowledge of the past and the future and condemn him to live a worldly life among sansaris (those who live a life of sansara)?