The Pandavas and mother Kunti had only just escaped the huge fire in the laksha griha (wax palace). They were standing on the bank of the river Suranadi which was in full spate. It had rained heavily that night and the sky was overcast and it was dark. Uncle Vidura had told them that they must go to the other side of the river where they would be safe. For some time they must live in disguise so that Duryodhana would remain under the impression that they were all dead. They knew that Vidura had made arrangements for their crossing the river.
The boatman Kandeia met them. He told them that Vidura had instructed him to ferry them across the river. The Pandavas and Kunti stepped into the boat. After they had covered just a little distance, the boat became unsteady. It was unable to carry so much load – six persons, one of whom, Bhima, was very heavy and his two huge maces were very heavy too. Sahadeva suggested that the maces be thrown into the river. They could collect them from the bottom of the river at the time of their return. Bhima threw his maces into the water. The impact was so great that the crocodile asura (demon), Jalaprava, was greatly startled. The mighty demon emerged from the water and thundered “give!”, “give”! Yudhisthira asked the boatman about the monstrous creature and his demand. He is an asura in the body of a crocodile, he told him. Whenever he saw a boat with people on board, he would demand his food in the form of a human. One had to be sacrificed, or else he would sink the boat and eat up everyone. The boatman said that one person on the boat had to be given to the asura. There was just no escape, he said.
Who could be given to the asura, asked Yudhisthira to Bhima. Bhima readily named Sahadeva. He was the youngest, was good for nothing and was of no real use. Yudhisthira did not agree. Name someone else, Yudhisthira said. Then it should be Nakula, he said. Too concerned with his appearance and too comfort-loving, he would be a problem during their years in the forest. But Yudhisthira would not agree. Nakuala was his step mother’s son and his mother was dead. He deserved protection, and there was no question of giving him up to the demon, said the son of Dharma. In that case, let the demon have Arjuna, said Bhima. Too kind-hearted and considerate towards the enemy, he would be a real nuisance during a war. Yudhisthira disagreed. He was dear to Krishna; besides, Guru Drona had told him that he should take care special of Arjuna because he was invincible and because of him much good would come to the Pandavas, said Yudhisthira.
Bhima was clear in his mind. He was not going to be the food for the demon. He told his elder brother that he knew it very well that he himself wouldn’t go into the water and also that he would expect him to do so. But he made it clear to him that even if he asked him to jump into the waters for the asura, he wasn’t going to obey him.
Bhima came up with yet another suggestion to solve the problem. The best choice would really be mother Kunti, he told the eldest Pandava. She had lived her life and was old now. In the forest, things would be difficult and life would be very hard and at her age she wouldn’t be able to cope with the many privations of forest life. In view of these, would Yudhisthira consider giving up mother Kunti, he asked the eldest Pandava. Yudhisthira was very upset. He sharply reprimanded Bhima. Such a wicked idea occurred to him because he was wicked, he told him.
Scolding from Yudhisthira was not new; he had received such harsh scolding from him many times earlier. So nonplussed, he came up with yet another suggestion. The boatman Kandeiar was outside their family. They were not going to be troubled in case Yudhisthira chose to sacrifice him, he told his brother. This time Yudhisthira did not scold Bhima. His words had silenced him. After a while he gave him a very sad smile. You have no moral sense, he told him. If you had even an iota of it, you wouldn’t have thought of having someone killed who was their benefactor.
Yudhishthira turned to his mother. Which of your three sons would you choose to give the asura, he asked her. Kunti’s reply was immediate. She named Bhima. Because of him, they had lost Dhritarashtra’s affection, she said. He would eat a lot but could not be asked to beg because of his proneness to anger. Not everyone would give alms. Now if someone refused to give him alms, then one would never know what he would do. He might ravage that house and harm the members of that household. It would be the best to get rid of him. Bhima must be given to Jalaprava, she said.
Bhima appears to have felt hurt at his mother’s words although such harsh language from her was nothing new for hm. I know your mind, he said and jumped into the water. Jalaprava swallowed him up in one gulp. In comparison with the enormous asura Bhima was like an insect. Completely unhurt, he landed in the asura’s stomach.
There was no more problem for the passengers. They safely landed on the bank. Thinking of their dear brother Bhima, Yudhisthira and his brothers broke into tears. They were utterly miserable. Kunti consoled them and asked them to enter the forest. The night would soon end and they would then run the risk of being found out if they did not leave the river bank right then. One must not wait for the one who is lost, she told them. How cruel you are mother, said Yudhisthira. His eyes were tearful and heart heavy with grief. She held his hand and saying “Nrusingha”, “Nrusingha”, she lead them into the forest.
Bhima sensed that they left without waiting for him and got very angry. In an instance tore open the asura’s body and emerged from it, saying “Jagannatha”, “Jagannatha”. As he was nearing the bank, he saw the boatman Kandeia, who was returning. He remembered that when his mother and elder brother were talking about giving him up to the demon, Kandeia supported them. This made him angry and he gave him one big slap and killed him. Then he broke the boat into pieces. Incidentally, the alleged complicity of Kandeia was completely without a basis because neither had anyone sought the boatman’s opinion nor did he volunteer it. Bhima took out his anger with his mother and elder brother on the poor, helpless boatman.
The saddest and morally the most disturbing part of the boatman’s story is that he disappeared from the narrative. There is no reference to his entirely condemnable killing in Sarala Mahabharata.
One wonders whether the narrative needed this killing. One thing is clear: with this death there remained no evidence of the Pandavas’ escape into the forest. Those who knew, knew. Krishna, Sakuni, Sanjaya and Vidura, who did, would tell no one. But perhaps the boatman could not be trusted. He was a forest dweller, whose loyalty Vidura had bought with valuables. It wasn’t unimaginable that Duryodhana might have bought him with even more valuables! After all, neither Vidura nor Duryodhana meant anything to him in personal terms.
Let us return to the Pandavas. Suddenly they heard urgent, huge steps behind them. Yudhisthira was scared. Probably a demon had spotted them and was following them. He would soon catch up with them and kill them all. Kunti was completely composed. Have no worry, she told her son, it was his brother Bhima who was coming to join them after killing Jalaprava. It was Bhima’s mother who knew his power and potential, as goes the Odia saying.
Soon Bhima arrived and prostrated himself at his mother’s feet. Yudhisthira hugged him most affectionately. They had seen the crocodile asura swallowing him. How did he come out, he asked him. Bhima’s answer was matter of fact and brief: he had torn open his body from inside and come out. He had things to do: attend to his mother and brothers who were all tired and were finding it difficult to walk. Soon there would be dawn.