The Redemption of the Vasus

The Pandavas were already there in the lakshya griha (wax palace) in Varunavanta. Uncle Vidura had met them and advised them to live in the forest for some years. Life would be very hard there, he said, by way of preparing them for their time in the forest. They would even have to beg for food, but suffering must not break them, he said. Some day the kingdom of Hastinapura would be theirs, he told them. The Pandavas knew that Vidura had got a tunnel made for them to escape. Now Vidura told them that there would be a boatman to ferry them across the river, Suranadi. At the other end of the river, they would be safe.

Then Vidura went to Dwaraka. It was a Monday. The full moon day of the month of Shravana was just two days away. It was twilight. Vidura met Krishna. Whatever he could do for the Pandavas’ safety, he had done, he told the Avatara. Now it would be he alone who could save them, he said. The virtuous Vidura did not need to worry, Krishna told him. There was a way.

Thus, all of a sudden thick, dark clouds appeared in the sky at Varunavanta. There was blinding lightening and deafening thunder. Then it poured and poured. In the nearby forest called Anubhava, there lived a savara (a tribe of forest dwellers) named Ajaraja in a hut with his wife Jayanta and her five children. A thunder burnt his hut and killed him. With her sons the helpless Jayanta ran for shelter and came to the wax palace. Bhima would not let her in.

“Who was there?” asked Kunti from inside. Then she asked her who she was and what was her caste. She told her all about how her husband had died and her hut had got burnt. She and her children had no shelter in that dreadful night, she told her and pleaded with her for shelter that night. Her children were like her children, she told Kunti and begged her to be merciful to them.

“Let them in”, Kunti said to Bhima and Bhima let them enter. Kunti told Jayanta that her name was Koenta and that their names rhymed. They were of the same age. So they were friends and she told her that her children were like her own. She gave them a bed and in no time the tired forest dwellers dropped off to sleep. 

The rains had stopped for quite a while now but the sky was overcast. Night had set in long ago and it was very dark outside. Silence reigned. This was the time to get away, said Yudhisthira. No one said a thing. Kunti and the Pandavas quietly entered the tunnel and after some time emerged out of it. They were on the bank of Suranadi and were safe.

Bhima turned back and entered the tunnel. On reaching the wax palace at the other end, Bhima confronted Puranjana Panda there and told him that soon he would be burnt to death in the same palace which he had built to burn the Pandavas to death. Bhima set fire to the palace. In no time the entire palace was engulfed with flames and Puranjaya Panda perished. Praying most humbly to god Agni to spare him, Bhima escaped. Soon he joined his mother and brothers at the river bank. They all knew what had happened to the poor savari and her children. But none of them shed a tear for them; let alone shedding tears, they didn’t even mention them in their exchanges ever. Could it be because they, especially Kunti and Yudhisthira, had a sense of guilt about what had happened to them? Perhaps they had, perhaps they didn’t have. The text is silent about it. In any case, the sensitive person knows he has to suffer his feeling of guilt and remorse alone for fear that sharing it with others would mean demeaning himself in front of others. His conscience would trouble him, but for how long? In any case, given their ambitions and apprehensions, kings and princes could hardly afford to live by their conscience.  

They, savaras, had come to the laksha griha, driven by their destiny. One can debate in one’s mind whether they had died or were killed. In any case, in their death, they served the Pandavas. Their badly burnt bodies concealed their identity. People thought those were the bodies of Kunti and the Pandava brothers. The Kuru elders grieved for them. And King Dhritarashtra performed their last rites. 

Sage Agasti was telling the Mahabharata story to Vaibasuta Manu. The lord of the yuga found the death of the six savaras entirely unfair and unacceptable. He interrupted the sage’s narration. “O venerable sage”, asked Vaibasuta Manu in all humility, “why did the innocents perish? What sins had they committed to deserve such a grisly end?”

The great sage and seer, who knew what had happened and what was going to happen, told him that the five children were the five vasus, the divines, who had been cursed by sage Vashishtha. The vasus sought the great seer’s forgiveness. He told them that they would be born in the mortal world twice and would die twice as their just punishment. After that they would assume their original form, he had told them. They would first be born as Ganga’s babies, who she would kill immediately after their birth. Then they would be born again as Jayanta savari’s children. They would perish in the wax palace fire and would then be free from his curse. Thus, they died because their own karma, said Agasti. Yudhisthira could not be blamed, he told Vaibasuta Manu. At the same time although from the human perspective they died a miserable death, the truth, beyond human understanding, was that they got their mukti. Incidentally one must not forget Krishna’s role in this. He created the condition for mukti of the cursed vasus.

The careful and discriminating listener Vaibasuta Manu must have been satisfied with the sage’s response. He didn’t ask any more questions and Agasti resumed his story.

Centuries after, we wonder why the lord of the yuga didn’t ask about the fate of Jayanta. Agasti said nothing about her. For which karma of hers in which birth of her did she have to suffer such a painful death? We know the narrator’s answer. It was not karma; the narrative needed that death. Jayanta had to be a helpless widow; so her husband Ajaraja had to die (so no questions about his karma, either) – in one way or the other, be it by thunder or by lightening, but not along with his wife and children. Thereafter, the narrative needed six deaths – one woman and her five children. All this is entirely understandable. It is only the asymmetry in the narrative that leaves us very unhappy – some deaths are connected with the dead man’s karma, whereas some others not and for that reason, they look arbitrary and unfair.

We perhaps have to reconcile to these sad ends (because a life of unclarity, doubt and scepticism can be unliveable) thinking that Narayana does not play dice with nara. So Jayanta and her husband Ajaraja did not die in vain; for they were the nimitta, chosen by Him, for the vasus’ mukti.

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