THE stipulated period of twelve years was drawing to a close.
One day, a deer was rubbing itself against a poor brahmana's fire-kindling mortar and as it turned to go, the mortar got entangled in its horns and the affrighted animal fled wildly with it into the forest.
In those days matches were unknown and fire was kindled with pieces of wood by mechanical friction.
"Alas! The deer is running away with my fire-kindler. How can I perform the fire sacrifice?" shouted the brahmana and rushed towards the Pandavas for help in his extremity.
The Pandavas pursued the animal but it was a magic deer, which sped in great leaps and bounds, decoying the Pandavas far into the forest and then disappeared. Worn out by the futile chase, the Pandavas sat in great dejection under a banyan tree.
Nakula sighed: "We cannot render even this trifling service to the brahmana. How we have degenerated!" said he sadly.
Bhima said: "Quite so. When Draupadi was dragged into the assembly, we should have killed those wretches. Is it not because we did not do so that we have had to suffer all these sorrows?" and he looked at Arjuna sadly.
Arjuna agreed. "I bore in silence the vulgar and insulting brag of that son of the charioteer, doing nothing. So we have deservedly fallen into this pitiable state."
Yudhishthira noticed with sorrow that all of them had lost their cheerfulness and courage. He thought they would be more cheerful with something to do. He was tormented with thirst and so he said to Nakula: "Brother, climb that tree and see whether there is any pool or river nearby."
Nakula climbed the tree, looked around and said: "At a little distance I see water plants and cranes. There must certainly be water there."
Nakula was glad when he got to the place and saw there was a pool. He was very thirsty himself and so thought of quenching his thirst first before taking water in his quiver for his brother. But no sooner did he dip his hand in the transparent water than he heard a voice, which said:
"Do not be rash. This pool belongs to me. O son of Madri, answer my questions and then drink the water."
Nakula was surprised, but carried away by his intense thirst and heedless of the warning, he drank the water. At once, overcome by irresistible drowsiness, he fell down, to all appearance dead.
Surprised that Nakula had not returned, Yudhishthira sent Sahadeva to see what the matter was. When Sahadeva reached the pool and saw his brother lying on the ground, he wondered whether any harm had come to him. But before looking into the matter further, rushed irresistibly to the water to quench his burning thirst.
The voice was heard again: "O Sahadeva, this is my pool. Answer my questions and then only may you quench your thirst."
Like Nakula, Sahadeva also did not heed the warning. He drank the water and at once dropped down.
Puzzled and worried that Sahadeva also did not return, Yudhishthira sent Arjuna to see whether the brothers had met with any danger. "And bring water," he added, for he was very thirsty.
Arjuna went swiftly. He saw both his brothers lying dead near the pool. He was shocked at the sight and felt that they must have been killed by some lurking foe.
Though heart-broken with grief and burning with the desire for revenge, he felt all feelings submerged in a monstrous thirst, which irresistibly impelled him to the fatal pool. Again, a voice was heard: "Answer my question before you drink the water. This pool is mine. If you disobey me, you will follow your brothers."
Arjuna's anger knew no bounds. He cried: "Who are you? Come and stand up to me, and I will kill you," and he shot keen-edged arrows in the direction of the voice. The invisible being laughed in scorn: "Your arrows do but wound the air. Answer my questions and then you can satisfy your thirst. If you drink the water without doing so, you will die."
Greatly vexed, Arjuna made up his mind to seek out and grapple with this elusive foe. But first he had to quench his terrible thirst. Yes, thirst was the enemy he must kill first. So he drank the water and also fell down dead.
After anxious waiting Yudhishthira turned to Bhima: "Dear brother, Arjuna, the great hero, has also not yet returned. Something terrible must have happened to our brothers, for our stars are bad. Please seek them out and be quick about it. Also bring water, for I die of thirst." Bhima, racked with anxiety, hurried away without a word.
His grief and rage can be imagined when he saw his three brothers lying there dead. He thought: "This is certainly the work of the Yakshas. I will hunt them down and kill them. But O! I am so thirsty, I shall first drink water the better to fight them." And then he descended into the pool.
The voice shouted: "Bhimasena, beware. You may drink only after answering my questions. You will die if you disregard my words."
"Who are you to dictate to me?" cried Bhima, and he drank the water avidly, glaring around in defiance. And as he did so, his great strength seemed to slip from him like a garment. And he also fell dead among his brothers.
Alone, Yudhishthira wailed full of anxiety and thirst. "Have they been subjected to a curse or are they wandering about in the forest in a vain search for water or have they fainted or died of thirst?"
Unable to bear these thoughts and driven desperate by an overpowering thirst, he started out to look for his brothers and the pool.
Yudhishthira proceeded in the direction his brothers had taken through tracts infested with wild boar and abounding in spotted dear and huge forest birds. Presently he came upon a beautiful green meadow, girdling a pool of pellucid water, nectar to his eyes.
But when he saw his brothers lying there like sacred flagpoles thrown pell-mell after a festival, unable to restrain his grief, he lifted his voice and wept. He stroked the faces of Bhima and Arjuna as they lay so still and silent there and mourned:
"Was this to be the end of all our vows? Just when our exile is about to end, you have been snatched away. Even the gods have forsaken me in my misfortune!"
As he looked at their mighty limbs, now so helpless, he sadly wondered who could have been powerful enough to kill them. Brokenly, he reflected: "Surely my heart must be made of steel not to break even after seeing Nakula and Sahadeva dead. For what purpose should I continue to live in this world?"
Then a sense of mystery overcame him, for this could be no ordinary occurrence. The world held no warriors who could overcome his brothers. Besides, there were no wounds on their bodies which could have let out life and their faces were faces of men who slept in peace and not of those who died in wrath.
There was also no trace of the footprints of an enemy. There was surely some magic about it. Or, could it be a trick played by Duryodhana? Might he not have poisoned the water? Then Yudhishthira also descended into the pool, in his turn drawn to the water by a consuming thirst.
At once the voice without form warned as before: "Your brothers died because they did not heed my words. Do not follow them. Answer my questions first and then quench your thirst. This pool is mine."
Yudhishthira knew that these could be none other than the words of a Yaksha and guessed what had happened to his brothers. He saw a possible way of redeeming the situation.
He said to the bodiless voice: "Please ask your questions." The voice put questions rapidly one after another.
The Yaksha asked: "What makes sun shine every day?"
Yudhishthira replied: "Courage is man's salvation in danger."
The Yaksha asked: "By the study of which science does man become wise?"
Yudhishthira replied: "Not by studying any sastra does man become wise. It is by association with the great in wisdom that he gets wisdom."
The Yaksha asked: "What is more nobly sustaining than the earth?"
Yudhishthira replied: "The mother who brings up the children she has borne is nobler and more sustaining than the earth."
The Yaksha asked: "What is more blighted than withered straw?"
The Yaksha asked: "Who is the friend of one who stays at home?"
The Yaksha asked: "Who accompanies a man in death?"
Yudhishthira replied: "Dharma. That alone accompanies the soul in its solitary journey after death."
Yudhishthira replied: "The earth, which contains all within itself is the greatest vessel."
Yudhishthira replied: "Happiness is the result of good conduct."
The Yaksha asked: "What is that, abandoning which man becomes loved by all?"
Yudhishthira replied: "Pride, for abandoning that man will be loved by all."
The Yaksha asked: "What is the loss which yields joy and not sorrow?"
Yudhishthira replied: "Anger, giving it up, we will no longer subject to sorrow."
The Yaksha asked: "What is that, by giving up which, man becomes rich?"
Yudhishthira replied: "Desire, getting rid of it, man becomes wealthy."
The Yaksha asked: "What makes one a real brahmana? Is it birth, good conduct or learning? Answer decisively."
Yudhishthira replied: "Birth and learning do not make one a brahmana. Good conduct alone does. However learned a person may be he will not be a brahmana if he is a slave to bad habits. Even though he may be learned in the four Vedas, a man of bad conduct falls to a lower class."
The Yaksha asked: "What is the greatest wonder in the world?"
Yudhishthira replied: "Every day, men see creatures depart to Yama's abode and yet, those who remain seek to live forever. This verily is the greatest wonder."
Thus, the Yaksha posed many questions and Yudhishthira answered them all.
In the end the Yaksha asked: "O king, one of your dead brothers can now be revived. Whom do you want revived? He shall come back to life."
Yudhishthira thought for a moment and then replied: "May the cloud-complexioned, lotus-eyed, broad-chested and long-armed Nakula, lying like a fallen ebony tree, arise."
The Yaksha was pleased at this and asked Yudhishthira: "Why did you choose Nakula in preference to Bhima who has the strength of sixteen thousand elephants? I have heard that Bhima is most dear to you. And why not Arjuna, whose prowess in arms is your protection? Tell me why you chose Nakula rather than either of these two."
Yudhishthira replied: "O Yaksha, dharma is the only shield of man and not Bhima or Arjuna. If dharma is set at naught, man will be ruined. Kunti and Madri were the two wives of my father. I am surviving, a son of Kunti, and so, she is not completely bereaved. In order that the scales of justice may be even, I ask that Madri's son Nakula may revive." The Yaksha was pleased with Yudhishthira's impartiality and granted that all his brothers would come back to life.
It was Yama, the Lord of Death, who had taken the form of the deer and the Yaksha so that he might see his son Yudhishthira and test him. He embraced Yudhishthira and blessed him.
Yama said: "Only a few days remain to complete the stipulated period of your exile in the forest. The thirteenth year will also pass by. None of your enemies will be able to discover you. You will successfully fulfil your undertaking," and saying this he disappeared.
The Pandavas had, no doubt, to pass through all sorts of troubles during their exile, but the gains too were not inconsiderable. It was a period of hard discipline and searching probation through which they emerged stronger and nobler men.
Arjuna returned from tapas with divine weapons and strengthened by contact with Indra. Bhima also met his elder brother Hanuman near the lake where the Saugandhika flowers bloomed and got tenfold strength from his embrace. Having met, at the enchanted pool, his father Yama, the Lord of Dharma, Yudhishthira shone with tenfold lustre.
"The minds of those who listen to the sacred story of Yudhishthira's meeting with his father, will never go after evil. They will never seek to create quarrels among friends or covet the wealth of others. They will never fall victims to lust. They will never be unduly attached to transitory things." Thus said Vaisampayana to Janamejaya as he related this story of the Yaksha. May the same good attend the readers of this story as retold by us.