MBK: 1.34: The Lake of Death

As the Pāṇḍavas passed their twelfth year in the Kāmyaka, Indra thought of how he might do them good. The king of the gods knew that Yudhiṣṭhira was afraid of Karṇa, especially because his divine armor and earrings afforded him supernatural protection from weapons. Indra decided to disguise himself as a Brahmin and beg the armor from Karṇa.

Divining Indra’s intention, the sun-god appeared before Karṇa in a dream in the form of a handsome Brahmin. Gently, the day-maker said, “O mighty hero, my son, I have come to advise you for your everlasting good. Listen carefully. Indra will come before you disguised as a Brahmin in order to beg from you your armor. He is aware that you have vowed never to refuse charity. You must somehow resist his request. Offer him anything else in its place. If you part with your armor and earrings, which are made of the essence of celestial nectar, you will die in the battle. Possessed of your armor and earrings, however, not even the gods can slay you.”

In his dream Karṇa asked, “Who are you who cares so much for my welfare?”

“I am the god of limitless rays. I advise you out of affection. You should heed my words.”

Karṇa did not know that the sun-god was his father. He replied, “I am fortunate that the lord god of all splendor, whom I worship daily, desires my welfare. Out of my love for you I say this: please do not prevent me from observing my vow. Such dishonor would be worse for me than death. O Sūrya, all the world knows I will part with my life if a Brahmin begs for it. Should Indra come to me as a Brahmin, I shall not be able to refuse him whatever he may ask.”

Fame was everything to Karṇa. He would never do anything that would lead to infamy. He added, “If I give my armor to Indra, I shall win great fame in this world, while Indra will become infamous. Fame prolongs life and leads to heaven. A famous man lives even after his death, while those who are infamous are as good as dead even though they still breathe. O Sūrya, I will preserve my fame even at the cost of my life.”

Sūrya replied, “Dear child, a wise man does not do anything that will injure himself or his dependents. There is no doubt that the everlasting fame you desire will cost you your life. Therefore, what profit is there in sacrificing your body for fame? Only while you are alive can you use the fame you accrue. Fame is useless to a dead man. It is a garland around a corpse. Because you worship me, I speak for your good. If you use reason, you will be able to distract Indra from his purpose. If you wish to face Arjuna in battle, you must not give up your earrings and armor. You will not be able to stand against Arjuna without them.”

Karṇa was still not convinced. “O god of brilliant rays, you are dearer to me than my wife, sons, friends, and even my own self. Please cherish me as a devoted worshipper and allow me to do as I please. I cannot embrace falsehood; death would be preferable. With bowed head and repeated prayers I implore you to forgive me, for I cannot do as you say. I do not fear Arjuna. Paraśurāma has given me powerful weapons. I will defeat Arjuna in the battle when the time comes. Please permit me to observe my vow when Indra approaches me.”

Sūrya could see that Karṇa would not change his mind. It was as the god had expected and he had already considered an alternative. He continued to address his son in gentle tones.

“O powerful one, if you must give your armor and earrings to Indra, then you should ask him something in return. Worshipping him with pleasing words, you should offer him your armor only in exchange for the infallible dart he possesses. That weapon can destroy any enemy. If you possess that weapon, you will remain invincible. Ask him for it. It is called the Śakti.”

Suddenly, Sūrya vanished and Karṇa awoke, thinking about his dream. After bathing he went before the rising sun with folded palms. He told the sun everything that had occurred in his dream. From the heavens a voice echoed: “This is all true.” Amazed, Karṇa returned to his palace, expecting Indra’s arrival at any time.

A few days later, Karṇa entered the Ganges at noon to perform his daily worship of the sun-god. Each day at the end of his worship, the Brahmins would come to beg charity. He never refused anyone anything. Now Indra came to him, dressed as a Brahmin. Seeing the effulgent ascetic standing before him, Karṇa said, “You are most welcome. What can I offer you? If you like, I can bestow upon you villages, cows, and beautiful damsels adorned with gold.”

“I do not desire any of these things,” the Brahmin replied. “You may give these to others who beg for them. O sinless one, if you are true to your vow, then cut from your body your armor and earrings and give them to me. This is all I desire.”

Realizing that this was Indra, Karṇa replied, “I will gladly give you whatever you wish, but why ask only for my armor? Take from me instead enough wealth to maintain you and all your dependents for as long as you live.”

Karṇa tried in various ways to distract Indra from his goal, but the god made it clear that he wanted only the armor. Finally Karṇa said, “Divested of my natural armor and earrings, which were created from celestial nectar, I shall die in battle. That is why I am reluctant to part with them. Still, I know you are Indra and that you are here to help the Pāṇḍavas. As the lord of the gods, it is you who should be bestowing boons upon me. Therefore, O Deva, please consider offering me a boon in exchange for my armor.”

Indra replied, Before I came here, Sūrya divined my intentions. No doubt he has told you all. Let it be as you desire. With the exception of my thunderbolt weapon, ask from me what you wish.”

Karṇa asked for the Śakti dart Sūrya had mentioned. Indra reflected for a moment and replied, “I have invoked the weapon and will give it to you as soon as you give me your armor, but I do so under one condition. When I release this dart, it kills hundreds of my enemies and returns to my hand. However, you will be able to release it but once to kill one powerful enemy. When your enemy has been slain, it will return to my hand--not yours.”

Karṇa was grave. “I desire to kill only one mighty foe.”

“I know your desire. But the one you wish to kill is protected by a high-souled being. The great Lord Kṛṣṇa, who is the inconceivable Nārāyaṇa, protects him.”

“Be that as it may, give me your weapon, for it will surely be capable of slaying any human enemy. I shall then cut my armor from my body. But I ask that you prevent my body from becoming disfigured.”

“So be it. Because you desire to adhere to truth, you will not be scarred. You will be restored to your present handsome and shining complexion.”

With a sharp sword Karṇa immediately began to cut away his armor. Seeing Karṇa smiling through the pain, the gods and demons roared like lions and beat celestial drums. A shower of heavenly flowers fell upon Karṇa as he took off the armor and earrings and handed them, wet with blood, to Indra. Then Indra gave Karṇa his weapon, saying, “Do not use this unless you face the gravest danger. Otherwise it will fall upon you.” The god then soared into the sky, feeling he had accomplished the Pāṇḍavas’ purpose.

* * *

The Pāṇḍavas stayed in the Dwaitavana for the final part of their exile in the forest. Only a short while remained before they had to disguise themselves and hide for the thirteenth year. They wondered where they should go. One day, as they sat discussing in the company of ṛṣis, a Brahmin in obvious distress came before Yudhiṣṭhira. He explained that a deer had caught hold of the sticks he used to light his sacred fire and taken them into the forest. “The sticks, along with my ladle and other paraphernalia, were tied in a bundle. Somehow the deer caught them on his horns. O hero, I must have them back so that my sacrifice may not be stopped.”

Yudhiṣṭhira reassured the Brahmin and stood up at once with his brothers. Taking up their bows, they went in pursuit of the deer. Although they shot many arrows at it, however, they could not catch the animal. It bounded swiftly away and vanished into the woods. The brothers became tired and disappointed and, coming to a large banyan tree, they sat down in its shade. With a heavy heart Nakula said to Yudhiṣṭhira, “In our race, virtue has never been sacrificed and we have never been idle. Nor have we ever refused anything to any creature. How, then, has this calamity befallen us, O King?”

Yudhiṣṭhira placed his large bow on the ground. “There is no limit to misfortunes in this world, dear brother. We cannot always ascertain their causes because it is the great god Dharma who distributes the fruits of both virtue and sin.”

Bhīma frowned. “We have met with this disaster because I did not slay Dushashana when he dragged Draupadī into the assembly hall.”

“I too am to blame for our present misfortune in that I did not retaliate when Karṇa uttered his cruel words that day,” Arjuna added.

“And I too am to blame,” said Sahadeva. “I should have slain Śakuni at the dice game as soon as he cheated you, O King.”

Yudhiṣṭhira turned to Nakula. “It is certainly hot in this forest. Quickly climb a tall tree and look around for a lake. Your brothers are tired and thirsty. Having refreshed ourselves, we can then decide what to do next.”

Nakula climbed a nearby tree and gazed around. “There seems to be water not far away,” he called. “I see what appears to be a lake and can hear the cries of cranes.”

As Nakula slid down the trunk, Yudhiṣṭhira said, “O handsome brother, go and fetch water for us all.”

Nakula emptied the arrows from a couple of quivers and left his brothers. He soon arrived at a large, clear lake covered with lotuses and lilies. Kneeling down on the shore, he was about to drink when he heard a voice from the sky saying, “O child, do not drink this water. This lake is mine and no one may drink its water without first answering my questions.”

Nakula looked around. He could not see anyone. His thirst was intense. Not caring for the voice he cupped his hands and drank the water. As soon as it passed his lips he fell down dead.

After some time, Yudhiṣṭhira became anxious. Nakula had not returned. He asked Sahadeva to look for him. Sahadeva followed his brother’s path and also came to the lake. Seeing Nakula lying dead on its shore he was grief-stricken. He touched his brother, looking for signs of life. Nakula seemed to be buried in a deep slumber. He had not lost his bodily luster, but there was no pulse and he was not breathing. Sahadeva stood up, perplexed. Feeling an unbearable thirst he went to the water’s edge to drink. As he knelt down he heard the same voice from the sky. “Do not drink the water of my lake. First of all answer my questions and then you may drink.”

Sahadeva was unable to heed the words. His thirst was oppressive. He took a swallow of the cool water and, like his brother, fell dead.

Seeing that neither of the twins had returned after nearly an hour, Yudhiṣṭhira told Arjuna to go and see what had happened. With his bow at the ready and his sword unsheathed, Arjuna proceeded with caution. Finding the twins lying on the water’s edge, he was seized with pain. He ran over to them and knelt by their sides. There were no signs of life. Arjuna was amazed. Who could have killed them? There was no indication of a fight. Arjuna looked around but saw only the trees moving in the breeze and the water birds on the surface of the lake. He went down to the water’s edge to slake his thirst and again the voice resounded from the sky. “O Pārtha, do not attempt to drink this water by force. It is mine and you may only take it after answering my questions.”

Arjuna shouted up to the skies. “Come into my presence and prevent me. You will not speak in this way again when you are riven by my arrows.” He immediately released countless arrows which, empowered by mantras, were capable of hitting an unseen object. Arjuna filled the sky with arrows, darts and javelins. Again the voice spoke. “Your exertions are useless, Arjuna. Answer my questions--or, if you drink the water--you will die.”

Disregarding these words, Arjuna took a sip of water and fell dead alongside his brothers.

Almost another hour had passed. Yudhiṣṭhira felt increasing anxiety. He now sent Bhīma. “O tormentor of foes, we have been seated here for a long time awaiting our brothers. I think you should find them and bring them back. I shall wait here.”

Bhīma nodded and rose, running quickly along the path to the lake. When he saw his three brothers lying there he was astonished. Surely this was the work of a powerful Rākṣasa. It seemed hardly possible that any being could have slain Arjuna and the twins. Bhīma considered that he would soon have to face a formidable enemy. He had best drink some water and overcome his fatigue in preparation for the fight.

The Pāṇḍava ran down to the water and again the celestial voice resounded in the heavens. “O child, do not attempt to drink from my lake. First answer my questions.”

Bhīma thought that the voice must have come from whomever had killed his brothers. He looked around angrily. That wicked being would soon repent his vile act. Not caring for his warning, Bhīma plunged his face into the water and drank. Like his brothers, he fell to the ground, dead.

Alone, Yudhiṣṭhira waited; but when Bhīma didn’t return, his mind was filled with foreboding. He thought it impossible that Bhīma and Arjuna could be overcome in battle. Where were they? Perhaps they had found celestial delights by the lake and were enjoying them together. No, they would surely not neglect their duty. They had received his order and knew he was waiting. The Brahmin’s paraphernalia also still had to be recovered. Something must have happened to prevent them from returning. Apprehensively, Yudhiṣṭhira set off along the forest path.

Passing by trees covered in blue and red blossoms, Yudhiṣṭhira approached the lake. The warbling of birds and the hum of bees resounded in his ears as he moved quickly through the woods. Within a short time he came to the lake, which seemed to him as if it had been transported from Indra’s abode. It was covered with lotuses and surrounded by blossoming trees and varieties of wild forest flowers. By the side of the delightful lake, however, Yudhiṣṭhira saw his four brothers fallen to earth, resembling the four Lokapālas fallen from the heavens at the end of an age.

Yudhiṣṭhira ran to his brothers and fell to the ground by their side. Breathing heavily he shed tears of grief. He lamented loudly, his voice echoing from the tall trees around the lake. “O mighty-armed Bhīma, you swore you would break Duryodhana’s thighs in battle. Of what value is that promise now? O Arjuna, how are you lying here today? Human promises may prove false, but how can those of the gods? We heard all the celestials proclaim your glories and declare that you would win back our lost kingdom. ‘None will be able to vanquish him in battle,’ was Indra’s prophesy. How has this come to pass? Surely my heart is made of stone because it does not shatter upon seeing such a sight.”

As he looked at his motionless brothers Yudhiṣṭhira was beside himself with grief. He cried for some time, his mind utterly confused. Gradually, he managed to control himself and ponder the situation. Who could have slain these great warriors? There were no signs of battle--their bodies were unmarked--and they seemed to have dropped to the earth in some deep, dreamless sleep.

Yudhiṣṭhira looked carefully at the lake. Perhaps Duryodhana had made it and filled it with poison. But no poison could kill Bhīma. Maybe the Kauravas had conspired with the Asuras to bring about the Pāṇḍavas’ death. But again, what Asura could face Arjuna, who had single-handedly overpowered the Nivātakavacas?

Yudhiṣṭhira looked around. He could see no footprints. Arjuna’s arrows were scattered here and there, but there was no blood. It was unimaginable that Arjuna would not have hit his enemy. He never discharged his arrows uselessly. Yudhiṣṭhira considered that some mighty being without a material body must have overpowered his brothers. He examined them closely. Although they appeared dead, they had not lost their color and their features were unchanged. Their souls were surely still present, although the symptoms of life were gone. It seemed that their life-force had been removed by the god of death himself, acting from within them. Convinced of this, Yudhiṣṭhira thought he would discover the truth if he entered the lake. It was because of this lake that his brothers had met their death.

Yudhiṣṭhira went down to the water and, throwing off his armor, plunged in. Immediately he heard the same voice that had spoken to his brothers: “O child, do not take this water. This lake belongs to me and if you want to drink, you must first answer my questions.”

Yudhiṣṭhira gazed around. “Who are you?” he shouted.

“I am a crane living on moss and fish. Your younger brothers, disregarding my warning, have been brought by me under the control of death. O King, if you do not answer my questions, then you shall become the fifth victim.”

Yudhiṣṭhira looked about in astonishment. He saw the crane on a tree bough near the lake. “Are you Śiva or the foremost of the Vasus? Or are you a Marut? It is not possible for a bird to have killed these four mountain-like heroes. O strongest of all those endowed with strength, you have achieved what even the gods, Gandharvas and Asuras could not do. I do not know who you are or what is your intention, but I am curious to know these things--and I am also terrified. My heart is troubled and my mind confused. Please tell me why you stay here and what you desire.”

Yudhiṣṭhira then saw the crane transform into a huge, fearful-looking being. His large red eyes were pointed and he blazed like the sun. Roaring like a thundercloud, he said, “I am a Yakṣa, not a bird. Hail to you! It was I who killed your energetic brothers for their own faults. Although forbidden to drink, they disregarded me. If one loves life, he should not attempt to take this water by force. The lake is mine and one may take its water only after answering my questions.”

“O Yakṣa, I do not wish to take what is yours. I shall try to answer your questions to the best of my ability. Please ask me what you will.”

The Yakṣa began to place questions before Yudhiṣṭhira:

“What makes the soul rise out of his entanglement in matter? Who keeps him company, who is his guide on that spiritual journey, and on what is he established?"

“It is knowledge of the Supreme Lord which makes the soul rise. Godly qualities are his companions, dharma is his guide, and he is established on truth.”

“What makes one learned? How does one attain to that which is most exalted? How does one acquire a second self, and by what, O King, does one become wise?”

“One becomes learned by studying the Vedas. By asceticism one attains what is most exalted. Intelligence is like a second self, and serving one’s elders makes one wise.”

The Yakṣa then asked about all kinds of subjects, ranging from worldly wisdom to knowledge of religion to spiritual matters. Yudhiṣṭhira answered them all without hesitation. Finally the Yakṣa said, “I am satisfied. Answer my last four questions and I will restore one of your brothers to life. Who in this world is happy? What is the most wonderful thing? What are the tidings of this world, and how can one find the eternal path of religion?”

With folded palms Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “He who is neither in debt nor exiled and who lives simply, eating simple food in his own home, is happy. The most wonderful thing is that although every day innumerable creatures go to the abode of death, still a man thinks he is immortal. The tidings are that in this world--which is like a cauldron with the sun as its fire, days and nights as its fuel, and months and seasons as its wooden ladle--all creatures are being cooked by time. The eternal religious path is found only in the heart of great mystics.”

The Yakṣa smiled. “You have rightly answered every question. Tell me which of your brothers you wish to have restored to life?”

“O Yakṣa, let Nakula, as tall as a sal tree and endowed with a broad chest and long arms, be brought to life.”

The Yakṣa was surprised. “Bhīmasena is surely more important to you than Nakula, O King, and Arjuna is your chief support. Why do you ask for Nakula to be revived?”

“He who sacrifices virtue is himself destroyed,” replied Yudhiṣṭhira, “and he who preserves virtue is in turn preserved by it. I am therefore careful to always observe virtue. For me, great virtue lies in refraining from cruelty; it is superior to all worldly gain. Thus I ask for Nakula. Both Kuntī and Mādrī are the same to me. In myself Kuntī still has one son, but Mādrī now has none. With a desire to behave equally toward my two mothers, I ask for the life of Nakula.”

“Since, O Pāṇḍava, you consider abstention from cruelty superior to both profit and desire, then let all your brothers be restored to life.” As the Yakṣa spoke, the four brothers rose from the ground as if from a sleep. They felt refreshed and free from hunger and thirst.

Yudhiṣṭhira then asked the Yakṣa, “Who are you, O great being, who assumes the form of a crane? Tell me in truth your identity. Are you a god? Perhaps you are my father himself.”

Yudhiṣṭhira had guessed correctly and the Yakṣa replied, “I am indeed your father, O best of the Bharatas. Know me to be Dharma. I have come here with the intention of meeting you. Fame, truth, self-control, purity, simplicity, charity, modesty, steadiness, asceticism and celibacy are my limbs. I am reached by abstention from cruelty, impartiality, peacefulness, asceticism, purity and humility. You possess all these qualities, dear son. By good fortune you have conquered your mind and senses and practice virtue. I wanted to test you and I am fully satisfied. Ask me for boons and I will bestow them. Those who are ever devoted to me need never experience misfortune.”

Yudhiṣṭhira bowed respectfully before his father and said, “My first desire is that the Agnihotra of the Brahmin whose fire-sticks were lost not be destroyed.”

“O son of Kuntī, it was I in the form of the deer who carried away those sticks. I shall return them to you. Ask for some other boon.”

Yudhiṣṭhira thought carefully and said, “The twelve years of our forest life are now complete. For the thirteenth year we must live incognito. Please grant that no man will recognize us during that time.”

“So be it. Even if you wander about in the world as your actual selves, you will not be recognized. Through my favor you will lead a secret, incognito life in the city of Virata. Now take these fire sticks and ask from me another boon. I am not satisfied with conferring only these two favors. O Yudhiṣṭhira, you should know that I begot you. Vidura, your friend and well-wisher, is also a part of myself.”

Dharma handed the sticks to Yudhiṣṭhira, who replied, “O god of gods, it is enough for me that I have seen you. To please you, however, I will accept one further boon. O lord, grant that I may always overcome avarice, folly and anger, and that my mind be always inclined toward charity, asceticism and truth.”

Dharma smiled and said, “By nature you are gifted with these qualities, O Pāṇḍava. You are already the embodiment of virtue. But I grant your desire.”

The god then disappeared, leaving the five Pāṇḍavas standing together on the shore of the lake. In wonder they returned to their hermitage with the Brahmin’s fire-sticks.