The Pandavas began to enjoy life in Hastinäpura. They sported with the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra, who became known as the Kauravas. Pandu’s sons excelled the Kauravas in all areas: in strength, knowledge and prowess with weaponry. Bhima was especially powerful and he took delight in defeating the Kauravas in sport. They could not equal him in anything. The exuberant Bhima possessed the indefatigable power of his divine father. At wrestling and fighting he was unapproachable and could easily hold off the attacks of any number of Kauravas. Out of a boyish sense of fun he would often play practical jokes on them, laughing when they became angered and tried futilely to get back at him.
After repeated humiliation at Bhima’s hands, Duryodhana felt he could take no more. He spoke with Dushashana, the next eldest of the hundred Kauravas. “Dear brother, this Bhima is a constant thorn in our sides. He challenges all hundred of us at once and throws us about like pieces of straw. We cannot better him at anything. Why, even at eating he humbles us by consuming as much as twenty of us put together. Something has to be done to check his pride.”
Duryodhana revealed his heinous plan to Dushashana. “Tomorrow I shall feed Bhima an enormous poisoned feast. When he falls unconscious after eating I shall bind his limbs and toss him into the Ganges. With Bhima gone the other brothers are helpless. We can easily deal with them. Thus my claim to the throne will be unchallenged.”
The next morning Duryodhana suggested that all the princes go to the river for some water sports. Soon they mounted their shining chariots, which resembled cities and had great wheels which rumbled like thunderclouds as they headed out, sending up clouds of dust. Upon arriving on the river bank, the mighty youths dismounted from their cars, laughing and joking, and entered the large pleasure house Dhritarashtra had built for them.
Once inside Duryhodhana invited everyone to enjoy the great feast he had arranged for them. He led them through the mansion and out into the central gardens. The boys looked with pleasure upon the large ponds filled with red and blue lotuses and surrounded by soft, grassy banks. Crystal waterfalls made tinkling sounds that blended with the singing of brightly colored exotic birds. The heady scent of numerous blossoms filled the air. Fine cushions had been arranged in lines on the grass and many servants stood by, waiting to serve the feast.
Duryodhana chose the seat next to Bhima. Then he ordered the servants to bring the food. The dishes were exquisite. Duryodhana had personally mixed the poison with the food he had brought to him. He then offered the plate to Bhima, feigning love and feeding him with his own hand. The guileless Bhima suspected nothing and he cheerfully consumed his normal amount. Duryodhana rejoiced within as Bhima hungrily swallowed the poisoned cakes, pies, creams, drinks and other preparations.
When the feast was over, Duryodhana suggested they all go down to the river for sport. The boys raced to the river in great joy. They wrestled and rolled about on the ground, tossing each other into the clear blue water of the river. As usual, Bhima was the most energetic. The poison did not appear to have affected him. The prince, who stood head and shoulders above his peers, was a peerless wrestler. Anyone who approached him quickly found themselves sailing through the air and landing in the water. Bhima would then dive in and create huge waves by thrashing his arms. The other princes were then dunked under the waters by the playful Bhima.
Bhima had consumed enough poison to kill a hundred men, but it was not until evening that the wind-god’s son began to feel its effects. As night fell he felt so drowsy that he decided to lay down by the river and rest. Gradually he lapsed into a deep sleep.
When the other princes had gone back to the mansion, Duryodhana saw his opportunity. Along with Dushashana, he bound Bhima’s arms and legs with strong cords. Looking furtively around, the brothers quickly rolled the unconscious prince into the river.
Bhima sank to the bottom of the river and was carried by underwater currents. The celestial abode of the divine serpent beings, the Nägas, could be reached through the Ganges, and Bhima was swept along a mystical path right into their midst. At once the snakes began to bite the human so suddenly arrived among them. Their virulent poison proved to be the antidote to the plant poison Duryodhana had administered. Bhima slowly came back to his senses as the effect of the poison wore off. He woke to find himself on a strange river bank, surrounded by large serpents baring their fangs.
Bhima burst the cords binding his limbs. He picked up the snakes and dashed them to the ground. He pressed some into the earth with his feet and hurled others to a distance. Seeing him render dozens of snakes unconscious, the others fled away in terror.
The Nägas went quickly to their king, Väsuki. With fearful voices they said, “O king, a human fell among us, bound with cords. Perhaps he had been poisoned, for he was unconscious. When we bit him he regained his senses and overpowered us. You should go to him at once.”
Väsuki assumed a human form, rose from his bejeweled throne, and walked gracefully out of his palace. Arka, a Näga chief, went with him. Arka had long ago lived upon the earth in human society. He was Kunti’s great grandfather and he immediately recognized Bhima as his great-grandson. Smiling, he introduced himself and embraced the prince.
Seeing this, Väsuki was pleased and said to Arka, “What service can we render this boy? Let us give him an abundance of gems and gold.”
Arka looked at the powerful Bhima and replied, “I think this prince would be best served by us if we let him partake of our rasa.”
Väsuki agreed. Bringing Bhima back to his palace, he arranged for pots of the ambrosial rasa to be brought for him. This drink was distilled from celestial herbs and by drinking even one pot a man would become permanently endowed with the vigor and strength of a thousand elephants. The Nägas placed a number of pots in front of Bhima and invited him to drink. Bhima sat facing the east and, as he always did before eating or drinking, offered prayers to the Lord. He then lifted one of the large pots of rasa and quaffed it down in one gulp.
The Nägas watched in amazement as Bhima drank eight pots of the divine elixir, each in a single draft. Even the most powerful among them would not have been capable of such a feat. After Bhima had satisfied himself with the rasa, he again felt drowsy. Väsuki offered him a celestial bed and the prince lay down. He remained in deep sleep for eight days as his body assimilated the rasa. On the ninth day he awoke, feeling strong beyond measure. The Nägas told him that the rasa had given him the strength of ten thousand elephants. He would now be invincible in battle. Väsuki told Bhima to bathe in the nearby sacred waters of the Mandakini, then dress himself in the robes the Näga king had brought for him. He should then quickly return to his home as his kinsfolk were in much anxiety about him.
After he had bathed and eaten the celestial foods the Nägas provided, Bhima, dressed in white silks and gold ornaments, was led to the river. They entered with Bhima and within moments they brought him out of the water near the place where he had been pushed in. Filled with wonder, Bhima ran back to Hastinäpura.
In the city Kunti saw her sons arrive back without Bhima. The other princes were surprised that he was not already there. They had assumed he must have gone ahead without them. Duryodhana and Dushashana feigned concern, but secretly they rejoiced, thinking Bhima to be dead.
The virtuous-minded Yudhisthira believed that others were as honest as he was. Suspecting nothing, he told his mother, “We searched for Bhima in the gardens and mansion for a long time. We went into the woods and called out for him. Finally we concluded he must have already left.”
Yudhisthira became fearful. Perhaps Bhima had been killed. Kunti shared his fears and she asked him again to go to the mansion with his brothers and search for the missing Bhima. When her sons left, she summoned Vidura and said, “O wise one, I am afraid for Bhima’s safety. He did not return with the others. I often see an evil look in Duryodhana’s eye. I know he is filled with malice toward Bhima. Perhaps he has killed him.”
Kunti hoped Vidura would give her solace. His words were always deeply considered and comforting. Vidura did not disappoint her. He replied, “Do not think in this way, O gentle lady. The great rishi Vyäsadeva has said that your sons will be long-lived. His words can never be false. Nor indeed can those of the gods, who have predicted a great future for your sons.”
Still, Vidura remembered the omens surrounding Duryodhana’s birth. He warned Kunti to be on her guard. The evil prince might try anything.
For eight days Kunti and her sons waited anxiously for any news of Bhima. Then early on the ninth day they saw him running toward them, his white silks flowing in the wind. He came straight to Kunti and bowed at her feet. As he rose each of his brothers embraced him warmly. With tears of joy they eagerly asked where he had been.
Bhima knew everything about the circumstances by which he had come to be in the river. When he had found himself bound with cords he had suspected the envious Duryodhana. Väsuki had confirmed his suspicions. The Näga king could see everything by virtue of his divine sight. Bhima related the whole story to his brothers––how he had gone to the Näga kingdom and been given the rasa. The brothers could understand that even though the Kauravas had plotted Bhima’s death, somehow by the arrangement of Providence he had become most fortunate.
Yudhisthira was shocked to learn of his cousins’ antagonism. He considered the situation carefully. If their elders were informed of what had ocurred, then there would be open enmity between the princes. Duryodhana would certainly try to dispose of them as quickly as possible. And the Pandavas’ position was not strong. Their father was dead and Dhritarashtra was the king. He doted on Duryodhana and his other sons, and it was unlikely he would side against his own sons, to protect his nephews. Yudhisthira ordered his brothers to remain silent. They should tell no one about what had occurred.
Kunti, however, confided in Vidura. He advised her to follow Yudhisthira’s suggestion. Thus the Pandavas said nothing, but from that day forward they became vigilant, always watching the Kauravas, especially Duryodhana and Dushashana.