With his mind fixed only on salvation, Päëòu lived quite simply at Saptasrota. He ate only fruits and roots and drank clear water from mountain springs. His two wives accepted the same vows.
Gradually over time Päëòu thought more about his situation. One day he spoke to the åñis, revealing his fears. “O greatly learned ones, I have heard that a sonless man cannot attain heaven. By having sons one pays his debts to his ancestors. If I die without issue, my forefathers will surely perish, as the çraddhä offerings will cease. I am thus filled with apprehension because I cannot beget children.”
One of the åñis replied, “By our ascetic powers we have seen that you will undoubtedly have children like the gods themselves. Therefore you should certainly act in such a way as to somehow produce children.”
Pandu discussed this with Kunti. Kunti spoke – “I shall tell you of a boon I received while in my maidenhood, which may yet prove to be our deliverance. When I was a girl in my father’s house, he would engage me in serving guests there. One day the powerful mystic Durväsä arrived. By my service and constant attention to all his needs I greatly pleased that åñi. As he was leaving he called me aside and said, ‘O gentle one, I shall confer upon you a boon. Listen as I recite a mantra. This mantra, uttered by you, will summon any of the celestials you desire”.
Pandu asked Kunti to use the mantra to invoke demigods and ask them for a son. Kunti called for Dharmaraja, Vayu and Indra respectively. They benedicted her with very illustrious sons – Yudhistir, Bhima and Arjun respectively.
Then one day Mädré approached Päëòu privately. “My lord, I do not complain that you treat me less favorably than Kunté. Even though I am of a higher birth, I still have no complaint. My one grief is that you have no sons by me.”
Mädré found her position unbearable. No princesses in her line had ever gone without issue. Kunté had three sons. Mädré had heard that Dhåtaräñöra’s wife, Gändhäré, had given birth to a hundred sons in Hastinäpura. Yet she, the lawful wife of a great hero, was childless. She asked Päëòu to request Kunté to teach her the mantra. Mädré explained that she was too shy to ask her directly, since Kunté was her rival.
The monarch approached Kunté immediately. He told her of Mädré’s sorrow and asked her to be gracious to her co-wife. Päëòu made it clear that he also desired more sons to secure more fully the good of his race, including that of himself and indeed Kunté.
Kunté assented to her husband’s request and told Mädré, “O gentle lady, I shall recite the mantra for your benefit. Please think of some deity from whom you desire offspring.”
Mädré thought carefully. Most probably Kunté would allow her to use the mantra only once. If she summoned the inseparable twin Açviné gods, she would get two sons at once. They benedicted upon Mädré two boys of incomparable beauty who were named Nakula and Sahadeva.
The åñis performed all the rites of passage for the five boys and they grew up swiftly. Even at age one, they appeared as if they were five years old. Päëòu was overwhelmed with happiness at seeing his sons’ extraordinary strength, beauty, energy and wisdom.
Päëòu, surrounded by his five youthful sons, felt young again. He sported with the boys in the hills, scaling rock faces and challenging lions in their caves. They dived and played in mountain pools and climbed tall trees. Wrestling and laughing together, they rolled about the soft grassy slopes.
One evening Päëòu went into the woods with Mädré to fetch roots and fruits for their evening meal. As they strolled, they saw countless varieties of blossoming trees and bushes. The air was heavy with scent and the sounds of cuckoos and other birds filled the air. Black bees swarmed about the many-colored flowers that surrounded lakes overgrown with lotuses. The celestial atmosphere awoke romance in Päëòu’s heart. Pandu could not control himself. Madri tried to stop him but in vain.
As if impelled by the lord of death himself, the monarch entirely lost his reason under the influence of lust. No thought of Kindama’s curse entered his mind as he lost himself in enjoyment with his fair-skinned wife. Even as he tried to consummate the act with Mädré, the åñi’s words took effect. Päëòu’s chest was seized with a terrible pain and a shocked look crossed his face. His body stiffened and went slack.
Kunté heard Mädré’s cries and ran over to where she lay. As Kunté approached, the tearful Mädré told her to come alone, without children. Kunté quickly sent the boys back to the ashram, then rushed to Päëòu’s side. She dropped to the ground. Kunté realized at once what had happened, and she cried out, “My lord!” Tears welled into her eyes as she turned to Mädré. “O noble one, how have you allowed this to happen? I was always so careful to protect our lord from this very danger. How did he embrace you, knowing of the åñi’s curse? Why did you tempt him when you were alone together? He was always grave in our company as he thought of Kindama’s words. How did he become so careless?”
Mädré wept, unable to reply. Kunté tossed about on the ground next to her. The two beautiful ladies embraced their husband’s dead body and shed profuse tears. Kunté again addressed Mädré. “O princess of Madra, you are surely more fortunate than I, for you saw our lord’s face light up with joy as he approached you in this lonely place.”
Gathering her senses, Mädré replied, “O sister, with tears in my eyes I tried to resist him, yet he could not control himself. He seemed bent on fulfilling the åñi’s curse.”
Kunté prayed for strength. Somehow this was God’s arrangement. The ways of Providence were always mysterious. But what should be done now? What was her duty? She gently stroked the head of her younger co-wife and said, “O Mädré, there is only one recourse for me. Please allow me to ascend to heaven with our lord. Rise up and raise our children. Give me the body and, tightly embracing it, I shall enter fire.”
Mädré shook her head. She pleaded with Kunté, “The monarch died as he approached me for intercourse. His desire was not satiated. Should it not be I who goes to the region of the dead to gratify him? I am still clasping him even now and will not allow him to go without me. O Kunté, please let me go!”
Mädré felt incapable of bringing up the children by herself. Kunté would be a far better mother. Mädré had seen her gentle dealings with the boys. She would surely treat them all equally. Mädré begged Kunté’s permission to enter the fire with Päëòu. “O Kunté, the king sought me with desire. Grant me leave to fulfill that desire. You would be doing me the greatest good. I shall leave my sons in your care without any fear.”
Kunté looked compassionately upon Mädré as she lay with her arms around Päëòu and bathing him with her tears. The noble Kunté felt her heart torn. Although as the elder wife it was her privilege to choose to follow the king to the next world, how could she deny Mädré? It was to her that Päëòu had been attracted. If Mädré were to live, she would live with the memory of that brief and terrible moment all her life. Guilt would consume her, along with the anguish of being unable to fulfill her lord’s last desire. Although she longed to follow her husband, Kunté could not be so cruel to her co-wife. She touched Mädré gently and said, “So be it.” Kunté then went with a heavy heart toward the ashram.
[Adopted from Mahabharat by Krishna Dharma Prabhu]