Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The house of lac at Varnavat

When Duryodhan plotted to burn alive the Pandavs and their mother in a house made of resins at Varnavat, minister Vidur tipped them of the conspiracy and made arrangements to rescue them by sending a miner to dig an underground passage beneath their mansion.

Kunti arranged feasts to distract Duryodhan’s man Purochan (or Virochan) who was in charge of construction of the house and was watching the Pandavs. The epic says that on the night the Pandavs planned to escape via the secret tunnel, drawn by fate a woman and her five sons arrived at the feast. They became inebriated and slept in the mansion and were charred to death when the Pandavs set fire to the building before escaping by the underground tunnel. The discovery of the carcasses of these six at the site led people of Varnavat to believe that the Pandavs had perished in the conflagration.

Some scholars have concluded that the Pandavs deliberately invited the six unfortunate persons and let them sleep in the house, in order to escape. The question is - could Yudhishthir the Just have indulged in such a heinous crime?

A careful examination of the various aspects of this issue can help in solving this mystery.
  1. The Kauravs had planned to instantaneously burn the Pandavs in sleep with chemical fire, for they knew that if the Pandavs woke up when the house was set on fire, they could easily escape. Bheem could bring down the building with a kick or Arjun could invoke the water weapon.
  2. This means the remains of the Pandavs would be at the spots where their beds stood and not elsewhere in the building.
  3. The guest woman and her sons could not have slept in the royal beds. The epic does not say that the Pandavs enticed them to sleep in their beds. And even if the visitors agreed to do so, how would Purochan, who was on constant guard, allow it?
  4. Anyone who has seen the result of a cremated body knows that all that remains is a handful of charred bones. There was no need to substitute and let six people burn instead.
  5. The entire rescue operation was planned by Vidur and executed by his men – he had not only sent a miner all the way from Hastinapur to dig a tunnel to escape but also appointed a person with the secret word to lead them to the ship he had kept ready at the river to transport Pandavs when they emerged from the underground tunnel. Vidur’s man was careful enough to close the mouth of the tunnel located in the house the day after it was burnt down. This shows the extent of Vidur’s planning. If it were necessary for remains of bodies to be found why would Vidur leave to chance for exactly one woman with five sons to arrive for dinner and burn in place of Pandavs? He would have simply asked his man to place a handful of bones in the places where Pandavs slept, but he didn’t do it for it was not necessary in that chemical fire.

Indeed, Yudhishthir and Kunti were known for their compassion. One may recall the compassion with which Kunti offered her own son to replace the victim from the Brahmin’s family who had given the Pandavs shelter at Ekchakra. Her compassionate nature was also evident when she brought up Madri’s children with more care and affection than she brought up her own children. The same can be said of Yudhishthir; when the Yaksh at the lake offered to revive one of his dead brothers, Yudhishthir opted for one of Madri’s sons to live, and not one of his own brothers. His compassionate nature also showed when he pardoned and released Jaidrath after the latter was caught trying to abduct Draupadi. He did the same with the Trigart King Susharma when the latter was captured in the battle of Virat.

If at all Vyas had really shown Yudhishthir/Kunti deliberately causing someone to burn in their stead, Vyas’ stature as author would be considerably diminished for it would run totally against the grain of his main characters.

The only conclusion one can draw from these observations is that the Pandavs need not, could not and did not deliberately cause the tribal woman and her sons to burn in their place and their death was purely accidental.


  1. Good Analysis. Powerfully presented. Thanks!

  2. Ah fate is always in play in our epics. Call it Karma. I agree that it was not in character that Pandavas deliberately caused the tribals to die. But if you think about it, is it not true that the tribals were lying there drunk, either encouraged to drink more than they could hold or were greedy to drink so much that they passed out? And that the Pandavas still torched the palace even if they knew that there were six drunk but innocent people lying in the palace.

    1. One problem with this ancient text is the quantum of interpolation by latter-day authors that has crept in. The logic of the situation here suggests that the case of the six tribals is one such example.

  3. I can't agree more with you. The only quibble is that Vyasa could have anticipated the critics reaction (unfavourable) to his plot and made a bit of elaboration to connect everything like drawing a minute-to-minute programme. Still...I'm not sure if this would have silenced his critics. Or, alternatively, he could have avoided giving that post-facto kind of explanation of five sons and one mother drinking and dying just to make Duryodhan assured about the destruction of Pandavas. Anyway, writing such a massive epic is not a small exercise; an author of even a 500-page novel leaves so much gap!

  4. Sir, I simply cannot agree with you. The text states clearly that a feast was organized by Kunti and while the Brahamins were given gifts and ceremoniously seen off, the unfortunate Nishada family was piled with drinks and while they were lying in that intoxicated state, Bheema set fire to the house and the Pandavas made their escape. The main point of your argument is that a woman with such a compassionate nature as Kunti could not have committed such a heinous act. Excuse me, but Kunti and compassionate? That woman set afloat an infant on the waves of a river. A woman who can do that to a baby will not and did not flinch from the cold-blooded murder of a poor Nishada family. They were just tribals, non-Aryans after all, and their deaths did not matter in this 'dharamyudh'.

    1. The important thing here is that the text does not state that the Pandavs knew that the Nishads were sleeping in the mansion...