The story of Arjuna's exile into the forest for 12 years after Narada's account of Sunda and Upasunda. The importance of keeping a promise.
The Pandavas were united. The 5 brothers loved each other immensely. However, the one thing they had to share was Draupadi. No matter how close they were, since they shared Draupadi, a conflict was always possible. Though not initially as they had just begun their marital life, a difference of opinion could have occurred sometime later in their lives. In order to bring this to the notice of the Pandavas and help them find a way to protect themselves from going against each other, Sage Narada visited them one day and related a story.
Narada Said “Dear Yudhishtra. Dear Pandavas. Many ages ago there were two Asuras called Sunda and Upasunda. These two asuras were brothers. They were extremely united. Nothing would come between them. They grew up together. Ate together. Learnt together. Fought together and trusted each other immensely. They were mighty and powerful. But they wanted to conquer the three worlds. So they did penances and severe austerities for many years and received a boon from God that they would have the power to conquer the three worlds. They also received the boon that no one could defeat them except each other. That is, they could not die at the hands of anyone except each other. Since the brothers were extremely fond of each other, they were sure that they would never go against one another and thus would remain immortal.”
“After getting the boon, they tormented the entire earth. Killing Rishis, Brahmanas, Kshatriyas by the thousands and creating havoc wherever they went. The gods were anxious and wanted to put an end to the treachery of Sunda and Upasunda. They had an idea. They called upon Viswakarman - the celestial architect and asked him to create a most beautiful woman whose beauty would be unparalleled.”
“Viswakarman, thus created Tilottama who was beautiful at every inch of her body. She was the perfect woman that no man could resist. As planned, Tilottama approached Sunda and Upasunda when the two brothers were intoxicated with alcohol. Both of them desired her and started fighting with each other to win over Tilottama. Eventually Sunda and Upasunda perished and died.”
Narada continued, “Dear Sons of Kunti. You are married to Draupadi in unison. Though you are united today, you must find a way to put some rules in place between yourselves to ensure that there are no chances, however remote, that such a conflict may arise between the 5 of you.” Saying this, Sage Narada disappeared from Indraprastha.
Yudhishtra convened his brothers and they discussed the situation. They agreed with Narada's advice. At no cost should there be any misunderstanding between them on account of Draupadi. So they made a vow. Whenever any of the brothers was spending time with Draupadi, none of the other four Could enter the premises at any cost. The motive of the vow was two fold. One that there will always be privacy when any of the Pandavas spend time with his wife. Second, since none of them would ever witness the others being romantic with Draupadi, they would never get a chance to feel jealous.
The Pandavas took this vow along with a stipulation. In case one of them happens to witness any of his brothers spending time with Draupadi, he would exile himself away from the kingdom for 12 years.
One day, when Yudhishtra was spending time with Draupadi in close quarters, a citizen of Khandavaprastha rushed to the palace and complained to Arjuna that someone had stolen all of his cattle and was riding away with it. Arjuna was bound by his duty to protect his citizens. However, his weapons were inside the Palace – in the same quarters where Yudhishtra was spending time with Draupadi. Arjuna was in two minds. By Dharma he had to protect his citizen and retrieve the stolen cattle. But if he went into the quarters now, he would have broken the vow the brothers had taken. Arjuna thought for a moment and decided that the path of Dharma was most important and that he would face the consequences. Arjuna went into the chamber where Yudhishtra and Draupadi were consorting, picked him his Bow and arrows and rode after the thieves. He defeated them easily and returned the cattle back to the citizen of Khandavaprastha. Arjuna then returned the the Palace and after relating the incident to his brothers, he bowed to Yudhishtra, apologized to him and told him that he would immediately leave for the forest as he had broken his promise.
Yudhishtra protested, “Brother. I forgive you for your act. You did what you did to protect our citizens and perform your duty King. Thus it was in good intention. As your elder brother, I absolve you of the broken promise. Do not leave.”
But Arjuna wouldn't listen. He said, “Brother, I have broken a promise and have to serve the punishment for the same. It is the right thing to do. I cannot waiver from truth. Please allow me to go.”
Saying this, Arjuna left for the forest much to the distress of his four brothers and Draupadi. Some Brahmanas well versed in the vedas followed Arjuna into the forest. Arjuna thus spent the next 12 years in exile traveling to various places. Such an exile is called a “Vanavasa”.
Now - Why did Arjuna do this? Rather, did he HAVE to do this? Was he forced into exile. Yes the brothers made a promise to each other. Yes Arjuna broke his promise. But wasn't it because of circumstances that he had to break it? Even granting that it was mistake, his brothers pardoned him. Yudhishtra the eldest, pleaded with Arjuna not to leave.
Arjuna exiled himself to keep his word. To follow the path of Dharma. To do what was proper not just for himself – but to set an example to those who followed him. To his younger brothers. To the society.
In our age, we will never make promises and exile ourselves for 12 years if we broke them. But, the least we can do is to think of the consequences, the ramifications and most importantly, the moral obligations we bind ourselves to, when we make a promise. And strive to keep them. Whether it is promising our parents that we will throw out the trash. Whether it is promising our spouses that we will love them through sickness and health. Think about it. A promise is purity. A promise warrants honoring. A promise is Dharma.
We will listen to some of Arjuna's exploits during his exile – in the next chapter.