When the Kaurava brothers, out on a cattle expedition not very far from the exiled Pandavas’ abode, are captured by the gandharvas, some of the escapees approach the Pandavas for help. At that moment, busy with a sacrifice, Yudhistira orders Bhima to free their cousins — first through conciliatory tactics, and if that were not to work, through “mild use of … valour”.
The word ‘mild’ isn’t really something that Bhima and Arjuna are likely to understand, and so it is not surprising that when the brothers set out to release their cousins, Arjuna finds it appropriate to announce: “If the gandharvas do not free the sons of Dhritarashtra through peaceful means, the earth will drink the blood of the king of gandharvas.” The latter outcome is, of course, impossible, given that the gandharvas are demi-gods of sorts.
The Pandava party puts on armour and mounts chariots, all of which have pennants and are yoked to swift steeds. This readiness, even splendour, seems counter-factual, most certainly so for a people who are living in exile in forests. When the miseries of the Pandavas are to be evoked, the text shows them as clad in animal skin and sleeping on rough ground, but when their warrior properties are to be evoked, they are as battle-ready as they could be inside a fortress. Assuming that the Pandavas are working with limited resources, it is easily deciphered where those resources are being put to use. Their battle readiness could also be a result of a perceived risk from the Kauravas — the risk of an attack, perhaps, one precisely of the kind that Duryodhana had in mind before setting off on the cattle expedition.
Here, it might be prudent to pause at Yudhisthira’s decision of not participating in the rescue mission. It is most definitely not an act of cowardice. Had Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, been present at the rescue — and given that the gandharvas might have regarded Yudhisthira as the rightful heir to the Kuru throne — this intervention in gandharva matters would have the run the risk of being treated as an act of war. Secondly, the message to Duryodhana remains clear: this is four individuals from Hastinapura trying to save him, not his official competitor for the throne. Yudhisthira’s decision maintains Duryodhana’s dignity and their mutual hostility at the same time, and could therefore be regarded as political maneuvering of the most astute kind.
At the same time, Yudhisthira cannot be anonymous in this act, and so we find Arjuna invoking his name while warning the gandharvas during battle. That address, though, is only to the gandharva army, not to their king, Chitrasena. Chitrasena is, in fact, a friend of Arjuna’s, and after a short battle, in which thousands of gandharvas have needlessly died, he approaches the Pandavas and the men start talking about each other’s welfare. The carnage is forgotten, and Chitrasena even says that his reason for capturing the Kauravas was to protect the Pandavas from their evil designs.
The writer is reading the unabridged Mahabharata