Relegated to the backdrop, this Pandava prince was no small fry.
The thing about being raised alongside luminaries such as Arjuna, Bhima and Yudhishthira is that you tend to get relegated to the backdrop. For most part, this was true of the twins, Nakula and Sahadeva. In fact, chances are you’d never have even thought of them as two separate people what with most of the story being focussed on the three brothers and their warring cousins.
Yet, both Nakula and Sahadeva were luminaries in their own right. Both were experts in wielding the sword, sure, but Sahadeva was singularly intelligent, perhaps more than anyone else in the epic. It was something he was aware of and was arrogant about it. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning.
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Sahadeva was born alongside Nakula to Madri one of Pandu’s two wives, the other, of course, being Kunti. As you may remember, Kunti was granted a boon by Sage Durvasa due to which she could invoke any god she wanted and beget a child from them. Pandu, who was cursed by another sage, was unable to bear a child and therefore turned to Kunti to use her boon. It was thus that Kunti bore three children: Yudhishthira from Dharma, Arjuna from Indra, and Bhima from Vayu or the God of Wind. Using the same boon, she was able to get Madri impregnated by the Ashwini twins, the gods of health, dawn and sciences.
The story goes that Pandu’s knowledge, one that he had gathered due to years of meditation, got passed down to Sahadeva just before the former’s death. It was a lot of knowledge for one person to handle. Even so, the young Sahadeva seemed unfazed. Due to the knowledge he inherited, he was able to see the past as well as the future.
As a result, he knew everything that was going to happen – the fact that there would be several attempts on his and his brothers’ lives, the fact that they would be challenged to a game of dice where they would be cheated of their empire, the fact that there would be a war, and that they would in fact win. As a result he was the greatest astrologer in the entire land.
However, soon after he received this knowledge, Krishna approached him and made him promise that he’d never reveal the entire truth to anyone. Sahadeva pointed out that this wouldn’t be possible. And that should someone ask him, there was no way he could lie. Krishna agreed but told him that he couldn’t reveal more than what was asked. In return Sahadeva made Krishna promise that he would protect him and his brothers at all costs and that should something happen to any one of them, Krishna too would have to kill himself.
In another version of the story, Sahadeva was granted the vision to see into the past as well as the future but the price for revealing it to anyone unless asked was his head exploding. Either way, Sahadeva remained the quietest of all the Pandavas for good reason.
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Sahadeva was, in fact, asked if there was a way to avoid the war and he replied that there indeed was one way: to imprison Krishna and Shakuni, for all the Kauravas and Pandavas to go into the forest after making Karna the king. And while this may have well been the only way to avoid the gruesome war, Sahadeva knew well that it wasn’t going to be.
So, like a good Kshatriya, he went to war. He vowed to kill Shakuni for Draupadi’s humiliation and he fulfilled his wow. After the war, he carried the flag of Hastinapur all the way down to south India and beyond into Lanka and brought them under Hastinapur’s protection. And he did all of this, while carrying the impossible weight of knowing the inevitable.