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Pandu's last wish

The Mahabharata has given rise to many folk-tales that are not part of the canon. This story – concerning Pandu’s last wish – is one such. Pandu lived his last few years engaged in severe austerities along with his two wives, Kunti and Madri. All three were forced to live a life of celibacy owing to a curse that Pandu had incurred during a past hunting trip. (Kunti and Madri were not entirely celibate, because they did have five sons between them.) In the last moments of Pandu’s death in the forest – which comes upon him because he makes a sexual advance at Madri – he is said to have told his sons to eat a bit of his corpse, so that they could all imbibe some of the fruits of his penances and become gyanis, who could see events from the future as if they had already happened. Predictably, the Pandavas reacted to this suggestion with disgust, and refused to eat any part of their father’s corpse. But Sahadeva, maybe because he was the youngest and therefore the most impressionable and obedient, returned by himself to the hut late at night, cut off Pandu’s little finger, and swallowed it whole. (Bear in mind that he must have been no more than four years old at this point.) This act is thought to have given Sahadeva all the intelligence and stoicism that he exhibits later in the story. Often it is asked why the youngest Pandava did not do anything worthwhile to prevent the war if he did indeed know that it would come to pass. The answer, of course, is that for trikala gyanis (those who see the past, present and the future), there is no such thing as an event that is yet to happen. In their minds, events of the future have also happened. The future, for them, is as immutable as the past. The determinism that we feel in our lives – that our actions have consequences that will shape the future – is but an illusion for them. Whatever they do, the future cannot be changed, so they adopt an air of resignation and become mute observers instead. In classical mythology, there is a character called Cassandra, daughter of King Priam of Troy, who can see events in the future. But her curse is that though her predictions always come true, no one believes her when she makes them. So she, like Sahadeva, is deprived of the ability to change the future.

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