For those who don’t know the epic character of Vidura, here is a short backdrop:
Son of maid
Somewhere in northern India, flourished the Kuru kingdom ruled by the emperor Shantanu. He had a son named Devavrata from the goddess Ganga, the deity presiding over the river Ganga. Once Shantanu fell in love with a fisherwoman named Satyavati and approached her father with a marriage proposal. Her father agreed happily but posted a condition that his daughter’s son should ascend the throne after Shantanu. Though he was smitten by Satyavati, the emperor could not make this promise to Satyavati’s father since he had appointed his son Devavrata as the crown prince.
However, this incident left a deep wound on Shantanu’s heart and ultimately started affecting his health. Devavrata, being a loyal son figured out his father’s despondency and went to Satyavati’s father. Upon learning the latter’s constraint, Devavrata benevolently gave up the throne and promised Satyavati’s father that he would not marry since his progeny might get in the way of Satyavati’s son. As a result of this terrible vow, Devavrata was named as Bheeshma.
Shantanu and Satyavati had two sons viz Chitrangadh and Vichitravirya. While Chitrangadh died in a battle, Vichitryavirya ascended the throne. Bheeshma won two wives named Ambika and Ambalika for him. However, Vichitryavirya died childlessly.
Here comes Vyasa
Vichitravirya’s death left the Kuru kingdom heirless. To resolve this problem, Satyavati invited Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa or Veda Vyasa to impregnate Ambika and Ambalika. He was Satyavati’s son by the sage Parashara before her marriage to Shantanu. Vyasa had a monk’s look and as a result, when Ambika met Vyasa, she closed her eyes tight and birthed a blind son named Dhritarashtra was born. Similarly, when Ambalika met Vyasa, she went pale leading to the birth of the pale Pandu. Satyavati was distraught with her daughter-in-laws. Hence, she decided to resend Ambika to Vyasa. However, Ambika sent her maid instead. The maid had no effect of Vyasa’s appearance and hence a healthy and intelligent son named Vidura was born out of her. He went on to become one of the greatest scholars in the annals of humankind.
Later on, Dhritarashtra had 100 sons named Kauravas and Pandu had 5 valiant sons named Pandavas. The five sons of Pandu surpassed Dhritarashtra’s sons in every way. With Bheeshma’s blessings and Vidura’s able guidance, the Pandavas were soaring high. Laterally, another mighty star named Krishna was rising in Mathura, who was a maternal cousin to Pandavas.
Krishna’s fame and valour was growing as tall as the Himalayas after defeating the emperor Jarasandha at Gomantaka. I strongly recommend the readers to read this story here: How Krishna defeated Jarasandha by commanding the sea.
Later, Jarasandha planned a forceful marriage of Rukmini, the princess of Vidarbha and Shishupala, the crown prince of the Kingdom of Chedi. Although Rukmini was unwilling, her brother Rukimi was more than willing, since this marriage meant a powerful military alliance between himself, Jarasandha and Shishupala. To avert this, Krishna arrived at Kundinpura, the capital of Vidarbha, with a huge retinue of his army. Jarasandha had to postpone this marriage, owing to an overwhelming presence of the Yadavas from Mathura. Once Jarasandha retreated, Krishna went back to Mathura to receive a special guest.
The two-pronged attack
Apparently, a few days later Bheema, the second Pandava, arrived from Hastinapura to train for mace-fighting under Balarama. He won everyone’s heart at Mathura with his jovial nature. He kept talking about himself and Pandavas’ achievements incessantly and kept joking around. However, when Bheema and Krishna were alone, Bheema got serious and said: “Uncle Vidura has received information from spies that king Salva of Saubha met Kalayavana, the barbaric king from the dominions beyond the river Sindhu. Kalayavana is collecting a huge army to attack some kingdom in Aryavarta. Uncle Vidura suspects that it’s Mathura. He has asked me to warn you about this danger”
Around the same time, queen Shrutashrava, Krishna’s paternal aunt and mother of Shishupala visited Mathura. During a casual discussion, she mentioned Jarasandha’s disgruntled attitude and his promise to Shishupala that the latter would be married to Rukmini next year, whether Krishna is alive or dead! This piece of information along with Vidura’s information hinted towards a double invasion from two sides. One from the east by Jarasandha and one from the south-west by Kalayavana from Salva’s dominion, since Salva was a great ally of Jarasandha. This meant doom as it would leave no way to retreat for Yadavas.
However, for Krishna, an early piece of information by the great Vidura provided great leverage of time to plan his move. Consequently, the Yadavas abandoned Mathura and built Dwaraka on an island that Krishna had identified much earlier than this incident. Additionally, he orchestrated the situation so that Kalyavana was killed by Muchukunda.
Although the looming danger upon Krishna was averted by Bheema and Vidura, they had impending troubles back home. Yudhishthira was appointed as the crown prince and as a result, the palace of Hastinapura was mired with intrigues by Shakuni and Duryodhana. To add to the Pandavas’ troubles, Dronacharya decided to take a neutral stand. This gave rise to a complex scenario which couldn’t be handled by the likes of Bheeshma and Vidura.
Hence, in order to avert a possible confrontation, the king Dhritarashtra and Bheeshma decided to evict Pandavas to a village named Varnavrat where a grand palace was being erected for them by Duryodhana and Shakuni. However, Vidura sensed a foul play in their apparent show of affection for Pandavas: He was not wrong! Through his superior network of spies, Vidura figured out that the palace was being built of inflammable substance like lac.
The encrypted warning
Though Vidura figured out the heinous plot, he could not convey it to Yudhishthira directly. Hence, as the Pandavas were departing for Varnavrat, he cryptically warned Yudhishthira: “Fire cannot burn animals in holes. He who cannot keep his senses under control cannot win. A travelling man can deduce directions from the stars.” Through these words made no sense to Yudhishthira at the beginning, a calm reflection revealed a great deal.
The first sentence “Fire cannot burn animals in holes.” meant a possibility of fire along with the remedy of digging a tunnel to escape the fire. Accordingly, Vidura sent an expert miner to Varnavrat to dig a tunnel from the lac palace. The next two statements viz “He who cannot keep his senses under control cannot win. A travelling man can deduce directions from the stars.” conveyed that they need to be vigilant at night and escape in the darkness guided by stars. Owing to this timely and critical help from Vidura, on the designated day, the Pandavas themselves set fire to the lac palace and escaped in the dark of night, through the tunnel dug by the miner.
Krishna and Pandavas’ were saviours of those times. Together, they ushered a new era. However, even saviours need help and guidance from able men and Vidura was that man. Also, it would be unfair to forget that he was the only man along with Vikarna to have opposed Draupadi’s disrobing. Lastly, he gave a great treasure of knowledge through his Vidura neeti, which is a precursor to the famous Chanakya neeti.