In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes.
This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.
(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 57: Arjuna Fights Babruvahana. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
A short while after the Ashwamedha sacrifice of Yudhishthir, Bhimasena – in an unguarded moment – brags in open court about how he killed his cousins the Kauravas in the war. These words travel to Dhritarashtra in due course and cause the old man to consider leaving for the forest.
The Pandavas are surprised that their mother – who had urged them to fight for their kingdom – is now leaving without enjoying the wealth they have earned for her.
Kunti, however, explains that her desire was only for her sons to perform their duties. She herself never had any wish for material wealth. ‘My deepest desire,’ she reveals, ‘is to go to heaven and rejoin my husband after all these years of separation.’
Thus, the five of them – Vidura, Sanjaya, Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti – make their way from the royal palace to the adjoining forest in the direction of the river Ganga.
As they leave, the city folk come to the edge of the woods, wailing and crying. The Pandavas are stricken by shock, because all of a sudden they feel as if they have been orphaned.
At the Bhagirathi
The five people eventually reach the bank of the river Bhagirathi, where a hermitage is located. A few Brahmins light a sacred fire at the advent of dark, and when they see Dhritarashtra and his companions, they invite him and give him a place to stay.
Vidura and Sanjaya make a bed out of kusa grass for their king. Gandhari and Kunti lie down on the floor with smiles on their faces.
Many sacred hymns are chanted that night in homage to the holy fire, and the five of them sleep as well as they ever have in the last twenty years, though far removed from all physical comforts of the palace.
The next morning, after performing their ablutions, they proceed onward to Kurukshetra, where they visit a hermitage built there by Sage Satayupa.
While Dhritarashtra is being welcomed here, Vyasa arrives and tells Satayupa everything that has occurred. Then, at the behest of the island-born, Satayupa initiates Dhritarashtra into the ascetic mode of life in the forest.
In that manner, freed from all his stupefactions of the mind, Dhritarashtra begins to perform severe austerities at the hermitage of Satayupa.
Reducing his body to skin and bones, bearing matted locks on the head, clad in barks and skins, he gradually assumes the appearance of a sage himself. Vidura and Sanjaya follow their leader and wait upon him. His wife and sister-in-law look after his every need.
The Pandavas Visit
Meanwhile, the Pandavas find that they are unable to focus on the matters of ruling the kingdom while their elders suffer in the forest. Sahadeva, especially, is distraught at being separated from his mother.
He addresses Yudhishthir and tells him, ‘Brother, out of respect for you I have not spoken my heart so far. But I think we should all go and visit our kinsmen and kinswomen on the bank of the Bhagirathi.’
Yudhishthir agrees, and in no time a retinue is assembled with a bunch of servants, courtiers and soldiers. They cross the Yamuna and make the journey northward to where the Bhagirathi flows.
After they arrive at the hermitage there is much merriment and happiness. Dhritarashtra and Gandhari bless the five sons of Pandu, and Kunti embraces all her sons one by one.
Yudhishthir sits down next to ask of Dhritarashtra some questions about his welfare. ‘Has your mind finally found peace and tranquillity in this forest, O King?’ he asks.
‘Is my mother serving you well? Is the grief of my elder mother, Gandhari, now ebbing away in these serene surroundings? I hope there is no part of your heart, O King, that still blames us for your sons’ deaths.’
Then he looks around and does not spot Vidura. ‘I do not see Vidura here, Your Majesty. I trust everything is well with him.’
Dhritarashtra nods. ‘He is well, my son. He is performing severe austerities, and he now lives purely on air. He is emaciated and his blood vessels have become visible. He is sometimes seen in these surroundings, spotted by wandering Brahmins.’
While Dhritarashtra is saying these words, Yudhishthir sees Vidura in the distance, leaning against the trunk of a tree. At a run the king goes to pay his respects to his uncle. ‘O Vidura!’ he says. ‘Do you not recognize me? I am Yudhishthir, your favourite nephew.’
Vidura glances at him with an expression of mild puzzlement. He blesses Yudhishthir and directs him to step forward, a bit closer. And then, pushing himself off the tree, he stands erect, in a yoga pose, and closes his eyes.
At that moment, the life force that has been clinging to the body of Vidura travels into Yudhishthir, and the empty shell of Vidura remains standing, yet limp.
Yudhishthir receives the energy of his uncle, and when he opens his eyes he sees that Vidura’s eyes are still open, and that they still hold their steadfast gaze. While he is still working out the meaning of what has happened, a voice from the sky tells him:
‘O King, the body that has belonged to the man called Vidura should not be cremated. In him is your body also. He is the eternal deity of righteousness. He was an observer of the duties of Yatis. You should not therefore, O King, grieve for him at all.’
Leaving behind the body of Vidura still leaning against the tree, Yudhishthir hastens back to Dhritarashtra and tells the assemblage of sages what has happened.
Return of the Fallen
A short while afterward, Vyasa takes Dhritarashtra and the Pandavas to the Ganga, promising them that he will bring back – for a short while – all those who had given up their lives in the war.
Vyasa stands in ankle-deep water, and seemingly with the power of his fingers alone, causes the water to rumble and groan. From deep within the roiling stream men begin to step out, glowing like stars, smiles on their faces.
Bhishma and Drona are among the first men to emerge from the water, dressed in full battle gear. Following on their heels are Drupada and Virata, along with their sons.
The Upapandavas are there, and so are Abhimanyu and Ghatotkacha. Karna marches in death – as he did in life – with Duryodhana and Shakuni. Right with them are the other sons of Dhritarashtra, led by Duhsasana.
Bhagadatta, Jalasandha, Bhurishravas, Sala, Vrishasena, Lakshmana Kumara, the sons of Dhrishtadyumna and Shikhandin, Dhrishtaketu, Achala, Vrishaka, Alayudha the Rakshasa, Bahlika, Somadatta and Chekitana – these are some of the luminaries that appear on the riverbank that night.
Robed in celestial garments and brilliant ornaments, these men seem to be freed of all avarice and anger. They are smiling at their living relatives, and Gandharvas sing their praises from the skies.
For the occasion, Vyasa grants Dhritarashtra the gift of sight, so that the king can finally see his sons for the first time. (It is indeed poignant that the very first time Dhritarashtra sees his sons is after they have died.)
The king sees the scene and exclaims in delight, wondering out loud if even the paintings of the best artists in the world can capture the beauty that is unfolding before him at that moment.
Divested of all wrath and jealousy, cleansed of every sin, the men from heaven greet and meet with each other warmly, their enmities forgotten.
Sons meet with sires, wives with husbands, brothers with brothers, and friends with friends. The Pandavas meet the mighty bowman and their brother Karna; it does not take them longer than a moment to reconcile their differences.
That riverbank that evening becomes freed of all grief, fear, suspicion, discontent or reproach. All the warriors embrace one another, and for a long time they sit and talk, about their lives on Earth and how they were consumed by bitterness and hate.
Deep into the night the ladies of the Kuru house hold their husbands and sons and fathers and weep, not out of sorrow but out of joy.
And then, almost as suddenly as they appeared, they vanish to another click of Vyasa’s fingers.
Two Years Later
The Pandavas return to Indraprastha immediately after the reunion at the riverbank. Two years pass without incident, until Narada the sage comes to visit.
Yudhishthir receives him in his court and asks him of the welfare of Dhritarashtra and his queens. The sage has some somber news to share.
‘After your return to Kurukshetra, O King,’ he says, ‘Dhritarashtra proceeded toward Gangadwara. He took with him his sacred fire, his queen Gandhari, his sister-in-law Kunti, and his minister Sanjaya.
‘Here he subjected himself to many pitiless austerities, and over a period of six months, managed to shrink himself to a mere skeleton.
‘During this time the four of them lived like ascetics, the two women keeping house and the two men wandering over the forest. One day, as the king finished his ablutions in the Ganga and was preparing himself to take a long walk into the woods, a fierce summer wind whipped up a forest fire.
‘Seeing this conflagration swell toward him, O King, Dhritarashtra was not afraid in the least. He addressed Sanjaya and told him that his time had come, and in a short while, as if by magic, the women joined him as well.
‘They asked Sanjaya to escape to a place where the fire cannot reach, and the minister, with great reluctance, went back to join the ascetics on the riverbank.
‘The three of them sat in a meditative pose at the edge of the woods, waiting for the fire to consume them. As the three royals met their death in that fashion after having given up their bodies willingly, Sanjaya himself bid goodbye to the sages of Ganga and set out northward, toward the Himavat mountain.’
Despite Narada’s insistence that Dhritarashtra’s death should not be mourned, that he had achieved a peaceful and conscious form of it that is denied many other less fortunate people, the news breaks Yudhishthir down.
‘When such a great king who had a hundred valiant sons can be killed in this fashion, O Sage,’ he says, ‘then there is truly no defeating the heavy hand of destiny.
‘The king had the strength of a thousand elephants in his arms. He was formerly roused by an army of servants and maids, and now his charred remains are being picked apart by vultures! Where is justice in this?
‘And what of Pritha, who abandoned the prosperity of her five sons and decided to live in the woods? Fie on us, who call ourselves the Kaunteyas.
‘Though alive, we are truly dead. How is it that she, who had Yudhishthir, Bhimasena, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva for sons had to be burned alive in such hapless a manner?
‘And how did the god of fire, Agni, deem it fit to consume the mother of Arjuna thus? In the garb of a Brahmin, when he was burning with hunger, was it not Falguna who eviscerated the Khandava forest for his sake? Has he forgotten the favour already?’
Yudhishthir then calls for a large gathering of Brahmins and performs the funeral rites of the three royals. Much food and many gifts are given to the people of Hastinapur, and the souls of Pritha, Gandhari and Dhritarashtra are sent on their way.
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