The Mahabharata is a collection of hundred Parvas (or ‘sections’) that tell the story of a long-standing family feud between two sets of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – for control of the Kuru throne in Hastinapur.
The climactic event of the story is an eighteen-day war that happens between the two factions on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
It is commonly understood that the Pandavas are the protagonists of this tale and the Kauravas the antagonists – though many retellings have appeared over the years that flip this structure.
In this post, we will summarize the Swargarohana Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
Duryodhana in Heaven
The first thing that Yudhishthir sees on reaching heaven is the sight of Duryodhana seated on a throne in the same room as the rest of the gods.
And as the Pandava is ushered in, he sees his arch enemy being worshipped and looked after in the manner of a great hero.
Yudhishthir stops in his tracks, and tells Indra and Yama that he does not intend to share space with Duryodhana.
‘The whole Earth was slaughtered due to the cupidity of this one man,’ he says, ‘and for many years we suffered the basest of treatments because of his conspiracies. It is due to him that the virtuous princess of Panchala, Draupadi, had to be insulted in open court.
‘And he is the reason for the death of many of my kinsmen. How can I be asked to sit next to him and smile, O Indra? I wish to go, instead, where my brothers and wife are.’
Narada comes up to him, with a grin on his face. ‘Come now, O Yudhishthir,’ he says. ‘You are in heaven. There is no need to hold on to past grudges. People who live here do so after casting off all their old enmities.
‘Duryodhana is worshipped here as great king who has earned the death of a hero by fighting to his last breath on a battlefield. For his courage and for his sacrifice, he was brought here.
‘Forget all that Draupadi had to endure because of him, and forget all his past actions, O King. Here, all of us must live as friends.’
Yudhishthir shakes his head, and his voice still quivering in barely concealed wrath, he says, ‘If these regions see it fit to honour Duryodhana as a righteous man, then perhaps this is not the heaven that I wish to live in.
‘I desire to see those regions attained by the high-souled among my kinsmen. Where is Karna, my elder brother? Where are Shikhandi and Satyaki and Dhrishtaketu and Bahlika and Somadatta? It is they I have come to meet, not this wretch!’
Journey to Hell
Seeing that Yudhishthir is adamant, the gods allow him to take a messenger to the place where the rest of the Pandavas are held up. The messenger leads the king through a path covered in darkness, with hair and moss forming its grassy texture.
Polluted with the stench of sin and mired with flesh and blood, it abounds with gadflies and stinging bees and droning gnats. Yudhishthir sees rotting corpses all around him, and worms and insects crawling in and out of crevices.
He sees a river full of boiling water, and a forest filled with trees whose leaves are sharp as swords. There are plains full of fine white sand, and rocks and stones made of iron.
All around them they hear cries of pain and agony, some from human beings, others from creatures of the night.
‘How far will you take me along a path such as this,’ Yudhishthir asks the messenger. ‘I have followed you this far because you promised you will take me to my brothers.’
The messenger bows and replies, ‘I have been ordered to bring you here and then stop, O King. If you desire to stay here, you are welcome to do so. But if the region is too miserable for your taste, you are free to return with me back to the abode of the gods.
At that moment, however, Yudhishthir hears words of lament addressing him. ‘O son of Dharma,’ these voices say, ‘remain here a moment and assuage our pain.
‘As you approach, a delightful breeze has begun to blow, bearing the sweet scent of your person. Do remain here, O Bharata, even if it is for a little while. As long as you are here, our pains and torments seem bearable.’
Unable to place the voice, Yudhishthir asks into the darkness, ‘Who are you? Why do you stay here?’
And from all sides the replies come. ‘I am Nakula! I am Karna! I am Bhimasena. Arjuna! Nakula! Sahadeva! Draupadi! Dhrishtadyumna!’
Hearing these, Yudhishthir pauses and asks himself yet again about the perversity of destiny. ‘After all the great deeds committed by these men, they have come to live here in hell.
‘And after all the sins committed by that wretch, Duryodhana, there he sits, among the gods, laughing in revelry! Where is the truth of the Vedas gone? What is this that has happened?’
He turns toward the messenger and joins his hands. ‘Sir,’ he says, ‘I bid you to return to your masters. I am not leaving this place. Wherever my brothers and wife live, that is my heaven.
‘I shall stay here and provide whatever comfort I can to my kinsmen, and take whatever comfort I can from their presence.’
The messenger returns to the court of Indra and relays the message. The lord of the gods descends from his throne and makes his way to where Yudhishthir was taken, to give him another reward for passing yet another test.
An Act of Deception
All the gods of the pantheon, accompanied by Yama, the god of Dharma, come to Yudhishthir, and as they enter the tunnel of hell, the darkness and misery of that place evaporates.
And in front of his eyes the eldest Pandava sees splendour taking birth wherever he looks. The boiling river, the trees with the thorny leaves, the boulders of dark rock, the stench of rotting carcasses – they all vanish.
‘Come, come, O Yudhishthir,’ says Indra, his arms spread open, ‘come, O best of men.
‘All these illusions and tests have ended. You have attained success, O great one, and all eternal regions have become yours. Listen to my words without anger, O King, because we had to do this.’
Indra says: ‘Even the best of men should be given a glimpse of hell because no man is so pure as to not see it even for a moment. He who endures hell will be taken to heaven, but he who begins his time with heaven has to end up in hell.
‘Sinners, therefore, Yudhishthir, begin with a short time in heaven corresponding to the little good they have done, and after that, they are taken to hell for eternity, to atone for their deeds.
‘Saints, on the other hand, have the opposite journey. They must experience a short time in hell to atone for their few sins, and then they are taken to heaven to enjoy the rewards of their many great deeds.
‘So it is that we had to show you a glimpse of heaven, Yudhishthir, to atone for the sin of deceiving Drona about his son. For that act of deception, we engaged in deception of our own in order to bring you to hell.
‘In the same way, we had to bring the rest of the Pandavas here as well, by means of pretence. Now all of them have been cleansed of their sins, O King. Let us now take you to heaven, where you will reside for the rest of time.’
Yama steps forward and speaks to his son, privately. ‘This is the third test I subjected you to, O King. The first time, I spoke to you in the Dwaita forest in the form of a Yaksha. The second time, I assumed the form of a dog and tempted you to abandon me.
‘The third time, I gave you a choice of staying with your brothers in hell or with the gods in heaven. You chose right each time, and I have come to accept that you will never swerve from the path of virtue.
‘You deserve all the great gifts that are about to accrue to you. Accept my blessings, my son.’
Everything falls apart around them now, and Yudhishthir is taken back to heaven, where Duryodhana is no longer anywhere to be seen.
The first person Yudhishthir meets is Krishna, in his celestial form, adorned with terrible weapons. He clasps the prince of Dwaraka in his arms and gives him a warm hug.
Sitting respectfully on one knee next to Krishna’s feet is Arjuna, also endued with a soft glow. The two foremost of beings – Nara and Narayana – are in turn being worshipped by many Gandharvas and Apsaras, and they receive Yudhishthir with due respect.
In another part of the hall sits Karna, resembling a dozen Suryas in splendour. Bhimasena is sitting amidst the Maruts, by the side of the wind god. Next to the Ashwini twins are Nakula and Sahadeva, each burning with their own light.
He sees Draupadi, decked in a garland of lotuses, sitting on a high throne. As Yudhishthir steps toward her with the intention of speaking with her, Indra speaks to him. ‘This is Sree,’ he says.
‘It was for your sake that she took birth as the daughter of Drupada, but she was not born of any mother’s womb. For your pleasure she was created by the holder of the trident himself. And these highly blessed Gandharvas are the sons of Draupadi.’
At the conclusion of the story, Janamejaya asks Vaisampayana a question about the dead Kuru warriors.
‘Did the people who attained heaven in the battle of Kurukshetra remain there forever, O Sage?’ he asks.
‘Bhishma, Drona, Dhritarashtra, Virata, Drupada, Sankha, Uttara, Dhristaketu, Jayatsena, Satyajit, the sons of Duryodhana, Shakuni, the sons of Karna, Jayadratha, Ghatotkacha – all of these heroes were given a place in the abode of the gods.
‘What is the nature of the reward that each person received, and how long was he given to experience it?’
Vaisampayana responds with a long list of what each hero is doing in heaven. In summary:
Bhishma becomes one of the Vasus, and unites with Prabhasa, the youngest Vasu who gave up a portion of his essence for a curse.
Drona enters into Brihaspati, and takes his spot among Angirasa’s descendants.
Kritavarma becomes one of the Maruts.
Pradyumna is reunited with Sanatkumara, who gave rise to him.
Dhritarashtra becomes a Gandharva, and begins to live in the land of Kubera. Gandhari accompanies him.
Pandu, Madri and Kunti repair to the region of Indra, where all the great kings sit in council.
Virata, Drupada, Dhrishtaketu, Akrura, Samba, Bhanukampa, Viduratha, Bhurishravas, Sala, Bhuri, Kamsa, Ugrasena, Vasudeva, Uttara and Sankha – all these men enter the deities that gave birth to them.
Abhimanyu becomes one with Varchas, the son of Soma.
Karna becomes part of Surya.
Shakuni is absorbed into Dwapara, and Dhrishtadyumna into Agni.
Both Vidura and Yudhishthir enter into Yama, the god of righteousness.
Krishna reunites with Narayana, of whom he is a part. Krishna’s sixteen thousand wives dissolve into the form of Saraswati.
Ghatotkacha and the other car warriors who were slain in battle attain the status of either gods or Yakshas.
The Swargarohana Parva – and with it the Mahabharata – ends on this note.