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 Vishoka Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
The Three Disband
After moving toward Kurukshetra for a distance of two miles, Dhritarashtra comes across the three living Kaurava warriors: Kripacharya, Kritavarma and Ashwatthama.
The last of these is bathed in blood all over his body, and his forehead is still intact. (The text mentions that this happens before Ashwatthama earns Krishna’s curse.) The moment they see the blind king in his chariot, they approach him and fall to their knees.
‘Your royal son Duryodhana, O King,’ they say, in voices choked with emotion, ‘has left for the region of Indra with all his followers. We are the only maharathas in the army of Duryodhana that has survived. All the others have perished.’
Kripa says to Gandhari, ‘Your sons have fallen while engaged in achieving feats worthy of the gods, O Queen. They fought fearlessly in battle, and struck down large numbers of enemies.
‘Without doubt, having attained the bright regions of heaven by means of their valour, they are now sporting among celestials, having assumed resplendent forms.’
News about Duryodhana
‘Among these heroes, there was not one who turned their back on the enemy. None of them joined their hands and begged for mercy even when they were at the door of death. The Pandavas, too, have not been more fortunate, my lady.
‘Ashwatthama has slain the entire surviving division of the Panchalas and the Srinjayas yesterday, all on his own. The sons of Draupadi have also been slaughtered. On the Pandava side only seven men remain, as on our side just the three of us have escaped with life.
‘The Pandavas are now set upon avenging the deaths of their sons, O Queen. For this reason we have to flee, because we are incapable of fighting them and winning. Grant us leave, therefore, and allow us to go.’
With these words, after circumambulating the king and the queen together, the three surviving members of the Kaurava army leave from there. Kripa goes toward Hastinapur; Kritavarma urges his steeds toward his own county.
And Ashwatthama seeks the asylum of Vyasa, where he encounters the Pandavas and angers Krishna enough to be given the curse of immortality.
Later, after the Pandavas have taken their revenge on Ashwatthama and after Draupadi is gifted the gem, they hear that Dhritarashtra is on his way to meet them.
Yudhishthir summons his brothers together, and along with Krishna, they set out in their chariots to meet the visitors half-way. Satyaki and Draupadi also go with him.
On the banks of the Ganga the Pandavas spot a large crowd of Bharata women, afflicted by woe, crying like a flight of she-ospreys.
As Yudhishthir descends from his chariot, he is surrounded by those thousands of ladies, their voices raised in grief, some crying for his support, others blaming him for their plight.
‘Where is the righteousness of the king, indeed?’ they say. ‘Where is truth and compassion in this son of Dharma who has slain fathers and sons and brothers and friends?
‘How has your heart become tranquil, O mighty-armed one, after causing Drona and Bhishma and Jayadratha to be killed? What need have you of sovereignty after witnessing the deaths of Abhimanyu and the sons of Draupadi?’
Dhritarashtra Hugs Bhima
Passing over these women, Yudhishthir salutes the feet of his eldest uncle. The five brothers surround Dhritarashtra and announce themselves by name.
The king first reluctantly embraces the eldest son of Kunti, and then, as his feelings run away with him, asks for Bhima to be presented.
Bhima is about to step up and take his uncle’s fumbling hands, but Krishna silently intervenes and points to an iron statue built in the likeness of Vrikodara that he has brought along for this very purpose.
(This little anecdote is probably a later interpolation designed to embellish further the heroism of Krishna, so we need not look for logic here.)
Armed with the strength of ten thousand elephants, Dhritarashtra hugs the iron statue, and with the sheer strength of his muscles, breaks it into pieces. But immediately after he does it, he is consumed by guilt, and falls to the ground with moans of ‘Bhima, Bhima’.
Understanding that the king’s wrath has been quelled, Krishna consoles him. ‘Do not grieve, O King,’ he says, ‘for you have not killed Bhimasena. Knowing that you were filled with rage, I dragged the son of Kunti away and replaced him with an iron statue.
‘It is the same statue that your son Duryodhana had used to practice mace-fighting with, and now it has been shattered by your immense strength. Do not sanction yourself, Dhritarashtra, for it is grief for your son’s death that compelled you to attempt to kill Vrikodara.
‘However, harm to the Pandavas will do you no good, O King. Your sons will not be revived by it. Therefore, accept the Pandavas as your kings, protectors and sons. Let peace reign on this land at long last. That is the true path for Hastinapur henceforth.’
Krishna arranges Dhritarashtra to be led first to Bhima, whom the king embraces warmly, with moist eyes. He also hugs Arjuna and the sons of Madri in their turn, and accepts the respects paid to him by the princes.
Dhritarashtra commands the Pandavas to next go and visit Gandhari.
The sister of Shakuni is at this stage overwhelmed by the death of her hundred sons, and knowing that Yudhishthir is at the root of all this destruction, she resolves to bring together her entire powers of austerity in order to curse the sons of Kunti.
However, Vyasa foresees just this eventuality and visits her beforehand. Having cleansed himself with the water of the Ganga, and using his power of transporting himself at will to any place in the world, he arrives at Gandhari’s place.
He talks to her about what had happened in the past and what should happen in the future.
‘Do not take this opportunity to place a curse, O Gandhari,’ he says. ‘Use your immense ascetic energy instead to forgive the sons of Pandu. Restrain the words that are rushing to fall out of your lips. Set your heart on peace.
‘Righteousness has indeed won, in the form of the sons of Kunti. Why, then, do you wish to defeat Dharma with your curse?’
Gandhari listens to the great sage patiently, and replies, ‘I do not cherish ill feelings toward the Pandavas, O venerable one. The battle has come to pass due to the evil machinations of Shakuni, Duryodhana, Karna and Duhsasana.
‘I know that the Pandavas are not to be blamed for the extermination of the Kuru race. Only the sons of Dhritarashtra are to be blamed for that.
‘But there is one aspect over which I am aggrieved that Dharma has not won. In the mace fight between Bhima and Duryodhana, the former hit the latter below the navel and secured victory by unfair means.
‘Knowing that my son is superior to him in skill, the second son of Kunti resorted to cunning and deception in order to win. It is this that moves my wrath.
‘Why should heroes, for the sake of their lives, cast off obligations to duty that have been passed down by generations of wise men?’
Bhima arrives just in time to hear Gandhari’s words. Bowing in reverence with his hands joined together, he asks of the queen’s forgiveness.
‘Whether righteous or unrighteous,’ he says, ‘that act was performed by me through fear and for the object of protecting my own self.
‘Your mighty son was incapable of being vanquished in fair fight, Mother, and for the sake of protecting my brothers from yet another period of exile, I had to pursue means that were unfair.
‘Duryodhana had already vanquished Yudhishthir unrighteously. He has always behaved towards us unfairly. So I did not think that using unfair means to defeat him was a wrong thing. You know how Duryodhana treated us on the day of the dice game, Mother.
‘You heard the words that he used to describe Panchali on that fateful morning. Without killing him, there was no way for the sons of Pandu to regain their kingdom. We have tried everything before the battle, as you know!’
Gandhari Questions Bhima
Gandhari listens to Bhima’s words with pursed lips. Then she nods. ‘What you say about Duryodhana is true. I have another question for you though, Vrikodara.
‘On the occasion of Duhsasana’s death, you drank blood from his chest as if you were a beast. Such an act is cruel and is censured by the gods. It was undeserving of you.’
Bhima replies, ‘It is improper to quaff the blood of a stranger, Mother, let alone that of a kinsman. However, you should know that when I drank the blood of Duhsasana, I did not let it pass through my lips down my throat.
‘I merely touched my lips to his bleeding wounds in honour of the vow I took in the assembly during the dice game. In order that my oath does not stay unaccomplished, I made a mere motion that I drank the blood of your son.
‘In truth, it did not pass over my tongue, I promise you.’