Mahabharata Parva 85: The Stri Parva

Mahabharata Parvas - Stri Parva - Featured Image - Picture of a man's feet with a discoloured toenail

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 Stri Parva.

(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)

Yudhishthir’s Repentance

Yudhishthir and the other Pandavas enter Gandhari’s quarters at this time, and the queen asks them: ‘You have killed all hundred sons of this old woman. Why did you not spare even one child of ours whose offences were lighter than those of his brothers?

‘Why did you not leave even one crutch for this old couple? You stand here before me, unharmed, after having slain all my sons. Yet no grief would have touched my heart if you had done so in a fair manner.’

Yudhishthir walks up to her and takes her hands in his. ‘Here is Yudhishthir, Mother,’ he says, ‘that cruel slayer of your sons. I deserve all your curses, for I am the cause of this universal destruction.

‘I have no longer any need for life or kingdom or wealth. Having caused such friends and kinsmen to be slain, I have proved myself to be a fool and a hater of friends.’

A Burnt Toenail

Unto the new king, Gandhari says nothing. With long sighs she controls her welling anger, and just as Yudhishthir is stepping forward to bow down to her, she directs her eyes from under the folds of the cloth that cover them to the tip of the Pandava’s toe.

The toenail of Yudhishthir thus, which had always been beautiful and clear, now turns black.

The Pandavas are gripped with fear at seeing this, and they glance at one another as if to ask whether they should remain in the queen’s presence.

But unbeknownst to them, the charring of Yudhishthir’s toenail is Gandhari’s way of letting out her rage at her nephews without hurting them. Now that her heart has been freed of it, she realizes that there is love within her heart for the sons of Pandu.

Like Dhritarashtra before her, she embraces each of the five brothers in turn, and comforts them as if she were their own mother.

Gandhari Sees – 1

After having cursed Yudhishthir with a charred toenail, Gandhari now turns to her inner eye to witness the destruction left behind in the wake of the Kurukshetra war.

As she hovers over the battlefield first at a distance, and then swooping down for a closer look, her throat catches, and her teeth clamp over her nether lip.

Scattered all over are bones and hair and streams of blood that have not yet run dry. Thousands and thousands of corpses are mounted in high heaps everywhere she looks. There are headless trunks on one side and trunkless heads on the other.

The region of the five sacred lakes now echoes with hungry cries of vultures, ravens, wolves and Rakshasas.

In her vision she also sees the Bharata ladies visiting the spot, and a number of them break into helpless shrieks. Gandhari pulls herself together and addresses Krishna. ‘Look at my daughters-in-law, O Madhava,’ she says.

‘Meeting their lords in the form of dead bodies, they are piteously calling out to them to return. See, O prince of Dwaraka, how many women have been left without fathers, brothers, husbands and sons.

‘Behold, it is strewn with broken darts, blood-tipped arrows, and shattered maces.’

Gandhari Sees – 2

Gandhari continues: ‘I get the feeling that the five elements have been destroyed, O Krishna. Vultures and other birds, in their thousands, are dragging off the blood-dyed bodies to their lairs, to feed their young no doubt.

‘All those great warriors that have been described as invincible have now been slain. Karna, Abhimanyu, Jayadratha, Bhishma, Drona, Shalya, Somadatta – how many names shall I recite, O Madhusudana? Dare I remember them all?

‘Many of the men I see are embracing their maces in death, Krishna, as if they are their beloved wives. Still many are clutching to the handles of their weapons, as if they still wish to conquer their enemy.

‘Bards and storytellers – who had been tasked all these years with entertaining their lords – are now dumbstruck, and all they have for an audience is this gaggle of mourning widows.

‘What can be a sadder spectacle for me than to see children and women crying their hearts out for men that will never return, Gopala? Hastinapur was the ornament of Aryavarta eighteen days ago, and you have turned it now into a graveyard.’

As she is speaking thus, Gandhari comes upon the dead body of Duryodhana by the bank of the lake, where Bhima slew him.

And she is consumed by a fresh wave of anger directed at Krishna.

A Curse Upon Krishna

After having seen the destruction at Kurukshetra with her own eyes, Gandhari now turns her anger toward Krishna. ‘The Pandavas and the Dhartarashtras have both been burnt by this sacrifice, O Madhava,’ she says.

‘While they were thus being exterminated, why did you stay so indifferent? You are blessed with the gift of eloquence. You have the power to bring about peace. You were capable of commanding the large numbers of your followers to resist from fighting.

‘But you remained silent. You abetted the destruction of the Kuru clan.

‘By whatever little merit I have acquired through waiting dutifully upon my husband, by that merit that is so difficult to attain, I shall curse you.

‘Since you were indifferent to the Kurus and the Pandavas while they killed each other, you shall similarly be forced to watch helplessly as your own kinsmen devour one another.

‘After the Yadava race has thus been exterminated, you will meet your own end while you are alone, by a manner as disgusting as the deaths of all these great warriors.

‘The ladies of the Vrishni clan will weep at your death even as the Bharata women are today crying over the deaths of their husbands.’

Krishna Accepts

The Pandavas are shocked by the meaning of this curse, but Krishna accepts it with good cheer. ‘There is no one in the world save for myself,’ he says, thinly smiling, ‘who is capable of bringing the Vrishni race to its end.

‘I know this well. Even as we speak I am considering ways in which I can bring it about. The Yadavas cannot be defeated by the gods, the Danavas, the Rakshas or the Yakshas. They have to die at their own hand.

‘Now that you have placed your curse, my lady Gandhari, you have aided me in the accomplishment of this task. For that I thank you.’

With this, the Stri Parva ends.