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 Ashramavasa Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
At the beginning of the Ashramavasa Parva, peace and prosperity return to Hastinapur. The people of the city are unable to see any difference between how the Pandavas treat their uncle and aunt and how they treat their own mother.
For a period of fifteen years, while lost human beings do not come back, much of the destruction that took place in Hastinapur during the war shows signs of repair.
One day, in the middle of an assembly, Bhimasena finds himself consumed by anger at Dhritarashtra, and while the elderly couple are within earshot, he slaps his armpits and brags to surrounding courtiers about how he killed all the Kauravas.
‘With these two arms of mine did I send the sons of Dhritarashtra to the abode of Yama. That vile king did everything in his power to deny us our kingdom, and now he serves under the rule of Yudhishthir!’
This has the effect Bhima intends – of saddening Dhritarashtra – but Gandhari gives him succour. Together, they make a decision that perhaps the time has come to move away from a kingly life to a humbler one in the forest.
When Dhritarashtra asks Yudhishthir for permission to leave, the king is adamant.
He says, ‘Father, without you, I have no desire for this throne. Alas, fie on me and my brothers that we had to snatch your destiny to fulfil ours. Is this the secret of life? Must one man fall for another to rise?
‘If that is so, I have no desire to continue on this wretched throne. What has it brought anyone but heartache and despair? If you go into the forest, then I shall come with you.’
Dhritarashtra leans on Gandhari for support, and raises a hand at Yudhishthir. ‘Our minds are made, O King. It is your turn to look after the people of Hastinapur. You have not won the throne in order to give it away. Let us go, therefore, in peace.’
Yudhishthir reluctantly gives his uncle permission to leave.
An Address to Citizens
After his final meal as a royal, Dhritarashtra tells Yudhishthir that he intends to give away some gifts to people.
Following the cue, Yudhishthir makes arrangements for all the relevant materials to be brought, and an announcement is made in the city, which brings forth a number of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras to the royal palace.
Addressing the group of citizens, Dhritarashtra says, ‘All of you have supported and patronized the Kuru dynasty all these years. The royal family and you have lived together as friends, through good and bad times.
‘I have set my heart on retiring into the woods and spending the rest of my days in penance. With Gandhari as my companion, I am going to cast aside my kingly robes and don those of an ascetic.
‘Sage Vyasa and King Yudhishthir have approved of this.
‘The goodwill that exists between the people of Hastinapur and its rulers is to be found nowhere else, my friends. The years on the throne have worn me out; now I do not have any sons, and age is eating away at my body.
‘The kingdom has passed on to Yudhishthir, and I am certain that he will give you great happiness in the time to come.
Dhritarashtra raises his joined hands, at which Gandhari also follows his gesture. ‘You have never treated us with anything but warmth, my brothers and sisters,’ he says.
‘Now, in this final journey, I wish that your good thoughts accompany us. We will treasure all of you to our last dying breaths. Without the people of Hastinapur, there can be no king of Hastinapur. It is you who made me.’
The Citizens Reply
The people of the city nominate a Brahmin to speak on their behalf. This man, named Samba, stands up and addresses Dhritarashtra. ‘O King,’ he says, ‘the answer of this assembly has been committed to my care. I shall voice it.
‘Whatever you said during your speech is true, my lord; all the kings of the Bharata race have ruled us like fathers and brothers. We have no complaint against any of them.
‘Even King Duryodhana treated us humanely. We do not have any anger toward him either. The son of Shantanu protected us all these years from enemies. The sons of Satyavati ruled us wisely and well.
‘We have always lived relying on our king as our protectors and fathers. King Pandu and you also gave us no cause for concern, Your Majesty.
‘It is not necessary for you or for us to look after the Pandavas, O Lord. They are like gods on Earth. Why do they need looking after? Indeed, it is they who will look after us for many years hence.
‘As you say, they will never shy away from the path of righteousness, for they are compassionate, heroic and intelligent.
‘So please do not brook any anxiety on our behalf, Your Majesty. If you deem it fit to devote yourself to the accomplishment of your own tasks, then so be it. We bless you with all success!’
Hearing these words, the rest of the denizens applaud, and Dhritarashtra once again bows to his people. He then enters his mansion with Gandhari by his side, and makes further preparations for his departure.
Kunti Bids Goodbye
On the day of the full moon in the month of Kartika, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari set out of the palace complex dressed as commoners, their ornaments removed. Gandhari is leading Dhritarashtra, who has his hand on her shoulder.
But holding Gandhari’s hand and leading her is Kunti, dressed in the same simple manner. Soon they are joined by Vidura and Sanjaya as well.
With the whole royal family emerging from their chambers to bid farewell to the old king, Kunti catches Yudhishthir’s eye, and her face is a picture of calm. It takes him a few moments to realize that she is leaving too.
When he looks askance at her, she says the following words.
‘Never show any disregard for Sahadeva, O King,’ she says, and her voice is surprisingly distant. ‘He is very much attached to me, and he is devoted to you. Always, in every waking moment, spare a thought for Karna, who has been slain in the field of battle.
‘My heart has broken a hundred pieces every single day after I left him in the Yamuna, Yudhishthir, and at the very end, I had to see him killed by one of my other sons. What pleasure is there in victory of this sort?
‘Give away excellent gifts in the name of Karna to everyone in Hastinapur. May he be remembered not as a friend of Duryodhana but as my son. As your older brother!
‘I shall live in the woods with Gandhari, besmearing my body with filth, engaged in the performance of penances, and devoted to the service of the royal couple.’
Yudhishthir is Puzzled
Yudhishthir is puzzled by Kunti’s choice. ‘This is strange indeed,’ he says. ‘When we were dithering about whether to fight or not, it was you who goaded us all into exertion. Having won the sovereignty of the world for your sake, I have placed it at your feet.
‘And now you choose to walk away from it all? Abandoning us, your daughter-in-law and this kingdom, how will you stay in the woods, Mother? When the time has come for you to enjoy your sons’ success, why do you wish to give it up and leave?
‘Relent, O blessed lady, and return to your chambers. Enjoy the prosperity that we have won for your sake!’
Kunti replies in the following manner.
Kunti disregards the lamentations of her sons, and after moving further toward the exit gate, she stops when she sees that the Pandavas and their wives are following her. She turns around and addresses them in these words:
‘You are right, Yudhishthir. Seeing that you were cheerless with the kingdom wrested from your grasp, I did what I had to in order to rouse you.
‘Yes, seeing that you were deprived of all that you had by a deceitful game of dice, seeing that you were being subdued by kinsmen, seeing that you were plunged in sorrow, I instilled courage and high thoughts into your mind.
‘I encouraged you in order that the sons of Pandu should not lose, that their fame must not be lost. You are equal to the gods. Your powers are no less than Indra’s. In order that you get what you deserve in this world, I acted in the way I did.
‘It was not for my own sake that I told Krishna the story of Vidula, O Yudhishthir, and instigated you to pick up your weapons. It is for your sake. I do not desire the fruits of any sovereignty which has been won by my children.
‘My wish, then and now, has always been to perform those penances that will take me to the regions of felicity occupied by my husband.
‘Now stop following me! Take your brothers and wives and Draupadi back to the palace. May your understanding always be devoted to virtue. May your soul be as pure as it has always been. Farewell!’
At the Bhagirathi
Gandhari and Dhritarashtra try to stop Kunti from coming with them, but she does not listen. 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.
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 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.
And 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 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. Those regions of felicity which are known by the name of Santanika will be his.
‘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. Dhritarashtra seems pleased at the news, that his brother has finally chosen his moment of departure.
And they all give offerings of fruits and roots to Yudhishthir, as the living embodiment of the lord of justice.
With this, the Ashramavasa Parva comes to a close.