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 Putradarshana Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
At the hermitage, Vyasa tells Dhritarashtra to ask for a boon. ‘Whatever your heart desires, O King,’ he says, ‘I shall endeavour to make it happen with my spiritual powers.’
‘I am exceedingly fortunate, O Sage,’ replies Dhritarashtra, ‘that I have succeeded in obtaining your favour. I have no longer any fear or doubt that my sins have been washed away. Due to my foolhardiness, the earth now is shorn of thousands of great men.
‘Due to the hasty actions of my son, many innocent people lost their lives. A part of me wonders where all these dead people are now, O Sage. Where are Bhishma and Drona and Shalya and Bhagadatta?
‘Where are Abhimanyu and Bhurishrava and Somadatta? Are they well? Or are they being tormented in the afterlife too? Until I know this for certain, I shall forever be filled with anguish.’
These words seem to awaken Gandhari’s emotions too, who joins her hands and says to Vyasa, ‘The king always breathes heavily at night, and he never sleeps well.
‘Through the power of your penance, may I wish that you show him his children who are now living in the world of the gods?’
Gandhari and Kunti
Gandhari continues: ‘This sister of Krishna has never been truly soothed with the manner of Abhimayu’s death. All the women you see here are mourning over the death of some great hero or the other.
‘If you can show us all how these men live now, that will go a long distance toward mending our broken hearts.’
Kunti, then, steps forward, and places a specific request at Vyasa’s feet. ‘I wish to see Karna again, O Sage. Years before now, when I was but a maiden, I gave birth to him in helpless circumstances, and I have never been able to claim his as mine.
‘Today, my heart beats for him more than for anyone else. I keep asking myself, if only I had had the courage to clutch him to my bosom when he most needed me, would the destruction of Kurukshetra have been avoided?’
Vyasa consoles all of them in turn, and leads them to the bank of the Bhagirathi, where he waits for the sun to set before starting to invoke his magic powers with careful, low-voiced chants.
Celestials on Earth
Vyasa explains: ‘Dhrishtadyumna and Draupadi were born of fire. Shikhandi was a Rakshasa. Drona was a portion of Brihaspati, and Ashwatthama took birth due to the blessing of Rudra.
‘Bhishma was one of the Vasus, born as a human being to serve an ancient curse. After having accomplished their assigned tasks, all these celestials have gone back to heaven, O Queen.
‘The sorrow that you feel for their well-being is misplaced. Let us now go to the Bhagirathi, and I will dispel all your anxieties once and for all.’
The entourage follows Vyasa to the river, and the women sit on the sandy bank, waiting for something they could not fathom. Can the sage really bring back people from the dead, they ask themselves. But in their hearts they carry hope.
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.
Return of the Fallen
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, Bhurishrava, Sala, Vrishasena, Lakshmana Kumara, the sons of Dhrishtadyumna and Shikhandi, Dhrishtaketu, Achala, Somadatta and Chekitana – these are some of the luminaries that appear on the riverbank that night.
Many others are also present, of course, but not all of them can be named.
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.
Return of the Pandavas
The vision of his sons complete, Dhritarashtra once again loses his eyesight (only fair) and gets led back to the hermitage. Once there, Vyasa tells him that it is time to put all rage and dissension aside.
‘Your children have all attained the purposes of their births, O King,’ he says. ‘You have heard discourses from me, Narada and a number of great sages over the course of your life. May it be so that you abandon your sorrows.
‘He who is possessed of wisdom is never agitated by ill luck. Yudhishthir and his brothers ought to be sent back to Hastinapur now, because they have to get back to governing the kingdom.’
Dhritarashtra, therefore, summons Yudhishthir and commands him to return.
The five brothers bid farewell after that to their mother, who wishes them all success, as always. ‘May peace be yours at long last, O Yudhishthir,’ she says, ‘and may all of you attain happiness that has never been yours. D
‘Do not let your affection for us keep you here longer than necessary; you are still young, and you have much of life to look forward to. I am about to renounce this body and attain to regions occupied by your blessed father.
‘My journey is different to yours. So leave now.’
With this return of the five brothers to Hastinapur, the Putradarshana Parva ends.