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 Naradagamana Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
Two Years Later
We are two years into the rule of the Pandavas after their return from the Bhagirathi. Yudhishthir receives Sage Narada in his court and asks him of the welfare of Dhritarashtra and his queens. The sage has some sombre news to share.
‘After your return to Kurukshetra, O King,’ he says, ‘Dhritarashtra proceeded toward Gangadwara. He took with him his sacred fire, his queen Gandhari, his sister-in-law Kunti, and his minister Sanjaya.
‘Here he subjected himself to many pitiless austerities, and over a period of six months, managed to shrink himself to a mere skeleton.
‘During this time the four of them lived like ascetics, the two women keeping house and the two men wandering over the forest.
‘One day, as the king finished his ablutions in the Ganga and was preparing himself to take a long walk into the woods, a fierce summer wind whipped up a forest fire, which began to burn and twitch in no time.’
Narada continues: ‘Seeing this conflagration swell toward him, O King, Dhritarashtra was not afraid in the least. He addressed Sanjaya and told him that his time had come, and in a short while, as if by magic, the women joined him as well.
‘They asked Sanjaya to escape to a place where the fire cannot reach, and the minister, with great reluctance, went back to join the ascetics on the riverbank.
‘The three of them sat in a meditative pose at the edge of the woods, waiting for the fire to consume them.
As the three royals met their death in that fashion after having given up their bodies willingly to the scorching flames, Sanjaya himself bid goodbye to the sages of Ganga and set out northward, toward the Himavat mountain.
‘I am told that he is right now in one of the hermitages up there, performing penances of his own.’
Despite Narada’s insistence that Dhritarashtra’s death should not be mourned, that he had achieved a peaceful and conscious form of it that is denied many other less fortunate people, the news breaks Yudhishthir down.
‘When such a great king who had a hundred valiant sons can be killed in this fashion, O Sage,’ he says, ‘then there is truly no defeating the heavy hand of destiny. The king had the strength of a thousand elephants in his arms.
‘He was formerly roused by an army of servants and maids, and now his charred remains are being picked apart by vultures! Where is justice in this?
‘And what of Pritha, who abandoned the prosperity of her five sons and decided to live in the woods? Fie on us, who call ourselves the Kaunteyas. Though alive, we are truly dead.
‘How is it that she, who had Yudhishthir, Bhimasena, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva for sons had to be burned alive in such hapless a manner?
‘And how did the god of fire, Agni, deem it fit to consume the mother of Arjuna thus? In the garb of a Brahmin, when he was burning with hunger, was it not Falguna who eviscerated the Khandava forest for his sake? Has he forgotten the favour already?’
Yudhishthir says: ‘The one thing that breaks my heart, O Sage, is that Dhritarashtra did not meet his death at the hands of a sacred fire. Indeed, in that forest, there were many fires burning at many hermitages that were sanctioned by mantras.
‘Instead, the king had to give up his life to a lifeless forest fire.’
Narada corrects this assertion by Yudhishthir. ‘The king was not burnt by an unsanctified fire, O Pandava,’ he says.
‘I have heard that when Dhritarashtra entered the woods with his sacrificial fire, he performed various rites in the company of various Brahmins, and after each rite, he would cast off the fire in its live form.
‘It were these small fires that combined and gave rise to a large conflagration. So do not grieve for the deaths of your mothers and uncle, O King, and now think of how you will honour their lives.’
Yudhishthir, of course, calls for a large gathering of Brahmins and performs the funeral rites of the three royals. Much food and many gifts are given to the people of Hastinapur, and the souls of Pritha, Gandhari and Dhritarashtra are sent on their way.
The Naradagamana Parva ends in this fashion.