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 Mausala Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
Thirty Six Years Later
Events of the Mausala Parva take place thirty six years after the death of Dhritarashtra. It is safe to say, therefore, that we are staunchly inside the epilogue of the Mahabharata.
It begins with Yudhishthir seeing a number of evil portents that bring to his mind signs that he had seen during the Kurukshetra battle.
Great rivers run upstream. The horizon is always covered in fog. Meteors fall on earth from cloudless skies. The sun always appears covered in dust. Dry and strong winds blow from all directions, and birds begin to trace circles from right to left.
In the midst of this all, Yudhishthir receives a message from Daruka, the charioteer of Krishna that the entire Vrishni clan has perished by virtue of an iron bolt. ‘By the time you read this message, O King,’ says Krishna, ‘Balarama and I will have been dead too.’
The Pandavas confer with one another, unable to make head or tail of this strange note, and so surprised are they that it takes them a while to realize that Daruka is speaking the truth, and that their beloved friends, the Vrishnis, are no more.
Yudhishthir asks Daruka to explain to him how the wielder of the Saranga was killed, and how it was that an iron bolt brought about the annihilation of Dwaraka, the impregnable fortress. Much of the Mausala Parva is Daruka narrating the tale of what had occurred.
The Three Sages
It so happens that about thirty six years after the events of Kurukshetra, three sages – Kanva, Vishwamitra and Narada – arrive together in Dwaraka, to be welcomed by some Vrishni heroes, among whom is a man named Samba, one of the sons of Pradyumna.
Causing this man to be dressed as a woman, a bunch of louts attempt to play a trick on the sages. They present the disguised Samba to them and ask, ‘Tell us, O Sages, if you know for certain what this woman will bring forth. A son or a daughter?’
The three sages can easily see through the disguise. With their eyes blazing in anger, they say that Samba will bring forth a fierce iron bolt that will bring about the destruction of the Yadavas.
‘The Andhakas, the Bhojas and the Vrishnis will all perish with the exception of Balarama and Krishna. That blessed one with a plough will enter the ocean, and Hrishikesha will be shot through the foot by the arrow of a hunter named Jara.’
After passing their curse, the sages seek an audience with Krishna and inform him of the matter. The brother of Balarama is sanguine at hearing this, because he remembers Gandhari’s curse after the Kurukshetra war.
He has been expecting something of this sort to happen.
A Ban on Wine
However, Ugrasena is determined to try fighting the course of destiny. He orders the iron bolt to be reduced to fine powder, and for the powder to be mixed into the ocean.
At the same time, he sends out an announcement that no one in the kingdom is allowed to manufacture wine or any other intoxicant. Dwaraka thus enters a period of forced prohibition on wine due to Ugrasena’s order.
However, while the city is grappling with its fate, the embodied form of Time (Kala) visits the houses of Dwaraka every day. He looks like a man of terrible aspect: bald, dark and tawny.
The mighty bowmen among the Vrishnis try to shoot him down whenever they spot him, but none of their arrows hurt him, and night after night he returns, swarming the streets with rats and cracking their earthen pots.
Seeing these omens, the Vrishnis descend into sinful behaviour which hastens their end.
To the Seashore
The Vrishnis, surrounded by many black omens, adopt a wicked way of life, characteristic of people who expect to be killed soon.
Wives are said to deceive husbands, husbands are said to deceive wives, and when fires are ignited, we are told that they only cast their flames to the left. (This is supposed to be an evil omen.)
Only Krishna and Balarama are still living righteous lives. After mutely watching the degeneration of his clan for a while, Krishna decides that it is time for it to end. He brings out the Panchajanya and summons all his leaders.
‘The fourteenth lunation has been made the fifteenth by Rahu once more,’ he says, pointing to the sky. ‘Such a day has happened before at the time of the great battle of the Bharatas. It has once again appeared, it seems, for our destruction.
‘Thirty six years ago, Yudhishthir noticed the same omens surround him in the battleground, and then it foretold his victory and the destruction of the Kurus.
‘Today, it is our turn. Let us therefore make a pilgrimage to the ocean’s shore, and let us bathe in the sacred waters.’
A Strange Dream
Around this time, as the city makes preparations to obey Krishna’s command, the Vrishni women begin to see a strange dream.
In it, a woman of black complexion and white teeth enters their houses and runs through the streets, snatching from men the auspicious threads that hang by their waists.
Ornaments and umbrellas and standards and armour are seen to be taken away by this Rakshasa, and in their very sight, the discus of Krishna, given by Agni, rises to the firmament and disappears.
The chariot, along with the four great horses, is also engulfed by the sky.
A number of Apsaras appear on the horizon and take away the chariot of Balarama as well, with its Palmyra banner, equipped with maces and the plough.
At the same time, they exhort the people of Dwaraka to hurry on their way to the ocean.
As these dreams accost all the people of the city, they move as one toward the shore, and they set up a massive encampment on Prabhasa, overlooking the sea.
A Fight Erupts
The water of the ocean – in which the iron bolt was dissolved – begins to have strange effects on the Vrishnis.
After they have all bathed in the saltwater and settled down to a night of revelry – with wine and meat – an argument develops out of the blue between Satyaki and Kritavarma, who fought on opposing sides in that long-ago battle.
The first salvo comes from Yuyudhana. ‘What sort of Kshatriya kills his enemies when they are asleep? Of all the different ways in which one can kill one’s enemy, this is the lowest! No wonder, O Kritavarma, that the Yadavas do not think of you as much of a hero.’
Kritavarma, himself balancing a goblet of wine in his hands, rises to his feet. ‘If you proclaim yourself a warrior, O Saineya, then why did you slay the unarmed Bhurishrava after he had given up his weapons and assumed the pose of meditation?’
Krishna oversees this quarrel in silence, and looks out at the darkening sky. Satyaki springs to his feet with a sword in hand. ‘I will avenge the deaths of Dhrishtadyumna and Shikhandi and the five sons of Draupadi, O Krishna,’ he proclaims.
‘This Kritavarma has lived long enough in the land of men. I will today despatch him to the land of Yama.’
Krishna does not say anything, even as Satyaki marches over to Kritavarma in sight of the full assembly, and with one savage swipe of the sword, beheads him.
Vrishnis versus Bhojas
This happens with such chilling suddenness that for a moment, no one can believe their eyes. And then the Bhojas turn on Satyaki with their weapons raised, with Pradyumna calling the Vrishnis to arms in Satyaki’s support.
Thus, the Bhojas and the Vrishnis begin to fight, but the latter are so outnumbered that they get slaughtered.
Satyaki and Pradyumna are both among the casualties.
Krishna now steps into the fore, and uproots a clutch of grass blades that turn into iron bolts in his hands. One by one he hurls them at the fighting men, and each time a missile makes contact, it leaves only a charred black spot in its wake.
Balarama also joins in the carnage, helping Krishna annihilate his own countrymen, and as all the Yadava heroes – Charudeshna, Aniruddha, Samba, Gada – hit the ground lifeless, Balarama leaves the place in disgust.
Krishna continues to kill the Vrishnis in hundreds and thousands, until Daruka comes and stops him. ‘Your elder brother has gone somewhere, sir,’ he says. ‘I think we should follow him.’
Daruka, Krishna and Babhru leave that spot immediately in an attempt to track down Balarama in his retreat. They find him at a distance in the woods, reclining in thought against a tree.
As soon as they spot him, Krishna sends Daruka off on a mission to carry the message of the Vrishni massacre to Arjuna.
To Babhru he says, ‘Go and protect the ladies of Dwaraka. Arjuna will come to rescue them in due course.’
But as the prince proceeds a short distance in the direction of the city, an iron bolt appears in the sky, and rotating around its own axis like a hunter’s mallet, crushes the skull of Babhru and kills him on the spot.
Krishna watches this without any reaction, and after spending a short moment in silence, he tells Balarama, ‘I will go and see to the ladies’ care, Brother. But I will come back.’
He enters the city of Dwaravati and seeks out his father, Vasudeva. ‘Gather all the ladies of court in one place, Father,’ he says, ‘and wait for the arrival of Arjuna from Hastinapur.’
Touching Vasudeva’s feet with his hands, Krishna returns to the forest, even as wails of sorrow assail him from the women’s chambers. Upon reaching the tree under which Balarama had been sitting, Krishna notices that his brother had already assumed the yogic pose.
A white snake is in the process of exiting from Balarama’s mouth, a naga of a thousand heads with a form as great as a mountain, endued with red eyes. Krishna stands aside and watches the serpent as it slithers away toward the ocean.
No last words are exchanged between the brothers. Krishna knows that the body of Balarama is now but a shell, and his essence, that snake, would in due course be welcomed into the world of the Nagas with great honour.
He lets out a breath, and looks around for a tree to lean on. More and more, he feels like his time has come.
A Stray Arrow
After his brother’s departure, Krishna wanders over the forest for a while, lost in thought. He then sits down on the bare earth, recollecting the words of Gandhari.
He knows that the death of the Vrishnis has followed the same path as that of the Kurus, but it has taken a frighteningly short time to play out. He knows now that his time has come, so he restrains his senses and enters a state of yoga.
At about this time, a hunter by name Jara enters that part of the woods, desirous of shooting a deer. Mistaking Krishna’s foot for an animal’s, he shoots an arrow through the heel of the prince of Dwaraka, drawing a stream of blood.
When he leaps out of the bushes, he is surprised to see a yellow-clad man rapt in meditation.
He throws away his weapon and falls at Krishna’s feet. ‘I am a sinner!’ he says. ‘I had no idea that you were here, O lord.’
But Krishna comforts the hunter, telling him that it is all part of the writ. In a few seconds, he takes his last breath, and his soul leaves his body and ascends directly to heaven.
Meanwhile, Daruka reaches Hastinapur with Krishna’s message, and brings Arjuna back to Dwaraka. Seeing that city look like a woman bereft of her husband, the third Pandava is shocked at the amount of destruction that has taken place.
How can a city, he thinks, that had the lord of the universe as its protector be routed in this manner?
As per his brief, he visits the ladies’ chambers and meets with all the important women. They are hysterical with anguish.
In consoling them, Arjuna feels that the river of Dwaraka is now like the river Vaitarani, caught in Time’s net, wriggling, unable to escape.
Shorn of beauty, it now presents the aspect of a lotus which bloomed out of turn in the midst of winter, and must now shrivel and die.
As these thoughts occur to Arjuna, he breaks down and weeps in front of Rukmini, Satyabhama, Devaki and the other Vrishni women. The ladies sit down next to the fallen Pandava.
And for a while they reminisce about the past days of glory, before Arjuna gets up and goes to visit Vasudeva, the father of Krishna.
The Kuru prince sees the husband of Devaki lying prostrate on the ground in his chamber, beaten and burning with grief. The son of Pritha, with his eyes filled with tears, touches the feet of his maternal uncle.
Vasudeva tries to smell the head of Arjuna, but fails to do so because of the extreme fatigue he has subjected his body to in order to welcome death.
‘Without seeing those two heroes, O Arjuna,’ says Vasudeva, referring to Krishna and Balarama, ‘who have subjugated the very gods and built this city on the edge of the sea, I cannot live. And yet my body refuses to die.
‘Due to the fault of your two disciples – Satyaki and Kritavarma – did this whole fight happen, O Partha. Those men among the Vrishnis who were considered maharathas killed one another.
‘Those two men who have been dear to you and to Krishna all these years – it is they who brought about the death of the Vrishni clan.’
Vasudeva continues: ‘And yet – I cannot blame them fully. Who can deny that destiny plays its part? Gandhari placed a curse on us thirty six years ago. Three Brahmins placed a curse on us a few months ago.
‘We cannot censure the grandson of Sini or the son of Hridika for merely playing their parts in a cosmic game of dice!
‘And Krishna! The protector of the world! The knower of everything. He merely stood by and watched as blood flowed in raging rivers all about him. If he knew it all, and if he was powerful enough to stop it, why did he not?
‘Perhaps he did not wish to falsify the words of the mother of the Kauravas. Perhaps he had other intentions. Who can tell?
‘The walls of Dwaraka, after Arjuna’s departure, he told me, will be consumed by the sea. I have abstained from all food and drink, O son of Pandu, and I am welcoming death as soon as it will take me.
‘By good luck I have set my eyes on you before I go. Accomplish all that Krishna has asked of you. This kingdom, with all its wealth and its women, is yours now.’
‘Uncle,’ says Arjuna in reply, ‘if the time has come for Krishna and Balarama to give up their mortal bodies, if the time has come for the indestructible Dwaraka to be swallowed by the sea, then the time has come for the Pandavas to take their final journey as well.’
Arjuna calls for Daruka, then, and calls for a council of surviving ministers. ‘Make preparations without delay to take every person and animal in Dwaraka toward Hastinapur,’ he tells them.
‘Over there we will protect them, and over time we will find cities for the Vrishni princes to rule.’
That very night, Vasudeva breathes his last. Arjuna begins the next morning by performing the last rites of the father of Krishna, and then he goes to the shore of the sea where the carnage has taken place.
Though deeply affected by the sight and extent of the destruction, he commits to his duties and sees that all funeral arrangements are made correctly.
Time to Leave
Arjuna gives the people of Dwaraka seven days to pack and leave. ‘I shall take away with me the remnants of the Vrishni and Andhaka tribes,’ he says. ‘The sea will soon engulf the city. Equip all your cars and place on them all your wealth.
‘This Vajra, the grandson of Krishna, will be made your king in the city of Shakraprastha. On the seventh day from this, we will set out.’
(Shakraprastha is another name for Indraprastha.)
During the seven days, Arjuna sees to the rituals of many dead Vrishni warriors, and witnesses many wives willingly climb onto their husbands’ funeral pyres. The final procession that sets out of the city on the seventh day is a huge one.
It contains of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras segregated as per their orders, with Arjuna leading the sixteen thousand women that made up Krishna’s harem.
Close on their heels are also the thousands of women who have been suddenly widowed by the fight on the seashore.
As the string of carts leaves the city, the sea begins to encroach upon its shore. As waves crash against the walls of Dwaraka and crush them into dust, as the shark-filled ocean swallows the city’s structures and wealth, the departing citizens quicken their pace.
‘How subtle is the way of fate!’ exclaims Arjuna, as he leads them to the land of five rivers and sets up an encampment in the midst of a land abounding with corn and cows. As the settlement lays down their tents, a band of robbers sees that this is an excellent opportunity.
These robbers attack the settlement, not knowing that they are being protected by Arjuna.
However, as we will see, Arjuna is not quite the warrior he once was.
As robbers surround the Dwaraka camp, Arjuna holds aloft his Gandiva and issues a warning to their attackers. ‘Forbear, you sinful wretches!’ he says. ‘If you love your lives, you will leave us alone. You will rue this rash act when I pierce your bodies with weapons.’
But the robbers disregard the words of Dhananjaya, and set about plundering all the gold and cows they can find. Seeing that they have to be fought off, Arjuna strings his bow, but he realizes that it feels heavier in his hand.
He then begins to recall some of the celestial weapons with which he fought the war of Kurukshetra, but none of them come to his mind.
After attempting in vain to recall them, he tries to drive off the robbers with normal arrows, but he realizes that his quivers are no longer inexhaustible.
The robbers attack the large concourse at various different points, and even though Arjuna leads a battalion of foot-soldiers and horse riders, they are unable to protect the Vrishni women.
Desperately, the third Pandava resorts to beating the warriors in his path with the horn of his bow.
The attack ends up being very successful for the robbers, because they come away from it with minimal casualties, and a lot of looted wealth. They manage to rob a large number of women as well, along with gold and cows.
Seeing his enemies defeating him so easily, Arjuna once again proclaims out loud about the power of destiny, and resigns to thinking that he had been punished for some unseen sins.
He does not attempt to chase the robbers and free the women that they have taken away; instead, he orders his men to focus on the remaining Vrishni people, and to get them safely to Hastinapur.
He establishes the son of Kritavarma as the ruler of a city called Marttikavat. The son of Yuyudhana gets given a parcel of land on the banks of the Saraswati to be built into a city. Vajra, the grandson of Krishna, becomes crowned the ruler of Indraprastha.
Rukmini and Jambavati, the wives of Krishna, ascend the funeral pyre after appropriate ceremonial rites have been followed. Satyabhama and the other wives of Krishna decide to repair into the woods and live as ascetics.
After seeing to it that the Vrishnis are thus settled in their new home, Arjuna visits Vyasa in search of answers.
Arjuna asks Vyasa
At the retreat of Vyasa, Arjuna is welcomed as if nothing had happened. ‘You appear to be worried about something, O Pandava,’ says the sage. ‘Have you slain a Brahmin? Have you been vanquished in battle?
‘You appear as though you have been robbed of all prosperity. Why are you so dejected, my son? Tell me and I will endeavour to remove all your trepidations.’
‘Five hundred thousand warriors,’ says Arjuna, ‘have been laid low by the blades of eraka grass, at the holy shrine of Prabhasa, on the banks of the western sea. The dark prince of Dwaraka is no longer alive, O Sage.
‘Behold the perverse course of time. The city which we thought was impregnable, which we compared to Amaravati, is now being lashed by the waves of the ocean, and in no time at all it will be submerged.’
Now Arjuna broaches the topic of a more personal nature. ‘Another incident has happened, too, O Sage, which bothers me further.
‘While we were travelling from Dwaraka to Hastinapur, a band of robbers attacked us, and when I tried to fight them off, I found that I could not string my bow.
‘My celestial weapons have deserted me. My quivers are no longer inexhaustible. Why has this happened? All the skill that I have accumulated over long years of practice – why has it abandoned me now?’
Vyasa smiles. ‘The mighty warriors of the Vrishni and Andhaka tribes have met their death in accordance with the Brahmanas’ curse. You must not grieve for them.
‘Whatever has been ordained has happened. Krishna allowed himself to suffer through the calamity even though he was competent enough to stop it.
‘As for your own weapons, they were given to you for a purpose, O Prince. Now that the purpose has been fulfilled, they have been taken away from you. It is Time that gives, and it is Time that takes away.
‘The hour has come for the Pandavas to relinquish their thrones and go in search of their deaths. Everything that you achieve in this life, O Dhananjaya – wealth, prosperity, skill, renown, friendship – they are all given as loans.
‘At the end, you come into this life alone, and you must leave it alone as well. That is the nature of Time. So do not grieve the loss of your powers. Just be contented that they were once yours.’
After hearing this message, Arjuna takes his leave from Vyasa and sets out to Hastinapur.
On this note ends the Mausala Parva.