Mahabharata Parva 99: The Mahaprasthanika Parva

Mahabharata Parvas - Mahaprasthanika - Featured Image - Picture of a dog representing Yama

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 Mahaprasthanika Parva.

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

The Pandavas Leave

The story is rapidly winding down. The Mahaprasthanika Parva, which follows the Mausala Parva, is only three sections long, but contains the famous ‘final journey’ of the Pandavas.

Immediately after Arjuna’s return to Hastinapur, and after listening to the account of what happened with the Vrishnis, Yudhishthir decides that the time has arrived for the sons of Kunti to give up their material possessions as well.

He consults with each of his brothers and then with his wife, who all agree with him.

So he installs Parikshit, the son of Abhimanyu, on the throne. (If the timeline is correct, Parikshit is around thirty five at this time, not exactly a strapping young prince.)

Yuyutsu is given the guardianship of the throne, to perform a role similar to what Bhishma did in the old days. On the throne of Indraprastha is Vajra, the grandson of Krishna.

The five brothers then address their subjects for the last time, and set out on foot into the forest, with their faces turned southward. (Their intention is to visit all the important places of Aryavarta in a circle before reaching the Himavat.)

During the early part of their journey, a dog begins to follow them wherever they go.

Arjuna’s Pride

Arjuna, Yudhishthir notices, still holds on to his Gandiva and the two empty quivers. He does not ask him to give them up, but Agni, the lord of fire appears before them and says that their journey will not end until Arjuna divorces himself from his cupidity.

‘The discus of Vishnu has left the world already, O Arjuna,’ says Agni. ‘When the need arises, it will descend on its own again. Similarly, the purpose of the Gandiva and of your inexhaustible quivers has been fulfilled many times over.

‘Cast off these symbols of your long-dead success, O Pandava, and embrace the path that stretches out in front of you. Only then will you achieve your heart’s desire.’

Arjuna does not argue. He quietly throws his beloved bow and quivers into the sea. This is the symbolic end of Arjuna the warrior.

The Pandavas Die – 1

After circumambulating the world, the brothers proceed to the north and come upon Himavat, the largest of the ice-capped mountains. After crossing it, they see a vast desert stretching out for miles ahead of them.

Beyond this, they see the mountain Meru, the foremost of all celestial abodes, beckoning to them.

As they begin their walk toward their destination, Draupadi drops to her knees, and her face hits the earth. She makes no sound of pain, no final sigh as the last breath leaves her.

Bhimasena asks Yudhishthir, ‘The princess never committed any sinful act, O King. And yet she has fallen before we reach our destination. Why is this?’

Yudhishthir replies, ‘I think it is because though she proclaimed to the world that we were all equal to her, in her heart she loved Arjuna the most. Perhaps this is the fruit of that little sin.’

The five of them continue walking, and the next to drop is Sahadeva. ‘With great humility did this brother of ours serve us, O King,’ says Bhima. ‘Why did this son of Madri fall to his death?’

‘I have often believed that Sahadeva was the wisest of us all,’ replies Yudhishthir. ‘But he believed it too. And he acted like it. Perhaps this is the reward he receives in return.’

The Pandavas Die – 2

The brothers walk on, and the next to die is Nakula. Bhima asks Yudhishthir why.

‘Righteous as he was,’ says Yudhishthir, ‘he thought that no one in the world could equal him in physical beauty. Indeed, he regarded himself as superior to all in that respect. It is due to this vanity that he has met his death.’

Arjuna is the next to fall to his death, silent and unquestioning. Bhima is aghast, because Dhananjaya has been the best warrior of them all. ‘Why is Arjuna dead?’

‘Proud of his heroism, he said that he would consume all our foes in the Kurukshetra battle in one day,’ says Yudhishthir, ‘but he was not able to do so. And he was much attached to the symbols of his success, Bhima.

‘He considered himself the best bowman in the world, and he allowed himself the fallacies of pride.’

As they walk on, and the summit becomes visible, Bhima slips and falls. With his last breath, he looks up at Yudhishthir and says, ‘Why me too, Brother?’

‘You were overly fond of food and material things, Bhima,’ says Yudhishthir, not looking down. ‘You thought of yourself as the most powerful of all men in the world. No one who is attached at such a deep level to a sense of his own worth will be allowed to reach heaven.’

Only Yudhishthir and the dog remain, now. Together they reach the top of the mountain.

Indra Welcomes

Indra is waiting in his resplendent chariot, with its door open for Yudhishthir. ‘Come, O son of Pritha,’ he says, ‘you will be taken to the abode of the gods in your mortal body.’

Yudhishthir takes a couple of steps toward the chariot, but then he looks over his shoulder at the fallen bodies of his four brothers and his wife. ‘My brothers have been with me throughout my life, O Lord,’ he says.

‘I will come with you only if they can accompany me. The same is true of Draupadi, who is deserving of every comfort.’

‘They have already attained to heaven, Yudhishthir,’ says Indra. ‘They have reached it before you. Indeed, you shall see them all over there. Having cast off their human bodies, they are now sitting with Krishna and the others.

‘It is only you who has been given the opportunity to travel to heaven in your mortal body.’

Yudhishthir takes another step toward the chariot, and then remembers his companion. ‘This dog has been with us throughout our final walk, O Lord,’ he says. ‘He has been devoted to us. I wish that he should go with me.’

‘Abandon the Dog’

Indra says, ‘Yudhishthir, you have won immortality today. Prosperity extending in all directions. Success beyond measure. Cast off this dog. In this there is no cruelty.’

‘But how can there be no cruelty in the act of forsaking someone who has been devoted to you, O Lord?’

‘There is no place in heaven for people with dogs. Indeed, the Krodhavasas will take away all merits of such a person. Do you really wish to forego all that you have earned for the sake of a measly dog? Abandon it!

‘As the king of the gods I assure you: there is no cruelty in this act.’

Yudhishthir is kind but firm. ‘No, my lord. I have taken a vow never to abandon one who is devoted to me.’

Indra tries another angle. ‘You are still attached to people and possessions, Yudhishthir,’ he says. ‘When your brothers and Krishna died, you abandoned them, did you not?

‘Your brothers dropped along the climb up this mountain, and you did not think of carrying them with you. Why do you then insist on keeping this dog?’

Yudhishthir’s Answer

‘I did not abandon my brothers, O Lord,’ says Yudhishthir. ‘They abandoned me. When they died, and when I saw that there was no way to revive them, I moved on. They were no longer dependent on me.

‘They were no longer devoted to me. But this dog is alive, and it relies on me for its life. How can I abandon a living thing for the sake of those who are dead?’

At these words, the dog transforms into the image of Yama, the god of justice. ‘Formerly, my son,’ he says to Yudhishthir, ‘you were examined by me in the forest, in the garb of a Yaksha who asked numerous questions.

‘Today, you were examined by me in the garb of a mute animal. On both occasions you have proved that there is no king as just as you, no person worthier than you are to attain to heaven while still drawing breath.

‘Go, Yudhishthir, and climb onto Indra’s chariot.’

With Yudhishthir thus ascending to heaven, the Mahaprasthanika Parva ends.