The Ashramavasika Parva of the Mahabharata begins with the departure of Dhritarashtra and Gandhari (accompanied by Kunti, Vidura and Sanjaya) into the forest. It ends with their deaths.
Following on from the Ashwamedhika Parva post, I have put together a dozen Mahabharata stories from the Ashramavasika Parva, which will add to our growing repository of Mahabharata stories.
And here it is! From the bragging of Bhimasena to Vidura’s true identity, we have it all. Enjoy!
Having got their kingdom back, the Pandavas claim the throne as rulers, but also install Dhritarashtra in a prominent place as an elder.
Vidura, Sanjaya and Yuyutsu constantly wait upon the blind king, and they take his opinion in all matters. For fifteen years this state of affairs continues, where the Pandavas treat their uncle with utmost respect and love.
The only exception for all this is Bhimasena, who is unable to forgive Dhritarashtra for all that he has done in the past. Dhritarashtra himself finds it difficult to treat Bhima with love, because after all, he is the killer of all his sons.
Peace and prosperity return to Hastinapur. In the 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 and Gandhari. Together, they make a decision to leave the palace and move to the forest.
Dhritarashtra Asks for Permission
None of the other Pandavas or Draupadi knows what Bhima has done, so when Dhritarashtra seeks an audience with Yudhishthir and asks for permission to go away into the forest, the king is shocked.
‘Why do you wish to go away when you are among your own sons, sir?’ he asks. ‘Has anything happened that undermined the love we have for you? Has one of my brothers said something untoward?’
Dhritarashtra replies, ‘How the destruction of the Kurus came to place, you know better than anyone, Yudhishthir. Fool that I was, I listened to the wicked counsel of Duryodhana and Shakuni, and I poisoned the very tree that is the Kuru dynasty.
‘All the wise men of court gave me advice, but I did not listen to any of them. Bhishma, Vidura, Drona – so many! So many fathers and brothers lost their lives in the battlefield, and I am responsible for their deaths.
‘Now we intend to atone, and for that we must go into the woods. After all, you are the king now. Hastinapur is in able hands. You know all aspects of governance, and in righteousness you have no peer.’
Yudhishthir reluctantly gives his uncle permission to leave, even as Vyasa arrives on the scene and gives him some advice.We will see what that is in the next chapter.
An Address to Citizens
After his final meal as a royal, Dhritarashtra tells Yudhishthir that he intends to give away some gifts to people. Yudhishthir makes arrangements for all the relevant materials to be brought, and an announcement is made in the city that brings a number of people to the 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.
‘Happiness in Hastinapur is now at a level greater than it was during the years of Duryodhana’s rule. I have no qualms in admitting this. I seek your permission to allow me to go into the woods now, and welcome death when it comes with a smile on my face.
‘This king, Yudhishthir, will look after you like a parent. He will never forsake the path of virtue, nor will he allow himself to be distressed at any point. He will protect you, mentor you, stimulate you, and provoke you as required. He will be your teacher, guardian and guide.’
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 has 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.
‘We know that Yudhishthir, the eldest son of Kunti, will live up to the fame of his ancestors. I have no doubt that he will end his reign as one of the Kuru dynasty’s important rulers. Indeed, for the Kurukshetra war as well, we do not hold anyone responsible.
‘Not you, not your sons. We know that it was all pre-ordained by destiny. Eighteen akshauhinis of soldiers died over a small matter of eighteen days, my lord. Such terrible destruction does not occur unless the gods will it so.
‘It is not necessary for you or for us to look after the Pandavas, O Lord. They are like gods on Earth. 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, and we are certain that the gods will smile down on you.’
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.
Dhritarashtra Pays Off His Debts
Dhritarashtra now sends Vidura to the Pandavas with a message. Vidura arrives at Yudhishthir’s chambers and tells the five brothers:
‘The brother of your father, King Dhritarashtra, has decided to renounce all his worldly possessions and go into the forest to lead an ascetic’s life. He has asked me to inform you that he will leave on the coming full moon’s day in the month of Kartika.
‘He now solicits from you, O King, some wealth that will allow him to perform some religious rites in the name of Bhishma, Drona, Somadatta, Bahlika and others of their ilk.’
While Yudhishthir and Arjuna are only too glad to accede to the blind king’s wish, Bhimasena stomps his foot in anger.
‘Why must Dhritarashtra perform rites in Bhishma and Bahlika’s honour?’ he asks. ‘We are the victors of the war. We are the kings of the land. We shall perform all the ceremonies. Whatever the Kuru race has experienced during our lifetimes has been caused by that man. What meaning is there, then, in allowing him to mourn over the loss that he created?
‘Where was Dhritarashtra’s affection when we clad ourselves in deer-skin and slept on pebble-ridden earth during our exile? Where was his righteousness when Draupadi was called to the middle of the assembly and humiliated? Remember the glee with which the old one enquired of Vidura during the dice game: “What has been won? Who has been won?” You may forget it all, but I never will. Refuse all requests that he makes, and send him on his way.’
But Yudhishthir takes the more humane stance, and repeats that Dhritarashtra deserves their respect. He promises Vidura that everything the old king wants will be given.
‘Whatever wealth the Pandavas have today,’ says Yudhishthir, ‘belongs to Dhritarashtra. This is what you will tell him. Let the king make gifts as he wishes. Let him spend as largely as he likes.
Let him free himself of all the debts that he owes his sons and well-wishers. ‘Let him be given my message: this very body of mine is at his disposal, and all the wealth I have is his.’
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 times every single day after I left him in the Yamuna. At the 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!
‘Always do what is agreeable to Draupadi. Look after Bhimasena, Arjuna and Nakula as if they are your sons. All the responsibilities of the Kuru race now fall on your shoulders.
‘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 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?’
Kunti replies in the following manner.
At the exit gate of the palace, Kunti turns around and addresses Yudhishthir thus:
‘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.
‘I acted in that manner so that this Bhimasena, the man who has the power of a thousand elephants, would not fall into ruin.
‘I encouraged you so that Vijaya, this son of Indra, this foremost bowman in the world, would not become despondent. I became your rock so that Nakula and Sahadeva and Draupadi – who are forever loyal to you – would not feel that they have been hard done by.
‘It was not for my own sake that I behaved thus. 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.
‘By rendering obedient service to my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, I hope to gain enough merit to join Pandu and Madri in Heaven, where they have been resting all these years.
‘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 in 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. The five of them sleep as well as they ever have in the last twenty years.
The next morning, after performing their ablutions, they proceed onward to Kurukshetra, where they visit a hermitage built there by Sage Satayupa. While Dhritarashtra is being welcomed here, Vyasa arrives and tells Satayupa everything that has occurred.
Then, at the behest of the island-born, Satayupa initiates Dhritarashtra into the ascetic mode of life in the forest.
In that manner, freed from all his stupefactions of the mind, Dhritarashtra begins to perform severe austerities at the hermitage of Satayupa. Reducing his body to skin and bones, bearing matted locks on the head, clad in barks and skins, he gradually assumes the appearance of a sage himself.
Vidura and Sanjaya also follow their leader and wait upon him at all times. His wife and sister-in-law look after his every need.
After a certain time passes, the Pandavas visit Dhritarashtra in the hermitage.
Yudhishthir sits down with Dhritarashtra and asks after 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?’
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.’
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. Vyasa then explains to them all about the origin of Vidura.
Vyasa on Vidura
Vyasa addresses Dhritarashtra in the presence of the Pandavas. ‘Have you learnt, O King,’ he says, ‘of the true nature of Vidura now that he has passed on? Through the curse of Mandavya, the deity of righteousness, Yama, took birth in your family as Vidura.
‘He was possessed of great intelligence, and he was at all times high-souled and high-minded. Even Brihaspati among the gods and Sukra among the Asuras did not have as much intelligence as did Vidura, O King.
‘Upon the command of the Grandsire, Vidura was brought forth by me through the virtue of all my ascetic powers. That brother of yours is eternal, and is a deity among deities. The learned knew him to be Dharma in consequence of his practices of Dharana and Dhyana.
(The word Dharana refers to the process of detaching one’s mind from surrounding objects, whereas Dhyana is the process of attaching it to just one thing. They are both stages of Yoga.)
‘From that same deity of righteousness did the king Yudhishthir also take birth. That is why the eldest Pandava is possessed of great wisdom and intelligence. Dharma exists here and hereafter, and is like fire or wind or earth or space or water. He is capable of going everywhere and of pervading the whole universe. He is capable of being perceived only by those who have been cleansed of all their sins.
‘He that is Dharma is Vidura. He that is Vidura is Yudhishthir. He that is Yudhishthir is Vidura.
‘That is the reason Vidura has poured his life-force into the being of Yudhishthir, O King. All the wisdom and intelligence that has been part of Vidura all these years will now find a new home in Yudhishthir.’
At this reunion with the Pandavas, Dhritarashtra’s mind keeps returning to all the people who have lost their lives in the war. Vyasa takes them to the river with a promise that he would bring back all the dead men to life.
The royal family, along with the sages of the hermitage, move as a group to Ganga’s shore. Here, Vyasa mouths an incantation. The waters begin to stir, and one by one the dead men of the past begin to emerge.
Bhishma and Drona are the first, 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, Vrishaka, Alayudha the Rakshasa, Bahlika, Somadatta and Chekitana – these are some of the luminaries that appear on the riverbank that night.
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. The king sees the scene and exclaims in delight.
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 at another quiet word from Vyasa, they all vanish as suddenly as they appeared.
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 somber news to share.
‘After your return from 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.
‘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.’
Thus, with the deaths of Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti, the Ashramavasika Parva ends.
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