The Mahaprasthanika and Swargarohana parvas of the Mahabharata are two of the shortest sections of the story, and they describe how the Pandavas leave their mortal bodies.
Following on from the Mausala Parva post, I have put together nine Mahabharata stories from the Mahaprasthanika and Swargarohana Parvas, which will add to our growing repository of Mahabharata stories.
And here it is! From the death of the Pandavas to Yudhishthir’s ascension to heaven, we have it all. Enjoy!
The Pandavas Leave
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.
So he installs Parikshit, the son of Abhimanyu, on the throne. 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 Yadavas and the Kurus have been great friends in the past,’ Yudhishthir tells Parikshit. ‘May it continue long into the future. Protect the ruler of Indraprastha with all that you have, and never set your heart on unrighteousness.’
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, 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. Embrace the path in front of you.’
Arjuna does not argue, and quietly throws his beloved bow and quivers into the sea. This is the symbolic end of Arjuna the warrior.
The Pandavas Die
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, nor does she sigh as her 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 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.
‘Abandon the Dog’
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 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.’
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.’
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?’
‘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.’
Duryodhana in Heaven
The first thing that Yudhishthir sees on reaching heaven is Duryodhana seated on a throne in the same room as the rest of the gods, and as the Pandava is ushered in, he sees his arch enemy being worshipped and looked after in the manner of a great hero.
Yudhishthir stops in his tracks, and tells Indra and Yama that he does not intend to share space with Duryodhana. ‘The whole Earth was slaughtered due to the cupidity of this one man,’ he says, ‘and for many years we suffered the basest of treatments because of his conspiracies.
‘It is due to him that the virtuous princess of Panchala, Draupadi, had to be insulted in open court, and he is the reason for the death of many of my kinsmen. How can I be asked to sit next to him and smile, O Indra? I wish to go, instead, where my brothers and wife are.’
Narada comes up to him, with a grin on his face. ‘Come now, O Yudhishthir,’ he says. ‘You are in heaven. There is no need to hold on to past grudges. People who live here do so after casting off all their old enmities.
‘Duryodhana is worshipped here as great king who has earned the death of a hero by fighting to his last breath. For his courage and for his sacrifice, he was brought here. Forget all that Draupadi had to endure because of him, and forget all his past actions, O King.’
Yudhishthir shakes his head, and his voice still quivering in barely concealed wrath, he says, ‘If these regions see it fit to honour Duryodhana as a righteous man, then perhaps this is not the heaven that I wish to live in.
‘Where are the rest of the Pandavas? Where is Draupadi? Where are my mothers Kunti and Madri, my father Pandu? Where is wise Vidura? Where are Bhishma and Drona and Virata and Drupada?
‘I desire to see those regions attained by the high-souled among my kinsmen. Where is Karna, my elder brother? Where are Shikhandi and Satyaki and Dhrishtaketu and Bahlika and Somadatta? It is they I have come to meet, not this wretch!’
The Pandavas in Hell
Seeing that Yudhishthir is adamant, the gods allow him to take a messenger to the place where the rest of the Pandavas are held up. The messenger leads the king through a path covered in darkness, with hair and moss forming its grassy texture.
Polluted with the stench of sin and mired with flesh and blood, it abounds with gadflies and stinging bees and droning gnats. Yudhishthir sees rotting corpses all around him, and worms and insects crawling in and out of crevices.
He sees a river full of boiling water, and a forest filled with trees whose leaves are sharp as swords. There are plains full of fine white sand, and rocks and stones made of iron. All around them they hear cries of pain and agony, some from human beings, others from creatures of the night.
‘How far will you take me along a path such as this?’ Yudhishthir asks the messenger. ‘I have followed you this far because you promised me you will take me to my brothers.’
The messenger bows and replies, ‘I have been ordered to bring you here and then stop, O King. If you desire to stay here, you are welcome to do so. But if the region is too miserable for your taste, you are free to return with me back to the abode of the gods.
At that moment, however, Yudhishthir hears words of lament addressing him. ‘O son of Dharma,’ these voices say, ‘remain here a moment and assuage our pain. As you approach, a delightful breeze has begun to blow, bearing the sweet scent of your person. Do remain here, O Bharata, even if it is for a little while. As long as you are here, our pains and torments seem bearable.’
Unable to place the voice, Yudhishthir asks into the darkness, ‘Who are you? Why do you stay here?’
And from all sides the replies come. ‘I am Nakula! I am Karna! I am Bhimasena. Arjuna! Nakula! Sahadeva! Draupadi! Dhrishtadyumna!’
Hearing these, Yudhishthir pauses and asks himself yet again about the perversity of destiny. ‘After all the great deeds committed by these men, they have come to live here in hell. And after all the sins committed by that wretch, Duryodhana, there he sits, among the gods! Where is the truth of the Vedas gone? What is this that has happened?’
He turns toward the messenger and joins his hands. ‘Sir,’ he says, ‘I bid you to return to your masters. I am not leaving this place. Wherever my brothers and wife live, that is my heaven.
‘I shall stay here and provide whatever comfort I can to my kinsmen, and take whatever comfort I can from their presence.’
The messenger returns to the court of Indra and relays the message. The lord of the gods descends from his throne and makes his way to where Yudhishthir was taken, to give him another reward for passing yet another test.
An Act of Deception
All the gods of the pantheon, accompanied by Yama, the god of Dharma, come to Yudhishthir. As they enter the tunnel of hell, the darkness and misery of that place evaporates, and in front of his eyes the eldest Pandava sees splendour taking birth.
The boiling river, the trees with the thorny leaves, the boulders of dark rock, the stench of rotting carcasses – they all vanish.
‘Come, come, O Yudhishthir,’ says Indra, his arms spread open, ‘come, O best of men. All these illusions and tests have ended. You have attained success, O great one, and all eternal regions have become yours.
‘Even the best of men should be given a glimpse of hell because no man is so pure as to not see it even for a moment. He who endures hell will be taken to heaven, but he who begins his time with heaven has to end up in hell.
‘Sinners, therefore, Yudhishthir, begin with a short time in heaven corresponding to the little good they have done, and after that, they are taken to hell for eternity, to atone for their deeds.
‘Saints, on the other hand, have the opposite journey. They must experience a short time in hell to atone for their few sins, and then they are taken to heaven to enjoy the rewards of their many great deeds.
‘So it is that we had to show you a glimpse of heaven, Yudhishthir, to atone for the sin of deceiving Drona about his son. For that act of deception, we engaged in deception of our own in order to bring you to hell. In the same way, we had to bring the rest of the Pandavas here as well.
‘Now all of them have been cleansed of their sins, O King. Let us now take you to heaven, where you will reside for the rest of time.’
Yama steps forward and speaks to his son, privately. ‘This is the third test I have subjected you to, O King. The first time, I spoke to you in the Dwaita forest in the form of a Yaksha. The second time, I assumed the form of a dog and tempted you to abandon me.
‘The third time, I gave you a choice of staying with your brothers in hell or with the gods in heaven. You chose right each time, and I have come to accept that you will never swerve from the path of virtue. You deserve all the great gifts that are about to accrue to you.’
Everything falls apart around them now, and Yudhishthir is taken back to heaven, where Duryodhana is no longer anywhere to be seen. The first person Yudhishthir meets is Krishna, in his celestial form, adorned with terrible weapons.
He clasps the prince of Dwaraka in his arms and gives him a warm hug.
Sitting respectfully on one knee next to Krishna’s feet is Arjuna, also endued with a soft glow. The two foremost of beings – Nara and Narayana – are in turn being worshipped by many Gandharvas and Apsaras, and they receive Yudhishthir with due respect.
In another part of the hall sits Karna, resembling a dozen Suryas in splendour. Bhimasena is sitting amidst the Maruts, by the side of the wind god. Next to the Ashwini twins are Nakula and Sahadeva, each burning with their own light.
He sees Draupadi, decked in a garland of lotuses, sitting on a high throne. As Yudhishthir steps toward her with the intention of speaking with her, Indra addresses him.
‘This is Sree,’ he says. ‘It was for your sake that she took birth as the daughter of Drupada, but she was not born of any mother’s womb. For your pleasure she was created by the holder of the trident himself. And these highly blessed Gandharvas are the sons of Draupadi.’
Indra now gives Yudhishthir a mini-tour of the hall, introducing each important person in turn. ‘Behold Dhritarashtra,’ he says, ‘the king of the Gandharvas, whom you know as the eldest brother of your father.
‘Your elder brother Karna, the son of Surya, now moves in the company of his father. See all these Gandharvas who took birth as the many Vrishni heroes, led by the inimitable Satyaki, and the Bhojas who fought under the great Kritavarma.
‘Behold the son of Subhadra, the heroic Abhimanyu, invincible in battle, now living with Soma. And here comes the mighty Pandu, your father, and your mothers Kunti and Madri. Your father visits this hall frequently on his magnificent chariot. Meet the royal Bhishma, the son of Shantanu, now in the midst of the Vasus.
‘Do you recognize Drona over there, beside Brihaspati? Having cast off their mortal bodies, all of these men – some of whom fought for you, some against – have conquered heaven by the merit they had acquired through thought, word and deed.’
Janamejaya now asks Vaisampayana a question about the dead Kuru warriors.
‘Did the people who attained heaven in the battle of Kurukshetra remain there forever, O Sage?’ he says. ‘Bhishma, Drona, Dhritarashtra, Virata, Drupada, Sankha, Uttara, Dhristaketu, Jayatsena, Satyajit, the sons of Duryodhana, Shakuni, the sons of Karna, Jayadratha, Ghatotkacha – all of these heroes were given a place in the abode of the gods.
What is the nature of the reward that each person received, and how long was he given to experience it?’
Vaisampayana responds with a long list of what each hero is doing in heaven. I am breaking up the answer and putting it into a list for easy readability.
- Bhishma becomes one of the Vasus, and unites with Prabhasa, the youngest Vasu who gave up a portion of his essence for a curse.
- Drona enters into Brihaspati, and takes his spot among Angirasa’s descendants.
- Kritavarma becomes one of the Maruts.
- Pradyumna is reunited with Sanatkumara, who gave rise to him.
- Dhritarashtra becomes a Gandharva, and begins to live in the land of Kubera. Gandhari accompanies him.
- Pandu, Madri and Kunti repair to the region of Indra, where all the great kings sit in council.
- Virata, Drupada, Dhrishtaketu, Akrura, Samba, Bhanukampa, Viduratha, Bhurishravas, Sala, Bhuri, Kamsa, Ugrasena, Vasudeva, Uttara and Sankha – all these men enter the deities that gave birth to them.
- Abhimanyu becomes one with Varchas, the son of Soma.
- Karna becomes part of Surya.
- Shakuni is absorbed into Dwapara, and Dhrishtadyumna into Agni.
- Both Vidura and Yudhishthir enter into Yama, the god of righteousness.
- Krishna reunites with Narayana, of whom he is a part. Krishna’s sixteen thousand wives dissolve into the form of Saraswati.
- Ghatotkacha and the other car warriors who were slain in battle attain the status of either gods or Yakshas.
With this speech of Vaisampayana, detailing the return of all the Mahabharata heroes to their origins, the story comes to an official close. Sauti, the sage telling the story of Vaisampayana telling the story to Janamejaya, stands up and pays his respects to the conclave of sages sitting in front of him.
‘I have now told you everything that Vaisampayana narrated, at the command of Vyasa, unto King Janamejaya at the snake sacrifice. It is the sacred history of the Bharatas, and it sanctifies every person who listens to it. It has been composed by the island-born sage, Krishna Dwaipayana, with his powers of omniscience and his immense knowledge.
‘He who listens to this story is washed of every sin, even grave ones like that of killing a Brahmin. Reading a portion of the story every day will keep the mind and soul of the reader cleansed, and the dead ancestors of people who know the great history of the Bharatas – the Maha-bharata – will be soothed for all eternity.
‘That which is present here is present everywhere. That which is not present here is present nowhere. This history is known by the name of Jaya. It should be read by everyone seeking emancipation. It should be read by Brahmins, by kings, by pregnant women.
Out of the sixty lakh verses that Vyasa had written, thirty are in the possession of the gods, fifteen in the land of the Pitris, and fourteen with the Yakshas. The remaining one lakh are with human beings.
‘Narada recited this story to the gods, Asita-Devala to the Pitris, Suka to the Rakshasas and Yakshas, and Vaisampayana to human beings. It is said that in the old days, Vyasa used to ask his son, Suka, to read the history to him, along with the following prelude:
‘Thousands of mothers and fathers, and hundreds of sons and wives arise in the world and depart from it. There are thousands of occasions for joy and hundreds of occasions for fear.
But these will affect only those who are ignorant, never those who are wise. And the path to wisdom is through righteousness. Dharma. From Dharma spring wealth and pleasure. Why, then, should Dharma not be courted? Pain and pleasure are not eternal. Only Dharma is.’
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