The Stree Parva of the Mahabharata is a record of the immediate aftermath of the Mahabharata war. Dhritarashtra and Gandhari’s grief plays an important role in this section, and so do the ways in which different ladies of the Kuru court mourn their dead brothers, sons and fathers.
And here it is! From Vidura’s philosophy of time to Kunti’s confession of a long-held secret, we’ve got it all. Enjoy!
Vidura on Time
‘Rise, O King,’ says Vidura, ‘Why are you stretched on the earth? This is the final end of all living creatures. Everything massed together ends in destruction; everything that rises is bound to fall. Union is certain to end in separation. Life is sure to end in death. Both the hero and the coward end up in the same place, O Bharata.
‘Living creatures are non-existent at first, and they return to being non-existent. Only in the intervening moment of time do they breathe and love and hate and fight. What matter of grief is there in this? He who does not fight might be seen to escape with life, but that respite is only temporary. In a few years, he will go the same way as the warrior who dies on the battlefield.
‘All your sons and kinsmen have been granted access to the blessed regions of heaven, O King. They fought bravely on the battlefield, looked their enemy in the eye, and did not flinch when weapons flew at them. These were all high-souled Kshatriyas, ornaments to your race!
‘There is none who is dear to Time, Dhritarashtra. Time is indifferent to everyone. We are all equally affected by it. Time causes all creatures to grow, and then it causes all creatures to die. When all is asleep, Time is awake. Time is the only power of the universe that is irresistible. That is the only stable thing, the one eternal master that rules over us all.’
Dhritarashtra now asks Vidura how he might gain solace from the grief that he is feeling. We will see the answer next.
Freedom from Grief
‘It appears to me, Vidura,’ says Dhritarashtra, only partially comforted by his brother’s words, ‘that grief is a permanent fixture in a human being’s life. It is present in every moment. How does one manage it best?’
Vidura’s reply stresses once more on the transient nature of existence. ‘All those things about which we are anxious, O King,’ he says, ‘are unstable and temporary. The wise and the foolish, the rich and the poor, the old and the young – all of us are on our way to the crematorium.
‘However, there is one thing that is eternal, and that is the soul, which sheds bodies and wears new ones from one life to the next. What we experience in this life is nothing but the fruits of our previous life’s deeds.
‘Whether we are able or unable, we must first accept that the wheel of destiny is impersonal. You reap the rewards or punishments of your previous life in this one. And the fruits of this life await you in the next.
‘Among earthen pots, some break while still on the potter’s wheel. Some do while they are being shaped, some as soon as they are brought into shape, some after removal from the wheel, some while wet, some while dry, some while being burnt, some while being removed from the kiln, and some while being used.
‘In the same way, with embodied creatures, some are destroyed while still in the womb, some soon after coming out of it, some on the expiration of the first fortnight, some after a year or two, some in youth, some in middle age, and some in old age. When this is the secret of man’s death, what is the need for grief?
‘As men, while swimming in sport in water, sometimes dive and sometimes emerge from the surface, even so do creatures sink and emerge in life’s stream. Those that are foolish ask for reasons why this is so, but those who are wise understand that there are no reasons.’
Vidura now tells Dhritarashtra a parable about life, likening it to a dark forest.
Life as Dark Forest
‘Imagine a certain Brahmin,’ he says, ‘entering an inaccessible forest teeming with beasts of prey. It abounds on every side with lions and elephants, all of which roar continuously. Such is the aspect of this forest, O Bharata, that even Yama is said to be afraid of it.
‘The Brahmin runs hither and thither once he enters it, casting his eyes on every point of the compass, hopeful of finding someone who would help him.
‘But no matter how much he runs, he is unable to flee the presence of those animals. At long last, he reaches the edge of the forest, only to find that it is surrounded by a net that he cannot penetrate.
‘A frightful woman stands in front of him with her arms outstretched, as if welcoming him. The Brahmin turns around and runs back into the forest again, this time falling into a pit and getting his legs entangled in a mass of creepers.
‘There, surrounded by hissing five-headed snakes, he hangs upside down. While in that position, he sees a dark elephant that has six heads and twelve feet. This beast slowly approaches the pit, waving his trunk about. All around the twigs at the mouth of the pit rove many bees of frightful forms, drinking honey from their respective combs.
‘Numerous jets of honey are shot at the Brahmin, and he opens his mouth to drink much of it, but his thirst is not slaked. Unsatisfied with these repeated injections of nectar, he desires more. At the same time, packs of black rats are eating away at the roots of the tree from which the creepers hang down.
‘So the man is fearful of the beasts of prey, of the woman with the outstretched arms, of the five-headed snake at the bottom of the pit, and of the rats who are eating away the tree that is holding him. At the same time, he is overwhelmed by greed for more honey, and by the hope that his life will be prolonged.’
Dhritarashtra asks Vidura for the meaning of that parable. Vidura tells him the following words.
‘The inaccessible forest that the Brahmin entered is the maze of his own life, O Dhritarashtra. The birds of prey are the diseases that he is subjected to. The woman of gigantic proportions residing in the forest is Decrepitude. The pit over which he hangs is the physical frame in which an embodied soul finds a home.
‘The snake dwelling at the bottom of this pit is Time, the destroyer of all creatures. The cluster of creepers from which the man dangles is the desire for life that he cherishes most deeply in his heart.
‘The six-faced elephant is the year. Its six faces are the seasons, and its twelve feet are the months. The rats and snakes cutting off the tree bit by bit represent days and nights which are continually lessening the life periods of all creatures. The bees and honey, meanwhile, represent the man’s desires to which he his hopelessly addicted.’
A Journey with Many Halts
Vidura tells Dhritarashtra about the journey of the soul from birth to death.
‘Just like a man on a long journey has to repeatedly stop at various places to rest and recuperate, O Bharata,’ he says, ‘an unwise soul is impelled to take repeated births in the womb during its path to salvation. Souls that are wise, however, are saved this obligation.
‘All creatures, whether mobile or immobile, have to return to the world after their deaths. Only the wise escape. Even if a man escapes misfortune and lives a life of good health, he is bound to be overwhelmed by Decrepitude afterwards.
‘Plunged in a slough bound by the five senses, man remains there his entire life, struggling to break free but still addicted to the many pleasures that are available to him. Meanwhile, the nights and days roll on by, cutting down the time allotted to him.
‘The wise have declared that a man’s body is like a chariot, whereas his life force is the driver. His five senses are the horses yoked to this car, and his acts and understanding are the reins. He who allows the steeds to run amok has to return repeatedly to this world for many rebirths.
‘However, he who exercises restraint over the senses by means of his acts and understanding is able to steer his chariot along the narrow path to salvation.
‘There is nothing that living creatures dislike more than Death itself, O Bharata. You are united with all your fellow humans in this one respect. So show compassion to them all. They are all endued with the same kind of flaws as you are.
‘They are all hanging upside down over their respective pits, with their feet entangled in creepers. Only men who are able to see life in this way are able to attain the highest states of wisdom.’ This speech by Vidura brings a measure of calm to Dhritarashtra’s troubled mind.
Dhritarashtra Hugs Bhima
Later, after the Pandavas have taken their revenge on Ashwatthama and after Draupadi is gifted the gem, they hear that Dhritarashtra is on his way to meet them. Yudhishthir summons his brothers together, and along with Krishna, they set out in their chariots to meet the visitors half-way. Satyaki and Draupadi also go with him.
On the bank of the Ganga, the Pandavas meet with their elders and pay their respects to them.
The five brothers surround Dhritarashtra and announce themselves by name. The king first reluctantly embraces the eldest son of Kunti, and then, as his feelings run away with him, asks for Bhima to be presented.
Bhima is about to step up and take his uncle’s fumbling hands, but Krishna silently intervenes and points to an iron statue built in the likeness of Vrikodara that he has brought along for this very purpose.
Armed with the strength of ten thousand elephants, Dhritarashtra hugs the iron statue, and with the sheer strength of his muscles, breaks it into pieces. But immediately after he does it, he is consumed by guilt, and falls to the ground with moans of ‘Bhima, Bhima’.
Understanding that the king’s wrath has been quelled, Krishna consoles him. ‘Do not grieve, O King,’ he says, ‘for you have not killed Bhimasena. Knowing that you were filled with rage, I dragged the son of Kunti away and replaced him with an iron statue. It is the same statue that your son Duryodhana had used to practice mace-fighting with, and now it has been shattered by your immense strength.’
Krishna now has a word of advice for Dhritarashtra. ‘Harm to the Pandavas will do you no good, O King. Your sons will not be revived by it. Therefore, accept your nephews as your kings, protectors and sons. Let peace reign on this land at long last. That is the true path for Hastinapur henceforth.’
Gandhari Questions Bhimasena
Gandhari conducts herself with remarkable grace during this time, and tells Vyasa (who is worried that she may curse the Pandavas) that she is not angry at how the war has ended.
But she does have two questions for Bhimasena:
- Why did you kill Duryodhana during the final mace fight with unfair means?
- Why did you commit the beastly act of drinking Duhsasana’s blood?
Bhima’s answers are filled with contrition and humility. ‘Mother,’ he says, referring to the matter of Duryodhana, ‘that act was performed by me through fear and for the object of protecting my own self. Your mighty son was incapable of being vanquished in fair fight, Mother, and for the sake of protecting my brothers from yet another period of exile, I had to pursue means that were unfair.
‘Duryodhana had already vanquished Yudhishthir unrighteously. He has always behaved towards us unfairly. So I did not think that using unfair means to defeat him was a wrong thing.
‘As for Duhsasana, I agree it is improper to quaff the blood of a stranger, Mother, let alone that of a kinsman. However, you should know that when I drank the blood of Duhsasana, I did not let it pass through my lips down my throat. I merely touched my lips to his bleeding wounds in honour of the vow I took in the assembly during the dice game.’
Yudhishthir and the other Pandavas enter Gandhari’s quarters at this time, and the queen asks them: ‘You have killed all hundred sons of this old woman. Why did you not spare even one child of ours whose offences were lighter than those of his brothers? Why did you not leave even one crutch for this old couple?’
Yudhishthir walks up to her and takes her hands in his. ‘Here is Yudhishthir, Mother,’ he says, ‘that cruel slayer of your sons. I deserve all your curses, for I am the cause of this universal destruction. I have no longer any need for life or kingdom or wealth. Having caused such friends and kinsmen to be slain, I have proved myself to be a fool and a hater of friends.’
Unto the new king, Gandhari says nothing. With long sighs she controls her welling anger, and just as Yudhishthir is stepping forward to bow down to her, she directs her eyes from under the folds of the cloth that cover them to the tip of the Pandava’s toe. The toenail of Yudhishthir thus, which had always been beautiful and clear, now turns black.
The Pandavas are gripped with fear at seeing this, and they glance at one another as if to ask whether they should remain in the queen’s presence. But unbeknownst to them, the charring of Yudhishthir’s toenail is Gandhari’s way of letting out her rage at her nephews without hurting them. Now that her heart has been freed of it, she realizes that there is love within her heart for the sons of Pandu.
Like Dhritarashtra before her, she embraces each of the five brothers in turn, and comforts them as if she were their own mother.
After having cursed Yudhishthir with a charred toenail, Gandhari now turns to her inner eye to witness the destruction left behind in the wake of the Kurukshetra war. As she hovers over the battlefield first at a distance, and then swooping down for a closer look, her throat catches, and her teeth clamp over her nether lip.
Scattered all over are bones and hair and streams of blood that have not yet run dry. Thousands and thousands of corpses are mounted in high heaps everywhere she looks. There are headless trunks on one side and trunkless heads on the other. The region of the five sacred lakes now echoes with hungry cries of vultures, ravens, wolves and Rakshasas.
In her vision she also sees the Bharata ladies visiting the spot, and a number of them break into helpless shrieks. Gandhari pulls herself together and addresses Krishna. ‘Look at my daughters-in-law, O Madhava,’ she says. ‘Meeting their lords in the form of dead bodies, they are piteously calling out to them to return.
‘See, O prince of Dwaraka, how many women have been left without fathers, brothers, husbands and sons. Behold, it is strewn with broken darts, blood-tipped arrows, and shattered maces.
‘I get the feeling that the five elements have been destroyed, O Krishna. Vultures and other birds, in their thousands, are dragging off the blood-dyed bodies to their lairs, to feed their young no doubt.
‘All those great warriors that have been described as invincible have now been slain. Karna, Abhimanyu, Jayadratha, Bhishma, Drona, Shalya, Somadatta – how many names shall I recite, O Madhusudana? Dare I remember them all?
‘Many of the men I see are embracing their maces in death, Krishna, as if they are their beloved wives. Still many are clutching to the handles of their weapons, as if they still wish to conquer their enemy. Bards and storytellers – who had been tasked all these years with entertaining their lords – are now dumbstruck, and all they have for an audience is this gaggle of mourning widows.
‘What can be a sadder spectacle for me than to see children and women crying their hearts out for men that will never return, Gopala? Hastinapur was the ornament of Aryavarta eighteen days ago, and you have turned it now into a graveyard.’
This launches a lengthy monologue by Gandhari as she describes the mourning of all the important women of Hastinapur’s court. She calls out to each fallen warrior by name, and describes the pitiful way in which he has died.
A few short excerpts:
- Behold, Krishna, how Duryodhana lies on bare ground now, his thighs crushed by Bhimasena’s club. He who had not so long ago headed an army that contained eleven akshauhinis of troops now lies alone. Behold the reversals of Time.
- Behold, O Krishna, the mother of Lakshmana, the lady of large hips, with her tresses dishevelled, who used to sport within the embrace of her lord’s arms. That faultless lady now smells of her son’s blood, and she is running her hand along Duryodhana’s body, and she is calling out to him as if he could hear her.
- We must all have committed some great sins in our previous lives, Krishna, because all the men we know and love have been snatched away from us by Yudhishthir the Just! There Duhsasana sleeps, felled by Bhima, the blood of his limbs sucked away by the wolfish one.
- There you see Vikarna, wise Vikarna, gentle Vikarna, applauded by the wise, liked by many! He was the only one at the assembly who spoke on Draupadi’s behalf, against the foolish Karna. Why was he not spared, Krishna? Did Bhimasena carry no feelings of gratitude for his cousin?
- Abhimanyu, he whose might and courage has been praised to be one and a half times those of his sire, he who resembled a proud lion, he who, without a follower, alone pierced the impenetrable array of Drona, he who proved to be the death of many of his foes, he now sleeps here alone, having succumbed to death.
And so on. All this mourning for the dead makes Gandhari angrier and angrier as time passes, and by the time she comes to the end, she is ready to lay a curse upon Krishna.
Why Krishna? Because she believes that it is Krishna who is more responsible than most for the Mahabharata war.
A Curse Upon Krishna
After having ‘seen’ the destruction at Kurukshetra with her own eyes, Gandhari now turns her anger toward Krishna.
‘The Pandavas and the Dhartarashtras have both been burnt by this sacrifice, O Madhava,’ she says. ‘While they were thus being exterminated, why did you stay so indifferent? You are blessed with the gift of eloquence. You have the power to bring about peace.
‘You were capable of commanding the large numbers of your followers to resist from fighting. But you remained silent. You abetted the destruction of the Kuru clan.
‘By whatever little merit I have acquired through waiting dutifully upon my husband, by that merit that is so difficult to attain, I shall curse you. Since you were indifferent to the Kurus and the Pandavas while they killed each other, you shall similarly be forced to watch helplessly as your own kinsmen devour one another.
‘After the Yadava race has thus been exterminated, you will meet your own end while you are alone, by a manner as disgusting as the deaths of all these great warriors. The ladies of the Vrishni clan will weep at your death even as the Bharata women are today crying over the deaths of their husbands.’
The Pandavas are shocked by the meaning of this curse, but Krishna accepts it with good cheer. ‘There is no one in the world save for myself,’ he says, thinly smiling, ‘who is capable of bringing the Vrishni race to its end. I know this well.
‘Even as we speak I am considering ways in which I can bring it about. The Yadavas cannot be defeated by the gods, the Danavas, the Rakshas or the Yakshas. They have to die at their own hand.
‘Now that you have placed your curse, my lady Gandhari, you have aided me in the accomplishment of this task. For that I thank you.’
Dhritarashtra now addresses Yudhishthir and asks him, ‘If, O son of Pandu, you know the answer, please tell me the number of men who have fallen in this battle, and also the number of those who have escaped with life.’
Yudhishthir replies, ‘One billion, 660 million and 20,000 men have died in this war, O King. And 240,165 men have escaped with life.’
(This flies in the face of Ashwatthama’s claim that only seven people have survived after his night-time expedition. Or perhaps he was counting only the important ones.)
Yudhishthir now reveals that there are levels which a warrior attains depending on the kind of death he encounters. ‘Those warriors of true powers who have cheerfully cast off their bodies have all attained the regions of Indra, O King,’ he says. ‘Those that have fallen on the edge of a weapon while turning away or while begging for mercy have reached the region of the Guhyakas.
‘Those who, knowing death to be inevitable, embraced it cheerlessly are now sporting among the Gandharvas. Those who refused to flee even when they were unarmed, and fulfilled their Kshatriya duties by encountering their foes without arms or armour, have reached the highest state – the state of Brahman.’
Dhritarashtra now instructs Yudhishthir to arrange for funeral rites of all the men who had died during the war. Yudhishthir agrees, and commands his servants to assemble the required Brahmins who will perform the rituals on the bank of the Ganga.
Kunti Reveals Her Secret
The Pandavas arrive at the Ganga and cast off all their ornaments and weapons. The Kuru women, still crying, offer oblations of water unto their sires and grandsons and brothers and other kinsmen.
While the thousands of women perform their own individual prayers, Kunti is suddenly paralyzed in apparent grief, and she calls for Yudhishthir. The eldest Pandava goes to her side and takes her arm.
‘I wish that a rite should be carried out’ she says, ‘for that great hero and bowman, that warrior who was distinguished by all marks of heroism, that man who was killed by Arjuna, he who was derided all his life as a Sutaputra.’
Yudhishthir’s face changes in puzzlement, but Kunti goes on. ‘He was your eldest brother, O Dharmaraja,’ she says. ‘That hero was born with a pair of celestial earrings, clad in armour, to me before I was wed to King Pandu. Offer oblations to that son of Surya, so that his soul may at last know peace.’
Yudhishthir is struck by a sudden invisible sword, and he steps away from his mother. All his four brothers, who have heard their mother’s words, also look at one another, not sure how to respond.
Kunti then tells them about how Karna had been born to her by the grace of Durvasa’s chant, and how she had been forced to give him up in order to guard the reputation of Kuntibhoja.
After listening to the story, Yudhishthir says, ‘The grief that I feel now at the death of Karna is a hundred times that which I felt when Abhimanyu was slain, Mother. All this while, I thought I was killing only cousins and uncles and grandfathers in this great war. But now I know that I killed my brother too.
‘We have truly come undone. The man we have hated all our lives, the man Arjuna wished over years and years to kill, the man who gave me sleepless nights – is he none other than your firstborn?
‘How subtle are the ways of Time! It appears as though the gods are teaching us a lesson. This is not victory that has been granted us. It is defeat! Suyodhana was right, alas. After all that we have done to win back our kingdom, Suyodhana was right.’
Saying this, Yudhishthir leads his brothers in seeking out the widowed wives of Karna, and pays them his respects. He leads them back to the bank of the river and joins them in personally performing the death rite of his brother.
On this somber note ends the Stree Parva of the Mahabharata.
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