Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Unpacked and Explained

Mahabharata Summary Featured Image - Picture of an open ancient book

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 all hundred Parvas. This is your definitive Mahabharata summary

Contents

Parva 1: Anukramanika Parva

The narrator of the Mahabharata is a man called Ugrashrava Sauti. He is the son of Lomaharshana, a sage.

In the forest of Naimisha, a number of sages assemble to attend the twelve-year sacrifice of a king named Saunaka Kulapati. Sauti visits this place, and after pleasantries have been exchanged, the sages ask him to repeat the story of the great war of Kurukshetra.

Sauti explains that by the time Sage Vyasa, the son of Satyavati, sat down to compose this poem, all of the tale’s principal characters – the Pandavas, the Kauravas, Bhishma, Vidura, Krishna etc. – have long died.

Vyasa employs the services of Ganesha to write down the story as he dictates it. Ganesha puts forward a condition that Vyasa must recite in the poem in such a way that the quill never stops. As a counter-condition, Vyasa suggests that Ganesha must comprehend everything he writes.

Legend has it that Vyasa then deliberately mixes lucid and complex verses together so that the project proceeds at a manageable pace.

The Anukramanika Parva contains an introduction to the Mahabharata. Sauti tells the sages of the number of verses it contains (eight thousand and eight hundred), and the tremendous amount of wisdom that bursts forth from it.

He also claims that scholars have weighed the four Vedas against the Mahabharata, and have found the latter to be more substantive. It has therefore been prescribed as necessary reading for one and all.

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Parva 2: Sangraha Parva

In the Sangraha Parva, Sauti gives Saunaka and the sages the complete list of hundred Parvas into which the story is broken. He also summarizes the eighteen ‘big’ Parvas (Adi Parva, Sabha Parva and so on).

Sometimes, writers like to reserve the word ‘Parva’ for the bigger sections and to use the word ‘Upa-parva’ for the hundred smaller sections. But we will use the same word for both, just like Sauti does.

In this section is also a short account of the story of Parashurama, the son of Jamadagni. To fulfil his oath of killing all the Kshatriyas of the world, he launches into a long quest of bloodletting.

His endeavours turn the five lakes of Samantapanchaka red. He hangs up his axe here. But the rite of cleansing will repeat itself many years hence, because another name for Samantapanchaka is Kurukshetra.

Toward the end of the Dwapara Yuga, therefore, the Pandavas and Kauravas come together to fight a great battle at this very spot.

Sauti also explains to the sages the meaning of the word Akshauhini.

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Parva 3: Paushya Parva

The Mahabharata story begins in earnest with King Janamejaya, the son of Parikshit – who himself is the son of Abhimanyu and Uttara. Parikshit is the man installed on the throne of Hastinapur by Yudhishthir when the Pandavas leave on their final journey.

A sage named Uttanka arrives at Janamejaya’s court and implores him to conduct a snake-sacrifice to avenge the killing of Parikshit by Takshaka, the cruel king of the Nagas.

Uttanka himself has a bit of a personal grudge against Takshaka – the snake troubles him in several ways when he is embarked upon a mission to collect some ornaments for his preceptor’s wife – so he advises Janamejaya that a snake-sacrifice is imminent.

It is during this ceremony that Janamejaya announces a wish to hear the story of his ancestors, and the tale begins to be told.

The bulk of this Parva is devoted to a description of Uttanka’s adventurous quest to the court of King Paushya, where he is sent by his preceptor Dhaumya. Uttanka is tasked with bringing back the earrings of Paushya’s queen.

The section is thus named after the king.

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Parva 4: Pauloma Parva

In the Pauloma Parva, Sauti tells the story of Sage Bhrigu and his wife Puloma, and how they came to have a son named Chyavana. In summary:

  • Puloma gets pregnant with Bhrigu’s child.
  • When Bhrigu is away one day, a Rakshasa named Puloma visits the sage’s hermitage. Bhrigu’s Puloma welcomes the Rakshasa and gives him food to eat.
  • The Rakshasa, consumed by desire for Puloma, goes to the fireplace in the house and asks Agni about the woman’s identity.
  • Agni confirms that Puloma had once been promised to him in a previous life. The Rakshasa, thus encouraged, carries Puloma away in the form of a wild boar.
  • During this violent act, Puloma’s infant drops from her womb – and thus gets the name of Chyavana (‘he who is torn’).
  • Bhrigu, when he discovers what has happened, curses Agni that the god of fire will now have to ‘eat of all things’. This curse ensures that Agni becomes the first partaker of all offerings.
  • Chyavana gives birth to a son named Pramati, who unites with Ghritachi the celestial dancer to sire a boy called Ruru. Ruru and his wife Pramadvara have a son called Sunaka, who is the ancestor of Saunaka Kulapati – the listener of Sauti’s story.

Toward the end of the Parva, a character called Astika is introduced. He is described as the best of sages who ‘undertook the task of delivering the reptiles from their sins’.

He will make an appearance at Janamejaya’s snake-sacrifice. But first, we will learn a little about his birth and backstory.

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Parva 5: Astika Parva

The question that begins the Astika Parva is: ‘Why did Janamejaya determine to take the lives of snakes by means of a sacrifice? And who is Astika, the sage who encourages him to do so?’

Sauti replies first with the story of Astika. Here is a quick summary:

  • Astika’s father, Jaratkaru, takes a vow that he will only marry a woman who has the same name as his. After a long period of searching, he finds a bride in the sister of Vasuki, the prominent Naga.
  • In an interlude, Sauti narrates the story of how the gods and Asuras churned the ocean of milk to obtain amrita.
  • In another interlude, Sauti tells the tale of how Garuda is born. During this incident, Kadru, the mother of the Nagas, asks them to turn into black hair strands to cover the tail of Uchchaishrava the divine horse.
  • But the snakes refuse to do her bidding, for which Kadru curses them saying: ‘You will all burn in the snake-sacrifice of Janamejaya.
  • It is to bring this curse into fruition that Vasuki gives his sister Jaratkaru’s hand in marriage to the sage Jaratkaru.
  • Astika is born to this couple. As a young man, he will arrive at Janamejaya’s sacrifice at the opportune moment and put a stop to it. This will ensure that all virtuous serpents are delivered from their deaths.
  • On the other side of this story, Janamejaya is implored by his ministers to perform the snake-sacrifice to avenge his father’s Parikshit’s killing at the hands of Takshaka.

The snake sacrifice thus commences, and snakes of all kinds begin to magically fly from all corners of the world into the giant fire built in Janamejaya’s compound.

But before Janamejaya exterminates the entire race of Nagas, Astika arrives there – as his destiny requires him to – and requests the king to stop the carnage.

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Parva 6: Adivansavatarana Parva

The learned sage, Krishna Dwaipayana (also known as Vyasa) arrives at Janamejaya’s snake-sacrifice. He is received with much respect by all the assembled guests and sages.

After Vyasa has taken his seat, Janamejaya asks Vyasa to repeat the story of the Mahabharata. In response, Vyasa calls his disciple Vaisampayana to his side and says, ‘Narrate to the king the tale of discord that I have told you.’

Vaisampayana thus begins the long recital of the epic poem. During this section, he gives Janamejaya a quick overview of the story: how the Pandavas and Kauravas grew up in a house rended by quarrel, how the sons of Pandu were deceived, how Draupadi was humiliated, and how the final war of Kurukshetra played out.

Then he gives his audience the story of how Vyasa was born to Satyavati the fisher-princess, and how he came to later father the three scions of the Kuru race: Pandu, Dhritarashtra and Vidura.

This Parva ends with Vaisampayana giving us an account of how the Earth Goddess, Bhoomi, was burdened by vicious men, and how she approached Brahma for help. Brahma decrees that the gods of heaven should take up human lives to restore Dharma to its place.

He goes to Hari and says, ‘Be incarnate.’ Hari replies, ‘I will.’

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Parva 7: Sambhava Parva

The Sambhava Parva covers plenty of territory. Here is a quick summary:

  • The gods of heaven agree to assume human forms to relieve Earth of her burden. Vishnu agrees to be incarnate as Krishna. Among others, Varchas the son of Soma takes the form of Abhimanyu.
  • Mahabhisha is cursed by Brahma, and the eight Vasus are cursed by Vasishtha. Ganga the river goddess is tasked with bringing both these curses to fruition. Out of the intersection of these two incidents is born Bhishma – fathered by Shantanu.
  • Shantanu marries Satyavati the fisher-princess, and has two sons with her: Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya. Both of these men die childless, but Vichitraveerya leaves behind two wives: Ambika and Ambalika.
  • Vyasa arrives to father children with the two queens. Ambika’s son is named Dhritarashtra – born blind – and Ambalika’s is called Pandu. Vyasa also fathers another son by a Vaishya woman – they call him Vidura.
  • Pandu and Dhritarashtra, in good time, get married to Kunti and Gandhari respectively. Pandu has a second wife in Madri.
  • Gandhari gives birth to a hundred sons while Kunti gives birth to three. Madri has two. Kunti and Madri’s sons together come to be known as the Pandavas.
  • Pandu dies shortly after his five sons are born. Upon his death, Madri gives up her life on Pandu’s pyre. Kunti returns to the royal palace of Hastinapur accompanied by her five children.
  • The Pandavas and Kauravas grow up together in the palace. As they become young men, Drona is employed by Bhishma to become the preceptor of the Kuru princes.
  • Arjuna becomes Drona’s favourite pupil. After a few years, a graduation ceremony is arranged to showcase the princes’ skills, in which Arjuna and Bhima outshine the Kauravas.
  • Karna makes an appearance here. He is quickly appropriated by Duryodhana who makes him the king of Anga.
  • Drona asks the Kuru princes to invade Panchala and bring back Drupada. This, he says, is his guru dakshina. The Kauravas fail in this quest, but the Pandavas succeed.

Yudhishthir is made heir-apparent to the kingdom. Envious of the Pandavas’ growing might, Duryodhana hatches a plan in the company of Shakuni and Karna to kill his cousins.

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Parva 8: Jatugriha Parva

Duryodhana arranges for a house of wax to be built in the city of Varanavata. He also induces some of his courtiers to speak of the upcoming Shiva festival in Varanavata in glowing terms.

After the Pandavas’ curiosity has been aroused, Dhritarashtra gives Yudhishthir leave to visit Varanavata if he desires.

Yudhishthir understands Dhritarashtra’s motive, but agrees to go nevertheless. At the time of their departure, he gets warned by Vidura that all may not be as it seemed in the house where they are going to stay.

Duryodhana, meanwhile, installs his aide Purochana at Varanavata to ensure that the Pandavas are burnt to their deaths.

During their stay at Varanavata, the Pandavas use their time wisely, scouting the land and marking out areas of escape. An engineer sent for their service by Vidura constructs for them a tunnel – from the house to the riverbank.

After their tunnel is complete, the Pandavas themselves set fire to the house and escape through their secret route. At the riverbank, they are met by another of Vidura’s servants, who ferries them across the water.

Here, they enter a forest. Yudhishthir, Arjuna, Nakula, Sahadeva and Kunti are exhausted and fall asleep. Bhima stands guard. As he watches over his family, he is consumed by wrath for the Kauravas.

The Parva ends with Bhima angrily cursing Duryodhana and Dhritarashtra for their sins.

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Parva 9: Hidimba Vadha Parva

This forest – where Bhima is guarding his brothers and mother – happens to be the abode of a brother-sister Rakshasa duo, both named Hidimba. (For the sake of clarity, we will call the sister Hidimbi.)

Hidimba is the chief of a cannibalistic clan of Rakshasas. When he smells human flesh, he sends Hidimbi out to investigate. The girl, unfortunately, falls in love at first sight with Bhimasena.

Instead of plotting to kill the Pandavas, she approaches them and confesses her love for Bhima.

Meanwhile, Hidimba arrives there wondering what had happened to his sister. When he sees her convivially speaking to the humans, he loses his temper. As he approaches Hidimbi with the intention of striking her, Bhima waylays him.

What follows is a bitter fight between the two men, after which Bhima successfully kills Hidimba.

He then marries Hidimbi. For a few months, she carries Bhima to the mountains every day in the morning and returns him to his family at night. In due course, a son is born to them – and they call him Ghatotkacha.

Soon after the birth of Bhima’s son, Vyasa visits the Pandavas and tells them that the time has come for them to disguise themselves as Brahmins and move to the neighbouring town of Ekachakra.

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Parva 10: Baka Vadha Parva

Vyasa installs the Pandavas and Kunti in the house of a Brahmin in Ekachakra. ‘Wait for me here,’ he tells them. ‘I will come back for you. Make yourself comfortable and be happy.’

In this Brahmin’s house, Kunti discovers that the town of Ekachakra is being tormented by a Rakshasa named Baka. Once every fortnight, the town is forced to send a cartload of rice, two full-grown bullocks, and a person to Baka’s abode. Baka will eat them all up and spare the town from violence.

As the Brahmin and his family debate among themselves on whom to send to Baka, Kunti volunteers Bhimasena.

Bhima gleefully accepts the deal. He drives the cart of rice over to Baka’s place, eats almost half of it by the time he gets there, and kills Baka in a fierce fight with his bare arms.

On the morning after, the townspeople see the abandoned body of Baka outside the city gates. They guess that the Brahmin who had gone as food for Baka the previous day must have performed this deed.

They sing his praises, and establish a festival in honour of Bhimasena.

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Parva 11: Chaitraratha Parva

It is in this section that the Pandavas first hear of Draupadi.

A sage that comes to Ekachakra from Panchala visits the house of the Brahmin who is hosting the Pandavas (who are all, it must be remembered, disguised as Brahmins themselves).

He tells them the story of how Draupadi and Dhrishtadyumna were born to King Drupada of Panchala. Drona’s friendship with Drupada, their eventual falling out, and Drona’s decision to use the Kuru princes as tools to invade Panchala are all described.

After losing to his old friend, Drupada returns to his kingdom thirsting for revenge. He performs a sacrifice with the intention of securing a boon that will enable him to one day kill Drona.

But he receives two gifts: one is Dhrishtadyumna, a son whose destiny is to kill Drona; and Draupadi, who is fated to become the main ‘reason for the downfall of the Kuru empire.’

The Pandavas and Kunti, after hearing this story, resolve to go to Panchala and attend the swayamvara of Draupadi. Around the same time, Vyasa visits them and encourages them along their journey.

He tells them that Draupadi was – in her previous life – given the boon of five husbands by Shiva. He implies that the Pandavas are destined to marry Draupadi.

After Vyasa’s departure, the Pandavas have an encounter with a Gandharva called Angaraparna, who recommends Sage Dhaumya to be appointed as the Pandavas’ priest.

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Parva 12: Swayamvara Parva

The Pandavas arrive in Panchala and take up residence in the house of a potter. (Not much is known of this man, nor is he referred to in any detail hereafter.) Kunti stays at home while the brothers go to Drupada’s palace to attend Draupadi’s swayamvara.

A number of kings from far and wide have congregated here. Duryodhana has come from Kuru. Karna from Anga. Balarama and Krishna from Dwaraka.

Now, it must be noted that Drupada has always wanted to give Draupadi away to Arjuna. So he builds an elaborate and difficult archery assignment as pre-requisite for any warrior intending to marry his daughter.

Whatever Arjuna can do, though, so can Karna. He rises in his seat and strides over to the platform, but Draupadi rejects him.

After all the kings have given up in despair, Arjuna completes the test and wins Draupadi’s hand. He is still in his Brahmin’s attire, so all the other suitors rise in revolt.

Two battles take place here: (a) Arjuna defeats Karna in a one-on-one archery duel, and (b) Bhima fights off Shalya with the mace.

After Arjuna and Bhima take Draupadi back to the potter’s house, the Pandavas and Kunti decide that it would serve their purposes best to have Draupadi become the common wife of the five brothers.

The section ends with Krishna and Balarama introducing themselves to their aunt and cousins for the first time.

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Parva 13: Vaivahika Parva

The main thrust of the Vaivahika Parva is the question of whom Draupadi should marry.

Dhrishtadyumna secretly follows Arjuna and Bhima back to the potter’s house, and notes with relief that Draupadi has been won by none other than the Pandavas. He returns home and relays to Drupada the good news.

Drupada sends a messenger to bring the Pandavas and Kunti back to the palace. Here, Yudhishthir tells him of the decision that they had taken the night before: that Draupadi will become the common wife to all five brothers.

Drupada is nonplussed by this. On the one hand, he is glad that Arjuna has won his daughter as per his heart’s desire. But what is this about all five Pandavas sharing her?

On some thought, though, he realizes that this may be a good thing for Panchala. If Draupadi becomes Yudhishthir’s queen, her status in the Kuru household will be much higher than if she is merely Arjuna’s wife.

By extension, Panchala’s status among the Pandavas’ allies will be second to none.

Also, Vyasa visits Drupada at this point and assures the king that it is all happening as ordained. He repeats the story of Draupadi’s previous life.

Drupada thus agrees to marry his daughter to all five Pandavas.

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Parva 14: Viduragamana Parva

Soon after the five-day wedding finishes, news of the union travels far and wide. It eventually reaches Hastinapur. A council is set up by Dhritarashtra in the hope of deciding what must be done.

Duryodhana recommends that Dhritarashtra should send out spies and other deceitful men with the express intention of sowing discord between the first three Pandavas and the last two.

Karna thinks that this is impossible because of the overpowering influence of Kunti over the five brothers. He thinks that a more violent approach is warranted. He wants to wage war on Panchala and take everyone prisoner.

Bhishma and Drona, on the other hand, prescribe peace. They reason with Dhritarashtra that the sons of Pandu are as deserving of the kingdom as is Duryodhana. ‘Send your best messenger after them, O King,’ they say, ‘and invite them back home.’

Vidura supports the two Kuru elders. ‘Remember that the Pandavas have now won important friends, O King,’ he says, referring to Drupada and Krishna. ‘They are much more valuable as kinsmen than as enemies.’

With all of this advice flowing his way, despite wanting to agree with Duryodhana and Karna, Dhritarashtra sends Vidura to Panchala with instructions to bring the Pandavas back.

On their return, Dhritarashtra gives them half the kingdom. The Pandavas move to the city of Khandavaprastha, from where Yudhishthir rules as king.

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Parva 15: Rajya Labha Parva

Narada visits Yudhishthir at his court in Khandavaprastha and tells him the story of Sunda and Upasunda, two brothers who were renowned for their love for each other but became enemies over the possession of a woman – Tilottama.

Sunda and Upasunda, in fact, are all-powerful beings who succeed in vanquishing the gods. They become lords of the three worlds and rule from Kurukshetra. The gods, as a ploy, use Tilottama as a tool to tear the brothers apart.

‘Unless you and your brothers come up with an arrangement for sharing Draupadi, O King,’ warns Narada, ‘there is a danger that you will fight among yourselves for her love.’

Yudhishthir agrees to this, and the Pandavas make a rule that whenever Draupadi is in the company of one of the husbands, the other four will leave them alone. If any of them were to infringe upon the privacy of Draupadi, he would punish himself by going on a twelve-year exile during which he will observe the rites of Brahmacharya.

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Parva 16: Arjuna Vanavasa Parva

Shortly after Narada’s visit, it so happens that a certain band of robbers abducts the cattle of a Brahmin. The Brahmin arrives at the court of Khandavaprastha and asks Arjuna for help with retrieving his property.

Arjuna gives the hapless man his word, and then realizes that his weapons are locked up in Yudhishthir’s chamber. To make matters worse, Yudhishthir, right at that moment, is in private congress with Draupadi.

After a moment of hesitation, Arjuna ventures into Yudhishthir’s chamber, brings out his weapons, and goes to attend to the Brahmin’s matter. In no time at all he succeeds in rescuing the stolen animals.

On his return, without protest, he volunteers to go on a twelve-year exile as per the terms of their agreements.

Both Yudhishthir and Draupadi try to stop Arjuna, but the latter’s mind is made up. He prepares himself for forest-life, and takes the vow of celibacy.

That vow does not last unbroken for long, though. During the course of his wanderings, Arjuna goes on to marry three women: Ulupi of the Naga kingdom, Chitrangada of Manipura, and Subhadra of Dwaraka.

He also has three sons: Iravan (with Ulupi), Babhruvahana (with Chitrangada) and Abhimanyu (with Subhadra).

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Parva 17: Subhadra Harana Parva

Toward the end of his twelve-year exile, Arjuna arrives in Anarta, the kingdom of Balarama, and stays in a place called Prabhasa with Krishna for a few months. Here, the two men get to know each other for the first time.

Krishna then invites Arjuna to Dwaraka as his personal guest. During this stay, Arjuna happens to see Subhadra, the younger sister of Krishna and Balarama, and loses his heart to her.

Krishna notices this and teases his friend. ‘Tell me if you desire her, Partha,’ he says, ‘and I shall speak to my father on your behalf.’

Arjuna confesses his feelings to Krishna. Upon which Krishna proposes that Arjuna should not waste time with conventional methods of wooing a maiden.

‘A swayamvara is usually prescribed to unwed girls,’ says Krishna, ‘but we do not know the mind and disposition of Subhadra. Since you’re a brave Kshatriya, carry her off against her will and let me handle the aftermath here in Dwaraka.’

Thus encouraged, Arjuna first sends a message to Yudhishthir telling him what he intends to do. Yudhishthir sends back a speedy note of consent, after which Arjuna abducts Subhadra one morning as the girl is returning from her morning prayers.

All the Vrishni warriors are flabbergasted at Arjuna’s behaviour. Their immediate instinct is to declare war upon Khandavaprastha and to bring Subhadra back. Balarama is beside himself with fury.

But Krishna alone remains steadfast in this assembly. He brings them all back to their senses by arguing Arjuna’s case.

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Parva 18: Haranaharana Parva

Krishna convinces Balarama that an alliance with the Pandavas is in Anarta’s best interests. He sends a messenger after Arjuna – who is camped outside of Dwaraka with his bride – and implores him to return to Dwaraka.

Once the Vrishnis are convinced by Krishna’s words, Balarama gives away Subhadra’s hand in marriage to the third Pandava with all due rites and rituals.

A short while after their wedding, Arjuna returns to Indraprastha with Subhadra. Krishna and Balarama also visit Yudhishthir’s palace and give away large amounts of wealth as dower.

Subhadra gives birth to Abhimanyu. Draupadi gives birth to a son by Arjuna named Shrutakarma. He is the last of her sons, the first four being Prativindhya (with Yudhishthir), Sutasoma (with Bhima), Satanika (with Nakula) and Shrutasena (with Sahadeva).

The Pandavas have now become more powerful after Arjuna’s exile, by acquiring a close alliance with Anarta. Yudhishthir is now poised to take the first steps toward emperorship.

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Parva 19: Khandava Daha Parva

A short while after Arjuna’s return to Indraprastha, on one occasion, Arjuna and Krishna set out to the bank of the Yamuna along with a large retinue of servants.

While the two of them are sporting on the riverbank, a Brahmin comes to visit them. He says, ‘I am very hungry. I ask, Arjuna, that you satiate my hunger.’

Arjuna gives the Brahmin his word, and then the Brahmin reveals himself to be Agni in disguise.

The story goes that owing to a king who had performed a hundred-year sacrifice – during the course of which he feeds Agni plenty of clarified butter – Agni has become bloated and overfed. He now wishes to consume the Khandava forest and cure himself.

He gets permission from Brahma for this act, but standing in his way is Indra – who wishes to protect Khandava because it is the abode of Takshaka the Naga. Takshaka and Indra happen to be good friends.

Brahma then advises Agni to approach Krishna and Arjuna for help. Agni does so in the garb of a Brahmin.

After having agreed to help the lord of fire, Arjuna and Krishna get given several weapons in order to guard Khandava against a potential attack from Indra’s army.

Using these weapons – and of course their own innate talents – Krishna and Arjuna oversee the destruction of the Khandava forest.

One of the survivors of the blaze, Maya (an Asura whose primary skill is architecture), then proceeds to build for Yudhishthir a great hall that will eventually serve to stoke Duryodhana’s envy.

This brings to a close the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata.

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Parva 20: Sabhakriya Parva

Krishna requests Maya to build for Yudhishthir a hall that will surpass every other piece of architecture present on Earth. Having made this recommendation, he leaves for Dwaraka.

Maya first journeys northward to the mountain of Mainaka, where – he says – there lies hidden a treasure belonging to the Asuras. He proposes to bring it back, and to use it for the building of the hall.

Maya also brings with him a horde of Asuras to help him in the project. It takes a year or so to finish, but the end result is astonishing.

Not only is it an architectural marvel – with lakes and mountains coexisting with pillars and rooms – but it is also filled with optical illusions.

Among other things, Maya specializes in building small indoor pools of water that look like solid granite slabs, and solid floor that looks translucent like water.

It is into one of these pools that Duryodhana falls during his visit to the great hall. And that serves as the catalyst for the game of dice.

In any case, after Maya finishes the hall, Yudhishthir enters it on an auspicious day surrounded by an army of priests, friends and well-wishers. Another piece of Yudhishthir’s power falls into place with the reclamation of Khandava.

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Parva 21: Lokapala Sabhakhyana Parva

During this Parva, Narada visits Yudhishthir and spends a significant amount of time describing the great halls of heaven that he has seen that belong to the likes of Indra, Kubera, Yama and so on.

He concludes that while Yudhishthir’s hall is not as great as the ones in heaven, it is certainly the best of its kind on Earth.

During the course of this narration, Narada casually mentions a great king called Harishchandra who has been given access to Indra’s court. By the adjectives he uses to describe the man, it is clear that Narada considers him the best king that ever lived.

Yudhishthir asks Narada what it was that made Harishchandra such an honourable man, and how he had achieved the goal of being invited to Indra’s abode.

Narada tells Yudhishthir, ‘Harishchandra is the epitome of truth, O King. He looked after his subjects well. But more than anything, he performed the Rajasuya. If you wish to be one day invited to Indra’s hall, you must also perform the Rajasuya.’

Having said this, Narada leaves. Yudhishthir finds himself in a pensive mood soon after, because he is suddenly gripped with the ambition of performing the Rajasuya himself.

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Parva 22: Rajasuya Arambha Parva

Yudhishthir consults with Krishna about this newfound thought of his. Krishna pledges his support to the cause.

‘O King,’ he says, ‘you’re entirely worthy of being emperor of the world. But there exists a king in Magadha by name Jarasandha who is also very powerful, and has brought plenty of kings under his sway. Until he is vanquished, you cannot hope to achieve your end.’

Krishna is referring here to Jarasandha, the son of Brihadratha, who had taken birth in two halves inside the wombs of two different women. He had then been joined by the magic of a Rakshasi named Jara.

Krishna gives Yudhishthir a full account of Jarasandha’s heroics, and also tells him that the king of Magadha had also driven the people of Mathura westward shortly after the death of Kamsa.

Not many details are given about the past battles between Jarasandha and Krishna, but the latter concedes to Yudhishthir that Magadha was too powerful for Mathura at the time.

‘The Andhakas and Vrishnis thought it prudent not to fight with him, O King,’ he says. ‘And we migrated to the western sea to found the city of Dwaraka.’

Krishna then offers to help Yudhishthir defeat Jarasandha.

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Parva 23: Jarasandha Vadha Parva

Krishna’s primary thesis is that Jarasandha cannot be subjugated in traditional warfare even if the gods and Asuras fight together. But, he thinks, he is susceptible in a bare-armed single combat.

‘I will take Bhima and Arjuna with me to Magadha,’ he says. ‘We will be disguised as Brahmins. We will gain an audience with Jarasandha and see to it that he accepts a wrestling challenge with Bhima. As the opening rite of your Rajasuya, Yudhishthir, we will kill the king of Magadha!’

After they enter Magadha, Krishna tells Arjuna and Bhima that Jarasandha himself is about to perform a sacrifice. He has captured a hundred kings and he is about to sacrifice them to Shiva. This, he believes, will bring him untold power.

The three of them enter Jarasandha’s court disguised as Brahmins eager to partake of the king’s charity. Then, after seeking a personal audience, Krishna reveals to Jarasandha their real identity.

‘Fight one of us in bare-armed combat,’ he says, ‘or release the hundred men you’ve imprisoned.’

Jarasandha agrees to the challenge, and he picks Bhima for his opponent. A proper, official match is organized, overseen by all of Jarasandha’s courtiers.

The match is fairly one-sided. Bhima kills Jarasandha in short order. Krishna frees the hundred kings. The kingdom of Magadha is thus ‘liberated’.

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Parva 24: Digvijaya Parva

During the Divvijaya Parva, the four brothers of Yudhishthir set out in four different directions. Their assignment is simple: carry the message of Yudhishthir’s emperorship to every kingdom on the land.

Each king they visit will have a choice: either accept Yudhishthir’s supremacy and effectively become a tribute-paying partner, or fight the emissary.

To make a long story short, the four brothers of Yudhishthir win the entire world for the sake of their older brothers. They return from their expeditions victorious and laden with wealth and goodwill.

Of the many victories that the Pandava brothers secure on this quest, three are noteworthy:

  • Bhagadatta, the leader of the Pragjyotishas in the east, surrenders to Arjuna without a fight. But it is not because he is not a heroic warrior. In the Kurukshetra war, Bhagadatta distinguishes himself thoroughly before falling to Arjuna.
  • Bhima visits Shishupala of Chedi and secures from him agreement that he will obey all of Yudhishthir’s commands. Bhima in fact lives in Chedi as guest for thirty nights. Later, Shishupala would forswear his vow and lead a revolt at the Rajasuya ceremony.
  • Sahadeva wages war on a kingdom called Mahishmati, whose king Nila has none other than Agni as his son-in-law. Faced by the prospect of facing Agni n battle, Sahadeva backs down, and pursues the path of diplomacy to secure Nila’s support.

The four brothers return triumphantly, therefore, and Yudhishthir readies himself to perform the Rajasuya sacrifice.

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Parva 25: Rajasuyika Parva

For a while, Yudhishthir rules as emperor with a firm yet gentle hand. We’re told that the empire flourishes under him. The seasons arrive and leave on time. The land is fertile and the harvest bounteous. The treasury swells.

There is peace and prosperity everywhere. After ascertaining the health of his empire thus, Yudhishthir sets his mind upon the completion of the Rajasuya sacrifice, in which all the excess wealth in his palace will be given away to Brahmins and other needy people.

(In essence, the Rajasuya can be seen as an act of wealth redistribution. The king collects tax from ‘fortunate’ citizens, keeps some away for development of the kingdom, and returns the balance to ‘unfortunate’ citizens.)

Nakula is sent to Hastinapur to invite the Kuru elders to Indraprastha. Yudhishthir addresses Dhritarashtra and says, ‘All this wealth I have earned is yours, O King!’

The Pandavas engage the services of Bhishma, Drona, Vidura, Ashwatthama and Sanjaya to make arrangements for the ceremony. The sacrificial mansion is built, and in due course, Yudhishthir takes his place in the main seat.

Sahadeva travels around the empire, passing on invitations to the event. All the prominent kings agree to attend.

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Parva 26: Arghyaharana Parva

The sacrifice proceeds smoothly. On the last day, the king is required to choose from among his guests a chief recipient of the ritualistic offering that marks the end of the ceremony. This offering is called arghya.

Yudhishthir publicly asks Bhishma who among the attending kings is most deserving of the honour. And the son of Shantanu says, ‘As the sun is the most luminous of objects in the sky, so is Krishna the most brilliant man among us all.’

Yudhishthir is gladdened that Bhishma has echoed his own thoughts. He invites Krishna to the main seat and proceeds to perform the rituals surrounding the giving of the arghya.

It is at this moment that Shishupala, the king of Chedi, rises in his seat. He begins to insult Krishna, and proclaims that the prince of Dwaraka is nowhere near deserving of receiving Yudhishthir’s arghya.

He throws vile abuses at all the attending elders. With his grandstanding, he influences some of the assembled kings who start to show signs of supporting his words.

As Yudhishthir wavers on how to handle this situation, Shishupala swells and swells in power, going further in his insinuations. It comes to a stage where he is now entertaining thoughts of engineering a revolt right there in the middle of the Rajasuya.

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Parva 27: Shishupala Vadha Parva

As Shishupala flexes his range, Bhishma addresses the assembly and tells the story of how Shishupala was born.

It so happens that Shishupala is the son of Krishna’s maternal aunt, Srutashrava. During the boy’s childhood, Krishna is said to have given Srutashrava a promise that he will pardon ‘a hundred of her son’s sins’.

Krishna is sitting at his seat, silently counting off Shishupala’s abuses. When he believes that the king of Chedi has overstayed his welcome, Krishna rises to his feet and tells the gathered kings about Shishupala’s past cruelties.

After enumerating the man’s sins, Krishna declares that he will now kill him. Without fuss, he raises his Sudarshana Chakra and lets it fly toward Shishupala’s throat.

Meanwhile, Shishupala has been challenging Krishna to a duel moments ago. But now he sees his death approaching him, and he turns to flee. But the Sudarshana Chakra beheads him.

Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya, therefore, ends with bloodshed.

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Parva 28: Dyuta Parva

This is the section in which the first game of dice occurs.

It all begins with a visit from Vyasa to Yudhishthir’s court. The sage makes a pronouncement: ‘I have seen portents that the race of Kurus will destroy itself and the world in the next thirteen years.’

Yudhishthir is aghast at these words. Here he is, seated atop his throne overlooking an entire empire, and Vyasa is prophesying that the Kuru dynasty will fall.

He takes a vow right then and there that for the next thirteen years, he will never disobey any word of King Dhritarashtra. By being conciliatory in all matters, he believes, conflict can be avoided.

Shortly after this, an invitation arrives from Dhritarashtra, calling the Pandavas to play a game of dice with Duryodhana. Despite knowing that he is walking into a trap, Yudhishthir consents to go because of his oath.

At the dice game, all sorts of terrible things happen. Yudhishthir loses his kingdom. He loses his brothers. He loses himself. Then he loses Draupadi.

In an infamous scene, Draupadi is brought to the hall and Duhsasana tries to disrobe her. She asks the assembly whether Yudhishthir has the right – after losing himself – to pledge his wife as a stake in the game.

After plenty of back and forth, Vidura implores Dhritarashtra to call off the game. Dhritarashtra complies, and even gives back to Yudhishthir his lost kingdom.

The Pandavas and Draupadi leave Hastinapur for Indraprastha in their chariots.

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Parva 29: Anudyuta Parva

After the Pandavas leave, Duryodhana addresses Dhritarashtra and paints a picture of the Pandavas as angry, revenge-seeking men.

‘You have seen the state in which they left our place, Father,’ he says. ‘Bhima and Arjuna will never forgive what has happened here. At the earliest opportunity, they will assemble an army and invade us.’

Duryodhana’s plan is to mitigate this by inviting the Pandavas for a second game of dice. The terms are going to be thus: the loser of this game will be forced to go to the forest for twelve years of vanavaasa (exile in the forest). At the end of the twelfth year, they will embark upon a year of agnyaatavaasa (exile in hiding).

If their true identities are discovered during the thirteenth year of hiding, they will be required to return to the forest for twelve more years.

Dhritarashtra sends a messenger behind the departing Pandavas. They’re brought back to the hall of Hastinapur, and another game is hastily arranged between Yudhishthir and Shakuni.

The game begins and ends in a flash. Yudhishthir loses. As the Pandavas and Draupadi prepare to leave on their exile, Duhsasana taunts them with vile words.

This brings on four vows from the Pandavas: Arjuna promises to kill Karna. Sahadeva takes an oath to kill Shakuni. Bhima addresses his dead ancestors and tells them that he will drink Duhsasana’s blood, and that he will kill all of Dhritarashtra’s sons himself.

This brings to a close the Sabha Parva of the Mahabharata.

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Parva 30: Aranyaka Parva

As the Pandavas are about to leave for the forest, a number of Brahmins approach Yudhishthir and announce their intention to accompany them. Yudhishthir is bemused by this. He wonders how the Pandavas – who are now destitute – can feed these men.

Dhaumya the priest advises Yudhishthir that he should propitiate Surya, because it is from the sun that we all receive energy.

Yudhishthir does so, and in response to his prayers, receives a magical bowl called the Akshayapatra.

Handing it out to Yudhishthir, he says, ‘Accept this vessel, O King. It will multiply all the food that is made in your kitchen such that it will never exhaust its contents. Only after Panchali has eaten will the vessel become empty, only to fill up the next day once again.’

Meanwhile, in the Kuru court, a sage called Maitreya visits Dhritarashtra. Duryodhana behaves insolently toward this man, to which Maitreya responds with a curse.

‘For your impertinence, Prince,’ he says, ‘I curse you that when the time of the great battle comes, Bhimasena will shatter those very thighs on which you stand.’

This further bolsters the oath that Bhima has taken during the first dice game that he will shatter Duryodhana’s thighs.

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Parva 31: Kirmira Vadha Parva

While the Pandavas are making their way through the Kamyaka forest, as they enter the deep section of the woods, a fearsome giant of a Rakshasa waylays their path and howls at them.

The five Pandavas surround Draupadi protectively, and Yudhishthir asks the Rakshasa: ‘Who are you and where have you come from?’

‘My name is Kirmira,’ the Rakshasa says, ‘and I am the brother of Bakasura. I inhabit these parts of the woods and kill passing travellers for my food. Who are you to have foolishly ventured into my domain?’

As Yudhishthir introduces himself and his brothers, at the mention of Bhimasena, Kirmira’s eyes light up. ‘I have been waiting to fight you and avenge my brother!’ he says.

At these words, Arjuna begins to quietly string his Gandiva. But Bhima steps forward with a smile and says, ‘Leave this to me, Partha.’ He then uproots a tree to use as a mace.

The two men enter into a prolonged fight, hurling trees and rocks at each other. At the end, Bhima strangles Kirmira and frees Kamyaka of the annoyance of the Rakshasa.

Here, the Pandavas make their home at Dhaumya’s hermitage.

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Parva 32: Arjunabhigamana Parva

The Vrishnis and the Panchalas visit the Pandavas at the retreat of Dhaumya. Seeing her brothers and father visit her, Draupadi loses control over herself and weeps.

Her sorrow morphs into anger, and she curses the many wicked men who had humiliated her during the dice game. Krishna explains to her why he had not been present at the dice game, and how he would have stopped the farce if he hadn’t been away.

(It so happens that while the dice game is happening in Hastinapur, Krishna is engaged in a fierce battle with a king named Salwa who had invaded Dwaraka in Krishna’s absence.)

Afterward, a lengthy discussion takes place between Arjuna and Yudhishthir about whether might or forgiveness is the more potent form of retaliation against one’s enemies.

Arjuna argues for might while Yudhishthir speaks for forgiveness. Regardless, at the end of the debate, the brothers agree that right at that moment, Drona and Bhishma are way too powerful for the Pandavas to handle.

Yudhishthir advises Arjuna to go forth in search of weapons. ‘Go and propitiate your father, Sakra,’ says Yudhishthir. ‘He will tell you where you can procure all the weapons that will make you a fearsome fighter.’

Arjuna sets out on his quest.

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Parva 33: Kairata Parva

Arjuna’s first stop is at Indrakila, where he prays to Indra. Indra tells his son that the first thing he should do is to please Lord Shiva in order to get the Pashupatastra from him.

Taking this advice, Arjuna worships Shiva over a period of four severe months. So sincere is his devotion that the sages and gods of the world persuade Shiva to appear in front of the Pandava and grant his wishes.

Shiva disguises himself as a hunter, and accompanied by Parvati (who dresses in the garb of a huntress), floats down to the tree in Indrakila under which Arjuna is standing on one foot.

At about the same time, an Asura called Muka disguises himself as a wild boar with the intention of killing Arjuna. (We are not told why.) As the boar is charging at the prince, he interrupts his worship to pick up the bow and shoot at the beast one well-aimed arrow.

But two arrows strike the boar on the side, and it falls to its death. One of them is Arjuna’s. The other belongs to a hunter who steps into the clearing accompanied by his wife. He tells the prince, ‘You have ventured into my part of the woods, O Brahmin. And the beast you shot at was first felled by my arrow. The meat is therefore mine.’

Arjuna is amused at the courage of a mere hunter to challenge him. A fight erupts between the two, during which Arjuna progressively realizes that this man is not what he claims to be.

Eventually, he comes to learn that he has been fighting Shiva himself. He falls on the lord’s feet and asks for forgiveness.

After Arjuna’s pride has been thus thwarted, Shiva rewards him with the Pashupatastra.

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Parva 34: Indralokagamana Parva

After acquiring the Pashupatastra, Arjuna receives a number of gifts from several gods of heaven who visit him in Indrakila. Indra then takes Arjuna back to Amaravati in his celestial chariot.

Immediately after his arrival in Indra’s city, Arjuna strikes up a friendship with a Gandharva named Chitrasena. This man teaches Arjuna how to dance. Indra encourages this practice, stating mysteriously that a Kshatriya ought to learn the softer arts as well.

Around the same time, Arjuna stares at the celestial maiden Urvasi, struck by the realization that she is his ancestress. But Chitrasena misinterprets the gaze as one of desire. He arranges for a clandestine meeting between the two.

When Urvasi propositions Arjuna, he rejects her. ‘You are my ancestress, my lady. How can I think of uniting with you?’

This angers Urvasi, because from her perspective she had been led on by both the Pandava and the Gandharva. She curses Arjuna that he will have to spend a year of his life as a eunuch.

An alarmed Arjuna goes to his father with this news. Indra is unperturbed by it all, and says, ‘Do not worry. This will come in good use during the thirteenth year of your exile.’

Indra then sends Sage Lomasa to Yudhishthir to calm the king’s nerves about Arjuna’s absence. Indra decrees that Arjuna will help him defeat the Nivatakavachas.

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Parva 35: Nalopakhyana Parva

At the beginning of this section, we are shown the four brothers and Draupadi plunged in sorrow and grief, and Bhima once again takes it upon himself to insult Yudhishthir for his lack of initiative.

As the brothers argue, a sage called Brihadaswa comes to the hermitage. After welcoming him and offering him a seat, Yudhishthir gives in to a lament. He complains of all the misfortunes that he had had to suffer, and declares, ‘I must be the most wretched of all kings in the world.

Sage Brihadaswa stops him and says, ‘No, Your Majesty. I know the story of a man named Nala, a Nishada prince, the son of Virasena. When he was living in the forest, he had no slaves, no kinsmen and no friends.

‘You have your brothers supporting you, you have your wife, and you also are in the presence of Brahmins who are like the celestial sages themselves in wisdom.’

Overcome by curiosity at these words, Yudhishthir asks Brihadaswa to narrate the tale of Nala in full detail.

Nala’s story is told in two parts: first about Nala the king of the Vidarbha kingdom staves off resistance from four gods to win the affection of Damayanti; second about how Nala loses his kingdom to his brother over a game of dice, and is forced to go into exile.

Nala’s story has a happy ending: he challenges his brother for a second game of dice, wins it, and regains the love of Damayanti.

Brihadaswa thus assures Yudhishthir that at the end of the long tunnel of despair, the Pandavas will see hope and victory.

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Parva 36: Tirtha Yatra Parva

After the departure of Brihadaswa, the Pandavas and Draupadi resolve to go on a pilgrimage of all the pious spots in the country so as to pass the time productively while waiting for Arjuna to return.

During the course of this long journey, the Pandavas visit several hermitages and sages. They listen to a number of stories. Gradually, they journey northward and approach the mountain of Gandhamadana.

Ghatotkacha and his band of Rakshasas help the Pandavas navigate this barren terrain. The Rakshasas carry the Pandavas and Draupadi to the foothills of the Gandhamadana.

This journey takes about five years to complete. Three significant events happen during this phase to the Pandavas:

  • Bhimasena meets with his elder brother Hanuman, who tells him the story of the Ramayana, and promises to adorn the mast of Arjuna’s chariot so that the Pandavas will be blessed with victory.
  • Bhima kills Jatasura the Rakshasa, who is another of Bakasura’s brothers.
  • Bhima arrives at the Saugandhika forest and collects the golden lotuses that Draupadi likes.

The Pandavas arrive at last at the hermitage of Nara-Narayana, where they live in the company of Sage Arishtisena.

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Parva 37: Yaksha Yudha Parva

The Pandavas move northward now, close to the summit of Yakshas and Rakshasas lorded over by Kubera. They set up camp at the hermitage of Sage Arishtishena.

A few days later, Draupadi tells Bhima that she wishes to see the summit of Kubera with her two eyes.

‘All the Yakshas of the universe cannot touch me,’ she says, ‘when you are by my side. The sounds and smells that come here from the mountain are tantalizing me beyond imagination. Will you see to it, O Vrikodara, that I get to experience the beauty of the place from closer?’

Bhima does not need more of an invitation than that. He picks up his weapons – a sword, a bow and a mace – and scales the mountain. When he arrives at the entrance to the city of Kubera, a horde of Yaksha guards waylay him.

‘No humans are to be allowed inside, by the king’s orders,’ the guards say. ‘If you do not turn back now, we will be forced to use violence upon you, O Prince.’

What follows is a period of utter carnage, with the minions of Kubera being tossed around in all directions by the whirling arms of Bhima. Just as the rest of the guards are preparing to flee, there appears on the scene a friend of Kubera’s called Manimana.

He arrives bearing a mace, and hurls it at Bhima, who blocks its path with his own weapon. In the fight that follows, he kills Manimana and sends the rest of the guards flying in fear to Kubera.

Kubera flies into a rage when he finds out that the Pandavas are invading his property. He rides out at the head of an army, only to find Yudhishthir humbly bowing to him and asking for his forgiveness.

Kubera then reveals to the Pandavas that Manimana had been cursed by a sage in the past that he will be killed by a mortal, and that same mortal will annihilate all of Kubera’s forces.

The lord of wealth now invites the Pandavas to stay at the garden as his personal guests. Here the Pandavas wait for Arjuna’s return.

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Parva 38: Nivatakavacha Yudha Parva

While the king and his brothers are engaged in long periods of contemplation, wandering about in those surroundings and listening to stories from the many sages, Arjuna takes his leave from Indra.

The god of kings instructs Matali to leave his son near the Gandhamadana.

Having arrived at the mountain, Arjuna, with matted locks, first pays his respects to Dhaumya, and then in turn to Yudhishthir, Bhimasena and the twins.

He then meets Draupadi as if she were his sister-in-law. This reunion is described in the text without much fanfare, in almost prosaic fashion.

Arjuna then sits down with his family and tells them what he had been doing these last five years. The rest of the Pandavas also fill him in on events that had occurred in their lives in his absence.

Arjuna tells him two stories – one concerning the Nivatakavachas, and the other about a flying city called Hiranyapuri.

The Nivatakavachas are a class of Rakshasas that have received a boon from Brahma that they cannot be killed by any celestial being. So Indra engages Arjuna’s services to eliminate them. The Danavas of Hiranyapuri also meet the same fate.

Arjuna has returned, of course, with plenty of divine weapons in his quiver. He displays them to his brothers the next day – the Brahmastra, the Pashupatastra, the Vajrayudha, the Gandiva, and so on.

With this, Arjuna’s quest is complete. He is now much more powerful than Bhishma and Drona can ever hope to be. The Pandavas are now strong enough to dream of revenge against the Kauravas.

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Parva 39: Ajagara Parva

The Pandavas now leave Kailasa and make their way back to the forest of Dwaita. Here, Bhima one day goes for a walk and wanders into a cave where a serpent is lying in wait.

He gets captured by the serpent, and is about to be eaten when Yudhishthir arrives on the scene. A conversation now develops between the snake and Yudhishthir, during which the reptile asks the king a number of questions.

It so happens that the serpent is actually a king named Nahusha, serving out a curse. In the olden days, Nahusha was installed as the king of the gods, but he turned out to be conceited that Vasishtha cursed him to become a snake and to live out his life until a ‘virtuous king’ comes to rescue him.

As Nahusha peppers Yudhishthir with questions and Yudhishthir calmly answers each one, it becomes clear to the snake that his moment of deliverance has come.

These questions cover the territories of politics, ethics, law, spirituality and philosophy. But Yudhishthir answers them all to Nahusha’s satisfaction, thus rescuing Bhima’s life.

Later, Yudhishthir will perform a similar feat during the Yaksha Prashna to rescue all of his brothers from death.

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Parva 40: Markandeya Samasya Parva

The Pandavas continue to live in the forest of Dwaita. After a short while, Sage Markandeya comes to visit them.

What follows is a lengthy conversation between Markandeya and the Pandavas. Among the many things they discuss, these are the more prominent topics:

  • The history of Vaivaswata Manu, the first of men, and how a child on the Banyan – who is Narayana in disguise – guides Vaivaswata in the act of saving the world.
  • The histories of great kings such as Sibi, Yayati and Indradyumna.
  • The stories of Angirasa, Madhu-Kaitabha, Dhundhumara, and how a Brahmin learned of the importance of ethics and morality from a fowler.
  • The history of Skanda – his birth, rise to prominence, his fight with Indra, and his eventual victory against the Asuras.

The section ends with Markandeya telling Yudhishthir about the greatness of Skanda. During this conversation, Krishna and Satyabhama also arrive at the hermitage. A conversation ensues between Draupadi and Satyabhama, the details of which we will see next.

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Parva 41: Draupadi Satyabhama Samvada Parva

The main topic of conversation between Draupadi and Satyabhama is how the former manages to live harmoniously with five husbands.

While Krishna and the other men are conversing outside with Markandeya, the two women repair into one of the huts in the hermitage, and Satyabhama asks the question that has been haunting her.

‘How do you ensure that there is peace among the six of you, Panchali?’ she asks.

Draupadi replies that the most important tool in the hands of a wife is to let go of her personal wrath and vanity while serving her husband. She says that she relies on well-chosen words rather than emotions to make her point to the Pandavas.

‘I regard my husbands as poisonous snakes,’ she says, ‘capable of being excited beyond measure at mere trifles. So even when I know that they are in the wrong, I choose to win them over with humility, good humour, cheer and empathy.

‘‘I love them with all my heart, and indeed, when any one of them is away for a period of time, I find that I yearn for his company. This sort of love builds only with time, and cannot be mimicked.’

The last piece of advice that Draupadi gives Satyabhama is to keep all private conversations private.

‘Do not bother with selectively choosing which to reveal and which to keep to yourself,’ she says. ‘If your husband has shared something with you in confidence, do not share it with anyone.’

After Draupadi has shared the secrets of being a dutiful wife with Satyabhama, Krishna enters the hermitage from outside – where he has been sitting with the Pandavas. The couple then set out for Dwaraka.

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Parva 42: Ghosha Yatra Parva

During this section, Duryodhana and Karna – abetted by Shakuni – decide to visit the Pandavas in their forest retreat with the sole intention of ridiculing them for their misfortune.

Ostensibly, Duryodhana tells Dhritarashtra that he wishes to go to Dwaita to examine some cattle that the Kuru kingdom rears there. He gathers together a retinue of servants and soldiers and sets out.

As luck would have it, he gets into a quarrel with a group of Gandharvas in the forest, over the point of whether or not Duryodhana is allowed to have water from a particular lake.

The quarrel escalates into a full-blown battle, from which Karna flees in fear. Duryodhana stays back and fights, only to be soundly defeated and taken prisoner.

The servants of Duryodhana then approach the Pandavas and tell them of what has happened. Bhima laughs and thinks that Duryodhana has finally reaped what he has sown, but Yudhishthir commands his younger brothers to go save their cousin.

Arjuna and Bhima thus fight the Gandharvas and rescue Duryodhana. Duryodhana returns to Hastinapur ashamed, and he considers suicide. But the Rakshasas get together and speak him out of it.

As if to showcase his loyalty, Karna goes on a lengthy expedition of conquest during which he wins the world for Duryodhana’s benefit. They perform a sacrifice with a golden plough in Duryodhana’s honour.

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Parva 43: Mriga Sapnobhava Parva

A deer appears to Yudhishthir in a dream and tells him that the time has come for the Pandavas to leave Dwaita.

‘I represent the deer that are still alive in this forest, O King,’ says the animal to Yudhishthir. ‘Your brothers are all heroes, well-versed in weapons. If you live for much longer in this place, all of the deer in this place will be exterminated. Therefore, please leave this forest and set up your abode in some other.’

Yudhishthir wakes up from his sleep, addresses his brothers, and tells them that they’re about to leave Dwaita.

Accompanied by all the Brahmins and servants that have come to rely on their protection, the Pandavas journey out of Dwaita and into the forest of Kamyaka.

This is the place where they began their exile almost twelve years ago.

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Parva 44: Bruhi Drounika Parva

In this section, the primary tale is that of Sage Mudgala, who attains heaven by giving away just a simple vessel (‘drona’) of corn in charity.

Mudgala is a sage, truthful and free of malice, that lives in Kurukshetra. His occupation is that of picking fallen grains left on the ground after harvesters have gathered and carried away the sheaves in corn fields.

During a typical month, he and his family (wife and son) eat for the first fortnight and spend the remaining days collecting corn in a vessel.

One day, Sage Durvasa comes to meet Mudgala, semi-naked, head bereft of hair, starved to the bone. And he immediately launches into an angry tirade at seeing no food in the hut.

‘I have come here to eat, O Mudgala,’ he says. ‘I have been told that you feed anyone who comes to your house. Yet I see nothing here to sate my appetite.’

Mudgala reaches for his vessel of corn and places it in front of Durvasa, showing him to his seat. ‘With the grace of the gods, I have never run out of food when in the presence of a guest, O Sage. Please have your fill.’

Durvasa eats the corn and goes on his way. But this leaves the family of Mudgala with nothing. Durvasa repeats this test six consecutive times, wondering if and when Mudgala’s generosity will break.

But Mudgala continues to be charitable right to the end, even when his own family is starving. This impresses Durvasa and the gods so much that they reward the sage with a place in heaven.

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Parva 45: Draupadi Harana Parva

Durvasa arrives at the royal court of Hastinapur, and Duryodhana waits on the sage with plenty of false respect. Durvasa is still impressed by the Kaurava prince, though, and gives him a boon.

‘My dear brother, Yudhishthir,’ says Duryodhana, ‘is the eldest of our race, Venerable One. And he is now living in the forest accompanied by his wife and four brothers.

‘It is my wish that you, along with your thousands of disciples, bestow upon him the good fortune of a visit. And make it so, O Sage, that you descend upon them them after sundown, so that they will have enough time on their hands to care for you.’

Duryodhana’s wish is that Durvasa’s entourage will overwhelm the Pandavas, and that the sage will end up cursing the five brothers out of anger. But Krishna intervenes in time with his magic to make sure that Durvasa and his disciples leave the Pandavas’ hermitage well-fed and satisfied.

Shortly after this, the Sindhu king Jayadratha spots Draupadi one afternoon when the Pandavas are out. Despite knowing who she is, he stupidly decides to abduct her and make her his queen.

He manages to carry her some distance by force, but the returning Pandavas catch up with the Saindhava, rescue their wife, and punish the interloper. Bhima shaves off Jayadratha’s head and leaves five tufts of hair on the scalp.

‘May this remind you always, you wretch,’ he says, ‘that you are a slave to the Pandavas!’

Though this is Jayadratha’s fault, it does not stop him from feeling humiliated. He begins a long period of severe penance aimed at pleasing Lord Shiva – with the sole intention of avenging the Pandavas.

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Parva 46: Jayadratha Vimokshana Parva

Jayadratha propitiates Lord Shiva and asks him for the boon: ‘Grant it, my lord, that I shall be able to one day vanquish the Pandavas in battle.’

But Shiva – even the ever-generous Shiva – proclaims himself powerless to grant this wish. ‘Arjuna and Krishna are none other than Nara and Narayana, O King,’ says Shiva. ‘And in the upcoming battle, they will be mounted on top of the chariot of Agni. It is impossible for even the gods to defeat them.’

But, he says, Jayadratha will be able to defeat the four other Pandavas and the entire army of Yudhishthir – for one day. That is the extent to which Shiva is willing to raise Jayadratha’s prowess.

Jayadratha accepts this boon, and on the thirteenth day of the Kurukshetra war, guards the mouth of Drona’s Chakravyuha from the onslaught of Yudhishthir’s army with such skill that Abhimanyu gets cut off from his reinforcements.

This forces Abhimanyu alone into the Chakravyuha, and the boy is slaughtered to death.

Jayadratha thus becomes the single most significant factor in Abhimanyu’s death, so much so that Arjuna takes an oath to kill him on the fourteenth day. This is the seminal moment of the Kurukshetra war.

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Parva 47: Ramopakhyana Parva

After Jayadratha has been dispensed with, Yudhishthir sits down with the ascetics of Kamyaka and hears the story of the Ikshvaku king, Rama.

The entire Ramayana is told to Yudhishthir now – in slightly abridged form – by the sages. The following topics are covered:

  • The birth of Rama and Ravana
  • The origin of monkeys – also called vanaras
  • The exile of Rama
  • The death of Maricha and the abduction of Sita
  • The quest and return of Hanuman
  • The construction of the stone bridge
  • The invasion of Lanka by Rama’s army
  • The arrival and death of Kumbhakarna
  • The destruction of Indrajita
  • The final duel between Rama and Ravana, and Ravana’s defeat
  • The return of Rama to Ayodhya and his installation as king

The sage Markandeya consoles Yudhishthir that if Rama could bring down the mighty Lanka with only monkeys and bears as allies, so can Yudhishthir reclaim his kingdom after his exile.

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Parva 48: Pativrata Mahatmya Parva

Markandeya now tells Yudhishthir the story of Savitri, the chaste wife of Satyavan who fought a battle of wits against the lord of death, Yama, to bring back her husband to life.

Savitri marries Satyavan knowing that the young man is destined to die young. She is however determined to save him. One day, as they are our walking in the forest, Satyavan gets gripped by a fever and his heart stops beating.

Savitri begins walking with Yama, and engages the celestial in a conversation about wisdom and morality. At each step, she impresses Yama enough to extract from him a boon.

‘I am pleased with your perseverance,’ Yama says. ‘Ask me for one more boon, anything but the life of your husband.’

‘Then make it so that I have a hundred sons of my own by Satyavan, O Lord,’ says Savitri.

Yama grants her the wish, but Savitri then asks him how she could have sons of her own when her husband is dead. Yama realizes then that he had been tricked, and gives Satyavan’s life back.

Markandeya finishes the story and tells Yudhishthir that Draupadi is as chaste a wife as Savitri was, and that the Pandavas do not need to worry on her behalf at all.

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Parva 49: Kundalaharana Parva

Toward the end of the Pandavas’ twelfth year of exile, just as the thirteenth year is about to set in, Indra disguises himself as a Brahmin and approaches Karna with the intention of stealing his kavacha-kundalas (armour and earrings).

Knowing of Indra’s intentions, Surya appears to Karna as a Brahmin and warns him of what is about to come.

‘A Brahmin will arrive at your door in a short while, O Karna,’ says Surya, ‘and ask for the armour and earrings that have adorned your body since your birth. He knows that your character is such that you will never reject a Brahmin’s request. I have come to tell you, therefore, that you should deny this man at all costs.’

Karna, on the other hand, is pleased that Indra himself is going to descend to Earth and ask something of him. He tells Surya that no matter what, he cannot say no to the king of the gods.

So it happens that Indra appears in front of Karna and asks for the kavacha-kundalas. Karna peels off his skin and presents the gifts to Indra. Indra is so impressed by this show of generosity that he gives Karna boon.

Karna asks for the Vasava dart, one of Indra’s most powerful weapons. Crucially, it is the one weapon to which neither Arjuna nor Krishna has a counter.

Indra does not give the Vasava wholesale to Karna. He grants him only one use of it. This means that Karna will have to be very careful not to use the weapon on anyone besides Arjuna if he is to get his wish.

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Parva 50: Aranya Parva

This is the last section of the Vana Parva. It begins with an elusive deer escaping the arrows of the hunting Pandavas. When the five brothers sit down by a tree to rest, Sahadeva goes about in search of water.

When he does not return after a long time, Yudhishthir sends Nakula after his brother. But he also does not return. Arjuna and Bhima then go after the twins, one after the other.

Yudhishthir alone waits for his brothers to return. But when they do not, he sets out to track them down. He arrives at a lake which is being guarded by a Yaksha, on whose bank the four Pandavas are lying prone on their backs, comatose.

The Yaksha tells Yudhishthir that if he can answer all his questions, only then will the brothers be brought back to life.

Yudhishthir agrees. On a previous occasion, he enters into a similar arrangement with Nahusha the serpent to save Bhima’s life. This time, the examination is more exacting, the questions more numerous and varied.

The interrogator is also none other than Yama in disguise.

Nevertheless, Yudhishthir manages to answer every question of the Yaksha satisfactorily. At the end of it all, Yama reveals himself, restores the Pandavas to life, and blesses them with every success during the year of hiding.

This brings the Vana Parva to an end.

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Parva 51: Pandava Pravesha Parva

After due deliberation on which kingdom to enter during their thirteenth year, the five brothers finally decide on Virata, the ruler of the Matsyas. No particular reason is given for this choice; Yudhishthir just mentions that Virata is ‘virtuous, powerful, and a friend to the Pandavas’.

In the choices that Arjuna gives Yudhishthir, there are Panchala, Chedi, Shurasena and Kunti as well. Interestingly, they don’t even consider Dwaraka, because it would be too obvious a choice.

Panchala would be too close to Hastinapur, not to mention that Karna had recently vanquished it. Shurasena and Kunti are the homes of Vasudeva and Pritha respectively, so the Kauravas would have them teeming with spies to spot any conspicuous entry by strangers.

Yudhishthir takes on the name of Kanka, and becomes the courtier of Virata. Arjuna becomes Brihannala the asexual dance-teacher. Bhima dons the disguise of a cook and goes by the name Valala.

Nakula and Sahadeva become Granthika and Tantripala respectively, looking after Virata’s stables and cattle-houses. Draupadi offers to become a waiting woman to Virata’s queen Sudeshna.

The Pandavas collect all their weapons into a bundle in the shape of a human corpse, and leave it on the topmost branch of a sami tree immediately next to a cemetery. From there, they enter the court of Virata one by one.

For the first ten months, the Pandavas spend uneventfully in Virata’s court – except for the killing of wrestler Jimuta by Bhima. This time is sometimes called the Samayapalana Parva.

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Parva 52: Kichaka Vadha Parva

Trouble enters the Pandavas’ lives in the final month of the year in the form of Kichaka, brother of Sudeshna, commander of Virata’s army.

He happens to spot Draupadi waiting upon his sister, and wishes to possess her. (This is not unreasonable behaviour from a prince; waiting women and maids are often summoned to their masters’ beds to satiate their lust.)

Despite Queen Sudeshna’s warnings and Draupadi’s rejection of his advances, Kichaka continues to pursue her. After his attempts at seduction fail, he resorts to threats in order to lure Draupadi into his bed.

Sudeshna gives her brother free rein, and an emboldened Kichaka now chases Draupadi around Virata’s palace into the king’s court which is in session, with courtiers sitting and discussing matters.

Draupadi finds herself for a second time in the deplorable situation of being disrobed by a man in public with her husbands watching. However, this time, the Pandavas decide to take revenge almost immediately.

Bhimasena enlists Draupadi’s help in enticing Kichaka into the dance hall at night. Then, disguising himself as a woman, he sits waiting for his quarry to arrive. In the dead of the night, he kills the wicked man.

The death of Kichaka throws the security of Matsya into disarray. Almost immediately, Duryodhana launches an attack on Matsya’s cattle with the intention of opportunistically looting the kingdom when it is weakened.

What he does not know, however, is that Virata now has other – more powerful – allies in his ranks.

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Parva 53: Goharana Parva

The Kuru army attacks Matsya from two sides. On one side is the division led by King Susharma of the Trigartas. Virata, Yudhishthir, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva march out at the head of the Matsyan army to fight them.

This leaves the eastern side of Matsya undefended and open for attack. Duryodhana leads a part of his army here with the sole intention of looting the many cattle-sheds that Virata has in this region.

Only Uttara Kumara (also called Bhuminjaya), the son of Virata, is available to fight. He takes Brihannala along with him as charioteer and rides out to meet the Kuru stalwarts.

But the moment he sees them in the flesh, Bhuminjaya’s courage deserts him. He commands Brihannala to turn around and flee the battlefield.

Brihannala takes Bhuminjaya to the sami tree where the Pandavas had hidden their weapons a year ago. He reveals himself as Arjuna, and rides out back to face the Kuru army – this time with Bhuminjaya holding the reins.

What follows is perhaps the most unbelievable one-man-shows in the history of warfare. Taking on the combined might of Bhishma, Drona, Kripa, Ashwatthama, Karna and Duryodhana, Arjuna easily protects Virata’s cattle on his own.

The Kauravas recognize Arjuna, but before they can get too pleased about the fact, Bhishma reminds them that the period of incognito had already ended the day before.

On the other battle-front, Virata succeeds in protecting that part of his kingdom from Susharma’s attacks – with Yudhishthir, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva providing ample support.

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Parva 54: Vaivahika Parva

For three days after the victory, the Pandavas keep their identities secret from Virata just to wait for an auspicious day. Then, on the morning, Arjuna meets with Virata and introduces his brothers and wife to the king.

Virata is beside himself with regret for having treated the Pandavas as servants for the last one year. But Yudhishthir reminds him that he had done them a huge favour by allowing them to hide in his court.

As a gesture of goodwill, Virata offers the hand of his daughter Uttara to Arjuna. But since Arjuna has spent a good part of the year in the capacity of the princess’s teacher, he rejects the offer.

‘Instead, O King,’ he says, ‘let Uttara marry my son Abhimanyu. I have always thought of her as my daughter. She will enter our family as a daughter-in-law.’

The wedding of Uttara and Abhimanyu turns out to have much significance in hindsight. It is their son, Parikshit, that carries forward the Kuru line into the next generation.

Also, it is at the wedding of Uttara and Abhimanyu that all the Pandava allies assemble. After they have blessed the couple, they begin discussions about how (and indeed, whether) to fight the upcoming war with the Kauravas.

This brings the Virata Parva to an end.

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Parva 55: Sainyodyoga Parva

The assembled kings at the Uttara-Abhimanyu wedding begin to discuss the various sides to the Pandava-Kaurava matter.

Krishna starts off proceedings by saying that the Pandavas have successfully completed their terms of the agreement. Now it is the turn of the Kauravas to return the kingdom to the sons of Pandu.

If the Kauravas refuse, the only alternative is war.

Satyaki, on the other hand, posits that negotiation can never happen from a position of weakness. He asserts that Yudhishthir should proceed with the assumption that war will happen. He should begin to gather his allies, declare his intention to fight, and then negotiate with the Kauravas.

Drupada agrees with Satyaki. The two sides now begin to make agreements privately with various kings in order to garner support.

Virata, Drupada and Satyaki immediately pledge their allegiance to Yudhishthir. Duryodhana commands a much larger force, bolstered by additions of Krishna’s Narayana Astra and of the single akshauhini of troops contributed by Shalya.

Anarta, the kingdom of Balarama, decides to remain neutral in the war. Kritavarma fights for Duryodhana, whereas Krishna – unarmed and under oath not to resort to violence – volunteers to drive Arjuna’s chariot.

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Parva 56: Sanjayayana Parva

Drupada sends an envoy to talk with the Kauravas, but this man takes an unnecessarily antagonistic tone while delivering his message.

Instead of making it seem that the Pandavas desire peace, he almost threatens the Kuru court with destruction, extolling the valour of Arjuna and Bhimasena, and the power of their seven akshauhinis.

From the start, Bhishma is understandably on the side of peace whereas Karna and Duryodhana imagine that their army is much stronger, so a path of peace would be interpreted by observers as weakness.

Dhritarashtra then sends Sanjaya to speak with Yudhishthir. Sanjaya’s strategy is to play upon Yudhishthir’s well-known love for non-violence and saintly deeds.

Without ever making a proposal about whether the kingdom will be transferred or not, Sanjaya attempts to dissuade Yudhishthir from the misery that is sure to occur if a war is fought.

‘You have lived among sages and are considered high-souled,’ says Sanjaya. ‘Please do not set your path on violence.’

Yudhishthir, though, remains steadfast and firm. He explains to Sanjaya that he does not wish to fight. But he also does not wish to forego the kingdom that is rightfully his.

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Parva 57: Prajagara Parva

As war becomes more and more likely, Dhritarashtra finds himself losing sleep. Part of his apprehension comes from knowing that the Kuru dynasty is being torn apart, but he is also worried that his own sons are going to die at the Pandavas’ hands.

He calls Vidura to his side and confesses his feelings.

In an effort to soothe his king’s heart, Vidura launches into a lengthy discourse about ethics and morality. Among the things he tells Dhritarashtra are the following:

  • How a wise man disallows his judgement from being clouded by desire
  • How a wise man remains balanced in moments of success and failure, joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain
  • How humility is the hallmark of wisdom
  • How forgiveness is the highest virtue, and how Dhritarashtra will be best served by asking for Yudhishthir’s mercy
  • How Dhritarashtra’s love for Duryodhana has mired the entire Kuru dynasty, and why it is not yet too late to correct matters

After listening to everything that Vidur has to say, Dhritarasthra acknowledges the wisdom spoken by his minister. ‘Whenever I hear you speak, my mind inclines toward the Pandavas,’ he says.

‘But then I come in contact with Duryodhana, and my love for him overcomes all. No creature is able to avert fate. This, I am afraid, appears to be mine.’

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Parva 58: Sanatsujata Parva

The Sanat Sujata gets underway by Vidurs explaining to Dhritarashtra that a sage called Sanat Sujata will be invited to that place in order to answer some of the king’s further questions.

Vidura thinks of the sage and the latter magically appears in Dhritarashtra’s court. After he is welcomed and shown his seat, the king begins to ask him a number of questions.

One of the cornerstones of Sanat Sujata’s discourse is the notion that there is no death. The sage says that no one really knows what form death takes, and what the experience is like.

Nobody living can ever know death, he says. Therefore, there is no death. Only life.

‘If men were to cast off their natural propensity to chase things that are fleeting,’ he says, ‘and if they can turn their souls to the source of light that exists within them, if they can turn their minds to knowledge, they can banish the death of ignorance from their lives. And such a man, no death can ever reach. For these men, truly, there is no death.’

Sanat Sujata also discourses on a number of other topics such as virtue and vice, the object of asceticism, the nature of Brahman, and so on.

He also advises Dhritarashtra that the best course of action is to make friends with the Pandavas. Dhritarashtra again claims to be powerless in the hands of Duryodhana.

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Parva 59: Yanasandhi Parva

Sanjaya returns to Hastinapur and relays Yudhishthir’s message to Dhritarashtra in the presence of all Kuru elders.

Bhishma and Drona once again make the call for peace. And this time, Dhritarashtra also asks Duryodhana to consider this option. But Duryodhana and Karna arrogantly claim that the Pandavas’ army is no match for the Kuru force.

Bhishma rises and insults Karna. ‘For all your bravado in assemblies of this sort, O King of Anga,’ he says, ‘you have lost to Arjuna in every battle you have fought. When men pick up arms to fight, you are often nowhere to be seen.’

Karna is upset with Bhishma’s words. He takes an oath that he will not fight until Bhishma is alive. This quarrel between the two warriors will fester into something more significant as the war approaches.

Despite advice from all quarters to consider giving the Pandavas their kingdom, Duryodhana insists on war.

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Parva 60: Bhagavatyana Parva

The Pandavas send Krishna to Hastinapur for one last attempt at brokering peace between the two factions. Surprisingly, in this section, Bhima speaks for peace and encourages Krishna to find some middle ground.

The Pandavas agree to take merely five villages of the Kuru kingdom. When Krishna mentions this to Dhritarashtra, Duryodhana sneers and says, ‘I shall not give them even a needle-head’s worth of land.’

(While the Pandavas make concessions in their demands just because they do not wish to fight, Duryodhana interprets this as a sign of cowardice and weakness.)

Duryodhana also hatches a plot to apprehend Krishna and keep him prisoner until the war ends. Krishna laughs at this, and shows his divine form to the assembly. ‘I am the universe,’ he says. ‘How will you capture me?’

On his way back from Hastinapur, he has a private meeting with Karna, where he reveals that Karna is the son of Kunti – and as such, he is the eldest Pandava.

Krishna offers Karna the kingdom in return for a betrayal of Duryodhana. ‘If you come and fight by your brothers’ side,’ he says, ‘I shall see to it that you will become king. And Draupadi will become your queen. She will bear your sons!’

Karna refuses. Krishna returns to the Pandavas and tells them that his efforts – predictably – have failed. War is inevitable.

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Parva 61: Sainya Nirnaya Parva

War preparations escalate on both sides. The Pandavas pick Dhrishtadyumna as their commander. The Kauravas unanimously give Bhishma the honour.

Bhishma declares that the Pandavas are too dear to him to fight directly. Instead, he says, he will turn all his energies onto the common soldiers fighting for the Pandavas. His strategy is to deprive the Pandavas of fighting forces as quickly as he can.

Balarama officially takes the decision to withdraw from battle. He says that the Pandavas and Kauravas are equally dear to him.

Rukmi, the brother of Rukmini, also takes a neutral position in the war. He offers his services to both Arjuna and to Duryodhana – but is rejected by the two men.

In the final analysis, as the armies congregate on opposite sides of the Kurukshetra, we see that the Kauravas have eleven akshauhinis whereas the Pandavas have only seven. The numbers favour the Kuru establishment.

However, it bears noting that the Pandavas – in Arjuna, Bhima, Satyaki and Krishna – have more talismanic warriors. On the Kuru side, one may argue that only Bhishma and Drona are similarly gifted.

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Parva 62: Ulukabhigamana Parva

Duryodhana sends a messenger called Uluka with the sole intention of carrying out some psychological warfare with the Pandavas.

Uluka presents himself at the Pandava camp and begins to deliver threat after threat. He insults the five brothers in many ways, always ensuring to remind them that these are not his words bur Duryodhana’s.

Duryodhana’s wish is to destabilize the thinking of the Pandavas. But it has the opposite effect. It revs up Arjuna and Bhimasena especially. Both men reiterate their vows of killing Karna and Duryodhana respectively.

All five brothers send individualized messages back with Uluka. When the messenger carries the information back to the Kuru camp, Duryodhana and Karna shrug it off.

Dhrishtadyumna appoints individual warriors as chiefs for each of his akshauhinis. Interestingly, the Panchala army decide to leave Arjuna as a ‘free agent’, unencumbered by leadership responsibilities.

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Parva 63: Ratathiratha Sankhyana Parva

Duryodhana asks Bhishma to estimate the relative strengths of the two armies. The method is to classify each known hero into one of two groups: either a ratha (a great chariot warrior) or an atiratha (a warrior as great as eight rathas).

Bhishma goes through the roster of heroes and gives Duryodhana his opinion on each. On the Kaurava side he names himself, Drona, Kritavarma and Bhagadatta as atirathas.

On the Kaurava side, Satyaki, Bhimasena and the Upapandavas are atirathas. When it comes to Arjuna, Bhishma refuses to classify him, proclaiming him to be in a class of his own, way higher than an atiratha.

With Bhima, Bhishma delivers a warning that the second Pandava is the most versatile of all warriors, equally adept at fighting on foot or on chariot, with a weapon or without, against a human enemy or an animal. This elevates his effectiveness over that of your average atiratha as well.

A fight breaks out between Bhishma and Karna when the former mockingly calls the latter an ardha-ratha, or a half-ratha.

Karna stalks out of the room in anger, and Bhishma tells Duryodhana that between himself and Karna, only one man should fight on the battlefield at any one time.

Duryodhana chooses not to placate his friend, and goes with the tried and tested services of Bhishma.

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Parva 64: Ambopakhyana Parva

Bhishma then tells Duryodhana that he will be unable to fight against Shikhandi, the son of Drupada. When asked why, Bhishma reveals that Shikhandi had been born a woman and had later transitioned into a man.

‘I have taken an oath that I shall not fight an opponent who is or has once been a woman,’ says Bhishma.

This is news to Duryodhana, who is surprised to learn of Shikhandi’s past. He asks Bhishma to tell the whole story.

Bhishma then tells Duryodhana the story of Amba, the eldest princess of Kosala who had been earmarked to become the queen of Vichitraveerya. But she had chosen to marry another king named Subala.

Subala, however, rejects her because he sees her as alms given away by Bhishma. By the time Amba returns to Hastinapur, Vichitraveerya also has moved on, and refuses to take her as wife.

Amba blames Bhishma for her fall from privilege, and tries in many ways to convince him that he should marry her. But Bhishma refuses – even taking up arms against his preceptor Parashurama to defend his oath.

With no recourse available to her, Amba prays to Shiva. The lord tells her that she will get her revenge, but only in her next life. Eager to be reborn, Amba immediately consigns herself to flames.

And takes birth in Drupada’s house as Shikhandini. As a young woman, Shikhandini turns into a man named Shikhandi.

Telling this story, Bhishma reiterates that he cannot be expected to fight against Shikhandi.

This brings the Udyoga Parva to an end.

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Parva 65: Jambhukhanda Vinirmana Parva

The two sides agree upon the rules of war. Among other things, these include guidelines such as one must only fight an opponent of equal standing, one must not fight an unarmed or a fleeing enemy, and one must not harm one’s enemy when he is sleeping.

All these rules of Dharma Yuddha (‘fair war’) are broken during the course of the Kurukshetra battle. At the end of it all, Ashwatthama goes on a rampage to slaughter all his enemies during the dead of the night, when they’re sleeping.

Vyasa visits Dhritarashtra and asks him if he would like the gift of sight so that he can watch the war. But Dhritarashtra says, ‘I cannot bear to see the destruction of my race with my own eyes.’

As a consolation, Vyasa gives Sanjaya the gift of omniscience. For the eighteen days, not only is he able to see things all over the battlefield, but he is also divine people’s individual thoughts. He is also given protection from all weapons so that he does not die.

Sanjaya is then tasked with describing the war to Dhritarashtra as it happens.

Vyasa makes one final attempt to sway Dhritarashtra’s mind toward peace. But Dhritarashtra again refuses.

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Parva 66: Bhumi Parva

Sanjaya gives Dhritarashtra a lesson in geology here, telling the king everything about all the various lands that lie beyond Hastinapur.

These descriptions sometimes defy belief and science: for instance, Sanjaya describes lands that are made of ghee and butter, and rivers of milk that flow down mountains.

Here are a few things that Sanjaya covers during his conversation with Dhritarashtra:

  • He speaks of lands that lie to the north of Meru.
  • He gives a complete account of all the kingdoms and cities that make up the region known as Bharatavarsha.
  • He describes an island called Sudarshana and another island called Sakadwipa.
  • He says there are four oceans in the world.
  • He gives Dhritarashtra another summary of how the yugas follow one another in a never-ending cycle.

The context behind all of this information is not explicitly stated. It just seems that Sanjaya is trying out his newfound powers of sight and describing all that he sees to Dhritarashtra.

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Parva 67: Bhagavad Gita Parva

As the armies face off against each other on the field of Kurukshetra, Arjuna gets disheartened upon seeing his uncles, cousins and preceptors lined up against him.

He throws off his Gandiva and tells Krishna that he is unable to fight. ‘What wealth will I enjoy, Krishna,’ he asks, ‘if I gain it by shedding the blood of my kinsmen?’

This acts as a leading question for Krishna to launch into conversation with Arjuna that becomes the Bhagavad Gita.

The two fundamental points of the Bhagavad Gita are:

  • Renunciation is the act of renouncing oneself not from action but from consequences of action. Because the result of an action is a combination of many unforeseen events, one must detach oneself from it. One must be wholly attached to action.
  • Of all the most debilitating ills of the human mind, the two most important are fear of failure and expectation of success. In order to achieve peace of mind, a man must learn to let go of both of these.

After the Bhagavad Gita has been imparted to Arjuna, the hero regains his confidence and once again picks up the Gandiva.

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Parva 68: Bhishma Vadha Parva

This section describes the first ten days of the war. This period is characterized by Bhishma holding the fort between the two armies, and making sure that none of the Pandavas are harmed while simultaneously killing thousands of common Panchala soldiers.

Arjuna is the only warrior on the Panchala side that is capable of withstanding Bhishma’s onslaught. But he is reluctant to fight at full power.

This infuriates Krishna. On two occasions he loses his temper and almost raises his arm to hurl the Sudarshana Chakra at Bhishma. Both times, he is thwarted by Arjuna who promises that he will do better.

On the end of the ninth day, Krishna reaches the end of his tether and proclaims the time has come for Bhishma to be removed.

The Pandavas go to Bhishma’s tent and asks him how they could kill him. Bhishma tells them that he would not fight against Shikhandi because the prince had once been a woman.

On the tenth day, therefore, the Pandavas formulate a strategy by which Arjuna fights against Bhishma while keeping Shikhandi as a human shield. Over the course of the day, Bhishma gets worn down by arrow after arrow piecing his armour.

Toward the end of the day, Bhishma falls on his bed of arrows.

This marks the end of the Bhishma Parva.

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Parva 69: Dronabhisheka Parva

At the fall of Bhishma, the two sides stop fighting for a while and pay their respects to their grandsire. The Pandavas and Kauravas sit together with their weapons cast aside, reminiscing about old times.

Late at night, Karna visits Bhishma to seek the older man’s blessings. Bhishma apologizes to Karna for all the ill-feeling between them. He admits that Karna is in fact an atiratha.

Bhishma also tells Karna that he knows him to be the eldest Pandava. He implores Karna to change Duryodhana’s mind even at this late stage. But Karna refuses.

Karna rejoins the battle now by Duryodhana’s side because Bhishma is no longer fighting. Drona is made the commander of the Kuru army.

Duryodhana makes a plan that if Yudhishthir can be captured alive and brought to Hastinapur as prisoner, he could be persuaded to play yet another game of dice and the Pandavas can be tricked into going on another exile.

Though the plot is far-fetched, Drona promises Duryodhana that he will do all that he can to capture Yudhishthir.

On the eleventh day, therefore, the primary goal of the Kuru army is the capture of Yudhishthir. However, Arjuna gets wind of this strategy through his spies and stays close to his elder brother at all times. Yudhishthir is thus protected.

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Parva 70: Samshaptaka Vadha Parva

On the evening of the eleventh day, Duryodhana is flummoxed that Drona has failed in keeping his promise. Drona accepts Duryodhana’s criticism, but points out that as long as Arjuna is protecting Yudhishthir, it is impossible to capture him.

Drona proposes that if he has to have another go at capturing Yudhishthir on Day 12, Arjuna has to be diverted.

Answering this call is the army of the Trigartan king Susharma. These soldiers take the oath that from the twelfth day onward, they will either kill Arjuna or be killed themselves.

This vow to the death gives them the name of Samshaptakas.

On the twelfth day, therefore, very early in the morning, the Samshaptakas challenge Arjuna and lure him away to one edge of the battlefield, leaving Drona free to execute his strategy of capturing Yudhishthir.

Despite the exertions of the likes of Bhima and Satyaki, Drona succeeds in reaching Yudhishthir. He almost defeats the eldest Pandava in battle, but just in the nick of time, Krishna drives Arjuna back in the ranks so that Yudhishthir can be protected.

For a second time in a row, Drona thus fails in keeping his promise to Duryodhana.

The other noteworthy incident that happens during this day is that Bhagadatta, after a long and arduous battle with Arjuna, loses his life. He is one of the great atirathas of the Kaurava army.

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Parva 71: Abhimanyu Vadha Parva

Duryodhana is once again angry at Drona. He goes so far as to suggest that Drona is being partial to the Pandavas.

Drona merely smiles, but it is clear that he is hurt by his ward’s accusations. ‘I told you that Arjuna has to be kept away if we are to succeed,’ he says. ‘He needs to be away from the battlefield for the whole day, not merely part of it.’

When the Samshaptakas renew their vow, Drona promises Duryodhana that he will kill one Pandava atiratha for sure on the next day.

As the thirteenth day dawns, the Pandavas see that Drona has arranged the Kuru forces in the Chakravyuha formation. Arjuna and Krishna are dragged away once again by the Samshaptakas.

Of the available heroes, only Abhimanyu knows how to break open Drona’s array. Bhima and Satyaki assure the young boy that once he breaks it open, they will follow him and prevent the formation from recreating itself again.

The plan is foolproof in theory, but what comes as a surprise is that Jayadratha, guarding the opening of the Chakravyuha, keeps at bay the entire army of the Panchalas by himself – thus cutting off Abhimanyu from his reinforcements.

Trapped inside the Chakravyuha alone, Abhimanyu lets loose a torrent of destruction on the Kuru forces. But at the end, he succumbs to a coordinated attack by six atirathas and their soldiers.

The death of Abhimanyu marks the turning point of the Mahabharata war. From here, the violence escalates rapidly, and the death toll mounts relentlessly.

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Parva 72: Pratignya Parva

On their return to camp after killing thousands of Samshaptakas that evening, Arjuna notices that there is a sombre mood all around him. No musical instruments are playing. All the soldiers are turning away their heads.

Abhimanyu, he notes, has not come running to welcome him as he does every evening.

On entering Yudhishthir’s tent, he sees all his five brothers immersed in gloom. He takes a moment to put two and two together, and without anyone needing to prompt him, he slaps his forehead. ‘Alas,’ he says. ‘Abhimanyu is no more.’

After a brief period of grief, he collects himself and asks Yudhishthir how Abhimanyu met his death. Yudhishthir tells him everything.

Out of the entire scene, Arjuna decides that it is Jayadratha who was most responsible for his son’s death. From a neutral point of view, of course Jayadratha was only performing a task assigned him by Drona.

But Arjuna is not in the mood to view anything objectively. He takes an oath that before the end of the next day, he will either kill Jayadratha or consign himself to flames.

This news travels across the Kurukshetra and Jayadratha wonders if he should flee. But Duryodhana sees this as an opportunity: if he succeeds in protecting Jayadratha, Arjuna will be forced to kill himself. So he persuades Jayadratha to stay.

Drona also gives Jayadratha courage. ‘I will build an array tomorrow that is impenetrable even by the gods!’ he says.

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Parva 73: Jayadratha Vadha Parva

On the morning of the fourteenth day, Drona outdoes himself. He creates a three-pronged array which resembles a Sakata Vyuha (box formation) from the front and a Soochi Mukha Vyuha (a needle-head formation) from the back.

Joining these two is a Padma Vyuha (lotus formation) packed with a dense layer of horses, elephants and footmen. Drona positions himself at the mouth of the Sakata Vyuha, ready for Arjuna.

Arjuna relies on Krishna’s guidance on this day. He passes Drona without fighting him. He scythes through the Padma Vyuha, and fights off all the atirathas that are guarding Jayadratha at the needle formation.

Just as the sun is about to set, aided by some magic from Krishna, Arjuna manages to behead Jayadratha and fulfil his oath.

At the same time, while Arjuna is single-mindedly pursuing Jayadratha, Satyaki and Bhima also independently pierce Drona’s impenetrable array.

Satyaki kills Bhurishrava after the latter has renounced his arms. This becomes the first unholy act to be committed on the excuse of Abhimanyu’s death. Following this precedent, Dhrishtadyumna kills Drona in much the same fashion later.

All in all, between the three of them, Arjuna, Bhima and Satyaki kill seven akshauhinis of Kuru troops on this single day.

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Parva 74: Ghatotkacha Vadha Parva

After the death of Jayadratha, the Kauravas make a decision to allow the battle to continue into the night.

The main thrust of the night battle is the valour shown by the likes of Ghatotkacha and Alambusha, both Rakshasas. Because Rakshasa powers are enhanced at night, both warriors cause significant damage to their enemies.

Ashwatthama is the main antagonist for Ghatotkacha. On this evening, the son of Drona comes into his element and repeatedly thwarts the illusory powers of the son of Bhima.

As the night progresses, Karna begins to fight at the best of his ability, and the Panchala soldiers look toward Arjuna for help. As Arjuna gears up to face his arch nemesis, Krishna stops him and says, ‘Let someone else face Karna today, Partha.’

Krishna’s fear is that because Karna has the Vasava dart in his possession, Arjuna is in mortal danger if they are to face off. Instead, he recommends that Ghatotkacha be sent to fight against Karna.

Ghatotkacha takes on the mantle with enthusiasm. He and Karna fight for a long, long time. At the end, with all the Kuru soldiers yelling at him to kill Ghatotkacha somehow, Karna pulls out the Vasava and hurls it at Ghatotkacha.

Ghatotkacha sees the approaching missile, knows that his end is near, and swells up to the size of a giant so that when he falls to the ground, he crushes a whole akshauhini of troops under him.

Soon after this, at midnight, the armies take a break from fighting and sleep on the battlefield.

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Parva 75: Drona Vadha Parva

The fighting continues right through the morning of the fifteenth day. Drona finds himself in remarkable fighting form here, so much so that Krishna comes to the conclusion that the Pandavas cannot win until the preceptor is accounted for.

Once again the dilemma is the same: only Arjuna is capable of defeating Drona, and Arjuna is unable to fight his teacher at full tilt.

Krishna therefore suggests an underhanded ploy that goes like this:

  • Bhima first kills an elephant named Ashwatthama.
  • He returns to the battlefield and tells Drona that ‘Ashwatthama is dead’.
  • Drona does not believe Bhima’s words. He seeks out Yudhishthir and asks if it is true.
  • Yudhishthir also says, ‘Ashwatthama is dead.’ After a short pause, under his breath, he mutters, ‘Ashwatthama the elephant.’
  • This confirms to Drona that his son has been killed. But he continues to fight.
  • Bhima now launches a tirade against Drona, blaming him for sinning against the Brahmin race.
  • As the words pierce him one by one, Drona finally renounces his weapons and sits down to meditate on the terrace of his chariot.
  • While Arjuna wishes to take Drona prisoner, Dhrishtadyumna leaps at the opportunity and severs Drona’s head.

A number of sins are committed in this act: Yudhishthir lies to Drona about the death of Ashwatthama; Drona is killed after he has renounced his weapons; Drona is killed while he is meditating, so it is like killing someone in his sleep.

This is the one sin that Yudhishthir is punished for after he passes into heaven. So even the gods censure this act.

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Parva 76: Narayanastra Mokshana Parva

The death of Drona gives rise to an argument inside the Pandava ranks. Arjuna is angry at Dhrishtadyumna for taking the life of the preceptor in such an unholy manner.

Dhrishtadyumna stays firm, and claims that all he wanted was to fulfil his destiny. Satyaki argues on behalf of Arjuna and insults Dhrishtadyumna. In return, Dhrishtadyumna reminds Satyaki that he had killed Bhurishrava just the previous day in precisely the same fashion.

With the two warriors drawing weapons on each other, Krishna intervenes. He points across the plain at the advancing Ashwatthama.

‘Look,’ he says. ‘Angered by the death of his father, the son of Drona is sweeping over the battlefield like a forest fire. This is not the time for us to fight among ourselves; let us focus on the enemy instead.’

Ashwatthama uses the Narayanastra on the Pandava army, thinking that it would destroy them all. But Krishna – as the incarnation of Narayana – knows how to repel it. He tells everyone that the only way to fight back the Narayanastra is by removing all feelings of violence from one’s heart.

The soldiers in the Panchala army obey Krishna’s instructions. Though Bhimasena insists on being troublesome and attacks the Narayanastra for a while, he sees how futile it is and falls back in line.

This failure of the Narayanastra plunges Ashwatthama into despair. Vyasa appears and tells him that Krishna is impossible to vanquish, even with a divine weapon.

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Parva 77: Karna Parva

At the death of Drona, Duryodhana appoints Karna as commander of the army.

For two full days – the sixteenth and seventeenth – Karna leads Duryodhana’s army with distinction. He manages to win battles against all four Pandavas: Yudhishthir, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva.

He spares all of them in order to keep his promise to Kunti.

On the evening of the sixteenth day, Karna argues with Duryodhana that the only thing that is stopping him from winning a battle against Arjuna is the difference in quality between their respective charioteers.

‘While Krishna is driving Arjuna’s chariot,’ he says, ‘I have no one who is comparable to him. Can you please arrange for Shalya the king of Madra to drive my chariot tomorrow? With him as charioteer, I am certain to defeat Arjuna.’

This is not a socially appropriate request, because Shalya is not only a family elder but also a king. Asking him to drive the chariot of a low-born man is beyond the pale. But Duryodhana does so.

What does Duryodhana does not know is that Shalya has already been instructed by Yudhishthir to sabotage Karna’s efforts in case he ever drives his chariot.

So on the seventeenth day, Shalya taunts and discourages Karna throughout his battles. Even at the end, when Karna’s wheel sinks to the ground during his battle with Arjuna, Shalya refuses to help him.

Arjuna kills Karna in the final battle that brings the curtain down on this day.

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Parva 78: Shalya Vadha Parva

Soon after Karna is killed, Shalya is made commander of the Kuru army. Early on the eighteenth day, Yudhishthir takes a vow that he will kill Shalya.

Summoning all his brothers, in the presence of Krishna he says, ‘Bhishma, Drona and Karna,’ he says, ‘have put forth their powers for the sake of Duryodhana, and you have all fought to make sure that all of them were defeated. Only my share of the spoils – the impetuous Shalya – is still alive. I wish today to defeat and kill the Madraka emperor, so that our victory in this war will be assured.’

He then goes on to assign roles to his colleagues. ‘Nakula and Sahadeva, the sons of Madri,’ he says, ‘will be the protectors of my front wheels.

‘The grandson of Sini will protect my right rear wheel, and Dhrishtadyumna my left. Let the son of Pritha, Dhananjaya, guard my rear as I embark upon this quest today. And let Bhimasena fight in front of my chariot, clearing the path of my vehicle.’

The normally mild and soft-spoken Yudhishthir displays his fierce form now in his challenge with Shalya, sporting like a mighty wind eager to disperse all clouds from the sky.

After a long battle, Yudhishthir kills Shalya.

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Parva 79: Shalya Parva

This section primarily deals with the disintegration of the Kaurava army immediately following Shalya’s death.

Duryodhana tries to rally his forces, but the Madraka soldiers, without their leader, become fodder for the likes of Satyaki, Arjuna and Bhimasena.

Ashwatthama fights at his best to hold the forces of Duryodhana together, but too many of Panchala heroes are still alive. They pick out the remaining soldiers and whittle down the Kuru army steadily.

In the midst of all this mayhem, Duryodhana flees from the battlefield even as Sahadeva fulfils his vow and kills Shakuni. Around the same time, Bhimasena kills Duhsasana, tears open his heart, and drinks his blood.

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Parva 80: Hrada Pravesha Parva

Duryodhana flees the battlefield now and enters a lake on the outskirts of Kurukshetra. With his magic, he freezes the surface of the lake and conceals himself underneath it.

In the meantime, the Pandavas are finishing off the last remnants of soldiers remaining in the Kuru army. Bhimasena kills off the last of the Kauravas.

Ashwatthama, Kripacharya and Kritavarma leave the battlefield to look for Duryodhana. They find him at the bottom of the lake and try to persuade him to come out to fight the Pandavas.

But Duryodhana refuses to budge. He says, ‘It is almost dark now. Let us come back tomorrow and fight.’ During this conversation, a few people that the Pandavas have sent to look for Duryodhana see what is going on. They go back to report their findings to Bhima.

The Pandavas thus come to find Duryodhana at the bottom of his lake, and coax him out for a final showdown to settle the matter once and for all.

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Parva 81: Gada Yudha Parva

Duryodhana comes out of the lake and gives Yudhishthir a challenge. ‘I will fight any one of you in single combat, and the winner should be given the kingdom.’

To everyone’s surprise, Yudhishthir agrees to this trade – as opposed to simply killing Duryodhana and proclaiming himself victorious in the war. Krishna gets angry at the eldest Pandava, wondering out loud when he will ever learn.

But Bhima steps forward and brushes aside Krishna’s worries. ‘Do not fret, O Madhava,’ he says. ‘I will not let this wretch win today. Consider the Pandavas already won!’

Bhima and Duryodhana begin preparations for their final battle with maces. Around this time, Balarama returns from his pilgrimage and sits down to watch the duel.

Despite his lofty proclamation, Bhima struggles to land any significant blows on Duryodhana during the fight. Krishna explains to Arjuna that Duryodhana cannot be defeated except by unfair means.

Arjuna then slaps his thigh meaningfully while looking at Bhima. Bhima takes the hint, and at the next available opportunity, brings his mace down on Duryodhana’s thighs with a thud, crushing them.

Duryodhana wails in protest that the move was an unfair one. But Krishna counters by saying that almost everything that Duryodhana had done to the Pandavas in their lives had been unfair.

He also acknowledges that winning against a more powerful foe using underhanded methods is not considered wrong.

The Shalya Parva ends with the Pandavas calling an end to the war and leaving Duryodhana at the bank of the lake to die.

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Parva 82: Sauptika Parva

Soon after the Pandavas leave from the place, Ashwatthama, Kripa and Kritavarma come to visit Duryodhana. Ashwatthama promises Duryodhana that he will avenge all of the wrongs that the Pandavas have committed during the war.

A little bemused but not wishing to discourage, Duryodhana makes Ashwatthama the commander of his ‘army’. At this point, only three fighting men have been left alive.

As they set out in the dead of the night toward the Pandava camp, the three of them rest for a while under a tree. Here, Ashwatthama sees an owl attack a group of sleeping birds with its claws.

This gives him an idea. He tells Kripa and Kritavarma that he intends to attack the Pandava camp that very night. Kripa is not enthusiastic about the plan because of its moral implications, but he eventually agrees.

At the entrance to the Pandava camp, Ashwatthama sees a grotesque figure standing guard. Realizing that it is Shiva, the son of Drona prays to him. The lord blesses Ashwatthama with all the power of his followers.

Energized by the blessings of Shiva, Ashwatthama massacres all the sleeping Panchala heroes without mercy. Shikhandi, Dhrishtadyumna and the Upapandavas are the chief ones among his victims.

The carnage continues through the night. At daybreak, Ashwatthama goes back to Duryodhana and gives him the good tidings. Duryodhana praises the son of his preceptor, and dies with a smile on his lips.

Only seven men among the Pandavas are now alive: the five Pandavas, Krishna and Satyaki.

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Parva 83: Aishika Parva

When news of what has happened overnight reaches the Pandavas and Draupadi, they are shocked. Draupadi is beside herself with grief at learning of the deaths of her brothers and sons.

She implores with Yudhishthir to avenge her loss. Yudhishthir is reluctant to do so, reasoning that the war has already come to an end.

In desperation, Draupadi requests Bhimasena to chase down Ashwatthama and to make sure that all his sins are well answered for. Unable to say no to his wife, Bhima ascends his chariot and goes after Ashwatthama’s trail.

The Pandavas and Krishna also follow Bhima. When they catch up with Ashwatthama, it is at Vyasa’s hermitage. Arjuna and Ashwatthama begin to fight with their bows and arrows drawn.

Ashwatthama uses the Brahmastra during this fight, to which Arjuna responds with the same missile cast in its defensive form. Vyasa intervenes and tells both warriors to call back their respective weapons because they may destroy the world.

Arjuna does so immediately. But Ashwatthama claims to not have the ability to call back his weapon. Vyasa, therefore, sees to it that the weapon is targeted at the wombs of the Pandava women.

This means that all the wives of the Pandavas are at once rendered infertile with this. Even the foetus growing in Subhadra’s womb is struck dead. But Krishna promises that he will bring him back to life, thus ensuring the Pandava line continues.

Krishna then curses Ashwatthama with a long, painful life here on Earth. The Pandavas take Ashwatthama’s gemstone from his forehead and present them to Draupadi as a trophy signifying their victory over him.

Thus ends the Sauptika Parva.

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Parva 84: Vishoka Parva

The Pandava brothers and the women from the Pandava camp meet with Dhritarashtra and Gandhari on the bank of the river Ganga. Dhritarashtra asks for Bhima, gesturing that he wants to hug him.

Krishna divines the old king’s intentions – to crush Bhima with the strength of his arms – and silently signals to replace Bhima with an iron statue. Dhritarashtra breaks the statue into pieces and then laments the death of Vrikodara.

Krishna consoles Dhritarashtra and tells him that the real Bhima still lives.

Gandhari is also troubled by the manner in which the Pandavas had killed her sons. She burns Yudhishthir’s toenails when he comes to pay his respects.

Later, she asks Bhima for an explanation on two issues: one, how Bhima had killed Duryodhana by crushing his thighs; and two, how he had drunk the blood of Duhsasana like a beast.

Bhima apologizes for both instances. He tells Gandhari that Duryodhana would have been undefeated if one fought him only with fair means. As for Duhsasana, Bhima assures Gandhari that he did not drink his cousin’s blood. He merely touched it to his lips.

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Parva 85: Stri Parva

In this section, all the women of the Kuru family express their distaste and grief at all the men who had died in the war.

Gandhari leads the way; she mourns Duryodhana, Duhsasana, Drona and all the prominent men of the Kuru kingdom. Draupadi and Kunti also shed many tears at the deaths of the Upapandavas, Drupada, Virata and the like.

Moved to anger, Gandhari then curses Krishna that the Yadavas will also one day perish in exactly the same way as the Kurus: through infighting. It is her stance that Krishna could have prevented the war but had chosen not to do so.

Krishna accepts this curse from Gandhari with mute respect. He does not argue or defend himself.

Gandhari’s words will come true many years later during the events of the Mausala Parva.

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Parva 86: Shraddha Parva

After Gandhari’s loud lamentation, Krishna consoles the bereaved mother and tells her that the Kauravas deserved the deaths that they got because of their wickedness.

Dhritarashtra asks Yudhishthir about how many men had lost their lives, and where they are currently.

Yudhishthir replies: ‘One billion, 600 million, 20,000 men have fallen in this battle, O King.’ As for where the dead men are currently residing, Yudhishthir says the following:

  • Those who have willingly given up their bodies in battle have all been sent to the region of Indra.
  • Those who have fought in the battle reluctantly have attained the companionship of Gandharvas.
  • Those who were killed while fleeing or while begging for mercy are now living among the Guhyakas.
  • Those who – even while unarmed – did not flinch when faced by enemies who wielded weapons went to the region of Brahman.
  • Those who were dragged out of their hiding places and killed went to the regions inhabited by the Uttara-Kurus.

Dhritarashtra recommends that Yudhishthir should perform the final funeral rites of all the fallen men. Yudhishthir agrees, and commands Yuyutsu and Sanjaya to make necessary arrangements.

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Parva 87: Jalapradanika Parva

On the bank of the Ganga, the Pandavas make offerings to all the men whose lives had been lost in the Mahabharata war.

Kunti reveals her secret to her sons at this point. She comes up to Yudhishthir and says, ‘You are forgetting to pay your respects to one particular hero.’

Yudhishthir is perplexed by this, and asks his mother who she means.

Kunti says, ‘Karna.’

Yudhishthir and the Pandavas are angered by this insinuation at first. But after Kunti tells them the entire story – how she had been impregnated by Surya, the sun god, and how she had been forced to abandon Karna as an infant – they break down in grief.

Yudhishthir laments, ‘So far I have been thinking that I had to kill only my grandfather, my cousins and my uncles to win this kingdom. Now I have realized that I killed my own elder brother too.’

Considering that an elder brother is thought to be as important in one’s life as one’s father, the Pandavas are convinced that they have committed an extreme sin by cultivating enmity with Karna.

In his anger, Yudhishthir (perhaps unfairly) curses all women of the world that henceforth, they will not be able to keep secrets. And then he dutifully performs Karna’s water-rites.

This brings an end to the Stri Parva.

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Parva 88: Rajadharma Anushasana Parva

Soon after Yudhishthir takes on the mantle of king, he sits down with ascetics to discuss the various ways in which peace can be restored to the land. This discussion happens in the presence of Bhishma, who is still alive on his bed of arrows.

This section details the various ways in which a king should behave toward his subjects, enemies, family and friends.

Among other things, Bhishma lectures Yudhishthir on how a king should behave in different situations. He tells his grandson plenty of stories and parables that drive home his point.

One of the important ideas that comes out of this discussion is that a king should wield the rod of punishment and maintain law and order in the kingdom. A king therefore should be willing to judge and punish people for their sins.

In this respect a king is different to a sage. A sage can often retreat into the world of meditation and allow sinners to be punished by natural circumstances. A king, on the other hand, has to actively seek the maintenance of order.

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Parva 89: Apaddharma Anushasana Parva

In this section, the focus is on how a person should conduct himself while being peppered by obstacles and troubles.

The question that kicks off this part of the story is Yudhishthir asking Bhishma how a king that has already lost all his power to an invading force should behave.

Bhishma tells Yudhishthir several stories in this section that seeks to further the king’s knowledge on how to conduct himself when faced with unforeseen obstacles.

Among the many fundamental lessons that Bhishma imparts, one is that a king should always know how to balance the three goals of Dharma (Virtue), Artha (Wealth) and Kama (Desire).

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Parva 90: Moksha Dharma Parva

In this section, Yudhishthir and Bhishma discuss the various ways in which a man can attain Moksha or salvation.

Central to the idea of salvation is the thought that life is composed of four modes:

  • Brahmacharya
  • Garhastya
  • Bhaikshya
  • Vanaprastha

After an early period of education in which a man serves under a preceptor and learns of the world (Brahmacharya), he enters – after a rite signifying rebirth – the world of Garhastya, where he attempts to live with his wife and children, wrestling with worldly problems of running a house.

In this mode, the man is called a grihasti.

After this, he enters a state of Bhaikshya, where he is dependent on other people’s kindness for the continuation of his life. After this, he enters the forest and renounces everything he has, attempting to reconnect with the higher self by meditation and penance.

When the time comes, this forest recluse renounces life itself and combines with the eternal soul. This is the Vanaprastha phase of his life.

By moving from one phase of life to another at the proper time, and by conducting himself impeccably throughout, a man can stand the best chance of attaining salvation.

This brings the Shanti Parva to an end.

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Parva 91: Dana Dharma Parva

During the Dana Dharma Parva, Bhishma tells Yudhishthir of the various ways in which a king should perform acts of charity in order to keep peace in his kingdom.

Charity is repeatedly extolled as the greatest of virtues. One of the functions of a king appears to be collecting taxes from producing members of his kingdom and to redistribute this wealth equally among all of his citizens.

Through some stories, Bhishma recalls the age-old dualism that is mentioned several times in the Mahabharata: that consequences are brought about by a mixture of destiny and effort.

A wise man realizes that unless he is destined to complete a task, no amount of effort will allow him to do so. Conversely, even if his destiny points one way, a man should complement it with effort and will.

Compassion and non-violence are also declared to be the highest of moral tenets.

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Parva 92: Bhishma Swargarohana Parva

The time has come for Bhishma to bid goodbye to the world of men. We are now in the final stages of the Anushasana Parva, as Vyasa addresses the son of Santanu and says:

‘O Gangeya, the Kuru chief Yudhishthir has been restored to his true state along with the rest of his brothers. He has indeed been educated by you upon various aspects of duty and wealth and desire and emancipation. He now seeks your permission to return to the city.’

Yudhishthir and his brothers pay their respects to Bhishma, and accompanied by Dhritarashtra and Gandhari and others, they go to Hastinapur.

Finally, on the fateful day of Bhishma’s passing, they go back to the bank of the river for one final conversation.

Bhishma says, ‘By my good luck, O Yudhishthir, king of Hastinapur, you have come here with all your councillors. Surya has begun his northward course. I have remained on this bed of arrows for fifty eight nights.

‘But the pain has made it seem longer than a hundred years! The lunar month of Magha has arrived. The long discussions with you on various matters have made my final few days in this world pleasurable. I thank you for this.’

With one final goodbye to Dhritarashtra and Krishna, Bhishma breathes his last.

This brings to an end the Anushasana Parva.

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Parva 93: Ashwamedhika Parva

Soon after the ascent of Bhishma to heaven, Yudhishthir undertakes to perform the Ashwamedha sacrifice, in which a sacrificial horse will wander all over the empire with a guardian in tow.

Every kingdom that the horse ventures into will be forced to either accept Yudhishthir’s supremacy or to fight the guardian and his army. In this particular case, the guardian happens to be Arjuna.

The big feature of the Ashwamedhika Parva is the consoling of Yudhishthir by Vyasa and Krishna in particular. At the Ashwamedha, Yudhishthir is once again besotted by grief and guilt at having to kill so many of his kinsmen.

Vyasa tells the king that he is nothing more than a tool of time. ‘Do not weep over your destiny, O King,’ says the sage. ‘You have merely been chosen to perform a task that the gods intended.’

Krishna’s more practical advice for Yudhishthir is to appreciate the case-and-effect nature of events. ‘Have you forgotten how Draupadi was made to stand naked in the middle of the hall, O King?’ he says.

Krishna then tells Yudhishthir that though he has won the war of the body, he is yet to win the war of the mind. ‘Your mind will destroy you if you don’t fight to conquer it, O King,’ he says. ‘For the rest of your life, your battle will be with yourself.’

Saying this, Krishna leaves for Dwaraka.

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Parva 94: Anugita Parva

Before Krishna leaves Indraprastha, he spends several hours in close, private conversation with Arjuna in one of the royal halls that belong to Yudhishthir.

Here, Arjuna tells Krishna, ‘Whatever you have told me before the war, O Madhava, I have already forgotten. Before you leave for Dwaraka, therefore, can you please reacquaint me with your teachings?’

And Krishna replies, ‘I made you realize the importance of all the mysteries that we call life, Falguna. I cannot recollect exactly what I told you, for my memory is not that strong either, but I shall narrate to you a history that expounds upon the same topics that we covered on the first day of battle.’

Krishna then tells Arjuna about a previous occasion on which Sage Kashyapa visited the royal court of Balarama in Dwaraka. A conversation happens between Kashyapa and another unknown Brahmin in the presence of Krishna, where the two men debate and discuss the nature of salvation.

This forms the crux of the Anugita Parva. It repeats much of philosophical content already presented during the Bhagavad Gita.

Also in the Anugita Parva:

  • Krishna rescues the foetus of Uttara and gives him life. The stillborn infant is given the name, Parikshit.
  • A tale is told of Arjuna’s battles with the Saindhava army and with his own son, Babhruvahana.
  • A blue-eyed mongoose arrives at the end of the Ashwamedha sacrifice and declares that Yudhishthir’s victory is a hollow one.

The Ashwamedha Parva thus comes to an end.

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Parva 95: Ashramavasa Parva

The Ashwamedha establishes Yudhishthir once again as the foremost king of the land. Even the kingdoms that had not fought in the Kurukshetra war have now come under his sway. He is the true emperor.

Dhritarashtra decides that the time has come for him to retreat into the forest and spend the last phase of his life quietly. He takes permission from his citizens, and accompanied by Gandhari, Kunti, Vidura and Sanjaya, leaves to the woods.

After a few months, the Pandavas and Draupadi set out to visit the Kuru elders. They’re astonished to find all five of them stricken to the bone and wasting away.

Yudhishthir meets privately with Vidura under a tree. They do not speak much to each other. But Vidura dies in Yudhishthir’s presence.

Vyasa tells Yudhishthir that Vidura is an incarnation of Yama, so in some ways he is Yudhishthir’s father. At the moment of death, Vidura transfers his energy to Yudhishthir. Yudhishthir receives it and becomes the living embodiment of the lord of justice.

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Parva 96: Putradarshana Parva

Vyasa performs a miracle on the bank of the river Ganga. With his magic, he causes all of the important dead men of the Kurukshetra war to return to life for one night.

King Dhritarashtra has never seen his children. But today, Vyasa gives him the gift of sight. It is indeed poignant that the first time Dhritarashtra beholds his sons is after they have died.

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.

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.

And then, almost as suddenly as they appeared, they vanish.

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Parva 97: Naradagamana Parva

The Pandavas then return to Indraprastha. For two years they rule their kingdom. Then, Narada visits Yudhishthir and informs him of the passing of the three remaining Kuru elders.

‘After your return to 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, there is a forest fire, and Dhritarashtra makes the decision of walking into it instead of away from it. Both Kunti and Gandhari accompany him into the conflagration.

Sanjay bids goodbye to the sages of Ganga and heads northward to the Himavat mountain.

Thus ends the Ashramavasika Parva.

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Parva 98: Mausala Parva

Events of the Mausala Parva happen thirty six years after the end of the Kurukshetra war. This is when Gandhari’s curse for the Yadavas comes true.

One of Krishna’s sons, Samba, plays a prank on a group of important sages who come visiting Dwaraka. He hides a stone underneath his garment and pretends to be a pregnant woman.

The angered sages promise that the rock will bring about the destruction of the Yadavas.

Vasudeva, the father of Balarama, tries to stave off this curse by having the stone crushed and mixed in the sea. But the people of Dwaraka begin to slide into sin gradually, so much so that Krishna decides that the time has come to gather all the men of the city on the seashore.

Here, a quarrel erupts between Kritavarma and Satyaki. This blows up into a proper civil war in which Krishna and Balarama kill all of their kinsmen.

Balarama sits down to give up his life soon after. Krishna, after sending Daruka his charioteer to Hastinapur with a message for Arjuna, gets shot through the foot by a hunter and dies.

Arjuna arrives to rescue the remaining citizens of Dwaraka. But as he takes them back to Hastinapur, on the way he is attacked by robbers. He finds himself unable to fight them off.

He who has once been the most powerful archer in the world is now in a state where he cannot defeat mere robbers. He goes to Vyasa and asks the sage for an explanation.

Vyasa replies that the Pandavas’ time has come.

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Parva 99: Mahaprasthanika Parva

The Pandavas and Draupadi set out on their final journey after first installing Parikshit on the throne. They travel around the circumference of Bharatavarsha, their empire. At the end, they arrive at the foothills of Meru.

They hope to scale the mountain and to reach the abode of Indra in their mortal bodies. In their hearts they believe that their lives have been virtuous enough to warrant this.

In reality, though, only Yudhishthir manages to reach the summit without dying. On the way, Draupadi, Sahadeva, Nakula, Arjuna and Bhima all perish. Yudhishthir’s explanation for each of their deaths is the same: they have not been able to conquer their pride, partiality and attachment to possessions.

At the top of the mountain, Indra offers Yudhishthir a place in heaven, but he says that he must forsake the dog that had begun to accompany him from early on in the journey.

Yudhishthir refuses. He says the dog has put all of its trust in him, so it would be impossible for him to forsake it. He is willing to give up a place in Indra’s hall for the sake of his principles.

This happens to be just a test, however. The dog is actually Yama in disguise. The two gods appear to Yudhishthir in their divine form, and take him in the celestial chariot upward to Amaravati.

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Parva 100: Swargarohana Parva

Yudhishthir reaches heaven, and is once again tested by Indra. He is shown a scene which beggars belief. He sees that all the wicked men of Earth are being attended to in Indra’s court: Duryodhana, Duhsasana, Shakuni and so on.

He does not see his brothers or Draupadi anywhere. Nor does he see Drona, Bhishma, Shantanu and the like.

Indra then takes Yudhishthir to a dark, damp place where he is able to hear tormented cries of his brothers being tortured for their sins. He is given a choice of either staying in hell or going back to heaven.

Yudhishthir says, ‘Wherever my brothers and wife are, that is heaven for me.’

Indra then applauds Yudhishthir’s purity of character, and tells him that the real heaven awaits his arrival. The short stint in hell was necessary to atone for the lie that Yudhishthir told Drona on the battlefield.

Yudhishthir is now finally taken to heaven, where he reunites with his brothers and wife. He also sees all of his ancestors and well-wishers present there. Yudhishthir then takes his place among all the great kings of Earth in Indra’s hall.

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