In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes. This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.
(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 59: Krishna and Balarama Die. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
A list of topics that we will cover:
- The Pandavas Leave
- The End of Arjuna
- Climbing Mount Sumeru
- The Pandavas Die
- ‘Abandon the Dog’
- Yama Rewards Yudhishthir
- The Pandavas in Hell
- An Act of Deception
- Another Reunion
- Further Reading
The Pandavas Leave
Immediately after Arjuna’s return to Hastinapur, and after listening to the account of what happened with the Vrishnis, Yudhishthir decides that the time has arrived for the sons of Kunti to give up their material possessions as well.
He consults with each of his brothers and then with his wife, who all agree with him.
So he installs Parikshit, the son of Abhimanyu, on the throne. (If the timeline is correct, Parikshit is around thirty five at this time, not exactly a strapping young prince.)
Yuyutsu is given the guardianship of the throne, to perform a role similar to what Bhishma did in the old days. On the throne of Indraprastha is Vajra, the grandson of Krishna.
‘The Yadavas and the Kurus have been great friends in the past,’ Yudhishthir tells Parikshit. ‘May it continue long into the future. Protect the ruler of Indraprastha with all that you have, and never set your heart on unrighteousness.’
The End of Arjuna
The five brothers then address their subjects for the last time, and set out on foot into the forest, with their faces turned southward. (Their intention is to visit all the important places of Aryavarta in a circle before reaching the Himavat.)
During the early part of their journey, a dog begins to follow them wherever they go.
Arjuna, Yudhishthir notices, still holds on to his Gandiva and the two empty quivers. He does not ask him to give them up, but Agni, the lord of fire appears before them and says that their journey will not end until Arjuna divorces himself from his cupidity.
‘The discus of Vishnu has left the world already, O Arjuna,’ says Agni. ‘When the need arises, it will descend on its own again. Similarly, the purpose of the Gandiva and of your inexhaustible quivers has been fulfilled many times over. Cast off these symbols of your long-dead success, O Pandava, and embrace the path that stretches out in front of you. Only then will you achieve your heart’s desire.’
Arjuna does not argue, and quietly throws his beloved bow and quivers into the sea. This is the symbolic end of Arjuna the warrior.
Climbing Mount Sumeru
After circumambulating the world, the brothers proceed to the north and come upon Himavat, the largest of the ice-capped mountains. After crossing it, they see a vast desert stretching out for miles ahead of them. Beyond this, they see the mountain Meru, the foremost of all celestial abodes, beckoning to them.
As they begin their walk toward their destination, Draupadi drops to her knees, and her face hits the earth. She makes no sound of pain, no final sigh as the last breath leaves her.
Bhimasena asks Yudhishthir, ‘The princess never committed any sinful act, O King. And yet she has fallen before we reach our destination. Why is this?’
Yudhishthir replies, ‘I think it is because though she proclaimed to the world that we were all equal to her, in her heart she loved Arjuna the most. Perhaps this is the fruit of that little sin.’
The five of them continue walking, and the next to drop is Sahadeva. ‘With great humility did this brother of ours serve us, O King,’ says Bhima. ‘Why did this son of Madri fall to his death?’
‘I have often believed that Sahadeva was the wisest of us all,’ replies Yudhishthir. ‘But he believed it too. And he acted like it. Perhaps this is the reward he receives in return.’
The Pandavas Die
The brothers walk on, and the next to die is Nakula. Bhima asks Yudhishthir why.
‘Righteous as he was,’ says Yudhishthir, ‘he thought that no one in the world could equal him in physical beauty. Indeed, he regarded himself as superior to all in that respect. It is due to this vanity that he has met his death.’
Arjuna is the next to fall to his death, silent and unquestioning. Bhima is aghast, because Dhananjaya has been the best warrior of them all. ‘Why is Arjuna dead?’
‘Proud of his heroism, he said that he would consume all our foes in the Kurukshetra battle in one day,’ says Yudhishthir, ‘but he was not able to do so. And he was much attached to the symbols of his success, Bhima. He considered himself the best bowman in the world, and he allowed himself the fallacies of pride.’
As they walk on, and the summit becomes visible, Bhima slips and falls. With his last breath, he looks up at Yudhishthir and says, ‘Why me too, Brother?’
‘You were overly fond of food and material things, Bhima,’ says Yudhishthir, not looking down. ‘You thought of yourself as the most powerful of all men in the world. No one who is attached at such a deep level to a sense of his own worth will be allowed to reach heaven.’
Only Yudhishthir and the dog remain, now. Together they reach the top of the mountain.
‘Abandon the Dog’
Indra is waiting in his resplendent chariot, with its door open for Yudhishthir. ‘Come, O son of Pritha,’ he says, ‘you will be taken to the abode of the gods in your mortal body.’
Yudhishthir takes a step toward the chariot, and then remembers his companion. ‘This dog has been with us throughout our final walk, O Lord,’ he says. ‘He has been devoted to us. I wish that he should go with me.’
Indra says, ‘Yudhishthir, you have won immortality today. Prosperity extending in all directions. Success beyond measure. Cast off this dog. In this there is no cruelty.’
‘But how can there be no cruelty in the act of forsaking someone who has been devoted to you, O Lord?’
‘There is no place in heaven for people with dogs. Indeed, the Krodhavasas will take away all merits of such a person. Do you really wish to forego all that you have earned for the sake of a measly dog? Abandon it! As the king of the gods I assure you: there is no cruelty in this act.’
Yudhishthir is kind but firm. ‘No, my lord. I have taken a vow never to abandon one who is devoted to me.’
Indra tries another angle. ‘You are still attached to people and possessions, Yudhishthir,’ he says. ‘When your brothers and Krishna died, you abandoned them, did you not?
‘Your brothers dropped along the climb up this mountain, and you did not think of carrying them with you. Why do you then insist on keeping this dog?’
‘I did not abandon my brothers, O Lord,’ says Yudhishthir. ‘They abandoned me. When they died, and when I saw that there was no way to revive them, I moved on. They were no longer dependent on me.
‘They were no longer devoted to me. But this dog is alive, and it relies on me for its life. How can I abandon a living thing for the sake of those who are dead?’
Yama Rewards Yudhishthir
At these words, the dog transforms into the image of Yama, the god of justice. ‘Formerly, my son,’ he says to Yudhishthir, ‘you were examined by me in the forest, in the garb of a Yaksha who asked numerous questions.
‘Today, you were examined by me in the garb of a mute animal. On both occasions you have proved that there is no king as just as you, no person worthier than you are to attain to heaven while still drawing breath. Go, Yudhishthir, and climb onto Indra’s chariot.’
The first thing that Yudhishthir sees on reaching heaven is the sight of Duryodhana seated on a throne in the same room as the rest of the gods, and as the Pandava is ushered in, he sees his arch enemy being worshipped and looked after in the manner of a great hero.
Yudhishthir stops in his tracks, and tells Indra and Yama that he does not intend to share space with Duryodhana. ‘The whole Earth was slaughtered due to the cupidity of this one man,’ he says, ‘and for many years we suffered the basest of treatments because of his conspiracies.
‘It is due to him that the virtuous princess of Panchala, Draupadi, had to be insulted in open court, and he is the reason for the death of many of my kinsmen. How can I be asked to sit next to him and smile, O Indra? I wish to go, instead, where my brothers and wife are.’
Narada appears now, and sends Yudhishthir with a messenger to hell – where the Pandavas are being kept.
The Pandavas in Hell
The messenger takes Yudhishthir on a long walk to a dark, damp place.
Yudhishthir now hears words of lament addressing him. ‘O son of Dharma,’ these voices say, ‘remain here a moment and assuage our pain. As you approach, a delightful breeze has begun to blow, bearing the sweet scent of your person. Do remain here, O Bharata, even if it is for a little while. As long as you are here, our pains and torments seem bearable.’
Unable to place the voice, Yudhishthir asks into the darkness, ‘Who are you? Why do you stay here?’
And from all sides the replies come. ‘I am Nakula! I am Karna! I am Bhimasena. Arjuna! Nakula! Sahadeva! Draupadi! Dhrishtadyumna!’
Hearing these, Yudhishthir pauses and asks himself yet again about the perversity of destiny. ‘After all the great deeds committed by these men, they have come to live here in hell.
‘And after all the sins committed by that wretch, Duryodhana, there he sits, among the gods, laughing in revelry! Where is the truth of the Vedas gone? What is this that has happened?’
He turns toward the messenger and joins his hands. ‘Sir,’ he says, ‘I bid you to return to your masters. I am not leaving this place. Wherever my brothers and wife live, that is my heaven.
‘I shall stay here and provide whatever comfort I can to my kinsmen, and take whatever comfort I can from their presence.’
The messenger returns to the court of Indra and relays the message. The lord of the gods descends from his throne and makes his way to where Yudhishthir was taken, to give him another reward for passing yet another test.
An Act of Deception
All the gods of the pantheon, accompanied by Yama, the god of Dharma, come to Yudhishthir, and as they enter the tunnel of hell, the darkness and misery of that place evaporates.
And in front of his eyes the eldest Pandava sees splendour taking birth wherever he looks. The boiling river, the trees with the thorny leaves, the boulders of dark rock, the stench of rotting carcasses – they all vanish.
‘Come, come, O Yudhishthir,’ says Indra, his arms spread open, ‘come, O best of men. All these illusions and tests have ended. You have attained success, O great one, and all eternal regions have become yours.
‘Even the best of men should be given a glimpse of hell because no man is so pure as to not see it even for a moment. He who endures hell will be taken to heaven, but he who begins his time with heaven has to end up in hell.
‘Sinners, therefore, Yudhishthir, begin with a short time in heaven corresponding to the little good they have done, and after that, they are taken to hell for eternity, to atone for their deeds.
‘Saints, on the other hand, have the opposite journey. They must experience a short time in hell to atone for their few sins, and then they are taken to heaven to enjoy the rewards of their many great deeds.
‘So it is that we had to show you a glimpse of heaven, Yudhishthir, to atone for the sin of deceiving Drona about his son. For that act, we engaged in deception of our own in order to bring you to hell.
‘In the same way, we had to bring the rest of the Pandavas here as well, by means of pretence. Now all of them have been cleansed of their sins, O King. Let us now take you to heaven, where you will reside for the rest of time.’
Everything falls apart around them now, and Yudhishthir is taken back to heaven, where Duryodhana is no longer anywhere to be seen.
The first person Yudhishthir meets is Krishna, in his celestial form, adorned with terrible weapons. He clasps the prince of Dwaraka in his arms and gives him a warm hug.
Sitting respectfully on one knee next to Krishna’s feet is Arjuna, also endued with a soft glow. The two foremost of beings – Nara and Narayana – are in turn being worshipped by many Gandharvas and Apsaras, and they receive Yudhishthir with due respect.
Indra now gives Yudhishthir a mini-tour of the hall, introducing each important person in turn.
Everybody is there – Bhishma, Drona, Abhimanyu, Pandu, Kunti, Madri… and Yudhishthir takes his place among the people he loves.
The Mahabharata ends on this note, with the entry of Yudhishthir into heaven.
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