What Happened After the Mahabharata War?

What happened after the Mahabharata War - Featured Image - Forest Fire representing complete destruction

Like most people, I thought the Kurukshetra war is the last thing that happens in the Mahabharata. After all, the whole story is a long build up to it, right? After it is done and dusted, what is left to do but roll the credits?

Then I was doing some research and realized that after the Sauptika Parva (the last of the war books), there are eight more books in the Mahabharata. Which led me to ask: indeed, what happened after the Mahabharata war?

Here’s a quick summary:

  • The widows and orphaned women of Hastinapur and other kingdoms assemble at Kurukshetra to mourn their men.
  • Yudhishthir is crowned king, and Bhishma instructs the new king on matters such as politics and economics.
  • Bhishma dies.
  • Yudhishthir performs the Ashwamedha Sacrifice. Portents appear that the end of Dwapara is approaching.
  • Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti retire into the forest with Vidura. The four of them die in a fire.
  • The Yadavas are destroyed by in-fighting. Krishna and Balarama die.
  • The Pandavas and Draupadi give up their kingdom and attempt to reach heaven in their mortal bodies. All but Yudhishthir fall to their deaths while climbing up Mount Meru.
  • Yudhishthir passes one final test to gain entry to Amaravati in his human form.

In all, thirty six years pass between the war and the final end of the Mahabharata.

(For the full summary of the war, see: 18 Days of the Mahabharata War: A Day-wise Summary.)

Gandhari Places a Curse

The Stree Parva, or the ‘book of women’, is a section in the Mahabharata exclusively dedicated to the mourning of all the wives and daughters of warriors who have lost their lives in the war.

The Pandavas meet with Dhritarashtra and Gandhari to take their blessings, but the old couple is consumed by grief for their sons. Dhritarashtra seeks to embrace Bhimasena, but on the silent instruction of Krishna, the Pandavas place in his arms an iron statue of Bhima, which Dhritarashtra crushes.

Gandhari, too, is angered that the rules of war were broken multiple times in Kurukshetra. She places the responsibility for all the carnage on Krishna’s shoulders.

She curses Krishna that the Yadavas will also one day die through internal quarrels.

Bhishma Coaches Yudhishthir

In the Shanti Parva and the Anushasana Parvas, Bhishma – still lying on his bed of arrows – instructs Yudhishthir on the many facets of running a kingdom.

Put together, this is easily the longest section of the Mahabharata, and it covers a whole range of subjects from philosophy to politics, from economics to military strategy, and from law to personal ethics.

Bhishma relays some of this information as stories, and the rest as lectures directly delivered to Yudhishthir.

At the end of the Anushasana Parva, Bhishma dies – and ends the longest life led by a human being in the Mahabharata. In many ways, one can say that the Mahabharata is in fact Bhishma’s story. The tale begins with events that lead to Bhishma’s birth, and it ends with his death.

A Mongoose Questions Yudhishthir

In the Ashwamedhika Parva, at the ceremony of the horse sacrifice that Yudhishthir performs, a mongoose appears out of nowhere and declares that the ceremony is not worth anything at all.

Yudhishthir asks the mongoose what it means, and the mongoose goes on to describe a story in which a family sacrifice everything they have in order to please a guest. And the mongoose says, ‘It is not the size of the offering that matters, O King, but the intention and goodwill behind it.’

The implication here, of course, is that Yudhishthir’s wealth and success is ill-gotten.

The mongoose does not explain or elaborate on its accusation. When Yudhishthir begins to ask it questions, it merely asks a cryptic question (‘Do you think all of this will impress the god of Dharma?’), and vanishes.

Incidentally, this is a theme that the Mahabharata explores repeatedly: that victory in the war did not mean victory in any meaningful form for the Pandavas; that their success in winning the battle of Kurukshetra was only transitory, and that should not be taken to mean that they were more deserving or better than the Kauravas.

The Death of four Kuru Elders

In the Ashramavasika Parva, after fifteen years of staying at the palace under Yudhishthir’s rule, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari decide that the time has come for them to retire to the forest.

Kunti and Vidura also accompany the old couple to serve them.

Later, when the Pandavas go to visit the four elders in the forest, Vidura dies and transfers his energy to Yudhishthir. Gandhari, Dhritarashtra and Kunti walk deliberately into a forest fire to give up their lives.

There is a suggestion in this part of the story that Vidura is in fact an incarnation of Yama, the god of justice. Therefore he is also a father to Yudhishthir.

In her book, Yuganta, Irawati Karve suggests that Vidura may have fathered Yudhishthir in a more realistic way as well, by impregnating Kunti when she and Pandu were planning to have children. But I must stress that this is pure speculation and the text makes no mention of it whatsoever.

The Death of the Yadavas

In order to honour the curse of Gandhari (placed on Krishna during the Stree Parva), the Yadavas enter into a long period of decadence and complacency after the Mahabharata war.

It all comes to a head thirty six years after the war, when Krishna’s son Samba plays a prank on the four great sages – Vishwamitra, Vasishtha, Narada and Durvasa – and earns from them a curse that he will give birth to an iron bolt that will destroy the entire clan.

True to these words, when the time comes, Krishna’s weapon the Sudarshana and his conch the Panchajanya disappear from the kingdom. A number of bad omens appear all around Dwaraka, and Krishna takes all the men of the kingdom to the seashore on a ‘pilgrimage’.

Once there, the Yadavas begin to drink and make merry. A quarrel breaks out between Satyaki and Kritavarma, with the former insulting the latter about killing the Panchalas while they were sleeping, and the latter hitting back at the former with the horrific manner in which he killed Bhurishrava.

Before long, the entire group of men is divided, and many old lingering fights rear their ugly heads. Krishna and Balarama do nothing to quell these fires – indeed, they begin to pluck the eraka grass around the seashore and watch the blades transform into maces of iron.

All the other Yadava men follow suit, and they begin to fight each other with these iron bolts and clubs.

The name of this section, the Mausala Parva, derives from the word ‘Mausala’ which means ‘club’.

Krishna Dies

After the Yadava chieftains have all been killed, Balarama retires into the forest. He immediately adopts a meditative pose and gives up his life.

Krishna goes to Dwaraka and consoles his father Vasudeva about all that has happened. He arranges for Daruka, his charioteer, to take a message to Arjuna to protect the women of Dwaraka. Then he goes to the forest himself, and noticing that Balarama has already passed, sits down to wait for his final moments.

A hunter called Jara appears on the scene in a short while, and with an arrow whose tip is made of the same metal that killed the Yadavas, he shoots at the foot of Krishna mistaking it for a deer.

Arjuna’s Fall from Grace

Daruka reaches Indraprastha and narrates to Arjuna all that has happened. Arjuna accompanies Daruka back to Dwaraka and decides to take all the ladies of Krishna’s court back to Indraprastha.

But on the way, their retinue is attacked by robbers, and Arjuna fails to protect the women from them. When he tries to wield the Gandiva, he realizes that it no longer responds to his wishes as it used to. His quivers – once inexhaustible – are now empty. None of his celestial weapons come to his aid.

The warrior who fought and defeated the greatest bowmen of his time is now unable to ward off nameless robbers.

All the ladies of Krishna’s court either commit suicide by immolating themselves in fire or are taken away by the robbers. Arjuna is left watching this unfold in front of his eyes.

The city of Dwaraka is now flooded and swallowed by the sea. Arjuna goes to Vyasa and seeks counsel from the sage.

Vyasa tells Arjuna that the time has come for the Pandavas to relinquish their throne and to make their final journey. When Arjuna returns to Yudhishthir and tells him about what has happened, Yudhishthir crowns Parikshit king and makes preparations to leave.

The Pandavas Fail to Reach Heaven

Yudhishthir, along with his brothers and wife, seek to reach heaven in their mortal bodies by scaling the mountain of Meru in the Himalayas.

But one by one, they fall to their deaths. First Draupadi, then Sahadeva, then Nakula, then Arjuna, and finally Bhimasena. Yudhishthir alone reaches the summit, accompanied by a dog that had kept them company from the start of their journey.

The Mahaprasthanika Parva refers to this final sojourn of the Pandavas, first around the kingdom that they once rules, and then up the mountain seeking the lush environs of Amravati.

Yudhishthir is heard giving explanations for why each of his companions have failed to make the grade. Draupadi ‘loved Arjuna more than she loved the rest of us’, Sahadeva was ‘vain about his wisdom’, Nakula was ‘proud of his handsomeness’, Arjuna was ‘haughty because he thought he was the most skillful of all warriors’, and Bhimasena could never ‘master his gluttony’.

At the peak of Mount Meru, Indra appears in his chariot and welcomes Yudhishthir on board. But he says that the time has come to renounce the dog. Yudhishthir shakes his head and replies, ‘I will not renounce a living being who has placed its trust in me, O Lord. Even if it costs me a place in heaven, so be it.’

It turns out, of course, that the ‘dog’ is really Yama in disguise. Both the gods are impressed by Yudhishthir’s steadfastness, and they take him to Amaravati in his mortal body.

One Final Test

Once he reaches heaven, Yudhishthir is subjected to one final test without his knowledge. This is described in the Swargarohana Parva.

When they arrive in heaven, Yudhishthir notices that all his enemies – Duryodhana, Karna, Shakuni, Duhsasana – are present in Indra’s court, enjoying the pleasures of the place. He is stupefied at this sight, and asks Yama where his brothers and wife are.

And Yama takes him to a darker, more desolate place, where the rest of the Pandavas and Draupadi are being tortured and punished. Yama tells him, ‘Your brothers and wife belong here, O King, but you can come to heaven with me if you want.’

Yudhishthir is puzzled by this because he cannot figure out why they’re being punished. But the choice is unacceptable to him. ‘Wherever my brothers and wife are, that is heaven for me, O Lord,’ he says. ‘And where my enemies live is equivalent to hell. I shall remain here.’

At this answer, Yama smiles proudly at his son. He explains that Yudhishthir had to be brought to hell for a short time in order to atone for the lie he told Drona in the war, and that now the Pandavas and Draupadi will be taken to heaven – where they belong.

The End

The end of the Mahabharata occurs with the reunion of Yudhishthir with his brothers and Draupadi in heaven. This time, none of his enemies can be seen.

Here he sees Krishna in the form of Vishnu. And all his ancestors and other gods in their prime positions.

The Mahabharata ends on this happy note – and it bears noting that of all the great celestial beings that have taken birth as powerful human warriors, only Yudhishthir – the humble, pride-conquering, affable, self-effacing, ever-curious, child-like Yudhishthir, the Yudhishthir with no great powers of his own – made it to heaven without having to first experience death.

There is a lesson in there somewhere for all of us.

The Beginning

Were not done – not just yet. Because Parikshit, the son of Uttara and Abhimanyu, becomes king after Yudhishthir and has his own adventures. He dies at the hands of Takshaka, the king of the Nagas. And Janamejaya, Parikshit’s son, takes an oath that he will kill all the Nagas of the world.

He embarks upon a giant ritual called the sarpayaaga (‘the sacrifice of snakes’), in which he sits down with a bunch of sages and begins asking them questions about his ancestors.

One of the sages is Vaisampayana, and he tells Janamejaya the story of the Mahabharata.

And thus we cycle back to the Adi Parva where it all begins.

Further Reading

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