This is an excerpt from Mahabharata by Arshia Sattar. Out soon in 2020.
Arshia Sattar has a PhD in classical Indian literatures from the University of Chicago. She works with the Sanskrit epics and storytelling traditions of India. Her abridged translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, published in Penguin Classics, is regarded as one of the definitive presentations of the epic in English. She has written a number of books on Hindu mythology for younger readers including the bestselling Ramayana for Children and Garuda and the Serpents.
After Duryodhana’s death and the night massacre, the women, who had stayed in the cities during the war, went to the battlefield to look for their men – their fathers, brothers, sons, grandsons, nephews, uncles, grandfathers, brothers-in-law. Each one of them prayed in her heart that her man would not be found wounded in the back, for that would mean that he had been killed as he was running away. They searched for their heroes in the day under the burning sun and through the night with the light of torches.
The air was filled with the sound of women weeping – they sobbed as they stumbled over bodies they recognised, or wailed because they could not find what was left of their men. They knelt in the mud and bloody gore, their tears falling like rain upon dead faces and broken bodies. Every now and then, a cry of joy would pierce the sadness when a woman found a husband or a brother who was still alive. The wounded were carried back to the city with light steps but the weight of the dead was heavy. Soon, the battlefield turned into a cremation ground as it was often easier to perform the last rites where the bodies lay. For some, there were no sons left to perform these rites and so the sons of other men stepped in to ensure the soul’s safe journey to the next world.
Kurukshetra had turned from a field of glory into a field of the dead and dying. Yudhishthira took the Pandavas there to see what their victory had cost. He wanted them to realise that the kingdom they had coveted so much had brought death and destruction to hundreds and thousands of people, including their own subjects. Grimly, the brothers walked through the slush, taking in what they had unleashed, and their hearts grew heavy. Suddenly, Yudhishthira said, ‘Wait! Isn’t that our mother over there?’
Puzzled at Kunti’s presence among those searching for their dead on the battlefield, her sons went quickly to her side and saw that she was weeping over the body of a fallen warrior.
Arjuna was the first to speak. ‘Mother, that is Karna. Why do you weep for the death of our mortal enemy? He had sworn to kill me!’
Kunti looked up at her sons, but when she spoke through her tears, it was Yudhishthira that she addressed. ‘Karna is your brother, my firstborn son!’
Arjuna and Bhima were speechless but Yudhishthira knelt
beside his mother and held her in his arms. ‘Did he know?’ he asked quietly.
Kunti nodded. ‘I told him before the war began because I wanted him to fight on your side, on the side of his brothers. But he chose to be loyal to Duryodhana who had treated him with respect.’
‘Why did he not grow up with us, if he was your son?’ asked Bhima, who liked to have things explained clearly.
Kunti told her sons how Karna had been born and how she had left him by the riverbank with a prayer that he would be brought up and loved by good people. Arjuna turned away, unable to come to terms with what he had done, but Yudhishthira caressed his older brother’s face and wept. ‘If I had known you were my brother, I would have surrendered even before fighting. I would have given you the kingdom. This war would never have been fought, these thousands of lives would not have been lost!’ He told his brothers that they should perform Karna’s funeral rites along with those of the other members of the family, their sons and grandsons and Draupadi’s brother, who had been killed.
Inevitably, the moment of Bhishma’s passing arrived and, on the day that the sun began its journey to the north, Bhishma died quietly on his bed of arrows, surrounded by the members of his family and watched by heavenly beings. Humans and gods both knew that another like Bhishma would not be born on earth again. After his death, Sanjaya and Vidura persuaded the grieving elders, Kunti, Gandhari and Dhritarashtra, to leave the city which now held only memories and to live quietly together in the forest.
Yudhishthira took the throne of his ancestors reluctantly and there was little to make him happy. Krishna returned to his own city, Dwarka, Arjuna withdrew into himself, Bhima ate and drank too much, the twins lived their own lives and Draupadi’s eyes were haunted by death all the time. But even as some people die, others are born and soon there was some joy in the palace with the birth of Arjuna’s grandson. Uttara, Abhimanyu’s wife, gave birth to the child that Krishna had saved by diverting Ashwatthama’s weapon away from her. The boy was named Parikshit and it was through him that the lineage of the Kaurava heroes would be restored.
Even though Yudhishthira performed all the tasks and rituals and grand sacrifices that were expected of him as a monarch, the kingdom of the Kurus never regained its former glory. There were omens of destruction everywhere – jackals howled, meteors streaked across the sky and were visible even during the day, clouds produced bloody rain. Time was moving forward and the world was preparing for the birth of the last age, the age of despair. After some years, the Pandavas learned that their elders had died in a fire that had swept through the forest in which they had been living their simple lives.
Krishna ruled Dwarka with his brother Balarama but he carried within himself the weight of Gandhari’s curse – that his people would kill each other and that his time in the world of humans would soon end.
One day, three great sages came to Dwarka and the young princes of the city decided to play a prank on them. They dressed Krishna’s grandson as a woman and said to the sages, ‘Sires, this woman is pregnant. Will she give birth to a boy or a girl?’
The sages were not amused and said, ‘An iron club will emerge from her body and will destroy your clan!’
That very night, a club was pulled out of the boy’s body. Balarama ordered the club to be crushed into a fine powder and scattered in the sea that licked at the shores of his city. But the waves washed the powder back to land and from it grew a thicket of reeds that shone like metal in the sunlight.
Some years later, the Yadava clans, which included the Vrishnis and the Andhakas, came together to celebrate a grand religious festival. When they finished the sacred rituals, they began to drink and grew boisterous and aggressive. Satyaki, who had never forgiven Kritavarma for fighting on Duryodhana’s side, became angry. He started to curse Kritavarma and soon they were fighting. Satyaki sliced off Kritavarma’s head with his sword.
The Vrishnis and the Andhakas followed the men who had led them into battle and fell upon each other, hitting one another with anything they could find. One by one, they reached for the shining reeds that had grown by the seashore. As the reeds were plucked, they turned into iron clubs and the Yadava clans bludgeoned each other to death.
Not a man was left standing.
Krishna and Balarama had watched from a distance, each lost in his own thoughts. Balarama went into a forest and sat down under a tree. He slowed his breath until it was completely stilled and passed out of his life in the world of humans.
Krishna was now alone and he wanted nothing more than to see his beloved Arjuna once more before he left the earth. He closed his eyes and concentrated on his friend, speaking to him in his mind. Far away in Hastinapura, a sleeping Arjuna heard Krishna’s call. He awoke with a start and made preparations to go to Dwarka at once.
Krishna knew that Arjuna had heard him and he was at peace. He went into the same forest as Balarama had and settled at the foot of the same tree where his brother had ceased to breathe. He heaved a great sigh and lay down on the forest floor.
Impelled by fate, a hunter named Jara came to the same place. From a distance, he saw what he thought was the ear of a deer. He picked an iron-tipped arrow from his quiver and placed it in his bow. With a practised motion, he released the arrow, knowing that he would strike his target, and ran to where his arrow had landed. He saw that his arrow had pierced Krishna’s heel which was perfectly shaped, as soft and tender as a deer’s ear. Krishna’s blood flowed from his wound into the earth and when Jara lifted his head on to his lap, he saw that Krishna was radiant and that he was smiling.
Arjuna was ill with grief when he learned that his friend had left the world. He took the news back to Hastinapura and the Pandavas mourned the man who had protected them for so many years, who had helped them win the war and had established them securely as rulers of their ancestral kingdom. Once Krishna had left the world, the Pandavas grew less interested in the affairs of the kingdom and the welfare of their people and soon they placed Parikshit on the throne of Hastinapura. Wearing simple clothes and travelling without their courtiers and retainers, they set off to visit places of pilgrimage. After years of wandering, Yudhishthira decided that it was time for them to go to the northernmost mountains, to the abode of the gods.
The journey was long and rough. The ground they walked on was covered with snow, the slope was steep and the icy wind tore through their rough clothes. Their lips and hands and feet turned blue with cold, but still the five Pandavas and their wife walked on. Draupadi slipped and, before any of her husbands could reach her, she fell down the side of the mountain.
Bhima wailed and asked Yudhishthira, ‘This sinless woman, she never did anything wrong in her life. Why has she fallen on our last journey?’
‘Even though she promised to love us all, she loved Arjuna the most,’ replied the eldest Pandava.
As they walked higher and higher, the twins slipped down the mountain, one after the other. Nakula had been vain about his good looks and Sahadeva about his intelligence. Kunti’s three sons trudged on, their heads bent against the driving wind and snow. Arjuna was the next to fall.
‘Why, brother, why Arjuna?’ asked Bhima.
Yudhishthira said, ‘He prided himself on his skills as an archer and said that he would kill all his enemies in a day. He failed to do that.’
‘And what will happen to me?’ asked Bhima, suddenly frightened. ‘Will I reach heaven with you?’
‘No, my dear Bhima. You ate too much and you boasted about your strength. You, too, will fall.’ Yudhishthira did not look back when Bhima slipped away from him.
Yudhishthira walked on, his thoughts fixed only on the next step that he had to take. Out of the mist, a celestial chariot appeared and Indra, the king of the gods, was seated in it. ‘Come, Yudhishthira,’ he said. ‘You are the only one of your brothers and wife who can enter the realm of the immortals in your human body! But you must leave that dog behind.’
Yudhishthira replied, ‘This dog has been with me since I started this journey up the mountain. I cannot leave him here. I will not go any further without him, no matter where you take me.’ And Yudhishthira stood firmly where he was.
Indra laughed and in a flash the dog vanished. In its place stood a shining god. ‘I am Dharma, your father,’ he said to Yudhishthira. ‘You are the only one who has remained good and true, as a king and as a human being. You have earned everything that lies ahead of you. Come, Yudhishthira, enter the realms of pleasure with me!’
Along with Indra, Yudhishthira walked towards the light that lay ahead and entered the most beautiful and soothing place he had ever seen. ‘But where are my brothers and Draupadi?’ he asked, bewildered.
‘Forget about them, Yudhishthira, this is what you alone have earned,’ said Indra. ‘They were part of your life on earth, you have left all that behind. Enjoy the pleasures before you!’
Yudhishthira looked around and to his great astonishment he saw Duryodhana before him, seated on a throne and blazing with light. He turned away, trembling. ‘What is this man doing here? He shamed my wife, he is the reason we fought that bloody war . . .’
‘Duryodhana died a hero,’ said Indra. ‘He deserves to be here.’
‘I don’t want to be in a place that honours people like him. Take me to my brothers and my wife,’ said Yudhishthira quietly.
Indra led Yudhishthira down a path that was difficult to walk on. It was harsh and littered with stones and there was a terrible stench in the air, so bad that Yudhishthira could hardly breathe. It was dimly lit by fires and shadows formed themselves into terrifying shapes. They seemed to be reaching out towards Yudhishthira, trying to entangle him in their arms. Everywhere there were the sounds of sighing and wailing, moans of pain and voices calling out. ‘Take me away from here, I cannot bear to hear others suffer like this,’ begged Yudhishthira.
Out of the darkness came a cry. ‘Yudhishthira, don’t leave us, stay here!’ Yudhishthira spun around, trying to see where the voice came from and who was calling out to him.
‘Stay, Yudhishthira, stay,’ called another voice. ‘It is not so bad when you are here, we feel a cool breeze, we can smell a gentle fragrance, our pain lessens . . .’
‘Who is this, who calls to me?’ shouted Yudhishthira.
‘It is I, Draupadi.’
‘I am Karna!’
‘It is Bhima!’
‘I am Arjuna!’
‘We are Nakula and Sahadeva!’ came the voices.
Yudhishthira turned to Indra and said, ‘Leave me here. I want to be with my family,’ and he sat down on the rocky ground.
Time passed. Yudhishthira began to feel faint with the smell and the heat. He closed his eyes and tried to recall the beloved faces of his brothers and his wife. Suddenly, there was a flash of light. Indra stood before him and the terrible place that he had been in disappeared. ‘This was your punishment for telling the lie that killed Drona, your teacher, who loved you. Every king must experience hell for a little while. Now I will take you to where your loved ones are waiting for you.’
Yudhishthira entered heaven and was united with his brothers, with Draupadi and with all those that had fought and died for him. And the story of the war that had destroyed a family came to an end.
This is the story that I heard at Janamejaya’s snake sacrifice. I heard it from the sage Vaishampayana who heard it from Vyasa who was there when it all happened. Janamejaya was the son of Parikshit who was the son of Abhimanyu who was the son of Arjuna. Janamejaya performed this sacrifice to take revenge on the snake that had killed his father.
Parikshit ruled the city of Hastinapura after his father and his uncles renounced the kingdom and set off on their final journey. Once, when he had gone hunting, he was separated from his companions. Parikshit wandered alone, hungry and thirsty until he came to the hermitage of a sage, deep in the forest. But the sage had taken a vow of silence and did not respond when the king asked him for food and water. He remained in his meditative state and that made Parikshit very angry. He picked up a dead snake that was lying in the grass and with the tip of his bow he placed it around the sage’s neck and went away.
The sage’s son learned that his father had been insulted in this way by the king and, in his anger, he said, ‘Parikshit will die of snakebite in the next seven days. Takshaka, the king of the nagas, will be the instrument of his death!’
But the sage was not pleased when he heard what his son had done, for Parikshit was a good and just king. He immediately sent one of his disciples to Hastinapura to warn the king about the curse and to tell him to take all the precautions he could to prevent a snake from biting him.
In a single day, a new palace was constructed for the king. It stood on a sky-touching pillar that rose from a deep moat that was surrounded by priests who knew every spell to keep snakes away and to counteract their poison. Parikshit lived in the heart of the palace that was guarded at all times, all the way from his room to the outer doors. Six days passed without incident and Parikshit began to relax a little. But he did not know that Takshaka had taken the form of a young student and was making his way to Hastinapura in the company of other brahmins who were going to the city.
As the group reached the city gates, Takshaka transformed himself into a tiny worm and entered a fruit that was being taken to the king. It was sunset on the seventh day and Parikshit was laughing as he reached for a selection of fruit which was presented to him on a tray of gold. The worm emerged. Takshaka took on his own form and, as a huge serpent, he bit Parikshit on the neck. The king was dead in an instant and, in the confusion that followed, Takshaka, who had transformed himself back into a worm, disappeared.
Years later, a brahmin named Utanka, who had his own enmity with Takshaka, said to Janamejaya, ‘Your father’s killer wanders free and you act as if that is not important. You should conduct the great snake sacrifice that will get rid of all the wicked snakes in the three worlds. Perform this ritual without any delay and let all the snakes face the consequences of Takshaka’s actions!’
Janamejaya took his advice seriously and committed himself to performing the deadly ritual. Snake after snake fell into the sacrificial fire and, eventually, Takshaka himself was drawn there by the spells recited by the priests. He hovered in the air, using all his powers to save himself from falling into the flames. When it seemed that all was lost for Takshaka, a young brahmin named Astika spoke out.
Astika said, ‘I bring you a message from the gods – Brahma himself says that this is enough. Be content with the snakes that you have killed!’
Vyasa spoke to Janamejaya and said that the sacrifice had gone as far as necessary. The king obeyed the great sage and the snake sacrifice came to an end.
It was at Janamejaya’s sacrifice that the story of his forefathers was recited for all to hear. And I have brought it to you, who live in this timeless forest because it is a story that will live forever.
And as Ugrashravas has been reciting what he heard from Vaishampayana who heard it from Vyasa who was there when it all happened, you, too, have been listening. You, too, have heard this marvellous story of god acting in the world of men, a story about the dawn of the last age. It is a story that must be told over and over again so that we learn that hatred will destroy us all, that arrogance and greed will lead to destruction. But it is also a story that tells us it is possible to be good and honourable. Each of us who hears this story learns that we have to make a choice about how we want to live, for what we choose determines the nature of the world. It is up to us to make sure that the seed of goodness that exists within us all does not die, not even in this last and most difficult of all ages.