Just before noon, Dhṛtarāṣṭra called for his servants and asked to be taken to the Ganges to perform the funeral rites for his departed relatives. He also asked that the Kuru ladies attend, and the servants went out to fetch them and arrange for their journey.
The ladies left their quarter wailing. Crying and beating their breasts, they mounted chariots that would transport them to the river. With their hair disheveled and their ornaments abandoned, they had left their houses like deer leaving a mountain cave after their leader’s fall. Calling out the names of their husbands and sons, they proceeded toward the river. Upon hearing their anguished cries, people felt that the hour of universal destruction was at hand.
Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Sañjaya rode just behind the ladies, followed by many servants. Two miles later they encountered Kṛpa and Kṛtavarmā. With choked voices they told the king how Duryodhana had been killed by Bhīma. They then informed Dhṛtarāṣṭra of Aśvatthāmā’s night massacre. Both warriors looked ashamed.
Finally, Kṛpa said, “We are now fleeing. Aśvatthāmā has been captured and released by Arjuna. Kṛṣṇa cursed him to wander the earth for three thousand years in exile, and he has left for the forest. Grant us your permission, O King, and we will return to our homes.”
Dhṛtarāṣṭra felt his heart sink even further. He told the two men to return to their abodes and ordered the procession to continue. They soon reached the Ganges.
Word that they were on their way to the Ganges had reached Yudhiṣṭhira, so the Pāṇḍavas and Kṛṣṇa decided to meet them at the river. Draupadī and the Pañchāla ladies, their hearts heavy, also went.
As the Pāṇḍavas approached the Ganges they saw thousands of Kuru ladies mourning. Yudhiṣṭhira walked toward them and they surrounded him, crying out. Some of them censured him. “Where is your righteousness, O King? Where is your truth and compassion? You have mercilessly slain sires, brothers, preceptors, sons and friends. What is the use of sovereignty now that even your own sons and allies are dead? Alas, the war has brought nothing but grief to everyone.”
Passing silently among the ladies, Yudhiṣṭhira made his way to Dhṛtarāṣṭra and bowed at his feet. Each of his brothers followed suit, announcing their names as they offered obeisances. With difficulty, Dhṛtarāṣṭra embraced Yudhiṣṭhira and blessed his brothers. When he heard Bhīma’s name, however, his heart blazed with anger. Concealing his feelings, he called Bhīma forward so that he could embrace him as he had Yudhiṣṭhira.
Kṛṣṇa understood Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s intentions. He touched Bhīma on the shoulder to indicate that he should wait. Exercising the mystic prapti power, He brought the iron image of Bhīma from Duryodhana’s gymnasium in Hastināpura. He pushed the statue forward into Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s open arms. The blind king, possessed of the strength of ten thousand elephants and burning with fury, squeezed the statue with all his power. Taking it to be Bhīma himself, the king shattered the iron form into many pieces.
As the statue fell apart, Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s chest was severely bruised and he vomited blood. Exhausted from his effort and soaked in blood, he dropped to the ground like a blossoming pārijāta tree. Sañjaya knelt by his side and lifted him, saying, “Do not act like this, O King.”
Having released his anger, Dhṛtarāṣṭra was instantly remorseful. He thought he had killed Bhīma.
Seeing that the king’s anger had abated, Kṛṣṇa said, “Do not grieve, O Bharata. Knowing you were angry, I dragged Bhīma from certain destruction. You have only broken his statue form. Who could escape from your angry embrace, which is as tight as the embrace of Death? In any case, how would killing Bhīma do you any good? It will not revive your sons, O King. Give up your spite and be peaceful.”
Dhṛtarāṣṭra hung his head in shame. He was helped to his feet by his servants and they took him to the river to change his clothes and wash him. After this, when the blind king was seated on a fine rug by the riverside, Kṛṣṇa said, “You are learned in all the scriptures and aware of morality. Why do you harbor anger against the Pāṇḍavas? Everything that has happened has been caused by your folly. I Myself tried to warn you before the battle, but to no avail. You have repeatedly ignored the advice of Vidura, Bhīṣma, Droṇa, and Sañjaya. Only a king who sees his own shortcomings can enjoy prosperity, but he who acts by his own judgment alone and who does not follow well-wishing advisors has to suffer. Bhīma has rightfully slain your crooked son, that mean wretch who dragged Pāñcālī into the assembly. Remembering both his and your antagonism toward the Pāṇḍavas, govern your anger.”
Dhṛtarāṣṭra was subdued. “It is just as you say, O Madhava. I have been deviated from virtue by a father’s affection. I am no longer angry. Let me embrace both Bhīma and Arjuna in love. With all my sons dead, my happiness now depends on the Pāṇḍavas, who are no less to me than my own sons. Alas, I have acted like an enemy to those whom I should have nurtured and protected.”
After embracing them all, Dhṛtarāṣṭra asked the Pāṇḍavas to go and see Gāndhārī. Before they came before her, Vyāsadeva went to the queen. The ṛṣi could see into the hearts and minds of all beings and, understanding that she was intending to curse Yudhiṣṭhira, he said, “Do not harm the Pāṇḍavas, O Gāndhārī. Take this opportunity instead to exercise forgiveness. Remember, O Queen, that it was you who blessed Duryodhana with the statement, ‘Victory always attends righteousness.’ Your words have not proven false. Certainly the Pāṇḍavas are endowed with all virtuous qualities. Cast away your evil desire.”
As Vyāsadeva spoke, the Pāṇḍavas arrived before Gāndhārī and offered their respects, touching her feet one by one.
Shedding tears, Gāndhārī said to Vyāsadeva, “I do not entertain any ill feelings for the Pāṇḍavas, O sage, but grief has shaken my heart. Surely the Kauravas, puffed up with pride and arrogance, have perished due to Duryodhana’s folly and the foolishness of his advisors. I do not blame the Pāṇḍavas, but they have done something I cannot accept. Bhīma struck my son down with an unfair blow. Surely this was not consistent with virtue.”
Bhīma, having learned from Kṛṣṇa of Gāndhārī’s empowering glance over her son, replied to her. “Whether or not the blow was fair, it was the only way your son could be killed. Surely you know this, O Queen. The sinful prince acted so treacherously toward us and without thought of virtue on many occasions. Thus he deserved to be slain by whatever means were possible. Without killing him, Yudhiṣṭhira could not have established a righteous rule. Therefore I did what was in my power and felled him in battle, exactly as I had promised. Were I not restrained by Yudhiṣṭhira I would have done that long ago--on the day he insulted Drupada’s daughter.”
Bhīma felt that the real reason his killing of Duryodhana with a low blow was not sinful was because Kṛṣṇa had ordered it. After all, virtue had its root in Kṛṣṇa and was meant only for His pleasure. Knowing that Gāndhārī’s faith in Kṛṣṇa was not the same as his own, Bhīma did not present her with this reason. It would only diminish whatever respect she had for Kṛṣṇa.
Gāndhārī’s voice wavered. “You have been most inhumane, Bhīma. How could you drink Dushashana’s blood. Surely only a Rākṣasa would do such a thing.”
Bhīma felt no remorse, but he reassured the queen. “O chaste lady, you should know that I did not allow his blood to pass my teeth. When Dushashana committed his sins against Draupadī, I made a terrible vow under anger’s influence. Without fulfilling that vow, my reputation would have been sullied and my truthfulness compromised. You should not attribute any fault to me, O Gāndhārī. Without having checked your sons previously, you should not now blame we who are innocent.”
Gāndhārī wept silently, thinking of her sons. Her frail body shook and maidservants came up to support her. After some time she regained her composure and said, “Why, O Bhīma, could you not have spared even a single one of our sons? How will we survive without support in this world?”
Her anger rising again, the queen asked, “Where is Yudhiṣṭhira? I wish to address Pāṇḍu’s eldest son.”
Trembling, with his palms folded, Yudhiṣṭhira stood before Gāndhārī and said, “Here he is, O Queen, the cruel destroyer of your sons. I deserve your curse, for I am the root of this great destruction. Curse me at once, O Queen. I care not for kingdom, wealth, nor even life itself. By bringing about the slaughter of kinsmen and friends, I have proved myself a fool and as one who hates his own family.”
Gāndhārī fought to control her anger. Aware of her husband’s weakness and her sons’ sinfulness, and thinking of Vyāsadeva’s words, she restrained herself from uttering a curse. It was obvious that Yudhiṣṭhira felt more than enough remorse and pain. Still, he should not have allowed Bhīma to have perpetrated his vicious acts against her two eldest sons. Behind the blindfold around her head, Gāndhārī felt her eyes burn with anger. Although she had used much of her ascetic power when she had blessed Duryodhana, it had not been exhausted. She lifted the blindfold slightly and looked down at Yudhiṣṭhira’s feet. As she glanced down, Yudhiṣṭhira’s toes, with their perfectly manicured nails, were singed and his nails turned brown.
Seeing this, Arjuna stepped back behind Kṛṣṇa. Yudhiṣṭhira, however, did not react. Gāndhārī, gaining control of herself, spoke reassuringly to the brothers. She told them to go to Kuntī, who was longing to see them again.
The brothers then presented themselves before their mother. Seeing them for the first time since their exile, Kuntī cried, covering her face with a cloth. After weeping for some time, she repeatedly embraced and patted her sons, lamenting as she saw the wounds and scars on their bodies.
Draupadī fell before Kuntī, her tears wetting Kuntī’s feet. “O venerable lady, where have all your grandsons gone? Seeing you in such distress, why are they not coming before you? O Mother, how can I live and what do I care now for any kingdom? Alas my sons are no more.”
Kuntī raised Draupadī and consoled her. As she spoke to the Pāṇḍavas’ grieving wife, Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Gāndhārī were led up to them. Hearing Draupadī weep, Gāndhārī said, “Do not grieve so, dear daughter. This terrible slaughter has been brought about by the irresistible course of time. Everything was foretold by Vidura and Kṛṣṇa, both of whom tried in vain to sue for peace.”
As she thought of Kṛṣṇa, Gāndhārī felt her anger rise once more. Although He had tried unsuccessfully to bring about peace, He could have forced the issue if He had desired. He had at His command a vast army containing many of the most powerful warriors on earth. But more than that, He was said to be an incarnation of the Supreme Lord. Surely nothing was beyond His capabilities. Gāndhārī felt that, ultimately, everything was Kṛṣṇa’s fault. The ṛṣis had even said that the destruction of the warriors had been His divine arrangement.
Asking for Kṛṣṇa to come before her, Gāndhārī said, “The Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas have been rooted out, O Kṛṣṇa, even before Your eyes. Why were You indifferent to them? You could have prevented the slaughter. O Madhava, since You deliberately allowed this universal destruction, You should now feel the consequences. By whatever little merit I have acquired by serving my husband, I curse You, O holder of the discus. Since You callously allowed the Kurus and Pāṇḍavas to kill one another, so You will be the destroyer of Your own kinsmen. O Govinda, on the thirty-sixth year from now You will kill Your own family members in a fratricidal fight, finally dying Yourself by foul means. The ladies of Your family will thus weep even as the Kuru ladies are now doing.”
Kṛṣṇa bowed His head and folded His palms. “Your words will be true, O chaste lady. There are none in this world who can exterminate the Vrishnis and Yādavas. In delivering this curse you have assisted Me, for I have been wondering how to take My kinsmen back out of this world. Neither gods, Gandharvas, nor Asuras can kill them. They will therefore slay each other.”
The Pāṇḍavas, upon hearing Gāndhārī’s curse and Kṛṣṇa’s reply, gazed mutely at one another. They were stupefied. The thought of Kṛṣṇa’s departure, even though thirty-six years away, was unbearable. How would they live in His absence? They looked at Him with tears in their eyes.
Glancing affectionately at the Pāṇḍavas, Kṛṣṇa said, “Arise, O Gāndhārī, and shake off your grief. Your son Duryodhana, whom neither you nor your husband stopped, was malicious, envious and arrogant. Why do you blame others for your own fault? From the beginning you should not have allowed your son to live. He was the embodiment of hostility and disobedient to his elders. Thus he has met a fitting end. Give up your useless grief, for by indulging it, it simply increases. As a Brahmin woman brings forth children to practice austerity and a vaiśyā bears offspring for keeping cows, so a kṣatriya woman brings forth sons to be killed in battle and for no other reason.”
When Kṛṣṇa was finished, Gāndhārī remained silent. Dhṛtarāṣṭra then asked Yudhiṣṭhira where he felt the fallen warriors went after dying in battle. Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “By the grace of Lomaśa Ṛṣi I have been granted the vision to see where the heroes have gone. All of them have attained the gods’ celestial abodes. Even those who fell while fleeing or turning their faces from the fight have gone upwards to regions of enduring pleasure. Indeed, having died in Kṛṣṇa’s presence, the dead warriors have doubtlessly all reached auspicious destinations.”
Comforted by Yudhiṣṭhira’s assurance, Dhṛtarāṣṭra gave orders that the funeral rites be performed for his sons and their followers. Thousands of Brahmins chanted hymns from the Sāma and Ṛg Vedas, while funeral pyres blazed all along the river bank. The Kurus entered the river and stood waist deep to offer oblations of sacred water to their departed relatives. Women’s cries filled the air, drowning out the Brahmins’ mantras.
As the Pāṇḍavas were about to enter the river to make their funeral offerings, Kuntī came to them and said quietly, “O heroes, offer an oblation for Karṇa. That effulgent fighter, the ornament of battle who ever delighted in fight, was Sūrya’s son and my own firstborn child. He was your eldest brother.”
The five brothers were shocked. Yudhiṣṭhira and Arjuna glanced at one another. They had long suspected that Karṇa was of divine origin. It was hardly possible that such a warrior could have sprung from a śūdra. But the son of their own mother? How had they never discovered it? Why had Kuntī not told them?
Yudhiṣṭhira cried aloud. It was certain that his mother had, as always, spoken the truth. The Pāṇḍava spoke in surprise. “O noble lady, were you the mother of that Karṇa who was like a sea having arrows for its billows, mighty arms for its sharks, and the sounds of his bowstring for its roar? Were you the mother of that one who swore constant enmity with Arjuna and whom no one but Arjuna could resist? How did you conceal this fact, like a man hiding fire in the folds of his cloth? Tell us how he became your son and why you hid this from us? Alas, I am undone with an even greater grief upon hearing this news than I was upon hearing of Abhimanyu’s death.”
Yudhiṣṭhira cried out again. Along with all the other respectable personalities killed in the war, he had also brought about the death of his elder brother. Had he known of Karṇa’s identity, then the war could have been averted. Duryodhana would not have even considered fighting without him. United with Karṇa, the Pāṇḍavas would have been invincible.
Trembling, Kuntī said, “Alas, dear son, I have long kept this secret, unable from fear to speak it to anyone. Even while a maiden did I bring forth that mighty warrior. Sometimes I thought of telling you, but something always made me hesitate. Now seeing that he has died along with his sons and has none to offer his last rites, I cannot conceal the truth any longer.”
Kuntī’s mind returned to the fateful day when Sūrya had entered her chamber. She looked at the Ganges, flowing gently now as it had the day she pushed the basket containing Karṇa into her waters. She fell sobbing to the ground. Yudhiṣṭhira lifted her up, running his cool hand across her forehead. “O Mother, how much pain you must have suffered. O Karṇa! Where have you gone without greeting us as your younger brothers?”
Yudhiṣṭhira looked at Kṛṣṇa, who stood waist-deep in the river making offerings to the departed souls. Surely it was for His own inscrutable reasons that He had not told them the truth about Karṇa. But Kuntī should have trusted them. She could have revealed Karṇa’s identity long ago and saved so much bloodshed. In a trembling voice, his mind clouded by grief, Yudhiṣṭhira said, “O Mother, tell me how Karṇa took birth and why he was cast away. Surely the gods must have executed some plan through you, O gentle lady.”
Kuntī told her sons the story. They listened in amazement. It was a strange destiny that had caused him, the eldest Pāṇḍava and the son of the most powerful sun-god, to be separated at birth from his heritage and cast in the role of enemy to his own brothers. The brothers all looked at Kṛṣṇa, who was coming out of the water. With water running down His body, He shone in the bright afternoon sunshine. As He came over to Kuntī and the Pāṇḍavas, Yudhiṣṭhira told Him what Kuntī had just said. Folding his palms he asked, “O Lord, why were we never informed?”
Kṛṣṇa replied, “It was out of My love for My aunt that I did not reveal her secret. But, O King, Karṇa knew the truth. Still, he could not be swayed from his loyalty to Duryodhana although he understood the consequences. With your brothers you should now offer him his due rites.”
Kuntī and her sons entered the river and stood there for some time, silently making their offerings to Karṇa and all their other dead relatives. When they were finished, Yudhiṣṭhira made arrangements for them to stay on the river bank for the coming month. In accordance with scriptural injunctions, he ordered that everyone live there for thirty days to make daily offerings for the dead.
As evening fell, the Pāṇḍavas sat with Kṛṣṇa. They were surrounded by numerous ṛṣis, headed by Nārada. Yudhiṣṭhira questioned Nārada about Karṇa. He wanted to know every detail of his life. Nārada narrated the story in full. He told him how Karṇa had been raised by Adhiratha and Radha. Due to his powerful nature, he had sought the best training in martial arts. His enmity for Arjuna had been born when Droṇa refused to teach him, seeing him as the son of a charioteer. Karṇa had left Droṇa, resolved to return and humiliate him by defeating his best student. It was then that he had gone to Paraśurāma and been taught, only to be later cursed for his deceit.
After hearing about Karṇa, including his promise to Kuntī not to kill any of his brothers but Arjuna, Yudhiṣṭhira cried. He turned to Kuntī and said, “If only Karṇa had come to me as a brother. Surely I would have given him the earth and averted this calamity. Becoming the leader of the Pāṇḍavas, he would have shone in this world like Indra shines in the heavens.”
Kuntī pulled her white sari over her head. Tears ran freely from her eyes as she replied. “O child, O great hero, you should not think in this way. I tried my best to convince Karṇa of what was in his best interests, but he would not listen. Even his father, the mighty Sūrya, came to him in a dream and tried, without success, to persuade him. Neither Sūrya nor myself could sway him from his enmity against the Pāṇḍavas. Seeing him firmly under the influence of destiny and bent upon doing you harm, I gave up my attempt to change his mind and left him. It would only have made matters worse if I had then informed you of his identity.”
Yudhiṣṭhira covered his face with his hands and sighed. “O Mother, I do not blame you for your silence. Surely you were moved by supreme destiny. Still, I feel you should have confided in me. I therefore say that from this day on no woman will be able to hold a secret.”
Seeing Yudhiṣṭhira mournful, Nārada said, “O King, do not give way to sorrow. You have righteously acquired the earth by the strength of your arms. Ever abiding by your duties, you have escaped with life from the battle and now stand as the undisputed ruler of the world. Why do you not rejoice? I hope everything is well with you. Rise up and take your rightful position. Give joy to your friends and lead this world to the path of virtue.”
But Yudhiṣṭhira was downcast. The ṛṣi’s words did not cheer him. His mother’s revelation about Karṇa had only compounded his remorse. Certainly the slain warriors had reached higher regions, but what of their widows and orphans who numbered in the millions? Yudhiṣṭhira cared for the people like a loving father. The world was now full of grief-stricken women and children who had no protectors.
Soberly, he said, “O best of sages, I have conquered the world by relying on Kṛṣṇa, by the Brahmin’s favor, and by the might of Bhīma and Arjuna. Still, a heavy sorrow preys on my mind. I have killed all my kinsmen only because I wanted the kingdom. Having caused the death of Subhadrā’s darling son and of Draupadī’s sons, my victory, O holy one, seems little better than defeat. Those gentle ladies’ grief cuts my heart. Thanks to me, there are now so many women in the same state. How can I possibly enjoy the earth?”
Yudhiṣṭhira vented his anguish. Praising forgiveness and self-control, he censured the kṣatriya’s life, which was always violent and angry. Although he had scrupulously executed his duties, his nature was more that of a Brahmin than of a warrior. Before Kṛṣṇa and his brothers he stated his intentions to spend the rest of his life in penance.
“We have waged war like dogs fighting for a piece of meat. Now we no longer desire that meat. I will throw it aside. The endeavor was useless. We have not gained our object and our enemies have not gained theirs. The evil Kauravas, indulged by the foolish king Dhṛtarāṣṭra, have met with destruction and we are left with the burnt remnants. I will go to the forest, abandoning my attachment for this world. With my mind fixed on renunciation, I will attain to the goal ever sought by ascetics and sages. Let Bhīma become king. Or you, Arjuna, with Kṛṣṇa as your dear friend, may rule the earth. I do not wish to be king any longer.”
Yudhiṣṭhira fell silent. Arjuna looked at Kṛṣṇa and then back at Yudhiṣṭhira. He licked the corners of his lips and frowned. Night had fallen, and the flames of the sacred fire by which they were sitting cast an orange glow on his handsome face, which flushed as he replied.
“How, O lord, have you spoken such words? Having conquered your enemies, you are now the world’s rightful ruler. You are a kṣatriya. It is your duty to protect the people. Poverty befits ṛṣis, but not kings. Rather, kings must perform sacrifices and then distribute wealth to those in need. Indeed, by using wealth properly, pious kings increase their virtue and fame. The world stands in need of a leader. It is your religious obligation to fulfill that role. Following in the footsteps of Dilīpa, Nahusha, Ambarīṣa, and so many other great monarchs in our line, you should become emperor of the earth. How could any like you accept any other path?”
Yudhiṣṭhira remained silent. He was not convinced. Finally, he said, “I cannot accept your praise of wealth and worldly attachment. Focus your mind on your inner self and you will understand what I am saying. My only desire is to give up materialistic life and to take the path trodden by mendicants. This world is an illusion only foolish men desire. From now on I will take only what is absolutely necessary to survive, passing my time in austerity and meditation. Even as I contemplate such a life, I feel the happiness born of detachment. Let me go to the forest and aim for the eternal abode of the Supreme Spirit.”
Then Bhīma spoke. Like Arjuna, he was frustrated by Yudhiṣṭhira’s reluctance to rule after endeavoring so hard to regain the kingdom. His voice rang out into the still night.
“Surely, O King, your understanding of truth in this case is like one who foolishly recites the Vedas but knows nothing of their meaning. Censuring the duties of kings, you wish to lead an idle life. Had we known that this was your intention, we would not have fought. But we did fight. If you now abandon your duty, then killing Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons was a senseless act.
“Yet the wise have said that killing our enemies and leading a righteous government is our proper course. Kshatriyas possess forgiveness and self-control, and they exercise those qualities by doing their own duties and not those of others. Your withdrawal now would be like one who, having slain his many foes, finally dies by his own hand, or like a person who has climbed a tree to get the honey but falls before tasting it, or like a starving man who obtains food but then refuses to eat.”
Bhīma continued to cite similes and denounce Yudhiṣṭhira’s planned renunciation. He pointed out that a king’s duties were ordained by the Supreme Lord Himself and were therefore not reproachable. Renunciation was only approved for kings when they became old or defeated. As long as he had strength and ability, a virtuous kṣatriya should exert himself to rule and protect the people.
Bhīma concluded, “If, O King, one could attain perfection simply by renunciation, then the mountains and trees would be perfected beings. They all lead lives of abstention; they do not harm anyone and they practice celibacy. Real renunciation means performing one’s duty as the Supreme Lord desires. The world moves with all beings acting according to their God-given natures. One who abstains from action can never achieve success.”
Yudhiṣṭhira did not break his silence. Arjuna said, “O King, there is an ancient history mentioned in the Vedas regarding the relative merits of renunciation and action. Listen as I repeat it now.”
Arjuna told a story about some young Brahmins who had gone to the forest, having abandoned their duties and resolving to live a renounced life. Indra came to them in the form of a bird and asked what they were doing. When they told him, he replied, “This course of action is not approved by scripture. The Vedas define the Brahmin’s duty. A man who gives up his duty is condemned and defeated. On the other hand, one who performs his duty only because it ought to be done, and who lives on the remnants of sacrifice after he has made offerings to the Supreme and to kinsmen, ancestors, gods and guests--that man attains to goals which are normally difficult to achieve. Indeed, there is nothing more difficult than the life of a dutiful householder, which in the end leads to genuine detachment from all worldliness. This is the surest path of righteousness.”
Arjuna explained how the Brahmins then gave up their lives of premature renunciation and returned to their duty and achieved success.
Yudhiṣṭhira still said nothing. Nakula then also tried to encourage his elder brother to accept his duty of kingship. Citing Vedic injunctions, he described the sacrifices meant for kṣatriyas. Kings were enjoined to renounce their wealth by distributing it in charity to the Brahmins and the people in general at great sacrifices. Leaving everything behind and going to the forest was simply not in accord with Vedic principles for a king. He must perform sacrifices for the good of the people and act as their protector. If he gave up such duties in the name of renunciation, it would simply result in disaster for himself and his subjects. Real renunciation was something internal, not external. One who did his duty in a mood of detachment was the true renunciant, not the man who gave up his duty.
Then Sahadeva spoke, concurring with his brothers. As Yudhiṣṭhira sat in silence amid the ṛṣis tending their sacrificial fire, Sahadeva said, “O King, it is difficult to renounce material attachments by stopping work. May our enemies have the merit that goes to one who renounces work but whose mind still covets material things. On the other hand, may our friends have the merit earned by he who rules the world having shaken off internal attachments. The word mama, mine, is death; while its opposite, nama, is eternal Brahman. It is Death and Brahman which impel all men to action. The wise man, free from false conceptions of the self and realizing himself to be eternal spirit, works without being attached to the results. Thus his work is spiritual and he attains the Brahman. That man who still desires the fruits of his action, however, even if he lives in the forest, lives within the jaws of Death. In truth, O King, even inaction is considered action if one desires a result. Therefore, do your duty in a detached mood and earn everlasting virtue.”
Even after his brothers had spoken, Yudhiṣṭhira said nothing. He already knew what they were saying and could not deny the truth of it. Still, his heart was not inclined toward ruling the world. He sat staring at the ground. The compassionate Pāṇḍava thought of Bhīṣma, still lying on the battlefield on his bed of arrows; of Droṇa, whom they had ruthlessly killed; and of Karṇa, his own brother whom he had killed before he even knew his identity. Yudhiṣṭhira thought of Abhimanyu and Draupadī’s sons, of their young wives, all grieving for their husbands. If he had given up his desire for half the kingdom, none of them would have died. Duryodhana, for all his faults, was an efficient administrator. What need was there to destroy so many lives?
Seeing her husband’s melancholy, Draupadī said soothingly, “O King, your brothers are crying themselves hoarse trying to do you good, but you do not reply. O lord, when we were dwelling in the forest, suffering from cold and wind and sun, you said to your brothers, ‘Soon we shall slay Duryodhana in battle and win back our kingdom.’ O best of the virtuous, that has now come to pass and yet you are depressing our hearts by your reluctance. All of you brothers are like celestials. Each of you is capable of ruling the universe with all its moving and nonmoving beings. If I had married only one of you, my happiness would have been complete. Surely it is a kind of madness which now possesses you. Why else would you be prepared to renounce your prescribed duties? Do not give way to folly. Take up the scepter and the rod of chastisement! Rule Goddess Earth with righteousness. Worship the gods with sacrifices. Give charity and subdue the wicked. In this way, my lord, become happy and give joy to your brothers.”
Yudhiṣṭhira still showed no signs of having heard. Crickets could be heard from the nearby forest as the Pāṇḍavas sat in silence. In the sacrificial compound, Brahmins murmured Vedic mantras and chanted the holy names of the Supreme. Kṛṣṇa looked at Yudhiṣṭhira with compassion, but said nothing. Bhīma, growing impatient with his elder brother, spoke again, trying to change his mind.
“Please forgive me, O King, but I cannot silently tolerate your weakness. Everything we have worked so hard to achieve is now being threatened by your bewilderment. You seem to have lost your good sense. Surely you know right from wrong. Why are you hesitating to do your duty? You have never displayed such faintness of heart before, allowing yourself to be overpowered by sentiment. Have you forgotten the Kauravas’ sins? Have you forgotten the ills inflicted upon us and Draupadī? Do you not recall the miseries we endured in exile, awaiting this day? You have won one war, O King. Now you face an even greater battle--the battle with your mind. If you expire before gaining victory in that fight, then you will have to take another birth and resume the battle until you win.”
Yudhiṣṭhira stiffened. Bhīma’s suggestion that he was not able to control his mind was painful. Taking a deep breath, he replied, “O Bhīma, I think it is you who is overcome by his mind. Surely you are afflicted by the sins of discontent, worldly attachment, greed, vanity and ignorance. You urge me to accept the earth and abandon my desire for renunciation, but how will that satisfy my soul or even my senses? Desires for enjoyment can never be satisfied, and they stand as impediments on the spiritual path. Only those able to give up all such desires can attain life’s perfection. One free from all desire becomes eligible to enter eternal regions of bliss, but those who remain entangled in the vain quest for worldly pleasure are most certainly obliged to remain in this world of suffering.”
Feeling reprimanded, Bhīma made no reply. Arjuna spoke again, reciting an ancient history from the Vedas concerning the famous king Janaka. He too had once decided to abandon his kingdom and wealth, adopting a life of asceticism in the forest. At that time his wife had spoken to him strongly, bringing him back to the path of duty. She argued that, although he wanted to leave the kingdom in a mood of detachment, if he were actually detached, then it would not matter to him whether he was a mendicant or a king. If he still coveted material things, then even his mendicant’s waterpot and staff would become objects of attachment.
Yudhiṣṭhira listened as his brother narrated the story. He enjoyed hearing the narration, even though he had heard it many times--but it did not change his mind. There were many different instructions in the Vedas, each meant for a different time or circumstance. Considering the present situation, Yudhiṣṭhira remained convinced that renunciation was the only course possible for him. He looked at Arjuna with affection. “I know you are speaking with a desire to do me good, dear brother, but your words do not touch my heart. Although you are expert in martial sciences, you are not conversant with the subtler spiritual subjects. Unless you serve a self-realized soul, you cannot understand the true path of religion. Like Bhīma, you see wealth and worldliness as superior to asceticism. But while the path of worldly duties has its place, it serves only as a means to attain the higher path of renunciation. It is the soul which must be sought, and ultimately the Supreme Soul, both of whom are quite separate from matter. Thus must all materialism be utterly renounced.”
Fascinated by the arguments between Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers, the ṛṣis smiled and nodded in approval as each one spoke. They looked at Kṛṣṇa, who was also enjoying the discussion but who chose to remain silent. One of the ṛṣis, Devasthana, spoke to Yudhiṣṭhira, describing the ascetic life. He explained that even a life of asceticism was not devoid of action. Indeed, the ascetics in the forest worked hard in order to perform sacrifices and worship the deities. Nor was it certain that even they would achieve perfection by their work. Devasthana said that the life of a pious king, who performed sacrifice and carefully practiced his duty, was no less religious than that of the ascetic Brahmins, and no less likely to lead to life’s perfection.
Yudhiṣṭhira did not respond. Vyāsadeva also spoke at length about the duties and glories of the kṣatriyas. He condemned the kings who failed to discharge their duties. If a kingdom went unprotected and the people suffered, the king would be visited by sins. He would also be culpable for the crimes committed in the kingdom. The right course for a king was to carry out the function of ruler and protector, taking to renunciation only at the end of his life.
Yudhiṣṭhira did not like to disobey Vyāsadeva or the other ṛṣis, but he still had no heart for the ruler’s role. Folding his palms, he said to Vyāsadeva, “My lord, the thought of sovereignty, with all its objects of enjoyment, does not give me joy. I am still grieving. Hearing the lamentations of all the women who have lost their men, I cannot feel peace.”
The immortal sage smiled. “Do not be concerned with happiness or distress, for both are ephemeral. By the influence of time one meets with joy and suffering one after the other. Pleasure begets misery and from misery pleasure is again born. In this world there are only two kinds of permanently happy men: the complete fools and those who have mastered the mind and senses. Those between these two must suffer. Therefore, a wise man abandons attachment and aversion and simply does his duty to please the Supreme. Your duty is to rule this earth, O Bharata. By performing that duty you will gain undying fame and virtue, rising up in the end to the highest regions hereafter.”
Yudhiṣṭhira was torn. It was against his nature to deny the sages’ advice, but his doubts persisted. How could he take the throne after causing so much destruction? With tears running down his face he looked up at Vyāsadeva and said, “I am the most sinful man! Just see my heart, so full of ignorance! This body, which is meant for serving others, has killed many, many phalanxes of men. I have directly or indirectly killed boys, Brahmins, well-wishers, friends, parents, preceptors and brothers. Even if I live for millions of years, I will not be relieved from the hell that awaits me for these sins. Although there is no sin for a king who kills to maintain his citizens or some other righteous cause, this injunction does not apply to me in this case.”
Yudhiṣṭhira knew that for a king to kill while executing his duties was not sinful, but he was not a king when the war had been fought. All the killing had come about simply to make him the king instead of Duryodhana. Such selfishness was surely sinful.
“The path of sacrifice will not save me from the hell which now awaits me. As it is not possible to filter muddy water through mud or purify a wine-stained pot with wine, it is not possible to counteract the killing of men by sacrificing animals.”
Seeing Yudhiṣṭhira sunk in remorse, Kṛṣṇa moved closer to him. He took his hand, covered with sandal-paste and resembling marble, and smiled. “Do not grieve so, O best of men, for you will become ill. Those who have lost their lives cannot be brought back by grieving. All of them are like objects obtained in a dream that disappear when one awakens. Purified by the striking of weapons, they have thrown down their bodies and ascended to heaven. Who will lament for them? Their women should also rejoice that they have attained such exalted destinations. And now you should take your rightful position as king.”
Both Nārada and Vyāsadeva spoke next. They tried at length to convince the Pāṇḍava to shake off his grief and to assume the throne. But after everything was said, Yudhiṣṭhira still could not agree. He took up a handful of earth and let it run through his fingers. He wanted to please Kṛṣṇa and to satisfy the ṛṣis, but he felt stained by sin. He was not convinced that performing his duty would purify him.
He looked up at Vyāsadeva. “O great sage, surely it is true that one who performs his duties in accordance with scriptural injunctions does not accrue sin. This I understand, but it is the sins I have already committed that burn and consume me. How will I be freed from them? Having committed genocide, I will doubtlessly fall into hell. I think it best that I atone by abstaining from food and drink, and reduce my body until my life airs depart. Surely I can be released by no other means.”
Vyāsadeva said that there were many factors which had brought about the kṣatriyas’ death. Principally, their previous acts were the ultimate cause, but it had also been the influence of all-powerful time moving under God’s will which had decreed they must die. The Pāṇḍavas had been nothing more than instruments of Providence.
“Men like you do not go to hell. You have followed the path of the gods and will attain an exalted destination. Sometimes virtue appears like sin while at other times sin resembles virtue. Only the learned know the difference. In your case, you should not fear, dear child. Even if there were some irregularities on the battlefield, you should not fear. Only he who deliberately sins without compunction or regret is bound by the fetters of sin and falls into hell. This was not your mood. Only with reluctance did you fight, and now you are repentant. That repentance will purify you. Still, you may perform, if you desire, acts of atonement. Although your belief that you have been sinful is delusion, you may perform the expiatory rites meant for kings.”
Yudhiṣṭhira questioned Vyāsadeva about the rites of atonement and the sage described them. When he was finished, Yudhiṣṭhira said, “You have pleased me with your instructions, O sage. I understand that there are methods of atonement which will help me. I still have doubts about becoming king, however. How can I ensure that I am not touched by further sin? Please tell me in detail about a king’s duties. I need to be instructed how such duties can always be consistent with virtue. It seems to me that the acts a king must perform are often vicious and dangerous.”
After looking at Kṛṣṇa, who seemed to light up the night with His radiance, Vyāsadeva replied, “If, O King, you wish to hear of morality and the duties of kings at length, you should approach Bhīṣma. I do not think there is anyone who exceeds his knowledge in this regard. He has been instructed by Bṛhaspati in the heavens as well as by Vasiṣṭha and Cyavana Ṛṣis here on earth. He has also heard from Sanat Kumāra, Mārkaṇḍeya, Paraśurāma, and even Indra. Surely he will clear your doubts. Go to him where he lies on the battlefield, for his time of death has not yet come.”
Hearing Bhīṣma’s name, Yudhiṣṭhira only felt the more aggrieved. Tears again sprang from his eyes. “How will I approach the grandsire after I have killed him so deceitfully?”
Kṛṣṇa placed His hand on Yudhiṣṭhira’s shoulder. “Do not indulge in grief. O best of kings, you should do what the holy ṛṣi has said. Go to Bhīṣma and hear from him about your duties. With your doubts cleared by that great man, you should then satisfy the Brahmins and your brothers and become king.”
The discussions had gone all night. As the first light of dawn appeared on the horizon, Yudhiṣṭhira decided to accept Vyāsadeva’s advice and to go and see Bhīṣma. Rising up for the good of the world, he said, “So be it. After getting myself duly consecrated by the Brahmins, I will approach the wise Kuru grandfather.”
Yudhiṣṭhira was still reluctant, but he would not go against Kṛṣṇa’s desire. He was prepared to be coronated as emperor, but he would need to hear further instructions from Bhīṣma before he could give his heart to the task.
Seeing Yudhiṣṭhira standing at last, the other Pāṇḍavas looked at one another with relief. Arrangements were made to fetch everyone to the city so that the installation ceremony could take place. Like the moon conjoined with the sun and surrounded by stars, Yudhiṣṭhira accompanied by Kṛṣṇa and his brothers proceeded toward Hastināpura. Praised by bards and singers, he rode upon a white chariot covered with deerskins and yoked to sixteen white bullocks. Bhīma held the reins while Arjuna held a beautiful white umbrella over his head. On either side of Yudhiṣṭhira stood the twins, fanning him with gold-handled cāmaras.
Yudhiṣṭhira had Dhṛtarāṣṭra go at the head of the procession and the old Kuru monarch sat with Gāndhārī on a golden chariot. Immediately behind Yudhiṣṭhira came Kṛṣṇa on His own chariot driven by Dāruka and drawn by His four lustrous horses. Sātyaki sat by Kṛṣṇa’s side. A large number of elephants and chariots made up the rest of the procession. They left the forest region of the Ganges and moved slowly along the smooth road toward the city. As they entered Hastināpura they were met by the sound of drums and conchshells, as well as the cheers of thousands of joyous citizens.