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Chapter 35

The Pāṇḍavas Retire

As the thirty-sixth year of Yudhiṣṭhira’s rule approached, Arjuna visited Dwārakā. He knew Kṛṣṇa’s departure was close at hand, and he wanted to see Him one last time. His brothers were hoping that he might persuade Kṛṣṇa to make a final visit to Hastināpura. Maybe Kṛṣṇa could even be convinced to counter Gāndhārī’s curse and remain on earth. Surely that was within His power.

Arjuna had been gone for a few months and Yudhiṣṭhira began to observe inauspicious omens. The seasons appeared out of order, and men were abandoning their prescribed duties. There were constant disputes arising between the citizens, and people were cheating each other everywhere. Seeing that the people were overwhelmed by pride, anger and greed, Yudhiṣṭhira spoke to Bhīma.

“My dear brother, it is now some time since Arjuna left for Dwārakā. I see many portents which indicate that a great calamity has occurred. Has the time for Kṛṣṇa’s departure arrived, as the godly Ṛṣi Nārada indicated? What else could account for the many signs of irreligion which we now see? All our good fortune and everything auspicious has come only from Kṛṣṇa. In His absence, everything will be lost.”

Yudhiṣṭhira pointed out to Bhīma the various omens he had witnessed: the jackals that howled at the rising sun, the dogs that barked fearlessly at him, his horses that appeared to weep. He could hear the shrieks of crows and owls at all times, and thunder constantly filled the sky. The earth seemed to tremble and the wind blew violently, carrying clouds of dust. Deities in the temple seemed to cry and perspire. It appeared as if they were about to leave.

Yudhiṣṭhira concluded, “I think that all these disturbances indicate a great loss to the earth’s good fortune. The world was fortunate to have been marked with the Lord’s footprints. These signs indicate that this will no longer be.”

Even as Yudhiṣṭhira spoke, a messenger came to inform him that Arjuna had returned. Yudhiṣṭhira had him enter at once and Arjuna was soon bowing at his feet and embracing him. Yudhiṣṭhira saw that he was dejected. Tears flowed from his eyes and his face was pale. He could barely look at his brother.

Feeling even more disquieted, Yudhiṣṭhira said, “My dear brother, please tell me whether our friends and relatives in Dwārakā are all passing their days in happiness. Is my respectable grandfather, Surasena, happy? Are my maternal uncle Vasudeva and his younger brothers doing well? Are Ugrasena and his younger brother still living? How are Hridika and his son, Kṛtavarmā? Are Akrūra, Jayanta, Gada, Sāraṇa and Satrajit all happy? How is Balarāma, the Personality of Godhead and the protector of all devotees?”

Yudhiṣṭhira went on naming their friends in Dwārakā and asking after their welfare. The Pāṇḍavas had often visited Dwārakā and spent happy days there. After listing the chief residents of Kṛṣṇa’s city, Yudhiṣṭhira finally asked about Kṛṣṇa. “Is Lord Kṛṣṇa, the original Supreme Person, who is always affectionate toward His devotees, enjoying the pious assembly at Dwārakā surrounded by His friends? That all-powerful person, along with Balarāma, who is the primeval Lord Ananta, is staying in the ocean of the Yadu dynasty for the welfare, protection and general progress of the entire universe. The members of the Yadu dynasty, being protected by the Lord’s arms, enjoy life like the residents of the eternal spiritual world. Under Kṛṣṇa’s protection, they live without fear, surpassing even the gods in their power and opulence.”

Looking at Arjuna’s downcast face, Yudhiṣṭhira asked if he was well. Although the Pāṇḍava king suspected that Kṛṣṇa and His family had departed, he continued to inquire from Arjuna, hoping that there was some other reason for his brother’s moroseness.

“My brother Arjuna, please tell me whether your health is all right. You appear to have lost your luster. Is this due to others disrespecting and neglecting you because of your long stay at Dwārakā? Has someone addressed you with unfriendly words or threatened you? Could you not give charity to one who asked, or could you not keep your promise to someone? Could you, a great protector of the people, not give protection to some helpless persons when they approached you for shelter? Have you contacted a woman of questionable character, or have you not properly treated a deserving woman? Have you been defeated on the way by someone who is inferior or equal to you? Have you committed an unpardonable or abominable mistake?” Yudhiṣṭhira paused, not wanting to express his greatest fear. Bhīma and the twins shed tears as they too guessed the truth. After a moment of silence, Yudhiṣṭhira concluded, “Or, my dear brother, are you now feeling empty for all time because you have lost your most intimate friend, Lord Kṛṣṇa? O my brother Arjuna, I can think of no other reason for your becoming so sorrowful.”

Arjuna could not reply. His mouth was dry and his limbs trembled. He buried his face in his hands and wept. At last he managed to check his tears and said, “O King, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Kṛṣṇa, who treated me like an intimate friend, has left me alone. Thus my incomparable power, which astonished even the demigods, is gone. I have just lost Him whose separation for a moment would render all the universes inauspicious and void, like bodies without life. Only by His merciful strength was I able to vanquish the lusty princes assembled at king Drupada’s svayaṁvara.”

Arjuna then described the many incidents where he had been able to achieve incredible feats of prowess due to Kṛṣṇa’s grace. Recounting the numerous occasions when the Pāṇḍavas had escaped from precarious and dangerous situations, Arjuna continued in a doleful voice. “The military strength of the Kauravas was like an ocean in which there dwelt many fearsome aquatics. It was insurmountable, but because of Kṛṣṇa’s friendship, I was able to cross it. Great generals like Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Karṇa and others all directed their invincible weapons against me. Yet by the Lord’s grace they could hardly touch a hair on my head. Surely it was only due to my lack of esteem for Him that I dared engage Him as my chariot driver, for He is worshipped and offered services by the best of men who desire to attain salvation.

“O King, His joking and frank talks were pleasing and beautifully decorated with smiles. His affectionate addresses unto me as ‘O Pārtha, O friend, O son of the Kuru dynasty’ and all such intimacies I now remember, and thus I am overwhelmed. We used to sleep, sit and loiter together. When we boasted about our chivalry, if He exaggerated, I would reproach Him by saying, ‘My friend, You are very truthful.’ Even in those hours when His value was minimized, He would tolerate my utterings, excusing me exactly as a friend excuses his friend or a father excuses his son.”

Arjuna broke off, unable to continue. His brothers all sat stupefied, also saying nothing. The unthinkable had finally happened and Kṛṣṇa had left. They listened as Arjuna, regaining his composure, went on to describe how, in Kṛṣṇa’s absence, he had been overpowered by a group of cowherds when he was trying to protect Kṛṣṇa’s wives.

Arjuna looked at his two hands. “Where has my wondrous power gone? I have the same Gāṇḍīva, the same arrows, the same chariot drawn by the same horses, and I use them as the same Arjuna to whom all kings offer their respects. But in Kṛṣṇa’s absence, all of them have at once become useless.”

Yudhiṣṭhira embraced his distraught brother. He sat him on a throne and had servants fan him. After Arjuna had sipped a little water, he told his brothers what had transpired in Dwārakā. “O King, since you have asked me about our friends and relatives in that holy city, I will inform you that all of them were afflicted by the Brahmins’ curse. As a result, they became intoxicated with wine and fought among themselves with sticks, not even recognizing one another. Now they are all dead.”

Arjuna related the details of the terrible event. He explained how years ago a number of boys in Dwārakā had played a joke on some powerful ṛṣis, headed by Nārada, when the sages were visiting the city. The boys had dressed up Kṛṣṇa’s son Sāmba as a woman and placed an iron ball under his clothes, making him appear pregnant. They had then asked the sages, “Will this lady give birth to a girl or a boy?” The ṛṣis, angered by the boys’ insolence, answered, “This one will give birth to an iron ball which will destroy your dynasty. Only Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma will survive.”

When the Yadu king, Ugrasena, heard about the curse, he had the iron ball ground into a powder and thrown into the ocean. Later, the Yadus observed fearful omens in Dwārakā. They saw the embodied form of Time, black and terrible, moving about the city. The powerful Yadu and Vrishni bowmen shot hundreds of thousands of arrows at him, but none could strike him. Day by day, stronger and stronger winds blew, and the streets swarmed with rats and mice. Earthen pots cracked with no visible cause, wells spewed out their water, and the bodies of men trembled. All sorts of inauspicious creatures--crows, owls and jackals--filled the air with their cries. Asses were born of cows and mules from elephants. Clean, well-cooked food, when served, was covered with worms. The heavy tread of running men was constantly heard, but no one could be observed running. The citizens committed sinful acts without shame. They disregarded the Brahmins, forgot to worship the temple deities, and insulted their elders and preceptors. Only Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma did not behave in these ways. When They observed the fearful portents and heard how the citizens were having frightening dreams, They called an assembly.

With everyone present, Kṛṣṇa said, “O leaders of the Yadu dynasty, please note these terrible omens that have appeared in Dwārakā, just like flags of Death. We should not remain here any longer. The women, children, and old men should leave the city and go to Sankhoddara. We ourselves will go to the holy Prabhāsa, where the river Sarasvatī flows toward the west. There we should bathe for purification, fast and fix our minds in meditation. Let us then worship the gods and present them with rich offerings. Then we should worship the Brahmins and offer them charity. In this way, we may be able to counteract what these signs portend.”

The assembly signaled their agreement and arrangements were made. The Yādava warriors mounted their chariots and set out for Prabhāsa, on the seacoast. The women traveled in their midst. When the procession reached Sankhoddara, halfway between Dwārakā and Prabhāsa, the women remained while the men continued.

With a loud blast of conchshells and the blare of thousands of trumpets the Yādavas arrived at Prabhāsa. They took up their residence in palaces and mansions and performed sacrifices to worship the gods. At the end of the second day, influenced by destiny, they drank large quantities of maireya wine, which had been prepared for the sacrifices. Intoxicated, they began to joke.

Sātyaki then insulted Kṛtavarmā, whom he had never forgiven for helping Aśvatthāmā kill the sleeping Pāṇḍava troops. In a mocking voice he said, “What kṣatriya possessed of prowess would kill men embraced by sleep? Were they not already dead? O son of Hridika, your action cannot be tolerated.”

Kṛtavarmā’s anger blazed. Pointing at Sātyaki with his left hand as a way to disregard him, he thundered, “Professing yourself a hero, how could you cruelly kill the armless Bhurisrava even as he sat in meditation with his weapons cast aside?”

Kṛṣṇa threw an angry glance at Kṛtavarmā. Sātyaki leapt to his feet. Pulling out his sword he bellowed, “I swear by truth that I will send Kṛtavarmā along the path taken by Dṛṣṭadyumna and Śikhaṇḍī. His life and fame have come to an end.”

Sātyaki ran at Kṛtavarmā, whose reflexes had been dulled by the wine, and with a sweep of his sword beheaded him. Kṛtavarmā’s friends then attacked Sātyaki and assailed him with iron cooking pots. Pradyumna came to his aid, and the two men stood back to back as a large number of warriors closed on them. Although they put up a brave fight, they were soon overwhelmed and slain.

When He saw His son Pradyumna killed, Kṛṣṇa became angry. He took up a handful of reeds that were growing nearby. The reeds had grown from the iron powder that had been cast into the ocean on Ugrasena’s order. They were like iron rods and Kṛṣṇa wielded them like deadly weapons. He quickly slew all the men who had killed His son.

Other Yādavas and Vrishnis took up their weapons and entered the fray. Soon a violent battle was raging. When their weapons had been smashed, they too took up the reeds. Bewildered by wine and influenced by Gāndhārī’s and the ṛṣis’ curses, they killed one another without compunction. Father killed son, son slew father, and brother killed brother. Like insects flying into a fire, they destroyed one another. In less than an hour, millions of men were dead. Only Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma survived, along with Dāruka, who carried the news back to Dwārakā.

Arjuna paused in his narration. His mind was confounded as he recounted the story. He knew that it had been Kṛṣṇa’s desire. The Lord had wanted His own family and followers to leave the world. With the onset of the Kali age, they might create a greater disturbance than the atheistic demons. After all, they were far more powerful than the demons. No one could have checked them. Only if they slew one another could they be killed.

Taking a deep breath, Arjuna continued. He described how Kṛṣṇa Himself had departed. When all the Yādavas and other warriors died, Kṛṣṇa had watched Balarāma sit down in meditation on the seashore. As Balarāma became absorbed in trance, the many-hooded divine serpent Ananta-sesha had come out of His mouth. Worshipped by Varuṇa and other gods, the serpent went toward the ocean and vanished.

Seeing Balarāma depart, Kṛṣṇa entered a nearby forest. He sat beneath a pippala tree in meditation. As He did so, the principal gods all approached Him invisibly. They all desired to see His last pastime on earth. Not far from where Kṛṣṇa sat there was a hunter. The man had caught a large fish and found in its belly a lump of iron, the last remnant of the iron ball thrown into the sea. With that lump he had fashioned an arrowhead. While hunting with the arrow, he came across Kṛṣṇa. By Kṛṣṇa’s own illusory energy, he mistook Kṛṣṇa’s foot to be an animal, seeing it from a distance through the bushes. He released the arrow and struck Kṛṣṇa’s foot, whereupon the Lord departed from the world, worshipped by the gods with Brahmā at their head.

Arjuna then told how Dāruka had returned to Dwārakā. He had been told that he would find Arjuna there and that he should ask him to take the women to Indraprastha. When Dāruka reached the city, he went to Kṛṣṇa’s father Vasudeva and told him the heartbreaking news. Along with Devakī, Vasudeva fell to the ground in a faint. Tormented by separation from Kṛṣṇa, they both gave up their lives.

Arjuna, who had only recently arrived in Dwārakā, was himself overpowered by sorrow when he heard what had happened, but he tried to follow Kṛṣṇa’s directions. He had first arranged for Vasudeva and Devakī’s funeral ceremonies, however. When the funeral pyre was ablaze, Vasudeva’s other wives entered the fire, rapt in thought of Kṛṣṇa.

Arjuna then traveled to Prabhāsa in order to perform the last rites for all the slain warriors. Millions of men had died, and it took weeks for Arjuna to arrange for funeral ceremonies for those who had no male members left in the family. The womenfolk were brought from Sankhoddhara, and as the cremations took place many widows entered the fire embracing their lords, thus attaining the same destinations reached by those men.

Finding Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma’s bodies, Arjuna marveled at the sight. Their bodies still shone with the same brilliant effulgence as They had in life. Arjuna could understand that it was not possible for Them to die. Their apparent death was simply a display of Kṛṣṇa’s illusory energy. Both Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma were manifestations of the original, transcendent Supreme. Arjuna concluded that the material bodies They left behind were simply meant to bewilder the faithless. The Lord was merciful even to those who desired to be atheists. Stupefied by grief and moving like a wooden doll, Arjuna arranged for expert priests to cremate the bodies of the two Lords. Rukmīṇī and Kṛṣṇa’s other principal queens ascended the funeral pyre and gave up their lives.

When all the funeral ceremonies were completed, Arjuna returned to Dwārakā. He arranged for the remaining women and children, and the Brahmins, vaiśyās, and śūdras, to be taken in chariots to Indraprastha. Kṛṣṇa had told Dāruka that the city would soon be inundated by the sea, and Arjuna was concerned to get everyone out first. They made a sorry procession, wailing and calling out Kṛṣṇa’s names as they left Dwārakā. Even while they were leaving the city, the ocean began to flood the land. Looking behind them they saw waves crashing into the great island fortress and swirling through its streets and houses.

The procession, bereft of heroes, proceeded by slow marches toward Indraprastha. After some days, they reached the Panchajala province. Arjuna decided to camp there for a while. The region was infested with robbers, and when they saw the thousands of richly adorned ladies from Dwārakā, they decided to attack the camp. Coming together in a force, the robbers, dressed as cowherds, rushed at the camp with loud cries. Armed with clubs and bows, they fell upon the ladies and led them away, looting as they went.

Arjuna mounted his chariot and rode toward them, calling out, “O sinful wretches, stop at once. Flee from here now if you have any love of life. Wait only a moment and I will cut your bodies to pieces.”

Urged by destiny, the robbers disregarded Arjuna and carried on with their plundering. Arjuna raised his Gāṇḍīva but, to his amazement, he found himself barely able to string it. His strength seemed to have disappeared. With great difficulty he drew back the bow and fired his arrows, but they fell short of their targets. The Pāṇḍava then tried to invoke the celestial weapons, but they would not appear. In frustration and anger he ran after the robbers and struck them with his bow, but despite his efforts, he was unable to prevent them from taking away many of the Yadu ladies.

Sighing with sorrow, Arjuna could understand that it was somehow the Lord’s arrangement. Now that Kṛṣṇa had departed, his great power had vanished. In a state of complete dejection, he resumed the march toward Indraprastha. When they arrived at the city, Arjuna installed Vajra, the son of Kṛṣṇa’s son Aniruddha, as king. Still only a boy, the prince had not gone to Prabhāsa with the older kṣatriyas. He was filled with grief for the death of all his relatives, but counseled by learned Brahmins, he began to rule over the city.

Once he had ensured that everything was in order, Arjuna decided to return to Hastināpura to see Yudhiṣṭhira. As he was about to leave, he heard that Vyāsadeva was present in a hermitage near the city and went to visit him. Falling at his feet, Arjuna shed tears, unable to speak.

As Arjuna lay there almost devoid of life, Vyāsadeva said, “O child, what is the cause of this sorrow? Have you accidentally slain a Brahmin or been defeated in battle? Did you know an untouchable woman or have you fallen in some other way from religious practices? I do not think any of this possible. You should tell me what ails you, O son of Pṛthā, if you feel able.”

Regaining his composure, Arjuna knelt before the ṛṣi. In agony he said, “O great sage, He whose complexion resembled a dark cloud, whose eyes were like a pair of lotus petals, has, together with the lordly Rāma, left this world. At Prabhāsa, through iron bolts created by the Brahmins’ curse, all the Vrishni heroes have been slain. Not a single one escaped. Those mighty men killed one another in a fit of anger.”

Arjuna broke down and wept as he thought of Kṛṣṇa and His many friends. The slaughter at Prabhāsa reminded him of the awful night at Kurukṣetra when Aśvatthāmā had slain the sleeping Pāṇḍavas. Arjuna had lost so many of his family members and friends at that time, and now the remainder of his friends were gone. There was nothing left for which to live.

“O Brahmin, just see the perverse course of time. Thinking of this tragedy I cannot find peace of mind. Kṛṣṇa’s death is as incredible as the drying up of the ocean, the falling down of heaven, or the splitting of Mount Himavat. Without Him I cannot maintain my life. And there is yet another calamity which rends my heart.”

Arjuna related how he had been unable to protect the Yadu ladies from the robbers. “Right before my eyes, thousands of women were carried away by robbers from the Abhiras tribe. I could do nothing. Alas, this is surely due to Kṛṣṇa’s absence. How can I drag on my useless existence without Him? He who used to drive my chariot, that divine one gifted with splendor and unfading power, that unlimited Govinda—I will no longer see Him. I am filled with despair and my head swims. I dare not live without the heroic Janārdana. As soon as I heard He had gone, my eyes dimmed and I could no longer see anything. O best of men, please tell me what is best for me now, a wanderer with an empty heart, bereft of my kinsmen and friends.”

Vyāsadeva replied, “Do not grieve. Everything has been ordained by the Lord. Kṛṣṇa allowed it to happen, although He was capable of preventing it. Indeed, Govinda could alter the course of the universe—what then of a curse? He who sat upon your chariot and guided you through every calamity was the all-powerful Supreme Himself. Having lightened the earth’s burden, He has now ended His human-like pastimes. Through you and your brothers He has achieved the work of the gods. You are crowned with success, for you have pleased the immortal and inconceivable Keśava. Surely now you should think of your own departure. When the hour of adversity arrives, everything is lost. Thus one’s prowess, understanding and vision all disappear. This is due only to the influence of irresistible time. Do not lament, O hero. The time has come when you Pāṇḍavas should attain the highest end. This is what I consider most beneficial.”

Consoled by Vyāsadeva’s words, Arjuna took his permission and left for Hastināpura.

When Arjuna finished his narration, his four brothers were stunned. They thought only of Kṛṣṇa. None could contemplate life without Him. Tears ran down their faces. Distraught, Yudhiṣṭhira said, “O best of men, we should understand that time is cooking all creatures in a cauldron. Even the invincible Vrishnis have been rooted out. Even Kṛṣṇa has left. Now we should act upon Vyāsadeva’s instructions. There is no point in remaining here. Indeed, the dark age of Kali is already making its entrance. Just see how the citizens are becoming sinful, driven by the influence of the age. We should depart, for the powerful Parīkṣit, who is ever-protected by the Lord, is qualified to rule the earth.”

Yudhiṣṭhira’s brothers agreed. They knew it was time for them to retire. Parīkṣit could replace them. Yudhiṣṭhira conferred with the Brahmins and decided upon a day when he would leave for the forest. When the citizens heard of his determination, they cried out in sorrow and tried to dissuade him, but Yudhiṣṭhira’s mind would not be changed. On an auspicious day, he installed Parīkṣit as king, and Kṛpa as his chief counselor.

The five brothers distributed wealth to the Brahmins, performed rituals in honor of Kṛṣṇa, and gave away heaps of gold and gems in His name. When all the ceremonies were complete, Yudhiṣṭhira took off his royal garments and ornaments and dressed in tree bark. His brothers followed his example. The five of them came out of the royal palace looking like five ascetics. The people cried in grief and were reminded of the terrible day when the brothers had been exiled. This time, they would not return.

Ignoring the citizens’ cries, Yudhiṣṭhira walked toward the northern gate, his four brothers close behind. Draupadī, seeing her husbands’ resolve, hurried along behind them. She had never been separated from her husbands, even when they entered the forest, and she would have died of unbearable grief had she been left behind. After bidding her last, tearful farewells to Subhadrā and the other Pāṇḍava ladies, who were all given to the constant practice of asceticism and prayer, she set her mind upon renunciation. Like her husbands, her mind was filled with joy as she left the city for the final great journey to the north.

Accepting simple food and water only once a day, the brothers and Draupadī walked steadily toward the Himālayas. They spoke with no one and remained absorbed in thoughts of Kṛṣṇa. After many days traveling, they reached a great lake at the foot of the mountains. As they approached the lake, they saw ahead of them Agni’s brilliant form. The deity addressed them in a booming voice. “O foremost of Kuru’s race, listen to my words. I am the god of fire whom Arjuna pleased at Khāṇḍava. At that time I gave him the Gāṇḍīva. He should now return it. Let him cast it, along with the two inexhaustible quivers, into these waters and Varuṇa will take it back.”

Arjuna bowed to Agni and took his bow and quivers from his shoulder. He had not been able to leave them behind, but now, on Agni’s order, he threw them into the water. Agni then disappeared and the brothers continued their journey, seeing in the distance the cloud-covered peak of Mount Himavat. Eventually passing that great mountain, they crossed over a desert and came at last to Mount Meru where lay the abode of the gods. As they made their way through the hilly region, they were joined by a dog, who stayed with them day and night. Soon they reached the foothills of Gandhamādana Mountain, where they had spent much of their exile. They bowed down and offered prayers to the sacred mountain, then began their ascent.

The brothers had been walking for months, and their bodies were emaciated. Weakened and weary, they climbed with difficulty. Suddenly, as they were ascending a steep mountain pass, Draupadī fell to the ground and gave up her life. Bhīma, who was walking immediately behind Yudhiṣṭhira, said, “O crusher of enemies, although she never committed any sinful deeds, the delicate princess has fallen to the earth. Tell me why she has been obliged to drop down here.” Without stopping or looking back, Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “Although married to all five of us, Pāñcālī was always partial to Arjuna. This is why she has fallen.”

After they climbed a little farther, Sahadeva fell and died. Bhīma again asked Yudhiṣṭhira why his virtuous brother had fallen. Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “Gifted with knowledge, he always considered himself without compare in wisdom. For this reason he has fallen.”

Leaving Sahadeva where he lay, the four brothers continued upwards, still followed by the dog. Soon Nakula, overpowered by sorrow upon seeing Draupadī and Sahadeva die, himself fell. Once more Bhīma asked Yudhiṣṭhira to explain. “Our righteous brother was the most intelligent of men. However, he felt himself matchless in bodily beauty, and thus he has fallen.”

Arjuna was the next to fall, grief-stricken to see his brothers and Draupadī die. In sorrow Bhīma asked Yudhiṣṭhira why the ever-truthful Arjuna had fallen. “Just before the war, Arjuna had promised to kill all the Kauravas in a single day. For failing to keep this promise, made out of pride, he has been obliged to fall to the earth.”

The remaining two brothers and the dog continued their ascent. Before reaching the summit, Bhīma fell. As he was lying on the ground, about to give up his life, he asked Yudhiṣṭhira what had been his fault. Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “O Vṛkodara, you were a great eater and you did not consider others while eating. Thus have you fallen.”

Fixing his mind in yogic meditation, Yudhiṣṭhira went on alone. As he approached the summit he heard a great sound fill the sky. He looked up and saw Indra’s chariot descending toward him. “Climb onto my car, O Bharata, and I will take you to heaven.”

Yudhiṣṭhira bowed to the god. “I have no desire for heaven, O Śakra, nor can I leave my brothers and chaste wife Draupadī behind. They have all fallen on this mountain.”

Indra assured him that he would soon see his wife and brothers in their self-same bodies, but Yudhiṣṭhira was still unwilling to leave. “See here this dog,” he said, pointing to the animal that was ever at his heels. “It has taken shelter of me and cannot be abandoned. O great god, I will only accompany you if you allow it to also come.”

Indra replied that there was no place in heaven for dogs. He told Yudhiṣṭhira that there would be no sin in leaving it behind, but the Pāṇḍava would not agree. “It is my vow that I will never abandon one who is terrified, who seeks my shelter, who is devoted, who is afflicted or weak, or who begs for life. I cannot leave this creature here.”

Despite Indra’s entreaties, Yudhiṣṭhira would not leave the dog. Suddenly, before Yudhiṣṭhira’s eyes, the animal transformed into the god of justice, Dharmarāja. Seeing his father, Yudhiṣṭhira fell to the ground in obeisance. Dharmarāja raised him up and said, “O king of kings, there are none on earth who can display such virtue. Formerly, I examined you at the Dwaitavana, and again today I have found you to be the greatest exponent of morality. What to speak of the earth, there is no one in heaven who equals you. Unending regions of celestial bliss await you, O King. Quickly, mount Indra’s car.”

Yudhiṣṭhira ascended Indra’s chariot. As it rose swiftly into the sky, he was surrounded by celestial beings who praised both himself and Indra. He also saw the godly sage Nārada floating in space by his own divine power. The ṛṣi said, “This royal sage Yudhiṣṭhira has transcended the achievements of all other kings in heaven. Covering the worlds with his fame and splendor, he has attained the highest region in his human body. Who else has ever been known to achieve such a feat?”

The chariot entered the heavenly planets and, as it descended into a shining mansion, Yudhiṣṭhira saw Duryodhana seated on a golden throne. He turned to Nārada in surprise and the ṛṣi said, “This king has reached heaven by virtue of his kṣatriya practices. He fought fearlessly and gave up his body in battle. Thus he has been promoted to this abode, where he will remain for some time.”

Yudhiṣṭhira asked where his brothers had gone. He had no wish to remain in heaven, being not attracted to celestial pleasures. Even on earth he had given up his material attachments and desires for sensual enjoyment, preferring instead the transcendental service of the Supreme Lord, Kṛṣṇa. That service had given him a sublime pleasure thousands of times superior to material happiness. Yudhiṣṭhira looked with disdain at the heavenly opulences Duryodhana was enjoying. His only desire was to remain in Kṛṣṇa’s association along with his brothers and Draupadī. Like himself, they too were devoted to the loving service of Kṛṣṇa, and he longed to be with them again. Duryodhana could keep heaven, Yudhiṣṭhira thought. Without Kṛṣṇa and His servants, it would be no different than hell.

Indra commanded the celestials to take Yudhiṣṭhira to his brothers and Draupadī. They led the Pāṇḍava on a path away from heaven. As they proceeded, they were suddenly enveloped by darkness. Through the gloom, Yudhiṣṭhira could see wastelands covered with rotting corpses. The air was filled with a fetid smell, and flies, wasps, and gnats flew about. A blazing fire bounded the region. Yudhiṣṭhira saw crows and vultures with iron beaks, and evil spirits with needle-like mouths. He saw a river of boiling water full of screaming people, and another of feces and mucus. Trees with razor-sharp leaves lined the path, which was becoming hot as Yudhiṣṭhira traveled upon it. Looking around he saw men being tortured.

Astonished by what he was seeing, Yudhiṣṭhira asked the guides, “What place is this? Why have you brought me to hell? I wish to see my brothers and Draupadī.”

The messengers replied, “We have brought you here at Indra’s command, O Bharata, according to your own desire. If you wish to return, we will leave.”

Yudhiṣṭhira asked to be returned to Indra, and they turned to head back. Just as he did so, he heard voices all around him. “O King, do not leave us! By your presence we are feeling our suffering relieved. Cool breezes blow and our minds are made peaceful by seeing you.”

Yudhiṣṭhira called out, “Who are you and why do you stay here?”

“I am Bhīma!” “I am Arjuna!” “I am Nakula!” “I am Sahadeva!” the voices called back. Yudhiṣṭhira heard Draupadī’s name, as well as that of Dṛṣṭadyumna and other virtuous kings and princes who had followed him on earth. Shocked, he said to his guides, “What perverse destiny is this, that these virtuous men are in hell? I do not believe my senses. Surely this is a hallucination. Am I asleep or awake? Have I become insane or am I simply dreaming? O celestials, hearing the voices of my brothers and friends, I cannot leave this place. Indeed, they have asked me to stay and give them comfort. Therefore, go back to your own abode and leave me here.”

The celestials accompanying Yudhiṣṭhira disappeared, leaving him to his thoughts. He could not understand why his brothers were in hell. As he stood in amazement, he suddenly saw Indra and the other principal gods approaching him. By their bodily radiance the whole region was lit up. All the gruesome sights of hell disappeared and were replaced by heavenly landscapes. Yudhiṣṭhira saw that he was standing in beautiful gardens of celestial flowers and blossoming trees. A cool, gentle breeze was blowing, carrying exquisite fragrances.

Indra addressed Yudhiṣṭhira, “O best of men, be peaceful. Neither you nor your brothers are in hell. Only by an act of deception have you all been shown that region. Every king and indeed every being living in the world of men will see hell, for none can perform only good deeds. Those whose piety is great will receive the fruits of their sins first and then will enjoy great happiness for a long time. Only a slight stain of sin touched you, O King, when you lied to kill Droṇa. For this you have seen hell, as have your brothers and friends. Now you may enjoy unending happiness.”

Indra told Yudhiṣṭhira that by performing the Rājasūya he had earned a place in heaven equal to that of Hariścandra, the celebrated king of ancient times who now shared the same opulence as Indra himself. Placing Yudhiṣṭhira on his chariot, Indra took him to his assembly hall. There Yudhiṣṭhira saw his brothers, exactly as he had known them, shining with splendor and surrounded by celestials--the Maruts, Vasus, Ashvins and Rudras. Draupadī was also there, appearing like the goddess Lakṣmī herself.

Yudhiṣṭhira was shown how all of the warriors who had died at Kurukṣetra had attained the heavens. Karṇa was residing in happiness with his father, Sūrya. Even the Kauravas had achieved auspicious lives for their performance of religious duties.

Leading the Pāṇḍava to a beautiful river of clear, gentle waters, Indra said, “Here flows the Gaṅgā, known in heaven as the Mandakini. Bathe in her waters, O King, and you will acquire a shining celestial form.”

Yudhiṣṭhira entered the water and emerged with a resplendent god-like form. All his grief and anxiety vanished. As he came out of the waters he was honored and worshipped by the Siddhas and Cāraṇas. He then saw Kṛṣṇa seated in Indra’s palace manifesting a four-armed form of astonishing beauty and splendor. Arjuna was worshipping Him. When Kṛṣṇa saw Yudhiṣṭhira, He smiled and lifted a hand to bless him.

Seeing Nārada nearby, Yudhiṣṭhira approached him and asked him how long he and his brothers would dwell in heaven. The sage replied that by their meritorious acts the Pāṇḍavas had earned an almost endless stay. “But you brothers are eternal associates of the all-powerful Lord Kṛṣṇa. Thus wherever He goes for His pastimes, you will also go. Indeed, for the good of all beings, Kṛṣṇa is forever appearing in some world to display His human-like activities. Just as you cannot be without Him, so He also desires to always be with you. Thus your stay in these regions will not be for long. It has only been to show you the destinations of those whom you knew on earth. Pure souls like you reside eternally with the Lord. Only by His illusory potency does it sometimes seem otherwise. Like a magician He creates the material universe, enters it for some time, then winds it up.”

Nārada concluded that the Lord’s only business was to bring all suffering souls back to their eternal positions as His loving servants. He only seemed to become involved in the affairs of the world, but in truth He was always aloof. Under illusion, men become bewildered and indulge in material pleasure, imagining themselves independent enjoyers. In reality, they were parts of the Supreme, dependent upon Him for everything. Actual happiness could only be found when one once again gave up His desires to be independent of God. God Himself, however, was obviously never influenced by His own illusion. His appearance in the world was to free people from their misconceptions and bring them back to Him.

“Those who are too attached to matter cannot understand this knowledge. They must remain in mortal spheres, sometimes coming to heaven and sometimes descending to hell. As long as one does not awaken his original, pure consciousness, realizing his eternal spiritual nature, he is bound in the cycle of birth and death. You Pāṇḍavas are fixed in service to Kṛṣṇa and are liberated. In bringing you to the material world, the Lord simply used you as His instruments. This is understood only by those who are free from illusion.”

Yudhiṣṭhira felt joy. He gazed at Kṛṣṇa. Surely nothing in heaven could compare with seeing Him. What then of assisting Him in a capacity as servant, friend, and even relative? Absorbed in transcendental happiness, Yudhiṣṭhira could not take his gaze from Kṛṣṇa. What worlds awaited him now? It did not matter. As long as Kṛṣṇa was present, he was ready to go anywhere.