by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

Elizabeth Seeger’s The Five Sons of King Pandu: The Story of the Mahabharata

The Old People Go To the Woods
For many years the high-souled sons of Pandu ruled the earth justly and with great happiness. They gave the old king, Kuru, the place of honor and asked his advice about everything they did, going to him and sitting beside him after touching his feet. Kunti also obeyed Gandhari, her elder sister-in-law, and Dráupadi and Subadra behaved toward the old king and queen as they would have behaved toward their own parents. Fish, flesh, wines, honey, and many other kinds of delightful food, costly beds, robes, and ornaments were given to Kuru so that he might have everything that he had enjoyed in the days of his glory; for Yudhistra desired that his uncle, who had lost all his sons, might not die of grief or be unhappy in any way. Indeed, the father of Duryodha had never been so happy with his own children as he was with the Pándavas, and Gandhari, too, loved them as if they were her own sons.
There was one among the Pándavas, however, who did not follow the example of his older brother, and that was Bhima. He could not forget the gambling match to which Kuru had invited them and all that followed as a result of it; he did not enjoy the sight of his uncle, and although he honored him outwardly, he did so with a very unwilling heart. Secretly he did things that were disagreeable to the old king, and he bribed the servants to disobey his orders. One day, when he remembered with rage the unhappy days of the past, Bhima clapped his armpits and said loudly to some of his friends, in the hearing of his uncle and Gandhari, "All the sons of the blind king, though they were great warriors, were sent to Yama's realm by these powerful arms of mine."
These words and others like them pierced Kuru's heart as if they had been sharp arrows; after fifteen years, Bhima's unkindness and harsh words drove him to grief and despair. Yudhistra knew nothing of his, nor did Arjuna of the white steeds, nor Kunti, nor Dráupadi, nor the twin sons of Madri, who did everything to please the old king and never said anything that could displease him.
One day Kuru, with tears in his eyes, said to his friends, "You all know that the Bháratas were destroyed because of me. All wise men gave me the same advice, but I did not follow it, for I was blinded by my love for my eldest son, the evil-minded Duryodha. I made him king and followed his wicked counsels. I now repent bitterly, and I am trying to atone for my sins. Once a day I eat a little food, just to keep myself alive; I sleep on the ground and spend my time in silent prayers. Gandhari knows this and does as I do, but I have hidden it from everyone else for fear of Yudhistra, who would be deeply pained if he knew how I was living."
Shortly afterward he spoke to Yudhistra saying, "May you be blessed, O son of Kunti! I have lived these fifteen years very happily with you, for you are always devoted to virtue. Now, my son, with your permission I wish to retire into the woods with Gandhari, clad in the bark of trees and deerskins. It is right, when old age comes, to leave the throne to one's children and to live in the forest. I shall always bless you there, and you shall have a share in all the good acts that I may perform, for the king has a share of all the good and evil deeds that are done in his kingdom." Then he told Yudhistra of the penances that he had already performed.
"Alas," Yudhistra said, "my brothers and I did not know you were grieving so, fasting and sleeping on the ground. You are our father and our mother, the eldest of our line; how shall we live without you? You are the king and I depend on you; how can I give permission to one who is higher than myself? If you go to the woods, I will follow you, for this earth, with its belt of seas, so full of wealth, will give me no joy if I cannot share it with you."
"O delight of the Bháratas," answered his uncle, "my mind is set on retiring to the woods, and it is fitting that I should do so. Therefore give me your permission, my son."
When Kuru had spoken thus, he fell against the shoulder of Gandhari and looked like one dead, for he was faint with hunger. Yudhistra's heart was melted with pity as he looked at the old man and remembered him in the days of his might. He knelt before him and rubbed Kuru's feet between his strong hands and, when the old king came to his senses, begged him to eat some food. He could not make up his mind to grant his uncle's request, but as he knelt there, silent, the great sage Vyasa, who often visited him, said to him, "O Yudhistra, give without any doubt the permission that the king has asked of you. Let him follow the path of the great men of old; do not let him die an inglorious death at home. Kings should die either in battle or, when they are old, in the forest, according to the scriptures. Therefore do not stand in his way, O son of Kunti. The time has come for him to go."
And Yudhistra, bending humbly before his uncle, said to him gently, "So be it! What the holy Vyasa has said, what you yourself desire, shall be done. But first, I pray you, take some food."
When Kuru had eaten some food and rested, he summoned all the citizens to come to the palace. Brahmans and Kshatrias, Vaisyas and Shudras gathered together in the courtyard, and the king came out of the inner apartments and spoke to them thus: "We have lived together for many long years, each helping the other, wishing each other well. Now I have set my heart on retiring to the woods, and the son of Kunti has given his permission. I pray you also for yours. Since Yudhistra has ruled the kingdom I have enjoyed happiness, greater, I think, than I could have known if my own son Duryodha had been on the throne. Through the wicked deeds of that prince and his pride and my own foolishness as well, a great slaughter of warriors took place. Whether I acted rightly or wrongly, now with joined hands I pray you to erase that memory from your hearts. Say to yourselves, 'This one is old; he has lost all his children; he was once our king and is the descendant of former kings'--and try to forgive me.
"Yudhistra the son of Pandu, with his four mighty brothers, will rule you like one of the gods, and should be cherished by you all. I give him to you as a trust and I give you to him as a trust. I am worn out with the load of years on my head and thin with fasting. What other refuge have I save the woods? You blessed ones, grant me the permission that I ask of you."
When the blind monarch had spoken thus, the people said nothing but only looked at one another, their eyes filled with tears. Then they began to talk to one another, each telling the other what he felt, and finally they asked a certain Brahman to answer the king for them.
"O King," the Brahman said, "I will voice the answer that this assembly has asked me to make, and do you listen to it. O foremost of men, follow the path that the Vedas have pointed out to you. If you leave us, we shall pass our days in sorrow, remembering your many virtues. We were well ruled and protected by King Duryodha, as we were by you and by Pandu, that lord of earth. Your son never did us any wrong. The slaughter that the Bháratas suffered was not brought about by you or by your son; destiny caused it, and nothing could have stopped it. Eighteen armies were brought together and in eighteen days they were destroyed. Who can think that this was not caused by destiny? Therefore, in your presence, we forgive you and your son Duryodha and give you our permission to leave us. Those mighty warriors, the sons of Pandu, will protect and cherish the people. Therefore, O King of kings, set your heart at rest and do as you desire."
Kuru, with joined palms, bowed down to that assembly of the people and returned to his palace with Gandhari.
The next morning Vidura came to Yudhistra and said to him, "The king will set out for the woods on the next day of the full moon. He asks you to give him some wealth, O lord of earth, so that he may perform a sacrifice for the souls of Bhishma and Drona and for all his sons."
Yudhistra and Arjuna were pleased to hear this, but Bhima grumbled, for he did not wish to give anything to his uncle or to help the souls of the cousins whom he had slain. Yudhistra, however, said to Vidura, "Say to the king that he may take from my palace anything that he wishes in any quantity. Whatever wealth is here belongs to him; let him spend it freely as he likes and pay the debt that he owes to his sons and to his friends."
Kuru was delighted when he received this message and ordered a great quantity of food and drink to be prepared and many chariots and robes, gold and jewels, elephants and horses richly decked to be gathered together. These he gave away in the name of the dead, calling upon Bhishma and Drona, Duryodha and his other sons in due order as the gifts were made. Scribes and tellers kept asking the old king, "What gifts, O monarch, do you wish to make? All things are ready to your hand." When the king spoke, they gave what he ordered, but If he said ten, they gave a hundred; if he said a hundred, they gave a thousand, for so Yudhistra had told them to do. At last, after ten days, when he became tired of giving so lavishly, Kuru brought his sacrifice to an end. Everyone ate and drank as much as he desired, while actors and dancers made merry to entertain the guests.
On the day of the full moon, he put off his royal robes and dressed himself in deerskins. He honored with lovely flowers the palace in which he had lived and gave rich presents to his servants. Then the sacrificial fire that he worshiped each day was taken up so that he might carry it with him, and he set out on his journey.
Kunti, also, wanted to go to the woods, to take care of the king and queen, for he was blind and Gandhari, all her life, had covered her eyes so that she might share all that her lord suffered. The sons of Kunti begged her to stay with them, for they could not bear to think of her living in the forest in her old age.
"Why do you wish to abandon us, O Mother?" asked Yudhistra. "Do you no longer care for us? Long ago when we were exiled, when we escaped from the blazing house, during all our misfortunes, it was you who gave us courage. Are you now going to turn away from those Kshatria duties which you taught us all our lives? Do not leave us now!" Kunti heard him with tears in her eyes, but was silent.
Then Bhima said, "When, after so much grief, the kingdom is ours at last, and you are free to enjoy all that your sons have won for you, why do you wish to live away from them? We were born in the forest; why did you bring us out of it when we were children if you desire to return and live there now that we have won the earth? Stay with us, O Mother! Behold, the sons of Madri are overwhelmed by sorrow! Do not leave us!"
"By the spell that a Brahman taught me in my girlhood I gave you gods for your fathers," she answered. "By that same spell these twins were born of Madri. I brought you out of the forest so that your fame should never die and that the line of Pandu might live forever. When you were unfortunate and had lost everything, I put courage and high thoughts into your minds so that you might not live watching the faces of others, dependent on them for your food. I put courage into your hearts so that you would regain your kingdom and that the wrongs of this dear daughter of mine, Dráupadi, might be avenged. But now that you have won wealth and happiness, I do not desire to enjoy them with you any longer; rather, by my own efforts, I wish to reach those regions of bliss where my husband, Pandu, dwells. Therefore do not entreat me, my sons. Be always devoted to righteousness and let your minds be always great."
Then the Pándavas were ashamed and tried no longer to hold her back. She walked ahead, bearing on her shoulder the hand of Gandhari, while Kuru walked trustingly behind his wife, his hand on her shoulder. Vidura and Sánjaya went with them, too. Yudhistra and his brothers, with all the ladies of he royal household, weeping and lamenting, walked with them out of the city, and all the citizens with their wives and children came out into the streets from every side. They were as much distressed by the old king's departure as they had been years before by the departure of the Pándavas after their defeat at dice. Ladies who had never seen the sun or the moon came out into the streets, and great was the grief and uproar as Kuru, trembling with weakness, walked with difficulty through the city and out of its gate. There he bade all those citizens to return to heir homes and said farewell to the Pándavas. They walked around the king and queen and their mother, saluting them with devotion, and returned sorrowfully to the city.
On that day, Kuru and his companions reached a place outside the city of the bank of the Ganges and rested there for the night. Brahmans lit the sacred fires, poured libations upon them and worshiped the thousand rayed sun as it was setting. Vidura and Sánjaya made a bed of grass for the king and near his bed another for Gandhari, while close to her the excellent Kunti laid herself happily down. Vidura and Sánjaya slept within hearing of those three; the Brahmans who had come with the king chanted many sacred hymns, while the holy fires blazed forth around them and the night seemed delightful to them all. The next morning Kuru and those who had come with him continued their journey to Kuru Kshetra, to the hermitage of the holy Vyasa. There Kuru was initiated into the forest dweller's life and at once began to train his body and his mind, fasting and meditating, clad in bark and skins, with his hair unkempt. All that he did, Gandhari and Kunti did also, and Vidura and Sánjaya began to purify their hearts and minds of all sin.
The Dead Arise
After those blessed ones had left them, the five brothers were very sad and talked constantly about their elders, wondering how they were bearing the hard life of the forest when they were used to every comfort and pleasure; they were so anxious, indeed, that they took no delight in anything and did not even attend to their kingly duties. Finally they decided that they must go to the forest to see their mother and the king and queen; Dráupadi also longed to see Kunti once more. So Yudhistra commended: "Let the elephants and chariots and horses be prepared to go forth to Kuru Kshetra! Let all the carriages and closed litters for the ladies be made ready, and carts to carry the food and clothing and treasure that we shall need! If any of the citizens wish to see King Kuru, let them come with us!"
He waited for five days for the citizens who wished to go with him and then set forth with all his household, followed by a great number of chariots and elephants and carts, while many people from the city and the neighboring towns followed on foot. Bhima, that son of the Wind-God, rode on an elephant as huge as a hill; the two sons of Madri rode on two swift steeds, and Arjuna went in his own chariot, drawn by his white horses.
They traveled slowly, resting by the banks of lakes and rivers, until they reached Kuru Kshetra, crossed the river Jumna, and saw in the distance the hermitage of Vyasa. They were filled with joy as they entered the forest, where they dismounted and went on foot to the hermitage, while the women and their attendants and the citizens followed them. The sages who lived there came out to meet them, and Yudhistra, bowing humbly, asked them, "Where is my sire, the eldest of the Bháratas?" They told him that the king had gone to the river to get water and flowers, and the Pándavas, walking quickly along the path that the sages showed them, saw the three old people coming toward them.
Sadeva ran to Kunti and fell at her feet, weeping, and she raised him up and embraced him, for he had always been her favorite; then she saw the others and hastened toward them, leading Gandhari, who led the king. The Pándavas knelt down before her, and the old king, knowing them by their voices and their touch, greeted them and comforted them. They rose and took the jars of water from their elders and walked back along the path with them. Then Dráupadi and the ladies of the court, followed by all the citizens, came forward to greet the king, and Yudhistra presented each one to his uncle, telling him the name and the family of each one. Surrounded by them all, the old monarch, with tears of joy in his eyes, felt that he was back in his own city, for the forest retreat was filled with crowds of men and women, all desiring to see him and to do him honor.
"Where is Vidura?" asked Yudhistra, "I do not see him here. I hope that he and Sánjaya are well and at peace."
"Vidura is well, my son," answered Kuru, "but he has taken hard vows and is living on air alone. He lives in the deep forest, but is sometimes seen by the Brahmans."
While the old king was speaking, Yudhistra saw Vidura at a distance, coming toward the hermitage; but when he saw so many people there, he turned and walked swiftly back into the deep forest. Yudhistra followed him, sometimes seeing him, then losing sight of him, calling to him, "Vidura, O Vidura! I am Yudhistra, your favorite!" At last with great difficulty he caught up with his uncle in a solitary spot in the forest. Vidura was leaning against a tree; he was exceedingly thin, his hair was unkempt, and his body hardly clothed. Yudhistra bowed before him and said again, "I am the eldest son of Kunti," but Vidura looked at him steadfastly and said nothing, for he was in deep meditation. Then Yudhistra saw that the life had fled out of his uncle's body, though it still leaned against the tree. At the same time he felt that a wonderful thing was happening within himself, for he was aware of new virtue and power, and he understood that his uncle's life had entered into him, because of Vidura's love for him and the power of his soul. He returned and told his brothers and the old king what had happened, and they were all filled with wonder. They talked long about Vidura, remembering his wisdom, his love for all his family, and his good counsel.
Then the Pándavas ate the fruits and the roots and drank the water that Kuru gave them, spread grass for their beds under a tree near their mother and lay down to sleep.
The five brothers, with Dráupadi and the other ladies of the royal household, spent about a month very happily in the forest. Toward the end of that time the holy Vyasa came back to the hermitage. He had been far distant, but he always watched over the Pándavas, and because he knew all things, he came to them when they needed him. They gathered about him, and there was excellent talk about things human and divine, for they always asked his counsel. When they had talked for a long time, he said to the blind king, "I know that you are burning with grief because of your children, O King of kings. I know the sorrow that dwells in the hearts of Gandhari and Dráupadi and the grief Subadra bears because of Abimanyu. I have come here to grant you any wish that you desire, for I have gained enough soul power to fulfill the dearest desires of your hearts."
"My mind," answered Kuru, after thinking for a while, "is always tortured by the memory of the wicked deeds of my son. Many high-souled kings followed him and were killed. What has been the fate, O sinless one, of those men who were killed for his sake? What has been the fate of my sons and my grandsons? This thought burns my heart day and night and gives me no peace."
Gandhari also, her eyes covered, joined her hands and said to the age, "O holy one, we too, the wives and mothers of those high-souled heroes, can have no peace. What has been their fate, O mighty seer? You alone can free us from our grief."
When Gandhari had spoken, Kunti thought of her secretly-born son, that child of Surya. Vyasa saw her sorrow and said to her, "Tell me, O blessed one, what is in your heart."
And she, bowing her head to the sage, said shyly, "O foremost of sages, I cast onto the water my infant son Karna, and I never said that he was mine, even though he knew me for his mother when he was grown. For this reason he met his death. I pray you to tell me the fate of this first-born son of mine."
"Cast off all your doubts," Vyasa answered. "You shall behold Karna, and you, O Gandhari, shall behold your sons and brothers and kinsmen this very night, like men risen from sleep. Dráupadi shall behold her five sons, her father, and her brothers, and Subadra shall see Abimanyu. Before you asked me, this thought was in my mind. Go to the Ganges, for there you shall see all who were slain on the field of battle."
Kuru with his companions and the Pándavas with all those who had come with them went to the bank of the Ganges, and the day seemed to them as long as a whole year, so greatly did they long for the night to come. When the sun set, they bathed in the sacred stream, and when they had finished their evening worship, they came to Vyasa. Kuru, with purified mind and heart, sat beside the sage with the Pándavas, while Gandhari, with Kunti and Dráupadi and the wives of Kuru's sons, sat in a more retired place, and all the people who had come from the city took their places according to their ages.
Then Vyasa entered the Ganges and with mighty soul power summoned all those dead warriors who had fought with the Pándavas and those who had fought with the Kúravas. At his word, a deafening uproar, like that which had been heard on the battlefield, arose from within the waters, and those kings, headed by Bhishma and Drona, with all their troops, rose by thousands from the waters of the sacred river. There were Virata and the king of Panchala, with their sons and their armies; there were Abimanyu and the sons of Dráupadi; there were Karna, Duryodha, and the other sons of Kuru, headed by Dushasa; there were the mighty Shákuni, the kings of Sind and Madra and many others, the list of whose names would be too long to tell, with their sons and their armies. All of them rose from the Ganges with shining bodies, each one equipped as he had been on the field of battle, each one with his standard, but now they were clothed in heavenly garments and all wore brilliant earrings and fresh garlands. They were free from all anger, pride, or jealousy, and Gandharvas sang their praises.
Through the power of his soul, Vyasa opened the eyes of Kuru for this night, and the old king beheld for the first time his children and was filled with joy. Gandhari then uncovered her eyes and saw her sons and kinsmen who had been slain. All that were assembled there beheld, with steadfast gaze and wondering hearts, that glorious spectacle.
Then those mighty men, free of anger and jealousy, met one another with happy hearts; sons met fathers and mothers; wives met husbands; friends met friends. It was like a high carnival, so great was the rejoicing. The Pándavas met Abimanyu and their sons by Dráupadi; with happy hearts they went to Karna and were reconciled with their brother. All those warriors forgot their quarrel and talked together in peace and friendship. The women who saw again their husbands and sons, their fathers and brothers, forgot their grief and were filled with delight. The whole night was spent thus in great happiness, as if the place were heaven itself, for there was no fear, no grief, and no reproach.
When the night had passed, those heroes and their wives, mothers, and sisters embraced and took their leave of one another, and the holy Vyasa dismissed that host that had risen from the water. In the twinkling of an eye they vanished in the sight of all those living people, plunging into the river with their chariots and their standards, their horses and all their followers, returning to their heavenly abodes. Some among them went to the highest region of heaven; some went to the regions of the gods who protect the earth. All had died in battle without turning their backs to the foe, and therefore had attained to regions of bliss.
After they had gone, the mighty Vyasa, who was still standing in the waters of the sacred river, spoke to those women whose husbands had been slain, saying, "Those among you who wish to share the blissful regions where your husbands dwell may now plunge into the Ganges!" And many of those women, trusting his words, plunged into the river, and then, freed from their human bodies and clad in shining forms clothed in heavenly garments and adorned with jewels and garlands, they joined their husbands in the happy regions where they dwelt.
When Kuru had beheld that exceedingly wonderful sight, the reappearance of his children, his heart was free of all grief. He returned to the hermitage and shortly after summoned Yudhistra and said to him, "O sinless one, the purpose of my life has now been fulfilled. I shall take even harder vows and I shall not live long. You have served me in every way that a son can serve his father; therefore go now and do not tarry here any longer. The burdens of the Bhárata realm have fallen upon you, my son, and you know all the duties of a king. Depart now, either tomorrow or this very day, and my blessing go with you!"
Gandhari and Kunti spoke in the same way, and so the five brothers, with the permission and the blessing of their elders, took their leave of them. Bhima forgot his anger toward his uncle and showed his love and obedience to the old king, who comforted and embraced him. Then the shouts of charioteers were heard,the grunting of elephants and the neighing of horses, and King Yudhistra, with his followers and his animals, his litters and chariots, set out for Hástina, leaving the old people happy in the silence of the forest.
The Sacred Flame
Two years after the Pándavas had returned from the forest, Vyasa came again to Hástina. When he was rested and refreshed, he told the king that he had recently come from the Ganges, whereupon Yudhistra asked him eagerly, "Have you seen my royal sire there, O holy one? Are he and my mother, are Gandhari and Sánjaya well and at peace? How goes it with them?"
"Listen,O King, with calmness," answered Vyasa, "as I tell you what I have heard about them. When you left them the king went deeper into the woods, with the two queens, Sánjaya, and the two Brahmans who were with them. He took hard vows; he fed on air alone and spoke to no one. In six months nothing was left of him but skin and bones, and he was greatly honored by all the others who dwelt in the forest. Gandhari lived on water alone, while Kunti took a little food once a month, and Sánjaya ate a little every sixth day. They had no fixed dwelling, but wandered through the woods. Sánjaya guiding them over the rough ground, Kunti leading Gandhari, who led the king.
"One day they came to the bank of the Ganges, and the king had his sacrificial fire duly lighted. When he had performed his worship with it, the Brahmans cast the embers out into the woods, and they then went on their way. The smoldering embers set fire to the woods; a wind arose and fanned it into mighty flames that burned the forest all around that place. Animals and snakes hurried to the nearest marshes and rivers, but the king, as he felt the fire coming nearer from all sides, was unable to move, for he was weak from lack of food. He said to Sánjaya, 'Go quickly where the flames cannot reach you. As for us, we shall let our bodies be destroyed and our souls shall be freed. Death by water, fire, wind, or starvation is good for forest dwellers. Therefore leave us, good Sánjaya.'
"Then the king sat down, facing the east and concentrated his mind and all his senses; he sat like a post of wood and the highly blessed Gandhari and Kunti, your mother, did likewise. They met their death thus, consumed by their own sacred flame. Sánjaya left them and escaped; he came to our hermitage and I heard from him all that I have told you. Shortly afterward he departed, going toward the Himalayas. No one in the hermitage grieved for the king and those two queens, for they met the fire of their own free wills and died with their souls at peace. O King of kings, you, too, must not grieve for them, but perform the needful rites in their honor, with your brothers."
Nevertheless, the sons of Pandu grieved deeply for their mother, for the blind king and the faultless Gandhari. They sent to the forest and gathered the ashes of their bodies, and the funeral ceremonies were duly performed with perfumes and garlands and the giving of many gifts.
Even so did King Kuru leave this world, after spending fifteen years under the rule of Yudhistra and three years in the forest.
Seeger, The Five Sons of King Pandu, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 309-325.

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