by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

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

Gandhari's Curse
After his uncle's death, Yudhistra sadly took up the burden of royalty and ruled justly over the earth for twenty years. In the twentieth year after Kuru's death, the thirty-sixth year after the great battle, that lord of men beheld many unusual omens. Hot strong winds blew from every direction and birds flew in circles; the horizon seemed always to be covered with fog, meteors fell on the earth, and there were fierce circles of light around the sun and the moon. These and many other omens foreboding evil and danger filled the hearts of men with fear and anxiety.
Shortly afterward, a messenger came from Dváraka, the city of Krishna, to say that all the Yadu warriors had slain one another and that Krishna himself was dead; none remained alive but the old king, his father. The curse of Gandhari, uttered on the field of Kuru Kshetra, had thus been fulfilled. To the Pándavas, the death of Krishna was like the drying up of he ocean. They could scarcely believe it and were filled with sorrow and despair.
The messenger told them that Krishna, when his kinsmen had all been slain, summoned him and said, "Go to Hástina and tell Arjuna about this slaughter of the Yadus. Bid him come here quickly."
Then he said to his father, "Arjuna will come here soon; protect the women of our household until he arrives. He and I are but one person; he will do whatever is best for the women and the children and the citizens, and he will perform your funeral rites. After he has gone, this city, with all its palaces and walls, will be swallowed up by the ocean. As for myself, I shall go to some holy place and await my hour."
With these words, he touched his father's feet with his forehead and quickly left him. He then went to the forest, where he wandered about thoughtfully for a while and finally sat down in a solitary place. He knew that this calamity had come because of the curse of Gandhari, uttered so long ago, and that the hour of his own departure from the world was at hand, for he knew the destiny of all things; therefore he concentrated all his senses and his mind and lay down in deep meditation. A fierce hunter came through the forest, chasing deer. When he saw Krishna lying there in yellow robes, he mistook him for a deer and pierced his heel with an arrow; then running forward to seize his prey, he saw instead a man absorbed in meditation and was overcome by fear and remorse. Krishna comforted him and then cast off his body and rose into heaven, filling the sky with light.
When Arjuna received the message of Krishna, he set out at once for the city of Dváraka to see the old king, who was his uncle, the brother of Kunti. Dváraka, bereft of its princes and warriors, looked like a woman just widowed, like a lotus flower in winter, its beauty wilted. Arjuna went quickly into the palace and touched the feet of the king, who said to him, weeping, "Krishna told me that you would come, O son of Kunti. Do now all that he asked of you! The kingdom, with all its women and children and its wealth, is yours now. As for myself, I shall cast my life away, for it is no longer dear to me."
"O Uncle, I can no longer bear to look upon the earth when that hero of unfading glory has left it," Arjuna answered. "My brothers and Dráupadi feel as I do. The time for our departure from the world is also at hand, but I shall first take to Indra Prastha the women, the children, and the citizens of this town. On the seventh day from today, at sunrise, we shall set out." Then he ordered all the women of the palace and the people of the city to prepare themselves for the journey. He spent that night in the palace of Krishna, sorrowing for his friend, and at dawn he heard that the old king had given up his life.
After he had paid all due honor to the father of Krishna, Arjuna mounted his chariot on the seventh day and set out from the city, followed by the wives and children of the Yadu heroes, riding in litters and in carts drawn by mules and bullocks, while the citizens and the inhabitants of the country traveled on foot and on horseback, in chariots and carts, carrying with them all that they possessed. After they had left the city, the ocean poured into it; as they left each part of the land, the ocean immediately covered it with its salt waters. Beholding this, they hurried on, following Arjuna, who traveled by slow marches so that they could rest in pleasant woods and by the side of lakes and rivers.
When they came into the Land of the Five Rivers, he set up a camp, for the land abounded in grain and in cattle, and both the people and the animals were in need of food. A band of robbers saw those lordless ladies escorted only by Arjuna, and the sinful wretches said to one another, "Here is only one warrior with a crowd of women and children and unarmed men, carrying much wealth. They are easy prey."
Armed with clubs, they attacked the camp of the Yadus, frightening them with great shouts and slaying anyone who stood against them. Arjuna heard them, took up his mighty bow and went forth to meet them. He tried to string Gandíva, but was barely able to do it, for he was old, his strength had left him, and he had lived in peace for many years. He summoned the heavenly weapons that he had won from Indra, but they did not come to him, for it was long since he had used them. The citizens and attendants of the Yadus were fighting furiously against the robbers with any weapon they could find, and Arjuna, too, pierced them with his arrows, but these were soon used up, whereas formerly his quivers had been always full. He did his best to drive the robbers off, and he was deeply ashamed, feeling the loss of his power. The camp was large, the robbers attacked it in different places, and before his very eyes they carried off many of the women with all their wealth.
Filled with sorrow and sighing deeply, he went on with those who remained and with the wealth that the bandits had not been able to carry away. He settled some of the people in various cities and led the rest to Indra Prastha, where the Pándavas first had their kingdom. He gave that beautiful city to the great-grandson of Krishna and left there the last of the men and women who had come with him from Dváraka.
When he had taken care of them all, he went to the hermitage of Vyasa at Kuru Kshetra to see that holy sage who always helped them when they were in need. He found the island-born one seated in a solitary place and bowed before him, saying, "I am Arjuna." The holy one welcomed him and bade him be seated; then, seeing that he sighed so deeply and was filled with despair, he asked Arjuna the cause of his unhappiness.
"Alas," answered that son of Kunti, "my friend of immeasurable soul, he who wielded the discus and the mace, who was dark-skinned and dressed in yellow robes, whose eyes were like lotus petals--he has cast off his body and risen to heaven, while his kinsmen have slaughtered one another in battle. Without him I no longer desire to live. But a still more painful thing has happened, O best of men, which is breaking my heart. Before my very eyes many of the Yadu women, whom Krishna had entrusted to me, were carried off by robbers in the Land of the Five Rivers. When I took up my bow, I could hardly bend it; my weapons did not appear, and my arrows were soon used up. The might of my arms has left me. Tell me now, O sinless one, what I must do, for I wander with an empty heart, having lost my friend, my kinsmen and my power."
"Do not grieve for what has happened," Vyasa answered him, "for it was ordained and could not have happened otherwise. You and your brothers have now fulfilled the purpose of your lives and have been crowned with success. The time has come for you to leave the world. Time brings everything to birth and again time withdraws everything from life, at its pleasure. One becomes mighty and then loses his power and becomes weak. One becomes a master and rules others; then he loses his mastery and serves others. Your weapons brought you power and glory and then they returned to the gods who gave them to you. Now you must leave your son's son on the throne of the Bháratas, and with your brothers, seek the highest goal of life, the freedom of the soul. Leave your home and cast away your sacrificial fires, calling nothing your own, fixing your hearts on God, and follow that path from which there is no returning."
The Last Pilgrimage
Arjuna took his leave of the holy one and returned to Hástina, where he told Yudhistra all that had occurred. The just king answered, "Time cooks all creatures in his caldron; time brings all things to pass. Let us gladly follow Vyasa's counsel and leave the world!"
Bhima and the sons of Madri agreed wholeheartedly with the king's resolve, and they prepared for their journey, after providing for the welfare of the kingdom.
Yudhistra placed Abimanyu's son on the throne. He was thirty-six years old, as strong and beautiful as his father and his father's father, and the Pándavas had taught him all they knew of wisdom and duty and of skill in arms. The king said to Subadra, "This son of your son is now the king of the Bháratas. He will rule in Hástina, while the great-grandson of Krishna rules in Indra Prastha. Watch over them and counsel them to follow always the path of virtue."
Then he summoned all the people from the city and the leaders of all the castes from the provinces and told them what he desired to do, asking their permission, as Kuru had done many years before. They listened anxiously and said to him, "This must not happen." But he did not listen to them, for his heart was set on leaving the world, and at last he persuaded them to consent to it.
He cast off the royal robes and dressed in cloth made from the bark of trees; his brothers and Dráupadi dressed themselves also in bark and skins, just as they had done when they went out of the city after their defeat at dice; but this time the Pándavas were happy to be starting on their journey. Yudhistra gave rich gifts of robes and jewels to the Brahmans in memory of Krishna and asked the blessings of the gods on their purpose. Then they cast their sacred fires into the water and took their leave of everyone in the palace.
The five brothers and Dráupadi walked out from the gate of the city named after the elephant, Yudhistra leading them. After him came Bhima with Arjuna walking behind him, and then the twins in the order of their births; last of all came Dráupadi, the best of women, large-eyed and beautiful, and a dog followed them. The citizens and the royal household went with them for a distance, but no one dared to ask the king to stay. Then those high-souled ones, their minds fixed on God, turned their faces toward the east and began their pilgrimage.
They traversed many countries and rivers, as they had done during their exile in the forest, until they reached the sea. Arjuna was still carrying Gandíva and his two quivers, for he could not bear to part with them, Now, at the shore of the sea, the Pándavas beheld Agni, the smoke-bannered God of Fire, standing before them like a hill, blocking their way. The god said to them, "You heroic sons of Pandu, scorchers of your foes, listen to what I say. Let Arjuna now cast aside his great bow, for he has no longer any need of it. This Gandíva was given to me by Varuna, lord of waters, and I in turn gave it to Arjuna when the Kándava forest was burned. Let him now return it to Varuna."
And Arjuna hurled into the ocean the bow and the two quivers, and Agni disappeared from their sight.
At the seacoast they turned their faces toward the south, then the southwest, and the west, for they wished to go round the whole earth. In the west they saw how the city of Dváraka had been covered by the ocean; thence they turned to the north. They controlled their senses and concentrated their minds, for they strove to purify and to free their souls so that they might enter the blissful regions of heaven. They beheld the mighty Himalayas and crossed them, as they had done before; they passed the Gandamádana, where they had met Arjuna and had been so happy. Then they came to Mount Meru, that highest of all peaks, which rises from the center of the earth and leads to heaven. Each rapt in his own thought, the Pándavas began to climb that heavenly peak; Dráupadi, as strong of soul as they, came after them, and the dog followed her.
When they had climbed a long way, Dráupadi weakened, fell down on the earth and died. Seeing her fall, Bhima said to Yudhistra, who walked before him, "O lord of earth, this princess never did any sinful deed. Why has she fallen down and died?"
Yudhistra said, "She always loved Arjuna better than the rest of us; because she was partial to him, she has fallen down now." And Yudhistra went on, his mind withdrawn into itself.
Then Sadeva, the learned one, fell dead upon the earth, and Bhima asked, "Alas, this son of Madri has served us all so faithfully and humbly; why has he fallen down?"
"He thought that no one was his equal in wisdom," Yudhistra answered. "For that fault he has now fallen on the earth. The king went on, leaving Sadeva there, and the others followed.
When Nákula saw that both Dráupadi and his brother had fallen, he himself fell down and died, for he loved them dearly. And Bhima said to the king, "This brother of ours was always righteous and obeyed us and was more beautiful than any other man; behold, Nákula, too, has fallen down and has died."
"His soul was righteous and he was wise," answered yudhistra, "but he believed that no one equaled him in beauty, and for this fault he has fallen." And he went on, followed by his two brothers and the dog.
That slayer of foes, Arjuna of the white steeds, beholding Dráupadi and the two sons of Madri dead, fell down in great grief of heart and died. When he who was the equal of Indra fell, Bhima said to the king, "I do not remember an untrue word ever spoken by this high-souled brother of ours; even in jest he never said anything that was false. Why then has he fallen on the earth?"
"He said that he would slay all our foes in a single day, and that he did not do," Yudhistra answered. "He was proud of his heroism and thought himself better than any bowman on earth. For this reason he has fallen." With these words the king went on.
Then Bhima fell. Lying on the earth, he cried to his brother, "Lo, I, whom you love best, have fallen! Why has this come to pass?"
"You were a great eater," Yudhistra said, "and you boasted of your strength. O Bhima, when you were eating, you did not care about other people's needs. For this fault you have fallen." And Yudhistra went on without looking back at his dead brothers, with only the dog to follow him.
Then Indra, making the earth and sky tremble with his thunder, came to Yudhistra in his shining chariot and asked him to mount it. But Yudhistra said to that god of a thousand eyes, "My brothers have all fallen down upon this mountain; they must go with me. The delicate princess Dráupadi, who deserves every happiness, must also go with us, for we have never been separated from one another. I do not wish to go to heaven without them, O lord of all the gods."
"You shall behold your brothers in heaven," Indra said, "for they have cast off their human bodies and have reached it before you. You shall see them there with Dráupadi, in heavenly bodies and raiment. But it is ordained that you shall go there in this very body of yours."
"O lord of the past and present," Yudhistra said, "this dog is devoted to me, and my heart is full of pity for him. Let him go with me!"
"You have attained today the highest goal of life," Indra said to him, "eternal life and all the joys of heaven. There is no place in heaven for dogs; therefore leave him, O King!"
"It is a great sin," answered Yudhistra, "to abandon a devoted creature or one who seeks protection, one who is suffering or one who is afraid. Therefore, O mighty Indra, I shall not leave this dog for all the joys of heaven. I cannot give him up as long as my own life lasts."
"You abandoned your brothers and Dráupadi," said the lord of heaven. "You have given up everything. Why then can you not give up this dog?"
"Everyone knows that neither love nor hatred can touch the dead," Yudhistra said, "When my brothers and Dráupadi died, I left them because I could not bring them to life again, but I did not leave them while they were still alive. O god of a thousand eyes, the dog lives and I cannot leave him."
As he spoke these words, the dog vanished, and Dharma, the God of Justice, the father of the king, appeared in his place and said to his son, "I am well pleased with you, O King of kings, for you have compassion for all creatures. I tested you once in the forest by the lake where all your brothers seemed to have met their death. You chose that Nákula should be brought to life, so that he might carry on the line of his mother, Madri. Now you have given up the very hope of heaven for the sake of this dog, whose shape I took to test you. Truly, no one in heaven is your equal and infinite happiness awaits you."
Then Indra and Dharma, taking Yudhistra with them, went up into heaven from the mountain top, making the sky blaze with their glory. The other gods and the holy sages came out to meet them and all that concourse of gods welcomed the king and praised him.
Yudhistra Enters heaven
When Yudhistra arrived in heaven, he beheld Duryodha seated on a throne, wearing all the glorious emblems that belong to heroes and shining like the sun. His anger blazed up and he turned away, saying loudly to his companions, "I do not wish to share eternal happiness with Duryodha, who was defiled by greed and jealousy. It was his fault that friends and kinsmen, over the whole earth, were slaughtered. You mighty ones, I do not even wish to see him! Wherever my brothers and Dráupadi are, there I want to be."
Indra said to him, smiling, "Do not speak so, O King of Kings! In heaven all hatreds cease. Duryodha poured forth his life in the sacrifice of battle; he fulfilled the duties of his caste and was never afraid. Therefore he has earned the reward of heroes. You should not remember any longer the wrongs that he did you. Meet him courteously, O lord of men! This is heaven, and there is no hatred here."
But Yudhistra said, "If Duryodha, that sinful one for whose sake the whole earth was emptied of its warriors, who did us such wrong, dwells in these blissful regions, I wish to see the place where dwell those high-souled heroes, my brothers, who faithfully kept their promises, spoke the truth, and were so brave. I do not see here that son of Kunti, the noble Karna, or the king of Panchala or Virata, or the sons of Dráupadi, or Abimanyu, or all those other great warriors who also poured their lives as sacrifice on the fire of battle and met their deaths for my sake. I do not see them here, O lord of heaven! If they have not been worthy to dwell in this high place, then know that without these brothers and kinsmen of mine I will not dwell here either. I wish to see Bhima, who is dearer to me than my life, the godlike Arjuna and the twins, who were mighty in prowess; I wish to see the righteous princess of Panchala. You gods, heaven is where they are; to me no other place is heaven."
The gods said, "If you long to go there, then go without delay, O son of Kunti! For we wish to do whatever is pleasing to you." And they ordered a heavenly messenger to take Yudhistra where his friends and kinsmen were.
Then the messenger and the royal son of Kunti set forth, the messenger going first and the king following. They went along a steep and dangerous path through murky darkness; the ground was covered with moss and hair, and the path was slippery with blood and foul with the stench of rotting bodies. Beside it were trees whose leaves were sharp as swords, and crows and vultures with iron beaks sat on the branches. A river filled with boiling water ran beside the path; its sands were hot as embers, and its rocks were iron; thorn bushes grew beside it. Beholding all these frightful things, Yudhistra asked the messenger, "What place is this and how far must we go to reach the place where my brothers dwell?"
The heavenly messenger stopped and said, "The gods commanded me to bring you here, O King of kings, and then to return. If you are weary, you may turn back with me." Yudhistra was dazed by the foul sights and smells and sorely grieved at heart, so he turned back to retrace his steps, when he heard pitiful voices all around him, "O son of Dharma, stay with us! When you draw near, fragrant breezes blow upon us. Great joy is ours at seeing you, O best of men. O stay but a few moments more, that our joy may continue!"
These words, spoken with pain, made the king stand still, for the voices sounded familiar to him, although he could not say whose they might be. Therefore he asked, "Who are you? Why are you here in this dreadful place?"
And they answered from all sides, "I am Karna!" "I am Bhima!" "I am Arjuna!" "I am Nákula!" "I am Sadeva!" and "I am Dráupadi!" "We are Dráupadi's sons!" Even so did those voices speak in painful tones.
"What unjust fate is this?" Yudhistra asked himself. "What sinful deeds were done by these virtuous ones that they should dwell in this dark and frightful place, while Kuru's son is enthroned in heaven? Am I asleep or awake? Is this a nightmare of my disordered mind?"
Then he was filled with anger against the gods and against the God of Justice himself, the mighty Dharma. He turned to the celestial guide and said, "Go back to those whose messenger you are and tell them that I shall not return, but shall stay here, since my presence brings comfort to those suffering brothers of mine." And the messenger went back and told Indra all that the king had said.
A moment afterward, all the gods with Indra leading them came to the place where Yudhistra stood. As they approached, the darkness vanished; the boiling river and the iron rocks, the thorn trees and the fearsome birds were there no longer, and a cool, pure breeze brought the fragrance of blossoming boughs and flowers.
Indra spoke comforting words to Yudhistra, saying, "Come, come, O chief of men, this delusion is ended. Hell should be beheld by every king and I gave you a sight of it for your own good. On the battlefield, you deceived Drona, telling him that his son was dead; therefore you, too, have been deceived by this sight and by the voices of your brothers and kinsmen. They, too, have been shown this place of sinners, and all of them have been cleansed of any wrong they have done. They and all those kings who fought for you and were slain in battle have gone to heaven. Come and behold them, O chief of the Bháratas! Come and enjoy the reward of all your good deeds, your gifts and sacrifices and the labor of your soul. The place that you have won is far above that of kings; it is where Haris Chandra dwells with all the holy sages. There you will live in bliss. Behold this river, called the heavenly Ganges, which flows through the three worlds. Bathe in this, and your human form and nature will leave you. You will be free of grief and anger and ready to mount to the highest heaven."
Then Dharma, the God of Righteousness, also spoke to his son, "I am greatly pleased with you, O KIng! This is the third test that I have put you to and I find that you cannot be turned aside from the path of virtue. I examined you once, in the forest, in the form of a crane, and again when I took the shape of a dog. This has been your third test, when you chose to stay in hell for the sake of those you love. You are cleansed of all sin; be happy now!"
Yudhistra, led by Indra and Dharma and the other gods, bathed in the heavenly Ganges, where he cast off his earthly body. Free of grief and anger, he appeared in a shining form, clad in heavenly garments, and went with the gods to the place where his brothers and friends and kinsmen were. There he beheld Krishna, with his blazing celestial weapons, and beside him, Arjuna, radiant and happy; there he saw Karna, as splendid as his father, Surya. Bhima stood beside the Wind-God, his father, and the Storm Gods stood near them. With the beautiful Gods of Twilight and Dawn he beheld Nákula and Sadeva, and there, too, was the beloved Dráupadi, adorned with garlands of lotuses. All of them welcomed him with love and joy.
Indra said, "Behold Kuru, your eldest uncle, and the renowned Gandhari, who have come to this place because of the power of the penances they performed in the forest. There is your father, that mighty bowman, Pandu, with his two wives, Kunti and Madri, he often comes to see me in his chariot. There is the royal Bhishma and there is Drona. The kings who fought for you and those who fought against you, O lord of earth, have slowly won their way to this happy place, for they have conquered heaven by the virtue of their thoughts, their words and deeds, and by the sacrifice of their lives in battle.
"All sin and grief is ended, O best of men, and everlasting happiness is yours!"
Seeger, The Five Sons of King Pandu, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 326-340.

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