Upon hearing Dharmarāja's request, asking them to stay back in the kingdom, Dhṛtarāṣṭra replied – “Son, my heart has turned towards tapas. It has come down to us as a family tradition to take to the forest at a ripe old age like ours. You all have taken care of us well. I am now old. Please let me go!”
Addressing Vidura, Sañjaya, Kṛpa and the others who had surrounded him, he said – “Please ask Dharmarāja to permit me to go. I feel dull. My mouth has gone dry for having spoken for so long and also due to my old age!”
It seemed as though Dhṛtarāṣṭra was about to faint even as he spoke these words. Gāndhārī held him and with her support, he regained some composure. Looking at this, Yudhiṣṭhira said – “Our king, with the might of a hundred thousand elephants now needs the help of a woman for his living. If this is the state of Dhṛtarāṣṭra who has given up food and water, then what is the use of my dhārmic mind!” He caressed the chest and face of Dhṛtarāṣṭra with his wet hands.
Dhṛtarāṣṭra woke up and said – “Thanks to your touch, I am rejuvenated. Son! Your touch gives me great solace. I haven’t eaten anything for the last eight meal-times. I have no strength to even move around. Even the few words I spoke to seek your permission took away all my energy!”
Yudhiṣṭhira massaged Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s body with wet hands. The old man was pleased; overcome with affection for Dharmarāja , he sniffed his head.
Vidura and others were overcome with tremendous sorrow and were lost for words. Gāndhārī tried consoling him by saying – “No, king! No!” The other women stood around shedding tears and wiping their eyes off.
Dhṛtarāṣṭra spoke to Yudhiṣṭhira again – “Please permit me. I will feel even more tired if I keep speaking!” Yudhiṣṭhira hugged his old uncle, who was turned into a bag of bones. With tears in his eyes, he said – “If it does not please you, I don’t desire to have the kingdom or my life! If you have any love for me, please have food now! Let us discuss what should be the father course thereafter!”
Dhṛtarāṣṭra said – “I plan to have my food only after you permit me!”
Dharmarāja had no other choice but to permit him.
The following day, Dhṛtarāṣṭra called the heads of different communities and informed them of his intention to retire to the forest. “Gāndhārī and I would like to spend the rest of our years in the forest. I request you all to permit us to do so. I took over the reigns of the kingdom after ancestors such as Śantanu, Vicitravīrya and Bhīṣma ruled the kingdom, followed by my younger brother Pāṇḍu. I am not sure if my rule was good or bad to you all – please don’t take it to your heart. It is because of the wicked nature of my son that the war had to be fought. Please have some consideration for this old man –I took over the throne from my ancestors and now, I have lost my children. Gāndhārī too requests the same from you all. Take care of your new king, Yudhiṣṭhira, in times of good and bad. His four brothers will help him administer the kingdom like the guardians of the four directions. He will never tread an evil path. I am putting him under your care now. Please don’t harbour any anger for the misdeeds performed by me or my children in the past. Here are my salutations for the high regard you have had for me for so long!”
The citizens who had gathered there were moved to tears hearing his words. A brāhmaṇa spoke on their behalf – “Mahārāja! All that you have spoken so far is fine. No body who belonged to your lineage has done anything untoward to their people. In what way did Duryodhana cause us any harm? We had great trust in him and considered him our father. We are sure to be comfortable under the rule of Kuntī’s son. This fight among the siblings was not instigated by you or your son Duryodhana. It was not caused because of Karṇa or Śakuni who are dead now. Fate is the reason behind all this. Eighteen akṣauhiṇīs got destroyed in eighteen days. Is such a large scale destruction possible if not for the play of the Divine Will? Don’t worry about whatever happened in the past. Dharmarāja will take care of us just like his own children. You may continue your dhārmic activities without any worry! My salutations to you!”
Dhṛtarāṣṭra was somewhat relived. He saw off the people who had assembled there and returned home with Gāndhārī . He slept well that night.
A few days after this, it was the month of Kārtīka. Dhṛtarāṣṭra performed a ten-day long śrāddha-yajña and gave away a lot as dāna. He performed ūrdhva-deha-karmas for his children, grandchildren, forefathers, his wife Gāndhārī and for himself. He was therefore free of ṛṇa.
The next morning, Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Gāndhārī wore clothes fit for forest and put on deer skin. With agnihotra before them, they left for vanavāsa. Kuntī led them. Gāndhārī held her shoulder with one hand and went behind her. Gāndhārī held Dhṛtarāṣṭra with her other hand. The Pāṇḍavas, Draupadī, Subhadrā, Vidura, Sañjaya and several women of the palace set out with them. Just as the entire city followed the Pāṇḍavas who headed out for the forest in the past, now too, the entire city went behind these old men. Dhṛtarāṣṭra had his hands folded in respect to them all and made way as he walked. The citizens followed them until the main entrance of the city and then turned back. Vidura and Sañjaya had come ready to accompany Dhṛtarāṣṭra and others to the forest. Yudhiṣṭhira then asked Kuntī to head back to the city along with her daughters-in-law. Kuntī, however, was going ahead holding Gāndhārī ’s hand. She told him – “I too shall retire to the forest and take care of this old couple like my parents-in-law. That will help me wash away all my sins. I committed great sin by not informing everyone about Karṇa’s birth. Don’t forget him. You and your brothers should offer lots of dāna in his name. Please don’t hurt Sahadeva; he has a lot of love for me. Make sure that you are kind and gentle with Draupadī at all times!”
Yudhiṣṭhira was deeply saddened listening to Kuntī’s words. “Why do you speak so, mother? How is this possible? I don’t agree to this! Please have some pity on us; don’t desert us. I ended up killing so many people and also took up the throne only as per the advice of Kṛṣṇa and you. Is it right for you to go away to the forest while I am ruling the kingdom rightfully as a kṣatriya should do/ How will you lead your life in the forest when neither your sons nor daughters-in-law are with you?” He had tears in his eyes. Kuntī cared little for his words and tears and kept walking ahead.
Bhīma said – “Your sons have won over the kingdom and are ruling it in a dhārmic manner. Don’t you have to feel happy looking at the current state? Why did you make us fight a war, anyway? If you really wanted to live in the forest, why did you bring us back from the forest when we were kids? Please don’t go, mother! Have mercy on us and stay with us!”
Kuntī would not listen to her children’s words at all. She had made up her mid that she should go to the forest and kept walking ahead. After a while, she too was reduced to tears and said – “Your words are true, my dears! In the past, when you lost everything you possessed by gambling, I held your hand and lifted you all up. I only wished that Pāṇḍu’s lineage does not end and your glory is not foreshadowed. You all possess the brilliance of Devendra and should never loose your self for the sake of another. I did not want the lineage to end with your generation. When my husband was the king, he had experienced a lot of royal luxuries. He drank the soma. I did not instigate Kṛṣṇa for my own sake. I do not want any share in the kingdom that is own over by my children. I would like to perform tapas and reach the abode of my husband. I’ll spend my last days in the service of this old couple. Yudhiṣṭhira, please head back with Bhīma and others. May you always follow dharma; may you gain magnanimity of character!”
The Pāṇḍavas were quite embarrassed because of Kuntī’s words and headed back along with Draupadī and others.
This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada classic Vacanabhārata by Arjun Bharadwaj and Hari Ravikumar published in a serialized form.