Dhṛtarāṣṭra asked Vidura and Gāndhārī to advise Kuntī to go back with her children. He said that she can perform tapas in the kingdom and she had served them very well so far. Kuntī would not budge to anybody’s words and she went ahead as per her decision. The Pāṇḍavas were now orphaned.
Dhṛtarāṣṭra and the others trugged over a long distance and arrived at a tapovana on the banks of the river Bhāgīrathī. They were used to living in the city all their lives and always had people to converse with. The first day in the āśrama was very difficult for them to endure. The following day, they took a dip in the river Gaṅgā and reached Śatayūpa’s āśrama. They received their ‘dīkṣā’ there and started performing penance. Śatayūpa was a king belonging to the lineage of the Kekayas. He had given away his kingdom to his son and had come there to perform tapas. Vidura and Sañjaya too wore garments made of barks of trees and started performing intense tapas.
The Pāṇḍavas who returned to the city did not have any peace of mind at all. Their heart was not in the kingdom. They always thought of their mother and the blind couple. They were constantly bothered by the heinous deed of killing their relatives. The death of Abhimanyu, killing of Karṇa and the massacre of the Upa-pāṇḍavas were like nightmares for them. They held on to their breaths deriving joy out of Uttarā’s baby, Parīkṣit.
A few days later, their thoughts about their mother Kuntī became stronger. They did not wish to rule the kingdom anymore and did not wish to speak to anyone either. Their intense thoughts took their breath away. “How will our mother, who is weak and worn out, be able to serve someone else? How will the old couple digest all the distress they have in their lives and live amidst the animals in the thick forest?” This was their usual conversation. Everyone wanted to see their mother. Sahadeva was the first one to give words to their feelings – “Brother, now that I have understood what you have in your mind, I too have gained some courage. I badly want to see mother. She lived in palatial bungalows and is now in the forest like a tāpasī. We cannot say that a man’s state is the same at all times!” Draupadī too expressed a similar desire. They all set out the very next day to the forest.
Yudhiṣṭhira made the city know about their travel and told them that everyone who was strong and capable could accompany them. Several vehicles were prepared. Servants got ready with all food materials necessary for the journey and set out. They camped for five days outside the city and then went ahead to the tapovana.
The Pāṇḍavas spotted Kuntī in the tapovana from a distance. They got off from their chariots and walked towards the āśrama with great humility. There were no one around there and the place was peaceful. Deer moved around in packs. There was banana plantation all around and was lush green in colour. As they entered the tapovana, the ascetics there stood around to looking at them with great curiosity. “Which of these is Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s āśrama? Where is he?” – the Pāṇḍavas asked the people in the āśrama and were told that he had gone along with his wife, Gāndhārī to take a dip in Yamunā and were going to fetch flowers and udakumbha. Everyone turned towards the river and saw Dhṛtarāṣṭra heading back to the tapovana with his wife.
Sahadeva rushed towards Kuntī, held her feet tightly and started crying. She was overcome with tears looking at her beloved son. She held him with both her arms and told Gāndhārī – “Look! Sahadeva is here!” Dharmarāja, Bhīma, Arjuna and Nakula too joined them. They fell at the feet of their mother. Kuntī was at the front, followed by Gāndhārī and Dhṛtarāṣṭra was behind them. Kuntī was leading the old couple. Dhṛtarāṣṭra recongised everyone by their voice and spoke to them. The Pāṇḍavas took the kalasha from the hands of the old people and held them. The citizens too saluted the old couple and Kuntī and asked about their well-being. Dhṛtarāṣṭra felt as though he was back in Hastināpura. They regained some composure and headed back towards the āśrama.
Sañjaya introduced the Pāṇḍavas and everyone else who had accompanied them to the residents of the āśrama. He named each one of them and spoke about their qualities. Dhṛtarāṣṭra sat Dharmarāja at his side and asked – “How are you Yudhiṣṭhira? You are fine, right? Your brothers and the citizens are keeping well, aren’t they? No one has anything to worry about, right? You are worshipping the devatas, pitṛs and brāhmaṇas as usual, right? Is your treasury full?”
Yudhiṣṭhira enquired about their life in the tapovana and suddenly noticed that Vidura was not around. He asked – “Where is Vidura? We don’t get to see him!” Dhṛtarāṣṭra said – “Child! Vidura is fine. He has given up food and water and is just surviving on air. He has taken to an intense form of penance. His body has become very weak and his veins are visible! He is spotted very rarely by our ascetics!” Even as they spoke so, somebody called out – “Look! There’s Vidura. He is going away as he has come to know that there are people here in the āśrama!”
Hearing this, Yudhiṣṭhira rushed behind Vidura. However, Vidura was faster than him and was nearing a thick forest. He had long hair – jaṭā. His body was very weak. He wore no clothes at all. His body was covered with dust and was dirty. Looking at him, Yudhiṣṭhira called out – “Vidura! Vidura! I am here, your favourite, Yudhiṣṭhira !” He continued to follow him. Vidura stopped walking as he neared a secret grove. He stood there, taking the support of a tree. He had lost all his strength and lost all flesh – only a faint shape of his body had remained.
‘It’s me Yudhiṣṭhira here”, said Dharmarāja. Vidura replied only with a gesture of his hand and stared at him with unflinching eyes. The four eyes met. Vidura entered Yudhiṣṭhira ’s body with the power of his yoga. His prāṇa, indriayas and all organs entered Yudhiṣṭhira’s body and became one with it. Vidura’s body that had taken the support of the tree stood without any movement. Looking at this, it became evident that the body had given up its life. It seemed to Yudhiṣṭhira as though there was new found energy in his body. As his thought of performing deha-samskāras (death rituals) to Vidura right at the spot, Yudhiṣṭhira heard an incorporeal voice from the sky: “O king! His body should not be burned. None should cry for his sake!”
Yudhiṣṭhira returned to the āśrama and reported the events to Dhṛtarāṣṭra. Bhīma and others were stunned hearing about what had just transpired. They only ate fruits, roots and shoots as their meal that day.
The next morning, Yudhiṣṭhira handed over the materials they had brought from the city for the use of the residents of the āśrama. He enquired about the well-being of all the āśramites and asked - “Please let me know if I can be of any help to you all”. Dhṛtarāṣṭra was silent for a moment, thought deeply and said – “I am blessed to be in the company of sages like you all. My life has found its fruitification. I have no fear of the paraloka. However, I am greatly pained whenever I think of the bad deeds of my dead son. What is his fate now, after life? What about my grandchildren? Where are Bhīṣma and Droṇa gone? I am burning within myself thinking of this day and night. I have no peace!” Gāndhārī who heard Dhṛtarāṣṭra speak thus had new bouts of sorrow. She brought to her mind the sorrow of Draupadī, Subhadrā and the other Kaurava women and said – “Oh Sage! It has been sixteen years since the king lost his children. Still, his pain hasn’t reduced. He often lets out deep sighs of grief, thinking of them. Draupadī and Subhadrā too are afflicted with sorrow upon the death of their sons. My hundred daughters-in-law are suffering the separation from their dead husbands. What is the fate of those who have passed away? It is only with your words that we can have hopes of getting consoled and attaining peace!” Kuntī was immediately reminded of her dead son, Karṇa.
Vyāsa, who heard them all lament showed them a divine scene on the banks of river Gaṅgā that right. He called out all the dead men from both the Pāṇḍava and the Kaurava faction. Upon his call, there was a loud sound from the depths of the waters and Bhīṣma, Droṇa and thousands of dead warriors appeared before them. Each of them had divine bodies and came out of the water, clad in their typical costumes along with their flag-chariots. None of them had any enmity between each other. There was neither greed, envy or contempt. Apsarās and Gandharvas sung amidst them. The entire entourage of the dead men were seen by Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Gāndhārī too. The old couple were consoled to a large extent by this sighting. The Pāṇḍavas and their people stayed in the āśrama for a few more days after this and then left back.
Yudhiṣṭhira and Sahadeva had no heart to leave Kuntī behind. Kuntī told them that the longer they stayed with her, the more attached she would become to her children and such emotions would be impediments to her tapas. She convinced them to get back to the city and continue ruling the kingdom.
One day, two years after this, Nārada came to Yudhiṣṭhira and told him about the death of Dhṛtarāṣṭra and others – “After the Pāṇḍavas returned from their visit to the āśrama, Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Gāndhārī, Kuntī and Sañjaya performed intense tapas in Gaṅgādvāra. They spent six months in this manner. One day, as they were moving around in the forest, all the four of them got caught in a forest fire. Sañjaya escaped from there. The other three got charred to death in the forest fire.” Everyone in the royal court was grief-stricken upon hearing the news.
Yudhiṣṭhira said – “The great one who was performing an intense penance had to give up his life like an orphan even while we are all still alive! Being the son of Vicitravīrya, the father of a hundred sons and possessing the strength of ten thousand elephants, Dhṛtarāṣṭra finally died caught in a forest fire! It makes me wonder what fate has in store for the human. In the past, beautiful women fanned the royal couple and now the vultures are moving around their charred corpses, enkindling the fire even more. There were royal vandhi-māgadhas who sung praises for the king in the past and now he is being pulled apart by crows and eagles. I don’t feel very sorrowful about Gāndhārī. Her hundred sons died before her own eyes. She took care of her husband as long as he was alive and has reached the pati-loka. However, I feel very sorry for Kuntī. She went away to the forest when her sons had gained prosperity and were ruling the kingdom. What is the use of our kingdom and strength? What purpose does the kṣatriya-dharma serve! My mind has gone numb listening to the news – the mother of Yudhiṣṭhira, Bhīma and Arjuna died in a forest fire. Arjuna put great efforts in satisfying Agni in Khāṇḍava-vana – all that is a waste! Agni does not even have this gratitude for us. When she was surrounded by fire, Kuntī probably called out – 'Oh my sons! Dharmarāja! Bhīma! Come, save me!' She must have died crying for help!” Yudhiṣṭhira variously lamented thinking of his mother’s last moments.
Jalatarpaṇa and death rituals were performed for the ones who had lost their lives. A lot of dāna was performed as well. Yudhiṣṭhira, who had lost his relatives had no pleasure in ruling the kingdom but continued to do his share of duty.
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.