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Pandavas and The Inescapable Clutches of Karma

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Indian mythology is truly special, in that it teaches us morals, values and important lessons of life by way of clever symbolisms, allusions, stories and parables with hidden, though profound meaning. Hinduism, especially, does not force anyone to join into the fold in order for them to understand the real value of the philosophy that it has to offer. The secular Sanatana Dharma merely requires the seeker to be open to follow its highly flexible tenets and learn from the stories and tales it has to offer. That is why Hinduism is not just a religion - it is verily a way of life!

In this month's article, we delve into the lives of the Pandavas, including Draupadi, post the Great War of Kurukshetra. We learn about their lives after they abdicated the throne and moved towards the Mahaprasthana, where they renounced everything post their great victory.

Mahaprasthanika Parva

Mahaprasthana is a sort of yagna undertaken by the Pandavas and their wife, Draupadi, wherein they renounced their kingdom and all the luxuries of royal life and set off for their spiritual journey to the Himalayas.

The Mahabharata is actually not just a series of stories - it is actually a beautiful lesson on the cause-and-effect theory, a lesson on Karma itself. This great epic is divided into several Parvas or chapters, each of which deals with a phase in the life of the central characters.

Mahabharata - Set of 3 Volumes - Comics
Mahabharata - Set of 3 Volumes - Comics

The Mahaprasthanika Parva, or the "Book of the Great Journey", is the seventeenth of the eighteen parvas of the Mahabharata. It has three chapters and is the shortest book of the epic. Mahaprasthanika Parva has three adhyayas or chapters and has no sub-parvas or secondary sections or books.

This particular parva takes us through the lives of the Pandavas after the Great War of Kurukshetra, and also their journey across India, after renouncing their throne. It talks about their ascent towards the Himalayas, and their climb towards Heaven, on Mount Sumeru.

On their long journey, they are accompanied all the way by a loyal dog. One by one, the Pandavas fall to their end and die, till only the eldest son, Yudhishthira, remains. Mahaprasthanika Parva describes the conversations between the Dharmaraja and his four-legged friend. It also lets us know what price the Pandavas had to pay for living the kind of life they did, also explaining why Swarga or Heaven eluded them till they fulfilled the debt of their karma.

Background

At the end of Mausala Parva, the previous Parva, Veda Vyasa advised Arjuna and the rest of the Pandavas to announce their retirement and renounce their kingdom. Their main mission was to win the war and see to it that the Dharma was maintained. That purpose had been served and now it was time for them to leave the kingdom, Vyasa said. Arjuna went to the eldest Pandava, Yudhishthira, and told him about Vyasa's advice. All of them, along with Draupadi, mulled over it for a while and agreed that they should heed the Rishi's words.

Accordingly, Yudhishthira, who was the ruler till then, crowned Parikshit as the King of Hastinapura, in care of Yuyutsu. Meanwhile, in Indraprastha, the Yadava Prince, Vraja, was crowned as King. That done, the Pandavas left for their journey around India, finally ending with the Himalayas.

The Pandavas Leave Hastinapura

As the Pandavas started off on their long voyage, a dog befriended them on the way. Seeing him following them, they decided to take him along as well. The Pandavas first travelled South, reaching the salt sea. At the coast, Lord Agni (the God of Fire) appeared before them and asked Arjuna to return his bow. Agni said that Lord Varuna (the God of Rain) was asking for the bow, which had now served its purpose well. Arjuna obediently placed both the bow and the quiver of inexhaustible arrows on the waves of the sea. They were immediately carried away by the waters.

Agni - Fire God - Poster
Agni - Fire God - Poster

Then the brothers, along with Draupadi, turned South-West, visiting several pilgrimage sites on the way. Thereafter, they went Westward, visiting Dwaraka, which was already submerged under the sea. They were extremely saddened at the sight of the once-beautiful, prosperous city; now lying dead and submerged under the water. They then decided to travel North and stop at Rishikesh, before finally crossing the Himalayas.
Haridwar and Rishikesh - Set of 2 Postcards
Haridwar and Rishikesh - Set of 2 Postcards

The Pandavas Die One by One

As they crossed the Himalayas, Yajnaseni or Draupadi was the first one to fall and die. Bhima queried Yudhishthira as to why she had died so early on in their journey to Heaven. Yudhishthira explained that, though she had treated all her husbands the same way; with the same degree of loyalty; she had always been more partial towards Dhananjaya or Arjuna. This, he explained, implied straying from the Dharma and hence, she earned her karma as the first one among them to perish.

The Pandavas continued their journey onwards, with the dog still in tow. After a few hours of walking, Sahadeva collapsed and died. To this, Yudhishthira said that Sahadeva, like his brothers, as virtuous in every respect. Though he was one of the finest human beings ever, his only failing was that he was a little vain and proud of his good looks.

With two members gone, the others continued onward towards Mount Meru. The next to die was Nakula. Though grief-stricken yet again, Yudhishthira explained that Nakula too, like Sahadeva, was a little proud and vain. He was well aware that he was handsome beyond compare and was a little conceited about it. So, suffered the same fate as his deceased brother.

Arjuna was the next one to perish. He too could not complete the journey. Yudhishthira turned to Bhima and said that Arjuna too suffered from the vice of pride and vanity. He thought that he was the most skilled, most powerful warrior there ever was and so, disregarded others to that extent.

Now, Yudhishthira and Bhima were the only ones left. The dog was still following them. After a few more hours, Bhima got tired and fell to the ground. Knowing that his end was near, he asked his elder brother why he too could not make it to Heaven. To this, Yudhishthira said that he had the vice of gluttony and used to eat far too much without giving a thought to the hunger of others. He was also vain about his strength and power and therefore, would not make it to Swarga.

Yudhishthira Enters the Gates of Heaven

Finally, Yudhishthira and the dog were the only ones left and they continued on their journey to Swarga. As per Chapter 3 of Mahaprasthanika Parva, as Yudhishthira and the dog continued on foot toward Mount Meru, Lord Indra (the King of the Devas) appeared before them in a chariot. He suggested that they need not walk up all the way and, instead, could get into the chariot and they could travel together to Heaven. To this, Yudhishthira replied that he could not go to Heaven, leaving behind his brothers and Draupadi. Indra assured him that all of them had already entered the gates of Heaven.

Indra on Seven Trunk Airavat - Phad Painting
Indra on Seven Trunk Airavat - Phad Painting

The Pandava Prince then queried Indra if his four-legged friend could accompany him there as well. When Indra replied that the dog would be denied entry, the former refused to leave his canine companion, saying that it would be wrong to abandon the only creature that was loyal enough to accompany him all the way.

Yudhishthira was aggrieved that he could not help his brothers or wife in any way. He had helplessly watched each one collapse and die. But he was sure he would be able to take care of the dog that was presently alive and with him.

Indra urged him to be practical and consider his own welfare first; to abandon the dog and join him in his chariot. But Yudhishthira, being the Dharmaputra and always righteous, refused the Deva's offer.

The dog, that was watching this dialogue, suddenly transformed and reappeared as Lord Dharma, the father of Yudhishthira. Dharma praised him for his virtuous behaviour and adherence to what was right. He said that he was proud that there was none equal to him and hence, that he had earned great karmic merit by way of his deeds.

Then, they all proceeded towards Heaven. On their way, they met Sage Narada, who informed them that Yudhishthira had transcended the spiritual level of even the greatest sages. Hence, he said that the oldest Pandava Prince would be allowed entry into Heaven in his human body - a privilege no one else ever had gotten so far. Offering salutations to all deities present there, Yudhishthira entered Heaven on Indra's chariot.

Swargarohana Parva

Swargarohana Parva, or the "Book of the Ascent to Heaven", is the eighteenth and the final book of the Mahabharata. Traditionally, it has 6 chapters and has no sub-chapters. The critical edition has 5 chapters. This Parva describes the arrival of Yudhishthira in Heaven, his tour of Hell and what he finds in both these places.

This Parva ends on a happy note, with Yudhishthira being joyful meeting and joining his family in Heaven. He gets to reunite with Karna, the rest of the Pandava princes and the Kauravas as well, free of any hate, enmity or rivalry.

The Legend

Taking a tour of Heaven and Hell, Yudhishthira was upset when he found evil people in Heaven and good people in Hell. He questioned the Devas, asking if they ever had a sense of fairness; if they knew to bestow justice at least after a person's death. In anger, he demanded to be sent to Hell, where he would find all his loved ones.

Then, the Devas revealed to him that all his beloved ones were actually in Heaven. They removed the fake Hell that they had created for him, just for show. The Devas explained to Yudhishthira that he had to undertake that tour of Hell, as he had committed the major sin of lying to his Guru, Dronacharya, that his son, Ashwatthama had died in the battlefield.

During the Great War of Kurukshetra, the Pandavas were well aware that they would be no match for their teacher, Drona. The latter was causing much havoc for the Pandava side, killing several hundred soldiers and even senior warriors from their side.

On Krishna's advice, Bhima killed an elephant named 'Ashwatthama'. He then approached Drona and told him that Ashwatthama had perished on the battlefield. The Guru refused to believe Bhima, saying that he would accept it only and only if Yudhishthira told him so. Much against his conscience, Yudhishthira told the Acharya, "Ashwatthama hata:" (Ashwatthama is dead). He then whispered to himself, "iti kunjara:" (the elephant).

Hearing these words and missing the last part, Drona believed that his son had been martyred in the war. He fell to the ground in grief. Taking advantage of that moment of weakness, Drishtadyumna (Draupadi's brother) beheaded Drona, killing him instantly.

In this way, Yudhishthira had been responsible for the death of his own Guru. That was the reason why he had to bear the horrible sights of Hell for those few minutes, the Deva said.

Lord Dharma appeared before him and congratulated him for always upkeeping dharma. Then, the Devas decided to send him to Vaikuntha, the abode of Lord Sri Maha Vishnu, where he would find eternal joy and peace.

Next, Yudhishthira met Krishna in his form as Vishnu. He also met Draupadi in Heaven, along with his other brothers. Draupadi, he realized, was actually an aspect of Goddess Shakti, who had to take human form and live on earth.

Significance

Swargarohana Parva is especially significant for the following reasons:
  • It claims that Vyasa is the creator of the poem, which comprises 6,000,000 verses. These contain the eternal divine knowledge about life itself.
  • Also, it ends with the claim that the Mahabharata has all the shades of Truth in it.
  • Chapter 4 portrays Krishna as Brahman, or the Supreme Being. Anushasana Parva describes Krishna as a form of Vishnu and Shiva. This leads to the theory that the different deities listed in Vedic literature are but multiple forms of the same One God. Other ancient scriptures describe Maha Vishnu as the Supreme, while claiming that Brahma and Shiva are lesser deities.

Draupadi as a Manifestation of Shakti

Different regions in India believe that Draupadi was actually an incarnation of different Goddesses. Veda Vyasa does not make mention of Draupadi as a Devi, but other versions of the Mahabharata do; as do some Puranas.

As per different Hindu scriptures and treatises, Draupadi is said to be a manifestation of several different Devis. The Garuda Purana says that she was the incarnation of Bharati Devi, the consort of Lord Vayu (the God of Wind). The Narada and Vayu Puranas state that she was the composite avatara of the Devis Shyamala (consort of Lord Dharma), Bharati, Sachi (consort of Indra) and Usha (consort of the Ashwinis). They state that, in her human form on earth, Draupadi married the counterparts of these Gods, who had also manifested as each of the five Pandavas.

Legend

As per legend, feeling angry and insulted at a jest made by Parvati (consort of Lord Shiva), Shyamala, Sachi and Usha, Lord Brahma cursed them all to be born on earth as human beings. Parvati decided that they would all be born as one woman, Draupadi, and that they would all share that one single human female form. The Devis requested Bharati to join them as well.

That is how Draupadi was born out of the havankunda (sacrificial fire) of King Drupada's Yagna. Draupadi's fiery attitude and her undying fight against injustice reflects the Parvati or Shakti aspect in her. She also portrayed shades of the more powerful, dark aspect of Kali at times.

Draupadi acted docile and tame at times, in keeping with the societal norms of that time. She would sometimes wait for her husbands to come and rescue her from her attackers, thereby exhibiting the qualities of Sachi and Usha. At other times, she was also the perfect example of astuteness, in hiding her true identity and requesting Bhima to kill the terrible Keechaka, when he made indecent advances towards her. This stance reflected the attitude of Devi Bharati.

Keechaka and Sairandhri - Poster
Keechaka and Sairandhri - Poster

Draupadi is also considered as an avatara of Goddess Shree or Wealth, who was the consort of the five Indras in their mortal manifestation, that is, the five Pandavas. She had imprisoned the Indras in the past and for that, she was born many times over and over again.
  • In her first birth, she was Vedavati (an avatara of Swaha, Lord Agni's consort), who cursed Ravana.
  • She then manifested as Maya-Sita, the false Sita, who came into existence only to take revenge from Ravana. At this time, Lord Agni hid the real Sita.
  • In her third and fourth avataras, she was born as both Damayanti and her daughter, Nalayani, respectively. As Nalayani, she wedded Sage Maudgalya.
  • In her fifth birth, she emerged as Draupadi herself.
Therefore, it could be said that she was the composite avatara of all the eight Goddesses, namely, Kali, Parvati, Sachi, Shyamala, Usha, Bharati, Shree and Swaha. At different points in her human life, she clearly exhibited the different qualities of these Devis.

Popular belief is also that Draupadi was an incarnation of Devi Maha Kali, who manifested in order to assist Lord Krishna (who is actually Maha Kaal) to destroy all the evil on earth. This is why they are considered to be brother and sister (Parvati is often referred to as Krishna-Sahodari), though they never actually shared a blood relation.

Mother Mahakali of Ambalapadi, Udupi - Poster
Mother Mahakali of Ambalapadi, Udupi - Poster

Incidentally, this is also probably why Krishna always considered Draupadi his Sakhi (friend), but never had any other relationship with her. He also always protected her whenever she called for help - much like an elder brother would.

The Tale of Barbareek

In Rajasthan, the tale of Barbareek, also known as Khatu Shyamji, is very popular. It is told with slight variations in different regions. According to the main legend, Krishna and Arjuna, disguised as ascetics, were roaming in search of warriors who could fight on the side of the Pandavas in the Great War of Kurukshetra. After a long search, they decided to rest under a peepal tree.

At this time, they came across a powerfully built young man on a horse. He introduced himself as Barbareek, the grandson of Bhima (according to another version, he was the son of Bhima from the Naga maiden, Ahilavati). He said that, on the orders of his mother, he was on his way to join the Mahabharata War. He additionally mentioned that his mother had asked him to fight for the side that would lose.

Krishna asked him to demonstrate all the skills he knew. Barbareek shot an arrow upward and tied up all the leaves of the tree with just that one arrow. Krishna then hid a fallen peepal leaf under his foot. The arrow, after piercing all the other leaves and threading them together, approached Krishna's foot and hovered over it till he lifted his foot to reveal the hidden leaf. The arrow then successfully picked up the leaf and threaded it too, along with the other leaves, before going back to Barbareek's quiver.

Knowing that Barbareek could be dangerous for the Pandavas if he joined the side of the Kauravas, Krishna asked for bhiksha (alms) - Barbareek's head. Without second thought, the young man immediately gave it. Before beheading himself, he asked for a favour in return - that he should be allowed to see the war. He wanted his head to be placed ato the peepal tree, so that he could witness the entire War of Kurukshetra. Krishna granted him the boon. Barbareek's head watched the entire war from its position atop the tree.

After the war was over, the Pandavas were arguing amongst themselves as to who was responsible for the victory. Krishna suggested that they should go ask Barbareek, as he had been a witness to the entire war. When asked, Barbareek replied that he had seen only two things during the entire war. The first one was Krishna's Sudarshana Chakra (Discus) slaughtering the Kaurava warriors. The second one was Draupadi having transformed herself into Maha Kali and drinking up all the blood on the battlefield.

Why did the Pandavas Undertake Mahaprasthana?

After the Great War of Kurukshetra, the Pandavas ruled the Kuru Kingdom for 36 years. The land was prosperous and all their subjects were happy. However, the Pandavas had lost all interest in worldly life. They had lost all their children, friends and relatives in the war.

Death of the Upapandavas

Each of the Pandavas had one son from Draupadi. Prativindhya was Yudhishthira's son; Sutasoma was Bhima's son; Shatanika was Nakula's child; Shrutasena was Sahadeva's offspring; and Shrutakarma was Arjuna's son from Draupadi. These sons, collectively referred to as the Upapandavas, were all killed in the Great War of Kurukshetra.

On the 18th and last night of the war after Duryodhana's death and the Kauravas' subsequent defeat, Ashwatthama gathered the only surviving warriors from the Kaurava side, namely, Kritavarma and Kripacharya. Together, they attacked the Pandava camp, when everyone was asleep.

Ashwatthama killed Dhrishtadyumna (Draupadi's brother), Shikhandi and several other senior warriors of the Pandava army, while they were sleeping. He then killed the Upapandavas as well, mistaking them to be the Pandavas. In some versions, he knew that they were the Upapandavas and killed them purposely, so as to hurt the Pandavas.

Not stopping with these cowardly acts, he then sent the Brahmastra (Brahma's most powerful weapon) to kill the unborn child in Uttara's womb. However, Draupadi and Subhadra prayed to Krishna to save the child.

Arjuna's son, Abhimanyu, was killed by Karna and all the other Maharathis (great warriors) present there, within the Chakravyuha that they trapped him in. But his wife Uttara was pregnant with his son, Parikshit, who was born in spite of everyone thinking that he would never survive. Krishna himself visited her and blessed the unborn child, saying that he would grow to become a great ruler.

Ashwatthama was eventually cursed by Krishna for his dastardly acts, to be immortal and to live with incurable wounds and ulcers. He also asked Ashwatthama to hand over the mani (gem), which was permanently affixed to his forehead.

Parikshit Becomes King

The Pandavas anointed Parikshit, son of the late Abhimanyu (Arjuna's son from Subhadra) as King and then prepared for their long journey all over India; finally, to the Himalayas. They placed Parikshit under the wise counsel of Kripacharya, the Kula Guru; left behind their palace; and renounced their royal life to undertake the Mahaprasthana.

Their closest friend, advisor and confidante, Krishna, had also left his mortal coil. Due to Gandhari's curse on Krishna, the entire Yadava race was also wiped out. Being aware of this beforehand, Krishna had told Arjuna about the impending doom and asked him to ensure the safety of the Yadava women and children. Accordingly, Arjuna spoke with Yudhishthira and, after cremating Krishna, the Pandava brothers returned to their kingdom, along with all the Yadava women and children.

After returning to their palace, Sage Vyasa visited them and advised them that, since they had fulfilled their life mission, they should now renounce the world and go to Heaven. When Yudhishthira asked the Sage how to get to Heaven, the latter advised him to "walk North" and termed this journey "Mahaprasthana". Incidentally, some scriptures describe Mahaprasthana as the journey where you keep travelling North, till the time you drop dead.

What Happened After Mahaprasthana?

Parikshit turned out to be an inspiration for all Vaishnavas, due to his absolute surrender to Krishna. In fact, some believe that he was named Parikshit, because he used to search for Krishna all the time. Kali, the ruler of the Kali Yuga, arrived at the time of Parikshit.

Like his great grandfathers, Parikshit was a born ruler and administrator. During his rule, the kingdom flourished and all the people were happy and prosperous. He also performed three Ashwamedha Yagnas, thereby gaining more power and pelf.

However, Parikshit had been cursed by a Rishikumara (Rishi's son). This eventually led to his downfall and ultimate destruction.

Legend

Once, Parikshit went hunting in the forest, when the demon Kali approached him. Kali, being the ruler of the Kali Yuga, was the embodiment of all bad, evil and adharmic. He asked permission to enter the kingdom, but Parikshit refused him entry.

Kali kept asking him, till Parikshit granted him five places to reside - where there is gambling, alcohol abuse, prostitution, animal slaughter and gold. Kali immediately entered the King's gold crown. All at once, Parikshit's thoughts got negative and corrupted.

After that encounter with Kali, Parikshit approached the ashrama of Sage Shamika. He was thirsty and wanted some water. The sage was in meditation and did not get up to greet the king. Parikshit kept asking him for water, but the sage was not even aware that he was there. As he had already been corrupted by Kali, the king got angry, took a dead snake lying nearby and put it around the sage's neck.

Later, Shringin, the son of Shamika, came back home and saw his father being mistreated thus. Enraged, he cursed that whoever had done this to his father would be killed by the King of Snakes on the 7th day. The sage, having realized what had transpired, was upset that his son cursed the king. He lamented that this curse would bring great harm to the land. However, the curse could not be revoked.

Janamejaya Ascends the Throne of Hastinapura

Meanwhile, hearing about the curse, Parikshit anointed his son, Janamejaya, as the next ruler. He then spent his last 7 days listening to the discourses of Sage Shuka. The Bhagavata Purana was recited on the 7th day and then, the King of Snakes, Takshaka, bit him and he breathed his last.

Janamejaya then organized Sarpa-Satra, a sacrifice, wherein all the snakes, the sons of Kadru, were burnt to death. Takshaka, who was the main target of the sacrifice, hid himself in Indra's costume. Being aware of this, Janamejaya requested the ritwijas, the mantra-chanters, to invoke Indra and bring him down to earth. He was planning to throw Indra along with Takshaka, into the sacrificial fire.

The ritwijas started invoking Indra, thereby forcing the King of the Devas to leave his throne and approach the venue of the Yagna. Fearing Janamejaya's might, he vanished, leaving Takshaka behind. However, Sage Astika requested Janamejaya to stop the sacrifice, saying that he would have to bear dreadful consequences if he refused to do so. The Mahabharata does not talk much about Janamejaya's lineage, except that he had four sons.

Janamejaya is significant, as he is the listener of the first narration of the Mahabharata, as told by Vaishampayana, the pupil of Vyasa. As per the Vyasa Purana and the Matsya Purana, Vaishampayana told him about his lineage and his ancestors at the Sarpa-Satra.

His son, Shatanika, ascended the throne after his rule.

Is it Right to Glorify the Pandavas?

It is an accepted fact that no human is ever perfect. In fact, even God is not perfect. When we look at our mythology, we see several discrepancies and wrongs committed even by the Devas. Lord Indra, the King of the Devas, was probably in the forefront of it all, as he was always insecure that someone would overthrow him and take his throne away.

In the Mahabharata too, we get to see many adharmic and unfair acts, committed both by the Pandavas and the Kauravas. It has to be acknowledged here, that if Krishna were not there on the side of the Pandavas, they could never have won the war. However, Krishna too was unjust and adharmic in several places throughout the epic; and even during the War.

Krishna, Arjuna and Vishwaroop Darshan with Gita Updesh - Poster
Krishna, Arjuna and Vishwaroop Darshan with Gita Updesh - Poster

Right from childhood, we are taught to look at the bigger picture and understand that good always victors over evil. That is why the Pandavas ultimately won the war, in spite of all the odds being against them.

However, though the dharma was upheld in the epic, no one really won the battle. At the end of the war, all the Kauravas died and the Pandavas lost all their near and dear ones. The latter claimed the throne of Hastinapura, but at what cost? Was it worth all that grief and losing all those lives?

The more important question that arises here is: "Is it really worth glorifying the Pandavas all that much?" They also committed innumerable adharmic deeds during their lifetimes. The death of Shishupala, Karna, Jayadratha, Drona, Bheeshma and many more greats, makes it clear that the Pandavas lacked in nobility as well.

The more pertinent question that all this throws up is: "Did the Pandavas really deserve to go to Heaven, after all?" Was justice served at the end?

The Theory of Karma - Why the Pandavas Went to Hell

Every religion teaches us that good human beings who do many good deeds in their lifetime on earth will eventually go to Heaven and that the not-so-good or evil people will suffer torture in Hell. Pertaining to the Mahabharata, this would naturally imply that those who had the Lord on their side (the Pandavas) would reach Heaven, whereas the Kauravas would proceed to Hell. However, there is a twist in the tale here. The Pandavas ended up going to Hell, while the Kauravas enjoyed in Heaven!

How is this justifiable? The tale that follows, offers the explanation of the theory of karma.

On reaching Heaven, Yudhishthira could not find his devoted wife or any of his virtuous brothers there. Instead, he found Duryodhana, Dusshasana, Bheeshma, Dronacharya and so on. In short, he found all the Kauravas and all those who had fought the war on their side. Upset by this sight, he queried Lord Yama (the Lord of Death) as to why he was witness to such injustice.

Yama smiled and replied that the Kauravas were in Heaven, as they died as Kshatriyas (warriors) are meant to die - on the battlefield. This act earned them much merit and therefore, the good karma had wiped out all the negatives they did during their lifetimes.

Yudhishthira demanded to know where his wife and brothers were and wanted to meet them. So, he was taken to Hell. The sight of blood, gore and suffering everywhere horrified him. His first instinct was to flee from there. But seeing the plight of his loved ones, he decided to stay on and suffer along with them.

Seeing his despair, Lord Yama assured him that this was merely a temporary phase and that it would all be over once their karmic debt was paid. Eventually, it was revealed to Yudhishthira that this Hell was just an illusion, that was created as the repayment of the sins committed by the Pandavas during their lifetimes on earth.

Here are some of the major reasons why the Pandavas were sent to Hell:
  • Draupadi had chosen Arjuna during her swayamvara ceremony. However, when she stepped into the Pandavas' hut (they were in hiding then, after the Lakshagraha incident, where Duryodhana had burnt down their palace of wax), Kunti, unaware that Arjuna had brought along his new wife, asked them to share what they had gathered that day. It was Kunti's fault that she gave them that order without seeing who or what it was that they brought her. However, they all decided to share one wife, without even asking Draupadi if it was okay with her to do so.

    Kathakali Dancers as Draupadi and Arjuna - Poster
    Kathakali Dancers as Draupadi and Arjuna - Poster

  • Having done that, they failed to protect their wife when her modesty was under attack, during the Game of Dice. Five mighty maharathis for husbands, but not one came ahead to help her. When Yudhishthira had already lost himself in wager, he had no right to stake any of his brothers; and certainly not his wife. That was shockingly cruel and adharmic. Draupadi was dragged by the hair and insulted by the Kauravas, but not one Pandava stepped in to help. Finally, Krishna was the one who protected her modesty, by letting forth an unlimited supply to clothing to cover her body, even as Dusshasana kept pulling on it.

    Draupadi Vastraharan - Poster
    Draupadi Vastraharan - Poster

  • As mentioned earlier, Yudhishthira lied to his own Guru, Drona, about the death of his son Ashwatthama. That was the only way Drona could be defeated and hence, the eldest Pandava Prince stooped to that level of cowardice to achieve his goals.
  • Bheeshma had taken a vow never to attack or fight a woman. Knowing that it would be the only way to defeat the Grand Old Man of the Mahabharata, Shikhandi was brought in front of him, to fight him. Eventually, Bheeshma gave in to Arjuna's volley of arrows and fell onto his shara-shaiya (bed of arrows), and lay there until his last breath.

    Bhishma - The Grandman of Mahabharata - Comic
    Bhishma - The Grandman of Mahabharata - Comic

  • Karna's chariot wheel got stuck in the ground as he proceeded to fight Arjuna. He was forced to get off his chariot and fix the wheel. Yudha neeti states that a warrior should not attack another who is unarmed and not ready to start fighting. However, on the advice of Krishna, Arjuna attacked and killed the great Daanveer (the one who always did charity) Karna.

    Veer Karna - The Valiant Son of Kunti - Comic
    Veer Karna - The Valiant Son of Kunti - Comic

  • Draupadi was not blameless either. When Duryodhana slipped and fell to the ground at their palace in Indraprastha, Draupadi laughed at him and mocked him publicly, saying that the blind man's (King Dhritarashtra) son was also blind. This statement was not at all befitting of a Queen and someone of her stature. In fact, that was probably the root cause of the war itself.
  • If Shakuni was scheming and cunning, so was Krishna. Only, the latter turned out a better politician and strategist as well, and this is what actually helped the Pandavas win the war.
When Yudhishthira acknowledged and repented for all their sins, Indra and Krishna appeared before him and told him that his brothers were already in Heaven.

This story goes to prove that no one can escape the effects of karma and that the balance of the entire cosmos depends upon the perfect balance of karma.

Even Krishna himself had to endure karma. The war wiped out all the hundred sons of Gandhari. When Krishna visited Gandhari to offer his condolence, the latter, in a fit of rage, cursed him that, just as the Kaurava dynasty was destroyed, Krishan's Yadava dynasty would suffer the same fate. Krishna calmly accepted the curse.

As per legend, Sage Vishwamitra and Sage Narada once visited the city of Dwaraka to meet Krishna. There, they saw Samba (son of Krishna) dressed up as a pregnant woman. In just, Samba and his young friends asked the sages to foretell what kind of child Samba would bear. Enraged, the sages cursed Samba that he would give birth to an iron rod, which would be instrumental in ending the Yadava dynasty.

The very next day, Samba gave birth to an iron rod. They crushed it and threw it into the sea. But one day, the powdered iron took the form of eraka grass growing along the beach. Eventually, the fun-loving Yadavas took to drinking too much. Inexplicably, the blades of grass turned to iron rods. The drunk Yadavas picked them up and attacked each other with them. Finally, none of them survived.

Krishna visited a forest near Somnath in Bhalka Tirth and sat down for a while, leaning his back against a tree. He had his feet stretched out in front of him. Jara, a hunter, mistook the Lord's feet to be a deer and shot a poisoned arrow at him, thus killing Krishna and ending his mortal avatara.

These stories tell us that none of us can escape the effects of karma. It also implies that we can remove ourselves from the strife of samsara (worldly life), only if we are able to monitor ourselves and keep negative karma under control.

Swargarohini Glacier - the Mythical Stairway to Heaven

The legend of Swargarohini Glacier is popular among the people living in Mana, a village from where the trek to Swargarohini and Satopanth Lake starts off.

The Legend

This is the place that the Pandavas travelled to, in order to reach Heaven. As mentioned earlier, Draupadi collapsed and died first, following which each of the Pandavas met their end. Yudhishthira was the last one to traverse this treacherous path, along with his dog, who was actually Dharma Devata. It is believed that this was the place he ascended the stairway of Heaven (Swarg ki Seedhi). Incidentally, Mahaprasthanika Parva mentions that the Swargarohini Glacier is the only way to reach Heaven, while still with the human body.

Satopanth to Swargarohini - Where the Pandavas Fell

Sadhus and other devout locals undertake this journey during the months of June to August. This is also known as the journey along the Satya Path, or the Path of Truth. They embark on this pilgrimage only after elaborate prayer services at Badrinath Temple. 4 kilometers from Badrinath Town, the village of Mana is the last one that is inhabited on this trail.

On the way, there are several temples that one can visit, including the Nag-Nagini Temple, Bhrigu Gufa and Mata Moorthi Mandir, a temple dedicated to the wife of Dharma. Further ahead, along the Alaknanda, comes Anandvan, literally meaning, "Forest of Joy", because of its stunning scenic beauty. Then comes Vasudhara Falls. There is a legend about these Falls - it is believed that the water here does not fall on sinners.

Naradshila on Alakananda River in Badrinath, Uttarakhand, India - Poster
Naradshila on Alakananda River in Badrinath, Uttarakhand, India - Poster

The Pandavas traversed this trail, along which all except Yudhishthira fell to their deaths. Here are details about the location where Draupadi and each of the Pandavas breathed their last:
  • Draupadi: Seeing the force with which River Saraswati was flowing, Draupadi was frightened and refused to cross it. Bhima lifted a big boulder lying nearby and placed it across the river, thereby helping his wife cross the raging waters. To date, this boulder is known as Bhima Shila, and can be found at Kedarnath. Just a little ahead is a temple of Goddess Kuldevi. Draupadi could go only so far. At this point, she collapsed and died. From then on, she has been venerated as a Goddess by the locals in this region.
  • Nakula: Lakshmi Van came next. This is a place where one can find numerous birch trees. It is believed that Nakula died here. It is also the first pitstop for travellers on this trail.
  • Sahadeva: Up ahead is the Sahastra Dhara, a spectacular range of multiple waterfalls on a granite ridge. They say that Sahadeva perished here. As the ridges get narrower, the view gets more stunning here. This location is approximately the backside of Kedarnath.
  • Arjuna: Arjuna died at Chakrateertha, which is a few kilometers ahead. This locale too offers stunning views and is serene and peaceful. Chakrateerth Caves is the next pitstop for travellers.
  • Bhima: Bhima went 3 more kilometers ahead to Satopanth Lake. He was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the calm surroundings of the triangular lake, filled with crystal clear water. The brothers offered their salutations to the sacred lake. After that, Bhima fell and died as well.
In summer, Sadhus and other visitors spend the night camping here, either setting tents or living inside the caves.After spending the day at the Lake, they proceed to Swargarohini Glacier via Chandra Kund and Surya Kund. Legend has it that there are seven steps to Heaven at this glacier. However, not more than three are visible ever, due to heavy snow and fog.

How to Participate in this Trek

Local trekking outfits around the Garhwal area organize treks to Satopanth Lake and Swargarohini Glacier. One can find several tour operators at Badrinath, willing to offer guide and porter services for this trek.
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