Bhima was surprised, worried and pained at Yudhisthira’s words which were plain, unambiguous, unkind and harsh – the language that truth often uses. Yudhisthira had just condemned the dying Draupadi as the cause of the Great War that had destroyed the Kauravas, who were his brothers, and their relatives, who were the Pandavas’ relatives too. Out of ignorance, said Yudhisthira to Bhima, the Kauravas had tormented and humiliated her, but so vindictive was she that she had kept her hair loose for fifteen years and tied it only after consuming ninety nine brothers of his. Grave was her sin, said Yudhisthira, and in that very windy and punishing cold in the snowy and lonely Himalayas, as the hungry and the fatigued Pandavas were climbing those hostile mountains, the words of Yudhisthira were the words of Dharma himself. Abandon Draupadi, Yudhisthira told Bhima. All Bhima could utter was that by that logic, the eldest Pandava had made all of them sinners! At that moment of recognition for him, did he say that to Yudhisthira, who was unrecognizable as the Yudhisthira he knew, or to himself?
Before the dark age of Kali could corrupt them, the wise Yudhisthira and his brothers had decided to leave the life of sansara. With their wife Draupadi, they went on pilgrimage. When their pilgrimage was over, there was nothing for them to do in the world. That was the time to take the path to swarga and the path, the sages told them, lay in the deep and inhospitable regions of the Himalayas. After Draupadi, Bhima saw his brothers falling one by one: first Sahadeva, then Nakula and then Arjuna, the one without an equal. Each time Bhima drew the attention of Yudhisthira, who was walking ahead, taking long steps. Each time Yudhisthira would tell him how the one who had fallen had succumbed to his sins, and what specifically his sins were, and ask him to abandon the fallen one and leave him to die.
This narrative is part of Swargarohana Parva (the canto dealing with the Pandavas’ ascending to swarga, roughly, heaven) in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata. Isn’t swargarohanaa euphemism after all for dying? Isn’t it the poet’s way of referring to the death of those he celebrated in his narrative? For Yudhisthira of course swargarohana turned out to be literally true; he ascended to the habitation of the gods without the intervention of death.
In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata, only Krishna and Bhima knew that death would spare Yudhisthira. And just him! Surely Bhima had forgotten; he must have forgotten it soon after he had got to know of it. As for Krishna, what can one say? He, the knower of the past, the present and the future, surely pretended as if he did not know, when Bhima told him. Let us set aside for now further details of this episode. Sarala Dasa in Swargarohana Parva tells us that Krishna himself had actually arranged for Yudhisthira’s going to swarga with his mortal body. Earlier, when Gandhari had tried to kill him, hadn’t Krishna told her that Yudhisthira wouldn’t die because dharma cannot die?
But did Yudhisthira know that death would not come to him? One doesn’t know whether he did. Sarala gives us the impression that neither Krishna nor Bhima had told him. In any case, for him it was totally irrelevant, totally inconsequential as going to swarga without experiencing death had never been an aspiration for him. One, on the path to swarga, knew Yudhisthira, would remain alive as long as the effect of his good deeds lasts. After that one must die in order to cover the rest of the journey to swarga. In those agonizing moments of seeing his dear ones die, uncared for and denied even a word of comfort, Bhima had heard all this from Yudhisthira, but he did not surely register the meaning of what he had heard. He was too disturbed and too confused to be able to do so. So aloof, so unfeeling and so distant – this was not the Yudhisthira he ever knew!
Obeying Yudhisthira, Bhima would leave the fallen dear to meet his lonely his death as he had done to Draupadi, and follow Yudhisthira. The virtuous Pandava was walking ahead, without fear, without concern for anything or anyone. His steps showed that he was completely self-possessed and unaffected by fatigue, hunger, hostile weather and all other negatives there. Free yourself from moha (attachment) and be calm, Yudhisthira told his brother – one could not reach the abodes of the celestials in one’s mortal body. And why grieve for others’ death when you are so close to death yourself, he told Bhima. Dejected, disappointed, bewildered and afraid, Bhima asked his elder brother why he was so unkind to his brothers at the time of their death, who had served him with great dedication throughout. Some unkind god must have possessed him, Bhima thought.
Yudhisthira held him in his arms. His brothers were always very dear to him and he had never thought of him and them as separate from him, he assured him. But then each one has his own inclinations, own nature, in accordance with which he acts and one has to experience the fruit of his actions. Instead of grieving over Arjuna’s fate, Bhima must ready himself for his own death – his time had come, he told him. Don’t forsake me and take me with you, Bhima pleaded with his brother piteously. Without him, what he would do on the top of the Himalayas, all alone? This was all he could say at that fearful moment. The one who had sent many to the habitation of the dead, was now pleading piteously for protection from death.
Yudhisthira told him that he was helpless; he could not take him with him. One’s good deeds, one’s dharma, alone would take one on the path to swarga, and nothing else. The mountain top was visible now. Follow me, he told Bhima, as he was climbing up, his steps firm, fast and long.
The phala of Bhima’s good karma appeared to be exhausted, and his left foot slipped and he fell. Do not be unkind, brother, take me with you, he screamed from behind and his painful and piteous pleading pervaded the mountain. For once, Yudhisthira stopped climbing and turned back. He smiled at him. Like a fond elder who repeats things to an uncomprehending child, he told him again to remain calm in the face of death. One could not move forward on the path to swarga except by the power of dharma, he told him again; so one, who understands things, must accept death calmly when it comes. As he was slowly slipping into unconsciousness, he told Yudhisthira in a tone of utter despair that he was unable to move any further.
Incidentally during that final journey in their quest for death and swarga, Bhima was the only brother with whom Yudhisthira had had a conversation. He was the one who, each time a dear one fell, had appealed to him to pause for a while and attend to and comfort the dying one. None but Bhima had pleaded with him to take him along. The poet does not tell us why it was so. May be the others knew better about life and death and could accept death with composure. May be they had realized during that journey that Yudhisthira had ceased to be just their brother. There could be many other reasons! Because of the narrator’s silence in this regard, one would never know the truth. From another point of view, the narration needed just one listener who could be told how each character had sinned in the eyes of the very embodiment of Dharma.
But then what does one say about Bhima? Why didn’t Yudhisthira tell him anything about how he had sinned? Well, Bhima’s story has not ended yet!
Bhima recovered. Unlike Draupadi, Sahadeva, Nakula and Arjuna. Wounded and unstable, calling up all his latent energy he followed his elder brother, unsteadily, pushing himself, depending on his right foot, but moving still quite fast for all that, to catch up with the virtuous traveller who had moved far away, very close to the top of the mountain where ends the earthly path to swarga. Afraid of being left alone and dying alone, he needed Yudhisthira. One who never thought of dharma now badly needed dharma’s protection. Yudhisthira saw him closing up. With fear and pleading in his eyes. Dharma saw him – Dharma who has no relatives and no moha.
A wicked person like Bhima must not go to swarga in his mortal form, thought Yudhisthira. He would see there the warriors who had fallen in the war and would attack them. Gods would not be able to live in the midst of a man so violent, so full of malice and vindictiveness. The celestials would need protection from the wicked man. He needed death which would cleanse him of the impurities and the failings of his mortal form. The embodiment of Dharma invoked god Dharma and responding to his call, goddess Hingulakshi attacked Bhima. From this primordial energy of Death there was no escape. Bhima slipped again. He let out one last agonizing cry: save me, Yudhisthira. Why are you worried, Yudhisthira told him, be calm and do not speak. He was climbing up, with his eyes fixed on the mountain top and the mountain top was so near, so very close. Who knows whether Bhima heard him and if he did, what he felt and thought. Death was already tearing apart his body.