When Yudhisthira reached the top of Himagiri, he saw around him four distant, tall, snow-clad mountains which, he had heard from the sages, were sacred: one was associated with the Sun god, the other three with Indra, Ananta Narayana and Shiva. Above him was the sky, and above the sky was swarga. The top of Himagiri was as far as a human could reach. No one knew how to reach swarga from there but that was not something that troubled Yudhisthira’s mind. The poet does not tell us whether – to be unfair to Yudhisthira – the eldest Pandava had ever secretly wished for a life in swarga after his days in the mortal world were over. But in Sarala Mahabharata one thing is certain – Yudhisthira never worked for it. He did not think that one should live a life of dharma in order to attain swarga. To him a virtuous life must be lived because there is no alternative to it. But if one had to mention a reward for choosing to act in accordance with dharma in preference to what one would be inclined to do, then it was this, which is what Yudhisthira said so often to his brothers: katha rahithiba (word will remain). After doer was gone and the deed absorbed into the past, the word will remain – people would talk about the virtuous deed. This is the kind of immortality he seems to have most highly valued.
The eldest Pandava was not interested in avoiding death. He was never troubled by death. He had no desire to go to swarga in his mortal form; in fact such a thought never even occurred to him. Sarala says that it was Krishna’s wish that he remained untouched by death; no wonder death could not touch him. When Gandhari, the mother of ninety nine dead sons, failed to consume Yudhisthira with the yogic fire of her eyes, Krishna reproached her saying that the man of dharma could not be killed because dharma could not be killed. After the departure of Krishna from the mortal world, living became pointless for Yudhisthira, a deep sense of void assailed him: se jebe prana bisarjana ambhara kisa bratiba (if he gave up his life, what sense is there in our living), is how Sarala expressed the virtuous Pandava’s mood. Besides, after Krishna’s passing away, the aeon of darkness had arrived and Yudhisthira did not want to live in a world under the siege of adharma. So in the coldest part of winter, ignoring Draupadi’s pleas not to go to the Himalayas, he went there with her and his brothers, with the sole intention of submitting themselves to death in those regions hallowed by the footprints of the gods: ye himavanta parvate prana bisarjiba (we will give up our life in these snowy mountains). When they had decided to die, what sense would it make for them to seek relief in some comfortable place, he asked Draupadi. Then there was the prospect of some wondrous gain too: if they reached the top of Himavanta, they would be able to see swarga from there and also the gods, he had told his family. That would be the place to die, he must have thought. But the mountains were inhospitable and the weather hostile, and climbing extremely difficult. Except for Yudhisthira no one was composed and in control. He was the only one who was in control and was full of hope.
Once on the top of the mountain he felt lonely, utterly lonely. He was all alone, left with only memories. He remembered his brothers who had served him so devoutly and because of whom he had ruled the land as emperor, he remembered his wife Draupadi and he remembered too his Kaurava brothers and also his relatives. Everyone was dead. As always in the past, he considered himself responsible for the Kurukshetra War in which his Kaurava brothers had perished. He had always felt guilty that his desire for the kingdom had caused it all. As for his Pandava brothers, he had failed to stand by them at the time of their need. He had always been harsh on himself and now he rated himself as subhuman: a manusa janmare nohilain lekha ((I will / can) not be counted as human). So far he had pronounced judgement on his wife and his brothers and now, disappointed with himself, he was pronouncing judgement on himself. Alone on the mountain top, it was not swarga that was in his mind, but the losses he had suffered. “I have no one with me”, he was saying to himself, “where shall I go?” He felt lost. Wasn’t it a kind of narka (hell) that he experienced?
From the top he looked down and what he saw could be thought of as a bit of narka; he saw a well in which he saw a large number of kings in agony. But the moment they saw him, they were released from that well, for he was no ordinary mortal. He was the one before whom the avatara himself used to prostrate himself. Sarala Mahabharata embodies the idea that dharma is supreme and the avatara is its protector. Now for the kings to get their release from narka, Yudhisthira had to see narka, thereby experience narka. Isn’t it like Narayana undergoing a mortal existence so that the burden of Mother Earth is reduced? In passing we might observe that there is a difference though. Yudhisthira experienced narka on account of his karma; Narayana does not take avatara because of karma.
Why did he have to experience narka, asked the yugapati (lord of the aeon) Manu, interrupting the great sage Agasti’s narration? In the manner of a shishya, the great Manu had sought the marga (way) to moksa from the great sage and the sage responded by narrating Visnu Purana, which is what Sarala said about his own retelling of the Mahabharata story. The sage told him that the one papa the eldest Pandava had committed in his life was telling a lie to his guru, Drona, on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, when the guru had asked him whether his son Aswasthama was dead.
Agasti resumed his narration. Brahma, the Creator, sent god Indra to bring Yudhisthira to the abode of the gods and offer due worship to him. The lord of the gods arrived with his divine chariot and told Yudhisthira that he had come to take him to the loka (land) of the gods. Yudhisthira offered him prayers. He was on the point of ascending the chariot with the dog on his lap when Indra protested. Swarga is no place for a dog, an inauspicious creature. Did he not know, Indra asked the virtuous man, that even a touch of a dog would pollute?
Yudhisthira had no idea where the dog had come from. As he was mulling over his situation on the top of Himagiri, he saw a dog near him. He wondered where he had come from to that cold, desolate place. But he was in no mood to give much thought to it. He had felt good that he had someone with him now. He had all – brothers, relatives, wives, he told Indra, but at that time there was no one with him, except the dog. And he was not leaving him behind. The one who had left everyone behind, was unwilling to leave the dog behind in that Himalayan solitude. He would rather be with the dog in the mortal land than go to the abode of the gods without him, he told the lord of the gods. This is no common attachment which goes by the name moha. This is compassion. Yudhisthira was a compassionate person throughout life, but it was compassion which deserted him when Draupadi and his brothers fell to their death one after another. Everyone would face death on account of one’s karma from the point of view of Swargarohana Parva but that would surely not have excluded saying a kind, comforting word to the dying. In that episode, dharma and compassion were unallied; in the dog episode their symbiotic relationship was restored.
Unable to persuade Yudhisthira to abandon the dog, Indra told him that the dog was not really a dog, but someone else. Couldn’t he recognize him, he asked. He was god Dharma from whom Kunti had got him, Indra said. Yudhisthira told him that he had the eyes of the mortals and was unable to see the reality behind the appearance. The dog disappeared and God Dharma’s voice could be heard from the sky. He told Yudhisthira that as he was feeling lonely where his dharma had brought him, he had gone to him to give him company. He should tarry no more and go to swarga where his brothers were waiting for him.
Indra said many words of praise to Yudhisthira. Krishna was born in the mortal world but even the avatara could not return to his own abode in his mortal form. Now he, Yudhisthira was going to swarga in his mortal body, the lord of the gods said. In Indra’s chariot, accompanied by Indra himself and offered worship by gods themselves, Yudhisthira entered swarga. He was ushered to his throne in the assembly of gods and as he sat there, he looked majestic. His brothers readily came and served him. He saw Duryodhana and his brothers too who were serving him. He saw Sanjaya, Abhimanyu, Ghatotkacha, Lakshmana Kumara, Draupadi’s children and Alamusha, and he also saw Drupada, Shikhandi, Dhristadyumna and other relatives, who had fallen in the battlefield. He saw the soldiers who had fallen in the battlefield of Kurukshetra. He noticed that everyone was happy. Soon they were joined by those who were their spouses in the mortal world. Among them was Yudhisthira’s the Odia wife: Suhani. In other aeons, says the poet, there would be other wars between the forces of dharma and of adharma and they would then return to the mortal world to participate in the same. Stories will begin again. Swarga is no place for stories. Martya is where stories are created.
Yudhisthira noticed that Bhishma, Drona, Salya and Sakuni had become stars. Just one person he did not see in swarga loka and that was Dhritarastra. Sarala gives no clues as to how we might view this. Unlike Vyasa’s Dhritarastra, Sarala’s was more an onlooker, often a helpless one, than an agent, not even the weak agent that he is in the former. With just that about Dhritarastra, the celebrated sage Agasti completed his narration. The grateful listener, Baibasuta Manu, offered him worship and the sage then went to Brahma loka. The narration over, poet Sarala offered prayers, in an uncharacteristically small number of couplets, to Narayana as he folded up his retelling, in which he said he retold the story of the Kuru clan as part of his narration of the leela of Krishna: ye mahabharata ye bishnura purana (this is Mahabharata, this is the celebration of the leela of Vishnu).