In swarga, where Yudhisthira went without passing through death, he found himself in the company of those he knew in the mortal world. There were his own brothers, there were Duryodhana and his brothers, there were Sanjaya, Vidura, Duryodhana’s son, Lakshmana Kumara, Abhimanyu, Ghatotkacha, Virata, Drupada, Shikhandi, Dhristadyumna, and a few more, who the poet names, whose names we skip, and then there were all those who had fallen in the many battlefields of Kurukshetra – humans and demons, kings, commanders and soldiers – the unnamed ones. Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Shalya and Sakuni had all become stars. Gods and other divines had welcomed him to swarga but the poet does not name anyone, except Indra, who had himself escorted him from mrityu loka, the land of death, to deva loka, the land of the gods, who are untouched by death. In the last phase of his ascent in the Himalayas, he had seen god Dharma, who in the form of a dog had been his companion in that arduous and lonely journey, but he was not with him when he set his foot on the gods’ land. Incidentally, Yudhisthira had climbed to the mountain top hoping to see the gods above from there. In Sarala Mahabharata, it was his wish to see the gods from the land of the mortals, but not enter there. Death was never in his mind, neither was the desire to be immortal.
This part of the narrative is easeful and quietly celebrative, nicely capturing the atmosphere in swarga and Yudhisthira’s mood. Then very unexpectedly comes this one line that upsets it all – it is the second line of this couplet: samasta bansha dekhile dharmabachhe / yekamatra dhrutarashtrakain nadekhile pratakse (the son of Dharma saw his entire clan / Only Dhritarashtra he did not see). Dhritarashtra, whose story was long over, surfaces in the narrative all of a sudden and disappears at once. Sarala gives his audience no time to reflect on him. With this couplet Sarala ends his story of the Kuru clan. In the very next couplet, the narrative assumes a serene and then a prayerful tone as the poet proceeds to end his Mahabharata by first describing the spiritual gains that accrue to the listeners and then offering, most devoutly, a prayer to Bhagawan Narayana, whose story he had told and whose lilahe had celebrated here. Recall that Sarala repeatedly called his Mahabharata ‘Vishnu Purana”.
As for me, this line about Dhritarashtra has troubled me all these ten years of my being with Sarala Mahabharata. I wouldn’t have thought at all of him if he hadn’t returned to the story and left it the way he did. In Sarala Mahabharata, he is neither a lovable nor a memorable character. This defeated man evokes no strong feelings – positive or negative. If anything at all, one feels a sense of pity for him. But for the dramatic mention of his name, I would have thought that he was there in swarga too and that Sarala’s word vansha (clan) included him. Not all the names of the greats of the Kuru clan are mentioned in this context; for instance, there is no mention of Bhurishrava. There is no mention of Jayadratha. Sarala surely wouldn’t have liked to tire his audience sick.
But the poet chose to mention Dhritarashtra by referring to his absence. This name assumes significance because with it Sarala chose to end his story of the Kurus. As though Dhritarashtra was the central character! As though it was his story!
Where was Dhritarashtra, if not in swarga? Sarala doesn’t say a word. As though all he deserved was a hasty mention in terms of exclusion.
Was he in narka? Yudhisthira had seen narka. From the top of the mountain, where he stood with no one with him other than a dog, he looked above but did not see the gods and then he looked below and saw a deep well. That was narka. He had to see narka for the papa he had done by telling his guru, Drona, a half-truth in the Kurukshetra battlefield. Narka is a purifier. The sight of narka, which was a sensuous experience of narka, purified Yudhisthira and enabled him to enter swargawithout shedding his mortal body.
Yudhisthira had to be purified, but at the same time, he was a great purifier himself, being the embodiment of dharma on earth. As he looked into the deep well, the eyes of ninety-six kings suffering there met his, and in an instance they were freed from narka. The meeting of eyes had cleansed them spiritually. Dhritarashtra was not one of these kings. That much one is sure of from Sarala’s narrative. But that deep well surely wasn’t all of the territory of narka. Was Dhritarashtra somewhere else in that sacred, purifying land of god Yama, the god of justice?
Apart from deva loka and yama loka or narka, there are other lokas as well, as mentioned in various puranas: pitru loka (abode of the ancestors), patala (the nether world), among others. Incidentally, in the context of Dhritarashtra, we need not think of lokas such as Vaikuntha or Shiva loka. In any case, no one in the puranic narratives sneaks into these sublime lokas. No one goes there unheralded, not to Vaikuntha at least, going by Sarala Mahabharata. Think of how, in what joyous celebration, Shishupala went to Vaikuntha!
In puranic literature one goes to a loka depending on his karma. Being in a loka is experiencing the phala (fruit or consequence) of one’s karma. Where can we look for Dhritarashtra? What was his karma? What had he done during his lifetime in Sarala Mahabharata?
He had desperately wanted the kingship of Hastinapura. He was the eldest, but his younger brother, Pandu, became king because the Kuru elders thought that a blind person could not become the ruler. He was very unhappy and one day told his wife, Gandhari, that he wanted to commit suicide. Pandu overheard and readily abdicated in his favour in order to make him happy. But Dhritarashtra was insecure with respect to the kingdom. He was aware that the kingdom was not going to be his until his son became king. So he pressured the Kuru elders in order to make Duryodhana king, but acquiesced when they refused. There was no way Yudhisthira could be denied the kingdom, they said. Then the laksa griha (wax house) incident happened and the Pandavas were supposed to have perished in the fire. In the changed circumstances no one had any issue with Duryodhana becoming king.
Once Duryodhana became king, he was completely side-lined. He didn’t seem to mind. He lived a retired life in the royal palace. He loved Duryodhana very much and was worried that his dependence on Sakuni would lead to disaster. He did not approve of his son’s attitude towards the Pandavas. He had no role in Draupadi’s humiliation. In fact, as a Kuru elder, he returned to the Pandavas everything they had lost in the first game of dice. Maybe he did so more out of fear than of a sense of justice, but he for once went against Duryodhana’s wish. He had no role in the second game of dice and in the Pandavas’ exile. He was not pleased when Krishna was humiliated in the Kaurava court where he had gone as Yudhisthira’s emissary. He did not approve of the war but was in no position to stop it. War was the king’s decision and a Kuru elder could not interfere with it. When his children fell in the battlefield, he held Duryodhana responsible. Later when the victorious Pandavas went to meet him as the Kuru elder, blinded by the loss of all his children, he tried to kill Bhima through treachery, but had failed.
He had lived a miserable life. Although the poet does not tell us about it, it is difficult to imagine that he had not suffered when princesses after princesses had died when they got engaged to him or when he lived with his wife who he knew had blindfolded herself for his sake. It wouldn’t have been easy for him to live under the weight of this great and unasked for sacrifice from his wife. Once Draupadi’s humiliation took place and the Pandavas were sent on exile, he lived in fear for the life of his sons. He was not unaware that the extermination of his line was only a matter of time. War brought him agony. During the War, he was pleased only once – when he heard that Sakuni had been killed.
Fate had condemned him, a ksatriya, a former king, to participate in the War only as a listener. He had lived his days after the death of his dear son, Duryodhana, in intense hatred and vengefulness. Till he came face to face with Bhima. For the only time in his life he used low cunning to take revenge. He was going to crush an unsuspecting Bhima to death but Krishna intervened. He saved Bhima and he saved Dhritarashtra too, who like everyone else, knew that he was Narayana Himself and had a worshipful attitude towards him.
He calmly accepted things after that and the care that Yudhisthira took of him and the respect he showed him as the eldest Kuru, helped. But he was born to suffer. Bhima tortured him psychologically. He would narrate to the old man the gory details of how he killed each of his sons. The helpless father had no escape – he had to hear the long, painful howling of each of his sons as he was dying. There were also other ways he humiliated the helpless, blind old man. Yudhisthira and Arjuna disapproved of Bhima’s conduct but could not control him.
Maybe his last days in the forest were relatively peaceful? He had with him in those last days his wife, his brother, the wise Vidura and his trusted minister Sanjaya. And his sister-in-law, Kunti, who had chosen to live with them rather than with her sons who were the rulers.
I feel for him. No other character in Sarala’s narrative lived as miserable a life as his. The forest fire that consumed him released him from the narka, where he spent his entire life. The god of justice is just; so I don’t have to look for Dhritarashtra in his loka. For that reason, I wouldn’t look for him among the existences who live on the periphery of one lokaor the other, being denied entry into any.
Why didn’t Sarala say where he was? By saying nothing, he did not discourage us from thinking that he could be roaming from loka to loka looking for a resting place, where, echoing Sarala, he could wait to start his journey again the land of the mortals? The all-knowing narrator knew all about his characters, their whereabouts. Who would, if he, their creator, didn’t?