They stood on top of a cliff and looked down at an ocean turned dark and deadly dangerous.
Like a glutton who even after a full meal picks at his plate in the hope of finding some overlooked morsel, the ocean that had swallowed an entire kingdom, castle and all, continued to throw up waves that combed the land, seeking odds and ends to devour.
They saw a dead bull lying where the waves had thrown it against a tree, breaking its back instantly; over there an overturned chariot, its shaft stuck deep into the mud; elsewhere, oddly, an earthen pot in pristine condition, its perfection an incongruous element of normalcy against the surrounding chaos.
They observed another oddity: in the midst of the ocean’s turbulence one spot alone seemed calm, the waters still. That, they guessed, marked where the towering castle had once stood, with its vaulted Dome of Victory thrusting proud into the heavens.
In spite of his iron self-control, Yudhishtira shivered internally as he looked down at that once proud kingdom reduced to an overturned chariot, a pot, a few decaying bodies the ravenous ocean had overlooked.
He shook his head, fighting to clear the cloud of grief. What was it the patriarch, Krishna Dwaipayana, had said when they had formally handed the throne of Hastinapura to Parikshit, grandson of Arjuna and beloved of them all, and set out on the mahaprasthana, the final journey that would lead them to heaven or to hell as their deeds deserved?
“Never look back,” the patriarch had advised them. “Not physically, and not in the mind – from this moment on you have no past. There is only the step ahead that you must take, and the next one, and the next.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Yudhishtira caught sight of Arjuna perched on a rock, his head in his hands, his shoulders shaking with the strength of his grief – a grief time had not been able to mitigate.
He had been present when the destruction had begun and yet, or maybe because of it, Arjuna had not been able to reconcile with the fact that his dearest friend was no more, that the kingdom that had been a second home to him had vanished as if it had been a figment of his imagination, that the gardens in which he had first seen Subhadra and wooed her was now buried deep beneath the pitch black waters of the unforgiving ocean.
They had greeted him with cries of relief when, in response to the urgent summons, Arjuna had first rushed to Dwaraka. The mightiest archer of the time was here, they consoled each other; Krishna’s dearest friend had come to their aid, and nothing bad could happen to them now.
Around them were the sights and sounds of impending doom: the roar of an ocean whipping itself into a consuming fury; the howls of the jackals that stalked the streets of Dwaraka in broad daylight; the screeching of the kites and vultures that circled overhead in such numbers as to turn the sky dark – birds of prey that had gorged on the flesh of Dwaraka’s men and, hungry still, hovered in search of more fodder.
These sights and sounds paralyzed them with a fear beyond imagining – but still they took heart: Arjuna was here.
They rushed to him, the women of Dwaraka. The closest clutched at him; the others called out his name and reached their hands towards him, clamoring for his attention, pleading for his protection.
He knew many of them, women of Krishna’s personal household. He had on his numerous visits sported with them in Dwaraka’s gardens, even bedded some of the more attractive among them. Arjuna forced aside his own grief at the destruction of the Yadava and Vrishni clans and worked to calm their fears.
“We will go to Hastinapura,” he promised them. “No harm will come to you there.”
He organized them into a group and marched at their head down the broad streets of Dwaraka. There was no time to waste gathering provisions for the trek; there was no able-bodied male left to help him in that task. One young boy had survived the general carnage; Arjuna put him on a horse and sent him away to Hastinapura with a message for Bhima: “Come quick, brother — I need help!”
With the Gandiva in his hand, an arrow notched to bowstring and a full quiver at his back, Arjuna marched out of the towering main gate of the ‘Kingdom of Gates’, with its embellishments of brightly colored peacocks and dancing girls, and headed towards the forest.
He felt a lassitude in his limbs and a fog enveloping his mind, but put it down as a reaction to the strain of his desperate rush to Dwaraka. He marched on and behind him, now quiet from a mixture of relief and exhaustion, walked the women.
Without warning the Dasyus burst out of the trees, their roars met by shrieks of fear from the women. Arjuna calmly lifted the Gandiva – and experienced a moment of stark terror when the bow slid out of his suddenly nerveless hand and thudded to the ground at his feet.
He bent to pick it up and found that it was all he could to raise the bow: his strength seemed to have deserted him, and his skill. When he reached for a fresh arrow, he merely managed to knock the quiver off his back.
All these years, the Gandiva had been an extension of his hand, his will – now, it was all he could do to pick it up and when he finally managed, he looked at it as if he did not know what to do with this strange curved object in his hand.
Arjuna slumped to the ground in despair, his eyes unfocused and mind blank. Around him in a rising crescendo rose the screams of Krishna’s women as the Dasyus grabbed them, threw them over their shoulders and raced away in the direction of the forest.
He lay there through that darkest of nights, next to the bow and the arrows that he was no longer master of. He lay there in the grip of a terror unlike any he had ever known, trying without success to shut his ears to the horrific sounds coming from the forest – the triumphant roars of the Dasyus mixed with the despairing wails of women stripped successively of their modesty and their lives.
At some point in the night, another sound intruded on his consciousness: the growing roar of an ocean that had burst its natural boundaries and commenced its assault on Dwaraka, swallowing everything it found in its path and returning, with redoubled fury, for more.
He had never felt such grief, such an enveloping sense of despair, ever before – not even when on the morning after the war he had walked field of Kurukshetra, his eyes fixed on a ground where the blood of his children had mingled with that of his enemies. But then that day, he had a friend who walked beside him, reminding him that to fight was a kshatriya’s duty, that to kill and to die were inextricable parts of Life itself.
Today he no longer had that friend. No more could be rely on finding beside him a source of strength when he was weak; no longer could he take refuge in the encompassing wisdom that could make sense out of the seemingly senseless, and keep him grounded when the world as he knew it appeared to be shifting beneath his feet.
And so he cried through that long night: bitter tears for the friend he had lost, for the women who had trusted him and who had paid for their trust with their honor and their lives. And he cried for himself – the greatest warrior of his time, now reduced to the eunuch he had once pretended to be.
That was how Bhima had found him sometime the next afternoon: prone on the ground, the now useless bow and arrows inert beside him, his face ravaged with grief and his body devoid of strength to even stand up.
Bhima had lavished on Arjuna the attention a nurse bestows on a sick child; while his brother slept, he had wandered in the direction of Dwaraka and recoiled from the unbelievable destruction. The ocean in its mindless fury had destroyed the once proud kingdom brick by brick; it had swallowed large parts of Dwaraka and, even as he watched from his vantage point, was returning for more.
He recalled the one time he had visited Krishna’s kingdom. Duryodhana was already in residence, learning the arts of the mace from Balarama. Krishna had urged his brother to invite him too, and when the messenger had come to Hastinapura he had been overjoyed.
He had taken care to wake well before dawn each day. Meticulously he had set aside his ornaments, tied up his hair, stepped out of his robes and tied his loin cloth around his waist in that special fashion peculiar to wrestlers and adepts of hand to hand combat, and hurried to the arena.
Each day, he had hoped that his guru would impart the secrets that, Sukracharya had once told him, were known only to Balarama himself. He practiced religiously all that he was taught and yet, when time came for him to leave, he struggled not to show the disappointment he felt at having learnt very little that was new.
The only memory he retained from that time was of Dwaraka’s blinding wealth, its pomp and unrivalled splendor.
Bhima stood beside Yudhishtira, looking out over the waters that had swallowed Dwaraka whole, and thought: had Krishna known how it would all turn out? Had he, fed up of the growing corruption and decay of the kingdom he had carved out of nothingness, deliberately sent the Yadavas and the Vrishnis to their deaths?
From what they had been able to pierce together from the accounts of two or three survivors, Krishna had organized a massive ‘celebration’ on the shore of the ocean. He had provided limitless food and drink and when the revelry was at its rowdiest, had left them to it and walked away into the forest with his brother Balarama.
At some point in the celebration Satyaki, considerably the worse for drink, had chanced upon Kritavarma and charged him with cowardice, accusing him of his role in killing the sleeping Pandava children and others on the 18th night of Kurukshetra.
An enraged Kritavarma had in his turn taunted Satyaki, reminding him that he was on his knees before Burisravas and begging for his life when his friend Arjuna had cut off his enemy’s arm – and Satyaki had then, Kritavarma reminded him, jumped up and cut off the head of the helpless Burisravas.
The argument led to blows and then to a full-fledged battle with swords; in a trice, the Vrishnis had taken up for Satyaki and the Yadavas rushed to the defense of Kritavarma. None survived.
Even as they pieced the story together and tried to make sense of it all, a wandering rishi had come to court with news that Krishna and Balarama were dead. Krishna was meditating under a tree, the rishi told them, when a passing hunter mistook him for a deer and shot him dead; grief-stricken at the death of his brother and the destruction of his race, Balarama had slipped into a yogic trance and given up his life.
Enough, Bhima thought – we have lived through several lifetimes in this one, we have endured more grief than any one human could possibly bear.
He felt his brother’s calming touch on his shoulder. “No more tears, Bhima – we have put all that behind us. Remember what Krishna once told us? Nothing ever dies – we merely change one form for another, one life for another. The time has come to give up this body, this life where we have known very many griefs and very few joys. Come!”
Yudhishtira glanced out at the ocean for one last time and then, turning abruptly, began walking down the hill.
Bhima followed. Arjuna pushed himself up from the rock he had slumped on, and walked after his brothers. Nakula sighed and glanced at his twin; with one mind, the twins walked in the direction their elders had taken.
Draupadi stood under the shade of a tree, watching them go and summoning up the strength, the will, to walk in their wake. Her heart still grieved for the one who was gone – Krishna, who had been her strength when she most needed it, the unfailing source of comfort at the darkest of times, the one who more than any other, more even than her husbands, had kept her faith alive when all had seemed lost: kingdom, pride, dignity, honor, all.
He was gone. What was left?
She turned her back on the ocean, and walked down the hill, picking up the trail.
For days without end they walked on in single file, stopping when the need for rest overwhelmed them, eating the berries and fruits they foraged during their trek and marching ahead again, their minds absent of thought, their hearts devoid of feeling, their weary feet plodding one step at a time through increasingly difficult terrain — until, one dawn, they saw looming ahead of them the snow-crowned peaks of the Himalayas.
The sight of Mount Meru in the distance seemed to give Yudhishtira renewed energy; picking up his pace, he hurried in that direction without a backward glance at his brothers and wife struggling along in his wake. And when he got to the foot of Meru he began to climb, his eyes fixed on the peak.
Once, when escaping from Varanavata, he had struggled to climb a little hill and had to be carried on Bhima’s shoulders. But not this time – this time he would climb the mountain on his own and, at its peak, find in himself the will to slip into yoga nidra, to attain salvation.
Behind him, Bhima trudged on mindlessly, ignoring the rocks that cut into his feet and the thorny bushes that impeded his progress, scouring his palms when he pushed them aside.
He was tempted to turn back, to see how Draupadi was faring – always, through the long years they had spent in the forest, it had been his self-imposed duty to smooth her path. With an effort of will he kept his eyes focused on the path ahead and on the form of his elder brother climbing rapidly up the slope.
Throughout his life, he had followed in that brother’s footsteps. Even when his instincts suggested a different path, he had brushed such thoughts aside, sublimated his will to that of his brother. Now, in the final moments of his life, he could do no less – Yudhishitra led, so he needs must follow to whatever end awaited them on the mountain top.
And then he heard it – a faint cry, the sound of a body falling, the clatter of displaced rocks as they bounced away down the mountainside.
“Brother, wait!” Bhima shouted. “Draupadi has fallen.”
Yudhishtira neither turned around, nor paused in his steady climb. “I am not surprised. She long ago lost the strength of mind to climb away from this world and into salvation.”
Bhima froze in his tracks. “What?! She, this princess, followed us to our hovel, she married us, she partook of our troubles when she could have gone back, led a life of ease in the home of her father…”
“She followed us out of self interest, out of ambition – she wanted to keep our desire for revenge alive, she wanted us to fight and win a kingdom for her,” Yudhishtira’s voice came faintly to Bhim as he marched relentlessly on. “And above all, she was wife to all five of us, but it was only Arjuna she loved – even when she sat beside me on the throne, it was on him that her eyes were fixed. Those who fall, do so as a result of their own deeds – keep your eyes fixed to the front and walk on…”
Bhima heard footsteps approaching behind him.
Arjuna. Draupadi’s beloved.
Moments later, Arjuna drew abreast. “Draupadi has fallen,” Bhima said.
Arjuna walked on as if he had not heard, his eyes fixed on the path ahead.
He saw Nakula passing him to the left.
“Draupadi has fallen.”
“We cannot turn back, we cannot wait for anyone,” he muttered, and walked on.
Bhima stood where he was, watching the forms of his brother’s vanishing in the mists up ahead. Any moment now, he thought, Sahadeva would come up to him, carrying Draupadi in his arms. To this youngest of the brothers Draupadi had been wife and mother both; she had reserved for him a special place in her affections – surely, Bhima thought, Sahadeva would not leave her lying where she had fallen.
He heard Sahadeva’s footsteps approach. Bhima listened for the sounds that would tell him his brother was staggering under a burden, and readied to take Draupadi from him – but the footsteps were strong, steady; moments later, Sahadeva drew abreast, then walked on ahead without even a glance in his direction.
Bhima craned his neck back and looked up at the tip of the mountain. Somewhere up there, salvation waited; somewhere down below, the wife he had loved above all else in this world lay where she had fallen, abandoned by all.
He made his choice. Abruptly, he turned and hurried down the path as fast as his tired limbs would take him. Ahead of him, half hidden by a thorny bush, he saw the crumpled form of Draupadi. He ran.
Dropping to the ground beside her, he lifted Draupadi’s head onto his lap. She opened her eyes and looked up at him – and then she looked away, scanning the area for… what?
A last sight of the one she loved above all others? Or of the one who, as eldest, had most claim on her affections? A final glimpse of the handsome Nakula, of Sahadeva whom she had loved as mother and beloved both?
She looked back at him, and Bhima cringed at the disappointment in her eyes. “I am here,” he told her. “I’ll be here for as long as you need me.”
Leaving her lying there, he ran around gathering the little grass and moss he could find amidst the rocks, and spread it out in the shade of a tree. Carefully lifting Draupadi up in his arms, he carried her to the bed he had made and laid her down, her head cradled in his lap.
She looked up at him for a long moment. Her lips moved, forming words he could not hear. He bent closer. “My children,” she whispered, in a voice grown raspy with fatigue.
Her eyes closed. Bhima sat there, his back against a tree, his beloved’s head in his lap, and thought back to the 36 years she had ruled as queen. At first, they had hoped for more children; each of the brothers had in his turn as her husband longed to be the one who would father a heir to the throne.
After a while, Draupadi just gave up. “I think grief has turned me barren,” she had told him once, when he attempted to console her. “God gave me five wonderful sons and I failed them – why would he give me more?”
Gently, taking infinite pains not to disturb Draupadi who slept on in his lap, Bhima eased into a more comfortable position and closed his eyes.
A memory returned to haunt him: the memory of a man who, bleeding and broken, wandered the earth far below where they sat.
That night, Arjuna’s fury had been terrible to behold – he had rushed into the blazing lodge and rushed out again with his Gandiva and his quiver. Without even waiting for Krishna, he had jumped into his chariot, whipped the horses, and driven away at furious speed.
By the time the rest salvaged some weapons from the inferno that was the Pandava camp and caught up with him, Arjuna had cornered Ashwathama and engaged him in a battle that raged ferociously even as they watched.
Fighting with a brilliance none had never before seen in him, Arjuna had systematically, ruthlessly cut down each of Ashwathama’s weapons – and as the murderer of Draupadi’s children stood there helpless, had proceeded to inflict the most gruesome wounds on him in the most deliberate fashion imaginable.
It was Krishna who stopped him then – Krishna and the grandsire Dwaipayana, who had rushed to our camp when he caught sight of the fire from across the river and who had followed us to the spot in Nakula’s chariot.
They had stripped Ashwathama of his most prized possession, the blazing Syamanthaka jewel he wore on a gold band tight on his forehead. When Krishna ripped it away from him, the circlet had snapped and cut a deep furrow across his brow.
While Krishna pacified his friend, Dwaipayana spoke to Ashwathama. He was forbidden to ever enter the gates of any kingdom ruled by kshatriyas; he was doomed, Dwaipayana said, to wander the earth, forlorn and friendless, his life a constant reminder of his ultimate treachery.
“You brothers have each committed many sins during the course of this war,” Dwaipayana had told the brothers then. “Enough – do not add the killing of yet another Brahmin to those crimes. Let him go.”
And so, somewhere down below he wandered still, the man who in the dead of night had set fire to the Pandava camp and, with sword in hand, mercilessly cut down every one of Draupadi’s children.
My work is not done yet, Bhima decided; it will not be over as long as Ashwathama remains alive.
Draupadi stirred; her eyes fluttered opened and she looked up at him.
“You are still here!”
I will be, Bhima said – for as long as you need me, I will be here.
He saw tears moisten her eyes, then. She glanced for one last time at the path ahead, seeking the forms of those who had gone on ahead. And then she caught his eyes again and, her voice a weary whisper, she said: “Next time, be born the eldest!”
Bhima sat there through the night, not moving, not thinking. When the first rays of dawn lit up the sky above the distant peak, he gently lifted Draupadi’s head off his lap, and stood up.
He looked down at her still form for one last time; he glanced upward at the path his brothers had taken.
And then he turned and walked back down the mountain.
He still had work to do.