1.1. Yes; Gandhari, the wife of Dhritharastra and mother of the Kauravas, is one of the unsung heroes of the Mahabharata. Gandhari was a remarkable woman; very brave and rooted in her own convictions. She did try frantically, but in vain, to exert her influence and to change the course of events that eventually catapulted her family into the abyss of calamity. She, sadly, lacked the strength or the persuasive power to drive sense and reason into the hearts of her sons and her blind husband smouldering with envy and hate. Unlike Kunti, she could not command from her sons the obedience and respect that was due to a Mother. She, eventually, could neither be an advisor nor a protector of her wayward sons. She in lone desperation, in silent grief, watched helplessly her hundred and more sons and grandsons driven to death and destruction. At the end she no longer was the queen sharing a throne; she was just an old, lonely weeping mother; an embittered, blindfolded woman burdened with memories of her dead sons, mourning their loss along with a hundred or more young widows. And, the blind old couple spent the evening of their lives grieving the loss of their sons destroyed in the fire of their own malice and hate.
1.2. Gandhari’s anguish, pain, sorrow in consoling scores of her widowed young daughters-in-laws is heartbreaking, beyond words. The final retreat into the forest along with her heartbroken husband , co-sufferer Kunti and the trusted caretakers ( King’s companion Vidura and the minister Sanjaya ) came as a much needed relief from the bewildering mêlée of sorrow, fear , hatred and helplessness . The sense of defeat and the incisive guilt that kept gnawing at her soul let her no peace.
2.1. Gandhari, just as the other kula-vadhus of the Bharatha clan, had to endure more than her share of pain, sorrow, neglect and betrayal. Her father Subala the ruler of Gandhara, was coerced by the fearsome warlord Bhishma into giving her away in marriage to a prince of a distant land. She was, then, unaware that her husband-to-be was neither wise nor trustworthy; and could never be a king in his own right. Little did she know he would ever be a puppet swayed by the winds of anger, deceit and lust. She was devastated when she learnt her newlywed husband was born blind; and never in his life had he known the delight of colours; and never would he experience the radiance of light.
2.2. The manner in which she expressed her empathy with her blind husband was indeed extraordinary. She willingly chose to be as sightless as her husband was. She, of her own accord, stepped into the dark and lonely world of the blind where the only realities are sound and touch. She blindfolded herself. And, she, for all purposes, lived as a blind woman for the rest of her long and tortured life, sharing the pain, prejudices and darkness of her husband. It was indeed a supreme sacrifice; an act of intense love for her husband.
2.3. Much has been written and said about Gandhari’s choice of turning herself into a blind woman. It truly was an intense emotional identification with her husband’s disability. Her identification was not symbolic; it was indeed actual. She denied herself the sights and experiences that her husband was deprived by the cruelty of his fate. She made sure she did not exceed him in any manner; and, that in all conditions she would follow her husband. That was her way of expressing her solidarity with her husband: by sharing his dark life.
[Some say, Gandhari’s voluntary blindfolding was an act of protest and a rebellion against the injustice meted out to her. She was forced to marry a blind man much against her will. Her pride as a woman was hurt and violated. She chose to register her protest in a manner that no other woman had done in the past. She inflicted upon herself the very injustice she rebelled against. It was her way of saying: If they thought that a blind husband was fine for me, then a blindfolded wife is good enough for him. This reveals a side of her character that one does not often come across in the Epic. This spotlights her indomitable will, her singular ability to stand alone, and, to take swift and agonizing decisions unmindful of the consequences. ]
3.1. In either case, it meant that she was now as disabled and as helpless as her husband. Each was unable to help, to guide or to support the other. And, both had to depend on external help. Therefore, there had to be always, by necessity, a third person in their married life. This surely was not the best way to be husband and wife, especially when other choices were open.
3.2. Gandhari, unlike most other women in the Epic, was a completely devoted and a faithful wife. But, her devious husband was not faithful to her; he routinely took palace maids to his bed. There was an inherent strife in their conjugal life. Gandhari was disappointed in love as also in marriage. Some say, Gandhari was cold to her husband. But, Gandhari and Dhritharastra had to be physically together by necessity; clustered together by the quirk of fate as also by her self-inflicted punishment. Else, they remained emotionally apart. And, at the very end, it was only the unbearable agony and grief of losing all their sons and grandsons that brought them closer.
[ It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages – (Friedrich Nietzsche) ]
4.1. At the same time, Dhritharastra was himself struggling with many complexes, disappointments and frustrations. He never could come to terms with the bitter fact that Kingship was taken away from him merely because he was blind. It was totally unjust, he felt. He blamed the fate for the cruel trick it played on him. The denial of kingship kept gnawing at his heart. Dhritharastra was ever a disgruntled grumpy person. The unexpected death of Pandu, his brother, opened his way to the throne. And, when Gandhari’s huge womb produced one hundred sons, a new ray of hope dawned in Dhritharastra’s heart. He fondly came to believe that his eldest son Duryodhana would surely and rightfully succeed him as the King of Hastinapur. Since he was the king, he strongly believed, his sons should, naturally, be the heir to the throne. He doted on his eldest son; and supported his cunning schemes, covertly or otherwise.
4.2. Gandhari the good woman was surrounded all her life by a weak and ambitious husband; treacherous and scheming brother Shakuni; and, hate filled misguided sons. And, none of them paid heed to her words; and much less cared for her feelings. Gandhari the Queen, the mother of hundred sons was indeed a very lonely woman.
4.3. As Gandhari helplessly watched her family drift on the path to self destruction, she was torn apart in many directions: by her maternal affections, her duty to her husband and by her sense of justice. But, her agony, loneliness and her predicaments were neither shared nor appreciated by her husband.
There was within her a simmering volcano of frustration and rage born out of a sense of betrayal, pain, loneliness and neglect; and, above all, of the injustice meted out to her.
Was it prudent?
5.1. Gandhari’s act of opting to be sightless raises questions about the essence of married life. Should one attempt to be a replica of his or her spouse? Or, should the partners in a marriage mutually compliment; support each other’s abilities; and, also try to make up for the other’s shortcomings ; dovetail each other’s strengths and weaknesses (just as Sukanya of yore helped her blind husband Chavyana) ? Which is of greater value in a marriage: sameness or compatibility?
5.2. When Gandhari turned herself blind just to be like her husband, she became a female counterpart of the blind king. There were other options open to her. She, for instance, could have tried to be the eyes and the wisdom of her husband (since he lacked both).That surely would have been more purposeful. Had Gandhari stepped into the foray of administering the kingdom on behalf of the blind king; and taken charge of the affairs of the State as also that of the Royal family, the tale of Mahabharata would have been a far different one. It surely would not have been a listless account of internecine fratricide. It would have been more forthright and challenging, since Gandhari was a courageous, ambitious woman good at heart.
But, she seemed to have surrendered her initiative rather too easily and too quickly without a thought. She drifted through the vagaries of life blindfolded, helpless and uncared.
The other question that comes up is about Gandhari’s motherhood.
6.1. As Gandhari stepped into the royal household at Hastinapur, it became evident that her blind prince would never be a King. But, soon thereafter, things did change, for better, with the sudden and untimely death of Pandu the King. There was some cheer in her life when Dhritharastra was placed on the throne and she became the Queen. However, to her chagrin, Gandhari soon realized that her blind husband was in fact merely an interim figurehead; and, it was the overbearing patriarch Bhishma who wielded all the power and authority. Further, Gandhari’s position was getting increasingly insecure with Kunti, her rival queen, delivering to a wondrous looking boy, while she remained childless. And, her annoyance was exacerbated as it generally came to be assumed that Kunti’s eldest son would, eventually, inherit the throne of Hastinapur.
6.2. Gandhari was now desperate to become a mother. She desired to be a mother of one hundred powerful sons; and, in particular the mother of kings. Her frustration over the foetus growing in her for an unduly long period of two years was getting unbearable. She no longer could carry the long overdue womb that was getting heavier with each passing day. Her patience was running out; and, she could wait no longer. In the fury of frustration she strikes hard at her womb; and, delivers to an immature ball of iron-hard flesh. Gandhari was devastated; and was about to throwaway that ball of flesh. But, Vyasa, the biological father of her husband, intervened; arranged to cut the flesh into one hundred pieces. And, since Gandhari desired for a daughter he cut one more piece. Vyasa arranged to incubate each piece in a separate jar filled with ghee for another two years. Those pieces of flesh, at last, developed into one hundred sons that Gandhari so desperately yearned for; and into a daughter that she desired. The Kuru clan was thus born out of envy and frustration.
7.1. And, as a mother Gandhari had to pay a terrible price for her self-inflicted sightlessness. She could neither experience the delight of looking at the faces of her children *, nor could she fulfil her duty as a mother in bringing up and guiding her children along the right path. All her children, deprived of mother’s true love and care , were nursed by maid servants. As her sons grew up to fine young lads, Gandhari could neither disciple, nor control and nor mould her children as only a mother can. The seeds of their undisciplined growth bore bitter fruit years later when loveless Duryodhana and his coterie brushed aside her sane advice to see reason and to behave as virtuous men would do. By then, her sons had gone too far in their ways; and, scarcely had the will or the patience to walk beside their mother. Their fate had been usurped by their scheming and devious uncle Shakuni who, for his own reasons, kept them chained to hate and envy. She was powerless to wean her thoughtless sons away from her dark hearted brother. She was also unable to bring around Dhritarastra blinded by his misplaced fondness for his sons. Gandhari’s self-induced blindness took a heavy toll on her motherhood. Gandhari, all her life, had to be a helpless bystander.
[ * The only time Gandhari saw all her sons together was about seventeen years after they were all killed in the war. More of that, a little later.]
7.2. Here, Gandhari stands in sharp contrast to Kunti who devoted herself, entirely, to protecting and guiding her children through their good and bad days. Kunti’s children in turn looked up to their mother for advice; and never did they disobey or disregarded her. They invariably consulted her on all important matters. The only occasion they failed to do so landed them in a disastrous situation. That was when they set forth for the dice-game without informing their mother.
7.3. It is not the motherhood that distinguishes Gandhari; but, it is her indomitable will, the ability to take decisions and to speak out clearly; and above all her sense of justice.
Sense of righteousness
8.1. Gandhari comes across as an articulate person endowed with an innate sense of justice and righteousness. She is clear in her speech; not afraid to speak out her mind even if it was to be harsh. Gandhari was a woman of substance, of strong will and of passionate nature, which she generally kept under check. Her sense of righteousness simmers through her sharp speech.
8.2. Gandhari was not blind to the conspiracies, covert schemes and injustices that went on in the royal courts. Gandhari watched with dismay the growing ill-will between her first born son Duryodhana and his cousins the Pandavas. She was aware of the crooked designs and plots hatched by the ‘wicked-Quartet’ (dushta chatustaya): Duryodhana, Dushyasana, Karna, and Shakuni. She was particularly unhappy about Duryodhana’s association with Shakuni. She also pleaded with Shakuni to stop interfering in her sons’ lives; and to stop leading them down the crooked ways.
8.3. Gandhari often criticized Dhritharastra, enslaved by excessive fondness for his sons, for losing control over them. She went against her husband, asking him, firmly, not to support Duryodhana who was being led astray by Shakuni. She pointed out that Dhritharastra made a huge mistake by putting the affairs of the Kingdom entirely into the hands of Duryodhana and his coterie. She warned the blind King that his escapist and irresponsible acts would reap him a bitter harvest. Gandhari snidely remarks ‘even your enemies are laughing at your family feuds’. She urged him to be firm and judicious in dealing with his sons.
8.4. Gandhari counselled Dhritharastra not to lose perspective of things; and not to confuse the illusion for reality. She tells him not to harbour false hopes that Duryodhana would win against Pandavas because veteran warriors like Bhishma, Drona, Kripa and others are with him. “They might fight for Duryodhana because of a sense of loyalty to him for having been in his service (rajapinda bhayat); and, they might even give up their lives for him. But, it would be foolish of Duryodhana to depend on these men to secure him a victory in the final war. He should be beware of these old fighters who well know in their hearts what is right (dharma), and who will therefore bring no serious harm to the Pandavas”.
9.1. Her unusual ability to speak the bitter truth to her husband surfaces quite often in Sabha Parva and in Udyoga Parva. In the Sabha Parva, She advised her husband to stop the (first) game of dice. Then again, after the second dice game, Gandhari chides Dhritarastra for allowing Duryodhana to humiliate Draupadi in the open court. This reprehensible act, she said, would surely ‘rekindle a dead fire, topple a bridge re-built ‘and destroy his whole dynasty. Dhritarastra blinded by his fondness for his sons did not have enough sense to heed to her words of wisdom and caution.
9.2. In the Udyoga Parva, after Krishna’s failed attempts to bring about peace between the warring groups of cousins, the King Dhritarastra asks Gandhari to be brought into the court. He was hoping that his mother’s words of love and wisdom might help Duryodhana to see reason and give up the belligerent path. She did try honestly to counsel her angry son; pleaded with him to eschew the needless war. But, of course, she too fails to convince him. Duryodhana, raging with anger, storms out of the court. When Dhritarastra laments over his son’s bad behaviour, Gandhari rebukes him saying that it was all the result of grafting his own greed to grow upon Duryodhana and kindling in him the hunger for the sole possession of the kingdom. She blames Dhritarastra for undue fondness for his sons and for not disciplining them despite being aware of their unrighteous desires and thoughtless methods. ‘It is too late now for force,’ she says.
Krishna too appreciates her efforts: “You have, in the open court, repeatedly and rightly spoken words of wisdom and justice for the welfare of both the sides thirsting for war”(Mbh. IX.62.57)
Before going into the battle on the final day , Duryodhana seeks the blessings of his mother . She does bless him heartily. But , she also remarks ” Listen to my words , O fool , where there is righteousness there is victory
( Srunu mudha vachomyaham yato dharmastato jayah – Salya Parva 63.62).
Krishna again lauds Gandhari ” O the gracious Lady , there is none comperable to you in the whole world”
(tat samam nasti loke sminnadya simantini shubhe – Salya Parva 63.59)
10.1. Gandhari may have disapproved Duryodhana’s ambitions, associations and his methods, but she does not give up on her dearest son. She loves him much and wants him to succeed. And, when war became imminent, she decides to support his efforts fully. She desired her son Duryodhana to become stronger, virtually unbreakable particularly since she was aware that, physically, he was not as strong as his enemy Bhīma, tough more skilful. Gandhari determined to ensure her son’s success asked him “Before you go into battle, son, come before me without any clothes. When I look upon your body, each part that I see will become hard as a diamond, unyielding to weapons.”
10.2. Duryodhana felt shy and uncomfortable to appear tally naked before his mother. He, therefore, covered his groin and hips with a leaf tied at the waist. As Gandhari removed her blindfold, she for the first time in her life, saw to her great delight her wonderful looking son standing before her. But, her joy was soon cut short as she noticed the leaf around his waist. Gandhari shrieked in horror: “Oh my son, what have you done? Now, that covered part of your body will be vulnerable to weapons. Your enemies will not fail to strike you there.” An ominous fear came over her that Duryodhana was destined to fall, which meant the end of Kuru clan. She wept bitterly and lamented at cruelty of fate which spares none. Gandhari’s fears did come true, very sadly for her.
The horrors of war and heartbreaking plight of the women
11.1. The eighteen days of war grew more intense and gruesome with each passing day until the night of the seventeen day. On the eighteenth and the final day, as the horrors of the war ebbed out, Duryodhana, in despair, fled from the field and hid himself in a lake. Thereafter, that night, his three surviving warriors, in a vengeful night raid, slaughtered Drustaduymna, brother of Draupadi and her five young sons while they were asleep in their beds. They even killed the unborn in the womb of Uttara, boy Abhimanyu’s widow. On that fateful night, Duryodhana was struck down fatally by Bhīma; and, he breathed his last thereafter. Relentless slaughter and mayhem littered the earth with the blood and guts of millions of men, horses, elephants, while countless dogs, wolves, eagles and vultures feasted on the carcasses.
11.2. As the news of Duryodhana’s fall and death reached the royal court, Gandhari, her husband and her daughters-in-law were devastated by the calamity that befell them all. The sorrow of the wailing women is described in Stree Parva.
12.1. Stree Parva of Mahabharata is an overwhelming, horrific and moving depiction of the devastation that war brings upon women who lost their men folk. It focuses upon the dichotomy of the male and female elements of war. It vividly portrays the dreadful consequences of war on the society, particularly on its women. In a way of speaking; it highlights the cruel irony of life where the self-serving men pursue their hate at the expense of the women whom they love and vowed to protect. But, at the same time there is a wicked parody. The sights of women wailing over death and devastations of war are in sharp contrast to scenes, just a few weeks prior, where women, with pride, bid farewell to their men marching smartly into the battle as heroes.
12.2. Virtually all of the accounts of the heartbreaking scenes depicted in the Stree Parva are narrated by Gandhari who was then endowed with ‘divine eye’ (divya chakshu). She can see things at a distance as if they were very near. Gandhari then noticed her fallen son Duryodhana and fainted. When revived , this heroic mother , ambivalent in many ways ; brooded upon her sons spoilt life; rued on the evil influence of her brother Shakuni’s ; grieved for the fate of her blind husband; cried for wife of Duryodhana (Bhanumathi ) and his son Lakshmana . She then wept over her other sons. Gandhari then moved on to lament on her distraught daughters-in-law and the horrors beset upon them.
12.3. As Gandhari described:
Several groups of hysterical women in their throes of grief ran about as if they were in the girls’ yard; holding on to each others’ arms. They wept uncontrollably for their lost beloveds, sons, brothers and fathers. It was as if they were enacting the destruction of the world at the end of the Age. Babbling and crying, running hither and thither, they were out of their mind with grief and lost all sense of propriety. Young women who used to be modest even before their friends now appeared shamelessly before their mothers-in-law in simple shifts, their hair dishevelled, with their arms up in the air wailing, shrieking incoherently. Women who earlier comforted each other in the most trifling sorrows now ignored other women staggering about in grief. .. They were like beings set on fire at the end of the Age. These bewildered women were in shock; helpless, having lost the wits – vast was the wretchedness of the women of Kurus. The clamour of all those afflicted women bewailing the destruction of their family became thunderous and shook the worlds.
[Mbh. Stree Parva 11.9.8. 8-21]
12.4. Gandhari addresses Krishna emptying her heart:
The earth is so muddy with flesh and blood, one can scarcely move upon it. The earth seems to be crammed with fallen heads, hands, every sort of limbs mixed with every other piled in heaps. On seeing the horror of heaps of body less limbs and limbless bodies, those women beyond reproach, unaccustomed to such miseries, now sink into the bloody mire littered with slaughtered pieces of their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers. Many shriek and wail upon seeing the bodies; and others beat their heads with their delicate palms. These women, after grasping, wailing and weeping uncontrollably for a long while, shivering in their pain are quitting their life.
12.5. O Janardhana, look at the woeful throngs of Dhritharastra’s daughters-in-law, like herds of fillies with beautiful manes. The best of the women tormented in grief and pain mourn their dear ones wretchedly. What could be more painful to me than this, Keshava that all these women present themselves in such extreme distressful forms? This is all the results of the evils I did in my past births; I see now my slain sons, grandsons and my brother.
[Mbh. Stree Parva; 11.16.55]
Gandhari’s sorrow extends to Uttara the widowed young and beautiful girl carrying the child of the boy hero Abhimanyu. She is particularly devastated by the terrible wrong done to her valiant young husband by the very persons who were supposed to love him and protect him.
Gandhari’s vision and curses
13.1. Gandhari is regarded a very virtuous woman; a completely devoted and a faithful wife. Her fidelity as a sadhwi undergoing austerities; her voluntarily endured suffering (tapas); and her internal purity bring in her a sort of accumulated power. That is one of the sub-themes of Mahabharata. Her power to turn Duryodhana’s body strong and unbreakable, like a diamond; her occasional ability to see despite the bandage wrapped on her eyes; and, power to curse are all illustrations of her internal strength.
13.2. When after the war, the Pandavas meet their grieving uncle and aunt, they are at first resentful and apprehensive. Gandhari explains that grief alone is the cause of her anger. “I do not hate them. I do not want them to perish. But, with the pain I feel for the loss of my sons, my mind almost reels out of control”. And says, she harbours no grudge against Pandavas, except for being enraged at Bheema’s unfair blow on Duryodhana’s thigh, below the navel.
She asks a pointed question at Bheema and demands to know “how can brave men, for the sake of their lives, abandon in battle the dharma prescribed by wise men? How can they?”
katham nu dharmam dharmajnais samuddishtam mahaatmabhih I tyajeyur aahave shooraah pranahetoh kathanchana? (Stree parva 14/2)
[Amazingly, this question comes up again and again in the epic.]
Then, Bheema with remarkable restraint, skill and wisdom convinces Gandhari that it was necessary to put an end to Duryodhana. He speaks with reason in a courteous and polite tone; and yet is resolute in his stand. Bhīma promptly admits to fighting unfairly with Duryodhana; and, he pleads he had to do that out of necessity and out of fear in order to save himself. He begs for Gandhari’s mercy and pardon. His intentions are clear: he wants to appease mother Gandhari not wanting to hurt her anymore; and yet to impress on her that he was left with no other choice. He says , he had a duty to to safeguard Dharma.
kshatradharmaat chyuto rajni bhaveyam shashvatee samaah I pratijnaam taam anisteerya tatas tat krtavaanaham( Stree parva 15/19 )
If I hadn’t fulfilled that vow, oh queen, I would have for all eternity fallen from the dharma of the kshatriyas; and that is why i did that.
Gandhari apparently accepts his argument and falls silent.
But, he lies to Gandhari about his grotesque drinking Dushyasana’s blood after killing him; and, lamely says that ‘his blood did not go beyond my lips’. Gandhari, the mother with a great heart, pardons Bhīma. Bhīma then, quietly, blames Gandhari for failing to restrain her sons’ wickedness.
As soon as Bheema finished his explanation, Yudhistira (in sharp contrast to Bheema) needlessly blames himself, his brothers , Krishna and even Abhimanyu. He calls himself and all those men who fought on his side as sinners and begs Gandhari to punish him for following them.
putrahantaa nrshamso’ham tava devi yudhishthirah I shaapaarhah prthiveenaashe hetubhootas shapasva maam
“I am that despicable brute, Yudhistira who killed your sons. I am the cause of the destruction of the earth. i deserve to be cursed, oh Devi. Curse me now.”
[The commentators explain; this is perhaps was his way of showing that he was more righteous than anyone else around.]
Yudhistira is about to collapse at Gandhari’s feet in terror. And, Gandhari with tearful eyes sighs deeply again and again; not a word escapes her lips. From within her blindfold, her sight falls on Yudhistira’s toenails; and the fire in her sight scorches his toenail, burning them black and ugly.
Gandhari, the Mother with a great heart, pardons the man who killed her one hundred sons and even appeals for his mercy. She however, scorches into black the toenails of the man who did not kill even one of her sons. Did she see through Yudhistira?
13.3. By then, the pent up anger was swelling up within Gandhari. She could scarcely contain herself. Breathing in quick gasps, she was about to hurl a curse on Yudhistira. But, Vyasa prevailed upon her to desist from doing so. However, some rays of her sight that pierced through the cloth covering her eyes burnt and blackened the toes of Yudhistira as he bent low to touch her feet, in fear and reverence. When Arjuna saw that, he, in fright, took cover behind Krishna. Gandhari’s anger, by then, was gone; and, like a mother she consoled the Pandavas who were’ fidgeting and shifting this way and that’. Gandhari looked upon Pandavas as her own. [Mbh. 11.15.7-8]
13.4. Gandhari and Draupadi had both suffered grievously; each more than the other. The older woman tried to console Draupadi; counselled her against grieving, saying ‘it was all inevitable, the turn of time’. Gandhari blamed herself for all the suffering that befell both the families. But , her mood changed suddenly : ’ It is the same as it is for you. But, who will comfort me, as they have been doing to you? ‘
14.1. Gandhari tells Krishna that the fate had favoured him and his friends. The Pandavas were lucky to escape death from the hands of her son ‘the bull strong enough to kill the gods’. Then Gandhari collapsed in grief. ‘Her body shivering in the grip of anger, overwhelmed with grief for her dead sons, her senses reeling ‘she took Krishna to task. She in her rage blamed Krishna for conspiring to destroy her family. Had he been sincere he could have prevented the war; and saved everyone.
She blames Krishna for his devious ways that brought death and destruction upon the Kuru clan.
“You purposely destroyed the Kurus; made pretence of carrying out peace-talks. You let the two warring kinsmen devastate each other. Now, take the result of that. I curse you. If I have been a devoted and faithful wife, may my curse come true. Krishna, mark my words, you will slay your own kinsmen. Just as Pandavas and Kurus were killing each other, your kinsmen too will kill each other. As your cousins, their sons and grandsons slay each other; you will wander about in the woods in desolation and die a lonely and ignominious death at the hands of a stranger. And your wives, having lost their sons, grandsons, brothers and dear ones shall run around the woods in desperation and grief, just as the Bharatha women are now doing”. [Mbh. 11.25. 38-42]
14.2. Vyasa calls Gandhari’s curse as a ‘horrible speech’ (vachya ghora). But, Krishna heard it calmly and remarked with a smile ‘your curse is preordained by fate. As none can destroy the Yadavas, they slay and kill each other; and, they will all come to destruction at each other’s hands.” [Mbh. 11.25. 43-45]
Years after the war
15.1. After the war, Draupadi looked after Gandhari and Dhritarastra with affection and respect, even though their sons had wronged her in many ways. It is said; the other Pandava wives such as Nakula’s wife Karenumati of Chedi ; Sahadeva’s wife Vijaya of Magadha ; Bhima’s wife Balandhara of Kashi ; Yudhistira’s wife Devika of Shibi ; and , Arjuna’s three wives , all diligently served the old couple. Gandhari and Dhritarastra did lead a comfortable life. But, Bhīma alone, it is said, would occasionally make nasty remarks within the earshot of Dhritarastra sarcastically wondering how the fat old guy could sit there the whole day lording over others and eating nonstop without an iota of shame.
15.2. After they lived thus for about fifteen years, Vyasa suggests to Gandhari and Dhritarastra to leave the palace and retire into the forest. Kunti, Vidura and Sanjaya also desire to join the couple. Finally, after much debate, fifteen years after the war, Gandhari leaning upon Kunti, leading her blind-old husband and in the company of ever faithful Vidura and Sanjaya retires into forest to await death.
15.3. A year hence, Vyasa visits Gandhari, Dhritharastra and Kunti in the forest. He is moved by Gandhari’s sorrow grieving over her dead sons; lamenting and cursing her fate that never let her set sight on the faces of her sons. Vyasa as a favour to Gandhari offers to let her see, meet and talk to all her dead sons and grandsons, just for a night. He then extends that favour to all the surviving relatives of the dead. All are, of course, greatly overjoyed at this wondrous prospect and the rarest privilege of seeing their dead relatives slain in the Great War. As the news reaches Hastinapur, Pandavas and all the widowed daughters-in-law of Gandhari along with others reach the hermitage of Gandhari in the forest, to partake in the spectacle.
Meeting her dead sons
16.1. The Putra-darshana Parva embedded in the Asramavasa Parva (Book 15) of Mahabharata presents a most astounding spectacle where all the warriors slain in the war come back to life ; and , after spending a whole night with their beloved ones the dead return to their world.
16.2. The great ascetic Vyasa then leads them all to the banks of the Bhagirathi (Ganga) and summoned all the warriors slain in the great battle – ‘those that had fought on the side of the Pandavas, those that had fought for the Kauravas, including highly blessed kings belonging to diverse realms ‘. At that time, Vyasa granted Dhritarastra divine vision (divya chakshu).
17.1. Vaisampayana said,
‘‘then those kings, headed by Bhishma and Drona, with all their troops, arose by thousands from the life-giving waters of the holy Bhagirathi. All those dead warriors came alive from the depths of the Bhagirathi, with resplendent bodies. Those kings appeared, each clad in that dress and equipped with that standard and that vehicle which he had while fighting on the field. All of them were now robed in celestial vestments and all had brilliant ear-rings. They were free from animosity and pride, and divested of wrath and jealousy. Gandharvas sang their praises and bards waited on them, chanting their deeds. Robed in celestial vestments and wearing celestial garlands, each of them was waited upon by bands of Apsaras.
17.2. Gandhari of great fame saw all her children as also all that had been slain in battle. All persons assembled there beheld with steadfast gaze and hearts filled with wonder that amazing and unbelievable phenomenon which made the hair on their bodies stand on its end. It looked like a high carnival of gladdened men and women. That wondrous scene looked like a picture painted on the canvas. Dhritarastra, beholding all those heroes, with his celestial vision obtained through the grace of that sage, became full of joy, O chief of Bharata’s race.”
17.3. ‘Then those men divested of wrath and jealousy, and cleansed of every sin, met with one another. All of them were happy of hearts and looked like gods moving in Heaven. There was no grief, no fear, no suspicion, no discontent, and no reproach in that region. Son met with sire or mother, wives with husbands, brother with brother and sister, and friend with friend, O king. The Pandavas, full of joy, met with the mighty bowman Karna as also with the son of Subhadra, and the children of Draupadi. With happy hearts the sons of Pandu approached Karna, O monarch, and became reconciled with him. All those warriors, O chief of Bharata’s race, meeting with one another through the grace of the great ascetic, became reconciled with one another. Casting off all unfriendliness, they became established on amity and peace. It was even thus that all those foremost of men, viz., the Kauravas and other kings became united with the Kurus rid other kinsmen of theirs as also with their children. The whole of that night they passed in great happiness.
17.4. “Meeting with their sires and brothers and husbands and sons, the ladies cast off all grief and felt great raptures of delight. Having sported with one another thus for one night, those heroes and those ladies, embracing one another and taking one another’s leave returned to the places they had come from. Within the twinkling of an eye that large crowd disappeared in the very sight of all those (living) persons”.
Thereafter, many of the widows, given leave by Vyasa, jumped into the river and entered the world of their dead husbands.
[Mbh. 15 .38-42]
Death of Gandhari and others
18.1. About two years after Gandhari thus met her sons, Sage Narada informs Yudhistira that Dhritarastra along with Gandhari and Kunti was burnt to death in a forest fire. And, that Sanjaya wandered over to the Himalayas and died there. Yudhistira and Yuyutsu the only surviving son of Dhritarastra perform the funeral obsequies at Gangadwar.
During this visit, Yudhistira comes upon Vidura roaming in the forest naked smeared with ashes. Vidura infuses his spirit into Yudhistira; and thereafter gives up his life.
Thus, eighteen years after the war, the senior characters depart from the scene.
18.2. And eighteen years thereafter, that is thirty-six years after the Great War, the Vrisnis and Yadavas did destroy themselves just as Gandhari had cursed them to die. Krishna too dies soon after at the hands of a hunter as cursed by Gandhari.
18.3. Pandavas also depart to their heavenly abode rather disillusioned. Their victory had turned out meaningless, devoid of joy. Curiously, about thirty-six years ago, before the war, Karna had narrated to Krishna a grotesque dream he witnessed in which “Powerful Yudhistira climbed a hill of human bones, smiled and ate sweet ghee-curd from a golden cup.” Vyasa too ends the Fifteenth Book of the Epic on a sad note: “Without his relatives and friends, king Yudhistira, afflicted with mental unease, ruled the kingdom, somehow.”
Kunti and Gandhari
19.1. Before ending this lengthy post it would be interesting to quickly place together the lives of the two rival Queens. Up to a certain point, their lives ran dissimilar in a peculiar way. The good-days of the one were the not-so-good days of the other. When one was comfortable and secure, the other was miserable. It was towards the very end of their life they came closer. It was the empathy with each other’s sorrow and suffering that forged a bond between the two. After retiring into the forest, fifteen years after the war, the two shared common grief, became good friends and came to terms with the realities of life. And, the two died together in the forest fire.
19.2. At the beginning and for a long time thereafter, the relation between Kunti and Gandhari was rather lukewarm – neither too friendly nor explicitly hostile. A sort of silent feud ran between the two. Their fortunes too contrasted in a dramatic manner.
19.3. When Gandhari entered the royal household at Hastinapur, Kunti, also a recent entrant, was the Queen of the Kingdom. Gandhari was the wife of a blind prince who was denied the throne, and would never be a king. Gandhari’s position in the royal family was therefore low and insecure, comparatively. Her status worsened after Kunti give birth to great looking healthy sons who would inherit the Kingdom. While at the same time, Gandhari remained childless; troubled by envy and fear of losing out.
19.4. The death of Pandu and Madri totally destabilized Kunti. And, she now had to live under the mercy of Gandhari the Queen. She had to look up to Gandhari for survival and protection of her sons. Gandhari, in the meantime, had become the mother of one hundred sons and a daughter. She was in complete control of the royal courts.
19.5. Later, after Kunti and her sons escaped from the arson at the lac-house, they had to live incognito, moving from town to town, dwelling among the humblest. For a short period, from marriage with Draupadi until the ill-fated dice-game, Kunti and her sons lived comfortably in their newly built palace at Indraparastha.
19.6. During the fourteen years of Pandava’s exile Kunti took shelter in the rather humble house of Vidura. Gandhari, of course, lived in Queen’s palace. During this period they do not seem to have called upon each other or helped each other in dealing with their problems.
19.7. After the disastrous war, Gandhari and blind husband having lost all their hundred sons were utterly defeated and heartbroken. Gandhari was no longer the Queen, while Kunti had become the Queen Mother. Gandhari in her old age had to live under the shade and mercy of Kunti’s sons. Her plight, to say the least, had become agonizing and humiliating.
20.1. It was after the war, the lives of Kunti and Gandhari seemed to converge. The victory of her sons did not bring much cheer to Kunti. She seemed subdued and distracted. She had grown softer towards Gandhari. She shared with her the pain and sorrow of losing sons and grandsons. Kunti never forgave herself for deserting her eldest son Karna who eventually was killed by his younger brother. She grieved his loss silently. She also mourned for her valiant grandsons Abhimanyu and Ghatodkacha who were slain by their own uncles and kinsmen. A bond had grown between the two women.
20.2. When Gandhari chose to retreat into the forest, Kunti willingly bid farewell to her sons and gave up their palace; and joined Gandhari. She felt no joy in the palace; instead she found it miserable. While in the forest, she served Gandhari and her husband lovingly. Both the women had experienced the pleasures and pains of the world, in full measure; and had matured in the oven of life. The sorrows of life, the agony of disappointments and the futility of deluded notions brought the two women closer. In the end, Kunti and Gandhari ended their life together in the forest fire.
The Mahabharata by Kisari Mohan Ganguli
Stri Parva – Book 11 (Stri-vilapa-parva)
Asramavasa Parva (Book 15)
Enigmas in Mahabharata by Shri Pradip Bhattacharya
The pictures are from Internet