Mahabharata - As the Curtain of Death Falls

Speaking of death in the Mahabharata, in a paper presented in the Sahitya Academy Seminar on Mahabharata and later published in the May 2004 issue of the leading Hindi monthly Kathadesh (Mahabharat: Mrtyu ke Alok men Jeevan ka Path) author Priyamvad observes that perhaps no other single piece of literature anywhere has as many varieties of death described in it as the Mahabharata has. True, the variety of death portrayed in the epic is fascinating indeed. While we may come across parallels to the brutality and savagery of some of the deaths in such epics and mythologies as that of the Greeks, it is indeed doubtful if any other literature anywhere equals the Mahabharata in the variety of death it portrays. 

However, it is difficult to agree with Priyamvad when he says

“so long as the characters do not attain their death, we do not understand the intention of the author and the essence of the life of the character. We do not understand what facet of life, what aspect of it, the author wants to depict through him. We keep groping for this truth in the dark…but the moment we see the death of the character, all on a sudden his entire life becomes lighted up before us, assumes a new meaning.”

Does death in the Mahabharata really come before us as a commentary on life? Does it really present the life of its characters in a new light before us? Do we discover new truths through death – truths about its characters that were hitherto hidden in the depths of darkness? Do not the life of the characters reveal their true nature clearly enough to us? Does not each action of the character speak of what he or she is? Doesn’t the way a character lives give us insights far clearer than his death ever will? Doesn’t life speak more loudly of the individual than his death does? 

For to say that death suddenly reveals the true nature of the characters and we suddenly see them in a new light, is to say that death removes the veil from the characters – masks from their faces. Does this happen? Does death really reveal such truths about the characters as were so far hidden in dark abysses? Do we then have to wait until their death to understand the true nature of the characters? To understand their inner conflicts, their tenderness or savagery, their lusts and passions, their helplessness, their anger, their desire for vengeance, their nobility, their courage or cowardice, their inhuman savagery, or world-destroying anger, do we have really to wait until their death? Does death reveal them to us in a deeper sense than life does, in a different sense than life does?

I do not think so. Certainly not as a rule.

Take, for instance, the death of Bheeshma. What new insight do we gain about him from his death? Yes, his is a sad tale, his is a tale of failures, a tale of helplessness. But in his death, Bheeshma is doing precisely what he has done all his life. All his life Bheeshma has been a bystander. He watches, as though from the sides, from the pavements, as the procession of life passes by. It is as though having taken the vow to remain an oordhvareta, a brahmachari, he has lost the will to live, the desire to live. As though having surrendered his claims over the throne, he has laid down all responsibilities towards it, too. Or else, at the death of Vichitraveerya, he would have forgotten the vows, which had by then become redundant and absurd, and stepped back onto the road of life. 

Later, as the rivalry between the Pandava and Dhartarashtra children grows fierce, begins to assume an evil nature, we don’t see him doing anything meaningful, anything effective, to stop that. Soon we find he begins to fail in asserting his authority – authority that is his by virtue of being the eldest of the Kurus on the scene, authority that is his by being the mighty warrior he is, authority that is his by virtue of his wisdom that everybody acknowledges. And soon, naturally, he loses that authority. For, authority unused is authority lost. 

And so we find Bheeshma a helpless witness to the attempt to kill Bheema by poisoning, to kill all the Pandavas and Kunti in the lac house, to the humiliation of a woman, his own grand daughter-in-law, the princess of Panchala, in the grand hall where all the Kaurava elders and several invited kings are present and to dozens of other events in which his action would have been decisive, his intervention definitely called for. Who the woman was, was really immaterial, why she was being humiliated was immaterial – a woman was being humiliated in his presence – that should have been enough for him to interfere and save her honor. But Bheeshma had long ceased to be proactive, he had long become a waiter and a watcher. He does nothing to save her. In the Mahabharata war too, his heart is with the Pandavas but he fights for the Dhartarashtras – as their commander-in-chief. This dichotomy with his head somewhere and his heart somewhere else, resulting in his unwillingness to commit himself completely to anything, was the hallmark of Bheeshma all his life. He is in things, and he is out of them. 

That is how Bheeshma lives his life – as a witness to it, a helpless, pathetic witness. And that is how he dies too – watching helplessly while the most fierce war that was ever fought on this land rages all around him, a war for which he was perhaps more responsible than anyone else, since it was his giving up claims over the crown and later refusing to accept it, his refusal to marry and beget children even when his vow not to had become meaningless, that was at the centre of it all. So we find Bheeshma waiting for uttarayana to begin – waiting between life and death, between being and non-being, between doing and non-doing, exactly as he had lived all his life. 

Bheeshma had said no to life at an early age – and the rest of his life had been a waiting for death – and that is precisely what he does in his last moments too. So how can we say his death suddenly reveals his character, his personality, his true nature? At best it confirms what we already know. Rather than revealing the true nature of Bheeshma, perhaps all that death does here is tell us ‘as you live so you die,’ tell us that one’s death is a culmination of one’s life, its natural end. There are no denouements there.

There is also that other simple way of looking at Bheeshma’s life. Born as a result of a curse, Bheeshma lives an accursed, wasteful, unproductive life of pain and loneliness, and dies in loneliness and in intolerable agony. But then again, his death does not reveal to us anything that we did not know about him from his life. 

Or take the deaths of Duryodhana or Dushshasana. What new truths do we learn about them from their deaths? What revelations are there in their deaths? None, I believe. Duryodhana had lived a life of treachery, and by treachery he dies – in spite of all his strengths. The traditional version of the Mahabharata says that Bheema acquired the strength of ten thousand elephants from the drinks he took in Nagaloka. And yet we find Duryodhana has the same strength – without the aid of the drinks. And powerful are the others with him too – like Dushshasana, like Karna and like so many others. And yet it is the path of treachery that he chose to live by, that he chose to acquire the throne by, and by treachery he dies. In his dying moments too he approves the treachery of Ashwathama – thus paving way for the horrendous events in the Pandava camp that gruesome night. Duryodhana consistently believes in treachery and cruel deeds all his life. Duryodhana dies a cruel death in treachery. No revelations in his death either, no denouements. 

And Dushshasana dies exactly as he has lived – by brute power. He performs one of the most shameful and heartless acts ever performed by a Kuru when the drags by her hair a helpless Draupadi from the inner apartments of the Pandava guest quarters where she had retired as she was in her monthly periods. He drags her to the Dice hall and there he tries to disrobe her, to remove the single piece of cloth she was wearing as custom insisted women do during their monthly season, to make her stand naked in front of the kings, nobles, the Kaurava elders, other Dhartarashtras and her own husbands assembled in the hall. All his life Dushshasana believed in the strength of brute power. And in the end he becomes a victim of that power. No horrible act was too loathsome to him and in the end he is subjected to one of the bloodiest acts ever in the Mahabharata. Bheema tears open his heart and drinks his living blood. Then he cut off his head and raises it up in the air and slowly, deliberately, as a huge horrified crowd watches, drinks the blood, relishing every drop of it, while shouting that nothing he has ever drunk, including his mothers milk, tasted as sweet as that. 

Again we do not learn anything new from his death – death just confirms what he has been all his life, what we have known about him all along. There is only a reassertion of our knowledge, no revelations. No new meanings. 

Dhrishtadyumna is killed like an animal – kicked to death by Ashwathama. Not even the nobility a warrior deserves – he begs to be killed by a weapon so that he can go to the worlds that belong to him, the worlds of the valiant who die in the battlefield. And Ashwathama tells him that an acharyahanta, someone who has killed his own teacher, has no worlds left for him. He is kicked to death like a mad dog. Does this death reveal anything new about Dhrishtadyumna? 

Dhrishtadyumna was born of his father’s desire for vengeance – and not a very noble vengeance either. It is difficult to find much fault with Drona’s treatment of Drupada. At the same time Drupada’s treatment of Drona has been completely unwarranted and unjustifiable. Later, when Drupada is brought before Drona, bound, Drona immediately releases him. He keeps half Drupada’s kingdom with him and offers the other half back to Drona “so that they could be equals”. He has proved his point. Drona now declares that there are no hard feelings in his heart, everything is forgiven and forgotten, that they are friends again. And Drupada, agrees with him and says, yes, they are friends now. “O high-souled son of Bharadwaja, may you be blessed. Let it be so, let there be eternal friendship between us as you desire!' – these are his exact words. But once again Drupada was doing a dishonourable thing. He was lying. Even while his tongue was uttering those words, his heart was plotting vengeance, his whole being was thirsty for vengeance. I do not blame him for that thirst – but hiding that was cowardly. True, the whole experience was very humiliating for Drupada, but as an honorable man, he should have expressed his feelings openly, as Drona had done when Drupada humiliated him. Also, if he was unhappy with Drona, did not feel friendly towards him, he was honor bound to reject the offered half-kingdom. Rather than being noble, heroic, Drupada chooses to be a coward and a hypocrite. 

Dhrishtadyumna was born of this dark desire for vengeance against a man who was not really at fault. 

If the vengeance Drupada seeks is dark, the way he goes about it is darker still.

There is something evil about Dhrishtadyumna’s birth. Something that the Mahabharata does not speak of, but something that is clearly there. For, when Drupada approaches the priest Upayaja requesting him to officiate in the sacrifice for a son, he flatly refuses. His words are – “I don’t do such things”. (naham ityevam tam rishih pratyabhashata. Adi 166/13.) And when Drupada persists, he sends him to his brother Yaja, saying that he does all kinds of taboo things, does not hesitate to accept polluted things. Obviously, there was something evil, something inauspicious about the yajna, which is later conducted with Yaja as the chief priest [though Upayaja does assist his brother]. And, if this is not enough, Drupada’s wife refuses to take the yajnabhaga at the end of the ritual. In an auspicious Vedic ritual, we would expect her to be seated in front of the vedi with her husband. She is not. And later when she is called to come and accept the havishya. She sends word that she can’t come to accept it. Her mouth is not clean, and she has applied perfumes on her body – these are the reasons she gives! 

And later of course, Dhrishtadyumna is sent to Drona himself, to learn dhanurvidya from him – with the purpose of eventually killing Drona. But the acharya in his magnanimity accepts him and teaches him all he knows. As a teacher Drona does many shameful things – but this one act of nobility redeems him to an extent. And Dhrishtadyumna studies under Drona, contemplating constantly on his vengeance, on his ultimate aim of killing his guru. 

And when the opportunity came he, in one of the most glaring acts of treachery performed by the Pandava side, kills his guru. Guruhatya is the greatest sin in the Indian tradition, usually considered a greater sin than even mahapatakas like sleeping with gurupatni, brahmahatya, etc. Born of evil, contemplating evil all his life, perpetrating the darkest evil, he dies an undignified death – woken up from sleep in the middle of the night, he is killed before he is fully awake and in his senses. 

No new revelations there either. 

And Karna? What new insight do we gain into him from his death? True, we feel sympathy for him. Born noble, he was called low-born and ridiculed and rejected all his life. Arguably the best archer of them all, he was prevented from competing both in the shastrapareeksha and later in the swayamvara of Draupadi. Draupadi kept calling him the son of the charioteer. Bheeshma’s rejection of him was so total and complete, his humiliation at the old man’s hands so cruel, that he had to refuse to fight for his friends so long as Bheeshma was in command. Indra deprives him of hiskavacha and kundala, exploiting his weakness to be known as danavaeera. His own mother robs him on the eve of the war of his motivation and spirit. She incapacitates him through her revelation of the secret of his birth at a moment when he should have been at his strongest. His loyalty to his friend is unquestionable. He is humble enough to acknowledge Adhiratha as his father in the middle of the shastrapareeksha, thus bringing ridicule on him. He is cursed by his guru, Parashurama, for his devotion and endurance.  

Yes, there is much that is noble and moving in this giant of a man. Yet it is with adharma he sided all his life. He is beside Duryodhana in all his evil deeds. He is aware of every treacherous plot of Duryodhana and yet he is with him – out of loyalty.  

Loyalty is admirable, no doubt. But loyalty to wickedness – shouldn’t Karna have dissuaded Duryodhana from his evil machinations and treacheries, rather than side with him and add to his strength? As a friend, was he not friendship-bound to protect Duryodhana from evil? Wasn’t he the central pillar in the edifice of evil that Duryodhana built up? 

In the Dice hall, while Draupadi is being dragged by her hair and she tries to protect her honor by keeping the single cloth she is dressed in, it is Karna’s voice that is heard loudest – even louder than Duryodhana’s own. Asking for the shameless cruelty to go on – no, to be intensified. He does not merely stand by and watch, but actively encourages it. He shouts – this woman has no rights. She is a whore since she is wife to five men! [As though whores have no right to modesty, no human rights]. She is a slave. [As though slaves have no right to modesty, no human rights!] He shouts Draupadi has no right to be dressed in even that single piece of cloth. And it is he who asks Dushshasana to remove even that – as also the cloths of the Pandava brothers. Here Karna appears to be glorifying, gloating over, reveling in and celebrating sadism and perversion by asking Draupadi to be denuded in that august assembly, in front her own husbands! 

In spite of his great qualities, he sides with adharma, lends his immense strength toadharma, and thus lives in adharma. And, in spite of his valor, he dies by adharma. Where is the revelation, the new insight we get from his death? 

And Pandu’s death? His death again is a confirmation of what he has been – confused about sex, full of contradictions about it, longing for it, afraid of it. Probably a result of his knowledge of the act through he was born – the niyoga. Probably an extension of his mother’s feelings… but he dies in that act.  

And Madri’s death? That she was a strong woman? Of course, her action required great courage and strength of will. But whether it was guilt that drove her to suicide or love for her husband, or a combination of both, in all these cases, deciding to live required greater courage than deciding to end her life. Deciding to live facing the loss of the loved one, deciding to live bearing the burden of guilt that one was responsible for the other’s death, that required greater courage. She is weak in her death as she was in her life.

And the death of the Pandavas themselves, and that of Draupadi? Yudhishthira, of course, according to tradition, does not die, but is taken to heaven in his living body. Before that, when Draupadi and the other four Pandavas die, Yudhishthira gives us the reasons for their death. And in no case is there any insight given to us that we did not have earlier. Draupadi dies as orphaned as she lived – ‘nathavati anathavat’. She lived a life of misery she did not deserve, and she dies a death of loneliness she did not deserve. We do not learn anything new from their deaths. Their deaths do not reveal anything new to us.  

The variety of deaths portrayed in the Mahabharata is truly amazing, truly fascinating, as Priyamvad says. But they do not reveal anything new. Certainly not as a rule.


A second thing that Priyamvad says in his paper is that Krishna’s life was wasted: it was purposeless – niruddeshya. (Krishna’s death is a declaration of…the purposelessness of his life…exactly as his life was.) Nishprayojan… 

This statement really astonishes me. As I see it, Krishna lived one of the most fruitful lives in the Mahabharata. When Priyamvad says that about Bheeshma, as he does, I’m with him. Let him say that about Dhritarashtra, Pandu, Duryodhana, or even Yudhishthira, I’m with him. Let him say that about Karna, Dushshasana, a dozen other people – I’m with him. But about Krishna?  

Numerous are the important contributions Krishna makes to life and society both of his times and of the future. 

The Bhagavad Gita, apart from being the most popular religious scripture of India for the last two millennia as least, gives Indians/Hindus, and the world, a new way of living, a new type of spirituality that is revolutionary in vision and almost diametrically opposite to the traditions of its days [though Krishna himself, following an ancient tradition with Indian authors, does not claim originality to it, but claims it is an ancient path]. In the Gita Krishna rejects karma sannyasa – giving up the world and all one’s rights over it and, more than that, all responsibilities towards it. He says that is no yoga, no spirituality at all. And giving the example of ancient rajarshies, he says that this is the way to live – living in the world, partaking of it, fulfilling one’s duties to it and yet remaining untouched by it.

(Na karnanam anarambhat naishkarmyam purusho’shnute; 
na cha sannyasanadeva siddhim samadhigachhati:

By merely not doing things, one does not transcend action and attain the state of naishkarmya, actionlessness; nor does one attain the goals of religion by the mere ritual of sannyasa.)

This was a radical new approach to spirituality and life – a combination of kshatraand brahmanya, of sattva and rajas, as the ideal. Jnanasannyasa, renunciation not through a ritual, nor by giving up one’s duties, but through insight, through an attitude. And Krishna “walked his talk” as they say – his life was the best example for his teachings.
But perhaps one would like to say that the Gita is not really Krishna’s contribution, it was not spoken in the battlefield, at least not in the present form, but is a later interpolation. Even if we accept this, the life of Krishna was in no way a wastage. Not at all “nishprayojan,” as Priyamvad says it was. 

Krishna was a major political force in his days – if not the major political force. The mighty evil conglomerate that was slowly, almost imperceptibly coming into being under the leadership of the Magadhan emperor Jarasandha, assisted by his son-in-law Kamsa and Shishupala – it was Krishna who perceived the danger this evil triumvirate posed before anyone else did. Jarasandha had already vanquished eighty-six kingdoms, subjugated them and thrown their kings into dungeons. He had already become a malevolent ‘superpower’. Krishna personally kills two of these monsters – Kamsa and Shishupala and has Jarasandha killed with the least bloodshed possible – through Bhima. Wiping out that evil empire that was casting its dark shadow over all of Aryavarta was no mean feat. 

Compared to this his taking his people – the entire Yadava population – across western India, all the way from Mathura to Dwaraka, establishing a new city and new kingdom there, might look a minor act. But by itself it is no mean feat. Add to this his vanquishing the Asura Naraka, his helping the Pandavas establish Indraprastha – Krishna stays with the Pandavas and sees that it is developed – his attempts to avoid the Mahabharata war and his role in it when it eventually takes place. Well, it is difficult to see how one can say Krishna’s life was wasted. 

True, towards the end of his life, the Yadavas had fallen to wicked ways and Krishna could not save them. That is perhaps one of the failures of a great life lived – and if we look deeply into Krishna’s life and philosophy, into the Mahabharata, maybe we will find a reason for it there. But that, in any case, does not make his life a waste by any stretch of imagination. 


This is in no way to reduce the importance of the paper by Priyamvad. His observation of the amazing variety of death in the Mahabharata deserves praise. So do several other observations he makes in the later part of the article, though some of these need to be looked into more closely.  


More by :  Satya Chaitanya

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Views: 3549      Comments: 3

Comment >She lived a life of misery she did not deserve, and she dies a death of loneliness she did not deserve.

I love your site and theories but I am sorry to say that Draupadi was a cold bitch so she DESERVED all the 'misery' she got really (what misery though? She had great sex life with not one by five husbands even though she never loved all of them equally, organic food from forests, five kids, 36+ years of royal pleasure and riches: how many modern women can have all those things anyways?). And what did she do in return? She literally spat on Karna's face by rejecting him on the swayamvara and if that is not enough, she also insulted him by calling him a low-born guy; by karma she DESERVED the insult at the swayambara. And anyways, she also has an unforgiving soul. She announced horrifying deaths for keechaka, Dussasena as well as others which even modern day rapists don't get because those are violation of basic human rights. And to think, Draupadi was not even raped, she was disrobed only partially, not 'denuded' as you say, thanks to Krishna of course, and keechaka only assaulted her physically. Her actions bought nothing but the downfall of a large and prosperous empire, just as foretold. Could she prevent it if she wanted to. Did she? Nope. She basically used her charm on her five stupid husbands to do her bidding during the entire story. Psychopathic women like her deserve no sympathy or institution rather should be stoned to death coz their life is like curse to society. The best thing I loved was her death at the Himalayas: she deserved it more than others due to her cold, cruel and unforgiving nature.

26-Jun-2015 17:36 PM

Comment Dear Mr Chaitnya, I read your columns with great interest and absolutely love your interpretations of popular mythology.

I'd like to see your views on an observation I made - in India, we seem to have some "cursed" names for both men and women. For example, No one will ever name their daughters thus - Kaikeyi, Manthara, Draupadi. Am sure there are others but they escape my attention right now. I can understand the aversion to Kaikeyi and Manthara due to the popular culture and belief system. bUt think about DRaupadi. Draupadi was born of fire. she was deemed pure by everyone. She was sanctified by Krishna. Yet, we dont name our daughters Draupadi. In contrast to say, Ahilya (deemed unfaithful by standards of society then) or Kunti (multiple men with whom she's had babies). Weird, huh?

16-Jul-2014 05:44 AM

Comment Drona was a shrewed diplomate. To get his personal revenge from panchalas, he used kurus. It seems that he was unable to defeat mighty panchalas. He knew that panchalas could be defeated only with the help of kurus. So he made a plan to get close with kurus. His brother in law was teacher of kurus, so he stayed at his house in hastinapur and imressed kurus with his skills. He became teacher of kuru princes and after training them in use of many arms, asked them to capture Drupada. He favored Arjuna initially because he saw potantial in him to become the greatest archer. He wanted to be famous as the teacher of the best archer, that is why he asked Eklawya to give the thumb of his right hand. This way he supressed a great talent. Drona used enjoy the wealth and position he got from kurus. This was the reason behind his not opposing Duryodhana, when he was humilliating Draupadi. His love for pandavas became latter just a show off as decided to fight with them and even planned to kill their beloved son in a brutal way. His hippocracy became more evident when he tried to kill Yudhishthira in rage with brahmastra on 14th day. Just two days back he had declared that he would not kill Yudhishthira.

Anand Shankar
28-Sep-2012 10:16 AM

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