With the rank and file of the Kaurava army decimated towards the end of the eighteen-day conflict, the advantage shifts to the Pandavas. It is the last day of the war and Shalya, the king of Madra, is appointed as the commander of the Kaurava army. No novice with the spear, Shalya is one of those commanders whose choice is driven more by circumstances than merit.
The fighting prowess of the Kauravas is significantly diminished with the exit of stalwarts like Bhishma, Dronacharya and Karna. Relationships dissolve in the battlefield and what matters is victory. The fact that shalya is Nakul’s maternal uncle hardly matters as he is being pursued by Yudhishtir.
Spears in hand, the two face off, resulting in the death of Shalya. The nimble-fingered Shakuni meets his match in Sahadev and dies, sword in hand instead of the dice. Amongst the Kauravas, those who survive are Ashwathama, Kripacharya, Duryodhan and Kritavarma.
Defeat looming large, the beleaguered Duryodhan flees and heads towards a lake to cool down his body. He had perfected the art of remaining underwater for a long time and puts it to good use. Krishna, who knows where Duryodhan is hiding, takes the Pandavas to the lake. Initially, duryodhan refuses to come out of the water. But the Pandavas and Krishna rattle him with verbal barbs – calling him a coward who is afraid of facing Bhim. Unable to bear the taunts, and faced with a do or die situation, Duryodhan comes out to fight bhim.
The two combatants circle each other with mace in hand, knowing fully well that this is a fight to the death, and only one of them will survive. Duryodhan’s body is immune to blows as a result of his mother Gandhari’s boon.
As a devotee of lord Shiva, Gandhari’s boon was the result of her good deeds and her staying by her husband’s side through so many years of strife. As a result, she acquired immense spiritual power and she decides to use them to provide her beloved Duryodhan and the only-surviving Kaurava, an armour of invincibility. Before the fight, she asks her son to come to her chambers after having a bath in the river without wearing clothes.
As Duryodhan returns stark naked after his bath, he runs into Krishna who chastises him for the indecent exposure and asks him to cover himself with a few plantain leaves. This leaves the part of his body below the torso, the thighs in particular, vulnerable. When Gandhari opens her eyes and casts her magic on her son’s body, she realises the blunder committed by Duryodhan. but by then it is too late to rectify the mistake.
The rules of engagement forbid each combatant from striking below the waist. But Bhim, under instructions from Krishna, just does that. Duryodhan is mortally wounded and lies on the ground bleeding profusely, as Bhim stands over him. He is in great pain and knows that he only has a few hours to live.
As the Pandavas leave him to his fate, Ashwathama, Kripacharya and Kritavarma reach the place where the last of the Kauravas is lying on the ground. They find out that he has been felled by Bhim by flouting the rules. A bleeding Duryodhan reaches out to Ashwathama. Sapped of strength and with blood oozing out of his thigh, Duryodhan desires revenge and Ashwathama promises to finish off the Pandavas.
Led by Ashwathama, the trio attacks the Pandavas’ camp later in the night intending to kill all the Pandavas, but miss their target. Amongst the dead are Drushtadyumna, Shikhandi, Uttamaujas and the children of Draupadi, who are mistaken for the senior Pandavas. Among the warriors who survive the war are the five Pandavas, Sri Krishna, Satyaki, Ashwathama, Kripacharya, Yuyutsu, Vrishaketu and Kritavarma.
Meanwhile, on the banks of the lake, Duryodhan is breathing his last. The battleground of Kurukshetra is strewn with the bodies of soldiers. The ground is soaked in blood. Women are seen sitting beside the bodies and wailing. They have lost their sons, husbands and brothers. A head is missing and elsewhere a torso is severed. Limbs are scattered all over the place.
Broken chariots, swords with dried blood, spears, bows, arrows and the smell of carcasses littered all over the place point to the intensity of the engagement. A deathly silence pervades and the stench is unbearable. Fires are burning everywhere, turning the battlefield into a burial ground. The battle between dharma and adharma has indeed taken its toll.
As the internecine war comes to an end, a pall of gloom descends over Hastinapur. News reaches Dhritarashtra and Gandhari that Duryodhan is no more. The senior couple reaches the battleground to have a look at their son’s body for the last time before bidding him farewell. Krishna, along with Yudhishtir, Bhim, Arjun, Nakul, Sahadev and Kunti are also present.
Yudhishtir is moved to tears as he hears the female relatives of the slain warriors cursing him. He is overcome by a sense of guilt. Gandhari and Dhritarashtra are inconsolable. As they see the Pandavas, Gandhari’s mourning turns to rage. The killers of her hundred sons are standing right before them and her emotions get the better of her.
“Where is that sinner who calls himself the custodian of dharma? The coward who is responsible for the loss of so many lives?” she screams.
A teary-eyed Yudhishtir replies, “O mother, I am standing in front of you. I accept my mistake. I have committed the gravest of sins. I could have – should have – done more to stop the war. If anybody has to be blamed for the loss of your hundred sons, it’s me. I deserve to be cursed. Curse me in a such a way that no boon can ever save me!”
Knowing fully well that Duryodhan and his pathological hatred is the cause for the deaths and destruction, Krishna intervenes, “O mother, Yudhishtir is the upholder of justice and he has not committed any sin. He should not be cursed.”
Directing her ire at Krishna, Gandhari shouts, “Then who is the cause of this grief? The Kaurava women, who were known for their chastity and rarely ventured out of their houses, are out in the open today, crying for their loved ones who are no longer there to comfort them. The Kuru women were brave and always stood shoulder to shoulder with their husbands. Their self-respect was their jewel. They were proud of their lineage and ancestry. Look at them now. They are beating their breasts and crying!”
Gandhari pauses for a moment and continues, “If Yudhishtir is not to be blamed, then there is one person who is responsible for the deaths of my sons and that is you! It is you Krishna who is responsible for the war and its ramifications. If you wanted to, you could have stopped the war and avoided bloodshed. But you didn’t. I am aware of who you are and your immense power. Averting the war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas would have been easily possible for you. Instead, you chose to be a silent spectator and did nothing. If someone deserves my curse, it is you!”
In the heat of the moment, Gandhari forgets Krishna’s efforts in trying to bring about a rapprochement between the cousins on more than one occasion. In an attempt to avert the war, Krishna went to Hastinapur as a mediator. In what can be termed as a fine example of statesmanship, Krishna requested the Kauravas to return Indraprastha to the Pandavas. Duryodhan refused outright.
Then Krishna scaled down his demand for Indraprastha and asked for five villages so that both parties could live in peace. The inflexible and arrogant Duryodhan declared that he would not yield an inch of land to the Pandavas, let alone five villages. In a final effort, Krishna explained the collateral damage a war would cause. He further went on to say that the confrontation would signal the beginning of the end of the Kauravas and should be avoided at all costs.
However, his repeated attempts to negotiate fell on deaf ears. Compounding the matter was the powerless Dhritarashtra, whose unassertiveness didn’t help the cause either. Other than platitudes, there was no decisive action taken by the sightless scion of the Kuru dynasty. He was helpless against the strong-arm tactics adopted by his son and refused to take a firm stand that would anger him.
Though Krishna’s efforts went in vain, he employed every possible strategy from scaling down his demands to educating Duryodhan on the repercussions of war. Gandhari was aware of the murky developments but was content playing the dutiful mother. Her token reminders asking Duryodhan to make peace with the Pandavas and go on the path of righteousness had always fallen on deaf ears. Whenever Duryodhan asked Gandhari for her blessings, she only said, “May victory be on the side of dharma.”
Forgetting Krishna’s untiring efforts to avoid the war, and his final objective to ensure that dharma triumphs, Gandhari, in a moment of terrible, unthinking fury, curses him:
“Vasudev! The day is not far off when your Yadava clan will be destroyed to the last man, in the same way that you destroyed us. Today, I stand here lamenting the loss of my sons. May a similar fate befall the Yadava women till they lose their sons and other members of the family. Much like the Pandavas and Kauravas who fought with each other, the Yadavas too will fight among themselves and kill each other; nobody will be able to stop their annihilation, even you. You will be a mere spectator; seeing the destruction of your clan. The Yadava women will beat their chests and mourn the deaths of their men. You have filled the lives of Kaurava women with misery. And then there’s you. You have killed your adversaries using trickery and deceit. You will also meet the same fate and die like an ordinary man!”
Everybody is stunned speechless at Gandhari’s outburst. How could a worshipper of Shiva curse Krishna? Krishna is the only one who remains unaffected. He listens to her calmly, knowing that every word uttered by Gandhari is going to come to pass. He neither protests nor offers her any explanation but accepts it, for he knows that the Dwaparyug is on the wane; Kaliyug is fast approaching.
Krishna’s silence is an answer in itself. What is predestined will run its course. As Gandhari comes to grips with the situation, she realises that the passive approach of her husband preferring to look the other way despite the many pleadings of Krishna is the cause of the misery. The crestfallen and utterly devastated couple then go back to the palace. Darkness envelops the battlefield. Fires burning everywhere bear testimony to the bitter end to which the war was fought.
Krishna goes back to the palace to meet Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, reminding them that souls are set on their next journey and what remains to be completed are the last rites. The old couple is unable to come to terms with the situation.
“O Krishna! No father would like to see the day when he has to consign the mortal remains of his sons to the fire. Not one of them is alive. Not even duryodhan. As a father, I showered love and affection upon them and brought them up in the best possible way. I was blind but my sons were my pillars of support. Now they are no more and I have nobody to lean on. Look at the irony of fate. My blindness is a blessing in disguise. Which father would like to see his sons’ dead bodies, decapitated heads, severed limbs and missing torsos? Please leave me alone, Vasudev. I cannot perform the last rites of my sons. I don’t dare to go through the ordeal.”
Krishna replies, “O Great King, when one fights a war, one has to prepare for the consequences. I understand your state of mind and fully sympathise with you but deaths have occurred on either side. If mata Gandhari has lost all her sons, so has Draupadi. Casualties haven’t spared the Pandavas. You can get solace by accepting death.”
With these words, Krishna leads Dhritarashtra and Gandhari back to the battleground. With a heavy heart, Dhritarashtra lights the pyre, thus signalling the end of the Kauravas.
There is no dearth of boons and curses in the Mahabharata. However, Gandhari’s curse spells the end of the Yadava clan, not sparing Krishna either, and heralds the arrival of Kaliyug.
Excerpted with permission from Untold Tales from the Mahabharata: The Epic beyond the Obvious, Uday Shankar, Bloomsbury.