Fifteen years passed in tranquility since Yudhishthira became king. One day Dhritarashtra and Gandhari overheard Bhima boasting of his prowess and how he had killed all the hundred Kaurava brothers. While Gandhari was generous enough to brush aside Bhima’s remarks, Dhritarashtra became very sad. He was reminded of his own role in bringing about the war. He decided to retire to the forest and take to penance.
Yudhishthira pleaded against Dhritarashtra proceeding to the forest. But Vyasa who was present at Hastinapura persuaded Yudhishthira to let his uncle have his way. Gandhari, Kunti, Vidura and Sanjaya also insisted on accompanying Dhritarashtra.
Preparations were made for Dhritarashtra to leave for the forest. He had a meeting with the Pandava king when he gave a long discourse on how to rule his country and how to carry on the great traditions set by the Kurus. He then sought leave of his subjects. He apologized to them for his follies in backing his evil-minded son. His subjects were touched by his oration and responded by saying that they carried no grudge against him.
The next day Vidura was deputed by Dhritarashtra to solicit wealth from the treasury for distribution to the people in memory of Bhishma, Drona, his hundred sons and all those near to him who were slain in the battle. Despite opposition from Bhima, the king opened out his treasury to his uncle.
Dhritarashtra, accompanied by Gandhari, Kunti, Vidura, Sanjaya and a host of brahmins, first reached the banks of Bhagirathi. He then proceeded to the hermitage of Satayapu, the former king of the Kekeyas. Commanded by Vyasa whose abode was nearby, Satayapu instructed Dhrirarashtra on how to conduct himself as an ascetic.
Narada who visited Dhritarashtra told him, “The gods are pleased with the severe austerities undertaken by you. You have been absolved of all your sins. You have three more years left after which, along with Gandhari, you would leave this world for your after life in heaven.”
The Pandava brothers, despite having become the lords of the earth, were deeply depressed at the thought of their mother, uncles and aunt living in the forest, bereft of all comforts. They were soon possessed with the desire to visit them. Yudhishthira made elaborate preparations and, accompanied by his near and dear ones, set out to the forest.
A happy family reunion took place in the hermitage. Yudhishthira, however, observed the absence of his uncle Vidura. When he made enquiries, he was told that Vidura was mostly away, roaming the forest, and sometimes seen in the company of brahmins. Yudhishthira immediately went alone in search of his younger uncle.
When he spotted Vidura, he found him to be emaciated, naked and covered with dirt. Vidura walked away from the king who ran to catch up with the ascetic. “Behold me, your favourite nephew,” Yudhishthira called. ”I have come to visit you.”
Vidura uttered not a word. He leaned back on a tree and looked at Yudhishthira with concentration. Through Yogic power, little by little, he transferred all his energy into the body of Yudhishthira.
Pandu’s son realized that both he and Vidura belonged to the same essence, namely the god Dharma. A voice was heard saying, “The soul of Vidura has now merged with yours. Do not cremate him. Leave him as he is and return.”
Yudhishthira did as he was told and returned to the hermitage.
Vyasa who was on a visit to the Satyapu hermitage, asked Dhritarashtra, “You have been without eyesight. Is there anyone you would like to meet from among the dead? I could, by the power of my penances, call them to our presence.”
It was Gandhari who answered Vyasa. She said, “This mighty monarch has been passing the last sixteen years since the conclusion of the war, sighing constantly in remembrance of his sons. So have I been thinking constantly about them. Kunti has been thinking of her son, Karna, to whom she was unable to show her affection. Draupadi must be depressed, thinking of her five sons who were slain.”
“I shall gratify the desire of everyone here,” the great sage said. “Follow me to the banks of Bhagirathi.”
The entourage spent a day on the river bank, engaged in various religious ceremonies. When it was dark, Vyasa invoked the dead who came out of the river in all splendour. Parents met children and wives met husbands. Bhishma, Duryodhana and his brothers, the sons of Draupadi, cousins and uncles were all there. The living embraced the dead. All enmity was forgotten, and the night was spent in bliss.
As dawn approached, the noble Vyasa announced, “The time for parting has come. All the slain Kshatriya heroes would now return to their various abodes. Those wives who want to join their dead husbands can do so by entering the river.” Many of the Kshatriya women took the option and merged into the river.
Two years passed after the Pandavas returned to Hastinapura from the memorable visit to Satayupa’s hermitage. Narada visited Yudhishthira, bringing news about Dhritarashtra. He said,
The noble descendent of Kuru undertook severe penance. His wife also took to meditation. Your mother, ever a monument of virtue, considered the old couple as her own parents and helped them in their austere life. Your uncle then left for Gangadhwara along with the others. There he was caught in a huge forest fire, the origin of which was from the sacrificial fire he was nurturing. When Sanjaya and the others offered to help him, he refused, preferring to stay and be consumed by the fire. Gandhari and Kunti also stayed with him and followed him in death. Sanjaya alone escaped, and he proceeded to the Himalayas to join the ascetics there”
The news of the death of his mother, uncle and aunt, caused great grief to Yudhishthira. Along with the other members of his family, he proceeded to the River Ganga where obsequies were performed for the departed ones.