The war lasted eighteen days, and it was every bit as ugly as the vision Arjuna had received, every bit as ugly as any war has ever been. The war was corrupting: at some point or another during it, virtually every warrior, including Yudhishtira and Arjuna, resorted to trickery and deceit to accomplish his purpose. Bhima fulfilled his vows; he killed all hundred of Dritarashtra’s sons, and broke the old blind hero’s heart.The great war of the Bharatas destroyed all the promise in the world and all the best hope.
When it was over, only the Pandavas and a handful of others survived. But the world had changed. The Pandavas spent a large part of the rest of their lives trying to understand the laws that governed the post-war world, and the long chapters in the Mahabharata that follow the story of the war itself are dry and didactic. The law that is explicated here seems more contrived and considerably more abstruse than the dharma that governed the behavior of warriors and kings before the war. The final chapters of the story are elegiac in tone.
Krishna, after a vigorous and heroic life, retired to the forest to sit in meditation, and a hunter mistook him for a deer and fatally wounded him. Arjuna was griefstricken when the great sage Vyasa brought him the news.
"Krishna’s time had come," Vyasa told him. "Remember what he taught you."
"Every man is responsible for his own death," said Arjuna.
"Arjuna," said Vyasa, "this age has nothing left in it for you. Bhima, your part in this story is done. Yudhishtira, is it not time to take your brothers home?"
So the Pandavas went on their last journey, north, into the great mountains. It was a small troup this time - just Draupadi, the five brothers, and Yudhishtira’s faithful dog. One by one they fell, victims of time and their own distinctive frailties. Draupadi went first, then Sahadeva and Nakula, then Arjuna, and finally mighty Bhima. Yudhishtira and his dog continued through the high mountain passes against the vicious wind and swirling snow.
And suddenly, there was Indra, in his chariot, offering Yudhishtira a hand up.
"Welcome, Yudhishtira, hero. You have won to my heaven. Come aboard and I will take you there."
Yudhishtira whistled for his dog.
"Hold on." Indra smiled fondly at Yudhishtira and wagged his finger. "No dogs in heaven."
"He is a faithful and true companion," said Yudhishtira.
"Sorry, old chap. Just gods and human heros in my heaven."
"If he cannot come with me, then I will stay with him." And Yudhishtira stepped down from Indra’s chariot.
"But, Yudhishtira, old warrior, great king. You are the great hero of a great story. Your place is in my heaven."
"My place is where dharma is constant. This dog has been companion, protector, friend. I will stay near him."
"Yudhishtira," said the dog as he transformed into the embodied form of god Dharma. "My son, I have been with you through your long sad journey, and I am well pleased with your devotion. Draupadi and your brothers await you in Indra’s heaven; they have all left their bodies behind. You alone, great king, alone in all the ages, will enter Indra’s heaven in this body."
But Indra’s heaven was not quite what Yudhishtira had expected. Duryodhana was there, for one thing, in a place of prominence and honor, surrounded by luxury. And there was Duhsasana, along with the 98 other sons of King Dhritarashtra, and the deceitful Sakuni, all in noble places, partaking of Indra’s glory. Karna was not there, nor Dhritarashtra, nor Drona; there was no one to be seen who had held Yudhishtira’s love and admiration on earth.
"Where are my brothers," demanded Yudhishtira. "Where is the sinless Draupadi?"
There was an embarrassed silence. Then Indra spoke. "They are elsewhere, Yudhishtira. Now you must try to be friends with Duryodhana, and put the past behind you."
"Take me to my brothers."
Indra sent his servant to guide the great king to his brothers. They travelled down, into a foul gloomy realm, where corpses littered the path and rivulets of blood etched a barren landscape. They came to the edge of a broad deep trench, from which rose waves of heat, and rank odors, and the cries of the damned.
Indra’s messenger stopped. "They told me not to go any further than this. You may stay or return with me."
"Where are my brothers?" And then Yudhishtira recognized their voices, thick with pain, rising from the foul pit.
"Yudhishtira, stay with us," pleaded the voice of Nakula.
"Your presence cools us, and soothes our pain," cried Bhima.
"Stay with us, Yudhishtira." The voice was barely recognizeable as Arjuna.
And then Draupadi, wavering, "Stay."
"Will you return," asked Indra’s servant.
"I belong with those who have been true to themselves and have done the right thing. I will stay here," replied Yudhishtira.
And then he felt a cool breeze, and the light rose, and the air became fragrant, and Yudhishtira became aware that the sky was full of gods, radiant in their chariots, their banners waving, their smiles broad. Arjuna was there, and Bhima, and Draupadi and the twins, and their mother Kunti, and Pandu and Madri, and Karna, and King Dhritarashtra, all the god-like heros.
Once again, god Dharma descended and spoke to Yudhishtira. "All the deceptions are ended now, Yudhishtira. You are home."
And Dharma explained. "There is some good and some bad in all beings. All kings must have a glimpse of hell. You had your glimpse and were not shaken from your truth. Now you have come home, and the adventure ends in peace at last."