As soon as Yudhishtira stepped into heaven, he saw the hundred Kauravas, Duryodhana and Dusshasana included, standing beside the Devas looking radiant and blissful. They too spread out their arms to welcome Yudhishtira.
Yudhishtira recoiled in disgust. “How did these warmongers reach Amravati?” he asked angrily.
The Devas replied, “They were killed on the holy land of Kuru-kshetra. That has purified them of all misdeeds and earned them the right to enter Amravati. Surely, if heaven is good enough for your dog, it is good enough for your cousins.”
The explanation did not satisfy Yudhishtira. “And my brothers? And my wife? What about them? Where are they? Are they here too?” he asked.
“They are not here,” replied the Devas placidly, refusing to pay any attention to Yudhishtira’s rising rage.
“In another place,” said the Devas, taking no notice of Yudhishtira’s impatience.
“Take me to them,” said Yudhishtira, determined to get to the bottom of this.
“Certainly,” said the Devas who led Yudhishtira out of Swarga, down from the sky, along the slopes of Mandara, through a crevice deep under the earth to a realm that was dark and gloomy and miserable.
There, Yudhishtira heard cries of pain and suffering. It was everything Amravati was not.
He realized it was Naraka, the realm of misery.
“My brothers are here?” cried Yudhishtira in disbelief.
In response, he heard the moans of his brothers, including Karna. “Yes, we are here,” they said in unison.
Bhima, Yudhishtira knew, was paying for his gluttony. Arjuna for his envy, Nakula for his insensitivity, Sahadeva for his smugness and Draupadi for her partiality.
But Karna? Why him? Had his elder brother not suffered enough in life?
“Karna promised Kunti to spare four of her five sons despite knowing that Duryodhana relied on him to kill all five Pandavas.
He is paying for breaking his friend’s trust,” clarified the Devas rather matter-of-factly.
Yudhishtira felt everyone’s pain and started to weep.
“Shall we go back to Amravati now?” asked the Devas.
“No, no. Please don’t go,” Yudhishtira heard his brothers cry. “Your presence comforts us.”
“Well? Shall we leave?” asked the Devas impatiently.
“Please stay,” Yudhishtira heard Draupadi plead. She sounded so lost and tired and anxious and afraid.
Yudhishtira could not bring himself to move. Tears welled up in his eyes. How could he return to Swarga and leave his family here?
He took a decision. “No. I will not leave Naraka. I will stay here with my wife and my brothers. I will suffer with them. I refuse to enter Amravati without them.”
The Devas laughed. Rising up in the air, glowing like fire flies, they said, “Oh, but we thought you had renounced everything?”
“What do you mean?” asked Yudhishtira, suddenly uncomfortable.
“Did you not renounce all worldly ties when you entered Swarga? Wherefrom then, comes this attachment? You are as attached as to your hatred as a dog is attached to its master.”
Yudhishtira argued, “How can Amravati open its gates to the Kauravas, those murderers, and not to my family which has always followed the path of righteous conduct? Even Krishna fought against the Kauravas!”
“Do you feel we are taking sides, Yudhishtira?” asked the Devas.
“Yes,” snapped Yudhishtira, looking at the dark misery all around him. Surely, his family who had established dharma on earth did not deserve this. This was so unfair.
“You have given up your kingdom and your clothes, son of Dharma, but not your hatred. You killed the Kauravas in Kuru-kshetra and ruled their kingdom for thirty-six years! Still you have not forgiven them. You, who turned your back on your brothers on your way to Amravati, recalled them the instant you saw the Kauravas in heaven. This display of love is nothing but a reaction, retaliation. You cling to your anger, Yudhishtira. You still distinguish between friend and foe. You refuse to let go and move on. How then do you hope to truly attain heaven?”
Suddenly, a vision unfolded before Yudhishtira. The Virat-swarup of Krishna. “Behold within God,” a voice boomed, “all that exists. Everything. Everyone. Draupadi and Gandhari. The Pandavas and the Kauravas. All possibilities. The killers and the killed.”
At that moment, Yudhishtira realized he was not the great man who he thought he was. He had not really overcome his prejudices. Only when there is undiluted compassion for everyone, even our worst enemies, is ego truly conquered. Realization humbled Yudhishtira. He fell to the ground and began to weep.
Led by the Devas, Yudhishtira then took a dip in the Ganga and rose enlightened, purified and refreshed and truly liberated, with the sincere desire to forgive and accept the Kauravas. There was no more hatred. No more ‘them’ and ‘us’. No more ‘better’ and ‘worse’. There was only love. Everyone was one.
“Jaya!” shouted Indra. “Jaya!” shouted the Devas. “Jaya!” shouted the Rishis. For Yudhishtira had won the ultimate victory, victory over himself. No he would ascend to a heaven higher than Swarga. Now he would ascend to Vaikuntha, the abode of God.
Interpretation: The epic ends not with the victory of the Pandavas over the Kauravas but with Yudhishtira’s triumph over himself. This is the spiritual victory or Jaya. This is the ultimate aim of the great epic.
Interpretation: Unlike Biblical traditions, Hindus have more than one heaven. There is Swarga and Vaikuntha. Swarga is the paradise of Indra where all desires are fulfilled. Vaikuntha is God’s heaven where one is free of all desires.