Mahabharata Summary and Analysis of Instruction, The Horse Sacrifice, The Hermitage


Book 13: Instruction

Yudhisthira continues his conversation with Bhisma, now focusing on all that it takes to live life well. They discuss tranquility, the virtues of devotion and compassion, and the danger of giving instruction to someone from a lower caste. They also discuss more explicitly religious matters, such as the 1,000 names of Siva and how one can only become a brahmin through rebirth. This is when Bhisma tells Yudhisthira that the role of kings is to honor and protect brahmins.

They also talk about women. The conversation starts off talking about their capricious nature, as well as their tendencies towards deceit and wrongdoing. Bhisma then goes on to outline the various arrangements for marriage and the terms for how a girl should be married. Naturally, this leads to a conversation about bearing children and various other domestic matters. The conversation returns to how a king can rule well, and goes through a series of questions Yudhisthira has about giving gifts and the virtues of giving cattle. Their dialogue concludes with explanations of heaven, hell, and honor.

Upon the conclusion of their conversation, Yudhisthira takes up his kingship. After ruling for 50 days, he sets out to bring Bhisma the preparations for his cremation. Bhisma tells Dhrtarastra that he should consider the Pandavas his own sons, and that he should not mourn his wicked sons who have gone to hell. Krsna then gives Bhisma the blessing to die. He takes a yogic breath and his body heals of all wounds before this soul shoots out of his head into the heavens. Bhisma's mother, the goddess Ganga, mourns his death until Krsna reminds her that Bhisma only took the form of a man because of a curse.

Book 14: The Horse Sacrifice

Yudhisthira is again overcome with grief. Dhrtarastra tells him not to grieve, since he only acted righteously, while Krsna chides him for desiring the life of an ascetic despite acting totally within his ksatriya dharma during the war. Krsna reminds Yudhisthira to ignore desire, which is a distracting and flawed impulse in humans. He advises that Yudhisthira perform a horse sacrifice. Yudhisthira agrees it would purify the earth, but can not afford it, since he spent all of his wealth on the war. Krsa tells him to go to Mount Himalaya to find the wealth he needs that he left there during a brahmin sacrifice.

Krsna visits the ascetic Vasudeva to tell him of the war, and when Vasudeva deduces that Krsna has omitted talking about the death of Abhimanyu, the ascetic grows infuriated. But Krsna quells him, saying that he is the creator, and he is in all men, just as all men are in him. As if to demonstrate this principle, Krsna then goes to visit Abhinmayu's widow, who is to give birth to Abhimanyu's stillborn son due to the curse placed on Pandava women by Asvatthaman. Krsna gives that stillborn son live, and people come from all around to sing his praises.

Yudhisthira secures the white horse that will be used for the sacrifice ceremony, and sends Arjuna to travel the world on it, retracing all of the battlegrounds of the terrible war. During this journey, Arjuna encounters a number of enemies with whom he does battle, and all of whom try to intercept or kill the sacrificial horse. Yudhisthira rejoices when Arjuna returns, and the horse becomes the center of a sacrifice of 300 animals carried out by brahmin priests. The smoke from the horses's cooking intestinal sac purifies the entire earth. A mongoose emerges to denounce the animal sacrifice as needless. With the ritual having been performed the world is now cleansed and Yudhisthira can take his rightful throne.

Book 15: The Hermitage

As king, Yudhisthira mandates that Dhrtarastra and Gandhari be treated with utmost reverence, and gives them accommodations to live lavishly. He demands that all of the Pandavas treat them well, but Bhima disobeys in secret, never forgiving Dhrtarastra for the imprudence that led to that precipitous dice game. After 15 years, Dhrtarastra appeals to Yudhisthira to let him and Gandhari go to live out their remaining years as ascetics in the forest, just as Ksatriyas are supposed to do when their son takes control of the kingdom.

Yudhisthira is shocked to learn that Dhrtarastra is so unhappy living in his kingdom, but is ultimately convinced by Vidura to grant them their wish. He sends Dhrtarastra, Gandhari, the Pandava's mother Kunti, Vidura, and Samjaya to the forest with brahmins, seers, slaves, and all manner of riches. After a period of time, the Pandava brothers are despondent over their mother's departure, so they set out on an expedition to visit the forest-dwellers. There, Yudhisthira finds a dying Vidura, and offers to cremate his body, but instructed not to, for Vidura's body is Yudhisthira's too.

During their time in the hermitage, Vyasa summons all of the Kaurava warriors who died in the great war. They appear in the Ganga free of enmity, and Vyasa tells their wives to plunge in the river and reunite with their husbands. Blind all his life, Dhrtarastra can see his sons for the first time, in their true form. The Pandavas return to their kingdom, and after a period of time, are visited by Narada.

Narada informs Yudhisthira that a fire consumed the hermitage, and killed all of the elders living ascetically. Yudhisthira mourns Dhrtarastra, who died an undignified death, as well as his mother, who he imagines terrified in her final moments. But Narada informs him that it was a sacred fired initially set by Dhrtarastra, and that his mother has attained perfection in death. The Pandavas carry out the proper funerary rites for the dead, but Yudhisthira rules cheerlessly, with most of his closest relatives and kin deceased.


In his introduction to the Penguin abridged edition of the Mahabharata, John D. Smith asks why a full third of the epic—the final third of the verses—is dedicated to discussing so few events. After all, the first two–thirds of the book depicting the lead–up to the war and the war itself are action-packed, with a litany of adventures and allegories, of conflict and confrontation. But the final third is largely dedicated to, as previous mentioned, didactic conversation. Smith posits that Bhisma's extensive conversation with Yudhisthira is a result of the encyclopedic tendencies of the Mahabharata.

On one hand, this means that compilers of the epic felt the need to have it describe just about every matter that a ksatriya or brahmin may have to consider in the course of life. But on the other, as Smith points out, that encyclopedic tendency extends to addressing and evaluating both sides of various debates that were likely occurring at the time of the Mahabharata's writing. Bhisma talks about both Samkhya and Yoga in "Instruction," which are two differing philosophical systems within Hindu thought, and Smith remarks on the fact that the epic remarks on both of these somewhat conflicting schools of thought without trying to reconcile them.

Smith traces this tendency throughout the final books of the epic, noting the ambivalent portrayal of animal sacrifice. Arjuna's final glory occurs during his trip around the world on the white horse that will be sacrificed to purify the earth, and indeed these adventures are portrayed as awe-inspiring. The same holds true for the preparations of the sacrifice and the sacrifice itself. All of this is an awesome spectacle. Yet, at the end of the sacrifice, a mongoose denounces the ritual killing of animals as pointless. Smith notes that this is the strange conflicted nature of the Mahabharata's didactic segments, as the text tends to offer all perspectives on some matters without arbitrating them.

With all of this said, the final third of the Mahabharata is not without crucial narrative. Just after the horse sacrifice, the elders in the Bharata line retreat to a forest hermitage to die as ascetics. They are consumed by a fire initially set by Dhrtarastra. When Yudhisthira learns of this, he is hysterical over the idea of his mother dying in terror, but Narada reminds Yudhisthira that his mother attained perfection in death. Here, we see the narrative and the philosophical blended perfectly, as the epic's tendency towards allegory makes an allegory out of its central characters, illustrating how human emotion and experience so easily bristle against the spiritual tenets of Hinduism.