Book 16: The Clubs
The Pandavas learn form Vaisampayana about the downfall of Vrsnis and Krsna's death. They're shocked to hear about both of these and wish to learn how it all happened. Vaisampayana starts by talking about the Vrsnis, who have become aware of their impending destruction at the hands of Time. They descend into all manner of bizarre happenings and reckless sin, so Krsna impels them to take a pilgrimage to the ocean. During this pilgrimage, the Vrsnis have a drinking party which turns into a massive melee, with them fashioning clubs out of anything they grab. With these clubs, they kill each other, destroying everybody.
Krsna is despondent at first, but knew all along that this would be their fate. He went wandering into the deserted forest and, before too long, decided that it was his time to die as well. Krsna uses yoga to restrain his senses, and is shot by the hunter Jara (meaning "old age" in Sanskrit). Jara, at first, thinks he committed a terrible crime, but Krsna assures him he did nothing wrong as he ascends to heaven. There, Krsna joins all the other gods.
Arjuna goes to find Vasudeva to confirm the news, and Vasudeva says that Krsna said Arjuna would come, for Arjuna and Krsna are one. After Arjuna performs Krsna's funerary rites, he leads a caravan of Vrsni women. Without Krsna, Arjuna is not able to defend the women from a pack of thieves who raid their caravan. Thousands of Vrsni women are abducted. Arjuna becomes abject, and visits Vyasa, telling him that he has lost his prowess. Vyasa tells Arjuna that Time does and undoes all, and that as a man grows mighty, he will eventually grow powerless. Vyasa assures Arjuna that he has done well, and Arjuna returns to the Pandavas to tell them of his defeat.
Book 17: The Great Journey
When Yudhisthira hears of Krsna's passing, he resolves that it is his time to pass as well. The Pandava brothers agree that Time, ruler of all, has dictated that they should all pass. Yudhisthira consecrates Abhimanyu's son Pariksit as king of his kingdom, and convinces his subjects that the time has come for him to step down. He leads his brothers into the forest, where the god Fire compels Arjuna to give up his cosmic weapons, now that he has no use for them.
The brothers and Draupadi, devoted to Yoga, hope to travel the entire earth. But as they cross the northern mountains, each of them begins to die one by one, starting with Draupadi. For each that falls, Yudhisthira offers Bhima a flaw of theirs that contributed to their death. Finally, Bhima himself falls, leaving Yudhisthira alone. Indra comes down from the heavens on a chariot and commands Yudhisthira to mount it.
Yudhisthira demands from Indra that he let him take the dog that had followed the Pandavas, as this is the only living creature remaining, and he does not want to abandon a creature so loyal. The dog then transforms into the god of dharma and praises Yudhisthira, saying he has achieved the highest celestial state even in his own body. When he arrives in heaven, he finds that none of his brothers nor Draupadi are there. He tells Indra that he can't bear to be without them, and wants to go wherever they are.
Book 18: The Ascent to Heaven
Upon arrival to heaven, Yudhisthira finds only Duryodhana and grows quickly indignant. He asks why a man whose shortsightedness and envy caused so much death would gain entry to heaven, but not any of the Pandavas, or Karna, or any brahmins, or any of the brave kings who fought righteously in the war. Yudhisthira declares that he wants to be wherever his brothers are, so the gods instruct him to go there.
The path he follows is riddled with darkness and horrors, such as human hair growing where there should be moss and flesh and blood where there should be mud. He sees various men being tortured for their sins, and hears his brothers call out in voices as wicked as the place where he stands. In anger, he denounces the gods and dharma, and says to leave him there in hell so he can give his brothers company.
Indra then tells Yudhisthira that all kings must see hell, but since he and his brothers have lived virtuously, they will simply visit hell first before living in heaven. Yudhisthira is sent to heaven with his brothers, Draupadi, Karna, and all the kings who were slain in his name in battle. At the end, Vyasa sings a hymn to dharma.
Critical literature on the Mahabharata often draws parallels between this epic and another ancient epic poem that tells of a gruesome war, Homer's Iliad. But what we see in "The Clubs" perhaps is best likened not to that Greek epic, but to the "Book of Revelations" in the Christian New Testament. Both "The Clubs" and "The Book of Revelations" illustrate a surreal apocalypse, when a condemned section of humanity awaits its demise. Nature falls into disorder, and everything familiar is made strange.
In "The Clubs" and "The Ascent to Heaven" alike, we are presented with freakish inversions of the everyday. In "The Clubs," various animals are portrayed as giving birth to other animals, and everyday objects are suddenly transformed into deadly clubs during a drunken brawl that ends in the annihilation of all the men involved. In "The Ascent to Heaven," Yudhisthira enters hell and sees human hair grow where there should be moss, and flesh and blood where there should be mud. The Mahabharata portrays grotesque landscapes for grotesque people. Sinners, by living life in defiance of their dharma and fate, inherit versions of the world that defy logic and order.
If the prior depictions of war had desensitized us to violence in battle by perpetually deeming its events the due course of preordained fate, then these images do the opposite. They are intended to shock the audience, to provide the most extreme example of what happens to people who live their lives in contempt of that very fate. But hell, as "The Ascent to Heaven" makes clear, is not simply reserved for the wicked. All of the Pandavas spend some time there, despite the fact that they were gods incarnate, despite the fact that they vanquished the evil Duryodhana.
The Mahabharata concludes on what may strike the reader as an odd moral. In one respect, it seems to tell us that even the most righteous are condemned—that even the most virtuous have their moment in hell. But that's the glass-half-empty read. The more optimistic and charitable interpretation of the epic's conclusion is that, yes, even the most virtuous king who has ever existed had his time in hell, but only before he entered heaven. It construes hell as a gruesome place where you wouldn't want to spend eternity, compelling the audience to live a life that ensures they only spend a brief time in their afterlife to hell, and to illustrate that even if you live a life that condemns you to hell for a little bit, it may still be one that lands you in heaven.