Book 10: The Night-Raid
Among the only Kauravas remaining, Krpa, Krtavarman, and Asvatthaman gather to mourn their profound losses and certain defeat now that Duryodhana is dying. Asvatthaman, though, is still interested in seeking retribution. The other two try to discourage him, reminding him that Duryodhana had acted in adharma and invited all the harm that came the Kauravas way. But Asvatthaman retorts that he has been a brahmin choosing to live by ksatriya dharma, and he will continue to do so.
Asvatthaman then goes to the gates of the Pandava camp seeking entry. He is met by a terrible beast wearing a tiger-skin garment woven with a snake, spewing fire from every part of its face. When Asvatthaman tries to battle it, the faces of Krsna multiply and overwhelm him. Asvatthaman then summons Siva to aid him in defeating this creature, offering himself as a sacrifice at Siva's alter. Siva inhabits Asvatthaman's body, and he enters the camp.
For the first several people who Asvatthaman murders, he strangles them with his foot, killing them with indignity like animal sacrifices, and therefore denying them entry into heaven as warriors. It's only as he continues his slaughter that he meets people noble enough that he considers it proper to slaughter them like warriors. Upon leaving the camp, he tells Krpa and Krtavarman that he killed all the Pandavas, and they report the same to the dying Duryodhana, who dies shortly after this update. Asvatthaman then unleashes a weapon that makes all the Pandava wombs barren, which leads to him being cursed by Krsna to wander the rest of his life in hunger and suffering, having committed sinful acts of adharma.
Book 11: The Women
Dhrtarastra, deep in grief over his sons, asks Vidura how he may free himself from this abject suffering. Vidura describes the wheel of life, wherein a man who righteously follows the path of dharma is reincarnated higher and higher until he is freed and allowed to enter heaven. Dhrtarastra asks if he should take his own life for encouraging his sons to go to war, and Vidura tells him that the entire war, including Duryodhana's and the other sons' deaths, was all preordained, and therefore Dhrtarastra should take comfort in fate and not take his own life.
Yudhisthira visits Dhrtarastra, but is confronted by women who demand to know how he could have been acting in dharma by slaughtering all of their husbands, sons, and brothers. Dhrtarastra receives Yudhisthira since, even though he is devastated, he knows Yudhisthira is righteous. But when Dhrtarastra sees Bhima, he is filled with rage and attempts to kill him. Krsna tricks Dhrtarastra and offers him an iron effigy of Bhima, which Dhrtarastra smashes until blood pours out of it. Dhrtarastra is quickly overcome by grief over what he's done, but Krsna informs him that he only broke an effigy, and that Krsna had offered it to him to prevent him from carrying out an act of sin out of rage. Once again, Dhrtarastra is spared.
The women mourn the Kauravas, piling their bodies with various kinds of tinder to make a funeral pyre. When it's alight, the women shower it with ghee. After the funeral pyre, the woman go to the Ganga river to perform river rituals, and Yudhisthira joins them in the ritual to take part in the mourning. The Pandavas' mother tells them that Karna was their brother, and they are dumbstruck. Yudhisthira is stricken with grief, and weeps at the river.
Book 12: Tranquility
Yudhisthira asks Narada why Karna was condemned to death, and Narada recounts how Karna consistently chose to ally himself with Duryodhana even when given many chances to join the Pandavas. In deep grieving, Yudhisthira declares that he wants to give up his kingdom to Arjuna, and go live an ascetic life in the woods. Arjuna reminds him that it is not the Ksatriya dharma to live an ascetic life, and that Yudhisthira must take up his throne. When Yudhisthira does finally take up his throne, he lets all return to his kingdom and gives various gifts to honor his subjects. He agrees to obey the elder Dhrtarastra.
Yudhisthira and the other Pandavas then travel to consult with the dying Bhisma, who has put off his death for a great number of days. The remainder of this book is dedicated to a discursive, philosophical monologue by Bhisma on the various tenets of the king's duties and, more generally, dharma. Throughout he uses parables to illustrate his lessons. Bhisma describes to Yudhisthira how a king must always act in his own interests as a king, and operate with a general mistrust of those around him. The ruler's dharma is to rule to the best of his judgment.
When describing dharma more generally, Bhisma speaks of the merit of planning ahead and deliberating before taking action. When Yudhisthira asks how a man should wish to exist in the cycle of being reborn, Bhisma says that men should hope to be freed from living on a flawed earth, and use wisdom to follow actions that will help them fulfill dharma and escape living. They talk about the nature of time and the cosmos, of dharma and adharma, and of release.
With the fearsome war concluded, the Mahabharata's narrative effectively pauses for a series of passages that are the most explicitly discursive in the entire epic. Of course, the Mahabharata is, overall, a didactic text, but in the preceding books, it often teaches its lessons through allegory. Yet in this post-war segment, that discursive bent appears as philosophical conversation, as the format of the Bhagavad Gita is reiterated and expanded by way of other characters.
For example, we have the conversation between the grieving Dhrtarastra and Vidura. Dhrtarastra is distressed over his inability to keep his sons from embarking on this terrible war, and asks if he should take his own life. What results is an explanation from Vidura about the nature of fate, as he tells Dhrtarastra that the war, as well as his sons' deaths, was preordained.
Were we to read all those gruesome books about mass slaughter and wonder what exactly the Mahabharata is supposed to tell us, here Vidura tells us explicitly how war ties into Hindu faith and philosophy. This makes the Mahabharata unique from its closest analog, Homer's Iliad, in that it portrays events and then provides commentary on them. In Homer's text, the relevance of specific events in the war are constantly discussed throughout the narrative, but in the Mahabharata, we have these extra-narrative passages which help us unpack the narrative.
Consider the Mahabharata within the context of the other Hindu texts. This one is the only narrative of the bunch, meaning that the more explicitly philosophical passages are in fact the more familiar form within that early literary tradition. This helps explain why so much of the post-war segment of the Mahabharata is dedicated to a conversation between Yudhisthira and the dying Bhisma. In these passages, specific precepts for everything from a king's duty to the nature of living well are outlined in a way that reflects another ancient Greek test: Plato's Symposium. Perhaps it helps to think of the Mahabharata less as a perfect analog to the Iliad, but as a hybrid of a narrative war epic and a didactic text, performing the double duty of what Homer and Plato did individually.