The Death of Vidura in the Sanskrit Mahabharata

For my first post, I thought I would offer a short translation from a Sanskrit text. It takes up the death of one Vidura, who is an important character in the great Hindu narrative poem, the Mahabharata. Vidura is a chatty and sagacious fellow, who can remind of you of an ascetically-inclined Polonius on occasion (but try not to hold that against him). Vidura also appears in Buddhist and Jain literature (and Naomi and I will discuss him in more detail in later posts). His death is a dramatic and strange one in the Mahabharata, which is why I present it here. You will, no doubt, be left with more questions than answers at the end of it, but that is rather the point.

Argument

The death of Vidura occurs towards the end of the Mahābhārata, in the Āśramavāsikaparvan (‘The Book of the Residence in the Hermitage’). The Mahābhārata as a whole takes up the tale of a family feud between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pāṇḍavas, but it is also a repository of Brahminical Hindu religious thought. At this point in the story, the Pāṇḍavas have already defeated the Kauravas in a horrific war. In the aftermath of the war, the remnants of the Kauravas (chiefly the elderly generation, who were not combatants in the aforementioned war) have to make peace with the Pāṇḍavas. They co-habit, in an uneasy relationship, in the royal capital of Hastinapura, which was built by the Pāṇḍavas. Their king is the Pāṇḍava monarch,Yudhiṣṭhira. Vidura has been a trusted adviser of both sides. Dhṛtarāṣṭra in his old age, and ever-mindful of the losses he has sustained, retires to the forest with his wife, Gāndhārī, as well as the mother of the Pāṇḍavas, Kuntī, and Vidura. They plan to lead an ascetic life in a forest hermitage (an Āśrama in Sanskrit). Unbeknownst to the characters, Vidura is the incarnation of the god of religious law, Dharma, on earth. Dharma was cursed to an earthly birth when he was overly severe in his judgement of the life of an ascetic called Māṇḍavya. Complicating matters is the fact that Yudhiṣṭhira is the son of Dharma, though he is the adopted son of one king Pāṇḍu.

Dramatis Personae

Yudhiṣṭhira – the Pāṇḍava king

Dhṛtarāṣṭra – the defeated Kaurava monarch and father of Duryodhana, who was the chief opponent of the Pāṇḍavas

Vidura – the half-brother of Dhṛtarāṣṭra (fathered upon a serving girl by their father, Kṛṣṇa Dvaipāyana Vyāsa – who is also the putative author of the Mahābhārata)

The Sanskrit Text

Taken from the Pune Critical Edition of the Mahābhārata (15.33.15-32):

ity uktaḥ pratyuvācedaṃ dhṛtarāṣṭro janādhipam /
kuśalī viduraḥ putra tapo ghoraṃ samāsthitaḥ // 15 //

vāyubhakṣo nirāhāraḥ kṛśo dhamanisaṃtataḥ /
kadā cid dṛśyate vipraiḥ śūnye ‘smin kānane kva cit // 16 //

ity evaṃ vadatas tasya jaṭī vīṭāmukhaḥ kṛśaḥ /
digvāsā maladigdhāṅgo vanareṇusamukṣitaḥ // 17 //

dūrād ālakṣitaḥ kṣattā tatrākhyāto mahīpateḥ /
nivartamānaḥ sahasā janaṃ dṛṣṭvāśramaṃ prati // 18 //

tam anvadhāvan nṛpatir eka eva yudhiṣṭhiraḥ /
praviśantaṃ vanaṃ ghoraṃ lakṣyālakṣyaṃ kva cit kva cit // 19 //

bho bho vidura rājāhaṃ dayitas te yudhiṣṭhiraḥ /
iti bruvan narapatis taṃ yatnād abhyadhāvata // 20 //

tato vivikta ekānte tasthau buddhimatāṃ varaḥ /
viduro vṛkṣam āśritya kaṃ cit tatra vanāntare // 21 //

taṃ rājā kṣīṇabhūyiṣṭham ākṛtīmātrasūcitam /
abhijajñe mahābuddhiṃ mahābuddhir yudhiṣṭhiraḥ // 22 //

yudhiṣṭhiro ‘ham asmīti vākyam uktvāgrataḥ sthitaḥ /
vidurasyāśrave rājā sa ca pratyāha saṃjñayā // 23 //

tataḥ so ‘nimiṣo bhūtvā rājānaṃ samudaikṣata /
saṃyojya viduras tasmin dṛṣṭiṃ dṛṣṭyā samāhitaḥ // 24 //

viveśa viduro dhīmān gātrair gātrāṇi caiva ha /
prāṇān prāṇeṣu ca dadhad indriyāṇīndriyeṣu ca // 25 //

sa yogabalam āsthāya viveśa nṛpates tanum /
viduro dharmarājasya tejasā prajvalann iva // 26 //

vidurasya śarīraṃ tat tathaiva stabdhalocanam /
vṛkṣāśritaṃ tadā rājā dadarśa gatacetanam // 27 //

balavantaṃ tathātmānaṃ mene bahuguṇaṃ tadā /
dharmarājo mahātejās tac ca sasmāra pāṇḍavaḥ // 28//

paurāṇam ātmanaḥ sarvaṃ vidyāvān sa viśāṃ pate /
yogadharmaṃ mahātejā vyāsena kathitaṃ yathā // 29 //

dharmarājas tu tatrainaṃ saṃcaskārayiṣus tadā /
dagdhukāmo ‘bhavad vidvān atha vai vāg abhāṣata // 30 //

bho bho rājan na dagdhavyam etad vidurasaṃjñakam /
kalevaram ihaitat te dharma eṣa sanātanaḥ // 31 //

lokāḥ saṃtānakā nāma bhaviṣyanty asya pārthiva /
yatidharmam avāpto ‘sau naiva śocyaḥ paraṃtapa // 32 //

English Translation

I offer, first of all, a verse translation. This attempts to capture some of the excitement of the Sanskrit text. However, for those of you that can’t get by without a prose translation with lots of Sanskrit words in brackets, I provide one after the verse text.

Dhṛtarāśṭra said: ‘Vidura is well,

My dear. He performs strict austerities.

Seen here and there, he lives on air, his bones

And veins in stark relief. He eats nothing.’

Just then, with matted locks and smeared with filth,

Naked but for the pollen of wild flowers,

Slave-born Vidura was seen from afar.

Turning to look at them, he stopped in his tracks.

Yudhiṣṭhira gave chase; alone, he ran

Into the woods. Here and there, seen and unseen,

He vigorously pursued him. Shouting,

‘O Vidura! It is I your cherished king!’

Deep in the lonely woods, noble Vidura

Ceased to run. He took refuge by a tree;

A mere shadow of a man, wasting away,

Yet known in an instant by the king.

And then, coming into his presence, the king,

Within earshot, said, ‘I am Yudhiṣṭhira.’

Vidura, unblinking, fixed his gaze upon

His lord and by it, was united with him.

Limb on limb and breath on breath, Vidura

Merged their senses and their beings entire.

Wise Vidura, as if afire, entered

The king’s body, with his yogic power.

Leaning against a tree, eyes fixed ahead,

The king saw that life had now fled his frame.

Full of vigor, suffused with new powers

The Dharma king, Pāṇḍu’s son, remembered all.

Full of knowledge, he recalled lives gone by;

Just as had been described to him before.

Yudhṣṭhira thought to cremate his friend,

But a heavenly voice began to speak:

‘O king, burn not this man; you are him

And he is you; he is the god Dharma!

My prince, heaven awaits him. He goes now to

An ascetic’s rest, well-earned. Do not grieve!’

 

 

And now for the prose translation:

This being said, Dhṛtarāśṭra answered that lord of men: My son, Vidura is well; he performs terrible austerities (tapo ghoraṃ). [15] Living on air (vāyubhakṣo), abstaining from food (nirāhāraḥ), emaciated (kṛśa), [and] with prominent veins (dhamani-saṃtataḥ), he is sometimes seen by Brahmins around (kva cit) this desolate (śūnye) forest (kānane). [16]  As he said this, with matted locks, holding a stick in his mouth as a form of penance (vīṭā-mukhaḥ), emaciated, a naked mendicant (digvāsā), his limbs smeared with filth (maladigdhāṅgo), and bespeckled with the pollen of wild flowers (vana-reṇa-samukṣitaḥ), [17],  the slave-born one (kṣattā) [Vidura], was spotted (ālakśitaḥ) at a distance [and] the lord of the earth [Yudhiṣṭhira] was informed of this (tatra-ākhyāta); having seen the people (janam dṛṣṭvā)  [Vidura] suddenly stopped (nivartamānaḥ sahasā) [and] turned toward the hermitage (āśram prati). [18] King Yudhiṣṭhira ran after (anvadhāvan) him entirely on his own (eka eva) [and], entering the forest (praviśantaṃ vanaṃ ghoraṃ), [Vidura was] visible then invisible (lakṣya-ālakśya) here and there (kva cit kva cit). [19] O! O! Vidura! [It is] I your cherished (dayitas) king Yudhiṣṭhira! Speaking thus, the lord of men, exerting himself (yatnād), followed after him. [20] Then Vidura, the best of the brightest (buddhimatāṃ varaḥ), having sought refuge (āśritya) by a tree (vṛkṣam), remained (tasthau) in an isolated (vivikta)  [and]  lonely spot (ekānte) there, in the interior of the forest (vanāntare). [21] Clever King Yudhiṣṭhira recognised (abhijajñe) him of great intellect [though he was] exceedingly emaciated (kśīṇabhūyiṣṭham), possessing only the shape (ākṛtī-mātra-sūcitam) [of a man]. [22]  And then, gesturing (saṃjñayā), the king spoke in his presence (pratyāha). Standing in front [of him] (agratas sthitaḥ), uttering the words (vākyam uktvā)  ‘I am Yudhiṣṭhira’, within earshot of  Vidura (vidurasya-āśrave). [23]  Then he [Vidura], unblinking (animiṣo), regarded the king intently (samudaikṣata); Vidura fixed (saṃyojya) his gaze (dṛṣṭiṃ) upon him (tasmin) [and] was united [with him] by means of [that] gaze. [24]  Wise (dhīmān) Vidura entered (viveśa) [Yudhiṣṭhira], limb by limb (gātrair gātrāṇi); merging (dadhad) indeed life-breaths with life-breaths and senses with senses. [25] Vidura, by means of his tejas, as if afire, entered the body of that lord, the dharma king, using (āsthāya) the power of his yoga (yogabalam). [26]  Meanwhile, the body of Vidura, with unblinking eyes (stabdhalocanam) lent against the tree (vṛkṣa-āśritam) and the king saw that life was gone (gata-cetanam) [from him]. [27] Then [the king] felt (mene) himself [to be] possessed of strength [and] many [new]positive qualities (bahuguṇam) And then, the powerful dharmic king, Pāṇḍu’s son, remembered (sasmāra). [28] O lord of men, he was possessed of knowledge (vidyāvān) of all his former selves (paurāṇam ātmanaḥ sarvaṃ) and mighty energy; the conduct of yoga had been described to him by Vyāsa. [29]  But the Dharma King then wished to perform the appropriate rite for him. He  was desirous of cremating [him]. Just then a  voice said: [30]  O! O! King! this one known as Vidura (vidura-saṃjñakam) is not to be burnt. This body (kalevaram) here [is also] yours! It [is] the eternal dharma! [31] O prince, the [heavenly] worlds known as Saṃtānaka will be his! This he has attained, by means of his ascetic duties; do not grieve O destroyer of foes! [32]

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2 thoughts on “The Death of Vidura in the Sanskrit Mahabharata

  1. Shreya Dasgupta

    Very nicely explained in simple language without leaving the essence of the sanskrit text. Well done!

    Reply
  2. Sev

    Thanks for this post. I liked the accessible translation, and explanation of an obviously convoluted text and story. I think, over the years, Vidura has grown to be my favourite character along with Bheeshma. I started off, like many others, with Karan as my favourite character, but over the years, I’m starting to realize his character has been mangled beyond recognition in the popular imagination. I’m sure he has his flaws, deep glaring flaws which justify his fate. It doesn’t help that enjoyable fictional books based on the Mahabharata such as The Palace of Illusions play on and build up those supposed aspects attributed to Karna’s personality. I wish you’d post more on Vidura, and maybe a more realistic post on Karna as well.

    Reply

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