FIFTEEN years passed under king Yudhishthira's reign, when old Dhritarashtra found himself utterly unable any longer to bear the burden of grief.
Hurt by Bhima's occasional reproaches, he found no heart to accept the courtesies and comforts provided under king Yudhishthira's orders. Unknown to the Pandavas, he secretly fasted and underwent hard penances.
Gandhari too observed manifests and inflicted privation on her. And one day Dhritarashtra sent for Dharmaputra and spoke to him thus:
"Son, blessings on you. I have spent fifteen happy years under your roof. You have tended me most lovingly. I have made gifts and offerings to ancestors and fulfilled all my desires in that respect.
Bereaved Gandhari, laying aside her own grief, has ministered to my physical wants all these years. My cruel sons, who committed unforgivable wrong to Draupadi and deprived you of your lawful inheritance, perished on account of their sins. But they fought like brave soldiers and died in the battlefield and have gone to the happy regions reserved for the brave. The time has come when with Gandhari I must do what has to be done for our next state. You know what the sastras have lain down. I must now go to the forest. These robes must be replaced by bark and tattered old clothes, suitable for the life of Vanaprastha. I desire to go and live in the forest, praying for your good. I want your permission for this. Let me follow the practice of our fathers. As king, you will share in the fruits of my penance."
Yudhishthira received a shock when he saw Dhritarashtra and heard him say this.
"I did not know," he said, "that you had been fasting and sleeping on the bare ground and mortifying your flesh in this manner. My brothers too were unaware of this. I was misled into believing you were well looked after and happy. Father, you have suffered grief, for which there can be no solace. I see no good in kingdom or pleasures. I am a sinner. Desire and ambition deceived me into this. Let your son Yuyutsu be king, or anyone else you choose. Or if you will do so, you yourself may take up the duties of king and look after the people. I shall go to the forest.
Let me terminate this chapter of error. I implore you to save me from further obloquy and burning shame. I am not the king. You are the king. You ask me for permission to go. How then can I give or refuse permission to you? Let me assure you that my anger against Duryodhana is a thing of the past, gone without a trace.
Fate willed it and engulfed us all in confusion of mind. And events happened which were not in our control. We are your children, even like Duryodhana and his brothers. Gandhari and Kunti is alike mother to me and command equal regard and filial affection from me, their child. If you go away to the forest, I must go with you and serve you there. If you retire to the woods and leave me here, what joy shall I have in kingship? I prostrate myself before you and implore you to forgive the errors we have been guilty of. Serving you will give me true joy and peace of mind.
Give me that opportunity and privilege.
Do not desert me."
Dhritarashtra was deeply moved. But he said: "Kunti's beloved son, my mind is fixed on going to the forest and on penance. I can find no peace otherwise now. I have lived under your roof for many years. You and all your people have served me with unstinted devotion. You must permit me now to fulfil my wish and let me go."
Having thus spoken to Yudhishthira, who stood with clasped hands and trembling with agitation, Dhritarashtra turned to Vidura and Kripacharya: "I beg of you to comfort the king and make him grant my prayer. My mind is fixed on the forest. I am unable to speak any more. I am feeling dry in my throat. Perhaps, it is due to age.
I have talked too much. I am tired."
Saying this, he leaned helplessly on Gandhari and swooned.
Yudhishthira was unable to bear this distress of the grand old man, who had possessed the sinews of an elephant and had had strength enough to crush the metal figure of Bhima into powder.
How lean he had become now and emaciated, with his bones showing through his skin, piteously leaning senseless on Gandhari like one destitute.
"Have I caused all this?" he reproached himself. "Miserable and unworthy am I, ignorant of dharma, devoid of intelligence. A curse on my learning!"
He sprinkled water on Dhritarashtra's face and caressingly stroked him with his soft hands.
When the old man recovered, he tenderly clasped the Pandava to his bosom and muttered: "My dear boy, how sweet is your touch! I am happy."
Then Vyasa entered. When he was acquainted with what had happened, he said to Yudhishthira:
"Do what Dhritarashtra, eldest of the Kurus, desires. Let him go to the forest.
He is old. All his sons have gone before him. It is not possible for him much longer to bear his grief. Gandhari, whom God has blessed with enlightenment, has borne her sorrows with courage. Do not stand in the way of their wishes. Let not Dhritarashtra pine away and die here. Let him go and live among the honeyladen flowers of the forest and breathe their fragrance, leaving the cares of the world behind. The dharma of kings is to die in battle or to spend their last days in retirement in the forest. Dhritarashtra has ruled the kingdom and performed yajnas.
When you were in the wilderness for thirteen years, he enjoyed the wide earth through his son and gave bounteous gifts.
You left him nothing to desire. The time has come for him to do penance. Let him go with your hearty consent, and without anger in his heart."
Dharmaraja said: "So be it!"
Then Vyasa returned to his hermitage.