Mahaprasthanika Parva: a mountaineering lesson from Mahabharata


In mountaineering circles, it is a very famous practise to sleep lower than the altitude you climb to, especially at higher altitudes. To elaborate, your body acclimatizes well if you reach a higher altitude (lower oxygen levels) and descend back to a slightly lower altitude(higher oxygen). Hence, I, along with a co-hiker, left the Kedarkantha base camp to a slightly higher point, on the way to the summit.

After a hard climb in soft snow cover, we turned around to see one of the most magnificent views of our lives. Snow clad mountains covered a 180-degree arc of our eyes. On the right, we had a few mighty mountains. A guide had informed me earlier that, these were the legendary Swargarohini range of mountains.

Swargarohini is believed to be the mountain which bore the final journey of the legendary Pandava brothers towards heaven. Standing at ~21000 feet, Swargarohini is a major mountaineering expedition and amongst the toughest mountains in Garhwal Himalayas.

It is no wonder, it defied the might of the titanic Pandavas except for Yudhishthira, However, is mountaineering all about might? If that is so, how did the mighty warriors like Bheema and Arjuna fall apart? Or else, does this chapter in Mahabharata hold a hidden message, an allegorical lesson? Before we find answers to these questions, let’s set the backdrop:

36 years after the Kurukshetra War

With a few warriors left after the Kurukshetra war, Yudhishthira was an unchallenged emperor in the Indian subcontinent. Hence, with the help of his brothers and Krishna, he ruled peacefully for 36 long years. However, nemesis set in with the destruction of Yadavas and the death of Krishna. Naturally, Pandavas lost interest in worldly life without Krishna. As a result, they installed Arjuna’s grandson Parikshit on the throne of Hastinapur and renounced the kingdom along with their common wife Draupadi.

Further, they took a tour of the entire nation right from the northeast region to the southern oceans to the west coast of India. Finally, they ended up in the Himalayas and started their ascent on the Swargarohini (Mahabharata mentions this as Meru. See postscript for more details).

The fall of Draupadi: Biases and prejudices

After a while, the hike towards the summit started taking a toll on their bodies and one by one they began to fall to their deaths. The first one to fall was Draupadi. However, Yudhishthira continued his hike without turning back. Bheema chased the eldest and informed him about Draupadi’s fall.

“It’s the weight of her karma that made her fall,” said Yudhishthira nonchalantly.

“What made the beautiful Draupadi fall?” wailed Bheema in response.

“Although married to five of us, she was inclined towards Arjuna,” replied Yudhishthira.

Purport: The above dialogue throws light Draupadi’s inclination towards Arjuna, although she was married to all the five brothers. In a larger context, these prejudices, preconceived notions are bound to be shattered in any mountaineering expedition. One needs to be open to surprises and uncertainties of rough terrain. Draupadi’s fall symbolises the process dropping of preconceived notions/prejudices in a mountaineer’s life.

The fall of Sahadeva: The problem of superiority complex

The next one to fall was Sahadeva. However, the eldest continued non chalantly. Again Bheema caught hold of him and asked, “Now, why did the wise Sahadeva fall?”

To this Yudhishthira replied, “He believed that there was no one equal to him in wisdom!”

Purport: Sahadeva was considered to be the most intelligent man of his time. In various verses of Mahabharata, he is compared to Brihaspati, the preceptor of gods. However, his intellect birthed superiority complex in Sahadeva, instead of humbling him. His fall symbolises the dropping of vanity on a mountain since mountaineering is always humbling.  Otherwise, the mountains are harsh on the people who lack the necessary humility.

The fall of Nakula: Beauty Consciousness

Nakula followed Sahadeva and Draupadi. Bheema wailed again, “Why did the handsome Nakula fall?”

Yudhishthira answered, “He was proud of his handsome bearing throughout his life. His beauty consciousness made him fall.”

Purport: Nakula was considered to be the most handsome man of his time. Moreover, he was too conscious about that fact. His fall symbolises the fall of beauty consciousness in any mountaineering task. We are aware that mountaineering and wilderness go hand in hand. It entails dropping off all the cognizance towards one’s beauty and appearance.

The fall of Arjuna: Arrogance has no footing

The penultimate one to fall was the greatest warrior of all times, Arjuna! At this Bheema said, “O King, what made the world-famous Arjuna fall? He was undefeated and yet what was his fault?”

Yudhishthira replied, “He said that he would vanquish all our enemies in one day. However, he did not accomplish that. Moreover, this meant that he was too proud of his skill and as a result, he underestimated all the other warriors.”

Purport: Arguably, Arjuna was the best warrior of all times. However, at times it made him arrogant and as a result, he underestimated his enemy. His fall represents the fact that being arrogant is a fatal trait in the mountains. Furthermore, Arjuna was overly competitive. This is amongst the deadliest trait on any mountaineering expedition. One has to follow his/her own pace. The person who tries to race is more prone to altitude sickness at higher elevations.

The fall of Bheema: The sin of gluttony

The last one to fall was Bheema. With no one around to ask a question, Yudhishthira mused, “Bheema was a voracious eater. This made him into a glutton. Moreover, he disregarded people’s feelings. This lead to his downfall.”

Purport: Bheema is the most sorted man in the story of Mahabharata. Moreover, he was a man who called a spade as a spade. However, he was a voracious eater. Furthermore, his blunt words caused immense pain to people. His fall symbolises the fall of gluttony and lack of empathy. The latter is detrimental to any expedition since mountaineering requires team effort and empathy. But, the former is deadly since your food consumption needs to be optimum on any trail.

Why Yudhishthira did not fall?

It is a pertinent question to ask why Yudhishthira did not succumb to the arduous trail. Was he perfect? Was he spotless? Did he not commit any mistake in his life? The answer is far from yes. He had his own set of weakness and human flaws. He too possessed all the above traits. Yet, he had one instrumental trait; Inner Balance. With this trait, he could overcome any challenge in his life. The below article is one such instance:

Also read: In conversation with Yaksha: Yudhishthira’s wisdom

Lastly, mountaineering is all about inner balance. It is about transcending one’s limitations and dropping off your weaknesses. As the legendary Sir Edmund Hilary once said, “It is not the mountains we conquer, but ourselves.”


To read about the most recent record-breaking feat of Mountaineering, buy this book: Beyond Possible: One Soldier, Fourteen Peaks ― My Life In The Death Zone

  • Mahabharata mentions a mountain named as Meru instead of Swargarohini. However, locals believe that it was Swargarohini which was scaled by Yudhishthira. Nonetheless, Meru is another giant peak in the very same Garhwal Himalayas.


Prasad Kulkarni is a Data and Analytics professional. At work, he analyses historical data and ponders over historical events otherwise.

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