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After Pandu's death, the rishis gathered and...

The ascetics set out that very moment, taking with them those children and Kunti and the two dead bodies

When they reached Hastinapura they said:

Pandu departed hence seventeen days ago

Question is, why did the ascetics carry body 17 days after death and not burn while in the forest? Isn't it tradition to burn same day?

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Despite the contradictions in the Mahābhārata (even in BORI's Critical Edition), the most likely thing that happened was that Pāṇḍu was cremated in the forest immediately after his death. Mādrī then performed satī and died along with him (sahagamana). The ṛṣis then carried their dead remains (not the bodies) back to the city. And it is unlikely the funeral rites were performed again by Bhīṣma, Dhṛtarāṣṭra and others.

Ādi Parva (Sambhava Parva)

Chapter 116

...

Madri replied,

I am still embracing my husband and have not let him escape. Nor has my desire yet been satisfied. O elder one! Please give me permission. The best of the Bharata lineage came to me for the sake of desire. With his desire unsatisfied, how can I let him go to Yama’s abode? O revered one! If I live, it is certain that I will not be able to treat your children and mine in the same way and that sin will touch me. O Kunti! But you will be able to bring up my children as your own. The king has gone to the land of the dead because of his desire for me. Therefore, my body should be burnt with the king’s body. O revered one! Do what is pleasurable to me and burn them together. Watch over the children and think kindly of me. I cannot think of anything else I need to say.

Having said this, the illustrious daughter of the king of Madra, wife by law to that bull among men, climbed onto the fire of that funeral pyre.


Chapter 117

Vaishampayana said, ‘The maharshis who were the equals of the gods performed Pandu’s last rites. Then the ascetics assembled and consulted each other. “For the welfare of the kingdom and the country, the great-souled great ascetic came here, to live among ascetics and practise austerities. King Pandu has gone to heaven and has left his sons, who have just been born, and his wife as a treasure we must look after.” Having consulted with each other, those who are engaged in the welfare of all beings decided to go to the city of Nagasahrya (Hastinapura), with Pandu’s sons in front of them. Those generous and accomplished ones decided on the journey, so as to give the Pandavas to Bhishma and Dhritarashtra. As soon as they decided, the ascetics set out at that very moment, with Pandu’s sons and wife and the two bodies. 312

...


Footnotes

312 There were parts of the bodies that had not been burnt. Having said this, there is some contradiction about when the bodies were burnt.


Debroy, Bibek. The Mahabharata: Volume 1 (pp. 315-318).


Later in Ch. 117, one of the sages instructs Dhṛtarāṣṭra to perform the funeral rites again:

Now perform those rites that should be performed for them. These are the two bodies and here are the supreme sons [Pāṇḍavas]. Let these scorchers of enemies and their mother be respectfully received with rites of welcome. After the performance of the funeral rites, let Pandu, the upholder of the Kuru lineage, extremely famous and knowledgeable in all aspects of dharma, gain the right to ancestral offerings.

The above is most likely an interpolation (late addition).

Another possibility is that the above account i.e., both dead bodies being brought to and the funeral rites performed in Hastināpura, is true, and some later editor or scribe who wanted to glorify the satī practice made Mādrī (who probably died along with Pāṇḍu due to some communicable disease) commit satī and introduced the satī episode in between Chapters 116 & 117.

This unresolved contradiction is also listed in Interpolations In The Mahābhārata by M. A. Mehendale of BORI:

Another similar example is from the Ādiparvan. It is usually believed that Mādrī committed satī after the death of Pāṇḍu. In support of this belief we have a specific statement in the Mbh. which occurs without exception in all the versions and hence forms part of the constituted text. That statement tells us very clearly that Mādrī mounted the funeral pyre of Pāṇḍu and burnt herself with him. (taṃ citāgatam ājñāya vaiśvānaramukhe hutam / praviṣṭā pāvakaṃ mādrī hitvā jīvitam ātmanaḥ 1.117.28; also 1.116.31). However, it is not so well known that immediately after this stanza we have another one which also occurs in all the versions and hence forms part of the constituted text.

The latter stanza directly contradicts what is said in the preceding stanza. According to this stanza the sages who, after the death of Pāṇḍu, brought Kuntī and the young Pāṇḍavas to Hāstinapura, also brought with them the two dead bodies of Pāṇḍu and Mādrī. They handed them over to the elders of the Kauravas and asked them to perform the due funeral rites (ime tayoḥ śarīre dve... pretakārye ca nirvṛtte pitṛmedhaṃ mahāyaśāḥ/ labhatāṃ... pāṇḍuḥ.../ / 1.117.30-31). Then, in the following adhyāya (1.118) we have a detailed description of the cremation of Pāṇḍu and Mādrī. Both these accounts could not be true at the same time. Either Pāṇḍu was cremated on the Śataśṛṅga mountain and Mādrī mounted the funeral pyre, or cremation did not take place and the dead bodies were brought to Hāstinapura. Nīlakaṇṭha's feeble attempt to remove the contradiction by interpreting śarīra 'body' as asthi 'bone' is not convincing. Sukthankar, following Hopkins, has already expressed his dissatisfaction with Nīlakaṇṭha's explanation.

Clearly here, as in the above case, we have conflation of two different accounts of the same incident. The interpolator while borrowing stanzas from a different account and inserting them in his own has shown scant regard for the contradiction his interference with the received text involved.

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"Question is, why did the ascetics carry body 17 days after death and not burn while in the forest?"

They were not dead bodies but the the unburnt portions of the dead bodies because Madri committed Sati with Pandu in forest itself, this is the line form the previous chapter:

"Vaisampayana continued, 'Having said this, the daughter of the king of Madras, the wedded wife of Pandu, ascended the funeral pyre of her lord, that bull among men.'" ~ Mahabharata: Adi Parva: Sambhava Parva: Chapter 125

This is further clarified in the same chapter (Mahabharata: Adi Parva: Sambhava Parva: Chapter 126) from which you have pasted lines in your question:

Pandu departed hence seventeen days ago. His wife Madri, beholding him placed in the funeral pyre and about to be consumed, herself ascended the same pyre, and sacrificing her life thus, hath gone with her lord to the region reserved for chaste wives. Accomplish now whatever rites should be performed for their benefit. These are (the unburnt portions of) their bodies.


"Isn't it tradition to burn same day?"

As per Valimiki Ramayana: Ayodhya Kanada: Chapter 65 to 76, Dashrataha's funeral rites were performed at least 9 days after his death:

  • On the day Dashrataha died:

The friends and relatives who came there, did not like the king's cremation in the absence of his sons. Thus thinking, they kept the king of inconceivable sight in that resting place(oil- trough)

  • Next day:

At sunrise, when the night had passed over, the Brahmins who place a king on the throne, together gathered at the assembly.

"Bharata, who was given kingdom (by Dasaratha) is staying very happily in his maternal uncle's home, along with Satrughna. Hence messengers in fast running horses are to be sent quickly to bring back those heroic brothers. What are we to think of further in this matter?"

  • Time taken by the messengers to reach Bharata:

    No specific time mentioned for this in Valmiki Ramayana.

  • Time taken by Bharata to come to Ayodhya:

Seeing the city of Ayodhya in front, after spending seven nights on his way, Bharata the tiger among men, spoke the following words to his charioteer:

...

Raising the body of king Dasaratha, from the vessel where it had been immersed in oil, seeming as it were asleep with face in the color of gold, that son Bharata placed it in a magnificent couch, adorned with every kind of precious stone and in a great grief, lamented.(as follows):

So it looks like in rare scenarios, funeral rites used to be performed later also.

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  • Nice answer:). Somehow I feel the madri and funeral pyre thing sounds a little out of place because of the simple reasons that the dead bodies were carried (notwithstanding the fact that here they’ve mentioned remains, yet the bodies are again cremated after 17 days so they can’t be remains). But I guess we just accept have to accept this misplaced addition it as it is. – Archit Jan 13 at 6:07
  • Yeah they again performed funeral rites after 17 days for the remaining/unburnt body parts...but if we don't believe in Madri committing Sati then bigger question is how they got Madri's dead body at all, I mean how Madri died then?..bdw Sati custom was an optional thing bcz we don't see any of Dashratha's Queens committing Sati.. – YDS Jan 13 at 6:30
  • Besides the Sati part. I think she may have died together with Pandu and then they took the bodies? If you stop the funeral midway and again to funeral rites on the remaining parts, people and use it for tantric activities. – Archit Jan 13 at 7:29
  • @yds In Dasharatha's case they didn't even burn (still sounds wrong as requirement is to burn within a day). In Pandu (with Madri) they did burn the body. Then to take "unburnt parts" to burn in another place...does not add up standard practice. Wondering if it's a translation issue where ashes were taken to Hastinapura (and not in unburnt bodies)? – SHebbar Jan 13 at 12:29
  • @SHebbar In Gitapress Hindi translation, अस्थियां is used for unburnt parts..so अस्थियां (bones/ashes/unburnt part from pyre) were taken to Hastinapura... – YDS Jan 14 at 3:58

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