This is a follow up to the previous post on the same topic. I said I will tell you who my choice is for the hero of the epic, and I will.
But before that, there have been many replies and comments to the post and the Facebook update corresponding to it. Predictably, most comments mentioned Krishna, a surprising number still went with Karna, and a couple or three chose Bhishma. There were no female choices, and no one picked either Arjuna or Bhima. (My sample size was no bigger than ten, so I cannot claim statistical strength here, but still.)
If you thought I will be a little left-field in my choice, you’re right. My hero of the Mahabharata is Yudhisthir.
Needless to say, he isn’t a popular choice. Of all the answers I got back from readers since yesterday, not one picked him. I am willing to bet that if you take a large-scale survey of Indians in general and ask this question, less than 5% will even think of mentioning him. Most retellings and reimaginings gloss over him as though he were never there. Those that bother to give him screen-space dismiss him in a few moments after branding him a gambler and a coward.
But on a little closer thought, it is possible to construct an image of Yudhisthir as the only spiritualist in a world of materialism.
1. Ever since his childhood, he never displays any skill for arms and war. Though there are fleeting mentions of him as an ‘expert charioteer’, there’s hardly a scene where the prince calls upon this expertise.
2. He shows no ambition for the throne. Arjun, Bhim, Draupadi, Kunti, Krishna – all those around him seem more eager to appoint him as king than he ever is. Whether it is during their childhoods, during his crowning as the emperor after his brothers have fought the kings of Aryavarta and won, in the days leading up to the war (‘Give us five villages and we will be content’), and even after it (‘Why does this victory feel so much like a defeat?’), he appears at best to be a reluctant ruler.
3. He has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and debate. He’s forever seeking advice from sages, from his brothers, from Draupadi, from Krishna, and from anyone who would speak. Throughout the story, if there is one thing that we could say Yudhisthir does well, it is listening. He’s the sounding board for his brothers and his wife at various times, and on each occasion his advice for them is to find answers within themselves.
4. He’s the only main character in the story that makes out of it alive. As the five brothers and Draupadi go up the mountain to attain heaven in their mortal forms, one after the other they drop to their deaths. Yudhisthir alone gets to the top, in the company of a stray dog. We see his journey, from the man of questions that he is in his youth, to the wise old king at the end who has all the answers. Here’s a man, the story seems to say, who has unlocked the puzzle of life. And he has not done that by fighting wars with other people, but with himself.
That’s all well and good, you say, but if he was really so good, why did he gamble away his kingdom? That question is a valid one, and if we have to posit Yudhisthir as a hero, it must be answered satisfactorily. The commonly held argument that he was a) addicted to gambling, and b) compelled to respond to a challenge, are both frivolous. Kings of those days were trained in statecraft from the time they could walk. A big chunk of the subject must have been about how to tactfully walk away from an unwanted challenge.
So the question persists. Why? My answer is that he did it on purpose.
He has always been a reluctant king. All he had ever wanted was to sit in the company of scholars and unlock the mysteries of life. Not for him these petty fights about who should be king and who should wed whom. But throughout his life he had been thrust into positions of power, by his brothers, by his wife, by his uncle, by his mother…what is he to do? When the opportunity arose to give it all away and live the life of his dreams – as a commoner, as a regular seeker of truth – perhaps the temptation was too strong for him to resist.
In Shakuni’s dice he perhaps saw the path to his deliverance, and he took it.
In the years of his exile (though he did not see it that way), he would come into his own. While Arjun and Bhim were busy fighting and winning battles, while Draupadi was busy seething, Yudhisthir would look inward. He would ignore the call of the material world where wars were waged and brother killed brother. He would conquer himself first, refusing to be pushed into anger or lust or jealousy, choosing, instead to dwell upon where these emotions came from and how to curtail them.
He’s perhaps the only person in the Mahabharata who seem to understand that there are bigger things at play than Hastinapur’s throne. As a child, when asked to shoot the eye of a sparrow, he reports being able to see the bird, the tree, the leaves, his brothers and his teacher, Dronacharya. This tale is often told to point out his lack of focus. But maybe it also suggests an ability to see the whole, to understand one’s role in the greater scheme, to see oneself not as the be-all, but as a tiny part of a huge, beautiful universe.
When asked what is the most wondrous thing in the world, he once says, ‘We all know death is inevitable, yet we live as though life is eternal.’ Here’s a man who has truly seen through life’s veil. The throne of Hastinapur, the revenge of Draupadi, the heroism of Arjun, the strength of Bhim, the wiles of Krishna, the loyalty of Bhishma – none of these are important enough to Yudhisthir, because he knows that there is but one inevitability for us all, and that the only conquest that matters is over the self.
Will such a man ever be content being the emperor of a country? No, I don’t think so.
They say the Mahabharata is many things to many people. If that is true, the meaning-seeking, truth-abiding, peaceful, non-violent, contented, inward-looking, reluctant king of Hastinapur, Yudhisthir, the eldest of the Pandavas, is my hero. How nice it would be to read a novelized version of the epic that tells his tale? Or better still, write one?
The idea for this post came from Buddadev Bose’s The Book of Yudhisthir.
Image courtesy: Wikimedia