Heroes of The Mahabharata: A case for Yudhisthir

Angel_showing_hell_to_Yudhisthira

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.

Consider:

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

Comments

  1. Well, I see some valid points there, but how would you justify gambling away his wife as heroic?

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    • One way to see it is as an act of rebellion. He’s always been given things that he never wanted, and has been denied things that he wanted, so when he got the opportunity, he took it.

      Seen another way, it is as if he’s telling his brothers and his wife that the kingdom – and the identities that they’ve built with it – are not as important as the inner journeys that they must all take.

      Not heroic, perhaps, but then not everything a hero does needs to be heroic. But they’re decent reasons for what he did, if we accept the premise of him being a spiritualist who is bored of the material. Like most spiritualists today, maybe he was misunderstood more than anything.

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    • Can’t heroes have any weakness at all? It was a moment of weakness, an evidence of human frailty. I think he could be granted one or two.

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  2. Yudhishtir is my choice too. I think he was the only one that conquered his demons by himself with grace and dignity. Nicely written for a sidelined hero. Your thoughts on why he gambled are interesting though I still wonder why he would gamble Draupadi. Somehow that seems out of character.

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    • Hi Suzy,

      Thanks for the comment. You’re right, there seems to be some trouble accepting Yudhisthir’s actions regarding Draupadi even if we accept the premise in the post. Maybe there is scope there for some detailed character sketch that can go into a novel. Done well, I think one can come up with a convincing portrayal and explanation. Let’s see 🙂

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  3. I think Yudhishtir was no different bheeshma. Both stuck to what they thought was their immediate dharma (I said I will play so I will play till the end) without looking at the bigger picture, in spite of horrendous crimes being committed right in front of their eyes, they chose to be silent.

    If he was so non-materialistic, then why fight the war later to kill countless? Why lie then to get his guru killed? He certainly was no Buddha to realize the ultimate truth and leave it all… Draupadi on the other hand I believe is the central character in Mahabharata. Pandavas being her means to get justice.

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    • He realized the ultimate truth, but he could not leave it all, like most of us cannot. Even at the end when he gets Dronacharya killed, it is at the behest of Krishna. Throughout the story, he comes across as reluctant, both as king and warrior. He seems to be at his most comfortable when he is learning things, and both the battles he wins on his own are battles of wisdom (first with the Yaksha in the forest and then at the end with Yama).

      I admit there are problems with this point of view, some of which you’ve raised, but I don’t think they’re insurmountable. At the very least a story that puts him at the center will be novel, but then nobody may read it, as you said 🙂

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  4. Also a hero does not necessarily need to last till the end. Achilles (Illiad) being the case in point. Which is better? going to heaven in flesh and being reborn again or attaining Moksha?

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  5. He is not a hero for me. Not because he gambled and all, not because he he didnt want the throne but because of the simple fact that bieng such a learned person he made the path of “dharma” look so weak and prone to harassment that if it would not had been Krishna to their support, their mere existence would be a question today. As shakuni said, once they win the battle, what kauravas say will be stated as dharma.
    The confidence of following the rite path of “dharma” was never seen in him. The two states he was seen in were questions about life and second arrogance about his dharma( that led to the resuults of “dyut sabah”).

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  6. KARNA IS MY HERO!!!!!!!

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  7. Haresh Gala says:

    Bhism

    If U see whole story , All the Stories ( Episodes ) – Happening Because of Some Stand Taken by Bhism in that Story
    Starting with his fate – changed when He takes BhismPratigya.

    Its Story of Kuru Kingdom and Bhism – fighting for its Survival ( Kuru Kigdom is PlayGround )

    Bhism Kept his Dharm ( Dharm is Dharye te dharm ) to End

    And See … When he is verge of Dying , Kept still kept Alive on Bed of arrows – Because U can’t make him die without he seeing Result s and fate of Kuru kingdom ….

    A really Great Person who ONLY Followed ‘Dharm’ upto End, Others all ‘Bended’ things ( and also ‘thinking – Vichar ) in circumstances. So not a Single person ( except Bhism ) followed Dharm in Whole Story.

    Bhism is like Justice He may has to die but will not divert from ‘Dharm’ He selected.

    Five Pandu Brothers are like Five senses of Bhism
    I don’t know which sense shd be given to Yuthisthir
    ( Sthiratva – Atma of Bhism ( Atma of Life Story- Mahabharat ? ) or ‘Body’ part )

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  8. Hey Sharath,

    I read 3 of your articles on Mahabharata and really liked all of them! They were all thought provoking!
    In the comments section of this article I noticed that a lot of the people are unhappy about yudhisthir gambling away draupadi. In my opinion it makes sense for him to do that because he was never really attached to her, he was not in love with her. Moreover since he comes across as a person detached to all worldly claims, he felt that giving her away would just get him one step closer to his goals (just like u mentioned Sharath)

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    • Hi Shravida! Thanks for leaving a note, and for your nice words about what I wrote here. I think it’s largely a matter of personal opinion who the hero of the Mahabharat is. A friend of mine pointed out that I find the ‘Yudhisthir angle’ compelling perhaps because I identify with him. I can’t say he’s wrong. Maybe that’s the thing, maybe we all find characters like ourselves in the stories we read to root for, and then we argue on blogs to prove our point right 🙂

      I find the detached and unambitious Yudhisthir much more believable than the inconsistent, spineless Yudhisthir that most popular Mahabharat narratives portray. So I agree with what you said.

      Thanks again.

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  9. dhaval gohil says:

    Hi Sharath, I have become fan of your writing.. never once I thought that I will spend such amount of time on topic such as Mahabharat as this was nothing more than a serial/morning time pass for us in our school days. but after going through your blogs on the characters I am keen to spend more time in understanding the why/what/how … I am very novice to the topic but finding myself deeply immersed..

    Just to inform you this was a topic discussed with few fellow passenger in Mumbai local travelling back home and I was feeling happy to explain the reasoning you gave about Karn / Yudhisthir or Gandhari..

    Looking forward to read more on this..

    Thanks.
    Dhaval

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  10. Darshil Jakharia says:

    Can anyone help me out to know that in this world who is more important Arjun or Yudhisthir and why?

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  11. Guruprasad says:

    super interpetation, the hidden heroisn has been unveiled
    Great !!!!!!!!

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  12. Nice post..
    Where can i get the book of Yudhishthir, ebook maybe? Plz advise..thanks..

    Like

  13. Semanti Chakraborty says:

    Dear author,
    A huge thanks to you for writing this beautiful post. I am an admirer of Dharmaraj Yudhishthir. I really appreciate your deep understanding of his pious character. I wanted to let you know that presently I am writing a novel from his point of view. If you are interested to read it I will send you some excerpts from my book.

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