Arjuna is the most powerful warrior in the Mahabharata universe. He is the third of the Pandavas in order of seniority, born after Yudhishthir and Bhimasena.
He is the last of Kunti’s children. After his birth, Kunti decides that she will summon no more gods and bear no more sons. Nakula and Sahadeva, the fourth and fifth of the Pandavas respectively, are born to Madri, Pandu’s second wife.
In this post, we will answer the question: Did Arjuna kill Yudhishthir?
On the seventeenth day of the Mahabharata war, Arjuna and Yudhishthir have a quarrel and Arjuna rises to kill Yudhishthir with a raised sword. Krishna intervenes and ensures no damage is done, but later instructs Arjuna to insult Yudhishthir with harsh words, saying: ‘When a younger person insults an older person, the older person is considered to have been killed.’
Read on to discover more about whether or not Arjuna killed Yudhishthir in the Mahabharata.
(For answers to all Arjuna-related questions, see Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
In Search of Yudhishthir
On the seventeenth day of the war, there occurs a battle between Yudhishthir and Karna, during which the latter drives the former away from the battlefield. Arjuna earlier assigns the task of protecting Yudhishthir to Nakula and Sahadeva.
But Karna is in such fine form this afternoon that Nakula and Sahadeva also flee along with Yudhishthir back to camp.
In the midst of their battle with the Samshaptakas, Krishna reminds Arjuna that Yudhishthir is nowhere to be seen. Arjuna worries that the worst might have happened, and asks Bhima if he had seen their elder brother.
Bhima replies in the negative, but tells Arjuna: ‘I know that King Yudhishthir, Nakula and Sahadeva have been mangled by the Sutaputra’s arrows. Perhaps they are nursing their wounds in the safety of their tents. Go and seek them out, Partha, and leave the Samshaptakas to me!’
Arjuna and Krishna thus set out in search of Yudhishthir.
Finally, Arjuna and Krishna see Yudhishthir inside his tent, being tended to by his younger brothers. When they see that the eldest Pandava is unharmed, they heave a sigh of relief and become filled with joy.
Yudhishthir misunderstands the reason for Arjuna’s visit; he thinks that the two men are overcome by joy because Karna has been slain. Rising in his bed and extending a welcome to his brother and cousin, he says:
‘Come, come, O Achyuta and O Arjuna. I see that you are not wounded yourselves, and that there is great joy in your countenance. I take it that you have killed Karna already, and have come here to give me the news.
‘How did you kill that fearsome warrior, O Arjuna? Tell me in full detail, because I wish to hear it all.’
Arjuna replies that Yudhishthir has been mistaken. ‘No, Brother,’ he says. ‘While battling the Samshaptakas today, I was first challenged by the son of Drona, and he had eight carts following him with weapons and quivers brimming with arrows.
‘He shot them all at me, with skill and force and resolution, and it took me a while to overcome him. While I was thus engaged, the Sutaputra released the Bhargavastra on our troops, killing them in great numbers.
‘Just when I was about to challenge him, however, I came to know of your battle with him, and we came here to see to your welfare.
‘There is none among the Srinjayas or the Panchalas who are able to withstand the might of Karna in battle anymore, O King. So allow me to ride out and challenge him.
‘Let Satyaki and Dhrishtadyumna protect my chariot-wheels. Let Yudhamanyu and Amitaujas protect my rear. I will ensure that I kill Karna today and place the earth at your feet.’
One would think that Yudhishthir would be pleased that his brother had come to see him, but on the contrary, he is smitten by anger.
‘Our army has been beaten and scattered in a manner that is disreputable, Dhananjaya,’ he says, ‘and inspired with fear you have even deserted Bhimasena, leaving him to fight alone with the Kauravas.
‘Often in the past have you sworn in the gods’ names that you will kill Karna, but in the last seventeen days of battle, you have shown no such inclination. If only you had told us of your inability in Dwaita Vana, we would have made other arrangements for defeating Karna.’
And here he says something rather vicious. ‘Why do you still hold the divine bow, Gandiva? Give it away to some other king who can use it better than you do. If that had been done at the start, the world today will not be bereft of sons and wives.
‘With all the power at your disposal to end the battle in a moment, O Falguna, you still insist on drawing it out, and then you describe in great detail the destruction wrought upon us by the enemy!
‘Fie upon you, Arjuna. Fie upon your inexhaustible quivers, upon the image of the ape on your banner, upon the chariot given to you by Agni!’
Arjuna is stunned at this tirade from Yudhishthir, and with his own eyes blazing, he reaches for his sword. Krishna intervenes and places a kindly hand on his friend’s shoulder.
‘Do you really need, Partha,’ he says, ‘the ignominy of having raised a weapon on your own elder brother? Whatever Dharmaraja says, he does so out of anger and pain, and out of love for you. Take his admonition as a blessing, and put aside your anger.’
Krishna now refers to a vow that Arjuna has taken in the past, according to which he is compelled to kill the man who attempts to snatch the Gandiva away from him.
‘The vow,’ says Krishna, ‘that you have taken in the past – that of killing anyone who would take the Gandiva from you – is a foolish one. All the righteous men of the world know that a man must never kill another man who is not engaged in battle with him.
‘Even if the man is your enemy, you must not kill if he seeks your protection, or if he surrenders to your superior strength by showing you his back in the battlefield.
‘Having accepted the correctness of these rules, Partha, how do you wish to kill your own brother who is the very embodiment of virtue?
‘It takes great wisdom to discern the nature of truth and lies in a given circumstance,’ he says. ‘And you – despite your belief that you are acquainted in the practice of morality – are not qualified to make these assertions.’
After listening to Krishna’s words, Arjuna has a question. ‘Madhava,’ he says, ‘your words are fraught with intelligence and wisdom. You are like our parent, our refuge. Nothing is unknown to you in the three worlds.
‘You are conversant with all branches of knowledge and morality. But I am still vexed by this doubt.
‘You know that I took a vow by which I am to kill any man who asks me to give up the Gandiva. Now, my dear elder brother Yudhishthir has transgressed by asking me to give my bow to another warrior.
‘The vow requires me to kill him; yet, I know that the moment I kill him, my heart will break out of grief. How do we ensure in this case that I fulfil my vow and that my brother will not be brought to harm?’
Krishna replies, ‘Yudhishthir is consumed by fatigue and grief, Arjuna. He has been injured in battle by Karna’s arrows. He was repeatedly struck and wounded by shafts belonging to Vaikartana.
‘The eldest Pandava knows that no one in our army save for you is powerful enough to take the fight to Karna, and to defeat him. Today, the stake over which the two armies fight is none other than that Sutaputra.
‘And once he is slain, Partha, victory is yours! Yudhishthir knows all of this, and it is anxiety on all of these counts that impelled him to speak the way he did.’
Krishna reminds Arjuna that Yudhishthir does not deserve to die for such a minor transgression. After all, all he has done is admonish his younger brother.
‘But,’ says Krishna, ‘your vow also has to be honoured. Therefore, listen to what I advise. As long as a man receives the respect that he deserves in the world of men, he is said to be alive. But when he receives less respect than what he is owed, he is considered to be dead even though alive in a physical sense.’
‘You, Bhimasena and the twins have always treated Yudhishthir with utmost respect, O Falguna. Now, in order to honour your vow, speak to him with utter callousness and disrespect.
‘Refer to him as you would a younger brother – nay, a slave! It has been declared by Atharva and Angirasa that when a superior is thus treated by an inferior, the former has embraced a state equal unto death.
‘Freed thus from the sin of forswearing your oath, and also the sin of fratricide, you will thus be able to slay the Sutaputra without any more scruples.’
Arjuna’s Insults – Part One
Arjuna thus begins his tirade. He starts by criticising Yudhishthir’s impotent performance in battle.
‘Do not, O King,’ he says, ‘address me with such harsh words. I do not deserve to hear such things from you. Bhimasena, however, who is battling with and killing all our enemies as we speak, might upbraid me as he wishes.
‘In addition to killing thousands of great soldiers, he has also slain upwards of a thousand elephants and ten thousand Kamboja warriors.
‘The learned say that the strength of a Brahmin lies in his speech and the strength of a Kshatriya lies in his arms. If that diktat is true, O King, then Bhima is the best of us all.
‘He has just today split the frontal lobes of eight hundred elephants. I shall hear any words of reproach from him, but not from you, who has never shown any strength or skill as a fighter.’
Arjuna’s Insults – Part Two
Now Arjuna makes a passing reference to how Yudhishthir has appropriated Draupadi to himself. But he does not dwell on it.
‘Lying on Draupadi’s bed,’ he says, ‘you have insulted me even though I have resolved to kill the mightiest warriors for your sake. It is for your sake that Bhishma had to be killed by the guileless Shikhandi.
‘You did not listen to Sahadeva’s warning that the dice game ought to be avoided. You did not flinch before killing Dronacharya by uttering an untruth. Having embraced wicked deeds in this manner, how dare you now insult me with your barbs?
‘‘Thousands of innocent men lie in the battlefield, their bodies mangled, just because of your sense of virtue! It was you who played at dice. Yet nations from the north, the west, the south and the east had to come marching down to Kurukshetra.
‘This great bloodbath has happened just to obey your petty whims. All our calamities have occurred due to you, O King! And now, you further goad us with your speech.’
After getting this far, Arjuna finds his hands shivering with contrition. He cannot believe that he has just said all these words against his brother. Drawing his sword once again, he looks at Krishna with bloodshot eyes, and the prince of Dwaraka smiles at him.
‘Easy with that weapon, Partha,’ he says. ‘Just speaking these words against Dharmaraja is affecting you thus; how deep would your sorrow have been had you killed him? And without you and Yudhishthir, can the rest of the Pandavas even hope to win this war?’
Yudhishthir also gets up to his feet and hugs his brother. ‘Forgive me, Arjuna,’ he says, ‘for the words I spoke to you earlier. And I receive all that you said to me as true.
I humbly accept that it is I who has led you all to this great sacrifice. Lay down that sword, O Jishnu, for what need is there of a weapon between brothers?’
Arjuna now makes further amends for his words by performing a rite in Yudhishthir’s honour, washing the older one’s feet and chanting some verses from the Vedas. After this is done, Yudhishthir blesses Arjuna with victory in the upcoming battle with Karna.
‘Listen at all times to the counsel of the Dwaraka prince, my son,’ he says. ‘With him as your charioteer, there is no doubt in my mind that you will today slay the Sutaputra.’
It is thus that Yudhishthir is ‘killed’ by Arjuna by words alone, to honour an oath taken in the past.
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