Yudhishthir is the eldest of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata. He is the second biological son of Kunti – her first being Karna. His biological father is Yama, the god of justice. Pandu, the king of Hastinapur, is his adoptive father.
Yudhishthir is described by many other characters in the story as the paragon of virtue. He is said to have never spoken an untruth.
He is the only character in the Mahabharata that succeeds in reaching heaven at the end of his life – without having to endure the physical experience of death.
In this post, we will answer the question: How did Yudhishthir die?
Yudhishthir is the only character in the Mahabharata who does not die. The gods reward him with straight passage into heaven in his mortal body. All five Pandavas and Draupadi ascend the mountain Meru in the hope of reaching the summit alive, but only Yudhishthir manages to achieve this.
Read on to discover more about how Yudhishthir died.
(For answers to all Yudhishthir-related questions, see Yudhishthir: 10 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Thirty Six Years
After the Kurukshetra war ends, Yudhishthir is crowned emperor of the world. Panchala and Anarta becomes Kuru’s allies, and both the Gangetic plain and the middle kingdoms come under his fold.
For thirty six years, the Pandavas and Draupadi rule from their throne in Indraprastha.
By all appearances, these are quiet, peaceful years. Of course, we may expect the odd uprising here and there, but overall, the citizens are happy, the land is prosperous, and the world has fully recovered from the destruction of the war.
Then, Gandhari’s curse kicks into effect. The Vrishnis of Anarta destroy themselves. Krishna and Balarama die.
The Pandavas take this as an omen that their time is also up. The five brothers are all well into their eighties now. So is Draupadi. The time has come for them to renounce their wealth and seek a quiet death.
Accordingly, they install Parikshit (the son of Abhimanyu) on the throne and set out to scale the mountain Meru. Their expectation is that all six of them – by virtue of their blameless lives – will be given entry into heaven in their mortal bodies.
Now, circumventing the process of physical death and arriving in heaven with your mortal body is considered one of the greatest achievements of a man. This means that you have finally been freed from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth.
It is also a certificate – given by the gods – that you have lived a life that is impeccably virtuous.
The Pandavas and Draupadi believe that all of them deserve to be given this honour. And as they begin scaling the mountain – at the summit of which stands Indra’s palace – they are in good spirits.
But one by one, they begin to fall to their deaths, overcome by fatigue. Draupadi, Sahadeva, Nakula, Arjuna and Bhima fall in that order. Apparently death comes to them in ascending order of age.
Yudhishthir appears to be neither surprised nor shocked at the fall of each of his life-long companions. It is as if he has expected this to happen. In fact, he also has reasons – only his guesses, one assumes – why each person had to die.
(Suggested: At what age did Draupadi die? A Complete Timeline.)
Company of a Dog
Early on in their wanderings, the Pandavas befriend a dog which follows them around. The dog continues to stay by Yudhishthir’s side during the journey up the mountain as well.
At the summit, Indra is present to welcome Yudhishthir into his palace. But he says, ‘A dog does not belong in heaven, O King. Forsake it and climb into this chariot.’
But Yudhishthir replies, ‘I cannot forsake an animal that has invested its trust in me, O Lord. If I cannot come with the dog, I will not come at all.’
Indra laughs. ‘Surely you’re jesting, Yudhishthir,’ he says. ‘You have forsaken your brothers and wife. Why do you quibble about a dog?’
Yudhishthir clarifies to Indra that he abandoned his brothers and wife only after they have died. ‘As long as they lived, I did not forsake them even for a moment,’ he says. ‘And I cannot bring myself to forsake this animal that has placed its trust in me.’
The dog then reveals itself to be Yama in disguise. It turns out that the gods have been subjecting Yudhishthir to a moral test. If he had chosen Indra’s chariot over the dog, he would probably have been asked to die on the summit of Meru.
As it happens, though, Yama and Indra take Yudhishthir to Amaravati in the chariot.
Duryodhana in Heaven
At Indra’s hall, Yudhishthir is amazed by the absence of his brothers, Draupadi, Bhishma, Drona, and all the other men that he had been looking forward to meeting.
Instead, he sees Duryodhana and his brothers being given prime treatment. Shocked by this, and perhaps asking himself whether his entire life has been a lie, he asks Indra, ‘How is it that this wicked man is in heaven? Where are my brothers and wife?’
In answer, Indra takes Yudhishthir to hell, where the other Pandavas are torturously calling out to him in pain. Indra says, ‘The Pandavas are here in hell. Duryodhana is in heaven. But we have decided that you can be in heaven if you wish.’
(Suggested: Why did Duryodhana go to heaven?)
Once again Yudhishthir makes the more difficult, yet more moral choice. ‘Wherever my brothers and wife are, that is my heaven,’ he declares. ‘I shall stay here and share in their pain.’
Of course, this is yet another test assigned by Indra and Yama. As soon as Yudhishthir says these words, the illusion dissolves around him and he finds himself in heaven – the real heaven.
He sees the Pandavas, Draupadi, Karna, Bhishma, Drona, Shantanu, Pandu, Vichitraveerya and all the other men who welcome him into the afterlife.
Did Yudhishthir die?
From the above story, the only possible answer to how Yudhishthir died is to say that he did not die. In fact, he is the only character in the Mahabharata universe to have escaped the experience of physical death.
He is rewarded with this prize by virtue of his exemplary life, during which – at least according to the gods – the only transgression is that of telling a half-lie to bring about the death of Dronacharya.
At the end of his final journey up the mountain, Yudhishthir therefore is liberated from the cycle of birth and rebirth. His soul unites with that of Brahman, and he is not required to return to the world of men anymore.
(This of course raises the question: will the Pandavas return? What about the Kauravas? The story is vague on these points, but we can assume that all of these men will return to Earth and cause the next great conflict between Good and Evil.)
Finally, I want to take the liberty to paint a more prosaic picture of Yudhishthir’s death. After the fall of Bhima, the eldest Pandava and the dog reach the summit. There, they find no chariot waiting for them. The mountaintop is desolate, freezing and forbidding.
It is, in fact, the very picture of hell.
Yudhishthir waits for something to happen. Perhaps he thinks that he deserves to be taken to heaven in his mortal body. He sits down amid the falling snow, teeth chattering against howling wind, and looks around himself.
His body begins to shut down. He closes his eyes. The dog sleeps with him.
With his final breath, he asks himself – like Bhima had done – why he was denied entry to heaven. But he is unable to summon the detachment necessary to judge himself. He dies without knowing.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- Yudhishthir: 10 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Krishna: 36 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered