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: Was Yudhishthir wise or foolish?
Yudhishthir is considered – by many significant characters surrounding him – to be the wisest man in the world. What makes him wise is that he has conquered the two unconquerable vices: pride and anger. His humility and temperance, though, serve as sources of irritation to people surrounding him – including his brothers and wife.
Read on to discover more about whether Yudhishthir was wise or foolish.
(For answers to all Yudhishthir-related questions, see Yudhishthir: 10 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Obsession with Dharma
As the son of Yama, Yudhishthir’s natural proclivity – and indeed the stated destiny of his life – is to establish and safeguard Dharma in the world.
In order to do this, though, Yudhishthir must go through a lengthy rite of passage during which he learns of the various forms of Dharma.
He discovers how subjective and subtle Dharma can be. He grapples with competing ideas, debates them within himself, and emerges at the end of the Kurukshetra war with a framework that can be applied.
Then he sets about his life’s task during the thirty-six-year period after the war, during which he rules the world as emperor. During this time, he restores Dharma to its rightful place.
The growth of Yudhishthir occurs primarily during the exile years, and during the war itself. He is forced to examine Dharma from all angles, watch it unfold in practice, and learn important lessons about himself.
Without this journey, it is impossible for Yudhishthir to fulfil his life’s purpose. One cannot safeguard Dharma without first knowing what it is.
Of the tools that Yudhishthir employs to learn everything he can about Dharma, the first is curiosity. Throughout the story, we see Yudhishthir asking questions of men he believes are wiser than him.
Elders, sages, friends, brothers… with everyone around him, Yudhishthir is always asking questions about this matter or that. Sometimes the point under contention is practical, sometimes it is philosophical, sometimes it is metaphysical, or spiritual, or ethical or legal.
Especially during the exile, Yudhishthir meets so many sages and sees so many places that his thirst for knowledge and conversation runs amuck. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he is happiest when he can sit down and examine a complex issue from all angles.
We must note here that Yudhishthir’s hunger is not for knowledge. He is not keen on memorising facts or names. His interests lie in unravelling the messy nature of human beings and their motivations.
During these twelve years, he learns to become comfortable with the idea of uncertainty. He realizes that when it comes to human matters, there are often no forthcoming answers. One has to do one’s best in the face of randomness and ambiguity – and be prepared to be proven wrong by hindsight.
Of all the main characters in the Mahabharata, Yudhishthir is perhaps the only one who never speaks in grandiose terms about himself.
Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula, Sahadeva, Draupadi, Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Duryodhana, Krishna – all of them have their moments of pride where they let the mask slip and speak of their achievements.
But Yudhishthir? Not even once.
It is not that he does not have any accomplishments under his belt. With his answering of the Yaksha Prashna, he saves the lives of all four of his brothers. On an earlier occasion, he passes a test of wisdom set by Nahusha the serpent and rescues the life of Bhimasena.
These are not trivial incidents. If Yudhishthir had failed on either occasion, the Pandavas would likely never have won their kingdom back. But do we hear him refer to these incidents even once? No.
We see Yudhishthir always in a stance of a grateful supplicant – thankful for what he has been given, eager to solicit advice from those around him, and obedient to his elders.
Even when he speaks to his younger brothers or wife, he does so without authority in his tone. All of this suggests that Yudhishthir has conquered the unconquerable vice: pride.
Yudhishthir is also seldom seen being angry in the Mahabharata. The only time his anger bubbles to the surface is on the seventeenth day of the war, when he lets loose on Arjuna for taking so long to kill Karna.
But this anger is likely born out of frustration at how eagerly he had displayed emotions that were unwarranted: when he saw Krishna and Arjuna arrive, he assumed that they had come there after killing Karna.
His anger rises after Arjuna tells him that Karna still lives. This suggests that more than anything Yudhishthir is ashamed that he has allowed his mind to wander. That shame has brought anger with it, and that anger he directs toward Arjuna.
If nothing else, this incident proves to us – the common reader – just how difficult it is to master anger. Even Yudhishthir found himself enslaved by it on the afternoon of the seventeenth day.
Overall, though, this is the only time that we see Yudhishthir say or do anything while under the influence of anger. Even during Draupadi’s disrobing – with his brothers and wife shaking with emotion – he keeps his calm.
He is the only one among the Pandavas who does not take a vow of revenge at the end of the dice game.
Yudhishthir practices what is called immersed detachment, where he chooses not to renounce any material comforts – like wealth, status, food and so on – but endeavours to remain unattached to them.
This, he maintains, is the best space of mind that a king can inhabit, because a king does not have the option – like a sage does – of renouncing all of his material comforts in order to get in touch with his spiritual side.
For a king to remain spiritual, he has to find a way to remain immersed in material, practical matters but also strive to be detached from them.
Yudhishthir arrives at this knowledge toward the end of his exile, after which he makes the decision to fight the war of Kurukshetra and attempt to win back his lost kingdom.
Needless to say, this approach to life brings much frustration to his loved ones, who are all still attached to concepts such as power and pride. For instance, Draupadi’s entire life ambition from the beginning of the exile is to one day see her husbands avenge her humiliations.
Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, Sahadeva and Kunti also at various times get frustrated at Yudhishthir because of his apparent peace of mind. How can he remain so calm, they ask themselves, after what has happened?
All of the above traits – curiosity, humility, temperance, detachment – are the hallmarks of a wise person. Indeed, Yudhishthir is considered to be the wisest man of his generation by all the people surrounding him.
Having said that, a wise man also has a cross to bear: he will find himself occasionally taken advantage of by selfish individuals. He is sometimes easy to deceive. He often finds more peace in forgiveness than in revenge, which may irritate his loved ones.
A wise man’s friends and his enemies are liable, therefore, to sometimes refer to him – out of anger or contempt – as a ‘fool’. But in any objective analysis, Yudhishthir is the wisest of them all.
This is the Mahabharata’s way of telling us that the establishment of Dharma – and the practice of it – is only possible through the path of wisdom.
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