Why did Yudhishthir go to hell?

Why did Yudhishthir go to hell - Featured Image - Picture of a bull representing Yama

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: Why did Yudhishthir go to hell?

Yudhishthir is the most virtuous of all the Mahabharata characters. The gods reward him for his virtue by giving him a free passage into heaven – without having to experience death. However, Yudhishthir does commit a small number of misdeeds in his life, for which the gods think it proper to send him to hell – for a very short time.

Read on to discover more about why Yudhishthir went to hell.

(For answers to all Yudhishthir-related questions, see Yudhishthir: 10 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Lying to Drona

According to the gods, Yudhishthir commits only one sin his entire life: and that is his half-lie spoken to Drona on the fifteenth day of the war.

This incident is a triple sin:

  • Yudhishthir speaks a lie;
  • He lies to his preceptor, who is equal in status to one’s mother and father;
  • Drona is a Brahmin, so by lying to him in order to kill him, Yudhishthir is committing Brahminicide.

Yudhishthir is punished – in a small way – immediately after he utters the lie. His chariot-wheel, which always floats a couple of finger-breadths above the earth owing to his virtuous nature, sinks to the ground as soon as the words leave his mouth.

What works in Yudhishthir’s favour in this event is that it is not his idea. Krishna is the one who suggests it, and Yudhishthir reluctantly agrees because there is no way to win without it.

In other words, the plan has Krishna’s seal of approval, which means that it’s also the gods’ will.

Also, Yudhishthir does not lie – not technically. He says, ‘Ashwatthama is dead.’ And it is true that an elephant of that name has been killed by Bhimasena. Yudhishthir even pauses a moment and says, ‘The elephant.’

Yudhishthir’s lie is therefore only an implied lie: the words he speaks are true but are deliberately distorted to deceive Drona.

For this crime, the gods punish Yudhishthir with a short time in hell. In the rest of this post, we will look at some other questionable actions that Yudhishthir commits that may have earned him censure.

Pledging Draupadi

Yudhishthir participation in the dice game of Shakuni is considered one of the great errors of his life. But the truth is that Yudhishthir is very self-aware going into the game.

He acknowledges that he is likely walking into a trap. He agrees with his brothers that gambling is wrong and that he would be well within his rights to refuse Dhritarashtra’s invitation.

But just a short while earlier, he had heard Vyasa’s prediction that the Kuru dynasty will destroy itself by infighting. Yudhishthir therefore takes a vow that he will unfailingly obey every instruction issued by a Kuru elder.

During his participation in the game, therefore, he is in full control of his senses. Even during the pledging of his four brothers, he is thoughtful and conscientious.

The only time he gets unnerved during the whole episode is when Shakuni backs him into a corner about Draupadi. Yudhishthir has no intention of pledging Draupadi; he admits after losing himself that he now has nothing.

To which Shakuni slyly says, ‘You still have Draupadi, Yudhishthir.’

The implication is that though Yudhishthir is a slave, his wife is still his property – and he can still pledge her. A disoriented Yudhishthir pledges her without much thought, and sows the seed for the long debate that follows in the hall after Draupadi is brought.

Insulting Arjuna

This incident happens on the seventeenth day of the war. Karna is in his element with Shalya as charioteer, and he has driven Yudhishthir cowering back into his tent.

Hearing that Yudhishthir has been defeated by Karna, Krishna and Arjuna hurry over to where he is being treated to ask after his welfare. Yudhishthir misunderstands the purpose of their visit: he somehow assumes that Arjuna has already killed Karna and has now come to share with him the news.

When Arjuna admits that Karna still lives, Yudhishthir’s hope gives way to anger, and he says some unkind words to Arjuna. Among other things, he says, ‘Shame on us that we trusted you with the Gandiva. If you give it to someone else, he may have already killed Karna long ago.’

This makes Arjuna angry too, and the two brothers bicker for a while. Krishna makes peace between them.

Krishna’s solution is for Arjuna to insult Yudhishthir as rudely as he can, because scriptures – he says – state that when a younger person insults an older person, the latter is said to be as good as killed by the former.

This quick, impulsive reaction against Arjuna – the most powerful of the five brothers, and also the most dutiful – is unbecoming of Yudhishthir, and likely counts against him as a sin during the final analysis.

In Yudhishthir’s Defence

While all of the above crimes would have resulted in a serious penalty for a normal man, with Yudhishthir, there are extenuating circumstances in each case which make him more pardonable in the gods’ eyes.

For instance:

  • With Drona, it could be argued that Yudhishthir had to tell the lie in order to fulfil this duty toward his soldiers and army. If Drona had fought for much longer in the same vein, the Pandavas would have lost the war.
  • In the moment in which he pledges Draupadi, Yudhishthir has already been demoralized completely: in less than an hour, he has been reduced from an emperor to slave. He could be therefore forgiven for being preoccupied with the Draupadi question.
  • With Arjuna, Yudhishthir had had to endure a tough seventeen days of war – not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually. And on this particular day, he had been thoroughly defeated by Karna. The anger he feels is not at Arjuna but at the quick rise and fall of his own expectations.

Also, all of these sinful actions must be weighed against the exceptionally virtuous deeds that he commits during his life. He lives like a sage, fulfils all of his duties as a householder, and rules over Indraprastha for many years as a just and well-loved king.

Due to all of these factors, the gods punish Yudhishthir with a short period in hell – where he sees Duryodhana enjoying himself in heaven while the Pandavas are relegated to torture and suffering.

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