Yudhishthir: 10 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered

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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 all the questions you’ve ever had about Yudhishthir.

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.

In the Mahabharata universe, the act of reaching heaven without first going through the process of physical death is considered the pinnacle of virtue. As a matter of context, even Krishna does not achieve this.

After thirty six years of ruling Hastinapur as king, Yudhishthir sets out with his brothers and wife to climb Mount Meru, because it is said that on the summit of this mountain are the gates to heaven.

All six of them begin their ascent in high spirits; they believe that they have all lived virtuous lives, and that they stand a good chance of being welcomed into heaven in their mortal bodies.

But they begin to fall to their deaths, one by one. Draupadi is the first to go. Then, Sahadeva, Nakula, Arjuna and Bhima fall in that order. Yudhishthir alone reaches the summit – in the company of a dog.

Here, Indra welcomes him into heaven and exhorts him to let go of the dog. Yudhishthir refuses, saying that the dog has accompanied him through the tough climb; it would be wrong of him to abandon the animal now.

It turns out that the dog is just a test, and it is actually Yama in disguise. Both the gods take Yudhishthir into heaven.

Yudhishthir, therefore, becomes the only character in the Mahabharata who does not experience the physical sensation of death.

Detailed Answer: How did Yudhishthir die?

How did Yudhishthir become chakravarti?

Yudhishthir is given a portion of the Kuru kingdom as his inheritance. He makes his capital at Khandavaprastha. After ruling here for twelve years, he decides to launch an expedition of conquest in all four directions to become an emperor. His four brothers help him in this quest, and make him a chakravarti.

Yudhishthir’s first foray into ruling a kingdom happens when Bhishma and Vidura convince Dhritarashtra to give the Pandavas a part of the Kuru kingdom as their rightful inheritance.

Dhritarashtra gives Yudhishthir the city of Khandavaprastha, and a few villages surrounding it. Yudhishthir is crowned king of this small kingdom, but he continues to stay under Dhritarashtra’s wing.

(All of this happens much to Duryodhana’s anguish, by the way. The Kaurava does not understand why the Pandavas should be given anything at all.)

Soon after Yudhishthir’s ascension to the throne at Khandavaprastha, Arjuna goes on a twelve-year exile. During these twelve years, Draupadi bears the Upapandavas, and Yudhishthir – one assumes – learns the ropes of governance.

After Arjuna’s return from his exile, Yudhishthir decides that the time has come for him to emerge as his own man. He proposes that he will launch a conquest of expedition in all four directions all over the world.

His intention is to become an emperor, and to establish himself officially as such by conducting the Rajasuya.

Krishna supports him in this endeavour. He arranges for King Jarasandha of Magadha to be killed, after which the Pandavas invade kingdoms everywhere. In a year or two, the entire world (or country) comes under Yudhishthir’s control.

Yudhishthir thus becomes a chakravarti, and renames his capital as Indraprastha – where Maya the Asura builds for him a magnificent hall.

Detailed Answer: How did Yudhishthir become emperor?

Why did Yudhishthir gamble?

Like most kings of the time, Yudhishthir likes to play dice – even though, in Shakuni’s estimation, he is no good at it. He stays away from playing dice with stakes for most of his life. However, when Dhritarashtra sends him a formal invitation, Yudhishthir decides that it would be impolite to refuse. Despite knowing that it is likely a trap, he walks into it.

Playing dice appears to be a common pastime in those days – especially among kings. Inviting a friend or relative over for a game of dice is the Vedic equivalent of modern poker nights.

There are some unwritten rules to these games, though. Even though stakes are placed, won and lost, both parties trust one another to keep the mood light and fun.

However, every now and then, a wicked man may entrap a naive cousin or brother by inviting him over for a game – and then escalating the stakes rapidly until the invitee has lost all his wealth and kingdom.

It happens once with Nala, who loses his entire kingdom to his brother Pushkara. This has led to the commonly-held belief that unless you trust the other person intimately, do not accept an invitation from him to play dice.

However, we must also remember that refusing an invitation to play has consequences, too, of its own. You may come across as rejecting a friendly gesture, and that may be used as a pretext for future retorts.

Yudhishthir, therefore, is placed in a bind when Dhritarashtra invites him. Does he take the prudent option and say no? Or will that make Dhritarashtra feel that the sons of Pandu are now disobeying him?

To make matters a bit more complicated, just a short while before the invitation, Vyasa has prophesied that the Kuru race will demolish itself by infighting. Because of this, Yudhishthir has taken an oath that he will obey his elders no matter what.

For all these reasons, Yudhishthir says yes to play dice with Shakuni – despite knowing that he is probably walking into a trap.

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.

According to the gods, Yudhishthir commits one – and only one – misdeed in his life: that of lying to Dronacharya about the death of Ashwatthama.

Multiple codes of conduct are broken during this incident: for one, Yudhishthir speaks a lie, which is in itself a sin. Then, he lies to his preceptor, who is supposed to be equal in status to one’s mother and father. On top of all of this, Drona is a Brahmin, so lying to him about the death of his son in order to then kill him is a triple crime.

However, what works in Yudhishthir’s favour is that it is not his idea to begin with. It is Krishna’s. Yudhishthir reluctantly goes along with it in order to break the deadlock that Drona’s ferocious fighting is causing in the war.

Also, Yudhishthir does not lie – not technically. He says, ‘Ashwatthama is dead.’ And it is true that Ashwatthama the elephant has been killed by Bhima. And then he says, ‘Ashwatthama the elephant.’

But he constructs the truth in such a way that it becomes a lie, is heard as a lie, and causes the intended effect of forcing Drona into renouncing his weapons.

For this crime, the gods punish Yudhishthir with a short time in hell – during which he sees his four brothers and Draupadi suffering terrible tortures.

But after the requisite time is up, he is taken to heaven where he belongs.

Detailed Answer: Why did Yudhishthir go to hell?

What did Yama do for Yudhishthir?

There are two instances in the Mahabharata that Yama arrives to test Yudhishthir: (1) At the end of the twelve-year exile, he dons the disguise of a Yaksha and tests Yudhishthir’s knowledge; (2) At the very end, he takes the form of a dog and tests his son’s loyalty. Yudhishthir completes both tests successfully and is rewarded by his father.

As the son of Yama, Yudhishthir is always looked after by the god of justice. The first encounter between the two happens at the end of the twelve-year exile of the Pandavas, where Yama – disguised as a Yaksha – tests his son’s knowledge in various disciplines.

This dialogue takes the form of a rapid-fire question-and-answer session, where Yama shoots of question after question and Yudhishthir answers each one patiently. In doing this, Yudhishthir not only proves himself worthy, he also saves his brothers’ lives.

The other encounter occurs toward the end of the story, when the Pandavas are ascending Mount Meru. Yama takes the form of a dog and accompanies Yudhishthir. When Indra tells him that he will be allowed into heaven only if he forsakes the dog, Yudhishthir chooses to keep the dog company.

Once again the son passes the test set him by his father.

Now, it is also said that Vidura is an incarnation of Yama. In this form, Vidura helps Yudhishthir on many occasions, not least during the incident of the wax mansion in Varanavata.

Vidura warns Yudhishthir that Duryodhana has hatched a conspiracy to burn them alive, and he later sends an engineer to Varanavata to dig a tunnel out of the house in which they’re staying.

Vidura also plays an important role in bringing the Draupadi disrobing scene to its conclusion, by pleading with Dhritarashtra to end the shamefulness.

Both in his own form and in the form of Vidura, therefore, Yama helps Yudhishthir and the Pandavas on multiple occasions.

Detailed Answer: What did Yama do for Yudhishthir?

Why was Yudhishthir not punished?

The one misdeed that Yudhishthir commits is the act of lying to Dronacharya. He is punished twice for this act: (1) At the very moment of his utterance, his chariot – which always floats on air – sinks to the ground; (2) After his ascent to heaven, he is taken to hell for a short period of time to atone for the sin.

Yudhishthir is considered to have committed only one misdeed in his entire life, and that is the lie he speaks to Dronacharya in order to get him to renounce his weapons.

When Drona asks Yudhishthir if it is true that Ashwatthama is dead, Yudhishthir reluctantly says, ‘Ashwatthama hathah.’ (Ashwatthama is dead.) Though he then he says ‘Kunjaraha’ after a pause, to clarify that means Ashwatthama the elephant, it is already too late.

Drona has already gone into shock, and has dropped his weapons.

At this moment, we’re told, Yudhishthir’s chariot wheels – which have always floated on air on account of his unblemished record of virtue – sink to the earth and begins to roll on the ground. That is his first punishment. He has become just like other mortals now.

His second punishment arrives after his passing into heaven, when Indra takes him into hell and shows him a horrible sight: his brothers and wife being tortured with fire and weapons, while Duryodhana is enjoying himself in heaven.

This is Yudhishthir’s hell: this nagging suspicion that it is Duryodhana who is in the right and they have been the antagonists all along. But the illusion vanishes after an agonizing few minutes.

The one other act that is considered a sin on Yudhishthir’s part is his pledging of Draupadi. But this is only in Draupadi’s opinion. From the gods’ point of view, Yudhishthir conducted himself honourably throughout the dice-playing episode.

Was Yudhishthir jealous of Arjuna?

There is no evidence in the Mahabharata of any bad blood between Yudhishthir and Arjuna. A common modern narrative is to paint Yudhishthir as being jealous of Arjuna, and therefore stealing Draupadi from him. But Yudhishthir’s motivations here are completely egalitarian – he wishes Draupadi to be a binding force between the five brothers, not a corrosive one.

The primary reason why it is sometimes claimed that Yudhishthir may have been jealous of Arjuna is because he ‘steals’ Draupadi from Arjuna by suggesting that she should be a common wife to all five brothers.

But the context surrounding the decision is that Yudhishthir sees Draupadi’s captivating beauty, and notes that all of his brothers – and he himself – are consumed by a desire to possess her.

This means that no matter which brother gets to have her, it would seed envy and resentment within the other four. And who knows what path that simmering anger will take over the years?

Already, there are enough natural fissured between the Pandavas – who are brothers only in name. Yudhishthir, Arjuna and Bhima are only half-brothers because they share only a mother. As for Nakula and Sahadeva, they are not brothers at all to the first three sons of Kunti.

Except for the fact that Pandu has adopted them, they have nothing keeping them together – except for Kunti.

Now, with the arrival of Draupadi – if she is betrothed to just one of them – the Pandavas are likely to split in the future and quarrel among themselves.

Thinking thus, Yudhishthir suggests that she should take up Kunti’s mantle and become the binding force that keeps the Pandavas working toward common causes.

It is not jealousy that drives Yudhishthir, but a deep desire to keep the Pandavas united against all odds.

Detailed Answer: Was Yudhishthir jealous of Arjuna?

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.

As the son of Yama, the god of justice, Yudhishthir’s natural proclivity is toward righteousness. He is obsessed with the idea of Dharma, and how Dharma can take various forms in different situations.

If we have to characterize Yudhishthir in a few points, it would be thus:

  • He is extremely curious, always asking questions of people he believes are wiser than him: sages, elders, divine beings.
  • He is extremely humble: we do not ever find him speaking of himself in grandiose terms. By contrast, Arjuna and Bhima – even Nakula and Sahadeva on occasion – can be seen making boastful speeches.
  • He has conquered anger: during the Draupadi disrobing incident, all five other victims of Duryodhana’s wickedness react with anger, taking oaths of revenge. Yudhishthir alone remains steadfast and calm.
  • He favours forgiveness over might, and finds comfort in unravelling the marvellous tapestry of human nature – observing, understanding, probing.

The only ‘foolish’ thing he does during his life is to accept the invitation to play dice with Shakuni. But he does this while remaining in full control of his emotional faculties, knowing that he is probably stepping into a trap.

But in that situation, if he had rejected Dhritarashtra’s invitation, Duryodhana would have used that snub as a pretext to do something else. Yudhishthir is thus placed in a dilemma, and chooses to trust and obey his elder.

All the characters in the story consider Yudhishthir to be the wisest of them all. This includes the gods, who reward him with direct entry into heaven (without having to die first) at the end of his life.

Detailed Answer: Was Yudhishthir wise or foolish?

What was Yudhishthir worried about?

Throughout the course of his life, Yudhishthir has two main worries: (1) To keep the Pandavas united, and to strive for their well-being at all times; (2) To understand himself, his mind, and to learn the secret to a good life well led. The two goals often contradict one another, and lead to many instances where he is forced to choose between them.

As the eldest of the five brothers, it is Yudhishthir’s primary task to keep the Pandavas united, and have them pulling in the same direction at all times.

In the first half of his life, this burden is shared with him by Kunti, who adopts the sons of Madri as her own when Madri throws herself on Pandu’s funeral pyre.

In reality, the Pandavas are not blood-brothers. Yudhishthir, Bhima and Arjuna are only half-brothers because they share a mother. They have different fathers. Nakula and Sahadeva are also half-brothers to each other, while being completely unrelated to the first three Pandavas.

What has thrown them together is Pandu’s act of adopting them before his birth. They’re thus called Pandavas – the sons of Pandu – even though none of them is.

With all these natural fissures running between them, Yudhishthir’s task is not a small one, especially as they grow into adult men with their own personalities, whims and desires.

In fact, his decision to have Draupadi marry all five brothers is an attempt on his part to have one central focal point around which they can all rally. First it was Kunti. Now it will be Draupadi.

Yudhishthir’s other big worry in life is philosophical. He is constantly depicted as being torn asunder by conflicting ideas of morality, ethics, duty, and spirituality. Might or forgiveness? Attachment or detachment? Wealth or penury? Truth or falsehood?

And so on. And so on.

These two twin ambitions shape his life – and very often we see them conflict with one another.

What did Yaksha ask Yudhishthir?

At the end of the Pandavas’ twelfth year in exile, Yudhishthir encounters a Yaksha on the bank of a lake, who proceeds to test him on all the knowledge that he has gained over the years. These are a series of questions – some philosophical, some spiritual, some metaphysical – that Yudhishthir answers to the Yaksha’s satisfaction.

The Yaksha here is actually Yama in disguise, who has come to test Yudhishthir. At the end of the episode, he reveals himself in his true form, restores the rest of the Pandavas to their lives, and blesses them with a boon that their year of incognito will pass successfully.

This is Yudhishthir’s rite of passage. Over the last twelve years, while Arjuna and Bhima have been completing heroic quests, he has been gathering knowledge at the feet of sages.

He has been speaking to them, asking them questions, listening to stories, teasing out the meaning of life bit by bit.

During the encounter with the Yaksha, all his gathered knowledge and wisdom is put to the test – and the stakes are quite high. If he fails, the Pandavas are dead. The story ends.

Yudhishthir therefore rescues his brothers using his mind as the weapon. This is a message that the Mahabharata is giving us: that battles can be won with weapon (Arjuna) and muscle (Bhima), but there are some battles the mind alone can win.

You can find the complete list of the Yaksha’s questions – and Yudhishthir’s answers – in the post below.

Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 27: The Yaksha Prashna.

Further Reading

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