Warning: This is a long post.
The other day, a friend of mine told me how her mother responded when she discussed with her that Mahabharata ends with Yudhishthir achieving Swarga. (It was a surprise for my friend too unless I revealed it to her). The response of her mother was typical - What for? Gambling away his wife and kingdom?
This response that came as a question crossed my ears, stirred my mind and made me seek answers, recalling all that Yudhishthir did throughout his life; from attempting to balance the brotherhood of Kauravs and Pandavs during childhood to transforming the forest of Khandavaprastha to the heavenly city of Indraprastha, from controlling the reigns of an almost devastated Hastinapur to finally climbing the Himalayas leaving everything behind. After reading the epic and leaning about its characters, we usually come to the common conclusion that Yudhishthir was a mighty, truthful, righteous, kind king who gambled away his wife. Sure enough, it's a pity that Alanis Morissette forgot to include our Dharmaraj in "Ironic".
Yudhishir is that character of Mahabharata whose complexity lies in the utter simplicity and predictability of his conduct. Even the thought that somebody could be so compliant with his dharma that not a word left his mouth without righteous self-brainstorming seems fantastically impractical. Yet, that is what we know Yudhishthir for. The one who lived his life in adherence to the rule-books of the society, always saying and doing what the learned preached (except when he gambled away his wife). His brothers who, at times, disagreed with him, also followed him religiously in every step of his life. Collectively, the five Pandavs were considered to be the upholders of Dharma in the Dwapar Yug.
Then what went wrong? Why did he suffer so much throughout his life when he was trying to live his life the ideal way setting examples in righteousness for future generations? And why even after all this righteousness we still recall him as the king who gambled away his wife?
Throughout the epic, Yudhishthir has been referred to as an epitome of Dharma since he was born to Kunti by Dharma deva. His behaviour was expected to be a man of rectitude in all situations, whatever the cost maybe. At various points, when different characters are in dilemmas, he comes into the frame, quotes some scriptures and gets away after convincing people to do the right thing. That's a different thing what they did and what they didn't!
Some situations where the wisdom of Yudhishthir was noticed by all:
- At the school of the Pandavas and the palace of Hastinapur, Yudhishthir was always the young boy who was more mature than any of his brothers (and at times his elders too). His being the eldest grandson of Vichitraveerya had almost enrooted in the minds of Bheeshma, Kripa and Vidhur that he should be the rightful heir.
- When Dhritarashtra was faced with the dilemma of choosing his heir and was suggested by Vidhur to take the decision based on the prince's capabilities and not his parents, he proved his mettle by the sagacious decision-making that was approved by all the wise in the court.
- Only the rat escapes the forest fire - The riddle by Vidhur to warn Pandavas about the house of lac was solved only by Yudhishthir and only after this the Pandavas could save themselves and their mother.
- When Kunti ordered Arjun to share what he had won with his five brothers, the entire family went into the dharma-sankat of sharing the wife or obeying the mother. It was at this point when Yudhishthir quoted from the scriptures stories of the past where women had married multiple brothers in a family while upholding the traditions of the society. This ensured that the word of the mother was not broken and that Draupadi's chastity would not be questioned even if she married five brothers.
- When Dhritarashtra offered him the barren half of Hastinapur (Khandavaprastha), he accepted it with free will, much to the chagrin of his younger brothers, but for the peace of the family at large. Even though he deserved the full kingdom, he did not yearn for anything more than what was offered.
- After reuniting the small kingdoms of the Indian mainland, Yudhishthir's rajsuya yagya was conducted that established him as an independent monarch (or emperor, whichever word suits you more).
- After the gambling episode, while in exile the four younger Pandavas and their wife were infuriated and craving for revenge, it was only Yudhishthir who realized that the calamity had fallen upon them due to his own love for gambling and that he will not go for a massively destructing war just in order to avenge their humiliation. When the younger Pandavas suggested that after thirteen days they were technically allowed to go back to their kingdom according to the scriptures, Yudhishthir affirmed that he would not interpret the scriptures to his convenience. He would keep his word that he accepted at the time of gambling, howsoever long the suffering may be.
- During the exile, when the gandharavas captured Duryodhan, Yudhishthir sent Bheema and Arjun to rescue him, keeping all the humiliation aside and considering Duryodhan to be their brother, whose protection he felt was the duty of the Pandavas.
- When the four over-confident Pandavas did not answer Yaksha's questions and died as a result, only Yudhishthir displayed complete patience and wisdom by answering his questions. When asked to resurrect one of his brothers, he chose Nakul and not the powerful Arjun, in order to be fair to Nakul's mother, Madri. Yaksha (Dharma in disguise), finally resurrected the four Pandavas. The family was thus saved once again only for the wisdom of Yudhishthir.
- After the exile, Yudhishthir came to terms that if Duryodhan kept his word and returned Indraprastha, no blood would flow. He would not wage a war only to avenge his humiliation. He kept the welfare of the family and people above the throne any day. It was only after Duryodhan's dogmatism left no option, that he went for the battle in Kurukshetra.
- To the last day of the war, Yudhishthir was considerate towards the Kauravs and continued to propose that if Duryodhan kept his word even at the last moment, he would stop the war.
- Yudhishthir followed the part of righterousness throughout his life which took him to the top of the Himalayas to the door of Swarga before he was confronted by the devas.
In spite of this, we do remember him as the king who gambled away his wife. After knowing the characteristics of Yudhishthir so well, let's consider the gambling episode again.
An ever-obedient son of the family is invited to a game of gamble by his elders, which by the Kshatriya code of that time could not be reverted by any king. Doesn't require much thinking as to what he had to do. During the game of gamble, the first rule was broken by Duryodhan to let Shakuni roll the dice, which should have been rolled by him. Yudhishthir had tried to oppose but on seeing the will of the elders did not leave the game in between to save the blind king from disgrace. What followed was a series of stakes in which he continued to lose everything from his personal possessions to his kingdom to his brothers and then himself. Throughout this game, though his personal fondness for gambling was there, he was also obliged to continue the game as there was no order from the blind king to stop it. It was disgraceful for a player to withdraw from the game on his own will while he was losing. And he could not have won under any circumstances as Shakuni's dice was loaded. Was Yudhishthir left with options?
After losing himself in the stake, Yudhishthir followed what his master Duryodhan ordered him to - stake Draupadi. And he did it. And we know what followed. Don't we?
This clearly indicates what happened was totally against Yudhishthir's will but he didn't raise voice as the code of conduct did not allow him to do so, being the Dharmaraaj that he was. Where did the fault actually lie then? Was it in his stick adherence to the code or in the code of conduct itself? Even when all the rules of the conduct were being followed, Draupadi was not saved from humiliation? So does the blame for this entirely fall on only this king who gambled away his wife? Is no one responsible for what happened after that? Was Yudhishthir the creator of the code or only an obsessed follower? Gurcharan das quoted, "Life is a dice game, with rules known to be deceptive; where the least experienced least adequate player is nevertheless pushed to the point of staking everything he has, with the certainty of losing." I somehow believe that it was absolutely true in Yudhishthir's case.
Throughout the epic, Yudhishthir had been trying to follow the path of the idealistic Ram by sticking to code. But while Ram had brothers who were willing to serve him whole-heartedly, Yudhishthir was faced with a set of cousins who had done everything in their capacity to harm him. Where Ram's actions reflect a strict adherence to the code that generates from the deep love in his heart, Yudhishthir's strict adherence is a result of his belief - I do because I must. He clinged to the correctness of the acts, not the consequences. He never let the suffering of his heart reflect in his actions.
However, after the thirteen-year exile, Yudhishthir transformed to a great extent. He realized that the line of total non-violence had been crossed and if the need be, weapons had to be wielded. The point of this would, still, not be his personal interests but the establishment of Dharma, by ensuring that a prince like Duryodhan who never kept his word never becomes the king.
Yudhishthir, who gambled away his life, did transform. What we want to remember him for is our choice.