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Yudhishthira: A Game of Dice with Dharma
|by Satya Chaitanya|
In the Mahaprasthanika Parva of the Mahabharata, we find the hauntingly correct picture of Yudhishthira insistently telling Indra that the dog that had been following him all along be taken with him to heaven or else he would not go there. A little while ago, one by one Draupadi and his four brothers had fallen on their way to heaven and it was only the dog that had stayed on with him. When all attempts to persuade Yudhishthira to leave the dog behind fail because Yudhishthira kept insisting that it would go with him, the dog reveals its true form and appears as Dharma himself. Yudhishthira has passed another test – Dharma in the guise of the dog was testing him and Yudhishthira the righteous, as was expected of him, did not abandon it even for the sake of heaven. The eldest of the Pandavas once again proves his nobility, his steadfastness in righteousness, his unwavering faith in dharma.
Somehow the story made me very uncomfortable from the first time I heard it as a child and it continued to perturb me into later years. Something did not sound true there. Was it that Yudhishthira was willing to give up heaven for the sake of a mere dog that made me uncomfortable? Was it something else? I did not know. But something definitely continued to plague me whenever I thought of it. It was all too clean, too perfect. Like a room that you see in a book of interior decoration – a room that is absolutely perfect, perfectly clean. The sofa is perfect, each cushion is perfectly placed against the back of the sofa, the cushion covers have not a crease on them, the centre table is at the exact centre, the flowers in the vase on the table are fresh and look like they have been arranged by a master of ikebana, the curtains on the windows, the books on the shelves, the TV set, the soft lamps on the sides of the TV table, the pictures on the wall, the different objects of art in the showcases, everything precisely where and how each should be, without a flaw – you suspect nobody lives there, it is all arranged for the photographs. Something like that. I felt there was something terribly wrong with it all, something too neat.
The reason Yudhishthira gives for refusing to forsake the dog is its loyalty. The dog has been following him with never-failing devotion and now he cannot give it up.
Lakshmana of the Ramayana is faithfulness itself, loyalty itself. He was far more faithful to his brother Rama than this dog was to Yudhishthira. Such was his devotion to Rama that when Kaikeyi snatched the crown of yuvaraja from Rama, Lakshmana wanted to kill his father Dasharatha so that Rama could have the kingdom – he wouldn’t hesitate to commit even pitr-hatya, patricide, one of the most heinous of sins possible for which there are no atonement, for the sake of Rama.
When Rama decided to give up Ayodhya and its royal comforts, Lakshmana too gave up those comforts and the privileges of power and followed his brother to the jungle. When Rama asked him to chop off the ears, nose and breasts of Shoorpanakha, Lakshmana did so without the least hesitation about disfiguring a woman. When Rama asked him to go and threaten Sugreeva for delaying the search for Sita, he went there readily with a drawn sword in his hand, murder in his mind, with not a thought about the dangers of such an undertaking. He faced death several times in his battle against Ravana, fighting side by side with his brother so that Rama’s wife could be rescued from the Rakshasa’s clutches. And when Rama forsake Sita at the end of the war and humiliated her beyond description, and Sita wanted to end her life and asked him to prepare a chita for her, in spite of his fury at his brother, Lakshmana, obeying Rama’s silence, did so rather than draw his sword against his brother, or put an arrow to his bow, to save his beloved sister-in-law whom he knew was completely innocent. And later, when Rama ordered him to take the pregnant Sita quietly to the jungle under the pretext of taking her to Valmiki Ashram and abandon her there, he did that too, though his heart was completely against it and he was weeping all along inconsolably in silence.
No one could be more loyal, more devoted, to another than Lakshmana was to Rama. Eventually it is through his loyalty that this younger brother of Rama met with his death. Rama had instructed him on pain of death not to allow anyone inside while he was in discussion with the sage who had come to visit him. It was then that Durvasa came and demanded immediate audience with Rama. If he were not allowed inside instantly, he would curse and destroy not only Lakshmana but also Rama and all of Ayodhya, said the sage. The loyal Lakshmana chose death for himself rather than exposing Rama to danger. And yet Rama, albeit sad, allowed Lakshmana to go and meet with his death, and did not insist that nothing could separate him from Lakshmana. Rama did not even follow him to the riverbank to bid adieu to his loyal, devoted brother in the last moments of his final leave-taking.
Was Yudhishthira, consciously or unconsciously, trying to be nobler than Maryada Purushottama Rama himself by refusing to part with the dog that had suddenly appeared from nobody knew where and attached itself to him in his last days?
True, Yudhishthira asks Indra to take his brothers and Draupadi too to heaven with him and is told that they are already in heaven, having died and reached there, something Yudhishthira did not know when he made this request. He believed they are still lying there, where he had left them when each of them fell. And that is what he tells Indra: “My brothers are lying here, having fallen down; I do not want to go to heaven without them, oh lord of the gods. And let the delicate Princess Draupadi who deserves all happiness too go with us. Please permit this.”
True that he now wants to take them too to heaven with him. But when each of them had fallen, Yudhishthira had walked on without a backward glance at them, without a word of consolation to them, without slowing down his steps, his answers to the questions as to why each fell showing his great arrogance, his supreme conceit that he alone is perfect, all others imperfect – Draupadi was biased towards Arjuna, Sahadeva thought of himself as the wisest of men, Nakula was too proud of his beauty, Arjuna too proud of his skills as a warrior, Bheema ate too much and was conceited that he was the mightiest of all men.
The Mahabharata tells us that Draupadi lost her yogic concentration and that is why she fell though no reason is given for her losing concentration. Soon Sahadeva too fell. But when Nakula fell, there was a different reason for it. He fell because the brave Nakula loved his people and their fall caused him agony [arto bandhupriyah]. When Arjuna fell next, it was again because of the great sorrow in his heart [shokasantaptah] at the fall of Draupadi, Sahadeva and Nakula. Bheema too falls perhaps because of the same sorrow. But Yudhishthira does not feel any sorrow for any of them. Why should he? After all, they were all either selfish or biased in their affections or conceited. So, therefore, he walked on, his mind focused on his goal, on reaching heaven, come what may on the way, whoever may fall. The Mahabharata makes it very clear this is how he proceeded – anavekshya, without a look at them.
On his way to heaven, Yudhishthira walks on without the least hesitation in his mind, without the least slackening of his feet, without one backward glance as each of these falls down on the way. He would leave them all behind for the sake of heaven. And yet when it comes to the dog, he would say that he would not move in inch forward unless it was taken with him. And the reason: because the dog has been loyal and devoted to him.
Wasn’t Draupadi loyal and devoted to him then? Hadn’t she followed him more devotedly than any dog all her life? Even now, wasn’t she the only one of the several Pandava wives to follow him on his last journey? His other wife Devaki did not do that. Nor did either of Bheema’s wives, Hidimba or Balandhara, do that. Subhadra, Uloopi or Chitrangada did not do that, though their husband Arjuna too was on that pilgrimage. Nor did the wives of Nakula or Sahadeva do that – both Karenumati and Vijaya decided not to accompany the Pandavas on their pilgrimage.
Didn’t Draupadi deserve his staying back for a moment with her then? Didn’t she deserve one kind word, a kind look? Couldn’t he have said that this woman has been so devoted to him all her life and she has fallen on the way, he was going to stay with her? Couldn’t he have said that either all of them would go to heaven or none of them would, for that was how they have lived?
In fact, Draupadi, the poor woman whom Yudhishthira had coveted and practically snatched away from his younger brother and forced to become the common wife of five men, had been following him around all her life. She had followed him from Kampilya to Hastinapura where he was a powerless persona non grata at that time, afraid to show his face for fear of death until he had married her and become an ally of the powerful Panchalas. She had followed him from the royal palace of Hastinapura to the wilderness of Khandavaprastha. Again, she had followed him from Indraprastha at its height of glory back to Hastinapura, knowing full well it was a journey to doom. She had followed him, now in penury, even his clothes taken away from him, to twelve years of life in forests and then to a year of life incognito in Virata. She had stayed with him during that terrible war and when it ended in the greatest death this land has ever seen and he returned to Hastinapura, she had followed him there too. And, in all those unhappy years when he ruled the kingdom she was beside him.
What hadn’t she endured for this man’s sake! The shame of the dice hall of Hastinapura where she was dragged into the middle of kings clad in a single piece of cloth since she was in her monthly periods at that time, the privations of the jungle, a rape attempt there, slavery to a queen perhaps not fit to be her maid, another rape attempt and humiliation before a king and her husband, being kicked in fury by the feet of a wicked man while she lay on the floor right in front of them because the rape attempt had failed, the humiliation of being forced to go back to that man again after all this, the terror of being bound and carried to the cremation ground by a mob of furious men to be burnt alive with the body of the man whose obsession for her had killed him… She had to suffer the ignominy of all her husbands getting other wives for themselves while she herself could call no man her exclusive husband and had to share her bed with one man after another.
Yudhishthira had treated her even worse than a common drunken gambler would treat his wife. And yet she never did one disloyal act to him. She had no reason to respect Yudhishthira as a man or as husband and yet she always paid him full respects. It was she who had released him from slavery, got his kingdom back to him, though only a few minutes ago he had given her away into slavery to her worst enemies. Is that not loyalty? Was she any less loyal than that dog that just walked behind Yudhishthira dumbly?
And yet when she fell, he had not a drop of kindness in him for her, his steps did not once slow down for her sake. All he said was she deserved to fall – she hadn’t loved him as much as the man who had won him in the swayamvara and made her his wife before his brothers snatched her away from him.
And wasn’t the mighty Bheema loyal to him? In the dice hall as he gambled away one by one everything they owned including jewels, gold, chariots, horses, elephants, land, people, staked and lost all the wealth the rajasooya had brought, the wealth that had come from the conquests made by Bheema, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva, hadn’t he kept quiet though his heart was filled with a murderous rage? As Yudhishthira staked him and made him a slave to his lifelong enemies, wasn’t it his loyalty that had made him keep quiet? Wasn’t it his loyalty and devotion to his elder brother that made him keep quiet when he wagered all three of his other brothers and himself and lost them all? True, when he staked Draupadi and lost her, Bheema shouted to Sahadeva to bring fire to burn the gambler’s hands. But when Arjuna asked him to cool down, he had kept quiet, though there was a volcano inside him thirsting to explode and erupt. And yet, after Dushshasana dragged Draupadi into the dice hall and humiliated her there, when Duryodhana offered to free them all from slavery if he disowned Yudhishthira, hadn’t he refused to do so in spite of all that had just happened? Yudhishthira’s addiction to gambling reduced Bheema to a cook in Virata suffering mortification every day but he did not complain. If that was not loyalty, if that was not devotion, then what is loyalty, one wonders.
And yet Yudhishthira left him behind and hurried to heaven without so much as a word of consolation for him. Bheema’s loyalty did not deserve one backward glance from Yudhishthira, not one kind word, not a bit of slowing of his steps, for he believed that would endanger his chance of getting to heaven. Yet that Yudhishthira would insist that the dog that had followed him silently be taken to heaven with him and say he wouldn’t go to heaven unless it was taken too.
And Arjuna? Was he any less loyal and devoted? The most beautiful woman on earth, the most desired woman on earth – he won her with his skill in archery and what did his elder brother, the incarnation of dharma, do? He slipped away quietly from the swayamvara hall with his two youngest brothers, leaving Arjuna and Bheema to face an angry, violent mob of kings. And he went and plotted with his mother so that hours later when Arjuna reached there with his wife, she asked him to share her with all his brothers. It is possible that it was because he missed this woman that Arjuna later went on a pilgrimage that lasted twelve years – maybe, he couldn’t tolerate the injustice of it all. He was forced to seek his Draupadi in other women across the land – in Uloopi, in Chitrangada, perhaps in the five Apsara women, in Subhadra. I wonder if the poor man found the woman of his heart whom he sought in other women in any of these women. Later he would be forced to stand and watch like helplessly as his brother wagered this woman away into slavery. The mightiest archer of the day would still later be compelled to live the life of a eunuch in the palace of the Viratas, teaching tender steps of dance to a teenage princess when all he wanted to do was to pick up his mighty Gandeeva and wage a battle that would reduce his enemies to ashes. He suffered all this for his brother’s sake, so that his brother would be able to keep his word and walk in honour, his head held high. Was Arjuna any less loyal to Yudhishthira than that dog? Was he any less constant in his devotion to him?
Was Nakula less loyal than that dog? Or Sahadeva? And in Sahadeva’s case, even had he not been loyal, there was a reason why he should have tarried with him and refused to move on. Sahadeva was especially entrusted to him by his mother – all along Kunti had taken a special interest in Sahadeva and loved him perhaps more than any other of her sons. In the Ashramavasika Parva, Kunti surprises all by deciding to go with Gandhari and Dhritarashtra to the jungle. As she takes leave of Yudhishthira, the first thing she tells him is to take care of Sahadeva and never be displeased with him for any reason. Yet Yudhishthira, so devoted to Kunti all along, suddenly at the door of heaven forgets his commitment to him, his commitment to his mother.
Yudhishthira had no time for any of his brothers or for Draupadi. They fell down and he walked on – he had to reach heaven and nothing would stop him. Not their loyalty, not their devotion. Only the loyalty of the dog would. Only its devotion would. Its constancy alone would.
Perhaps there are different kinds of loyalties – the wagging-tail kind is one and that is the only kind that Yudhishthira recognized. And, in spite of being loyal and devoted to him, all his brothers and Draupadi had voices of their own, which he did not approve of. Theirs was not loyalty and devotion of the wagging-tail kind.
If heaven is a land where hatred has no place, where bitterness, jealousy and plain meanness have no place, then Yudhishthira had no place there.
On the eleventh day of the Mahabharata war, early in the morning before the battles begin, Karna comes to Bheeshma who has fallen and is lying on the bed of arrows. Bheeshma is alone now – the Pandavas and the Kauravas who had come to greet him earlier have left. Karna reverentially greets the old warrior who had all along been his rival and had always called him Sootaputra and Radheya and insulted him as a lowborn, worthless fellow. Karna seeks his blessings before he joined the war – he had earlier taken a vow that he would not join the war until Bheeshma fell.
Bheeshma gathers him affectionately in his arm, like a father putting his arm around his son, to use the words of the Mahabharata. The grandsire then tells him he is not the son of Radha, not a charioteer’s son, he is of his own family, he is Kunti’s son. Karna assures him he has known this. Bheeshma requests Karna to join the Pandavas at least now and Karna politely rejects that request, telling him that he would fight for Duryodhana for the same reason as Bheeshma himself fought for him: loyalty. He would not betray Duryodhana in his hour of need. Bheeshma blesses him and he goes back.
A comparison of Karna’s greeting Bheeshma here with Yudhishthira’s greeting Bheeshma earlier at the beginning of the war makes an interesting contrast.
[Kuttikrishna Marar, the noted Malayalam writer and Mahabharata analyst, has an interesting study of the two greetings in his Bharata Paryatanam.]
If Karna chooses to go to Bheeshma when he was lying all alone, Yudhishthira chooses to do so with eighteen akshauhinis of army watching. For Karna it was enough that Bheeshma blessed him. But that was not enough for Yudhishthira. He needed the blessings. But he also needed the world to see that he sought Bheeshma’s blessings and that he got those blessings. To Yudhishthira, the ‘show’ was as important as the act was, perhaps even more. He could have chosen the previous evening for seeking the blessings of Bheeshma and the acharyas, or some other earlier time. He could have gone to each of them alone and sought their blessings. But he waits until the armies have been arrayed and they stand ready in broad daylight. He waits until the conches have been blown and war has officially begun. He waits until after Arjuna has collapsed and received the Gita from Krishna and got up ready to fight saying ‘karishye vachanam tava’, I shall do your bidding.
And then, after all this, he dramatically removes his armor, drops his weapons, gets down from his chariot and joining his palms together in supplication, walks straight towards Bheeshma on the other side, without saying a word to anybody. Arjuna is thoroughly nonplussed. Running after him, he asks Yudhishthira why he has suddenly decided to desert them? What has he decided? Bheema asks the same question, Nakula and Sahadeva do so. The same question must have risen in every mind in those eighteen akshauhinis of armies. But Yudhishthira does not utter a word in answer, does not even acknowledge he has heard the questions, and tension, suspension, is at its peak all over the warfield. As the whole army waits breathlessly, Yudhishthira coolly walks all the way to Bheeshma and then later to his acharyas. That is how Yudhishthira sought the blessings of the grandsire and the acharyas before the first arrow of the war was shot. He wanted the whole world a witness to his being right, his being polite, his doing his duty and paying his regards to his elders before the war began.
What a wonderful show!
Was the loyalty to the dog another show like that? Show of a loyalty that he did not have for Bheema, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva? Show of a loyalty that he did not have for Draupadi?
Like the show he put on before his brothers after the war telling them he did not want the kingdom won through blood? Of course, he, a kshatriya, a Kuru prince, knew what a war was! But Yudhishthira wanted the kingdom pressed on to him, just as he wanted his mother to press Draupadi on to him and would accept her as his wife only to oblige her, only so that his mother’s words would not go wrong, though he had been lusting for her all along, as the Mahabharata makes perfectly clear.
I am not denying Yudhishthira the goodness that was in him. There was much that was noble in him, much that was genuinely good. But I also believe that in spite of all this he was a performer, a showman.
The showman in him came out even in the middle of the greatest crisis he would ever face in his life – in the middle of that total defeat and humiliation in the dice hall of Hastinapura. Right in the middle of it all, while a debate was going on about whether Draupadi should be brought to the hall or not, this Kuru prince quietly sends a messenger to Draupadi, asking her to come and perform in the hall before the assembled kings. He specifically instructs her to come in the single cloth she was wearing and weep aloud in the assembly, so that people understand how wicked Duryodhana was. To quote the Mahabharata, while the pratikami who had gone to call Draupadi came back a second time and put to the elders of the assembly her question about whether Yudhishthira staked her before he lost himself or after, while the entire assembly sat silent with their heads down, Yudhishthira sends a trusted messenger to Draupadi and tells her: “Panchali, come to the assembly and stand before your father-in-law exactly as you are: in your monthly periods, wearing just a single cloth below your navel, and wailing. Then, seeing you, a princess, thus come to the assembly in this condition, all in the assembly are sure to reprimand Duryodhana in their minds.”
There is an old argument that says that it was not Shakuni who cheated at the dice but Yudhishthira, that after he saw he was losing everything, he so manipulated the situation that the Kauravas were tricked into bringing Draupadi into the hall and doing all that was done to her there. That his forgetting to wager Draupadi before he wagered himself was deliberate, and the situation created there, where nobody knew for sure whether Draupadi was a slave or not, was Yudhishthira’s deliberate creation.
Yudhishthira was a gambler. He was an actor. He was a great performer. I wouldn’t be surprised if he sensed with that performer’s mind, that gambler’s mind, that this dog was no ordinary dog and decided to perform, to gamble, to play another game of dice. A game of dice so that he is admitted into heaven even when his heart is full of lusts and hatreds.
And he won. He was allowed to enter heaven with his body. His heart still full of bitterness, selfishness, avarice, ungratefulness, feelings of superiority, megalomania; his heart still filled with the six enemies of man – kama, krodha, lobha, moha, mada, and matsarya: lust, anger, greed, delusion, conceit and jealousy. His mind full ofraga and dvesha, longing and hatred. And he sees Duryodhana seated there in lustrous glory. Narada had to remind him this was heaven and the feelings that arose in his heart at the sight of Duryodhana seated there were out of place in heaven.
Heaven was no heaven for Yudhishthira. I wonder if that cleansing bath he took in the heavenly Ganga later helped him. For, every bath in the Ganga does not purify you. Purity comes only when your heart is ready for it. When your heart is full of surrender, of acceptance, of humility, of prayer.
And perhaps the greatest quality heaven looks for is authenticity – your being true to yourself, true to the sacred in you, true to the divine in you, true to what is greater than you in you. Was this kind of authenticity, truthfulness, there in Yudhishthira? Or did he make his life a game of dice in which he tried to outwit, outsmart, others with moves he made outside with cunning plans plotted in the deep recesses of his mind?
Satyena vitata sukrtasya pantha, say the Upanishads. The path to immortality is paved with truth. Every step you take in the direction of immortality has to be a step taken on the path of truth. Every single step. And every time you place your foot away from truth, you are moving away from immortality. Can Yudhishthira claim that he has been walking on the path of truth all his life?
Or maybe, there are different heavens and the one Yudhishthira attained was the one about which the Upanishads say, “Just as it is here, so there too.” A heaven that is a true reflection of the earth, a heaven that is as full of lusts and passions as the earth is. A heaven filled with raga and dvesha. A heaven where some are happier than you, some less happy than you; a heaven where some are above you, some below; where some fear you and you fear some; where some serve you and you serve some. A heaven where everything is comparative.
Where there is comparison, there is hell.
Yudhishthira was definitely ready for this heaven.
Perhaps he did not win even this game of dice that he played with Dharma, though outwardly it looked like he did.
One small thing to end this with. The Mahabharata tells us categorically that Yudhishthira did not wait a moment when Draupadi fell, that he did not look at her once. When Yudhishthira continued to walk on, she was not yet dead, but had only fallen down. Yudhishthira himself admits this when he later tells Indra that his brothers and Draupadi have fallen down on the way and they should be taken along with him to heaven, meaning they should be taken to heaven in their living physical bodies as he was being taken. Yet, a little later, a minute or two later, he claims that they were dead when he left them, and he left them because it was not in his capacity to bring the dead back to life. A lie?
Perhaps the whole Mahabharata is a book on Samsara, a book on maya and its ways. Perhaps Yudhishthira is still to take the first step towards truth, towards sukrta, which you can reach only by walking on the path paved with truth, never swerving from it. It requires complete honesty, complete integrity, complete authenticity, a total absence of duplicity. But it is this honesty, this integrity, this straightforwardness, this authenticity of being and living that we find lacking in Yudhishthira. Being able to convince the world that you are truthful is one thing. Being truthful, living in truth, is quite another thing.
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