The author agrees with Rajsekhar Basu in identifying Yudhisthir as the hero and central male character of Mahabharat. The excerpts selected here are therefore connected with Yudhisthir and the reasons for considering him to be the pre-eminent character.
Excerpt 1: The whole Ch.5, In Search of a Hero: The grounds for not considering Yudhisthir to be the hero are set down first! A beginning is made in tracing his eventual rise to greatness.
Excerpt 2: A few paragraphs from Ch. 6, An Institution of Higher Learning-- dwelling upon the self-searching and self-discovery achieved by Yudhisthir during Vana-parva, which led later to greatness.
Excerpt 3: Much of Ch. 22, The Last Journey, where Yudhisthir marches on to Heaven accompanied in the end by a dog. Yudhisthir's greatness is made apparent in this chapter, and, briefly, the timeless relevance of the Mahabharat to the life of man.
In Search of a Hero
I know I am not saying anything new. In the preface to his abridged translation of Mahabharat, Rajsekhar Basu also identified Yudhisthir as the hero and central male character. We shall now have to examine the premises on which Yudhisthir's role as hero can rest. Generally, we regard him as weak and lacking in any initiative, as perpetually dependent on the prowess of Bhim or Arjun and on the counsel of Krishna, Vidur or his own brothers, nearly as indecisive as Dhritarastra and, despite his piety, guilty of unbelievable moral lapses. How shall we accept such a person as hero? His personality is so weakly attractive that no poet from Kalidas to Rabindranath has ever composed a kavya or natak with Yudhisthir as the central figure. There is no dearth of persons named Partha or Sabyasaci in modern Bengal, but it would be difficult to locate an upper-caste Hindu named Yudhisthir. In Bangla usage, the epithet 'Dharmaputra Yudhisthir' has a derogatory meaning. It is clear that Yudhisthir possesses none of the characteristics of an epic hero. His development in the story is also very slow. No such statement like 'Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles' or 'Who is there in the world at the same time learned, accomplished and brave in battles' announces his first appearance. When the story begins his role is lamentably insignificant. Bhim or Arjun or Duryodhan project themselves brightly even while the sons of Dhritarastra and Pandu are mere boys. They are already trained athletes, full of vigour; their destinies are clearly anticipated. But we do not find Yudhisthir participating in those healthy exercises like sprinting, jumping or swimming. He is more of the type who stays indoors, hovering nearing his mother. We are told that under Drona's tutelage he became an expert charioteer, but there is no evidence anywhere in Mahabharat of Yudhisthir's ever having demonstrated this skill. As for his skill at arms, the less said about this the better. If any pupil failed to graduate in Drona's school, he was Yudhisthir. Urged by the master at the archery tests, he failed to fix his sight upon the artificial bird set up on a tree but saw everything -- the target as well as the tree and his teacher and his brothers at the same time -- and Drona dismissed him in no uncertain terms: 'Give up, you are worthless' (Adi, 132). He is generally overshadowed in his youth by the feats of Bhima and Arjun. He first attracts our notice in Adi-parva when Vidur, who has come to know of Duryodhan's wicked plan, tells Yudhisthir in a code language how to escape from being burned alive in the cottage made of lac (Adi, 145). That he at all comprehended Vidur's message in a strange lingo was his only credit. As for what had to be done before and after that incendiary affair was taken care of entirely and alone by Bhim, with the aid of his powerful and confident pair of arms. From here until the end of Adi-parva, Bhima and Arjun occupy our attention, especially Arjun, who does not stop with the winning of Draupadi but collects Subhadra as well, and does not ignore Ulupi and Citrangada as temporary companions. Even Bhim, whom we do not normally regard as a philanderer, finds a companionable female in passing -- not a princess but a raksasi, which probably suited him better. All this while Yudhisthir remained content with the fifth share of one woman, content in a rather abstemious and asexual manner -- or so it seems to us. The most insignificant warrior of the Kuru clan, he is also an unworthy progeny of Dusyanta and Santanu in amour.
And there is no doubt that he is the least notable king in history. We are told in Asramvasik-parva that he rules for thirtysix years after the great battle was over. But that he ruled only in name, that the actual ruling was conducted by Vidur, is made abundantly clear in the text. Also, there is no account of kingship in action in this book of Mahabharat. There is a farewell tone in this part which acts as a preamble to the great departure that is to follow. Only once -- and that very briefly, in Sabha-parva -- we see Yudhisthir as king, but not in any kingly or glorious action. Rather, we find him, in spite of Narad's counsel (Sabha, 5), unable to overcome his characteristic timidity, mildness and circumambulatory tendencies, failing to grasp the political motivation underlying the decisions of a king. Narad's query -- 'O King, are you being distracted from the thought of dharma by having to think of artha?' -- sounds very much like a jibe because we have known, ever since Adi-parva, that Yudhisthir is not in the least inclined towards wealth. There are many words of approbation about his reign in Sabha-parva, but there is no indication that apart from the welfare of his subjects any other regal aspiration ever touched him. This may have pleased his subjects but not his well-wishers. Arjun had to voice the thought that royal duties remain unfulfilled unless a king goes to war and expands his territory (Sabha, 24). Evidently Yudhisthir agreed, but not with much enthusiasm, and only because it was not in his nature to firmly protest. His brothers and his courtiers persuaded him that he was fit to be a king of kings, hence entitled to hold a Rajasuya yajna (Sabha, 12). Yudhisthir's worry on hearing this is proof enough of his lack of confidence in what others said specially about him, even in his own ability. It is advisable for kings to seek proper counsel in any undertaking, but Yudhisthir seems almost addicted to consultation. He just cannot take a political decision on his own. Approval of the priest Dhoumya, of several divines and sages, even of Narad himself who also carried directives from his dead father Pandu -- all these promptings failed to overcome his misgivings, and finally Krishna had to come all the way from Dwaraka to persuade him to hold the yajna. Yudhisthir is mentioned only in the passive voice. He is not the organiser of any event, only the beneficiary; not an executor, but an excuse. When the other four brothers set out on digvijay [conquest in many directions] he stays back in Indraprastha; the plot to kill Jarasandha frightens him but he makes no attempt to deter Krishna. In this way, entirely as a result of the great enterprise and toil of others, he obtains the title of 'Rajcakravarti' -- for which he himself had expressed no eagerness -- and that throne to which he has been carried almost bodily by his four warlike brothers and the diplomat Krishna. We are amused, even feel some pity, when at the rumblings among the angry kings of the Sisupal faction attending the yajna, this recently crowned sovereign turns anxiously to Bhisma for succour. It is at once clear that all of them from Dhoumya to Krishna had been fit to wear the crown, but not Yudhisthir, never Yudhisthir.
Up to this point he still enjoys our respect, perhaps even some affection, because he is such a harmless soul. Probably we remember that he had prevented the killing of Hidimba by Bhim and of Angarparna by Arjun. Already, though several other slayings, including that of a woman, have happened, we have come to recognise him as somebody nowhere nearly as ruthless as Arjun or Bhim. When soon after this, at a moment of crisis, this inert, innocuous, non-aggressive person, whom we have known so far as timid, indecisive and panicky, suddenly turns into a wildly irresponsible gambler, we are taken wholly by surprise. And when we see him sitting quietly after the disaster, unresponsive to the stinging scorn of the Kauravs, unmoved by the agitation of his younger brothers, indifferent to the sorrow of his tearful mother -- when we see him, further, bid farewell in very few words to Bhisma and other elders and set off for the forest-exile without a sign of regret -- we do not know what to make of the man. Is he obtuse or patient, dazed or detached, insane or inanimate? The question arises in our minds: Has the terrible blow turned him into stone or has it not even touched him?
The answer to this question dawns on us, first slowly but in due course quite convincingly, as we follow him into the forest, walk behind his steady strides, listen to what he says and also to what he himself listens to. Yudhisthir's fondness of the dice is not quite what European critics would regard as tragic 'flaw'. He is also much above being the object of Aristotelian pity and terror. We have to note that the game of dice does not bring about his fall -- or, if it does, it is only from his worldly status, not from his character. His moral nature, instead of undergoing any disintegration, unfolds itself, develops, and achieves fullness simply as a result of the forest-exile caused by the game of dice, then of the battle which follows. It may not be too much to assert that in some corner of his mind, in the depths of his subconscious, this is what he had longed for, this release -- from the Indrapuri built by Moydanav, from the shackles of ceremony and splendour, from the stifling enormity of wealth and plenty, and, above all, release from the kind of political intrigue which caused the deaths of Jarasandha and Sisupal. Yudhisthir had wanted a spell of respite before the inevitable great battle, in order to live as a mere human being. But how was that to be, with so many people around him, so many eyes watching him all the time? Isn't this the most likely reason of his acute passion for dice, of his sudden and unexpected self-oblivion. It may well be that what is for us a painful episode, was for him the only means of or pretext for escape -- the only way out available to him. But nothing on this earth can be had for nothing. As the price of this release he was to accept one item of remorse as his constant companion in exile, not so much for his own sake as for the sake of his near ones who accompanied him. But even this sorrow was necessary in his life, as we shall see in Vana-parva. Yudhisthir's true identity begins to become apparent to us from Vana-parva onwards.
Yudhisthir's growth began during the exile of the Pandavs, where he learnt attentively and actively from the discourses with the rishis and munis in the forest. The next excerpt describes this phase of his life.
An Institution of Higher Learning
His main activity, it would appear, was listening. Not that on occasion he does not speak, but certainly he listens much more. Listening seems to be his work as well as his predilection. Yudhisthir's listening is the main incident of Vana-parva. He has to listen to the angry laments of fiery Draupadi, to the rebukes and rash exhortations of violence-prone Bhim. What he listens to on his own volition -- eagerly, with great thirst, all the time -- is to puranic lore imparted by the munis. What they have to tell does not consist of the hoary history of the descendants of Bharat, nor of the conventional eulogy of ancestors, but the ageless and unfading tales through which we gain entrance into the inner life of the universe and discern an elusive point of radiance located very far from the familiar blueness and greenery so pleasing to us. The text says that these stories were told in order to console Yudhisthir, but we realise that, transcending mere solace, outstripping his wretched memory of a game of dice, a sensation almost like pleasure is poured into his being. This pleasure is not like the sense-indulgence enjoyed by Ram and we cannot even say that Yudhisthir is pleased. But slowly there seems to grow amid this secret and unrecognised joy a feeling that he is beginning to be, beginning to be truly himself.
According to the text, he did not sit alone before the tale-telling munis. Three or four of his brothers were also present, so must have been Draupadi at hand occasionally. But in canto after canto, Lomas or Brihadasva o Markandeya is asked questions only by Yudhisthir, their main auditor, and their replies are addressed only to him. This happens not because he is the eldest. There is enough proof in the conduct of the others that they hear without listening, that they are not interested. And on the final day of the forest-exile, when Yudhisthir confronts the mysterious crane, only then do we realise that this forest -- where Draupadi spent her days in perpetual discontent, while Bhim and Arjun constantly engaged in combat with others -- was something like a school for Yudhisthir. At this institution of higher learning, he received instruction for twelve years from the greatest of teachers -- instruction not in the use of arms or in the acquisition of orthodox learning, but in the ways of self-searching and self-discovery through which the meaning of the universe can be grasped.
The next excerpt is taken from the final chapter, which makes apparent the pre-eminence achieved by Yudhisthir in the end. He had begun as a very ordinary man but gathered together and developed his "boons and curses" over his life time to attain greatness, a message of hope to all of us ordinary humans.
The Last Journey
The sun sets on the eighteenth day of the battle of Kuruksetra. The Pandavs and their associates return to camp, leaving behind Duryodhan -- his thighs shattered, his body oozing blood all over -- waiting alone for death on the shore of Dwaipayan lake. The Pandavs do not bother to look back at the enemy they have defeated and kicked. To enjoy more intensely the flavour of their victory, they go first to the Kaurav camp -- that sad place like an empty theatre where only women, old men and cowards are to be found. Vyas has not forgotten to mention that among these victorious visitors are Dhristadyumna, Sikhandi and the five sons of Draupadi, none of whom will see dawn on the morrow. In fact, life will depart their bodies even before Duryodhan dies. This of course is unknown to them all at present, and they have all the time to blow triumphantly on their conches.
In various ways and through many episodes, the image of the prime force of fire has been used in many layers of Mahabharat. Agni first appeared to us as appetite incarnate -- a vast hunger that could not be satisfied with devouring animal fat and spread itself as the conquest lust of ksatriyas, the driving force of which has plunged the world into war in epoch after epoch and whose red blaze lit up Arjun and Krishna brightly in the last section of Adi-parva. Their first ally at Kuruksetra was Agni, but that military alliance snapped as soon as the battle was over. Then began nature's retribution. Agni, the devourer of Khandav, now consumes the chariot gifted by Agni himself. We are made to understand that Arjun had received no gifts. These instruments of war had merely been loaned to him, and each is being taken back by the lender. Krishna does not prevent this because the impoverishment of Arjun is as much a part of his design as it is of the intention of these once benevolent gods. This nearly transparent truth remains screened from Arjun almost till the very end.
We shall probably not be wrong in reading the events that follow as the conclusion of the first Faust-story of the world. He who had been raised higher above all, Arjun, must now be brought low -- this seems to be the determined and concerted effort of all nature. In Sauptik-parva it appears as if Agni has gone over to the Kaurav side. The terrible god guarding the entrance to the Pandav-Pancal encampment is appeased as soon as Aswathama offers self-immolation in fire, and the son of Drona accomplishes his vengeance successfully. Krishna knowingly allows this massacre to take place, and no inkling of this killing about to happen was made available to the Pandavs, who only a little while ago had with the help of spies found where Duryodhan was hiding (Salya, 31). What is most surprising, Krishna does not alert them about it. He even has consented to the slaughter of the brother and sons of his favourite womanfriend, Draupadi. But no, perhaps it is not surprising, because it is all appropriate and according to plan. Arjun's successes were full to the brim, and the time had come for breaking the vessel. As we had noted earlier, the first signs of Arjun's fall were described in Aswamedhik-parva. Now his condition is like that of a person afflicted by the germs of some deadly disease but who continues to live normally, shaking off as something transient his occasional bouts of lack of vitality, refusing to accept the decline of lifeforce which he must be experiencing. His confidence in the lifelong vocation of being a ksatriya is shaken, but out of habit he clings to the convention that he, Gandiv-bearing Arjun, is invincible. That he 'dies' at the hand of his son in order to be redeemed of the sin of killing Bhisma; that Dhritarastra, Gandhari and Kunti die in a forest fire (Asram, 37) -- these episodes make no impression upon Arjun, but the second one worries Yudhisthir. One connection he was able to make (Asram, 38): the same agni of Khandav, whom Arjun had helped to revive, had now consumed the mother of Arjun. But, out of the weakness of the heart's responses, he had wrongly accused Agni of 'treachery and ingratitude'. Wrongly, because on Agni's side there is no question of betrayal or of being ungrateful. It is Arjun who is indebted and the bearer of all gratitude. He had been given on loan very much more than is due to one man, hence he cannot hesitate when the time comes for repayment; if he does not repay voluntarily, the loan-givers will snatch back with ruthless hands what they had given. It did not take Yudhisthir long to comprehend the truth, but Arjun's power of understanding is not strong. Even after his frustrations in Mausal-parva it does not occur to him that he is no longer fit to bear the Gandiv, that his talents -- after having served him for so long -- have now departed, that he should not carry arms any more. 'The purpose for which all of you bore these weapons has now been served, and they have returned to where they came from. You have achieved what you wanted and it will augur well for all of you if you prepared now to depart from this world' (Mausal, 8). This clear exposition of Vyas was heard by Arjun only with his ears; it caused no change in his mentality. He adhered stupidly to the Gandiv that would never again be of use to him, to the pair of quivers that had been exhausted for ever ... he carried around with him these meaningless symbols of victory, as regrettably and pitifully as the dethroned king who cannot forsake his former titles. Hence, even at the final stages, he has to be dealt with once more and even more harshly. When on the wanderings of their last journey the Pandavs reach the shore of Lohitsagar, Arjun's erstwhile friend, Agni, suddenly appears in his way and commands him, in a language more direct and less ambiguous than that of Vyas, to throw the Gandiv and the quivers into the sea (Mahaprasthan, 1): 'I had collected this bow and the quivers for you from Varun's store. You shall now return these to Varun. Krishna has also discarded his Sudarsan disc.'
The mahaprasthan plan was conceived by Yudhisthir and he also inaugurates it. He was the one who first discarded his kingly clothes and dressed himself in bark. Draupadi and his four brothers then followed suit. Just before leaving home they cast 'fire into water' -- that is, they extinguish the constantly burning sacred fire. Yudhisthir abandons his much-cherished householder's state. But his breaking up of home cannot be regarded as sannyas or even vanaprastha in the sense these terms appear in Manu-samhita. This mahaprasthan also bears no trace of the lonely wandering as a beggar that had seemed desirable to him after the battle was over (Santi, 9). From the west to the east, from the east to the south, then back along the western shores -- the way he circumambulates the entire coastline of India would make it seem that he bids his last farewell to his motherland before heading for a destination known to him. We do not yet know what this destination is, nor do any of his companions even ask where they are going. Like the episodes of Mausal-parva, this long journey is also told in extraordinarily few words -- as if all six of them hardly spoke a word on the way. This must be because all that they had to say is finished, there is no scope for any debate, and they travel along a difficult path amid the wordlessness that has come after their duties are done.
They visit the sea-submerged Dwaraka and head north. They begin climbing the Himalaya, and mount Sumeru looms ahead, when suddenly Draupadi is overcome by fatigue and falls down. Thereafter, at short intervals, the four brothers are felled by the same fatigue -- the brothers whose famed prowess used to resound all over India till only the other day. They are conquerors of India only in name now, but we see that they have been defeated in deeper sense than Karna was or Duryodhan. Nobody greeted them with offerings on their way; the eminent persons who could have been expected to hail them have all been destroyed by the victory lust of the Pandavs. At another level, too, they are defeated. In contrast to the way the enemy warriors were hailed in their death, these brothers come to an insignificant end -- all except Yudhisthir. The deaths of Bhisma, Drona, Jayadrath, have moved our hearts to solemn melodies. The death of Karna, the lifelong rival of Arjun, is described at greater length than any other death at Kuruksetra. The gods themselves contributed to the account (Karna, 87-92). Even for Duryodhan, universally regarded as an evil-doer, even at his death the earth trembled, the horizons grew dark, and several persons were present on the spot to weep (Salya, 63). But the dharma-abiding Yajnaseni and the pious-souled Pandavs die meanly -- not struck down by weapons, but like the feeble, swooning -- like the sick suddenly falling by the wayside. Nature does not register any shock, neither the universe nor the minds of of men receive any mark. And the Yudhisthir whom we have known for so long as easily moved by grief, is detached and unsorrowing, almost without any feelings. These were his wife and brothers from whom he had never parted at home or in the forest, in prosperity or adversity, and for whose sake he had allowed himself to get involved. Yet how calmly he accepts their loss, and does not look behind even once. Instead he walks carrying the riches of his deprivation, relying on the conviction that has hardened in the heat of misery and the pressure of delusion. He walks on beyond all past experience towards the last frontier of earthly life, with strides that are unhastening and undesiring. He walks by himself but is not entirely alone, because that dog follows him.
Yudhisthir's last journey is briefly described in Bhagavat-puran (1:15), but there is no mention of the dog there. The story of the pious-souled king Vipascit who was like Yudhisthir, told in Markandeya-puran (chaps. 13-15), does not include any counterpart of this animal. And our own Bengali poet Kasiram Das has turned the episode almost into a farce. But I keep hoping that some poet living amid the din and clamour of a modern city will some day compose in some Indian or European language an interpretative story that will have as its central character this dog without name or pedigree which had followed the six travellers all the way from Hastinapur. None of them had called to it nor any of them had noticed it -- and these facts should be enough to provoke the poetic imagination. I believe that there are many questions, not important enough to be dealt with by the poet of the puran, which our modern poet will not be able to ignore. What did this dog look like, how consistent was its canine nature, from where did it derive the strength to travel such a long distance? The Pandavs might have remained without food because they were yoga-absorbed, but did the dog find something to eat on the way? Did it soberly bring up the rear, behind Draupadi in the line of travellers, or did it sometimes, drawn by some smell or suddenly thrilled by the breeze, dash ahead or frisk around and bark joyously for no reason, or look at its indifferent masters chosen by itself and wait for some show of affection? Alternately, did it not sometimes fall behind to urinate against a tree, or chase and kill a hare or kitten for meat, or be lured towards a lusty bitch and lose track of its fellow-travellers? Was it not startled when five out of those six fall like the dead? Did no soft wail or sharp howl issue from its mouth when it saw them fall? The modern poet may fill in such details to make the picture more lifelike; perhaps he will not hesitate to mention that out of weariness and hunger the dog sometimes ate the dung of other animals. And why it never gave up going on despite fatigue and hunger, why it did not fear for itself even when five companions died -- I presume my imaginary storyteller will offer some symbolic explanation for these also. Was it because it had come so far without realising it and out of animal-like lack of foresight that there was no way for it to return? Or did Yudhisthir for some mysterious reason draw it along his own course?
It is a strange picture that appears before our mind's eye. Mountains all around, snow-peaks bright as crystal in sunlight during the day and gleaming blue-white in the light of stars at night -- amid this, along a narrow and deserted path walks a solitary man accompanied by a dog, walks at the same pace whether it is day or night, towards a destination that is not yet revealed. The calm, silent and self-absorbed Yudhisthir strides on, and accompanying him is not a cow revered by brahman and ksatriya alike, not a bull or a swan ridden by the gods, not a handsome, eight-antlered deer worthy of sacrifice, but the animal that is most abhorrent to Arya ritual, whose mere glancing at the food cooked at a yajna desecrates it, which usually spends its life with candals, the lowest of men -- a dog. That the final phase of Yudhisthir's ultimate journey should be made in the company of none else but an unclean animal uplifts his victory standard. No fresh surprise is aroused when the animal is transformed into a god.
The puran poets were strange in their ways. Where as on the one hand they are cryptic on many points that arouse our curiosity (perhaps out of consideration for posterity, so that minor modern poets can fill in these gaps and somehow stay in business), on the other hand they cannot resist shattering the mysteries of their own making by striking these with an unnecessary abundance of facts. In the story of Savitri not only does Satyavan get back his life, but also in the manner of a folk-tale the blind Dyumatsen is given back life as well as sight. And in due course, not only are one hundred sons born to Savitri but so does her father procreate a hundred sons. All this is good, but much too good. It may satisfy boys and girls and common people, but the thinking mind cannot be happy at this amplitude of family life. For such a mind, nothing can be higher than the death-defying love of Savitri. Similarly, Yudhisthir's mountain climbing is finally taken to a commonplace happy ending and we see him settled in 'incomparable heaven-enjoyment' amid all the Pandavs and Yadavs and Pancals. The enjoyment of heaven may be credible in the case of others -- say of Bhisma or Drona or Dhristadyumna or Abhimanyu -- but about Yudhisthir we have to ask ourselves: Has he truly merited heaven, or is heaven indeed the appropriate resting place for him?
I had said earlier that Yudhisthir is not a great man, that it is our great good fortune he is just a man, a very ordinary man. Now I have to add to it that he was not known to have been publicly given any boon by any god (as Arjun had been) nor was he put under any curse ( as Karna was). All his boons and curses were hidden within him. How he had gathered them together and developed them in order to become an earthly being with every attribute of humanity -- that is what Mahabharat is all about. If we pause here for a moment, at this peak of Yudhisthir's great departure, where he confronts Indra's divinity with his own humanity, where he refuses to be persuaded by Indra and is ready to forsake entry into heaven for the sake of a dog -- if we recall at this point many other past events, then we shall realise that this noble and human poem is but an account of Yudhisthir's life. It is he who holds together all the incongruities. The radiance of his character suddenly makes the hero-bereft battle-torn earth a brighter place than heaven. Let Vyas tell the rest of the story as he will and drag his grandson into heaven in keeping with hindu custom. But this supremely beautiful moment is the one most fitting for us to bid farewell to Yudhisthir. At this moment he is unwavering in the fulfilment of truth, he is about to turn back from the gates of heaven -- perhaps towards the surpassingly beautiful light of some earthly afternoon -- and his testing father has not yet discarded animal guise and appeared again.