One of the more popular posts on my blog is the one on Love in Mahabharata. I lost track of comments on that post because I wrote it so long ago and when a comment would sporadically pop up, I would be confused and then forget to get back to it. And I’ll admit, I lost interest in analysing that one particular episode. I had intended to write a series of posts as I read Ramesh Menon’s version of the Mahabharata, but I have been reading it in a fragmented way and honestly, didn’t have anything to say. I passed the pivotal dice game, an episode I believe holds great significance, taking a chapters in the book. But the metaphysical points being made, beyond the superficial events, escaped me and I had nothing to add.
Most people tend to fixate on the idea of Yudhishthira’s foolishness. I did not grow up on those stories and nobody held Yudhishthira up to me as a paragon of virtue. So perhaps I am able to a more neutral view of him. Certainly, in the Mahabharata, he is extolled for his virtues and all the other Pandavas defer to him. The dice game provides a crisis of faith, which it appears most modern commenters have succumbed to. Perhaps, the older generation overlooked Yudhishthira’s flaw (because it appears there was only one) when they praise him as a role model and the reaction of the younger generation seems like a backlash. From everything I have read so far, I am on the side of the older generation.
For me, the beauty of this epic lies in the nuances. None of its events, actions and characters are strictly black or white, they exist in the grey zone. Everyone, even the Gods, are fallible. And yet, some are less fallible. Yudhishthira is one of these. It is acknowledged that his weakness is gambling, that is why the Kauravas chose gambling with which to trap him. And yes, he loses control, he falls for it.
The Greek epics also have heroes and Gods who fall. It seems like the ancients were more realistic than us moderns who seek perfection in those we are asked to admire. In Greek tragedy, there’s the concept of hamartia or the fatal flaw, sometimes interpreted as tragic error of judgement. One of the most common traits is hubris (or pride). It seems to me that Yudhishthira’s fatal flaw was not so much gambling as arrogance. He was warned that the Kauravas would have a trick up their sleeves, that they would probably cheat, but he so strongly in his gambling abilities that he thought he would win. Some argue that Yudhishthira didn’t really know how to gamble before this match but the version I’m reading seems to say he did and was an expert too. Later, he disguises himself as a gambler in Virata’s court so he must have been good at it.
Yudhishthira’s other flaw is his adherence to dharma. This is not so much a flaw as his personality. He is supposed to be the embodiment of dharma. So when he is invited by his uncle (which could be read as a summons), he is obliged to accept. It is also is adherence to dharma that has him accept the unfair decrees of the elders once he has lost everything. For example, nobody addressed the question of how Draupadi could be put up as a stake as a queen, and how she could be put up by someone who was already a slave and hence had no property. (On the subject of which, read this). But Yudhishthira accepted the elders’ verdict because that is what he believed was the righteous path.
So Yudhishthira’s obvious flaw was his pride in gambling and his inability to accept that he was losing and wouldn’t be able to turn the game around. But the more nuanced flaw is dharma itself. Are we being told to tread carefully on the righteous path as it can lead to disaster?
What most people seem to forget (or don’t know) is that Yudhishthira is tortured thereafter by what he has done and repents deeply, repeatedly begs forgiveness and tries to gain the better of himself. What he does not do is stray from the path that he thinks is right. Like every leader that ever was, he fell. But he raised himself with dignity and tried to do better. That’s pretty heroic, IMO, albeit in an understated way that might seem boring to some. After the dice game there are so many times when Yudhishthira is the voice of wisdom and reason. Of all the Pandavas, he does have the best judgement, even though his judgement tragically failed him on (as far as I know) one occasion.
And while we’re talking about nuanced characters, there’s Karna, the most ambiguous of them all, placed smack between the forces of good and evil. The most moving episode I have read so far is the one in which Surya comes to warn Karna that Indra is going to try and trick him into giving up his armour and that he must refuse or he is risking his own life. Karna refuses to refuse Indra. He too insists on the path of honour even if it costs him his life. In this, Karna seems to be the equal of Yudhishthira, even superseding him.
Basically, Karna is a tragic character. He is doomed and worse, he knows it. Still, he does what he thinks is right. Always. Okay mostly. Mostly is good enough for me.
And then there’s Duryodhan, the villain of the piece. Even in him, there is something admire. He was the one who stood up for Karna and said the Pandavas couldn’t dismiss him just because of his lack of lineage because Kshatriya law did make allowances for people of exceptional talent to join their ranks. This episode brought the caste system into focus, and Duryodhan stood of the side of caste mobility. He may have had ulterior motives, but no one contradicted his logic.
I also admire Duryodhan for his courage. One can even understand his sense of being wronged, after all he was raised as the heir apparent and suddenly he has to deal with the idea that he is to play second or sixth fiddle. His flaw is that he is on the wrong side of destiny but unlike Karna he doesn’t know it or he lets his worst instincts prevail mostly. Nevertheless, in battle, he has courage. After challenging Virata’s army to draw the Pandavas out, the elders advise running away as soon as Arjuna appears. Their reasoning is that they are sure to lose. For Duryodhan, that Arjuna is powerful is no reason not to fight.