Yudhisthira’s deviation from Dharma

The fact that “Dharma” is an extremely subjective issue is well known. In any given situation, the answer to “What is the right thing to say/do?” is tricky to determine.  Having the right principles and firm belief in those principles is what comes handy in situations requiring a finer interpretation of Dharma.

In the Mahabharata, Lord Bhimasena is a follower of the Bhagavata Dharma. One of the principles of this route is complete surrender to the Supreme Lord Vishnu. For the followers of this path, whatever Lord Vishnu states constitutes Dharma.  Bhimasena demonstrates this on numerous occasions. One such occasion was the slaying of Dronacharya.

On the 15th day of the great war, when Acharya Drona was staging an impressive battle destroying thousands of Pandavas, Lord Krishna decides that the time to end Drona has come. He instructs the Pandavas to adopt a seemingly incorrect method to kill Drona. He advises them to tell Drona that Ashwathama has been slain. This, he says, will make Drona lay down his arms. The reaction of the Pandavas clearly reflects the extent to which they follow Dharma. I reproduce the below paragraph from Ganguly’s translation of the Mahabharata.

“Beholding the sons of Kunti afflicted with the shafts of Drona and inspired with fear, Kesava, endued with great intelligence and, devoted to their welfare, addressed Arjuna and said, ‘This foremost of all bowmen is incapable of being ever vanquished by force in battle, by the very gods with Vasava at their head. When, however, he lays aside his weapons, he becomes capable of being slain on the field even by human beings. Casting aside virtue, ye sons of Pandu, adopt now some contrivance for gaining the victory, so that Drona of the golden car may not slay us all in battle. Upon the full of (his son) Aswatthaman he will cease to fight, I think. Let sonic man, therefore, tell him that Aswatthaman, hath been slain in battle.’ This advice, however, O kin was not approved by Kunti’s son, Dhananjaya. Others approved of it. But Yudhishthira accepted it with great difficulty. Then the mighty-armed Bhima, O king, slew with a mace a foe-crushing, terrible and huge elephant named Aswatthaman, of his own army, belonging to Indravarman, the chief of the Malavas. Approaching Drona then in that battle with some bashfulness Bhimasena began to exclaim aloud, ‘Aswatthaman hath been slain.‘ That elephant named Aswatthaman having been thus slain, Bhima spoke of Aswatthaman’s slaughter…”

All the Pandavas know very well that Krishna is the Supreme Lord himself. Still, Arjuna outrightly rejects the advice. Arjuna’s action is even more difficult to comprehend because just 15 days earlier, he listens to the Gita and swears that he would completely follow Krishna’s instructions (Bhagavadgita – Chapter 18 – Shloka 73). Clearly, this constituted a complete deviation from Dharma. Yudhishtira only hesitatingly accepts to do this.

Bhimasena, on the other hand, proceeds to kill an elephant named Ashwathama and immediately informs Drona that Ashwathama has been killed. Drona, expectedly does not believe him because he knows that Bhimasena always does what Krishna asks him to do. So, he questions Yudhishthira.  According to me, Bhimasena’s anticipates this and therefore kills the elephant. Otherwise, if Drona would accept his word itself, Bhimasena wouldn’t have even blinked to say the same without even bothering to kill the elephant.

Yudhisthira, with great difficulty, tells Drona that Ashwathama has died. He whispers at the end that it was an elephant that had died (“Ashwathamo hatha kunjaraha”). The chariot of Yudhisthira, which always stayed a few inches above the ground, comes down after this “Adharma”. Outwardly, it would appear that the chariot came down because of the lie. But, the real reason is that Yudhisthira did not follow the words of Krishna, which was Adharma and hence the chariot came down.

One of the names of Vishnu in the Vishnu Sahasranama is Dharma (“Dharmo dharmaviduttamaha….”). The Dharma in the world is governed by Krishna. What he says is Dharma. Hence, Yudhisthira not following Krishna’s words is very much against Dharma.

There is one more reason why Yudhishthira did a grave mistake. Just before the commencement of the war, on the battlefield, the Pandavas approach Bhishma and Drona. They seek their blessings and ask them how they can be slain. At that time, Drona clearly tells them (link – Page 101) that they would need to make him give up his arms in order to kill him. In effect, Drona permits them to do whatever is necessary to make him give up arms. So, Krishna was only advising them to follow the option provided by Drona. Even after this, Yudhisthira refuses to comply!

11 thoughts on “Yudhisthira’s deviation from Dharma

  1. Beautiful site. Just came in from Shantanu’s blog and read this post. “The fact that “Dharma” is an extremely subjective issue is well known”. So much true. I am not 100% sure I followed dharma in my worldly issue against racism, I just did what I felt mostly right at the same being practical.


  2. small typo, should read as follows…

    I just did what I felt mostly right at the same time being practical.

  3. I think the “Adharma” on the part of Arjuna and Yudhistira can also be interpreted from Sri Krishna’s Nishkaama Karma doctrine that He preached to Arjuna.

    In the Gita, one of the things mentioned is to perform any activity sans attachment. And more so if that activity is a duty. In this case, routing the followers of Adharma was the duty of Pandavas, since the Kurukshetra Yuddha wasn’t merely about winning back the kingdom, but also re-establishing dharma on the face of prithvi. For this reason, it was also called the “Dharma Yuddha”. This wouldn’t happen if Kauravas won the war. Hence Pandavas were well within their right to use any tactic, so long as they do it without attachment.

    Now, in Srimad Bhagavatam, Kapila, a Avatar of Mahavishnu tells his mother that “sangha” or attachment will remain with human beings because of their nature and it is hard for human beings to get rid of it completely. Hence instead of trying to run away from attachment, one could smartly use it as a instrument to serve the higher purpose of obtaining moksha. One of the easiest ways to achieve that is to attach oneself to Narayana instead of the lowly worldly things. This is also called the Bhakti Marga.

    Thus, as long as one performs his duty while being solely attached to the supreme being, he is following his Dharma. Bhimasena did exactly this, while Arjuna as you rightly mentioned, despite the knowledge of Gita, refused to do so. He was attached to his “Guru”. Similarly Yudhistira, who otherwise was quite adept when it came to interpreting the Dharma, in this case showed his hesitation as he was attached to following the “Rules of the war” which refrained a warrior from attacking an unarmed. But Yudhishtira forgot that the rules of war being finite and deterministic, could by no means fully encapsulate the essence of Dharma. Hence by refusing to comply with Sri Krishna’s tactical suggestion, he did indeed deviate from the path of Dharma.

    1. Namaskara Gautam,

      Very nice explanation of Bhakti Marga. In fact, Sri Madhva puts the “nature” as described by you as “Yogyata”. Yogyata is intrinsic in every soul and because of that, it leans towards evil, worldly objects or towards Narayana (Tamasic, Rajasic and Satvic).

      The last paragraph of your comment is very logical. Thanks for this quality add-on!

      Regards, Hari

  4. Namaskara Shri Hari ,
    Dronacharya represents Logic in contemporary world . Logic though neccessary in spiritual pursuits , it is not the ultimate tool to realise Lord . Initially logic relegates one towards evil , it sides with evil , And with logic one can never come to conclusion whether Lord exists or not , whether is supreme or not , or Is he the controller or otherwise , does jeeva attain its objective on its own or guided by lord etc.
    As long as logic is entertained no conclusive answer come ,
    ONly when this logic is disarmed ,thus we get progress into the real spiritualism ie progressive benchmark towards moksha .
    Such disarming is possible only when logicians are hit thorugh their attachments ,ie when their Ahankara[ ashwaththama] is killed . Logicians have extreme ego and till the death of ego they dont leave their stance , once their ego is bashed [ killed] they get disarmed.
    Here Lord asks to kill this ego . Pure Devotion[Bheema] never hesitates to sacrifice ego , Skill and achievements and learning and practise [Arjuna] is always accompanied by logic[science] attached to ego . Dharma [way of life ] is subservient to logic ,refuses to let go ego [ Ego is immortal], only deliberate destruction of ego can only disarm logic . [ swahankar khandana ] . That’s gyani’s resort to debasing their intellect at times [ though that may not be true , like tikacharya calling himself inadept at grammar in nyaysudha initial verses] .
    Loukik dharma is different from sukhshma dharma and is lesser in strata . its adherence is not important as compared to Mukhya dharma .
    When two such dharma contradict , one should resort to later .
    This post is triggers a most complex debate in spiritual pursuit .

    We cannot dismiss Yudhisthir as having made mistakes , neither can we say that they attached to their qualities , as all are aparoksha gnyanis .

    WHat makes Yudhisthir behave thus , gives a clue to Tartamya and yogyata factor .
    But outrightly terming Yudhisthir and Arjun as inefficient in interpreting Dharma , does not seem to be the purpose of Vedavyasa’s magnum opus .
    Surely Yudhisthir is a programmed character in the MAhabharatha with no extempor variation in his role. His knowledge and capacity having taken a back seat .
    Or else it is hard to assume the very embodiment death [ Nothing is more fearsome than death , every warrior in battlefield feared only death] enacted the most mild nature .

    1. Namaskara Sri Chiraan,

      I think your level of analysis is one step higher than the plane we have been discussing at 🙂

      A clarification I would like to make here is that the purpose of my posts on Mahabharata on this site are absolutely not to show the greatness of Lord Bhimasena AT THE EXPENSE of other great characters of the epic. Most certainly not Arjuna, Yudhishthira and the great Acharyas. Inadvertently, it may appear like that in some posts. The attempts are only to bring out how the “right thing”, as pointed out by Srimadacharya, was done, relative to what others did.

      Thanks for your valuable comments. Your take on equating Dronacharya to logic and explaining the consequent behavior of the various characters is superb!

      Regards, Hari

  5. namaskara shri hari ,
    Ideally the discussion should stop at the clarification you have issued , but the mention of ” Right THING ” just prompted me to think and of course ignite a thought
    ” Does GOD really allow you to do the ‘right thing’ , especially when prarabdha pap [sin] is opearting .” ,
    The answer is NO ,
    As Prahlad puts it externally God asks something and internally as bimba he refuses to go for it , In these situation only thing a soul can do is

    1. Namaskara Sri Chiraan,

      One question I have is – What after one offers everything as “Krishnaarpanamastu”? Since HE alone has the power to alter the effects of our Prarabdha, wouldn’t he, being so kind, at least reduce the operative effect of the sin?

      In other words, isn’t Krishnaarpanamastu also a way for redeeming the prarabdha. So, once that is done, wouldn’t the ‘right thing’ become possible?

      Regards, Hari

  6. Namaskar Shri Hari ,
    Infact you have raised one of the complex issue ,that i was mentioning previously . The post given by you about Yudhisthir itself is an answer to your question .

    The intention to do always the ” right thing” is itself the ego , this is the ego caused by intense adherence to Dharma shastra .
    Though it is neccessary condition to adhere to dharma shastra , but not sufficient condition to attain MOksha .
    So Dharma shastra is inferior to Moksha shastra by Badrayan .

    Now God does not alter the prarabdha , the effects are not altered but its lepa , [ the attachement to the self karma lepa ] is what reduced by Krishnarpana mastu . See tara having corted Sugreeva was born as chitrangada and had to suffer separation from Arjun .
    Now prarabdha sin is operating and its effect is also seen , but these souls do not suffer on account of that , they just do not have lepa of that . Its like man under anasthesia getting beaten black and blue does not feel pain.
    This is what can be achieved by Krishnarpanamastu .

    But ego that i will do only the ” right thing ” and I am righteous man , I shall never sin is always dangerous it brings downfall and brutal crushing of Ahankara when faced with prarabdha sin .
    WHen you dont know this tatva that sin or punya both are by the power of God , and during prarabda sin, istead disassociate mentally with activities of body and say Krishnarpana is what meant by your post .
    Even if you are Dharma himself , you have to sin if GOD so wishes , and you should do it willingly .
    seems very complex and dangerous to preach but it is reality ..

    So that’s why we madhvas have one more practise we never discuss somebody’s sins .
    I have not done full justice to your question yet but hope this satisfy’s some curiosity

    1. Namaskara Sri Chiraan,

      Thanks for that wonderful answer, especially for linking it to my post itself! You have revealed an easy way to do “….Maa phaleshu kadaachana”, through Krishnaarpana.

      Regards, Hari

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