There is an interesting episode in Karna Parva of Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata which is as follows: On the sixteenth day of the Mahabharata war, Bhima killed Dussasana, and poured his blood on Draupadi’s head, and as the blood trickled down her face, she licked it with relish. That night she sent for Bhima. Krishna was with Bhima, who was forever discontented with sex and war, and hungered for more, when Draupadi’s messenger gave her invitation to him. Bhima was delighted. Krishna called him aside and told him that he should give full satisfaction to her, and when satiated, she would want to grant him a boon. He should get out of her bed, and pray to her not to put the Pandavas and Krishna to her sword. This surprised Bhima, but he did not say a word, and went to Draupadi’s chamber.
Things happened exactly as Krishna had said. As Draupadi offered him a boon, Bhima did exactly as he was advised by Krishna. Draupadi told him that he must have been tutored by Krishna, and then announced that she would devour not only him but also his three brothers, and Krishna’s clan as well, and spare only Yudhisthira. It was not clear whether she included Krishna himself when she said “Krishna’s clan”, but when Bhima reported all these to Krishna the following morning as they were all getting ready to go to the battlefield, he mentioned him and not his clan – quite the reverse indeed. It is not clear whether it was a lapse of memory on Bhima’s part, or whether it was his interpretation of what he had heard from Draupadi. It is possible that Draupadi did not explicitly mention Krishna as a mark of respect for the avataara. In any case, when Krishna heard all this, he started sweating. Draupadi was not an ordinary mortal that day; as Krishna knew; she was the goddess of destruction and death.
She did not explain why she would spare Yudhisthira – gods and goddesses did not often care to give humans reasons for their actions. And on his part, Bhima did not ask her for her reasons either; he must surely have been too shocked and too scared for that, despite Krishna’s preparing him for that situation.
In the end, barring Yudhisthira, the Pandava brothers and Krishna along with his clan succumbed to death. In fact all of them died violent deaths, barring Balarama, who sat in meditation, and gave up his mortal form. The Pandava brothers, worn out by fatigue and age, could not withstand the hostile nature as they were climbing up the Himalayas. Krishna was hit by an arrow and succumbed to the wound.
Who was Yudhisthira? He was the son of the god Dharma, who was blessed by his father to be the ruler who would rule in accordance with dharma, and who would receive reverence from even the avataara (“incarnation”) of the Supreme god, Narayana. But the one who Krishna paid obeisance to, lived a lonely life, by all accounts. As a child he displeased his mother on account of his compassionate nature, which she thought was grossly inappropriate for the future ruler. His brothers and his wife Draupadi did not share his values and perspectives, which they thought were unbecoming of the kshyatriyas (“members of the warrior class”). They were impatient and even scornful of his generosity towards the Kauravas. Duryodhana sometimes mistook his generosity as his weakness. In the Kurukshetra battlefield, before the start of the war, Yudhisthira walked alone and weaponless to the Kaurava side of the battlefield, and Duryodhana thought that Yudhisthira was frightened at the sight of the Kaurava army, and was coming to seek peace. He, however, was going to meet the Kaurava elders and seek their blessings for victory in the war. He received blessings of Bhishma, Drona, Bhurishrava, Krupacharya, Karna, etc., and it occurred to him even at that stage he could still make an effort to avoid the war. He went to Duryodhana and pleaded with him for just one village for the Pandavas. The fate of his pleading needs no mention.
Yudhisthira was deeply distressed when Bhima abused and kicked Duryodhana after mortally wounding him in the battle. He went to him, spoke to him as indulgently as an elder brother would to an erring younger brother, and declared that he would give the kingdom to him and retire to the forest. Bhima laughed at him. Soon when the time came, he was completely unwilling to become the king. He considered himself responsible for the death of the great Kaurava elders, his cousins and other relatives, among many others. He grieved deeply, and he felt utterly miserable. When he said that he wanted to leave the kingdom in the hands of his brothers and retire to the forest, he knew that his brothers were not with him. That indeed was the first time he said that he would go to the forest alone. His brothers responded by saying unkind words to him. He probably had never been as lonely as then, as though time comes when one committed to dharma finds himself utterly lonely.
Whenever they met, Krishna paid his obeisance to him, and never said a single word about him that would even remotely suggest lack of reverence. At the same time he didn’t hesitate to betray Yudhisthira’s implicit trust on him, when what the latter wanted was at cross-purposes with what he wanted. With great hope Yudhisthira sent him as his emissary to Duryodhana’s court in order to avoid the war. But Krishna wanted war, and through his unreasonable, in fact impossible, demands of which Yudhisthira knew nothing, he ensured that war took place. It would appear to be a cynical act of betrayal, looking at it from the worldly perspective. It was, however, quite different from point of view of divine purpose, but we need not dwell on it here. As for Draupadi, she performed her traditional role as his wife, but worked against his wishes at his back on the issue that mattered to him most. When Krishna told her that he was going to Hastinapura as Yudhisthira’s emissary for peace, she most emphatically expressed her desire for war, and pleaded with Krishna to work for war.
This was the man whom death would not touch. Draupadi as the goddess of death had declared it to Bhima on that fateful night. Yudhisthira was not just the biological son of the god Dharma, he was a practitioner of dharma in life – in his word, thought and deed, he served the cause of dharma. How could the embodiment of dharma on earth become a victim of death? How could dharma die?
True, dharma needs the support of power. Without power, dharma is ineffective. Yudhisthira needed the support of Krishna, and then of his brothers. He told Krishna so very often that everything the Pandavas had was because of his grace. And Krishna was obliged to support Yudhisthira; that was in some sense his avataara dharma. But unlike dharma, protectors of dharma need not be beyond death. In the changed times either dharma would remain ineffective or new protectors of it would emerge. As Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata repeatedly declares, incarnations of Bhagawana Vishnu appear from time to time to rid the world of its burden.
Now, what was dharma as represented by Yudhisthira in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata? He was knowledgeable and wise. The questions which god Dharma, in the guise of a crane, asked him tested his knowledge, ethical sense, and sense of discrimination. The god was satisfied with his answers. He was greatly pleased at Yudhisthira’s moral commitment. His four brothers were lying dead, and when Dharma offered him the lives of two of his four brothers, he ignored Draupadi’s suggestion and request for Bhima and Arjuna, and chose instead his stepmother’s sons Nakula and Sahadeva, whom their mother had left in his care as she entered the fire to sacrifice herself. He would not betray her trust. Yudhisthira was truthful, and would suppress the truth only when he thought such an action would contribute to easing of tension. For instance, he did not want any one to know that Duryodhana had given Bhima poisonous food with an intention to kill him.
What however stands out in Sarala’s portrayal of him is his considerate, empathetic, and compassionate nature. Personal relationship mattered a great lot to him. After all the misery that Duryodhana had brought on him and his brothers, he would still ask the strongly reluctant Bhima and Arjuna to get Duryodhana out of trouble on certain occasions when he was in utter distress. He would rather end his life than live to see the blind father Dhritarashtra suffer the agony of the loss of his sons, he would say. It was an irony that fate had stored for him that he came to be an important part of the process that ended in enormous violence and colossal destruction.
In death’s reluctance to bring the mortal Yudhisthira under its clutches, one finds the victory of dharma over death, and the celebration of empathy and compassion as the very foundation of dharma. This is at least how Sarala would like us to see it.