He was a wise and compassionate man, a man of peace, who thought of no one as his enemy, and had no desire for kingship. Yet that very embodiment of virtue chose to go to a conclusive war against his cousins. Why, asked a young Odia writer and scholar, who does not want to be named? What does Sarala Mahabharata say in this regard? she asked. Let me begin by telling the relevant stories.

Life during their exile had been extremely difficult for the Pandavas. They had suffered much deprivation and humiliation. Yudhisthira had become bitter, but still had no ill-will towards Duryodhana. One day, soon after they had returned from the kingdom of Virata, where they had spent a year incognito, Dhaumya, arrived in Varunavanta. The Pandavas paid due respect to their kula guru (family priest). Dhaumya asked Yudhisthira when he was going to Hastinapura with his brothers to meet his Kaurava brothers, the same question Bhima had asked him before. The person who, before his exile, was going to Hastinapura whenever he felt like paying respects to Dhritarastra and Gandhari (which was quite often, in fact) as a devoted member of the family would do, now felt that he would not go there unless Duryodhana invited him and his brothers. Incidentally, this was what he had told Bhima. If Duryodhana did that, continued Yudhithira, that would be a true test of his brotherly feelings towards him. His brotherly feelings for the Kauravas had never been reciprocated by them but that had made no difference to his attitude to them before the exile. Now things had changed.  

Earlier, all that he and his brothers had suffered on account of Duryodhana, he had attributed to his own karma. He had never blamed Duryodhana for anything: be it his feeding Bhima poisonous food, be it his attempt to get them killed in the wax palace, be it Draupadi’s humiliation in the Kaurava court – whatever. But the long years of exile in the forest seemed to have had its impact on him. He recounted all that Duryodhana had done to him and is brothers. He was a prince, he told the kula guru, and still he had to undergo so much hardship and suffer so much ignominy. The Pandavas and the Kauravas would never become friendly again, he told him. As he spoke, he got excited. There would be war, he told the priest. This was the first time Yudhisthira spoke of war. Soon the man of virtue calmed himself and told the priest to convey his request to Duryodhana that he should give him just one pada (village): Indraprastha. He had a vast kingdom, he told him to tell Duryodhana; so he should not hesitate to give him just one pada.

When Dhaumya conveyed his message to Duryodhana and tried to persuade him to honour it in the name of dharma, the Kaurava king humiliated him in his court. Dhaumya returned to Yudisthira. He told him that the future of the Kuru family was in his hands. If he would choose to swallow the injustice that Duryodhana had meted out to him and his brothers, the family would survive, if he did not, the Kauravas would be destroyed. Yudhisthira recounted to him again all the wrongs he had suffered in the hands of Duryodhana. He was not going to condone them and was not going to put up with more deprivations and humiliations. “You are my witness,” said the son of Dharma to Dhaumya, “it is my resolve now to go to war against Duryodhana” (tumbhe mote saksi hoithibaka deba dhaumye / nichaya brata mora hoila sangrame : O venerable Dhaumya, you are my witness/ War is my firm resolve), in the poet’s words.

When Dritarashtra heard of the Pandavas’ return to Varunavanta, he was extremely worried for his sons. He knew that Duryodhana had been very wicked towards the Pandavas. He also knew that if a war took place between his sons and the Pandavas, his sons would be wiped out. His only hope was in the virtuous nature of Yudhisthira. So he decided to send the wise Vidura to Yudhisthira to plead with him on his behalf to save the Kuru family. Vidura told Yudhisthira that suffering had always been the lot of the virtuous but they bore it with fortitude. Since he was wise, considerate and virtuous, he should put up with unfairness, misery and humiliation with equanimity. That would be in accordance with dharma, Vidura told him. Yudhisthira said that he was not prepared to undergo deprivation again. “Do not talk like this”, he told his venerable uncle, “you are wise; work for a fair settlement between the Pandavas and the Kauravas”. All he wanted was five villages, he said. This time, making a big concession, he did not specify which villages; any five would do. But if Duryodhana would not give him even that, then there would be war, he told Vidura. In fact, he uttered an oath: mu jebe tahara tule samara nakarain / bho pita bidura tumbhara mu pada padme harai (If I do not go to war against him / O father Vidura, I commit a grave offence against you) Thirteen years of suffering had hardened the son of Dharma.  But in his heart of hearts he still did not wish Duryodhana ill.

“How would you fight the mighty Kauravas? asked a concerned Vidura. Bhishma, Drona, Ashwasthama, Kripacharya, Bhurishrava, Jayadratha, Somadatta and then his own brother Karna would fight for the Kauravas. Bhishma, Drona, Ashwasthama and Karna were invincible. Besides, they were protected in one way or the other: death would not come to Bhishma unless he sought it, if he had weapons in hand, no one could defeat Drona, Ashwasthama was immortal and Karna could not be killed because of his divine armour and his ear rings containing nectar. And Kripacharya, Bhurishrava and jayadratha, among others, were great warriors. What hopes he could have against the Kauravas if a war took place, asked Vidura. Yudhisthira was unfazed: he was aware of the might of the Kauravas but if he was not hopeful of defeating them, he would not have thought of fighting a war against them, he told Vidura. Besides, Dharma would always protect the defenceless, he told him. If, despite being strong, one gave up the hope to win, then that person was a living dead, he said.

One day, Yudhisthira poured his heart out before Krishna. He told him about his suffering in the forest. He was a prince; yet he had undergone such utter deprivation. Every moment, for years, he had felt miserable seeing his brothers suffer. Bhima’s suffering, in particular, had pained him the most. They had returned to Varunavanta but Duryodhana had ignored them. He was enjoying the vast kingdom of Hastinapura but was unwilling to give the Pandavas even five villages for their upkeep. Dhaumya and Vidura had carried his message to him but nothing had changed. So he had turned to him; no wonder, one might think, isn’t Narayana the ultimate recourse of nara?

He requested Krishna to go to Duryodhana on his behalf and plead with him for five villages for them. He would be content with that, he told Krishna to convey it to him. But what if Duryodhana was unwilling, Krishna asked. He would be content with four, he told Vasudeva. If not four, then three would do, if not three, two would be fine and if not that, then he would be content with just one village. But if he would not give him even that, then there would certainly be war, he told Krishna.

“O Hari, you are the creator of the universe and you are its lord and things happen in accordance with your wish”, Yudhisthira told the Avatara. With an attitude very different from what he had adopted in the cases of Dhaumya and Vidura, he begged him to ask Duryodhana, on his behalf, for a village for the Pandavas in an entreating manner. For him, the Avatara must plead, not ask, he implored. If a war took place, said the virtuous Pandava, it would be disastrous for both them and the Kauravas, and the world ridicule them. “Save both families, O Narayana”, Yudhisthira prayed to Krishna. Krishna told him that he was the servant of his servant and would do whatever he asked him to do. One who lives a life of dharma, says Sarala, Govinda is his servant: gobinda tara bhrutya.

After his return from Hastinapura, when they met, Krishna told Yudhisthira that he had not succeeded in persuading Duryodhana to give even a single village to the Pandavas. He also said that he had been insulted in Duryodhana’s court. Yudhisthira’s reaction was spontaneous and sharp:  he drew out his sword. “Rise O Bhima, O Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva”, thundered the one who was never known to have lost his cool, “of what use is our life if Krishna is insulted?” The brothers responded at once. Bhima held aloft his mace and his war cry shook the world. Arjuna was ready with his divine bow and divine arrows, Nakula, with his spear and Sahadeva, with his sword.  “This is my ritual start for the war, O Hari”, said Yudhisthira.

Priest Dhaumya asked him to control himself. The one who starts a war carries the enormous burden of all killings that take place on the battlefield, he told him. It was not for him, the embodiment of dharma to start the war. He must leave that to Managovinda (i.e., Duryodhana), advised the kula guru.

Soon, at Duryodhana’s behest, Sakuni arrived in Varunavanta. Duryodhana has sent him to ask the Pandavas and their friends to come to Kurukshetra so that the battlefield could be divided into two parts and the Pandavas and Kauravas could decide which part of the battle field they would each take. In his meeting with Yudhisthira, Sakuni went beyond his brief. He told Yudhisthira that unlike Duryodhana, who was an ignoramus, he was wise and virtuous. It was not for the man of dharma to fight a war. He must abjure war and let Duryodhana rule. He should return to the forest with his brothers and spend his time there in the august company of the sages and visit holy places, he told Yudhisthira. Following the path of virtue was never a waste, he said. The virtuous might suffer in their present life but they would be amply rewarded in their next birth. The wrong-doers might prosper in life but their next life would be one of suffering. The fruit of karma would have to be experienced, even beyond births, he told the man of dharma.

Yudhisthira was irritated. In a dismissive tone, very uncharacteristic of him, he told Sakuni that he had spent enough time with the sages and had gone to many holy places on pilgrimage; now it should be Duryodhana’s turn. He should leave the kingdom to him and spend time in the forest with the sages, he told Sakuni. And he, Sakuni, must make that arrangement.

Was Sakuni serious? Did he really want what he had told Yudhisthira to happen? Or was he merely testing him? Or by irritating him, was he trying to push him to the point of no return with respect to war? Sakuni had worked relentlessly ever since he emerged out of the prison for the destruction of the Kauravas, which he had been chosen to do by his father and other relatives. That was a task he had to perform for the dead of his family. Why should he then try and persuade Yudhithira to do something that would nullify all his efforts?

If one knows him, one may not think it odd. In Sarala Mahabharata, Sakuni is a virtuous character. He was condemned to ensure the elimination of his nephews. He knew that on his own he could not accomplish that task; so he worked for a war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Krishna, Sahadeva, Vidura and Sanjaya alone were aware of Sakuni’s situation. And Sakuni knew, as the Kuru kula guru did, that war is wrong.  He knew that no matter what the others might think, he was the causer of the war that was going to destroy not only the Kauravas but also indefinitely many more, and among them would be many, many innocents. On the one hand, he knew he had to do what the dead of his family had entrusted him to do. If he failed to do that, he would incur their anger. On the other hand, he was intensely aware that the huge burden of papa (sin) would accrue to him for doing that very thing. Given these two choices, what would a man of conscience do? It will not violate the spirit of Sarala Mahabharata if we suggest this: Sakuni thought that if Yudhisthira decided against war, it would save him from the far worse alternative, namely, be burdened with the extremely grave papa of the slaughter of the innocents.

Incidentally, what Sakuni told Yudhisthira was essentially no different from what Dhaumya and Vidura had told the eldest Pandava. But Yudhisthira found Sakuni offensive because he believed that his advice was utterly insincere. Now, messages of wisdom can come from any source and unexpectedly too, but controlled by bias, even the best of the humans read in them only what they want to read in them.

In the battlefield of Kurukshetra, having failed to persuade Arjuna to start the war, Krishna got off from his chariot and went to Yudhisthira. He told him that his brother was unwilling to start the war for reasons of dharma. Yudhisthira told Krishna that he agreed with Arjuna and he then went to Duryodhana to make one last attempt to avoid the war. When his pleadings for at least one village, if not five, and any village of his choice at that, were to no avail, he gave up and returned to the battlefield.

Vidura’s suggestion returned to the Pandavas in an unexpected way when Arjuna met Bhishma for the first time in the battlefield of Kurukshetra. When Arjuna blamed Duryodhana for the war that reduced the loving grandfather and the adoring grandson to enemies, the grandfather told him that the Pandavas were responsible too. Had they made the sacrifice that the situation demanded, namely, left the throne to Duryodhana and retired to the forest, the fratricidal war would not have taken place. Total commitment to virtuous living sometimes demanded great sacrifice. For Sarala, there is no war that had no alternatives, however difficult, however painful. But when a war is given the status of dharma yuddha on account of the cause, there remains no room for alternatives. In Sarala Mahabharata, the Kurukshetra war was dharma yuddha, not because of the cause, but because of Krishna’s presence in the war field.

The above is the background against which we must find an answer to our question. What options to war did Yudhisthira have? He could have followed Vidura’s suggestion. That was one option. But was that the only one? Sarala Mahabharata does not articulate any other but one might wonder if there wasn’t really another alternative. There does seem to be one more but for some reason, Sarala does not project this alternative – is it a case of the story going out of the control of the story-teller?

Why did Yudhisthira insist on a village for the Pandavas? They could have continued to stay in Varunavanta. No one was insisting that he left. Ever since Dhritarashtra had asked him to live in Varunavanta, he had been living there. He had left it after the wax palace incident. He returned to it from Panchala, the kingdom of Drupada, after their wedding. They performed the rajaswiya jajna there. They left that place after losing the second game of dice. They returned there from Virata’s kingdom after completing their exile and incognito living. True, Duryodhana did not invite them to Hastinapura, but in Sarala Mahabharata, it was nothing new; they had hardly been invited there before. Yudhisthira went there regularly to pay his respects to Dhritarastra, sometimes with his brothers, sometimes alone. At some places in the text, Indraprastha is mentioned where one would expect Varunavanta, but for our present discussion it does not matter at all, because Yudhisthira was not the king anywhere. He had performed the rajaswiya jajna, as his father, Pandu’s son, for the well-being of his father in the world above. He was treated as king during the jajna for the performance of the rituals and the conventions associated with this jajna. After all, kings alone performed rajaswiya jajna, not princes, even crown princes.   

Incidentally, Hastinapura was never divided. Yudhisthira was staying in Varunavanta but not as the king of Varunavanta. He did not lose his kingdom in the game of dice. In the first game of dice, Yudhisthira lost wealth in terms of the gifts he had received from Drupada at the time of wedding and from the royal guests who had attended the rajaswiya jajna. He had lost no kingdom of which he was the ruler when he went on exile. Thus there was no kingdom he was to get back from Duryodhana on his return.  

Duryodhana was the king when he returned to Varunavanta from Panchala. He had been crowned king after the wax fire happened and the Pandavas were believed to have perished in it. But Yudhisthira had never grumbled about Duryodhana’s prosperity. He was a changed person in this regard only after he returned from exile. He told Dhaumya, Vidura and Krishna in an accusing tone that Duryodhana enjoying a vast kingdom and immense wealth and he must not deny him the little that he was asking for.

What Yudhithira wanted was a share of the kingdom of Hastinapura. He believed that it was his right. He had never claimed his right before. He complained against Dritarashtra to Krishna that he had not shown him consideration. He had never said anything before which could have been interpreted as remotely disrespectful or even ungracious about his father’s elder brother. Now, he was disinclined to live in Varunavanta as a subject of Hastinapura. He told Dhaumya and Vidura that he was a prince – an identity he had never asserted before – and the way he and his brothers were living did not behove them.  

But Yudhisthira was no ordinary mortal; in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, until he told that half-truth to his guru, the wheels of his chariot had not touched the ground. It was nature’s respect for the man of dharma. So, when he asked for his share of the kingdom, he did not ask in the manner of a typical claimant to a throne; he asked like a supplicant, so that his brother, Duryodhana, would not feel offended. And he asked like a sage – for just the minimum for his and his brothers’ dignified survival.

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