Tales from the Mahabharata - To Renounce The Throne Or Not
Yudhishthira’s resolve to renounce the throne shocked his brothers and friends. And they made some pretty good arguments against renunciation.
Arjuna benefited from Krishna’s wisdom—most famously before the start of the 18-day war at Kurukshetra. The wisdom helped guide Arjuna through the war, helped him keep his focus on what dharma was. Arjuna still found himself giving in to his emotions at times, but by and large he proved to be the ideal warrior.
Yudhishthira on the other hand had to wait till after the war to benefit from an elder’s wisdom—Bhishma. What he received was much longer than the 700 verses of the Bhagavad Gita though. More on that later.
When the war came to an end, Duryodhana was dead, Ashwatthama had committed the unpardonable sin of foeticide and had been cursed by Krishna for it, Gandhari had cursed Krishna, the final rites of those departed had been performed (described in Shraddha Parva—and the death toll stood at more than one billion (the exact number given by Yudhishthira in response to a question by Dhritarashtra in Shraddha Parva is “One billion, twenty thousand and sixty six crore”—1,660,020,000. The ninth verse from the 26th chapter of the 11th parva has the shloka: दशायुतानामयुतं सहस्राणि च विंशतिः कोट्यः षष्टिश्च षट्चैव येऽस्मिन्राजमृधे हताः ).
The Pandavas decided to spend a month outside the city. Yudhishthira perhaps wanted this period for introspection. During this time, the sage Narada visited them, and upon Yudhishthira’s asking, recounted in detail Karna’s story (Raja Dharma Parva). After listening to the poignant tale of the eldest son of Kunti, Yudhishthira was overcome with sorrow and remorse. He would have preferred a life of “begging in the city of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas” than to killing their own. This war, to him, was like having “fought like dogs over meat”.
These were wicked deeds. Yudhishthira wanted to be free. He remembered that, according to the shastras, “someone who has renounced does not perform a wicked deed again.” He announced that he would “take my leave from all of you and go to the forest…I will give up my possessions and the entire kingdom.” The entire kingdom, over which two games of dice had been played, 13 years spent in exile, and the bloodiest war ever fought, was being forsaken.
To say that Arjuna was aghast at his brother’s declaration of intent would be an understatement. Not just Arjuna, but all the Pandavas, Draupadi, Narada, Vyasa; none were in favour of this renunciation. What Arjuna had to say to his brother merits some attention. First, Arjuna believed it was pointless to renounce something after having spent so much time and effort on acquiring it in the first place. Second, what was the point, Arjuna wondered, in wandering about in the forest as a “beggar”, like an “ordinary person”?
To reinforce his point, Arjuna quoted the words of Nahusha—an ancestor of the Kurus: “Shame on poverty.” Strong words indeed. Third, the kingdom was theirs now, and if the eldest Pandava didn’t rule, dharma would suffer. To argue that dharma subsisted on renunciation was, in Arjuna’s opinion, a myth. Dharma required prosperity.
What Arjuna told Yudhishthira in this regard bears repeating in whole, but a few lines at the very least make it abundantly clear what Arjuna believed:
“But that which is dharma is established on the basis of riches.”
“When someone’s riches are stolen, his dharma is also stolen.”
“Poverty causes degradation in this world and you should not praise it.”
“O king! One who is degraded sorrows.”
“One who is poor sorrows.”
“I cannot see any difference between one who is degraded and one who is poor.”
“Dharma, kama and heaven result from artha.”
“One who possesses riches possesses friends.”
“One who possesses riches possesses relatives.”
“One who possesses riches is a man in this world.”
“One who possesses riches is learned.”
“Riches follow riches, like elephants follow mighty elephants.”
“Dharma is spread because of riches.”
“Dharma flows from riches.”
Yet Yudhishthira was unmoved, continued to disagree with Arjuna, and insisted that he would retire to the forest and “pour oblations into the fire at the right time and perform ablutions at the right time.” These were undoubtedly noble goals, but were they the right path for Yudhishthira?
Now that Arjuna had had his say, Bhima stepped in. Bhimasen was not a man known to mince words. He came straight to the point, telling his brother that he did not know of any kshatriya except Yudhishthira who treaded the path of “forgiveness, compassion, pity and non-violence.” More pertinently, rejecting the kingdom after having gone through what they had, was inexplicable. That would be “like a man digging a well, who stops his task before having reached the water, and is therefore only covered in mud.”
If that weren’t a vivid enough analogy, Bhima had a more colorful one, where he likened this behaviour “like someone who is driven by desire, but having obtained a beautiful woman, does not perform the act.” Bhima wanted to be crystal clear in what he thought of his brother’s plans: “If one could obtain success only through sanyasa, then mountains and trees would have swiftly obtained success…We have followed you, merely because you are the eldest. We possess the strength of arms. We are spirited. But because we follow the words of a eunuch, we are like ones who are incapacitated.”
Subtlety was not for Bhima. Not in action, not in words.
Nakula, Sahadeva, and Draupadi took turns in speaking to Dharmaraja. After Yagnaseni had finished speaking her mind, Arjuna stepped in again, this time to continue Draupadi’s line of reasoning that without a king who wielded the rod of punishment, anarchy would reign. The rod of punishment (दण्डः) is what protected “both dharma and artha.”
“The rod protects kama.”
“Grain is protected through the rod.”
“Wealth is protected through the rod.”
“In this world that has come about, everything is based on the rod.”
“Words are the danda for brahmanas, arms that for kshatriyas. Donations are said to be the rod for vaishyas. But it is said that there is no rod for shudras.” (this last line is said in shloka 9 in the 15th chapter of Shanti Parva: “वाचि दण्डो ब्राह्मणानां क्षत्रियाणां भुजार्पणम् | दानदण्डः स्मृतो वैश्यो निर्दण्डः शूद्र उच्यते ||”)
“If one is not frightened, one does not donate. A man who is frightened does not wish to adhere to agreements.”
“If danda did not exist in this world, there would be no difference between the virtuous and the wicked.”
Arjuna ended with these profound words: “Be it through dharma, or be it through adharma, the kingdom has now been obtained.”
“There is non-violence and there is violence for righteous reasons. Of these, that which leads to dharma is superior. There is nothing that possesses all the qualities, nor is there anything without any qualities.”
Yudhishthira was still unconvinced. To cut this story short, and there are several fascinating stories in that story, after much persuasion by Narada and Vyasa, Yudhishthira entered Hastinapura, assigned duties to his brothers, then met Krishna, who advised him to go seek a dying Bhishma’s advice. And that is another story, a much longer story, or should I say—stories?
Disclaimer: Views expressed here are personal.
Note: The events described here take place in Shraddha Parva – the eighty-second minor Parva, and Raja Dharma Parva, the eighty-fourth minor Parva of the Mahabharata. In the major parvas, Shraddha Parva is contained within Stri Parva, the eleventh parva, while Raja Dharma Parva is contained within Shanti Parva, the twelfth parva. I have used Dr Bibek Debroy’s Mahabharata, Vol. 8, an unabridged translation of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, published by Penguin India in 2013, as my reference. The Sanskrit shlokas have been taken from the online text of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, put by John Smith.
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