The great Mahabharata war, fought between two factions of the same family – the Pandavas and the Kauravas – was an epic battle, fought by the righteous against the wrongdoers, a war which brought sadness to the hearts of all, on both sides, proving that indeed war, even as a last resort, was something which only brought about destruction, and was to be avoided at all costs.
The Pandavas, under the guidance of Lord Krishna, won the Great War, and ruled Hastinapur righteously and well for many years. Yudhishtra was a kind and just king, and took care of his subjects as if they were his own children. He was good to all, no matter what his status or position. He not only cared well for his mother, Kunti, but he also took good care of the old king Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, the parents of his enemies, the Kauravas, right till the very end of their lives.
One day, a messenger came to Hastinapur with the news that Lord
Krishna had left his corporeal body and ascended to his place in the heavens, along with all his kinsmen, the Yadavas. This news left Yudhishtra heartbroken and he felt the time had come to give up the throne and proceed to the forest. He could not bear to rule, bereft of Sri Krishna.
When he put forth his intention of relinquishing the throne and departing to the forests, his brothers and wife also insisted on going with him. Handing over the reins of the kingdom to their grandson Parikshit, who was then a young boy, the Pandavas, along with their faithful wife Draupadi left for the forest.
They gave up all their wealth and weapons, and, clad like ascetics, left on their last journey towards the
Himalayas. The people of Hastinapur were sad to see their wise and noble king leave, and followed them for a short while before turning back to lead their normal lives. However, a dog continued to follow them towards the mountains. As they started ascending the mountains covered with snow, Yudhishtra turned to the dog, and asked it to return, explaining that it would be difficult to survive the extreme cold and the rough terrain. However, the dog refused to turn back, and continued to follow Yudhishtra.
A short way up the mountain, it was Draupadi who first succumbed to the lord of death. Bhima asked Yudhishtra, “Brother, we have lived together in life, why is Draupadi first in death?” Yudhishtra replied, “Bhima, we all lived together, and Draupadi was affectionate towards all of us, but it was Arjuna she was partial to. This was her only fault, and it is why she has fallen first.”
As they ascended higher, it was the twins turn next. Sahadeva fell first, followed by Nakula. Again, Bhima was curious about the reason for their death, to which Yudhishtra replied, “Sahadeva was too proud of his wisdom, and Nakula was vain about his good looks. These were the sins for which they have been taken at this stage.”
Next was the turn of the courageous Arjuna. Bhima was stunned and again asked the reason for his early demise, to which Yudhishtra replied, “Arjuna was too proud of his valour and his prowess. He has paid for this, leaving us now.”
A little further on, Bhima himself fell, and as he was dying, asked, “Brother, which are the faults for which I am paying with my life?” Yudhishtra replied without turning back, “Brother, your gluttony and boastful nature have brought you to this. Even you can not accompany me any higher than this.”
Finally, it was just Yudhishtra and the dog who continued higher, towards the peak of the mightiest of the mountains, the abode of the gods. As they approached the peak, Indra, the king of the gods appeared with his chariot, and welcomed Yudhishtra to heaven, informing him that the gods had granted him a boon to attain heaven in his mortal form.
Yudhishtra replied, “O king of the gods, I am honoured by your boon, but please tell me what has become of my brothers and my wife who departed this world before me.” Indra replied, “Do not worry about them. All your kinsmen have reached heaven, and are awaiting your arrival there.” Yudhishtra then asked, “But what about
Krishna, and all the Yadavas? They are my kinsmen too.” Indra smiled and said, “They are also in heaven. Please climb into the chariot so that you can meet them soon.” Yudhishtra was happy, and moved towards the chariot, accompanied by the dog.
As the dog was about to step into the chariot, Indra said, “Stop! Dogs are not allowed here!” Yudhishtra was stunned as the dog turned back, its head and tail cast down. He said, “If the dog cannot ascend the chariot, neither can
I. you can return without us. Indra was astounded. “But this is just a dog. You are a great King and a great human being, and have earned the right to attain heaven, and that too in your mortal form. I cannot grant the same boon to a common dog!”
Yudhishtra replied, “This dog followed me as I left behind all my personal possessions. He stayed with me even as my wife and my brothers departed for the heavens. I cannot desert him at this stage, repaying his loyalty with ingratitude. I do not wish to enter the heavens if he is not allowed to do so.”
Indra continued to argue, pointing out that Yudhishtra had not even stopped to perform the last rites of his brothers and wife when they died along the way. Why should he now wait for a dog who wasn’t even related to him? Yudhishtra patiently answered, “My brothers and wife completed their span of life on earth and passed on when their time came. We had severed all bonds of family and relationships when we left our kingdom to go to the forest. Why should I stop for them when they have already gone on their way? This dog is in no way related to me, but it is he who has given me company even when those closest to me have left my side. It would be sheer ingratitude if I went on my way, leaving him behind.”
Seeing Yudhishtra adamant, Indra thought for a while and said, “I cannot allow both of you to enter the heavens together, but if you like, you can exchange positions with him. He can go to heaven in your place, while you will enter hell in his place. Will you agree to this?” Yudhishtra replied, without even pausing to think, “I agree. Please take him to heaven in your chariot. I shall take his place in Hell.”
As Yudhishtra spoke these words, the dog disappeared, and there stood in its place, Dharma – the lord of righteousness. Indra and Dharma both applauded Yudhishtra’s adherence to his principles, and his immense love and kindness for all creatures. Thus did Yudhishtra justify the title of Dharmaraja – The Righteous King.