Yuyutsu is a lesser known character in the incomparable gem of world literature and longest epic poem in the world, the Mahabharata. Who was this guy? The sound of the name isn’t what you would expect considering the way other characters are named, at least if you are a layperson. But he is definitely right up there, another member of the royal family at the center of the saga.
That so few people should remember the story of the character or even his name mystified me for years. It started when I began to read the epic formally and in abridged form, as a schoolboy. What he did was remarkable, as fiercely independent and defiant, considering his birth, as Arjuna’s or even Krishna’s acts. He had as much to lose if not more, and he did not waver.
In a sleepy Army School set close to a low grassy hill, in Srinagar cantonment, J&K , Yuyutsu leaped off the pages of a school text and straight into my impressionable boy’s mind. I already had a good idea of the labyrinth of intricately linked stories in the epic, from well illustrated storybooks that my father bought for me to read, on my wheedling, where I saw them on sale. I knew the stellar personas, the legendary births after intriguing conceptions, the interesting childhoods, told and retold so many times that their sheen started to dull in my imagination.
Perhaps I already needed a more prosaic, more achievable heroism by now? And then a figure of humbler origin slipped under the bibliophile boy’s guard and lurked awhile… references tucked away in obscure paragraphs, thumb-marked, on the modest orange and off-white paper. The text was designed to resemble an ancient manuscript, pages wider than high, with sundry characters sketched in orange ink on the margin all the way round. Gandhari’s intriguing one hundred sons and one daughter, Dushala. Yuyutsu’s mother Sugadha, Gandhari’s maid-in-waiting, had only one. Dhritrashtra turned to her because Gandhari insisted, paranoid that she would never deliver, considering the delay of two years that she was fated to endure. Gandhari, ever the idealist consort, wanted Dhritrashtra to be a father even if not by her. Did Sugadha hesitate? History does not tell us. But when Yuyutsu was born, Gandhari begat Duryodhana the same day and Yuyutsu became the second son of Dhritrashtra, younger only to Duryodhana, and older than Dusshasana.
Yuytsu showed himself to be a person who looked at the world from his own perspective and found no reason to waver. Being Sugadha’s son, he was a half-brother born of the queen’s momentary panic. But to this child of Dhritrashtra, and in contrast to Duryodhana, what was right, remained right, and what was not, was not an option. No matter what he risked losing. It was simple.
And Yuyutsu was very simple that way.
If an entire hundred of his Kuru brothers and their sister Dushala could not see it from that point of view, he could…. So be it.
At the risk of losing his privilege, born of King Dhritrashtra and Gandhari’s royal handmaiden, Yuyutsu stood up and took a stand.
Gandhari’s third son Vikarna could also see what side righteousness lay. He got up and spoke to his Kaurava siblings, asking them to abjure the path of greed, like Yuyutsu had done. But Vikarna did not have the courage to leave. He still fought for Duryodhana, helpless in his fraternal bond and unable to break free, dying a death he had anticipated all through. Yuyutsu got up and left. He joined the righteous side.
He was the only son of Dhritrashtra to do have that courage, and this was why in the end, he was the only Kaurava to be alive, after the war.
Yuyutsu, your spirit is still alive. Your uncompromising moral clarity is not extinct.
In times when to insist on the truth is to be pushed out of the mainstream and left on the margins, the millennia separating Yuyutsu and people like the 20th century English writer George Orwell seem to vanish… “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Yes, sounds familiar indeed.
Yuyutsu, thanks for being who you were. The Mahabharata is many many people, but to some, the Mahabharata is also uniquely you. Thank you for standing up for a cause. Stay with us another millennium.