Yudhishthira
Yudhishthira (centre) and Draupadi seated on a throne, while the other Pandavas surround them, a print by Ravi Varma Press, c. 1910
Maharaja of Indraprastha
PredecessorThrone established
Maharaja of Kuru
PredecessorDuryodhana
SuccessorParikshit
DiedHimalayas
SpouseDraupadi
Devika[1]
Issue
Names
HouseHastinapura
DynastyKuruvamsha-Chandravamsha
FatherYama (Hinduism) (father)
Pandu (adoptive father)
MotherKunti (mother)

Yudhishthira (Sanskrit: युधिष्ठिर, IAST: Yudhiṣṭhira) also known as Dharmaraja, was the king of Indraprastha and later the King of Kuru Kingdom in the epic Mahabharata. He is the eldest among the five Pandavas, and is also one of the central characters of the epic.[2]

Yudhishthira was the son of Kunti, the first wife of King Pandu, fathered by the god Yama due to Pandu's inability to have children. Yudhishthira held a belief in dharma (morals and virtues) and was chosen to be the crown prince of Kuru. But after the Lakshagriha incident, he was presumed to be dead and his cousin Duryodhana was appointed as the new heir. The kingdom was split in half due to a succession dispute between Yudhishthira and Duryodhana. Yudhishthira received the barren half, which he later transformed into the magnificent city of Indraprastha.[3]

Yudhishthira and his brothers had a polyandrous marriage with Draupadi, the princess of Panchala, who became the empress of the Indraprastha. After Yudhishthira performed the Rajasuya Yagna, he was invited to play a game of dice by his jealous cousin, Duryodhana and his uncle, Shakuni. Shakuni, a master at the game, represented Duryodhana against Yudhishthira and manipulated him into gambling his kingdom, wealth, the freedom of his brothers, Draupadi, and even himself. After the game, the Pandavas and Draupadi were sent into exile for thirteen years, with the last year requiring them to go incognito. During his exile, Yudhisthira was tested by his divine father Yama. For the last year of the exile, Yudhishthira disguised himself as Kanka and served the King of Matsya Kingdom.[4]

Yudhishthira was the leader of the successful Pandava faction in the Kurukshetra War and defeated many venerable warriors such as Shalya. He then ruled the Kuru Kingdom for 36 years until announcing his retirement. At the end of the epic, he was the only one among his brothers to ascend to heaven while retaining his mortal body.[5]

Etymology and historicity

Statue of Yudhishthira

The word Yudhiṣṭhira is an aluk compound (meaning it preserves the case ending of its first part). It means "one who is steady in battle". It is composed of the words, yudhi (masculine locative singular) meaning "in battle"—from yudh (युध्) meaning 'battle, fighting'—and sthira (स्थिर) meaning 'steady'.[6] His other names are:

According to Buddhist sources, by the late and post-Vedic periods, Kuru had become a minor state ruled by a chieftain called Koravya and belonging to the Yuddhiṭṭhila (Yudhiṣṭhira) gotta.[9][10]

Birth and upbringing

Once a Brahmin rishi, Kindama and his wife were enjoying nature in the forest when Yudhishthira's father Pandu accidentally shot at them, mistaking them for deer. Before dying, Kindama cursed the king to die when he engages in intercourse with any woman. Due to this curse, Pandu was unable to become a father. As an additional penance for the murder, Pandu abdicated the throne of Hastinapura, and his blind brother Dhritarashtra took over the reins of the kingdom.[11]

After knowing the curse of Pandu, Kunti told him that he could be the father of the child and told her boon of sage Durvasa. Then Pandu requested Kunti to apply her boon and suggested to call Dharma to get a truthful, knowledgeable and justice knowing son who can rule Hastinapur. On the full moon of May (Sanskrit: Jyeshth masa) first and the eldest of the Pandavas, Yudhishthira was born. Yudhishthira's four younger brothers were Bhima (born by invoking Vayu); Arjuna (born by invoking Indra); and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva (born by invoking Aśvins).[12]

Yudhishthira was trained in religion, science, administration and military arts by the Kuru preceptors, Kripa and Drona. Specifically, he became a master in using the spear and war chariot. It is said that his spear was so strong that it could penetrate a stone wall as though it were a piece of paper. His chariot always flew at a 4 finger distance above the ground due to his piety.[13]

Marriage and children After Yudhishthira and his brothers completed their studies, they returned to Hastinapur. Duryodhana along with Shakuni planned to kill them and sent Yudhishthira, his siblings, and his mother to a palace made of wax called Lakshagriha.[14]

One night, Shakuni's man, Purochana, set it on fire. However, the princes and their mother survived. They were heartbroken and decided to hide from Hastinapura. Later, Arjuna attended Draupadi's swayamvar and won her hand in marriage. But due to Kunti's misunderstanding, Draupadi became the common wife of all the Pandavas. Later at Indraprastha, Draupadi bore Yudhishthira a son, Prativindhya and a daughter, Suthanu. Suthanu was later married to Asvabhanu, Krishna and Satyabhama's eldest son. Although Yudhishthira had another wife named Devika, Draupadi was his chief consort as well as the empress.[15]

Yudhishthira was married to Devika in a self-choice marriage ceremony, arranged by her father Govasena, who was the king of Sivi Kingdom. They had a son, Yaudheya. According to Puranas, Yaudheya was also the name of the son of Prativindhya.[16] The Bhagavata Purana, as well as Vishnu Purana, also mention Pauravi as one of the wives of Yudhishthira. A son named Devaka was born to this couple.[17]

Ruling the Indraprastha

Division of Hastinapura

When the Pandavas returned to Hastinapura after hiding, there was conflict between Yudhishthira and Duryodhana regarding as the crown prince of Hastinapura. Yudhishthira was originally made the crown prince of Hastinapura, but after the event of Lakshagriha, people thought that he was dead, and Duryodhana was made the new crown prince of Hastinapura. On Bhishma's advice, Dhritarashtra gave half of the kingdom to Pandavas to rule. However the land was under the control of Takshaka. Pandavas defeated Takshaka and with the help of Mayasura, they built a magnificent city named Indraprastha.[18]

Rajasuya yajna

King Yudhishthira performs the rajasuya sacrifice

Some years after his coronation at Indraprastha, Yudhishthira set out to perform the Rajasuya yagna.[19] Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula, and Sahadeva led armies across the four corners of the world to obtain tributes from all kingdoms for Yudhishthira's sacrifice. The non-compliant Magadha king, Jarasandha was defeated by Bhima and Krishna. At his sacrifice, Yudhishthira chose Krishna as his honored guest. At the yajna, many kings were present there, including Duryodhana and Shishupala. Shishupala was beheaded by Krishna for his evil deeds. An annoyed and jealous Duryodhana returned to Hastinapura.[20]

The game of dice

Draupadi's disrobing at game of dice

Yudhishthira was challenged to play a game of dice in Hastinapura by his cousin, Duryodhana. Duryodhana invited him because he was jealous of Yudhishthira's wealth and power that he witnessed at the Rajasuya. Shakuni used the dice made from the bones of his father, which always ensured that he got the number he wanted and Yudhisthira was allowed to bet whatever he had he was proud of and had right over. After losing his brothers and his empire, he bet himself and also his wife which lead to the Vastraharan. Later, he lost his kingdom in the game again and was forced into exile for 13 years, which included one year in anonymity.[21]

Exile

Obtaining the Akshaya Patra

Main article: Akshaya Patra

Some time after going to the forests, Yudhishthira became troubled upon realising that he was unable to feed the Brahmanas who followed him to the forests. On the advice of his priest, Sage Dhaumya, Yudhishthira stood in river and appeased Surya, the Sun god, by reciting his 108 names. The god gifted a copper plate, the Akshaya Patra, to Yudhishthira, saying that any food cooked in that vessel would be inexhaustible, until Draupadi finished her daily meal. He also blessed Yudhishthira that the latter would regain his kingdom fourteen years later.[22]

Tale of Nala & Damayanti

Sage Vyasa imparts the Pratismriti to Yudhishthira and tells him to pass it down to Arjuna. On Vyasa's advice, Yudhishthira permits Arjuna to perform penance in the Himalayas and obtain celestial weapons from the gods. During Arjuna's absence, Sage Brihadashva consoles Yudhishthira by narrating the story of Nala and Damayanti. Brihadashva advises Yudhishthira not give in to misery despite the wretched conditions he lives in. At the end of the story, Yudhishthira received a mantra from the sage, which makes him a master of gambling.[23]

Yudhishthira & Nahusha

Main article: Nahusha

One day, while Bhima was roaming the forests, he was captured by a giant serpent, who suppressed the Pandava's might with his gaze. Meanwhile, a worried Yudhishthira searched for Bhima and found him at the mercy of the snake. To Yudhishthira's shock, the snake introduces itself to be the ancient King Nahusha, the father of Yayati, and the legendary ancestor of the Pandavas.

Nahusha posed questions on spirituality to Yudhishthira and was satisfied with his answers. In turn, he also clarified Yudhishthira's doubts on some spiritual topics. Nahusha then narrated his story to Yudhishthira, on how he used to rule Svarga in the days of yore, how he became intoxicated with hubris, and how he turned into a snake due to the curse of the sages, Bhrigu and Agastya. Nahusha used his own story to warn Yudhishthira about the consequences of being arrogant.

Agastya and Bhrigu had prophesized that Yudhishthira would rescue Nahusha from his curse. After conversing with Yudhishthira, Nahusha regained his original form and returned to Svarga.[24]

Yudhishthira & Sage Markandeya

Main article: Markandeya

The ever-youthful sage, Markandeya, once visited Yudhishthira. He narrated many stories to Yudhishthira, including the characteristics of the Yugas, the story of King Shibi, and the story of Savitri and Satyavan. He also narrated the story of Rama to Yudhishthira, and discoursed on spiritual philosophy.[25]

Yaksha Prashna

Main article: Yaksha Prashna

Yudhisthira answering the questions of Yaksha

During their exile, the four other Pandavas happened upon a lake, which was haunted by a Yaksha. The Yaksha challenged the brothers to answer his moral questions before drinking the water; the four Pandavas laughed and drank the water anyway. As a result, they choked on the water and died. Yudhishthira went in last, answered many questions put forth to him by the Yaksha. After the Yaksha was satisfied with the answers, he offered Yudhishthira the choice to bring back one of his brother, and Yudhishthira chose Nakula. When the Yaksha questioned him on his reasoning, Yudhishthira replied that he is still alive as Kunti's lineage, but there are no one alive as Madri's lineage, so he chose Nakula. The Yaksha was impressed again, and revived all of the Pandavas siblings.

The Yaksha asked for any other wish as he was impressed and told him he could ask for wealth, strength, power, anything he wished. Yudhishthira said he already got the strength, wealth and power when all his four brothers were revived and said he could not ask for any other wish. Yudhishthira replied, "It is enough that I have beheld thee with my senses, eternal God of gods as thou art! O father, whatever boon thou wilt confer on me I shall surely accept gladly! May I, O lord, always conquer covetousness and folly and anger, and may my mind be ever devoted to charity, truth, and ascetic austerities!"[26]

This story is often cited as an example of Yudhishthira's upright principles.[27] The Yaksha later identified himself as Yudhishthira's father, Dharma, and pointed them to the kingdom of Matsya to spend their last year of exile in anoymity.

Ajñātavāsa (Incognito)

Along with his brothers, Yudhishthira spent his last year of exile in the kingdom of Matsya. He disguised himself as a Brahmin named Kanka (among themselves Pandavas codenamed him Jaya) and advised the game of dice to the king.[28]

Following the death of Kichaka by Bhima, Matsya was invaded by King Susharma of Trigarta, in retaliation to the raidings his kingdom had suffered by Kichaka, and in cooperation with Duryodhana of Hastinapur. When Susharma's army closed the kingdom, Kanka volunteered to follow King Virata to face the invader, and took along his three brothers, Vallabha (Bhima), Granthika (Nakula), and Tantripala (Sahadeva), with him and while disguised. On the battlefield, the brothers proved valiance, defending King Virata before finally defeating King Susharma.

While Yudhishthira and King Virata were away battling Susharma, the city was marched upon by the host from Hastinapur. Prince Uttar and Brihannala (Arjuna), who were left in defense of the city, rallied to defend the kingdom, where Arjuna revealed his identity and fended off the invasion. When King Virata returned from his battle, the identities of all Pandavas were revealed, and Yudhishthira congratulated the marriage between Princess Uttarā and Abhimanyu, as Arjuna has suggested.

Kurukshetra war

Krishna talking with Yudhishthira and his brothers, on preparation for war

When the period of exile was completed, Duryodhana refused to return Yudhishthira's kingdom. Yudhishthira made numerous diplomatic efforts to retrieve his kingdom peacefully but in vain. Left with no other option, Yudhishthira wages war.[29]

The flag of Yudhishthira's chariot bore the image of a golden moon with planets around it. Two large and beautiful kettle-drums, called Nanda and Upananda, were tied to it.[30] Before the war started, Yudhishthira stepped down from his chariot to take blessings from his grandsire Bhishma, teachers Drona and Kripa and uncle Shalya, who all were in his opposite side in the war showing his respect towards his elders. He also asked the willing Kauravas to join his side. On his request one of Dhritarashtra sons, Yuyutsu joined the war on the side of Pandavas.[31]

Yudhishthira was described to be an excellent car-warrior and a master at spear-fighting. Yudhishthira defeated many warriors in the war, like Duryodhana. Yudhishthira’s spear originally belonged to Ishana which he would use to kill Shalya during the war.[32]

On the 14th day of the war, while Arjuna was busy searching for Jayadratha, Drona attempted to capture Yudhishthira but Arjuna would foil Drona's plans. Yudhishthira and Drona engaged in a fierce duel where Yudhishthira was ultimately defeated by Drona.[33] Yudhishthira would later assist his nephew Ghatotkacha in slaying the asura Alambusha.[34]

Yudhishthira would later defeat Duryodhana twice and the latter had to be rescued by Drona.[35] Drona and Yudhishthira would engage in an archery duel which would end up as a stalemate.[36] Yudhishthira would later be defeated by Kritavarma.[37]

On the 15th day, Yudhishthira was approached by Drona, in the latter' inquiry on the death of his son Ashwatthama whom he heard to have died at Bhima's hand. Torn between his duty to cripple Drona and upholding his morals, Yudhishthira opted to half truth where he confirmed the death of Ashwatthama the elephant, but omitted the contextual part that it was an elephant and not his son. This was effective in the former purpose of crippling Drona, but also caused his own chariot to finally fall down to the ground, instead of slightly levitating as it had been before this incident. Yudhishthira was one of 5 individuals who witnessed Drona's spirit leaving his body.[38]

On the 17th day, he injured Duryodhana badly and was about to kill him but decided to spare him on Bhima's advice who reminded him of his vow to kill Duryodhana.[39] Yudhishthira would be defeated by both Karna and Ashwatthama.

Bhima duels with Duryodhana.

Worried for Yudhishthira's safety, Arjuna retreats from the battlefield to search for him, only to find him taking refuge in camp. Furious at Arjuna for not killing Karna yet, Yudhishthira insults him by suggesting Arjuna should hand over the Gandiva to another warrior if he does not think he is able to slay Karna.[40] Arjuna, enraged from Yudhishthira's insult, attempted to kill him with his sword but was stopped from doing so due to Krishna's intervention. Filled with regret, Arjuna attempted to commit suicide but was dissuaded from doing so by Krishna. The brothers would reconcile their differences and embrace each other.[41]

On the last day of the war, Yudhishthira was highly energetic for the day, and engaged in a fierce duel against the Kauravas' final supreme commander, Shalya. With Bhima's assistance, Yudhishthira managed to slay his uncle.[42]

With the battlefield cleared of the Kauravas but no sight of Duryodhana, Yudhishthira received a report that his nemesis went into hiding in a nearby swamp. The Pandavas brothers and Krishna thus went to the swamp, and taunted Duryodhana off his refuge. Yudhishthira proposed a final challenge to Duryodhana, to a battle against any of the Pandavas under any weapon of Duryodhana's desire.[43]

With Duryodhana choosing Bhima, the other Pandavas brothers, Krishna and Balarama witnessed the mace duel between the mace fighters. When Bhima finally defeated Duryodhana and started insulting his nemesis, Yudhishthira became sufficiently displeased with his brother's disrespect and ordered Bhima off the battleground. Ultimately, Yudhishthira heard out Duryodhana's final conversation and lamentation, before leaving the fallen Kauravas' overlord on his deathbed.[44]

Yudhishthira's curse

After he was made aware that Karna was his elder brother, Yudhishthira cursed all women with not being able to hide any secrets. Had Yudhishthira's mother Kunti not kept that fact a secret, the war might have been averted, with millions spared.[45]

Reign after the war

After getting victory in the war, Yudhishthira was crowned as the Emperor of Hastinapura and reigned for 36 years.

Fifty days after the war, Yudhishthira and the royal families visited Bhishma, who had been lying on the bed of arrows since his defeat. Bhishma bestowed the new king with Anushasana, teaching the new king in series of dharma and royal conducts, before the elder guardian surrendered his life by his own will. Yudhishthira then cremated the former protector of Hastinapur in a great ceremony.

Later, he performed the Ashvamedha on Krishna and Vyasa's insistence. In this sacrifice, a horse was released to wander for a year, and Yudhishthira's brother Arjuna led the Pandava army, following the horse. The kings of all the countries where the horse wandered were asked to submit to Yudhishthira's rule or face war. All paid tribute, once again establishing Yudhishthira as the undisputed Emperor of Bharatavarsha.[46]

During his reign, Yudhisthira duly consulted with and reported to Dhritarashtra on governances. After 15 years, the former king, his consort Gandhari, Queen Mother Kunti, and Prime Minister Vidura decided to retire to the forest, where they pass away years later. These events greatly saddened Yudhishthira and the Pandavas brothers.

Retirement and ascent to heaven

Draupadi dies as the Pandavas journey to heaven.

Upon the onset of the Kali Yuga and the departure of Krishna, Yudhishthira and his brothers retired, leaving the throne to their only descendant to survive the war of Kurukshetra, Arjuna's grandson, Parikshit. Giving up all their belongings and ties, the Pandavas, accompanied by a dog, made their final journey of pilgrimage to the Himalayas. During their pilgrimage, each one starting with Draupadi, fell down dead upon the mountains. Yudhishthira cites Draupadi's partiality for Arjuna, Sahadeva's pride in his wisdom, Nakula's vanity in his beauty, Arjuna's boastfulness of his archery, and Bhima's negligence of the needs of others while eating as the reasons for their fall. Finally, it was Yudhishthira who was able to reach the top, with the dog accompanying him.[47]

Indra lifts the illusion and reveals the truth to Yudhishthira.

On reaching the top, Indra congratulates him and promises Yudhishthira immortality and godhood upon his ascent to Heaven. However, Indra asks him to abandon the dog before entering Heaven. But Yudhishthira refused to do so, citing the dog's unflinching devotion as a reason. Indra retorts that he has abandoned his brothers and wife to reach the top of the Himalayas, but Yudhishthira said he could not prevent their deaths, but to abandon a poor creature was a great sin. It turns out that the dog was his father Yama in disguise. Yama congratulates his son and commends him on his unwavering principles. Yudhishthira proceeds to Heaven upon a celestial vehicle with Narada as his guide, who informs him that he is the first mortal to enter Heaven in a physical form.[48]

Upon his arrival, Yudhishthira finds Duryodhana and his Kaurava cousins in heaven but not his brothers and Draupadi. Furious, Yudhishthira demands that Narada take him to where he might find his family. Narada brings Yudhishthira to Hell where he encounters Karna, his brothers, Draupadi, Dhrishtadyumna, and the Upapandavas. Yudhishthira, enraged, decides that he would rather live in Hell with his family than in Heaven with his cousins.[49] Indra then appears and lifts the illusion, informing Yudhishthira of his deception. Indra reveals that Yudhishthira has been shown a glimpse of Hell due to deceiving Drona with his white lie. Yama congratulates his son on passing his third and final test, the first being the Yaksha Prashna, and the second being his refusal to abandon the dog. Yudhishthira would then bathe in the Heavenly Ganga, casting off his mortal form and was reunited with his family in Svarga.[50]

Assessment

Yudhishthira was master in spear-fighting and chariot racing. Yudhishthira was a polyglot, knowing unusual languages. After being exiled by Duryodhana, Yudhishthira became adept at controlling the dice after learning a mantra from Sage Brihadashwa. He was a hero known for his honesty, justice, sagacity, tolerance, good behavior and discernment.[51]

Yudhishthira could burn down anyone into ashes when he sees someone with his wrath and anger. That's why he used to be calm and composed most of the time. He closed his eyes and came out of the gambling hall even when he lost everything. Otherwise the entire Kuru court and all the one who were present would be burnt into ashes.

Dhritarashtra said to Sanjaya "The son of Kunti and Pandu, Yudhishthira, is virtuous and brave and eschews deeds that bring on shame. Endued with great energy, he hath been wronged by Duryodhana. If he were not high-minded, they would in wrath burn the Dhritarashtras. I do not so much dread Arjuna or Bhima or Krishna or the twin brothers as I dread the wrath of the king, O Suta, when his wrath is excited. His austerities are great; he is devoted to Brahmacharya practices. His heart's wishes will certainly be fulfilled. When I think of his wrath, O Sanjaya, and consider how just it is, I am filled with alarm."[52]

In popular culture

Being an important person in the epic Mahabharata, Yudhishthira's role has been enacted by various actors over the years.

References

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