The Mahabharata Research
In the ancient Epic
Yudhistira, the eldest of the Pandava brothers is hailed in the epic for his virtue. The name Yudhistira resonates with qualities like honesty, justice, sagacity, tolerance, good behaviour, and judgemental skills. It was for his supreme qualities and sense of justice that he was preferred by the elders in the kingdom to succeed Dhritarashtra to the throne of Hastinapur. . During their schooling under Drona, he showed more skills and interest in learning administration, religion, philosophy and history. contrary to many of the other kuru princes who specialized in martial arts. Yudhistira also gained good skills in fighting with spear. He gained the confidence and love of all his elders that they saw him as the most qualified person to become the heir to the Kuru Kingdom. Even the king Dhritarashtra could not reason with the elders in the kingdom to choose his own son ahead of Yudhistira. Such was the good will that Yudhistira earned. He was really fortunate to have had 2 brothers in the name of Bhima and Arjuna who conquered the world to make him the emperor of the then known sub-continent. During the Pandavas' life in shadows after the house of lac episode, Yudhistira was fortunate to find friends in Panchala and Yadava kingdoms, thanks to his brother Arjun, he finally emerged out to become the king of Indraprasta.
While the tales of all his brothers, who went around conquering kingdoms to make him an emperor, are sung by storytellers across generations, the administrative and management skills of Yudhistira are often forgotten. Though Arjun and Bhima fought the toughest wars to build the Empire of Indraprastha, Yudhistira was still their honourable King and Commander. When Yudhistira lost the empire and finally his brothers and their wife Draupadi in the game of dice, the epic shows us the darker side of Yudhistira's character. During their 12 year exile period as well, Yudhistira was the one who more easlity adjusted to the new life style, probably because he brough this upon himself and others. And he was more than willing to avoid a war if Duryodhana was willing to spare just 5 villages for him and his brothers. The epic also presents a handful of stories showing the tolerance and discernment of Yudhistira. And lastly the Mahabharata war also presents a handful of heroics that Yudhistira performed during the 18 day war - including the killing of the mighty Shalya on the last day of the war - all this despite being the weaker link among the Pandavas when it comes to combat skills.
Behind the Hero
Yudhishtira is indeed one of the most mysterious characters in the epic. Though the epic alludes characters of high virtues to the emperor Yudhistira, it's always debatable on whether he was an innocent, honest just emperor or a clever, selfish, strategist. He stood tall to hold his family together upon the unexpected demise of their father (and mother Madri). His brothers blindly followed his orders, and he tried to avoid conflict with the Kauravas whenever possible. He easily forgave Duryodhana for the plot to kill his family in he House of lac at Varanavat. He even settled down for the barren land and forest of Khandavaprashta to avoid a conflict within the family. Despite being deprived of all his wealth and humiliated during the game of dice, he ordered his brothers to fight for and save Duryodhana when he was made captive by Chitrasena. And during the incognito period as well, he accepted his destiny and worked literally as a jester at Virata's court. Before the battle, be was willing to take any form of compromise to avoid a battle with his brothers and his elders. All of these show the resilience and tolerance of Yudhistira, the Emperor.
On the other hand, there are umpteen number of instances that question the credibility of Yudhistira's virtues. His decision to make Draupadi the common wife of all the 5 Pandava brothers could always be scrutinized. He enjoyed the highest honor for the valor of his brothers. Despite this, his decision to place his brothers and wife as a stake shows that he treated them as his possessions and not as individuals who are independent in their own ways. His decision to ignore Kechaka's insult and advances against Draupadi shows his lack of character to risk another 12 years of exile for the honor of his own wife - which Bhima was willing to risk. There are much more examples to argue in both directions, but Yudhistira still remains as a symbol of certain virtues while lacking the courage and valor that could equal those of his younger brothers.
In Modern versions:
The modern versions of Mahabharata are also divided in the depiction of Yudhishtira's character. Many of the newer versions or retellings try to somehow balance between Yudhistira the just emperoro and Yudhistira the foolish gambler. Depending on the author many of these versions might or might not stress on the administrative and intellectual skills of Yudhistira. Also they might or might not shed focus on the black spots that leave a scar on the image of the Emperor. In many of the folklores as well as the television versions of the epic, Yudhistira remains mostly as an insigficant executive head who gains significance only during the game of dice. The focus on his stengths and weakness (apart from gambling) are niether portrayed before the dice game, nor after this, and hence he remains just as a piece needed to complete a big jig-saw puzzle.
A wise emperor or a foolish Gambler?:
His addiction to gambling is probably the biggest tragic flaw in the character of Yudhishtra. The biggest question that pop up to anyone's mind while talking about Yudhistira's character is why did an emperor of such high virtues play such a game of dice where his own wife was placed as a bet. On analysing Yudhistira's character as well as the situations that unfolded before the game, one could see that there are multiple reasons that in fact led him to this game.
Firstly he had taken an oath not to say no nor to refuse anything, hoping in this way to avoid conflict with others, and keep the kuru clan in peace. So when the invitation came from Dhritarashtra for a game of dice, he could not refuse. Secondly, it was the accepted norm for the royals(Kshatriya dharma) to accept the invitation to a game of dice/ gambling, and any refusal would be construed either as being rude, or a sign of cowardice.
Actually as per the Mahabharata, Yudhishtra vacillated a good deal before finally accepting the invitation to gamble.But, Shakuni, the master schemer as he was, knowingly exploited Yudhishtra's weakness and also taunted him as a coward when he initially hesitated to respond. Though these factors may explain why Yudhishtra chose to play the game of dice, these do not explain why a person of his character and calibre should become so obsessive to pledge all his wealth, kingdom, his own brothers and even his queen. It's here that his addiction to the game becomes a bit evident.
All philosophies unanimously agree upon the fact that every person has a weakness, something he cannot resist, an offer he cannot refuse, however noble or ignoble, good or bad, he is. For some, this weakness is trivial, while for some, it is huge, like how people addicted to drugs suffer. Yudhishtira, whose sole aim in life is to uphold Dharma, had the one weakness which is that of the game of dice. He just cannot refuse an offer to play the game of dice and this weakness was well exploited by Duryodhana and Shakuni who made the equation a bit more complex by adding the nuances of Dharma and the undeniable invitation of the King.
In a nutshell, It was a combination of his weakness for gambling, the tenets of Kshatriya dharma and, his hesitation to deny Dhritarashtra's invitation which forced Yudhishtra to accept the challenge to play the game of dice, even though he was fully aware of underlying traps and deceitful schemes. And this changed the destiny of the Kuru kingdom and was the trigger behind the creation of such a magnificient epic.