Despite its size and complexity, the Mahabharata explores one over-arching theme predominantly: the observance of one's sacred duty, called dharma. All other thematic issues in the work relate to the question of dharma obeyed or ignored. The characters who satisfy the dictates of dharma are eventually rewarded, while those who consciously refuse to obey their dharma are inevitably punished. According to Hindu law, each individual has a special place in society and must behave in strict accordance to the requirements of that position, called caste. In the Mahabharata, all the important characters belong to the Kshatriya or warrior caste. Individuals such as Yudhishthira, Arjuna, Bhima, and Duryodhana must obey the dharma of warriors. They must be courageous, honorable, and respectful of their opponents. They must never take unfair advantage; for example, attacking an unarmed or unprepared enemy. Duryodhana, for example, fights fairly against Bhima, who wrongly strikes him "below the belt" in their combat. At the end of the narrative, we see that Duryodhana, despite his often evil and unkind actions, gains admittance to heaven because he always adhered to the code or dharma of the warrior.
More than any other figure in the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira represents the proper observance of dharma. This is underscored at the end of the narrative, when he will not abandon the faithful dog who accompanied him on his final journey. It is revealed to the reader that this dog is the god Dharma in disguise, testing his son's worthiness one last time. Thus symbolically Yudhishthira is shown refusing to forsake his dharma and therefore demonstrating that he is deserving to enter into heaven at his death. Likewise, most of his actions throughout the poem are those of a man committed to engaging in right behavior as a king and a warrior. When he does fail to live up to these high ideals—as, for example, when he continues gambling until he has... [continues]
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