Yudhishthira was the eldest among the five Pandavas. His mother was the Yadava princess Kunti. He was born as the first son of Kuru king Pandu who was childless. It is believed that he was born by the practice of Niyoga by which a king obtains son to inherit his kingdom through his queen by the help of qualified sage like men.
Yudhishthira was born and brought up along with his younger brothers Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva in recluse of sages, in a forest surrounding the valley of Satasringa mountains, believed to be somewhere in Uttaranchal. This life in a forest along with sages had a great impact on him. He lived his whole life with sage like qualities even while living as a king in his royal palace and became later known as one among the royal sages. He lost his father figure Pandu during his childhood days, a loss that he shared with all his younger brothers. Pandu died probably due to some chronic heart disease. After the death of Pandu, Kunti took his children and lived in the palace of Hastinapura. There he was raised by Kuru elders like Bhishma, Dhritarashtra and Vidura. Vidura was especially affectionate to Yudhishthira and protected him like a father throughout his life. It was Vidura who protected Yudhisthira and his brothers from all evils of Duryodhana, the son of the king Dhritarashtra as Duryodhana competed with Yudhishthira as the next heir to the throne of Hastinapura. There is an interesting speculation, that Vidura was indeed the biological father of Yudhisthira (by Indraajeet).
At Hastinapura, Yudhisthira became well versed in various modes of warfare under the able guidance of Kuru preceptor Drona who was a Brahmana in the clan of Bharadwaja. His specialization was in the use of the javeline weapon. Yudhishthira was virtuous right from his childhood and was affectionate to his younger brothers and to some extent even to Duryodhana who was always envious of the Pandavas including Yudhishthira. However he possessed some selfishness, or rather some hidden fears in his mind. His younger brother Bhima chose Hidimba as wife, while Yudhishthira stayed a bachelor. Later his next brother Arjuna, younger to Bhima, chose Panchali as wife and Yudhishthira stayed still a bachelor. This caused much insecurity in the mind of Yudhishthira and hence he made it sure that Panchali become his wife too, by the pretext of fulfilling the casual words of mother Kunti about sharing what was obtained in alms. Thus Panchali who was obtained by Arjuna in the self-choice (Swayamvara), became the shared wife of the five Pandavas including Yudhishthira. This was never meant by Kunti when she asked her five sons to share what is obtained in alms. Thus the five Pandavas marrying a single woman Panchali became a rare case of Polyandry in ancient Indian context. Another vice that possessed Yudhishthira was his unnecessary interest in playing dice, well exploited by Duryodhana. Duryodhana, with the help of his uncle Sakuni exploited this weakness of the king Yudhishthira and succeeded in usurping all his wealth and kingdom and in banishing the Pandavas out of their kingdom.
Another blemish on his character is his famous half-lie about the death of Ashvatthama, the son of preceptor Drona during the Kurukshetra War. In order to stupify Drona he acknowledged in front of him the false information that Ashvatthama was dead in battle, while it was an elephant of that name which was actually dead. He also had a small quarrel with his brother Arjuna during the war when he was shamefully defeated by Karna and Arjuna failed to defeat Karna even after many days of battle. This quarrel was however quickly dispelled by the intervention of Krishna.
True to the spirit of the epic Mahabharata, it records the nature of men and woman not as black and white but in gray as every men and women possess good and bad. Yudhishthira and even Krishna is no exception.
Despite the above mentioned blemishes in the character of Yudhishthira, he had virtues that perhaps exceeded these weaknesses. He was considered by everybody as the embodiment of justice. As a king he gave utmost importance to justice. He was known as never telling a lie even in jest. He chose to live his chosen path despite the hardships it offered to him. When he was banished along with his brothers into forest by Duryodhana, many advised him to go back and reclaim his kingdom at once. He chose to live the committed twelve years of exile in the forest and one year of life in anonymity. He also used this adversity to his advantage by discoursing with learned men, travelling across the kingdoms of ancient India. Thus he became conversant with different philosophies, different geographies, different people and their different cultures. He sent his brother Arjuna to advance his military skills.
He was also more aware than Duryodhana on the magnitude of destruction a war between them can cause to the ancient Indian civilization, its economy, its culture and its population. He thus tried all the best to avoid the war and make peace with Duryodhana.
Yudhishthira was devoted to Brahmanas and the rigid interpretation of the Vedic religion expounded by the Brahmanas. Yet he had a certain independent view about what should be true religion. He proclaimed that a Brahmana is not a Brahmana, just by birth but by his actions and by his character. He is often found as conversing with the Yakshas (Yaksha Prashna) and the Nagas (Conversation with Nahusha) on religion and philosophy. Thus he brought into light the varying philosophies and religious concepts of these tribes, which were not generally welcomed by the Brahmanas. He was also attracted to a new form of religion and philosophy based on action expounded by Krishna, but was not able to grasp it completely.
Though king Yudhishthira was against a war, once it started due to the adamant stand of Duryodhana, he gave himself fully into the war, true to the duties of a Kshatriya. He was fierce in battle and feared by his opponent. He defeated many war-heroes in the opposition including Duryodhana. He however was often defeated by Drona and Karna in various encounters. His major encounter in the Kurukshetra War was with his maternal uncle Shalya. In this encounter Shalya was defeated. This was very painful. Shalya was in favor of the Pandavas in their cause but was forced to side with Duryodhana due to geo-political reasons and due to his unnecessary commitment to Duryodhana on account of treating him as a guest in Kaurava army camp.
Like every war-hero, Yudhishthira too had fables about the extra-ordinariness of his birth. According to this myth, Yudhishthira was the son of god of justice Yama-Dharma, a trait he share with Vidura (Vidura also was mentioned as an incarnation of Yama-Dharma, just like Yudhishthira). Thus the epic clearly indicates a connection between Vidura and Yudhishthira, which can be best interpreted as a father-son connection.
Yudhishthira's statesmanship as a king is evident in his venture of conducting the Rajasuya sacrifice before the Kurukshetra War, the medium through which he gained supremacy over the ancient kingdoms of India, creating a temporary unity in Bharatavarsha (ancient India). After the war also he found the need for a unification process as the kingdoms of Bharatavarsha was shattered by colossal war. He enriched the empty treasuries by extensive mining, which is mentioned in Mahabharata as mining for gold in Himalayas in the ancient kingdom of the king Marutta. He then conducted the Aswametha sacrifice by which he once again unified the kingdoms under his rule and attempted revival of their economies, though with less success this time.
Towards the end of his life, king Yudhishthira embraced the mode of an ascetic along with his brothers and left the kingdom for the next generation. His last days he spent in the very place he was born, in the foothills of the Himalays.
- Yudhisthira's Conversation with the Nagas - The Naga's philosophy represent ancient proto-Jain-Buddhist Religious thoughts that criticized the emerging caste-system, which was due to mis-interpretation of Vedic Philosophy. Yudhisthira is found to be in agreement with the Naga in criticizing the rigid form of caste system.