Applying the Five Reading Levels to "Yudhishthira's Wisdom"

Instructors' Note: Here is an example of applying the four reading levels to a particular text. In comparing this model to your own work, please bear in mind that there are many ways of applying these five levels to any text--there are many legitimate ways of contextualizing, retelling, interpreting, criticizing, and assimilating a text.

II. Contextualization.  TThis tale has been excerpted from the Mahabarata, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of India, describing events that might have taken place thousands of years ago.   

Literal Comprehension. While hunting for deer in a forest, the five Pandava brothers grow thirsty. Exhausted, Yudhishthira, the eldest, sends one brother to search for water. When this brother fails to return, Yudhishthira sends his other brothers, one at a time, but they too fail to return. Then Yudhishthira goes to search for his brothers. He finds a beautiful pool, but alas, near it he finds his four brothers prostrate on the ground, either dead or unconscious. Unknown to Yudhishthira, they have all ignored a Yaksha's admonition not to drink the water before answering his questions. Despite his overwhelming thirst, Yudhishthira obeys the Yaksha. Moreover, he correctly answers the Yaksha's philosophical queries. Pleased with Yudhishthira's wisdom, the Yaksha agrees to revive one of the brothers, leaving Yudhishthira to decide which of the four it will be. Yudhishthira bases his choice entirely on moral considerations, not on his own selfish needs and predilections. The Yaksha reveals himself as Yama (the god of justice and righteousness), tells Yudhishthira how pleased he is with his uprightness, restores to him his four brothers, promises him protection from future hardships, and gives him some useful advice on where to go next.

III. Interpretation. The story may be trying to tell us something about the importance of patience, obedience to gods, wisdom, and right conduct. Without these characteristics, the Pandava brothers would have been lost. The story can also be interpreted to mean that righteousness not only makes you feel good, not only contributes to brighter prospects after your death, but that it pays right here on this earth. The philosophical portion is of course of great interest, with reflections on such concepts as desire and courage.

IV. Critical Evaluation. For the critical thinker, this story is a veritable gold mine. Here are a few examples of what skeptics might say about this charming tale.

Are there gods out there? If so, what is the evidence for their existence? Can we truly say that patience and right conduct are rewarded on this Earth? Isn't it a historical fact that precisely the reverse is more nearly correct? Was the righteousness of people like Socrates, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King rewarded while they lived?

And what about Yudhishthira's replies to the Yaksha? Do such complicated questions really have simple answers? Would astronomers agree that the sun shines by the power of God? Is courage the best weapon against danger? Why not wisdom or sheer luck? Was Gandhi loved because he gave up pride? Would life be worthwhile without desires? Isn't it the case that many believe that passionless life is not worth living? (For instance, a character in Parijat's Blue Mimosa says: "When love and emotion die in a man, he survives as nothing more than a machine.")

There also seems to be a slight internal contradiction in this tale. After being told not to drink the water, the four younger brothers obediently wait but the Yaksha says nothing, leaving them with the impression that they have been hallucinating. Can we then say that Yudhishthira's brothers defied the Yaksha, but that Yudhishthira didn't?

One could also argue with the choice of material in Adventures in English. "Yudhishthira's Wisdom" is obviously an abridged excerpt of a vast epic. Should students be given such condensed adaptations of texts and then asked to judge them out of context?

Yet, at the end of this process, I am still left with a moving tale which beautifully captures some aspects of the human condition.

V. Assimilation. This story led me to question some of my views about abridged texts. Until now, I have felt that one ought to read original materials. Yet, long before reading the condensed version reproduced in this text, I had read the unabridged Mahabharata. Surprisingly, I like the abridged version more--the original contained too many details while this version reduced the story to its essence. I now think that, in some instances, shorter versions of some texts have some virtues which the original text itself does not possess. This might apply, in particular, to orally-derived ancient epics such as the Iliad and Odyssey, and perhaps also to such works as Shakespeare's Hamlet, Dante's Divine Comedy, and Cervantes' Don Quixote. If I get a chance, I might try to read some abridged versions of these works.

This story brought for me many associations. It led me, for instance, to ask, again, which view is right: the one which extols desire, or the one which holds it to be the source of much suffering and evil?

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