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Near the end of Star Wars Episode III, Revenge of the Sith, Yoda goes to the Galactic Senate to confront Darth Sidious:

YODA enters, using the Force to throw two RED GUARDS against the wall, knocking them unconscious. DARTH SIDIOUS turns his chair toward YODA. MAS AMEDDA stands behind SIDIOUS's desk.

YODA: I hear a new apprentice, you have. Emperor, or should I call you Darth Sidious.

DARTH SlDIOUS: Master Yoda, you survived.

...

The Dark Lord raises his arms, and LIGHTNING BOLTS shoot out, surrounding YODA. YODA is picked up and thrown across the room, hitting the wall and sliding down in a crumpled heap. DARTH SIDIOUS chuckles.

I have captured images of Yoda's expression as Darth Sidious's lightning comes towards him. It is plainly an expression of surprise. Why should Yoda be surprised in this moment, given that

  1. He knows 'Force Lightning' is a thing
  2. He knows Darth Sidious is a sith lord
  3. He knows Darth Sideous wants to eliminate all Jedi

It seems inconceivable that Yoda would expect any other reaction from Sidious but force-lightning from Sidious.

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    My initial thought is that he was trying to deflect the attack (note his outstretched hand in the second screenshot), but realised at the last second it was too powerful, and that's what surprised him. But having just watched through the clip a few times, the look of shock on his face definitely seems to form before he raises his hand. Here's the clip, btw, in case it helps anyone. – F1Krazy Aug 17 at 13:50
  • right - if he was expecting a lightning attack of any strength (as he should) I would expect him to have adopted a more defensive stance straight away. His whole attitude is like he expects no attack, and is surprised when one comes – Black Aug 17 at 23:07
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I always felt that this scene visualizes for a viewer how weak and arrogant the Jedi have become. They didn't have any powerful foes for so long that they became too sure about themselves. Even the greatest, wisest one among them is not prepared for this.

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    I think this is on the right track, as the missing bit of dialogue there is "Your arrogance blinds you Master Yoda." – Black Aug 18 at 12:46
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Your arrogance blinds you, Master Yoda.

And Yoda’s suprise is realization that indeed it has.

I always thought this was a higher tier version of Anakin vs. Obi wan. And as Anakin accused Obi of understimating his power, this is exactly what Yoda did to Sidious. He always thought that the Sith avoided confrontations. Palpatine plotted in the shadows and used Anakin (and assassins) to do the work. Master Jedis still had sabers at their side and fought in battles. He was arrogant in thinking that Sidious was not a fighter. And that blinded him to the possibility that he would attack.

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    There's really no hard evidence that suggests Yoda didn't consider Palpatine a fighter / powerful upon walking into that room. Even in just the most previous episode, Yoda fought Dooku and he (Dooku) used Force lightning on Yoda. – Charles Aug 19 at 4:30
  • Also, does that mean Palpatine was equally blinded/arrogant since Yoda successfully Force pushed him just a few moments later, sending Palpatine across the room? – Charles Aug 19 at 4:32
  • He knew Sidious was powerful. After all he was hiding from them for years. But it was Windu who sensed the dark around him. Not Yoda. And it's not about not knowing what kind of powers dark side have at their disposal. It's about downplaying your opponent and his abilities. Was Palpie arrogant? Of course. He's sith. It's what they do "You underestimate MAH UNLIMITED POWAH!" – SZCZERZO KŁY Aug 19 at 7:02
  • Well, just for the sake of a rebuttal -- Windu didn't sense anything, Anakin literally told on him, lol. – Charles Aug 19 at 11:10
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    @Charles Then Windu show how bad were Jedis at seeing (nudge nudge win wink) things. Because he said "I sense the plot to destroy the Jedi. The dark side surrounds the chancelor". And it was after he ordered Anakin to deliver news to Palpatine to note that his reaction will give them CLUE of his intentions. That's kind of giweay they weer blind. – SZCZERZO KŁY Aug 19 at 11:16
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I think the main reason for Yoda being caught off-guard is that he simply wasn't expecting to start fighting so quickly.

As shown in the first screenshot of the OP, Yoda was in no kind of fighting stance when Palpatine attacked him. Both of Yoda's hands were resting on his walking stick, his lightsaber was still sheathed, and the front of his body was fully exposed to Palpatine.

All throughout the Star Wars saga there's usually a kind of formality practiced between combatants who are disciplined in the Force. Essentially, before engaging in battle both fighters will wait until the other is ready. So in that sense, Palpatine's lightning attack can be considered a kind of 'cheap shot'.

It's also worth noting that just after Yoda stands up from getting Force lightning attacked, Yoda equally surprises Palpatine with a Force push attack.


Additionally...

Yoda and Palpatine were standing pretty close to each other; maybe only 10-15 feet apart.

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Force attacks move pretty fast (if not instantaneous in some cases) so unless Yoda was already in a fighting stance it'd be really difficult for him to deflect/counter the attack.

To support this idea, later on in that fight Darth Sidious tries using Force Lightning again, and at an even closer range, but Yoda successfully counters it (though he did lose his lightsaber in the process).

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TL;DR: Because the prequels are trying to make a point about the Jedi's failures in part through the hierarchy of the Jedi Order, in which Grand Master Yoda sits atop as the Jedi's primary leader.

I agree with many of the other answers here, but I want to unpack some of it a little more...

The structures of the prequels each features a villain with characteristics of either the future Darth Vader or Anakin Skywalker (with Darth Sidious hiding behind them).

Moreover, each film also has a seasoned Jedi Master fearful of Anakin Skywalker. In The Phantom Menace it is Yoda. In Attack of the Clones it is Obi-wan Kenobi, in Revenge of the Sith it is Mace Windu. All of their indecisiveness plays into Anakin's downfall.

But Yoda's trajectory is the most interesting, as he starts out not wanting to train Anakin, fearful of his clouded force vision of Anakin's future. The death of Qui-gon Jin seems to change his mind.

In the second film is when Yoda takes a real enlightened step back when he tells Obi-Wan that the older Jedi have become more arrogant, which is later followed through when younglings help Obi-wan find his lost star. He then also corrects Obi-wan's statement that the clone army was a victory, as the shroud of the dark side has fallen. Then the clone wars occur and he seems to loose his way again.

So why was he surprised in Revenge of the Sith upon confronting Darth Sidious?

It's not surprised in the sense that he didn't know that the Sith had returned or that the council hadn't suspected Palpatine, as they wanted Anakin to spy on him. But it was a surprise or really more of shock, because Yoda didn't realize HOW POWERFUL of a Sith Lord he was dealing with, given the death of Mace Windu and the turn of Anakin Skywalker. It took a lot of time and patience for Palpatine's/Sidious' plan to be executed. And Darth Sidious once again reminds Yoda of his own arrogance and ultimate failure as they begin to fight. Basically, things just got real.

However, Yoda's force vision and capacity to use the Force was also clouded because the Jedi Temple on Coruscant unknowingly sat on top of a Sith Shrine, which feeds into his shock once actually confronting Darth Sidious.

In addition Star Wars is about to launch "Project Luminous" (now pushed to the beginning of 2021). Starting in publishing with books and comics, Project Luminous takes place 200 years before the Skywalker Saga in the High Republic Era and is about the Jedi during their prime, as certain sect begin to explore the new frontier on the outer rim and unknown regions before facing something that threatens their existence and The Force!

Given that Yoda would be a much younger Jedi at this time AND given we do not yet have a "canonical" backstory on the rise or plights of Darth Plagueis, it's not hard to speculate that eventually the High Republic Era may inform and layer back onto the Skywalker Saga, putting some of it into a new context. Specifically how these "Knights of the Round Table" Jedi became the fearful and more frugal Jedi of the Skywalker Saga!

After all, if Darth Plagueis did exist and was Darth Sidious' master, then how could the Sith NOT have existed for thousands of years? A force DYAD across space-time? Maybe, but it seems more likely that there is cover-up story between different eras of Jedi, with Yoda possibly being one member who has kept a sizable secret. If so, then this too would add great weight onto his surprise, shock, and failure of the Jedi Order of his time and not really believing it, until he had seen it, based on what he thought he knew or didn't, before.

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