Dhrishtadyumna is one of the minor but significant characters in the Mahabharata. He is the older brother of Draupadi, a son of Drupada, and the commander-in-chief of the Panchala forces in the Kurukshetra war.
Dhrishtadyumna takes birth – fully formed as a youth – in a sacrificial fire when Drupada performs a ceremony with the intention of procuring some means by which to kill Drona, his arch nemesis.
The sole overriding purpose of Dhrishtadyumna’s life, therefore, is to kill Drona. On the morning of the fifteenth day of the war, he fulfils this destiny, but in controversial circumstances.
(For a full list of important Mahabharata characters, see 56 Mahabharata Characters that will Amaze You.)
How was Dhrishtadyumna born?
Dhrishtadyumna is not born the usual way; he emerges fully formed as an impressive warrior-youth from Drupada’s sacrificial fire. This happens a short while after Drona and the Pandavas invade Panchala and take half of it away.
So at the time of Dhrishtadyumna’s ‘birth’, we might say that Yudhishthir is in his late teens. This gives us an idea of where on the Mahabharata timeline we sit.
After the scathing defeat at Drona’s hands, Drupada immediately returns home to Southern Panchala and performs a ritual with the sole intention of earning a boon or a gift that will enable him to kill Drona.
At this ceremony, he receives two gifts: one is Dhrishtadyumna, who a divine voice proclaims will kill Drona in due course; and the other is Draupadi, who is cited as the future prime cause of destruction of the Kuru dynasty.
The latter is interesting, because Drupada does not ask for the destruction of the Kurus. He merely asks for the destruction of Drona.
It is also interesting that in his other son, Shikhandi, Drupada has the means by which to kill Bhishma. By this, we get a sense of just how deeply antagonistic relationships were between Panchala and Kuru at the time.
A more realistic version…
A more realistic version of Dhrishtadyumna’s birth, of course, is that Drupada merely adopted the boy and anointed him at a sacred ceremony that his sole purpose is to be Drona’s killer.
Another possibility is that Dhrishtadyumna is actually Drupada’s biological son, and on the day of the ceremony, he gets formally assigned to his destiny.
The same thing can be said of Draupadi too, if we strip the story of its magic. The ‘divine voice’ that we are told that appears might just have been the voice of the chief priest which – in the imagination of future storytellers – became celestial.
In either case, the most significant detail about Dhrishtadyumna’s birth is the one overriding purpose of his life – as told to him by his father and by everyone who is around him – is to kill Drona.
It is unclear if Dhrishtadyumna even knows why he is supposed to kill Drona. He just knows that he has to. His entire identity is wrapped up around that one goal.
During Draupadi’s Swayamvara
Dhrishtadyumna plays an important role during Draupadi’s swayamvara. He follows Arjuna and Bhima as the two Pandavas take Draupadi to their hut. Dhrishtadyumna spies on the Pandavas through a window to ascertain who they are.
When he realizes that the people who have won Draupadi are none other than the Pandavas, Dhrishtadyumna goes back to Drupada with the news. Together, they invite the Pandavas to the royal palace.
After the Pandavas reveal themselves, the option of Draupadi becoming the Pandavas’ common wife is floated. Dhrishtadyumna is not too keen on the idea because he believes that the arrangement will be damaging to Draupadi’s character.
However, Drupada realizes that Arjuna – the Pandava who won Draupadi – is only the third Pandava, and that being his wife would not accord Draupadi many privileges.
Drupada’s preference, therefore, is for Draupadi to marry Yudhishthir and become a potential queen.
At the end, Vyasa appears and convinces both Drupada and Dhrishtadyumna that the marriage between Draupadi and the Pandavas is a necessary event in the flow of time.
During Yudhishthir’s Reign
A short while after the Pandavas-Draupadi wedding, Yudhishthir becomes king of a city called Khandavaprastha, and Draupadi becomes queen. For about twelve years from then, as Arjuna goes on his long exile, the status quo remains as is.
During this time, Panchala continues to be a vassal state under the Kuru leadership. Panchala keeps paying tribute (presumably) to Hastinapur.
On the other hand, Bhishma and Dhritarashtra might have relaxed the contractual agreements of their treaty in light of Draupadi’s marriage to the Pandavas.
After Arjuna returns from his exile, though, the Pandavas launch a bid to become the all-powerful rulers of the entire world. Yudhishthir becomes emperor and performs the Rajasuya.
At this point, Panchala is the biggest beneficiary of the Pandavas’ reign. As the birth family of the first wife of the emperor, the royal house of Panchala receives several benefits.
Dhrishtadyumna becomes, by virtue of being the Pandavas’ closest ally, one of the most powerful men in the world.
During the Pandavas’ Exile
With the events around the game of dice, all the power of ruling the world shifts from the Pandavas to the Kauravas. When the Pandavas go on an exile, all the kingdoms that have previously aligned with the Pandavas face an awkward situation.
The first of these is Anarta, under Balarama and Krishna. They resolve this issue by cultivating friendship anew with the Kauravas, especially with Balarama becoming a mentor figure to Duryodhana.
The second kingdom that finds itself in a predicament is Panchala. Arguably, they’re in a deeper hole than Anarta because they have thrown in their lot with the Pandava cause, to the extent of marrying Draupadi to Yudhishthir.
(In Anarta’s case, though Subhadra is married to Arjuna, it is a much weaker connection than the Draupadi-Yudhishthir match.)
As soon as the Pandavas leave on their exile, Kuru reinstates all the previously held treaty rules against Panchala. In fact, though we are not told explicitly, it is likely that Duryodhana would have used every rule in the book to squeeze Panchala politically.
And Panchala, because of the Pandavas’ fall from grace, would have no other option but to comply – and bide its time.
During these years, therefore, Dhrishtadyumna would have been no more than a prince of a vassal state under Duryodhana’s thumb. He would have grinned and borne all the abuse that came his way, and he would have waited desperately for the Pandavas’ return.
Commander of the Pandavas
As the two sides begin preparing for war, they set about picking their respective commanders. On the Pandava side, Yudhishthir takes the advice of Sahadeva as to who should lead them.
‘The seven akshauhinisare each led by the following warriors,’ says Yudhishthir. ‘They are Drupada, Virata, Dhrishtadyumna, Shikhandi, Satyaki, Chekitana, and Bhimasena. Now tell us, Sahadeva, who among these, in your opinion, should be made leader.’
Sahadeva votes for Virata, and as Yudhishthir consults his other brothers, Nakula chooses Drupada, Bhima picks Shikhandi, and Arjuna puts forward the name of Dhrishtadyumna.
Yudhishthir abstains for placing a vote of his own, but asks Krishna who his choice would be. Krishna agrees with Arjuna, and with that Dhrishtadyumna is made the commander of the Pandava forces.
Why did Dhrishtadyumna become commander?
No explicit reason is given for this choice. Of all the other contenders, Shikhandi is the most promising one because it has been foretold he would kill Bhishma, the likely Kaurava commander.
(Working against Shikhandi is his own reputation as being born a woman; it is tough to imagine a whole army responding positively to commands from him.)
It is also a point of interest that Arjuna is not considered even for a moment by anyone. Clearly he is the most powerful of all the warriors on either side. He has a divine charioteer holding the reins for him. Why should he not be made commander?
Once again, we’re not told why. But we can speculate that Yudhishthir probably wants Arjuna to be more of a free agent during battle, unshackled by the responsibility of leading a division of the army.
Whether it’s offense or defense, wherever in the field he is needed, Arjuna will go. If he is chosen as commander, he will have plenty of other things to consider.
The only reason that strikes me as plausible is that Arjuna assigns himself the task of fighting Bhishma, which leaves Drona as the most prominent unmarked Kaurava warrior.
And since Dhrishtadyumna has been touted as the warrior who has taken birth for the sole purpose of killing Drona, Arjuna thinks that he will make a suitable commander.
How strong is Dhrishtadyumna?
Dhrishtadyumna is described at his birth as a near-invincible hero who impresses everyone in Drupada’s courtyard. But the truth of the matter is that he is no match for Drona and Bhishma.
By the same token, he is also not as powerful or skilful as Arjuna and Bhima, whom we can place in the same cadre as Drona and Bhishma.
Just before the war begins, when Duryodhana asks Bhishma to appraise the two sides, Bhishma considers the talents of Dhrishtadyumna and classifies him as a ratha.
(By contrast, the top echelon of warriors – Bhima, Drona, Karna and so on – are as good as ‘eight rathas’, and they’re given the title of an atiratha.)
Therefore, despite his destiny that he should kill Drona someday, Dhrishtadyumna does not have the requisite power or force to subdue Drona on his own.
Incidentally, the situation is the same with Shikhandi and Bhishma as well. The only way these two princes can account for the deaths of two Kuru stalwarts is by resorting to trickery and technicality.
On Day 6 of the Mahabharata war, Bhima ventures deep into the Kaurava ranks and gets trapped inside it. Dhrishtadyumna follows his brother-in-law to rescue him.
When Dhrishtadyumna enters Kaurava territory, he follows the trail of fallen elephants and soldiers left in Bhimasena’s wake.
He keeps his ears open for the Pandava’s cry, and while doing so, he urges his charioteer to keep moving forward, engaging with warriors only fleetingly.
After a while of searching thus, he catches up with Bhima. At this moment, sixteen chariots of great Kaurava warriors have surrounded the Pandava, and are raining arrows on him.
He is doing his best to defend himself with the mace, but Dhrishtadyumna notices that a few arrows are sneaking through every few seconds, and are wearing down the son of Kunti little by little.
The Panchala prince switches on to battle mode, therefore, and begins shooting arrows of his own, first to break the circle around Bhima, and then entering it so that he can stand by his friend’s side.
He jumps to the ground, tends to Bhima’s injuries, pulls out the shafts that have pierced him, and embraces him in a show of support.
Duryodhana sees this and calls to his men to attack the duo. ‘Let the son of Drupada and the son of Pandu together be slain today by our weapons. Onward!’
But Dhrishtadyumna is ready for them. He uses a weapon called the Pramohana, which is a weapon of illusion that afflicts the mental balance of one’s foes.
By casting this, he causes the Kaurava army to flee in fear in all directions, with their horses and elephants being struck by chaos as well.
How did Dhrishtadyumna kill Drona?
On the fifteenth day of the war, the Pandavas hatch a plan with Krishna’s help to force Drona to give up his arms. At this time, Drona is fighting with absolute impunity, and is threatening to obliterate the entire Panchala force on his own.
So Bhima goes away and kills an elephant named Ashwatthama. Krishna persuades Yudhishthir – the most truthful of the Pandavas – to carry the news to Drona, who believes it and relinquishes his arms.
The plan goes well so far. Drona flings away his bow and quiver, shouts out to his comrades to fight to the best of their abilities, and sits down on the terrace of his chariot in a yogic pose to meditate.
The Pandavas plan to imprison Drona and keep him alive till the end of the war. Their intention is not to kill him but just to eliminate him from participating.
But just as Arjuna is about the summon someone to take Drona prisoner, Dhrishtadyumna spots an opportunity to fulfil his destiny. All the years of waiting to kill Drona come to a head, and he seizes the moment.
He climbs into Drona’s chariot, sword in hand, and chops off the preceptor’s head with a roar of triumph.
Why did Dhrishtadyumna kill Drona?
Dhrishtadyumna kills Drona because he has been led to believe throughout his life that that is his destiny. Any other warrior would have thought twice about killing a Brahmin when he is meditating and unarmed.
But Dhrishtadyumna, because he is so blinded by the need to live up to his life’s purpose, makes the choice to kill Drona.
The other reason for Dhrishtadyumna’s anger toward Drona is that Drona kills Drupada during the Kurukshetra war. Dhrishtadyumna may have felt that it is his duty to avenge his father’s death by punishing the killer.
The Pandavas play an important role in feeding Dhrishtadyumna’s anger toward Drona. During the war, we see Yudhishthir and Bhima goad the Panchala prince when he loses to the acharya.
Bhima is particularly acerbic with his words. Time and again he says to Dhrishtadyumna: ‘Despite your brave oath to kill Drona, he still rages rampant against our forces! Pick up your weapon and ride toward him!’
All these words and signals would have built up inside Dhrishtadyumna to a point that he thinks of himself primarily as the killer of Drona (at any cost) rather than as a warrior.
Argument with Satyaki
Right after Dhrishtadyumna kills Drona, an argument erupts within the Pandava camp as to how improper the act was. Arjuna takes up the mantle for the side of virtue, and criticizes Yudhishthir for telling an untruth.
Curiously, he does not directly say any harsh words to Dhrishtadyumna. It is Satyaki who comes up against the Panchala prince and rails at him for being so heinously immoral.
Bhimasena and Dhrishtadyumna are unrepentant about the act. Dhrishtadyumna gets into a slanging match with Satyaki, pointing out that the Vrishni hero had just the previous evening killed Bhurishrava in almost identical circumstances.
(On the fourteenth day, Bhurishrava and Satyaki get into a fight, after which Bhurishrava relinquishes his arms and sits down to meditate. Satyaki beheads his enemy without mercy.)
Satyaki’s argument is that there is a difference between killing a Kshatriya and killing a Brahmin, but that brings on even more rancour from Dhrishtadyumna.
The two of them draw weapons on each other. It takes Krishna’s intervention for the warriors to back down. Krishna then draws their collective attention toward Ashwatthama, who is about to launch into an attack to avenge his father’s death.
How did Dhrishtadyumna die?
Dhrishtadyumna dies on the night of the eighteenth day, when he is woken up from sleep by Ashwatthama and pounded in the gut until he bleeds from his mouth.
Perhaps fittingly, Dhrishtadyumna is killed in the same manner as Drona: his enemy accosts him after he has relinquished his arms (thinking that the war is over), and after he has gone to sleep.
Ashwatthama takes an oath the very moment he learns of Drona’s death that he will kill Dhrishtadyumna. He accomplishes his end on the eighteenth day when – aided by Lord Shiva’s power – he conducts a night-time raid on the Pandava camp.
On this same night, Ashwatthama also kills Shikhandi and the Upapandavas.
Dhrishtadyumna’s death causes yet another chain of revenge to begin. Draupadi is so distraught at the news of her brothers’ deaths (and the deaths of her sons, of course) that she implores the Pandavas to chase Ashwatthama and kill him.
This brings about the final fight between Arjuna and Ashwatthama, during which the two warriors use the Brahmastra on each other.