Dhritarashtra: 12 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered

Dhritarashtra all questions answered - Featured Image - Picture of Dhritarashtra's face

Dhritarashtra is the father of the Kauravas in the Mahabharata. He is the elder brother of Pandu, the father of the Pandavas.

Though he is the rightful heir to the throne as the firstborn son of Vichitraveerya, owing to his blindness, he is sidelined in favour of his younger brother.

However, circumstances conspire to place Dhritarashtra on the throne for many years. During this time, he rules the kingdom well, but ultimately is unable to stop the Pandavas and Kauravas from fighting one another.

The war of Kurukshetra, the climactic event that settles the Pandava-Kaurava conflict in deadly fashion, happens on Dhritarashtra’s watch.

In this post, we will answer the questions you’ve ever had about Dhritarashtra.

Contents

  1. How was Dhritarashtra born?
  2. How did Dhritarashtra die?
  3. How did Dhritarashtra become king?
  4. How did Dhritarashtra try to kill Bhima?
  5. Did Dhritarashtra love the Pandavas?
  6. Was Dhritarashtra a good king?
  7. Was Dhritarashtra good or bad?
  8. Was Dhritarashtra king of Hastinapur?
  9. Why was Dhritarashtra blind?
  10. Why was Dhritarashtra not made king?
  11. How did Dhritarashtra have a hundred sons?
  12. Did Dhritarashtra love Pandu?
  13. Further Reading

How was Dhritarashtra born?

Dhritarashtra is born of the union between Sage Vyasa – one of Queen Satyavati’s premarital children – and Queen Ambika, the elder of Vichitraveerya’s two widows. (Ambalika is the other.) It is said that Ambika closes her eyes with disgust during her time with Vyasa, which leads to Dhritarashtra being born blind.

When Vichitraveerya dies without getting either of his two wives pregnant, Bhishma and Satyavati are placed in a predicament as to how to continue the Kuru race.

Satyavati tells Bhishma about her son-out-of-wedlock, Vyasa. She summons him and tells him that he must assist the royal family in propagating the dynasty. Vyasa is to do this by fathering children with Ambika and Ambalika.

During the first meeting between Vyasa and Ambika (the older of Vichitraveerya’s widows), the woman is so afraid – or disgusted – of Vyasa’s appearance that she closes her eyes.

Vyasa emerges from the bedchamber that night and tells Satyavati that the resulting child will blind from birth.

Satyavati then tries to remedy the situation by asking Ambalika to bear a child with Vyasa. She hopes that at least this baby will be healthy. But to her chagrin, Ambalika turns pale at the time of uniting with Vyasa.

This leads to Vyasa’s prediction that the boy born to her will be pale and sickly.

Vyasa also fathers a third child – born of an unnamed Sudra woman – who grows up to be Vidura. Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura thus become the three princes to carry forward the Kuru lineage.

(Detailed Answer: How was Dhritarashtra born?)

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How did Dhritarashtra die?

Dhritarashtra stays at the royal palace of Hastinapur for fifteen years after the Kurukshetra war ends. Then he retires to the woods, accompanied by Gandhari, Kunti, Vidura and Sanjaya. About two years into this exile, he surrenders to a forest fire and gives up his life.

The Pandavas are the victors of the Kurukshetra war. Yudhishthir reclaims his throne at Indraprastha, and performs the Ashwamedha sacrifice to signify his return to power.

Dhritarashtra and Gandhari continue to live at the royal palace. They are well attended to by Kunti and the Pandavas. This state of affairs continues for fifteen long years.

In the sixteenth year, saddened by Bhimasena’s public bragging about how he killed all the Kauravas, Dhritarashtra decides to retire into the forest. Kunti, Gandhari, Vidura and Sanjaya accompany him.

The Pandavas pay them a visit a few months into the exile. During this, Vidura gives up his life, and Dhritarashtra is given the gift of sight temporarily by Vyasa, so that he can witness all the Kurukshetra warriors return to life for a night.

After this, the Pandavas return to Hastinapur and rule their kingdom. About two years later, Narada visits Yudhishthir and tells him that Dhritarashtra has met his death in a forest fire.

Kunti and Gandhari have joined Dhritarashtra in the fire (Narada says). Sanjaya has made his way northward to meditate.

(Detailed Answer: How did Dhritarashtra die?)

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How did Dhritarashtra become king?

Dhritarashtra is the actual rightful king of Hastinapur. But owing to Bhishma’s decision, he is sidelined in favour of Pandu. But after a successful military campaign, Pandu loses interest in ruling the kingdom. He gives it back to his elder brother ‘temporarily’. Dhritarashtra thus becomes king.

As the firstborn male child of Vichitraveerya, Dhritarashtra is the first in line to the throne. However, because of the fact that he is blind, Bhishma takes a decision to sideline him in favour of the younger brother, Pandu.

Whether this is morally justified or not is debatable. On the one hand, Dhritarashtra’s blindness is not much of a handicap because he will be supported by Bhishma, Pandu and Vidura.

On the other hand, there is precedence in the Kurus’ past where a physically handicapped older brother (Bahlika) gave up the throne voluntarily for the sake of his younger brother (Shantanu).

Regardless, a short while after Bhishma makes this decision, Pandu gives the kingdom back to Dhritarashtra for temporary safekeeping while he goes into the forest with his two wives – with the ostensible purpose of bearing children.

But his stay in the forest turns into an interminable exile. Dhritarashtra ends up becoming king. Pandu’s death further solidifies Dhritarashtra’s hold on the throne.

Dhritarashtra remains king of Hastinapur until the very end, when the Pandavas win the battle of Kurukshetra and oust their uncle from his position of power.

(Detailed Answer: How did Dhritarashtra become king?)

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How did Dhritarashtra try to kill Bhima?

After the Kurukshetra war ends, the Pandavas come to pay their respects to Dhritarashtra and Gandhari. Here, Dhritarashtra calls for Bhima specifically, saying he wants to embrace him. But Krishna interferes, and silently arranges for an iron statue to be placed in front of Dhritarashtra. The blind king crushes the statue in his arms.

One must remember that Bhimasena is by far the chief tormentor of the Kauravas all their lives. Ever since they are children, the Kaurava princes have always been specifically antagonistic toward Bhima.

During the dice game, Bhima exacerbates this long-standing conflict by taking a vow that he will ‘kill every single one of the sons of Dhritarashtra’ to avenge Draupadi’s disrobing.

(To be fair, when he says ‘sons of Dhritarashtra’, he means ‘sons of Gandhari’ because in the final analysis, he does not kill Yuyutsu, who fights on the side of Yudhishthir. Yuyutsu is Dhritarashtra’s son but not by Gandhari.)

So when Gandhari and Dhritarashtra meet the Pandavas after the war has ended, though they do not have any conscious anger toward their nephews, in the moment that Dhritarashtra embraces Bhima, something instinctive inside him awakens.

He thinks to himself that he has, within his grasp, the means by which he could avenge all his sons. He has the murderer of the Kauravas – Bhima – trapped in his arms. All he has to do is crush him and kill him.

He tries to do that. He squeezes his arms and thinks that he has killed Bhima. But Krishna has already foreseen this and arranged for an iron statue of Bhima to be placed in front of Dhritarashtra.

To be fair to Dhritarashtra, immediately after breaking the statue, he is smitten by remorse. ‘Bhima!’ he calls. ‘Oh, Bhima, I have killed him!’ But then Krishna consoles Dhritarashtra and tells him what had happened.

Dhritarashtra thus tries – in vain – to kill Bhima.

(Detailed Answer: How did Dhritarashtra try to kill Bhima?)

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Did Dhritarashtra love the Pandavas?

Dhritarashtra did love the Pandavas, but understandably, his love for his own sons – the Kauravas – was greater. Dhritarashtra may also have believed that he and his sons are the true, rightful kings of Hastinapur, and that Pandu and the Pandavas have been made kings only by Bhishma’s unfair decree.

While it would be asking too much of Dhritarashtra to love his brother’s sons as deeply as he loves his own, he does act dutifully toward the Pandavas throughout their younger years.

When Kunti and her five young children come back to Hastinapur shortly after the death of Pandu, Dhritarashtra might have thought it expedient to have them housed elsewhere in the city; not at the palace.

He might still have provided for Kunti and the Pandavas, but he might have ensured that the Kauravas received princely privileges while the sons of Pandu are raised as merely prosperous children.

Instead, he does the dutiful thing and raises the Pandavas and Kaurava on equal footing. Later, when Drona’s services are employed, both sets of cousins receive the same training.

(The employment of Drona is a key element of Arjuna’s rise as an archer. It is reasonable to suggest that without Drona’s help, Arjuna may not have become the same warrior as an adult.)

The Pandavas are well aware of this. Yudhishthir is always quick to point out how kind Dhritarashtra had been toward them when they were children. They repay this debt after the war, when they care for Dhritarashtra and Gandhari in their old age.

While one cannot peer into another man’s heart, by his actions – especially by his deliberate choice to raise the sons of Pandu with the same facilities and benefits afforded to the Kauravas – Dhritarashtra proves that he loves the Pandavas.

(Detailed Answer: Did Dhritarashtra love the Pandavas?)

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Was Dhritarashtra a good king?

Dhritarashtra was definitely not a bad king. During the forty or so years he rules the Kuru kingdom – albeit with the support of Bhishma and Vidura, and later Drona – his citizens prosper, and the standing of Kuru among the great kingdoms improves. His only mistake is his inability to resolve the Kaurava-Pandava conflict amicably.

It is ironic that the person that Bhishma summarily rejects as being unsuitable for the throne is chosen by fate to rule the Kuru kingdom for more than forty years.

To put this period in perspective, after Yudhishthir wins the Kurukshetra war, he rules the Kuru kingdom for only thirty six years subsequently. So Dhritarashtra’s total reign is longer than Yudhishthir’s.

During these forty years, no big calamities engulf the Kuru dynasty. Hastinapur remains prosperous. No big wars are fought that bring about famine or drought. There is no record of a crisis averted or experienced.

Largely, therefore, these are forty years of peace and progress.

Kuru maintains its position as one of the great kingdoms of the world. Diplomatically and militarily, its power is unprecedented. Even the Vrishnis of Anarta and Jarasandha of Magadha largely stay out of Kuru’s way.

Not all of this is to Dhritarashtra’s credit, to be fair. He has the support of Bhishma, Kripa, Drona and Vidura. But any other king would have had the same resources. The point is that Dhritarashtra did not fail at being king. Far from it.

At the very end, when Dhritarashtra decides to retire into the woods, he addresses his citizens. They assure him that he had been ‘like a father’ to them, and that he had looked after them exceptionally well.

All of this suggests that Bhishma’s original assessment of Dhritarashtra was wrong. Dhritarashtra was a first-rate king.

(Detailed Answer: Was Dhritarashtra a good king?)

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Was Dhritarashtra good or bad?

Dhritarashtra is one of the unfortunate characters in the Mahabharata. Despite being the rightful heir, he is denied the throne by Bhishma. His biggest fault in the final analysis lies in his reluctance to rein in the power-hungry ambition of his eldest son, Duryodhana. But overall, Dhritarashtra is a good man.

Dhritarashtra’s character is tested multiple times during his life. First, when Bhishma favours his younger brother Pandu over him for the throne, Dhritarashtra does not allow this to tarnish his love for Pandu.

Then, after Pandu leaves Dhritarashtra in charge while he goes away to the forest with his wives, Dhritarashtra does his best to rule as a stand-in king. Only at receiving news of Pandu’s self-imposed exile does he settle into a more long-term role.

When Pandu dies, despite having the option of refusing to house Kunti and her sons in the royal palace of Hastinapur, Dhritarashtra extends his arms to his sister-in-law, knowing full well that the children will grow up to stake a claim on the throne.

At the dice game, albeit after a lengthy delay, Dhritarashtra takes the difficult decision to give the Pandavas and Draupadi all their lost wealth, though the temptation rejoice in his son’s good fortune might have been immense.

Even at the end of the war, facing the men who had killed all of his sons, Dhritarashtra finds it in his heart to forgive the Pandavas. For a period of fifteen subsequent years, he and Gandhari live with the Pandavas with no rancour.

Dhritarashtra’s only big foible is that he is unable (or unwilling) to control the power-hungry ways of Duryodhana, his eldest child. While this can be seen as a sign of weakness, it is also possible that Dhritarashtra agreed with Duryodhana.

Overall, Dhritarashtra is a good man because despite being in power, he is seen to be repeatedly kind and generous – especially toward relatives – like Kunti – that he knows has designs on the Kuru throne.

(Detailed Answer: Was Dhritarashtra good or bad?)

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Was Dhritarashtra king of Hastinapur?

Dhritarashtra is the true king of Hastinapur by birthright. But owing to his blindness, Bhishma decrees that Pandu should be made king instead. During the years of Pandu’s exile, Dhritarashtra serves as king. In later years, Dhritarashtra becomes a figurehead with all the powers resting with Duryodhana.

Dhritarashtra ends up serving as king of Hastinapur for more than forty years. Despite being the first in line to the throne, he is initially denied his chance when Bhishma decides that Pandu should be crowned instead.

However, a short while after becoming king, and after leading a successful military expedition in which he increases Hastinapur’s power manifold, Pandu retires into the woods with his two wives.

The ostensible purpose of this trip is to bear children. And Pandu leaves the kingdom in hands of his older brother, Dhritarashtra.

This visit to the woods is meant to be a short one, but fate has other plans. Pandu gets cursed by Kindama, and as a direct consequence he takes the decision to take Kunti and Madri to the mountains in the north.

Pandu never returns to Hastinapur. Only after his death a few years later, with Yudhishthir a boy of seven or eight, Kunti returns to the royal palace.

Dhritarashtra remains king of Hastinapur throughout the growing-up years of the Kuru princes. Even when Yudhishthir rules over Indraprastha on his own, Hastinapur is still presided over by Dhritarashtra.

During the Pandavas’ exile, with Duryodhana’s power increasing, Dhritarashtra is still king of Hastinapur. In fact, he only relinquishes the throne after the Kurukshetra war has been won by the Pandavas.

Therefore, ironically, the man who is thought by Bhishma to be unfit for the throne ends up sitting on it for more than forty years.

(Detailed Answer: Was Dhritarashtra king of Hastinapur?)

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Why was Dhritarashtra blind?

Dhritarashtra is born blind because Ambika, his mother, closes her eyes during her time of union with Vyasa, the biological father of Dhritarashtra. Immediately afterward, Vyasa tells Satyavati that a son will be born of his seed, but because of Ambika’s demeanour, he will be born blind.

It is not clear whether this pronouncement by Vyasa is a curse or a prophesy. In other words, did he say: ‘I am angry that Ambika insulted me by closing her eyes. Therefore I am cursing the child with blindness.’

Or did he say: ‘I am sorry that this has happened. It was out of my control. But because of this, a tragic yet natural consequence will be that the child will be born blind.’

Vyasa is generally a sanguine figure, not given to outbursts of anger or indignant rage. So we may assume that the second scenario is more likely. But if we’re considering possibilities, we must say the first is possible too.

It is interesting that Vyasa does not offer Bhishma or Satyavati any remedy for this blindness. If the whole purpose of the exercise was to give birth to a suitable heir, and if a blind boy is not going to cut it, why did they not abort the foetus and try again?

Why did Vyasa not use his magical powers to save Dhritarashtra from his affliction? Punishing an unborn child for the misdemeanours (if misdemeanours they are) of his mother seems cruel. If anyone had to be punished, it had to be Ambika.

It is of course possible that Vyasa’s prophesy and the entire story surrounding it was cooked up after the fact, and that Dhritarashtra’s blindness had natural, irreversible causes.

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Why was Dhritarashtra not made king?

Dhritarashtra was not made king – despite being the rightful heir – due to Bhishma’s intervention. Citing the precedence of Bahlika (Shantanu’s elder brother) who had given up his right to be king because of his physical handicap, Bhishma decrees that Pandu should be made king ahead of Dhritarashtra.

We are not told much about the dynamics surrounding this decision, though it is perhaps the most significant event in Kuru’s future history from that point on.

We do know that Bhishma and Vidura arrive together at this decision after consulting one another. This suggests that Vidura was already a young man by this time. That means that Dhritarashtra and Pandu are also grown up.

However, we must remember that fourteen-year-old (or thereabouts) Vidura is not going to have much of a say in a discussion with Bhishma, the family patriarch.

It is fair to conclude, therefore, that Bhishma is the single reason for Dhritarashtra not being made king.

That is not to say that it is the wrong decision, though. Of course, hindsight has proven him wrong. But at the time, there were very good reasons for making Pandu king before Dhritarashtra.

First, there is the matter of precedence: Bhishma has seen his own uncle Bahlika, because of his physical ailment, renounce the kingdom for the sake of his younger brother, Shantanu. Bhishma therefore thinks that Dhritarashtra should do the same for Pandu.

Second, right at the birth of these two children, Bhishma and Satyavati had decided that Dhritarashtra is going to be unsuitable. The very reason that Satyavati wants Vyasa to father a second child with Ambalika is because she thinks that Ambika’s son will not become king.

Third, Pandu proves himself to be much more able than Dhritarashtra. So Bhishma is weighing up these two men against each other as if they were equals.

Fate, of course, intervenes and ensures that Dhritarashtra ends up becoming king of Kuru for more than forty years.

(Detailed Answer: Why was Dhritarashtra not made king?)

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How did Dhritarashtra have a hundred sons?

Dhritarashtra has a hundred sons with Gandhari, his wife. But the pregnancy is an unusual one. Gandhari carries the foetus inside her for two years, and then Vyasa helps her deliver it. He cuts a hundred and one pieces off the flesh and incubates them inside jars of clarified butter. From here, the hundred Kauravas and Dusshala are born.

Dhritarashtra also has sons from other women, most of them Vaishyas and Sudras. Yuyutsu is the best-known of these ‘other’ sons; he is born of a Vaishya mother and chooses to fight on the Pandavas’ side in the war.

A more realistic explanation of Dhritarashtra’s prolific output in this regard is that he has taken a number of concubines who have given him children.

Duryodhana and Duhsasana – and perhaps Dusshala? – are probably the only children born to Gandhari. All the other Kaurava brothers are likely the progeny of the multitude of other women that Dhritarashtra bedded.

This lightens the burden on Gandhari a little bit: we don’t need to go hunting for ways in which one woman might have borne a hundred and one children. It also is quite reasonable to expect the king of Hastinapur to have relationships outside his marriage.

Dhritarashtra’s virility is yet another slap in the face of Bhishma’s opinion of him. While the much-feted Pandu is unable to have even a single child of his own, here is Dhritarashtra, the blind and unfit boy, breaking no sweat in fathering a hundred.

The Kauravas, if we accept this theory, are strictly speaking half-brothers. They share the same father in Dhritarashtra but do not have the same mothers. Together, they come to be known as the Dhartarashtras (‘sons of Dhritarashtra’).

(Detailed Answer: How did Dhritarashtra have a hundred sons?)

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Did Dhritarashtra love Pandu?

By the evidence of Dhritarashtra’s behaviour, it is clear that he loves Pandu. At the very least he respects him. He does not harbour ill-feelings toward Pandu when the latter is chosen to be king. Later, after Pandu’s death, Dhritarashtra behaves honourably toward his younger brother’s widow and sons.

The relationship between the three brothers – Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura – appears to be a loving one. Especially with the choosing of Pandu over Dhritarashtra, one might have forgiven the latter to harbour resentment against the former.

But there is little to no evidence of that, both when the boys are young and after they grow into adults.

At least part of Pandu’s reluctance to remain king seems to stem from knowing in his heart that the true, rightful king of Hastinapur is actually Dhritarashtra. So he places the kingdom in his elder brother’s hands when he goes away to the forest.

Dhritarashtra, for his part, never behaves as if the transfer of power from Pandu to him is permanent. During the early years, until Pandu’s death, he dutifully performs the role of a stand-in ruler.

Only after Pandu’s death does Dhritarashtra prepare himself for a long stint on the throne.

Out of love for Pandu, and out of respect for his wishes, Dhritarashtra chooses to treat Kunti and the Pandavas on equal footing with Gandhari and the Kauravas respectively.

Throughout their lives, the Pandavas are cared for by Dhritarashtra as a father. Yudhishthir comments on this several times during this life – that Dhritarashtra has done much for them when they had lost their father.

Dhritarashtra maintains friendly relations with the sons of Pandu right to the very end – even after the Pandavas kill all of his sons.

These actions of Dhritarashtra suggest that he loved Pandu dearly, and that he did everything he could to preserve the purity of his memory.

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Further Reading

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