Gandhari: 12 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered

Gandhari is the mother of the Kauravas in the Mahabharata. She is the daughter of King Subala, king of Gandhara. She is given in marriage to the blind prince of Hastinapur, Dhritarashtra.

Throughout her life, Gandhari is locked in a competition with Kunti with respect to who will have the more heroic children. Like Dhritarashtra, she is torn between love for her own children and duty that compels her to be civil toward the Pandavas.

She does try to ward Duryodhana off his wicked ways, but fails.

In the end, she curses Krishna and the Yadavas with death by civil war. All her anger is thus channelled toward this one wish.

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

Gandhari All Questions Answered - Featured Image - Picture of a pregnant woman representing Gandhari's motherhood

Contents

  1. How did Gandhari have a hundred sons?
  2. How did Gandhari die?
  3. Why did Gandhari marry Dhritarashtra?
  4. Why did Gandhari suffer so much?
  5. How did Gandhari give birth?
  6. Why did Gandhari curse Krishna?
  7. Why did Gandhari cover her eyes?
  8. Did Gandhari love the Pandavas?
  9. Was Gandhari good or bad?
  10. Was Gandhari jealous of Kunti?
  11. How old was Gandhari when she died?
  12. Who was Gandhari’s daughter?
  13. Further Reading

How did Gandhari have a hundred sons?

As a young woman, Gandhari pleases Lord Shiva with her severe penance. She procures a boon from him that she will have a hundred sons. Later, after her marriage to Dhritarashtra, she gives birth to the Kaurava brothers after carrying them in the womb for two full years.

Little is known about Gandhari’s childhood and youth. She is the princess of the far northwestern kingdom of Gandhara. (Some speculate that this is none other than modern-day Kandahar.)

Of the scraps of information we are given about the young woman, we do know that:

  • Her father’s name is Subala.
  • She has a brother (younger or older, we do not know) called Shakuni. He will later play a big part in the unfolding history of Hastinapur.
  • She is renowned for the purity of her penances. Her chief deity is Lord Shiva. From him, she has a boon that she will give birth to a ‘hundred heroic sons’.

Shiva’s word does come true. After she gets married to Dhritarashtra, in due course of time, Gandhari becomes pregnant.

But her pregnancy turns out to be suspiciously long. For a whole two years, she carries a heavy burden in her womb that refuses to detach from her body.

At the end, when her patience is about to run out, Gandhari receives some help from Vyasa, who assists her in giving birth – at once – to a hundred boys and a girl.

The eldest of the boys grows up to be Duryodhana. The girl is given the name Dusshala.

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

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How did Gandhari die?

The Ashramavasika Parva of the Mahabharata describes the manner of Gandhari’s death. She accompanies Dhritarashtra into the woods a few years after Yudhishthir becomes king. Dhritarashtra dies in a forest fire of his own making. Gandhari immolates herself in her husband’s ‘pyre’.

After Yudhishthir becomes king at the end of the Kurukshetra war, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari continue to live at the palace. The Pandavas respect them as their own parents.

The only exception is Bhimasena, who suffers the occasional bout of anger at how Dhritarashtra had allowed the Kaurava-Pandava conflict to fester without taking any steps to end it.

During these moments, Bhima is apt to brag to courtiers and friends about how he killed the Kauravas with his bare hands. During one such speech, Dhritarashtra happens to be within hearing range.

The old king is hurt by these words. And he makes the decision to retire into the woods.

Gandhari, Kunti, Vidura and Sanjaya resolve to accompany Dhritarashtra. A couple of years into this self-imposed exile, Vidura gives up his life.

Dhritarashtra then walks into a forest fire that he had unwittingly helped light. Gandhari and Kunti follow him. Sanjaya, the only survivor, witnesses the scene and returns to Vyasa’s hermitage.

(Detailed Answer: How did Gandhari die?)

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Why did Gandhari marry Dhritarashtra?

Dhritarashtra’s blindness was common knowledge. Gandhari must have known about it. What is not clear is whether she knew that Bhishma did not intend to make Dhritarashtra king. If it is true that Bhishma hid this information, Gandhari would have been happy to marry Dhritarashtra despite his blindness.

There are a couple of other possibilities too that are worth considering. As the regent of Hastinapur, Bhishma may have agreed to pay a hefty bride-price for Gandhari.

This would have taken the form of wealth, certainly. But it would have also included diplomatic inducements. For instance, Bhishma might have pledged military support, and important trade partnership, and so on.

If these had been alluring enough, Subala could easily have persuaded himself that giving Gandhari away in marriage is a good thing for Gandhara.

Like all other maidens of her time, Gandhari would have received little to no freedom in deciding whom to marry. (This, of course, might have been otherwise if she had been given a swayamvara. But she wasn’t.)

There is a school of thought that Shakuni’s later anger toward the Kuru house stemmed from this initial deception by Bhishma. If this is true, then Subala might have kept this information secret from his children.

Regardless, it must be said that Gandhari married Dhritarashtra despite his flaws because Dhritarashtra happened to be the prince of a kingdom that is much more powerful than Gandhara.

(Detailed Answer: Why did Gandhari marry Dhritarashtra?)

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Why did Gandhari suffer so much?

Of all the characters in the Mahabharata, Gandhari can be said to have suffered the least. Throughout her life, she either lives as a princess, the wife of a prince, the queen of Hastinapur, or the Queen Mother. To the extent she suffers, it is psychological trauma brought about by Duryodhana’s antics.

Overall, Gandhari lives a charmed life. She is born a princess of a powerful kingdom. She is elected as suitable mate to Dhritarashtra and is given in marriage to him.

For a short while, during Pandu’s reign, Gandhari is forced to retreat into the background. But as soon as Pandu relinquishes the throne, she becomes queen.

From that moment on, until the war of Kurukshetra ends, she remains queen of Hastinapur. Her eldest son Duryodhana, rules Kuru as the proxy-king. Her husband sits on the throne.

Her status is second to none. Even after the war ends, Yudhishthir is kind enough to continue to let her and Dhritarashtra remain at the palace. He treats them with respect. He takes away none of their privileges.

To the extent that Gandhari suffers, one can think of three primary sources:

  • She is voluntarily blind. But this is a self-inflicted handicap.
  • Her pregnancy is an arduous affair. It takes her two years to give birth to a lump of flesh. But on the flip side, that is the only pregnancy she is required to endure. She gets all her hundred sons from that one ordeal.
  • She goes through a lot of emotional trauma because of Duryodhana’s power-hungry ways.

Overall, Gandhari can be said to have a good life. Of all the main characters in the Mahabharata, it is not a stretch to say that Gandhari probably suffers the least.

(Detailed Answer: Why did Gandhari suffer so much?)

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How did Gandhari give birth?

Gandhari gives birth to her hundred and one children (hundred sons, one daughter) by enduring a two-year pregnancy that delivers a grotesque mass of throbbing flesh. Vyasa then breaks the flesh into a hundred and one pieces, and places each one in a jar of clarified butter. After ten months, the Kauravas are born.

Gandhari actually becomes pregnant before Kunti does. And for a while, she is pleased that she will be the first to give birth to the next generation of heirs.

(Even at this early stage, both women are acutely aware that the throne of Hastinapur is bound to be contested in the future – given the complicated affairs of the royal family.)

However, despite becoming pregnant first, Gandhari is forced to endure a ghoulishly long pregnancy. Even after carrying her heavy belly around for two years, she does not deliver.

In the meantime, she gets news that Kunti has delivered her firstborn. This frustrates Gandhari further.

She beats upon her stomach repeatedly in despair, asking the elements why she had been punished in this way. The ‘foetus’ then slips out of her womb and drops to the floor.

Calling it a foetus is perhaps a misnomer, because what emerges from Gandhari on this day is a mass of flesh that does not resemble a human being at all. However, it throbs and pulses with life.

Vyasa arrives at the palace in time to help Gandhari. He breaks the flesh into a hundred roughly equal parts – after which one small part is left over. These hundred and one pieces each go into a jar of clarified butter for ten months of ‘gestation’.

At the end of it all, the Kauravas emerge from their pots. The small leftover piece of flesh gives rise to Dusshala.

(Detailed Answer: How did Gandhari give birth?)

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Why did Gandhari curse Krishna?

Gandhari curses Krishna for the ostensible reason of being able to prevent the Kurukshetra war but choosing not to do so. However, her hidden motivation could also be that this is her way of exacting revenge on Krishna for being the indirect cause of her sons’ deaths. Gandhari’s words come true during the Mausala Parva.

During the Stree Parva of the Mahabharata, Gandhari uses her divine sight to witness the carnage caused by the Kurukshetra war. She mourns the loss of her many sons, and watches the ladies of the court weep for their lost husbands.

Overcome by grief, Gandhari turns to Krishna in anger.

‘You have always possessed the ability to prevent this war if you wanted, Madhava,’ she says. ‘But you have chosen to stand by and watch the Kuru dynasty destroy itself.

‘For this crime, I curse you that your own race, the Vrishnis of Anarta, will similarly perish by infighting. And you will not be able to do anything to stop it.’

Gandhari uses all the spiritual energy that she had accumulated over years of penance to bear upon the curse. Krishna accepts these words with equanimity.

During the Mausala Parva, thirty six years after the Kurukshetra war, long after Gandhari’s own death, her words come true. Anarta collapses under the weight of a civil war. Dwaraka sinks under the sea.

Krishna and Balarama oversee the death of their kingdom, before giving up their lives themselves.

(Suggested: Why did Gandhari curse Krishna?)

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Why did Gandhari cover her eyes?

The often-quoted reason for Gandhari covering her eyes is that she wished to support Dhritarashtra in his blindness. Some commentators have speculated that this may have been an act of rebellion. There is also the possibility that Gandhari wished to strengthen her divine sight, and therefore suppressed her physical sight.

The Mahabharata does not give us any reason for Gandhari’s decision to blindfold herself after being married to Dhritarashtra. Indeed, we’re also not told about the extent of her voluntary blindness.

For instance, did she remove her blindfold while bathing or while feeding her infant children or while sleeping? When she had to change her blindfold, did she keep her eyes closed or did she open them?

Did she ever see her children? Did she know what they looked like? Was her ‘support’ for Dhritarashtra absolute, or was it confined to public appearances only?

If it was the former, why did she not choose to adopt a more permanent form of blindness?

My personal view is that Gandhari’s chosen form of blindness allows her to regulate the extent of her suffering. In private moments, she could have – probably would have – removed her blindfold and renounced her blindness.

Another popular reason given for Gandhari’s act is that she was betrayed by the deception of Bhishma – that Dhritarashtra was not going to be king. (That Dhritarashtra was blind was a commonly known fact.)

Gandhari therefore takes the vow of blindness as a silent act of protest.

The final possible reason is that Gandhari – in order to strengthen her spiritual gift of divine sight – chooses to block her visual senses. This act allows her to escalate her spiritual practices.

(Detailed Answer: Why did Gandhari cover her eyes?)

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Did Gandhari love the Pandavas?

Gandhari certainly loved the Pandavas. But she did not love them more than she loved her own children. This is natural. Like any mother in her place would have done, she places the ambitions of her sons above everything. However, once her sons lose the battle, she finds it in her heart to forgive the Pandavas.

Gandhari loves the Pandavas on two levels: one, as the sons of her brother-in-law, Pandu, she knows that she is meant to care for them. Duty prescribes that she is their aunt, their second mother. So she must love them.

Also, from a young age, the Pandavas live in the royal palace. During these years, plenty of interactions would have occurred between Gandhari and the Pandavas, strengthening her affection for them.

However, when it comes to competing for the throne of Hastinapur, Gandhari can be forgiven for favouring her own sons over the sons of Pandu.

For one, this is a matter of a mother’s partiality. Even if Duryodhana had had no claim to the throne, Gandhari might have hoped that he would figure out a way to become king.

For another, Duryodhana actually has a legitimate case for himself. Dhritarashtra had been sidelined by Bhishma unfairly. It is he who is the rightful king. So his firstborn, regardless of anything else, should be heir-apparent.

Despite Gandhari’s torn affections, she might have believed in her righteous mind that Duryodhana is the fair king and that the Pandavas are usurpers.

However, once the war is finished, she finds it in her heart to forgive the sons of Pandu and treat them as her own children.

(Suggested: Did Gandhari love the Pandavas?)

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Was Gandhari good or bad?

Like most characters in the Mahabharata, Gandhari is an ethically grey character. She is a dutiful wife to Dhritarashtra. She is devoted to Kunti and the Pandavas. But ultimately, her ‘sin’ lies in being unable to stop her son Duryodhana – and her brother Shakuni – from performing wicked acts.

Gandhari is overall a likeable character. Despite being tricked into marrying Dhritarashtra without her enthusiastic consent, Gandhari accepts her lot with humility.

She becomes a dutiful wife, a competent queen, and a caring sister-in-law for Kunti. She does not allow herself to be corrupted by power when Pandu renounces the throne.

Dhritarashtra and Gandhari could have easily announced that Kunti does not have a place in Hastinapur’s royal palace. Instead, they do the ‘right’ thing in welcoming her back home.

Throughout the princes’ growing-up years, there is no recorded instance of Gandhari mistreating the Pandavas. If she felt that her own children are being sidelined, she kept the feeling to herself.

Ultimately, her sin lies in her failure to rein in the ambitions of Duryodhana, her son, and the machinations of Shakuni, her brother.

There is of course the possibility that Gandhari agreed with Duryodhana and Shakuni, and therefore did not attempt anything to stop them. But on the surface, it looks like she tries to do so and fails.

In this sense, Gandhari can be seen as a character who – like Dhritarashtra – is blinded by love for her son to the extent that she is willing to let ethics and morality be decimated under her watch.

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Was Gandhari jealous of Kunti?

Gandhari is definitely jealous of Kunti at the time of her marriage, because at that point, Kunti is the queen of Hastinapur. When Pandu leaves, though, Gandhari becomes the queen. She has a brief moment of jealousy when she discovers Kunti has given birth before her, but overall, Gandhari maintains her higher status.

For large parts of her life, Gandhari manages to remain at a higher status than Kunti. Save for a small period of time at the beginning of their marriages – during which Pandu is king – it is Gandhari who reigns as queen of Hastinapur.

Indeed, it is Kunti who suffers materially right from the beginning of her marriage to Pandu. Pandu relinquishes the throne and goes into the forest, taking his two wives with him.

Kunti is expected to accompany him without protest. She is then forced to watch Pandu and Madri die together, leaving the Pandavas in her sole care.

While she is invited back in Hastinapur warmly, it is Gandhari who is now queen as the wife of King Dhritarashtra. In the pecking order of palace politics, Kunti is decidedly on the lower rung.

The only scope for envy on the part of Gandhari directed at Kunti is during the following periods:

  • When Gandhari hears that Kunti has given birth, she is clutched by a feeling of fear that Kunti’s children may one day become kings if Pandu decides to return.
  • When the Pandavas are given Indraprastha to rule, for a period of twelve or thirteen years, Gandhari is compelled to watch the sons of Pandu achieve much greater glory than her own children.

But for these two short intervals, Gandhari does not have much of a reason to be jealous of Kunti.

(Detailed Answer: Was Gandhari jealous of Kunti?)

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How old was Gandhari when she died?

Assuming Gandhari is eighteen years old at the time of her marriage to Dhritarashtra, she is around eighty three at the time of her death. She accompanies Dhritarashtra to the woods on a self-imposed exile, and immolates herself in fire after his death.

Let’s take a look at Gandhari’s life from the time she gets married to Dhritarashtra.

  • At the time of marriage to Dhritarashtra, Gandhari is eighteen years old.
  • If we assume Pandu attracts the curse of Kindama two years later, Gandhari is twenty. Gandhari becomes pregnant.
  • At the time of her delivery of the mass of flesh that become the Kauravas, she it twenty two.
  • At the age of twenty three, the Kauravas are born. This is the year of Bhimasena’s birth in the forest.
  • The death of Pandu occurs three years after this. Gandhari is twenty six. Kunti returns to Hastinapur the same year.
  • The graduation ceremony – at which Karna appears for the first time – happens ten years later. Gandhari is thirty six.
  • The dice-game happens around sixteen years after the graduation ceremony. Gandhari is fifty two years old.
  • Thirteen years later, when Gandhari is sixty five, the Pandavas return from their thirteen-year exile.
  • A year later, the Kurukshetra war begins. Gandhari is sixty six.
  • For fifteen years after the war, Gandhari and Dhritarashtra remain at the palace. At the time of their exile, Gandhari is eighty one.
  • Two years later, Gandhari dies at the age of eighty three.

Some assumptions were made during the construction of the above timeline. But it feels more or less correct.

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Who was Gandhari’s daughter?

Gandhari has one daughter by name Dusshala. After Vyasa breaks a hundred pieces off the ball of flesh that falls out of Gandhari’s womb, a small piece is left over. This piece becomes Dusshala. Later, she is given in marriage to the Saindhava king, Jayadratha – who plays an important role in killing Abhimanyu.

Dusshala does not play an actively important role in the story. She is referred to by the Pandavas during the time Jayadratha abducts Draupadi.

When the brothers have rescued Draupadi and are debating what to do with the interloper, Bhima recommends that they kill him. But Yudhishthir says that they must not take any drastic steps that affect Dusshala negatively.

This feeling of duty toward Dusshala inadvertently leads to Jayadratha escaping this incident alive, and then turning around to cause the death of Abhimanyu during the war.

After the war, Arjuna invades the Sindhu kingdom again as part of Yudhishthir’s Ashwamedha sacrifice. This time, Dusshala comes out onto the battlefield and begs Arjuna to keep his weapons away.

Dusshala is Gandhari’s only daughter.

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Further Reading

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Enjoy!