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 question: 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.
Read on to discover more about how Dhritarashtra became king.
(For answers to more Dhritarashtra-related questions, see Dhritarashtra: 12 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Dhritarashtra the Heir
As the firstborn son of Vichitraveerya (albeit adopted, fathered by Vyasa), Dhritarashtra is the rightful heir to the throne of Hastinapur. If he had not been born blind, there would never have been any debate about it.
Despite his blindness, Bhishma could have placed the throne in his hands – with the understanding that he will receive plenty of support from Pandu and Vidura in various matters of court.
It would not have been a terrible arrangement. Yes, Pandu and Vidura would have needed to take on more responsibilities than otherwise. But between the three of them, they would have shared all duties reasonably well.
Not to mention, of course, that Bhishma is present too for guidance and mentorship.
However, Bhishma takes the opposite decision. He decides that Dhritarashtra is unfit to be king, and favours Pandu as the next ruler. Bhishma therefore gives Pandu Dhritarashtra’s throne.
Pandu the King
Immediately after Pandu is made king, he sets out on a long expedition of conquest that solidifies his supremacy over the Gangetic plain. On his return, he finds that his interest in day-day-day kingly duties is waning.
Around the same time, Bhishma tells Pandu that the time has come for him to bring forth sons that will carry on their dynasty.
So Pandu takes Kunti and Madri – his two wives – and takes a vacation in the forest, accompanied by a number of servants and soldiers. This is by no means an exile; this is a pleasure trip.
At the time of his departure, he gives the throne to Dhritarashtra for temporary safekeeping. Bhishma, of course, agrees to this arrangement.
Pandu in Exile
But what Pandu thinks will be a holiday lasting a few months turns into something much longer. He shoots a deer one day, not knowing that it is Sage Kindama in disguise.
Kindama curses Pandu that he will never be able to unite sexually with a woman again, and that when he tries to do so, he will die.
Pandu is so crestfallen by this turn of events that he resolves to go into exile with his two wives. Not for him any longer the material comforts of palace life. He intends to live among sages, as a sage, meditating, mastering his urges.
He sends the entourage of servants back to Hastinapur. These people report to the royal family that Pandu and his two wives have left on a long journey northward to the Gandhamadana.
Pandu does not tell anyone what his intentions are. Does he plan to return in a few months? A few years? Or is he gone for good?
Dhritarashtra the King
Bhishma immediately despatches a few people tasked with keeping Pandu in their sights. These men keep relaying messages back to Hastinapur about what the king is doing.
Meanwhile, Dhritarashtra’s hold on the throne of Hastinapur tightens. While he does not like the rumour that has taken hold that he is only a beneficiary of his younger brother’s charity, he also knows that he was once the true king.
Destiny has played its hand, he thinks – and has delivered the throne to him how deserves it most.
For all intents and purposes, the family imagines Pandu to be gone forever. Even when they come to know that Kunti and Madri are beginning to have children, they do not know whether Pandu intends for them to be kings or monks.
It is likely that Pandu himself did not know at this point what he wanted for his children.
The death of Pandu is a bit of a double-edged sword for Dhritarashtra. On the one hand, he knows that Pandu’s death means that the throne is arguably his for life.
On the other hand, with Pandu and Madri gone, Kunti now makes the decision to bring the Pandavas back to Hastinapur. She makes it clear that she intends to raise her sons in the palace.
If Pandu had not died when he did, would Kunti have returned? Or would the Pandavas have grown up at the Gandhamadana?
On top of all this, Dhritarashtra also grieves for the death of his brother, with him he has plenty of happy memories from childhood and youth. (By all appearances, the three brothers – Pandu, Dhritarashtra and Vidura – are close.)
With Pandu gone, Dhritarashtra now is secure that the throne will be his for as long as he lives, but he now has to ensure that the matter of succession is handled properly.
The Next Generation
Dhritarashtra watches the Pandavas and Kauravas grow up together in the royal palace. He knows that Kunti intends for Yudhishthir to claim his place as king in time.
Note that Kunti’s position is not that the Pandavas should be given a share of the kingdom. She thinks that they deserve to have all of it.
Her argument is that Pandu was the appointed king. The kingdom was given to Dhritarashtra only for temporary care until either Pandu or his heir returned. And now that the heir has returned, it is time for Dhritarashtra to step aside.
Of course, Dhritarashtra’s argument is that the throne was his to begin with, and that it was given to Pandu. And now, Dhritarashtra has already ruled for a matter of eight or nine years; the kingdom and its people have become his.
This uneasy disagreement festers between the two parties, and Bhishma does nothing to settle it.
Over several years this gash widens, and as the princes grow into adulthood, they become enemies. Their enmity comes to a head at the Kurukshetra war.
By all accounts, Dhritarashtra is an adequate king. Yes, he needs the support of Bhishma for military operations. Yes, he needs Vidura to be his eyes in the court. Yes, he needed Pandu to go out there and conquer the world.
But in matters of administering justice, caring for his people, taking decisions about planning and infrastructure – and the many other duties that a king must attend to, Dhritarashtra does a decent job.
At the end of his reign, after the Kurukshetra war has ended, when he addresses his citizens, they assure him that he had looked after them ‘like a father’.
Overall, Dhritarashtra rules the Kuru kingdom for forty years, give or take a few. For someone who was supposed to be ‘unfit’, that is not a bad record.
The person who is the rightful king becomes the king – despite being sidelined. Fate, thus, reinforces her sense of irony.
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