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 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.
Read on to discover more about how Dhritarashtra died.
(For answers to more Dhritarashtra-related questions, see Dhritarashtra: 12 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
After the War
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.
(Incidentally, this is markedly different to how Kunti lives when the Pandavas go away on their exile. She chooses to live at Vidura’s place as a houseguest, having relinquished all the luxuries of the Kuru house.)
During the sixteenth year, it so happens that Dhritarashtra once overhears Bhimasena bragging to a bunch of courtiers about the manner in which he killed the Kauravas.
This saddens Dhritarashtra, and he thinks that the time has come for him to leave.
He informs Yudhishthir of his decision. Though the eldest Pandava is stricken by surprise at his uncle’s words, he is unable to dissuade the older man.
Dhritarashtra invites the common citizens of Hastinapur to the palace one fine morning. He tells them that he is about to take his leave. He thanks them for the decades of love and support.
The citizens also speak warmly to him. Their elected representative assures Dhritarashtra that he had been a wise and well-loved king. ‘If it is time you must go, Your Highness,’ he says, ‘then you must. You leave us in good hands with the Pandavas.’
(This is further evidence that Dhritarashtra was no tyrant. Nor was he an incompetent bungler. He was an able ruler, and during his long rule Hastinapur saw many more good years than bad.)
After having taken his subjects’ leave, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari make preparations to depart. Kunti, Vidura and Sanjaya all decide to accompany the elderly couple.
A couple of months after the four of them leave for the forest, the Pandavas pay them a visit. It is during this trip that Vidura breathes his last. Yudhishthir is with him during his final moments. Their last meeting is quiet and peaceful.
Also during these few days, Vyasa arrives and creates an illusion on the bank of the Ganga with which he calls back to life all the people who had died during the war.
Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Duryodhana, Dhrishtadyumna, Shikhandi, Drupada, Virata – and many other warriors who had given their lives at Kurukshetra, return on this fateful evening.
They regard one another smilingly, without rancour or hate. The living and the dead clasp one another and exchange pleasant words.
Vyasa gives Dhritarashtra the gift of sight for this one evening. It allows Dhritarashtra to see his sons decked in battle gear, and to pay his final respects to Bhishma and Drona.
The Pandavas return to Indraprastha after this, and rule their kingdom.
Two Years Later
For two years, Yudhishthir rules Hastinapur while always missing the presence of Dhritarashtra and Gandhari. Then he receives a visit from Narada, who tells him of what has happened to the exiled.
‘After your return to Kurukshetra, O King,’ he says, ‘Dhritarashtra proceeded toward Gangadwara. He took with him his sacred fire, his queen Gandhari, his sister-in-law Kunti, and his minister Sanjaya.
‘Here he subjected himself to many pitiless austerities, and over a period of six months, managed to shrink himself to a mere skeleton.
‘During this time the four of them lived like ascetics, the two women keeping house and the two men wandering over the forest.
‘One day, as the king finished his ablutions in the Ganga and was preparing himself to take a long walk into the woods, a fierce summer wind whipped up a forest fire, which began to burn and twitch in no time.’
Death of Dhritarashtra
Seeing this conflagration, Narada says, Dhritarashtra was not afraid in the least. He addressed Sanjaya and told him that his time had come.
The two women – Kunti and Gandhari – decide to join Dhritarashtra in his moment of death.
They ask Sanjaya to escape to a place where the fire cannot reach, and sit in a meditative pose at the edge of the woods, waiting for the fire to consume them.
The three of them – Kunti, Gandhari and Dhritarashtra – meet their deaths in this fashion.
Sanjaya, meanwhile, sets out further northward to the Himavat mountain and continues his austerities there.
Yudhishthir says: ‘The one thing that breaks my heart, O Sage, is that Dhritarashtra did not meet his death at the hands of a sacred fire. Indeed, in that forest, there were many fires burning at many hermitages that were sanctioned by mantras.
‘Instead, the king had to give up his life to a lifeless forest fire.’
Narada corrects this assertion by Yudhishthir. ‘The king was not burnt by an unsanctified fire, O Pandava,’ he says.
‘I have heard that when Dhritarashtra entered the woods with his sacrificial fire, he performed various rites in the company of various Brahmins, and after each rite, he would cast off the fire in its live form.
‘It were these small fires that combined and gave rise to a large conflagration. So do not grieve for the deaths of your mothers and uncle, O King, and now think of how you will honour their lives.’
A Peaceful End
Despite the many tribulations that Dhritarashtra is forced to endure over the course of his life, his final days are quite peaceful.
Dhritarashtra’s life is characterized by the following main themes:
- He is born blind because of the (perceived or real) fault of her mother, and arguably because of Vyasa’s unwillingness to provide a remedy for the problem.
- Bhishma’s decision to sideline him in favour of his younger brother Pandu sets up the decades-long conflict that is to follow between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.
- Pandu’s decision to give the kingdom back to Dhritarashtra creates a situation in which Dhritarashtra and Gandhari’s ambitions are stoked.
- His inability – or unwillingness – to rein in Duryodhana’s wickedness paves the way to Kurukshetra.
Despite it all, though, his life passes in relative material comfort. He never has to go on an exile. He never fights in a battle. He is always attended to by an army of servants, and is surrounded by family members.
When he does embrace hardship, toward the end of his life, it is by his own choice. And even then, he is looked after by his wife and his sister-in-law right to the very end.
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