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 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.
Read on to discover more about how Dhritarashtra was born.
(For answers to more Dhritarashtra-related questions, see Dhritarashtra: 12 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Death of Vichitraveerya
Vichitraveerya is the younger son of Satyavati. He ascends to the throne after the untimely death of Chitrangada, Satyavati’s firstborn. At the time of his coronation, Vichitraveerya is as yet unmarried.
Bhishma attends the groom-choosing ceremony of the princesses of Kosala, and brings back three maidens – Amba, Ambika and Ambalika – as wives for his stepbrother.
Amba breaks off from this alliance and finds her own path. Ambika and Ambalika together become Vichitraveerya’s queens.
However, Vichitraveerya himself dies before he could procure for himself an heir from either of his wives. (Whether or not this is because he is impotent is not clear.)
This places Bhishma and Satyavati in a predicament. They have two fertile women who are capable of carrying on the Kuru line, but no man to father the children.
Satyavati summons Vyasa
After a short discussion on whether Bhishma would marry Ambika and Ambalika (Satyavati suggests this and Bhishma says no), Satyavati tells her stepson about a premarital encounter she once had with Sage Parashara.
This was during her maidenhood, when she was living at her father’s fishing settlement by the Yamuna. She had been in the habit of ferrying customers to and fro on a rowing boat.
On one such morning, she meets a sage called Parashara, and unites with him to give birth to a boy named Dwaipayana (‘Dwaipayana’ means ‘he who is born on an island’).
In the intervening years, Dwaipayana has earned much name for himself by compiling the Vedas, and has taken on the name, Veda Vyasa (‘he who has written down the Vedas’).
Now Satyavati proposes that they could summon Vyasa to arrive at Hastinapur, and help propagate the Kuru race.
Bhishma is enthusiastic about the suggestion. Satyavati calls to her son, and he arrives almost immediately.
(There’s always a bit of magic about Vyasa’s presence in the story. He knows things he hasn’t been told, he can travel long distances quickly, he can divine the gods’ thoughts, and so on.)
The initial plan is for Vyasa to impregnate only Ambika, because after all, there is need for just one heir. Satyavati instructs the girl as to what is going to happen, and sends her as a bride to Vyasa’s chamber.
But during their union, Ambika closes her eyes. Afterward, Vyasa reports to Satyavati that because of this, the resulting child will be born blind.
Why does Ambika close her eyes? Some people suggest that Vyasa’s appearance was so grotesque that she was either consumed by fright or disgust.
And despite knowing the context around the whole incident, she cannot help but shut her eyes tight during the ordeal.
When she learns of what has happened, Satyavati is momentarily disappointed. But then she summons Vyasa back to the palace again, this time to get Ambalika with child.
She coaches Ambalika beforehand that come what may, she must not close her eyes.
Ambalika listens to her mother-in-law’s advice, but the poor girl is so preoccupied with not shutting her eyes that she becomes pale with anxiety.
Vyasa notices this, and tells Satyavati that the child resulting from this night would be born pale and sickly.
Satyavati is again mortified that two attempts to procure a healthy child have failed. She resolved to try again with Ambika after she has given birth to her son.
In due course, Ambika gives birth to a boy named Dhritarashtra, and Ambalika to one named Pandu.
After Dhritarashtra’s birth, and after Ambika becomes fertile again, Satyavati re-invites Vyasa to Hastinapur with the intention of getting him to father yet another son with the elder queen.
This time, though, Ambika – with memories of her previous encounter fresh in her mind – sends a waiting woman in her place to Vyasa’s chamber.
Vyasa of course knows of this, but he pretends not to. He performs his prescribed role without comment or complaint. The waiting woman, as it happens, is neither afraid of nor disgusted by the sage’s appearance.
Vyasa is satisfied with the behaviour of his partner. He sings the praises of the attendant to Satyavati, and tells her that the son born of this woman would be deserving of the throne in every way.
But of course, he would never sit on the throne. He would belong to the wrong caste.
Almost overwrought with desperation at this point, Satyavati asks Vyasa to give of himself one last time to Ambalika, but Vyasa refuses. He says, ‘You have three sons, Mother. Enough to make sure that the dynasty lives on.’
So it happens that the death of Vichitraveerya – and the subsequent participation of Vyasa – gives birth to three sons:
- Dhritarashtra, who is the eldest and therefore the rightful heir
- Pandu, the younger son who is of ill-health, and therefore likely to die before his time
- Vidura, the son of a waiting woman, who is worthy in every respect except for his caste.
And watching over these three children is Bhishma, the self-appointed guardian to the Kuru throne.
Strictly speaking, Dhritarashtra should have been made king despite his blindness. This is especially true because he would have the support of Pandu, Vidura and Bhishma for all tasks that he cannot take up by himself.
For instance, Pandu can take care of Hastinapur’s military endeavours. Bhishma can do diplomacy. Vidura can handle internal affairs. They can all report to Dhritarashtra.
But for better or for worse, Bhishma takes the opposite route. Citing the precedent of Bahlika (who, owing to blindness, was sidelined in favour of his younger brother Shantanu), he decrees that Pandu should be made king instead of Dhritarashtra.
How was this communicated to all the stakeholders is not known. But neither Dhritarashtra nor Pandu appear to be comfortable with the decision.
Dhritarashtra feels like he has been stripped of his birthright. Pandu feels like he has been burdened with a gift that he neither deserves nor wants.
Despite Bhishma’s best efforts to shoehorn Pandu into the king’s robes, Pandu gives the kingdom back to his elder brother and retires to the woods with his wives.
Now the question arises: was Dhritarashtra receiving from Pandu what is rightfully his? Or was Pandu performing an act of charity toward his older brother?
Dhritarashtra’s destiny, therefore, becomes riddled with this murmur that he is not a capable king by himself, that all his status has been derived from the goodwill of his younger brother.
It is this question that fundamentally leads to the Kurukshetra war.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- Bhima: 10 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Krishna: 36 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered