How was Duryodhana as king?

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Duryodhana is the main antagonist of the Mahabharata. He is the eldest son of King Dhritarashtra and Queen Gandhari of Hastinapur. He and his ninety nine younger brothers are together called the Kauravas.

Central to Duryodhana’s life is his belief that Dhritarashtra was the rightful king of Hastinapur, and that he had been cheated out of the throne by Bhishma and Vidura. Duryodhana attempts to correct this wrong by proclaiming himself heir to the Kuru throne.

Duryodhana’s relentless envy and ambition bring about his downfall. He drags the Kuru kingdom to the Kurukshetra war, and becomes responsible for the deaths of thousands of people.

In this post, we will answer the question: How was Duryodhana as king?

It is unclear just how much official power Duryodhana appropriated for himself during the Pandavas’ exile. By all accounts, it is Dhritarashtra who rules as a puppet-king while his son pulls the strings. Regardless, the period of Duryodhana’s reign is not altogether unpleasant for Hastinapur. The Kuru kingdom maintains its premier status.

Read on to discover more about how Duryodhana was as king.

(For answers to all Duryodhana-related questions, see: Duryodhana: 12 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Two Possibilities

Though Duryodhana is addressed as ‘king’ and ‘emperor’ during the Pandavas’ exile, it is actually unclear as to what his official title is. By all appearances, Dhritarashtra continues to be the official king.

One possibility is that Duryodhana is the puppeteer and Dhritarashtra is the puppet. Duryodhana rules from the sidelines by controlling his father in all matters.

This arrangement is common knowledge, which is why Duryodhana is addressed by the title of ‘king’ on most occasions, except when he is in the presence of Dhritarashtra. In those cases, the speaker defers to Dhritarashtra official title.

Whenever an envoy of Kuru has to be sent to visit other kingdoms, it is Duryodhana who goes as his father’s representative – and he receives all honours accorded to a king.

Another possibility is that Duryodhana does not bother himself with the humdrum activities of administering a kingdom. He only interferes in matters that concern him – like, for instance, how to send the Pandavas into exile.

In this arrangement, Dhritarashtra is actually left alone to rule independently on most days, except when Duryodhana needs to influence his father about something.

In the first model, Duryodhana is the actual king while Dhritarashtra is just a puppet. In the second model, Dhritarashtra is still a puppet but he retains much of his agency. Duryodhana only uses the strings on special occasions, leaving the responsibility of ruling the kingdom to his father.

Internal Kuru Politics

For the rest of this post, let us assume that Duryodhana is the sole ruler of Kuru during the Pandavas’ exile. First, let us look at how the people of Kuru feel under his reign.

Though we’re not told much explicitly about the mood of the citizens of Hastinapur, equally there is no indication of much unrest either. When Yudhishthir is cheated out of his kingdom, and when Duryodhana snatches Indraprastha to annex it back to Hastinapur, no revolts or protests take place.

All in all, the people seem to be relatively unconcerned with who is ruling them. They do not seem to have much of a preference between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.

Even during the fourteen years or so that pass between the Pandavas’ departure and the start of the Kurukshetra war, the Kuru people seem to be happy enough. There are no reports of undue suffering.

By all means, we cannot say that Duryodhana was a great king, but assuming that he was a tyrant during this period is not accurate either.

Relationship with Panchala

At the time of the dice game, Yudhishthir and the Pandavas have two major allies: Anarta – ruled by Balarama – and Panchala – ruled by Drupada.

After winning Yudhishthir’s empire for himself, Duryodhana’s primary challenge is to manage these relationships without fracturing them beyond repair. He knows that both Krishna and Drupada are supporters of the Pandavas – Drupada more so because his daughter is married to the five brothers.

An impetuous, ruthless king may have thought it best to invade Panchala immediately and relegate it back to the status of a minor vassal. But that would have cost resources, and Panchala may not be an easy walk-over.

On Panchala’s side, Drupada would have been reluctant to fight Duryodhana at this juncture too, because without the Pandavas, taking on the might of the Kuru army is well beyond his abilities.

Both parties, therefore, come to the negotiation table, and they work out some partnership terms that they abide by for the duration of the Pandava exile.

To be sure, Duryodhana would have been helped in these talks by Bhishma and Vidura, but the fact that Duryodhana manages a peaceful relationship with Panchala over fourteen years speaks to his sense of diplomacy as well.

Relationship with Anarta

The other important relationship that Duryodhana needs to manage carefully is Anarta, the kingdom ruled by Balarama. Now, Anarta is much more powerful than Panchala, because it can call upon, Kunti and Shurasena for support in times of strife.

Mathura and Chedi – though they have pledged allegiance to Yudhishthir – may switch over to Anarta’s side if Duryodhana makes any false moves.

On top of all this, Anarta by itself has become a stronghold in its own right. The Vrishni factions that Balarama has united under one banner have build a kingdom that is almost impregnable to attack.

And Dwaraka, the capital city on the edge of the sea, is akin to a fortress.

It is to Duryodhana’s credit that he understands all of these factors and chooses to pursue a friendly relationship with Anarta – especially Balarama. To Duryodhana’s good fortune, this is also what Anarta wants: alliance with Kuru regardless of who is ruling.

Duryodhana builds as deep a relationship with Balarama that Krishna builds with Arjuna. But in the final analysis, Arjuna and Krishna complement one another whereas Balarama refuses to support Duryodhana openly.

Becoming an Emperor

Toward the end of the Pandavas’ exile, Duryodhana sends Karna at the head of a large army on an expedition of ‘conquest’. While this is described as a violent trip, what Karna is essentially doing is to reinforce all of Kuru’s alliances so that Duryodhana’s position as emperor is secure.

During this journey, Karna fights in a few battles, but in the vast majority of cases, he is welcomed as guest and given all the honour that a commander of Duryodhana deserves.

Most kings reiterate their support for Duryodhana. Crucially, Karna is received with much fanfare in Dwaraka, and Balarama tells him that he has no intention of doing anything to jeopardize the Anarta-Kuru friendship.

(As far as that goes, Balarama is being honest. In the final war, Anarta’s official position is one of neutrality.)

All of this suggests that right up to the return of the Pandavas, Duryodhana is accepted as the emperor in charge of Yudhishthir’s kingdom.

Only after the Pandavas return, and only after they have successfully completed their year of hiding, do Anarta and Panchala begin to ask questions.

Clamouring for War

When Duryodhana clamours for war against the rebelling Panchala and Somaka forces, one wonders what narrative he adopts to sell the proposal to his own citizens.

Perhaps his pitch is that the Pandavas have now joined hands with the old enemy, Panchala, to plunder the Kuru kingdom and enslave all the citizens. ‘I am here to protect you from these wretches,’ he may have said. ‘As long as I am alive, I will not let them have their way.’

Perhaps he uses Bhishma and Dhritarashtra as his mouth pieces, using the trust that they hold among the people as a tool to convince them that war is necessary.

One assumes that kings have a battery of propaganda techniques ready to be unleashed upon their citizens whenever they need to fight an unnecessary war. Duryodhana must have used some of them on the people of Kuru.

Regardless, there appears to be no internal resistance to the idea. The Kuru kingdom seems to willingly go to war for Duryodhana – which is another point in his favour as a leader.


Overall, therefore, Duryodhana proves himself to be a capable ruler in the Pandavas’ absence. At the very least, we can conclude with finality that was not a tyrant or a bloodthirsty oppressor that made his people suffer every day.

While it would be a stretch to call him a humane king, it is also not accurate to say that citizens were unhappy under his rule. The fact that they go to war for him willingly at the end is testament to the loyalty they feel for him.

In addition, we know that Duryodhana proved himself to be an able diplomat, with the way in which he managed Kuru’s relationship with its two strongest allies: Anarta and Panchala.

Further Reading

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