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: Was Dhritarashtra a good king?
Dhritarashtra was definitely not a bad king. During the forty or so years he rules the Kuru kingdom – albeit with the support of Bhishma and Vidura, and later Drona – his citizens prosper, and the standing of Kuru among the great kingdoms improves. His only mistake is his inability to resolve the Kaurava-Pandava conflict amicably.
(For answers to more Dhritarashtra-related questions, see Dhritarashtra: 12 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Read on to discover more about whether Dhritarashtra was a good king.
A Forty-year Reign
It is ironic that the person that Bhishma summarily rejects as being unsuitable for the throne is chosen by fate to rule the Kuru kingdom for more than forty years.
To put this period in perspective, after Yudhishthir wins the Kurukshetra war, he rules the Kuru kingdom for only thirty six years subsequently. So Dhritarashtra’s total reign is longer than Yudhishthir’s.
During these forty years, no big calamities engulf the Kuru dynasty. Hastinapur remains prosperous. No big wars are fought that bring about famine or drought. There is no record of a crisis averted or experienced.
Largely, therefore, these are forty years of peace and progress.
Kuru maintains its position as one of the great kingdoms of the world. Diplomatically and militarily, its power is unprecedented. Even the Vrishnis of Anarta and Jarasandha of Magadha largely stay out of Kuru’s way.
The only time that the Kuru empire gets overshadowed is during the years of Yudhishthir’s rise as emperor. With the Pandavas setting out to conquer everyone in sight, Indraprastha becomes more powerful than Hastinapur.
However, Yudhishthir makes it clear that he is not challenging the Kuru dynasty. In stamping his authority on the political landscape of Aryavarta, he is also forever seeking Dhritarashtra’s blessings.
After Yudhishthir is cheated out of his kingdom, for the twelve years following, once again Kuru becomes the most powerful kingdom in the world.
During these twelve years, the Vrishnis of Anarta – with Balarama as their head – pledge allegiance to Dhritarashtra. Balarama even cultivates a strong friendship with Duryodhana.
Through Karna’s expedition of conquest, Kuru reinforces its supremacy over everyone just before the Pandavas return.
All of this happens under Dhritarashtra’s reign.
Who is responsible?
Not all of this is to Dhritarashtra’s credit, to be fair. He has the support of Bhishma, Kripa, Drona and Vidura. But any other king would have had the same resources. The point is that Dhritarashtra did not fail at being king. Far from it.
At the very end, when Dhritarashtra decides to retire into the woods, he addresses his citizens. They assure him that he had been ‘like a father’ to them, and that he had looked after them exceptionally well.
All of this suggests that Bhishma’s original assessment of Dhritarashtra was wrong. Dhritarashtra was a first-rate king.
A king ought to be judged by the number of wars he did not fight; not the number of wars he won. By this measure, Dhritarashtra oversees perhaps the longest period of peace that the Kuru kingdom experiences in its history.
The only war of note occurs between Kuru and Panchala around the time of the princes’ graduation. During this battle, Kuru annexes a large part of Northern Panchala to itself.
Not much context is given to the reader around this incident. But by all appearances, Kuru ends up being better off for it.
Having said this, it is also true that Dhritarashtra has faults of his own – faults that have, in hindsight, caused the war of Kurukshetra.
For one, he is more sentimental than a king needs to be. After being given Pandu’s kingdom for safekeeping, and especially after the death of Pandu, any man with a sense of ruthlessness about him would have gone about erecting power structures of his own.
That would have perhaps meant making some moves to eliminate all challengers to the throne. He could have easily rejected Kunti’s plea for hospitality.
He could have quite reasonably argued that with the death of Pandu, Kunti and her sons (not Pandu’s sons, it must be noted) do not have any link to the royal family in Hastinapur.
He could have seen to it that the Pandava princes are raised far, far away from the Kaurava princes, thus ensuring that the former would grow up with no illusions about their prospects.
But why does Dhritarashtra not do this? Because he is too beholden to the memory of his dead brother.
He cannot bring himself to be unkind to Pandu’s widow and adopted sons. This level of emotional involvement in people who are bound to challenge your place on the throne is a weakness.
Lack of Power over Bhishma
Despite the fact that Dhritarashtra rules Kuru from Hastinapur over the course of forty years, it is also true that he never emerges from under the wing of Bhishma and Vidura.
At least with Vidura, we occasionally see Dhritarashtra argue, chide or mock. With Bhishma, he never asserts himself.
This is understandable: not only is Bhishma the towering patriarch of the clan, he is also Kuru’s chief military officer, the commander who wears legendary battle-scars that scare off invaders.
Picking a fight with him would have been stupid. But Dhritarashtra never so much as voices his side of the argument, that the throne is indeed his to begin with, and it only became Pandu’s when Bhishma decided that it must be so.
With Vidura often taking Bhishma’s side, Dhritarashtra might have been helped by a bit more belligerence in his character.
But alas, it was not to be.
Under Duryodhana’s Thumb
Bhishma and Vidura quite enjoy having Dhritarashtra dance to their whims when the Kuru princes are young. But as the Kauravas grow into adults, and Duryodhana begins to exert influence over his father, Bhishma and Vidura immediately cry foul.
Now, they say, Dhritarashtra should be his own man and display some forthright decision-making that is a king’s wont.
But on several previous occasions, when Bhishma advised Dhritarashtra against his wishes, he expected obedience. He did not then claim that Dhritarashtra is free to follow his own mind.
After years of suffering under Bhishma, therefore, Dhritarashtra begins to be taken over by Duryodhana.
From the time of the events of Varanavata, right to the very end, it is Duryodhana that is ruling Kuru in earnest. Dhritarashtra is merely playing the puppet.
During this time, if Dhritarashtra had been a bit more independent in his decision-making, perhaps he would have found a less violent solution than all-out war to resolve the Pandava-Kaurava conflict.
But alas, it was not to be.
Despite everything, if we are to judge Dhritarashtra’s forty-year reign as a whole, we must say that he is a good king. The Kuru kingdom does not face any untoward calamities under his rule.
There is no civil unrest. There are no economic or military catastrophes. Overall, his people are pleased with him.
He is definitely a much better king than Bhishma thought he would be. At the very least, Dhritarashtra proves Bhishma’s theory – that a blind man cannot be king – wrong.
If there must be criticism of Dhritarashtra, it is that he is too sentimental and not ruthless enough to consolidate his power once he received it. Also, he allows himself to be controlled by other people – like Bhishma, Vidura and Duryodhana.
He might have been a much better king if he had learned to (a) curb his emotional bent of mind, and (b) be his own man.
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