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 good or bad?
Dhritarashtra is one of the unfortunate characters in the Mahabharata. Despite being the rightful heir, he is denied the throne by Bhishma. His biggest fault in the final analysis lies in his reluctance to rein in the power-hungry ambition of his eldest son, Duryodhana. But overall, Dhritarashtra is a good man.
Read on to discover more about whether Dhritarashtra was good or bad.
(For answers to more Dhritarashtra-related questions, see Dhritarashtra: 12 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
A popular opinion of Dhritarashtra is that he is blind not only in the physical sense but also in the way he loves his son Duryodhana. The narrative is that Dhritarashtra is blinded by putramoha, an obsession with the well-being of one’s son.
This opinion is often delivered along with a cautionary moral that one must not allow oneself to love one’s child if the child is showing signs of wickedness – or Adharma.
Krishna, during his speech before the war – and at many places afterward – judges Dhritarashtra as being one of the people most responsible for the war. Why? Because despite being king, Dhritarashtra chooses not to ‘rein in’ Duryodhana.
All of this, of course, assumes that the Pandavas are on the side of Dharma and the Kauravas are on the side of Adharma.
In reality, no such distinction exists in the story as it happens. Dharma and Adharma make an appearance only when the story is told – by Vyasa and his many disciples all of whom are biased toward the Pandavas.
Dhritarashtra in Reality
Let us use our creative imaginations and insert ourselves into Dhritarashtra’s footwear for a moment. It is not hard to guess how he might have felt when he came to know that Bhishma has decided to crown Pandu king.
This decision takes place after the two princes have reached the age of kingmaking. And Dhritarashtra knows that Vidura has helped Bhishma in making this choice.
(While it is often stated this way, it is difficult to imagine sixteen-year-old Vidura being anything more than a yes-man to Bhishma, the imposing and powerful patriarch.)
Dhritarashtra would have felt overcome by shame at the snub. He might have felt betrayed by all his loved ones – his two brothers, and his uncle. All that for what? Just because he has a disability that he cannot help.
After Pandu’s Departure
Dhritarashtra’s test of character arrives in earnest when Pandu leaves for his exile and gives the kingdom to his elder brother for safekeeping. They say in order to know a person truly, you must give him power.
Dhritarashtra gets the supreme title, and he conducts himself in exemplary fashion. He leans heavily on Vidura and Bhishma for advice. He does not snub them in return. He does not throw any punches now that he is the most powerful man in the kingdom.
It is of course arguable that Dhritarashtra, even in these years, was no more than a figurehead and that Bhishma was the one pulling all the strings.
But in truth, even as a figurehead, Dhritarashtra would have had enough power to exact revenge for those early years. The fact that he does not suggests that he is not the vengeful type.
It would not have been difficult for him to make it so that Pandu can never return to Hastinapur, and that the path back to the throne would be closed even if he did. But Dhritarashtra takes no such steps.
He responsibly keeps the throne warm for his younger brother’s eventual return. That is not the sign of a wicked man.
After Pandu’s Death
It is when Pandu dies that Dhritarashtra might have been excused for disallowing Kunti and the Pandavas from entering the royal house. For one, everyone knows at this point that Pandu was unable to have children.
So these boys that Kunti is bringing back to Hastinapur – they are not Pandu’s. At best, Pandu may have adopted these boys before his death. But even for that, Dhritarashtra has only Kunti’s word.
It would have been entirely acceptable from a moral standpoint if Dhritarashtra had said to Kunti: ‘I will make sure that you and your boys are well looked after, but they will not get a piece of the kingdom when they grow up.’
And he could have set Kunti up in a nice cottage somewhere in Hastinapur. He might have given her an allowance. He could even have paid for the Pandavas’ education and made them into noblemen.
He could have done all of this and no one would have held him morally culpable.
But he takes the path of righteousness and not only welcomes Kunti into the royal house, but also gives her children more or less equal status to his own.
After the events of the fire in Varanavata, Dhritarashtra agrees to divide the Kuru kingdom into two, just in order that the Pandavas will have their own city to rule.
While we do not know for certain where the money came from to build Khandavaprastha, it is not unreasonable to assume that the funds came from Hastinapur’s treasury. In short, it is Dhritarashtra who gives Yudhishthir his start as king.
This detail is often overlooked, because the Pandavas-are-good narrative assumes that Dhritarashtra was only giving Yudhishthir what the latter deserved to have.
But Dhritarashtra could easily have denied Bhishma’s request, and insisted that the Kuru kingdom remain undivided. If he had done that, would the Pandavas have scaled the heights they eventually did?
It might have been more difficult.
During the Dice Game
Dhritarashtra, though belatedly, comes to his senses and gives Draupadi two boons at the end of her ordeal. This allows the Pandavas to regain all their lost wealth.
It must be noted that the act of defeating an opponent at dice and taking all his wealth is by no means forbidden in the ethos of the Mahabharata period. Things of this sort happened routinely.
What was irregular is for a king to effectively reverse the result of the game and allow the losers to return to their lost glory. Dhritarashtra does this only after being prompted by Vidura, to be sure. But even then, he could have said no.
Dhritarashtra’s only noticeable flaw during the time of the Pandavas’ exile – and their eventual return – is his unwillingness to rein in Duryodhana’s ambitions.
Is he truly as powerless as he makes himself out to be? Or does he secretly agree with Duryodhana’s stance that the Pandavas are just power-hungry imposters? Maybe it is a bit of both.
After the War
Dhritarashtra’s life changes after the war. From being a king of the Kuru empire, now he is relegated to one of the palace back-rooms while Yudhishthir takes over his throne.
This would not have been an easy transition to make for Dhritarashtra, more so because the new kings are also the same people who killed all of his hundred children.
But Dhritarashtra – and Gandhari, it must be said – handles this phase of his life with dignity. He does not throw any tantrums. But for one indiscretion regarding Bhima, where he tries to kill him by crushing him in his arms, his behaviour is exemplary.
And when the time arrives for him to leave, he does so without much fanfare.
All in all, it must be said that Dhritarashtra is a kind and generous man who loved his younger brothers despite the fact that he was always pitted in competition against them.
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