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 king of Hastinapur?
Dhritarashtra is the true king of Hastinapur by birthright. But owing to his blindness, Bhishma decrees that Pandu should be made king instead. During the years of Pandu’s exile, Dhritarashtra serves as king. In later years, Dhritarashtra becomes a figurehead with all the powers resting with Duryodhana.
Read on to discover more about whether Dhritarashtra was king of Hastinapur.
(For answers to more Dhritarashtra-related questions, see Dhritarashtra: 12 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
The throne of Hastinapur is Dhritarashtra’s birthright. This is because he is the eldest born son to the first queen of the dead king, Vichitraveerya.
While it is true that Dhritarashtra is not Vichitraveerya’s biological son, the process of niyoga allows for adopted sons of dead kings to propagate a dynasty that is in danger of going extinct.
The only impediment between Dhritarashtra and the throne is his blindness. Common wisdom of those days prescribed that a king should not have any visible handicaps that will ruin his chances to make a good fist of it.
Of all possible afflictions that a king may manage with, blindness is the toughest. Not only does it make the king directly dependent on trusted family members of advisors, he is effectively rendered incapable of showing strength to friends and foes alike.
Despite all of this, Dhritarashtra comes into the world expecting to ascend the throne in due course.
It is Bhishma who intervenes in the process and – in consultation with Vidura – determines that Dhritarashtra is not fit for the throne, and that Pandu is a better choice.
(The fact that it is mentioned that Bhishma consults with Vidura in taking this decision means that all three princes are old enough to be adults at this stage. This means that throughout their childhoods, Dhritarashtra must have grown up anticipating that he will be king.)
Is Bhishma wrong in doing this? To be fair to him, there is some precedent in the Kuru dynasty that may have guided him.
Bhishma’s father, Shantanu, as it happens, is not the firstborn prince of his generation either. His elder brother, Bahlika, was supposed to have become king, but owing to a physical ailment, Bahlika gives up the throne to Shantanu.
Bahlika leaves the kingdom of Hastinapur to Shantanu, and founds the kingdom of Bahlika for himself. Bahlika’s son Somadatta, and his son Bhurishrava, both fight on the side of the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra war.
Bhishma, therefore, refers to what had taken place during the Bahlika-Shantanu situation, and rules in favour of Pandu.
Having given Pandu the throne, Bhishma does not take any further steps to remove Dhritarashtra from future reckoning. (This is important; if Bahlika had stayed back after giving Shantanu the throne, their children would have invariably quarrelled.)
Pandu rules the kingdom for just a few years, during which he leads a successful expedition that furthers the military strength of the Kuru house.
But after that, he retires to the forest with his two wives. And he gives the safekeeping of the throne over to Dhritarashtra.
At the time of this transfer, Pandu does not give Dhritarashtra or Bhishma an indication of how long he intends to stay away. Is it a temporary arrangement? Is it permanent? Does it come with terms and conditions?
No one knows. The longer Pandu remains away from the kingdom, the more secure Dhritarashtra feels in his position as king.
It also bears mentioning that during these years leading up to Pandu’s death, none of Bhishma’s fears about Dhritarashtra’s unsuitability come to pass. The blind king performs an adequate job, leaning on the shoulders of Vidura and other courtiers.
After Pandu’s Death
Even after Pandu’s death and the return of Kunti and the Pandavas to Hastinapur’s royal court, Dhritarashtra continues to be king by proxy.
Assuming that the first question of succession arises when Yudhishthir reaches the age of sixteen, we can estimate that Dhritarashtra has been king of Hastinapur – since Pandu’s departure – for at least eighteen years.
During this eighteen-year-period, Hastinapur sees no great upheaval. Overseen by Bhishma and Vidura, the Kuru kingdom chugs along as it always has. There are no great wars, nor periods of famine or uncertainty.
In short, all of Bhishma’s earlier worries are proven by time to be unfounded. During this time, Bhishma should have had the self-awareness to admit – at least to himself – that he had made a mistake in picking Pandu over Dhritarashtra.
And if that was a mistake, then the right thing to do now would be to insist that Duryodhana is the rightful heir to the throne. Not Yudhishthir.
Duryodhana, understandably, sees it from this point of view. He contends that the original decision to choose Pandu over Dhritarashtra was a misguided one, as proven by Dhritarashtra’s track record in the eighteen years that followed.
So it makes no sense, in Duryodhana’s mind, to insist that Pandu himself was an authentic king. He was only made king because of Bhishma’s arbitrary decision. Pandu had no right to the throne.
And his sons the Pandavas, by extension, also had no business seeing themselves as heirs to the seat of power.
Kunti, the other main stakeholder in the issue, starts her argument from the point of transfer of the throne from Pandu to Dhritarashtra. This is also understandable: all that happened in the Kuru house before her arrival is simply ancient history to her.
It is a thorny issue, and Bhishma could have resolved it if he wanted to. But for some reason, he lets the problem fester, almost hoping against hope that it will resolve itself.
A Puppet King
As Duryodhana grows into an adult, and as the Pandavas are thwarted in various ways – first with the house of wax and then with the thirteen-year exile – Dhritarashtra’s power appears to wane.
He is still the official king, the holder of the title and the man who sits on the throne. He still listens to Bhishma, Vidura and Kripacharya, the elders of the court.
But increasingly, we see him get affected by the interests of his own sons – represented by the eldest of them, Duryodhana.
And can we blame him? Would Dhritarashtra be too off the mark to think of Bhishma as someone who is out to protect the interests of the Pandavas the cost of the Kauravas?
Bhishma had already shown himself to be no great lover of Dhritarashtra (with the Pandu favouritism). Now, with his own sons growing into capable young men, why would Dhritarashtra not favour them?
During these years, it would be right to say that the effective ruler of Hastinapur is actually Duryodhana. Dhritarashtra becomes – and appears content to become – a figurehead; a mere puppet controlled by Duryodhana.
After the War
Dhritarashtra’s reign comes to an official end only after the Pandavas win the Kurukshetra war. Yudhishthir appoints himself the undisputed ruler of all of Aryavarta.
This includes Indraprastha and Hastinapur. Yudhishthir treats Dhritarashtra with respect, and takes his advice on matters, but the old man is no longer king.
Given that Yudhishthir is in his middle forties when he wins the war of Kurukshetra, Dhritarashtra has been king for almost forty five years.
A man who had been considered unfit to rule because of his blindness ends up sitting on the throne and governing his kingdom – decently well, too – for forty five years.
Not even Yudhishthir – who only rules for the next thirty six years – can top that.
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