The Mahabharata war, also called the Kurukshetra war, is the climactic event of the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. It is fought between two sets of cousins in the Kuru dynasty, the Pandavas (sons of Pandu) and the Kauravas (sons of Dhritarashtra).
Kingdoms like Panchala and Matsya side with the Pandavas. Krishna, the regent of Dwaraka, drives the chariot of Arjuna, the third Pandava, and signals his support for their cause.
The war is fought over eighteen days on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. It is won by the Pandavas at the end, but only after unfathomable destruction to lives and wealth on both sides.
In this post, we will answer the question: Who is responsible for the Mahabharata War?
A number of characters are directly or indirectly responsible for the Mahabharata war. Of these, the most important ones are Bhishma, Kunti, Dhritarashtra, Duryodhana, Yudhishthir, Draupadi and Krishna.
(For a more complete analysis of the Mahabharata War, see: 18 Days of the Mahabharata War: A Day-wise Summary.)
Bhishma is one of the stalwarts of the Kuru race. For the welfare of this father, he takes the terrible vow of Brahmacharya, and gives up his right to the throne of Hastinapur.
He is undoubtedly a virtuous man. His service to the Kuru dynasty over a period of a hundred years is near impeccable.
Having said that, it is also true that he bears some responsibility for the Mahabharata war.
Bhishma’s first error in judgement occurs when he chooses Pandu as king over Dhritarashtra. While the official reason – that Dhritarashtra is blind, therefore unsuited – sounds reasonable, in truth, it sows discord between the two brothers.
(Suggested: Was Bhishma good?)
After all, with Bhishma himself present to guide the appointed king through the ins and outs of administration, couldn’t Dhritarashtra have done just as good a job as Pandu?
Bhishma’s second error is to allow the mistake committed in one generation to radiate its influence into the next.
The right thing to do would have been to make Pandu king only for his lifetime. When the two princes have children, it is Dhritarashtra’s firstborn who will have the first right to the throne – provided, of course, that he has no physical deformities.
This would have ensured that expectations are set properly between the Kauravas and the Pandavas when they are children.
But Bhishma’s indecision during these years deepens the quarrel between the cousins. They grow up thinking of one another as rivals.
(Suggested: How was Bhishma related to the Pandavas?)
Kunti is rightly celebrated as a strong feminine character who raised the Pandavas on her own, in the absence of Pandu. But by transferring her ambitions onto her sons, she becomes one of the causes of the Mahabharata war.
At the time of Kunti’s return to the court of Hastinapur, we must remember that Pandu and Madri are already dead. The Pandavas are only children.
Despite having the option of going to her parents’ place in Shurasena, Kunti decides to come to Hastinapur. She considers this her natural home – and more importantly, Yudhishthir’s future kingdom.
Aided by Bhishma’s lack of leadership (on this issue specifically; Bhishma is a great statesman overall), Kunti raises the Pandavas with the expectation that they are the real heirs to the throne.
(Suggested: Was Kunti a good mother?)
Though she never openly challenges Gandhari or Dhritarashtra, she privately lets her sons know that as the eldest son of Pandu, Yudhishthir is the rightful future king.
She encourages rivalry between the boys, and uses the Kaurava princes as props to unify her sons against a common cause.
Later, Kunti hesitates to accept Karna as her son despite recognizing him. If she had spoken up for Karna on their first meeting, Duryodhana would not have appropriated Karna’s loyalty – and Draupadi’s disrobing would not have happened.
The Pandavas would have been strong beyond anyone’s imagination. The Kauravas would not have found the means to challenge them.
(Suggested: Why did Kunti not accept Karna?)
Dhritarashtra’s contribution to the Mahabharata war consists in his reluctance to rein in his eldest son, Duryodhana.
Bhishma, Vidura, Gandhari and Krishna – at various times – implore Dhritarashtra to control Duryodhana’s antics and to foster friendship between the cousins. But Dhritarashtra always does it half-heartedly.
Duryodhana, sensing his father’s hesitation, assumes that the king is on his side.
Dhritarashtra’s reluctance may also stem from feeling that he was hard done by during Pandu’s coronation. He may even have borne a grudge against Bhishma for not delivering the decisive leadership that the Kuru family deserved at the time.
His argument goes something like this: we did not nip the rivalry between the cousins when they were children. In fact, with our inaction, we stoked it. Now, with Duryodhana grown up, it is too late.
Of course, if he had truly wanted, he could have ordered Duryodhana to be imprisoned or banished.
That he does not do this makes him one of the responsible parties for the Mahabharata war.
As the prime antagonist of the Mahabharata story, Duryodhana is first on many people’s list when the question of ‘who is responsible for it all’ comes up.
But if we look at the facts from Duryodhana’s point of view, it is apparent that he has very few options but to fight for his rights.
He believes – with good reason – that as the eldest son of Dhritarashtra (the rightful king), he is the rightful heir. He sees the Pandavas as illegitimate rivals to the throne.
Not only are they sons of Pandu – who was only given the kingdom because of Dhritarashtra’s perceived unsuitability – but they are also not biological sons of Pandu. They are adopted, so their parentage is questionable.
(Suggested: Why did Duryodhana hate the Pandavas?)
Duryodhana’s many underhanded strategies to defeat the Pandavas may seem cruel to us, but in the dog-eat-dog world of kings and kingdoms, they are all fair play.
Rivals to a throne found different means to sabotage one another. With the Pandavas so much stronger than him, Duryodhana had to be tenacious about how to eliminate them.
Having said all this, at the very end, just before the war, when the Pandavas ask for just five villages as a trade for peace, Duryodhana says no purely on principle.
This is the one decision that can be laid at Duryodhana’s feet. Thus he becomes directly responsible for the Mahabharata war.
(Suggested: How was Duryodhana as king?)
Throughout the Mahabharata, Yudhishthir is depicted as being reluctant to engage in violence. But he is also a conflicted man: while his rational mind shuns violence, a part of him wishes to become emperor, and to enjoy the power that comes with it.
A big part of Yudhishthir’s growth as a character is to find the balance between enjoying the perks of being king without being attached to them.
On one occasion, however, Yudhishthir’s actions lead directly to pivotal scene that in turn leads to the Mahabharata war.
Shortly after he becomes emperor, Yudhishthir gets a visit from Sage Vyasa, who prophesies that the Kuru empire will destroy itself by infighting over the next fourteen years.
(Suggested: How did Yudhishthir become emperor?)
After hearing this, Yudhishthir takes a vow that from that point on, for fourteen years, he will unflinchingly obey every instruction or command given him by Dhritarashtra.
His logic is that if he says yes to everything Dhritarashtra wants, there can be no conflict, no infighting, and no destruction.
As it happens, though, almost immediately after he takes this oath, Yudhishthir gets an invitation from Dhritarashtra to participate in the dice game.
Owing to his newly adopted stance, Yudhishthir has to say yes. He does.
And at the dice game, he mutely accepts all that happens without once questioning it. This contributes to angers bubbling over on both sides, and paves the path to the war.
(Suggested: Why does Yudhishthir gamble Draupadi?)
The circumstances surrounding Draupadi’s birth makes her an important player in the destruction of the Kurus.
Draupadi is born to Drupada, but she is not his biological daughter. She gets presented to him during a sacrifice that the king performs with the express intention of taking revenge against Drona and the Kuru kingdom.
Earlier, Drona wages war on Panchala and wrests Northern Panchala away from Drupada. Drupada wishes to avenge this slight by performing a yagnya and procuring valiant children.
Out of this ceremony, he gets (a) a son named Dhrishtadyumna, who is destined to kill Drona; and (b) a daughter named Krishnaa or Draupadi, who is destined to become the ‘prime driver of Kuru destruction’.
(Suggested: Why is Draupadi blamed for the Mahabharata war?)
During her life, Draupadi becomes a passive pawn in all key moments. For instance:
- She is made the common wife of the Pandavas for political reasons. Her opinion is not sought.
- She becomes the fulcrum around which the dice game is played. She is not even present when she is pledged and lost.
- She is desired by Kichaka in the Virata Parva, which leads to Kichaka’s death. That in turn encourages Duryodhana to attack Matsya.
- She is abducted by Jayadratha during their exile. This incident has dark repercussions for Abhimanyu’s death.
All throughout their exile, it is Draupadi who keeps reminding Yudhishthir of all the humiliations that had been heaped upon her. The Mahabharata war, therefore, becomes a tool for winning back Draupadi’s lost honour.
In this way, Draupadi inadvertently becomes one of the main causes of the war.
(Suggested: Did Draupadi insult Duryodhana?)
At the end of the war, Gandhari makes a pronouncement against Krishna that despite being powerful enough to stop the war, he has chosen not to do so.
For this ‘crime’, she curses Krishna that his own Dwaraka – the city he had so painstakingly built – will succumb one day to the ravages of civil war.
That is the nature of Krishna’s responsibility with respect to the war. Though he does not do anything to actively cause it – and indeed, he tries his best to prevent it – the argument is that he did not do enough.
This theory, however, assumes that Krishna is an all-powerful, all-seeing god.
If we think of him as a normal human being who is trying his best with incomplete information, Krishna’s motivations are primarily to safeguard Anarta’s best interests.
(Suggested: Why did Balarama support Duryodhana?)
In order to do this, he first builds a friendship with Arjuna and uses it to kill Jarasandha. He tells Yudhishthir that killing Jarasandha is necessary for the Rajasuya, but it is also true that Jarasandha is one of Anarta’s oldest enemies.
Was Krishna helping out the Pandavas? Or was he using them as tools to settle his own scores?
While Krishna builds and nurtures a mutually affectionate relationship with the Pandavas, he also allows Balarama to build a similar sort of bond with Duryodhana. By doing this, Anarta plays both sides of the Pandava-Kaurava game.
It could be argued that the Pandava-Kaurava conflict works in Anarta’s favour, and that Krishna does not do enough to end it because it is beneficial for his kingdom.
In this manner, Krishna is one of the forces that contribute to the Mahabharata war.
(Suggested: Why did Krishna not stop the Mahabharata?)
If you liked this post, you may find this interesting also: 18 Days of the Mahabharata War: A Day-wise Summary.