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: Who killed Duryodhana?
Bhima kills Duryodhana a in a mace fight on the evening of the eighteenth day of the Mahabharata war. With the encouragement of Krishna, Bhima employs fraudulent tactics to defeat Duryodhana: he hits him below the waist, on his thighs. Thus he fulfils his decades-long vow (taken during the dice game) of crushing Duryodhana’s thighs.
Read on to discover more about who killed Duryodhana.
(For answers to all Duryodhana-related questions, see: Duryodhana: 12 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
At the Dice Game
The first chapter of Duryodhana’s death at the hands of Bhima is written during the shameful incidents that happen during the dice game in the Dyuta Parva.
After Shakuni helps Duryodhana defeat the Pandavas, and as Draupadi stands in the middle of the assembly asking the question whether or not she had been rightfully won, Duryodhana makes an obscene gesture at Draupadi.
He slaps his thigh, and he beckons to her to come sit on it. It is a sign that one makes toward one’s slave girl.
This infuriates Bhima, who then takes the vow that one day, he will avenge Draupadi’s insult by breaking the thigh that Duryodhana slapped with such impunity.
Sage Lomasa’s Curse
A similar story happens during the Pandavas’ exile. Sage Lomasa arrives in Dhritarashtra’s court, after having visited Indra’s city and witnessing Arjuna’s heroics there.
But Duryodhana once again exhibits his arrogance by looking away and slapping his thigh.
This angers Lomasa. He places a curse on Duryodhana that when the time is ripe, Bhima will secure justice to its rightful spot by crushing the thighs of the Kaurava prince.
In both cases, Duryodhana’s thighs are a metaphor for his blinding pride.
The Eighteenth Day
On the eighteenth day of the Mahabharata war, Shalya has already been killed. The Kaurava army has now thinned in numbers, and is being flayed to all corners by Panchala forces.
In this melee, Duryodhana flees the battlefield and hides underneath a lake on the outskirts of Kurukshetra. The Pandavas and Krishna come there searching for him, and when they find him, they draw him out to fight.
Duryodhana is understandably reluctant to emerge from his hiding spot, but when Krishna unfreezes the lake with his magic, the Kaurava is left with no choice.
Once he stands on his two feet, however, he challenges Yudhishthir that he will fight any one of the Pandava brothers with a mace. ‘If I win this battle,’ he says, ‘you must give the kingdom to me.’
Staggeringly, and much to Krishna’s chagrin, Yudhishthir agrees.
While Krishna worries about whether Bhima’s life has been placed unnecessarily in danger, Bhima laughs in uproar and steps forward. ‘Cease your worry, Madhusudana,’ he says. ‘Today I am going to fulfil my vow and take Duryodhana’s life.’
The Big Fight
Thus begins the big climactic fight between Bhima and Duryodhana, with the stakes artificially raised once again. In short, this battle is a winner-takes-all. Whoever wins will get the Kuru kingdom.
(One wonders why, if it were so easy, Yudhishthir and Duryodhana did not agree to these terms before the war. All the violent bloodshed would have been averted. But perhaps Duryodhana would not have agreed to it at the time.)
In any case, despite Bhima’s bravado, the going is tough for him. Duryodhana proves more than able to hold his own against his cousin.
When Arjuna asks Krishna who among the two is the more powerful mace fighter, Krishna gives a diplomatic answer.
‘Bhima is the stronger overall, Partha,’ he says. ‘But Duryodhana is more skilful. He has had more practice at the art than Bhima. For years, he has honed his craft with Bhima alone as his sole opponent.’
Krishna concludes therefore that unless Bhima employs unfair means, he cannot hope to win against Duryodhana.
This time, it is Arjuna who takes the initiative in signalling to Bhima that it is time for subterfuge.
(This contrasts with Arjuna’s image as a hesitant hero: whenever Krishna has suggested using questionable means in the past, Arjuna has reacted with uncertainty. Here, he is almost eager to take the plunge.)
Arjuna catches Bhima’s attention, and slaps his own thigh meaningfully. This act by Arjuna suggests that he also had plenty of hatred for Duryodhana, and that he did not consider it unfair to use unscrupulous methods against him.
Bhima takes the hint, and at the next available opportunity, lands a heavy blow on Duryodhana’s thighs.
Duryodhana buckles down on the ground with a yell of protest and pain. Despite his long years of plotting against Bhima, he had never considered hitting Bhima below the waist. Nor did he think that Bhima would stoop so low.
But it has happened. He raises his hand and asks Krishna and Balarama whether this is virtuous.
Fair or Unfair?
Duryodhana claims that this is yet another act of unjustness from the Pandavas. He says, ‘You killed Bhishma, Drona and Karna by unfair means during the war. Now you’ve killed me too the same way!’
As far as that goes, Duryodhana is right. Hitting your opponent below the waist in a mace fight is about as sinful as beheading him when he is meditating or sleeping.
So Krishna does not defend the Pandavas on these grounds. He merely recounts all of Duryodhana’s unjust acts – the disrobing of Draupadi, the plot in Varanavata, the dice game – and says, ‘In order to defeat an evil foe, one must become evil oneself.’
He also says that Bhishma, Drona and Karna together are so powerful that the Pandavas simply would have been unable to win the war if they had not resorted to unfair means.
‘When allied against an enemy more powerful than you,’ says Krishna, ‘the scriptures have allowed one to use whatever means necessary in order to win.’
Krishna then pulls out a conch and blows on it. He officially announces the war has ended, and that the Pandavas have won it.
Duryodhana, however, does not die immediately after the Pandavas leave from there. (It is curious that the Pandavas do not kill Duryodhana when they have the chance, and leave him to die instead. Why did Bhima not rip him to pieces?)
He is found by Ashwatthama, Kripa and Kritavarma. Ashwatthama is still seething for revenge. He does not believe that the war has come to an end.
He makes Duryodhana anoint him the next commander of the Kaurava army – never mind that the ‘army’ now consists only of three men.
After becoming the leader, Ashwatthama then launches his terrible night-time raid of the Panchala camp, massacring everyone in sight.
(This rampage by Ashwatthama represents the complete disintegration of the war that began as ‘Dharma Yuddha’. The war ends with the ultimate sacrilege: a Kshatriya attacking and killing his enemies when they sleep.)
Duryodhana dies only after Ashwatthama returns at dawn to give his king the good news. When he hears that the Panchalas have been obliterated, Duryodhana is elated.
‘What Bhishma, Drona and Karna have failed to do, O Drauna,’ he says, ‘you have done. I die with a smile on my face. May the gods bless you. And may we meet soon in heaven!’
With these incongruous words, Duryodhana dies – of wounds inflicted on him by Bhima’s mace.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- 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