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Why did Duryodhana go to heaven?

Why did Duryodhana go to heaven - Featured Image - Picture of a geometrical pattern representing balance.

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: Why did Duryodhana go to heaven?

Indra explains to Yudhishthir that even extremely wicked people spend a small amount of time in heaven as reward for their few good deeds. Therefore, despite the fact that Duryodhana’s final destination is hell, he is taken to heaven to enjoy the fruits of his virtuous acts. After the short time is up, he is taken to hell for much longer – perhaps eternity.

Read on to discover more about why Duryodhana went to heaven.

(For answers to all Duryodhana-related questions, see: Duryodhana: 12 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

The Theory

When Yudhishthir enters heaven at the end of the story, Indra surprises him by showing him a scene in heaven which depicts Duryodhana – of all people – sitting in a great hall partaking of several earthly pleasures.

Yudhishthir asks Indra how this has come to be. Indra replies, ‘Even a wicked man who has committed numerous sins in his life will have performed some good deeds, O King. As reward for those, he will spend a short time in heaven. After that has elapsed, he will be taken to hell for a longer period.’

In the same breath, Indra explains, a man considered by many to be ‘good’ will have also committed a few misdeeds during his time on Earth. He will be taken to hell for a short period – to atone for his sins – before being led to heaven.

In short, Duryodhana is taken to heaven right after his death to reward him for the small number of virtuous deeds he has performed on Earth.

Also, we must remember that this is also partly Indra’s illusion to test Yudhishthir’s resolve. Yudhishthir dies about thirty six years after Duryodhana; by that time, the Kaurava’s time in heaven would have long ended.

(Suggested: 9 Mahabharata Stories from the Swargarohana Parva.)

Karna’s Benefactor

Among Duryodhana’s few acts of virtue is his decision to become Karna’s benefactor – starting from the day of the Kurus’ graduation and lasting until Karna’s death on the seventeenth day of the war.

Duryodhana may have selfish reasons to do this: the moment he sees Karna, it is possible that he saw how he could potentially use him against Arjuna. Since he sees himself as the perfect antithesis of Bhima, between the two of them – he may have reasoned – they will account for the two most powerful Pandavas.

Still, what he does at the graduation ceremony to protect Karna’s honour – and, in fact, to raise Karna’s status – is commendable. For a prince to publicly stand up in support of a low-born man in that manner is unheard of.

This is not a single act of kindness either. Duryodhana makes Karna the king of Anga, and continues to mentor him through their lives. Their friendship stands the test of time: through thick and thin they remain loyal to each other.

King of Kuru

For many years after attaining adulthood, Duryodhana becomes the de facto ruler of the Kuru kingdom. Dhritarashtra is the official monarch, but from behind the scenes, it is Duryodhana who pulls the strings.

This is especially true after the Pandavas leave on their exile. The empire of Yudhishthir now enters Kuru’s dominion, which overwhelms Dhritarashtra’s skills as administrator. Duryodhana steps in – with the help of Bhishma and Vidura – and performs the role of king.

Though we are not told explicitly what kind of king he is, we can judge from the results of the thirteen-year reign that he is not bad. The Kuru kingdom prospers. Hastinapur maintains its status as the premier superpower on the Gangetic belt.

Relationships with Panchala and Anarta – two of the main allies of Yudhishthir – are managed deftly by Duryodhana. Neither kingdom makes a move to rebel against Duryodhana’s authority during this period.

All of this points to the strong possibility that the Kuru people were happy under Kaurava rule. And it is likely that Duryodhana must have undertaken numerous projects during these years that bettered the lives of his citizens.

(Suggested: How was Duryodhana as king?)

Dutiful Family Man

For all of Duryodhana’s faults regarding the Pandavas, he appears to be a dutiful son and family man otherwise. His relationship with his mother and father – except for this one issue – is a smooth one.

With Bhishma and Vidura as well, Duryodhana quarrels frequently about how the Pandavas ought to be treated. But in other respects, he seems quite content to give the elders their space.

There are no suggestions of his being a bad husband or father. While that does not mean automatically that he was an exemplary one, we can concede that he was quite normal when it came to these roles.

As an elder brother to his hundred siblings, he goes to great lengths to secure their futures in the face of (what he believes to be) grave existential threats posed by the more powerful Pandavas.

Overall, his dutiful observance of all his family responsibilities counts among his virtues.

Death in the Battlefield

It is said that if a Kshatriya loses his life on a battlefield, he is rewarded for this with a place in heaven.

Duryodhana’s death occurs during a fight with his arch nemesis Bhimasena, on the edge of Kurukshetra. He is killed by a blow to the thigh, which is against the rule of fair fighting which says that a mace-fighter will not strike his opponent below the waist.

However, before the challenge begins, Duryodhana flees from the battlefield and hides under a lake. He is found and ferreted out by the Pandavas. This act of cowardice is likely to count against him.

Duryodhana explicitly mentions to Yudhishthir that he is about to enter heaven while the Pandavas are doomed to rule over the graveyard that is left behind by the war. ‘It is I who has won and you who has lost,’ he tells his cousin grandly.

Soon after his fall to the ground, the gods and celestial beings emerge from their abodes to shower flowers on Duryodhana. All of this suggests that despite his flaws, the Kaurava is a well-respected figure and has earned a right to visit Indra’s mansions.

As an aside, all the people who lose their lives on the battlefield are given access to heaven. But this passage is going to be temporary. Their final destination is of course determined after all their virtuous deeds are weighed against their sins.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 53: Bhima Defeats Duryodhana.)

Duryodhana’s Sins

To counter all of the above good deeds, we will include in this section a quick list of Duryodhana’s sins, which take him out of heaven and into hell for eternity.

  • As a child, he poisons Bhima and throws him into the river. Bhima, of course, visits the Naga kingdom and returns with his strength increased manifold.
  • He arranges for a house of wax to be built in Varanavata, and tries to entrap the Pandavas in it. The sons of Kunti escape because of timely help they receive from Vidura.
  • Consumed by jealousy, he invites Yudhishthir to a dice game and deceives him out of his wealth and kingdom. He commits the atrocity of trying to undress Draupadi publicly, in view of all Kuru elders in the hall.
  • During the Pandavas’ exile, he goes to visit them with the sole intention of ridiculing them for their suffering. This plan backfires; he is himself captured by Gandharvas, and is required to be rescued by Arjuna and Bhima.
  • When Krishna arrives before the war to ask Dhritarashtra for five villages, Duryodhana refuses flatly and says, ‘I will give them nothing. If they want anything from me, they will have to fight for it.’

As we see above, all of Duryodhana’s ‘sins’ are related to his behaviour toward the Pandavas. His resentment and envy lead him down the path to hell.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!