Gandhari is the mother of the Kauravas in the Mahabharata. She is the daughter of King Subala, king of Gandhara. She is given in marriage to the blind prince of Hastinapur, Dhritarashtra.
Throughout her life, Gandhari is locked in a competition with Kunti with respect to who will have the more heroic children. Like Dhritarashtra, she is torn between love for her own children and duty that compels her to be civil toward the Pandavas.
She does try to ward Duryodhana off his wicked ways, but fails. In the end, she curses Krishna and the Yadavas with death by civil war. All her anger is thus channelled toward this one wish.
In this post, we will answer the question: Why did Gandhari suffer so much?
Of all the characters in the Mahabharata, Gandhari can be said to have suffered the least. Throughout her life, she either lives as a princess, the wife of a prince, the queen of Hastinapur, or the Queen Mother. To the extent she suffers, it is psychological trauma brought about by Duryodhana’s antics.
Read on to discover more about why Gandhari suffered so much.
(For answers to all Gandhari-related questions, see: Gandhari: 12 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered.)
Marriage to Dhritarashtra
Gandhari enters the Mahabharata story when she gets married to Dhritarashtra, the firstborn prince of Hastinapur. By rights, she is supposed to be the queen of the Kuru kingdom.
But Bhishma’s decision to sideline Dhritarashtra in favour of Pandu removes Gandhari’s deserved shot at being empress.
One could argue that the very marriage to Dhritarashtra is an act of suffering for Gandhari: after all, if she had known that Pandu was the favoured heir, she might have preferred to marry him instead.
There are indications that the truth has been at least partially hidden from Gandhari. Though she probably knew about Dhritarashtra’s blindness beforehand, she likely did not know about the fact that he was not going to be king.
This is the first moment of suffering for Gandhari – and it is caused directly by Bhishma’s decision to hide some important facts from her.
During Pandu’s Reign
Gandhari retreats into the back chambers of the Kuru royal palace during the years of Pandu’s reign. During this time, she watches the younger prince marry two princesses: Pritha (also known as Kunti) and Madri.
These years must be quite tumultuous for Gandhari’s inner life. Not only is she compelled to give up her status as rightful queen, she is also expected to watch and smile for the world as Kunti snatches all of her privileges.
This period of suffering is caused once again by Bhishma. The son of Ganga has decided that Pandu will become king ahead of Dhritarashtra, and that the Kuru kingdom will not be divided between the two.
For instance, if Bhishma had broken up the Kuru kingdom into two halves, and had given each half to Pandu and Dhritarashtra, both Gandhari and Kunti would have been spared the awkwardness.
But of course, dividing a kingdom into two is a big decision, not to be taken lightly.
Gandhari is therefore relegated to a few years of quiet envy.
After Pandu’s Departure
A couple of years into his rule, Pandu goes on an expedition of conquest around the world. On his return, with the world at his feet, he is suddenly struck by a desire to give it all up and retire into the woods.
This is not an exile; he takes his two wives and a large retinue of servants to live luxuriously in the forest.
Pandu gives the reins of the kingdom to Dhritarashtra, with the understanding that he will step back onto the throne upon return.
(This becomes a thorny issue of debate in later conversations. By allowing Dhritarashtra to rule in his absence, is Pandu giving his kingdom to his brother for temporary safekeeping? Or is he giving his brother’s kingdom back to his brother?)
As it happens, however, Pandu gets cursed during this retreat. And he leaves with his two wives on an indefinite exile.
During these years, Gandhari finally takes on the mantle of queen – a title that she (in her mind) deserves more than Kunti.
Even with Pandu gone, his shadow continues to remain behind in Hastinapur. Gandhari still thinks that it is important to have the first child of the next generation so that the argument about the throne tilts in her favour.
She is overjoyed to discover that she becomes pregnant before Kunti. However, much to her chagrin, her baby refuses to leave her womb for a whole two years.
During this two-year ordeal, Gandhari has to contend with first receiving news of Kunti’s pregnancy, and then discovering that she had given birth to her first child as well.
This compels Gandhari to beat upon her stomach in woe, causing the mass of flesh inside her body to slip out.
Vyasa then arrives, and ensures that a hundred children are born to her over the next ten months. Despite this, Gandhari has to live with the fact that Kunti has the eldest son.
Besides, the two-year pregnancy in incredibly tough on her – both physically and emotionally. The cause for this appears to be just fate meddling in her affairs.
Return of Kunti
During the seven or so years that pass between the departure of Pandu and the return of Kunti, Gandhari is largely living the idyllic life that she had come to expect as a princess growing up in Gandhara.
She is the queen of a Great Kingdom, ruled by perhaps the most powerful of the northern dynasties. The only hitch is that opinion is divided as to whether Dhritarashtra is the actual king or just a standby until Pandu or his heir returns.
It is instructive that during these seven years, neither Bhishma nor Vidura seem eager to raise or settle the issue. Perhaps they think too, like everyone else, that Pandu and his two wives are never going to return.
Gandhari’s life during these years is comfortable, except for the occasional thought: what would happen if Kunti were to return?
Pandavas versus Kauravas
After Kunti returns to Hastinapur, and during the years that she stays in the royal palace, Gandhari’s position as queen still remains unchallenged.
After all, Kunti does not have a husband to challenge Dhritarashtra. Her children are still young. Gandhari’s husband is the king sitting on the throne.
Between the two women, Gandhari is certainly more powerful. However, as the Pandavas grow into young men, Gandhari sees that Bhishma and Vidura prefer them over the Kauravas.
This sets up another conflict within Gandhari’s mind: on the one hand, duty compels her to be civil to Kunti and her sons; on the other, the Pandavas may end up usurping the kingdom that belongs rightfully to Duryodhana.
Years and years of this festering wound must have taken a toll on Gandhari, as it does on Dhritarashtra. This is caused primarily by Bhishma (and to a lesser extent, Vidura) refusing to take a decision that ends the Pandava-Kaurava feud amicably.
Losing the Kauravas
Of all the wounds that Gandhari endures, the deepest is when she loses all her sons in the Kurukshetra war. ‘Could you not leave just one of my sons alive?’ she asks Bhima tearfully after it is all over.
What’s more, she is then forced to live under the protection of the same men who killed her sons. Though the Pandavas assure her that the war was nothing personal, it is naive to think that Gandhari would not felt stung in her heart at the prospect.
But she and her husband do not have a choice. They live with the Pandavas for a period of fifteen years.
During this time, though we’re told that Gandhari is afforded every respect, her status is second to Kunti’s.
While this is not a period of physical suffering for Gandhari, there is significant mental anguish. And all of it is caused because of her failure to rein in Duryodhana’s greed.
Overall, therefore, it is fair to say that Gandhari’s life endures less suffering than most of the other main characters of the Mahabharata.
Of the suffering that she does experience, much of it stems directly from Bhishma’s partiality of Pandu and his sons over Dhritarashtra. Vidura also takes some blame for Gandhari’s plight.
But at least some of her suffering is a direct result of her own inability to prevent Duryodhana from destroying the Kuru dynasty by being stubborn in his hate toward the Pandavas.
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