Why was Dhritarashtra not made king?

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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: Why was Dhritarashtra not made king?

Dhritarashtra was not made king – despite being the rightful heir – due to Bhishma’s intervention. Citing the precedence of Bahlika (Shantanu’s elder brother) who had given up his right to be king because of his physical handicap, Bhishma decrees that Pandu should be made king ahead of Dhritarashtra.

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

Read on to discover more about why Dhritarashtra was not made king.

Decision Makers

We are not told much about the dynamics surrounding this decision, though it is perhaps the most significant event in Kuru’s future history from that point on.

We do know that Bhishma and Vidura arrive together at this decision after consulting one another. This suggests that Vidura was already a young man by this time. That means that Dhritarashtra and Pandu are also grown up.

However, we must remember that fourteen-year-old (or thereabouts) Vidura is not going to have much of a say in a discussion with Bhishma, the family patriarch.

It is fair to conclude, therefore, that Bhishma is the single reason for Dhritarashtra not being made king.

Bhishma’s Reasons

In making this decision, Bhishma makes two appeals.

The first is an appeal to logic: Bhishma argues that a ruler of a kingdom as great as Kuru ought to signal strength and wisdom. But a blind man can – who cannot look after himself without help – can do neither.

Bhishma’s second reason is an appeal to precedence. He points to the instance of Bahlika, Shantanu’s elder brother, giving up his right to the throne because of his physical affliction.

(The nature of Bahlika’s exact handicap is not made clear. We do know that after presenting the throne to his younger brother, Bahlika leaves on a self-imposed exile and founds the kingdom of Bahlika.)

Citing this example, Bhishma says that it is not unfair or unjust to overlook the firstborn son of a ruler if it is deemed that his physical abilities are not up to scratch.

And of all physical ailments, blindness is among the most serious – especially for a king.

Bhishma’s Biases

While these are Bhishma’s openly declared reasons for preferring Pandu over Dhritarashtra, it is also possible that he is slave to some unconscious or secret biases.

For instance, right on the very night that Vyasa tells Satyavati that Ambika’s son is going to be born blind, Bhishma has arguably begun to make plans about how to mitigate this very obvious risk.

When Vyasa returns a year later to share his bed with Ambalika, despite the sage’s warning that the boy will be born sickly and pale,  Bhishma might have thought Pandu’s sickness is less serious than Dhritarashtra’s.

And when it comes to pass that on Vyasa’s third visit, Ambika and Ambalika send a waiting woman to the sage’s bedchamber, Bhishma would have resigned himself to the fact that there are going to be no more heirs to the throne.

He has to choose between the blind one and the pale one.

That very night, Bhishma must have made his choice. He must have reasoned that Kuru cannot possibly have a blind king, so come what may, they have to make do with the younger boy.

Love for Pandu

This bears repeating: Bhishma made the decision to favour Pandu over Dhritarashtra right when the boys were mere infants. Throughout their childhoods, therefore, Bhishma would have let this love for Pandu show in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Dhritarashtra therefore grows up with the nagging feeling that Bhishma prefers Pandu over him.

Bhishma lets Pandu know right from the beginning that he is earmarked for the throne. When the official decision is made, therefore, it comes as no surprise to anyone.

That fateful meeting between Bhishma and Vidura – after which they make the announcement – is nothing more than a formalisation of what Bhishma had wished for over the last fifteen or so years.

And these wishes were not kept secret. Kunti, Gandhari and everyone in the Kuru court knew of them.

Was it the right decision?

If we put ourselves in Bhishma’s shoes at the moment of Pandu’s birth, we may be able to understand his thought process better.

Remember that at this time, Bhishma had already seen two heirs to the throne – Satyavati’s sons, Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya – die young. Bhishma is desperate for a healthy boy who would grow up to be king.

Hearing the news that he has to make a choice between a blind prince and a pale one would have discouraged him. At the back of his mind, he knows that the Kuru throne had already seen two ‘weak’ kings in quick succession.

First came Chitrangada, who lost a battle to a Gandharva and lost his life. Keeping aside the idiocy of fighting a Gandharva on his own, the incident showcased Chitrangada’s lack of battle skills – at least in the eyes of others.

Then Vichitraveerya, whose wives had to be won for him by Bhishma.

These two men have damaged the façade of strength that Bhishma liked to wrap around the Kuru throne. Now, if he makes a blind man king, regardless of the man’s ability, he will be seen as a weakling.

So Bhishma takes the more conservative route and opts for Pandu.

Was it the wrong decision?

That is not to say that it is the wrong decision, though. Of course, hindsight has proven him wrong. But at the time, there were very good reasons for making Pandu king before Dhritarashtra.

In fact, Pandu gives a very good account of himself in the first few years of his reign. Bhishma sends the new king out on a lengthy expedition of conquest, one in which Pandu excels.

He returns triumphant, after extending the Kuru empire’s boundaries. He brings back untold amounts of wealth that makes it into Hastinapur’s treasury.

This is the show of power that Bhishma wished for from his king. And he got it. He is also vindicated by Pandu’s achievement, because it is something Dhritarashtra cannot conceivably do.

Thwarted by a Curse

Bhishma’s choice seems to be the correct one right up to the point when Pandu retires into the forest with Kunti and Madri – and gets himself cursed by Kindama.

This curse makes Pandu unable to approach any woman with the intention of uniting with her. As soon as he receives this curse, Pandu makes the decision to take his two wives and retire into the mountains.

He had given his kingdom to Dhritarashtra for temporary safekeeping until he returned. He had intended to come to the forest, spend a few months in solitude with his wives, and hopefully get them pregnant.

Instead, as soon as Kindama places the curse on him, Pandu decides that he is going to live the life of a monk from then on.

Dhritarashtra’s position as ruler of Kuru becomes permanent. With Pandu’s death, Dhritarashtra becomes even more entrenched on top of the throne.

Fate, therefore, intervenes to ensure that Bhishma’s wishes are thwarted.

Further Reading

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