In the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Dhritarashtra emerges as a significant character, playing a pivotal role in the narrative. As the father of the Kauravas and the King of the Kuru Kingdom, Dhritarashtra's life is marked by a complex web of relationships, power struggles, and tragic events, serving as a compelling study of human frailties and the consequences of unchecked ambition. There is a wealth of information related to the birth, life, reign, principles, death, and legend surrounding Dhritarashtra, that shows his complex character and the events that unfolded during his rule.
Birth and Early Life of Dhritarashtra
Dhritarashtra was born to Ambika, the first wife of Vichitravirya, in the royal lineage of the Kurus. However, he was born blind, which posed a challenge for his future as a ruler. Despite his blindness, Dhritarashtra possessed immense inner strength as a result of the blessings he received from Vyasa. Due to this blessing Dhritarashtra was endowed with the strength of ten thousand elephants.
Reign of Dhritarashtra
Upon the death of Vichitravirya, Dhritarashtra's grandmother, Satyavati, entrusted him to the care of his uncle Vyasa. Despite his blindness, Dhritarashtra exhibited strength and determination in fulfilling his duties as the king. After the death of his brother Pandu, Dhritarashtra ascended to the throne of Hastinapura. Dhritarashtra's reign over Hastinapura was marked by significant challenges and moral dilemmas.
Supported by his wife Gandhari, who blindfolded her eyes in solidarity with her husband, Dhritarashtra ruled the empire for several years. His reign was characterized by the assistance of stalwart advisors such as Vidhura and Bhishma, who guided him in the affairs of the kingdom.
One hundred sons and a daughter named Dushala were born to Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, and these children came to be known as the Kauravas. Duryodhana, the eldest among them, was the designated heir to the throne. Despite ill omens that surrounded Duryodhana's birth, Dhritarashtra believed in his son's potential and groomed him to become a worthy successor.
However, the question of succession became a contentious issue when Kunti, the first wife of Dhritarashtra's deceased brother Pandu, returned to Hastinapura with her five sons, the Pandavas. According to tradition, Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava, had a stronger claim to the throne due to his lineage and virtues. Amidst pressure from Brahmins, Vidhura, and Bhishma, Dhritarashtra reluctantly named Yudhishthira as his heir, although his heart favored his own son, Duryodhana.
The Game of Dice
The game of dice, orchestrated by Duryodhana and his uncle Shakuni, marked a turning point in Dhritarashtra's life. Through deceit and manipulation, the Pandavas lost their kingdom, wealth, and prestige, and were exiled for thirteen years. Dhritarashtra's blindness prevented him from intervening when Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas, was humiliated in the court. Despite objections from nobles such as Vikarna and Vidura, Dhritarashtra remained silent, torn between his obligations and his inability to control his son's actions.
The Kurukshetra War
The culmination of the conflict between the Kauravas and Pandavas came in the form of the Kurukshetra War. Dhritarashtra, being blind, relied on Sanjaya, his charioteer blessed with divine sight by Vyasa, to narrate the events of the war. While Dhritarashtra hoped for victory, Krishna's divine intervention and the righteousness of the Pandavas ultimately led to the defeat of the Kauravas. Dhritarashtra's sorrow deepened as his sons were gradually killed by Bhima. Sanjaya provided consolation and reminded the king that dharma was on the Pandava side, making victory for the Kauravas impossible.
Dhritarashtra Crushing Bhima’s Statue
As the war concluded, the triumphant Pandavas journeyed to Hastinapura for the official transition of power. Yudhishthira received a warm embrace from Dhritarashtra, devoid of any animosity. However, as Dhritarashtra turned towards Bhima, Krishna, perceiving his underlying intentions, prompted Bhima to replace Duryodhana's iron statue of Bhima, previously employed for training purposes. Witnessing this substitution, Dhritarashtra's anger dissipated, and he shattered the statue, thereafter collapsing into tears. In a state of defeat and remorse, Dhritarashtra humbly apologized for his past foolishness and wholeheartedly embraced Bhima and the remaining Pandavas.
The Aftermath of Kurukshetra War
After the Kurukshetra war, Dhritarashtra faced the devastating reality of his actions. His hundred sons and countless relatives lay dead on the battlefield, and his kingdom was in ruins. The loss of his children weighed heavily on him, causing immense grief and regret. Yudhishthira, the rightful heir to the throne, became the ruler of Hastinapura. Despite their differences and the atrocities committed by the Kauravas, Yudhishthira displayed magnanimity and offered Dhritarashtra and Gandhari their rightful place in the kingdom. They retired to the forest to live an ascetic life, seeking solace and redemption for their past deeds.
In due course, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari decided to renounce the world and embrace a life of meditation and penance. They journeyed to the Himalayas, where they engaged in rigorous austerities. Eventually, their devotion and penance earned them an audience with Lord Shiva. Pleased with their dedication, Lord Shiva granted them a boon—the ability to see and communicate with their deceased sons for a limited period. Dhritarashtra and Gandhari returned to Hastinapura and spent time conversing with the spirits of their fallen children. This experience provided them solace and closure, allowing them to come to terms with their loss.
Death of Dhritarashtra
According to some versions of the epic, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, along with Kunti (the mother of the Pandavas), retired to the forest and eventually attained salvation through self-immolation. This act marked the end of their mortal journey and the transcendence of their souls to higher realms.
Legacy and Lessons
Dhritarashtra's story serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting the consequences of blind attachment, favoritism, and the pursuit of power at any cost. Despite his blindness, Dhritarashtra possessed wisdom and governance skills but allowed his love for his children and desire for their success to cloud his judgment. His inability to see beyond the immediate interests of his family ultimately led to the downfall of his dynasty.
Moreover, Dhritarashtra's character reflects the broader theme of moral ambiguity in the Mahabharata. He symbolizes the internal conflicts and ethical dilemmas faced by individuals in positions of power and the choices they make in challenging circumstances. Dhritarashtra's life reminds us of the importance of wisdom, impartiality, and the need to prioritize the greater good over personal desires.