Dhritarashtra

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This article is about the figure in the Hindu epic Mahābhārata. For the figure in Buddhist mythology, see Dhṛtarāṣṭra.
The blind king Dhrtarastra listens as the visionary narrator Sanjaya relates the events of the battle between the Kaurava and the Pandava clans

In the Mahabharata, Dhritarashtra (Sanskrit: धृतराष्ट्र, dhṛtarāshtra) is the King of Hastinapur at the time of the Kurukshetra War, the epic's climactic event. He was born the son of Vichitravirya's first wife Ambika, and was fathered by Vyasa. He was blind from birth,[1] and became father to a hundred sons (and one daughter) by his wife Gandhari (Gāndhārī). These children, including the eldest son Duryodhana, came to be known as the Kauravas. Dhritarashtra was half-brother of Pandu and Vidura, and was uncle to the five Pandavas, with whom his sons fought the Kurukshetra War. Throughout his reign as King of Hastinapur, Dhritarashtra was torn between the principles of dharma and his love for his son Duryodhana, and often ended up endorsing his son's actions merely out of fatherly love. Thus Dhritarashtra essentially presided over the fall of Hastinapur's kingdom. All of his sons perished in the war, with the exception of Yuyutsu, his son with Gandhari's lady-in-waiting Sughada, who fought on the Pandava side. Dhritarashtra appears in Mahābhārata sections that have been circulated as separate scriptures, most notably the Bhagavad Gita, whose dialogue was narrated to him.

Versions of the story generally portray Dhritarashtra across a spectrum. On one end he is being a good king whose only flaw is his blind love for his son, while the other end him being a cruel and adharmic king who, while saying that he only supports Duryodhana because he is too weak to reject him, actually desires for his line to have power at the expense of the Pandavas. Dhritarashtra is also portrayed as a hypocrite who says that he wants his nephews to win, but at heart, wants his children to win.

Biography in Mahābhārata[edit]

Birth[edit]

After Vichitravirya's death, his mother Satyavati sent for her first born, Vyasa. According to his mother's wishes, he visited both the wives of Vichitravirya to grant them a son with his yogic powers. When Vyasa visited Ambika, she saw his dreadful and forbidding appearance with burning eyes. In her frightened state, she closed her eyes and dared not open them. Hence her son, Dhritarashtra, was born blind.

Training to Adulthood[edit]

He and his brother Pandu (the son of Vichitravirya's second wife Ambalika), along with their half-brother Vidura, learned and studied under Bhishma and various gurus. He was a strong warrior, unlike Pandu who was an expert in archery and Vidura who mastered the art of politics. When Satyavati asked for a demonstration, Dhritarashtra was able to defeat 10 soldiers at the same time. When time came for a crown prince to be chosen, no one wanted to address the elephant in the room of a blind person leading the military. It was Vidura, in training to become the next prime minister, who brought up this issue to the relief of Hastinapur's council of Brahmins. Pandu was put forward as the obvious choice as king. Pandu protested, not wanting to disrespect his older brother's bloodright to the crown. Knowing in his heart that Vidura had a point, and under pressure from everyone, Dhritarashtra gave Pandu his blessing to be king. So, Pandu assumed the throne, and undertook a military campaign where he subjugated large parts of India.

Bhishma arranged Dhristarashtra's marriage to Gandhari. Her father, King Subala of Ghandar, was reluctant to pair his daughter to a blind man. However, he recognized Dhritarashtra pedigree, and Gandhar's status as Hastinapur's vassal, and consented to the match. Famously, Gandhari bound her own eyes with a cloth, determined to see the world as her husband saw it, with darkness.

After being cursed by Rishi Kindama to what would basically be a life of celibacy (or death), Pandu abdicated the throne, leaving for the forest with his wives Kunti and Madri. Dhritarashtra then became the king of Hastinapur. When Dhritarashtra heard of Pandu's death, he was sad, yet happy, as it meant that his crown was secure.

Reign as king[edit]

At the birth of his first son Duryodhana, Dhritarashtra was advised by Vidura, Bhishma, and the city elders to abandon the child due to bad omens during the birth. However Dhritarashtra's filial love stopped him. Dhritarashtra was advised by his elders to be fair to the Pandavas, who were returning from the forest with their mother, Kunti after the deaths of Pandu and Madri.

During Gandhari's pregnancy complications, Dhritarashtra, fearing that he will never have an heir, had a son Yuyutsu, born to Sughada; Gandhari's lady-in-waiting. In some versions, Yuyutsu was older than Duryodhana, in others, they were the exact age, and in even others, Yuyutsu was unspecifically younger than Duryodhana. There is the implication that Dhritarashtra was hoping to have a child before his brother had a child.

The succession crisis[edit]

Since Pandu had been cursed with celibacy-or-death, no one thought he would have any children. However, thanks to a power granted to Kunti, he was able to have five children born of the gods. So, when the Pandavas returned to Hastinapur, there was the real crisis of succession. Duryodhana was focused on making sure that he would be the next heir for the kingdom. The king himself wanted his son to be his heir but he was also forced to consider the eldest Pandava, Yudhisthira, who was older than Duryodhana.

Against his will, he named Yudhisthira as his heir which left Duryodhana frustrated. Then, Duryodhana planned to burn Pandavas and Kunti alive while they were on a Festival at "Varnavathi". But with the early warnings and help from Vidura, the Pandavas and Kunti survived by faking their death in the fire and lived in exile disguised as Brahmins. After Arjuna won Draupadi and the Pandavas' marriage to her, the Pandavas came back to Hastinapur. Attempting to diffuse the tension, which Dhritarashtra and the others could no longer minimize, Bhishma suggested the partition of Hastinapur. Agreeing with the proposal, Dhritarashtra gave Yudhisthira half the Kuru Kingdom, albeit the lands which were arid, untilled and scantily populated, known as Khandavaprastha. He purposely kept the better half of the kingdom for himself so that his son may one day rule his half of the kingdom. But with the help of Krishna and their respective "Pitru Devas", the Pandavas remade the land, topping the reconstruction with a beautiful city, renaming the city Indraprastha. Consequently, Yudhishthira did the Rajasuya Yagna, claiming emperorship of India. He received acknowledgements from Panchal, Dwarka and Madra by marriage and diplomacy, and from kingdoms like Magadha & Chedi through military force. With trade also prosperous and the people elated, Indraprastha was the jewel of Bharat.

Along with some other incidents, Duryodhana's jealousy and anger were stirred, and he conspired with his uncle Shakuni to destroy the five brothers.

The dice game[edit]

Draupadi disrobed in Dhritarashtra's assembly. Dhritarashtra seated in the centre.

Dhritarashtra was one of the many men present when Yudhisthira lost the dice game against Shakuni, Duryodhana, Dushasana and Karna. With each throw, Yudhisthira lost everything, gambling away his kingdom, his wealth, his brothers, and finally, his wife. Dhritarashtra (along with the other Kuru elders, save for Vidura) was silent when Dushasana tried to disrobe Draupadi in front of the court. Finally, when Draupadi was about to curse the Kuru line, Gandhari stepped in and implored her husband to pacify Draupadi. At last, the blind monarch's conscience was stirred, in part fearing the wrath of the Pandavas, Panchal, and Draupadi against his sons. He granted Drauapdi boons through which they regained all that they had lost in the dice game.

However, Duryodhana, enraged at his father, threatened to commit suicide if his father did not force the Pandavas to play another game. Shakuni challenged Yudhisthira one more time, and Yudhisthira once more lost (in some versions, Dhritarashtra ordered Yudhishthira to play; Yudhishthira must obey his elder father's command). This time, he, his brothers and his wife were forced to spend thirteen years in exile in the forest before they could reclaim their kingdom. Dhritarashtra was warned by many that the Pandavas would not forget their humiliation. He was constantly asked to remember that his responsibilities as a king must be placed before his affection as a father.

Battle of Kurukshetra[edit]

Dhrutarastra Lament

Sanjaya, Dhritarashtra’s charioteer, who was blessed by Sage Vyasa with the ability to see the past, narrated important events of the Kurukshetra war, a war fought between the Kauravas (the sons of Dhritarashtra) and the Pandavas, to the blind king. Dhritarashtra's sorrow increased with every passing day as an ever increasing number of his sons were slain by Bhima. He frequently bemoaned his ineffectiveness in preventing Duryodhana from going to war. Sanjaya often consoled the bereaved king but reminded him every time that dharma was on the Pandava side and a war against Krishna could not be humanly won regardless of the strength of the opposing force.

Crushing of Bhima's Metal Statue[edit]

The blind Dhritarashtra attacks the statue of Bhima

At the end of the great battle, Dhritarashtra was overcome with grief and rage at the loss of his hundred sons. When the blind king met the Pandavas who had come to seek his blessing prior to ascending the throne, he embraced all of them. When it was Bhima's turn, Krishna knew that the king was blind and possessed the strength of a hundred thousand elephants from the boon granted by Vyasa. He was quick to move Bhima aside and push an iron figure of Bhima into Dhritarashtra's embrace. When the thought entered Dhritarashtra's mind that the man in his embrace had killed several of his hundred sons without mercy, his anger rose to such a pitch that the metal statue was crushed into powder. Thus, Bhima was saved and Dhritarashtra composed himself and gave the Pandavas his blessing.

Later years and death[edit]

Kunti leading Dhritarashtra and Gandhari as she goes to the forest in exile

Yudhisthira was crowned king of both Indraprastha and Hastinapura. The war had killed many great warriors and soldiers on each side. Yudhisthira once again showed his kindness when he decided that the king of the city of Hastinapura should be Dhristarashtra. He offered the blind king complete respect and deference as an elder, despite his misdeeds and the evil of his dead sons.

After many years as the ruler of Hastinapura, Dhristarashtra along with Gandhari, Kunti and Vidura left for their final journey into the forest. They died in a forest fire in the Himalayas.

The first stanza of the Bhagavad Gita is a question from Dhritarashtra to Sanjaya asking him to recount the Kurukshetra war. The name is written Dhṛtarāṣṭra in IAST transliteration.

Story of Dhritarastra's blindness[edit]

After the Mahabharata war was over, Dhritarastra upset over death of his hundred sons, asked Sri Krishna the reason for his blindness despite the fact that he was a kind and just king. Sri Krishna asked him to meditate and after meditating he realized that it was the law of Karma that was in action. Dhritarashtra in his earlier reincarnation was a tyrant king, who one day while walking on the lake side saw a swan bird surrounded by hundred cygnets. He ordered to remove the swan bird's eyes and kill all the hundred cygnets just for his passing fancy. Therefore, in this birth he was born blind and all his sons were killed in the war.

Roles in Bhagavad Gita and Sanatsujatiya[edit]

Dhṛtarāṣṭra appears in two subsections of the Mahābhārata which are often treated as stand-alone texts, and were both commented upon by Adi Shankara.

He appears in the opening chapter of the Bhagavad Gītā, which takes place immediately before the start of the Kurukshetra War. The Gita's dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna is recounted as narrated to Dhṛtarāṣṭra by Sanjaya.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra is also a central figure in the Sanatsujatiya, in which Dhṛtarāṣṭra asks many questions to Sanatsujata, a divine sage. Sanatsujata has been invoked through meditation by Vidura, Dhṛtarāṣṭra's half-brother and counselor.

Dhritarashtra in later arts[edit]

  • Dhritarashtra is a character in Bhāsa's Sanskrit play Urubhanga.
  • In the 1988 TV series titled Mahabharat, directed by B. R. Chopra, Dhritarashtra was portrayed by Girja Shankar.
  • In the 1989 mini series, titled The Mahābhārata, directed by Peter Brook, Dhritarashtra was portrayed by Polish actor Ryszard Cieslak.
  • In the 2013's Mahabharat; the blind king was portrayed by Anup Singh Thakur for which he received unamious praise and world-wide fame.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide", by Roshen Dalal, p. 230, publisher = Penguin Books India