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Monday, February 1, 2016

Was Dhritrashtra wronged?

In the epic tale of the Mahabharata, the most endearing part is that all the characters have shades of grey and none all of them is either completely white or completely black. They are as human as characters in an epic can be. The King of Hastinapur for most part of the Mahabharata is Dhritrashtra. He was the elder son of Vichitravirya and should have ascended the throne but for his disability (he was visually impaired). So his younger brother Pandu was anointed king, and the Mahabharata is not very eloquent about his abilities as a king. He was portrayed as being physically not very strong and died rather soon. Dhritrashtra then took over the reins of the empire and was supposed to abdicate the throne in the event of Yudhishtir gaining maturity.

From here on begins the saga of the difference between what is legally right and what is morally right. The entire tale of the Mahabharata is a result of the conflict between these two aspects of life. On the one hand, if Dhritrashtra had taken over the reins of the kingdom as a caretaker king, then it was morally right on his part to have stepped down when Yudhishtir gained maturity. Here comes in the dilemma of Dhritrashtra. He obviously had not willingly given up his right to the throne as the eldest legal heir. He had possibly resented the decision on the part of the elders and was condemned to play second fiddle to Pandu in life as well as after his death.

The assumption that Dhritrashtra was incapable of ruling effectively is not borne out by the events later on in the tale. There is no major blemish on him as a king; he ably looked after the kingdom with help of his advisors. Pandu is never cited as being an exemplary king. So, Dhritrashtra was entitled to believe that he had all the qualities befitting a king. In the olden days, a powerful king needed to have a strong and brave army. It took the might of Lord Krishna and some debatable decisions on the part of the Pandavas to defeat the army of the Kauravs.

For most part of the Mahabharata, Dhritrashtra was its king, his eldest son and heir apparent, Duryodhana was a valiant warrior and a leader of men. All his 99 other brothers were extremely devoted to him so he must have had some charisma as a leader. Karna too remained loyal to him despite knowing that he was the eldest Pandava brother. Duryodhana had his negative points, he had a toxic ego, but none of his people ever deserted him during the war. Was Dhritrashtra wrong in being ambitious for his son? Despite all these years as king did it pinch him to give back the kingdom to the Pandavas as he had inherited it on their behalf? Did his blindness in any way make him a less capable ruler than his brother Pandu and did it make his son less eligible for the job? Was he justified in questioning why his son should be discriminated against? Was his latent resentment at not being appointed king as the natural heir finds its voice in the ruthless ambitions of Duryodhana?  These questions continue to intrigue us even today. We are also constantly torn between what is morally and what is legally right. That is the relevance of the epic in our lives.

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