Bhishma, Dhritrashtra and Yudhisthir put their pride, affection and self-esteem over everything else, which led to the war at Kurukshetra. As statesmen and kings, they failed to exhibit leadership at the right time. Here’s how:
BHISMHA: On a hunting safari, Shantanu, the king of Hastinapur came across Satyavati, the beautiful daughter of a fisherman and fell in love with her. Day after day, Shantanu would visit the riverside to catch a glimpse of Satyavati and finally followed her to her house and asked her father for her hand in marriage. The fisherman was delighted to have his daughter wedded to the king. However, he put forth a condition that his daughter’s child would be the heir to the throne. Miffed, Shantanu returned to the palace. His son Devavrat, both knowledgeable and a warrior par excellence, was already anointed as the king in waiting. Time passed but Shantanu couldn’t get Satyavati out his heart and mind and soon receded into seclusion. Sensing something grossly wrong, Devavrat got to the root of the cause. To ensure Shantanu marries Satyavati, Devavrat makes a series oath. Firstly, he vowed to renounce his claim to the throne. Not completely convinced, the fisherman reasoned that if not Devavrat, his children could stake a claim to the throne. Devavrat then made his second oath. He vowed lifelong celibacy. It was this great oath that got Devavrat the name Bhishma. Shantanu was pleased with what his son’s sacrifice for the sake of his happiness and granted him a boon. The boon made Bhishma capable of choosing the time of his death, making him almost immortal. Lastly, Bhishma made another oath that he would serve the ruling king like a son and leave the world only when Hastinapur was in safe hands. The third oath tied Bhishma to the throne of Hastinapur, without sitting on the same. Bhishma became popular for his oaths and earned a lot of praise and respect. After Shantanu’s death, Satyavati’s elder son Chitrangad was made king. Soon, he was killed and then the younger son Vichitraveer was made king. Vichitraveer married the Kashi princesses Ambika and Ambalika and died before he could father children. With Satyavati’s sons dead and no successor in line, the future of Hastinapur wasn’t bright. A kingdom without a king was vulnerable to attacks or could drive itself into anarchy. Sensing the dangers, Satyavati asked Bhishma to be the king. On Bhishma’s refusal citing is first oath, Satyavati asked Bhishma to marry Ambika and Ambalika, so their children could be the deemed successors of the kingdom. Bhishma refused again, this time citing his second oath, the one of celibacy. Satyavati argued, reasoned, and even pleaded to a vehemently refusing Bhishma, who at a point cited his third oath, the one that bound him to serve the king, whosoever it is. Even the fisherman absolving Bhishma from his oaths didn’t help. With no solution in sight, Satyavati then asked sage Vyas to copulate with Ambika and Ambalika. The result of the unions gave birth to Dhritrashtra and Pandu whose children, the Kauravs and Pandavs later fought, killing hundreds of thousands, over the kingship of the Hastinapur. The same kingship Bhishma refused, honouring his oaths.
When the hour demanded leadership over pride, Bhishma refused. Bhishma only bothered about keeping his oaths, without caring about the repercussions. As the senior most in the clan, much more was expected from him, especially during times of severe crisis.
DHRITRASHTRA: When Satyavati called Vyas to Hastinapur, he was in the middle of a severe penance. His hair was unruly, his beard was long, eyes deep red and body smeared with ash. Aghast by Vyas’s appearance, Ambika had closed her eyes in shock. As a result, their son Dhritrashtra was blind by birth. Ambalika’s reaction too wasn’t different. She turned pale seeing Vyas and as a result, their son Pandu was born unhealthy and weak. Though Dhritrashtra was the elder between the two, his blindness disadvantaged him and kept him way from the throne. Pandu was made the king, something Dhritrashtra could never get over. The brothers got married to princesses from powerful kingdoms. Dhritrashtra to Gandhari from Gandhar and Pandu to Kunti from Kuntibhoj and later Madri from Madra. Pandu led the Kuru army to successful conquests across the country and expanded the kingdom. Fatigued after long battles, Dhritrashtra was made the caretaker king and Pandu was sent to retreat. This is when they fathered children. Pandu’s son Yudhisthir was the eldest in the new generation, followed by Dhritrashtra’s son Duryodhan. The other Kuru princes followed. When all seemed to be well, Pandu died as a result of a curse and Dhritrashtra was made the king. Though sad this his brother’s untimely death, being made the king seemed like poetic justice to Dhritrashtra and he would beam with vanity wearing the crown. When the time to anoint a crown prince came, Dhritrashtra was strongly inclined towards appointing his son Duryodhan his heir. At the behest of Kripacharya, Bhishma, Dronacharya and Vidur, Yudhisthir was named as the crown prince. They reasoned that Pandu was originally the king and his eldest son should succeed and that Yudhisthir was also the eldest in the generation. Given Yudhisthir’s all-round capability and righteous reputation, the court too unanimously supported the decision. This was a major setback for Duryodhan. His uncle Shakuni had sowed the seeds of hatred for the Pandavs since childhood and had hailed him as the king in waiting. Duryodhan had, thanks to Shakuni for most of the part, grown up believing that he and only he had the rightful stake to the throne. Seeing his ambition fading, he fumed with anger and jealousy and schemed with Shakuni. From trying to burn them alive, to having them get a barren piece of land as their share, to playing them into deceitful gambling, to insulting their wife Draupadi, to exiling them and then not giving them their kingdom back, Duryodhan and Shakuni kept no stone unturned to perturb the Pandavs. Dhritrashtra, who never openly supported their deeds, did nothing to keep a check on Duryodhan and Shakuni’s actions. None of their acts were questioned and neither were they castigated for any. The likes of Bhishma and Vidur kept warning their king of severe consequences but every word fell on deaf ears. Dhritrashtra’s ambitions and love for Duryodhan made him ignore the misdeeds. Misdeeds so grave and so many that ending up killing the entire clan with hundreds of thousand others later at Kurukshetra.
When the hour demanded leadership over affection, Dhritrashtra remained silent and chose not to act against his son’s wishes and deeds. He wasn’t just a father but also a king. He was expected to ensure justice prevailed over prejudice, even in the royal household.
YUDHISTHIR: The Pandavs got a barren piece of land, Khandavprasth, as their share in the kingdom and left Hastinapur. With Krishna’s guidance and their efforts, the brothers transformed the desert into an oasis and built a beautiful kingdom with well-planned townships, farmlands and a beautiful palace for themselves. The kingdom was named Indraprasth and it flourished under the able leadership of the Pandavs. Citizens were happy, trade prospered, and the kingdom was secure with the likes of Bheem and Arjun guarding it. With time, Yudhisthir came to be known as one of the finest rulers of the era and aspired to be an emperor. This called for the Rajsuya sacrifice. His brothers campaigned, winning allegiances either by treaty or force. No flag could withstand the mighty Pandavs and all kings across the country soon arrived for a grand ceremony at Indraprasth. Back in Hastinapur, Shakuni and Duryodhan had kept a close watch on the Pandav success and had heard stories of the grandeur of their palace. Jealous that Duryodhan already was, the invitation got him fuming and he was grumpy throughout the ceremony. The cunning Shakuni, on the other hand, was at his shrewdest best. He sang praises for the Pandavs, particularly Yudhisthir. Shakuni was known to be an ace gambler. His sorcery resulted his dice rolling the desired number every time he wanted. One afternoon, Shakuni and Yudhisthir had a game in which Shakuni lost round after round. He staked jewels, gold and gems and Yudhisthir won all of them. Having defeated the master, Yudhisthir’s ego bloated with pride. Praises from Shakuni added to his confidence and he felt he had mastered gambling. That’s where Shakuni’s cunning plan1 had begun. Soon after, Shakuni asked Duryodhan to invite Yudhisthir to Hastinapur for a gamble. This time, it was planned that Shakuni would play on behalf of Duryodhan and win everything that’s staked by Yudhisthir. Aware that gambling wasn’t a virtue, Yudhisthir thought he had mastered it and that there was no harm in indulging with relatives. It was against a kshatriya’s self-esteem to decline such invitations. This time, Shakuni was at his real best and every roll of the dice returned the desired number. Round after round, Yudhisthir kept losing. Jewels, wealth, armies and land were put at stake and lost. The palace was lost. Indraprasth was lost. Duryodhan was overjoyed. Soon, Yudhisthir had nothing left to stake and realized Shakuni’s intentions, but his self-esteem wouldn’t let him stop. Bheem and Arjun requested the game be stopped but taunts from Duryodhan ensured Yudhisthir carried on. He staked his brothers and lost. He staked himself and, yet again, lost. The nadir of the day was when Draupadi put at stake and lost. Duryodhan was waiting2 for such an opportunity. He had her dragged into the court and tried to disrobe her. Something that wasn’t thought of in the civilized society. Cheated, humiliated and defeated, the Pandavs were exiled for fourteen years. Gambling, which Yudhisthir thought he mastered and what happened with Draupadi as a result, paved way for butchery at Kurukshetra.
When the hour demanded good sense over self-esteem, Yudhisthir’s pride failed him. As a king, he was expected to sense the true intentions of people. Even after being played, he should’ve drawn the line before things got worse. As a responsible individual, he should’ve known how gambling works and that one’s family can’t be put at stake.
- Read more about Shakuni’s mind games here: Mind Games in the Mahabharat – Part 1 of 2. Shakuni & the Kauravs
- Read more about Duryodhan’s revenge here: The 10 Avengers of the Mahabharat