In the Mahabharata, who is the rightful heir to the Bharata throne – Yudhishthira or Duryodhana? Recently I put this question to a group of about a hundred bright young people, all of whom were familiar with the Mahabharata story. The opinion was clearly divided. In fact, while many were confused, a slight majority felt it belonged to Duryodhana.
A lot of people feel that Duryodhana was the rightful heir to the Bharata throne throughout the central story of the epic. The argument is that even if Dhritarashtra was originally denied the throne because of his blindness, Pandu gave it to him and hence he was the king – if not while Pandu was alive, definitely after his death. And since Duryodhana was Dhritarashtra’s son, he was the rightful heir to the throne of the Bharatas, however unfair it sounds towards the Pandavas. They feel that in spite of being good and all, the Pandavas had no legal claim over the Bharata throne and it is our sympathy for them that makes us take their side and Krishna too supported them because they were good and were his people.
However, the Mahabharata itself does not agree with this position.
Here is what Bhishma tells Duryodhana in the Udyoga Parva, during a heated scene immediately before the war, in yet another attempt to make Duryodhana accept the truth:
Andhah karanahīneti na vai rājā pitā tava
Rājā tu pāndur abhavan mahātmā lokaviśrutah
Sa rājā tasya te putrāh pitur dāyādyahārinah
Mā tāta kalaham kārshī rājyasyārdham pradīyatām
“Since your father was blind, he could not become king, being disqualified by that. It was the noble Pandu, renowned everywhere, who became king. Since he was king and the Pandavas are his children, they are the heirs to his property. Don’t quarrel, son, and give [at least] half the kingdom to them.”
There is no mention in Bhishma’s words of Dhritarashtra ever becoming king of the Bharatas.
Gandhari, Duryodhana’s mother, too participates in this discussion, with the hope that she may influence Duryodhana. If what Bhishma says is not enough, her statement here makes it clearer still:
Rājyam tu pāndor idam apradhrshyam;
tasyādya putrāh prabhavanti nānye.
Rājyam tad etan nikhilam pāndavānām;
“This powerful kingdom, indeed, belonged to Pandu. And after him it belongs to his children, and to no one else. The entire kingdom belongs to the Pandavas, for, the tradition is that the kingdom comes down from the father to the son and then to his son.”
If these statements by Bhishma and Gandhari are not enough, here is what Dhritarashtra himself says on the issue on this occasion. Old Dhritarashtra point blank tells his son that he has no right to the kingdom. The kingdom belonged to Pandu, since he, Dhritarashtra, was disqualified by his blindness, ever since Pandu’s death, it has belonged to his eldest son Yudhishthira. Dhritarashtra concludes his long discourse to Duryodhana here, saying:
Mayyabhāgini rājyāya katham tvam rājyam icchasi.
Arājaputro hyasvāmī, parasvam hartum ichhasi
Yudhishthiro rājaputro mahātmā;
nyāyāgatam rājyam idam ca tasya
Sa kauravasyāsya janasya bhartā;
praśāsitā caiva mahānubhāvah.
“I was not fortunate to have the right over the kingdom; how can you then desire to be king? You are not the son of a king and therefore the kingdom does not belong to you. You are coveting what does not belong to you and trying to snatch it away from its rightful owner. The noble Yudhishthira is the son of the king, and this kingdom has rightfully been inherited by him. He is now the lord of all of us Kauravas, and that generous one is the [rightful] ruler of this land.”
By the rules and traditions that existed in the Mahabharata days and in the Bharata family, Yudhishthira and Yudhishthira alone was the rightful heir to the throne of Hastinapura.
There is one other way of looking at it. In India in general, and in the Bharata family in particular, apart from the fact that the claimant had to be the eldest of the diseased king and was healthy, there was by custom another requirement: that he was morally too fit to be king. Of all the unlikely people, it is Dhritarashtra who dwells upon this fact and clarifies that by this convention too, it is to Yudhishthira that the kingdom belongs. Speaking about this, Dhritarashtra says:
sa satyasandhah satatāpramattah; śāstre sthito bandhujanasya sādhuh
priyah prajānām suhrdānukampī; jitendriyah sādhujanasya bhartā
kshamā titikshā dama ārjavam ca; satyavratatvam śrutam apramādam
bhūtānukampā hy anuśāsanam ca; yudhishthire rājagunāh samastāh
arājaputras tvam anāryavrtto; lubdhas tathā bandhushu pāpabuddhih
kramāgatam rājyam idam pareshām; hartum katham śakshyasi durvinītah
“He is always truthful and invariably clear-sighted. He follows the injunctions of the scriptures, and is always favourably disposed to the advice of his friends. He is dear to the subjects and kind to his friends. He is a master of his passions and a protector of the virtuous. Yudhishthira has every virtue required in a king, such as patience, forbearance, self-control and straightforwardness. His studies are deep, he is bound by truth; he is filled with compassion for all beings and is disciplined. Whereas you – you are not the son of a king, your conduct is ignoble, you are greedy, and you always think of how to harm your own people. By inheritance, this kingdom belongs to others. And you, O wicked one, how can you grab it for yourself?”
Well, all this makes it quite clear to whom the kingdom belongs. However, in the Mahabharata things are never so unambiguously clear. We have a discordant note here too – Drona. Just like Bhishma, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, Drona too says that the kingdom belongs to Yudhishthira and not to Duryodhana – but in saying so, he says something that none of the others has said: that Dhritarashtra has been installed on the throne by Pandu.
This is what Drona says, speaking about what Pandu did:
tatah pāndur narapatih satyasandho jitendriyah
rājā kurūnām dharmātmā suvratah susamāhitah
jyeshthāya rājyam adadād dhrtarāshtrāya dhīmate
yavīyasas tathā kshattuh kuruvamśavivardhanah
tatah simhāsane rājan sthāpayitvainam acyutam
vanam jagāma kauravyo bhāryābhyām sahito nrpah
“Then Pandu, the king of the Kurus, the perpetrator of the race of the Kurus, ever-truthful, a master of his passions, rooted in dharma, noble in his vows and fully a master of himself, gave the kingdom to his sagacious elder brother Dhritarashtra and to his younger brother Vidura. Having placed Dhritarashtra on the throne, oh prince, that scion of the Kurus, the king, went to the jungle along with his two wives.”
Subsequently Drona adds: visrjya dhrtarāshtrāya rājyam sa vidurāya ca – having given away the kingdom to Dhritarashtra along with Vidura.
From what Drona says, we will have to conclude what Pandu put Dhritarashtra on the throne – that is, officially appointed him king. If he did that, the whole argument changes and all that Bhishma, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari say become invalid.
How do we reconcile the positions taken by these three with what Drona says. The only way I can think of is Drona is not aware of the exact position – he was not present when these incidents took place, whereas Bhishma, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, all three of them, were present. They were not only present, the whole series of incidents were centred around them. If Drona’s words contradict them, we will have to reject those words and go by what these three say.
I do not see any choice but to agree with the position taken by them: Duryodhana never had any right to the throne of the Bharatas, it always belonged to Yudhishthira.