In the galaxy of ideal women in Indian history, the name of Queen Gandhari occupies a prominent place. She was the mother of the Kauravas and the wife of Dhritarashtra, the blind King of Hastinapur. Despite having sight, she wished to identify herself completely with her husband and not claim any sense of superiority to him. For this purpose, she tied a piece of silk to her eyes and voluntarily took up blindness, which was a great and unparalleled sacrifice that she made throughout her life. The characters of the Mahabharata portray virtues and vices with the theme of triumph of good over evil and Gandhari’s predicament in various situations highlights the need of strong moral values, determination and steadfastness to the path of Dharma eschewing attachment to kith and kin and lower base passions. As the daughter of King Subala, in the Mahabharata she is also referred to as Saubali, Subalaja, Subalaputri, Saubaleyi and many other such names.
Birth and Early life
King Subala was the King of Gandhara which is modern day Kandahar (a region spanning Pakistan and Afghanistan). He is said to have had hundred sons and one daughter Gandhari. Shakuni was the youngest son and was also referred to as Saubala. There are many legends that provide
the reason for Shakuni’s intense hatred towards the Kuru dynasty which indirectly affected Gandhari greatly. One extreme theory was that astrologers had calculated that Gandhari’s horoscope predicted death for her husband so to avert such a calamity, her marriage was first performed to a goat. Later she was married to Dhritarashtra, and when Dhritarashtra heard the news years later, he was shocked and enraged and put King Subala and his sons in prison, serving them only one fistful of rice as food. King Subala then decided to test his sons in order to select the cleverest of them all who would later avenge their deaths. He placed a long rod with a very small hole and asked them to pass a thread through it. Only the youngest son Shakuni tied the thread to an ant’s body and placed it on one side of the rod and a grain of food on the other side. The ant went through the hole along with the thread to eat the grain. The King then realised that Shakuni alone could avenge their deaths, and subsequently they fed him the food every day and ensured his survival. However, this theory disputed the fact that Dhritharashtra allowed Shakuni to live with them for the rest of his life which he could not have allowed if Shakuni were to have been his sworn enemy. Another theory for the hatred was that Shakuni hated Bhishma, as Bhishma had brought the proposal of Dhritarashtra to the Gandhar King, even after knowing of his blindness. Those days refusal of a proposal meant war and as they were no match for the might of the Hastinapur kingdom, the Gandhar King was forced to accept it. Moreover, Gandhari voluntarily took up blindness which enraged Shakuni. He thus came to live with them and recognising Dhritarashtra’s lust for monarchy and weakness, he fanned the embers of jealousy and hatred in Duryodhana. The Bhishma Parva mentions the death of most of Shakuni’s brothers at the hands of Iravan, the son of Arjuna. This formed the background for the destruction of the Kuru race in which Gandhari was merely a pawn.
Gandhari was chaste, beautiful and virtuous and she worshipped Hara (Lord Shiva) and obtained a boon from Him that she would have a hundred sons. When Bhishma heard of this, he immediately proceeded to the Gandhara Kingdom, as his main aim in life was to ensure the continuity of the Kuru race.
The birth of the Kauravas
Soon after Gandhari’s marriage, Sage Vyasa came to Hastinapur . She served him dutifully with reverence and devotion and the sage pleased with her, granted her a boon. Gandhari wished to have a hundred powerful sons and with Sage Vyasa’s blessings in due course of time, she became enceinte. However strangely, it is said that two years passed and still the baby was not born. Meanwhile, Kunti got a son from Lord Yama, whom she named Yudhisthira. After two years of pregnancy, Gandhari was devastated when she gave birth to a hard piece of lifeless flesh. But Rishi Vyasa appeared and asked her to arrange one hundred and one jars filled with oil. He then divided the flesh into one hundred and one pieces and placed them in the jars. After two more years of waiting the jars were ready to be opened and the first jar revealed a boy whom they named Duryodhana meaning ‘ the unconquerable one’. At this time, many signs of ill omen were seen like the howling of the beasts in the jungle and Vidura felt that the child should be abandoned as he spelt doom and destruction of the Kuru clan. But Gandhari and Dhritarashtra refused to abandon the child. The other children were then taken out of the jars, and Gandhari finally had 100 sons and a daughter as per her desire.
Gandhari was a Pativrata Stree, who completely identified herself with her role as a loyal and dedicated wife to King Dhritarashtra. She recognised the failings of her husband and continually tried to warn him about the outcome of his decisions. She warned Duryodhana of the perils of jealousy and hatred and was a woman of wisdom, righteousness and clarity of thought. She even remonstrated with her brother Shakuni on various occasions for leading Duryodhana and the others on the path of ruin. Unfortunately, her advice was not heeded to by her husband and children, and she had to watch their destruction in agony and sorrow helplessly.
Gandhari and Kunti
Gandhari had a very sisterly relationship with Kunti. Being the two matriarchs of the clan, both of them have been portrayed in the Mahabharata as devoted wives, loving mothers and pure women. Despite both being forced to stand on opposite sides of the fence during the war, they supported and commiserated with each other sharing each other’s joys and sorrows. Both of them were aware of right and wrong and though they constantly endeavoured to follow the path of Dharma, they were trapped in the situations of their life and had no choice but to follow their destinies. They achieved this with dignity, grace and strength of character.
The Kurukshetra War
Spiritual powers can be attained by unswerving spiritual practices, and by implicitly performing one’s Dharma. Gandhari was a great devotee of Lord Shiva. Also by withdrawing her visual senses from the world and turning it inwards, her Pativrata Dharma and chastity enabled her to attain great spiritual powers. During the Kurukshetra war, all the sons of Gandhari except Duryodhana had been killed. Now Duryodhana had to face the wrath of the Pandavas. Finally, the battle took place between Bheema and Duryodhana. Gandhari wanted to protect Duryodhana and decided to save him. She then informed Duryodhana that if he stood in front of her without his clothes, she would remove her blindfold and her glance on his body would strengthen him greatly and ensure against his injury from weapons. Duryodhana agreed, but Lord Krishna divined that if this came about, Duryodhana would become invincible, and the Kauravas could never be defeated. So he approached Duryodhana and chided him about the impropriety of appearing without clothes in front of his mother. Duryodhana then decided to cover his loins and approach his mother. When Gandhari focussed her vision on him, she was aghast to see that he had disobeyed her and made his loins susceptible to attack. As predicted during the battle, Krishna directed Bheema to attack his loins and Duryodhana was killed.
At the end of the war, all the sons of Gandhari had perished. Heartbroken and grief stricken at the loss and hearing the cries of the widows in the family, she saw Krishna and blamed him for the destruction of the Kuru race. She accused him of having power but yet not preventing the bloodshed and annihilation. She then cursed that the entire Yadava clan too would be destroyed and Krishna would die an ordinary death like an animal. Lord Krishna had already divined how his mission would end and accepted the curse gracefully as everything was already preordained. He then reminded her of all the misdeeds committed by the Kauravas and pacified her that they had all fought as heroes and attained higher regions after their death and Gandhari should no longer grieve for them.
After the war and Yudhistira’s coronation as King, Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti decided to leave Hastinapur and proceed to the forest to engage themselves in spiritual practices. In yogic trance, they later perished in a forest fire. Sage Narada approached Yudhisthira and informed him of the deaths. He then consoled the grieving Pandavas and urged Yudhisthira to perform their last rites. With heavy hearts, they performed the obsequies on the banks of the river Ganges.
According to legends, at the end of the war Gandhari is said to have lamented to Lord Krishna, whom she blamed for the death of her sons. She is said to have asked the Lord the reason for her sufferings. Lord Krishna replied that the law of cause and effect was the reason behind all sufferings. He explained to her that long back in an earlier life, Gandhari had poured boiling water after cooking rice on the ground outside her kitchen. An insect had laid hundred eggs there and all of them were killed. The mother insect cursed her that she too would have to endure the deaths of her hundred children. Another legend stated that Gandhari had crushed the eggs of a mother turtle, who cursed her with a similar fate.
In the epic Mahabharata, the character of Gandhari is one of the most striking characters as despite her exemplary qualities of purity, chastity, patience and piety, she was unable to control the hatred that her sons had for the Pandavas. Torn between loyalty, love and righteousness, she was unable to prevent the bitterness of her husband and the jealousy of Duryodhana from creating havoc and ruin. She indirectly tried to share the pain of her blind husband by closing her eyes with a cloth and despite her high moral standards and exhortations to Duryodhana to follow a virtuous path, she was unable to prevent the jealousy and subsequent ruin of the Kauravas. The many frustrations, complexes and disappointments which her husband Dhritarashtra was struggling under, and the denial of Kingship which burnt his heart, created great problems for Gandhari, who was forced to watch her family slowly drift towards self-destruction. She was torn by her sense of justice, her duty to her husband and her maternal affection towards her sons. Her goodness and purity were severely tested by her scheming and treacherous brother, her ambitious and weak husband and her hate filled jealous sons. Her sorrow, pain and agony at the end of the war when all her sons were killed touch an emotional chord in all those who read the Mahabharata and her final loneliness and grief make her character poignant.