Spurred on by Vidura’s blunt instructions, Dhritarashtra salvages his often dishonorable life.
By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
Lessons from the last years of the life of Dhritarashtra.

Dhritarashtra tensed as he heard the heavy footfalls of Bhima in the palace corridor. They stopped near the window to his room. Standing there, Bhima spoke in a voice loud enough for Dhritarashtra to hear.

Slapping his arms, he declared, “These are the arms with which I crushed all the hundred Kauravas, cut off the very arm that Duhshasana used to touch Draupadi’s hair, and broke the very thigh that Duryodhana bared before Draupadi. Not one of those hundred scoundrels could escape my wrath.”

Among the Pandavas, Bhima was the most bellicose. He couldn’t bear to see Dhritarashtra, the same person who had consented to the many atrocities done against them, now enjoying royal comforts at their expense. He vented his anger by speaking stinging words within Dhritarashtra’s earshot.

Though Dhritarashtra had heard Bhima speak those words many times, he felt their sting each time – all the more so because he knew they were true. Yet such was his attachment to royal comfort that he continued to live in the Pandavas’ palace.

Attachment Humiliates, Detachment Liberates

Attachment promises pleasure, but over time it gives decreasing pleasure and increasing pain. Such was Dhritarashtra’s predicament. His attachment to royal comforts forced him to stomach Bhima’s humiliating words. The more he stomached them, the more they devoured his sense of honor.

Our sense of honor propels us to act honorably and deters us from acting dishonorably. It is not arrogance; it is basic human self-respect and is essential for us to act respectably. But attachment deadens our sense of honor. Indeed, it acts like a narcotic that numbs us to the pain of our pitiable condition. Being thus numbed, we act reproachably, even reprehensibly, just to protect the thing we are attached to. Thus our attachment sets us up for humiliation, again and again.

For someone thus numbed, a shock therapy is called for. That therapy came to Dhritarashtra in the form of Vidura’s words – words that jolted, detached, and liberated.

The Verbal Knockout Punch

“O king, why are you staying here, like a household dog, eating the remnants that Bhima has discarded?”

These words spoken by Vidura stung Dhritarashtra like nothing else. Dhritarashtra had been sitting in the royal palace, eager to meet his half-brother Vidura, who had left for pilgrimage many years before and had just returned. But the meeting hadn’t gone anything like he had expected. Vidura seemed be on a mission to speak words that hit him where it hurt. Vidura had quickly assessed Dhritarashtra’s plight and had started verbalizing it without mincing words.

“O king, what do you have to look forward to in life? Death awaits you in the near future. Your body is aged and diseased. What are you doing apart from producing cough? Do you feel no shame in living at the mercy of those you repeatedly wronged? Why do you keep living comfortably when you know that the serpent of death is creeping closer to you with every passing moment?”

Vidura’s words were like verbal arrows that pierced Dhritarashtra’s defenses and wounded him unbearably.

Vidura had spoken strongly to him earlier too. But now his words seemed to have a force and ferocity like never before. They were like the final blows of a boxer who knows that the opponent is on the verge of collapsing.

For Dhritarashtra, the statement that he was like a dog eating Bhima’s remnants was the knockout punch. For anyone to be compared to a dog was painful. For a king to be compared thus was especially painful. For a king to be compared to a dog who ate someone’s remnants was far more painful. And for that someone to be a person the king resented was much, much more painful. And for that person to be Bhima was unbearably painful for Dhritarashtra, even when he knew that the comparison was nonliteral. The very thought of Bhima pained Dhritarashtra – this was the person who had killed all his hundred sons. Worse still, Bhima’s repeated harsh words were like a regular torture for him. To hear Vidura say that his condition was like that of a dog eating Bhima’s remnants jolted Dhritarashtra like nothing else.

As those words entered Dhritarashtra’s head and heart, they cut off his long-lingering attachments. He resolved immediately to renounce royal comforts.

Operation Renunciation Successful at Last

When Dhritarashtra finally became detached, that detachment was the fruit of a multi-pronged operation by multiple sages for decades. During Dhritarashtra’s reign, many sages had visited Hastinapura to persuade Duryodhana to curb his animosity towards the Pandavas. And if that attempt proved unsuccessful, they had hoped, more realistically, to detach Dhritarashtra from Duryodhana. Neither purpose had been successful.

Amidst so much cautionary counsel, how had Dhritarashtra rationalized his passivity and complicity for so long? By refusing to contemplate that counsel – by letting his thoughts and emotions stay with his attachments, leaving no room for considering anything that threatened his attachments.

And for neglecting wise counsel, he had got help – chiefly from the unwise counsel of the brahmana Kanika. Kanika was a brahmana in name only; he was a wily expert in politics and statecraft. He was a friend of Shakuni, who had been the source of much bad counsel for Duryodhana, his nephew. Shakuni knew that his words, which had much weight for Duryodhana, who was younger to him, wouldn’t have that much weight for Dhritarashtra, who was elder to him. So he enlisted the service of Kanika, who helped Dhritarashtra rationalize his wrongdoings. Kanika infamously told Dhritarashtra that one could and should kill even one’s son, friend, brother, father, or preceptor if that person came in the way of attaining royal opulence.

Whose words we hear is important, but even more important is whose words we hold dear. Dhritarashtra chose to value Kanika’s words more than Vidura’s – and thus continued with his passivity and complicity. We need to take the advice that rejects vice, not the advice that rationalizes vice. 

Even the great sage Vyasa, who had fathered Dhritarashtra through the ritual practice of surrogate insemination, had tried to enlighten Dhritarashtra. Desiring to ground him in reality, Vyasa had offered Dhritarashtra eyes to see the Kurukshetra war. With those eyes the king could have seen the destruction of his sons, which was the inevitable result of their many vicious activities. The sight of that graphic destruction could have awakened detachment within him. But unfortunately, Dhritarashtra refused those eyes, passing the gift on to his assistant, Sanjaya. Though hearing about the death of his sons shocked and devastated Dhritarashtra, still, it did not awaken detachment within him.

But now in his old age, he had lost all access to worldly pleasure, either vicariously through his sons, who were dead, or directly through his own body, which was dying. He could live in denial no more.

In this situation, Vidura’s words became like a mirror that showed Dhritarashtra what he had been reduced to. And that sight was so unflattering that he immediately became ready to rectify it by renouncing the world.

Vidura succeeded where Vyasa and other sages had failed. Did that mean he was more potent than those sages? Not necessarily.

In the past, Vidura’s words too had failed. In fact, Vidura had spoken far more words of advice to Dhritarashtra than had Vyasa. After all, Vidura was a prominent minister in Dhritarashtra’s court, being his half-brother. He saw Vidura practically daily. And yet Vidura’s words hadn’t changed him.

The Vedic tradition compares the words of the wise to sharp swords that cut the attachments of the ignorant. But this sword sometimes cuts and sometimes fails to cut.

Whether a sword cuts a bond depends not just on the sharpness of the sword but also the strength of the binding material. For some people, their bonds are made not of ropes but of iron. That is, their situation and disposition make them utterly unreceptive to any higher wisdom. Even the most cutting words of the most potent sages can’t enlighten those who are bent on holding on to their attachments.

Such attached people need to learn adequately in the school of hard knocks before they can learn through words of wisdom. They need to go through life’s harsh experiences till they evolve to a point of becoming more spiritually receptive. Only then will the sword of wise words cut.

Life had finally brought Dhritarashtra to that point – and Vidura’s timely words were effective.

Soberingly, Dhritarashtra had to lose everything before he lost his attachments. Surely, we can do better when our turn comes to let go of our attachments.

The Sudden Departure

“Alas, my master has left me behind. Why didn’t he inform me when he was leaving?”

Sanjaya’s lament alarmed Yudhishthira. He had come in the morning to offer his daily respects to Dhritarashtra, his uncle. But he couldn’t find him in the places Dhritarashtra usually frequented. As he searched with increasing anxiety, he came across Sanjaya.

When Yudhishthira understood from Sanjaya that Dhritarashtra had renounced the world and gone to the forest, he was aghast. Dhritarashtra had never lived in a forest. His entire life had been spent in the comforts of the palace; his blindness had precluded his doing anything physically challenging. What he had never done in his youth, how could he do now, in his old age? Such considerations impelled Yudhishthira to follow Dhritarashtra and request him to return to the palace. 

While Yudhishthira was contemplating where to go to search for Dhritarashtra, Narada appeared.

That celestial sage informed Yudhishthira, “Dhritarashtra has chosen the path of no return. He has embraced the renounced order, which prepares one for death. He will soon shed his mortal coil and attain a spiritually elevated destination.”

On hearing this prophecy, Yudhishthira reluctantly restrained himself.

Give the Mind No Excuses

On being enlightened by Vidura’s words, Dhritarashtra became so determined to renounce the world that he didn’t want to stop for even one moment more than necessary. He decided not to inform Yudhishthira or Sanjaya about his decision, for they would try to dissuade him.

Dhritarashtra recognized that his mind had befooled him into living in undeserved royal comfort for so long. That same mind wouldn’t allow him to renounce everything so easily – it would latch on to any excuse for putting off the resolve to renounce. He had listened to his mind long enough. Enough was enough.

For long, he had sensed vaguely the shamelessness of his staying in the palace of the very Pandavas he had wronged repeatedly. Now, thanks to Vidura’s strong words, that vague sensation had become a forceful realization; he wasn’t going to let anything dim that realization. He acted on it right away by embracing renunciation.

Deep within all of us is something that longs for a better life. We sense that we are meant for something better than decay and death. Our heart beats towards mortality, yet it beats for immortality. With every heartbeat, we move closer to death. Yet with every heartbeat, we long to live forever and to love forever. Lord Krishna’s wisdom in the Gita echoes our intuition for immortality. He explains that we are souls who are the children of immortality. We can attain immortality if we evolve spiritually by redirecting our love from the temporary to the eternal.

In that spiritual evolution, renunciation is a significant step forward, especially when we near death. All the worldly things we have to lose eventually and inevitably, if we choose to give them up voluntarily, we open our heart for spiritual enrichment. Such renunciation is courageous and glorious.

The Self-created Fire and Pyre

Dhritarashtra sat in mystic meditation, focusing on inner spiritual reality. He was a kshatriya – and had the power of determination. Though he hadn’t used it much earlier in his life, he now resolved to use it fully. By determined yoga practice, he went into deep meditation. Over time, his meditation gave rise to a mystical inner fire that emerged from his body and consumed it. While being thus immolated, Dhritarashtra remained in trance, having transcended bodily consciousness.

While such a death might seem ghastly and tragic, it was actually auspicious and heroic. In the Vedic tradition, fire is considered sacred. Indeed, fire is central to the yajnas that are a prominent dharmic practice. What is offered in a sacred fire is transported mystically to higher beings as an offering for their propitiation and pleasure. During life, the pious offered valued possessions such as ghee and grains into the fire. At the end of life, they offered the body to a sacred fire during cremation. Whereas cremation was done by others after the soul had left the body, self-immolation was done by some spiritually determined souls while they were still in the body. In a mood of selfless sacrifice, they would offer to the sacred fire their most valued possession: their body. When done in proper consciousness, such sacred self-immolation guaranteed an auspicious spiritual destination.

By choosing to depart from the world in a sacred trance and a sacred fire, Dhritarashtra ensured that his inglorious life had a glorious end.

Chaitanya Charana Dasa serves full time at ISKCON Chowpatty, Mumbai. He is a BTG associate editor and the author of more than twenty-five books. To read his other articles or receive his daily reflection on the Bhagavad-gita, “Gita-Daily,” visit gitadaily.com.