The main conflict between the sons of two brothers in Mahabharat is built around a dilemma. Out of the two heirs of the deceased King Vichitraveerya, the elder Dhrutarashtra is blind, so the younger son Pandu is anointed King. The King retires to the woods and his elder brother is appointed Regent. The King’s tragic death in self-exile gives rise to the question – who of the two contenders should be appointed Crown Prince: Duryodhan, the eldest son of the elder brother who is only a Regent or Yudhishthir, the eldest son of the younger brother who was the King. To further complicate the situation, the eldest son of the younger brother is one year older than the eldest son of the elder brother.
This riddle causes a rift not only among the members of the Kuru dynasty, but also among the readers and scholars of Mahabharat. Some argue in favour of Duryodhan, the eldest son of the eldest brother, for apparently it was in keeping with the tradition existing then. This was Duryodhan’s own view too. While those in favour of Yudhishthir argue that Pandu and not Dhrutarashtra was ordained King and as his eldest son Yudhishthir was the rightful heir.
In this matter, however, an advice given to Duryodhan by Dhrutarashtra himself is of much interest. When Krishna, in an attempt to bring about reconciliation between the two sides goes to Hastinapur, Dhrutarashtra beseeches Duryodhan to follow Krishna’s advice. Dhrutarashtra narrates two instances from the past of the Kuru dynasty [Udyogparv, Section CXLIX]*. One of their ancestors Yayati had two sons – Yadu and Puru. Yayati did not ordain Yadu crown prince, though elder, since Yadu was arrogant and wicked. Yayati expelled Yadu from the kingdom (who then propagated the Yadav clan in which Krishna took birth after several generations) and the virtuous younger son Puru became the King of Hastinapur. Both the Kauravs and Pandavs belonged to Puru’s line. In the second instance that Dhrutarashtra recounts, his own grandfather King Shantanu was the youngest son of King Pratip. Pratip did not choose the eldest son Devapi as he suffered from a skin disease, and Shantanu ascended the throne. As readers of Mahabharat are aware, Bhishm was Shantanu’s son from Ganga and Chitrangad and Vichitraveerya from Satyavati.
Now that the question, ‘whether the second son’s line can continue if the elder son is unfit?,’ is settled in the affirmative by precedence among the Kurus, the question needs to be answered – who among the two contenders was more suited to head the kingdom, Duryodhan or Yudhisthir? There are many who feel that Yudhishthir was better qualified as a leader. Within the epic itself such Kuru stalwarts as Bhishm and Vidur are of this opinion. However, this view is disputed by some scholars favouring Duryodhan; they argue that barring his wicked behaviour against the Pandavs, Duryodhan’s conduct was beyond reproach. During the thirteen long years of the Pandav’s exile and absence from Hastinapur, Duryodhan was the Crown Prince and his tenure in that capacity was unblemished.
It will be interesting to compare the conduct of both these aspirants to the throne of Hastinapur. Until the Pandavs arrived in Hastinapur from the Shatshrug Mountain, during the years the Pandavs ruled Indraprasth and after they were exiled on losing the gambling match, Duryodhan had no competition, he was assured of ascending the throne after his father. The kingdom had no enemies, his grandsire Bhishm and minister Vidur were capable statesmen and he had no worries on that count. It is only when persons face adversities that their true mettle is tested. And Duryodhan fails miserably when his position is challenged by the Pandav presence. All the base aspects of his personality come to the fore – the plot to assassinate Bheem by poisoning, the plot to burn the Pandavs alive at Varnavat, the intense jealousy on seeing the wealth of Indraprasth during the Rajsuya sacrifice of Yudhisthir, the cunning invitation for the gambling match and the subsequent insult to Draupadi reveal Duryondhan’s character.
Duryodhan outlines in no uncertain terms to his father the strategy of winning over citizens and kings to his side – appeasement and ingratiation. Here one may recall how he insinuated King Shalya of Madra to join his side by cunningly providing him with luxurious rest places while the latter was on his way to join Yudhishthir at Kurukshetra. Duryodhan tried to win over Krishna with the same tactics when Krishna arrived at Hastinapur for peace talks. Duryodhan had arranged banquet and expensive gifts, but his attempt turned futile when Krishna turned down his invitation. Yudhisthir’s method of winning allies was quite different. Before the battles began on Kurukshetra, Yudhishthir openly appealed to those from the Kaurav side to join the Pandavs if they thought his was a just cause. In response, Duryodhan’s half brother Yuyutsu left the Kaurav ranks and joined the Pandavs.
Duryodhan’s own mother Gandhari after censuring Dhrutarashtra in the presence of Krishna, several kings and sages present in the royal court, castigated Duryodhan. She calls Duryodhan ‘that kingdom-coveting, sick son of mine’, ‘of uncultivated heart’, ‘completely possessed by lust and wrath’, ‘doth not deserve to govern a kingdom’. [Udyogparv, CXXIX]*.
Yudhisthir’s character stands out in stark contrast. Yudhishthir treats all classes of citizens equally. Two incidents in the epic are worth noting in this regard. There is this incident during the prestigious Rajsuya sacrifice in Indraprasth, in which Yudhishthir invites the lowest ranked Shudras along with the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas to participate in the Yadnya. The other incident is during the Pandav’s stay at Varnavat where the house of lac is built, Yudhishthir accepts invitations to visit their houses from all citizens irrespective of their standing in social hierarchy. Yudhishthir has been lauded by some scholars as ‘precursor of Ashoka’s tradition’ [Vyasaanche Shilp, Narahar Kurundkar].
As opposed to Duryon’s humiliating treatment of Draupadi, Yushishthir had the captured Kaurav women rescued from the Gandharvs during the Dwait lake incident, and he applauds and readily permits Yuyutsu (Dhrutarashtra’s sole surviving son) to safely escort the grieving Kaurav widows back to the capital after the war [Shalya Parva, Section 29, Hrada-Pravesh Parva].
Yudhishthir keeps his word in extreme adversity and completes the full term of exile. Even when Duryodhan treats him as his enemy, Yudhishthir always insists on calling him by his actual name ‘Suyodhan’ [great warrior] and not the acquired one ‘Duryodhan’ [malevolent warrior].
However, one must mention here that Yudhishthir’s character is not without flaws; none of Vyas’ chief characters are two-dimensional. It was Yudhishthir’s addiction to the game of dice that led to his offering his brothers and wife as stake and consequent dire consequences. But, I do not think he can be blamed for the untruth he speaks at the time of his master Dron’s slaying, and I have dealt with it in one of the next riddles.
There is yet another angle, that of different versions of Mahabharat. It is believed that Vyas taught Mahabharat to four of his disciples - Vaishampayan, Jaimini, Sumanthu, Pail and his son Shuk. These five are supposed to have narrated the history of the Kurus to different audiences and each one’s version varied from the other to some extent. Some people believe that Jaimini’s version favoured Duryodhan over Yudhisthir. However, only a part of Jaimini’s version, relating to the Horse sacrifice of Yudhishthir conducted after the Kurukshetra war, is available. The version of the epic available to us today is based on the one narrated by Vaishampayan at the snake sacrifice of King Janmejaya, grandson to the Pandav Arjun. Sauti, who had heard Vaishampayan recite it at the snake sacrifice, retold it to the sages gathered at Shaunak’s yadnya in Naimish forest.
Whatever may have been the views of the authors of the other versions of Mahabharat we have available in the mainstream Sauti’s version and it shows Duryodhan as ineligible to be king on both counts – precedent and leadership qualities. However, since most of us have read abridged retellings or tv serials and rarely the full text of the epic, some of us have mistaken views about who was the real successor to the throne of Hastinapur.