The Mahabharata Research
In the ancient Epic
The eldest of the 100 Kaurava brothers, is perhaps the only prominent character who is described in the epic as the epitome of evil and injustice. The epic presents him as an evil plotter, a person without morals who wrecked the entire backbone of not only his own kingdom but brought immense ruin to many nations together in a single stroke Though his brother Dushasana and his uncle Shakuni are also portrayed in similar darker shades, Duryodhana stays as the single powerful antagonist who's criticized for being the sole reason for the Great War. Despite being the first born son of the incumbent king Dhritarashtra, he is overlooked as heir to the throne of Hastinapur and his cousin brother Yudhishtira is chosen by the elders. The resultant animosity that Duryodhana developed towards his cousins renders him the chief antagonist of the epic and leads his to commit some of the gravest of misdeed which eventually resulted in the great Mahabharata war.
The epic builds a lot of drama around the birth of Duryodhana describing the events around his birth to have shown bad omens reminiscent of the impending destruction that he's destined to bring upon the kingdom. As per the epic, when Gandhari's pregnancy continued for an unusually long period of time, she beat her womb in frustration which resulted in she delivering a hardened mass of grey-colored flesh which was divided by sage Vyasa into one hundred and one equal pieces and each of the piece was sealed in a pot of ghee and kept incubated. At the end of the 1 year, the first pot was opened, and Duryodhana emerged. All sounds like a science fiction indeed – probably this story about the birth of the Kauravas might be a fantasy addition to the epic at a later point of time.
The epic presents a Duryodhana who was too wicked even during his childhood. Duryodhana carried a huge hatred for Bhima, primarily due to Bhima’s physical strength with which he dominated the Kaurava brothers in sports and fights, which in turn incited a sense of threat in Duryodhana, who attempted to kill Bhima by feeding him a poisoned feast and throwing him in the river, but Bhima survived somehow and came back after a few days. When the princes come of age, Yudhishthira is named as the crown prince due to his superior merits. With disappointment and frustration, Duryodhana adviced by his uncle Shakuni plotted to burn the Pandavas at Varnavat; however, they managed to escape the trap. After the Pandavas reveal that they have survived the wax house, with a new wife and an alliance with the Panchala kingdom, Bhishma suggests that the kingdom be divided in order to ease the obvious tension. Yudhishthira is given half the kingdom and made king of Khandavprastha, so as to avoid a clash with the Kaurava princes over the whole Kuru Kingdom. Duryodhana becomes the prince regent of Hastinapur, and owing to the age and blindness of his father, he accumulates much control and influence, managing the state affairs himself with a group of his advisers that include his uncle Shakuni, brother Dushasana and friend Karna.
But Duryodhana remains jealous of Yudhishthira, especially after the Pandavas along with Krishna transform Khandavprastha to Indraprastha. Moreover, Yudhishthira performs the Rajasyua Yagna and gains the authority over several other kingdoms; Indraprastha's prosperity and fame appear to exceed Hastinapura's. Duryodhana is unable to contain his anger, which is intensified when he visits Indraprastha and finds himself insulted by Draupadi when he accidentally falls into water. Then the epic shows us the ugliest face of Duryodhana, when he together with his uncle Shakuni make and executes the plan to snatch the entire wealth and kingdom of the Pandavas through gambling. At the notorious game of dice, he tempts Yudhistira to pledge all his wealth and ends up winning all games through Shakuni who played on his behalf. But Duryodhana doesn’t stop there. He presses Yudhistira to pledge his own brothers and himself before finally pledging his wife Draupadi, losing all of them in the game. And then Duryodhana unravels his ugly motives by ordering to strip the Pandavas and their wife, and inviting Draupadi to sit on his thighs, all of which forces Bhima to vow the killing of all Kaurava brothers.
One could continue to see the wickedness of Duryodhana throughout the epic, whether it be his antics during the exile period of the Pandavas, or his stubbornness to deny even 5 houses to the Pandavas after their exile thereby making the war inevitable, or his treatment of the likes of Drona, Bhishma, Kripa etc are all phases where the epic makes him the undisputed antagonist of the epic. The epic also portrays some of the good qualities of Duryodhana – may it be his administrative skills that earns his respect among people, or his friendship with Karna which is glorified at many instances or his mace fighting skills with which he was able to gain superiority over the mighty Bheema at times. But none of these qualities stand up to make any reader, of the epic, empathize with Duryodhana.
Behind the Hero
In one looks from Duryodhana’s perspective, fate was indeed too hard on him. Duryodhana's hatred for the Pandavas stems from his sincere belief that he—being the son of the eldest brother—is the heir apparent to the throne of Hastinapur. Because of his blindness, his father had to renounce the throne in favor of the younger Pandu. He also felt that the Pandavas were sons of Kunti with some of the demi-gods not of Pandu, and hence their claim to the throne of Hastinapur is completely illogical. He never believed that their divine origin alone proved their superiority, and on many occasions questioned their merits and heridity. To him, they were Kaunteyas and Madreyas and had no business at Hastinapur. Duryodhana deeply believed that what was rightfully his was being given away to his older cousin Yudhishthira.
Also Duryodhanas special hatred, during his childhood, towards Bhima stems from the incidents where Bhima used his brute strength to inflict injuries on the Kaurava brothers. As per Duryodha, he and his brothers were bullied by an evil cousin who was blessed with extraordinary strength. His brothers were hurt by Bhima who simpled made them fall from tall trees by shaking the tress vigorously. Twelve of his brothers were once nearly drowned when Bhima held them under water until they were nearly unconscious. So as per Duryodhana, he needed to find a way to end the antics of his cousin and save his brothers. Duryodhana hated Bhima to the core partly because of Bhima’s childhood antics and partly because of his great strength and skills. Duryodhana saw Bhimas as the real threat for his claim to the crown and wanted to somehow get rid of him, which prompted him to plot the couple of attempts to assassinate him.
His attempt to burn the Pandavas in the house of wax was driven by frustration and disappointment when Yudhishtira was chosen ahead of him as the crown prince, despite the fact that Duryodhana is the kings biological Son, while Yudhistira is in a way the adopted son of the King’s younger brother. He found no legitimate way to get rid of his cousins and earn back what he considered to be rightly his. And he was not capable of defeating them with force, as Arjuna and Bhima, who together defeated the mighty Panchala Army and taken their king as a hostage all by themselves, were really unmatched. And he was bought in to the principles of his uncle Shakuni that all is fair in politics.
His hesitation to give back Pandavas their kingdom is motivated by 2 facts. Firstly, the condition for the second game of dice was that the loser would lose his kingdom, go to forest and roam there for twelve years and then serve a year of incognito. But as per Duryodhana, he had discovered them during the year of incognito, despite Bhishma claiming that the thirteenth year was over. And he justifies it with the question, if the year was over, why did Pandavas still remain hidden till then (and even a few days after the Virata war)? And secondly, it was never explicity stated that the losers of the second game of dice, can reclaim the lost kingdom after thirteenth year! So for Duryodhana there was no legitimate reason for Pandava’s claim for their lost Kingdom.
Duryodhana’s disrespect to Vidura also has its root on 3 facts. It was Vidura who questioned his father’s right to the throne and promoted the the younger Pandu as the king. It was the same Vidura who advised the king to murder the infant prince after his birth citing bad omens. And it is Vidura who played in big part in influencing the royal court to choose Yudhistira as the crown prince ahead of Duryodhana. His treatment of Bhishma and Drona with disrespect were also due to the fact that despite fighting for Duryodhana, both Bhishma and Drona loved the Pandavas more and had favoured them at many occastions. Duryodhana’s love and affection towards Karna and Ashwatthama are seen as examples of how Duryodhana valued his friendships over all other relations in his life, though his friendship with both of them started with him seeing an opportunity to gain allies who could help him defeat his cousins ‘Pandavas’.
Many critics argue that he is not without positives; many consider Duryodhana as a fair king and that people mourned the death of Duryodhana. He is also appreciated for his skills in mace fighting. After learning martial skills from his gurus, Kripacharya and Dronacharya, he went to specialize in mace fighting under Balarama and went on to become his favorite pupil. He is also praised for his adherence to his duties as a Kshatriya, and even in his last combat, fights bravely. He chooses to face Bhima in combat over all the other Pandavas, with whom he has an advantage in mace fighting. Many scholars believe that like most other characters of the Mahabharata, the true picture is not black and white. As history is often written by the victors, Duryodhana’s character got more hues of evilness added than he originally was. According to Mahabharata, when Bhishma has to pick Dhritarashtra's successor, he mentions to Vidura many of Duryodhana's positive qualities in comparison to Yudhishthira. Having spent so many years in the forest, Yudhishthira doesn't have Duryodhana's experience, military expertise, education, and courtly manners. However, Bhishma ultimately selects Yudhishthira, telling Vidura that in his heart, Duryodhana is a power-hungry, vitriolic individual, while at his core, Yudhishthira is a good man who cares tremendously for his people.
Despite all his merits and the injustice meted out to him during his adoloscence, no one can justify what he did at the game of dice. If Duryodhana’s attempts to kill the Pandavas during their childhood are justified by his belief that he deserved to the heir to the throne of Hastinapur, the partition of the kingdom gave his a good deal with just the deserted forest of Khandava being given to the Pandavas. From this point, the Pandavas gain everything with their hard work. They build one of the finest kingdoms in the region and establish Yudhishtira as the emperor with their valour. Everything Duryodhana did from here was due to his jealousy – it probably had its roots to the hatred he always had for them. His decision to seize the wealth of the Pandavas by unjust means brings out the lack of valor on his side, and his desire to humiliate the Pandavas and their wife Draupadi in front of the public shows the real wicked side of Duryodhana – which cannot be justified by any social being. Even after the vanquished the Pandavas to the forest, his attempt to go to the forest to show off his fortunes and humiliate them further shows that the darkness in his character was too deep. And his hesitation to go for any compromise formula with the Pandavas at the end of the exile period was mostly due to his immense confidence on the military might that he has and the superiority of the number of great warriors on his side. He truly believed that with a bigger army led by the like of Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Ashwatthama etc could never be defeated by the Pandavas who hardly had any allies beside the Panchala and Virata armies. One could also see Duryodhana’s slow transition from an arrogant and confidence prince to a disappointed, devastated and humbled warrior over the last 18 days of his life. Indeed a complex character who is portrayed as more evil than he actually was, but despite looking at events from his perspective, he still falls down as the deep symbol of evilness among all characters in the epic.
In Modern versions:
Today Duryodhana is a popular choice of analysis. His merits, flaws, symbolism, and relevance are widely discussed. In all modern versions, Duryodhana is portrayed a lot similar to the description in the epic, as the epitome of evilness. Naturally, his various plots to kills the Pandavas by treachery is portrayed in details in all the litereary and visual editions of Mahabharata today. Much talked about and described with respect is his friendship with Karna. Most of the modern scholars see the Karna-Duryodhana relationship as the greatest example of true friendship. And almost all of the modern renditions of the epic glorifies this relationship to the pinnacle. The friendship between Duryodhana and Ashwatthama is often downplayed in most of the modern versions of Mahabharata. Also talked about and portrayed is the great rivalry between Bhima and Duryodhana which ends up finally in the killing of Duryodhana at the end of the Mahabharata war which in fact is the virtual climax of almost of all the compressed version of the epic which ends with the Mahabharata war. Duryodhana’s attempt to humiliate and disrobe the Pandavas and their wife Draupadi is the core event that remains in the mind of most of the first time readers of any modern day version of Mahabharata. And indeed the visualization that today’s readers of the epic are left with is that of an arrogant wicked prince who went to the depth of cruelty and wickedness out of jealously towards his mightly and righteous cousins .