The lunar dynasty was in danger of dying out. Dhritarâshthra’s life story is an illustration of just how weak dharma (truth, righteousness, religion) had become on earth. Dhritarâshthra was the king under whose rule the great Mahâbhârata war would be fought.
Evil could not be reversed as the great royal lineage fought amongst itself. Dhritarâshthra’s conception compromised the great sage Vyâsa who was not married to his mother, his resulting blindness disqualified him from being chosen king until there was no other choice, and his own past karma placed him on the wrong side of the Mahâbhârata war.
His story is nested in the actions of his grandfather, his conception in his dead father’s name by a substituted mother (and thus creating a glaring problem in the logic of his geneology), and his own past actions. It is Hindu mythology at its best and most complicated—the use of stories nested within stories illuminating right action through bad examples.
Dhritarâshthra’s grandfather, King S´antanu, had sons by two wives, Gangâ and Satyavâtî. Gangâ had been reborn on earth as part of a curse by Brahmâ for exposing herself in heaven on one occasion. Gangâ threw seven of her eight sons into the earthly river Gangâ and gave her eighth son, Bhîshma, to Satyavâtî to raise alongside Satyavâtî’s own two sons, Citrângada and Vicitarvîrya.
Bhîshma took the vow of chastity (brahmavrata), so his half-brother, Citrângada, was enthroned as the king. But he was killed on a hunting expedition by a gandharva. At this point storytellers could provide their audience with an adult or a children’s version. Vicitarvîrya was appointed king. Bhîshma abducted three princesses from a neighboring kingdom.
He sent one sister back and gave the other two, Ambikâ and Ambalikâ, to Vicitarvîrya. Unfortunately Vicitarvîrya also died before any children were born. The queen mother, Satyavâtî, solved the crisis of an heirless throne by remembering that she had had a child by a brâhmin named Parâshara before she married King S´antanu.
This son was none other than Veda-Vyâsa. Satyavâtî brought Vyâsa into the palace and sent Ambikâ and Ambalikâ, one after the other to Vyâsa so that they could produce heirs to the throne. However, they were shocked by this rustic, according to polite accounts, because he wore bark for clothes and had matted hair.
Ambikâ was only able to stay with Vyâsa by closing her eyes, so her son, Dhritarâshthra, was born blind. Ambalikâ lost all her color when she saw the muni (wild one), and her son was born a leper or, perhaps only an albino, named Pandu. Queen Satyavâtî’s maid was very happy to be with Vyâsa and had a normal and highly intelligent child who later became the great sage Vidura. Having done his duty, Vyâsa returned to his hermitage (as´rama).
The lunar royal lineage had been temporarily saved. Dhritarâshthra was passed over as king because of his infirmity—blindness. Uncle Bhîshma helped arrange his marriage to a princess named Gândhârî, who just happened to have a boon from S´iva to be mother of a hundred sons. Vyâsa was the instrument of S´iva’s blessing.
Gândhârî had remained pregnant for two years, so she crushed her womb and forced out a lump of flesh. Vyâsa cut it into a hundred pieces and kept them in butter (ghee) pots. Duryodhana was the eldest son of the one hundred. Pandu had become the king, but he was cursed by a hermit and died in the forest. Yudhishthira, his eldest, became king but later lost the kingdom in a dice game with Duryodhana.
The Pandava brothers and their joint wife, Draupadî, were forced into exile and, after the agreed upon thirteen years, returned to claim the kingdom. However, Duryodhana would not return anything. So the hundred Kaurava brothers led by Duryodhana and the five Pandava brothers and their armies fought the great Bhârata war at Kurukshetra.
Dhritarâshthra opposed the war and was blessed with a moment’s sight by S´rî Krishna and was able to see his cosmic form (Vis´varûpa). During the battle the sage Sañjaya telepathically reported the events of the Bhagavad Gîtâ to Dhritarâshthra, who was again blind. After the great slaughter Dhritarâshthra and his wife Gândhârî retreated to a hermitage near Kurukshetra.
Great sages like Nârada and Vyâsa visited them. Then Dhritarâshthra and Gândhârî along with the mother of the Pandavas, Kuntî, went to Gangâdvâra and performed severe penance. They died in a wildfire and entered the realm of Kubera, god of wealth and happiness.