The story of Mahabharata culminates with the bloody war of Kurukshetra.
The war itself is the result of a decades-long feud between the two cousins – Kauravas and Pandavas. Over the centuries there has been much discussion and debate over who the legitimate heir to the Hastinapur throne was. And while, at the end, the Pandavas win the war and Yudhishthira ascends the throne, having emerged the victor, the question that is often asked is if the Pandu prince’s claim to the throne was valid in the first place.
To understand this, as always, we must travel back in time.
Shantanu was the youngest of three sons of King Pratipa. The oldest was Devapi who suffered from leprosy, whereas Bahlika was the middle child. According to one version of the story, since Devapi was supposed to inherit Hastinapur, Pratipa gifted a part of some newly conquered land to his second son Bahlika. In another version of the story, Pratipa’s brother-in-law (wife’s brother) invited his nephew Bahlika to rule his kingdom after his passing. In yet another version of the story, it is Jarasandha who gifts Bahlika the land. In any case, Bahlika leaves his father’s kingdom and proceeds to rule another one that comes to be known as Balkh.
In the meanwhile, Devapi is unable to ascend the throne. Some versions suggest that he walks away of his own volition but another story goes that the supreme council of brahmins dismisses Devapi’s claim to the throne due to his disease following which the prince gives up the claim and goes to live in the forest.
By this time Bahlika is already ruling his own kingdom and prefers to stay back there rather than be a ruler of Hastinapur. In some versions it is suggested that Bahlika didn’t consider himself to be ready to rule a kingdom as large as his fathers. As a result, Hastinapur falls in the laps of Pratipa’s youngest son, Shantanu.
As you know from our previous stories, the young Shantanu falls in love with Ganga and bears Devavrata, who is named the crown prince of Hastinapur. Some years later, however, he gives up the claim to the throne and chooses to serve the kingdom as regent and help groom and support the sons of Shantanu’s second wife, Satyavati. From this point, Devavrata comes to be known as Bhishma, of the fierce one.
Now, Satyavati bears two sons: the first one Chitrangada succeeds Shantanu but is killed in a battle against a gandharva making way for his younger brother, Vichitravirya. When time comes, Vichitravirya marries Amba and Ambalika, the princesses of Kashi. Up until this point the lineage is fairly straightforward. When the heir dies, the spare takes over. However, Vichitravirya dies without bearing an heir. And this is where things get complicated.
On the passing of Vichitravirya, Bahlika is contacted again and is offered the throne of Hastinapur. Yet again, as he had done once before, Bahlika turns down the offer creating a succession crisis in the most powerful kingdom of the continent.
Unbeknownst to everyone, Satyavati has had a son before her marriage to Shantanu. That son is Vyasa, the sage known to have classified the vedas and the author of the Mahabharata. She reveals this to Bhishma who dispatches search parties to look for this hitherto unknown son. Vyasa who had, till that point, been in the woods meditating and generally living the life of a hermit, arrives at the palace where he’s requested to impregnate Vichitravirya’s widows, Ambika and Ambalika.
Since Ambika closes her eyes on seeing Vyasa, her son Dhritarashtra is born blind and because Ambalika turns pale, her son Pandu is born pale and sickly. Vyasa is summoned again in order to give the kingdom a healthy heir. Horrified with their first time with Vyasa, Ambika and Ambalika send their maid into the sage’s chambers. The maid is bold and doesn’t shy away from making love to Vyasa. As a result she bears Vidura, who is healthy and intelligent.
So now you have three sons, one of who isn’t considered worthy of becoming the king because he’s born of a maid. Which leaves Dhritarashtra and Pandu, who too aren’t direct descendants of Shantanu and Vichitravirya but rather sons of a hermit, who in turn, is the son of a fisherwoman who’d married a king.
With little else to go with, Dhritarashtra and Pandu are accepted as princes and the future heirs of the Hastinapur throne. Given that Dhritarashtra was the older of the two, the throne should have gone to him. However history repeats itself and the council of brahmins, this time aided by Bhishma and Vidura rule that Pandu and not Dhritarashtra should be named the crown prince. This is how Pandu comes to inherit the throne. But, as we know, this isn’t where the story ends.
Cursed by a sage, Pandu is unable to perform any sexual acts and his two wives, Madri and Kunti, continue to remain childless. Following the curse, Pandu retires into the forest and the kingdom falls back to Dhritarashtra who was bitter about losing it to his younger brother in the first place.
Meanwhile in the forest, Kunti uses her boon to bear Yudhishthira, Bhima, and Arjuna from three different gods for herself and passes on the boon to Madri who is impregnated by the Ashwini twins and bears Nakula and Sahadeva. These five brothers come to be called Pandavas. While still living in the forest, Pandu attempts to make love to Madri and dies due to the curse. Madri commits sati and hands over the custody of her two sons to Kunti.
After living for some years in the forest, Kunti and the Pandavas return to Hastinapur a kingdom that Duryodhana has assumed he will inherit.
However, since Pandu’s eldest, Yudhishthira was older than Duryodhana, Bhishma and Vidura insist that he become the crown prince. With great reluctance, Dhritarashtra names Yudhishthira as his heir and this is where the succession crisis should have ended. Except it doesn’t.
Following the ruling, Duryodhana tries to assassinate the Pandavas who let everyone in Hastinapur believe that they had died. As a result, Duryodhana is named the crown prince again and for a while it seems that the crisis had abated. However, the Pandavas return to Hastinapur and reveal that they were indeed alive and Yudhishthira stakes his claim to the throne, yet again even as Duryodhana refuses to give up his title.
The elders in the family intervene and suggest that Hastinapur go to Duryodhana and Khandavprastha or Khandava forest go to Yudhishthira. Duryodhana agrees and, once again, this is where the story could have ended.
However, Yudhishthira and the Pandavas turn what was a wasteland into a thriving capital, using the services of the divine architect Mayasura to build a palace so magnificent that Hastinapur pales in comparison. An envious Duryodhana while touring the palace falls into a pool of water much to Draupadi’s amusement. He’s slighted and uses his bruised ego as an excuse to, first, draw the Pandavas into a game of dice and then pushes the entire land into a war so bloody that no one had seen before.
Duryodhana rationalises his claim to the throne by pointing out to Krishna that unlike himself, Yudhishthira was not the son of a king of Hastinapur and therefore had no right to rule the kingdom. Krishna uses the same argument against Duryodhana pointing out that neither his father, Dhritarashtra nor Yudhishthira’s father, Pandu were sons of a Hasitnapur king either and so by that logic, neither had the right to rule the kingdom.
As with life, the story of Mahabharata has several ifs and buts. Would there have been a war if Bahlika had agreed to become the king and not turn down the offer twice? Would there have been a war if Bhishma hadn’t taken the terrible oath and succeeded Shantanu? Would there have been a war if Duryodhana had agreed to the decision of the elders of letting Yudhishthira be the king?
Of course, in the end Yudhishthira ascends the throne. But this comes at the end of decades of bitterness, discontentment, and a bloody war that ended up wiping half of his own family and millions of other people.