Gandhari – Saddest and Most Powerful Woman
Gandhari is a less sung heroine of Mahabharata. She was brave and powerful with deep traits of dharma and adharma (for the better). She tried guiding Duryodhana through righteousness and was sad on failing in it.
Gandhari was a beautiful princess of Gandhar (Qandahar - a small kingdom with region spanning northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan) ruled by King Subala who was the contemporary of Bhishma half-brothers, Chaitrangad and Vichitravirya. Gandhari had obtained a boon of 100 sons from Lord Shiva and Bhishma knew this.
Bhishma was looking for suitable wives for his nephews - Dhritarashtra and Pandu (and Vidura too). Bhishma felt that Gandhari would be an ideal wife for Dhritarashtra, the eldest (blind by birth) prince. As he was blind, Pandu became the ruler and hence Gandhari couldn't become the queen.
Gandhari faced a difficult life. When she heard that she was to be married off to a blind prince, she chose to blindfold herself for the rest of her life. There are many opinions on this. Some (majority) say that this was the epitome of her sacrifice and she thus qualified herself to be an ultimate pati-vrata (a devout wife) and then sat in the ranks of Savitri, Sita, Damayanti, etc. Modern thinkers say that this was her snub to the society for not having given her the choice - a swayamvaram style.
Folklore says that this marriage was brought out of force by a show of strength. This "bulldozing" caused Shakuni, the brother of Gandhari, to flare up in anger, but could do nothing. Folklore also says that he swore eternal vengeance on the Kurus and made it his lifelong purpose. Movies and films (as well as many books) liked this drama angle and happily adopted the myth.
Gandhari bore a hundred sons, (collectively known as the Kauravas), and one daughter Dhushala who married Jayadratha.
After Pandu’s death, Dhritharashtra was ruling and hence Gandhari became the queen. She was always considerate to Pandavas and was always upholding Dharma.
That is why though Gandhari's sons were portrayed as villains, the Mahabharata attributes high moral standards to Gandhari. She repeatedly exhorted her sons to follow dharma and make peace with the Pandavas. Gandhari was especially close to Kunti who respected her like an elder sister.
Gandhari made a single exception to her blindfolded state, when she removed her blindfold to see Duryodhana rendering his entire body except his loins invulnerable to any foe. This was however to prove fruitless as Bhima smashed Duryodhana's thighs in their decisive encounter on the eighteenth day of the Kurukshetra battle, a move both literally and figuratively below the belt.
The Kauravas, principally Duryodhana and Dhushasana, were the villains of the Mahabharata, and were all killed in their war against their cousins, the Pandavas, at Kurukshetra.
Gandhari was also devout; an ardent worshipper of Lord Shiva. Gandhari's sacrifice of her eyesight and her austere life was to grant her great spiritual power. Gandhari's anguish in the loss of her hundred sons resulted in her cursing Krishna in effect ensuring the destruction of the Yadavas. It is also said that through a small gap in the napkin in which her eyes were blindfolded, her gaze fell on Yudhisthira's toe. The toe was charred black due to her wrath and power.
Krishna came and hugged her. She wept. And she felt Draupadi weeping next to her. Both were being hugged by Krishna, the mother of villains and the mother of heroes, both being comforted by him who they say is God. He said nothing. He allowed Gandhari to vent out her venom and he accepted the curse quietly – no retaliatory curse. Yes, his children would die as Gandhari had deemed fit and so would he. Let his clan suffer so that the spiral of vendetta does not continue. It must end sometime. And if this demands the sacrifice of his clan, then let it be so.
Gandhari ended her life with her husband and her sister-in-law Kunti in the Himalayas, where they died in a forest fire.