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Chapter 41

The Kings Choose Sides

While both the Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas were preparing for war, Kṛṣṇa and the Yādavas returned to Dwārakā. Duryodhana heard of Kṛṣṇa’s arrival and decided to go personally to ask His assistance. Having learned from his spies of the Pāṇḍavas’ preparations, the Kuru monarch had already sent messengers to every part of the globe to seek other kings’ assistance, but Kṛṣṇa was so powerful that He warranted a personal request. Kṛṣṇa and the Yādavas were the greatest warriors on earth. If Duryodhana could secure their assistance, then the Pāṇḍavas would stand no chance. Kṛṣṇa was their main support. Accompanied only by a few bodyguards, Duryodhana mounted the best of his horses and set out for Dwārakā at a gallop.

In Virata, Arjuna also thought of Kṛṣṇa. After consulting Yudhiṣṭhira, he too decided to go personally to seek his friend’s help. Leaving in a swift chariot he soon arrived in Dwārakā. As he reached Kṛṣṇa’s palace, he saw the palace guards receiving Duryodhana. The two princes, after greeting each other in a friendly way, went together to Kṛṣṇa’s chamber. They found Him asleep on a large bed. One of His wives was fanning Him gently. Duryodhana went straight to the head of the bed and sat down, but Arjuna remained at Kṛṣṇa’s feet, standing with palms folded and gazing at His face with tears of affection in his eyes.

After a while Kṛṣṇa awoke. As He opened His eyes He saw Arjuna, who bowed to Him in love. Then Kṛṣṇa sat up and saw Duryodhana by His head. He immediately welcomed both visitors. After honoring them, He inquired why they had each come.

Duryodhana replied, “It is well known that You are equally disposed toward both myself and Arjuna. I have come here to seek Your assistance in the war which will soon be fought among us. Indeed, O killer of Madhu, I arrived before Arjuna and thus it is only right that You assist me rather than him. This is the practice of good men, and You, Kṛṣṇa, are the best of men.” Kṛṣṇa looked smilingly at Duryodhana. “I accept that you arrived first, O King, but I saw first Arjuna. Therefore, I think I will help both of you. Scripture ordains that one should help the youngest first, so I will first offer My assistance to Arjuna. I have an army of one million soldiers known as the Nārāyaṇas, all equal to Me in battle. Let one of you take them and let the other take Me alone. But I will not fight. Indeed, I plan to leave My weapons aside during the entire battle. O son of Kuntī, what do you choose?”

Without hesitating Arjuna chose Kṛṣṇa. Duryodhana could hardly conceal his joy. Arjuna’s sentimentality had overpowered his reason. He had forsaken Kṛṣṇa’s invincible army in favor of Kṛṣṇa Himself, who would not even fight. What a mistake!

Smiling slightly, Duryodhana said, “It seems then that I am left with the army. With Your permission, O Keśava, I shall now depart.”

Having received Kṛṣṇa’s army, Duryodhana thanked him and left. He made his way to Balarāma’s palace. He knew that Balarāma was always favorable toward him. Surely He would take his side in the war. Duryodhana found Balarāma seated in His palace. After greeting Him with words of affection and praise, Duryodhana submitted his plea.

Balarāma, His hand resting on His plow weapon, looked grave. “O son of Kuru, for your sake I spoke out in Virata’s assembly at the time of Abhimanyu’s marriage. I pointed out to Kṛṣṇa that our relations with you and the Pāṇḍavas are equal, and that your cause is as just as that of the Pāṇḍavas. O hero, Keśava did not accept My words. I cannot for a moment exist apart from Kṛṣṇa. Therefore, I have decided to help neither side. I will take no part whatsoever in the upcoming war. Fight according to kṣatriya principles, O best of men. May good fortune be yours.”

Balarāma stood up and embraced Duryodhana. Knowing that Kṛṣṇa had sided with the Pāṇḍavas, He considered the Kauravas already defeated. Duryodhana left Balarāma’s palace and went to see Kṛtavarmā, the Yādava commander-in-chief. He asked for his help and Kṛtavarmā, in accordance with kṣatriya custom, could not refuse. He agreed to fight on the Kaurava side along with the million warriors already given by Kṛṣṇa. He thus gathered the army and prepared to leave with Duryodhana. Surrounded by the terrible-looking forces, and with Kṛtavarmā by his side, Duryodhana headed back toward Hastināpura with a light heart.

In Kṛṣṇa’s chamber, Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa were alone. Kṛṣṇa asked, “Why did you choose Me knowing I will not fight over My army?”

“There is no doubt that wherever You are there will be victory. If You desired it, You could slay all the Kurus. In Your presence, O foremost among men, I too will be able to kill them all. You are the most famous and illustrious person in the world and I will attain a similar fame by gaining victory in this war. O Kṛṣṇa, it has long been my desire that You act as my charioteer. Please fulfill my desire, if You find it acceptable.”

“It is fitting, O son of Kuntī, that you measure yourself against Me,” Kṛṣṇa replied softly. He placed a bejeweled hand on Arjuna’s shoulder. “I shall gladly act as your charioteer. Let your desire be fulfilled.”

The two friends spent some time together in Dwārakā and then prepared to leave. Surrounded by many Yadu chiefs and warriors, they set off for Virata.

King Śalya of Madras received news about the impending war. As the brother of Pāṇḍu’s second wife, Mādrī, he wanted to assist his nephews, the Pāṇḍavas. He had already formed a strong friendship with Yudhiṣṭhira, and he longed to see him again. Taking his army he left his city to go to Virata. While traveling, Śalya’s army occupied an area of four square miles. With their flashing armor and bright pennants, they appeared like a moving sea covered with gems. They traveled in slow marches toward Virata, shaking the earth and sending up massive clouds of dust.

Hearing that the Madras army was on the move, Duryodhana arranged a regal reception for them along the way. He had palaces erected in charming spots, well-decorated with gems. The Kaurava sent artistes for their entertainment and had the best of food and drink laid out for the entire army. Artificial lakes adorned with lotuses and fountains were constructed, with fine seats arranged around them. As Śalya approached each place he was greeted by thousands of Brahmins, who received him with worship and adoration. He was shown to a palace that would have been suitable for the gods.

Greeted with honors befitting Indra, Śalya was pleased, thinking too highly of himself and too little of the king of the gods. Assuming that Yudhiṣṭhira had made all the arrangements, he asked his servants, “Where are Yudhiṣṭhira’s men? Fetch them, for I would like to reward them.”

The servants looked surprised. They went to Duryodhana, who had remained concealed from Śalya, and informed him of everything. When Śalya had become so pleased that he was ready to give away even his life, Duryodhana revealed himself. Bowing before his maternal uncle, the Kaurava prince said, “You are welcome. Please instruct me what else I can do for you.”

It was Śalya’s turn to be surprised. He embraced Duryodhana and replied, “I am satisfied by your reception. Ask from me what you may desire.”

Duryodhana folded his palms. “Grant me an auspicious boon, O illustrious man. Become a leader in my army.”

Śalya realized that he had been tricked, but out of honor he could not refuse Duryodhana’s request. He replied, “It is done. What else do you desire?”

Duryodhana said that he had no other desire. With joy he continued to repeat Śalya’s words: “It is done.”

Disappointed that he would now be opposing the Pāṇḍavas in battle, Śalya said, “O King, O best among men, go back to your capital. You shall soon see me there, but first I want to see Yudhiṣṭhira. Then I will come and join your army.”

“You may go, but please return quickly. I am depending on you. Do not forget your promise.”

After embracing, the two men parted and Śalya continued on to Virata. He saw the Pāṇḍavas there and was greeted by all of them with respect. They embraced him and sat him on a beautiful seat. Śalya gazed at his nephews with tear-filled eyes. “It is good to see all you heroes hale and hearty after your exile. How have you passed these last thirteen years? Nothing but misery attends one who has lost a kingdom; but now your suffering, brought on by Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s son, will end as you slay your enemies.”

Śalya looked at Yudhiṣṭhira sitting at his feet. “O great devotee of God, no one has seen even a trace of greed in your character. Like the ṛṣi kings of old you exhibit self-control, forgiveness, truth, nonviolence, and all the other qualities that are so rare in this world. You are mild, generous, religious, and attached to virtue. O chief among kings, it is fortunate that I am able to see you freed at last from your difficulties.”

Śalya then told Yudhiṣṭhira about his meeting with Duryodhana and his promise to the Kaurava prince.

Although Yudhiṣṭhira was disappointed, he agreed that it was a point of honor. He said, “O King, you have done the right thing by granting such a boon when you were pleased at heart. You had no choice and I do not criticize you for it. Still, I have a request. You can do us a great favor in the coming war with our cousins. It is well known that you are a charioteer without equal in this world. I have no doubt that when the final battle takes place between Arjuna and Karṇa, you will be asked to drive Karṇa’s chariot. At that time you should do whatever you can to discourage Karṇa and take away his energy to fight. Although it is improper to ask this of you, O hero, still I ask it out of fear of the suta’s son. We must by any and all means defeat that evil-minded one.”

Śalya felt pleased that, although he had been forced into fighting for Duryodhana, there was still something he could do for Yudhiṣṭhira. The news of the Pāṇḍavas’ exile had greatly upset him. It was outrageous that the Kurus had allowed such a thing to happen. His brother-in-law Pāṇḍu would have been mortified if he had been alive. How could the Kurus expect any good fortune when they injured men of the Pāṇḍavas’ caliber, and especially when they insulted a woman like Draupadī?

Śalya said, “I will surely do as you ask, O noble-minded one. I do not doubt that Duryodhana will have me drive Karṇa’s chariot. At that time I will say those things which are calculated to deprive him of energy. O King, all the miseries you have endured at Duryodhana and Karṇa’s hands will soon give rise to your happiness. This is the way of the world, O hero. Do not blame yourself. Everything is under the control of supreme destiny. It is the Lord’s arrangement only that great personalities like you suffer difficulties. Even the gods are sometimes obliged to suffer. I have heard that Indra has had to endure much misery, along with his queen.”

Yudhiṣṭhira asked Śalya to tell the story of Indra and how he had suffered. The Madras king recited the history in detail. Śalya was well known for his wisdom and knowledge, and even the Brahmins came forward to hear him speak.

After speaking with the Pāṇḍavas for hours, it was time for Śalya to depart. Yudhiṣṭhira again worshipped him with due honor and reminded him of his promise. Assuring Yudhiṣṭhira that he would do whatever he could to assist him, Śalya bid the Pāṇḍavas farewell and made his way to Hastināpura.

Soon after Śalya’s departure, Sātyaki returned from Dwārakā. He brought with him a huge army consisting of chariots, horsemen, elephants and infantry. Bearing battle axes, swords, spears, lances, mallets, clubs, maces and bows of all sorts, the army appeared like clouds with lightning. A full akshauhini in number, it merged with Yudhiṣṭhira’s forces like a river entering the sea.

One after another, different kings came to Yudhiṣṭhira’s side. Dhristaketu, the king of the Cediś, came with another akshauhini division, as did the king of Magadha, Jayatsena. The two kings Pandya and Virata also each supplied an akshauhini of powerful warriors. Finally, Drupada brought his army, assembled from various countries and led by his two sons, which amounted to two full akshauhinis. Within only a few months, seven akshauhinis stood ready at Virata to fight for the Pāṇḍavas.

In Hastināpura, various other kings were coming to assist Duryodhana. They amassed eleven akshauhinis. The soldiers crowded Hastināpura and its surrounding regions so that there was hardly any free space anywhere. Duryodhana had arranged for a vast army of vaiśyās and śūdras, greater in number than even the warriors themselves, to ensure that the soldiers received sufficient care while they awaited the order to march into battle. All that remained to be done was to meet with the Pāṇḍavas or their emissaries. If no agreement could be reached--and Duryodhana planned for no agreements--then the war would begin. The Kurus, informed that a messenger was on his way, waited expectantly.

Drupada’s priest arrived at Hastināpura soon after the troops had assembled. As he approached the city from a distance, he saw those soldiers camped everywhere like masses of clouds descended to earth. Entering Hastināpura, he made his way through the crowds and came to Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s palace, where he was received by the king himself, along with Bhīṣma and Vidura. They brought him straight to the royal court. After worshipping him with arghya and other offerings, they invited him to address the assembly.

Looking around at the many kings and ministers seated in Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s great hall, the priest spoke. “As you all know, Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Pāṇḍu are brothers. Therefore, their claim to their paternal kingdom is equal. No one doubts this to be true. Yet although Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons have inherited their share of the kingdom, the Pāṇḍavas have been denied theirs. Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons wrested the Pāṇḍavas’ kingdom and wealth which they fairly acquired through the practice of virtue. Even before that, the Kauravas attempted to kill their honest cousins in different ways. Because the Pāṇḍavas’ life duration has still not expired, the Kauravas were unsuccessful in their attempts. Despite all this, Yudhiṣṭhira bears no ill will toward them. He has accepted all tribulations without complaint. Now he wishes only to have his rightful property returned. Although he has suffered the severest miseries--in this court, in the forest, and at Virata--he does not long for war.”

The priest paused and looked at Dhṛtarāṣṭra. The blind king shifted uncomfortably on his throne. Shafts of sunlight entered through the latticed windows, illuminating his pained expression. By his side Bhīṣma and Vidura slowly shook their heads, remembering again the terrible day when Pāṇḍu’s sons had been sent away. They looked intently at the priest as he continued.

“The Pāṇḍavas wish for a peaceful settlement. They do not want to gain back what is theirs by ruining the world. Forgetting their troubles these last thirteen years, they are prepared to live in friendship with their cousins. But their kingdom must be returned. They have gathered seven akshauhinis and prepared them for battle. Although you have a greater force, you should not consider yourselves more powerful. The Pāṇḍavas have Kṛṣṇa on their side, who possesses inconceivable power. They are also assisted by Drupada, Pandya, Dṛṣṭadyumna, Śikhaṇḍī and other mighty monarchs. Each of the Pāṇḍava brothers is a maharatha. Arjuna alone exceeds the strength of your entire army, O descendents of Bharata. What man would dare face Dhanañjaya when he comes out to fight, his chariot guided by the immortal Keśava? Therefore act according to virtue. Give back what should be returned. Do not miss this opportunity.”

The assembly remained silent when the priest had stopped speaking. Everyone’s eyes turned toward Dhṛtarāṣṭra. It was up to him to respond. The Kuru monarch said nothing. Duryodhana smiled and glanced at Karṇa. This old priest was wasting his time. They had an army almost twice the size of the Pāṇḍavas’ forces. Where was the question of surrendering anything to Yudhiṣṭhira? The Kaurava prince looked around the assembly at the silent kings and ministers.

Bhīṣma broke the silence. He thanked and praised the priest with gentle words. Then he said, “O learned one, it is fortunate that the Pāṇḍavas are doing well and that they have secured the assistance of many kings. It is especially fortunate that Damodara, Kṛṣṇa, has taken their part. It is fortunate indeed that they desire to act virtuously and that they wish for peace. You have spoken the truth. Your words are sharp, in keeping with your status as a Brahmin. All the Pāṇḍavas have borne many troubles and are certainly entitled to their father’s wealth. Not even the holder of the thunderbolt could keep that from them, what to speak of those bearing the bow. There is little doubt, as you say, that Arjuna alone can defeat our army. He could stand against the three worlds.”

Karṇa sprung to his feet. Catching Duryodhana’s eye he barked at the priest, insolently interrupting Bhīṣma. “O Brahmin, you are wasting your time. Yudhiṣṭhira was fairly defeated and went to the forest in accordance with his vow. I do not believe that the prescribed term has even ended. Why then are the Pāṇḍavas demanding their kingdom? Duryodhana will not yield even an inch of land out of fear, but out of virtue he could give the entire earth. Let the Pāṇḍavas first keep their vow and then come humbly before Duryodhana, who will doubtlessly afford them refuge. If they desire to abandon righteousness and seek battle, however, they will meet only grief.”

Karṇa glared. Both he and Duryodhana refused to accept that the Pāṇḍavas had fulfilled their vow. They did not believe that Bhīṣma’s astronomical calculations were correct. According to their own estimations, there were a few months left. Duryodhana would not even consider negotiating with the Pāṇḍavas. The prince nodded in agreement as his friend spoke.

Bhīṣma turned toward Karṇa. “O son of Radha, why do you talk so much? Do you not recall how during the fight in the Matsya kingdom Arjuna single-handedly defeated all of our principal warriors, including you? You have seen his prowess often enough. If we do not do what this Brahmin says, we will all be killed.”

Some of the kings present agreed with Bhīṣma while others praised Karṇa. The hall buzzed with voices and Dhṛtarāṣṭra raised his hand for silence. He rebuked Karṇa, then solaced Bhīṣma. Then he addressed the assembly: “In my opinion, Bhīṣma has spoken well. He speaks for our interests and for the interests of the entire world. I need time to deliberate. Let the assembly be adjourned. O Brahmin, go back to the Pāṇḍavas and tell them that I shall send Sañjaya soon with my reply.”

After the priest had been worshipped by Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s court Brahmins, he left the assembly. Everyone then returned to their own abodes, leaving Dhṛtarāṣṭra alone with his personal servants.

The blind king pressed his hands together. There was no doubt that Bhīṣma had spoken wisely, as he always did. Dhṛtarāṣṭra could not ignore his assessment of the situation, especially when it was shared by Vidura, Droṇa and Kṛpa. These were all learned and virtuous men. Now they were imploring him to control Duryodhana and return Yudhiṣṭhira’s kingdom to him.

But whenever he spoke to his son he felt powerless in his hands. Even when he tried to instruct Duryodhana in righteousness, Duryodhana simply laughed. The prince’s view of righteousness did not include justice for the Pāṇḍavas. It seemed that Providence was in control and that they were all moving inevitably toward some divine plan. Dhṛtarāṣṭra sighed and loosened his heavy royal robes. Perhaps he should take stern action and have his son chastised and even imprisoned, but he simply felt unable. All he could do was advise the prince for his own good. After that, it was between him and his own destiny how he chose to act.

The king called for Sañjaya. Sañjaya was intelligent and affectionate toward the Pāṇḍavas; he would certainly be the best man to send as an envoy to them. He would know what to say to pacify them. Perhaps he would even be able to prevent a war.

Sañjaya entered the room and, after he had announced himself, Dhṛtarāṣṭra said, “O Sañjaya, the sons of Pāṇḍu are now living in Virata. Please go to them and convey my feelings. O learned one, I have never heard of faults in those men. Even now, after suffering so much at our hands, they remain friendly toward us. They act only to acquire virtue and never fall into ignorance, folly or laziness. Those heroes have conquered their senses and live only for others’ benefit. They have no enemies other than that great weak-brained fool, my son, Duryodhana, and the still meaner Karṇa. Duryodhana is strong only at the beginning of endeavors because he is so given to indulgence. Still, he thinks himself capable of robbing the Pāṇḍavas of their rightful share. Who could hope to stand against Yudhiṣṭhira, Keśava, Arjuna, Bhīma, Mādrī’s twin sons, Sātyaki, and the other great kings? Indeed, Arjuna alone, with Kṛṣṇa guiding his chariot, can subdue the three worlds. His arrows fly in clouds, roaring like thunder and sweeping away everything in their path.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra had thought about the upcoming battle again and again. He knew his sons did not stand a chance. Although they had a bigger army, that would not stop the Pāṇḍavas, assisted as they were by Kṛṣṇa, from winning.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra revealed his fears to Sañjaya. “No one can hope to conquer Kṛṣṇa; He is always victorious. He is the best of all men and the Lord of the worlds. With His support the Pāṇḍavas could, I am certain, stand against the celestial host, headed by Indra and Mahadeva. Just He and Arjuna together have already shown their power at Khāṇḍava. What then can we expect when they are united with Bhīma and the twins? Our army is finished! The Pāṇḍavas’ power is inestimable. O Sañjaya, let me tell you about the other kings who have rallied to their cause.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra had already heard from his spies about the situation in Virata. After listing all the kings supporting the Pāṇḍavas, he again turned to the discussion of Kṛṣṇa. It was Kṛṣṇa he feared. Just see how easily He had slain the mighty Śiśupāla, Naraka, Kaṁsa, and so many others. “He is surely Viṣṇu incarnate. Thinking of Kṛṣṇa’s power and Viṣṇu’s deeds in former ages, I find no peace, O son of Gavalgani. Perhaps the only person I fear more is Yudhiṣṭhira. I do not fear anyone as I fear him. He has long practiced austerity and dedicated himself to virtue. Whoever receives his wrath will be consumed like a reed falling into fire. His cause is just. This also frightens me.

“Therefore, go on a swift car to the high-minded Pāṇḍava and speak affectionate and kind words. Tell him that I desire peace and will comply with any request he makes. Inquire after his welfare and that of his friends and followers. Say whatever you feel is appropriate to promote the interests of our race. Do not speak anything which will give rise to hostility.”

Without offering assurance that the Pāṇḍavas would regain their kingdom, Dhṛtarāṣṭra gave his own message to Sañjaya and then asked him to leave at once.