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Chapter 44

Panic Among the Kauravas

Duryodhana had risen early on the day of the assembly. He knew Sañjaya was going to deliver Yudhiṣṭhira’s message. After performing his morning ablutions and receiving the worship and praise of the palace Brahmins and bards, the prince met with Śakuni and Karṇa. He expressed his determination not to return the Pāṇḍavas’ kingdom. His friends agreed and cheered him. They encouraged him to remain firm and assured him that his old father, bound by ties of affection, would not force him to return Indraprastha if he was resolute. As they spoke, the three men slowly made their way to the assembly hall, which shone like the Himavat mountain in the early morning sunlight.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra entered the hall at the head of all other kings. Led by Vidura, he made his way to his throne. The floor in the hall had been sprinkled lightly with perfumes and spread with flower petals. The kings took their places on seats made of carved ivory and wood, decorated with golden inlays and precious stones. As they settled onto the silk cushions, they looked around to see who was present. Immediately surrounding Dhṛtarāṣṭra were Vidura, Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Kṛpa, Śalya, Kṛtavarmā, Jayadratha, Bāhlika, Somadatta, Aśvatthāmā, as well as Duryodhana and his one hundred brothers. The chamber, filled with so many heroes, seemed like a cave full of lions. The lustrous men, with their bright silks and golden ornaments, lit up the hall and appeared like an assembly of the gods.

When everyone was seated, the doorkeeper announced that Sañjaya had arrived and was waiting to deliver his message. Dhṛtarāṣṭra gave permission for him to enter the hall. Sañjaya, his gold earrings swinging, bowed at Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s feet. Folding his palms he faced the assembly and said, “O sons of Kuru, I have just returned from the Pāṇḍavas. Those virtuous men salute you all, each according to your age and status. Hear now the messages they have sent through me.”

Sañjaya carefully relayed Yudhiṣṭhira’s message exactly as he had heard it: either the Kurus should return the Pāṇḍavas’ kingdom--or even just five villages--or there would be war.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra said nothing. He looked pensive. After some moments he said, “I wish to hear Arjuna’s message, for it is from him that we face the greatest danger. Kṛṣṇa’s friend, Arjuna, is immeasurably powerful and has suffered at our hands. Tell me, Sañjaya, what did Dhanañjaya, the destroyer of sinful men, say?”

Sañjaya bowed his head to the king and remained standing. “These were the words of the wrathful Arjuna, who was eager to fight and who, with reddened eyes, spoke in the presence of Yudhiṣṭhira and Kṛṣṇa.”

Summoning the mood in which Arjuna had spoken, Sañjaya delivered his exact words: “Speak to Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s son in the midst of the Kurus, and in the hearing of the wicked-minded Karṇa, who always desires to fight, speaks harshly, has a dull intellect, and is extremely ignorant. His time has come. Speak also in the presence of those kings who have come from around the world to fight the Pāṇḍavas. If Duryodhana does not surrender Yudhiṣṭhira’s kingdom, then it is clear that he desires to pay for his former antagonism toward the Pāṇḍavas. If he chooses battle, then our ends will be achieved. Tell him not to choose peace, but to choose to fight with me and Bhīma, Nakula and Sahadeva, Sātyaki and Dṛṣṭadyumna, and Śikhaṇḍī. I look forward to it. Although we have lain on a bed of woe these last thirteen years, let Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s son, when he lies dead on the battlefield, obtain a bed of endless woe. He could never conquer the virtuous Yudhiṣṭhira in a fight. Therefore, he resorted to trickery and deceit. Pāṇḍu’s eldest son, whose senses and mind are fully under control, has patiently endured all his suffering. When he directs his anger against the Kauravas, then will Duryodhana have cause to repent.”

Duryodhana sneered as Sañjaya continued. Arjuna described how he envisioned the war between them taking place. “As a blazing fire in the summer consumes dried grass, so will the Kaurava army be consumed even by Yudhiṣṭhira’s glance. When Duryodhana sees the iron-clad Bhīmasena on his chariot, mace in hand and vomiting the venom of his wrath, then will he repent this war. When that exceedingly vain one sees Bhīma felling elephants by the thousands, their warriors dispatched to the next world, then will he repent. When Nakula comes down from his chariot, clutching his sword and razing warriors as if they were a field of corn, then will the wicked one repent. When Sahadeva chops off the heads of kings with his well-aimed arrows, and when he finally encounters the vicious Śakuni, then will Duryodhana repent.”

One by one Arjuna mentioned all the great warriors who would fight for the Pāṇḍavas, describing how they would wreak vengeance on the Kauravas. Dṛṣṭadyumna would kill Droṇa and Śikhaṇḍī would slay Bhīṣma. Bhīma had already vowed to slay Duryodhana and all his brothers. Arjuna would destroy warriors by the tens of thousands. Finally he would kill Karṇa and all his sons and followers. Arjuna painted a grim picture of the war’s outcome, which he saw ending in the total annihilation of Duryodhana and his forces. Finally he spoke about Kṛṣṇa.

“I have selected Kṛṣṇa as my charioteer in preference to Indra and his thunderbolt weapon. If Kṛṣṇa desires someone’s victory, even if He Himself does not fight, that person cannot fail. Our victory will be easy. Whoever desires to overpower Kṛṣṇa wishes to swim the unfathomable ocean or to put out a blazing fire with his two hands, or to stop the sun and moon in their course through the heavens. That best of men, the Lord of all the worlds, has already slain demons more powerful than Duryodhana. Even the invincible Naraka, son of the Earth, who could easily withstand the gods in battle, succumbed to Kṛṣṇa’s irresistible weapons. Duryodhana desires to defeat Kṛṣṇa, who is the Supreme Viṣṇu, either by capturing Him or by winning Him over to the Kaurava side. That fool will soon realize his ignorance.”

Through their spies, the Pāṇḍavas were aware of the Kauravas’ strategies. Arjuna knew that Duryodhana feared Kṛṣṇa and was thinking of how to deal with Him. The Kaurava prince even considered capturing Him when He came to Hastināpura on His peace mission.

Arjuna ended his speech by describing the omens he saw: “Without my touch the Gāṇḍīva bow stretches. My arrows move out of their quiver on their own accord. My polished sword leaps from its scabbard. Near my banners I heard, ‘When will your chariot be yoked, O Kirīṭī?’ At night, crowds of jackals howl gleefully and vultures and crows descend from the sky. All these signs indicate carnage. These omens will prove true when I hurl my celestial weapons in all directions. I will leave no trace of the Kaurava army. O Sañjaya, tell this to Duryodhana in the hearing of the king, Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Kṛpa, and the wise Vidura. I will surely act as these elders say. Let them check the evil Duryodhana or let the war begin.”

The assembly was silent. Duryodhana looked nonchalantly around the hall, smirking. Karṇa fumed and clutched his ivory-hilted sword. Seeing Duryodhana’s indifference, Bhīṣma addressed him gravely.

“O prince, listen as I recount an ancient history. Once all the gods went to visit Brahmā. Arriving at his abode they saw two beautiful, blazing personalities illuminating even that shining region by their splendor. Brahmā told the gods that these two were Nara and Nārāyaṇa Ṛṣis. They were forever practicing asceticism for the good of the worlds, and they lived to destroy the demons. The gods had come to Brahmā out of fear of the Asuras and, headed by Bṛhaspati, they approached those two Ṛṣis and begged that they help them defeat their enemies. Assisted by Nara and Nārāyaṇa Ṛṣis’ invincible power, the gods triumphed over the Asuras. Now those two Ṛṣis among the gods have appeared as Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna. Such is the general belief. Arjuna has already shown his prowess by slaying thousands of demons in the celestial realm. The son of Vasudeva has also killed innumerable demons. Together they have vanquished the gods at Khāṇḍava, and together they will fight us.”

Bhīṣma looked penetratingly at Duryodhana, who moved uncomfortably on his throne. He did not want to hear about his enemies’ power. Anyway, why should he worry? He thought of the Dānavas’ assurances and remembered how they would possess his forces. Soon he would be seeing a different Bhīṣma, and soon the Pāṇḍavas would be facing an army more powerful than they had anticipated.

Bhīṣma concluded his speech. “Nara and Nārāyaṇa repeatedly take birth in this world to annihilate the miscreants and demons. It was Nārada Ṛṣi who told us this. O child, when you see these two seated on the same chariot, armed for battle, then you will remember my words. By desiring to fight with them you have lost sight of both virtue and profit. Do not encounter them in battle. If you ignore my advice, you will see your warriors slain.

“But it seems that you will only listen to the advice of three persons: Karṇa, who is the son of a suta and has been cursed by his guru; the cunning Śakuni; and your small-minded brother Dushashana.”

Karṇa was already seething from Arjuna’s speech. Now he was infuriated. Springing to his feet he exclaimed, “It is unfair that you speak of me in such a way, O Grandfather. I follow a kṣatriya’s duties and have not abandoned virtue. Why do you always revile me? I wish only for the Kurus’ good. Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons are honestly ruling the world. Why should they give the kingdom to their enemies? To serve Dhṛtarāṣṭra I will slay the Pāṇḍavas in battle.”

Karṇa roared and then took his seat. Bhīṣma looked at him sadly; then, turning toward Dhṛtarāṣṭra, said, “O King, although this suta’s son brags of his power, he is not even a sixteenth part of the Pāṇḍavas. You should know that this fool is largely responsible for this calamity about to befall your sons. Encouraged by his empty promises, Duryodhana is ready to face Arjuna in battle. Your weak-brained son, depending upon Karṇa, has insulted the Pāṇḍavas. What can this vain man achieve that is even approaching what Arjuna has achieved? What could he do when Arjuna killed his brother in the fight against the Matsyas? What did he do when your son was carried away by the Gandharvas? Yet he roars like a bull in the assembly. Ignorant of virtue and profit, he simply speaks whatever comes to his mind.”

Bhīṣma sat down. Karṇa kept his head down and said nothing. Bhīṣma’s words cut him deeply. He longed for the chance to prove him wrong. The sooner he could face Arjuna in battle the better. It would be different next time. Indra’s shakti weapon would settle the dispute once and for all. Why had he not had it with him at Virata? Somehow it had not occurred to him to bring that weapon. He had not been expecting to meet Arjuna. Well, he would not make that same mistake again. Then Bhīṣma would be silenced.

Droṇa had listened carefully to everything that had been said. Seeing his opportunity, he rose to speak. Facing Dhṛtarāṣṭra, the old martial preceptor said, “Take heed of Bhīṣma’s words and follow his advice, O King. You should not let yourself be guided by those who covet wealth and are slaves to desire. Peace with the Pāṇḍavas is without doubt the best course. What Arjuna has submitted to us through Sañjaya will surely come to pass if we fight. In all the three worlds, no one wields a bow like him.”

Droṇa, Bhīṣma and Vidura--each looked expectantly at Dhṛtarāṣṭra. But the old king remained silent. Ignoring their advice, he asked Sañjaya to repeat what the other Pāṇḍavas had said. “What did the large-minded Yudhiṣṭhira say when he heard that we had amassed a huge army? Who is looking up to him for orders and who is trying to dissuade him from war? What is that virtuous one, wronged by my wicked sons, now planning?”

Sañjaya, who had been seated while the others had been speaking, came again to the center of the assembly. “All the Pañchālas now look up to Yudhiṣṭhira, as well as the Matsyas and Kekayas. All those tribes, down to the last herdsmen, are ready to do his bidding. Clad in a coat of mail he sits amid their chieftains like Indra amid the gods.”

“Tell me in detail more about Yudhiṣṭhira’s forces. Also, please describe Dṛṣṭadyumna’s army and the army of the Somakas.”

As Sañjaya recalled the sight of those troops he became stunned and fell silent. He drew a long sigh. His mind was overwhelmed with fear and he suddenly fainted.

Vidura said loudly, “Sañjaya, recalling the mighty sons of Kuntī and their assembled troops, has lost control of his senses. He cannot utter a word.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra asked a servant to sprinkle cool water on Sañjaya’s face.

“The sight of the tigers among men has filled him with terror,” Vidura repeated. “Console him with comforting words, O King, and let him continue his report once his mind is peaceful.”

After some moments, Sañjaya came to his senses. Reassured by Dhṛtarāṣṭra, he drank some water and stood again to address the assembly. “I have seen, O great king, those mighty heroes arrayed in armor like a pride of angry lions. At their head stands the ever-truthful Yudhiṣṭhira, who never departs from virtue out of desire or fear. He is ready to fight even the gods if need be. By his side stands the terrible Bhīmasena, whose strength equals that of ten thousand elephants and who has slain Rākṣasas with his bare hands. Bhīma brought down the powerful Yakṣas on the Gandhamādana mountain, and he slew Kichaka and all his followers.

“Then there is Arjuna, whose glories have already been described and who is fired with wrath. He is repeatedly bending the Gāṇḍīva and uttering war cries. He satisfied the immortal Śiva in a fight and was given the celestial weapons.

“Next Mādrī’s two sons, the powerful twins, stand ready with their terrible weapons, breathing hot and heavy sighs.”

Sañjaya spoke of all the principal warriors on the Pāṇḍavas’ side. He mentioned Śikhaṇḍī, who, according to prophesy, was destined to kill Bhīṣma, and Dṛṣṭadyumna, destined to kill Droṇa. As he named the many great heroes aligned against the Kauravas, Duryodhana and Karṇa scoffed. Dhṛtarāṣṭra, however, became fearful. When Sañjaya stopped speaking, the king began to address the assembly.

“O Sañjaya, all these you have named are powerful and courageous fighters, but Bhīma is equal to them all. He gives me the greatest fear. We are like deer facing an enraged and hungry tiger. Many a night have I remained sleepless, thinking about the furious Bhīma rushing at my sons with mace in hand. I do not see anyone in our army who can face him. When wrathful he is an implacable foe who tears through the battlefield like a tornado. He will surely put an end to my wicked sons. Seeing him advance toward them, they will meet with a calamity equal to meeting the god of death wielding his staff. Bhīma will roam among my sons as a fully grown lion roams among a herd of deer. From his childhood he has been inimical to Duryodhana and his brothers. Finding the opportunity on the battlefield, he will not hesitate to annihilate all of them. O Sañjaya, it is only by good fortune that he has not already killed my sons for the wrongs they have inflicted upon him and his brothers.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra went on to describe the threat Bhīma posed to his sons. Sweat ran down his face and he clenched his fists as he spoke. Bhīma’s vow to kill his sons gave him the greatest anxiety. The kings and ministers in the hall looked at him with pity as he concluded his speech.

“Destiny is surely all-powerful. Even though I see my sons’ inevitable death, still I do not dissuade them from their aims. Because they all desire to traverse the eternal, noble and heavenly path, they will part with their lives in battle and ensure their everlasting fame on earth. Perhaps our only hope now lies in the support of our three aged, wise heroes: Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Kṛpa. They will doubtlessly repay the support and kindness we have given them by coming out for battle against the Pāṇḍavas. Even though the sons of Kuntī are as dear to them as my sons, they will not avoid their duty. For a kṣatriya to meet death in the line of duty is commendable. It leads to glorious regions of bliss. It seems to me, Sañjaya, that knowledge does not destroy woe; rather, distress destroys knowledge. As I contemplate the impending destruction of the Kurus, grief bewilders my senses and confounds my mind. I cannot let go of my attachment for my sons, the kingdom, my wife, my grandsons, and a thousand other things. Such blind attachment leads only to suffering.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra sighed. Bhīṣma and Vidura looked at him in despair. He could clearly understand what would happen should they fight the Pāṇḍavas, but still he would not save the situation. All he had to do was give his sons the order to cease hostilities and the war would be finished before it began. Although Duryodhana officiated as the monarch, his father still occupied the throne as the head of state. If the king ordered the prince to make peace with the Pāṇḍavas, he would have to obey.

But Dhṛtarāṣṭra showed no signs of giving such an order. He seemed resigned to actualize the death and destruction of everyone and everything he held dear. The two ministers looked at each other, hopelessly, as the king continued.

“This great calamity the Kurus now face owes its existence to the dice game. My son is at fault because he is filled with avarice. This is the work of eternal time. Bound by time I am helpless in the face of my own ruination. What can I do? Where will I go? O Sañjaya, the foolish Kurus will all be killed by time and I can do nothing about it. I will hear news of my hundred sons dying and then hear the loud wailing of women. Only I will be left alive. How will death touch me? As a raging fire consumes a dry forest, so Bhīma and Arjuna will consume my army.”

The king then described Arjuna’s prowess, whom he considered no less a danger than Bhīma. He knew Arjuna was truthful and would not kill any of his sons out of respect for Bhīma’s vow, but he would certainly not restrain himself with the rest of the Kaurava forces.

“Although I think about it day and night, I do not see a warrior on earth who can stand against the Gāṇḍīva bow.” Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s voice was almost choking. “Some may think that either Karṇa or Droṇa can withstand him, but I do not share that view. Karṇa is careless and passionate, and the preceptor is old and weakened by affection for Arjuna. No one can kill Arjuna, nor will battle with him result in anything but his own victory. The authorities have assured us of this truth, and the Kurus have witnessed his strength with their own eyes. With Keśava guiding his chariot and the Gāṇḍīva in his hand, Arjuna will be irresistible in battle.

“The fools under Duryodhana’s control do not know this. When a thunderbolt falls on one’s head, something may be left behind. When Arjuna’s arrows fall on one’s head, however, nothing will be left behind. I can see him now in my mind’s eye, coursing through our troops, his arrows flying in all directions and beheading countless warriors. Could anyone face the combined might of Arjuna and Bhīma and survive? Whomever Providence wills to be destroyed will not escape. Alas, the time for the Kurus’ destruction is imminent.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra fell silent. If his sons were destined to die, then it would come to pass. But perhaps destiny would dictate some other outcome. After all, who could have foreseen that the noble Pāṇḍavas would have to give up their kingdom and enter the forest? Maybe their victory was not so certain. The king hardly dared to hope for his own victory. How could the Pāṇḍavas be overcome while they were supported by that unfathomable Kṛṣṇa?

Weeping and sighing repeatedly, Dhṛtarāṣṭra said, “Although you have told me of the Pāṇḍavas’ powerful forces, there is one who equals all of them and more. That mighty one could, by His desire, bring all the worlds under His control. That person is Kṛṣṇa. He seems to have set His mind on the Pāṇḍavas’ victory. It seems hopeless for my party. My heart quakes as I think of Yudhiṣṭhira’s wrath, Bhīma’s prowess, the strength of Arjuna and the twins, and Kṛṣṇa’s inconceivable powers. What fool, desiring death, would fall like a moth into the inextinguishable Pāṇḍava fire? We have treated those heroes deceitfully. As a result, my sons will have to die. O Kurus, do not fight. If you wage war, then our race will be annihilated. Let us seek peace. Yudhiṣṭhira will not disregard me, especially upon seeing my distress.”

The king trailed off in tears. The rest of the assembly regarded him silently. What could anyone say? Dhṛtarāṣṭra had said nothing about giving back Yudhiṣṭhira’s kingdom. His desire for peace was an empty hope born of fear. He would not pay the price to bring peace. War was certain.

Sañjaya again approached the assembly, his hands clasped, and said, “O great king, it will be exactly as you say. That the kṣatriyas will be destroyed by the Gāṇḍīva bow is obvious. I cannot understand how you, who can clearly see this truth, still allow yourself to be controlled by your sons. This is not the time to give way to grief. It is your fault alone that has caused this disaster. You have neglected the Pāṇḍavas, who are like your own sons, and treated them harshly. Sitting in the gambling arena you called out like a child, ‘What has been won?’ See now what you have won. Laugh now as you did then, O King. Now you must face the vengeful Pāṇḍavas and their friend, the Lord of all beings, Kṛṣṇa. The Kauravas are about to sink like a holed boat in a shoreless ocean. Your hope for victory arises only from madness. Whoever despises the Pāṇḍavas will be destroyed. It is not proper that you now grieve, O Bharata. You have had ample opportunity to prevent this calamity, but you repeatedly ignored all good advice. Your lamentations are useless, O chief among kings.”

Sañjaya returned to his seat at the foot of the kings and ministers. Dhṛtarāṣṭra shook his head, tears running down his face and falling into his beard.

Duryodhana began to worry that the king might decide to give in to the Pāṇḍavas. He leapt to his feet and said, “There is nothing to fear, O great king. You need not grieve for us. We are capable of winning the battle. When I heard that Yudhiṣṭhira had amassed an army and was intent upon war, I approached Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Kṛpa. I sought their advice, asking if they felt we should surrender or fight. Victory was by no means certain. Each of them assured me, ‘You need fear no enemies. Let anyone come. We will curb their pride with our sharp arrows. No one can defeat us in battle.’ Declaring their loyalty to you, O King, they reassured me. I have faith in their words. Bhīṣma alone overpowered all the world’s kings at Kashi. Again, that hero subdued the invincible warrior-sage Paraśurāma. How can the Pāṇḍavas defeat him? What power do they have? They do not have their kingdom or their wealth. We are the lords of the earth. Now is the time for us to assert our supremacy and our rightful position. This kingdom is yours, O best of men. How can we surrender it to the enemy?”

As usual, Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s mind was swayed by Duryodhana. It was true that Bhīṣma was an insuperable warrior. He had also been given a boon that he would die only at his own will. No one could kill him. If he declared his intention to fight with all his heart, then all was not lost. The king checked his tears as Duryodhana continued.

“Why are you struck with fear simply upon hearing descriptions of the enemy? Consider our own army, almost twice the size of theirs. Even Indra could not overpower our forces. That Yudhiṣṭhira asks only for five villages shows that he is afraid of our might. As far as Bhīma is concerned, do not be afraid of him. None in this world can equal my mace fighting. I am a match even for Balarāma, my tutor, and with a single blow I will dispatch Bhīma to Death’s abode. I can break the Himavat mountain to pieces. I long to face Bhīma in battle.”

Duryodhana scowled in anger at the thought of Bhīma. He had had the palace artisans make an iron replica of Bhīma. Each day the Kaurava would smash the iron statue with his huge mace. Soon he would have the opportunity to smash Bhīma himself.

“As for Arjuna, how can he possibly be victorious when he fights with Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Kṛpa, Aśvatthāmā, Śalya, Bhurisrava and Jayadratha simultaneously? Even Droṇa single-handed is more than a match for him. Born from the immortal Ṛṣi Bharadvāja, no one can even look upon Droṇa when he is worked up in battle. Then there is Kṛpa, born from a powerful ṛṣi. No man or god can slay him. Then there is Karṇa, whom I consider to be the equal of Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Kṛpa combined. Even Indra came to him out of fear and begged for his natural armor. That lord of the gods has bestowed an infallible weapon upon Karṇa with which he will surely slay Arjuna.”

Duryodhana continued praising his forces and deriding the Pāṇḍavas. Naming all the kings on the Kaurava side, he breathed confidence into his father. There was no possibility the Pāṇḍavas could win the war. Dhṛtarāṣṭra could rest at ease.

In conclusion, Duryodhana asked Sañjaya, “With seven akshauhini divisions, what does Yudhiṣṭhira hope to achieve? Does he really think he can overpower us?”

Sañjaya smiled. “Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers are all cheerful. I did not detect any fear in them. Arjuna mounted his heavenly chariot as I was leaving and said, ‘I have seen divine omens foretelling our victory.’ Looking at Arjuna clad in mail and standing on his chariot as lightning sits within a cloud, I saw truth in his words.”

Duryodhana laughed sarcastically. “You are always praising the Pāṇḍavas, whom we defeated at dice. Tell me about Arjuna’s chariot. What sort of horses and banners are attached to it?”

Duryodhana had heard about Arjuna’s divine chariot, given to him by Agni. Its steeds were given by the Gandharva chief, Citraratha. He listened as Sañjaya described it.

“Arjuna’s chariot is of celestial origin and cannot be impeded. It is drawn by white horses which move at the speed of the wind across both earth and sky. Citraratha has granted him a boon that there will always be a hundred horses no matter how many are slain.

“I can barely describe Arjuna’s banner. It was created by Viśvakarmā, and it throws up a celestial illusion. It appears to extend in all directions for eight miles. It is impossible to ascertain of what the banner is made, but it resembles smoke mixed with fire. It has all the colors of Indra’s bow. The terrible monkey Hanumān sits there, as do other celestial beings of terrifying form.”

Sañjaya described the other four Pāṇḍavas’ chariots. When he had finished, Dhṛtarāṣṭra said, “O Sañjaya, which of the Pāṇḍava warriors will contend with which of mine?”

“Dṛṣṭadyumna, born from fire, has reserved Droṇa as his share. His brother Śikhaṇḍī has marked out Bhīṣma, while the pious Yudhiṣṭhira has determined to slay his uncle Śalya. Duryodhana and his hundred brothers will belong to Bhīma. Arjuna has named Karṇa, Aśvatthāmā and Jayadratha. Whoever in this world claims to be invincible, Arjuna will also slay. All of your grandsons, O King, will be met by Abhimanyu. The deceitful Śakuni belongs to Sahadeva, while Nakula will engage with Śakuni’s son Uluka and the hordes of mountain fighters he leads. O leader of men, all the rulers and warriors in your army have been assigned to one or another of the Pāṇḍavas and their followers. Therefore, do quickly what needs to be done, for the battle will soon begin.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra again became fearful. His mind swung between hope and despair. He spoke again, trembling.

“All my foolish sons, who will face Bhīma, have already ceased to exist. The other kings and rulers will all be slain by the Gāṇḍīva bow as moths are killed when they enter fire. I see my army routed by the Pāṇḍavas, whom I have made into my enemies. Yudhiṣṭhira’s forces are like a formidable ocean my son desires to cross with his two arms. Indra himself could not withstand such heroes, who are cool and composed in battle and capable of breaking down the Himālayas. Alas, my wicked son desires to fight them, ignoring my protests.”

Duryodhana rose to his feet. “Both parties are mortals. Why then do you ascribe victory as belonging only to them? Think again about the heroes arrayed on our side. Not even the gods combined could overpower them, what to speak of the puny Pāṇḍavas. O sire, I do not consider the Pāṇḍavas capable of even gazing at our forces. The kings and rulers who wish me well will take hold of the Pāṇḍavas as deer are held in a trap. They will be vanquished along with all of their followers.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra sat shaking his head. His intelligence told him that the Pāṇḍavas, aided by Kṛṣṇa, could not be defeated, but his heart was held by the strong grip of attachment for his sons. His choked voice echoed around the hall. “See how my son raves like a maniac, Sañjaya. How will he ever defeat Yudhiṣṭhira in battle? Surely Bhīṣma knows the truth about the Pāṇḍavas’ strength since he does not desire to fight with them. Tell us again of their prowess, Sañjaya. Let us be in no doubt of the danger we now face.”

“Among the Pāṇḍavas’ forces, Dṛṣṭadyumna constantly incites them. He said, ‘Go, Sañjaya, and tell the Kauravas their annihilation is imminent. Tell them they can only avert this calamity by sending a pure and honest man to Yudhiṣṭhira to return to him his kingdom. Do not let Arjuna release the fire of his anger at the Kurus. He is protected by the gods in heaven and by the Supreme God Himself. He cannot be slain. O Kurus, do not even think of fighting with him.’”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra cried out, covering his face. “O Duryodhana, my son,” he wailed, “turn your mind from war. One half of this wide kingdom is more than enough for you and your ministers. Return to the Pāṇḍavas that which is theirs. All the Kuru elders see this as the only virtuous path and you should accept it, my child. Apart from you and the small-minded son of a suta, I do not think there are any here who desire war. Led by Karṇa, Dushashana and Śakuni, you are traveling the path to destruction. Come to your senses, dear son. Do not be misled.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s words carried no authority. His plaintive cries were not taken seriously by anyone in the assembly. He had clearly abdicated his power to Duryodhana and would ultimately go along with whatever the prince decided. When Dhṛtarāṣṭra had spoken, Duryodhana stood gazing defiantly around the assembly. He made his decision clear. “I do not depend upon any of the warriors assembled on our side. Karṇa and I alone can perform the sacrifice of war, with Yudhiṣṭhira as the sacrificial beast. My chariot will be the sacrificial platform and my weapons the paraphernalia. My shafts will substitute for kusha grass, while my wide fame will be the clarified butter. We shall perform the sacrifice in honor of the god of death and will come back crowned with a halo of glory. Let the war begin. Either I will rule the wide earth after killing the Pāṇḍavas, or they will enjoy the kingdom after killing me.”

Duryodhana paused in order to add weight to his words. His voice, full of pride and arrogance, reverberated around the assembly hall. “I can sacrifice my life, my wealth, my kingdom, my everything, O King, but I can never live in peace with the Pāṇḍavas. I will not surrender to them even as much land as can be pierced by the point of a needle.”

The hall remained silent after Duryodhana had taken his place on his throne. Bhīṣma and Vidura glanced at each other. Duryodhana’s words did not surprise them. What could they say in reply? Only Dhṛtarāṣṭra could check his son and he was not doing that, despite his pitiful entreaties. He still had given no strong order to return the Pāṇḍavas’ kingdom, nor was he telling anyone else to restrain Duryodhana. It was clear that destiny had ordained war.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra broke the silence. “I grieve for all of you, O rulers, who are following this fool to Death’s abode. I cast off Duryodhana forever. Soon the Pāṇḍavas will move among our forces like tigers through a herd of deer. My army will fall like a helpless woman struck down by a wicked man. Beholding the Pāṇḍavas approaching like moving mountains, you will remember my words. O my sons, if you do not conclude peace now, you will meet with everlasting peace when you are struck by Bhīma’s mace.”

Duryodhana looked at Karṇa and Dushashana. His old father may be terrified by the thought of battle, but he could hardly wait. Alone or assisted by his Dānava-inspired troops, he was ready. No other course was possible.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra asked Sañjaya to repeat to him what Kṛṣṇa had said. Sañjaya related Kṛṣṇa’s words. After this he described another meeting he had had with both Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna.

“I was invited to see them in Arjuna’s quarters. With my mind fixed on sacred things I entered the innermost apartment in the palace, my head lowered and my hands clasped in prayer. The two great souls, however, put me at my ease. They were seated together on a golden bed bedecked with precious stones. Kṛṣṇa’s feet rested on Arjuna’s lap and Arjuna’s on Kṛṣṇa’s lap. Draupadī and Satyabhāmā sat nearby like two shining moons. Arjuna pointed to a seat. I touched it with my hand and sat next to it on the floor. Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna rose from their place, like a couple of sal trees. Seeing the two black-complexioned heroes towering above me I was seized with fear. They were like Indra and Viṣṇu together. I realized that whoever has them on his side cannot possibly meet defeat.”

Sañjaya closed his eyes as he recalled the sight. He was silent for some moments, then continued in a subdued voice. “After they had reassured me and offered me foods and drink, I placed my clasped hands on my head and told them of your desire for peace. O King, Arjuna then asked Kṛṣṇa to make a suitable reply, whereupon the Yādava leader spoke. His words were charming and mild, but their import was terrible. They were calculated to inspire fear in your sons’ hearts. He said, ‘O Sañjaya, say this before Dhṛtarāṣṭra and all the Kuru elders after offering them our respects and asking after their welfare. Tell them that they should now perform auspicious sacrifices and make numerous gifts to the Brahmins. Then they should make merry with their wives and sons, for they will soon face a calamity. I am thinking of My debt to Draupadī, which is still not paid. That chaste lady purchased Me for all time when she cried out, ‘O Govinda,’ amid the Kurus, who were afflicting her with pain.’”

Tears streamed down Sañjaya’s face as he thought of how Kṛṣṇa gave Himself completely to whomever sought His shelter. “Kṛṣṇa then spoke the following words: ‘The Kurus have made the wielder of the Gāṇḍīva bow, with Me as his second, their enemy. Who would dare challenge us in battle, even if they were assisted by the gods, unless their time had come? He who defeats Arjuna could hold up the earth in his two arms. He could burn up all creatures and destroy the heavens. Among all the beings within the three worlds, I do not see any to equal Arjuna in battle. Surely the fight at the Matsya kingdom was sufficient evidence of that--what to speak of his encounter with the Dānavas in the nether world. Strength, agility, prowess, lightness of hand, untiring energy and patience reside always in Arjuna and in no one else. Consider all this carefully before beginning hostilities, O Kurus.’”

Sañjaya then told the Kurus that Kṛṣṇa planned to come to Hastināpura Himself to encourage peace.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra sat with his head bowed. He had spent many a long night pondering Arjuna’s power, trying to weigh whether it could be countered by any of the Kuru warriors. It was hard to decide. Now that Arjuna was united in battle with Kṛṣṇa, the odds had shifted dramatically. Kṛṣṇa’s power was impossible to estimate. He was said by the ṛṣis to be the Lord of all divinities. Opposing Him would surely mean opposing the gods themselves.

The blind king spoke out with apprehension. “These descriptions of Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa only convince me all the more of the folly of war. O Duryodhana, think again. Think with whom you will be fighting. Great men always repay their debts. Agni is indebted to Arjuna for his assistance at Khāṇḍava. He will surely help Arjuna in the war. So will the god Dharma align himself with his son, Yudhiṣṭhira. Bhīma is Vāyu’s son and the twins are born of the two Aśvinī gods. Thus it appears that we will be facing a force both human and divine. I cannot see how we can win. Son, make peace with the Pāṇḍavas. If you do not, then the Kurus’ end has come.”

Duryodhana was losing his patience. All this agonizing was too much. The prince jumped up in a rage. “O best of kings, why do you keep praising the Pāṇḍavas? They are mortals like the rest of us. How will the gods come to their assistance? The gods are never impelled by base emotions. It is only by indifference to worldly desires, the absence of avarice, anger and hatred that they have attained their heavenly positions in the first place. They do not get involved in petty human struggles based on emotional attachments. Were this not the case, then how could the Pāṇḍavas have undergone so much suffering? And even if the gods do take their side, so what? I am the equal to any of them. By my own mystic power I can stop fire from burning even if it wishes to consume the three worlds. With incantations I can solidify water, enabling chariots and infantry to march over it. I can break apart mountains and send down showers of rocks accompanied by a gale like that which blows at the time of destruction.”

As he praised himself Duryodhana became increasingly enlivened. He flailed his arms and glared at the kings in the assembly. “You all know that in my kingdom there are no natural calamities caused by gods. Due to my protection, there are not even frightful beasts or snakes to assail my subjects. All the citizens practice virtue and live peacefully under my rule. Neither the gods nor the Asuras would dare protect anyone hated by me. Why did the gods not prevent me from exiling the Pāṇḍavas or from taking their wealth? Whomever I desire to be happy or miserable meets with that end without fail. I am never thwarted in my aims. O monarch, my words will not prove false. I am known in this world as one who speaks the truth. The world witnesses my fame and glory. I say this only to console you and not out of self-praise. You will soon hear of the Pāṇḍavas’ defeat, rest assured. I am superior to them in intelligence, might, prowess, knowledge and ability. I shall destroy them.”

Duryodhana, who was now in the center of the hall, strode back to his seat. Karṇa applauded him and himself stood to speak, disregarding Dhṛtarāṣṭra, who had raised his hand to reply. Karṇa’s voice rang around the assembly. “I will take it upon myself to kill the Pāṇḍavas. I have received the brahmastra from Paraśurāma and the shakti from Indra. With these two weapons I will destroy Pāṇḍu’s sons. All of the other Kurus may stay with Duryodhana to protect him. Leave the Pāṇḍavas to me.”

Bhīṣma laughed loud and long. “What are you saying, Karṇa? Your intelligence has obviously been dulled by death that now approaches you. Remembering the incident of the burning of Khāṇḍava, you should restrain yourself, foolish one. Your shakti weapon, of which you are so proud, will be burned to ashes when Kṛṣṇa’s discus hits it. The Supreme Person has already destroyed enemies far greater than you, Karṇa. Meeting with Him and Arjuna, you and all your weapons will be ruined.”

Bhīṣma reminded Karṇa how he had been cursed by Paraśurāma that, when he most needed it, he would not be able to remember the incantations to invoke the brahmastra. Karṇa had deceived the sage into thinking he was a Brahmin in order to receive his teachings. When Paraśurāma discovered the lie, he uttered this curse. Karṇa would not be able to use the brahmastra weapon when he was faced with imminent danger, and Arjuna would certainly not have the same difficulty.

Karṇa snarled. “Your praise of Kṛṣṇa is proper, O Grandfather. I know Him to be as great--even greater--than you say, but I can no longer tolerate your cruel words toward me. Hear now the result of your harshness. I will not engage in battle as long as you are present. Rather, I will lay down my weapons until you are laid low. Then the world will see my prowess.”

Karṇa stormed out of the hall. Bhīṣma laughed again and turned toward Duryodhana. “The suta’s son is a man who keeps his word. How will he now fulfill his promise to wipe out the enemy troops? In this assembly I heard him say, ‘All of you here shall be the witness. I will again and again kill thousands and tens of thousands of enemy soldiers.’ How will he act upon it now? He is passionate and arrogant. At the very moment he cheated the holy Ṛṣi Paraśurāma he lost all virtue and ascetic merits.”

Duryodhana was perplexed by Karṇa’s sudden departure but, maintaining a straight face, again asserted that he depended on no one. Whether or not Karṇa aided him, he would face the Pāṇḍavas and win. When the prince finally stopped boasting, Vidura rose from his seat and began to tell a story.

“There was once a fowler who set a net in the forest to capture birds. Two large birds were trapped in the net, but they rose up to the sky, carrying the net with them. The fowler saw this and ran after them. As he ran, an ascetic saw him and said, ‘How strange that one who moves by his feet on the earth should run after those who wander in the sky.’ The fowler replied, ‘Those birds united have been able to take my net, but they will fall down when they quarrel.’ Sure enough, before long the two birds began to fight and they dropped to earth where the fowler caught and killed them. In the same way, brothers who fight one another are soon overpowered by death. O Duryodhana, cousin brothers should enjoy life together, eating and sporting but never quarreling.”

Vidura confirmed what had already been said of the Pāṇḍavas’ power, trying to dissuade Duryodhana from war. The prince said nothing. He already knew Vidura’s opinion, and Vidura obviously favored the Pāṇḍavas.

It was clear that the assembly had nothing more to say. Sañjaya had delivered the Pāṇḍavas’ messages and the Kurus had replied. Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s pathetic calls for peace were useless if he did not return even a portion of Yudhiṣṭhira’s kingdom to him. Never once had he indicated that he was willing to do this. Therefore, unless Kṛṣṇa was able to change his mind, there would be war. One by one the kings and ministers left the hall.

At last Dhṛtarāṣṭra sat alone with Sañjaya. Having heard everyone’s opinions publicly expressed, the king now wanted to hear his secretary’s opinion. Did he think there was any chance of the Kurus winning the war? Sañjaya had seen both sides and was able to assess their respective strengths. Although Sañjaya had already stated that he saw little hope for the Kurus, still the king hoped that in private he would give him a clue as to how they might win.

Sañjaya was worried that if he spoke alone to the king his opinion might not be taken seriously. He knew that Dhṛtarāṣṭra felt he was inclined toward Pāṇḍu’s sons. He therefore asked if he could call for Vyāsadeva, who was present at the time in the palace. If Dhṛtarāṣṭra saw that the wise ṛṣi agreed with Sañjaya’s opinion, perhaps he would take it more seriously.

The king agreed and also invited his wife Gāndhārī to be present. When both Vyāsadeva and Gāndhārī had taken their seats near the king, Sañjaya turned to address his spiritual master. “O my lord, please grant me permission to speak to the king in your presence. He has asked about the Pāṇḍavas’ strength.”

Vyāsadeva lifted his right hand in blessing. “O Sañjaya, you should tell him everything about Kṛṣṇa, for He is the Pāṇḍavas’ real power.”

With his hands folded Sañjaya said, “O King, you have again and again asked about the strengths and weaknesses of the Pāṇḍavas. Their strength can be measured simply by measuring that of Govinda, for His strength knows no limits. If the entire world were placed on one side and Janārdana on the other, then He would surpass the world on the point of strength. He can reduce the earth and all its creatures to ashes in a moment. Where there is truth, where there is righteousness and virtue, where there is modesty, and where there is humanity--there you will find Kṛṣṇa. And where there is Kṛṣṇa, there will be victory. He is the soul of all beings come to this world as if in play. The Pāṇḍavas are merely the instruments of His desire. That all-powerful being desires to annihilate all the miscreant and irreligious elements in the world. O King, your sons are such an element.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra reached out for his wife’s hand and held it tightly. Sañjaya went on, “Keśava is the Lord of time, of death, and of moving and non-moving beings. Appearing as an ordinary man by His own illusion, He comes to this world. Those who know Him are not deceived.”

The old monarch was curious to hear more about Kṛṣṇa. He had always known that his secretary accepted Kṛṣṇa as the Supreme Deity. Sañjaya was Vyāsadeva’s disciple, who himself worshipped Kṛṣṇa. The king was not sure. Kṛṣṇa was certainly extraordinary. It was astonishing how He had killed so many powerful demons, and the ṛṣis all extolled Him as the original divinity. Yet He appeared so human. The king asked, “How is it that you accept Kṛṣṇa as the Supreme God? Why do you know Him as such and I do not? Please explain this to me if you feel it is appropriate, Sañjaya.”

“Those who are too attached to matter cannot know that great personality,” Sañjaya replied. “To them He remains a mystery, or they simply do not accept His existence as God. I am not enamored of material things and have kept my desires in check. At the same time, I carefully study the Vedas and faithfully hear from holy men, such as my spiritual master, Vyāsadeva. Thus I have been able to know Keśava in some part. You too may acquire this knowledge, O King. Take shelter of Kṛṣṇa, for He is your best well-wisher. Do not despise Him or His advice. Your foolish son has no faith in Kṛṣṇa and will lead you and the Kurus to destruction.”

Gāndhārī nodded in agreement. “Our wicked-minded son will certainly bring destruction upon us. He is envious and vain and never listens to his elders’ advice. After enhancing the joy of evil men and my grief, he will die at Bhīma’s hands. Only then will he remember his father’s words.”

Vyāsadeva, seated on an elevated seat spread with silk cushions, said, “O King, you are dear to Kṛṣṇa. Listen to my advice. Hear carefully from Sañjaya. He can tell you the path by which Kṛṣṇa can be known and accepted as one’s shelter. Only due to excessive desire and hatred are men denied knowledge of God. Coveting wealth and fame in this world, almost all men are fully absorbed in illusion. Thus they come under the control of death again and again. A wise man therefore gives up all attachments and takes to the path of liberation, which leads ultimately to Kṛṣṇa.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra asked Sañjaya to describe that path. After bowing before Vyāsadeva, Sañjaya said, “Sense control is the beginning of the path. Performance of sacrifice without sense control will not allow you to know God. Renunciation of sensual desires arises from the awakening of true knowledge, which is born of wisdom. Wisdom is gained by experience and by hearing from the wise. True wisdom means controlling the senses. One with controlled senses will experience pleasure within himself as he proceeds on the path of self-realization. By this path can you attain Keśava, O King. Follow that path with a genuine desire to know and please that most ancient of deities and success will be assured.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra asked his secretary to tell him more about Kṛṣṇa’s attributes and qualities. Sañjaya told him of Kṛṣṇa’s various names and Their different meanings which describe Him as creator, sustainer and, ultimately, destroyer of everything material and spiritual.

After hearing these descriptions Dhṛtarāṣṭra became thoughtful. He dismissed Sañjaya. After Vyāsadeva had also left, he sat alone with his wife. The old king was perplexed. He could not deny Kṛṣṇa’s supremacy. Sañjaya’s descriptions, supported by Vyāsadeva, were lucid and thorough. It was obvious that opposing Kṛṣṇa and those backed by Him was sure to end in defeat. But if it was Kṛṣṇa’s desire that the Kurus be destroyed, then what could he do? It seemed that his actions were all useless in the face of the Lord’s divine plan. Dhṛtarāṣṭra sat sighing and holding his head. Did Kṛṣṇa really desire that his sons, relatives and friends all be annihilated? Why, then, was He coming to Hastināpura to establish peace? It was a mystery the blind monarch could not unravel.