Early on the morning of Kṛṣṇa’s departure, Karṇa rose to perform his usual worship of the sun-god. Since childhood he had been attracted to the sun-god and had never missed his rituals and prayers. An hour before sunrise he mounted his chariot and went to the Ganges, accompanied by numerous Brahmins. Wearing only a loin cloth he waded into the shallows and faced east, chanting Vedic hymns. On the river bank the Brahmins lit a sacred fire and made offerings to Sūrya on his behalf.
It was well known that Karṇa would offer charity to anyone who approached him after his worship. His vow to give anything to any petitioner was famous. Indra had already taken advantage of the vow and divested him of his natural armor.
Now Kuntī approached him. The first time she saw the youthful Karṇa enter the arena of Droṇa’s martial exhibition she knew he was her son. She also knew he was ignorant of the fact. It was painful to see him rivaling constantly with his brothers. She was mortified at the thought that they would soon try to kill each other in battle. It was time to tell Karṇa the truth. Perhaps he could be convinced to join his brothers’ side.
Just as the sun rose, Kuntī made her way alone to the Ganges. As she approached the riverside she heard Karṇa reciting prayers aloud. She looked at him as a mother looks at her son. He stood facing the sun, his arms held over his head and his hands joined together in prayer, a position he would maintain until the sun had risen high into the sky. Kuntī sat on the river bank and waited for Karṇa to finish. It was summer and the thin silk cloth covering her head provided little protection from the heat. After she had waited for more than two hours, Karṇa finally completed his worship and turned around. He was surprised to see Kuntī before him, but he said, “You are most welcome, noble lady. I am Karṇa, the son of Adhiratha and Radha. I salute you with all respect. Tell me what I can do for you today?”
Kuntī rose and went toward Karṇa with faltering steps. He had now stepped from the river and stood dripping. As the Kuru queen approached him he saw that her beautiful features appeared drawn. Her eyes darted nervously from him to the ground. Clasping her hands together, she softly addressed him. “O my child, you are not the son of Radha and Adhiratha.”
Her voice quavered and she paused to gain her composure. “Dear child, you were not born a suta. Know that you are my son, conceived by the powerful Sūrya. When you were born, you blazed like your father, and you wore a natural coat of armor and shining earrings. Out of fear for my reputation, and my father’s, since I was still considered a maiden, I cast you away, stricken with grief.”
Tears flooded Kuntī’s eyes. It always cut her heart to think of how she had abandoned Karṇa at birth, but there had been no question of telling anyone about it, even when he arrived at the arena that day. She had been gratified to know that Adhiratha and his wife had at least cared for her son, and she thought there would be no need to reveal the truth. Now he was about to die. She had to try to save him. If he did not die, he would kill Arjuna, and Kuntī could not bear losing either son.
She looked into Karṇa’s wide unbelieving eyes. “Not knowing of your birth, you have not realized that the Pāṇḍavas are actually your brothers. You now serve Duryodhana. This is not proper, my son. You are being led by avaricious and deceitful men who have stolen Yudhiṣṭhira’s kingdom. You will be ruined if you continue to follow them. Instead, follow the virtuous path and join your brothers.”
Karṇa pressed his two strong hands to the sides of his head, as if to contain the raging confusion that Kuntī’s words had created. How could it be true? If she had always known that he was the Pāṇḍavas’ brother, then why had she not said so sooner? Was this just some ploy to discourage him from fighting with the Pāṇḍavas? That seemed unlikely. Kuntī was famous for her virtue and truth. Her words must be true. As they sank in, Karṇa felt rooted to the spot where he stood. He was too amazed to speak
Kuntī wiped her eyes and glanced up at the sun. Why had that blazing deity put her through such pain? It had been an extremely difficult decision for her to reveal the truth to her first-born son. She loved Karṇa, but he would surely find that impossible to accept. Whenever she had contemplated telling him, the fear of his reaction had stopped her. Would he reject her out of hand, just as she had rejected him? Now it no longer mattered. She was willing to risk his rejection and anger if it meant saving his life.
“Let the Kurus see you join with Arjuna. When brotherly feelings are established between you, the Kauravas will bow before you in fear and respect. You and Arjuna, united like Balarāma and Janārdana--what will you not achieve? O Karṇa, surrounded by your five brothers you will shine like Brahmā amid the gods. You are my eldest son. Child, do not call yourself a suta again.” When Kuntī had finished, Karṇa heard a voice coming from the sun: “O Karṇa, Kuntī speaks the truth. Follow her advice, for that will be in your best interests.”
Karṇa was convinced. He was Kuntī’s son and Yudhiṣṭhira’s elder brother. Suddenly it all made sense. Adhiratha had told him how many years ago he had found him floating in a basket in the Ganges. Adhiratha said that he had shone like a celestial, and he had thought the gods had sent him a child to fulfill some divine purpose. He had brought the child home and raised him with love. Later, when Karṇa learned from the sun-god that his natural armor was celestial, he had realized that Adhiratha was probably right--he must have been conceived by some powerful deity. But he had never guessed the truth.
Karṇa’s voice rose above the rushing sound of the river. “I do not doubt your words, lady, but I cannot respect them. I do not see what virtue would lie in my joining with the Pāṇḍavas, nor do I feel that you were virtuous to have abandoned me at birth. By doing so, you have destroyed my fame and renown. I have been labeled a suta and denied the rites of a kṣatriya, which were rightfully mine. What enemy could possibly have done me greater harm?”
Karṇa dropped to his knees, clenching his eyes and fists. He threw his head back toward the sun. Hot tears wetted his face, contorted with grief and anger. He had often wondered about the identity of his real mother, longing to one day meet her. Now here she stood. Kuntī. The Kuru queen and mother of his hated enemies. But his own mother nevertheless. Feelings of love welled up in Karṇa’s heart, but he fought to deny them. Even in spite of Sūrya’s words, it was hard to accept that she had his interests in mind. Nor did he like the idea of leaving Duryodhana at his most dire hour of need. Unlike Kuntī, the Kaurava prince had shown him real love and friendship from the very beginning. How could he now suddenly abandon him and switch his affections to the Pāṇḍavas?
Karṇa’s words grew sharper. “I cannot accept that you are my well-wisher. You did not show me mercy at the proper time, and have come to me now only to fulfill your own needs. I cannot do as you suggest. If on the eve of battle I leave Duryodhana to join with the Pāṇḍavas, then who will not call me a coward? The Kauravas have granted all my desires. They have worshipped me. What kind of man would I be to leave them now? They depend on me as men on the sea depend on their boat. Now I must show my gratitude to Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons.”
Karṇa remembered his impulsive vow to Bhīṣma in the Kuru assembly. He felt guilty that he had abandoned Duryodhana even that much. Now he could not fight until Bhīṣma was slain. It was prophesied that Shikhandi would kill Bhīṣma. Then Duryodhana would need Karṇa more than ever. There was no question of leaving him now.
“I cannot prove untrue to my lord now. I will not abandon him. Yet your appeal will not go in vain. With the exception of Arjuna, I will not kill any of your sons in battle, even if I overpower them. When I kill Arjuna I will become famous for my prowess. Even if he kills me, I will still earn world renown. Thus you will always have five sons, O princess. Either Arjuna or I will survive, but not both.”
Kuntī stepped toward him and held out her arms with tears streaming down her face. Despite himself, Karṇa felt his powerful arms reach out to envelop Kuntī as if of their own accord. As mother and son stood embracing for the first time in their lives, Kuntī sorrowfully said, “O child, destiny is most powerful. What you say will surely happen. The Kurus will be destroyed and I will lose either you or Arjuna, if not more of my sons. When it is time to hurl weapons, do not forget your promise. May you be blessed and may all be well with you. I am leaving.”
Kuntī stood back and looked at her first-born son one last time. Then she hurried back toward the city. Karṇa climbed onto his chariot and sat there unmoving for some time. Kuntī’s words repeated themselves in his mind again and again. How different things might have been if she had kept him as her son. But destiny had decreed a different path for him. His fate now lay with Duryodhana and the Kauravas. There was no use lamenting for what might have been. Karṇa resolved not to reveal to anyone what had transpired between himself and Kuntī. It would only confuse the issue, and make his own vows impossible to follow. With a troubled heart he set off toward the city.
Before leaving, Kṛṣṇa asked to speak privately with Karṇa. As He reached Hastināpura’s southern gate at around noon, He saw Karṇa waiting for Him. Kṛṣṇa stopped and asked Karṇa to mount His chariot with Him. He took Karṇa out of the city, speaking as they rode in the direction of Virata. Kṛṣṇa considered Karṇa the most serious threat to the Pāṇḍavas in the coming war. Karṇa’s charioteer drove his car behind Kṛṣṇa with Sātyaki, who had dismounted from Kṛṣṇa’s chariot to give Him the privacy He desired with Karṇa.
Placing His hand on Karṇa’s shoulder, Kṛṣṇa said, “According to scripture the child born of a mother before her marriage becomes her husband’s son. You were born before your mother’s marriage, Karṇa, and are therefore Pāṇḍu’s son. The Pāṇḍavas are on your father’s side, and the Vrishni’s on your mother’s. You are related to both these races, O best of men. O hero, come with Me and become the king. The Pāṇḍavas will worship you as their elder brother, as I will, and all their followers. You will be anointed by the wives and daughters of kings with water from golden pots. At the proper time, Draupadī will approach you as a wife does her husband. Your five brothers will follow behind you, even as the gods follow Indra. I too shall follow you, accompanied by the Andhakas and the Vrishnis. Rule over this earth, O Karṇa. Let the bards and chanters sing your praises. Delight Kuntī’s heart and take your rightful place at the head of her sons.”
Karṇa looked into Kṛṣṇa’s smiling face. Surely He knew everything, as the sages said, but it was difficult to accept His advice.
Karṇa shook his head. “Undoubtedly Your words are meant for my good, O Keśava. I now know that I am Pāṇḍu’s son. Kuntī has told me everything. But she abandoned me and I was raised by Adhiratha and his wife. They have loved me as parents, and have always seen me as their son. So too have I seen them as my parents. They performed all the necessary rituals in my life. After adopting me they later had more children, to whom I have become an elder brother. They even selected my wives, and I have conceived sons and daughters with those wives. I cannot break those relationships even to gain both heaven and earth. Nor, O Madhava, shall I break them out of fear.”
Karṇa felt righteous. Following Kṛṣṇa’s advice would mean transgressing proper behavior. He gazed ahead at the rolling countryside as he continued. “For thirteen years I have enjoyed sovereignty only due to Duryodhana’s favor. I owe him a lot. Depending on me, he has formed an enmity with the Pāṇḍavas. I have been chosen to face Arjuna in combat. If I back down now, then I will become infamous. O Keśava, I cannot let myself be labeled as a coward, nor can I prove myself disloyal to Duryodhana. If I were given the world to rule, I would immediately give it to Duryodhana. How could I live with the Pāṇḍavas after all that he has done for me?”
Karṇa reflected on his feelings towards the Pāṇḍavas. He respected Yudhiṣṭhira, Bhīma, and even the twins. His hatred for Arjuna owed its origins to the day he had been refused entry into Droṇa’s school. When he came again to Hastināpura to compete in the exhibition, Droṇa had not recognized him as the boy he had turned away years earlier. He had told him then that he only accepted royal princes in his school. Karṇa was a charioteer’s son. Burning with shame, he had gone away, vowing vengeance. Defeating Droṇa’s best student, Arjuna, would be the best way to exact that revenge. As soon as he had seen Arjuna in the arena his heart had filled with envy. That envy had not waned. Soon it would explode in a fight to the death. There was no other course for him now.
“O Kṛṣṇa, I do not hold much hope for our victory, but I shall not change sides now. I know Yudhiṣṭhira is virtuous and pure-minded. He will preside over the coming battle sacrifice in which Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons will be the sacrificial animals. The Pāṇḍavas are pious men who deserve to rule the earth. The harsh words I spoke to them and their wife previously were only for Duryodhana’s pleasure. Remembering them now I am filled with remorse.
“Still, I will fight Arjuna, O Keśava; that is my duty as a moral man and a kṣatriya. It is likely that I will die, because I do not see the Kauravas winning. This dispute will end when Arjuna kills me and Bhīma kills Duryodhana. This battle will be so great that it will be remembered as long as the mountains stand. It cannot be stopped.”
Kṛṣṇa laughed. “Do you not then desire to rule the earth, O hero? Will you not peacefully accept the kingdom in the way I have indicated? Without doubt, the Pāṇḍavas’ victory will soon follow. When you see the five brothers coming out for battle, know that the terrible Kali age is approaching. Many men will be destroyed. Go back to Hastināpura and tell Droṇa and Kṛpa to make ready. It will be the full moon in seven days. Let the battle begin on that day. The kings under Duryodhana’s leadership will soon meet an excellent death at the edge of weapons.”
Karṇa could not understand Kṛṣṇa’s purpose. Why was He asking him to defect now? He knew that ultimately it would make little difference to the outcome of the battle. Destiny had, it seemed, already determined everything.
Karṇa looked at Kṛṣṇa, who sat with His long, black hair flowing in the wind. “Why do You confound me, O Keśava? Why would You lead me to folly? You know everything. The destruction of the world is at hand, with Duryodhana, Śakuni, Dushashana, and myself as its root cause. It will be as You say and no other way. O Kṛṣṇa, we have already seen the omens which portend Duryodhana’s defeat. I even saw the Pāṇḍavas in a dream coming out of the fight successful. I saw Yudhiṣṭhira, clad in white silks, swallowing the earth. He and his brothers ascended a palace of a thousand pillars. You were also there, O Madhava, by Arjuna’s side. On the other hand, the Kauravas and all their followers, wearing blood-colored robes, were going south toward Yamarāja’s abode. I and countless other warriors will soon enter the Gāṇḍīva fire. I know it for certain.”
Kṛṣṇa looked sadly toward Karṇa. “This will surely come to pass, Karṇa, since you do not seem prepared to accept My advice. When destruction is at hand, My dear friend, wrong appears as right and remains in the heart. What more can I say?”
Karṇa bowed his head slightly. “If I somehow survive the battle, I will see You again, O Kṛṣṇa. Otherwise, we will meet in heaven. It now seems to me that I will see You only there, O sinless one.”
Kṛṣṇa had Dāruka pull up His chariot. He embraced Karṇa, who then jumped down and mounted his own chariot. Kṛṣṇa, joined again by Sātyaki, urged on His charioteer and sped away. Karṇa headed sorrowfully back toward Hastināpura. Soon he would have to wage war against his own brothers. And against Kṛṣṇa, who was clearly his well-wisher, even if His advice was hard to follow. Thinking still of Kuntī’s words, and of his conversation with Kṛṣṇa, Karṇa’s mind felt heavy. It seemed he was not destined to enjoy happiness and prosperity in this life.
Soon after Kṛṣṇa left Hastināpura, Dhṛtarāṣṭra decided to call one last council to discuss strategy. War was now unavoidable, but the blind king was anxious. Having seen Kṛṣṇa’s universal form, he was filled with apprehension. Surely no human could contend with such power. Perhaps there was still a possibility to make a last-minute agreement. The king looked at his counselors. “O learned men, we have all heard Kṛṣṇa’s speech, and we have seen His superhuman power. The Lord of all the worlds will now ride into battle with the Pāṇḍavas, whom we have made our enemies. My son has insulted them. Now He has left us in anger. Surely we now face the greatest danger. Tell me what can be done to avert disaster.”
Bhīṣma shook his head. “Our fate is sealed, O King. We have abused Keśava, who is worthy of even the gods’ worship. There is no more fortune for us. We will have to take up arms in a contest that will divest the earth of innumerable heroes. What need is there for further discussion? It only remains for us to make arrangements for the war.”
Droṇa and Kṛpa agreed with Bhīṣma, and Duryodhana smiled. The moment he had been waiting for was near. Now there would be no more moralizing and useless talk. It should have been obvious to everyone from the start that the only way to deal with the Pāṇḍavas was on a battlefield. Kṛṣṇa had shown supernatural power. So what? He was not even going to fight. In any event, there were many heroes on the Kaurava side who were masters of mystical weapons. He was not afraid.
Vidura saw Duryodhana’s smirk and felt unable to constrain himself. He leapt to his feet and glared at the prince. He could not forgive him for insulting Kṛṣṇa. “You must now return Yudhiṣṭhira’s legitimate share of the kingdom. Yudhiṣṭhira has no enemies and he has been more than forbearing. He is waiting with his younger brothers, among whom is the revengeful Bhīma, breathing like a snake. Surely you are afraid of him.”
Duryodhana looked angrily at his uncle. Vidura continued, “Lord Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Lord, has accepted Kuntī’s sons as kinsmen. He lives in Dwārakā with the Yadu kings and princes, who have conquered unlimited rulers, and He is their Lord. Surely you fear Him.”
Vidura turned to the king. “O ruler of the earth, by your inaction you are supporting offense personified, Duryodhana, as your cherished son. But he is envious of Kṛṣṇa. Because of this, you are devoid of all auspicious qualities. Relieve yourself of this ill fortune as soon as possible by punishing him and thus do your whole family good! Otherwise, we are all doomed.”
Duryodhana could take no more. From his childhood he had seen his uncle favor the Pāṇḍavas. It seemed he had no affection for him and his brothers. Now he had gone too far. Duryodhana leapt up, his body swelling with rage, his lips trembling.
“Who asked him to come here, this son of a maidservant? The deceitful Khattwa is no friend of the Kurus. He is so crooked that he works secretly in the interest of the enemy, plotting against those who have supported him. Toss him out of the palace and leave him with only his breath!”
Dhṛtarāṣṭra was shocked at his son’s outburst. He raised a hand to silence him, but Vidura smiled and rose to his feet. Without saying anything, he lifted his bow, which he had never drawn in anger, and walked toward the door. He had been wondering how he would avoid having to fight against the Pāṇḍavas. Here was his opportunity. Leaning his bow against the door to signify that he would not fight for the Kurus, he walked out of the hall and headed toward the city’s northern gate and the ṛṣis’ ashrams. His mind was fixed on holy pilgrimage.
The other Kuru elders censured Duryodhana, who merely laughed. Dhṛtarāṣṭra then ended the assembly. It was time to prepare for war.
When Kṛṣṇa returned to Virata, Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers greeted Him warmly. Kṛṣṇa then described everything that had transpired in Hastināpura, except for the private discussion with Karṇa. Kṛṣṇa knew that if Yudhiṣṭhira were informed of Karṇa’s actual identity, he would not fight with him. It had to remain a secret for the time being.
The Pāṇḍavas were not surprised at the description of Duryodhana’s refusal to accept good advice. They were not even surprised to hear how he had repeatedly stormed out of the court like an angry child.
Sitting amid the Pāṇḍavas and surrounded by other monarchs, Kṛṣṇa said, “I employed every means of diplomacy, from conciliation to the creation of disunion. I told them that you would abandon pride and become Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s servants if the Kurus made peace with you. They could keep the kingdom and give you but five villages. When they still refused, I resorted to threats and displaying My superhuman powers. I tried to frighten Duryodhana, but he remained fixed in his foolishness. He would not offer you any part of the kingdom. Therefore, there is only the fourth means of diplomacy left. You must punish them. That is all they will understand. You will not regain your kingdom without war, O great heroes. Already Duryodhana’s forces are making their way to Kurukṣetra, for they have selected that place for the battle. The kings will all be massacred. They are all within the pale of death.”
Yudhiṣṭhira was grave. He looked around at his brothers and the assembled kings. “O heroes, you have heard Kṛṣṇa’s words. All that is left is to prepare our armies for war. The time has come to select a general to command our forces. We have already made seven warriors leaders of our divisions: Drupada, Virata, Dṛṣṭadyumna, Śikhaṇḍī, Sātyaki, Chekitana and Bhīmasena. Which of these should take overall command? Sahadeva, what is your opinion?”
Yudhiṣṭhira looked at his younger brother. As was the custom, he wanted to hear individual opinions, starting with the youngest and ending with the eldest among them. Sahadeva replied, “I think we should select Virata. He is bound to us by family ties; he is a ruler endowed with prowess and conversant with virtue. The mighty Matsya king is difficult to vanquish in battle. We have long depended upon him and can do so again in the upcoming battle.”
Yudhiṣṭhira turned toward Nakula, who said, “That one who in maturity, knowledge of scripture, patience, nobility of birth, and respectability is the best of all; he who is ever devoted to truth; who has learned the science of weapons from Bharadvāja; who challenges Droṇa and who has performed austerities to bring about his destruction; that monarch who stands surrounded by his sons and grandsons like a tree with a hundred branches--the mighty Drupada should stand at the head of our army.”
Then it was Arjuna’s turn. His voice rang out. “He who by virtue of his austerities and his gratification of the ṛṣis came out of the blazing fire armed with weapons and adorned with golden armor; he who himself resembled the fire and who then ascended a celestial chariot and went about roaring like a cloud; he who possesses the strength of lions and is capable of slaying a lion because he has the heart, chest and shoulders of a lion; he who shines like the sun and is beautiful to behold; he who speaks the truth and has controlled his senses; he who was born for Droṇa’s death--Dṛṣṭadyumna should lead our forces. No one can pierce him with weapons and he will be able to withstand Bhīṣma, whose arrows fall like thunderbolts or like Yamarāja’s messengers. I do not see another who can stand against Bhīṣma except Dṛṣṭadyumna. Therefore, let him be our commander!”
Bhīma said, “We should be led by Śikhaṇḍī. He was born for Bhīṣma’s destruction, as the ṛṣis have told us. When he stands ready for battle, displaying his celestial missiles, he resembles the great Paraśurāma. In my view, the man has not been born who can overcome him when he mounts his chariot, clad in mail and lifting his weapons. Only he will be able to slay Bhīṣma.”
Having heard from all his brothers, Yudhiṣṭhira said, “Keśava alone knows the truth and untruth of all things, and their strength, weakness and other inherent qualities. He whom Kṛṣṇa, lord of the Dasarha race, names will be our commander and no other. Kṛṣṇa is the root of our victory or defeat. On Him depend our lives, kingdom, success, happiness and misery. My dear brothers, Keśava is the Lord and ordainer of all things. Let Him speak and let us abide by His decision. It is almost night. When He has named our commander, let us rest. In the morning, after worshipping our weapons and the Brahmins, we will march to Kurukṣetra.”
Kṛṣṇa said, “Any of the heroes named are capable of leading our army. All of them are competent and can inspire fear even in Indra--what to speak of Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons. Although weak due to their sinfulness, Duryodhana and his brothers consider themselves strong. Duryodhana’s attitude will soon change when he sees the mood of Arjuna, Bhīma, and the twins. When Abhimanyu and Draupadī’s sons, along with Drupada, Virata, and all the other chiefs come out for battle, Duryodhana and his brothers will repent their folly. I have endeavored to secure peace, and thus we have paid our debt to virtue. We cannot be blamed for what is about to happen. It is time for war. As far as leading our army is concerned, I agree with Dhanañjaya. Let the mighty Dṛṣṭadyumna become the general.”
When Kṛṣṇa was finished speaking, the assembled kings and kṣatriyas shouted their agreement. They were enlivened at the prospect of a fight. None of them hesitated to accept Kṛṣṇa’s choice of a general. Then they all retired for the night. The next day they would march toward Kurukṣetra, a journey of six or seven days.
As the sun rose over Virata, the air was filled with the clamor of men and animals. Warriors rushed about in all directions, and shouts of “Yoke up!” and “Load the weapons!” were heard everywhere. Numerous conches were sounded, firing the men with enthusiasm, and Brahmins chanted auspicious hymns to invoke good fortune for the army. Elephants trumpeted and chariot wheels rattled. Drummers beat drums as the huge army began the trek to Kurukṣetra. In front of the army marched Bhīma and Mādrī’s two sons, clad in shining mail. Behind them came Dṛṣṭadyumna, surrounded by Draupadī’s sons and Abhimanyu.
The soldiers were cheerful, and they shouted with joy. Yudhiṣṭhira rode in their midst. He was mounted on a golden chariot and dressed in golden armor. He held his great spear. By his side rode Arjuna, with Kṛṣṇa as his charioteer. On numerous chariots around Yudhiṣṭhira, his treasury was carried, along with the servants and attendants of the army. Behind the army came a long line of supply chariots holding provisions, spare weapons, and other goods. Thousands of physicians and surgeons were also in attendance.
As the army traveled, the Pāṇḍavas arranged for charity to be distributed to Brahmins along the way. They passed near many villages and colonies, but they carefully avoided temples and hermitages so as not to defile any holy places and thus bring misfortune upon the army. Brahmins continuously recited Vedic mantras along the length of the procession of millions of men.
Stopping each night at sunset and camping wherever they were, they went by slow marches. On the sixth night they reached Kurukṣetra, where they camped around lake Hiranvati. In the center of the encampment servants erected a large tent for the Pāṇḍavas. This tent would also serve as the battle headquarters. Surrounding it, Kṛṣṇa, Dṛṣṭadyumna, Drupada, Virata, and the other army chiefs had tents erected. The provisions were also placed in well-guarded tents near the center. The armor, weapons and chariot parts placed in piles resembled large hills, as did the heaps of grains, ghee, honey and other foodstuffs.
Many thousands of elephants had been assembled, looking like moving mountains and wearing coats of steel covered with spikes. There were also fighting machines of all types which were capable of throwing rocks, iron pellets, burning oil, lances, and red-hot iron shot.
After conferring with Kṛṣṇa, Dṛṣṭadyumna, and his own brothers, Yudhiṣṭhira had the army settle to await the commencement of battle. Some miles away they could hear the Kaurava forces rumbling like thunder in the distance. All that was required now was a meeting between the leaders of both armies in order to agree on a day for the fighting to begin.
When Kṛṣṇa had left Hastināpura, Duryodhana went to his counselors and said, “Having thwarted our attempts to capture Him, Kṛṣṇa has gone back to the Pāṇḍavas. Without doubt, He will be angry with us and will incite the Pāṇḍavas to fight to their full power. There will be a battle which will make our hair stand on end. We should not lose time in arranging our forces. Have them proceed at once to Kurukṣetra. Let the road between here and there be leveled and cleared. We ourselves should prepare to depart.”
The ministers, headed by Karṇa, Śakuni and Dushashana, got up from their seats and put on fine headdresses. Happy at the prospect of a battle, they slapped their arms and laughed. They brought out their weapons and had them loaded onto their chariots. The entire city of Hastināpura was filled with the commotion of men preparing for battle. The city resembled an ocean with cars, elephants and horses for its waves, and gleaming weapons for its foam. Drum beats and conch blasts were the ocean’s roar, and the city’s palaces were the mountains along its shore.
Duryodhana rejoiced at the sights and sounds coming from his army. He personally oversaw the loading of weapons onto thousands of chariots. As well as bows, arrows, axes, spears, clubs, maces and spiked bludgeons, there were massive pots of molasses and sand, which would be heated and then hurled at the enemy. There were large baskets full of poisonous snakes. Devices for throwing every kind of missile were loaded by the thousands. Chariots were filled with bullets, bombs and other explosive weapons. The sight of all the weapons and missiles cheered the heroes and frightened the weak-hearted.
The warriors gathered, wearing glittering robes embroidered with gold and adorned with gems. Powerful men clad in mail and masters in the use of weapons were appointed charioteers for more powerful fighters. The chariots were equipped with every kind of weapon, as well as drugs and herbs for curing wounds. Each chariot was drawn by four horses with bells and pearls strung around their necks. Tall standards had flags attached to them, and on the chariot turrets were ornaments, shields and swords, their blades pointing outwards. They looked like moving fortresses and were difficult to approach.
The great war elephants were decked in armor decorated with jewels and wreaths of pearls. Seven men rode on the back of each--two who were expert bowmen, two swordsmen, two bearing hooks and one armed with lance and trident. The elephants rocked as they moved. Following them were thousands of horsemen, clad in mail and ornaments and holding up flags. The horses were the best of their species, all under full control and free from the habit of scratching the ground with their forefeet. Behind the horsemen came even more infantry, their polished armor shining in the sunlight. For every chariot there were ten elephants; for every elephant, ten horsemen; and for every horseman, ten foot soldiers.
As Duryodhana presided over his eleven akshauhinis, each containing over twenty thousand elephants, his heart swelled with pride. Seeing the endless procession of men he wondered how the Pāṇḍavas would be able to even look upon them. He selected first-class warriors to lead each subdivision, and as leaders of the akshauhinis he appointed Kṛpa, Droṇa, Śalya, Jayadratha, Sudakṣiṇa, Kambhoja, Kṛtavarmā, Aśvatthāmā, Bhūriśravas, Śakuni and Bāhlika.
When all the arrangements were under way, Duryodhana approached Bhīṣma and asked humbly, “Without a commander-in-chief, even a large army is broken in battle like a swarm of ants. Division leaders seldom agree and are usually jealous of one another. You surely know the story of how the kṣatriyas of the Haihaya race, although they were few, were able to defeat in battle the Brahmins united with the vaiśyās and śūdras. When the Brahmins asked the kṣatriyas why they were successful, they replied, ‘In battle we listen to the commands of only the wisest person, but you were separated and followed your individual whims.’ When they heard this, the Brahmins selected a suitable leader and were victorious over the kṣatriyas.
“We too need a leader. O Grandfather, you are equal to Shukra himself. You always wish me well and always follow the path of righteousness. Therefore, become my general. To the Kurus you are like the sun among luminous bodies, Kuvera among the Yakṣas, Indra among the gods, Meru among mountains, and Garuḍa among birds. If you protect us, not even the gods in heaven can assail us. March at our front like Kārttikeya leading the celestials and we will follow you like calves following a cow.”
The noble Bhīṣma looked down at Duryodhana, who stood with his hands clasped tightly. “It may be as you say, O ruler of men, but as you are to me, so are the Pāṇḍavas. It is equally my duty to look after them. Still, I will fight on your behalf as I have promised.”
Bhīṣma remembered long ago a vow he had made to his father to always protect the king in Hastināpura, even though he himself would never be monarch. How could he have known it would come to this? Thus when Duryodhana had approached him some months ago to secure his assistance in the war, he had felt obliged to agree.
Looking across to the great throne in the hall, where his own father had once sat, Bhīṣma continued, “I do not see the warrior who can match my strength--except Arjuna. He is possessed of wisdom and he knows the mantras for all the celestial weapons. But he will not encounter me in an open fight. I can quickly strip this world of men, gods and Asuras by the strength of my weapons. I will slay ten thousand warriors a day. However, O King, I will not slay any of the Pāṇḍavas.”
Bhīṣma added, “There is one other condition to my accepting leadership of the army: either Karṇa fights or I fight. The suta’s son and I cannot fight together.”
Karṇa retorted, “I have already vowed that I will not fight while you are fighting. When you have been slain, O son of Gaṅgā, then I will fight with the wielder of the Gāṇḍīva bow.”
Duryodhana gathered Brahmins and had them perform the rituals to install Bhīṣma as commander-in-chief. Hundreds of drums and conches were sounded as his head was anointed with sacred water. The assembled warriors roared in delight. With Bhīṣma as commander, who could defeat them? He was capable of annihilating armies single-handedly, and he could not be killed unless he chose to die.
Outside the hall, however, frightful omens were seen as Bhīṣma was installed. Showers of blood fell from the sky and the earth shook. Fierce whirlwinds blew and trees toppled to the ground. Incorporeal voices cried out, meteors shot across the sky, and jackals howled. Afraid, Hastināpura’s citizens made offerings to the gods.
Bhīṣma came out of the hall looking like the full moon. Worshipped by Brahmins, he mounted his chariot and set off for Kurukṣetra at the head of a large division of soldiers.
The Kuru army encamped on the western side of Kurukṣetra. They resembled a vast sea, the soldiers in flashing armor looking like water sparkling in the sunlight. Warriors roared and conch blasts continuously sounded. At last the time for which a kṣatriya always longs had arrived. They would either be victorious in battle or die and attain the heavens.
End of Part One