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Chapter 1

The Armies Prepare

After installing Dṛṣṭadyumna as his commander-in-chief, Yudhiṣṭhira and his generals consulted Kṛṣṇa. They had heard that Duryodhana had requested Bhīṣma to be the Kurus’ commander-in-chief and that he had accepted. Yudhiṣṭhira then asked Arjuna to be his army’s chief general, working immediately under Dṛṣṭadyumna. He wanted to ensure that Arjuna’s incomparable expertise was utilized fully in the battle. The seven divisions of the Pāṇḍava army were then placed under their seven commanders.

As the Pāṇḍavas were speaking about the arrangements, Balarāma arrived. He entered Yudhiṣṭhira’s tent in the company of Akrūra, Uddhava, Sāmba, Pradyumna, and other leading personalities from Dwārakā. In his blue garments and garlanded by golden flowers, Balarāma looked as majestic as Mount Kailāsa. Kṛṣṇa stood to greet Him, and all the kings did the same. They worshipped Him with affection. Yudhiṣṭhira took Balarāma’s hands and greeted Him warmly, showing Him to a fine seat.

After Balarāma had saluted elders such as Drupada and Virata, He took His seat and said, “Many men are about to be slaughtered. Surely fate has ordained it and it cannot be avoided. It is the hour of death for all these kṣatriyas. The earth is about to become a mass of clay thickened with flesh and blood. I hope you heroes will emerge alive and well. Repeatedly did I request Kṛṣṇa to act equally toward both Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas, but He chose to favor you.”

Kṛṣṇa looked at His elder brother and smiled. Balarāma glanced across at Him as He continued. “Keśava has set His heart upon your interests, and especially the interests of Dhanañjaya. Your victory is assured because Kṛṣṇa desires it. I cannot at any time act separately from Him. Therefore I will play no part in the war. Both Duryodhana and Bhīma are My pupils at mace fighting, and both are equally dear to Me. I cannot bear to fight against either. Therefore I have decided to leave the area and go on a pilgrimage to the holy places because I know I would not be able to sit by and indifferently watch the massacre.”

Balarāma stood up and placed His helmet on His head. Taking leave of Kṛṣṇa and the Pāṇḍavas, He left, followed by the Yādavas who had come with Him.

Soon, the Pāṇḍavas received another visitor. It was Rukmī, King Bhīṣmaka’s son and Kṛṣṇa’s brother-in-law. He arrived with a full akshauhini division of warriors. To please his sister he had decided to offer his assistance to her husband’s side. Twanging his bow he strode into Yudhiṣṭhira’s tent where the Pāṇḍavas received him respectfully. He said, “O great ruler, if you are afraid at the prospect of war with the Kurus, then I am here to help you. There are none who can match my prowess. Your enemies will not be able to bear my might. Whatever part of their army you allot to me as my share will be ground into the earth. Even Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Kṛpa cannot face me. I will defeat the Kurus and deliver you the earth.”

Arjuna could not tolerate Rukmī’s proud speech. He laughed. “I was born in the Kuru race, I am Pāṇḍu’s son and Droṇa’s pupil, and I have Keśava’s assistance. How can I be afraid of the enemy? O hero, when I faced the Gandharvas, who was my friend then? When I fought the furious Dānavas in the nether worlds, who came to my aid? Then again in the battle with the Kurus in the Matsya kingdom, who was my helper? I am not afraid, Rukmī. We have no need of your help. Go wherever you please, or stay here if you like. Either way we will fight with the Kurus and win.”

Seeing the other warriors agreeing with Arjuna, Rukmī scowled. Taking up his bow he marched out of the tent without a word. He then took his soldiers to Duryodhana. If the Pāṇḍavas did not want him, then he would fight with the Kauravas. At least he had offered his help to Yudhiṣṭhira first. Actually, he was just as happy to fight for Duryodhana. Rukmī still remembered his sister’s svayaṁvara in which he had wanted her to select Śiśupāla. Kṛṣṇa had come and kidnapped Rukmīṇī. Rukmī had then chased Kṛṣṇa and fought with Him, only to be defeated and humiliated. Maybe now he could exact his revenge.

Going before Duryodhana, he repeated the words he had used when speaking to Yudhiṣṭhira. “Do not be afraid of the Pāṇḍavas, O King, for I am here to help you.”

Duryodhana also rejected him. “I have no need of your help,” he laughed. “What fear do I have of the Pāṇḍavas, surrounded as I am by the world’s greatest heroes, and being a mighty warrior myself?”

Rukmī left the Kauravas and returned home, deciding to play no part in the war. If no one wanted his help, then he would not fight. Let them annihilate one another without him.

After Rukmī left, Duryodhana summoned his counselors. He had Śakuni’s son Uluka come as a messenger to the Pāṇḍavas. Assured of his superior position, the prince wanted to mock his enemies and to show his contempt for their so-called army.

Duryodhana said, “O Uluka, go to the Pāṇḍavas and speak these words in Kṛṣṇa’s hearing: ‘The time has now come for action. What we have expected for a long time is finally come to pass. We are about to fight a frightful war between ourselves, and you have caused it. Prove now the truth of all the boastful words you sent through Sañjaya. Let us see your actual power.’”

Duryodhana’s black eyes narrowed. Standing up as he spoke, he pointed at Uluka. “Say this to Yudhiṣṭhira: How do you pose as a virtuous man, O descendent of Bharata? You now desire to destroy the world for the sake of wealth. One who presents himself as pious while secretly concealing wicked intentions is said to be like the cat in the famous story of old. Listen to the story my father heard from Nārada Ṛṣi.

“Once there was a cat who went to the Ganges. Standing on the bank with upraised paws he said, ‘I shall practice virtue.’ After some time, the birds began to trust him and even praise him for his devotions.

“That cat continued with his austerities, and in due course the mice also saw the cat’s peaceful demeanor and long-time pious practices. They decided to take shelter of him, although he was naturally their enemy. They said, ‘We seek your protection. You are our refuge and our best friend. Be like an uncle to us and save us from our antagonists. You are virtuously inclined and have adopted a pious course.’

“The cat reluctantly agreed. ‘I will do what I can for you, but I also need your help. My austerities have made me so weak I cannot move. Therefore, some of you must assist me to reach the riverside each day so that I can bathe.’

“The mice agreed to this and began to live around the cat. Every day a number of them would go to the river with him and the cat would eat them. Thus the cat grew fatter and stronger, while the mice diminished in number. Soon they realized what was happening. One wise mouse among them pointed out that an animal living on fruits and roots cannot have hairs in its feces. He concluded, ‘This cat only makes a show of devotion. His real business is eating mice.’

“The mice fled in all directions and the wicked cat also went back to where he had come from. O Yudhiṣṭhira, you are behaving in the same way toward your kinsmen. Your words mean one thing while your acts are quite different. Give up your disguise as a gentle and harmless man. Come out and fight like a true kṣatriya. Dry your mother’s tears by winning victory in battle--if you can. Remember our former antagonism--the poison, the lac house, the insult to Draupadī. Show us your real strength.”

Duryodhana laughed. He derided the Pāṇḍavas in various ways, mocking their power and praising his own. He reminded them of all the vows they had taken. Now they should fulfill them.

Duryodhana remembered Kṛṣṇa’s universal form, which He had exhibited in Hastināpura. “Tell Vāsudeva that His display of illusion does not scare me. I too can show many forms, but what is the use of such things? O Keśava, come in that mystical form to the battlefield and we will see what difference it will make. I know Your power and I know Arjuna’s. I know the Gāṇḍīva bow and the inexhaustible quivers he holds, as well as about the fiery chariot Agni gave him with its celestial banners. Still I challenge You. Indeed, I could face a thousand Kṛṣṇas and a hundred Arjunas and still have them flee in all directions. Even knowing everything about Your power, I shall deprive You of Your kingdom without fear.”

Duryodhana began to pace as he delivered his arrogant message. Karṇa, Dushashana and Śakuni cheered his brave speech and encouraged him to say more. Duryodhana reminded the Pāṇḍavas of the dice game and their exile at his hands. “Is this not sufficient proof of my superiority? Bhīma must have been tired as he cleaned pots in Virata’s kitchen; Arjuna wore bangles and braided hair; Yudhiṣṭhira became Virata’s servant--these are the ways a kṣatriya punishes others weaker than himself. I have no fear of the Pāṇḍavas, nor of Kṛṣṇa, nor of any of the fools who have chosen to fight beside you. I will not return even the smallest part of your kingdom.”

Uluka memorized every word in the mood with which it was spoken, although Duryodhana spoke for almost an hour. He concluded, “Let the battle begin tomorrow. Then you will see your folly. Like a frog in a well who cannot know the ocean, you cannot know how vast are my forces. One who wishes to defeat Bhīṣma, Droṇa, and Kṛpa would be able to rend a mountain with his head or swim across an ocean. When you see the Kuru forces assembled like a great sea, then will your desire for the kingdom disappear. All thoughts of ruling this world will vanish. Like a man who has never practiced devotion yet desires heaven, so is your hope for winning this kingdom. Tomorrow we will see who should be the earth’s rightful ruler.”

Duryodhana then told Uluka to deliver the message at once. Uluka mounted his chariot and rode over to the Pāṇḍavas’ camp, with Duryodhana’s words ringing in his head. He knew his message would incite the Pāṇḍavas’ fury, and he approached Yudhiṣṭhira with apprehension. “Please see me only as an envoy. Knowing the law in relation to messengers, do not become angry when you hear my words. I will only speak what Duryodhana has told me to say and nothing more.”

Yudhiṣṭhira smiled and showed Uluka to a seat in his tent. “Do not fear. You may speak freely here. Tell us what the small-minded Duryodhana, driven by greed and lacking in foresight, has said.”

Uluka looked around the tent. All the Pāṇḍava chiefs were present. With their bright armor and colorful silks they resembled glowing planets decorating the firmament. They were all watching him and waiting for the message.

When Uluka had finished, the Pāṇḍavas leapt from their seats. Speechless with rage, they stared at each other and ground their teeth. Their breath came in hot blasts and they seemed like infuriated serpents. Bhīma’s eyes turned red and he looked across at Kṛṣṇa, who laughed and said, “O Uluka, go back to your master and tell him we have heard his message and understood its meaning. Let it be as he says. The battle will begin tomorrow.”

Having heard Duryodhana’s abusive words, the assembly of kings resembled the storm-tossed ocean. They rose up roaring and slapped their arms.

Rubbing his hands together, Bhīma roared, “O fool, we have heard your words, intended to rouse us to action as if we were weak and inactive. Uluka, carry my reply back to your master.

“O Duryodhana, only due to respect for our elder brother have we tolerated you for so long. The virtuous Yudhiṣṭhira has offered peace. You have refused. Pushed by your own fate, you now desire to meet Yamarāja. The battle will certainly begin tomorrow. I have vowed to slay you and all your brothers. Do not doubt my power to carry out this vow. The ocean may transgress its banks, the mountains may split asunder, but my words will not prove false. O you of little sense, not even the gods and demons combined can save you now. I will drink Dushashana’s blood and grind the rest of the Kauravas into the earth. Any kṣatriya approaching me in anger will go at once to Death’s abode. I swear by my soul that I speak the truth.”

Sahadeva then stepped forward. “Tell this to the fool who gives you orders: ‘Only because of you has this dispute arisen. You were born for the destruction of your own race, and indeed of the world. Goaded on by Śakuni, you have always acted with evil intentions toward us. You will soon be slain by me before all your warriors.’”

Duryodhana’s message was creating a tumult in the Pāṇḍavas’ tent. The kings and warriors shouted and waved their weapons at Uluka. Arjuna calmed them. Then he turned to Bhīma and said, “O Bhīmasena, be patient. Those who have made you their enemy will soon be destroyed. Nothing can save them. There is no need to rebuke Uluka. He is only an envoy. What fault can an envoy commit? The words he spoke were not his own.”

Arjuna looked at the assembled kings. “You have all heard Duryodhana’s foul speech directed even toward Kṛṣṇa. With your leave I will give my response.”

By now, Uluka was trembling. Arjuna said, “Tell Duryodhana: ‘Tomorrow you will have my reply delivered by the Gāṇḍīva. Only eunuchs use words.’”

Arjuna took his seat by Yudhiṣṭhira’s side, who then said, “I have heard your master’s words, Uluka. Tell him this in reply: ‘O fool, you have ever adopted an evil course with us. Although you lack power, you now challenge us to war. Depending on others’ prowess you utter threats. A real kṣatriya fights his enemies depending upon his own power. Since you are unable to do so, why do you roar so much?’”

Seeing that Yudhiṣṭhira had finished, Uluka rose from his seat to depart. Kṛṣṇa checked him. “Also say this to Duryodhana: ‘O sinful one, you think that I shall be of no consequence in this war as I will not fight. Do not make such a miscalculation. I will act as Arjuna’s charioteer and you will see him everywhere, destroying your forces as fire burns dry grass. Even if you go beyond the three worlds or enter the nether regions, you will see Arjuna’s chariot there tomorrow. You also think Bhīma has indulged in idle threats, but you can consider that he has already drunk Dushashana’s blood. Neither Yudhiṣṭhira nor his brothers are in the least afraid of you. You are strong only in speech.’”

As Kṛṣṇa stopped speaking, Arjuna leapt to his feet. He was not satisfied with the curt response he had given to Duryodhana. He spoke again. “Tell this to your master: ‘O worst of men, having installed Bhīṣma as your commander, you are boasting that Arjuna and his brothers will never attack him. But I will make him my first target.’”

Arjuna’s voice seethed with restrained rage as he went on. “Although the worshipful grandfather’s senses are under control and he possesses great wisdom, he has taken your side and chosen to die. I will not hesitate to direct my arrows toward him. O Duryodhana, your hopes are in vain. You are arrogant, harsh, inhuman, addicted to vice, partial, and you hate virtue. You will soon receive the consequences of your nature. When I am angry and have Kṛṣṇa as my second, what hope can you have for success? Your relatives will soon lament your death. When you are struck down by Bhīma, you will recall your foolishness.”

When Arjuna sat down, Uluka bowed before Yudhiṣṭhira, anxious to depart. Reassuring him, Yudhiṣṭhira said, “Say this to Duryodhana also: ‘You have judged me improperly. I do not desire to harm even worms or ants--what to speak of my relatives. Thus I was prepared to accept only five villages to avoid this war. It is only due to you that this calamity has arisen, O man of meager understanding. Overpowered by lust you could not accept Kṛṣṇa’s advice, and for that reason you rant like one deprived of his senses. What is the use of your words? Come out and fight along with all your friends. Death awaits you.’”

Bhīma wrung his hands together and breathed heavily. Although he would have accepted a peaceful solution to the conflict, he could not deny his joy at the prospect of finally confronting the sinful Kauravas. Uluka’s message had stoked his long-cherished anger to the point of distraction. But he would have to wait until morning. It would be a long night. Suppressing his rage, Bhīma spoke again to Uluka even more harshly. “This is my final word to Duryodhana: ‘O sinful one, either remain in Hastināpura or lie in the belly of a vulture. Those are the only choices left for you now. I swear by truth that my words made in the council hall will come to pass. I will drink Dushashana’s blood and I will smash your thighs. Know me as the death of all Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons.”

As Uluka turned and bowed to the assembled kings, Dṛṣṭadyumna’s voice rang out: “O Uluka, tell Duryodhana that I was born to kill Droṇa. He and all his followers will die at my hands. There is no doubt. What more need I say?”

Uluka went out of the tent backwards, bowing from the waist with his palms folded. He ran over to his chariot and leapt aboard, urging his horses back to the Kaurava camp.

Yudhiṣṭhira began to move his army into position on the battlefield. Dṛṣṭadyumna appointed specific tasks to the principal warriors. Each chariot fighter was to protect the divisions of foot soldiers from the enemy charioteers. Equals should fight equals. The chiefs of the army were allotted chiefs on the opposing side. Bhīma would fight with Duryodhana, Sahadeva with Śakuni, Nakula with Aśvatthāmā, Śikhaṇḍī with Bhīṣma, Uttamauja with Kṛpa, and Dṛṣṭadyumna would engage with Droṇa. Abhimanyu, whom he considered as powerful as Arjuna, was ordered to engage with all the kings supporting Duryodhana, while Arjuna had the task of protecting the entire army.

Gradually the Pāṇḍava forces arrayed themselves. By evening, everyone was in position, ready to march into battle the next morning.

Duryodhana was sitting amid all his generals when Uluka returned and delivered the Pāṇḍavas’ replies. The prince sneered and turned to Bhīṣma. “The war begins tomorrow, O Grandfather. What should be done now?”

Bhīṣma, having surrendered himself to the certainty of war and the hopelessness of making Duryodhana see sense, replied, “After bowing before Kumāra, the god of war, I will act as your general. I am as capable of organizing armies as Bṛhaspati. Conversant with every means of attack and defense employed by men, gods and demons, I will confound the Pāṇḍavas. I will fight according to the rules laid down in holy books, all of which I know. Let your fears be gone.”

Duryodhana did not like hearing that he might be afraid. “I am not afraid even of the gods and Asuras united. O you of long arms, I tell you this truly. How much less afraid am I when I have you as my commander and Droṇa by my side? O best of men, with you fighting for me, I think kingship of the gods would not be hard to attain.”

Duryodhana paused reflectively. Surely his army was invincible, especially under Bhīṣma and Droṇa’s leadership; but the Pāṇḍavas had so far proved difficult to overpower, even without the support of an army. Now they had amassed seven divisions of warriors ready for war, and the brothers, protected by the wily Kṛṣṇa, would fight filled with rage. He had made sure of that. The Kaurava looked inquisitively at Bhīṣma. “I desire to hear from you about the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy and also of ourselves. Please tell me everything you know.”

Sitting before a large number of warriors in Duryodhana’s tent, Bhīṣma said, “O King, listen as I describe who are the rathas, maharathas, and atirathas in your army. There are thousands of rathas on your side, each capable of contending with a thousand warriors at once. There are also numerous maharathas, who can stand against ten thousand, and many atirathas, who can face an almost unlimited number of opponents. You, O son of Gāndhārī, are an atiratha, and your brothers are all maharathas. All of you are skillful elephant and chariot drivers, and expert with weapons. You will slay Pāṇḍava forces in large numbers.”

Bhīṣma then described the strength of every principal warrior on the Kauravas’ side. He described Kṛtavarmā, Śalya, Kṛpa, Droṇa, Aśvatthāmā, and Bāhlika as atirathas. When he came to Karṇa, usually considered an atiratha and upon whom Duryodhana pinned his hopes, Bhīṣma said, “Because of Paraśurāma’s curse and the loss of his celestial armor, he is no longer powerful. Although he brags of his prowess and you have elevated him to a higher station than he deserves, he is of little consequence. In battle he becomes confounded and is too soft on the enemy. In my opinion, he is only half a ratha. When he comes before Arjuna, he will not escape with his life.”

Droṇa agreed. “It is so. What you say is never false.”

Karṇa started up from his seat, his eyes angry. “O Grandfather, you are ever given to piercing me with your sharp words. What sin have I committed that you derive such pleasure from insulting me? I tolerate it only for Duryodhana’s sake. In my opinion, you too are only half a ratha. I do not speak an untruth when I say that you are the enemy of the entire universe. You are the Kurus’ enemy in the guise of a friend. Who else would seek to create disunion among our forces and sap their energy by mean descriptions of their power? By saying that one is greater than another, based upon your own estimation, you simply discourage the fighters. You are moved only by desire and hatred.”

Karṇa’s voice filled the tent. He could no longer tolerate Bhīṣma’s stinging words. Clenching his fists, he turned toward Duryodhana. “O King, abandon this wicked man at once! If you do not, he will soon destroy your army by sowing the seeds of discord. What use are his estimations? Let me go out to meet the Pāṇḍava armies. They will soon be routed like bulls meeting a tiger. Bhīṣma boasts of being able to fight the universe, but his words are vain and empty. He is old and senile. His intelligence has become like a boy’s. Reject him at once and choose me. Alone I can slay the Pāṇḍavas and all their followers.

“But I will not do it while Bhīṣma is still on the battlefield. The glory and fame of a victory goes to the commander and not to the individual fighters. I will do nothing to increase Bhīṣma’s fame. When he is killed, I will come out and display my prowess.”

Bhīṣma looked contemptuously at Karṇa. “The time for battle has arrived. Long have I known this calamity would come. Now the burden of this battle, vast like the ocean, rests upon my shoulders. I have no desire to create dispute among our men. For this reason only do you still live, O son of a suta. Although I am now old and you are young, I would still immediately destroy your desire for battle and take your life.”

The Kuru commander felt his anger rising. “Good men do not approve of self-praise, but I will say something now because I have lost my temper. When I attended the svayaṁvara at Kashi, I single-handedly overpowered all the kings on earth. What have you done? You are an ill-starred man, and since your arrival the Kurus have met with disaster. Prove your words in battle. I will see your actual strength when I see you escape from Arjuna, O man of wicked intelligence.”

Duryodhana leapt up. “Be peaceful, O son of Gaṅgā. I need both you and Karṇa in this fight. No doubt you will both perform heroic deeds. Leave aside this petty squabbling and tell me more of the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides. The fight will soon begin.”

Still glaring at Karṇa, Bhīṣma began to describe the Pāṇḍavas’ strength. “The pious king Yudhiṣṭhira is himself a mighty maharatha. He will roam about in battle like fire itself. His brother Bhīmasena is powerful beyond measure. His strength is not human, and in a fight with either mace or arrows he is without equal. The two sons of Mādrī are peerless fighters. Remembering their hard suffering in the forest, they will release the poison of their anger on your men. O King, all five Pāṇḍavas are great-souled devotees of the Supreme Lord. They are invincible. They have all practiced asceticism and are devoted to virtue. Their prowess is incomparable, as you saw at the Rājasūya when they conquered the earth. Even as children you saw their extraordinary strength, and that is when you first became envious of them. In my view, you should avoid them in battle.”

Bhīṣma looked intently at Duryodhana as he spoke. “Regarding the copper-eyed Arjuna, who has Nārāyaṇa as his ally, I say this: No brave warrior in either army can match him in any way. Even among the gods, Gandharvas, Nāgas, Rākṣasas and Yakṣas he has no equal, what to speak of among men. He has the Gāṇḍīva bow, a divine chariot drawn by horses that can fly at the speed of the wind, impenetrable celestial armor, and two inexhaustible quivers. He knows every celestial weapon. He will wreak havoc in your army, O King. Only myself or the preceptor can advance against him. There is no third warrior capable of standing before him when he pours forth his showers of arrows. But he is young and fit, while both Droṇa and I are old and worn out. He now waits for battle with Keśava at his side.”

All the kings in Duryodhana’s tent heard Bhīṣma’s description of Arjuna and felt shorn of power. Bhīṣma described the other fighters on the Pāṇḍavas’ side. Having named many of them as atirathas and maharathas, he spoke about Śikhaṇḍī. “You have all heard that he is destined to kill me. But he was born a woman and I will not, therefore, face him in battle. Listen now as I tell you his history, which I have heard from Nārada Ṛṣi.”