Early the next morning, Yudhiṣṭhira made his final preparations. His spies had reported to him everything that had taken place in Duryodhana’s tent the previous evening. Anxiously he said to Arjuna, “You have heard how Bhīṣma claims he can slay our army in one month. Droṇa has said the same. All the Kaurava heroes have stated their determination. Karṇa even suggested that he could defeat the armies in five days. Tell me, O Phālgunī, how long you think it would take you to kill them.”
Arjuna glanced across at Kṛṣṇa. “The Kuru warriors are all high-minded heroes who are expert in wielding weapons, but do not be anxious, dear brother. Our enemies will not have the chance to slay us. I say truly that, with Kṛṣṇa’s aid, I can uproot the three worlds in a moment. I possess Śiva’s personal weapon, which alone is capable of annihilating the creation. None of the Kauravas know this weapon. Of course, it would not be proper for me to use it against them, but there will be no need. We shall gain victory by the mere strength of our arms.”
Arjuna indicated the many kings present with a sweep of his hand. “Besides me, you have numerous heroes on your side. By ranging among the enemy ranks in our chariots we will soon cause great destruction. Of course, we also have you, O King. Surely whoever you cast your angry glance upon will immediately be consumed like dry leaves in a fire. I do not see how the Kauravas can win this war.”
Comforted, Yudhiṣṭhira continued to arrange for the first day’s battle. His commanders surrounded him, clad in armor. All had been purified by sacred rituals and had bestowed wealth upon the Brahmins. With their ornamented swords swinging by their sides, they left the tent one by one to lead their respective divisions into position. The early morning sun rose to reveal the vast Kurukṣetra field covered by the two armies. They seemed like two great oceans drawn against one another. The sound of the armies filled the heavens like the low rumbling of clouds in autumn.
When everything had been finalized, Yudhiṣṭhira himself left the tent, followed by his brothers and Kṛṣṇa. On all sides they saw cheerful troops preparing their weapons and chariots. As the Pāṇḍavas and Kṛṣṇa mounted their cars, crowds of Brahmins praised Yudhiṣṭhira and offered prayers to Kṛṣṇa.
According to their battle plan, the Pāṇḍava army arranged and rearranged itself in different formations, moving their leading warriors about the field and confounding the Kauravas. In response, the Kauravas also moved their divisions about in various ways, so that the Pāṇḍavas would not easily see their plan of attack. As the two immense armies maneuvered around the field, a huge dust cloud rose into the sky, screening the morning sun. The thousands of elephants made the earth vibrate as they moved across the field, resembling dark clouds. The formations of chariot fighters, with their polished golden cars, seemed in contrast to the elephant divisions like clusters of brilliant luminaries in the night sky.
Behind both armies their encampments stretched for miles, looking with their rows of tents and shops like two large towns. They were bustling with cooks, servants and tradespeople going about their business. All the warriors had left for the battle, which would last until sunset.
Gradually the two armies closed on each other. Hundreds of thousands of conches filled the air with their blasts. The beating of drums and blowing of trumpets created a cacophony of sound which mixed with the elephants’ majestic cries. Countless banners fluttered from chariots, appearing like waves of bright colors amid the assembled troops.
The commanders of the two sides met to agree on the rules of battle. Warriors should only fight with equals and with equal weapons. None should strike another without warning, but should first challenge him. One who surrendered or one fleeing from the fight should never be struck down. The many servants on the battlefield, carrying weapons and other paraphernalia, were not to be killed.
The commanders spoke for some time. When all the rules had been established, Dṛṣṭadyumna became thoughtful. Duryodhana and his henchmen had never shown much regard for righteousness. Why would they now observe rules, especially if the battle was not going their way? As Bhīṣma and his generals were about to leave, Dṛṣṭadyumna voiced his doubts. “We will respect these stipulations, but I make one provision. If the Kauravas forget our agreement and fight without respect for the rules, then we too shall adopt whatever tactics we deem appropriate. We will not, however, be the first to break the conditions.”
“So be it,” Bhīṣma replied. He took his leave from Dṛṣṭadyumna and the warriors returned to their positions to prepare for the start of the battle, which would be signaled by both commanders-in-chief blowing their conchshells.
Dhṛtarāṣṭra sat anxiously in his palace. There was nothing he could do now but wait. Wanting to share his feelings with someone, and missing the association of Vidura, the old king called for Sañjaya and said, “Tell me what is now happening, O Sañjaya? Have the two armies reached Kurukṣetra? Destiny is more powerful than all of a man’s endeavors. Even though I tried to restrain my son, aware as I am of the horrors of war, I was unsuccessful. Why was that, O wise Sañjaya? Although I can see Duryodhana’s folly, still I have not been able to stop him. Surely this war has been divinely ordained. Besides, it is always honorable for a kṣatriya to die in battle.”
Sañjaya felt he did not have much more to say. He had tried many times to point out how the blame for the disaster facing the Kurus rested not only with Duryodhana but with the king himself, yet the king seemed unable to admit it. “O King, surely a man who meets with calamities as a result of his own acts should not blame either the gods, destiny or others. Each of us receives the just results of our own actions. O leader of the Kurus, you have failed to act virtuously. The Pāṇḍavas have borne your sons’ persecution, always hoping that you would deliver justice in the end. But you have not done so. Now all that is left is for you to hear of the Kuru heroes being slaughtered.”
As Sañjaya spoke, Vyāsadeva suddenly entered the chamber. The ṛṣi, who could see past, present and future, said, “O great king, your sons and all the other kings have now arrived at the end of their lives. They have assembled for battle and will all kill one another. Remembering the changes that are inevitably brought about by time, do not grieve. O child, if you wish to see the battle, I will give you the ability.”
Dhṛtarāṣṭra sighed. “I do not desire to see my sons die, O great sage. Simply let me hear of the battle.”
“Then I shall bestow the ability to see upon Sañjaya,” Vyāsadeva replied. “By my grace, he will be able to see everything that takes place at Kurukṣetra. With celestial vision he will see even things that are concealed and all that happens at night. He will feel no exhaustion for the duration of the war. As for victory, that will occur wherever there is righteousness. Regardless of who wins, however, you should know that almost all the warriors on both sides will be slain. This is what the omens say.”
Vyāsadeva described the portents, earthly and celestial, which predicted destruction. Thousands of carnivorous birds were alighting on treetops, crying in glee. Herons, uttering harsh cries, were flying toward the south. The sun was screened by tri-colored clouds at both twilights. In temples the images of gods perspired and trembled, and sometimes dropped from their positions. “All this indicates a great slaughter. Many heroic kings will sleep forever, embracing the earth as if she were a lover.”
Vyāsadeva also described how the planets were aligned in malefic formations. After speaking for some time he concluded, “Know that these signs point toward an annihilation of the kṣatriyas. There can be no doubt.”
Dhṛtarāṣṭra lifted his face toward the ṛṣi. “Surely this war has been divinely ordained. O sage, will not all the kṣatriyas attain the regions reserved for heroes, thereby experiencing unending happiness? By giving up their lives in battle certainly they will achieve fame in this life and joy in the next.”
Vyāsadeva did not answer immediately. He concentrated his mind in meditation, then replied, “Time destroys the universe and all its creatures. Nothing in this world lasts forever. Only virtue lasts along with the soul when all else has been destroyed. Therefore, point your sons to the right path. All of you should follow Kṛṣṇa’s will. That eternal being has personally shown virtue’s proper course, but you did not accept it. The slaughter of men, especially kinsmen, can never produce good. The Vedas always condemn it. You are still able to prevent what is about to transpire, my son, but you do not because you are attached to the kingdom. Your virtue is quickly fading. You have allowed your son, who has been born as Death personified for your family, to lead the Kurus to ruin.”
Dhṛtarāṣṭra hung his head as his father continued to criticize him in strong words, his voice breaking the still silence of the empty chamber. “What is the value of a kingdom gained through sin and earning only sin, O King? Protect your good name and your virtue. You will then be able to attain heaven. Let the Pāṇḍavas have their kingdom and let the Kurus have peace.”
Dhṛtarāṣṭra was embarrassed before the sage. His pathetic voice pleaded in reply. “O Ṛṣi of immeasurable power, your words are without fault. I also know what you know. Please believe that I am not inclined toward sin. My sons will not obey me. I have tried my best. Do not forsake me. You are able to protect my fame and virtue. See me as an ordinary man whose intentions are good but whose power is limited. O great one, you are the respected grandfather of all the Kurus. Be gracious to me.”
Vyāsadeva could understand that there was nothing more he could do to help the Kurus. He stood up to leave. “O King, I am leaving. Is there any last thing you desire to hear from me?”
“Yes, there is one thing. What signs portend victory for an army?”
The king still hoped that somehow his sons might emerge victorious. He wanted to know if there were any indications of it. After all, the Kaurava forces were almost twice the Pāṇḍavas’.
Vyāsadeva told him which omens indicate victory. Understanding Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s mind he said, “The size of an army is of little consequence. Indeed, a large army which is broken and routed is difficult to regroup. More important is the courage and camaraderie of the soldiers. Even fifty well-trained men, who do not retreat and who know each other well, can defeat an entire army. Victory in any battle is always uncertain. Therefore, it is always superior to negotiate for peace. The result obtained by negotiation is best, that obtained by disunion is indifferent, and that obtained by war is the worst. Even the victors suffer heavy losses.”
The ṛṣi then took his leave, the sound of his wooden sandals on the marble floor echoing through the chamber. Dhṛtarāṣṭra sighed repeatedly as Sañjaya began to describe what was happening at Kurukṣetra.
On the battlefield, Yudhiṣṭhira spoke with Arjuna. “In comparison to the enemy, our troops are but few. In such cases, Bṛhaspati has recommended the needle formation. Quickly array our forces in this way, O Dhanañjaya, or in any other way you see fit.”
Arjuna stood before his brother clothed from head to foot in impenetrable armor. In his hands he held the Gāṇḍīva, which gave off an iridescent glow. Nearby stood his fire-colored chariot, with Kṛṣṇa holding the reins of his pure white horses. He looked at Yudhiṣṭhira, who shone in his own brilliant armor and jeweled helmet. “I will arrange our forces in the unassailable Vajra formation, which Indra designed. I will station Bhīma at the head. Simply upon seeing him, the enemy will flee like so many terrified animals seeing a lion. There is no man who can even cast his eye on Vṛkodara when he is enraged. He will be our shelter as Indra is the shelter of the celestials.”
Arjuna mounted his chariot and set out to make the arrangement. The leading chariot divisions moved quickly forward and formed themselves into a long point, with Bhīma, Dṛṣṭadyumna, Nakula, Sahadeva and Dhristaketu at its head. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers wielding swords, spears and axes accompanied those generals. Flanked by great elephants clad in steel armor, the army thundered forward. Behind the point they opened out into a larger group, filled with horsemen and infantry. The formation was protected in the rear by Virata and his entire akshauhini of troops.
Nakula and Sahadeva guarded Bhīma’s left and right sides, while Abhimanyu and Draupadī’s sons protected him from behind. Not far behind them came Śikhaṇḍī, protected by Arjuna and advancing with firm determination to kill Bhīṣma. Yudhiṣṭhira took up his position in the center of the army. He was protected all around by many chariot fighters, and he appeared like the sun surrounded by bright planets.
The warriors’ standards rose above the troops like palm trees decorated with gold and silver. Above them all was Arjuna’s huge banner, with Hanumān at its top shouting out his fearful battle cry. As the army advanced, Bhīma whirled his mace and roared. He seemed to scorch the Kauravas by his glance. Even his own troops were afraid of him.
Once the Pāṇḍava forces were arrayed, they stopped to await orders. The two commanders had yet to blow their conches before the fighting could begin. The Pāṇḍavas looked toward the eastern side of the battlefield, where the immense Kaurava army spread out across the entire horizon as far as the eye could see. A strong wind began to blow, carrying sharp stones and pebbles, and the sky thundered, although no clouds were visible. Meteors fell and the earth trembled. A thick cloud of dust rose and obscured the sun.
Seeing the Pāṇḍavas’ Vajra formation, Bhīṣma arrayed the Kaurava troops in a counter-formation. With his white headdress, white banner, white bow, and a white umbrella over his head, he looked like a white mountain. Duryodhana rode in the midst of the army, riding an elephant the color of a blue lotus. Above his seat a large white umbrella sheltered him. His great mace rested on his shoulder and his bow was by his side. He was eulogized by bards and singers, and was protected by hundreds of thousands of troops.
All of Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons were in the division under Bhīṣma’s command and personal protection. Countless kings and princes from every part of the globe, surrounded by their armies, advanced toward the Pāṇḍavas. Behind all the troops came Droṇa, riding on a golden chariot yoked with red horses.
Gazing across at the Kaurava army with Bhīṣma at their head, Yudhiṣṭhira again became apprehensive. He turned to Arjuna. “O mighty-armed hero, it seems to me that Bhīṣma has arranged his troops in an impenetrable formation. Nor do I see any possibility of overpowering the grandfather. He has limitless strength and unfading glory. Who can approach him in battle? How can victory be ours?”
Yudhiṣṭhira appeared disconsolate and dejected. Arjuna offered words of encouragement. “Listen, O King, as I tell you how only a few men can overpower a vast army. Bṛhaspati explained this in days of yore when the celestials fought the demons. Those who desire victory do not conquer by prowess but by truth, compassion, piety and virtue. Fight with assurance, dear brother, for victory is always where righteousness is found.”
Yudhiṣṭhira still seemed doubtful. Was his cause even righteous? It seemed to him that his desire for the kingdom was at the root of this war. Arjuna, sensing his misgivings, continued. “We have Kṛṣṇa on our side. He is righteousness and truth personified. Nārada said that victory is certain to go to Kṛṣṇa and whomever is on His side. Indeed, it is one of the Lord’s eternal attributes. His might is infinite. He is the original person, beyond and above this mundane world with all its politics and suffering. I do not see the cause for your sorrow when that Lord of the celestials is on your side and wishing you success.”
Thinking of Kṛṣṇa, Yudhiṣṭhira felt pacified. He looked at his troops. “It is exactly as you say, Arjuna. Kṛṣṇa desires this conflict and thus we should not hesitate. Tell our men to fight to the best of their power, with fairness and with the desire to attain heaven.”
Yudhiṣṭhira then distributed charity to the numerous Brahmins who had accompanied him onto the battlefield. He was surrounded by ṛṣis, who walked around him chanting hymns in his praise and invoking auspiciousness for the battle. Having been given gold, cows, fruits, flowers and cloth, they left the field, uttering prayers and Vedic mantras.
Arjuna’s chariot moved to the front of the army. Kṛṣṇa said, “There stands that mighty hero among men Bhīṣma, who has performed hundreds of sacrifices, who scorches his foes in battle, and who will soon attack our troops like a lion. Innumerable troops protect him as clouds cover the sun. Make him your target, Arjuna, for none other can face him.”
Kṛṣṇa told Arjuna to offer a prayer to the goddess Durgā so that she would empower him. Arjuna alighted from his chariot and knelt down with folded palms. With his face to the east he chanted hymns from the Vedas to supplicate the powerful goddess of the material energy. As he prayed, the goddess appeared above him in the sky. “O son of Pāṇḍu, you will surely attain victory. You have the invincible Nārāyaṇa to help you. No foe can defeat you, not even the mighty Indra.”
Durgā vanished and Arjuna rose to his feet. Considering himself blessed, he remounted his chariot with a joyful heart.
Seeing that both armies were in position and waiting for the battle to begin, Bhīṣma raised his conch and sounded a great blast. At once the sounds of hundreds of other conches reverberated around the battlefield as all the leading warriors joined with him. Drums, bugles, trumpets and horns were all suddenly sounded, creating a tumult.
Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa took out their conchshells. They blew long and mighty blasts that resounded across the battlefield. Bhīma, the twins, and all the other leading Pāṇḍava fighters also sounded their conchshells. Hearing the celestial sound, the Kauravas felt their hearts quake, but Bhīṣma was cheered. His eyes flooded with tears as he recognized the sound of Kṛṣṇa’s transcendental conch. Here was the eternal Lord of all the worlds prepared to protect His devoted servants by personally coming into battle with them. Bhīṣma gazed across at Arjuna’s chariot. It was a cruel destiny that had brought him into opposition with Kṛṣṇa and the Pāṇḍavas. Surely duty was all-powerful.