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Chapter 5

The War Begins

The warriors on the Pāṇḍavas’ side had watched and waited as Arjuna spoke with Kṛṣṇa. Obviously he had been overcome by uncertainty. No doubt seeing his beloved grandfather and teacher had filled him with apprehension. Now he seemed to have regained his resolve. He was again standing in position on his chariot, with the Gāṇḍīva held high. The Pāṇḍava warriors sent up a great shout. They blew their conches and beat their drums. Horns and bugles sounded continuously and uproariously.

In the sky assembled the hosts of ṛṣis, Siddhas, and other classes of celestials--all wanting to witness the battle. They gazed in wonder at Arjuna’s chariot, amazed to see Kṛṣṇa acting as his charioteer.

Seeing that the battle was about to begin, Yudhiṣṭhira took off his armor and climbed down from his chariot. His brothers and the other warriors watched as he walked toward the Kauravas. What did he have in mind? Had he suddenly decided to be humble and hand over a bloodless victory to the Kuru forces? All his brothers called out to him, asking him about his intentions, but the king made no reply. Unarmed and unprotected, he walked straight toward Bhīṣma’s chariot.

Kṛṣṇa spurred on Arjuna’s white horses and the chariot moved closer to the cars of Bhīma and the twins. “I know your brother’s intentions,” He said. “He intends to pay his respects to his gurus before fighting with them. It is said in the old histories that one who first offers his respects to his elders and teachers before engaging with them in battle gains victory.”

As Yudhiṣṭhira approached Bhīṣma, shouts of “Alas!” were heard among the Pāṇḍava forces, who thought that, in the face of such tremendous opposition, he had decided not to fight. Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons thought that Yudhiṣṭhira was afraid. “Just see this infamous wretch,” they laughed. “Stricken with terror he has gone to Bhīṣma to beg for his mercy.” Disregarding their jeers, Yudhiṣṭhira went before Bhīṣma, who got down from his own chariot as Yudhiṣṭhira approached. The Pāṇḍava bowed down and took hold of Bhīṣma’s feet. “O invincible one, I bow to you,” he said. “We will fight with you. Please grant us your permission and give us your blessings.”

Bhīṣma smiled and raised his right hand. “O ruler of the earth, O great king, if you had not come to me in this way, I would have cursed you with defeat. I am pleased with you, dear son. May you fight and obtain victory. Ask for a boon, O son of Kuntī--anything you desire. Alas, men are the slaves of wealth, but wealth is no one’s slave. I am bound by the wealth of the Kurus and like an impotent man I stand against you in battle, although I know your cause is just. Tell me, dear child, what you wish to have from me.”

Yudhiṣṭhira felt tears coming to his eyes. “O wise one, desiring my welfare, please look after my interests. Do your duty and fight for the Kurus’ sake. This is my wish.”

Bhīṣma appeared despondent. “Although I must fight for your enemies, O King, tell me what I can do for you.”

Yudhiṣṭhira folded his hands and bowed his head. “O sire, there is one thing I will ask. Tell me how we will be able to vanquish you, who are invincible. If you see any good in it, please give me this information for my benefit.”

Bhīṣma stood with his large, silver-gilded bow in his hand. Although he was now almost ninety years old, he was still a formidable figure in his polished gold and silver armor. He placed a hand on Yudhiṣṭhira’s shoulder. “O descendent of Bharata, I do not see that man who can defeat me in battle, even if he be the lord of the celestials. The time for my death has not yet come. Approach me again and ask this question at some other time.”

“Be it so.”

Yudhiṣṭhira again bowed to his grandfather and then walked away. Making his way through the lines of curious soldiers, he went to Droṇa. After circumambulating his chariot he said, “O invincible hero, tell me how I may fight with you, my worshipable teacher, without incurring sin. How, O great Brahmin, will I be able to vanquish my enemies?”

Like Bhīṣma, Droṇa said, “O King, if you had failed to come to me, I would have cursed you with defeat. I am pleased with you, sinless one. You have my permission to fight. May victory be yours. Please tell me what I can do for you. I desire to give you a boon. Alas, I cannot fight for you, for I am a slave of the Kurus’ wealth, but I will pray for your victory.”

Tears again sprang to Yudhiṣṭhira’s eyes as he heard Droṇa’s affectionate tone of voice. How cruel a fate that he should now be forced to fight his esteemed and elderly guru!

But Droṇa would be difficult to overcome. Despite his advanced years, he knew the secrets of all the celestial and earthly weapons. He could still fire an unending stream of arrows from his great bow. Yudhiṣṭhira could not imagine anyone even approaching him in battle. With reverence he said, “O Brahmin, do pray for me and tell me also what is good for me. Fight for the Kurus with all your might. This is my desire.”

Droṇa looked lovingly at his disciple. Although not as physically powerful as Arjuna or Bhīma, Yudhiṣṭhira was strong in his ability to remain fixed on the path of virtue. Droṇa knew that a pious man was always protected by his virtue. He glanced at Arjuna’s chariot across the field. “O king, your victory is certain. You have Kṛṣṇa as your counselor, and righteousness is always with Him. Where there is Kṛṣṇa, there must be victory. O son of Kuntī, go and fight with full confidence. What else will I say to you?”

“O mighty-armed one, please tell me how you may be defeated?” Yudhiṣṭhira asked.

“As long as I fight, you will not obtain victory, O King. Therefore, seek my death at the earliest opportunity. But there are none who can face me when I am fighting. Neither man nor celestial can stand before me when I am angry and scattering an incessant shower of arrows in all directions. O Bharata, only when I lay down my weapons and am prepared for death, with my senses withdrawn, will you be able to kill me. This is the truth. Having heard something disagreeable from some credible source, I shall abandon my arms and cease fighting.”

Yudhiṣṭhira bowed to his preceptor. Thinking about what he had said, he walked toward Kṛpa’s chariot. After offering respects to the old Brahmin warrior, he said, “O teacher, only with your permission can I fight without incurring sin. Please permit me to engage in battle to defeat my enemies.”

Like Bhīṣma and Droṇa, Kṛpa replied that he would surely have cursed Yudhiṣṭhira to be defeated if he had not come to him for his permission. He also lamented his obligation to the Kauravas. Having stated his inability to fight for him, he asked Yudhiṣṭhira what else he could do for him.

As he stood before Kṛpa, Yudhiṣṭhira felt as if his heart might break. First Bhīṣma, then Droṇa, and now Kṛpa--all three were like fathers to him and his brothers. From their childhood when they had first come to Hastināpura, these elders had cherished and taught them with the greatest care. He could not recall a single cruel word or deed from any of them. Now he must go before them and ask how they could be killed. Yudhiṣṭhira stood with his head bowed. His throat was choked and he could not say anything.

Understanding his plight, Kṛpa said, “O King, no one can kill me. Knowing this, go and obtain victory.”

Kṛpa’s father, Gautama Ṛṣi, had told him that he would be invincible in battle. Therefore, he advised Yudhiṣṭhira not to waste time trying to bring about his fall. Lifting his right hand in blessing, Kṛpa continued, “I will rise from sleep every day and pray for your victory. I say this truly. Go now and obtain your desires.”

Yudhiṣṭhira went at last to Śalya. After asking his permission to fight with him, he stood with folded palms, looking up at his maternal uncle. Śalya sorrowfully replied, “The Kurus’ wealth has made me their slave. What can I do for you under these circumstances? I wish to bestow a boon upon you for your having come to me in humility. What do you desire?”

Yudhiṣṭhira reminded him of his promise to discourage Karṇa when it came time for him to fight with Arjuna.

“It shall be so,” Śalya answered. “Go and fight. I will pray for your victory.”

Yudhiṣṭhira bowed to Śalya and then returned to his army. Witnessing the respect and honor he paid to his elders, even the Kauravas praised him. Cries of “Excellent! Bravo!” were heard among the soldiers on both sides. As they thought on the noble qualities of Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers, the soldiers wept aloud.

After he was again stationed on his chariot, clad in armor and ready for battle, Yudhiṣṭhira called out to the Kauravas, “If any among you wishes to choose us, we will consider you our ally. Come then to our side.”

There was silence and no one moved. Then from out of the Kaurava ranks emerged Yuyutsu’s chariot. “I will fight for you,” he shouted. “O sinless one, will you accept me?”

“Come, come,” replied Yudhiṣṭhira. “Fight with us against your foolish brothers. O Yuyutsu, we accept you into our ranks. It seems the thread of Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s line, as well as their last funeral offerings, will rest upon you. O prince, accept us who accept you. The wrathful and foolish Duryodhana will not survive.”

As drums and cymbals were sounded, Yuyutsu went over to the Pāṇḍavas’ side. Duryodhana glared in silent fury at his half-brother. Yuyutsu had never shared his feelings toward the Pāṇḍavas. That had been obvious enough from their frequent disagreements. But how did he dare abandon his family in their hour of need? He would regret this foolish decision.

Seeing that the moment of battle had arrived, the warriors on both sides began to shout in exultation. Now they would die and be elevated to the heavenly realm, or they would emerge victorious. To the sounds of thousands of conches, trumpets and drums, the warriors rushed at each other with uplifted weapons. The earth shook and clouds of dust rose into the air as they advanced. They sounded and appeared like two great oceans coming together. Bhīma’s cries rose above the tumult as he raced ahead of the Pāṇḍava forces roaring like a bull. Hearing his shouts, which drowned out other sounds, the Kaurava soldiers became afraid. Horses and elephants passed urine and excrement, faltering as they ran. Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons were struck with terror as Bhīma came toward them, his mace whirling above his head. Bhīma laughed at his frightened foes. At last the moment had arrived. Now he could finally release the full fury of his anger.

Taking heart, the Kauravas shouted out their own battle cries and waved their bows in the air. They surrounded Bhīma and began firing snake-like arrows at him. Laughing as the arrows glanced off his armor, he struck other shafts down with his mace. Bhīma shook off their attack. He replied with thousands of his own arrows, dispersing the Kaurava princes in all directions.

Abhimanyu and Draupadīs sons, along with Nakula, Sahadeva and Dṛṣṭadyumna, advanced in a body and tore into the Kaurava forces, scattering arrows everywhere.

Neither side flinched nor turned back from the violence as they hurled their weapons at one another. The twang of bowstrings and the slap of strings hitting leather arm-protectors and gloves was heard everywhere. The air was full of swift-flying arrows. Spears, darts, and iron balls fell upon both armies in the thousands. The blare of conches, the lion-like roar of warriors, the heavy tread of infantry, the neighing of horses, the clash of weapons, the clatter of chariot wheels, the jingle of bells around the elephants’ necks, the elephants’ trumpeting, and the beating of drums mingled to produce a hair-raising uproar. Recklessly the warriors rushed forward.

Arjuna immediately engaged with Bhīṣma. With lightness of hand he fired countless arrows at him, but Bhīṣma countered them all. He returned numerous shafts at Arjuna. Even though Bhīṣma’s arrows pierced him, Arjuna did not waver. Nor could he shake Bhīṣma, as he sent at him his own deadly shafts. The two heroes exchanged arrows while the fight raged around them.

As the battle got under way, the sky began to flash red and blue, while black clouds showered flesh and blood onto the field. A terrible wind blew, carrying innumerable stones and afflicting all the troops. The loud rumble of thunder resounded and bolts of lightning struck the earth.

Powerful chariot-warriors engaged with other chariot fighters, while infantry battled infantry and horsemen engaged with other mounted troops. The warriors sought out their marked enemies. Bhīma assailed Duryodhana; Sahadeva--Śakuni; and Dhṛṣṭadyumna--Droṇa. As other kings and kṣatriyas came to their aid, the battle became general and weapons flew in all directions.

On both sides of the armies divisions of Rākṣasas marched. Ghaṭotkaca led a division of Rākṣasas on the Pāṇḍavas’ behalf and the powerful Alambusha led the Rākṣasas for the Kauravas. These awful beings created a huge carnage among the soldiers as they wielded their axes and bludgeons.

The warriors fought as if possessed by demons. No quarter was shown. Amid the terrible confusion, fathers could not recognize their sons, brothers their brothers, nor friends their friends. Uncles slew their nephews and cousins killed cousins. Men hacked and struck at one another with swords, spiked maces, and heavy clubs. Streams of blood flowed freely across the ground, carrying mutilated and severed limbs. Chariots smashed against chariots, breaking them to pieces, while elephants tore into other elephants, gouging them with their steel-tipped tusks.

The battlefield assumed the appearance of Yamaloka, the abode of Death. Men screamed in pain, sounding like souls condemned to hell. The bodies of slain warriors and animals lay everywhere in heaps. Axes and swords dripping with blood whizzed through the air. There was a continuous loud thudding sound as heavy maces and swift arrows struck the bodies of soldiers.

Bhīṣma fought with fury. His tall standard, bearing a palm tree and five stars, glided through the Pāṇḍava army, leaving a trail of bodies and shattered chariots in its wake. With his straight arrows he severed the heads and limbs of all who came before him. The old Kuru hero seemed to dance in his chariot as he whirled about wielding his bow. His deadly shafts were fired with such power that they would pierce even great elephants to their vitals, sending them tumbling to the earth.

Seeing the destruction Bhīṣma was causing, Abhimanyu rushed toward him shouting out a challenge. Bhīṣma was protected by five maharatha heroes, but Abhimanyu attacked them all. Firing arrows that flew with blinding speed, he held off Bhīṣma’s protectors while simultaneously attacking him. With one well-aimed arrow, he cut Bhīṣma’s bow in two. Another three arrows cut down his standard, which fluttered to the floor of his chariot.

Witnessing Abhimanyu’s lightness of hand, even the celestials were pleased. The warriors who saw him considered that he was in no way inferior to his father. His bow, which sounded just like the Gāṇḍīva, seemed like a circle of fire as he continuously released arrows. As the god-like prince spun in his chariot, his shafts appeared to be leaving his bow in all directions at once.

Under attack, Bhīṣma gathered himself and fought back. He wounded Arjuna’s son with nine arrows, then cut down his standard with three more. Kṛtavarmā, Śalya and Kṛpa, who were among Bhīṣma’s protectors, all assailed Abhimanyu, but they could not make him waver. He repelled their attack while maintaining his assault on Bhīṣma. The warriors witnessing the fight all praised Abhimanyu’s prowess, calling out “Bravo! Well done!”

Bhīṣma covered Arjuna’s son with thousands of arrows. As he increased the ferocity of his attack, a number of other Pāṇḍava heroes, headed by Bhīma, came to Abhimanyu’s aid. All of them aimed their weapons at Bhīṣma. Not the least perturbed, Bhīṣma sent his long golden shafts at all of them.

The prince of Virata, Bhuminjaya, also came to support Abhimanyu. Śalya attacked him and a fierce battle ensued between the two fighters. Bhuminjaya was mounted on a huge elephant and he rushed at Śalya, wielding a lance. The elephant placed its foot onto the yoke of Śalya’s chariot, crushing and killing the four horses. Remaining on his chariot, Śalya took out a large iron dart and hurled it at Bhuminjaya with all his strength. That dart pierced his armor and went into his chest. The prince fell lifeless from his elephant, his hook and lance falling from his hands. Śalya jumped down from his chariot. Raising his sword he brought it down and severed the elephant’s trunk. As the great beast fell dead, Śalya quickly climbed onto Kṛtavarmā’s chariot, being praised for his heroism by all the fighters present.

Bhuminjaya’s brother, Sweta, saw Śalya kill his brother. Blazing with anger, he rushed at the king of Madra like an infuriated elephant. Seven Kaurava warriors came forward to check him, showering him with arrows. Sweta countered the shafts and, with seven broad-headed arrows of his own, cut all his assailants’ bows in two. The Kaurava fighters angrily hurled darts at Sweta which flew toward him like fiery meteors, but with razor-headed shafts the prince cut down the missiles before they could reach him. With still more arrows he wounded his attackers and sent them reeling in all directions, their standards cut and their bodies mutilated.

Sweta continued toward Śalya, and it appeared as if Death personified had come for the Madra king. Seeing him advance, Bhīṣma quickly placed himself between Sweta and Śalya. Thousands of horsemen and charioteers had come to Sweta’s aid and Bhīṣma began to pick them off with his unerring shafts. As he fired his uncountable golden arrows, the son of Gaṅgā seemed like the blazing sun with its rays in summer. As the sun dispels darkness, Bhīṣma dispelled the foes who surrounded him. Soon, the many chariots he had deprived of warriors flew aimlessly about the field. Impetuous horses carried youthful riders killed and hanging from their saddles. Hundreds of slain warriors lay on the ground, their armor shattered and their heads and arms cut off.

As Bhīṣma slew the Pāṇḍava troops, Sweta killed large numbers of the Kaurava army. In his fury, none could stand before him. After some time only he and Bhīṣma remained facing one another. They attacked each other like two enraged lions. Showers of arrows sped through the sky like golden-winged birds. Each fighter wounded the other. Sweta, with blood flowing from his wounds, fired twenty-five arrows into Bhīṣma’s body. He then cut Bhīṣma’s bow with another ten arrows. With still more arrows he killed Bhīṣma’s horses and charioteer.

Without hesitating, Bhīṣma took up another bow and jumped down from his chariot. He continued fighting the prince on foot. Sweta then took out a golden dart and called out, “Wait only a moment, O Bhīṣma. I will slay you at once.” He hurled the dart, which fell toward Bhīṣma like a comet. The many warriors watching the fight cried out, “Alas! Bhīṣma is slain.”

Bhīṣma, however, was not slain. He sent eight arrows at the dart and cut it into fragments. He fought on with the prince, who became senseless with fury as he saw his dart checked. Sweta took up a huge spiked mace and rushed toward Bhīṣma. Gaṅgā’s son, mounted on a fresh chariot brought by his aides, considered the attack unstoppable. He leapt clear of his chariot just as the prince brought the mace down upon it. The force of the blow smashed the chariot, standard, horses and charioteer.

Bhīṣma got up on another chariot and resumed his attack on Sweta. The prince had now mounted his own chariot and Bhīṣma advanced toward him. As the two warriors closed on one another, continuously releasing weapons, Bhīṣma heard a voice from the sky: “O Bhīṣma, O mighty-armed hero, the time fixed for Sweta’s destruction has arrived. Fight on with all your power and gain victory.”

Bhīṣma looked at Sweta. He was flanked by numerous Pāṇḍava warriors, among them Bhīma, Abhimanyu and Sātyaki. Encouraged by the divine voice, however, he attacked Sweta alone while parrying the other attacks. Coming close to the Virata prince, he took up an arrow which resembled the rod of death. He placed the golden shaft, decked with gems, onto his bow and drew back the string to his ear. Imbuing the arrow with the force of the Brahmā weapon, he released it to kill Sweta.

With a flash like a thunderbolt, the arrow struck the prince on the chest and passed clean through his body. It entered the earth like a snake going into its hole, carrying with it the hero’s life. Sweta fell from his chariot like a peak loosened from the summit of a mountain. The Pāṇḍavas sent up cries of lamentation, while the Kauravas shouted joyously. Duryodhana and Dushashana danced in delight. They repeatedly praised Bhīṣma as the loud music of trumpets and drums sounded.

The sun was slowly disappearing over the western horizon and Arjuna and Dṛṣṭadyumna withdrew their troops. The two armies entered their respective camps for the night, the Pāṇḍavas cheerlessly and the Kauravas laughing and shouting. As darkness fell, thousands of vultures and jackals came onto the battlefield, their cries mixing with the sounds of the warriors withdrawing.