In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes.
This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.
(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 35: Karna Rejects a Bribe. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
As the two sides begin preparing for war, they set about picking their respective commanders. On the Pandava side, Yudhishthir takes the advice of Sahadeva as to who should lead them.
‘The seven akshauhinisare each led by the following warriors,’ says Yudhishthir. ‘They are Drupada, Virata, Dhrishtadyumna, Shikhandi, Satyaki, Chekitana, and Bhimasena. Now tell us, Sahadeva, who among these, in your opinion, should be made leader.’
Sahadeva votes for Virata, and as Yudhishthir consults his other brothers, Nakula chooses Drupada, Bhima picks Shikhandi, and Arjuna puts forward the name of Dhrishtadyumna.
Yudhishthir abstains for placing a vote of his own, but asks Krishna who his choice would be. Krishna agrees with Arjuna, and with that Dhrishtadyumna is made the commander of the Pandava forces.
Details of Leadership
As we saw in Episode 32, the seven akshauhinis of the Pandava army come from the following kings: Satyaki (Vrishni), Kuntibhoja (Kunti), Dhrishtaketu (Chedi), Jayatsena (Magadha), Drupada (Panchala), Virata (Matsya), and a bunch of Pandya and Chola tribes.
If we match these to the leaders of each akshauhini described by Yudhishthir in the previous section, we can surmise that Satyaki, Drupada, Virata and Chekitana (a Kekaya king who can lead the tribes) probably lead their own troops.
The other three – Dhrishtadyumna, Bhima and Shikhandi – will be leading someone else’s armies. Bhima would probably have been given leadership of the Kunti and Shurasenan army, with Dhrishtadyumna and Shikhandi drawing lots for Chedi and Magadha.
At first glance, this seems odd: would the armies not perform better if they were led by their own kings? To a point, yes. But Dhrishtaketu (the son of Shishupala) and Jayatsena (the son of Jarasandha) are probably less experienced than Dhrishtadyumna and Shikhandi. So this may have been thought a worthwhile trade.
No explicit reason is given for this choice. Of all the other contenders, Shikhandi is the most promising one because it has been foretold he would kill Bhishma, the likely Kaurava commander.
(Working against Shikhandi is his own reputation as being born a woman; it is tough to imagine a whole army responding positively to commands from him.)
It is also a point of interest that Arjuna is not considered even for a moment by anyone. Clearly he is the most powerful of all the warriors on either side. He has a divine charioteer holding the reins for him. Why should he not be made commander?
Once again, we’re not told why. But we can speculate that Yudhishthir probably wants Arjuna to be more of a free agent during battle, unshackled by the responsibility of leading a division of the army. Whether it’s offense or defense, wherever in the field he is needed, Arjuna will go. If he is chosen as commander, he will have plenty of other things to consider.
The only reason that strikes me as plausible is that Arjuna assigns himself the task of fighting Bhishma, which leaves Drona as the most prominent unmarked Kaurava warrior.
And since Dhrishtadyumna has been touted as the warrior who has taken birth for the sole purpose of killing Drona, Arjuna things that he will make a suitable commander.
A Revisionist Theory
Some revisionist versions of the Mahabharata claim that this appointment of Dhrishtadyumna is a clue to what the Mahabharata story is actually about: a feud between Panchala and Kuru with the Pandavas acting as mercenaries.
According to this theory, the entire internecine struggle is just a sideshow. The actual narrative is a decades-long quarrel between Panchala and Kuru for overlordship in the region.
This begins with Bhishma’s invasion of North Panchala with Drona and the young princes at the helm. On this occasion, Drupada loses and becomes a vassal state to Kuru.
Then he launches a pretty intricate strategy to befriend the Pandavas by ensuring his daughter marries all five of them. He ascends to superiority when Yudhishthir becomes emperor, and over the twelve years Indraprastha reigns supreme, Panchala enjoys near invincible status.
When the Pandavas are exiled, though, Drupada’s power vanishes, and Kuru reasserts its supremacy once again. The thirteen-period is a tough one for Panchala, and it is with a great sense of relief that Drupada persuades the Pandavas to fight.
According to this version, the fact that three out of the seven akshauhinis are led by Panchala warriors (Drupada, Shikhandi, Dhrishtadyumna) is further proof that the army is basically a Panchalan army. And since it’s a Panchalan army, it stands to reason that Dhrishtadyumna is made commander of its forces.
I personally don’t subscribe to the revisionist view of things: it seeks to change too much of the Mahabharata for my liking. Also, it ignores the documented details of where each akshauhini of the Pandava army comes from.
We know for a fact that Panchala only contributes one akshauhini to the army. So the premise – on which the whole theory is built – that this is a Panchalan army is incorrect.
I think the actual explanation is more prosaic. Consider the following:
- Yudhishthir does not wish to be commander of the army because the king is never commander. (For this same reason, Duryodhana never holds the position either.) Nakula and Sahadeva are employed with the task of protecting Yudhishthir at all times, so neither of them is available.
- Arjuna is not considered because Yudhishthir likes him as a free and nimble one-man-army that can be deployed anywhere, anytime.
- Satyaki and Kritavarma are true mercenary forces. Their true loyalties lie with Anarta and Balarama. They’re fighting in this war purely to even out the scales. Neither of them, therefore, will ever be considered a commander.
- Shikhandi, we have already agreed, is a controversial choice because of his past. Drupada and Virata are suitable, but they’re both old – perhaps too old to match Drona.
- As for Bhima, Yudhishthir would like him to perform the same role on foot that Arjuna performs atop a chariot. Bhima is best deployed as a force of nature, twirling his mace and felling elephants by the dozen. So a position as commander is untenable.
Just by the process of elimination, then, we’re left with Dhrishtadyumna.
On the other side of the battlefield, meanwhile, there is no debate whatsoever as to who should lead the Kauravas. The mantle falls, as always, to Bhishma.
When Duryodhana offers the position to him, Bhishma accepts it but has a word or two of caution. ‘I will lead your army, Duryodhana,’ he says, ‘as I said I would. I will also fight to the best of my conscious ability. But I love the Pandavas as dearly as I love you. So there may be a corner of my unconscious mind that prevents me from being as merciless as I could be.
‘Also, O Prince, remember that the Pandavas are unlike any foe I have ever encountered. Arjuna is more than a match for me, both in skill and in knowledge of celestial weapons. So I shall not engage with him in battle.
‘Instead, I will make sure that I eliminate vast swathes of their army with my weapons, so that in no time at all, they will not have a force to fight with. It is your responsibility, therefore, to keep Arjuna busy while I set about killing ten thousand of their soldiers every day.’
Duryodhana is pleased with this suggestion. He raises his arm and declares, ‘I shall do what you command, Grandsire! You are like unto Meru among the mountains, Suparna among the birds, Indra among the gods, Ganga among the rivers, and Kubera among the Yakshas. Lead us into battle, and to victory.’
‘The one other thing,’ Bhishma says, ‘that I wish to place as condition for my fighting, is that Karna does not fight at the same time as I do. He and I never see eye to eye. And I fear that our petty arguments will cause you more problems than if we make it so that he takes to the field only after I am vanquished.’
Before Duryodhana replies, Karna agrees to this proposal. ‘I have taken this vow before, my friend,’ he says, ‘and here I reiterate it. Only after Bhishma is slain will I pick up my bow and ride out to meet Partha.’
This is not the ideal way to start a war – with two of your best warriors falling out – but Duryodhana chooses to make the best of what he has, and anoints Bhishma the commander of his forces.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story
- 300+ Mahabharata Stories to Thrill, Delight and Enchant You
- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered