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 32: Krishna Becomes Charioteer. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
Krishna Leaves for Hastinapur
Another round of peace talks – with Sanjaya carrying messages back and forth – fail between the Pandavas and Kauravas. Now Krishna takes up the mantle and tries one last time to prevent war.
Yudhishthir makes huge concessions in his demands: now he only wishes the Kauravas to give them five villages in the whole kingdom. Krishna warns him that there is little chance of Duryodhana relenting. ‘But I will do my duty,’ he says.
We are told that the month is Kaumuda Kartika under the constellation Revati, and the hour is Maitra. The rays of the sun are still mild when he begins performing all the rituals in company of Brahmins.
After they have all been completed, he addresses Satyaki and says, ‘Arrange for my conch, discus, mace, darts and all other weapons to be loaded into my chariot, O Yuyudhana. Duryodhana and his henchmen are wicked souls and are our foes. They might make the mistake of wanting to fight me even though I go there as a messenger.’
Plenty of omens appear as Krishna and Satyaki set out. There are no clouds, but thunder rattles the sky, and flashes of lightning can be seen along the horizon’s edges. A harsh south-westerly wind, uprooting trees by the thousands, crushes the city of Hastinapur.
By sunset he comes to Vrikasthala, one of the villages that Yudhishtir had asked for, and camps there. ‘Let us stay here for the night and resume our journey tomorrow,’ he instructs Daruka, his charioteer.
The people of the village welcome him with all due honours, and the Brahmins of the place attend upon him with Vedic chants and gifts brought from their hermitages.
Meanwhile, having been told of Krishna’s arrival in Vrikasthala by his spies, Dhritarashtra calls for a meeting of the Kaurava elders – Bhishma, Drona, Sanjaya, Kripa, Duryodhana, Vidur – in order to make necessary arrangements for his welcome.
‘Let there be no doubt in this matter,’ he says, eyeing his son. ‘Krishna is one of the most powerful men of the world. If we welcome him in the proper manner with gifts that he seeks, he will bestow on us the advantages of his friendship.
‘Let pavilions be set up along the path he is taking to Hastinapur, and at each stop, may there be enough provisions made for his refreshment and rest. Let a beautiful palace be erected in Vrikasthala, full of precious gems. May he be given a hundred golden chariots laden with fragrant flowers and other-worldly jewels.’
But Vidura is not impressed by this superficiality. ‘If you really want to win Krishna’s favour, King,’ he says, ‘give the Pandavas the five villages they seek.’
Duryodhana claps his thigh in irritation at Vidura’s words. ‘The battle lines have been drawn, Father. Krishna is now our enemy, and therefore is unworthy of our respect. We all know that he only has the good of the Pandavas at heart; when has he ever done something for our welfare?’
Bhishma says, ‘Whether you give him gifts or not, whether you worship him or not, he will not get angry at you, Duryodhana. If you have any hope of saving your life and your honour, do as he says and seek his blessings.’
‘Then why must I not imprison him?’ says Duryodhana, looking around the court, to stunned silence. ‘Yes! I said why must I not imprison him? If we all know that he is the lynchpin of the Pandava force, and if he is coming here unarmed, then I dare say that we should take matters into our own hands, and cast him into the dungeons until the war is over.’
Krishna Visits Pritha
Upon arriving in Hastinapur, Krishna accepts the welcome laid out for him by the Kuru elders, though he does not even look at the various gifts that Dhritarashtra has paraded out. He seeks out Vidura and expresses a desire to visit Kunti, his maternal aunt.
At Vidura’s place, when he first sees her and touches her feet, Kunti breaks down in a mixture of relief and grief. ‘I did not think that you will come for me ever again, Krishna,’ she says. ‘And I did not think that my sons will assemble enough force on their side to challenge the mighty army of the Kurus.’
After pleasantries have been exchanged, and after Krishna assures Kunti that her sons are all well, she vents out all the frustrations that have plagued her over the last thirteen years.
‘Tell Yudhishthir, she says angrily, ‘that his famed sense of virtue is decreasing day by day, that no one who lives in support of someone else deserves to live at all. Tell Dhananjaya and Bhimasena that the time has come to prove themselves worthy sons of a Kshatriya woman.
‘If they let this opportunity pass, they might be respected now, but future generations will consider them with contempt.
‘Tell them that Draupadi knows the path that they must take; if the insults heaped upon their wife by the Kauravas do not push them over the brink of anger, then what will?’
Krishna listens to her with due deference, and tells her that all her wishes will soon be fulfilled. He takes leave of her after respectfully walking around her three times, and then departs for his sleeping quarters.
Opening Statement – Part 1
Early next morning, Krishna wakes up and worships Surya. He takes an early bath, offers libations to the fire, seeks blessings from sages, and ascends his chariot that would take him to the Kuru court.
Accompanying him is Satyaki, and on the way, a conclave of great sages meets him. Included in this group are rishis like Kanva, Parashurama and Narada.
They are all welcomed with due respect at the Kuru court. Bhishma embraces Krishna and escorts him personally to his seat. After all the commotion has died down and the time has come to start proceedings, Krishna clears his throat to perfect silence.
All the important kings of Aryavarta and all the prominent members of the Kuru court are present, listening intently.
‘The Kuru race is considered to be the most distinguished in all of Aryavarta, O King,’ says Krishna, addressing Dhritarashtra in a deep, low voice. ‘Joy in the happiness of others, grief at people’s misery, desire to alleviate suffering, abstaining from causing injury, forgiveness, truth – these have been some of the tenets that your predecessors have staunchly adopted.
‘‘It would be a pity if anything improper were to be done to the honour of the Kuru dynasty by someone who belongs to it. It would be a bigger tragedy, Your Majesty, if that someone were you.
‘You are the king. You are the ruler of this land. If a quarrel is to develop between your sons, as the patriarch it is you who must douse it.’
Opening Statement – Part 2
‘Your sons, led by Duryodhana, have behaved most unrighteously toward your other sons – the Pandavas. Overseeing it all, you have so far remained indifferent, sir, and if that is to continue, there will be a slaughter of the kind Aryavarta has never seen.
‘Does the Kuru clan need this disrepute? Why let centuries of righteous conduct be washed away by mere indecision? If you do not trust the Pandavas, leave them to me. You counsel your sons and make them accept this offering of peace.
‘I will, on my end, speak to the sons of Pandu and bring them around too. Let us stop this feud here and now, before weapons are drawn and made to clash.
‘Imagine the strength of the Kuru army if this comes to pass, O King. Along with Duryodhana, Bhishma, Drona, Kripacharya and Shalya, what if you could add the might of Arjuna, Bhimasena, Satyaki, the sons of Madri, Dhrishtadyumna and Shikhandi?
With such an array of dazzling warriors, you will be the monarch of monarchs. Your power will rival that of Indra, and no one in the land will ever think of fighting you.
‘And you will be well-respected too, Dhritarashtra. The Pandavas would like nothing more than a chance to wait upon you. They love you. They are eager to live with you as kinsmen. They will not disobey a single command of yours if you just bring yourself to make a decision on this one matter.
‘They are fatherless; you become their father. And like a true father, clutch them to your bosom and give them the respect that they seek. Treat them fairly, on equal footing. Those five will repay your affection many times over, Your Majesty.
‘Do not let hate consume this great throne of the Kurus; you are merely its custodian. Ask yourself what your ancestors would say if you were to bring about the great battle that will end this age of Dwapara.’
Krishna Counsels Duryodhana
Dhritarashtra listens to Krishna’s words and says, ‘What you say is fraught with wisdom and good, O Krishna. I wish to obey you to the letter. But my hands are tied – my son Duryodhana does not listen to me. Perhaps you can speak to him?’
Krishna accepts the words with a nod, and gets up to address Duryodhana. ‘If we forget ideas of virtue and vice for a moment, Prince, and speak only of prudence and self-preservation, even then it is mere folly on your part that you should be so eager to fight the Pandavas.
‘Even I – with my heroic Yadava army – would have thought twice to clash with those men in battle. Five of the most fearsome warriors the world has ever seen are stringing their bows as we speak, O Duryodhana. How can you so be so foolish as to enter a cave teeming with lions?
‘The exertions of the wise are always in pursuit of three things, O Kaurava: virtue, profit and desire (dharma, artha, and kama). On occasions where all three of the goals cannot be fulfilled, we have been instructed to ensure that any two are.
‘But you have always been a creature driven purely by desire, Duryodhana, to the detriment of virtue and profit. Ah, I see you smile; you think that your behaviour toward the Pandavas has profited you enough. But those days are fast coming to an end.
‘Now if we speak of virtue, is there anyone in this assembly that do not think of the Pandavas as good men? It is the opinion of the overwhelming majority of the kings of Aryavarta, O Duryodhana, that you have acted in the most deplorable manner.
‘Yes, they may still fight on your side for various reasons, but do not mistake that for heartfulness.’
‘Even after all this,’ Krishna says, ‘the Pandavas are not angry at you, Prince. They do not seek to rule over you. They only ask that they be made yuvarajas of Indraprastha, just as you are of Hastinapur.
‘They are more than glad to serve Dhritarashtra as the sovereign ruler of the land as long as he lives. Your life will not change in any way, Duryodhana; indeed, it will be enhanced because of your powerful allies, the Pandavas.
‘So set aside all this meaningless hatred, for you are only harming your own kinsmen by it. Invite the Pandavas home, and allow for the Kuru clan to embark upon a journey that will make it the most glorious one in the world. You will be spoken of as a noble, just man, O Prince, if you were to do just this one act.’
Duryodhana’s reply is along expected lines. ‘First of all, Krishna,’ he says, his eyes bristling with wrath, ‘I do not believe that the Pandavas are as strong as you believe them. True, Arjuna won the battle in Virata against our army, but you must remember that we were then fighting for low stakes indeed; why would any of us exert ourselves for mere cattle?
‘The same warriors will shed all their inhibitions when participating in a war for the kingdom itself. Do you think Grandsire Bhishma will stand by and watch while the throne of Hastinapur is broken by Arjuna’s arrows?
‘Do you think Dronacharya and Ashwatthama will hold back their celestial weapons? Do you think I will think twice before crushing the skull of Bhimasena?
‘In every one of the instances you cite of Pandava valour, Madhusudana, they are seen fighting for their lives or honour. We have never had to do so. It is a mistake to compare us to them, therefore, and to conclude that they are more heroic than us.
‘It has been said that it is a moment that throws up a champion. I believe that with skilled warriors such as Kripacharya and Karna and Shalya on our side, when the hour calls for courage, there will be plenty on display.’
Duryodhana then finishes his speech by speaking, ironically, of virtue. ‘Now we speak of virtue, that eternal point of discussion in all our debates. You say it was sinful of me to cheat the Pandavas out of a kingdom. I ask: how so?
‘We invited them to a game of dice, and we communicated to them the terms before we began playing. They had full freedom to say no. Even then, after they lost everything in the first round of gambling, we returned everything we had won.
‘But they participated in the game again, after agreeing to the terms of exile. How is any of this unrighteous or wrong on my part?
‘As for desire, O Madhava, who in the world is not compelled by it? From the smallest ant to the biggest elephant, it is desire that makes life and death chase each other in a never-ending cycle. I do not make apologies for being a servant to my desires, and I am not ashamed of them. No, sir, not even for a moment!
‘So as you can see, Krishna, by the three things you have named – profit, desire and virtue – I believe I am taking the right course of action.
‘The Pandavas should never have been given a share of the kingdom, nor should their father ever have been made king in his time. Those mistakes happened before I had gained the power to stop them, O Hrishikesha.
‘But now that I stand here, erect and strong, in the company of these illustrious men, let me declare that the land will never, in my lifetime, be given back to them.’
Krishna then proceeds to list out all the offences of Duryodhana in open assembly, which we will see in the next episode.
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