Mahabharata Episode 40: The Kurukshetra War Begins

Kurukshetra War Begins - Featured Image - Picture of a war scene

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 39: The Bhagavad Gita. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

A list of topics that we will cover:

Yudhishthir Seeks Blessings

After Krishna’s sermon is over and Arjuna gets up in his chariot, bow in hand, the Pandava army erupts in joy. Yudhishthir then does something unexpected; he asks to be taken alone in a car across the Kurukshetra into the Kaurava ranks.

As the king prepares for his journey, all four of his brothers try to dissuade him, but Krishna smiles and says, ‘I know why Yudhishthir is going over to the enemy side. He wishes to seek the blessings of the grandsire and the preceptor.’

Watching Yudhishthir’s chariot speed toward them alone, the warriors in the Kaurava camp also speculate as to his motivation.

‘Perhaps he is coming to concede the war to us,’ says Duryodhana hopefully. ‘The sight of eleven akshauhinis and such a glittering array of fighters must have weakened his heart. He is now coming to beg forgiveness of Bhishma.’

Yudhishthir, of course, approaches Bhishma and bows to him. ‘I have come, Grandfather,’ he says, ‘to seek your blessings. With your permission, we are going to fight this great army you commandeer. Let it be that we emerge victorious in this war.’

Bhishma is pleased with the king’s gesture. ‘If you had not come to me today, Yudhishthir,’ he says, ‘I would have cursed you to lose. But now, my heart is overwhelmingly gladdened. Besides the battle itself, ask me for any boon, son, and I will grant it to you.’

Bhishma Gives a Hint

Yudhishthir says, ‘It is my wish, sire, that despite your love for the Pandavas, you must fight with all your might for the sake of Duryodhana.’

‘That is understood!’ replies Bhishma. ‘Ask me for any other boon, excepting victory in the war.’

‘Then tell me, O Grandsire,’ says Yudhishthir, ‘how we can vanquish an invincible warrior such as you.’

Bhishma thinks for a moment, surveys the many heroes arrayed on the other side, facing him. Then he says, ‘I do not see even one man in your army, Yudhishthir, that is capable of defeating me when I stand to fight. That is all I can tell you.’

(The meaning behind these words can be taken in two ways: one, that Bhishma is hinting that Yudhishthir must look beyond men in order to defeat him. And two, that in order to have a chance of overthrowing him, it is first necessary to remove from his heart the willingness to fight.)

After this, Yudhishthir pays his respects to Dronacharya and asks him the same question.

Drona replies, ‘I cannot be defeated by anyone until I have voluntarily chosen to embrace death by withdrawing into meditation, O King. I will cast off my arms in battle if I hear something very disagreeable to me from the lips of someone who can never speak an untruth. Unless something of that magnitude happens, therefore, the Pandavas will not succeed in slaying me.’

Both Drona and Bhishma wish Yudhishthir all the best in battle. After circling each of their chariots three times in a mark of respect, the king approaches Kripa and Shalya for blessings too.

Kripa and Shalya

The next person Yudhishthir seeks blessings from is Kripacharya. The conversation begins and flows in identical fashion as those with Bhishma and Drona.

When the question of how to defeat him arises, the son of Saradwata assures Yudhishthir that he is incapable of being slain.

‘I will wake up every morning and pray for your victory, my son,’ he says, ‘and I fight for this army only because Hastinapur has given me much during my life.

‘Every man is a slave of wealth; I am no exception. But there is simply no way in which you can hope to defeat me. I shall fight to the full extent of my powers for the sake of Duryodhana.’

From there, Yudhishthir goes to Shalya, the king of Madra who is effectively a spy in the Pandavas’ employ. ‘I wish to remind you of the boon you promised me, Your Majesty,’ says Yudhishthir, ‘that you will weaken the Sutaputra at a crucial moment in the battle that will ensure Arjuna’s victory.’

Shalya agrees, and Yudhishthir returns to his home camp.

Krishna Approaches Karna

Krishna approaches Karna at this point and tries one more time to win him over.

‘I have heard that you will not fight until Bhishma is slain, O Radheya,’ he says. ‘Fight on our side, then, and exert your full strength on the grandsire. Once he is overcome, you may take charge of Duryodhana’s forces against your arch-enemy, Arjuna.’

But Karna does not take the bait. ‘I will not do anything that is disagreeable to Duryodhana, O Kesava. My entire life is devoted to his welfare. You may as well assume that I have cast off my life for his sake. So I can never take up arms against his army, not even for the sake of killing the grandsire.’

After Krishna’s return to the Pandava ranks, Yudhishthir makes an announcement, calling for any Kaurava warriors to shift allegiance if they wish. ‘He who chooses us now will be our friend for life,’ he proclaims.

And Yuyutsu, one of the Kaurava brothers, answers the call. ‘I will fight the Dhartarashtras under your command, O Yudhishthir,’ he says, and brings his division of the army along with him.

(This turns out to be a personally rewarding decision by Yuyutsu. He ends up surviving the war – escaping even the night-time attack of Ashwatthama.)

Estimates of Time – Part 1

A short while before the two armies face off, on one occasion, Duryodhana asks Bhishma a question to gauge the strength of his foe.

‘That great army that stands on the other side of the battlefield from us, O Gangeya,’ he says, ‘how long will it take you to destroy it?’

Bhishma replies, ‘I will tell you the utmost limit of my power, O Prince. Remember that when one is fighting ordinary soldiers, one must do so artlessly, whereas when one is fighting warriors skilled in deception, one must exercise deception oneself.

‘Taking this into consideration, I think I will be able to kill ten thousand ordinary soldiers and one thousand chariot-warriors per day. Stationed at the head of your army, where I am left free to slay hundreds and thousands at a time, I can finish the slaughter in a month.’

The same question is tabled to all the main heroes of the Kaurava side. Here are the answers:

  • Drona cites his ageing reflexes and pegs his estimate at one month, the same as Bhishma.
  • Kripacharya announces that he can finish off the Pandava army in two months.
  • Ashwatthama, interestingly, pledges that he can achieve the feat in ten days.
  • Karna absurdly boasts that he can do it in five days. (This, of course, elicits a laugh from Bhishma.)

It is instructive that the older, more experienced warriors give longer estimates while the younger, brasher ones are more inclined to boast.

Estimates of Time – Part 2

When Yudhishthir receives news about how the Kaurava warriors have estimated the strength of the Pandava army, he turns to Arjuna and asks him the same question.

Arjuna’s answer, to begin with, is unequivocal. ‘If no restrictions are placed on my usage of weapons, Brother, with Krishna manning my chariot, I will be able to destroy the entire army of our enemy in a mere moment.

‘A blink of an eye! The Pashupatastra alone will perform this task ably, and by the blessing of Shiva, I have learnt the various ways in which it can be hurled.’

But then he adds a caveat. ‘However, it is also true that celestial weapons must not be used on ordinary human warriors. So the Agneya, Brahma and Maruta weapons that I have procured from the gods will remain sheathed. We must fight with earthly weapons, taking recourse in the celestial only when pitted against warriors that have had similar blessings.

‘‘As for time, Brother, I do not believe in idle posturing of this sort. How can anyone say with any certainty how a soldier might fight tomorrow?

‘It is not a question of skill alone, alas; the ferocity with which a warrior falls upon his enemy is dictated by courage, fortitude, the depth of his desire, his psychological makeup in that moment, and many such intangible elements.

‘There have been numerous instances in the past where a smaller force of dedicated men have routed larger armies. Ordinary soldiers have slain great warriors with nothing but darts fashioned out of straw and stones!’

Arjuna finishes by assuring Yudhishthir that despite their army being smaller, they will win the war owing to their stronger desire for justice.

Dharma Yuddha

The Pandavas and the Kauravas, then, make certain agreements on what constitutes dharma during battle and what does not.

  • People who belong to more or less equal circumstances should fight each other, and fairly. (This means that they are equal in status, weapons, valour and rank.)
  • If, having fought fairly for a while, both warriors intend to withdraw peacefully, that is allowed.
  • Those who are engaged in verbal jousts should be fought with words only, not with weapons.
  • Those that leave the ranks of his army should not be attacked.
  • A chariot must engage with a chariot, an elephant with an elephant, a horse with a horse, and a footman with another footman.
  • One should strike another for the first time after announcing that he intends to. No one should strike another who is unprepared, panic-stricken or retreating.
  • An unarmed man must not be attacked. Charioteers, horses yoked to chariots, men engaged in the transport of weapons, players of drums and blowers of conches – these should not be attacked.

We must note right at the outset that some of these are more serious than others. For instance, the rule about chariots only fighting against chariots is only a guideline, and is often broken in the heat of battle.

But rules such as not attacking an unarmed man, not harming a man who has surrendered and has begged for your forgiveness, not attacking an enemy when he is sleeping or is otherwise occupied – these are considered salient.

Having said that, during the course of the eighteen-day war, all these rules get broken. What begins as a Dharma Yuddha becomes a mad scramble for blood and flesh.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!