Mahabharata Parva 55: The Sainyodyoga Parva

Mahabharata Parvas - Sainyodyoga - Featured Image - Picture of a spy representing Shalya

The Mahabharata is a collection of hundred Parvas (or ‘sections’) that tell the story of a long-standing family feud between two sets of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – for control of the Kuru throne in Hastinapur.

The climactic event of the story is an eighteen-day war that happens between the two factions on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

It is commonly understood that the Pandavas are the protagonists of this tale and the Kauravas the antagonists – though many retellings have appeared over the years that flip this structure.

In this post, we will summarize the Sainyodyoga Parva.

(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)

Krishna Speaks

On the day following the wedding of Abhimanyu and Uttara, the assembled kings sit in council to discuss the way forward for the Pandavas. Krishna presides over the meeting and speaks to the gathering about a possible amicable solution between the cousins.

‘You all know how Yudhishthir and his brothers were deceived and sent into the forest by Duryodhana,’ he says.

‘They were robbed of the kingdom they had built, and though they are strong enough to conquer the earth, they have followed the strictures of their vow and have spent thirteen years in exile.

‘Now, the thirteenth year of incognito has passed as well, successfully. It remains for all of you, O Kings, to advise the Pandavas on the best course of action.

‘While pondering over the matter yourself, keep in mind that the righteous Yudhishthir does not wish to fight. Even now he has nothing but the good of Duryodhana in his heart.

‘We know that he does not covet anything that does not belong to him. But what does Duryodhana think? No one knows. How does one chart the best path forward when one does not know the designs of one’s foe?’

The Hope for Peace

Krishna continues: ‘Consult among yourselves, but also think separately on what is to be done. If you think violence is the only recourse open to these heroes, then know that no one in the world is worthier than the Pandavas of winning the battle against the Kauravas.

Arjuna with his Gandiva and Bhimasena with his enormous strength are enough to rout entire Akshauhinis on their own.

‘On the other hand, if you believe that this matter ought to be settled peacefully, also know that the Pandavas will not back away from entering into a treaty with their cousins, and mind half of the kingdom with Duryodhana ruling the other half.

‘My personal thought is that we test the peaceful solution first. Let us send a messenger to the court of Dhritarashtra in order to ascertain what they are thinking.

‘War is tough on Kshatriyas; it is tougher still on commonfolk. If we let our weapons speak when our mouths will suffice, the land will be stricken by famine and drought of the worst kind. Let us not hurry in unsheathing our swords and stringing our bows, therefore.’

Balarama Advises Humility

Balarama rises after Krishna has spoken.

‘Now is scarcely the time for anger and impatience, O Kings of Aryavarta,’ says Balarama. ‘If the valiant sons of Kunti are willing to give up half their kingdom, then the sons of Dhritarashtra will perhaps meet them half-way too.

‘We should all rejoice if this quarrel is settled in this manner, because a battle between the cousins will align all the great kingdoms of the land against one another, and in such a war, there can only be losers.

‘Duryodhana is my disciple. I am confident that he will see reason if the messenger we send to Hastinapur holds his tongue and acts humbly. Let this man not indulge in vain boasting of the prowess of the Pandavas.

‘Let him not incite the passions that rule the prince’s heart. Let him pay respects to Dhritarashtra and the other elders of the Kuru court. Let him sing praises of their virtue and their past accomplishments.

‘Let this messenger not be provoked by any speech that Duhsasana or Karna – those volatile men – might make. He must not refer to the dice game as unfair.

‘He must say that Yudhishthir entered the game on his own and chose the king of Suvala as his opponent. He must insist that all that had been heaped upon the Pandavas was fair and just, because that is what the Kauravas believe.’

All this talk of peace and humility irritates Satyaki, and he stands up to say a few choice words of his own.

Satyaki says ‘War!’

‘It has been said that a man speaks his heart,’ begins Satyaki, his fists closed, standing up on the balls of his feet. ‘You are speaking, O Balarama, in accordance with your nature.

‘The world in my view is divided into two classes of men: brave and cowardly. Upon a single tree you might find branches that bear fruit that those that do not.

‘Similarly, in a single race like ours, there are men like the king of Dwaraka who are hesitant, and those like me who do not think fondly of being cowed down by injustice.

‘I do not condemn your words, O King. No. But I condemn all these kings who have seen it fit to listen to what you say. How can anyone assign the slightest of blame to Yudhishthir for losing the game of dice?

‘The king of Suvala was pitted against him knowing full well the Pandava is unskilled, and it was only done because they could not fight him on the battlefield. How can it be said, then, that this is not an unrighteous act?

‘And what are we scared of, O Balarama? With Krishna, Pradyumna, Dhrishtadyumna and Drupada on our side, with Arjuna and Bhima in our midst, why must we fear those mites that can be crushed under our feet?

‘Let us dispense with these worthless attempts at peace and demand the Pandavas to be reinstated as kings. And if the Kauravas refuse, let us fight them like true Kshatriyas and install Yudhishthir as the king of Indraprastha.’

Drupada Supports Satyaki

Drupada is also on Satyaki’s side, though not with the same amount of passion. ‘I understand King Balarama’s words, and agree with them to a degree,’ he says, ‘but we must remember that the man on the other side is Duryodhana.

‘What is the likelihood that he accepts our peace offering? He will never give up the kingdom that he has been enjoying all these years at the Pandavas’ expense.

‘Dhritarashtra is but a puppet in the hands of Duryodhana. Bhishma will side with Dhritarashtra because of his vow to protect the throne of Hastinapur at all costs.

Drona might have friendly feelings toward the Pandavas, but his love for his son Ashwatthama far outweighs his sense of duty toward a nebulous concept called virtue.

‘He will convince himself that fighting on the side of Duryodhana is the right thing to do. Kripacharya, too, will never disagree with Drona and Ashwatthama.’

‘So my approach would be similar to that of Satyaki. I would make preparations for war right from today.

‘I will send word to Shalya, Bhagadatta, Brihanta, Senavindu, Subahu, Paurava, Dantavakra, Rukmi, Ashada, Vayuvega, and all the tribes that we think will offer us their allegiance.

‘The Nishadas. The Srutayus. The Dridhayus. The Kalingas. Let us assume in our minds that Duryodhana will reject our offering, and start planning right away.’

Krishna Returns to Dwaraka

Krishna replies to Drupada, ‘Your words are worthy of your station, O King. Dwaraka is in a curious position here, because we are equally friendly with the Kauravas and the Pandavas.

So it is indeed preferable to us that a peaceful solution be sought. But of course, if the Dhartarashtras do not welcome our messenger or if they turn them out, then we will have no recourse but to show Duryodhana the consequences of his many sins.

‘We will now return to Dwaraka, Brother Balarama and I, in the company of all the Vrishnis. Summon us once again after the messenger has returned, so that we may meet and discuss what is to be done.

‘For now, let us rejoice at this union of Abhimanyu and Uttara, and leave with pleasant hearts. The time for loathing is not yet upon us.’

With these words, the Vrishnis leave, and Drupada summons his chief priest with instructions to travel to Hastinapur.

The Narayanas

After the (unnamed) priest has been despatched to Hastinapur, Arjuna and Duryodhana set out at the same time to Dwaraka, and they reach the fabled city on the same day.

They seek an audience with Krishna at the same moment, with Duryodhana arriving just a few seconds before Arjuna. Krishna is sleeping at this time, and Duryodhana sits at the head of the bed.

Arjuna, meanwhile, stands at the feet of the Dwaraka prince with his hands joined.

And when Krishna awakes, he first sees Arjuna and greets him, and then sees Duryodhana and asks him for the purpose of his visit. ‘I have come to seek your help in the impending war, O Madhusudana,’ says Duryodhana.

‘And today I came to you first; indeed, it was I who entered this chamber before Arjuna did. So it behoves you to first attend to my request.’

Krishna smiles. ‘You may have come first, Duryodhana, but I saw Arjuna first. It has also been said that if two people equally dear to you approach you for help, you attend to the needs of the younger one first.

‘So Arjuna, I am afraid, is entitled to first choice. But do not fear; I will help you both, and perhaps both of you will leave here getting what you wish.’

Krishna Offers his Army

Krishna continues: ‘There is a large body of cowherds numbering ten crores, called the Narayanas, and they all fight like seasoned warriors in the thick of battle. I offer the services of this entire horde to one of you, whereas I alone will go to the other.

‘But remember that I will not fight in this war; the Kauravas and the Pandavas are equally loved by me. I cannot bring myself to take up arms against any of you.

‘So I will come to the other side as a guide alone, not fighting, merely observing. Arjuna, you get the first pick. Which of the two would you like to have?’

Arjuna does not hesitate even for a moment. ‘I choose you, O Vasudeva,’ he says. And Duryodhana happily accepts the offer of the Narayanas who would actively fight for him.

Duryodhana then goes to Balarama and asks for his support. But the king says, ‘Both Krishna and I have decided that Dwaraka will not take sides in this war, O Prince.

‘If you are to fight, I hope that you do so in accordance with all the rules that have been laid out by generations of kings.’

Duryodhana accepts Balarama’s blessings, and on the way back, meets Kritavarma as well, who gives the Kaurava prince a whole Akshauhini of troops.

Duryodhana heads back to Hastinapur at the head of this force, delighted at the way his trip to Dwaraka panned out.

Arjuna’s Explanation

Later, Krishna asks Arjuna why he chose him instead of his army. ‘I have no doubt that I am capable of vanquishing an army of any size, Vasudeva,’ replies Arjuna.

‘But you are the most illustrious of all men, known and loved all over Aryavarta. Anyone fighting you will only gain disrepute, whereas one who has you by his side will earn a portion of your fame. My brothers and I want wealth, Krishna, but not at the expense of renown.’

‘You have chosen well, my friend,’ says Krishna, ‘as I knew you would. Duryodhana, I think, would have chosen the army even if I had given him first pick.

‘I dare say both of you got what you deserved. Now tell me – in what capacity shall I serve you on the battlefield?’

‘It has been my long-cherished desire, O Madhava,’ says Arjuna, ‘that you guide me through the battle by becoming my charioteer.’

‘So be it,’ says Krishna.

Duryodhana Courts Shalya

The king of Madra, the brother of Madri, Shalya, wishes to fight (naturally) on the side of the Pandavas. But as he sets out from Madra at the head of a small retinue of soldiers and courtiers to Upaplavya, Duryodhana sets up a clever ruse to win him over.

The Kaurava orders that palaces of refreshment be built along the path between Madra and Upaplavya. Each palace is equipped with all the luxuries a king could ask for – sumptuous food, large numbers of servants, alcohol, water to drink and sport in, and so on.

After making the first two stops, Shalya is immensely pleased with these arrangements, and thinking that it is the Pandavas who are behind this, orders one of the servants to bring them out into the open so that he might reward them.

The servant in question tells of this to Duryodhana, and when he presents himself before Shalya, the king is surprised. But he also feels beholden to the Kauravas for this gesture, and says, ‘I must repay you in some way, O Prince. Tell me what you want.’

And Duryodhana answers, ‘I wish that you would become the commander of our army in the upcoming war, Your Majesty. There is nothing else that my heart wishes for.’

Shalya does not like it, but since he has already given his word, he shrugs and says, ‘Well, what else is there to say? My whole Akshauhini of forces will fight on your side, Duryodhana. May victory be yours.’

Shalya the Spy

After this promise is given, Duryodhana leaves for Hastinapur, and Shalya resumes on his journey to Upaplavya. After he is welcomed by the Pandavas and pleasantries have been exchanged, the king tells them about what happened with Duryodhana.

Yudhishthir is not fazed. ‘It is great that you have decided to fight on Duryodhana’s side, O King. But I wonder if I can ask you for a wish of my own.’

‘Of course you can, my son.’

‘Shalya, King of Madra,’ says Yudhishthir. ‘You are often said to be equal unto Krishna in battle. There will come a time in the upcoming war when Arjuna and Karna will be locked in combat.

‘Krishna will be Arjuna’s charioteer. I wish that you contrive to make it happen so that you are Karna’s. And from that position, do what you can to tilt the duel in Arjuna’s favour.’

Shalya gives him his word to do what he can, and he also tells Yudhishthir that during the other days of battle as well, he will see do ‘whatever it takes’ to allow the Pandavas to gain ascendency.

Thus does Duryodhana win the services of a maharatha and his army on paper, but little does he know that the man intends to fight for his enemy while standing on his side.

Pandava Alliances

Here we will see how the Kaurava and Pandava forces stack up against each other. First the Pandavas:

  • Yuyudhana (also called Satyaki) of the Vrishni clan brings one Akshauhini of forces.
  • Kuntibhoja and Shurasena (kings of Kunti and Shurasena respectively) offer one Akshauhini.
  • Dhrishtaketu of the Chedis (the son of Shishupala) pledges one Akshauhini of troops.
  • Jayatsena and Sahadeva, the sons of Jarasandha, come to fight at the head of one Akshauhini.
  • Drupada and Dhrishtadyumna together bring one Akshauhini.
  • Virata lends support to his new family members with one Akshauhini.
  • The Pandyas, the Cholas and some other small tribes all make up one Akshauhini.

In all, on the Pandava side assembles seven Akshauhinis.

It is interesting to note that Jayatsena and Dhrishtaketu choose to fight on the side of their fathers’ killers (Bhima and Krishna respectively), but one can also see this as an act of loyalty for having been given the throne.

Kaurava Alliances

Now the Kaurava side:

  • Bhagadatta offers one Akshauhini of troops to Duryodhana.
  • Shalya, the king of Madra, as we saw from our previous story, gives one Akshauhini, and becomes one of the commanders of the Kuru army while being a Pandava spy.
  • Nila of Mahishmati brings one Akshauhini.
  • Kritavarma lends one Akshauhini of Yadava forces.
  • Jayadratha, the king of Sindhu, arrives to fight at the head of one Akshauhini.
  • Sudakshina of the Kamboja race, along with Yavanas and Sakas, make up one Akshauhini.
  • Vinda and Anuvinda from Avanti bring one Akshauhini.
  • The Kalingas offer one Akshauhini.
  • From Gandhara, with Shakuni as its head, one Akshauhini of troops come to fight.
  • Susharma of Trigarta – he who loses to Virata’s army during the Goharana Parva – also brings one Akshauhini.
  • The Kekayas, comprised of five brothers, bring one Akshauhini.

Thus the Kaurava army consists of eleven Akshauhinis. On top of this is the Narayana army that Krishna has also pledged.

(Some versions of the Mahabharata contend that the cowherds are part of the Akshauhini that Kritavarma brings. But we do not know this for sure.)

With the forces lining up on both sides, the Sainyodyoga Parva ends.