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 Sanjayayana Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
While preparations commence on both sides for battle, Drupada sends a priest of his to Hastinapur with an entreaty for peace. This man is welcomed with all due respect in the court of Dhritarashtra, and after accepting his welcome, he addresses the Kuru elders thus:
‘Dhritarashtra and Pandu are two sons born of the same father, and therefore they are both equally deserving of a share in the ancestral property.
‘The sons of Dhritarashtra, however, have seen it fit to take all that comes their way for themselves, and to prevent the Pandavas from procuring their rightful half.
‘Aided by the king of Gandhara, Duryodhana deceitfully won Indraprastha from the sons of Kunti and sent them into exile. Those virtuous men suffered all these ignominies with dignity, but now even their stipulated time of banishment has run out.
‘Let me be clear, O Lords of the Kuru court! The Pandavas do not desire war. They merely wish to be given their half of the kingdom in accordance with the laws of natural justice.
‘But in case you do not wish to do so, I have been instructed to inform you that seven Akshauhinis have assembled on Yudhishthir’s side, prepared to fight. That army includes warriors who are each as strong as a thousand men, like Yuyudhana and Bhimasena.
‘Indeed, Vibhatsu himself is equal unto an army. So even though you have eleven Akshauhinis on your side, it might not be enough. And to remind everyone here, Krishna of Dwaraka has resolved to guide the Pandavas.
‘Who here thinks in their right mind that such an army can be defeated? So please heed my words, and take the wise course of action.’
Bhishma responds to the Brahmin’s words with delight. ‘It is indeed good to know that the sons of Pandu do not desire to fight. What good can come out of weapons clashing with one another?
‘And you are right about Arjuna’s valour; he is as powerful as Indra himself, and Yudhishthir – who can fault his righteous ways?’
Karna stands up and interrupts this posturing. ‘Let us not sing the Pandavas’ praises yet again, Grandsire,’ he says. Then he turns to the priest. ‘Why do you repeat a tale that everyone knows, O Messenger? To whose benefit?
‘The Pandavas have finished their period of exile. If they wish to live like noblemen in Duryodhana’s court, they are welcome. But to ask for kingship is beyond their ken.
‘Scripture after scripture has repeatedly assured us that only the eldest son of the king deserves to be one. Therefore it is right that King Dhritarashtra gets control over the whole dominion of Vichitraveerya, and that Duryodhana becomes sole emperor after him.
‘If, on the other hand, the Pandavas insist on their demand for half the kingdom, let us meet on the battlefield. Our army consists of men who are equal unto a thousand men too, lest you forget.’
Sanjaya Goes to Upaplavya
Bhishma is enraged at Karna’s empty threats. ‘Have you forgotten the many times that Arjuna single-handedly defeated you in battle, Radheya?
‘Do you not remember how he routed six maharathas and their entire armies when we made a bid to steal Virata’s cattle? This is not a warning that this Brahmin brings but an opportunity – an opportunity to save our lives!’
Dhritarashtra intervenes at this point. ‘Let us not hasten into this decision, Grandsire, and may the king of Anga know his place! Reclaim your seats, O Heroes, and let me speak.
‘O Brahmin, please take as much pleasure in our hospitality as you wish, and then return to the Pandava camp. Tell them that I shall send Sanjaya to them shortly, with my decision and my blessings.’
The priest thus returns to Upaplavya on that very day, and Dhritarashtra summons Sanjaya to the council hall in order to weigh the different options that stand in front of them.
Sanjaya is received by the Pandavas with much respect. After presenting salutations to all the attending members in turn, and after Yudhishthir has asked about the welfare of everyone back home, they sit down to talk business.
‘All the elders you have asked about are in good health, Yudhishthir,’ says Sanjaya. ‘Like in any place, Dhritarashtra’s court has both sinful and virtuous men, as you know.
‘The vast majority of men that sit in council with the blind king are partial to the Pandavas, and they even love you. Bhishma is forever singing your praises, and Drona is never too far from a kind word for Falguna.
‘Kripacharya, Vidura, Yuyutsu and others also think well of you. Is it right, then, O King, that you should seek to fight these well-wishers?
‘Know that I speak out of desire to do good to the Kuru race. Has it not been said in our scriptures, Your Majesty, that he is blessed who serves the cause of his kinsmen?
‘By defeating and destroying your relatives, do you hope to see happiness or calm in your subsequent life? It will be equivalent to death, this life shorn of loved ones.
‘Why must the Pandavas – who I know are cognizant of all tenets of virtue – perform these unrighteous acts of violence? Why do you not content yourself with peace?’
Yudhishthir’s First Reply
Yudhishthir replies, ‘Sanjaya, when have you heard from my lips words that betray a love for war? It is Duryodhana and Karna that are always speaking of it.
‘The Pandavas are desirous of happiness, but only that happiness that comes by their way on the path of virtue. Whatever is rightfully ours, we seek. We do not covet the possessions of others, nor do we believe in feeding the flames of desire in wanton fashion.
‘But Duryodhana has coveted that which is ours, and has snatched from our hands what belonged to us. What is unfair about taking it back?
‘Indeed, like a man who casts a lighted fire into the woods on a spring afternoon has to contend with a forest fire, Duryodhana will receive from others the same behaviour he displays toward them. That is the natural law of life.
‘Also, you know as well as anyone the miseries we have suffered. Out of respect for you and for all the elders of King Dhritarashtra’s court, we will forgive them all. I will seek peace as you wish, but only on the condition that Indraprastha is returned to me.’
Appeal to Dharma
Sanjaya, unwilling to give up in his effort just yet, brings up a philosophical angle to the argument. ‘You are among the most virtuous of men, Yudhishthir,’ he says.
‘You will know, therefore, as well as I that life is transient. It can end at any moment. Why tempt fate by taking up arms when you can relinquish violence and live comfortably? Suppose the Kurus refuse to give you Indraprastha, does it mean that you have to fight?
‘You have heard, no doubt, Yudhishthir, that wrath is the biggest enemy of a man. He who conquers wrath ascends to the highest regions of heaven. Knowing this, why do you allow yourself to be consumed by it?
‘Kingdom or not, continue on the path that you have set out on twelve years ago, O King, and see to it that you adhere to the tenets of wisdom: restraint, peace and bliss.
‘As for Duryodhana, whatever wealth he is enjoying today is but a small moment of eternity. He will answer to a higher judge, and will suffer punishments for all the sins he has committed.
‘Why must you appoint yourself the arbiter of justice when the gods above see and hear everything that happens on this world?’
This point is a logical one. Throughout his years in the forest, Yudhishthir has learnt that forgiveness and refraining from violence are two of the most important attributes of virtue.
But after he finishes his exile, he prepares himself for war. Is this not a contradiction? Will he be better served, perhaps, by letting Indraprastha remain in Duryodhana’s hands and building for himself a mightier kingdom with the help of his allies?
The core of Yudhishthir’s response is once again that old chestnut: virtue and vice are not easily defined, especially not during the onset of the Kali Yuga.
‘I have heard that as the epochs reach the end of their cycle, O Sanjaya,’ he says, ‘that virtue and vice become interchanged. The bad gets to be called good, and all good men suffer untold calamities that were once the sole preserve of the evil.
‘In these times, it becomes necessary that virtuous men take recourse in deeds that have traditionally been called bad. While it is true that a man must never swerve from his duty, the nature of his duty changes during times of distress.
‘When his life is threatened, a man cannot be blamed for desiring other means by which his duties can be performed.
‘I have heard of numerous sages who, acting against the dictates of Brahminhood, have placed curses on innocent men, united lustfully with young women, and fathered illegitimate children for whom they did not care.
‘If the Creator allows them to perform these deeds in accordance with the divine plan, and during times of suffering, then I insist the desire for war to win back what is mine is in fact born out virtue. Not vice.
‘Indeed, if I were to accept Duryodhana’s various sins and live under the protection of the Vrishnis or the Matsyas as you suggest, then I will be spurning the dictates of my order, and my duties as a householder, husband and brother will remain unfulfilled.’
Yudhishthir then passes the mantle onto Krishna.
Krishna gets up and speaks to the council, addressing Sanjaya directly. ‘My desire has always been the well-being of the sons of Pandu. At the same time, I have always wished prosperity for King Dhritarashtra and his sons.
‘The Kuru Empire sits at the heart of Aryavarta, and a strong ruler at the throne in Hastinapur automatically means that our entire land remains healthy.
‘But, Sanjaya, you speak of peace. And I ask you: peace at what cost? Assume that the Pandavas take your advice and live in Dwaraka, as our esteemed guests. Assume that they begin to build their own kingdom upon a wasteland, as you suggest.
‘What if Duryodhana marches his army against them in a bid to snatch that city too? Must the Pandavas flee again in peace and let their enemy enjoy their possessions?
‘As for your claims of what brings success, wise men have held different opinions on the subject. Some say that success comes to those who work dutifully.
‘Others say that action should be shunned and one must only observe, seeking salvation by furthering one’s knowledge. But I remind you of this fact: no matter how much knowledge I possess of edible things, my hunger is not appeased until I eat them.’
Action at the Root
Krishna continues: ‘Action is at the root of all human happiness, Sanjaya. A thirsty man drinks water and thus conquers his thirst. It is by the virtue of work that the gods flourish.
‘Surya makes the journey across the skies every single day without fail. Soma passes through the months, changing shape as he has been commanded. Fire burns.
‘Mother Earth works by carrying the weight of rivers and mountains on her shoulders. Indra pours down rain. Brihaspati performs severe austerities to maintain his position as Chief Preceptor.
‘All the other races – Gandharvas, Kinnaras, Yakshas, Rakshasas – have attained their current positions because of work. All the great kings in the world of men who have attained great fame have done so because of their actions, not because of their inaction.
‘And yet, O Sanjaya, you prescribe inaction to Yudhishthir and his brothers under the pretext that they might die in the process of performing their duty.’
A Kshatriya’s Duty
Krishna continues: ‘You must pay heed to what has been ordained for the four orders, Sanjaya. A Brahmin should study, offer sacrifices, practice charity, and make excursions to the holy places of Earth.
‘He should teach, officiate in sacrifices offered by others worthy of such help, and accept gifts from kings who are generous and kind.
‘A Kshatriya is tasked with ruling people and protecting them. He must ensure that all injunctions of the law are met. He must also practice charity because he will be blessed with much wealth.
‘He must learn from the Brahmins the tenets of the Vedas, and be well-versed in the dictates of spirituality. But he must also live the life of a householder, taking a wife, begetting sons, and immersing himself in worldly matters of the state.
‘A Kshatriya must be both a philosopher and a pragmatist.
‘A Vaishya will procure for himself an education with which he will earn wealth. He will do this by means of commerce, agriculture, cattle-tending and other such means.
‘A Sudra does not study. He serves Brahmins and Kshatriyas. He is not allowed to perform sacrifices, and he is required to be forever diligent about doing things that are good to him and those surrounding him.’
The Existence of War
‘Now let me educate you, O Sanjaya,’ says Krishna, ‘further about the duties of a king. A king’s primary duty is to protect all the people that live in his dominion.
‘He should be impartial, and must live a life surrounded by sensual pleasures without succumbing to their temptations. But for many kings, this proves to be impossible.
‘When strength, wealth and status are given to a man, it corrupts him. Consumed by wrath and by avarice, these kings then turn covetous of others’ wealth, and use force to get what they want.
‘This is the reason for the existence of war, Sanjaya, and why kings train themselves in the science of arms and weapons. Indeed, if no man is ever covetous of what is not his, what need have we to maintain such large numbers of soldiers?
‘But a king cannot survive merely on thoughts of an elusive state; he must contend with what is. That is why he commissions the forging of armours and weapons; that is why he becomes involved in pitiful matters such as killing and maiming.’
Krishna concludes his monologue by bringing the council’s attention to the happenings at the game of dice.
Elders of the Court
Now, Krishna reminds Sanjaya of what had happened during dice game at Hastinapur. ‘The elders of the Kuru court – that today speak of peace and virtue – did not intervene all those years ago when Draupadi was dragged into the court by Duhsasana.
‘If Dhritarashtra had prevented the indignity that was heaped on Panchali on that day, I would have appreciated his stature as king. But he chose to just sit and let things happen as they would.
‘Apart from Vidura and Vikarna, no one sitting among the great kings in that assembly thought it fit to censure Duryodhana for the vile things he did to Draupadi.
‘I do not recall you either, Sanjaya, speaking up for virtue then. Pray tell me, which verse in the Vedas was Duryodhana following when he ordered for Draupadi’s clothes to be removed in full sight of strangers?
‘And what did Karna say? He said that Panchali ought to give up her husbands, did he not? He said that she must choose for a husband one of the many “great” kings in attendance at that hall.
‘Where did your great sense of peace reside in that moment, Sanjaya? If you had stood up on that day and asked these same questions of your blind king, perhaps today we would not be sitting here.’
A Tree of Evil
Krishna continues: ‘Remember, Sanjaya, that Duryodhana is a big tree of evil. Karna is its trunk. Shakuni is its branches, and Duhsasana is its fruits and flowers. Dhritarashtra is the root which gave birth to this tree, and which holds it in place.
‘Whereas on this side, Yudhishthir is a tree of virtue. Arjuna is his trunk, Bhimasena his branches, and the sons of Madri are the tree’s blossoms. The roots of this tree are the virtuous men of the world, including me.
‘Dhritarashtra and his sons are like a forest, Sanjaya, and the sons of Pandu are tigers. Do not drive away the tigers from the forest; and do not cut down the forest for the sake of killing the tigers.
‘The forest needs the tigers, and so do the tigers need the forest in return for their protection.
‘The Dhartarashtras are creepers while the Pandavas are Sala trees. A creeper can never flourish without the support of a Sala tree. Recall that the Pandavas are still eager to serve Dhritarashtra and wait upon him.
‘But if the creeper desires to soar to the sky on its own, it is only a matter of time before it falls to the ground.’
Krishna now announces to Sanjaya that he will come to Hastinapur soon. ‘I shall come to Hastinapur, O Sanjaya, in order to tell your wise king about virtue. Let us see if he has a mind to listen, and if he can find the courage to stymie his eldest son.
‘I hope that he does. But if not, I am afraid that it must be settled by war, with the forces of good on one side and the forces of evil on the other. Let us leave it to destiny to decide who deserves to win.’
At the end of this speech, Yudhishthir once again affirms his stance – either give Indraprastha over or fight – and sends Sanjaya back to Hastinapur.
With this, the Sanjayayana Parva comes to an end.