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 Yanasandhi Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
Bhishma Prescribes Caution
In the morning, the Kaurava heroes assemble in the hall. Sanjaya relays the message he has carried from Yudhishthir, adding in personal announcements of bloodlust from Arjuna and Bhima for good measure.
‘The Pandavas have told me, O King,’ he says, ‘that they will be satisfied if you could give them as few as five villages. That much is enough to prevent this coming war.’
Bhishma gets up in his seat and addresses Dhritarashtra. ‘Your Majesty,’ he says, ‘if I am allowed to do so, I will narrate a story of Brihaspati and Indra once visiting Brahma.
‘As a host of celestial beings gathered around the Creator, Indra noticed that two men had left the palace without so much as glancing at them all.
‘Indra asked Brahma who they were, and the Grandsire replied that they were Nara and Narayana, the sages who lived in the abode of Brahman, in a state higher than that occupied by the gods.’
‘It is with the aid of these two men that Indra later vanquished the Daityas and the Danavas, O King. Our Arjuna is no more than an incarnation of Nara. Do we need any more evidence of this fact?
‘Witness how he subjugated the entire floating mountain city of Hiranyapura. Remember how he slew sixty thousand Nivatakavachas on his own.
‘Do you not recall how he gained the use and knowledge of all celestial weapons that he will no doubt put to use in this battle? And of Narayana – who can say anything?
‘With Vasudeva steering Arjuna in the thick of battle, with the two of them allied fighting on the same side, who among us can withstand their unbearable prowess?
Karna rises in anger at these words and stops Bhishma from speaking further. ‘Grandsire, I have adopted the rules of the Kshatriya order without relinquishing those of my own. Why, then, do you continue to prod me thus with your words?
‘Hereby I promise that I will slay all the Pandavas in battle if given a chance. The wise cannot make peace with those who are less powerful; the Kurus must not give the Pandavas anything at all.’
Bhishma does not reply to Karna directly, but asks Dhritarashtra, ‘I have heard this man boast of the same thing innumerable times. But when in the past has he ever held his own in the field of battle?
‘On three past occasions has he fled from fighting the Pandavas – at Draupadi’s groom-choosing, when Duryodhana was abducted by Gandharvas, and during the Goharana in Matsya.
‘On the other hand, how many instances of the Pandavas’ valour have we experienced? This is nothing but an empty vessel, O King. Do not be influenced by it.’
Dronacharya also supports Bhishma in the suggestion. ‘Arjuna was the best bowman in the world even before the exile,’ he says. ‘Now he is capable of killing us all on his own.
‘Five villages – that is nothing, Your Majesty. Give them what they seek, and let peace reign upon this land. How will the loss of five villages dent your kingdom, if the exchange is prevention of war?’
Dhritarashtra does not answer the Kuru elders, but he asks Sanjaya to describe the heroes that are fighting on the Pandava side. Sanjaya gives the following account.
Heroes on the Pandava Side
When Dhritarashtra asks Sanjaya to describe the heroes that are going to fight with Yudhishthir, the latter first faints. After he is revived, he tells the king:
‘Thinking of the great men who have assembled on the Pandava camp has made my eyes swirl, Your Majesty. Please forgive me.’
Then he sets about his task. ‘Dhrishtadyumna, the son of Drupada, who has never made an enemy, who is the very authority in matters of religion and warfare – with that mighty warrior on their side, the Pandavas intend to fight you.
‘She who lived in the days of yore as the daughter of the king of Kasi, she who had been spurned by Vichitraveerya, who had performed severe penances just to be able to bring about the destruction of Bhishma…
‘She who took her birth as the daughter of Drupada and then accidentally became a man, who is conversant with the merits and demerits of both the genders, that invincible prince of Panchala who now goes by the name of Shikhandi – with him on their side will the Pandavas fight you.
‘The high-souled sons of Draupadi, tender in age but invincible in battle, are now training themselves to fight as we speak, Your Highness.
‘What more, in addition, needs to be said of Abhimanyu, the son of Subhadra and Arjuna, who has been fostered in the court of Dwaraka all these years, and who has imbibed knowledge from Krishna, Balarama and Pradyumna?’
But at this point, Duryodhana gets up and brushes away his father’s fear in the following fashion.
‘Five villages?’ says Duryodhana. ‘If the Pandavas are as powerful as you seem to think, Father, why do they then ask for just five villages? We have eleven Akshauhinis on our side, and they have but seven.
‘Brihaspati has once said that an enemy whose army is weaker than yours by a third or more ought to be fought, because the odds of victory are overwhelmingly in your favour.
‘Divinity is not the sole property of the Pandavas alone, Father. In our own ranks we have Bhishma, who is the son of Ganga, the celestial river. And what of Dronacharya, who has taken birth in a vessel, and Kripacharya, who was born on a clump of heath?
‘These three men have fathers who are fit to be gods, and on the field of battle, there is none who can face them. Indeed, is it not these three men who have taught Arjuna and Bhimasena everything they know? Why, then, do we fear those two brothers?
‘When the Pandavas first went on their exile and their allies went to visit them, O King, I was besotted with fear too, and I asked the grandsire whether they will one day become strong enough to defeat us.
‘And it was he who allayed my doubts. Today I see him concerned for the future, and it is my turn now to unruffle his feathers.
‘Bhurishrava. Somadatta. Vinda and Anuvinda. Durmukha. Purumitra. Vikarna. The entire clan of Samshaptaka warriors. The entire Narayana force belonging to Krishna. As for Vasudeva himself, he has vowed not to fight in this battle.
‘You say that we must fight his wisdom and his words, but those two attributes are helpful when a king sits in a hall surrounded by courtiers, O Sanjaya, not when he is mounted on a chariot with weapons flying through the air thick and fast.’
So Duryodhana makes it clear that he does not share Dhritarashtra’s apprehension.
A Description of Strategy
‘The leadership of the Pandava army has been given to Dhrishtadyumna,’ says Sanjaya. ‘Bhishma, the son of Shantanu, has been given to Shikhandi as his share. King Virata with his entire Matsyan army will support the prince of Panchala in his quest.
‘Shalya, the mighty king of Madra, has been assigned to Yudhishthir, though there were some murmurs that this is an ill-matched battle.
(There might have been a strategic reason for Yudhishthir accepting the responsibility of killing Shalya, because the Pandavas know that Shalya is a spy and should not be killed.)
‘Duryodhana and his ninety nine brothers have been assigned to Bhimasena, while Karna and Jayadratha have been given to Arjuna. The third Pandava also assumed the responsibility of killing the Samshaptakas, who have been called invincible.
‘Abhimanyu has been given the responsibility of killing all the sons of Duryodhana and Duhsasana, and also King Brihadvala. The sons of Draupadi will support Dhrishtadyumna in his advance against Dronacharya.
‘Dhrishtadyumna has sent a warning to the Kaurava princes in his capacity as the commander of the Pandava army, my lord. In my presence he gave his troops a rousing speech.
‘And in sending me away, he asked me to remind you that no one in the world can withstand the onslaught of arrows unleashed by the Gandiva. So he has said that the best course of action available to us is to accede to their demands and bend our minds to peace.’
But Duryodhana is adamant that his army is just as powerful – if not more so – than what the Pandavas have assembled.
Now Karna rises and speaks to the assembly. ‘My friend Duryodhana,’ says Karna, addressing the Kaurava prince. ‘Even if all of these men desert you, I will be on your side.
‘From Parashurama I have obtained the Brahmastra, and though the sage had cursed me that the incantation will fail me when I most need it, I have appeased him with my personal bravery, and the great weapon still lies in my quiver, unused.
‘Make me the leader of your forces and I will make sure that within a twinkling of an eye, I will slay all the tribes of the earth that have pledged allegiance to Yudhishthir.’
Bhishma, as usual, is not one to let Karna’s words pass without comment. ‘What are you saying, Karna?’ he says. ‘Your intellect is clouded by the approach of this hour of battle.
‘Do you not realize that if the chief of battle is slain, the life of Dhritarashtra himself is put at risk? If we make you the General and if you were to fail us, what will become of Duryodhana, whom you purport to protect at all times.
‘The weapon you have procured from Indra will, I assure you, be reduced to dust by one strike by the discus of Krishna, O Karna.
‘And the Brahmastra that you so openly brag about will be destroyed by Arjuna, for he now has an array of weapons that are much more powerful than even the Brahmastra.’
This angers Karna to the point of unreason. ‘I understand the power of Vasudeva and Arjuna. But I do not deserve to be treated this way here in open court. Let Bhishma the grandsire listen to the consequences of his harsh speech.
‘I hereby declare that I am going to lay down my weapons. I will not fight until Bhishma has been slain in battle, and only then will the earth behold my prowess on the field of war.’
As Karna leaves in a huff, Bhishma laughs out loud and addresses Duryodhana. ‘How well does the Sutaputra keep his promise, O Prince.
‘How many times have we heard him declare that he will kill the Pandavas, that he will protect you at all costs, that he will do this and that. But now he has relinquished his weapons. How will he fulfil all his tall promises?
‘The world knows that on the very day Karna obtained the Brahmastra from Parashurama by deceitful means, he lost whatever virtue and asceticism he may have accumulated in his life.
‘Now you have all seen that the stripes on this tiger are mere shadows. Let him go. We will be fine without him!’
As a result of this silly fight with Bhishma, Karna ends up sitting out the war for the first ten days, entering the fray only after the son of Ganga is felled by Arjuna’s arrows.
The Sudarshana Chakra
There is some more stubborn refusal from Duryodhana, after which Dhritarashtra comes back to Sanjaya and asks him to tell them more about his visit to the Pandava camp.
(Gandhari and Vyasa join them for the discussion at this point, and the assembly of kings is dispersed.) ‘You say you have visited Krishna and Arjuna as well in their private quarters, Sanjaya,’ says the king.
‘Tell us what you learned about them, and tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of our enemies.’
‘The difficulty in ascertaining the strengths of the Pandavas correctly, O King,’ replies Sanjaya, ‘is the invisible and illusory Sudarshana Chakra, the discus of Krishna.
It is said that this weapon occupies a full five cubits of space in diameter, capable of being hurled at any foe by the wielder. It is with the support of this weapon, indeed, that Krishna vanquished without effort great kings like Naraka, Kamsa, Samvara and Shishupala.
‘It is said that this discus is forever hovering in the air, invisible to all, ready to be plucked out by Vasudeva in the shortest instant.
‘We cannot be fooled into believing, O King, that Krishna will not fight if the Pandavas are on the brink of defeat. What is a vow, alas, when faced with death and destruction?
‘So any analysis of the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the two armies ought to take this one big factor into account.’
Praise for Krishna
Sanjaya then turns from talking of the Sudarshana Chakra to Krishna himself.
‘Be that as it may,’ he says, ‘I have heard that if you place Krishna on one side and the whole universe on the other, even then Krishna will outweigh his opposition.
‘Indeed, it is impossible to place Madhusudana on one side and the universe on the other, because after all, he is the universe.
‘He causes the wheel of time to rotate endlessly, and as if in sport, he guides the earth, the firmament, and the rest of the worlds along their celestial paths.
‘He intends to use the Pandavas as indirect means to punish your sons for their wrongdoings, and thereby rid the world of men of all the wickedness that has come to haunt it.’
This narration of Sanjaya brings to an end the Yanasandhi Parva, and we move into the Bhagavatyana Parva.