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 Sainya Nirnaya Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
Choosing a Commander
Krishna returns to Upaplavya and gives Yudhishthir a report of his trip to Hastinapur. Yudhishthir immediately gets down to the matter of choosing a commander for his army.
‘The seven akshauhinis are each led by the following warriors,’ says Yudhishthir. ‘They are Drupada, Virata, Dhrishtadyumna, Shikhandi, Satyaki, Chekitana, and Bhimasena.
‘Now tell us, Sahadeva, who among these, in your opinion, should be made leader of the seven so that he will be able to withstand the might of Bhishma and become a worthy commander for your forces.’
Sahadava replies, ‘The mighty king of the Matsyas, Virata, who is endued with great might, is conversant with virtue, is skilled in weapons, and is irresistible in battle, will be a worthy leader for our army, Brother.
‘Without his good grace, we would not have had passed the dangerous fourteenth year of exile without being discovered. So it will be a suitable show of our gratitude for him if we make him the commander.’
Nakula follows up with his own recommendation. ‘He who has experience and wisdom in equal measures, who is well-versed not only with the scriptures but with the ins and outs of governing a Great Kingdom – Drupada.
‘He should become our commander, Brother, because he will be able to withstand the power of Drona and Bhishma both.’
Arjuna is next. ‘I believe it is Dhrishtadyumna who will perform the task best, and who is energetic enough to take on the might of the Kaurava army upon his shoulders. He is destined to kill Drona, and he is powerful enough to stand up to Bhishma’s arrows.
‘He is blessed with lightness of hand and swiftness of foot. He knows the code of warfare as deeply as he knows how to control his own passions. Both from inside and out, O King, he is my choice for commander.’
Bhimasena puts forward the name of Shikhandi. ‘He is the one soldier in our ranks that is destined to kill Bhishma, O King. So he will be my automatic choice as long as the Kaurava forces are led by the grandsire.’
Yudhishthir does not cast a vote himself, and instead defers to Krishna’s judgement.
‘All the men you have named are great in their own way,’ says Madhava. ‘Now we are prepared to fight after exhausting our many efforts in peacemaking. No finger of blame can ever be raised in our direction now.
‘No one can ever say that the Pandavas desired war. But war is what stands at our door now. As for who should command us, I agree with the ambidextrous one that it should be Dhrishtadyumna.’
After the eleven akshauhinisof the Kaurava army are also assembled on the opposite side of the Kurukshetra battlefield, Duryodhana approaches Bhishma with the following words:
‘Grandsire, we have the bigger army. In my opinion, we also have the more heroic army. But even the greatest army on Earth needs a commander. Otherwise it will get defeated like a swarm of ants.
‘I have heard a story that is told of the olden days when a group of Brahmins met with the Haihayas on the battlefield. They had nothing but blades of the kusa grass as weapons, but they were endowed with much spiritual energy.
‘Also, they had representatives from the Vaishya and Sudra orders to fight with. Their army was thus three times larger than that of the Haihayas.
‘And yet, in battle after battle, the Brahmins lost to the Kshatriyas because of one and only one reason: the Kshatriyas fought under the command of one man, whereas the other three orders were disunited and fought according to their own individual whims.
‘Therefore, O Grandsire, I wish that you – with your limitless wisdom and acumen for warfare – lead this army of mine into battle against the Pandavas. If you fight without ruth, indeed our enemy has no chance whatsoever of survival, let alone victory.’
Words of Caution
Bhishma accepts this responsibility, but has a word or two of caution. ‘I will lead your army, Duryodhana,’ he says, ‘as I said I would. I will also fight to the best of my conscious ability.
‘But I love the Pandavas as dearly as I love you. So there may be a corner of my unconscious mind that prevents me from being as merciless as I could be.
‘Also, O Prince, remember that the Pandavas are unlike any foe I have ever encountered. Arjuna is more than a match for me, both in skill and in knowledge of celestial weapons.
‘So I shall not engage with him in battle; instead, I will make sure that I eliminate vast swathes of their army with my weapons, so that in no time at all, they will not have a force to fight with.
‘It is your responsibility, therefore, to keep Arjuna busy while I set about killing ten thousand of their soldiers every day.’
Condition about Karna
Duryodhana is pleased with this suggestion. He raises his arm and declares, ‘I shall do what you command, Grandsire!
‘You are like unto Meru among the mountains, Suparna among the birds, Indra among the gods, Ganga among the rivers, and Kubera among the Yakshas. Lead us into battle, and to victory.’
‘The one other thing,’ Bhishma says, ‘that I wish to place as condition for my fighting, is that Karna does not fight at the same time as I do. He and I never see eye to eye.
‘And I fear that our petty arguments will cause you more problems than if we make it so that he takes to the field only after I am vanquished.’
Before Duryodhana replies, Karna agrees to this proposal. ‘I have taken this vow before, my friend,’ he says, ‘and here I reiterate it. Only after Bhishma is slain will I pick up my bow and ride out to meet Partha.’
This is not the ideal way to start a war – with two of your best warriors falling out – but Duryodhana chooses to make the best of what he has, and anoints Bhishma the commander of his forces.
The Pandavas React
When the Pandavas comes to know that it is Bhishma who is going to lead the fight on the first day, they make some changes to their leadership.
Yudhishthir has a round of consultation with his brothers and with Krishna. Then he appoints Drupada, Virata, Satyaki, Dhrishtadyumna, Dhrishtaketu, Shikhandi and Sahadeva (the Magadha king; not the Pandava) as his seven akshauhinileaders.
(Chekitana and Bhimasena from the original group are replaced by Dhrishtaketu and Sahadeva.)
Dhrishtadyumna remains the supreme commander of the forces, but Yudhishthir requests Arjuna to accompany the prince and to protect him at all costs. Krishna, of course, is given the role of charioteering Falguna.
Yudhishthir also takes it upon himself to give his men a speech about encountering the grandsire in battle. He finds that the mood among his ranks – especially among the regular soldiers – has dipped because of the prospect of facing Bhishma, so he tells them:
‘Bhishma is the best warrior they have, and it is to our advantage that we face him first, when our minds and bodies are unsullied. In order to win this war, we have to get past all the maharathas on the Kaurava side. May it be that we begin with the Gangeya himself.’
Balarama Remains Neutral
That night, Balarama visits the Pandava camp, accompanied by Akrura, Gada, Samva, Uddhava, Pradyumna and other Yadava heroes of their ilk. He is given a grand welcome, and after the formalities are finished, he says, with an eye on his younger brother:
‘The great slaughter of our age is upon us, it seems. I hope that I will get to see you all hale and hearty at the end of this war, in sound bodies.’ He turns his full face to Krishna, then, and addresses him directly.
‘I have told you before that we ought to be neutral in this war, Krishna. Both the Pandavas and the Kauravas are equally dear to us.’
Krishna replies, ‘We are being neutral, Brother. The Yadava army is safely garrisoned in the fortress town of Dwaraka. Only Kritavarma’s forces fight from the Kaurava side, and Satyaki’s from this one.
‘I am present on the battlefield, but I am not going to pick up any weapon save for the horsewhip. I am a mere charioteer, Brother; when has a steward of a car ever influenced the course of a war?’
Balarama shakes his head. ‘I hope that no harm will come upon you. The lord knows that I can do nothing without you by my side. I also do not trust you, Krishna.
‘I get the feeling that you have allied yourself with the Pandavas, and that you will bring about – with your wile ways – the destruction of the Kuru race. I hope that you will have mercy upon Duryodhana and his men; they are our family too.’
Krishna does not reply, but gives his brother an enigmatic smile.
Balarama sighs. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘I do not wish to be here and witness this humungous loss of life. So I am going to retire to the bank of River Saraswati for the duration of the war.’
Saying so, Balarama leaves.
The Offer of Rukmi
About this time, Rukmi, the son of Bhishmaka and the brother of Rukmini (Krishna’s wife), arrives at the Pandava camp, bearing his celestial bow, Vijaya. It is one of the three celestial bows in existence, originally owned by Indra.
(The other two are the Gandiva – which Arjuna receives from Agni – and the Saranga – which Krishna receives while recovering the earrings of Aditi after killing Narakasura.)
Rukmi also has a history of enmity with Krishna. When Rukmini is abducted by Govinda and carried away by force, Rukmi takes an oath that he will never rest until he has vanquished the kidnapper of his sister.
In any case, at the time of his arrival at the Pandava camp, his relationship with Krishna seems to have mellowed. He addresses Arjuna and says:
‘O Pandava, I am here to render you assistance during this battle. If the prospect of facing the eleven akshauhinis of Duryodhana scares you, let me ride by your side, O Falguna. I will slay any hero that you point to, and I shall see to it that the very earth becomes yours.’
Arjuna smiles at the manner in which the offer is made. ‘Born in the race of Kuru, being the son of Pandu, with Vasudeva on my side, with Drona as my preceptor, and holding in my hand the divine bow called Gandiva, O King, how can I claim to be afraid?
‘When I fought with the entire Kaurava army during the goharana, who was there to assist me? When I defeated the Gandharva army that captured Duryodhana, did I not do it alone?
‘When I defeated the Nivatakavachas and the Kalakeyas in heaven, who was there by my side? When the gods and the Danavas banded together and defended the forest of Khandava, who was my ally?
‘You have seemingly chosen your words so as to degrade me. So I will give you my answer. I do not need any assistance whatsoever, nor am I afraid of my enemies. You may choose to stay or go as you please.’
Rukmi then makes the same haughty offer to Duryodhana, who also rejects him.
It is thus that Balarama and Rukmi withdraw from the battle.
With this ends the Sainya Nirnaya Parva.