The Udyoga Parva of the Mahabharata begins with the wedding of Abhimanyu and Uttara in Upaplavya, the capital city of Virata’s Matsya. It ends with the Pandava and Kaurava armies lining up against each other in Kurukshetra.
And here it is! From the earliest peace talks to the division of Anarta, from Krishna’s proposal to Karna’s rejection of it, we have it all. Enjoy!
Meeting at Abhimanyu’s Wedding
The Udyoga Parva begins at Abhimanyu’s wedding, where the Yadavas and Panchalas get together with the Pandavas in the palace of Virata to chalk out future strategy.
Plenty of people say plenty of things, but here’s a quick summary of what goes down:
- Balarama is the first to speak on behalf of the Yadavas, and he expresses hope that Duryodhana will see reason. He advises Yudhishthir to put anger to one side and opt for peaceful conciliation instead.
- Satyaki (also called Yuyudhana), one of the chief Yadava kings, takes umbrage at this speech by Balarama, and asserts that the Pandavas should go on the offensive and send Duryodhana a missive that goes: ‘Give us back our kingdom, or else!’
- Drupada, speaking on behalf of Panchala’s interests, agrees with Satyaki.
- Krishna, responding to Drupada, says, ‘I agree with you on principle, O King. But Dwaraka is friendly and is related to both the Kauravas and the Pandavas. So it is our view that we attempt to make peace between the two parties first.
After this, the Yadavas leave for Dwaraka, and Drupada sends a priest of his to begin negotiations with Duryodhana. The discussions at Abhimanyu’s wedding conclude with the main stakeholders making their views heard.
Anarta is the united kingdom of the Yadavas that Balarama rules from Dwaraka. When the prospect of war arises between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, a dilemma that Balarama faces is on which side to fight.
In order to arrive at an understanding on this, Arjuna and Duryodhana set out separately to meet with Krishna (this happens a short while after Abhimanyu’s wedding), and both of them reach Dwaraka at the same time.
In fact, they time their visit so perfectly that Duryodhana arrives just a few minutes before Arjuna does. Krishna is sleeping in his bedchamber, and they’re both shown in.
As Arjuna steps in, he sees Duryodhana sitting by Krishna’s bed, near the head. Arjuna waits by the feet, directly in Krishna’s line of sight.
When Krishna awakes, he makes Anarta’s position very clear. Officially, Anarta is sitting out the Mahabharata war.
‘But,’ he says, ‘I am personally not taking a neutral stance. My entire Narayana Sena will fight with me. But because I love both of you equally, I will be on one side – unarmed, without picking up a weapon – and my army will be on the other. Which one of you wants what?’
The choice is given – perhaps unfairly – to Arjuna, who picks Krishna for the Pandava side. Duryodhana is momentarily miffed that Arjuna may pick the army, but he is soon gladdened that he has ended up with the better deal.
In addition to this, Krishna arranges for the rest of the Yadava tribes (those who wish to fight) to be divided equally between the two parties. On one side is Kritavarma, who fights with one division alongside Duryodhana. On the other is Yuyudhana, who takes up arms with the Pandavas.
Shalya the Spy
Perhaps the most consequential of the many alliances that form during the Udyoga Parva is that of Shalya.
Shalya is the king of Madra, and the brother of Madri. When news of the war breaks out, he decides that he will naturally fight on the side of the Pandavas. But on the way to Upaplavya (the capital of Matsya), he is waylaid by Duryodhana, who sets up a number of refreshment halls just for the sake of Shalya.
Shalya is so enraptured by the hospitality that he gives Duryodhana a boon, and the Kaurava promptly asks, ‘Fight for us!’
However, on Shalya’s arrival at Upaplavya, and after the incident has been told to Yudhishthir, the son of Kunti thinks it over and figures out a way to make this work in their favour.
‘There will come a time in the upcoming war, King Shalya,’ says Yudhishthir, ‘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 Arjuna’s way.’
Shalya agrees, and in due course of time (though we’re getting ahead of ourselves), he becomes Karna’s charioteer and sees to it that Arjuna emerges victorious in that final battle.
The Son of Twashtri
Shalya tells Yudhishthir this story to console him about his many trials.
Twashtri is one of the many forms of Agni, though he is also often associated with Vishwakarma, and sometimes with the Prajapati himself. He once creates from the power of his spirituality a son who has three heads. This boy reads the Vedas with one mouth, drinks wine with another, and looked to swallow the cardinal points of the sky with the third.
Now the young sage has a boon that he cannot be killed by any god, so Indra devises a plan to vanquish his potential enemy.
He approaches a carpenter with an axe mounted on his shoulder, and says, ‘Please do this at my behest, O Human. Chop off the heads of this vile being with your axe.’
‘His head and shoulders are too broad to be cut by the blade of my tool,’ replies the carpenter. ‘Also, I do not wish the sin of killing a Brahmin to cling to me. Who are you, O stranger? And why do you wish to perform this unholy act?’
‘I am forced by fate to protect my dominions,’ Indra says. ‘As for the sin that will no doubt follow me as a result of this deed, I will perform rigorous austerities to get rid of it. I am Indra, the king of gods. I shall cast a spell on your axe so that it becomes as strong as the vajrayudha. Chop off the heads of this dead body right now.’
Agni is furious at the death of his son, and creates a being called Vritra with the express intention of killing Indra.
Vritra has a boon that ‘he cannot be slain by what is wet or what is dry, by stone or by wood, by a melee weapon or by a ranged missile, during day or at night’.
In the battles that follow, Vritra defeats Indra several times, and when the gods are fed up of the constant violence, they go to Vishnu who gives them a way out:
‘Go where he is residing and adopt a conciliatory policy with him,’ says Vishnu. ‘Speak to him in sweet words, and make peace with him. I shall take my invisible form and enter the vajrayudha, lying in wait for the right moment. When it arrives, I assure you that Vritra will die.’
For a while, then, peace reigns in the heavens, but Indra continues to stay ill at ease, searching for a loophole in Vritra’s boon. One day, when the Asura is sitting on the coast of a sea, in the evening, just as day is turning into night, Indra spots a mass of froth floating on the water. ‘This is neither wet nor dry,’ he says to himself. ‘And it is not a weapon, nor is it made of stone or wood. And the time is just right too.’
And when the mass of froth strikes Vritra, because it is imbued by the power of the thunderbolt and the power of Vishnu, it kills him on the spot.
Here is a quick and dirty guide to how the forces stack up on the Pandava side for the Mahabharata war:
- 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.
This alliance could also be a condition on which they had been made kings.
Here is how the Kauravas assemble their troops:
- 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 Kambojha 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 gives Duryodhana, but I tend to favour the narrative that they are separate forces.)
A Summary of Peace Talks
A number of messages fly between the Pandavas and Kauravas before the Mahabharata war begins. Just because both sides have assembled their respective armies does not mean that the war is a foregone conclusion.
Indeed, it may be that the act of gathering your supporters is just a signal that you’re sending the other party. It is to aid you in negotiation.
Here is a summary of the various messengers that travel to and fro between the cousins in an attempt to broker peace.
- Drupada’s priest, who is sent to Hastinapur soon after Abhimanyu’s wedding, tells Dhritarashtra that the Pandavas are happy to settle for half the kingdom. Bhishma is delighted by this, but Karna scoffs at the suggestion. Dhritarashtra requests Drupada’s priest for some time, after which he will send Sanjaya to Upaplavya.
- On Sanjaya’s visit, the messenger tries in various ways to convince Yudhishthir that it is right to give up fighting. Yudhishthir remains firm and replies that the only two options for the Kauravas are (a) return Indraprastha, or (b) go to war.
- Sanjaya returns to the court of Hastinapur and gives Dhritarashtra a detailed description of the army that is preparing to fight for the Pandavas. He does this in the hope that it will scare Duryodhana into submission, but it has the opposite effect.
- During this time, Vidura and Bhishma are continually trying to dissuade Dhritarashtra from this path of destruction. But Dhritarashtra refuses to listen.
- Finally, Krishna travels to Hastinapur for one last attempt at peacemaking. On this trip he shows the Vishwaroopa in Dhritarashtra’s court, to convince them that the master of the universe himself is on the Pandavas’ side.
But of course, everything fails.
Krishna’s Proposal for Karna
After Krishna’s mission at Hastinapur fails, he takes a punt at crippling Duryodhana (and of course, protecting Arjuna) by telling Karna the truth about his birth.
Taking him to the outskirts of the city in his own chariot, Krishna tells Karna, ‘‘You have studied the scriptures as deeply as I have, O Vasusena. You will know, therefore, that there are two kinds of sons that a maiden might have. One is called the Sahoda, who are the sons born to her fathered by her husband.
‘The other kind is called the Kanina, children born to her of other men from before her marriage. On both occasions, the sons are considered morally to be the children of the maiden’s wedded husband.’
‘Why do you tell me all this, Krishna?’ asks Karna.
‘I do so because you are one of the kanina sons of Kunti, O Karna, and by the declaration of the scriptures, you are also the moral heir to Pandu.’
Krishna goes on to make Karna a long list of promises if he forsakes Duryodhana:
- He will be made the king of Indraprastha ahead of Yudhishthir, as is his right as the ‘oldest son of Pandu’.
- Yudhishthir and his five brothers will forever serve at Karna’s feet for the rest of their lives. It is Karna’s chariot that will stand ahead of all the others. He will be the overlord of the earth.
- Draupadi will be wedded to him and will bear his son. She will be his queen, not Yudhishthir’s.
- Balarama and Krishna, as rulers of the Vrishnis, will gladly serve under Karna as regents.
All he has to do is embrace the ‘truth’ that he is the son of Kunti, and all the wealth and grandeur of the world will become his.
Karna Finds Himself
When encouraged by Krishna to acknowledge the fact that he is Kunti’s son, Karna chooses instead to embrace an inner truth, a truth that he had been labouring under his whole life.
‘It is true that I am the son of Kunti, O Kesava,’ he says. ‘It is also true that according to the scriptures, I am also a Pandava. But there are other truths that I must accept. Adiratha the charioteer found me and raised me. That is truth too. His wife Radha suckled me at her breast, fed me, reared me, loved me. That is truth too.
‘Neither of those two is as well-versed in the study of scriptures as you and I are, Krishna. My mother Radha is uneducated. How can I today forsake her for a mother who, after bearing me, fulfilled none of the duties of motherhood?
‘What shall I tell my father, who had me schooled under various rishis and brought me up to be an upstanding member of the Suta tribe? That I have found a more moral father? Who can be more moral than Adiratha, who found it in his heart to give everything to a boy who was not of his seed?’
He then implores Krishna to keep his birth a secret. ‘Yudhishthir will not accept the throne if he knows the truth about me, Krishna. On the other hand, if I succeed in defeating him and giving the kingdom to Duryodhana, Yudhishthir will still remain a king in all real ways – because he has you, his four brothers, and Draupadi by his side.’
‘As for me,’ says Karna, ‘I was born a Sutaputra. I shall die a Sutaputra.’
The Mahabharata War as Sacrifice
Karna then goes on to describe Duryodhana’s chances in the war with remarkable clarity of mind. He tells Krishna of a dream that he has had, a dream in which he sees a vision of a great yagnya being performed. That yagnya is the Mahabharata war.
Here are a few things that Karna describes about this yagnya:
- You, O Krishna (says Karna), are invited to be the Upadrashtri and the Adhyaryu (the prime officiating priests).
- Arjuna will be the Hotri (the performing priest), and the Gandiva will be the sacrificial ladle with which libations will be poured onto the fire.
- The Aindra, the Pasupatastra, the Brahmastra, and the Sthunakarnastra – the weapons used by Arjuna – will be the mantras of this yagnya.
- Subhadra’s son Abhimanyu will be the chief Vedic hymn that will prove to be the most important moment of the ceremony.
- The sounds of conches, drums, and roars of warriors and neighs of animals will be the calls upon the invited to eat.
- Barbed arrows, long shafts, and arrows with heads resembling a calf’s tooth will play the part of spoons used to distribute teertha.
- The swords will become the Kapalas, the heads of slain warriors will be used as Purodasas, and the blood of men will serve as clarified butter.
- The arrows shot by the wielders of great bows will play the part of ladles to distribute the soma. Satyaki will be the chief assistant of the Adhyaryu.
- In this yagnya, Duryodhana will be installed as chief performer, and the vast army he has assembled will sit on his right as his wife.
- When the nocturnal rites of this ceremony begin, O Krishna, Ghatotkacha will play the part of the slayer of sacrificial animals
- Dhrishtadyumna will become the dakshina, and from the side of the Kauravas, I shall offer myself to the sacrificial fire as repentance for all those harsh sins I committed
- This sacrifice will end with the drinking of Duhsasana’s blood by Bhimasena, O Madhava. The two princes of Panchala will bring about the ends of Dronacharya and Bhishma.
- Duryodhana will meet his death at the hands of Bhima. At the beginning of this phase of the yagnya, called the Punachiti, you will behold me being slain by Arjuna.
‘The final bath of this sacrifice will occur,’ concludes Karna, ‘when – surrounded by vultures and other beasts of prey – the women of the royal court of Hastinapur will come to the battlefield and mourn the loss of their men. That will bring to a close this chapter of Aryavarta’s history, where its filth is cleansed with the blood of the sinful.’
Commanders on Both Sides
The Udyoga Parva ends with both the Pandavas and the Kauravas choosing their respective commanders.
On the Pandava side, the nominations are for Virata (by Sahadeva), Drupada (by Nakula), Dhrishtadyumna (by Arjuna), and Shikhandi (by Bhimasena).
Out of these, Krishna chooses Dhrishtadyumna without an explanation.
We can read between the lines here a little bit. First, among the nominations, you will notice that three out of four are closely related to the kingdom of Panchala. This is to be expected, because Panchala is the kingdom that is contributing five of the seven akshauhinis to Yudhishthir’s cause.
The Pandavas themselves have no army here, so there is no question of any of the Pandava brothers serving as commanders.
On the Kaurava side, there are no nominations or voting; the post goes directly to Bhishma as the most experienced of Kuru warriors. This irritates Karna a little bit because he thinks that Bhishma is partial toward the Pandavas (a notion that is proved right in retrospect), and he takes the vow that he will not participate in the battle until Bhishma has been killed.
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