The Mahabharata War: What happens on Day 1?

Mahabharata War Summary Day 1 - Featured Image - Picture of Themis the goddess of balance.

The Mahabharata war, also called the Kurukshetra war, is the climactic event of the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. It is fought between two sets of cousins in the Kuru dynasty, the Pandavas (sons of Pandu) and the Kauravas (sons of Dhritarashtra).

Kingdoms like Panchala and Matsya side with the Pandavas. Krishna, the regent of Dwaraka, drives the chariot of Arjuna, the third Pandava, and signals his support for their cause.

The war is fought over eighteen days on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. It is won by the Pandavas at the end, but only after unfathomable destruction to lives and wealth on both sides.

(For the full summary of the war, see: 18 Days of the Mahabharata War: A Day-wise Summary.)

In this post, we will answer the question: What happens on Day 1 of the Mahabharata war?

Karna Resigns

Before the war begins, Duryodhana asks Bhishma to classify each warrior fighting in the war into one of two baskets: a ratha (a great chariot-hero) or an atiratha (a warrior as powerful as eight rathas).

While going through the roster of assembled men, Bhishma mockingly refers to Karna as an ardha-ratha, or half-a-ratha.

This understandably brings forth a reaction from the son of Radha, who says:

‘O Grandsire, though I am innocent of committing any wrongdoings toward you, you continue to goad me with taunts such as these. I bear them with dignity only for the sake of Duryodhana.

‘But in truth, sir, you are the biggest enemy of the Kurus. Right from the beginning, it is your actions that have sown the first seeds of dissatisfaction between Dhritarashtra and Pandu.

Alas, if you had been more decisive and stern, we might not be standing here, armoured, summoned by battle sirens.’

Karna then turns to Duryodhana and says, ‘You deserve a commander who does not love the enemy, O Duryodhana. As for me, I refuse to fight under a man who has openly professed admiration for the Pandavas.

‘Only after the grandsire is killed – if he is killed – will I enter the battlefield.’

Duryodhana could rise in support of Karna in this moment, but he does not. In effect, he chooses Bhishma over Karna – and for the first ten days, is left without Karna’s help on the battlefield.

The Kauravas March Out

On the morning of the first day, under a cloudless sky, all the kings urged by Dhritarashtra’s eldest son set out in their respective chariots to align themselves against the Pandavas.

First come Vinda and Anuvinda of Avanti, and the Kekayas and the Vahlikas with Dronacharya at their head.

Then Ashwatthama, Bhishma, Jayadratha, Shakuni, the Sakas, the Kiratas, the Yavanas, the Sivis, and the Vasatis at the head of their respective divisions.

Then comes Kritavarma leading his Vrishni troops, and the ruler of the Trigartas, and the king Duryodhana surrounded by his brothers and Sala.

Bhurishrava, Shalya and Vrihadratha make up the rear with the sons of Dhritarashtra at the head of this division.

Duryodhana arranges to erect a massive encampment which looks like a second Hastinapur, so royal and lavish that even close observers cannot distinguish it from the city itself. And he also orders the construction of hundreds of thousands of tents to be occupied by the other kings of his army.

All these tents take up five yojanas of space on the edge of the battlefield.

All of these tents are stocked with provisions, and the rulers of the earth enter them as they are assigned, depending on their status as warriors and the size of their entourage.

The Pandavas March Out

Dhrishtadyumna rides out at the head of the Pandava army, and right behind him, arrayed in a straight line, are Dhrishtaketu, Virata, Drupada, Yuyudhana, Shikhandi, Yudhamanyu and Uttamaujas.

Abhimanyu, Vrihanta, and the five sons of Draupadi are instructed to assist Dhrishtadyumna in the first division of the army.

In the second division are Bhimasena and Arjuna, leading a large force of footmen and elephants. Then, last of all, Yudhishthir comes out riding with Virata and Drupada by his side, along with all the other monarchs.

Yudhishthir positions himself, surrounded by thousands of foot soldiers and other kings.

Chekitana, Dhrishtaketu, Satyaki, Kshatarahana and Kshatradeva bring up the rear division, tasked with protecting the middle division from enemy attacks.

Here, too, all the other provisions for the army are made on the opposite edge of Kurukshetra. Clinics are set up for soldiers who will be injured in the war. Healers’ tents take care of invalids and the sick.

There are treasurers carrying chests of gold, and porters lugging great sacks of grain that is to serve as food for the fighting soldiers. Cooks, musicians, balladeers and storytellers accompany the procession.

Rules of War

The Pandavas and the Kauravas, make certain agreements on what constitutes dharma during battle and what does not.

Here are a few of the rules that are considered ‘proper’:

  • People who belong to more or less equal circumstances should fight each other, and fairly. (This means that they are equal in status, weapons, valour and rank.)
  • If, having fought fairly for a while, both warriors intend to withdraw peacefully, that is allowed.
  • Those who are engaged in verbal jousts should be fought with words only, not with weapons.
  • Those that leave the ranks of his army should not be attacked.
  • A chariot must engage with a chariot, an elephant with an elephant, a horse with a horse, and a footman with another footman.
  • One should strike another for the first time only after announcing his intentions.
  • No one should strike another who is unprepared, panic-stricken or retreating.
  • An unarmed man must not be attacked. Charioteers, horses yoked to chariots, men engaged in the transport of weapons, players of drums and blowers of conches – these should not be attacked.

Of all the above, the most important rule is that no warrior should strike an opponent when the latter is meditating or sleeping. That is considered the height of blasphemy.

The Bhagavad Gita

After the armies have surveyed one another, with Duryodhana approaching Dronacharya and entreating him to protect Bhishma, a medley of conch-sounds enters the air.

Bhishma’s conch is the first to go off, followed by the Panchajanya of Krishna, the Devadatta of Arjuna, the Paundra of Bhimasena, the Anantavijaya of Yudhishthir, the Sughosha of Nakula, and the Manipushpaka of Sahadeva.

Arjuna then says to Krishna, ‘O Madhava, take me to the centre of the battlefield so that I may station myself between these two great armies, and look into the faces of those people I am destined to fight.’

Krishna does so, and points out the great Kaurava heroes that have turned out in their resplendent chariots. Arjuna suddenly finds that his limbs have become heavy.

His mouth runs dry. The Gandiva slips from his grasp.

He tells Krishna that he no longer intends to pursue victory. His dilemma is this: it has been said in multiple scriptures that a man must worship his kinsmen at all times. How, then, is he meant to kill those same kinsmen for the sake of wealth?

From this starting point, a long conversation develops between Krishna and Arjuna, with the former answering all of the latter’s questions.

This discourse is politics, spirituality, philosophy, ethics and practical wisdom all rolled into one.

It is given the name, The Bhagavad Gita.

Yudhishthir Seeks Blessings

After Krishna’s sermon is over and Arjuna is back feeling his best, Yudhishthir does something unexpected: he asks to be taken alone in a car into the depth of the Kaurava ranks.

Watching Yudhishthir’s chariot speed toward them alone, the warriors in the Kaurava camp speculate whether he is coming over to surrender.

Yudhishthir, however, wishes to seek blessings from Bhishma and Drona in particular. He first approaches Bhishma.

‘I have come, Grandfather,’ he says, ‘to seek your blessings. With your permission, we are going to fight this great army you commandeer. Let it be that we emerge victorious in this war.’

And then he asks Bhishma how the Pandavas can hope to vanquish him.

Bhishma thinks for a moment, surveys the many heroes arrayed on the other side, facing him. Then he says, ‘I do not see even one man in your army, Yudhishthir, that is capable of defeating me when I stand to fight. That is all I can tell you.’

(This is a cryptic message delivered by Bhishma. He means that there is no man capable of killing him.)

After this, Yudhishthir pays his respects to Dronacharya and asks him the same question.

Drona replies, ‘I cannot be defeated by anyone until I have voluntarily chosen to embrace death by withdrawing into meditation, O King.

‘I will cast off my arms in battle if I hear something very disagreeable to me from the lips of someone who can never speak an untruth.’

Yuyutsu Crosses Over

After getting his blessings, Yudhishthir positions himself between the two armies and makes a standard announcement.

He calls for any Kaurava warriors to shift allegiance if they wish.

‘He who chooses us now will be our friend for life,’ he proclaims. And Yuyutsu, one of the Kaurava brothers, answers the call. ‘I will fight the Dhartarashtras under your command, O Yudhishthir,’ he says, and brings his division of the army along with him.

Yuyutsu is actually not the son of Gandhari. He is born of the union between Dhritarashtra and a Vaishya woman.

There is no recorded justification for Yuyutsu’s choice made on this first day. But in hindsight, it serves him well.

He ends up becoming one of the few warriors on either side to escape from the war alive. He lives a long life after the war too, serving Yudhishthir first and then Parikshit as minister in Indraprastha.

Virata loses two sons

Bhishma and Abhimanyu clash on the first day of the war, and in this battle the young man gives the grandsire a good fight.

During this battle, a bunch of Pandava warriors ride up to support Abhimanyu. And on the other side, Shalya arrives to help out Bhishma.

Uttara, the son of Virata, gets on an elephant and marches toward Shalya. Placing his animal’s leg on the yoke of Shalya’s car, the prince succeeds in breaking it into pieces and slaying all four horses.

Enraged at being defeated by a mere boy, the king of the Madras leaps onto the ground and hurls a javelin (with the tip the shape of a snake) at Uttara, which hits its mark and brings its victim down to the dust, senseless.

Showing no mercy, Shalya picks up his sword and slices through the trunk of the unconscious Uttara, killing him on the spot.

Sweta, another son of Virata, wishes to avenge the death of Uttara, but between him and Shalya stands Bhishma.

A battle erupts between Sweta and Bhishma. Though it swings this way and that at the start, Bhishma eventually overpowers the Matsya prince and kills him.

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