by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

Elizabeth Seeger’s The Five Sons of King Pandu: The Story of the Mahabharata




The Council

At sunrise of the day after the wedding of Abimanyu and Uttara, the Pándavas and those kings and warriors who were their friends met in the audience hall of King Virata. The kings of Matsya and Panchala sat on high thrones inlaid with jewels, with Krishna and Yudhistra beside them; behind them sat the sons of those kings with Bhima, Arjuna, and the sons of Madri. Abimanyu and the five sons of Dráupadi, who rivaled their fathers in valor, strength, and grace, sat upon excellent seats inlaid with gold. Those mighty heroes adorned with shining ornaments and splendid robes talked together for a while, and then sat silent and thoughtful, looking at Krishna and waiting for him to speak to them about the Pándavas.

At last Krishna said, "All of you know that Yudhistra was unfairly defeated at dice by Shákuni, and that he was robbed of his kingdom and sent into exile in the forest. The sons of Pandu were true to their pledge, although they could have won back their kingdom by force. For thirteen years they have carried out the cruel task imposed upon them and have spent the last year, the most difficult of all, in menial service here. It is for you to consider now what will be for the good of both Yudhistra and Duryodha and what will meet with the approval of all good men. These brave sons of Pandu ask only for what belongs to them and what they won in battle with other kings. We do not know what Duryodha thinks or what he may do. Therefore, let us send a virtuous and honest ambassador to him and ask him to give back the kingdom of Yudhistra, according to the agreement made at the gambling match."

The brother of Krishna spoke, saying, "The son of Kuru should of course give back the kingdom of Yudhistra; he should rejoice and be exceedingly happy that the quarrel he created can be so easily settled. He has, however, taken possession of the kingdom with a strong hand and has ruled the whole realm of the Bháratas for thirteen years. Let the ambassador, therefore, say nothing to provoke him, but let him speak words full of humility and friendliness. Do not seek war with the Kurus."

Another warrior rose up angrily and gainsaid this speech. "Yudhistra has fulfilled to the utmost the terms of the stake that he lost at dice. Why should he humble himself? I should ask for the kingdom not with words, but with sharp arrows, and force the Kúravas to prostrate themselves at the feet of the noble son of Kunti. Either Yudhistra must regain his kingdom immediately, or all his enemies must be slain."

"O mighty one," said the king of Panchala, "you speak wisely. Duryodha will never give up the kingdom willingly, and his foolish father, who dotes on him, will do as he desires. He should never be addressed with mild words, for then the fool will think that he has won. Let us make preparations for war and send word for all our friends to raise their armies. Then let us send my priest, a learned Brahman, to Duryodha and ask him to give back to the Pándavas the kingdom that is theirs, according to the pledge that was made between them."

"These words are worthy of the chief of the Panchalas," said Krishna. "This, surely, is our best course. It is fitting that you should send a messenger to the Kúravas, for you are the foremost of kings, both in age and learning, and the father-in-law of the Pándavas. If they will make peace on just terms, all will be well; but it the wicked Duryodha haughtily and foolishly refuses, he will pronounce his own doom."

Then Krishna and the assembled kings returned, each to his own kingdom, while Yudhistra and his friends began to prepare for war. Virata and his kinsmen sent word to all their friends, asking for their support, and the king of Panchala did likewise. It was the custom among Kshatrias to grant the request of the person who was first to ask, and therefore they made haste before the Kúravas could hear what they were doing. At the request of the Pándavas and the two kings of Matsya and Panchala, many lords of earth with mighty armies came together with cheerful hearts. When the sons of Kuru heard of this, they, too, assembled their friends and allies, until the whole land was thronged with the armies of those heroes who were marching to fight for the Pándavas or the Kúravas. From all sides the horsemen and the elephants, the chariots and the foot soldiers poured in until the earth with its mountains and its forests trembled beneath their tread.

After they had sent messengers to the kings of various countries, Arjuna himself set out for Dváraka, the city of Krishna. Now Duryodha heard that Arjuna was on his way to Dváraka to seek Krishna's help; therefore he, too, set out for the same city, drawn by horses swift as the wind. Those two tigers among men arrived on the selfsame day and entered the palace together to seek Krishna. Duryodha was the first to enter the room where he found Krishna sleeping. He sat down at the head of the bed and shortly afterwards Arjuna came in and stood at the foot of the bed with joined hands. When Krishna awoke, therefore, his eyes fell first on Arjuna. He greeted both cousins and asked why they had come.

Duryodha said, "I have come to ask for your help in the war that is coming. Arjuna and I are both your friends and are both related to you, but I was the first to come to you. All virtuous men grant the request of him who comes first; therefore I ask you, who are the most virtuous of all, to follow this rule of conduct."

"I do not doubt," answered Krishna, "that you came first, O King, but the son of Kunti is the one whom I first saw. Therefore, it seems to me that I must help you both. I have a large army of cowherds of mighty strength, all of whom are able to fight in battle. These soldiers shall be sent to one of you, and I alone will serve the other, but I shall not fight. O son of Kunti, you may have the first choice, for it is the custom for the younger of two people to choose first."

Arjuna chose Krishna, even though he would not fight, while Duryodha took the great army of cowherds and was exceedingly pleased, even though Krishna would not be on his side.

After he had departed, Krishna said to Arjuna, "Why did you choose me, when you knew that I shall not fight for you?"

"O best of men," answered Arjuna, "I alone am able to slay all the Kúravas. But you are a wise and honored person, and your wisdom and honor will be with me. Besides, I have always longed to have you drive my chariot; I beg of you to do this for me."

"I will be your charioteer," said Krishna. "Your wish is fulfilled." And the two friends went back to Yudhistra with glad hearts, and many of the finest warriors among the Yadus chose to go with them.

At this time Shalya, the king of Madra, with his sons and his army, was traveling from his kingdom to join the Pándavas. He was their uncle, for he was the brother of Madri, the mother of the twins. His encampment covered a square mile, so large was his army, and he traveled by slow marches, giving rest to his troops and his animals. Duryodha heard that he was on his way and had pavilions built at different places along his route, and filled them with food and drink, flowers and entertainment, and pools of fresh water, for he knew that Shalya cared much for the pleasures of life. The king went from one to another of these pavilions, waited upon like a god by the servants of Duryodha, until he thought himself equal to Indra himself. He was exceedingly well pleased and asked the servants, "Where are those men of Yudhistra's who have prepared these pleasant places of refreshment for me? Bring them to me, for I wish to reward them."

Now Duryodha had been following the king, unknown to him, and waiting for the right moment to ask a boon. When he saw that the king was so flattered that he wished to pay for his pleasure, he came forward and showed himself to Shalya, telling him that it was he and not Yudhistra, who had taken all this trouble to entertain him.

Shalya embraced him and said, "Ask of me any boon that you desire."

"Be the leader of my army, O uncle!" said Duryodha.

"So be it!" answered Shalya. "How can I do otherwise, since I have bound myself? Return now to your own city. I must visit the best of men, Yudhistra, but I shall speedily rejoin you." The two kings embraced one another; then Duryodha returned joyfully to Hástina, and Shalya went on to tell the sons of Pandu what had befallen him.

When he arrived at their encampment, the Pándavas received him with the usual gifts of honor, and he embraced with great delight the sons of Kunti and the twin sons of his sister Madri. Then he told them of his meeting with Duryodha and of the boon that he had granted.

Yudhistra said, "O brave king, you were right to grant the boon that you promised to Duryodha when you were pleased with what he had done for you, but I ask you to do one thing for my sake. At some time during the battle there will be a single combat between Arjuna and Karna, and I am sure that you will be asked to drive Karna's chariot, for you are equal to Krishna in handling horses. When that happens, O my uncle, you must do all that you can to discourage Karna and to protect Arjuna, so that victory will be ours. This is not an honorable thing to do, since you have promised to fight for the Kúravas, but still you must do it, O best of men, for my sake and for the sake of the twins, who are the sons of your sister, Madri."

"I shall do just as you ask me to do, my son," answered Shalya. "I shall speak to that vile son of a Suta in such a way that he will be discouraged and dispirited and can be easily slain. And I shall do anything else for you that I am able to do." Then he bade farewell to the five brothers and went with his army to the camp of Duryodha.

Other kings came to fight with the Pándavas. and their great armies were absorbed into the host of Yudhistra as small rivers are embraced by the sea. Seven armies, from many lands and many directions, came together to fight against the Kúravas and gladdened the hearts of the high-souled sons of Pandu.

In the same way, many kings from many lands, bringing with them multitudes of troops, like clouds driven by the winds, came to Duryodha, eager to fight against the sons of Kunti. Eleven armies assembled under the banner of Kuru's son; there was not room enough in Hástina even for the leaders of his host; therefore the whole of his kingdom, abundant with food and wealth, was covered by the warriors of the Kúravas, until the creatures of the earth were frightened and the trees trembled as they passed.


The Pándavas Claim Their Kingdom

At this time Yudhistra summoned the priest of Panchala to carry his message to the court of King Kuru.

"O learned one," said Yudhistra to that Brahman, "go now to Hástina to the court of King Kuru and in the presence of all the Bháratas and their friends and kinsmen say these words: 'O King, we, the sons of Pandu, greet each one of you according to your ages. We salute the ladies of the household and embrace the sons and daughters that have been born to you in the years that we have been away. We greet the menservants and the maidservants and all those among them who are lame or blind, dwarfed or imbecile, and ask about the welfare of each one.'

"Salute the mighty Kuru in our name, touch his feet and say to him, 'O King, we wish to live united. Do not let yourself be vanquished by your enemies.' Then, O holy one, bend your head in our name and salute the grandsire of the Bháratas, saying, 'O Sire, let your grandsons all live in friendship together!' Speak to Vidura, that wise counselor of Kuru, saying, 'Counsel peace, O amiable one, for Yudhistra's sake!'

"Then speak to that unforbearing prince Duryodha and say, 'The insults you offered to the innocent and helpless Dráupadi, when she was dragged into the assembly, we will quietly bear, because we do not wish to see the Bháratas slain. The other injuries, before and after that, we will quietly bear, although we are able to avenge them. You had us exiled, clad in deerskins; that also will be forgiven, because we do not wish to see the Bháratas slain. We do not desire war, but, O consumer of foes, we must have our just share of the kingdom. Turn your covetous heart from what belongs to others! Give back what should be given, according to the agreement at the gambling match! Give back Indra Prastha, and let our quarrel end! O Duryodha, let the Kúravas and the Pándavas meet with laughter and cheerful hearts. Let us make peace!"

Then Arjuna, after asking the permission of his eldest brother, rose and spoke to the priest. He was fearless and ready to fight, and his eyes were red with anger. "Then speak these words of mine to Kuru's son, in the presence of all the Bháratas and the foul-mouthed Karna, who wants so much to fight with me, and in the hearing of those kings who have assembled to fight against us. See that my words are well heard by them all: 'If the sons of Kuru fight, they will surely die. My bow Gandíva yawns without being handled; my bowstring trembles without being touched; my arrows leap from their quiver, eager to fly; my sword slides out of it sheath by itself, as a snake quits its skin, and on the top of my flagstaff terrible voices cry, "When will your chariot be yoked, O Arjuna?" As a blazing fire consumes a forest, I will leave no remnant of those who come to the field of battle.'

"Tell them this, O holy one," he added gently, "but let it not be so! I pray that the counsel of Bhishma and Drona and the wise Vidura will be followed and that the Kúravas may live long and happily."

The priest of Panchala was honorably received at Kuru's court, where all the kings and chiefs had assembled, anxious to hear the message of the sons of Pandu. When the Brahman had spoken, Bhishma, the eldest of the Bháratas, replied to him, "I rejoice that the Pándavas are well and that they desire peace with their cousins. Truly they have suffered long and deserve to receive their kingdom."

Karna interrupted him angrily and insolently, saying, "O Brahman, everyone knows all that you have told us. What is the use of repeating things over and over? Yudhistra went into the woods according to an agreement that he made; now let him return and live safely and in comfort under Duryodha's rule. If, however, he wishes to turn aside from the path of virtue and go to war, let him remember the mighty host that will be arrayed against him!"

"How foolishly you talk, O Suta's son," answered Bhishma. "Do you not remember how Arjuna, singlehanded, overpowered us all in Virata's kingdom?"

King Kuru spoke gently to Bhishma and rebuked Karna; then he said, "What Bhishma has said is best for us and for the Pándavas also. O Duryodha, give up this hatred! Half the realm is quite enough for you and for all your friends and followers. Give back to the sons of Pandu their own share! I do not want war, nor does Drona, nor Vidura; indeed, these warriors assembled here do not desire war. My child, incline your heart to peace!"

"I shall challenge the Pándavas to battle," answered Duryodha, "without depending on you or Bhishma or Drona or any others who think as you do. O Sire, Karna and I alone are ready to celebrate the sacrifice of battle, with Yudhistra as the victim. Three of us, Karna and my brother Dushasa and I, will slay the Pándavas. Either I, after slaying them, shall rule the earth, or they, when they have slain me, will enjoy it. O King, I had rather lose my wealth, my kingdom, and my very life, than share them with the sons of Pandu."

Then Kuru said, "I now cast off Duryodha, this son of mine. And I grieve for you, O kings, if you follow this fool into the realm of death. Already I can see the host of the Bháratas laid low by the mace of Bhima or put to flight by the arrows of Arjuna, like deer before hunting tigers. When you see your chariots, horses, and elephants felled like trees torn up by the roots, you will remember what I have said."

At these words, the passionate son, blazing with anger, cried, "You think that the Pándavas cannot be vanquished because they have the gods for their allies. Do not fear! They and all their followers will die as they approach me, like rivers entering the ocean. My power, my intelligence, my knowledge, and my wealth are all greater than those of the Pándavas."

Karna encouraged Duryodha and cheered the hearts of the assembled kings: "I alone," he said, "will slay within the twinkling of an eye the Pándavas, the Panchalas, the Matsyas, and all their other allies, and I will bestow upon you all the lands won by my weapons. Bhishma and Drona and all these kings my stay here while I go forth alone and slay our enemies."

"Your mind is clouded, Karna," said Bhishma scornfully. "You speak mad words. Every weapon of yours will be consumed to ashes by the god-given weapons of Arjuna. Besides, Krishna, who has slain stronger foes than you, is protecting him."

"I now lay down my arms," said Karna, "for I can bear no longer the grandsire's cruel words. When his voice is silenced I shall take them up again, and the rulers of the world shall see my prowess." And he left the assembly and went in anger to his own palace.

Bhishma laughed aloud and said, "Behold how the Suta's son keeps his promise! He boasted that he alone would slay his foes, and now he lays down his arms!"

Kuru pleaded again with his headstrong son, but Duryodha would not listen. He sat silent; then he rose and left the hall, and the other kings went with him, each to his own dwelling.

Then the old king sent for a man whom he trusted, Sánjaya, his friend and charioteer. "O Sánjaya," he said, "go speedily now in a chariot to the encampment of the son of Kunti. Speak to him lovingly and tell him that Kuru desires only peace. Thus the hearts of the Pándavas will be softened, for they are righteous and kind. I have examined their conduct, and I have never been able to find a fault for which they could be blamed. No one hates them except this vile, dull-witted son of mine and the mean and insolent Karna. It is childish of Duryodha to think that he can rob them of their kingdom or beat them in battle. Who can withstand these mighty warriors and their friends? My heart trembles with fear when I hear that Krishna and Arjuna will be seated in the same chariot. Yet I do not fear Krishna or Arjuna, Bhima or the twins, so much as I fear the just anger of Yudhistra. Say anything to him, O Sánjaya, that will avert war!"

Sánjaya drove swiftly to the capital city of Panchala, where he found the Pándavas and those kings who were their allies. In the presence of them all he made obeisance to Yudhistra and gave him King Kuru's message, pleading for peace, but saying nothing about the return of the kingdom.

"Why should you think that I desire war, O Sánjaya?" asked Kunti's eldest son. "What man is so cursed by the gods that he could wish to fight when peace is possible? Return now, and in the presence of the Bháratas say these words to Kuru's son: 'O Duryodha, we desire only peace. Give us even one province of the kingdom; give to your five brothers five villages, and this shall end the quarrel!"


Krishna Pleads for Peace

After Sánjaya had departed, Yudhistra was deeply troubled and pondered the message that he had brought. He summoned Krishna and said to him, "O friend, only you can save us now. You heard what Sánjaya said in the name of Kuru and his son: they seek to make peace with us, keeping our kingdom for themselves. We have faithfully kept our pledge, expecting them to keep theirs, but now the covetous king has broken his word, forsaking his honor as a Kshatria. We cannot give up what justly belongs to us, for a Kshatria's duty is to govern and to fight. We must have our kingdom to govern and protect; we must have our wealth, for duty as well as pleasure depends upon it. For us poverty is worse than death, for what can be more sorrowful than this, O Krishna, that I cannot support my mother and my brothers and my friends? And yet, what good can there be in battle? Even if we win, we shall kill those whom we love. O friend, how can we be both just and virtuous? Only you can counsel us, who are so dear to us and who know the way of truth."

"I will go myself to the Kúravas," answered Krishna, "for your sake and theirs, and do my best to make peace without giving up what rightly belongs to you. If I can do this, I shall have saved the whole earth from the meshes of death."

The king and his brothers rejoiced at his words, and each of them added a message to what Yudhistra already had said. Only Sadeva did not counsel peace.

"Speak, O slayer of foes, for war!" he said to Krishna. "Since Dráupadi was dragged into the assembly, my wrath has never ceased to burn within me, and it will never be quenched until Duryodha is slain. If all my brothers are inclined to peace, I alone will fight Duryodha to the death!"

Then Dráupadi, her eyes filled with tears, spoke to Krishna, taking in her hand her long black hair, bound into a soft perfumed braid. "Remember, O Krishna, how this hair of mine was seized by Dushasa's rough hands. If Bhima and Arjuna have fallen so low as to desire peace, my aged father and his sons and Sadeva will avenge me, and my five sons will fight the Kúravas, with Abimanyu leading them. Thirteen long years have I spent in the hope of happier days, hiding my anger in my heart like a burning fire. And now my heart breaks when I hear this talk for peace."

She wept aloud, and Krishna comforted her, saying, "Dry your eyes, O Dráupadi. I swear to you that if they do not listen to my words, the sons of Kuru will become the food of jackals and their wives will weep as you do now."

The next morning Krishna mounted his splendid chariot, and his swift horses devoured the sky and drank up the road as they bore him to Hástina. The sun shone clear, and fragrant breezes blew; flocks of cranes flew above his head, and the fields were rich with grain, for it was late autumn. He was received with honor at Kuru's court and lingered there, talking and laughing with his friends and kinsmen; they then went to the house of Vidura and talked with him far into the starlit night.

At sunrise the next morning a messenger summoned him to the court where Kuru awaited him with all the assembled kings and elders. Krishna entered and took a seat of honor there; he was dressed in yellow robes and looked like some dark jewel set in gold. When the assembly was silent, he spoke to all who were there, repeating what had been said before, warning them of the terrible slaughter that would follow if they refused the just demands of Pandu's sons, and reminding them that Yudhistra had asked for only five villages out of the great domain that had once been his. All those who heard praised his speech in their hearts, but none dared speak aloud in the presence of Duryodha.

That prince turned to Krishna and said, "You have found fault harshly and unreasonably with me alone, O slayer of foes. Indeed, my father, Bhishma, Drona, and Vidura all blame me and never anyone else, while I cannot find the least fault in myself. Is it my fault that in the match at dice, which he willingly entered, Yudhistra was defeated and his kingdom won? Is it my fault that he was again defeated and went with his brothers into the forest? What have I done to them that they seek a quarrel with me? Listen, O Krishna! As long as I live, that share of the kingdom that my father gave to the Pándavas shall never again be theirs! As long as I live, the Pándavas shall not have as much of our land as can be covered by the sharp point of a needle!"

Krishna was silent for a moment, his eyes red with anger; then he said, "O dull of understanding, how can you say that you have not injured them? You will not give them what they justly ask of you, but they will take it when you lie dead on the field of battle. O fool, who will not listen to the wise advice of your friends, you speak wicked and shameful words and with them you doom yourself to death."

When he heard this, the proud Duryodha, breathing hard like a great snake, rose angrily from his seat; he paid no attention to his father and all the elders, but left the court. His brothers, his counselors, and all the kings rose up and followed him.

When he saw them do so, Bhishma said, "I see, O Krishna, that the fate of all these Kshatrias is decided, for they have foolishly followed Duryodha,"

And Krishna answered, "You have all witnessed what has happened here. With your permission I shall now return to Yudhistra."

Before he left, Krishna sought out Karna. He took that fierce warrior up on his chariot and drove slowly out of the city.

"O bull among men," said Krishna, "you are the son of Kunti, born in her maidenhood and begotten by Surya himself. You are therefore by law the eldest son of Pandu. Come with me today and let the Pándavas know that you are Kunti's son, born before Yudhistra. Your five brothers will embrace your feet and will crown you lord of the whole earth in the presence of all the kings assembled in their cause. Let Yudhistra be your heir and ride on your chariot, bearing the white fan, while the mighty Bhima lifts the canopy over your head and Arjuna holds the reins. The twins and the sons of Dráupadi with Abimanyu, all the allied kings and I myself will walk behind you. Let there be brotherly union between you and the Pándavas today, O son of Kunti, and you shall rule the kingdom, surrounded by them, as the moon is surrounded by the stars."

"I know already all that you have told me, O slayer of foes," said Karna. "I am the son of Kunti and therefore by law the eldest son of Pandu. But my mother abandoned me as soon as I was born and has never cared for my welfare. A Suta took me to his home and performed for me the rites of infancy; he and his wife think of me as their son and my heart is bound to them with all the ties of love and gratitude. I cannot break those ties, O Krishna, even for the sake of the whole earth or for mountains of gold. Besides, Duryodha gave me the kingdom of Anga, which I have enjoyed for many years. He is depending on me to fight Arjuna in single combat, and I cannot be false to him. I know, O Krishna, that you have spoken to me for my own good, and I believe that the Pándavas would do all that you have promised. Keep this talk of ours a secret from them, for they would not fight against me if they knew me for Kunti's first-born son. O sinless one, if we come out alive from this great battle, may we meet here again; otherwise we shall surely meet in heaven."

Karna embraced Krishna, clasping him tightly to his breast, then stepped down from the chariot and turned to the city; while the horses of Krishna, fleet as hawks, carried him back to the camp of the five brothers.

After Krishna had gone, Kunti also sought Karna. She went to the bank of the Ganges, for she knew that he came there each morning to worship the sun. She heard his voice chanting the Vedic hymns and saw him facing the east with upraised arms. She waited for him to finish his prayers, standing patiently behind him; but soon she began to suffer from the sun's heat and moved closer to him, until she stood in the shade of his broad shoulders. When Karna had done with his prayers, he turned and beheld her with great surprise.

Saluting her courteously with joined palms, he said, "I am Karna, the Suta's son. Why have you come here, noble lady? What can I do for you?"

"You are my son," she cried, "No Suta brought you forth. It is wrong that you should serve the sons of Kuru and not know your own brothers. Let the Kúravas behold today the union of Karna and Arjuna! If you two are united, what is there in the world that you cannot achieve? O Karna, do not call yourself the Suta's son, but the eldest son of Kunti! The highest of all duties is to please one's father and mother; therefore listen to me, my child!"

"Noble lady," answered Karna, "I cannot believe that it is my highest duty to please you. You cast me off when I was born and have never cared for me; but now, for your own sake, you seek to lay your commands upon me. I cannot do what you ask, for the time has come when all those whom Duryodha has protected must stand by him and fight for him, and I shall fight for him against your sons to the best of my power. But I must not be hard, and your coming here shall not be in vain. I promise you that I shall fight only with Arjuna and that no other son of yours shall be slain by me. The number of your children will always be five: if Arjuna is slain, I shall be the fifth; if I am slain, Arjuna still remains.

Kunti, trembling with grief, said, "Remember this your pledge! May you be blessed!" And they both departed, going their separate ways.


The Field of Kuru Kshatra

When Krishna returned and the sons of Pandu heard all that had happened in Hástina, they gave up all hope of peace. Therefore they arrayed their troops for battle, and Yudhistra named the commanders of the seven armies. As the supreme leader of the host they all chose Jumna, Dráupadi's brother, who had been born to slay Drona. A great shout of joy arose at this choice. The troops began to move about; the neighing of horses, the roars of elephants, the clatter of chariot wheels, and the sounds of drums and conchs made a tremendous din. The Pándavas and all the mighty kings and warriors who supported them put on their coats of mail, mounted their chariots, and set out with their unconquerable host for the plain of Kuru Kshetra.

In the front of that army marched Bhima, Nákula, Sadeva, Abimanyu, and the five sons of Dráupadi, with Jumna at their head. Behind them came the army of the Panchalas. In the center marched Yudhistra, with the wagons carrying the food and fodder, the tents, the money chests, the weapons and machines of war, the skilled mechanics, and the surgeons and physicians, furnished with every medicine and remedy they needed. In the rear marched the army of Virata and his sons and the remainder of the host, and with it rode Arjuna, driven by Krishna. The din made by that joyful, marching host was like the roar of the ocean when the tide is highest on the day of the new moon.

When they reached the field of Kuru Kshetra, the army encamped on a part of the field that was level and open, abounding with grass and fuel, facing the east, beside the holy river Hiranwati. Jumna measured the ground for the encampment, where handsome tents by hundreds and thousands, rose for the kings and warriors. They looked like palaces and were filled with food and drink and fuel. To every tent Yudhistra sent bows and bowstrings, coats of mail and weapons, honey and butter and water, fodder for cattle, chaff and coals. Each division had its hundreds of elephants, cased in plates of steel, its thousands of horses and foot soldiers, all camped upon that field.

Duryodha heard that Yudhistra was encamped on Kuru Kshetra and ready for battle; therefore he arrayed his own troops and appointed leaders for the eleven armies. Then, with all those leaders, he went to Bhishma and stood before him with joined palms, saying, "When it has no commander, even a mighty army can be scattered like a swarm of ants, O wise grandsire, be our commander! March at our head as Indra leads the gods, and we shall follow you as calves follow a mighty bull!"

"So be it!" replied Bhishma. "You know that the sons of Pandu are as dear to me as you are, but I will fight for you, as I have promised to do. Yet listen to me, O son of Kuru, for there are things that you must understand if I am to command your host. First, know that i am not able to kill the sons of Pandu. I shall, however, slay their warriors day by day and so, unless I am slain myself, I shall destroy their host. There is a second thing that you must understand, O lord of earth. Either Karna must fight first, or I, for the Suta's son so boastfully compares his might with mine that I will not fight by his side."

"As long as the grandsire lives, O KIng," Karna said, "I shall not enter the battle. When he is slain, then I will fight Arjuna. So I vowed among the assembled kings and so I shall do."

Then Bhishma said, "Still another thing I must tell you, O King. I shall fight with all the lords of earth that may oppose me, but I shall never strike or slay Shikándin, the son of the king of Panchala, even if he rushes upon me with upraised weapon."

"Why will you not slay Shikándin, O grandsire?"

"Listen to this story, Duryodha," answered Bhishma. "When I was young, I made a vow that I would never marry nor sit on my father's throne, but spend my life in study and meditation. I gained such power of soul that the gods granted me the boon that I should not die till I desire death. I crowned my younger brother king and set my heart on finding him a beautiful and sweet-natured wife. I heard that the three daughters of the King of Kashi, who were all as beautiful as Apsaras, were about to choose their husbands at a swayámvara to which all the kings of earth had been invited. I went there and saw the maidens, who were so lovely that I wanted them all for my brother.

"The eldest damsel, however, had set her heart upon another suitor and was secretly betrothed to him for she meant to choose him at her swayámvara . Therefore she asked me to permit her to marry him, and I sent her with an escort to this court. But her betrothed no longer wanted her since she had been taken away by me, and the unhappy maiden left his city, weeping bitterly and cursing me for causing her misfortune. She went to the forest and devoted herself to fierce discipline of mind and body in order to obtain a boon from the gods. After twelve years of fasting, prayer, and effort, she obtained from Shiva the boon that she might be born a man, able to slay me in battle; then she built herself a funeral pyre and, setting it afire, laid herself thereon.

"It is she, O son of Kuru, who was reborn as Shikándin, and I have vowed that I will never strike a woman or one whom I know to have been a woman in a former birth, or ever one who bears a woman's name. Therefore, even if Shikándin attack me, bow in hand, I shall not slay nor smite him."

Duryodha pondered these words a moment and thought them just and proper. "O mighty-armed one," he asked, "in how many days can you destroy this host of Pandu's son, which abounds in elephants, men, and horses, and is protected by many godlike warriors?"

Bhishma answered, "When I am standing in battle, shooting great weapons that slay hundreds and thousands at a time, O foremost of the Kurus, I can wipe out that host in a month's time."

Duryodha turned to Drona, "And you, master? How soon can you destroy the host?"

Drona smiled and said, "I am old, O son of Kuru, but I, too, with the fire of my weapons, can destroy the army of the Pándavas in a month's time."

Now the spies that Yudhistra had placed in the Kúrava host told him all that these leaders had said. The son of Kunti called his brothers together. "O Arjuna," he asked, "in how much time can you destroy our foes?"

Arjuna of the curling hair looked at Krishna and replied, "Do not be anxious, O KIng! I can sweep away all living creatures with that terrible and mighty weapon that the lord Shiva gave me when I fought with him; but it is not right to use it against men, and we shall fight fairly. With Krishna as my ally, I believe that in one day I can destroy our foes."

The next morning, under a cloudless sky, the army of the Kúravas, led by Bhishma, set out for Kuru Kshetra and encamped on the opposite side of the plain from that of the Pándavas. Duryodha made his camp look like another Hástina, graced with hundreds of tents filled with provisions and weapons. He sent to all those kings who came with him excellent supplies or food for their horses and elephants and foot soldiers; he provided also for the bards and singers, the vendors and the traders, the spies and the people who came to watch the battle. The rest of the earth seemed to be empty of men, of elephants and horses, for the warriors who assembled on that field came from the whole earth over which the sun sheds its rays.

Thus those two great hosts were arrayed against one another, like two stormy oceans, on the east and the west sides of the plain of Kuru Kshetra. And beholding one another, the tens of thousands of warriors, filled with joy and delighting in battle, beat their drums and blew their thundering conchs until the earth and the sky resounded.


Seeger, The Five Sons of King Pandu, Print edition, op. cit., pp.181-202.