Kṛṣṇa reached Upaplavya, met the Pāṇḍavas and narrated everything that transpired in Hastināpura. He finished by saying these words – “Though Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Vidura, Gāndhārī, Dhṛtarāṣṭra, and others tried to counsel Duryodhana, he refused to listen. He never changed his mind. He only got enraged, his eyes turned red and he left the court without caring for anyone. He was followed by the kings who had taken shelter under him. He commanded them all – ‘Head to Kurukṣetra! The Puṣya star is high today!’ They left with Bhīṣma as their commander-in-chief. There are eleven akṣauhiṇis on his side. Act the way you think is apt! I too tried to be friendly with them in the beginning and tried the sāma-mārga. As I did not find that to be fruitful, I then took to bedha-mārga, by bringing conflict amongst themselves. I tried displaying them my super-natural and amazing abilities. I treated Duryodhana like a piece of dust and admonished his lowly character. I criticised the kings who were with him, scolded Karṇa and Śakuni again and again. I tried to pacify him once more and took to sāma yet again – ‘Duryodhana! The Pāṇḍavas will listen to Bhīṣma, Dhṛtarāṣṭra, and Vidura. Let the entire kingdom be yours. Please give them at least five villages. It is the responsibility of your father to take care of them, anyway!’ I pleaded. Still, the crooked one did not give up his stance. I decided that it is only the fourth path of daṇḍa that will work for him. His aides are headed towards Kurukṣetra only to die. They will not give their kingdom without fighting a war. They are not far off from seeing Death!”
It was finally decided that a war will be fought, as it had been anticipated since long. People were getting ready on both sides. The Pāṇḍavas only had to appoint a commander-in-chief and send the army under his leadership. Seven commanders were appointed, one for each akṣauhiṇi: Drupada, Virāṭa, Śini, Dṛṣṭadyumna, Dhṛṣṭaketu, Śikhaṇḍi, and Sahadeva of Magadha. Dṛṣṭadyumna was made the commander-in-chief of all factions of the army. The army was invigorated and excited! With the movement of the infantry, the neighing of horses and trumpets of elephants, the screeching of wheels on the ground, the war calls made by conches and dundubhis – the air was full of sounds and the army proceeded like a flood of the river Gaṅgā. There were cartloads of daily necessities that joined them. There were carts filled with weapons, mechanised war instruments, and other war essentials. There were also doctors, helpers, and several others who joined the entourage. As the Pāṇḍava army reached Kurukṣetra, the sound of their conches and their war cries reached the skies. They echoed around the earth and the air was full of fervour. They chose a flat land where they could camp easily. Dṛṣṭadyumna and Sātyaki inspected the land around, dug moats, and put their tents in the middle. There were several architects, craftsmen, and doctors with them. There was abundant supply of food, clothing, weapons, and other war essentials. There were elephants which were clad in protective armour. They looked like mountains guarding the army.
On the side of the Kauravas, eleven men were appointed to take care of the akṣauhiṇis – Kṛpa, Droṇa, Śalya, Jayadratha, Sudakṣiṇa, Kṛtavarma, Aśvatthāma, Karṇa, Bhūriśrava, Śakuni, and Bālhīka. Bhīṣma was the commander-in-chief of the army. Their army left with all the amenities just like the Pāṇḍava army and camped on the western side of Kurukṣetra.
Bhīṣma first paid his respects and prayed to Kumārasvāmī, the leader of the divine forces before holding reigns as the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. He praised and motivated Duryodhana. He said, “I have now taken up the post of the commander-in-chief. I will make all the soldiers of your vast army work tirelessly – some of them are employed by you and some others have joined the army to support you, without any pay. I will make them fight the war and will create formations that will shock the Pāṇḍavas. I will protect your army and will fight with all my heart. You don’t have to worry at all!"
Duryodhana replied, “O grandfather! I, by birth, don’t fear the devas or the asuras. Now that you are the chief of the army and Droṇa is on your side, what is there to worry about? When stalwarts like you are on my side, victory is not a difficult thing to achieve. Can you please name the rathikas and mahārathikas on our side? You know all that very well and I would like to know too.” Bhīṣma listed the people on their side, as per Duryodhana’s wish. Karṇa, however, did not figure in the list. Bhīṣma then started speaking about Karṇa; he said, “Your dearest friend, Karṇa has an addiction for war and he motivated you to fight against the Pāṇḍavas. He is arrogant and crooked. He is not even a pūrṇa-ratha, let alone an atiratha. He has given away his earrings and armour, which had come to him by birth. He was cursed by Paraśurāma and has lost strength in his weapons. As he has lost most of his powers, he can only be called an ardha-ratha. He is weak and useless. If he stands before Arjuna, I'm sure that he won’t come back alive!”
Droṇa agreed with Bhīṣma and said, “Yes yes! That is true! He is a very egoistic person. He is excited only in warfare and to help people. He boasts too much about it. Therefore, I think he is an ardha-ratha.”
Karṇa who heard this conversation was shocked and with eyes wide open, he said, “Grandfather! You speak whatever comes to your mind and your harsh words are piercing my insides. Though I am innocent, you are trying to hurt me over and over again. I'm tolerating all this only for the sake of Duryodhana. You consider me as a weakling and a powerless being. I too consider you as an ardha-ratha. You are an evil to the Kuru clan – you insult me in the presence of several other dignitaries. What kind of a leader are you? A kṣatriya isn’t called a mahārathi by considering who his relatives and friends are, or what his age is or how much of material prosperity he posseses. A kṣatriya is respected for his strength, a brāhmaṇa for his mantra, a vaiśya for his wealth, and a śūdra for his age. You are full of lust and hatred and call people by names only with because of your perverted mind. You title them rathika and atiratha indiscriminately. Duryodhana! Think about this carefully. You will need to do away with this Bhīṣma who is going to bring you ill-repute. The army is very huge and it is difficult to bring them all to a common understanding. He is insulting us right in front of our eyes. This Bhīṣma is no match for a capable rathika. I will stop the Pāṇḍava army from advancing. The Pāṇḍavas and the Pāñcālas will run helter-skelter like a herd of cows that gets scattered away when it sees a tiger approaching. Does this old man have the intellect to plan the strategy of a war? His existence on earth is unnecessary; he is only a burden to the soil. He thinks there is no one else to match him. The śāstras say that we need to listen to the words of the older ones – but it does not ask us to pay heed to what the very aged ones speak. They are in their second childhood and dont know what to speak and where to speak. I can single-handedly defeat all the Pāṇḍavas in the battle. There is no doubt about this. But, if Bhīṣma continues as the commander-in-chief, all credit will go to him. Thus, as long as this Gāṅgeya is alive, I will not participate in the war. Once Bhīṣma dies, I will fight all the mahārathas!” Karṇa’s words landed on their ears and were a whip lashing them!
Bhīṣma looked at Karṇa and spoke. “I was anticipating this war for several years and I knew that I will have hold the reigns as the commander-in-chief of Duryodhana’s armies. And now, it is here. I tried my best to avoid the development of these faullines. Though aged, I can fight the war and prove my capabilities. You are a boy, after all! I fought with Paraśurāma and did not get fatigued. What can you do to me? A cultured person does not boast of his strengths. However, my insides are getting churned hearing the words of a lowly person like you and I thus continue speaking. When the king of Kāśi arranged for the svayaṃvara of his daughters, I single-handedly defeated all the kings assembled there and brought his daughters with me. I have defeated several such kings and their armies in the past. You have animosity ingrained in your blood and have brought upon this battle between the Kauravas and the Pāṇḍavas. Display your masculinity and muscle power on the battlefield. Go fight Arjuna. Let me see if you will come back alive!”
Duryodhana interrupted and tried consoling Bhīṣma. “Grandfather, look at me! There is a great task that needs to be executed in the near future. Please think of my well-being too. We both need to achieve a lot. We will need to set out for war tomorrow morning!”
Bhīṣma got his temper back under control and said, “I will fight any atiratha or mahāratha who is present on the side of the Pāṇḍavas. I shall fight Arjuna and Vāsudeva too. If Drupada’s son Śikhaṇḍi comes to the battlefield, I will not fight him. As I had given up the kingdom and marriage in the past for the sake of my father, I had taken an oath that I will never fight or harm a woman on the battlefield. I will not harm a person who was a woman in the past too. You might know that Śikhaṇḍi was born female and later turned into a man. Secondly, I will kill anyone except the Pāṇḍavas in the battlefield!”
As the two factions started getting ready, Balarāma met the Pāṇḍavas and received their hospitality. “Yudhiṣṭira! It seems like there will be loss of several lives! This is what the Fate has in store for us and no one can undo its mechanism! I wish that you all come back safe and healthy after the war. All the kṣatriyas have gathered here for a war. The earth will get flushed with blood and pieces of human flesh. I have often told this to Kṛṣṇa – ‘They are related to each other by blood. Please view them both with equanimity. Duryodhana and the Pāṇḍavas are dear to us. Please help Duryodhana too!’ He did not act according to my words. You will win the battle and Kṛṣṇa has made up his mind to support your endeavour. As I do not wish to go against his plan of action, I'm forced to give my consent to it. Both Bhīma and Duryodhana have learned fighting with maces from me. I love them both equally. I cannot see the Kauravas meeting their end with the fight of Bhīma and Duryodhana. Thus, I will set out on a tīrtha-yātrā along the banks of the river Sarasvatī.” He took their leave and left the place.
Rukmi, the brother-in-law of Kṛṣṇa too did not align with any of the factions. He felt that neither of them had shown him any respect. He remained neutral.
Thus ends the Udyoga-parva, the fifth book of the great Epic.
To be continued...
This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada classic Vacanabhārata by Arjun Bharadwaj and Hari Ravikumar published in a serialized form.