The Lord of the universe appeared as Shri Krishna in order to re-establish the rule of righteousness, Dharma, in the world. At that time the north of India was ruled by the dynasty of the Kurus. There were two brothers of the same house who were destined to be successors to the Crown: one of them was named Pandu and his descendants were called Pandavas; the other brother was Dhritarashtra, whose descendants were called Kauravas.
Pandu gave up the kingdom and went to the forest. Dhritarashtra, who was born blind, continued to rule with the permission of the Pandavas. The Pandavas were five brothers: Yudishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva. The Kauravas were many brothers, among whom Duryodhana was the oldest.
From their childhood, these two sections of the same family were opposed to each other. The Pandavas were naturally of a righteous nature, trained in ethics and in the science of government, while the Kauravas were crafty and unrighteous. The misdeeds of the Kauravas briefly were as follows:— Duryodhana had poisoned Bhima, and when he was unconscious threw him into the Ganges, but he survived. King Dhritarashtra was jealous of the great fame of the Pandavas and also of their popularity with the people. He gave them a small town in which to live and, intent upon destroying them, built a house for them. He proclaimed it to be a token of his affection but secretly constructed parts of the house with inflammable material. His plan was to ignite it when the Pandavas were asleep so that they might perish and he would be the undisputed sovereign of the kingdom. But Vidura, a very righteous man, informed the Pandavas of the plot against their lives, and they dug an underground passage by means of which they left the house and were saved. The house was eventually burnt down, and Duryodhana thought that the Pandavas had died there.
The Pandavas, now in exile, lived in the guise of Brahmins. Arjuna won the daughter of King Drupada by an exploit in archery and became dear to the King. This event convinced Duryodhana that the Pandavas were still alive.
Then King Dhritarashtra, in order to pacify the feelings of enmity which animated both sides of the family, divided the kingdom between them. The Pandavas established their capital in that part of the kingdom which belonged to them; the Kauravas remained in Hastinapura. By their wise rule the Pandavas extended the boundaries of their kingdom far and wide. They performed a great sacrifice called the Raja-suya Sacrifice, to which all the neighbouring rulers were invited.
Duryodhana could not tolerate the growing popularity and dominion of the Pandavas. He conspired with his uncle, Shakuni, and invited the Pandavas to a gambling match. King Yudishthira accepted the challenge; but the match was conducted by Duryodhana, who through deceit and fraud caused Yudishthira to stake and lose everything, including the Queen Draupadi. Duryodhana, in order to inflict the greatest possible insult on the Pandavas, tried to unrobe Queen Draupadi in the assembly. She was in a desperate situation and, finding herself to be helpless, she prayed to Shri Krishna for protection; by a miracle Krishna caused the sari of the Queen to be extended to infinity and as one was removed another was found to be there. In this way the honour of the Queen was saved. This was the main cause of the war which eventually broke out between the Kauravas and the Pandavas.
King Dhritarashtra tried to pacify both sides. He allowed the Pandavas to go to their kingdom, but Duryodhana again challenged them to a gambling match. The condition governing the match was that the losing party was to pass twelve years in exile, out of which one year was to be lived unknown. Again by the fraudulent dealing of Duryodhana, the Pandavas were defeated at the game of dice.
The Pandavas passed twelve years in exile. In the great book called the Mahabharata a most interesting account is given of their heroic fife and how they met adversity, and of their observance of the laws of higher ethics, all of which is described with incomparable lucidity. When they returned after their exile and demanded the part of the kingdom which belonged to them, they were refused and finally now resorted to war.
Each of the two combatants tried to get the support of the other ruling princes. Arjuna himself went to Dwaraka to enlist the support of Shri Krishna. When Duryodhana heard of this, he also went to Dwaraka in order to have Shri Krishna on his side.
Shri Krishna was asleep in his royal chamber when Duryodhana entered first and took his seat by the pillow. Arjuna sat at the feet of the Lord. When Shri Krishna awoke, he saw Arjuna first and then Duryodhana. He asked them why they had come to see him. Duryodhana requested the Lord to be his ally and help him. He said: “Both of us, O Shri Krishna, are your near relatives. I am sure that you have the same feelings of friendliness and relationship to each of us; but as I entered the royal chamber first, it is meet that you should take my part in the coming war”.
Shri Krishna said in reply: “Although you may have been the first to enter my chamber, yet I saw Arjuna first. I will therefore help both sides. On one side my army which is well disciplined and equipped will fight; on the other side I shall be alone and will not wield any weapon of war”.
The first choice was given to Arjuna. He gladly agreed to take Shri Krishna on his side and Duryodhana was proud to have the great army of Shri Krishna on his side.
When Duryodhana had departed, Shri Krishna asked Arjuna why he had selected him personally, knowing well that he was not going to wield arms in the battle. Arjuna replied: “Lord, I did not come in order to have your army; I came to have you on my side. I am sure that your matchless wisdom and ideal righteousness will lead me to victory in the war. I beg of you to be my charioteer”. Shri Krishna granted Arjuna’s request.
In the army of the Kauravas there were thirty-one divisions. It was led by the most remarkable warrior of that time, Prince Bhishma; and the field-marshals as also the great teacher of the military art were also on the side of the Kauravas.
King Drupada, the father-in-law of Arjuna, sent his family priests to the Kauravas in order to stop the war. He pleaded the cause of the Pandavas ably and demonstrated that justice was on their side. He showed the great danger of the war to the people as well as to the combatants. King Dhritarashtra sent his minister, Sanjaya, to the Pandavas in order to dissuade them from waging war. King Yudishthira accepted
the offer of Sanjaya and said to him: “I am quite willing to make peace in order to protect my subjects from the ravages of war. I shall be satisfied if I have only five villages to live in. I make this great sacrifice in the interests of peace. Instead of my vast dominions, I want only a narrow strip of land where I can live as a private man and pursue the spiritual purpose of my life”.
When Sanjaya returned with the message to King Dhrita- rashtra, a great assembly was convened. The King asked his son Duryodhana to accept this most reasonable offer based on the goodwill and love of peace of King Yudishthira, but Duryodhana refused. He said: “O King, I will not give them even five square yards of land”.
When King Yudishthira learnt of the wicked policy of Duryodhana, he approached Shri Krishna and said: “If war breaks out, it will lead to the destruction of our family and our relatives. You wish prosperity for both sides. I therefore ask you to become the arbiter and avert war”. Shri Krishna agreed to the request of King Yudishthira and offered to go as an ambassador to the assembly of the Kauravas and try to stop the war.
The Lord took with him Satyaki and arrived at the capital of the Kurus, Hastinapura. He exposed the dire consequences of an unjust war to the King and to the assembly, the destruction of families and so on, and asked them to come to a reasonable settlement without resorting to the use of arms.
In a most remarkable speech which the Lord delivered before the assembly of the Kurus, he enumerated the evil doings of the Kauravas:—
- Playing the game of dice based on deceit and fraud.
- The extremely wicked and shameless action of trying to disrobe Queen Draupadi in the assembly.
- The twelve years exile of the Pandavas.
- The attempt to poison Bhima.
- The attempt by constructing a house of inflammable material to burn the Pandavas.
He also showed the patience, tolerance and righteousness of the Pandavas and their insistence on peace. King Dhrita- rashtra and Bhishma and the other chiefs considered the speech of Shri Krishna as full of justice and benevolence; the mother of Duryodhana was also impressed and she asked her son to give way to Shri Krishna, but Duryodhana was
adamant in his decision to wage war. Finally the Lord said to Duryodhana: “If you think you can defeat Arjuna in the war, then choose the bravest, best skilled warrior from your army and let him fight with Arjuna. He who is defeated in this combat should be considered as defeated in the war. In this way you will save the destruction of a large number of people and much property. If you do not agree to this proposal and have not the courage to accept the demands of justice, then make over the portion of the kingdom to the Pandavas which legitimately belongs to them”.
King Dhritarashtra, the grandsire Bhishma, Drona and others pressed Duryodhana to accept this most generous proposal made by the Lord Krishna and not to resort to arms, but Duryodhana said: “We are Kshatriyas. We will not bend our head low before any enemy. We prefer to die in the field fighting than to give way to them. I will not give them even as much land as is covered by the point of a pin. I do not care if my family and countless other families are destroyed. I do not care what happens”.
Shri Krishna again admonished him to be reasonable and to yield to the demands of justice. He told him that as his cause was unjust he was sure to be defeated and would die on the field having been grievously wounded by his enemies.
When the Lord had finished his speech, which impressed everybody, Duryodhana left the assembly. Then the Lord spoke to the elders, such as Bhishma, Drona and other great souls: “O Mahatmas, there is only one way to save the destruction of this royal family and of many warriors, and it is to prevent Duryodhana from waging war and to give the share of the kingdom to the Pandavas, which legitimately belongs to them”.
King Dhritarashtra was struck with terror when he heard the prophetic words of the Lord Krishna. He sent for the mother of Duryodhana, Gandhari, and advised her to prevent her son from waging this war, which was wholly unjust and unreasonable. She went and spoke to Duryodhana, but he made no reply. He came into the assembly and began to plot with Kama, Shakuni and Dushana to imprison Lord Krishna. Satyaki, the companion of Shri Krishna, leamt of the conspiracy and reported the matter to his master. Then Shri Krishna in the open assembly addressed these words to King Dhritarashtra:
“I have heard that your son Duryodhana is plotting to make me a prisoner by force. You know my power and my weakness very well, so you know who can imprison whom, but do not be afraid. I have come here in the capacity of an ambassador and I do not intend to give up my duty in order to punish your son”.
King Dhritarashtra, hearing these words of the Lord, again sent for his son. Then Vidura, the personification of righteousness, explained to him in the assembly of the Kurus the great might and splendour of Shri Krishna and told him that to treat the Lord unjustly was to send an invitation to death on himself. Duryodhana merely laughed loudly. All were filled with amazement at his behaviour. Then Shri Krishna left the assembly and rode off in his chariot. Dhritarashtra then expressed his inability to accept his advice.
Returning to the assembly, Shri Krishna addressed them: “I came here in the interests of justice and the good of both parties. It is not within King Dhritarashtra’s power to make peace, and his son, Duryodhana, who is most unfortunate and unwise, does not wish to do so. It is clear now that there is no other alternative except war”.
The Lord sent for his chariot again and drove out of the town. He said to the great leaders of the Kurus who came to say goodbye to him: “On the seventh day from now Arjuna, under compulsion, will start the war”.
Now that the cause of peace was defeated, the only alternative left was war. The two armies of the Kurus and the Pandavas came to the battle-field of Kurukshetra. Before the actual beginning of hostilities the chief general of the Pandavas, Arjuna, accompanied by his charioteer and minister, Shri Krishna, stood between the two armies. He was filled with pity when he saw the great warriors, his relatives and intimate friends on the battle-field, and apprehension overcame him and he decided not to fight.
Then the Lord Shri Krishna instructed him in his duty, given in the form of the Gita Shastra, and encouraged him to fight.
Sanjaya, who had divine sight and could also hear what was taking place on the battle-field, related the story of the battle to the blind King Dhritarashtra and recited the teachings of the Gita given by the Lord Shri Krishna on the battle-field to him. Then followed the great battle of Kurukshetra.
Our object in giving the history of the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is to show that the most oppressive and tyrannical rule of the Kuru Prince Duryodhana had culminated in a distressing situation for the people he ruled over. His attitude and behaviour towards the Pandavas was most reprehensible and unpardonable. Lord Shri Krishna tried his best to avert war, but it seems it had to come.
To the Pandavas this war, though unavoidable, became a sacred duty. To avoid it would be to deviate from the path of dharma and to see countless people controlled by the power of a tyrant, like Hitler in our day. As a warrior prince, it was Arjuna’s sacred duty to fight, but he was daunted when he saw his teachers, relatives and friends arrayed against him in the mortal battle. Overcome by the false ideas of killing them, he fell into deep moha and wanted to run away from the path of his duty as a warrior prince. It was clear that this sudden illusion of Arjuna was not according to his nature; it was something just imposed by the stress of the moment on his heart. Shri Krishna rid him of his illusory ideas about waging war and gave him the incomparable spiritual gem in the form of the Gita Shastra.
Although the war of Mahabharata created great havoc in Indian society and many of the best men, young and old, were killed and misery increased, still one of its outcomes was the holy Gita Shastra, the supreme literature of the world in the spiritual realm.