Was it morally justified for Duryodhana to go to war against the Pandavas? Did he really hope to win? Had he carefully weighed his chances of victory? Had he under-estimated the strength of the enemy? Forget about the cause, forget about the principles, if he had felt unsure about winning, it was certainly very unethical on his part to go to war, going by the logic of Yudhisthira, the embodiment of virtue.
Preparations for the conclusive war were going on. One day, as he was conferring with Krishna and his brothers, the eldest Pandava asked Sahadeva, who had the knowledge of the past and the future, whether they would win the war. Sahadeva had just told him that there were eleven akshauhinis in the army of the Kauravas. That army was much larger than their own of seven askhauhinis. Yudhisthira said that that If they were not going to win, he would choose not to go to war with his cousins: …tahanku jebe jini nuariba / abara sahodre kimpa bipaksha hoiba (if we cannot win / why should we fight our brothers). War was utterly sinful, the virtuous man knew; however, if it was unavoidable, then one had no choice. He could compromise on war only to that extent. Even then, one had to be careful. If one believed, on reasonable basis, that one was going to win, only then going to war would be morally justified. Sahadeva said he knew the outcome but would not tell; he suggested that Yudhisthira asked the one called Bharada about it. To cut a long story short, Bharada was brought to the presence of Yudhisthira and he told him that haribe durjyodhana jinime jujesthi (Duryodhana will lose, Yudhisthira will win).
When Krishna was going to Duryodhana as Duryodhana’s emissary for peace, he had asked Bhima, Arjuna and Nakula separately who he would be able to kill if Duryodhana rejected their request for villages and war became inevitable. Said Krishna to Bhima: …tu ho sangrama je kale / kaha kaha kain jini paributi tohara bale (if you go to war / who all will you be able to kill). Bhima said that he would kill all the Kaurava brothers. Responding to the same question, Arjuna said that he would kill Bhurishrava, guru Drona, Bhishma, Karna and Salya. Nakula said that he would kill their uncle Salya, Karna, Sakuni and Lakshmana Kumara, among others. It appears that by asking them that question, Krishna was trying to ascertain their self-confidence and motivation for war. As for Sahadeva, he had neither asked for any village or anything else nor had Krishna asked him about who he would be able to kill in the event of a war. Theirs was the conversation between the One who is the Cause of everything and his devotee who knew His ways. Details are unnecessary for our present purpose.
As for the Kauravas, shortly before the war, Duryodhana had held an assembly of the warriors who had come to fight for him and implored them to win him victory in the war. The Pandavas were powerful and then there was Krishna with them, and he had never been a winner against them till then. He told the celebrated warriors that he depended on them for victory and that he would honour whosoever among them would assure him that he would be able to vanquish Arjuna and Krishna. He would be anointed as the commander-in-chief of the mighty Kaurava army. Like Krishna with respect to the Pandavas, he was trying to ascertain the self-confidence and the motivation of his warriors. In that assembly were Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Bhurishrava, Salya, Kripacharya. Aswasthama, Somadutta, Bahlika, Dussasana, Sakuni and Jayadratha, among others.
Kritavarma responded to Duryodhana’s words and he didn’t mince his words. Of all those assembled there, no one was capable of defeating the Pandavas, he told the Kaurava king. Together, they wouldn’t be able to defeat even Sahadeva: jeteka nrupati tu nimantrilu ani / samaste na paranti yeka sahadebanta jini (All those kings you have invited / They all wouldn’t be able to defeat Sahadeva). King Duryodhana could ask them why, in that case, they had come, if they believed they were so impotent, he told Duryodhana. He said they had come to see Krishna on Arjuna’s chariot: srikrushna sarathi parthara nandighosha rathe / samaste ailu ambhe krushnanta dekhiba nimante (Sri Krishna would be the charioteer on Arjuna’s chariot / We have all come to see Krishna). Seeing Krishna, they would fall in the battlefield and would attain moksa, he told Duryodhana. All the kings assembled there said that they concurred with Kritavarma.
Duryodhana did not say anything but Bhishma knew that he was deeply disappointed. He rose from his seat, with his sword raised and vowed that he would kill Krishna and Arjuna. A greatly relieved Duryodhana worshipped him with words of praise and declared him as the commander-in-chief of the great Kaurava army. Aswasthama could not control himself and he told Duryodhana in the presence of all that what he had done was very inauspicious. Bhishma’s hidden objective was to get killed in the war, he told the Kaurava king. Duryodhana denounced him as evil-minded right from his childhood, and Drona expressed his disappointment at his son’s conduct. Bhurishrava told the Kauravas that Bhishma was a highly honourable person and that none must think that he was one who would make empty promises.
But what he said then, amounted to a stern warning. He reminded Duryodhana of how on several occasions he had been saved from disaster by the Pandavas, not the celebrated Kaurava warriors, including Bhishma, Drona and Karna. The demon, Pandavasura, had swallowed him and Arjuna had split his body and saved him. The demon Saintika, said Bhurishrava, had killed him along with his ninety-nine brothers and was abducting his wife Bhanumati with him, when the virtuous princess called out Arjuna for help. Arjuna killed the demon, saved Bhanumati and with his divine arrow of nectar, he revived him and his brothers. He had also saved him from the gandharva Chitrasena, who had tied him to his chariot and was taking him to the abode of the gods, where, in Lord Indra’s presence he planned to behead him. Only a few days ago, in the Virata war, Arjuna had defeated Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Aswasthama, the Kaurava brothers, him himself, and everyone in the entire army became unconscious when Arjuna targeted them with his moha arrow. If he had asked prince Uttara to cut off their heads, they would have all been dead. But he didn’t. They thus owed their life to Arjuna. And those who try to harm the ones who had done them good, would always be counted as the lowest of the low, the meanest of the mean and the vilest of the vile creatures, he said.
Besides, the Pandavas, were no enemies, he said. The proper thing to do would be to find a way to peace between the Kauravas and the Pandavas.
Duryodhana couldn’t stand Bhurishrava’s painful harangue any longer. “In front of the Avatara I took a vow not to give the Pandavas a share of the kingdom”, said Duryodhana. It was, therefore, a sacred vow. On no account would he dishonour it. “Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Salya, Bhurishrava and whoever else on his side feared for life, must leave him forthwith and seek shelter from the Pandavas”, he said. He would fight the Pandavas. There would be with him his ninety-nine brothers, his son, Lakshmana Kumara and his brother-in-law, Jayadratha, he said, but if they too were afraid of death, then they too could seek protection from the Pandavas. He had taken the vow to fight and fight he would, all alone, if it came to that.
It was Bhishma again who provided him succour. He must not worry in the least, the one, who death could not claim without his willingness, assured him. He would fight for him with full vigour and his wish will be fulfilled, he told Duryodhana. The Kaurava warriors cheered him. Hope returned to the army.
But nothing changed the facts in Bhurishrava’s assertion that the mighty warriors on whom Duryodhana depended for victory in the impending war, had not been able to protect him till then, when his life was under threat. And then, the fact remained that the elder Kurus and guru Dronacharya did not see the Pandavas as enemy. Not even Karna, despite his hostility towards Arjuna. But these facts did not weaken Duryodhana’s resolve to fight. He was unworried about defeat. He had taken a vow.
So, Yudhisthira would not go to war if there was no certainty of his victory. Duryodhana would go to war irrespective of the outcome. However, it was not the case that he was stepping on the Kurukshetra war field, knowing that he would lose. That being the case, if it was right for Yudhisthira to go to war, then so was it for Duryodhana. Neither believed that he was going to lose.
At the end, placing Duryodhana’s head on his lap, who was lying fatally wounded, a disconsolate Yudhithira was crying for his fallen cousin. He asked him why he went to war and how he did not understand that he could never win against Arjuna, Bhima and Sahadeva. He was well-acquainted with their prowess and attainments. He knew that Arjuna had defeated the great god Mahadeva himself. He had defeated the incomparable Hanuman of the aeon of Treta (by the way, although he had greatly impressed him with his archery, he hadn’t really defeated him; perhaps Yudhisthira did not know the whole story). Perhaps he did, but that was no occasion for him to be punctilious. Whatever he had said best served his purpose. Didn’t he know, Yudhisthira told the one of whom he had said, time and again, that he was dearer to him than Bhima, that Arjuna had killed the demon Nirvata Kachapa, who had driven the gods away from Swarga. And didn’t he remember that only a few days ago, he had single-handedly defeated the entire Kaurava army in the Virata war. As for Bhima, let alone the mortals, even the immortals were afraid of him, said Yudhisthira. Sahadeva knew the past and the future, and the death-secrets of everyone. And then there was Krishna himself who was protecting the Pandavas. He should have known that given these resources that the Pandavas had, he could never win against them. He did not learn from his experience and went by wrong advice and brought only destruction to himself, said Yudhisthira.
Duryodhana listened to the reprimand of his deeply anguished elder cousin but did not say anything. Maybe, he knew things that had gone far too wrong for him to say anything by way of protest. Or more likely, he knew that Yudhisthira’s agony was genuine and his tears honest and that concealed in his reprimand, was his unmistakable affection for him.
Now, although he does not say it in so many words, Yudhisthira’s thinking is clear on the matter of going to war: one must not choose to go to war if one felt that one was not going to win. By doing so, one would bring disaster not just to oneself but to an entire army in which there would be far too many who would be fighting, although it was not their war even remotely.
But did Duryodhana go to war knowing that he was or was most likely to lose? Certainly, not. The Virata war was one thing, a conclusive war against the Pandavas would be another. Besides, if there was Arjuna on the Pandavas’ side, there were, on his side, Bhishma, Drona, Karna and Aswasthama – all exceptional archers like Arjuna and all of whom had divine weapons, like Arjuna. And Bhishma wouldn’t die unless he so wished, Aswasthama was immortal and Karna had the infallible divine weapon given to him by Indra. In his huge army were great warriors like Jayadratha, Salya, Kripacharya, Kritavarma, Bhurishrava, Sakuni and many others. And then there was with him Krishna’s brave and dreadful Narayani sena. Their commitment was beyond doubt. They had come to die in the Kurukshetra war fields and attain moksa, as Kritavarma had said, but they were not going to betray Duryodhana by looking for opportunities to get themselves killed at the earliest, putting up just the semblance of a fight. There was of course Krishna with the Pandavas but he had told him that he would not take part in the war and would remain unarmed in the battlefield. In short, Duryodhana had no good reason to believe that he was not going to win.
But he was let down by his commanders-in-chief. It was not a matter of their ability or their commitment; there were other things. Bhishma would not face Shikhandi because of the way their lives were connected in the latter’s earlier existence as Amba. One day or the other he would have come face-to-face with Shikhandi. But he made things easier by telling Arjuna that “secret’ of his, when he met him in his camp before day break on the tenth day of the war. However, it was not that he had volunteered to tell Arjuna; ignoring details, he was duped into doing so by Sahadeva and Krishna. Drona knew, as did everyone else, that Aswasthama was immortal, by virtue of the boon he had received from Creator god Brahma. Yet when he heard that Aswasthama was dead, he went asking warriors whether it was true. His strong sense of insecurity for his son was a consequence of his excessive attachment to him. It had so befuddled his mind that he could not think that Brahma’s boon was infallible. It was on this account, rather than Yudhisthira’s lie, that he lost his life. As for Karna, his conflicting commitments robbed the Kauravas of victory. He could have killed Yudhisthira but had let him go. He had let Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva go too; he could have killed each of them. He kept his word to his mother. He was a virtuous man; for him, his commitment to his mother was more important than his commitment to the Kaurava army and to king Duryodhana. But make no mistake, his commitment to Duryodhana was beyond question. He had tried to kill Arjuna, but had failed. And that, on account of Krishna. Now, what weapon was there in the three worlds which could kill the one who Krishna was shielding!
In fact, what really led to Duryodhana’s defeat was the Avatara’s interventions in favour of the Pandavas. Bhishma used an infallible divine arrow to kill Arjuna and Arjuna could not counter it. Unknown to everyone in the battlefield, Krishna destroyed it with his Sudarshana chakra. He created the illusion of sunset and saved Arjuna from self-immolation. Krishna knew that Arjuna would not be able to reach Jayadratha before sunset that day and would submit himself to fire. Karna had directed, unlike in the canonical version, the divine weapon he had got from Indra, at Arjuna, not Ghatotkacha but Krishna manipulated to protect Arjuna and get Ghatotkacha killed. The details need not detain us here. Arjuna had no answer to Karna’s sosaka astra (snake- Sosaka arrow) and Krishna saved him again, this time directing Hanuman on the top of Arjuna’s chariot to remove it from the battlefield. The killer arrow missed the target. Krishna saved the Pandavas and their army from Aswasthama’s Narayana astra by telling them how to pacify it. The son of Dharma would not have lied to his guru but for Krishna’s pressure; it was his lie that killed Drona. The hits that felled Duryodhana were not from his own mace but Narayana’s koumodaki (better known as “koumudi”). No one knew. Now, did Bhima normally wield the Supreme god’s mace?
Clearly, Duryodhana had not taken into consideration Krishna, when, before the war, he was assessing his strength vis-à-vis the Pandavas’. He knew it very well that the he had all along been protecting the Pandavas. But Krishna had told him (to elder brother Balarama too) that he would not take part in the war and would only witness the happenings. He did not honour his words. That he was wily was not unknown to anyone in Sarala Mahabharata. But Duryodhana trusted the Avatara.
Now, don’t blame Duryodhana. One cannot plan anything taking destiny into account in one’s planning. Don’t ask whether one has a choice when it comes to destiny and whether distrust of destiny would lead to any positive outcome. In any case, despite his support for the Pandavas on multiple occasions, he was never hostile to him. He was Narayana; His many acts of what he thought was unfairness towards him, did not disconnect him from Him. Many are the hades of bhakti.
What does one say of Krishna? He had betrayed Duryodhana’s trust. True, but only from the laukika perspective. But Sarala does not hold it against him; as he narrates the lila of Krishna in his Mahabharata, he operates at the levels of the worldly and the cosmic both and occasionally relates them, so as to enable his listeners to see the happenings at both levels and understand the nature and the relationship between the two levels of reality. Sarala wanted his present and future audience to understand that the Avatara had come to the mortal world with a cosmic purpose. So, who he was unfair to or partial towards from the laukika perspective was inconsequential.