On the most iconic picture in Hinduism (Part 1)

A retelling of the Mahabharata war and the events that led to it which solidified Bharatavarsha's dharmic image.

On the most iconic picture in Hinduism (Part 1)

This article is dedicated to the memory of Sant Ram Das ji (1885-1995) of Lakhimpur Kheri, UP

The above picture titled “Gitopadesam” is considered to be the most iconic in all of Hinduism. It shows Lord Krishna addressing and enlightening an irresolute and reluctant Arjuna who wished to excuse himself from the battle just when the Mahabharata War was to begin.   

The genesis of the Mahabharata War was in a feud between the two royal families of ancient India, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, who belonged to the royal house of Kurus. Their feud eventually escalated into the biggest war of its time engulfing not only them but also many royal houses of Bharatavarsha (an ancient name of India).  The Mahabharata War and the events leading to that war constitute the main story of the epic “Mahabharata,” which was composed by Maharishi Vyasa more than 5,000 years ago.1 More than a dozen small and large kingdoms, mostly from the Indian subcontinent, but a few from outside the subcontinent also, bound by their alliances threw their resources into this war. The size of the forces assembled to fight this war provides a glimpse at the magnitude of this conflagration. Eighteen Akshauhinis (army divisions) fought this war; eleven on the side of Kauravas and seven on the side of Pandavas. Each Akshauhini consisted of 21,870 chariots; 21,870 elephants, 65,610 men on horses, and 109,350 foot soldiers. Each Akshauhini was organized in a hierarchy of units and subunits which were deployed strategically. Almost four million combatants, an astounding number for the period, fought this war for 18 days.Nothing of this magnitude would be seen or heard for millennia.  

Although, Pandavas and Kauravas were paternal-cousins, they grew up to have very different ideas, ideals and outlook on life. The Pandavas grew up respecting the Dharmic tradition based on truth, duty and righteousness (compassion, charity and internal and purity, etc.). While to Kauravas, all that mattered was “Might.” In their thinking, and in their modus operandi, truth, justice, kindness, etc. were considered to be un-necessary inconveniences in pursuit of power. Although, the epic “Mahabharata” details the story of these royal houses and it is an encyclopedic record of history and knowledge of ancient India, it is much more than that. It is a testament to the genius of ancient Rishis who created, thousands of years ago, the Dharmic tradition, i.e. the Sanatana Dharma, often and mistakenly referred to as “Hinduism.”  The importance of the epic “Mahabharata” cannot be overstated. It would be no exaggeration to say that, without the gift of “Mahabharata,” India (i.e. Bharat) would not be what it is today. As C. Rajagopalachari has put it, “Vyasa’s Mahabharata is one of our noblest heritages.”2

The story of Mahabharata and the events leading to the Mahabharata War are widely known and can also be easily gleaned from material available on websites.2,3,4 Therefore, only a brief mention of events germane to this article is made here for the ready reference of the reader.

Raja (King) Vichitravirya, who was a descendant of one of the most distinguished ruler of India  named “Bharat,” once ruled a kingdom with the capital at Hastinapur.  But Vichitravirya’s royal family suffered a misfortune. Of his two sons, the elder one named Dhritarashtra was blind from birth and the younger son, Pandu, was frail (“Pandu” also means “yellow,” i.e. anemic or jaundiced). Vichitravirya died early and without naming his successor. The wise and powerful elders of the Kuru clan in Hastinapur, Bhishma (a step brother of Vichitravirya and most valiant among all Kurus), and Vidura – a half-brother to Dhritarashtra and Pandu, chose Pandu to become the king of Hastinapur. They bypassed Dhritarashtra, because he was blind from birth and a blind man could not be expected to carry out the duties of a king.

Raja Pandu had two wives, Kunti and Madri. Kunti gave birth to three sons: Yudhishthira, Bhima and Arjuna, and Madri gave birth to two sons, Nakula and Sahadeva.  These five came to be known as Pandavas.  Dhritarashtra was married to Gandhari and they ostensibly had 100 sons who came to be known as Kauravas. The description in Mahabharata of how that was achieved conjures up the notion of human cloning!  The eldest among the Kauravas was Duryodhana. But he was younger to Pandava princes Yudhisthira and Bhima. Duryodhana, therefore, was third in the line for succession – a long shot. Consequently, an ambitious and anxious prince like Duryodhana was perpetually driven to capture the throne at Hastinapur. To Duryodhana, if the tradition of “the eldest son ascends the throne” was followed by the elders of the kingdom, his blind father Dritarashtra would have been the king of Hastinapur and he (Duryodhana) would have been the crown prince.  

Duryodhana’s mother, Gandhari, was the princess of the kingdom of Gandhara which included Kandhar in Afghanistan. Gandhari was married to blind Dritarashtra by her father to avoid the wrath of mighty Bhishma of Hastinapur who had come to Gandhara seeking a bride for his blind nephew, Dhritarashtra. Gandhari’s brother Shakuni watched this unfold with helplessness and accompanied his sister Gandhari to Hastinapur with a mission to do whatever he could to influence the events in favor of his sister and her descendants, if she were to have any.  Shakuni stayed in Hastinapur and became the mentor to his nephews – the Kauravas. In time, the worldly-wise Shakuni, famous for telling his nephew: “Duryodhana! God gave speech to man not to express himself, but to hide what is in his mind”4would have a decisive influence on Duryodhana and on events leading to Mahabharata War.  The “Shakuni’s Principle,” if you will, enunciated more than 5000 years ago, is perhaps followed universally now producing same results.         

After ruling Hastinapur for a few years king Pandu, accompanied by his wives Kunti and Madri, decided to go to the forest, as was the custom then, to do penance and atone for a “sin” (mistake) king Pandu had committed unknowingly but carelessly. The mistake occurred when hunting for a wild animal, Raja Pandu shot an arrow at a man covered in animal skin, mistaking him for the wild animal, and killed him. The victim held the king responsible for not making it certain what he was shooting at before he let the arrow go, called him careless and cursed him.  As Raja  Pandu had planned to be absent only temporarily, he had arranged for his blind elder brother, Dritarashtra, to sit on the throne of Hastinapur, informally, until he returned from the forest and resumed his royal duties. However, Pandu died in the forest and Madri, blaming herself for his death, died on his pyre. The grief stricken Kunti brought all the five young Pandava sons back to the palace in Hastinapur for their proper upbringing and education. Since all the Pandava and Kaurava princes were under age, blind Dhritarashtra continued as the nominal king of Hastinapur while the affairs of the kingdom continued to be looked after by the powerful and wise elders – Bhishma and Vidura.

The fact that Duryodhana was third in line for succession, drove him and his anxious supporters to despair and the palace politics at Hastinapur grew increasingly strident as the days ticked by. To weaken the competition, the Kauravas led by Duryodhana schemed to have Bhima, second in line for succession and the strongest of the Pandava princes, killed by poisoning him and drowning him, and yet make it look like an accident. Bhima survived this attempt on his life but the incident served as a warning to Pandavas that Kauravas will have no holds barred in pursuit of the throne.

As time passed the princes came of age. Their education completed, the elders decided to designate one among them as the crown prince. Good or bad do not hide from public view for long and it was no secret that Pandava princes in general, but Yudhishthira in particular was adored by the subjects of Hastinapur. So, when the most promising Pandava prince and the eldest among all of them, Yudhisthira, was declared the crown prince of Hastinapur by the elders, the subjects of Hastinapur felt their prayers had been answered.  

The Kauravas under the guidance of their maternal uncle Shakuni (from Gandhar) – a man to whom the end result justified all means, reacted by scheming to have all the five Pandavas (Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva,) and even their mother Kunti, killed before Yudhishthira was coronated. For that purpose, Kauravas helped by Shakuni had a rest house built of highly inflammable materials where the Pandavas would be made to stay on their way to pilgrimage before the coronation. Vidura, the Prime Minister to the king and most concerned at the destructive (Adharmic) attitude of Kaurava princes, got a whiff of the deadly plan and sent a loyal expert tunnel digger to that inflammable rest house as the servant of the Pandavas. The Pandavas escaped this attempt also on their lives by getting out of the burning rest house through the secret tunnel to the outside, dug in time for just such an emergency by that servant. The bodies found of the attendants and guards at the rest house in the wake of the fire were so badly charred that they could not be identified positively. But to Kauravas in Hastinapur, it was mission accomplished. While Kauravas thought all Pandavas had been killed by that “accidental” fire they had planned, the Pandavas escaped into the nearby forest, moved from place to place frequently and lived for several years in the safety of anonymity, away from Hastinapur.  Eventually the Pandavas, after they had become more mature, skillful and confident, reappeared in a nearby kingdom and were identified when Arjuna proved his unique skills at an archery competition to win princess Draupadi’s hand. Once recognized, the Pandavas and their mother Kunti were heartily welcomed back to Hastinapur by the royal elders and the subjects alike.

Kauravas, having consolidated their grip on power in the meantime, did not wish to accommodate the Pandavas in Hastinapur anymore. Finally, to keep peace in the royal family, the kingdom of Hastinapur was divided in which the Kauravas kept a larger part of the kingdom including the capital Hastinapur and the Pandavas got a small portion of the kingdom with bad lands.  It did not take long for the gifted and ethical Pandavas, seeped in Dharmic tradition, to make their subjects happy by their fairness and benevolence and for their subjects, in turn, to make their kingdom a prosperous one.  In time the Pandavas built a shiny, beautiful capital for their kingdom and suitably named it “Indraparastha,” or the “abode of the king of gods” on the bank of the river Yamuna.  The capital of modern India, New Delhi, stands in the same vicinity where this ancient capital, Indraparastha, once stood five thousand years ago.

After Yudhisthira had ruled for some time and the Pandavas had proved their power, the kings in his neighborhood accepted his suzerainty. To formalize the arrangement, Pandavas arranged for a Rajasuya Yagna and invited royal guests from all over Bharatavarsha to attend the ceremonies.  Duryodhana was awe struck to see Indraparastha. The floors of the palace were so shiny and shimmering he walked gingerly on them fearing he might be walking on water. Then, confusing water for floor, he fell into the reflecting pool and was laughed at by the members of the Pandava household who were watching him; particularly Draupadi.  Now the queen of Indraparastha, and no stranger to power and politics, Draupadi laughingly wondered: “Are the children of a blind man also born blind?” Draupadi’s jab may have been in jest, but blinded by power the Kauravas had shortchanged the Pandavas in dividing the kingdom unequally and Draupadi’s verbal jab, like a perfectly aimed spear, found the soft spot on Duryodhana, pierced it and got lodged near his heart.     

Insult added to injury, Duryodhana returned to Hastinapur glum but burning with anger and jealousy.  He bemoaned the fact that: Had the elders not divided the ancestral kingdom, Indraparastha too would have been a part of his kingdom!  Seeing Duryodhana dejected and glum, Shakuni was moved by his affection for his nephew.  And after raising the spirits of Duryodhana, now the de facto ruler of Hastinapur, by first praising him for his valor and kingly instincts, Shakuni proposed a scheme to win back the lost part of the original kingdom, and win it back without bloodshed! What could be better! War with gifted and strong Pandavas was not an option, especially when the powerful elders were still around. So, Shakuni proposed to win Indraparastha for Duryodhana through gambling.  Vidura, who knew well the crafty nature of Shakuni, and Shakuni’s influence on Duryodhana, beseeched the monarch Dhritarashtra to not let the gambling happen “because gambling is evil and evil begets evil.”  Initially, in the Kaurava camp also there was opposition against this “cowardly scheme.”  After all, who had ever heard of kingdoms being won or lost in anything other than war? But Shakuni and Duryodhana prevailed on Dhritarashtra and Yudhishthira was invited to a “friendly game of gambling” by the Kauravas.  Yudhisthira could have declined the invitation but he did not, because: 1) There had already been a lot of ill will generated between the Pandavas and the Kauravas when the kingdom was divided between them and Yudhisthira did not wish to add  to it by declining a “friendly invitation” to a game of dice, and 2) Pandavas had plenty of wealth and Yudhisthira did not see any harm in losing “a few gold coins or gems in a gamble” if that is all it would take to keep the Kauravas in good humor. Kaurava’s ploy worked. By accepting the invitation to a game of dice, Yudhishthira stepped on the slippery slope of gambling.            

Shakuni was a master at playing dice and was known for loading it to his favor at every chance. Shakuni played for Duryodhana, and challenging Yudhishthira to wage more every time Yudhishthira lost the wager, which Yudhishthira did repeatedly, Shakuni made Yudhishthira lose everything – beginning with his gold and jewels, then his land and kingdom, his brothers and finally, even their wife, Draupadi!  Once Draupadi was lost in the wager, the vengeful Duryodhana ordered Draupadi, wife of Maharaja Yudhishthira and the Empress of Indraparastha, brought to court like a menial servant, and be insulted in his presence. Draupadi escaped being disrobed in public by the Grace of Lord Krishna, but there was no escaping the fact that all the wise and mighty elders assembled there to watch “the friendly game of dice” could not stop in time a disaster of such a magnitude from unfolding. An indignant Draupadi asked all those present in the court: “How could Yudhishthira wager me after he had lost himself?  And if he could not wager me thus, why was that wager accepted and why was I dragged here to be so humiliated? There were no answers. A deathly silence hung over the court affirming the dark future.  Aghast at the horrendous developments, the shamed elders nullified the results of the game. But, on the insistence of Duryodhana, who had now tasted the blood, a new game of dice with the Pandavas was ordered, but with limits on wagers.  The Pandavas lost their kingdom once again in that game. But now according to the revised rules, the Pandavas could get their kingdom back if they were to live in exile for thirteen years, and live the last year unrecognized by anyone. Duryodhana and his supporters imposed these conditions assured that it would be impossible for Pandavas to meet them. Trials and tribulations of the Pandavas during the exile tested their mettle.  The deprivation sometimes led to finger pointing at each other, and also to some soul searching. But at the end, howsoever unexpectedly, the Pandavas met all the conditions of their exile and returned to claim their kingdom.

Well entrenched and power intoxicated, Duryodhana now refused to return to Pandavas their part of the kingdom.  Lord Krishna, a cousin to all of the Pandavas and respected by all Kuru elders, visited the Kauravas in Hastinapur in a last-ditch effort to broker a peaceful solution and avoid an all-out war. But Duryodhana not only refused to give back Pandavas’ part of the kingdom back to them, he refused to consider giving them even five villages of it. Going from bad to worse, the Kauravas refused to give even a single village to Pandavas to rule and, finally, even a house for Pandavas to live in! Duryodhana thus made it clear: Now that he ruled the entire ancestral kingdom, there was no room for Pandavas in it.  

Pandavas were now left with no option but to go to war; it was a matter of justice as well as of honor for them. War being imminent, both, the Pandavas and the Kauravas sounded the royal houses allied with them and requested their help. About a dozen kingdoms came to the aid of Pandavas and about the same numbers joined with Kauravas. Arjuna and Duryodhana, representing Pandavas and Kauravas, respectively, also approached Krishna then ruling the kingdom with the capital at Dwarka to request his help by joining their side in the war. Lord Krishna said: You can take me but I shall not fight. Or, you can take my army to join with yours to fight in this war.  Arjuna requested Krishna to join him even if he did not fight. Duryodhana, who had always thought of power in terms of “be-all and end-all,” became elated at the outcome. To him what use would Krishna be in the war if he would not fight? Arjuna requested Krishna to became his charioteer.  Lord Krishna thus became Arjuna’s counsel, guide and Guru at Arjuna’s critical hour of need.  And by doing so, Lord Krishna became the “Guru” to all Dharmic people everywhere as expressed in the verse: “Krishnam Vande Jagad-gurum” – i.e. Salutations to Krishna, Guru to all. (The word “Guru” means the one who removes darkness, i.e. ignorance and doubts.)

In the Mahabharata War, except Lord Krishna, everyone else chose or felt obligated to come to the aid of one side or the other.  Kripacharya and Dronacharya, teachers to both Pandavas, and Kauravas, and Bhishma (the great uncle to all the princes), were all wise men and they knew that Kauravas were Adharmic (wicked) and had done injustice to the Pandavas, but they still felt obligated or duty bound to fight on the side of the throne of Hastinapur. Thus, they fought on the side of Kauravas.

                                       (Picture Credit: Krishan Saxena)


1. Mahabharata, in ENCYCLOPEDIA OF HINDUISM, Vol. VI, 2011. India Heritage Research Foundation, Rupa & Co., New Delhi.

2. MAHABHARATA retold by C. Rajagopalachari, compiled and edited by Jay Mazo,http://www.gita-society.com/section3/mahabharata.htm

3. Mahabharata Story-Summary, Suryaprakash Verma, 2014.http://www.allaboutbharat.org/post/Mahabharat-Story-Summary

4. Mahabharata, From Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahabharata

5. SRIMAD BHAGAVADA GITA, With Sanskrit text and English translation by Jayadayal Goyandka, 1969. Gita Press, Gorakhpur.

6. AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF THE GITA by Swami Ranganathananda, 1991. Advaita Ashram Publication, Calcutta.

7. SRI RAMACHARITAMANASA by Goswami Tulsidas, 1575. Reprinted by Gita Press, Gorakhpur. With Hindi Text and English Translation (A Romanized Edition)

About Author: Krishan Saxena

Krishan Saxena holds a Ph.D. in the field of plant genetics from the University of Illinois at Urbana. Among the various positions he has held, he worked as the director of grants from the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration (USA) for 17 years, Since retirement, he has been catching up on his real love in life, i.e. the study of history and ancient culture of India.

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