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Vishnu Holds Up a Battle

Vishnu

The Bhagavad-Gita.
Vol. 45, pp. 785-798 of The Harvard Classics

Two armies of ancient India were about to engage in a momentous battle. Arjuna, heroic leader of the Pandu hosts, foreseeing great slaughter, hesitates. He implores the divine Vishnu to intervene. The conversation of the warrior and the god is a gem of Hindu literature.

Chapter I

DHRITIRASHTRA:

RANGED thus for battle on the sacred plain—
On Kurukshetra—say, Sanjaya! say
What wrought my people, and the Pandavas?

SANJAYA:

When he beheld the host of Pandavas
Raja Duryôdhana to Drona drew,
And spake these words: “Ah, Guru! see this line,
How vast it is of Pandu fighting-men,
Embattled by the son of Drupada,
Thy scholar in the war! Therein stand ranked
Chiefs like Arjuna, like to Bhîma chiefs,
Benders of bows; Virâta, Yuyudhân,
Drupada, eminent upon his car,
Dhrishtaket, Chekitân, Kasi’s stout lord,
Purujit, Kuntibhôj, and Saivya,
With Yudhâmanyu, and Uttamauj
Subhadra’s child; and Drupadi’s;—all famed!
All mounted on their shining chariots!
On our side, too,—thou best of Brahmans! see
Excellent chiefs, commanders of my line,
Whose names I joy to count: thyself the first,
Then Bhishma, Karna, Kripa fierce in fight,
Vikarna, Aswatthâman; next to these
Strong Saumadatti, with full many more
Valiant and tried, ready this day to die
For me their king, each with his weapon grasped,
Each skilful in the field. Weakest—meseems—
Our battle shows where Bhishma holds command,
And Bhima, fronting him, something too strong!
Have care our captains nigh to Bhishma’s ranks
Prepare what help they may! Now, blow my shell!”


  Then, at the signal of the aged king,
With blare to wake the blood, rolling around
Like to a lion’s roar, the trumpeter
Blew the great Conch; and, at the noise of it,
Trumpets and drums, cymbals and gongs and horns
Burst into sudden clamor; as the blasts
Of loosened tempest, such the tumult seemed!
Then might be seen, upon their car of gold
Yoked with white steeds, blowing their battle-shells,
Krishna the God, Arjuna at his side:
Krishna, with knotted locks, blew his great conch
Carved of the “Gaint’s bone;” Arjuna blew
Indra’s loud gift; Bhima the terrible—
Wolf-bellied Bhima—blew a long reed-conch;
And Yudhisthira, Kunti’s blameless son,
Winded a mighty shell, “Victory’s Voice;”
And Nakula blew shrill upon his conch
Named the “Sweet-sounding,” Sahadev on his
Called “Gem-bedecked,” and Kasi’s Prince on his.
Sikhandi on his car, Dhrishtadyumn,
Virâta, Sâtyaki the Unsubdued,
Drupada, with his sons, (O Lord of Earth!)
Long-armed Subhadra’s children, all blew loud
So that the clangor shook their foemen’s hearts,
With quaking earth and thundering heav’n.
        Then ’twas—
Beholding Dhritirashtra’s battle set,
Weapons unsheathing, bows drawn forth, the war
Instant to break—Arjun, whose ensign-badge
Was Hanuman the monkey, spake this thing
To Krishna the Divine, his charioteer:
“Drive, Dauntless One! to yonder open ground
Betwixt the armies; I would see more nigh
These who will fight with us, those we must slay
To-day, in war’s arbitrament; for, sure,
On bloodshed all are bent who throng this plain,
Obeying Dhritirashtra’s sinful son.”

  Thus, by Arjuna prayed (O Bharata!)
Between the hosts that heavenly Charioteer
Drove the bright car, reining its milk-white steeds
Where Bhishma led, and Drona, and their Lords.
“See!” spake he to Arjuna, “where they stand,
Thy kindred of the Kurus:” and the Prince
Marked on each hand the kinsmen of his house,
Grandsires and sires, uncles and brothers and sons,
Cousins and sons-in-law and nephews, mixed
With friends and honored elders; some this side,
Some that side ranged: and, seeing those opposed,
Such kith grown enemies—Arjuna’s heart
Melted with pity, while he uttered this:

ARJUNA:

Krishna! as I behold, come here to shed
Their common blood, yon concourse of our kin,
My members fail, my tongue dries in my mouth,
A shudder thrills my body, and my hair
Bristles with horror; from my weak hand slips
Gandîv, the goodly bow; a fever burns
My skin to parching; hardly may I stand;
The life within me seems to swim and faint;
Nothing do I foresee save woe and wail!
It is not good, O Keshav! nought of good
Can spring from mutual slaughter! Lo, I hate
Triumph and domination, wealth and ease,
Thus sadly won! Aho! what victory
Can bring delight, Govinda! what rich spoils
Could profit; what rule recompense; what span
Of life itself seem sweet, bought with such blood?
Seeing that these stand here, ready to die,
For whose sake life was fair, and pleasure pleased,
And power grew precious:—grandsires, sires, and sons.
Brothers, and fathers-in-law, and sons-in-law,
Elders and friends! Shall I deal death on these
Even though they seek to slay us? Not one blow,
O Madhusudan! will I strike to gain
The rule of all Three Worlds; then, how much less
To seize an earthly kingdom! Killing these
Must breed but anguish, Krishna! If they be
Guilty, we shall grow guilty by their deaths;
Their sins will light on us, if we shall slay
Those sons of Dhritirashtra, and our kin;
What peace could come of that, O Madhava?
For if indeed, blinded by lust and wrath,
These cannot see, or will not see, the sin
Of kingly lines o’erthrown and kinsmen slain,
How should not we, who see, shun such a crime—
We who perceive the guilt and feel the shame—
Oh, thou Delight of Men, Janârdana?
By overthrow of houses perisheth
Their sweet continuous household piety,
And—rites neglected, piety extinct—
Enters impiety upon that home;
Its women grow unwomaned, whence there spring
Mad passions, and the mingling-up of castes,
Sending a Hell-ward road that family,
And whoso wrought its doom by wicked wrath.
Nay, and the souls of honored ancestors
Fall from their place of peace, being bereft
Of funeral-cakes and the wan death-water. 1
So teach our holy hymns. Thus, if we slay
Kinsfolk and friends for love of earthly power,
Ahovat! what an evil fault it were!
Better I deem it, if my kinsmen strike,
To face them weaponless, and bare my breast
To shaft and spear, than answer blow with blow.

  So speaking, in the face of those two hosts,
Arjuna sank upon his chariot-seat,
And let fall bow and arrows, sick at heart.

Here endeth Chapter I. of the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, entitled
Arjun-Vishâd,” or “The Book of the
Distress of Arjuna.”

Note 1. Some repetitionary lines are here omitted.


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