These were the stakes that Duryodhana proposed to settle the game. They would play one round; the losing party must spend twelve years in the forest, in exile, clothed as hermits, then a thirteenth year among the people, in disguise. If they should be discovered during the thirteenth year, they would have to spend another twelve years in exile. If they are able to escape detection, then the kingdom becomes theirs.
Of course Yudhishtira agreed to play, and of course he lost again, and a new phase of the Pandavas’ lives began, the years of forest exile. In many ways, this is the happiest and generally sunniest part of the story. The Pandavas travelled with their retinue all over northern India, visiting the sacred places, meeting all sorts of sages and saints, and hearing the most wonderful stories. Draupadi gave all of her husbands a fair amount of grief for what they put her through, with Yudhishtira taking the worst of the heat. And she egged them toward revenge. But there was no real hardship, and they lived comfortably and well in the forest.
If the story of the Forest Exile is pastoral, the next part of the story, telling of the Pandavas’ thirteenth year, is high burlesque, as the Pandavas sign on as palace servants in the court of King Virata, a minor-league cattle baron with social ambitions. Yudhishtira, having learned the science of dice from a wandering troubador in the forest, signs on as Virata’s tutor in that game. Bhima is employed as the king’s cook, and Draupadi becomes the Queen’s hairdresser. Arjuna, through a boon from Brahma himself, becomes a transvestite; drawing on what he had learned during a visit to his father Indra’s heaven, he/she signs on dancing-mistress to the Princess. In a year full of delightful episode, all the comedy in that situation is exploited.
But then the year was over, the masquerade ended, and Duryodhana, predictably, refused to relinquish the kingdom.
Both sides recruited allies and prepared for war. Diplomatic efforts persisted; Krishna offered a most reasonable compromise, and presented it most persuasively, but Duryodhana refused to give the Pandavas even enough land to cover the head of a pin. It is strange, but even now, even after two thousand years, readers of the story get the sense that at any time, right up to the end, if Duryodhana had come to his senses, then we would have had a totally different set of stories; there would have been no Mahabharata.
He did not come to his senses, of course, and the great war began. It was held on the broad plain of Kurukshetra - the field of the Kurus. There were 18 armies on the one side, the allies of Duryodhana and Dhritarashtra. The Pandavas and their allies mustered 12 armies. An army from Krishna’s tribe of the Vrsnis fought for Duryodhana. Krishna himself was a non-combatant; he had agreed to drive Arjuna’s chariot.
The day of the battle dawned clear, and the armies drew up on opposite sides of the field. Every warrior had his conch shell trumpet, and all were sounding. Imagine the shofar, twice or ten times as loud, and hundreds of them sounding at once. That is what it must have been like.
Arjuna told Krishna, "Take us out between the armies."
Krishna positioned the chariot halfway between the armies, and stopped. It was quieter there; both armies were distant; Arjuna looked out.
"I see my brothers there, my cousins, my uncles, the beloved sons of my beloved friends."
He swung around.
"And there also, there are my cousins, my uncles, the beloved sons of my beloved friends. They are all my brothers, Krishna. It cannot be lawful to kill them. I cannot kill them. I will have no part of this action."
Krishna answered. "There can be no blame for law-minded action, if you act with the proper dispassionate attitude. You must do the right thing, and be heedless of consequence."
Arjuna said, "Krishna, all those people are going to die. I will not be responsible for their deaths."
"Quite right," said Krishna.
"What do you mean?"
Krishna explained. "We act as instruments of dharma. Everybody on this field today is working out karmic dramas that extend back through lifetimes upon lifetimes. You and I, my best true friend, have been preparing for this battle for hundreds of lifetimes. I remember every one of them. You don’t."
Arjuna studied his friend.
"Krishna, who are you?"
And there was a flash of light, bright as a thousand suns, and Arjuna saw Krishna’s cosmic form as Narayana, one of the great gods. There, all at once, were all of the planets and all of the stars and all of the gods and all of the demons and spirits, gandarvhas and apsaras, all of the sages and saints, all of the priests and warriors, all that is and all that ever was and all that will be. Arjuna saw, and felt, endless perfect love swelling to fill the everything that Krishna had become. And he saw all the gory deeds that were ever done and the carnage that must come with time; he saw Krishna tall as mountains, black as night, his eyes blazing as he waded through rivers of blood, the mangled corpses of Duryodhana and his brothers dangling from his bloody jaws.
"Krishna, stop!" Arjuna fell to the chariot floor, his head in his hands. "Be just my friend again."
"But you see how it is, Arjuna," said Krishna, as he helped his friend up. "You cannot kill them, because they are dead already; their own actions have doomed them. You cannot be responsible for their deaths, because each one is responsible for his own death. In each lifetime, each one does what he has to do, and if he does it selflessly, in love of me, without regard for gain or loss, he may come finally to rest in my perfection and be free of the cycles of action and death.
"You are a warrior. You must fight. And you will bear the pain of action because you will be steadfast in your love of me."
"Let us continue," said Arjuna, and he sounded his great conch Devadatta.