The scene of the Epic is the ancient kingdom of the Kurus which flourished along the upper course of the Ganges; and the historical fact on which the Epic is based is a great war which took place between the Kurus and a neighbouring tribe, the Panchalas, in the thirteenth or fourteenth century before Christ.
According to the Epic, Pandu and Dhrita-rashtra, who was born blind, were brothers. Pandu died early, and Dhrita-rashtra became king of the Kurus, and brought up the five sons of Pandu along with his hundred sons.
Yudhishthir, the eldest son of Pandu, was a man of truth and piety; Bhima, the second, was a stalwart fighter; and Arjun, the third son, distinguished himself above all the other princes in arms. The two youngest brothers, Nakula and Sahadeva, were twins. Duryodhan was the eldest son of Dhrita-rashtra and was jealous of his cousins, the sons of Pandu. A tournament was held, and in the course of the day a warrior named Karna, of unknown origin, appeared on the scene and proved himself a worthy rival of Arjun. The rivalry between Arjun and Karna is the leading thought of the Epic, as the rivalry between Achilles and Hector is the leading thought of the Iliad.
It is only necessary to add that the sons of Pandu as well as Karna, were, like the heroes of Homer, god-born chiefs. Some god inspired the birth of each. Yudhishthir was the son of Dharma or Virtue, Bhima of Vayu or Wind, Arjun of Indra or Rain-god, the twin youngest were the sons of the Aswin twins, and Karna was the son of Surya the Sun, but was believed by himself and by all others to be the son of a simple chariot-driver.
The portion translated in this Book forms Sections cxxxiv. to cxxxvii. of Book i. of the original Epic in Sanscrit (Calcutta edition of 1834).
Wrathful sons of Dhrita-rashtra, born of Kuru’s royal race!
Righteous sons of noble Pandu, god-born men of godlike grace!
Skill in arms attained these princes from a Brahman warrior bold,
Drona, priest and proud preceptor, peerless chief of days of old!
Out spake Drona to the monarch in Hastina’s royal hall,
Spake to Bhishma and to Kripa, spake to lords and courtiers all:
“Mark the gallant princes, monarch, trained in arms and warlike art,
Let them prove their skill and valour, rein the steed and throw the dart.”
Answered then the ancient monarch, joyful was his royal heart,
“Best of Brahmans and of warriors, nobly hast thou done thy part!
Name the place and fix the moment, hold a royal tournament,
Publish wide the laws of combat, publish far thy king’s consent.
Sightless roll these orbs of vision, dark to me is noonday light,
Happier men will mark the tourney and the peerless princes’ fight.
Let the good and wise Vidura serve thy mandate and behest,
Let a father’s pride and gladness fill this old and cheerless breast.”
Then the good and wise Vidura unto his duties bound,
Drona, blessed with skill and wisdom, measured out the tourney ground,
Clear of jungle was the meadow, by a crystal fountain graced,
Drona on the lighted altar holy gifts and offerings placed,
Holy was the star auspicious, and the hour was calm and bright,
Men from distant town and hamlet came to view the sacred rite.
Then arose white stately mansions, built by architects of fame,
Decked with arms for Kuru’s monarch and for every royal dame,
And the people built their stages circling round the listed green,
And the nobles with their white tents graced the fair and festive scene.
Brightly dawned the festal morning, and the monarch left his hall,
Bhishma and the pious Kripa with the lords and courtiers all,
And they came unto the mansions, gay and glittering, gold-encased,
Decked with gems and rich baidurya, and with strings of pearls be-laced.
Fair Gandhari, queen of Kuru, Pritha, Pandu’s widowed dame,
Ladies in their gorgeous garments, maids of beauty and of fame,
Mounted on their glittering mansions where the tints harmonious blend,
As, on Meru’s golden mountain, queens of heavenly gods ascend!
And the people of the city, Brahmans, Vaisyas, Kshatras bold,
Men from stall and loom and anvil gathered thick, the young and old,
And arose the sound of trumpet and the surging people’s cry,
Like the voice of angry ocean, tempest-lashed, sublime and high!
Came the saintly white-robed Drona, white his sacrificial thread,
White his sandal-mark and garlands, white the locks that crowned his head,
With his son renowned for valour walked forth Drona, radiant, high,
So the Moon with Mars conjoinéd walks upon the cloudless sky!
Offerings to the gods immortal then the priestly warrior made,
Brahmans with their chanted mantra worship and obeisance paid,
And the festive note of sankha mingled with the trumpet’s sound,
Throngs of warriors, various-arméd, came unto the listed ground.
Gauntleted and jewel-girdled, now the warlike princes came,
With their stately bows and quivers and their swords like wreaths of flame,
Each behind his elder stepping, good Yudhishthir first of all,
Each his wondrous skill displaying held the silent crowds in thrall.
And the men in admiration marked them with a joyful eye,
Or by sudden panic stricken stooped to let the arrow fly!
Mounted on their rapid coursers oft the princes proved their aim,
Racing, hit the targe with arrows lettered with their royal name,
With their glinting sunlit weapons shone the youths sublime and high,
More than mortals seemed the princes, like gandharvas of the sky!
Shouts of joy the people uttered as by sudden impulse driven,
Mingled voice of tens of thousands struck the pealing vault of heaven!
Still the princes shook their weapons, drove the deep resounding car,
Or on steed or tusker mounted waged the glorious mimic war!
Mighty sword and ample buckler, ponderous mace the princes wield,
Brightly gleam their lightning rapiers as they range the listed field,
Brave and fearless is their action, and their movement quick and light,
Skilled and true the thrust and parry of their weapons flaming bright!
Bhima came and proud Duryodhan with their maces held on high,
Like two cliffs with lofty turrets cleaving through the azure sky!
In their warlike arms accoutred with their girded loins they stood,
Like two untamed jungle tuskers in the deep and echoing wood!
And as tuskers range the forest, so they range the spacious field,
Right to left and back they wander and their ponderous maces wield!
Unto Kuru’s sightless monarch wise Vidura drew the scene,
Pritha proudly of the princes spake unto the Kuru queen.
While the stalwart Bhima battled with Duryodhan brave and strong,
Fierce in wrath, for one or other, shouted forth the maddened throng,
“Hail to Kuru prince Duryodhan!” “Hail to Bhima hero proud!”
Sounds like these from surging myriads rose in tumult deep and loud.
And with troubled vision Drona marked the heaving restless plain,
Marked the crowd by anger shaken, like the tempest-shaken main,
To his son then whispered Drona quick the tumult to appease,
Part the armed and angry wrestlers, bid the deadly combat cease,
With their lifted clubs the princes slow retired on signal given,
Like the parting of the billows, mighty-heaving, tempest-driven!
Came forth then the ancient Drona on the open battle-ground,
Stopped the drum and lofty trumpet, spake in voice like thunder’s sound:
“Bid him come, the gallant Arjun! pious prince and warrior skilled,
Arjun, born of mighty Indra, and with Vishnu’s prowess filled.”
Gauntleted and jewel-girdled, with his bow of ample height,
Archer Arjun pious-hearted to the gods performed a rite,