Living Gita: 05: War Conches Blown

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Then conches, kettle drums, tabors, trumpets and cow-horns suddenly blared forth from the Kaurava side creating a tumult.

Stationed in their splendid chariot with white horses yoked to it, Krishna and Arjuna too then blew their sacred conches – Krishna blew his Panchajanya and Arjuna, the Devadatta.

Bhima of terrible deeds joined them blowing his great conch Paundra. King Yudhishtira blew his conch Anantavijaya and Nakula and Sahadeva blew the Sughosha and the Manipushpaka.

Then Kashiraja, the outstanding bowman; Sikhandi, the mighty chariot-warrior; Dhrishtadyumna and Virata; Satyaki, the unvanquished; Drupada, the sons of Draupada, and the mighty-armed son of Subhadra, O Lord of the earth, all blew their conches.

The tumultuous bellow of the conches, resounding through the sky and earth, tore through the hearts of the Kaurava warriors. BG 1.13-19


Just as the Gita does not tell us the names of the conches the Kaurava warriors blew, it also does not tell us anything about what effect the blowing had on the Pandavas.

As a rule, the warriors of the Mahabharata war were excited about wars. For them it was a parva, a festival, a celebration, a sacrifice in the Vedic sense of the term, a sacred ritual in which you offered yourself as the ahuti in the fire of the yajna that the war was. For, everyone in the Mahabharata society knew that death was no more than a change of clothes, as the Gita later says. They knew that no one ever really died nor did anyone ever kill anyone: naayam hanti na hanyate – “this [soul] neither kills nor dies.”

Sage Vyasa describes with immense thrill the ecstasy the warriors experience in the battlefield as they meet with their heroic death. The only thing they were worried about was they should not die the death of cowards! Death was the bride they courted in war with as much ardour as a young man courts his beloved.

A warrior was taught from his birth to look upon glory in battle as the most desirable goal of life. To him battles were peak experiences, accompanied by rapturous ecstasies. The warriors lived for such experiences and when an opportunity arose, even the possibility of death did not deter them from courting these. If anything, that threat added excitement to the challenge. They believed that “the death that a Kshatriya meets with at home is censurable. Death on one's bed at home is highly sinful. The man who casts away his body in the woods or in battle after having performed sacrifices, obtains great glory. He is no man who dies miserably weeping in pain, afflicted by disease and decay, in the midst of crying kinsmen.”

Many people came to join the Mahabharata war without caring which side they joined so long as they got an opportunity to fight! Shishupala first approached the Pandava side requesting them to take him and when they refused, went to the Kauravas requesting them to take him on their side! Karna did keep the promise he made to his mother Kunti about not killing any of her sons other than Arjuna but apart from that, he fought to his best in the war calling the war a Vedic yajna, a fire sacrifice, though his heart is not in it because of the unethical ways of Duryodhana,

However, speaking of the impact of the conches blown by Krishna and the Pandavas verse 19 of the chapter says that the tumultuous boom echoed and reechoed in the sky and on the earth and cleaved through the hearts of the warriors on the Kaurava side.

They were terrified by the power of the challenge thrown at them by the Pandavas.

Now, if warriors in the Mahabharata times excitedly looked forward to death and glory in battles, why should the Kaurava warriors be terrified all on a sudden?

Being on the side of right gives one immense strength whether it is while taking an important decision in personal life or in the corporate boardroom or while facing an enemy in the battlefield. In the previous article we saw how absolutely fearless ordinary Indians were as they faced the might of the British Empire in the freedom struggle, as when they did satyagraha in front of the Dharasana Salt Works in Gujarat. “Rang de basanti chola, maiye rang de, mera rang de basanti chola,” our freedom fighters sang with a thrill in their voice: “Colour my clothes saffron, O Motherland, colour my clothes saffron!” “Sarfaroshi ki tamannaa ab hamare dil mein hai, dekhnaa ki zor kitnaa baazu-e-qaatil mein hai” – these immortal lines written by Bismil Azimabadi that spoke of the freedom fighters desire to offer their heads for their cause became the war cry of millions of soldiers of India’s battle for freedom from British shackles. That is the kind of fearlessness you have in your heart when you are on the side of the right cause.

The warriors in the Kaurava army knew they were on the side of the wrong cause and hence the fear in their hearts as they stand ready to battle and hear the sound of the battle challenge of the Pandavas.

Faith in dharma was strong in the Mahabharata society and they strongly believed that final victory will go to where dharma is: yato dharmas tato jayah. Satyam eva jayate, said the Mundaka Upanishad [3..1.6] and they believed satya is the highest dharma and where satya is, victory will be.


Blowing conches at the beginning of all sacred acts is part of the timeless Indian tradition. Morning and evening worships in India both in temples and in homes begin with the blowing of conches. Even today in Bengal homes, for instance, no evening worship is conducted without the blowing of conches, traditionally done by women. Blowing conches here at the beginning of the war is thus not just announcing the war and challenging the enemy to fight but also declaring to oneself and to others that what is about to begin is as much an act of worship as a puja is.

For our ancestors, a dharma yuddha was a sacred yajna in which offerings of human life were made into the sacrificial fire of battle lit in the battlefield. And the goal to be attained through the yajna was the common good for the world and glory and the bliss of battle for the individual soldier.

Anything we do can be a sacred act if it is done with the right attitude. It is not the act that makes it sacred but the attitude behind it.

There was once a saintly old man who never ate or drank while the sun shined in the sky. And the people noticed that the heavens were delighted with his vow. For, there appeared a bright star above the nearby mountain whenever the man was in the village. The star remained in the sky not only at night but also throughout the day for everyone in the village to see. People revered the man and his penance that made this miracle possible.

Every once in a while the man made a solitary trip to the mountain top to spend some time there in solitude. But one day when he started a little girl from the village said she too would go with him. The man tried to dissuade the girl telling her the journey was very tough and also, he would neither eat nor drink during the entire trip. But the little girl insisted and the man did not know how to say no to her without hurting her.

As they started, people looked up at the mountain top: the star was bright in the sky above the mountain.

The journey was indeed tough and the climb very steep. An hour or two after they started, the little child was very thirsty. The man told her to drink some water from one of the tiny streamlets of fresh water along the mountain path they were using. But the girl said she would not drink unless he too drank. This happened three or four times and finally the man realized the child will not be able walk another step unless she had a drink of water. Very reluctantly he decided to do what he had never done before – break his vow and drink some water so that the little girl too can drink.

The man was now afraid to look at the sky above the mountain. He had broken his vow! The miracle star will no more be there! Shivering inside, the man slowly raised his head and looked up.

And the story tells us his eyes met with a greater miracle. Where the lone star used to be, there now stood two stars in the sky, each shining more brightly than the lone star ever did.

Keeping a religious vow is a sacred act. But breaking the vow can be spiritual too, if it is done for the right reasons.

Killing in battle can be a sacred act if it is done for the right reasons and with the right attitude.

The Mahabharata speaks of the professional butcher Dharmavyadha who climbs to such great heights of spirituality that a great ascetic is sent to learn from the butcher! The butcher had practiced butchery as his dharma, with the right attitude.

A war in which thousands of people are killed can be sacred too under the right circumstances. It can be fought as a sacred ritual.

The Saundarya Lahari of Adi Shankracharya is one of most precious gems the acharya gifted to the world. It has this beautiful prayer made to the Goddess so that everything we do becomes an act of worship. The shloka says:

japo jalpah shilpam sakalam api mudraa-virachanaa
gatih praadakshinya-kramanam ashanaady-aahuti-vidhih
pranaamah samveshah sukham akhilam atmaarpana-drishaa
saparya-paryaayaas tava bhavatu yan me vilasitam.
Saundarya Lahari 27

The shloka says: O Goddess, may all my meaningless talk be your prayer, all the movements of my body be the sacred gestures of your worship, my walk pradakshina around you, my eating and drinking oblations offered to you! May my lying down be prostrations to you and everything else that I do for my comfort and joy be acts of your worship and my surrender to you!

Yad yad karma karomi tattadakhilam shambho tavaraadhanam – “May every single act of mine become worship offered to you, O Lord,” says another famous shloka.

Krishna himself says in the Gita:

yat karoshi yad ashnaasi yaj juhoshi dadaasi yat
yat tapasyasi kaunteya tat kurusva madarpanam

– “All that you do, O Arjuna, all that you eat, all offerings you make and all that you give away, all austerities that you perform – dedicate all that to me.” BG 9.27

While everything you do or have could be offered in worship, it is the best you have that you offer to the Lord, and in the life of a kshatriya there is nothing superior to a dharma yuddha. Certainly his offering of a leaf, or a flower, or a lighted lamp, or the words of a prayer is not superior to that. The highest worship is offering actions originating from the best in you. For an artist, the best he can offer in worship is his art, for a singer it is his song, for a writer it is his writing, for a leader it is his leadership. What better offering can a warrior, a kshatriya, make at the feet of the Lord than a dharma yuddha?

Krishna makes all this clear beyond a doubt when he says in the concluding chapter of the Gita: swakarmanaa tam abhyarchya siddhim vindati maanavah – “Man achieves the highest by worshipping Him through his actions.” Gita 18.46

Nothing would be more appropriate than the blowing of the conches by the chief warriors at the beginning of the Kurukshetra war.

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