ALL was ready for the battle. The warriors on both sides gathered together and solemnly bound themselves to honor the traditional rules of war.
The code of conduct in war and methods of warfare vary from time to time. It is only if what was in vogue at the time of the Mahabharata war is kept in mind that we can understand the epic. Otherwise, the story would be puzzling in places.
From what follows, the reader may have some idea of the rules of warfare followed in the Kurukshetra battle. Each day, the battle was over at sunset, and the hostiles mixed freely like friends.
Single combats might only be between equals and one could not use methods not in accordance with dharma. Thus those who left the field or retired would not be attacked. A horseman could attack only a horseman, not one on foot.
Likewise, charioteers, elephant troops and infantrymen could engage themselves in battle only with their opposite numbers in the enemy ranks.
Those who sought quarter or surrendered were safe from slaughter. Nor might one, for the moment disengaged, direct his weapons against another who was engaged in combat.
It was wrong to slay one who had been disarmed or whose attention was directed elsewhere or who was retreating or who had lost his armor. And no shafts were to be directed against non-combatant attendants or those engaged in blowing conchs or beating drums.
These were the rules that the Kauravas and the Pandavas solemnly declared they would follow.
The passage of time has witnessed many changes in men's ideas of right and wrong. Nothing is exempt from attack in modern warfare.
Not only are munitions made the target of attack, but dumb animals such as horses, camels, mules and medical stores, nay, non-combatants of all ages, are destroyed without compunction.
Sometimes the established conventions went overboard even in the Mahabharata war.
We see clearly in the story that occasional transgressions took place for one reason or another. But, on the whole, the accepted rules of honorable and humane war were observed by both sides in the Kurukshetra battle. And the occasional violations were looked upon as wrong and shameful.
Addressing the princes under his command, Bhishma said: "Heroes, yours is a glorious opportunity. Before you, are the gates of heaven wide open. The joy of living with Indra and Brahma awaits you. Pursue the path of your ancestors and follow the kshatriya dharma. Fight with joy and attain fame and greatness. A kshatriya does not wish to die of disease or old age in his bed but prefers to die on the battlefield," and the princes responded by ordering their trumpets to be sounded and shouted victory to the Kauravas.
On Bhishma's flag shone brightly the palm tree and five stars. On Aswatthama's the lion tail fluttered in the air.
In Drona's golden-hued standard, the ascetic's bowl and the bow glistened, and the cobra of Duryodhana's famed banner danced proudly with outspread hood.
On Kripa's flag was depicted a bull, while Jayadratha's carried a wild boar. Likewise others and the battlefield thus presented a pageant of flags.
Seeing the Kaurava forces ranged in battle array, Yudhishthira gave orders to Arjuna:
"The enemy force is very large. Our army being smaller, our tactics should be concentration rather than deployment that will only weaken us. Array our forces, therefore, in needle formation."
Now, when Arjuna saw men arrayed on both sides for mutual slaughter, he was deeply agitated and Krishna spoke to him in order to quell his agitation and remove his doubts.
Krishna's exhortation to Arjuna at this juncture is the Bhagavad Gita, which is enshrined in millions of hearts as the Word of God. The Bhagavad Gita is acknowledged by all as one of the supreme treasures of human literature.
Its gospel of devotion to duty, without attachment or desire of reward, has shown the way of life for all men, rich or poor, learned or ignorant, who have sought for light in the dark problems of life.