Dawn came to the Pandava camp in silence on the sixteenth day. It was not the silence of peace, but the silence of tension, the empty silence that comes before death.
Yudhisthira sat alone in his tent, cross-legged on the ground with his head bowed. To all the world he was deep in meditation. But it was nothing more than a false pretence to gain some silence and privacy; as false, he thought, as the rest of him.
He heard the rustle of cloth as the flap of his tent was pushed open. The fresh air carried with it the fragrance of lotus blossoms, strong and pleasant in the confined space of his tent.
“Welcome, Madhava,” he said without raising his head.
Krishna closed the tent, then came to Yudhisthira and sat down beside him on the carpeted floor. “You are angry with me, Dharmaputra,” he said gently.
“Do not call me by that name,” answered Yudhisthira. “What son of Dharma gambles away his wife in a game of dice? What son of Dharma watches in silence the humiliation of a queen and the murder of a helpless old man?” His voice dropped to a whisper. “What son of Dharma slays his own guru with a lie?”
Krishna was watching him through unreadable dark eyes. “It was no lie,” he said.
“What was it if not a lie?” countered Yudhisthira bitterly. “He came to me because he trusted me to give him the truth. He had faith in my honor. I saw his grief, I saw the trust in his eyes, and I betrayed him and all his teachings with one sentence.” Aswatthama is dead.
“My father abandoned me before I was born. My mortal father left when I was a child. My uncle Dhritarashtra was blind in more than his eyes, absorbed in his love for his own sons. Dronacharya was more than my guru, he was the truest father I had.” His voice cracked. “If I am accounted wise, Krishna, it was his wisdom. If my brothers are mighty, it was his strength.”
Krishna placed a hand gently on Yudhisthira’s shoulder. “He was proud of you,” he murmured. “The heavens themselves watched his battle with Arjuna. From the chariot I could see his eyes filled with pride and love, even as he hurled astra after astra at Arjuna’s body.”
Yudhisthira bowed his head at the thought of his brother. Arjuna had gone along with the deceitful plan reluctantly, at the behest of his elder brothers and Krishna. Even then, Yudhisthira could see that he had hoped to capture his beloved teacher alive.
Now the entire army could see Arjuna’s violent grief, and Yudhisthira himself had not been able to meet his brother’s accusing eyes.
“Drona betrayed his own teachings first,” continued Krishna. “He chose to support Suyodhana’s army, even though he knew and acknowledged the righteousness of your cause.”
“He chose to fulfill his debts to the household that sheltered him and his family for decades,” Yudhisthira pointed out. “What have I and my brothers given him but death?"
"And tell me truly, Krishna,” his voice dropped to a whisper, “had he chosen to take our part, would his choice have been any less evil? Drishtadyumna beheaded a man as he sat unarmed in meditation on the floor of his chariot. What dharma was served by this act? This is no war of good and evil. If it began as one, it surely ceased to be one yesterday.”
He looked up in despair. “You are the source of all spiritual and material worlds, Madhava. Everything emanates from you. You commanded me to raise my banners against my family, my elders and my friends, and I obeyed. But why this?”
He could see the depths of Krishna’s dark eyes fill with compassion. "You are a king in this world, Dharmaputra,” he said softly. “But it is not your task to establish right and wrong. It is mine. When you told that falsehood at my command, it was accounted as truth. No sin attaches to you."
“If it gives you comfort,” he went on, “know that your teacher passed away in peace and contemplation, with his mind fixed on the Lord. His spirit immediately passed to heavenly regions where it was welcomed with joy. He took no pleasure in this war. Had he remained to live through it, his suffering would only have grown with each passing day.”
Krishna’s hand tightened on Yudhisthira’s shoulder, and little by little Yudhisthira felt his grief ebbing away. His anger had left him on the first day of battle, at the sight of the first young boy crushed under the wheel of his chariot with his spear through his heart. Now there was only grief; grief, and guilt.
“The past and the future are as one to me,” said Krishna. “I promise you that you and your brothers shall emerge victorious from this battlefield, and for the suffering you endure now you shall have peace in the next world. Your deeds here will not fail to be rewarded.”
“I know,” sighed Yudhisthira. All his emotion had left him now; he could feel nothing but grim resignation for what lay ahead. “I have seen the flames of Aswatthama’s rage over the Kaurava army. The father lived for the son, and the son for the father. Had I slain his father honorably in battle, he would not have mourned. Now he will not rest until he has avenged this treachery.”
He gave Krishna the faintest hint of a smile. “I shall remember your teachings then, my lord.” he said. “I will accept my reward, when it comes. I will pay the price.”
Krishna was silent as Yudhisthira rose and gathered up his weapons.
“Do not tell me the future, Govinda,” he said. “I cannot bear to hear it.”