The next morning, i.e. on the tenth day of battle, the Pāṇḍavas had created a battle formation with Śikhaṇḍi leading it. To his left and right stood Bhīma and Arjuna. Behind him, stood the Upa-pāṇḍavas (sons of the five brothers) and Abhimanyu (son of Arjuna). And behind them came Dhṛṣṭadyumna and other warriors along with the army. On the side of the Kauravas, as usual, Bhīṣma was at the forefront. Duśśāsana and other Kauravas stood to his left and right; behind him stood Droṇa, Aśvatthāma, Bhagadatta, and others.
Once the battle started, he attacked the Pāṇḍava army with his weapons and left many wounded or dead. At one point Arjuna boosted the confidence of Śikhaṇḍi with the words, “I will support you and destroy all your enemies. You face Bhīṣma without any fear or hesitation.”
Bhīṣma was hardly affected by Śikhaṇḍi’s arrows. In response, he did not shoot arrows at Śikhaṇḍi. Duśśāsana began combating Arjuna, who was giving protection to Śikhaṇḍi; but having lost the duel, he turned around and rushed to Bhīṣma.
Completely disregarding Duśśāsana, Bhīṣma was battling Arjuna. Arjuna endured the arrows of Bhīṣma and using divine weapons, he burnt to death the Videhas, Kalingas, and Shurasenas who were rushing in to protect Bhīṣma. Similarly, Duśśāsana, Kṛpa, Vikarṇa, Śalya, and other heroes were defeated and they retreated from the front.
At that point, the Pāṇḍavas surround Bhīṣma and began shooting arrows; his armour was pierced, his bow was broken, and arrows had pierced various parts of his body. Bhīṣma fell down along with all the pierced arrows in his body. There was great tumult all over, with wailing and screaming. Warriors of both armies put their weapons down and stood speechless.
But Bhīṣma did not die immediately.
Since it was dakṣiṇāyaṇa (period of six months between Summer Solstice and Winter Solstice), Bhīṣma lay on the bed of arrows waiting for uttarāyaṇa (period of six months between Winter Solstice and Summer Solstice). It is believed that those who die during uttarāyaṇa attain the highest heavens. Since he had the boon that he could die whenever he desired, he decided that he would die during uttarāyaṇa.
By the time Bhīṣma fell, it was evening, and the day’s battle came to an end. Warriors of both armies came near Bhīṣma, bowed down to him, and offered their respects. He expressed great happiness upon seeing them all and then said, “My head is hanging in the air; I need a head-rest!”
Soft pillows and cushions were brought. But Bhīṣma did not need those. With a subtle laugh he said, “These pillows won’t do for a warrior’s bed!” He then looked at Arjuna and said, “If you know the appropriate headrest, can you give it to me?” He immediately bowed to Bhīṣma, pulled out his Gāṇḍīva and three arrows; after chanting a mantra he shot those arrows to the ground; they stuck to the ground and provided a head-rest to Bhīṣma. The grandsire was delighted that Arjuna correctly guessed his intentions.
At that point, skilled doctors came there with their equipment in order to remove all the arrows that had pierced the body of the old hero. Bhīṣma gave orders that the doctors should be paid their honorariums and asked to leave; he said, “In this condition, what do I have to do with doctors? How can they help me! I’ve attained an exalted status desired by a kṣatriya; you must burn my body along with these arrows after I’m gone!”
The next morning everyone came to catch a glimpse of Bhīṣma and offered their salutations to him. Young women came there and showered sandalwood powder and flower buds on him, thus honouring him. Young boys, old men, and women – they all came to see him in droves. Singers, dancers, and actors came there and offered their respect by singing, dancing, and entertaining Bhīṣma. The Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas kept aside their armours and their weapons temporarily, gave a pause to the war, and came to serve Bhīṣma according to their age and station, akin to the old days when they still had warmth and affection for each other. Bhīṣma bravely endured the pain caused by the pierced arrows but was unable to bring a smile to his face. He said, “I’m on the verge of fainting due to the heat of these arrows; I want water!”
Water was brought from all sides along with several snacks. Looking at that, Bhīṣma said, “Please! I’m now lying on a bed of arrows. I can’t enjoy any pleasures of the senses; I’m seeing the movement of the sun and moon in front of my eyes!” Then he looked at Arjuna and said, “The arrows have pierced me and the body is burning. All the vulnerable points in the body have been overcome by pain. The mouth is dry and the throat is parched; I need water that will cool my body; you are the one who will be able to give me water the right way!”
Arjuna said, “So be it!” and went to his chariot to pick up his Gāṇḍīva and an arrow. He did a pradakṣiṇa of Bhīṣma (went around him in a circle), invoked the parjanyāstra in the arrow, and then shot it on the ground to the right side of where Bhīṣma was lying. As soon as the arrow struck the earth, cool water that was crystal clear, fragrant, and elixir-like sprung out like a fountain. Everyone was astonished. Conches were blown and drums were beaten. The Kauravas trembled. Bhīṣma drank that water and was satiated. He said, “Arjuna! It’s not surprising that you could do this; you are the foremost of the archers!” Upon hearing those words, Duryodhana stood with his head bowed down in shame; looking at him, Bhīṣma said, “Did you see that Duryodhana? Did you see how Arjuna was able to create a water spring that gave ambrosia-like water! There is no one else on earth who can accomplish such a feat; it is Arjuna alone who has the knowledge of various astras like Aindra, Pāśupata, Brāhma, Āgneya, Vāruṇa, Vāyavya, and others; perhaps Kṛṣṇa might also know it, but nobody else. Fighting such great warriors as the Pāṇḍavas, whatever you do, you will not be able to emerge victorious. Child, when Kṛṣṇa is still so well-disposed towards the Kaurava clan, before Arjuna completely decimates your entire army, when on the battlefield your brothers and few other kings still survive, make a peace treaty with the Pāṇḍavas and live with them in peace, with love and affection. If you do that, you and your clan will fare well. Take my words to heart! Let the fall of Bhīṣma lead to friendship between cousins; give half the kingdom to the Pāṇḍavas; let Dharmarāja rule over Indraprastha; don’t earn a bad name among kṣatriyas as a lowly and treacherous wretch; at least after my time, let brothers and cousins, fathers and sons, uncles and nephews stop fighting amongst themselves!” Then he stopped speaking due to the severe pain caused by the arrows. After seeing him fall silent, everyone returned to their abodes.
When Karṇa heard that Bhīṣma had fallen, he was a bit frightened. He rushed to the place where Bhīṣma was lying on the bed of arrows, just as Lord Kumārasvāmī lay on his birth-bed [of straws] and took a good look at that great hero who had temporarily shut his eyes. With tears rolling down his cheek, Karṇa spoke in a choked voice – “O greatest of the Kurus! Although I was free from sin, whenever I came in front of your eyes, I always became the target of your hatred; I am he, I am Rādheya!” Then he bowed down to the grandsire.
Upon listening to those words, Bhīṣma forced his eyes open with great difficulty and then took a close look at Karṇa. He ordered all his bodyguards to step aside and motioned Karṇa to come close to him. Then, just as a father would embrace his son, Bhīṣma hugged Karṇa with one of his arms. “Come, my adversary, come! If you had not come at this hour, you would not have gained good fortune! You are Kaunteya (son of Kuntī) and not Rādheya (son of Rādhā). I don’t harbour any hatred towards you, my child! I will tell you honestly, listen. I spoke harsh words only to mitigate your pride. I always felt that you hated the Pāṇḍavas without reason. Therefore, on many occasions, I spoke to you in cruel and piercing words. I know your valour on the battlefield and your propensity for giving donations; you are a divine person. You are peerless. In the use of śastras and astras, you are the equal of Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa. The anger that I earlier had towards you is gone. It is impossible for human effort to transcend the desire of the divine. The Pāṇḍavas are your brothers; if you wish to bring me joy, then go and join them; let enmity end with me and let all kings live happily!”
Karṇa said, “Grandfather! I too know about what you just said; I am Kaunteya and not Rādheya. But when Kuntī threw me away, it was the sūta family that raised me; it was Duryodhana who showered me with riches and prosperity; now, I cannot make all that untrue; my wealth, my body, my fame, all this is offered at the feet of Duryodhana; I have evoked the anger of the Pāṇḍavas while under the refuge of Duryodhana; nobody can change what is bound to happen. Who indeed has the courage to change the desires of the divine by mere human effort? This is the era of destruction and decay of the world; you have seen all the omens predicting this reality and you also spoke about it in the assembly. I know very well that the Pāṇḍavas and Vāsudeva are invincible; that’s why I’m enthusiastic to fight them; I feel that I can fight this war against them with full force if you give me your affectionate approval and blessings. In the past, out of anger or frivolousness, if I have said any harsh words or used inappropriate language or done something evil, please forgive me for that!”
Bhīṣma said, “Karṇa! If you are unable to let go of this strong enmity, then I give you my permission for war; fight with a desire for svarga; adhere to the dharma of a kṣatriya, letting go of anger and hatred; as much as possible, tread the path of the noble ones; if you do so, your wishes will be fulfilled. You will attain sadgati. Hold on firmly to your strength and valour, let go of your arrogance, and fight; there is no dharma greater than war for a kṣatriya. I tried everything I could to ensure peace; but that didn’t happen. Where there is dharma, there will be victory!” After that Karṇa bowed down to Bhīṣma, got onto his chariot, and went to Duryodhana’s abode.
This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada classic Vacanabhārata by Arjun Bharadwaj and Hari Ravikumar published in a serialized form.