नरञ्चैव नरोत्तमम् ।
देवीं सरस्वतीं व्यासं
ततो जयमुदीरयेत् ॥
Having saluted Nārāyaṇa,
the human and the divine;
Sarasvatī; and Vyāsa –
May Jaya be hailed!
Upon the death of Bhīṣma – the warrior endowed with nobility, brilliance, strength, and valour, who seemed to be matchless on the battlefield – the Kaurava army became akin to a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Even so, they didn’t consider the option of putting an end to the war. Duryodhana looked at Karṇa, who was approaching him, and in great joy said, “Karṇa! Your entry into the war is like having a protector for our army; now, tell me, what shall we do?”
Karṇa said, “Duryodhana, you are an intelligent man endowed with wisdom; you are the master of us all; whatever you order us to do, we shall execute it. I have the confidence that you will not utter anything that is inappropriate.”
“Karṇa, the famed Bhīṣma who is the foremost in knowledge, age, and valour fought the battle as the commander-in-chief for ten long days, protecting our army and destroying the enemies. Now, we have to appoint another person as the commander of the army. If there is no leader in a war, it is akin to a boat in the middle of the ocean sans a boatman. Therefore, tell me, among all the great warriors on our side, who should we anoint as the commander? Whoever you decide, we shall all agree unanimously to elect him to the position of the commander!”
Karṇa replied, “All the great warriors on our side are worthy of leading the army; they are all endowed with good lineage, strength, wisdom, intelligence, and valour; they are warriors who will not retreat from the battlefield. But we cannot name everyone as the chief; that’s not possible. We have to choose one person who is superior in his qualities; if we do that, some people might lose heart in the contest and might go away without fighting the war. Therefore, let us make Droṇa the commander; he has been the tutor to everyone, he is our elder, and he is the foremost in the art of warfare!”
At once, Duryodhana went near Droṇa, who was in the middle of the army, and said, “Ācārya, you are superior to us in varṇa, lineage, learning, age, intelligence, valour, competence, fortitude, tapas, and in all other qualities. The great kings and warriors don’t have a better sentinel than you! If you become the commander and lead us all, we will follow you. If Arjuna sees you on the battlefield, he will not fight you. Then it will become possible to defeat Yudhiṣṭhira and his people. Therefore, you must become the commander-in-chief!”
All the warriors of the army expressed their delight by hailing Droṇa with victory chants and with lion-like roars. Droṇa gave his consent and said, “Mahārāja! I consider it a great honour to succeed the great Bhīṣma, the greatest of the Kurus, as the commander of the army. To express my gratitude I feel like I should give you a big boon; what would you like, tell me!”
After consulting with Karṇa and Duśśāsana, Duryodhana told Droṇa, “Ācārya! Bring me Yudhiṣṭhira alive, in chains. I and all my friends and relatives will be overjoyed by that.”
Droṇa said, “You’re asking me to capture Dharmarāja alive and bring him as a prisoner to you! You didn’t ask me to kill him! Dharmarāja is indeed fortunate. Why indeed didn’t you ask me to kill him? Was it that you didn’t want me to do that with my own hands? Or is it that Dharmarāja has no real enemies? If that’s not the case, it is because you want him to survive and through that, the lineage also to survive? Or is it because you desire to defeat the Pāṇḍavas and then give them a share of the kingdom, rekindling friendship and brotherhood? Dharmarāja is fortunate. You too have shown friendship towards him. His birth has fulfilled a great purpose, for he is a man without enemies.”
Upon listening to these words, all those thoughts that were latent in Duryodhana’s innards came out in a flash. Even for one of superior intelligence like Bṛhaspati, it is not possible to hide what is in one’s mind. Therefore, Duryodhana said these words with great joy: “If I kill Yudhiṣṭhira in battle, I will not emerge victorious. If Yudhiṣṭhira dies, his younger brothers will definitely destroy us all. Even the deities and demigods cannot defeat them in battle. Yudhiṣṭhira, being the honest man he is, I can once again challenge him to a game of dice, defeat him, and send him away to the forest; his brothers will follow him as if on cue. Then, it will be like a long-standing victory for me. Therefore I do not desire his death on the battlefield.”
When Droṇa encountered Duryodhana’s foul mind, he immediately added a caveat to the boon demanded by Duryodhana: “If Arjuna is not protecting Yudhiṣṭhira, then consider him to be your prisoner! If Arjuna comes, even Indra and other deities cannot face him. He is my student, alright, but he is young; he has obtained divine weapons from Indra, Rudra, and other deities; therefore I don’t desire to lay my hands on him. If you are able to divert him elsewhere, away from this battlefield, then consider Dharmarāja as defeated!” Duryodhana gave his consent and thought to himself, “What else now, Dharmarāja is my prisoner!”
After this, the Kauravas arranged their army in the śakaṭa-vyūha (cart formation) and the Pāṇḍavas in the krauñca-vyūha (heron formation); the day’s battle began. Droṇa began destroying the Pāṇḍava army like a forest fire. Even so, he was unable to capture Dharmarāja.
After dusk, the armies of both sides had retreated to their camps, and then Droṇa went to meet Duryodhana, filled with remorse and hesitation. He said, “Duryodhana, when Arjuna is facing you, even the deities cannot capture Yudhiṣṭhira alive, as I already told you. It is impossible for me to defeat Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna in battle. At least now, send them away elsewhere; let someone else invite them for a battle; Arjuna will not return until he defeats them. In the mean time, I will capture Dharmarāja from the heart of the Pāṇḍava army even as Dhṛṣṭadyumna and others are watching.” Upon listening to these words, the Trigartha king Suśarma and his five younger brothers said, “We will undertake that task; in the past, Arjuna has insulted us unjustly. If we face him in battle, then we will be rid of our long-standing grudge.” The charioteers from Mālava, Koṅkaṇa, and other regions also joined hands with them. All of them took the oath that they would kill Arjuna and they invited him for battle.
Arjuna then told Yudhiṣṭhira, “Brother! Suśarma and other Saṃśaptakas are inviting me for battle; I shall go. According to my vow, I can’t refuse an invitation to war; give me permission!”
Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “My child! You’ve heard of Droṇa’s oath; he is valorous and skilled in the art of weapons; such a person has promised that he will capture me alive and imprison me; just ensure that his oath will not be fulfilled!”
“Until the time I am not there, Satyajit will protect you. As long as he is alive, Droṇa will not be able to fulfil his promise to Duryodhana; and if Satyajit dies, don’t stay on the battlefield!” So saying, Arjuna received Yudhiṣṭhira’s blessings to set out. Just as a lion chases after deer, Arjuna went in the Southern direction chasing the Saṃśaptakas.
On the other side, the armies of the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas joined together speedily like the confluence of the flooding Gaṅgā and Sarayu rivers during monsoons. Droṇa lunged towards Dharmarāja and Satyajit was able to protect him for a period of time. Then, Droṇa shot sharp arrows at him, killing his charioteer and horses, tearing through his bow, and filling severing his head with a crescent moon-shaped arrow. Looking at that Yudhiṣṭhira drove away speedily in his chariot. When Droṇa gave him the chase, Bhīmasena and other warriors came in the way. Bhagadatta got onto a great tusker called Supratīka and attacked Bhīmasena; the effect of the tusker’s attack was that the Pāṇḍava army, equal to a thousand elephants, ran helter-skelter. A forceful wind arose and covered the entire earth until the skies in a dense shroud of dust. Upon hearing the trumpeting of that great elephant and seeing the dust-filled air, Arjuna told Kṛṣṇa, “Bhagadatta is a warrior equal to Indra; if we have to stop him and his tusker, then it will not be possible without you and me being there!” With these words, Arjuna hurled the vajrāstra at the Saṃśaptakas, reduced them to bits, and rushed to Bhīma’s aid. Bhagadatta turned the tusker towards Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa deftly turned the chariot away from the elephant’s grip. Then a fierce battle began between Bhagadatta and Arjuna. Bhagadatta invoked the vaiṣṇavāstra in an elephant goad (aṅkuśa) and hurled it at Arjuna’s chest, taking careful aim. Kṛṣṇa came in the way and made the weapon strike his chest. Looking at that, Arjuna let out a complaint – “Why Kṛṣṇa? Why did you break your promise of not fighting in this war? If I was careless or helpless, it is but natural for you to do such a thing; but I am capable of defeating the entire world; you know that too. Even so, why did you do this?” Kṛṣṇa told him that nobody else was capable of facing the vaiṣṇavāstra; then he said, “He has lost his great weapon and is empty-handed; kill him just as I killed his father, Narakāsura!” Then Arjuna took a crescent moon-shaped arrow and killed him; with another similar arrow, he killed the tusker as well. Since Dhṛṣṭadyumna and Bhīmasena gave stiff resistance to Droṇa that day, one more day passed without him fulfilling his promise to Duryodhana.
To be continued.
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.