Mahābhārata – Episode 52 – Uttara on the Battlefield

This article is part 52 of 91 in the series Mahābhārata

While at one end, Virāṭa was in the process of releasing the cows captured by Suśarma, at the other end of the kingdom, Duryodhana—accompanied by Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Karṇa, Kṛpa, Aśvatthāma, and others—captured the cows of Virāṭa. Looking at that, the chief of the cowherds rushed to the palace and came to Virāṭa’s son Bhūmiñjaya or Uttara and pleaded, “O Prince! Your cows are being captured; rush, go at once, and protect them! When the king isn’t present, you are verily the king. Didn’t King Virāṭa praise you in the filled assembly hall with the words, ‘My son is just like me; he is a brave warrior; he is a courageous fighter; he is skilled in combat and the use of various weapons!’ Make his words come true. Defeat the Kauravas and bring our cattle back; now the entire kingdom is awaiting your leadership!” When the cowherd chieftain uttered these words, Uttara was in the harem in the company of women. In the presence of all those women he told the chieftain, “If I get a capable charioteer, at once I shall take the bow in my hand and head out to save our cows! But I haven’t come across anyone like that! If you can find a suitable charioteer for me, then tell me. For twenty-two days waged the great war and my charioteer was martyred. If I find a charioteer who can control horses like that, then I will bring back the cows this very moment, after plunging into the enemy battalion that has elephants, horses, and chariots and by vanquishing Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Karṇa, Kṛpa, Aśvatthāma, and others just as Indra chased after the rākṣasas, who fled in fear. But what can I do? I am not able to go there! The Kauravas would have seen my valorous display and said, ‘Who is this warrior endowed with such skill in the use of weapons? Is he Arjuna himself?’ Alas!”

Upon hearing this, unable to tolerate Uttara’s self-comparison with Arjuna, Draupadī came forward and spoke these words feigning embarrassment and hesitation, “Bṛhannaḍā was a charioteer to Pārtha; she is his student; she is equal to him in archery; she was his charioteer during the burning of the Khāṇḍava forest; there is no charioteer who can match her. Therefore, send word for her through your sister Uttarā; if she requests Bṛhannaḍā, the latter can’t refuse; if she becomes your charioteer you will definitely defeat all the Kauravas and bring back the cows.” As per her instruction, Uttara called his sister and sent word for Bṛhannaḍā. She came to Arjuna and spoke with great trust and affection, “Look here, Bṛhannaḍā! The Kauravas are stealing our cattle; my brother has taken up his bow and is ready to go to the battlefield against them. But a while ago, his charioteer died in a war. Therefore he doesn’t have a suitable charioteer; be his charioteer and guide his steeds! Sairandhrī said that you are extremely skilled in riding chariots. The Kauravas will chase the cattle far away; therefore you must be the charioteer, O Bṛhannaḍā! Even after asking with you such warmth and trust, if you disagree and ignore my request then I shall take my life!”

Arjuna agreed and set out; Uttarā went behind him like a small baby animal follows a huge elephant. Looking at them from afar, Uttara said, “Bṛhannaḍā! I believe you were the charioteer for Arjuna during the burning of the Khāṇḍava forest!—Sairandhrī told me; she knows all the matters of the Pāṇḍavas. Now, be my charioteer and ride my chariot! The Kauravas have kidnapped our cows; I have to go and wage war against them!”

Bṛhannaḍā said, “O Prince! How can I drive your chariot in the middle of a war – how am I capable? My job is to sing, dance, or play a musical instrument. May you be victorious! Why should I be a charioteer?”

Uttara would not let him go. “Let anything be your profession – singing or dancing! Quickly take the reins of my chariot and make the steeds run forward!” Thus he gave an ultimatum.

Arjuna found great humour in all of this. Therefore, although he knew everything he behaved like he knew nothing and engaged in several hilarious mischiefs in the presence of Prince Uttara. When they brought him the armour, behaving like a person who had never worm it, he threw it up in the air and tried to stand under it so as to allow it to fall into place. Looking at this, all the girls laughed out loud. Upon seeing Bṛhannaḍā in a state of utter bewilderment, Uttara himself came forward and put the armour on him. He tied his lion-flag high, filled his quivers with arrows, took his bow in hand, and readied himself for battle. Then Uttarā and the girls who were along with her said, “Bṛhannaḍā! From the battlefield, bring us colourful and attractive cloths for our dolls!” Arjuna said with laughter, “If Uttara defeats all the great warriors on the battlefield, then I will bring back beautiful and attractive clothes from there!” Saying these words, he spurred the horses. The chariot took off at great speed. Within a short while, they crossed the capital and came to the cemetery and at that time, the Kaurava army that was spread out like the ocean came into view. It looked like an immense and dense forest that was floating across the skies. As soon as Uttara saw that immense ocean-like army with elephants, horses, and chariots, as well as great warriors like Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Karṇa, Duryodhana, and others, he was engulfed by fear and he said, “Bṛhannaḍā! I don’t have the mind to wage war against the Kauravas; even as I see the enemy army, my life seems to be slipping away. They are all masters of warfare; my father has taken our army and has gone to fight with Suśarma; I don’t have an army. Not just that, I’m a mere boy; I have not been trained in warfare; when such is the case, how can someone like me wage war against these warriors who are in such great number? It is not possible for me. Turn the chariot back!” He pleaded.

Arjuna said, “Why, why are you afraid like a woman? The enemies have not even started the war! And it was you who said, ‘Take me to the place where the Kauravas are there!’ According to that I will take you to the place where the flags on their chariots are seen. After boasting about your prowess and valour in front of both men and women, what do you mean you will not fight now? Everyone will laugh at you if you don’t release the cattle and take it back with you. After Sairandhrī has praised my skills in riding a chariot in so many words, how can we return to the capital without releasing the cows? Therefore, get ready!”

Uttara said, “Let the Kauravas take however many cows of our kingdom as they like; let men and women laugh at me all they want; it is not possible for me to wage this war!” Saying these words, he lunged out of the chariot leaving behind his bow and arrows; without paying heed to even his honour, he began running.

Arjuna looked at that and said, “Sir! It is not the dharma of a kṣatriya to retreat from the battlefield; it is far better to die in battle than to run away!” Then he too jumped out of the chariot and ran after Uttara.

As he ran behind Uttara, Bṛhannaḍā's plaited hair swayed from one side to another and his red-coloured dress was moving in the wind; looking at this, the soldiers began laughing, unaware that it was Arjuna. But a few warriors on the Kaurava side saw this and said to themselves after thinking hard, "Who's this? Like a fire-ball covered in ashes, it appears like someone has donned a masquerade. It is partly like a man, and partly like a woman. If Arjuna were to dress like a woman, he would appear like this person; the same head, the same neck, the same shoulders. Who has now come chasing after us, once again! When Virāṭa left for the war, he left only his son in the palace; he should have come to this battle purely out of his childishness, not out of valour; he seems to have made Arjuna his charioteer and come out of the town; upon seeing our flags, he has become terrified and is running back; Arjuna is running behind him to seize him and bring him back." Many such thoughts crossed the minds of the Kaurava heroes. But nothing could be said with definiteness.

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. Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh for his review and astute feedback.

Author(s)

About:

Prof. A R Krishna Sastri was a journalist, scholar, polyglot, and a pioneer of the modern Kannada renaissance, who founded the literary journal Prabuddha Karnāṭaka. His Vacana-bhārata and Kathāmṛta are classics of Kannada literature while his Saṃskṛta-nāṭaka and Bankimacandra are of unrivalled scholarship.

Translator(s)

About:

Arjun is a poet, translator, engineer, and musician. He is a polyglot, well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, Hindi, English, Greek, and German. He currently serves as Assistant Professor at Amrita Darshanam - International Centre for Spiritual Studies at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Bangalore. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature.

About:

Hari is a writer, translator, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, Carnatic music, education pedagogy design, and literature. He has worked on books like The New Bhagavad-Gita, Your Dharma and Mine, Srishti, and Foggy Fool's Farrago.