Aśvatthāma said, “O Karṇa! We have not yet won the cows that we’ve captured, we’ve not crossed the borders, we haven’t returned to Hastināpura; and you’ve already begun a bout of self-praise! Warriors who have won numerous wars, attained great wealth and prosperity, and conquered the earth speak not about their courage and valour even a little. Without the slightest noise, fire boils things; the sun shines his light in silence; the earth bears the animate and inanimate beings without uttering a word. Arjuna, Nakula, Sahadeva, Dharmarāja, Bhīma – which warrior has stood facing them in single combat and emerged victorious? Who has defeated Draupadī and in which war? There is a limit to man’s patience; even worms and vermin can’t tolerate things beyond a certain limit; that being the case, can the Pāṇḍavas tolerate the humiliation and violence wrought upon Draupadī? Arjuna has been born with the purpose of causing pain to the Kauravas; he is unafraid of devas, dānavas, and gandharvas. Those who know dharma say, ‘Putrādanantaram śiṣyaḥ’ – (for a guru,) the disciple is only next to the son. Therefore, Droṇa has great affection towards Arjuna. Just as in the past, how you played a game of dice and won Indraprastha and dragged Kṛṣṇā to the assembly, even now wage war against Arjuna by means of gambling! Don’t you have your uncle Śakuni, who is so well-versed in kṣatra dharma? The Gāṇḍīva will not throw dice now – kṛta (count of 4) and dvāpara (count of 2); it will release swift and pale-coloured arrows; and those shafts will tear asunder even mountains that come in their way. If it was Yama, the deity of Death or baḍabāgni, the inextinguishable fire that burns in the heart of the ocean, a bit here and there might be saved but if Dhanañjaya is enraged, he will annihilate without leaving a trace. If the revered ācārya wishes, let him engage in combat (with Arjuna); I will not fight with Dhanañjaya. If the king of Matsya comes to the spot where the cows have been captured, then let us fight against him!”
Bhīṣma offered some words of solace. He said, “The words uttered by Droṇācārya and seconded by Kṛpa are fitting. As for Karṇa, adhering to the dharma of a kṣatriya, he is desirous of war as always. It is my opinion that we must fight a war upon careful examination of the place and time. The words uttered by Karṇa were meant to incite us; and the son of the ācārya, Aśvatthāma, must also display patience in view of the mammoth task that lies ahead of us. When Arjuna is standing in front of us, ready for battle, it is not the time to enter into petty infighting. Ācārya! Kṛpa! Both of you please forgive everything; you are endowed with both brāhmaṇya (trait of brāhmaṇas) and brahmāstra (divine weapon). You have the Vedas, you have kṣātra. Where else do you find both of these together at a single place? Now let us not fight among ourselves; the wise tell us that such infighting is the worst thing among all the bad things that could happen to an army. Therefore, let us all unite and battle Arjuna.” Everyone begged for Droṇa’s forgiveness; he regained his composure and said, “My mind became calm as soon as Bhīṣma uttered his first sentence. Arrange the army in a strategic way such that Duryodhana is not captured and also infuse some spirit in the soldiers. It is impossible that Arjuna will disclose his identity before the thirteenth year period is complete; and he will not stop until all the cows are freed; keeping all this in mind, let Bhīṣma say what he thinks.”
Bhīṣma said, “Once in every five years, we have an intercalary month (adhikamāsa); if we consider that, as on today it has been thirteen years, five months, and twelve nights since the Pāṇḍavas went into exile. They have completed their forest exile as promised; Arjuna has come here fully aware of this. Will they err with Dharmarāja around? They are not people who will forsake kṣatriya dharma, utter lies, cheat others, and win the kingdom by hook or crook; they are also not of the kind who will remain still when the time comes. Now we must take action such that our wealth doesn’t escape our hands and reach our enemies; we must do that which is best for the larger good. Duryodhana! One cannot say conclusively that this is victory in a war. So take a decision, quickly, do you want to take the path of war or take refuge under dharma?”
Duryodhana said, “Grandfather! I am not one to give the kingdom back to the Pāṇḍavas. Do whatever it takes, with utmost care, to wage a war. Make all the arrangements!”
Soon after that Bhīṣma said, “If that be your call, this is what occurs to me: if you can listen to me and agree with my words, do so. Take one-fourth of the army and return to the capital; let another one-fourth of the army chase after the cows; and with half the army, let us wage war against the Pāṇḍavas or the Matsya king or Devendra or whoever else comes. Let the ācārya be at the centre; let Aśvatthāma be on the right side; let Kṛpa be on the left side; let Karṇa be in the front; and I will be at the back, providing support to the entire army and overseeing them.”
Even as the army was getting organized as per Bhīṣma’s instructions, Arjuna entered; the sound of his chariot was heard; his flag came into sight; his arrows fell in the chariot of Droṇa. Looking at that, the ācārya said with glee, “O, the Gāṇḍīva has come! Two of his arrows have fallen on my feet; these two whisked past my ears; returning after completing his forest exile, Pārtha is offering his respects to me. He is enquiring after my welfare!”
Arjuna told Uttara, “Park the chariot at such a distance from the army that I can reach it with my arrows; let me find that lowliest among the Kurus and first launch an attack on that arrogant fellow. Once that happens, it is as good as all of them losing. I can see Droṇa, Aśvatthāma, Bhīṣma, Kṛpa, Karṇa, and others. But I can’t see the Kaurava alone. Oh! Fearing for his life, the coward must be going in a southern direction, driving the cattle with him. Therefore, turn the chariot away from this army and go in the direction of Duryodhana; I will fight there. I will defeat him and retrieve the cows.”
As per the orders, Uttara pulled the reins and turned the chariot; meanwhile, Droṇa guessed Arjuna’s intention and said, “Arjuna is ignoring us and rushing in Duryodhana’s direction, with a view to attack him. Therefore, launch an attack on him from the side; forget about the cows for now!” Even before Droṇa finished speaking, Arjuna advanced in his chariot and attacked the army with his arrows after announcing his name. Arrows filled the air and neither sky nor earth could be seen. He then blew his conch and tapped his bow. In that commotion, the terrified cows lifted their tails, flaying them wildly, and ran back towards their home. After getting the cattle to turn back, Arjuna planned to attack Duryodhana but in the meantime, the Kaurava warriors appeared on the scene. Looking at this, Arjuna ordered his chariot to be directed towards Karṇa. Citrasena, Śatrusaha, Jaya, and others locked horns with Arjuna and he burnt their chariots in the fire of his arrows. A tumultuous war began and Vikarṇa came on the scene. After Arjuna destroyed his bow and his flag, he beat a hasty retreat. Śatruntapa then faced Arjuna in single combat and lost his life. In this manner, several youthful warriors lost their lives and rolled on the ground like trees caught in a violent cyclone. Karṇa’s younger brother Saṅgrāmajit faced Arjuna, who killed him with a single arrow. Looking at this Karṇa pounced upon Arjuna like a lion attacking a bull and soon struck him, his charioteer, and his horses with twelve arrows. In response, Arjuna struck arrows like lightning, piercing Karṇa’s shoulders, thighs, forehead, and neck. Unable to endure the pain due to the wounds, Karṇa went away from the forefront of the army. Kṛpa began fighting with new bows; ultimately Arjuna struck at the horses of his chariot and his charioteer, destroying them; then he shot a diamond-like arrow that hit Kṛpa in the chest. Undaunted, Kṛpa threw a mace at Arjuna, who easily struck it with an arrow and sent it back. Thus rendered chariotless and weaponless, he was rescued by his army and whisked away.
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.