Mahābhārata – Episode 74 – The Invincible Bhīṣma

This article is part 74 of 83 in the series Mahābhārata

On the fourth day of the war, Bhīmasena totally destroyed Duryodhana’s elephant division and killed eight of the Kaurava brothers including Jalasandha and Suṣeṇa. Bhagadatta climbed onto a huge elephant in rut and fought relentlessly with Bhīmasena; he shot a flood of arrows and made Bhīma faint. At that point Ghaṭotkaca came forward and struck a severe blow to Bhagadatta’s elephant. Listening to the elephant howling in pain, Bhīṣma and others rushed to Bhagadatta’s aid. However, upon seeing Ghaṭotkaca, Bhīṣma told Droṇa, “I don’t like fighting this horrible fiend Ghaṭotkaca; he is possessed with immense strength, capabilities, and supporters. He is particularly gifted in taking aim and striking it perfectly. And as for me, having fought the whole day with the Pāṇḍavas and the Pāñcālas, I’m wounded and tired. Let us stop the day’s war at this.” Thus the fourth day of the battle ended.

The next day, the Pāṇḍavas arranged their army in a Śyena-vyūha while the Kaurava army was arranged in a Makara-vyūha. The fighting commenced. Bhūriśravas killed ten sons of Sātyaki, who then stood in single combat with Bhūriśravas. On the other side, Arjuna killed twenty-five mahārathas and the Mastyas, Kekayas, and others surrounded him. By that time, the sky had darkened and it was time to finish the fifth day’s fighting.

In this manner, the war went on for nine days without a break. Whenever Bhīma encountered any of the Kaurava children (i.e. Duryodhana’s brothers), he wouldn’t let them go. Arjuna killed several chariot-warriors on Duryodhana’s side. Even so, Bhīṣma’s arms hadn’t weakened even a bit. Even though the Pāṇḍavas were secure, several heroes on their side also lost their lives; a huge part of their army was destroyed. 

That night [i.e. on the eve of the tenth day of war], the Pāṇḍavas, Vṛṣṭis, Sṛñjayas, and others came together for a strategy meeting. After a great deal of discussion, Yudhiṣṭhira turned towards Kṛṣṇa and said, “Look Kṛṣṇa! Bhīṣma’s courage is exemplary; his valour is extraordinary; battling with him is just like a moth fighting with the blazing fire. How much of destruction has taken place for the sake of this kingdom! How much pain has been experienced by my heroic brothers! I’m tired of this; therefore, I feel like spending the rest of my life in just doing those things that are aligned to dharma. Tell me which other dharma is more blinded than kṣatriya-dharma?”

Kṛṣṇa consoled him saying, “Don’t worry Yudhiṣṭhira! Your brothers are heroes; they will conquer their enemies. If Arjuna doesn’t feel like fighting with Bhīṣma, then I will fight with Bhīṣma! If you feel that you will be victorious if Bhīṣma dies, then I alone will go and kill him. Your enemy is my enemy indeed! Your tasks are verily mine! Arjuna is my friend, student, relative; for his sake, I can even chop off a part of my body and give that; he too is ready to give up his life for my sake. This is the agreement we have between ourselves. But Arjuna has taken an oath that he will kill Bhīṣma. I should not break his vow. How hard is it for Arjuna to kill that old man?”

Yudhiṣṭhira said, “What you say is true! I should not be the cause of destroying your vow; therefore apart from fighting all the help I can do, I shall. Earlier, Bhīṣma had told me that it was impossible to defeat him in battle and had promised me that he would share the secret of how we can kill him, should the need arise. Thus we all shall go to him and seek his advice on how to kill him. Let us do as he instructs us. After our father died, he took care of us like a father and brought us up. We’re forced to kill someone who is so dear to us, who has been a confidant, a father, and a grandsire to us! But what to do? This wretched kṣatriya-dharma is like that!” Kṛṣṇa gave his consent.

All of them removed their armours and kept aside their weapons. They went to Bhīṣma’s abode. They bowed down to him and took his blessings. Bhīṣma welcomed them and asked them with great affection, again and again, what the purpose of their visit was. In polite words Dharmarāja said, “Grandfather! How do we win and gain the kingdom? How can we ensure that the citizens don’t get destroyed? How to face you on the battlefield? How to fight you? You don’t give even the slightest opportunity. In war, your bow is always bent, shooting arrows everywhere. Who is that man bold enough to kill you? My army has suffered great losses; tell me the path by which we can defeat you in battle and gain the kingdom!”

Bhīṣma said, “As long as I am on the battlefield, you cannot win; that is true; if you defeat me, you will win this war. Therefore, if you desire victory, kill me soon.”

Dharmarāja said, “If you stand on the battlefield, enraged and enthused, like Yama personified, even Indra cannot defeat you; neither can Varuṇa. Even if all the devas and asuras come together, it will not be possible for them!”

Bhīṣma said, “That is true! As long as I am holding a weapon in my hand, you cannot kill me; but if I lay down my weapons, you can. I will not fight against the following: one who has laid down his weapons, one who has fallen down, one who doesn’t have an armour or a flag [i.e. on his chariot], one who is fleeing, one who comes seeking refuge, a woman, a man who has the name of a woman, a handicapped person, one who is the only son to his parents, one who doesn’t have children, and one who is not seen by my eyes. The warrior Śikhaṇḍi, who fights in your army, was a woman in his previous birth and is now born as a man; I had already taken an oath that I would not fight him. You are all aware of that as well. Let Arjuna stand behind Śikhaṇḍi and hit me with arrows; then I will not fight back. In that case, you will be victorious!” Upon listening to those words, everyone offered their respects to Bhīṣma and went back to their camps. Arjuna was overcome by sorrow that he would have to shoot arrows at Bhīṣma and kill him. Bhīṣma was their guru, the elder of the family, a man of wisdom and awareness, an extremely intelligent man. When Arjuna was a child, once after he had finished playing and body was covered in mud, he rushed to sit on Bhīṣma’s lap and said, “Father!” Bhīṣma had said, “I’m not your father! I’m your father’s father!” Reminiscing all that Arjuna said, “Kṛṣṇa! Let my army get destroyed to any extent, I don’t care, but I won’t battle with Bhīṣma! If I become victorious, so be it, and if not, let him kill me!” Kṛṣṇa said, “You took a vow that you will kill Bhīṣma and now you’re saying you won’t fight with him; what do you mean? Is this kṣatriya-dharma? If you don’t kill Gāṅgeya, you will not be victorious. This is the resolve of Fate; it will happen; there’s nobody apart from you who can kill him!” Arjuna said, “Kṛṣṇa, Bhīṣma will meet his end through Śikhaṇḍi. Therefore, we shall keep him as a shield and strategically bring down Bhīṣma: this is my thinking. When Śikhaṇḍi shoots arrows at Bhīṣma, I will fire arrows at the warriors trying to attack Śikhaṇḍi and drive them away!” That was decided as the course of action.

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.

The original Kannada version of Vacanabhārata is available for free online reading here. To read other works of Prof. Krishna Shastri, click here.

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.