After the death of Droṇa, on the fifteenth day of the Kurukṣetra war, Duryodhana retired to his camp and discussed the further course of action with his ministers. Aśvatthāma suggested that Karṇa should be made the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava forces and the war should continue.
Duryodhana was pleased with his suggestion and addressed Karṇa. He said, “Dear Karṇa! I know how talented you are and how loyal you have been to me. You are a dear friend to me. Bhīṣma and Droṇa, who claimed to be atirathas, are dead now. It is now your turn to lead the Kaurava army. You are certainly stronger and more capable than those aged and fragile men. Moreover, they were partial to Arjuna. I respected them as per your words. You will need to bring me victory and there is no doubt that you will. The Pāṇḍavas and the Pāñcālas will be scared once you enter the battlefield!”
Karṇa happily consented to be the commander-in-chief and lead the army formations the next morning. He stood at the head of the army. Śakuni and Ulūka stood at the eyes of the army. Duryodhana stationed himself in the middle with the rest of the forces. Arjuna arranged his army in a semi-circular formation. He requested Bhīma and Dhṛṣṭadyumna to be stationed at its ends and he was at the centre along with Yudhiṣṭhira. Conches, war trumpets, and battle-drums gave the war cry and the battlefield resounded with their loud calls. The day’s battle began.
Bhīma killed Kṣemadhṛti and Sātyaki killed Vindya and Anuvindya. Bhīma and Aśvatthāma got into a one-on-one combat and injured each other in a shower of rows. As they were about to faint, their charioteers took them away from the battlefield. Karṇa fought Nakula, who fled from the battlefield. Śalya defeated Śṛtakīrti and Sahadeva prevailed over Duśśāsana. Arjuna vanquished the Saṃśaptakas and Yudhiṣṭhira defeated Duryodhana that day in the battlefield. There was a great loss of life on both sides, thanks to the valour and skill of the arch-rivals, Arjuna and Karṇa. As it turned dark, the Kauravas returned to their camps, dreading a night-battle. The Pāṇḍavas considered themselves victorious that day. The sixteenth day of the war thus came to an end.
Back at the camp, when Karṇa met Duryodhana, who looked deeply disturbed. Squeezing his hands in disappointment, he said, “Arjuna is skilled, has immense strength, and is brave in warfare too. They have Kṛṣṇa on their side and he devises masterly strategies and guides him. Arrows strike often and we are deceived today. I will make sure that none of his plans are successful tomorrow!” He tried to console and convince the distressed Duryodhana.
As the seventeenth day dawned, Karṇa rushed to Duryodhana and declared, “Duryodhana! I will face Arjuna today and will surely kill him. If I do not succeed, he will kill me. It is either he or I! As I had to fight at many fronts yesterday, I could not focus on Arjuna. Duryodhana! You will need to keep in mind yet another fact. Arjuna is no match for me in archery. He can’t beat my swiftness, agility, accuracy, skill, sustenance, and force. His Gāṇḍīva is no match for my bow. This one was made by Viśvakarma for Indra. Indra vanquished the asuras with this bow and handed it over to Paraśurāma, who went around the world twenty-one times eliminating all the kṣatriyas. I have inherited the bow from him. You should also know in what way I am inferior to Arjuna. He rides the chariot gifted to him by Agni and immortal horses pull the divine chariot. He has Kṛṣṇa as his charioteer. He has a quiver which is inexhaustible. I do not possess any of these. Thus, to equal him, I will need a charioteer who knows the heart of the horses. Śalya might be a good choice for this purpose. I also need swift and powerful horses and a large supply of arrows and weapons in my chariot. With these, I will equal Arjuna and he cannot overpower me!”
Duryodhana went to Śalya, bowed down to him with respect and said, “O King of Madra! I have a request. This is for the destruction of the Pāṇḍavas and for our welfare. Just as Brahmā was the charioteer of Rudra during the Tripuradāha, I request you to drive Karṇa’s chariot in this war. Vāsudeva is the charioteer of Arjuna but the current charioteer of Karṇa is no match for Vāsudeva. We have only two mahārathas left on our side – Karṇa and you. Today, Karṇa will fight Arjuna. He is confident that with you as his charioteer, he will be able to vanquish Arjuna in not time. As you both enter the battlefield on the chariot, just like Aruṇa and Sūrya enter the skies, the Kaunteyas, Sṛñjayas, Pāñcālas, and everyone on their side will be doomed in darkness and will flee the battleground”
Śalya was annoyed hearing Duryodhana’s words. With a frown on his face, he asked Duryodhana, “O king! It is not befitting on your part to put me on such a job! Can a superior one ever be made the charioteer of an inferior person? I have honour of being the crowned king of my kingdom and I’m a kṣatriya by birth! I’m born in the family of rājarṣis. Should I be made the charioteer of this sūtaputra? You speak as though he is more capable as a warrior than me! I feel humiliated and do not want to take part in the battle. Permit me to head back home!” With these words, he tried leaving the place.
Duryodhana, however, stopped him and tried to console him. He said “O king, Śalya! You are right – everything that you have just said is true! I will clarify my intent. Pray hear me out! Neither Karṇa nor the other kings are better than you. Karṇa is only better than Arjuna. Vāsudeva is no match you either. Karṇa is only better than Arjuna in his usage of weapons, however, you excel Kṛṣṇa both at aśvahṛdaya (knowledge of a horse’s heart) and also in your fighting skills!”
Śalya was happy listening to these words. “I’m happy that you have recognised my talents and consider me to be more capable than Kṛṣṇa. I shall drive Rādheya’s chariot against Arjuna’s in the battlefield. I, however, will do so only on one condition. I shall speak whatever comes to my mind to Karṇa. None should stop me!” Duryodhana agreed to the condition.
Karṇa’s chariot was made ready. Śalya took the charioteer’s seat and Karṇa climbed on to the chariot too. Looking at them, Duryodhana said, “I was under the impression that Bhīṣma and Droṇa, mahārathis of world renown will easily vanquish Bhīma and Arjuna. They weren’t able to achieve that. Karṇa! You will do whatever they were unable to! Destroy the Pāṇḍava army! May victory be yours!”
As the trumpets were blown and the drums were beaten, the chariot headed towards the battleground. The earth trembled as Karṇa went towards the Pāṇḍavas. Meteors and comets rained from the skies. Fire blazed at the horizon in all directions. Flags quivered. Yet, the Kaurava team motivated Karṇa to go ahead and cared little for the bad omens.
As they neared the Pāṇḍava army, Śalya said, “Look there, Karṇa! Do you hear Arjuna’s chariot wheel? Do you see his Kapidhvaja (flag with Hanumān’s image). He is heading to fight the Saṃśaptakas once again! He will fight them with great vigour!”
An agitated Karṇa said with a voice filled with irritation, “Yes, the enraged Saṃśaptakas have surrounded him. He has vanished amidst them like the sun getting covered by the clouds!”
Śalya said, “Can someone defeat Varuṇa in a battle with waters? Can the fire be put off with fire-wood? Can Vāyu be bound by an object or can the sea be drunk? Arjuna cannot be defeated even by the combined forces of the devas and asuras! If these words bring you joy, so be it!”
The two armies collided with each other and the war started.
Karṇa tore the Pāṇḍava army apart and defeated Yudhiṣṭhira who was their commander-in-chief. Bhīma came forward for a one-on-one combat with Karṇa. He fought valiantly and Karṇa fainted on the battlefield. He could have even killed Karṇa. As Śalya reminded Bhīma of Arjuna’s vow, he let Karṇa live. Śalya drove Karṇa’s chariot far away from the battlefield. The Kauvrava army pounced upon Bhīma, who killed several younger brothers of Duryodhana.
On the other side, Aśvatthāma instigated Arjuna, who was fighting the Saṃśaptakas, into a battle. He was defeated by Arjuna. By then, Karṇa regained consciousness and scattered the Pāṇḍava army with his valorous combat. As Bhīma was fighting Karṇa, Arjuna came there and got to know that Yudhiṣṭhira was injured and had returned to the camp. His heart wouldn’t let him act any further and he hurried to their camp to see the state of Dharmarāja. Yudhiṣṭhira was free of any mortal danger. Yet, he was gravely injured and was reduced to the bed. Yudhiṣṭhira, who saw that Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna had come there together, he assumed that they had killed Karṇa and congratulated them on their victory. Arjuna told him that he had fought the Saṃśaptakas and Aśvatthāma till then and when he got to know that Dharmarāja was injured, he had rushed to the camp. He said that he would fight Karṇa as soon as he spotted him again.
Listening to this, Dharmarāja was greatly disappointed. He spoke in a tone filled with disappointment and anger, as he assumed that Arjuna had fled from the battlefield, unable to face Karṇa. He humiliated Arjuna by asking him to give away the Gāṇḍīva to Kṛṣṇa. As his elder brother, Yudhiṣṭhira had insulted him for no reason, Arjuna too felt very agitated. Enraged, his hand went to his sword. However, upon Kṛṣṇa’s advice and clarification, the two cooled down and repented for their behaviour. Arjuna fell at his brother’s feet and Yudhiṣṭhira embraced his brother and blessed him. Arjuna said, “I shall go at once and defeat Rādheya. I take a vow at your feet. I will not return from the battlefield without killing Karṇa.”
Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna headed back towards the battlefield.
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.