On the way to the battleground, Arjuna was profusely sweating all over. He was anxious about the outcome of the day’s war. Looking at his perplexity, Kṛṣṇa said “Gāṇḍīvī! Why are you so demotivated? The ones you have defeated with this bow cannot be defeated by mere mortals. Has anybody survived in an encounter with Bhīṣma or Droṇa. Yet, I wish to give you a piece of advice – you shouldn’t take Karṇa lightly. He is an equal to you. I consider him slightly greater than you in prowess. It is only because of Karṇa’s presence that Duryodhana has gained confidence of being a hero. The high regard he has for the Kauravas is equal to the intensity of hatred he has towards the Pāṇḍavas. Therefore, you will need to put in tremendous effort in fighting him. However, even the devas cannot defeat him and it is only you, who can vanquish Karṇa. Defeat him today and please Yudhshitra!”
Kṛṣṇa motivated him with these words.
As Arjuna returned to the battlefield he found Bhīmasena, Sātyaki, and others fighting Karṇa. There was a great loss of lives on both sides. The battlefield looked like terrifying like Vaitariṇī, (the river of Pātāla, the world of the dead), filled with dead men, dying men, wounded elephants and horses, and broken chariots. It was difficult to tread past the battleground as it was full of pits and trenches. At that point in time, the Kaurava heroes had gathered around Bhīma and put him in grave danger. Upon the entry of Arjuna, the Kaurava army ran helter-skelter. He went to Bhīma and informed him about the well-being of their older brother, Yudhiṣṭhira. The two became mutual supports. As the Kaurava army withdrew with Arjuna’s onslaught, Karṇa came forward and attacked the Pāñcālas. He fought Śatānīka, Śṛtasuma, and Dhṛṣṭadyumna – the Pāñcāla heroes. As Sātyaki killed Karṇa’s son Suṣeṇa, Karṇa killed Dhṛṣṭadyumna’s son.
Kṛṣṇa thought that if this continued, no one on their side would survive and so he turned the chariot towards Karṇa. Bhīmasena too followed him as a protection from behind. A gruesome war ensued on both sides. Elephants, horses, and soldiers scattered as different kinds of weapons and arrows stuck them. They collided into each other, fell over one another and were gravely wounded. With chaos raging around, Duśśāsana hurried towards Bhīma shooting arrows at him. Bhīma rushed and fell upon him like an angry lion. The two were enraged at each other and fought like Indra combating Śambara. Bhīma shouted, “Fortunately you have been spotted by me today. I will repay all your debts in no time!” He broke Duśśāsana’s bow and killed his charioteer. Duśśāsana too broke Bhīma’s bow, killed his charioteer and horses, and broke the chariot’s reigns. Bhīma jumped out of his chariot, ran towards Duśśāsana’s horses and pounced upon them with his mace. Duśśāsana too hopped off his chariot and hit Bhīma’s on his chest.
Bhīma at once recalled all the suffering he had undergone for thirteen years. Using his mace, he hit Duśśāsana with force and threw him to the ground. Thereafter, the images of Kṛṣṇā getting humiliated by Duśśāsana came to his mind and he was ferocious like fire in which drops of ghee had just fallen and enkindled it further. He looked at Karṇa, Duryodhana, Kṛpa, Aśvatthāma, and Kṛtavarma and shouted, “I am going to extinguish this evil Duśśāsana now! Valorous heroes may come and rescue him!” He stood over his throat and saw, “Now say – ‘Cow, cow!’” He tore open Duśśāsana’s chest and scooped out a handful of blood. He relished every drop of the opponent’s blood as he drank it. He rejoiced and remarked that his blood was tastier than cow-milk, curd, sugarcane juice, honey, and mother’s breast-milk. However, as Death became an obstacle to him Bhīma couldn’t do anything else to Duśśāsana. Looking at Bhīmasena, who was roaming around in a fierce manner, several people were mortally scared and swooned, falling to the ground. Weapons slid off people’s hand as they were dumbfounded by Bhīma’s appearance. People who saw him drink Duśśāsana’s blood were terrified and fled the battlefield thinking – “He is no mere human!” The gruesome war seemed to come to a peaceful pause, though short lived.
After a while, Duśśāsana’s brothers Ālambu, Jalasandha, and others encountered Bhīma with arrows. However, he killed all the nine brothers with nine arrows, in one shot. Looking at this, Karṇa too lost heart. Vṛṣasena came forward, attacked Bhīma, and caused pain to Kṛṣṇa. Nakula came between them and killed Vṛṣasena’s horses. Arjuna tore apart Vṛṣasena’s bow, arms, and head with ten arrows. Karṇa managed to calm him after the loss of his son, climbed onto to his chariot, and invited Arjuna for a combat. The two chariots stood face to face. The heroes and the charioteers in both the chariots blew their conches. The combat began. It looked like two huge mountains full of trees, boulders, and rivers falling at each. They shot arrows and threw weapons at each other. Both sides invigorated their men constantly. As they both excelled in the usage of arms, the combat ensued for a long time. Bhīma lost patience, squeezed his hands, and spoke to Arjuna. “What is this Arjuna! Why are you fighting like this? Put all your efforts like you did while destroying the Khāṇḍava forest. Kill Karṇa with all your strength. If not, I’ll smash him with my mace. His end is near. He has fallen into our hands and let us not let him go alive.”
Kṛṣṇa said, “Arjuna! Don’t you see Karṇa diffusing all your powerful arrows with his replies? Just fight the manner in which you fought Īśvara! You had even pleased Īśvara by your valour.”
As both Bhīma and Kṛṣṇa provoked Arjuna, he chanted suitable mantras and shot the Brahmāstra. Karṇa’s chariot got enveloped by innumerable arrows that were blazing like the infinite rays of the sun. All the Kaurava heroes took a step back. All that Duryodhana had spoken to invigorate them went in vain. Nevertheless, without a shudder, Karṇa invoked divine arrows and stopped the Brahmāstra. He wounded Arjuna with sharp arrows. Arjuna too injured him in return. The battlefield was full of their arrows. At this point, Karṇa pulled out the sarpāstra, an arrow that he had housed for long, only to shoot at Arjuna. There was light all over due to its brilliance. As he mounted the arrow on his bow and shot, the arrow was a little oblique. He didn’t notice this in his rage. Looking at this, Śalya said, “Karṇa! You haven’t accurately aimed the arrow at his neck. Watch out and position it properly!” Karṇa couldn’t tolerate Śalya’s interference. His eyes turned red with anger and he said, “Karṇa never takes a second aim while shooting an arrow. We don’t fight fake battles, dear King of Madra!” He shot the arrow without repositioning it and yelled, “Behold Arjuna! You are dead!”
Looking at the arrow which was approaching like fire blazing in the skies, Kṛṣṇa pushed the chariot down by five inches by pressing it with his feet.
The sarpāstra hit Arjuna’s helm and threw it to the ground. The arrow kept moving upwards. Kṛṣṇa said, “Look there! The great serpent was shot to kill you.”
Arjuna asked, “Where did this snake come from? Does it want to fall into Garuḍa’s mouth on its own accord?” Kṛṣṇa said that the snake had survived the Khāṇḍava-dahana, stomached enmity, and had avowed revenge, having lost its mother in the fire. Arjuna immediately tore it into piece by shooting six arrows.
As Karṇa’s end was nearing, not only did the sarpāstra go futile but he even forgot the mantra for a mahāstra due to the curse he had incurred from Paraśurāma. The left wheel of his chariot got stuck in the ground and the chariot lost balance. The horses too fell off and the charioteer tumbled upon the ground. Looking at these unfortunate incidents that cane upon him one after the other, Karṇa was greatly distressed. “Only dharma protects someone who has been dhārmic throughout – so say the ones well-versed in dharma. I have always been dhārmic all my life. However, dharma seems to be betraying its followers. Instead of protecting them, it seems to be killing them!” Karṇa, who was injured all over his body by Arjuna’s arrows condemned dharma. Looking at Arjuna once again, he pleaded, “O Pārtha! Please hold on for a moment. I will lift up the wheel of the chariot. Don’t shoot at me taking to the path of the lowly. You know the rules of warfare. You are a hero and a kṣatriya born to a great family. You are on the chariot and shouldn’t shoot a person who is weapon-less and on the ground. I don’t fear you or Kṛṣṇa. Please wait for a bit.”
Kṛṣṇa then said, “Karṇa! Fortunately, you seem to recall dharma now! Usually, when the inferior men are in trouble, they blame the Divine for it. They don’t blame their own bad deeds for their current troubles. You, Duśśāsana, Duryodhana, and Śakuni brought Kṛṣṇā, who was wearing a single piece of cloth, to the open court. Where was your dharma then? You brought Yudhiṣṭhira to gamble who didn’t know to play the game of dice. Where was your dharma gone when you vanquished a naïve Yudhiṣṭhira by deceit? Where had your sense of dharma vanished when the Pāṇḍavas were denied their share of the kingdom even after they returned after having spent thirteen years in the forest? It was with your consent that Duryodhana planned to eliminate Bhīma by feeding him poisonous food and subjecting him to poisonous snakes. Where had this heart of dharma gone back then? You had planned with the others to burn alive the Pāṇḍavas as they slept in the lac house in Vāraṇāvata. Where was your dharma? You let out a laughter filled with malice when Kṛṣṇā was dragged into the Kaurava court even as she was in her monthly illness. Where had your dharma gone then? You humiliated her with your words: ‘even if the Pāṇḍavas die and go to hell, you can marry a sixth man.’ Where had dharma vanished when you barked those words? When the young Abhimanyu was slaughtered in the battlefield with many strong warriors surrounding him, had your dharma gone into hiding?”
Karṇa put his head down with shame and was silent for a moment. He later lifted his bow with courage and continued fighting Arjuna. One of his murderous arrows hit Arjuna on his shoulder. Arjun’s Gāṇḍīva slipped out of his hand and he fainted. Taking advantage of the situation, Karṇa jumped off the chariot and lifted it up with both his arms. Though he was very strong, due to quirk of fate, the chariot didn’t come up. By then Arjuna had regained consciousness. As he picked up an arrow called the Prāñjalika, Kṛṣṇa exclaimed, “Arjuna! Before Karṇa gets on to his chariot, cut his head off.” Arjuna chopped off Karṇa’s banner with the arrow and pulled out another arrow called Añjalika and recited mantras to empower it. He said, “If I have ever performed tapas or pleased my teachers or elders, let my acquired sincerity help this arrow in killing Karṇa!”
Karṇa’s head fell to the ground like the sun and the solar system collapsing onto the earth together. Looking at this, there were shouts of victory on the Pāṇḍava side accompanied by the blow of conches. The pride of the Kauravas was shattered. It seemed as though the sun had gone dull.
Śalya drove back the chariot devoid of its banner. The Kaurava army fled looking at Arjuna’s banner again and again. The sun went down in the west with his rays stretched out as though trying to touch Karṇa’s body that was full of blood. He went down as though he wanted to wash his body that had turned red upon touching Karṇa’s corpse. Duryodhana brought together his men who were demotivated.
Śalya praised Karṇa’s valour and said, “Fate favours the Pāṇḍavas. It is working against us. What can we do?” He tried consoling Duryodhana with these words.
Arjuna returned to their camp and bowed down before Yudhiṣṭhira. He lifted him up and embraced him. He blessed Arjuna. The other brothers too hugged Arjuna. Kṛṣṇa congratulated Yudhiṣṭhira and affectionately said, “O King! With the death of Karṇa today, it is as good as the Kauravas and their allies being vanquished. Karṇa, who was indestructible even if all the three worlds fought him together, is eliminated today, thanks to your anger!”
In reply, Yudhiṣṭhira said, “Govinda! It is because of your brilliance and guidance that Karṇa got killed and we are victorious. I can now sleep without any anxiety or worries.”
Kṛṣṇa said, “Yudhiṣṭhira! I’m only an instrument for your delight. Bhīma, Arjuna, and other valorous brothers and Dhṛṣṭadyumna and other relatives akin to divinities are on your side. This kind of happiness will surely reside permanently in you, while you are in the company of such great heroes. You are always dear to me, Yudhiṣṭhira!”
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.