Pitamaha Bhishma suspended on a bed of arrows; guru Drona beheaded; son Lakshmana slain; favorite brother Duhshasana’s breast ripped open – none struck Duryodhana so much to the heart as did the death of Karna. Always keen that Karna lead the army, he had had to settle for ancient Bhishma and old Drona, biting his nails over their divided loyalties. With Karna in charge, victory seemed certain. But, multa cadunt inter calicem supremaque labra (“many things fall between the cup and the last lips”), pace Erasmus’ Adagia (1.5.1). It is with Duryodhana’s anguish over Karna’s death that the Shalya Parva begins.
For the first time we hear of fear in the context of Duryodhana who, Vaishampayana tells Janamejaya, “fled terrified” after Shalya’s death and hid himself in a lake. We are surprised to find Dhrishtadyumna too trembling with fear on seeing Shalva’s huge elephant charging him. The morning after the deaths of Shalya (after fighting for half a day), Duryodhana and the sleeping Panchalas (the Pandava sons are not mentioned in Vaishampayana’s summary) Sanjaya reports to Hastinapura that:
In this world caught
in the clutches of Kala,
only the women are left-
and seven from the side
of the Pandavas, and three
of your chariot-heroes. (1.35)
There is a clear decline in the prowess of the successive Kaurava commanders-in-chief that is reflected in each leading the army for half his predecessor’s term. Shalya hardly qualifies to stand with them, devoid of superhuman qualities and prone to seduction by luxury. That is why S.L. Bhyrappa’s epic novel Parva, daringly beginning with Shalya, deserves acclaim all the more. After Karna’s death when Duryodhana turns to Ashvatthama, Vyasa paints him in such heroic colours that we are led to presume that he will be the next general. Instead, Ashvatthama advises that since Shalya left his nephews to join their enemies, he should command the army. Actually, like Bhishma and Drona, Shalya has been serving Pandava interests by discouraging Karna and directing his fury away from his nephews. From the very inception Duryodhana has continuously been betrayed. Even his most trusted general Karna did not kill a single Pandava, despite having four of them in his grasp, because of his promise to Kunti.
This last of the battle-books falls into 3 parts: the death of Shalya; the pilgrimage of Balarama; and the death of Duryodhana. Section 2 contains the deeply moving lament of the blind king:
O my son! Come to me! Come to me,
O maha-muscled Indra-among-rajas!
I am helpless!
What will happen to me without you?…
I am a wingless bird.
He recounts Duryodhana enumerating his allies as outnumbering the Pandavas and his supreme confidence that, should everything fail, Karna would be the final answer. That is why, Dhritarashtra says, he went along with his son’s decision. He attributes his plight to ill-luck in a lament of 17 verses which contains an interesting contradiction. First he wonders how a jackal like Shikhandi could lay leonine Bhishma low; 27 verses later he says Arjuna killed Bhishma. He wishes to retire to the forest rather than listen to Bhima’s bitter words (repeated in the Stri Parva) but ironically bears this humiliation for many years. Blindness and perception alternate in him. He will not take responsibility for his actions: “Fooled by fate I rejected his (Vidura’s) words.” Yet he also says, “There are fools in this world who have eyes but do not see. You see one such fool in front of you.”
There are fascinating variations following Shalya’s investiture in the 12th century Indonesian Kakawin, Bharatayuddha: Ashvatthama storms off the field, refusing to fight under Shalya’s command, holding him responsible for Karna’s death-surely a very logical development. On Krishna’s advice Nakula visits Shalya who tells him of Pashupati’s decree that he can only be slain by Yudhishthira. Shalya spends the night with his wife Satyavati, stealing off at dawn, cutting off with his sword the part of his cloth on which she lies asleep (inspired by Nala-Damayanti). She seeks out his body and stabs herself, as does her maid, turning epic into melodrama.
It is interesting that Bhima responds to an infantry attack by alighting from his chariot for hand-to-hand combat while Arjuna never fights except from his chariot. After Karna’s death and again after Shalya’s Duryodhana strains to rally his fleeing soldiers (sections 3 and 19) in identical words. In the first instance, Kripa advises him to make peace. Duryodhana refuses and the reasons he cites reveal he is no dreamer: he tricked Yudhishthira out of his kingdom and so will never be trusted; he tricked Krishna too during his visit, who will never forget the treatment of Draupadi and the killing of Abhimanyu; Arjuna burns over Abhimanyu’s murder; Bhima will not forget his terrible vow; the twins and Drupada’s sons hate him; the Pandavas cannot forget how menstruating Draupadi was abused and stripped in public. Finally, “How can I shuffle behind Yudhishthira like a cowering slave?” He then sums up his glorious achievements, which he will repeat after being struck down, and decides to fight to the death. For the night of Karna’s death they retreat to the banks of the Sarasvati, “the river of dawn-pink waters”, at the Himalayan foothills. This is where Shalya, son of Ritayana, is appointed commander.
Krishna now adopts a curious stance. He extols Shalya’s prowess above all and tells Yudhishthira that none but he can face him. But the truth is soon out. Till now, the eldest Pandava has no feat of battle to his credit. The conquering monarch needs to show the army his worth-at least one major kill is required. Therefore, Krishna urges him,
“You have survived the ocean
of Drona and Bhishma,
the sea of Karna.
Shalya is a water-hole
the size of a cow’s hoof print.
Don’t drown in it.”
He responds, “Only my share of valour remains”, recalling that Shalya was his allotted share in the Udyoga Parva (section 57). Finally, only handsome Nakula is left with no major kill, his “share” Uluka being dispatched by Sahadeva in addition to his own, Shakuni. There is a deliberate effort by the poet to build up Yudhishthira’s skills at arms, especially with the shakti (spear), by comparing him with Skanda.
Shalya adopts a new strategy: no warrior will face the Pandavas singly; all will fight collectively as one. Even after his death, there is no let-up and Shakuni decimates the Pandava cavalry. At this point Vyasa introduces a sudden lowering of pitch and change of tone. Arjuna addresses Krishna, puzzled at the unremitting bloodshed even after Bhishma’s fall:
“I do not know why,
but the war went on
and on and on.” (24.21).
It becomes the recurring refrain in this plangent passage of 30 verses on the meaninglessness of war. It is only now that Arjuna realizes the truth of Vidura’s warning that, come what may, Duryodhana will never share the kingdom and therefore war is the only solution.
Unable to remain a passive spectator as the Kaurava army is decimated, on this last day Sanjaya joins four warriors fighting alongside Kripa against the Panchala army (25.52). Routed by Dhrishtadyumna, he flees, is attacked by Satyaki, knocked unconscious and taken prisoner. Satyaki is about to behead him when Vyasa materializes and grants Sanjaya immunity. Laying aside his weapons, bleeding all over, that 18th evening Sanjaya leaves for Hastinapura. En route he is appalled to see Duryodhana grievously wounded,
standing all alone
on five footsteps of land’
Such a Jagannatha reduced to such misfortune”.
Duryodhana’s eyes fill; he cannot speak, nor look straight at him. It is from Sanjaya that Kripa, Ashvatthama and Kritavarma get to know that Duryodhana is hiding in a lake. Yuyutsu comes into his own now, escorting the wives of the slain into Hastinapura, winning high praise from Vidura which brings him no peace, no delight in the palace:
“No joy here, no glory, no solace.
Desolate like a forsaken garden.”
Duryodhana’s reply to Yudhishthira’s challenge is in prophetic words:
“I give this empty earth to you.
She is all yours.
Which raja wants a kingdom
with no one in it?…
enjoy this husband-less earth
without wealth and warriors.
Be happy with this pathetic, life-less girl.”
Ironically, later the victor will repeat these very sentiments and wish to abdicate. At this moment, for once Yudhishthira refuses to compromise because
“If you live,
and I live,
the world will be confused:
Who won the war?…
Then once again he displays his complete lack of good sense, promising Duryodhana the kingdom should he kill any of the Pandavas. Krishna administers a sound tongue-lashing for his inveterate gambling instinct that, with just a single enemy left, stakes the kingdom in a perilous wager against one who cannot be defeated in a fair fight. Exasperated, Krishna exclaims,
“Pandu’s and Kunti’s children
don’t deserve the kingdom.
They were born to live
and go about as beggars.”
Duryodhana has been practicing with the mace for 13 years, while Bhima is out of practice. Krishna reminds Bhima to be true to his vow and smash his thighs. In the challenge Bhima roars out there is a very interesting detail in verse 49 where, while enumerating all those dead because of Duryodhana’s wickedness, he suddenly mentions that the sinful Pratikamin who made Draupadi suffer is also dead. This attendant merely carried Duryodhana’s insulting summons to her, so the reference is a puzzle-unless he is using it as an epithet for Duhshasana.
As the duel is about to begin, Vyasa deliberately lowers the tension by having Balarama stride in, back from the pilgrimage that he started 42 days ago just before the war began. If he has returned after 42 days, how has the battle lasted for only 18 days? This has led Vasudev Poddar to argue that the battle was not continuous but had intervals. Here and at two other places in Shalya Parva astronomical data appear that have been used to hazard dating the war. Janamejaya, in no hurry to have the story end, presses Vaishampayana to narrate the 43 pilgrim spots Balarama visited. By the time this ends, the audience’s frazzled nerves are relaxed, refreshed and prepared for the gory violence of the climactic battle.
Vyasa paints a lovely word-portrait of Narada in 54.18-20 as he comes to meet Balarama, ending with the wry comment: prakarta kalahana’ca nitya’ca kalahapriya, “He loved provoking people./He was a mischief maker.” Balarama’s pilgrimage is an adjunct to the elaborate itinerary of 350 holy fords that Lomasha guides the Pandavas through in the Vana Parva. Balarama’s includes two spots giving contradictory messages. Section 52 celebrates sage Kunigarga’s aged daughter who cannot attain heaven until she gets married. Section 54 immortalises Shandilya’s daughter who gains svarga by remaining celibate. The plurality of the Indian tradition that embraces opposites so felicitously is eminently in evidence.
By this time the river Sarasvati had already got lost at Vinasana because of tectonic upheavals hinted at in the myth of Dhundhumara. The river has seven names: Suprabha at Pushkara, Kanchanakshi at Naimisha, Vishala at Gaya, Manorama in north Kosala, Surenu and Oghavati at Kurukshetra and Gangadvara and Vimaloda in the Himalayas where the seven mingle at the Sarasvati-tirtha. In its waters spilled the semen of sage Mankanaka on seeing a naked girl bathing. Put in a pot, it produced 7 sages from whom sprang the forty-nine Marut wind-gods.
So here we not only have a myth paralleling the birth of Drona, but a variation on the origin of the Maruts who are otherwise Diti’s embryo that Indra cuts into 49 parts. We learn of a new cause of the destruction of Dhritarashtra’s kingdom: sage Baka’s destructive sacrifice when the king gave him animal carcasses instead of cattle. Two episodes in the Vashishtha-Vishvamitra conflict are described in connection with two tirthas. The story of the Aruna tirtha hints that a horrific war invariably follows a Rajasuya sacrifice (the first, Soma’s, was followed by the war against Taraka). This was the fate of Yudhishthira’s Rajasuya too. Vyasa tells Janamejaya as much in the Harivamsa. The birth and feats of Skanda form an important part of the account of pilgrimages. Among his attendants is the goblin Ghantakarna, an important figure Krishna meets during his tapasya for obtaining a son. Skanda’s investiture, the fearsome mother goddesses in his retinue and his killing the demon Mahisha are appropriated in the Shakta Puranas for Durga.
The reason for the special holiness of Kurukshetra-Samantapanchaka is revealed here. Eager to stop the inveterate tilling of the field by Kuru, Indra agreed that whoever died here by fasting or in battle would reach heaven. Hence the choice of the battlefield lying between Tarantuka, Arantuka, Ramahrda and Machakurka by the Dhartarashtras and Pandavas.
As the duel proceeds, Krishna tells Arjuna that Bhima will lose if he fights righteously, which calls to mind the parallel episode of Jarasandha’s killing. The predicament is all Yudhishthira’s fault. Krishna quotes from the lost treatise on governance by Ushana-Shukra that has been splendidly transcreated in gnomic verse:
“If an enemy routed
an enemy fled,
returns to fight you,
be filled with dread,
for his sole aim
is to see you dead” (58.15).
Like a seasoned bureaucrat, Krishna quotes precedents: Indra using deceit to destroy Virochana and Vritra (and Namuchi, Trishira). Moreover, Bhima is obliged to honour his oath. Once Duryodhana is down, Bhima proclaims the successful avenging of Draupadi’s molestation, attributing the Pandavas’ victory to “the strength of the tapasya of Yajnaseni” and shrugs off all criticism with “If this takes us to heaven, or takes us to hell’what do we care?” He then kicks prone Duryodhana’s head to the disapproval of all and is rebuked by Yudhishthira who tearfully attempts a closure by echoing Duryodhana’s own prophecy:
“It’s we who
should be mourning;
We must pass our days now
who were near and dear to us’
You alone are the happy one,
heaven truly is yours.
we will suffer a fearful hell
As furious Balarama rushes with upraised plough to kill Bhima, Krishna grips him in his arms. The inimitable poet in Vyasa instantly paints a lovely portrait:
“The two Yadava brothers,
one dark, the other fair,
shone like sun and moon at day-end,
like white Kailasa
beside a black mountain.”
Krishna advances several justifications: imagine Kali Yuga has set in; Bhima had to fulfil his vow; Bhima has destroyed a disgrace to the family; Duryodhana was air-borne and not on the ground when Bhima hit his thighs. Vyasa does not scruple in recording that Balarama was “displeased with the crooked dharma of Keshava”. Through his lips Vyasa also heralds closure to the theme of war as a ritual sacrifice in which Duryodhana took initiation, offered up his life as oblation and attained glory completing the yajna.
Krishna reprimands Yudhishthira for not interfering when Bhima was stamping on Duryodhana’s head. Yudhishthira explains that knowing Bhima’s deep grudge he looked the other way, as did Arjuna though neither liked what was done. These verses conflict with what has gone before, where Bhima was promptly rebuked. One of the two sets is a later addition. Yudhishthira now tells Bhima that his debt to mother Kunti and to his own wrath stands discharged.
Duryodhana, roused to fury by the adulation offered to Bhima by all and their insults, now rears up
“like an angry venomous snake
with its tail sliced in half’
in excruciating pain”
to abuse Krishna, enumerating the many tricks he played to defeat the Kauravas. Later, he exclaims to Sanjaya,
“How does it profit
a good man
to win by wicked means?”
Krishna spares no words in hitting back with a list of Duryodhana’s crimes for which he is now paying. Duryodhana’s last words are majestic indeed, repeating much of what he said before the duel:
“I have studied, given gifts,
ruled the sea-girt earth,
Placed my foot on the heads
of my enemies’
I have achieved the peak of power.
Who is there more fortunate than me?
I go to heaven
with my friends and followers,
And all of you stay back here
with grieving minds
and shattered hearts.”
Vyasa cannot be accused of pro-Pandava bias. In sections 33, 54 and 61 he records the applause greeting Duryodhana’s responses. Krishna and the Pandavas are dismayed, disconcerted and ashamed to find his speech greeted with a shower of celestial flowers and music. To raise their spirits, in a booming voice Krishna justifies his use of trickery for ensuring their victory. Duryodhana, in his speech to Sanjaya, wanders into make-believe, claiming that he never won by unfair means, never poisoned anyone or killed a sleeping enemy, drawing a convenient veil over Varanavata, Pramankoti and Abhimanyu’s murder. He hopes that the wandering mendicant Charvaka, expert orator, will avenge his death. That attempt is, indeed, made later. When the three surviving heroes of his army meet him, Duryodhana states that though he grants Krishna’s glory, it never blinded him. This is why Bankimchandra argued that Vyasa portrays Krishna not as God but as a human being of outstanding genius.
When the victors repair to the camp of the vanquished, a significant incident occurs.
Krishna directs Arjuna to descend first. The moment Krishna steps down, the great chariot is consumed in flames. Hit by many celestial weapons, it had held together so long as Krishna drove it. It is an ominous hint of the passing of superhuman prowess, which the subsequent books elaborate. Krishna advises them to spend the night outside this camp. Yudhishthira, terrified of Gandhari’s fury because of the unfair killing of Duryodhana, begs Krishna and Vyasa to go in advance to pacify her. This is stated cryptically in section 62. Section 63 is a typical elaboration by a later redacteur where Yudhishthira again addresses Krishna, praising him at length, urging him to the same task. Krishna’s tells Dhritarashtra that he has only his own karma to blame for his plight and not the Pandavas on whom he has now to depend. To Gandhari he says that what she had foretold has happened, so she should not curse the Pandavas. Krishna announces that he has intuited Ashvatthama’s plot to murder the Pandavas that night and therefore he must hurry back. Ashvatthama vows to Duryodhana to exterminate the Panchalas, not mentioning the Pandavas, which shows that what drives him is taking revenge on his father’s killers. With Duryodhana lustrating Ashvatthama as the last commander-in-chief, the Shalya Parva ends.
The unremitting carnage of this book is lit up by iridescent flashes of images that forcibly unite completely disparate ideas. It is Prof. Lal’s inimitable transcreation that brings home the realization that centuries before the much acclaimed English Metaphysical poets Vyasa’s poetry was replete with such images:
“Beautiful the field of battle,
struck by the hoof-beats of horses,
like a girl
scratched by the nails
of her lover.”
“The battlefield, O raja
with lifeless, mangled heads
with staring eyes
looked like a spread
of red pundarika-lotuses.”
“Under their onslaught,
your warriors teetered
like a young girl besotted with wine.”
Or, Bhima’s mace is,
“Indeed like a fragrant sandal-
anointed sexually desirable girl,
it was smeared instead
with fat and marrow and blood.”
When Shalya falls,
that bull-brave hero/to herself,
Like a lovelorn girl
embracing her lover
to her breasts. Long did he lie there,
passionately enjoying the earth,
covering her with all his limbs,
sleeping with her peacefully.”