A Zero-Sum Game:
Where Ignorant Armies Clash by Night
The publication of the P. Lal transcreation of the first two of the five battle-books is an important event. After K.M. Ganguli’s prose translation in the late 1890s, followed by M.N. Dutt’s replication, the world has not had access to an English version of these in their entirety. J.A.B. van Buitenen passed away without touching them and his successors have, so far, published part of the Shanti Parva. The Clay Sanskrit Library’s diglot edition has brought out half of the Drona Parva. The Lal transcreation stands apart from all others particularly because of none of them dare to set the translations to poetic rhythm, something that comes so naturally to Prof. Lal, who brings to the work a unique Indian flavour by working into the transcreation many Sanskrit words. The great Ganguli had a P.C. Ray to take care of the manifold problems of publishing such a gargantuan work; van Buitenen had the University of Chicago Press; the Clay series has the New York University Press’all well established institutions with trained manpower. Here is another Abhimanyu taking on the awesome challenge of transcreating-and-publishing Vyasa’s hundred thousand verses, working through the epic-of-epics steadily, relentlessly.
Reading the first two battle-books together is rewarding because of the varied insights such an approach provides. In the first place, the second book, despite covering half of the duration of the first, is longer by half because the battle is far more sanguinary and varied. Both the Kaurava commanders-in-chief’appointed by Duryodhana reluctantly because of Karna’s refusal’are Vyasa’s expose of deeply flawed elders and their narrow dharma. We have here a patriarch who signally fails to provide protection to his foster brother’s wife and sons from murderous attacks in childhood and youth. Later, he and the two gurus of the grandnephews remain silent onlookers to the spectacle of a granddaughter-in-law being molested publicly by their employer, the heir-apparent. It is supremely ironic that the prince who earned the sobriquet of ‘Bhishma’ and came to be renowned as the greatest of renouncers should be so hopelessly bound to his father’s throne as not only to preside over the suicide of the dynasty, but to actually participate in it on the side he knows to be in the wrong! Indeed, Devavrata-Gangadatta-Bhishma is another Prometheus, bound in adamantine chains to the icy Caucasian peaks of the Hastinapura throne, wracked in immortal agony as the Dhartarashtra-Pandava fratricidal strife eats into his vitals endlessly. For, perversely, he cannot, or will not, die till liberation comes in the form of mortal arrows showered by a grandchild who loves him. And the person whom the Indian government holds up as the model of a guru is one who unhesitatingly indulges in sharp practice to ensure that his son gets exclusive tuition and his favourite pupil is not outdone by a talented tribal; who abandons his calling as a non-violent Brahmin to take up arms to acquire power and pelf for his son’no different from the blind king of Hastinapura in his paternal obsession.
It is in the first war book that both patriarch and guru acknowledge, ‘I am tied to the Kauravas by need.’ Bearing out Gandhari’s warning to her son in the Udyoga Parva, Bhishma and Drona fight for Duryodhana, but not with their hearts, announcing that they will not kill any of the five Pandavas. Duryodhana is caught in a zero-sum game: he has no option but to appoint them as the commanders-in-chief. His best bet, Karna, sulks Achilles-like in his tents, determined not fight so long as the patriarch is in command. Yet, this same Karna rushes to the fallen Bhishma begging his permission and blessings to fight against his brothers’what a marvellous vignette Vyasa presents us with! Even thereafter, aware that everyone is unlikely to accept his overlordship and for once letting his discrimination prevail over his egotism, he advises that Drona be made supreme commander. Fifteen days pass and every other day Duryodhana’s desperation mounts and he berates first Bhishma, then Drona for not killing the Pandavas’all to no avail. He directly indicts the guru (VII.94.14) in gravely insulting terms:
‘We ensure your livelihood
Yet you harm us.
I did not know
You are a honey coated razor.’
Drona’s flawed character is exposed as Sanjaya tells Dhritrashtra that in order to impress Duryodhana (VII.94.40) Drona encased him in golden armour made impervious mantrically. In the duel that follows, Arjuna, unable to pierce this armour, displays his unique bowcraft by wounding Duryodhana’s palms and underneath his finger-nails, forcing him to retreat (VII.103.31-32). However, this incident of encasing in magical armour seems to be an interpolation because in sections 116 and 120 Satyaki and in section 124 even Yudhishthira have no problem in wounding his chest so grievously that he is forced to flee the field.
Dhritarashtra’s perplexity over the failure of his army provides the reader with interesting information about how it was administered (VII.114): ‘We treat our soldiers well’Only after passing extensive tests’has their pay been determined, Not because of family connections, personal favour or nepotism. None is conscripted, none is unpaid’we spoke to them sweetly. Not one’has been unfairly treated. Each, according to his ability, gets paid and receives rations’we give presents, we honour them with the best of seats. Even these veteran warriors face defeat.’
In the duels with Dhrishtadyumna we are treated to martial acrobatics of a special type as he jumps on to the guru’s chariot and rapidly shifts position, foiling all Drona’s attacks (VII.97.26-28). Bhima’s duel with the guru is also memorable as he overturns Drona’s chariot repeatedly’as much as eight times! If he is defeated and spared by Karna (VII.139), he also succeeds in forcing the latter to retreat twice (VII.131, 145) and after Drona’s death Karna flees the battlefield out of fear (VII.193.10). The battle for Jayadratha reaches a high point with Arjuna single-handedly holding back the entire army while Krishna refreshes the horses in a hall-of-arrows. Sanjaya exclaims (VII.100.12, 21):
‘O Bharata! Krishna, smiling,
stood gracefully in the arrow-hall
created by Arjuna,
as if he was in the midst of women’
In a single chariot, clad in armour,
facing the Kshatriyas,
the two played with our warriors
like children with toys.’
As we wade through rivers of blood and gore these 15 days, we notice a gradual breaking down of codes of conduct as the stress mounts steeply. Chariot, cavalry and elephant divisions no longer refrain from attacking infantry and even unarmed charioteers and fleeing soldiers or from killing the charioteer to perplex the chariot-rider. After Bhishma’s fall, the battle even carries beyond midnight first by torchlight, then by moonlight, with warriors killing their comrades in the confusion:
‘And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.’
As in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, fathers slay sons, maternal uncles kill nephews and vice-versa. Warriors intervene in duels, attack from behind, many encircle a lone fighter: ‘Dignity was lost/In that crazed clash’ (VII.169.50).
The Udyoga Parva had closed with Yudhishthira taking a measure of his strength after hearing from his spies that Bhishma and Drona had announced that each could wipe out the Pandava army in a month, Kripa in two months, Ashvatthama in ten days, Karna in five. He puts the question specifically to Arjuna who claims that using Shiva’s weapon he can annihilate all opposition in a flash, but adds that its use is improper against humans. He avoids declaring how many days of normal warfare he would take to defeat the opponents. It is Arjuna’s initial assurance that constitutes the backbone of Yudhishthira’s morale because he knows full well that Arjuna’s fulsome estimate of Virata and Drupada equaling Bhishma and Drona is nothing but bombast. The former was cowed down by Kichaka and routed by the Trigartas, as was the latter by the teenaged Pandavas. Sanjaya exclaims to Dhritarashtra:
O raja! Then erupted the battle
Between the Kauravas and Pandavas
Whose origin was the dice-game,
Whose end was all-embracing doom. ‘VI.103.44
Planning for a war is one thing; coming face-to-face with the imperative of killing a beloved patriarch and a revered guru is quite another. It is this existential angst that pierces through Arjuna’s moral armour, effectively unmanning him and becoming the occasion for the recital of Krishna’s Gita transcreated by Prof. Lal in 1947 in rhymed verse, in 1952 in prose, in free verse in 1965, revised in 1968. Intrigued by Arjuna’s uncharacteristic collapse and not finding answers in theGita, he embarked upon the epic journey of transcreating the entirety of Vyasa’s composition verse-by-verse. I will skirt this much-commented-upon text and deal with the rest of the parva. Both in VI.51.6 and in the Gita (1.10) there is a verse that remains intriguing. Duryodhana tells Drona that his forces led by Bhishma are ‘aparyapta’, inadequate, while the Pandava army led by Bhima is ‘paryapta’. This has been transcreated as ‘vast’ and ‘limited’, which is to twist the natural meaning of the word. If Duryodhana feels his army is innumerable, why should it be necessary for Bhishma to revive his spirit in the very next verse?
Prof. Lal’s Preface to the first war-book deals only with the Gita, seeing it as the core of the Bhishma Parva. Reading it is a gripping experience as the reader follows a sensitive and incisive modern mind grappling with Krishna’s recital to extract meaning, savours the delight of the memorably retold parable of the Kalpataru and is surprised by joy to come across gems of insight through a spectrum spanning Vyasa, Dante, T.S. Eliot and Ramprasad Sen. The Preface to the Drona Parva is another scintillating piece teasing out the many shades of the guru-chela relationship: neither will harm the other, yet ‘both must face each other, courtesy of Mahakala’. Against the ideal of the guru-shishya bond given in the Bhagavata Purana, here Vyasa shows us the ground reality of excruciating dilemmas: Drona trying to balance Arjuna-Ekalavya-Ashvatthama; Bhishma caught between Duryodhana-Karna-Pandavas-Krishna. And was Vyasa himself not the greatest victim of this, asks Prof. Lal, when his son almost drove him to suicide by not following his wishes?
Section 1, verse 7’describing the vast empty field of battle’is virtually identical to verse 25. The critical edition overlooks this duplication. Historically, Vyasa’s reference to icons of gods in 2.26 is of interest, as prior to the epic such references are almost absent.
For making sense of the divya drishti gifted by Vyasa to Sanjaya we need not conjure up theories of India having television cameras recording the war. The secret of the supranormal vision is revealed in Vyasa’s announcement at the very beginning that none will harm Sanjaya and his access to everything and everyone will be unfettered. In sections 4-12, Sanjaya gives the king a cosmography that theVishnu Purana copies. There is a detailed description of 7 continents (dvipa, i.e. land with seas on two sides) with their mountains, the countries (varsha) in-between the mountains, 6 oceans. Man is associated with Bharatavarsha, which has 7 ranges, 161 rivers and 228 peoples among whom there is an intriguing reference in 9.56 to Romanah people in the northern region. In 6.14-15 we find a mini-myth of Garuda leaving Meru because all birds there are golden plumaged like him. 8.10 mentions Shandili living at Shringavat, winging us back to Garuda’s traumatic meeting with her in the Udyoga Parva. However, in 8.16 the reference to Hari’s golden chariot of eight wheels has no puranic correspondence. There is a moving reference in 9.5-8 introducing Bharata as a land loved by Indra and 16 famous kings, ‘all these kings and other powerful Kshatriyas/Have deeply loved the territory of Bharata.’ Astronomical data provided in these parvas are hopelessly garbled and have led to a wide variety of dates being fixed by scholars keen to pin down the date of the war, each claiming to have interpreted the dubious references correctly. Deliberate changes appear to have been made in the data around the time of Devabodha’s commentary (mid-18th century CE), each statement conflicting with the others.
Section 13 is virtually a new beginning of the Bhishma Parva as though the lesson on geography had not occurred at all. Reverting to the original narrative pattern of the epic, we find Vaishampayana stating that Sanjaya rushed back to the king to announce that Bhishma ‘lies dead, sprawled on a bed of arrows’. This is repeated in section 1 of the Drona Parva. In both cases, as well as in Dhritarashtra’s extended laments, the references are quite plainly to death and not to awaiting death. Therefore, it is in later times that the concept of Bhishma waiting for the auspicious stellar conjunctions for giving up life was added along with the elaborateShanti and Anushasana Parvas. From Day 1 to Day 10, from the 11th day till the death Abhimanyu, then till the 15th evening and from Day 16 till the end of the 17th day, Dhritarashtra had no news till Sanjaya rushed back to report that Abhimanyu, Drona, Karna and Shalya had fallen. Sanjaya’s narration begins from VI.15 stating that ‘this long-distance hearing and vision, this insight into people’s mind and into past and future, this power of flaying in space, this immunity to war-weapons’ are his by Vyasa’s grace. His presence on the battlefield is testified to in VI.94.46 where he says, ‘though I and Devavrata kept shouting’ at the soldiers not to flee from Ghatotkacha’s illusions, they paid no heed. In section 30 of the Drona Parva he mentions hearing the twang of the Gandiva to his right and speaks of joining Drona’s division as the Kauravas are beaten back, of facing Chekitana in the field and in section 200 of witnessing Bhima’s incredible tackling of Ashvatthama’s attack. He is one of the five (the others being Arjuna, Kripa, Krishna and Yudhishthira) who alone saw the ascent of Drona’s soul to Brahma’s abode (VII.192.57-58). An intriguing bit of information contained in theDrona Parva is usually overlooked amid the welter of action: the blind king was not closeted in Hastinapura but was at least sometimes in Kurukshetra. After Abhimanyu’s death Dhritarashtra’s enquires of Sanjaya why he cannot hear any joyous sounds of dancers, bards and minstrels from the Kaurava camp as he used to while sitting in Somadatta’s camp.
Before the battle begins, we are given detailed descriptions of the Kaurava array led by Bhishma in a white helmet, white armour, under a white umbrella, in a silver chariot with his white palm-tree-symbolled flag fluttering. It is not Arjuna but Yudhishthira who is demoralised, vishadamagamad, at the sight of Duryodhana’s huge army and, as with Uttara, it is Arjuna who restores his morale, drawing upon on an ancient god-vs-demon battle narrative whose lesson is, ‘Victory is where Krishna is’ (VI.23). The next section is abruptly cut off at the seventh stanza with the exultant adversaries about to clash and the Gita begins, continuing till the fifth stanza of section 43. In the sixth shloka we find armies surging forward, as though the 20 sections in-between had not occurred, and are treated to a unique spectacle: Yudhishthira steps down armourless and weaponless from his chariot and proceeds on foot to the Kuru elders! Were Arjuna’s vishada and laying down the bow suggested by this? Each patriarch repeats a formulaic phrase: ‘a man is the slave of need’I am tied to the Kauravas by need’I say this like a eunuch.’ Later Drona and Bhishma recall the bread eaten in Duryodhana’s house (VI.77.71; 109.29). As with Krishna and Kunti’s master stroke of strategy that succeeded in weakening Karna’s animosity, this action of Yudhishthira’s wins him a signal moral advantage. By obtaining the blessings of the elders for victory, Yudhishthira fulfils Gandhari’s prophetic warning to her son in theUdyoga Parva that though the elders may fight for him with their bodies, their hearts and good wishes will ever be with the Pandavas. At this stage Krishna once again approaches Karna, trying to persuade him that since he will not fight so long as Bhishma is alive, he might as well fight on the Pandava side. Karna resolutely refuses to be part of such sophistry and undermine his friend in any way. Then, in a final master stroke aiming at demoralising the enemy, Yudhishthira openly invites defection and succeeds with Yuyutsu, born of a Vaishya handmaid to the blind king, of whom we have not heard anything till now. The reader would expect Vikarna, who spoke up so powerfully against his elders in the dicing match, to have responded instead, but his fraternal loyalty obviously holds, ending finally when Bhima reluctantly kills him. In the Drona Parva we suddenly find Dhritarashtra revealing a heroic feature about Yuyutsu that is never mentioned elsewhere: there was a bitter six-month-long battle in Varanavata where he remained undefeated and slew the Kashi king’s son, a notorious philanderer (VII.10.58-60). He is specifically mentioned by Krishna as severely rebuking the Kauravas for rejoicing after killing a boy (VII.72.63-67).
Sanjaya, in VI.9.74-75, uses an image that recurs at significant points of the epic, spoken by different protagonists: ‘Like dogs snarling over a chunk of meat,/These rajas are squabbling over this earth./And they cannot be satiated.’ The dice-game image is brought in towards the end (VI.115.45): ‘It was victory or defeat, with Bhishma as the stake,/It was a game of dice played by two armies.’ Drona shows Duryodhana the battle in terms of the dice-game (VII.130.20-21) with warriors as gamblers, arrows the dice, Jayadratha the pawn.
As with Abhimanyu later, Arjuna is unaware of his son Iravat’s death till informed by Bhima and then he tells Krishna that though he may be branded a weakling (VI.96.5, 11):
‘This has been a heinous war’
all for the sake of wealth’
we have killed for property!
Dhik! Shame on the wealth that comes
from killing kinsmen!…
But this killing of my kinsmen
is not to my liking.’
This could be referring to Krishna’s reprimand in the Gita. He curses the Kshatriya code and himself again in abject disillusionment after knocking Kripa unconscious:
‘Is there anyone
Hating a Brahmin and an acharya?…
My karma today deserves that hell’ (VII.147.16-27).
Following Drona’s death, he laments that the little of life left to them will be stained permanently because they killed their guru
‘to enjoy briefly a kingdom’
Because I too
Lusted for a kingdom
I failed to prevent
The murder of my guru.
Head lowered in shame,
I will go to hell’ (VII.196.46, 53).
This is hardly the Gita’s ‘sthitaprajna’ in practice! Arjuna will repeat this sentiment to Duhshala in the Ashvamedhika Parva blaming the warrior’s way of life in the same terms. In its 15th verse the Drona Parva states that the cousins re-examined Kshatriya dharma after Bhishma died, each condemning his sva-dharma. This introspection recurs after Abhimanyu’s death with Dhritarashtra exclaiming (VII.33.23), ‘How terrible is this war-code called Kshatriya dharma/that makes power-hungry men kill a small boy!’
In section 23, at Krishna’s instance, Arjuna invokes Durga for blessing him with victory, a passage occurring only in the Bengali and Devanagari manuscripts. The episode is repeated at greater length in the Mahabhagavata Purana where Krishna is an incarnation of Kali or Bhadrakali (the first appellatives by which Arjuna invokes Durga in the epic passage). Arjuna’s invocation resembles that in the Devi Mahatmya and markedly differs from Yudhishthira’s to Durga in the Virata Parva, where she is addressed as Krishna’s sister and of Nandagopa’s family.
Day 1 goes in favour of Duryodhana. We, who usually shrug the eldest Pandava away as a pacifist, are surprised to find Yudhishthira complaining to Krishna that Arjuna fights like uninvolved spectator (possibly following the letter, not the spirit of detached karma!), indifferently watching the destruction of own forces. That is when he announces that Dhrishtyadumna will command the Pandava forces and all ponder the meaning of the announcement till he explains that Dhrishtyadyumna is ordained by Shambhu to slay Drona. We now come to know that Drupada’s black-magic abhichara rite had invoked Shambhu, producing Dhrishtadyumna and Draupadi. Similarly, in the Drona Parva we are told that Shikhandi was the result of Shiva’s boon to Drupada for a Bhishma-killing son as was Bhurishrava to Somadatta to take revenge on Shini. The shadow of destructive Rudra looms over Kurukshetra. Bhima is specifically compared to Shankar, Rudra, and trident wielding Shiva during his grisly exploits, as is Arjuna repeatedly in his destructive fury. Significantly, Ashvatthama is identified with Rudra, looking forward to the horrific carnage he perpetrates in the Sauptika Parva. The climactic touch comes at the end of the Drona Parva where Arjuna tells Vyasa that though the opponents thought they were being routed by him, it was really a dazzling male form, trident in hand, who preceded him and created havoc whichever way he turned. Vyasa reveals that this was the primal lord, Ishana-Shankara, carried by Durga in her arms in the form of a babe with five tufts of hair. The myth of Barbarika rings a change on this when his bodiless head tells the Pandavas’who are disputing over who routed the enemies’that he saw the Sudarshana discuss whizzing through the battlefield, beheading thousands, and Draupadi in Kali form running behind, drinking up all the blood.
The first major casualty is Virata’s son Shveta who, due to some differences with his father, sought refuge with Pandavas (VI.49.4-5). Shveta must have had some connection with eastern India as the episode is not known beyond a few Bengali and Devanagari mss and the 11th century Old Javanese recension. On the second day there is an interesting elaboration on the charioteer’s role and on Bhima’s grisly swordsmanship. We learn that eastern India was renowned for its war elephants and had no liking for Krishna and his instruments the Pandavas. The Kalinga and Vanga kings and Bhagadatta of Pragjyotishpura (Assam) are important allies of Duryodhana. The Tamraliptas (today’s Tamluk in West Bengal) are clubbed along with mlecchas like Shakas, Kiratas, Daradas, Barbaras’all on the Kaurava side. Finding Satyaki unstoppable, Duryodhana finally turns loose the hill-tribes (Daradas, Tanganas, Khasas, Lampakas, Kulindas) expert in stone-warfare, of which both armies are ignorant (section 121), but Satyaki routs them. Indeed, this parva becomes a celebration of Yadava prowess, represented by Abhimanyu and Satyaki who equal Arjuna and Krishna in their battlecraft. Krishna, seeing Satyaki chariotless and about to face Karna, provides him his own chariot driven by Daruka.
On Day 2 Yudhishthira advises adopting the krauncha formation, a never before used vyuha, and the day goes to the Pandavas. This is the only occasion on which all the conches of the Pandavas are named (VI.51.26-27): Krishna’s Panchajanya, Arjuna’s Devadatta, Bhima’s Paundra, Yudhishthira’s Anantavijaya, Nakula’s Sughosha, Sahadeva’s Manipushpaka. Day 3 sees a breakdown of the codes of battle, which recurs on the 10th day, with confusion prevailing and no quarter given regardless of the status of the opponent. Arjuna uses a celestial missile for the first time: Mahendra, followed by Vayavya and then Aindra. The reason is that Krishna, losing patience with Arjuna’s half-hearted fighting, leaps off the chariot and rushes to kill Bhishma, the discuss miraculously appearing in his hand. Without turning a hair, the patriarch welcomes him, glorying in dying at the hands of the Lord of all:
ehyehi devesa jagannivasa namohastu te madhava cakrapa’e
prashya ma’ pataye lokanatha rathottama’ sarvasara’ya sa’khye
The incident is repeated on Day 9, where the description is less elaborate and more realistic with Krishna flourishing his charioteer’s whip. Bhishma’s welcome to Krishna is less exaggerated:
ehyehi pundarikak’a devadeva namohastu te
mamadya satvatasre’ha patayasva mahahave
This later incident must have been the inspiration for a later Vaishanavite composer to insert the episode, with miraculous embellishments, into the third day. Krishna breaks his vow again in the Drona Parva when, to save Arjuna, he receives Bhagadatta’s Vaishnava missile on his chest, where it turns into a celestial garland. To assuage Arjuna’s bruised ego, he recounts the vyuha doctrine of his four-fold existence’ a sure indication of interpolation. Following Drona’s murder, the infuriated Ashvatthama releases the invincible Narayana missile which is neutralised by Krishna. The name of the weapon and Krishna’s intervention bereft of any miraculous transformation indicates that this was the incident on which the Vaishnava missile incident was modelled subsequently to introduce a miraculous element and deify Krishna.
On Day 4 Bhima makes his first kill of the Dhartarashtras: Senapati, followed by seven more. When Duryodhana asks Bhishma to explain the secret behind the Pandavas’ success, he is told about the Pancharatra cult. Bhishma’s account of the creation of the four varnas harks back to the hymn to Purusha in theRig Veda. An intriguing reference is made to Vishnu killing only Madhu, with no mention of Kaitava, and being called Janardana, the people-churner (it could be a reference to the wielding of the rod of punishment to control the wicked, which Arjuna later celebrates as the foundation of dharma). Duryodhana is uncharacteristically impressed and thinks highly of Krishna and the Pandavas’again a sure sign of interpolation.. The 3rd day incident, Bhishma’s discourse to Duryodhana, Dhritarashtra extolling Krishna’s divinity in VII.11 and, at the end of this book, Ashvatthama being similarly impressed by Vyasa’s explanation that Krishna is Narayana who is Rudra are obvious Vaishnavite interpolations.
Sanjaya minces no words in telling home truths to Dhritarashtra, reading him a lecture (VI.65.22-26) in the law of karma’ reaping as he has sown, suffering the fruits of his own misdeeds, tasting the fruit in this life and later. Often he repeats his admonition that the king is like a dying man refusing medicine and that he ought not to blame his son now for his own sins of commission and omission. He also explains that Krishna decided war was the only option on finding that despite his proposing peace the blind king was devious in dharma and, motivated by envy of the Pandavas, persisted in making crooked plans against them (VII.114.51-53).
In the battle descriptions certain formulaic metaphors occur frequently, such as of son and father, brothers, nephew and maternal uncle non-recognition and mutual slaughter, the horrific river of blood, wounded warriors looking like flames-of-the-forest etc. The reader is often taken aback by Vyasa’s use of conceits where two completely different objects are brought into violent conjunction: an arrow stuck in the forehead is like a lotus on a long stem; elephants drag chariots as if uprooting lotuses in a lake, the Kaurava army is vulnerable as a tipsy girl on a highway or standing senseless like a lovely limbed weak willed girl, the battlefield is as beautiful as the autumn sky flecked with red sunset clouds, or a haunting sight, glowing everywhere with softly flaming fires of blood stained armour and gold ornaments; littered with handsome faces with well-trimmed beards and ornamented, the earth looks like the sky scintillating with stars or like a lovely girl adorned with multiple jewels, strewn with golden girdles, glittering necklaces, gold-plated darts, golden breastplates. Arrows speed gracefully like flocks of birds settling on a tree with delicious fruit or slide into a body like swans gliding into the waters of a lake, or shoot up like birds from trees at early dawn. The princes slain by Abhimanyu are like five-year-old mango trees about to fruit shattered by a severe storm. Warriors pierced with golden-feathered arrows are like trees full of glow-worms. The transcreator lends a fine Shakespearean touch to the description of supine heroes who, ‘though dead, looked as if they were alive’ (VI.96.54). An unusual image surfaces on Day-9 of the Pandavas chasing Bhishma like the Asuras attacking Indra and, conversely, like the gods staring at Danava Vipracitti, facing Bhishma who is Death (VI.108.34, 39). The ineffable beauty of the description of exhausted warriors lying asleep and of the rising moon spreading its radiance over the battlefield (VII.184) is brought into violent clash with the blood-letting that follows. There is the unique passage of pathos embedded in the narrative when Duryodhana recalls the sweet childhood days Satyaki and he shared when he faces him in battle.
In VI.110.31 we come across a lost myth of Indra fighting the Asura Maya. The duel with Shrutayudha becomes the occasion for recounting the mini-myth of Varuna’s wondrous mace (Krishna’s Kaumodaki mace and Sudarshana chakra are also Varuna’s gifts). The brief battle with Shrutayu that follows has one of those extremely rare instances of Arjuna fainting (VII.93.12-19). VI.90 supplements the account of the Arjuna-Ulupi romance in the Sabha Parva. In recounting Iravat’s history, Sanjaya states that Garuda having killed Ulupi’s husband, she was in despair. Her father Airavata gave her to Arjuna, whom she desired. Iravat, abandoned by his wicked maternal uncle who hated Arjuna (possibly Takshaka), met his father in Indra’s realm and was requested to join the war. Curiously, Babhruvahana does not join his father in the battle. Iravat is the first Pandava scion to die, killed by the rakshasa Alambusha in the form of a garuda. Iravat is a very important figure in the south Indian cult of Draupadi, where, because his body carries all the auspicious signs, he becomes a willing sacrifice prior to the war to ensure the victory of the Pandavas. In the Drona Parva first Arjuna and then Bhima lose their sons, while Ghatotkacha loses his son Anjanaparva to Ashvatthama.
There is a misconception that Abhimanyu fighting six warriors alone is a unique situation. We find Bhurishravas taking on Satyaki’s ten sons simultaneously and beheading the lot. Bhishma is attacked by 6 or 7 warriors together frequently. In VI.86.16 there is a circular stranglehold of chariots around Bhishma, similar to what Abhimanyu faces. The difference is that where, in the Bhishma Parva, Abhimanyu pierces through the Kaurava ranks, leading Draupadi’s sons, the five Kekayas (sons of Kunti’s sister) and Dhrishtaketu in a needle-point formation to rescue Bhima, the latter is unable to replicate this in the Drona Parva where Jayadratha frustrates all attempts to aid Abhimanyu.
The special regard Krishna has for Arjuna is brought out more than once in these two books. In VI.107.36 Krishna tells Yudhishthira:
‘Arjuna is my sakha
my love-and-loving friend,
my relative and pupil.
I will cut off my flesh
In VII.79 he tells Daruka that the world means nothing to him without Arjuna and whoever injures him, harms Krishna, for Arjuna is half of him. In VII.182.43-44 he tells Satyaki that his parents, brothers, his own life are less dear to him than Arjuna, and that he would not want to possess at the cost of losing Arjuna something more precious than all the three worlds. An interesting parallel to this duo (often called the two Krishnas on one chariot, as in VI.81.41) occurs when Dhrishtadyumna exclaims (VI.77.31-34) that life is meaningless without Bhima, ‘my sakha, my loved-and-loving friend, my devoted bhakta as I am his’. Like Arjuna in the Virata Parva, Dhristadyumna uses a special weapon to make the Kauravas fall senseless (VI.77.48).
At the end of Day 8, which goes very badly for Duryodhana, with many of his brothers slaughtered, he reproaches Karna for standing aside. Defying the much-touted virtue of undying loyalty to his friend, Karna’s pride takes precedence and he stands firm on not joining so long as Bhishma fights. It is this egotistical obduracy that erodes whatever chances Duryodhana has to win the war in the first ten days. Karna’s much-vaunted heroism stands exposed as he has to flee the field several times. Even Dhritarashtra exclaims that he has lost every battle fought against the Pandavas, ‘But my stupid son seems to be unaware of this’ (VII.133.9). Kripa mocks him for his empty bombast and when he insults Kripa, Ashvatthama pounces on him with drawn sword recounting how he has often been routed (VII.158).
Bhishma is truly a man at war with himself: he will neither kill any Pandava, nor will he stand aside from fighting for Duryodhana. He insults Karna grossly, ensuring that he opts out of battle. It is as if he were hoping to cause so much slaughter that, exhausted, both sides will agree to disengage. Otherwise why should he go on killing for the longest period among any of the Kaurava generals? Day 10 is a deeply moving narrative, with Bhishma repeatedly urging Yudhishthira to kill him as he has lost the desire to live (VI.115.15). The battle rages around him as if the patriarch were the stake in a dice-game. Turning away from Shikhandi, Bhishma smiles and tells Duhshasana that the arrows wounding him mortally must be Arjuna’s and cannot be Shikhandi’s for they strike his weakest spots deep, ‘Like baby-crabs emerging/after cannibalizing their mother/they are devouring me’ (VI.119.66). Ultimately, there is not even two-fingers-breadth of exposed skin left on his body!
Curiously, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari make no move to meet the fallen patriarch until the war gets over, which argues for his having been killed as indeed is often stated quite bluntly. At the end of the Bhishma Parva and again at the beginning of the Drona Parva Sanjaya describes Karna rushing to meet the fallen Bhishma to get his permission to fight. The patriarch unveils for him the secret of his parentage which Karna already knows from Krishna. Bhishma considers his birth adharmika,jatohasi dharmalopena. It may very well indicate that the story of the god Surya engendering him was not believed by the patriarch who frowned upon this instance of unwed motherhood. Bhishma tells Karna that such a birth warped his discrimination so that he chose to mix with the mean and was jealous of the noble (VI.122.12-13). Though Arjuna’s equal, these undermined him. This is substantiated in the Drona Parva when Arjuna berates Karna for his ignoble conduct in abusing Bhima although the latter had never spoken a harsh word to him despite uncharioting him repeatedly:
‘You must have a low mind
To speak as you do.
You say things
That should never be said.’ (VII.148.19-23)
Karna’s response to Bhishma is that of a tragic hero: fate is inevitable, struggle cannot overcome it, but he is obliged to pay with his life for the favours received. When Duryodhana complains about Drona’s failures, Karna’s reply sounds surprisingly like Krishna’s to Arjuna on performing kartavyam karma:
‘Do your duty,
And do it fearlessly.
Whether what you do
Succeeds or fails’
That’s in the hands of fate.’ (VII.152.31)
Envy of the much younger Arjuna is the driving force of his being and he remains obsessively true to his ‘sva-dharma’ of being the egotistical sublime till the bitter end. We recall that Duryodhana had declared him ruler of Anga, but here we come across Bhima killing the ruler of Anga who is called a ‘mleccha’ (VII.26.17).
Duryodhana’s soldiers can only imagine Karna as Bhishma’s replacement, not Drona. Karna discerns that he may not be universally acceptable as the commander and, for once swallowing his pride and listening to reason, advises the reluctant Duryodhana to install as Bhishma’s successor the guru: ‘Ear-long white hair,/shyama-dark the complexion, eighty-five years old,/Drona moved like a boy of sixteen’ (VII.125.73)’a description Sanjaya repeats when he is beheaded (VII.192.64-65). With this the horrors of war abruptly exacerbate. The first warning bell is rung with Satyaki beheading the armless, meditating Bhurishrava, presaging the manner of Drona’s death. That incident reveals that strong opposing views prevailed about the Vrishnis. When Arjuna suddenly intervenes in the duel and slices off his arm, Bhurishravas is astonished at his uncharacteristic conduct and attributes it to his keeping company with the Vrishnis and Adhakas who ‘are mean and vicious’ and making them his models (VII.143.16). Sanjaya counters this by extolling the nobility and virtue of the Vrishnis to explain their invincibility to Dhritarashtra (VII.144.26-32). Then there is the horrendous battle at night, fought by lamp-torch-and-moon-light. Next, six heroes combine to kill a sixteen year old. One cannot believe one’s ears when the revered guru advises Karna to cut Abhimanyu’s bow and armour from behind so that he can be killed. We recall how he played favourites, disabling Ekalavya and giving his own son special coaching, used his pupils to grab half of Drupada’s kingdom (if he was such a mighty hero, why did he not do this by himself?), uttered no protest when Draupadi was abused. Bhima brutally tells him to his face that, obsessed by love for his son, he forgot his dharma of ahimsa to chase after wealth and killed thousands (VII.192.38-40). Drona is no different from Dhritarashtra in this respect. This is the person after whom India has named the award for its best sports coach! His brother-in-law Kripa (a foundling reared by Shantanu) is no better. Despite being the first guru of the family, not only does he join in the killing of the youth, but assists Ashvatthama in the horrific carnage of sleeping combatants. Strangely, Vyasa has not a single word to say against Kripa!
After Jayadratha is killed, a gruesome picture of the battlefield is described to Arjuna by Krishna (VII.148) which is comparable to that in the Stri Parva. Ghatotkacha and Alambusha’s chariots are in a class apart, made of iron, of huge size, drawn by massive beasts and their duels are truly horripilating. Sauti may seem to be nodding when Alambusha, who has already been pummelled to death Bhima-style by Ghatotkacha (VII.109) is again beheaded by Satyaki (VII.140). However, in the latter instance, the rakshasa killed is ‘Alabala’ according to the Critical Edition.
There is no epic evidence for the popular tale of Abhimanyu learning the secret of penetrating the discus formation while in Subhadra’s womb. Arjuna’s behaviour is most curious. He knows that his primary responsibility is to prevent Yudhishthira from being captured by Drona, yet when the Trigarta suicide-squad challenges him, he suddenly announces his vow never to refuse a challenge and follows them far away, resulting in Abhimanyu’s death. Not only does Krishna remain silent, but later he praises Arjuna, as never elsewhere, for surpassing the gods in killing, single-handed, innumerable samshaptakas. Satyaki, Arjuna’s disciple, similarly suddenly recalls a vow to justify killing the meditating Bhurishrava. However, when Arjuna announces his vow to kill Jayadratha before sunset, Krishna does reprimand him for the rash decision taken without consulting him. In his dreams, Arjuna himself becomes apprehensive that he will fail and must commit suicide. This becomes the occasion for Krishna taking him to Shiva to obtain the Pashupata weapon. Once again at a critical juncture Shiva intervenes. However, it is a weapon never used except by Drona and is then ineffective! Similarly, when Ghatotkacha flings the spike-studded Rudra weapon at Karna, he throws it back at him incinerating the rakshasa’s chariot.
Then comes the gut-churning killing of Abhimanyu, grandfather of the yajamana of the snake-holocaust during which the epic is recited. The reader should note that there has been no lamentation earlier when Abhimanyu killed Duryodhana’s son Lakshmana. On Drona’s advice, Karna slices the youth’s bow from behind, Kritavarma kills his horses, Kripa slays his two escorts, Drona slices his sword, Karna shreds his shield, all jointly splinter the wheel he wields. Undeterred, Abhimanyu’Bhishma-like resembling a porcupine’attacks Ashvatthama who leaps away from his mace that pulverises his horses and both escorts. It is particularly puzzling that Duhshasana’s son, who smashes to pulp the recumbent Abhimanyu’s skull, should remain nameless and Vyasa never tells us what happened to him. One of the opponents Abhimanyu routs is of interest because of a possible historical reference: Paurava, whom van Buitenen links to Alexander’s Poros. Another instance is when Satyaki routs the Shurasenas referred to by Megasthenes (VII.141.9). In a rare instance of puranic irony, the Surya dynasty of Ayodhya is wiped out by Abhimanyu, incarnation of Chandra’s son, when he slays its last descendant Brihadbala. If we keep in mind theAmsavatarana, several conundrums surface where divinities clash, reminding us of the Iliad: Indra-Arjuna kills Vasu-Bhishma and Surya-Karna; Agni-Dhrishtadyumna kills Brihaspati-Drona and is killed by Shiva-Ashvatthama. Dhritarashtra’s lament over Abhimanyu’s death contains a cryptic statement in which lies the seed of a wonderful tale to be told later by Vidura to console the king that travelled over continents to be known in the Occident as the story of the man in the well told by Barlaam to Josephat: ‘In my eagerness to lick honey/I failed to foresee the fall from the tree.’ (VII.51.15)
The other major incident is Krishna getting Karna to expend his infallible missile on Ghatotkacha. Following this, Vyasa paints for us a picture that is literally horripilating. Krishna roars with joy, hugs Arjuna repeatedly, thumps his back and dances about ‘like a tree swaying in the wind.’ Arjuna is shocked and the explanation provided needs to be read carefully. With his skin-armour and earrings and then with Indra’s weapon, not even Krishna and Arjuna together could have defeated Karna. That is why Krishna did not allow Arjuna to face Karna so far (VII.147.34-35). In that context, section 148 is clearly inconsistent where, hearing Bhima’s complaint of being abused by Karna, Arjuna goes up to him and reads him a lecture on his meanness of mind. Perceptively, the blind monarch exclaims,
‘When a dog and a boar fight
It’s the hunter who gains.
In the clash between Karna
And Hidimba’s son Ghatotkaca,
The winner was Vasudeva-Krishna.’ (VII.182.8)
To his question as to why Karna never used the infallible missile against Arjuna, Sanjaya responds that night after night he, Duryodhana, Shakuni and Duhshasana used to advise Karna to use it against Krishna, ‘the root of the Pandavas’. But, during battle Krishna invariably confused them by making others face Karna. Sanjaya goes on to narrate that Satyaki also asked Krishna the same question and was told ‘It was I who confused/The son of Radha’ (VII.182.40). Krishna now reveals (VII.181) that in order to lighten the balance of forces against Arjuna, he had systematically got rid of Jarasandha (who could be killed because Balarama destroyed his infallible mace), Shishupala and Ekalavya (this remains an untold tale) and would have killed Ghatotkacha one day since he was a dharma-destroyer:
‘I will destroy all
Who destroy dharma’
Brahma-sacred texts, truth, self-
Control, purity, dharma, humility,
Shri-prosperity, patience, constancy’
Where these are,
There I am.’ (VII.181.28-30)
Krishna’s clarity of focus becomes unnerving at times, as when he urges Arjuna to kill Kritavarma’a Yadava’without consideration of the relationship. At such times we need to recollect that his career began with killing his maternal uncle, then his cousin Shishupala and that Ekalavya who is another cousin of his. Moreover, Kritavarma was a rival of Krishna for the hand of Satyabhama in the Syamantaka gem affair and was one of Abhimanyu’s killers.
As we read the parva it becomes clear that stoking the flames of the Pandava-Dhartarashtra rivalry is the animosity between two classmates, Drona and Drupada, fed by the smouldering embers of the ancient Brahmin-Kshatriya conflict that Parashurama had drowned in lakes of kshatriya blood. When pressed to use his celestial weapons for victory, Drona agrees to do so, though aware that this is ignoble because the warriors are ignorant of these, to please Duryodhana. As he assures Duryodhana (VII.185.12), Parashurama’s disciple Drona gives no quarter to the Panchalas. He kills his arch-enemy Drupada, the three sons of Dhristadyumna and Virata. The major allies of the Pandavas, two of their sons and one grandson are, thus, slaughtered by their guru and his son who will finally exterminate the entire Panchala clan. Curiously enough, none of the Pandavas mention Duhshasana’s son as Abhimanyu’s killer, not even Yudhishthira in his extremely significant complaint to Krishna that instead of attacking Drona, the architect of his son’s death, Arjuna targeted Jayadratha who merely prevented help from reaching the youth. Yudhishthira is so infuriated that he sets out to kill Karna and has to be restrained by no less a person than Vyasa. Thereupon he commands Dhrishtadyumna to kill Drona whom Arjuna always bypasses. It is as though Krishna’s sermon had not happened (which, indeed, may very well be the case in the Ur-text).
Sanjaya has a very revealing comment about the Pandavas when they jointly attack Drona. Bhima and the twins were ‘crooked-minded’ and separated the Kauravas from the guru so that the Panchalas could kill him. Dhrishtadyumna cuts off the head of the meditating preceptor, just as Satyaki had beheaded Bhurishrava. Here it is important to dispel the popular misconception that following Yudhishthira’s lie (it is interesting that Arjuna refused to do so), Drona laid down his weapons. Bankimchandra Chatterjee analysed the text at length in Krishnacharitra (1892) to show that Drona did not stop fighting but began using the Brahmastra unethically. When Drona was rebuked by seers for the heinous act of using celestial weapons against those not conversant with them and directed to discard his weapons, he continued to destroy thirty thousand soldiers and even defeated Dhrishtadyumna who had to be rescued by Bhima. It is only after Bhima abused him for abandoning his dharma out of greed for the sake of his son that he discarded weapons. There was, therefore, no impact of the false news of Ashvatthama’s death. Neither theAnukramanika nor the Parvasamgraha refer to it. Krishna’s narrative to his father in the Ashvamedhika states that the guru was worn out by the strain of battle. On a very sound basis, therefore, Bankimchandra classified it as an interpolation. After his father’s death, Ashvatthama erupts in fury but, disorientated at Arjuna foiling his Agneya missile, he flees to Vyasa for an explanation. Hearing that Narayana, who is Krishna, is one with Rudra (whose devotee Ashvatthama is), he retreats with his army. The parva ends, ominously, with an elaborate paean to Rudra, the shatarudriya chant.
Bhishma’s fall had not led to any acrimony, but now Arjuna bitterly berates his brother-in-law for killing the guru and is soundly reprimanded in return. The Pandava camp now erupts in violence, bursting through the lid of compromise Krishna repeatedly weighs down over the seething cauldron of hidden agenda. Arjuna blames Yudhishthira and Dhristhadyumna who retorts and then Satyaki and the Panchala prince trade insults and come to blows, having to be restrained by Bhima and Sahadeva with great difficulty. Dhrishtadyumna bluntly states that both sides have used adharma as convenient for the sake of victory. Worse is to come in the Karna Parva where the smouldering resentment among the brothers, only a spark of which emerged during the game of dice, bursts out into the open.
The Complete Bhishma & Drona Parvas transcreated from Sanskrit
by Padma Sri P.Lal, Writers Workshop, Calcutta.