In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes.
This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.
(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 45: Arjuna Takes an Oath. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
The Fourteenth Morning
On the morning of the fourteenth day, in the middle of the battlefield, Drona rides his chariot up and down the length of his formation, examining it. He says to Jayadratha:
‘You, along with Bhurishrava, Karna, Ashwatthama, Shalya, Vrishasena and Kripa will station yourself twelve miles behind me. A hundred thousand horses, sixty thousand chariots, fourteen thousand elephants, and a hundred and twenty thousand foot-soldiers will surround you in a tight arrangement.
‘Even the gods with Vasava leading them will not be able to penetrate this web of human soldiers, O Saindhava, so rest easy about the Pandavas.’
The formation, as Krishna came to know from his spies, is a three-layered one: first the Sakata Vyuha, which resembles a cart or a box, followed by a lotus shape (Padma Vyuha), and then a long needle formation (the Soochimukha Vyuha) with Jayadratha at the very tip.
The whole array, we are told, is forty eight miles in length and twenty miles in width.
At the mouth of the Sakata is the son of Bharadwaja, with Kritavarma, Duryodhana and Karna supporting him on both sides. Watching this formation, which is one of its kind, the Siddhas and Charanas are struck with wonder.
All the creatures of the world think that it will devour the earth itself, along with the mountains and rivers and trees.
Defeat of Durmarshana
Arjuna casts a look across the field and sees at a mere glance that his guess had proven right; the Kauravas had employed an array designed to protect Jayadratha at all costs.
Seeing Durmarshana at the van of the Kaurava army and steeling himself for a long drawn out day of relentless battle, he asks Krishna to lead him to the Dhartarashtra.
‘That elephant division of Durmarshana is our first target, O Hrishikesha,’ he says. ‘Urge the steeds toward him.’
What follows is a one-on-many battle with Arjuna keeping Durmarshana at bay while simultaneously massacring his army. He uses his celestial weapons to create an illusion of being in many places at once, and beheads car warriors by the thousands without mercy.
With the elephant army of Durmarshana thus being routed, Duhsasana rushes against the third Pandava in order to stem the tide.
With a yell and a roar, Arjuna cuts loose on the elephant division that Duhsasana is leading, and like an alligator slipping into an ocean, penetrates the formation with utter ease.
He beheads the warriors fighting from atop their elephants, and after the beasts are set free in this manner, he slices open their massive bodies with his arrows.
Duhsasana and Durmarshana are both horribly outmatched in this battle, even though they lead an army of thousands against Arjuna. Next in line is Drona.
Battle with Drona
When he reaches Drona, Arjuna joins his palms together and bows. ‘Wish me well, O best of Brahmanas,’ he says, ‘and bless me with the word Swasti. With your grace, I intend to penetrate this impossibly strong array.
‘You have always been a father to me, and I respect you as much as I respect Yudhishthir and Krishna. Even as Ashwatthama deserves your protection and care, so do I. The Saindhava king needs to die at my hands by sunset, O Preceptor. My hope is that you wish me well.’
Drona smiles, out of love or scorn we do not know. ‘O Vibhatsu,’ he says, ‘you encounter me today not in the capacity of your teacher or well-wisher, but as the commander of the enemy against whom you are fighting.
‘It is my duty, therefore, to ensure that Jayadratha is protected. Without vanquishing me, today you will not be able to pass and get to the Saindhava.’
The battle begins, and the two warriors are so well-matched that Krishna senses a stalemate. He says to Arjuna:
‘We cannot waste so much time this early in the day while such an important task awaits us, O Partha. Let us pass the preceptor and allow the other Pandavas to fight him for today. We will go in search of Jayadratha.’
As Krishna steers the chariot past Drona, it takes the old man a moment to catch on. When he realizes what is happening, he calls out to Arjuna. ‘I have not known you to stop fighting until you have defeated your enemy!’ he says.
And diplomatically, Arjuna says, his head turned around in his car, ‘You are my preceptor, not my enemy. And I am your son. So please give me leave, for I have other matters to attend.’
Kritavarma is Defeated
The first warrior that Arjuna faces after running past Drona is Kritavarma. When the chariots approach each other, Krishna tells Arjuna not to show any mercy toward the Bhoja king.
‘Do not regard him as a kinsman, Partha,’ he says. ‘He is now just a man standing between you and your goal. Slay him if you must. Fight him with all that you have.’
Kritavarma shoots twenty five arrows at Arjuna and Krishna, injuring them both. He then pierces Partha’s armour with five more sharp ones, laughing all the while.
The son of Kunti now returns the favour with nine arrows piercing the Bhoja king at various places, and also cuts off his bow twice. Killing his charioteer and rendering him immobile (and leaving him to Shikhandi and Dhrishtadyumna to handle), he moves further into the Kaurava formation toward the Kalinga division led by Srutayush.
Srutayush and Sudakshina Die
Now Srutayush had once been given a mace by Varuna (his father), a divine weapon capable of killing anyone in the three worlds. But as he was giving the king the gift, Varuna warns that the club must not be used against anyone who is not actively fighting.
Here, in the battle against Arjuna, after losing his chariot and bow to the third Pandava’s arrows, he runs toward his enemy’s chariot and hurls his mace at it. Instead of aiming it at Arjuna, however, for some reason (perhaps in a moment of misjudgement) he throws it at Krishna.
Krishna bears the full thrust of the weapon on his shoulders, and with a thump that brilliant mace is turned into inert metal. Not only that, it turns back on its course and crashes into the head of Srutayush, killing him on the spot.
(Varuna gives his son this present at the behest of Srutayush’s mother, a river maiden called Parnasa. With the power bestowed by the mace, Srutayush earns for himself the tag of near invincibility throughout his life.
But on this day, the one condition that his father placed on the weapon’s use is violated, and like a spell that turns against its performer, Srutayush falls by the blow of his own mace.)
Sudakshina, the king of the Kambojas, rushes toward Arjuna in a bid to avenge the death of Srutayush. He hurls at the Pandava a dart that makes the latter swoon, but Arjuna regains consciousness and shoots fourteen arrows at his attacker.
After dismantling the Kamboja king’s chariot, he sends four more shafts to pierce the man’s chest, and to send him tumbling into the dust head first.
Arjuna Blazes On
Upon the fall of Sudakshina and Srutayush, while certain sections of Duryodhana’s army run away in terror from the surging Pandava chariot, other warriors and kings lead their divisions into his path with cries of glory.
We are told that the Abhishahas, the Shurasenas, the Sibis, and the Vasatis converge together on the son of Kunti and rain their arrows over him. Arjuna, of course, beats them all down with his mighty Gandiva, shooting apparently six hundred arrows at a time.
Two princes by names Srutayus (the same name as the dead king) and Achyutayus contend together with Arjuna, eager to take revenge for the death of their men.
With a thousand shafts they cover the chariot of Falguna, and when a spear hurled by Achyutayus drives through the arm of Arjuna, for a moment Krishna thinks that his friend is killed.
But after a momentary spell of unconsciousness, during which Krishna readies himself to almost summon Daruka with the chariot, Falguna gets back on his feet and pulls out the spear with a grunt.
Facing the two enemies, then, he unleashes the Shakrastra, which shoots thousand straight shafts at the princes, injuring them badly.
Arjuna follows up the divine weapon with hundreds of earthly arrows shot out of his Gandiva, and they hiss through the air to find their targets.
Srutayus and Achyutayus, thus attacked remorselessly by Arjuna, lose their arms, legs and their heads, hitting the ground as lifeless trunks.
The forward motion of Arjuna’s chariot never stops, with Krishna urging the white steeds onward and onward. In his wake he leaves behind piles of human corpses, the twang of the Gandiva resonating above the death-cries of horses and elephants alike.
Duryodhana’s New Armour
This combination of skill, knowledge and ruthlessness puts the fear of god into Duryodhana. He goes to Drona and makes his customary complaint.
‘It is on the strength of your promise that I asked the king of the Saindhavas to stay back and fight, O Acharya,’ he says. ‘But now we see that Arjuna has sped past you. He has defeated the king of the Bhojas.
‘He is tearing through the Mlechcha tribes as we speak, and he has already slain Srutayush and Sudakshina. Please go and fight him, O Preceptor.’
But Drona refuses. ‘I have to hold the mouth of the Sakata Vyuha together, my son,’ he says. ‘But I can give you something that will help you hold your own against Arjuna.’
Saying so, the preceptor ties a golden coat of mail around the body of Duryodhana. ‘This belongs to Shiva,’ he says. ‘It is said that it was gifted by the Mahadeva to Indra on the occasion of the latter’s battle with Vritra.
‘After the lord of the celestials secured his victory, he gave the armour to Angirasa, who passed it on to his son Brihaspati. From Brihaspati it went to Agnivesha, and from him unto me.
‘You are now as invincible as Indra, O King. Ride against Arjuna and protect Jayadratha.’
Vinda and Anuvinda
Here we shift focus back to Arjuna’s chariot, steered expertly by Krishna. We are told that Arjuna shoots his arrows a full two miles ahead of him, and watches the enemy forces part to give him way, some of them dying, others fleeing in fear.
Even the chariot of Surya or that of Vaishravana is said to have never travelled at such high speeds. Nobody else’s car has ever moved so rapidly from one point to the next, and it seems to onlookers that a streak of lightning is moving across the Kurukshetra.
Beholding Jishnu’s horses tiring, however, Vinda and Anuvinda of Avanti challenge him by shooting sixty four arrows at him. They then injure Krishna with seventy, and the four horses with a hundred.
Arjuna first tries to drive past them like he had done with Drona, but seeing that the princes are determined, he resolves to fight.
On any other day, the heroes from Avanti would have perhaps given Arjuna an even fight, but today they run into the Pandava’s ruthless avatar. After fighting back their initial barrage, the diadem-decked slays their horses, their charioteers, and the two guards that protect their rear wheels.
Then, with a broad-headed arrow, he cuts off the head of Vinda, the elder brother.
Anuvinda, seeing his brother dead, leaps off and flings himself at the ground, rolling back on his feet with mace in hand. He approaches the chariot and lands a heavy blow to the forehead of Krishna, but the latter bears it without a tremor, like the Mainaka.
Arjuna now places six arrows onto the Gandiva, four for each of the prince’s limbs, one for the neck, and one for the forehead.
All six shafts find their mark, and in an instant the battlefield witnesses the dismembered carcass of Anuvinda hitting the ground with a soft thud.
Fighting on Foot
This battle tires the horses of Arjuna. Krishna asks him to fight on foot while he tends to them.
Seeing Arjuna alight from the chariot, the Kaurava soldiers think that this is the perfect opportunity to attack and kill him. After all, this was how Abhimanyu was slain on the previous day; separating an archer from his chariot is often considered the fastest way to cripple him.
But the son Kunti is a different proposition to Abhimanyu, or indeed any other warrior. With hundreds of chariots converging upon him with loud roars, he remains calm and begins to systematically dismantle each one in turn.
Such is his speed that it seems to onlookers as if he is drawing and shooting tens of shafts at a time. With his celestial powers, he also creates an illusion that there are many of him in battle.
Though the stream of warriors that fall upon him seems to be endless, the river of arrows leaving his bow resembles the mighty Ganga.
A Lake and a Stable
With Arjuna holding back the Kaurava army effectively on his own, Krishna tells his friend, ‘There is no body of water here, O Partha, from which the horses can drink. They are thirsty from riding at such great speed all morning.’
Arjuna cheerfully says, ‘You say there is no body of water, Janardana? Here it is!’
He pierces the earth with an arrow winged by a divine murmur, and as soon as it strikes the earth, a freshwater lake springs into being, laden with lotuses and diverse kinds of fish. On its shores one can see flying chakravakas, and the water itself is so clear that the bottom is clearly visible.
Not quite content with this show of magic, Krishna says, ‘And a place for the beasts to rest, my friend?’
In response, Arjuna builds a cottage on the lake’s shore, all with arrows. Krishna is now impressed, saying, ‘Excellent! Excellent!’ He unyokes the horses – which are bruised all over – and leads them into the hall to shelter them from the sun.
There he tends to their wounds and gives them water to drink.
Meanwhile, Arjuna continues to defend their newly created sanctuary from all sides, with an unending ocean of chariots and footmen rushing at him from all directions.
The Kauravas are mesmerized by this show of strength by Arjuna, which suggests that he does not even need a chariot to withstand the full might of their army.
‘Have we ever seen a sight as wonderful as this?’ they ask one another. ‘Even as Arjuna fights us off, Krishna tends to his horses as if they are sporting in an assembly of women.’
As the sun touches the tips of the Asta hills, and takes on a reddish hue, Krishna and Arjuna break out of Drona’s formation from behind, and sees the needle array in front of them, with the six atirathas standing guard in front of the Saindhava king.
Having forced through the impenetrable army of Drona, the solitary chariot of Arjuna looks like a fish that has escaped the yawning jaws of an alligator, or like a person escaping from a raging conflagration.
The six maharathas who watch them approach are stung by a moment of self-doubt, because each of them had assumed that Arjuna would never be able to pierce Drona’s formation.
Now Krishna stands up on his seat with the horses at full gallop, and with his whip-wielding arm he points to the far-eastern edge of the battlefield, where Jayadratha stands in the midst of a tight web of soldiers.
‘There he is!’ he roars, and receives a resounding twang of the Gandiva from Arjuna in response.
But at this moment, a chariot exits Drona’s formation, and little by little, catches up with Arjuna. It passes them from behind, and after gaining a bit of distance, turns around with the intention of checking the Pandava’s progress.
Standing in the chariot with bow raised aloft is Duryodhana, sporting the new coat of armour that Drona had given him.
Duryodhana is Defeated
Krishna urges Arjuna at this moment to attack Duryodhana mercilessly and kill him. Arjuna tries to do it too, but as he shoots arrow after arrow at Duryodhana, they begin to slip off his armour instead of piercing it.
Arjuna understands the. ‘I think, O Krishna, that the armour Duryodhana is wearing has been given to him by Drona. It is impenetrable by any weapon in any of the three worlds. Even Indra’s vajrayudha, it is said, cannot pierce it.’
He then raises his bow with purpose. ‘But despite this,’ he says, ‘witness the power of my bow, and the extent of my skill. You will see me defeat the eldest Dhartarashtra today by all means.’
So saying, even as Ashwatthama rides up to support Duryodhana, Arjuna breaks the king’s bow and kills his rear guards. With strong, sturdy arrows, he takes apart Duryodhana’s chariot also. He then kills his steeds and charioteer, while at the same time engaging with Ashwatthama.
Thus forcing Duryodhana to fight from the ground, Arjuna peels off the leathern fence surrounding his fingers with four well-aimed shafts. He then proceeds to pierce the palms of the Dhartarashtra, and sends arrows aimed at his fingernails.
With Duryodhana fleeing the field, Arjuna now turns his attention toward Jayadratha.
Guarded by Six Atirathas
‘The Saindhava king cowers out of sight behind the six maharathas, Arjuna,’ Krishna says. ‘Without killing them, you cannot reach him, and there is not enough time even for you to slay them all. So I shall resort to yoga to create an illusion of darkness.
‘It will trick Jayadratha into giving up his position for a minute. Be alert to it, Partha! And do not be disheartened if you sense the darkness of night envelop you from all sides. It is merely my magic.’
Arjuna does not protest this offer of help. No grandiose statements that accepting help from Krishna might tarnish his name in the eyes of the world. Even he can see that this particular task cannot be completed unaided. So he says, ‘So be it.’
As soon as Krishna works his magic, a great dark cloud descends upon Kurukshetra, and everyone in the Kaurava army assumes that the sun has set. Overcome with relief and happiness that Arjuna’s vow has remained unfulfilled, all of them crane their necks and try to locate the sun in the sky. Jayadratha does the same.
Krishna points to him. ‘Look, Partha,’ he says. ‘This is the moment that you must seize.’
Arjuna begins by shooting large numbers of arrows at each of the six atirathas surrounding the Saindhava king, and the warriors look about themselves with puzzlement. They wonder why Arjuna is still fighting even after sunset.
While they are still in this state of perplexity, the third Pandava cuts off their bows and drives past them in order to get closer to Jayadratha. Just as he fits an arrow to the Gandiva and takes aim, however, Krishna gives him some more advice.
‘Listen to me first, O Kiriti,’ he says. ‘When Jayadratha was born to Vriddhakshatra, the Saindhava king, a divine voice proclaimed that the boy would grow up to be a great warrior.
‘But it also said that a man will cause his head to fall to the earth in the battle at the end of the yuga. Hearing this prophecy, Vriddhakshatra used his own ascetic powers to give his son the boon that whoever causes his head to fall to the ground will himself have his own head crushed into a hundred pieces.
‘Now Vriddhakshatra is immersed in penance not far from Samantapanchaka, Arjuna. With your divine weapons, behead Jayadratha, and cause his head to fall onto the lap of his father.
‘Once he gets up from his prayer, the head of his son will drop to the ground due to his action, and therefore his own head will break into pieces.’
Arjuna hears this story, and pulls out a different arrow. This shaft speeds through the air and plucks Jayadratha’s head as if a hawk snatches away a bird of prey from a treetop. Then Falguna keeps shooting arrows at it, sending it higher and higher into the sky, in the direction of the tree under which Vriddhakshatra is sitting.
The head mangled with a hundred arrows falls, according to plan, onto the lap of the royal sage, and when he gets up after finishing his prayers, he has only a moment to recognize what is happening before his head shatters into a thousand pieces.
After the deed is done, Krishna dispels the darkness, and everyone can now see a part of the sun still setting beyond the Asta hills. At this sudden turn of events, everyone in the Kaurava camp is struck by wonder.
As Krishna and Arjuna and Bhima blow on their respective conches, the good news travels back all the way to Yudhishthir, who sheds tears of joy for his brother.
At that moment, the sun sets completely beyond the hills, leaving Kurukshetra shrouded in semi-darkness. With the conch calling for the end of battle, Krishna descends the chariot and embraces his friend.
‘It is by good fortune indeed that both Vriddhakshatra and Jayadratha are dead now, O Jishnu,’ he says. ‘So many royal warriors equal unto you in battle or superior to you had assembled on Duryodhana’s side, and yet you managed to find a way to fulfil your oath.
‘I cannot think of any other warrior in the three worlds who could have performed such a feat as this. I shall applaud you again after you kill Karna, but today is a day I shall never forget, O Falguna.
Arjuna replies, quite modestly, ‘No surprise is needed when a servant of yours gains success, O Janardana. This is your victory. Our prosperity is nothing but your gift. We are your servants, forever at your command.’
Krishna smiles, and ascending the chariot once again together, they ride back along the length of Kurukshetra toward the Pandava camp, through the morass of fallen chariots, dying beasts, swooping vultures and dismembered limbs.
However, the story of the fourteenth day of battle is only half-told. With Arjuna singularly focused on killing Jayadratha and disappearing behind the Kaurava ranks early in the day, Yudhishthir sends Satyaki on his trail to ensure he is safe.
And after Satyaki disappears, Yudhishthir sends Bhimasena to follow him. So in essence, Drona’s ‘impenetrable array’ is penetrated by not just one but three warriors.
We will follow Satyaki and Bhimasena more closely in the next episode.
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