Mahabharata Episode 45: Arjuna Takes an Oath

Arjuna Takes an Oath - Featured Image - Picture of a sacred fire

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 44: Abhimanyu Dies. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

The Fall of Dharma

The killing of Abhimanyu is often derided as unholy. Three main reasons are given for this:

  • Abhimanyu is just a child, whereas all the other warriors are experienced men.
  • Karna shoots at Abhimanyu from behind, which is unethical.
  • A warrior should only fight one opponent at a time. So the fact that six atirathas attacked Abhimanyu together is wrong.

All three of the above reasons are tenuous. First, Abhimanyu may be a child in age, but he has willingly come to participate in the war. The Kaurava leaders are not obligated to go easy on him.

Shooting from behind is a cowardly tactic, but in a situation where a warrior is surrounded by enemy forces – like Abhimanyu is, inside the Chakra Vyuha – it is hardly unexpected.

The one-warrior-against-another rule is broken a number of times in the war. Also, we’re told that Abhimanyu himself kills a whole akshauhini of troops on this day. So he is breaking the rule too.

More than anything, the point of difference here is that the favourite son of Arjuna has been killed. This leads to the breaking down of Arjuna’s resistance to fighting, and finally kicks the war into a higher gear.

Also, we must remember that it is Abhimanyu – knowing that his reinforcements have been cut off – who adds a streak of mercilessness to his fighting.

He kills Lakshmana the son of Duryodhana, Rukmaratha the son of Shalya, an unnamed son of Kritavarma, and Brihadvala, the king of Kosala. After all of these, one can excuse the Kauravas seething for a bit of revenge themselves.

Yudhishthir’s Sorrow

The Pandava camp on that night is immersed in sorrow. Yudhishthir is beside himself with equal parts grief and contrition.

‘What disjointed, fruitless words will I have to tell Gudakesha and Krishna when they return from battle today?’ he says out loud to his brothers. ‘Greedy for the kingdom, fearful of losing my life to Drona, it is I who sent the boy into the jaws of death.

‘I am like the covetous collector of honey from combs buzzing with bees, forever ignorant of his own destiny and his faults. After Abhimanyu himself is slain, of what good is this kingdom? What solace will I be given by victory in this war?

‘The valiant hero Arjuna would certainly have done better at protecting his own. He is the vanquisher of the Nivatakavachas and the Kalakeyas. He has hundreds of celestial weapons at his disposal.

‘Today, we failed to protect the son of such a man! Of what use are our big words? Even immortality now has lost its luster. Whether we win or lose this battle has suddenly become a matter of no consequence to me.’

Vyasa Consoles

While Yudhishthir is lamenting thus, Sage Krishna Dwaipayana comes to the tent and accepts the Pandavas’ welcome. Watching Yudhishthir in a bit of a state, the rishi consoles him.

‘You are possessed of great wisdom, O King,’ he says. ‘You are the acknowledged master of all branches of learning. People like you should not be stupefied this way about a calamity as natural as death.

‘Though a child, Abhimanyu fought in the war like a man way beyond his years, and has no doubt ascended to heaven. His is the kind of death Kshatriyas yearn for; why do you mourn it?

‘Whether you are a god, a Danava, a Gandharva, a Yaksha or a Kimpurusha, death will claim you. There are no exceptions for this law, O King. There is no need to be stricken with such grief over a process as natural as the withering of leaves.

‘Hold yourself, O Pandava, and console your brothers too, because watching you this way will afflict them with fear.’

Arjuna Guesses the Truth

Meanwhile, leaving the battlefield after killing thousands of Samshaptakas, Arjuna looks up at the setting sun and detects a faint sense of dread enveloping him. His right hand flies to his chest, and with a hesitant voice, he asks Krishna:

‘Do you feel the same way I do, O Madhava? At this moment of victory my speech falters. My limbs are weak. Evil omens, it appears, surround me wherever I go. I wonder if everything is all right with my brothers, especially my king Yudhishthir. Did Drona succeed in capturing him?’

The chariot makes its way into the Pandava camp. Arjuna is struck by the fact that the veena is not playing tonight. The trumpeters are not to be seen in their usual places. Drummers and conch-bearers turn their faces away.

‘Is the ruler of the Panchalas well, Janardana?’ wonders the curly-haired one aloud. ‘Or perhaps Virata, the king of the Matsyas, our protector – he has fallen!’

But then he realizes that Abhimanyu – who always welcomes him home at the end of each day’s battle – is nowhere to be seen. Krishna brings the vehicle to a stop outside Yudhishthir’s tent.

And upon entering it, Arjuna is surrounded by his four brothers cheerless, sitting on the ground with their faces plunged in sorrow. Here, too, he does not see Abhimanyu.

‘Alas,’ he says, his voice breaking. ‘I heard that Drona has today formed the Chakra Vyuha. Among you, only Abhimanyu knew how to break it. I have not taught him yet, however, the method by which one might exit the array.

‘Could it be that you sent the boy into the formation all on his own?’

Arjuna’s Grief

As he speaks, Arjuna becomes more and more convinced of the truth of his surmise.

‘With all the weapons at my disposal, with four godly men as my brothers, with the Gandiva as my bow, with Krishna as my charioteer – with all these, I was unable to protect my son from the jaws of death. Is this the lot of the greatest archer in the world, one who is called Vijaya?’

He turns to Krishna. ‘Why did you not tell me during the battle, O Hrishikesha? I would have abandoned the Samshaptakas and flown to my son’s rescue.

‘Imagine how in the last throes of death, he must have hoped that I would come and protect him. With all the Kaurava warriors surrounding him, he must have called out to me. To you, his uncle! Why did you not tell me if you knew?’

Vasudeva says, ‘Death on the battlefield is the route to eternal merit for all Kshatriyas, O Arjuna. For those who do not yield to fear and fight with their weapons, death is certain, today or tomorrow.

‘Wipe your tears, for Abhimanyu has attained the kind of death that few are blessed with. Let us now think of tomorrow.’

Arjuna, though, is not yet ready to move on. He turns to his brothers and asks them how it all happened.

An Oath is Taken

Yudhishthir tells his younger brother all that had happened: how Drona created the Chakra Vyuha, how Abhimanyu fearlessly volunteered to enter it, how Jayadratha held them back from offering the boy support, and how six atirathas combined together to hunt down the son of Subhadra.

At the end of it, Arjuna is shaking with anger. Interestingly, he does not lash out at Drona or Karna or Kripacharya. All his ire is directed at Jayadratha.

‘I swear,’ he says, ‘that tomorrow I shall slay that Saindhava. Unless he chooses to flee from fear of death or he seeks the protection of Krishna, as long as he turns up to fight tomorrow, I shall kill him for the part he played in Abhimanyu’s slaughter.

‘If tomorrow’s sun sets without my killing that wretch, then I shall consign myself to flames. O Asuras, O Gods, O birds and snakes, O Pitris and wanderers of the night, O Sages both earthly and divine, O mobile and immobile creatures – listen!

‘None of you will succeed in protecting Jayadratha from me tomorrow. Even if he enters the abode of the nether regions, or ascends the firmament, or repairs to the celestials or to the realms of the Daityas, I shall still seek him out and cut his head with a hundred arrows.’

Announcing his oath to the world thus, Arjuna raises his Gandiva and twangs it. He blows on the Devadatta, even as Krishna joins him with the Panchajanya.

Jayadratha Considers Fleeing

Duryodhana’s spies carry back the news of Arjuna’s vow to the Kaurava camp that very night. Hearing the messages, Jayadratha is consumed by dread.

After spending a lot of time in deep thought, he shakes his head and says these words in the presence of all the other Kuru stalwarts:

‘The son of Indra has vowed to send me to the abode of Yama. Indeed, who in these three worlds can stop him when he is in this mood? I think it is best for me to go back to Sindhu.

‘Drona and Duryodhana and Kripa and Karna and Shalya can protect even a man doomed to death, but when one’s enemy is Jishnu himself, can even these great warriors perform this enormous task? My limbs, O Heroes, have become powerless and limp ever since I have heard this news.

‘Allow me, therefore, to return to the Saindhava kingdom. Or perhaps I should fall at Arjuna’s feet and seek mercy. Perhaps in his grief-stricken heart somewhere, he will find a measure of pity.’

Duryodhana sees things a little differently. Springing to his feet and placing a hand on the shoulder of Jayadratha, he says, ‘Why should you fear when the entire Kaurava army is at your command, O King? Tomorrow, every ratha and atiratha at my disposal will be tasked with one thing only: your protection.

‘Eleven akshauhinis will carefully fight tomorrow to protect you, Jayadratha, so do not fear. Stay with us, and we shall see to it that Arjuna’s vow remains unfulfilled tomorrow.’

An Impenetrable Array

Drona also encourages Jayadratha to stay and fight.

‘I have taught you and Arjuna equally, O King,’ says Drona. ‘In skill you are equals. But he becomes your superior in mental fortitude, and of course, the confidence that comes from knowing that an entire array of celestial weapons awaits your command.

‘But this does not mean you should give in to fear, O Saindhava. Remember that even the gods cannot prevail over the man I protect with my arms. I will create an array tomorrow that even Arjuna cannot penetrate!

‘And remember, Jayadratha, all of us are already destined to die, even the Pandavas, even Arjuna. We all have to take a record of our deeds to the next world. How, then, will you account for this cowardly act if you decide to go back to the Sindhu country?

‘Stay on the battlefield with us, O King, and fulfil your Kshatriya duty. Cast off this fear of death, and take up your position at the rear of the army, protected by one and all.’

Contingency Plans

In a nice reversal of the Bhagavad Gita, it is now Krishna’s turn to experience a moment of doubt.

After trying in vain for a few hours to sleep, he leaves his tent and summons Daruka his charioteer. He tells him to keep his chariot and weapons ready.

‘My wives, my kinsmen, my relatives, my clan – none of these is as dear to me as Arjuna is, O Daruka,’ he says. ‘If tomorrow something should happen to him, I shall end this war by riding out in my own chariot.

‘The thousands of princes, with their horses and elephants and other beasts, will flee from Kurukshetra because of me.

‘Tomorrow the three worlds will know me to be the true friend of the ambidextrous one. When morning comes, equip my chariot with all the weapons I might need. Place in it my mace Kaumodaki, my dart, my discus, my bows and arrows.

‘Yoke Valahaka, Meghapushpa, Saivya and Sugriva to the vehicle, and keep them ready to fly out onto the battlefield. Make room on the terrace of my car for the standard bearing Garuda, my beloved steed.

‘Case yourself in armour, for if I have to take up arms, it will be a day of much bloodshed.

‘I will blow upon the Panchajanya the Rishabha raaga. The moment you hear that sound, bring yourself on the chariot and attend upon me. In the course of a single day, I will dispel the wrath and woes of my cousin, the son of my paternal aunt.

‘By every means I shall strive to ensure that Arjuna will slay Jayadratha tomorrow; yet I worry for what might happen if we fail.’

Arjuna Dreams

Arjuna’s sleep is fitful too. After a lot of tossing and turning, he falls into a dream in which he and Krishna rise up in their mortal bodies to visit Shiva.

They go past the Himavat and the Mainaka, beyond the realms of the Siddhas and the Charanas and the pleasure-gardens of Kubera’s city. Flying past Mandara and the summit called Brahmatunga, they reach a place called the Vishnupada.

‘Shiva sits here in meditation,’ Krishna tells Arjuna, guiding him by the arm. ‘Let us go and tell him about your travails.’

They come upon the seated figure of the one with matted locks, with Parvati by his side. At the behest of Krishna, Arjuna begins to praise the lord in the company of hundreds of his ganas, even as the wielder of the Pinaka opens his eyes and welcomes them.

‘Nara and Narayana have come to visit me,’ he says, smiling. ‘What brings you here?’

The two of them describe to Shiva their doubts, and Arjuna requests the lord to give him the Pashupatastra. Shiva smiles and tells them:

‘Not far from here is a lake of nectar in which a bow and arrow of mine are preserved. Bring them back to me and I shall teach Jishnu the secret of the Pashupatastra.’

Krishna and Arjuna make haste in finding the lake of nectar, and bring back Shiva’s bow along with the missile. After their return, Shiva teaches Arjuna the manner of stringing the great bow, along with the chants required to use the Pashupatastra.

Arjuna learns the process of hurling, controlling and recalling the great weapon, and before they leave Kailasa, Shiva blesses them with victory on the fourteenth day.

(We must note here that Arjuna already has the Pashupatastra, gifted to him during his earlier altercation with Shiva. This dream, therefore, can be interpreted as his subconscious mind reassuring him that he has the supreme weapon at his disposal.)

The fourteenth day thus dawns. It is easily the most action-packed of all days of the Mahabharata war, and we will learn about it in full detail over the next few episodes.

Further Reading

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