Bhagadatta is one of the minor but significant characters in the Mahabharata. He is the ruler of what is called the Pragjyotisha kingdom, which is located to the far east of ancient India.
Bhagadatta is considered one of the most powerful warriors to assemble on the Kurukshetra battlefield. He makes an early appearance during the Rajasuya of Yudhishthir: he welcomes Arjuna as a guest and accepts the Pandavas as his leaders.
On the twelfth day, after first launching a scathing attack against Yudhishthir, Bhagadatta clashes with Arjuna – and after a long battle with the Pandava – loses his life to him.
(For a full list of important Mahabharata characters, see 56 Mahabharata Characters that will Amaze You.)
During the Digvijaya Parva
The first time we hear about Bhagadatta in the Mahabharata story is during the Digvijaya Parva, when Arjuna visits the Pragjyotisha kingdom as part of his expedition to secure allies and tributes for Yudhishthir.
(Pragjyotisha, incidentally, seems to be a kingdom located in the far east of the country, in the neighbourhood of Anga, Vanga and Pundra. In modern India, we might place Pragjyotisha around Assam.)
Bhagadatta chooses not to fight Arjuna on this occasion. He warmly welcomes the Pandava into the kingdom, treats him as a guest, and accepts Yudhishthir’s overlordship.
Bhagadatta pledges his loyalty to Yudhishthir at the Rajasuya, but we must not take this to be a feeling of personal kinship. The association is merely political.
Bhagadatta – like many other kings of the region – chooses to pay tribute to Yudhishthir in return for peace and continued economic progress under a single monarch.
After the Pandavas leave on their exile, Yudhishthir’s empire is taken over by Dhritarashtra and Duryodhana. At this juncture, all the tribute-paying states under Yudhishthir’s rule automatically switch to serving the Kuru leadership.
As far as the individual kingdom is concerned, they have to pay tribute to the city-state of Indraprastha. Whether Indraprastha is independent or under Kuru rule is immaterial.
Therefore, Bhagadatta shifts his loyalty to the Kuru throne immediately after the Pandavas leave. During the thirteen years, it is likely that he builds some kind of relationship with Duryodhana.
This is why Bhagadatta fights on the side of Duryodhana during the Mahabharata war.
Was Bhagadatta an atiratha?
On the eve of the Kurukshetra war, Duryodhana and Bhima have a conversation about the relative strengths of the two armies. Bhima goes through the roster of warriors and classifies each as either a ratha or an atiratha.
(An atiratha, or maharatha, is considered to be as strong as eight rathas. A ‘ratha’ is a grade of warrior who is adept at different forms of fighting, mostly from atop a chariot.)
During this discussion, Bhishma cites Bhagadatta and his elephant army as a significant force.
And he tells Duryodhana that Bhagadatta is one of the atirathas in the Kaurava army.
True to this judgement, Bhagadatta distinguishes himself on several occasions during the war. The first time he comes to the fore is during the fourth day of the war, when he defeats Bhima and Ghatotkacha on his own.
On Day 4 of the war, toward the afternoon, Bhima gets into a battle with a bunch of Kaurava brothers, and manages to kill eight of them. As the other Kauravas flee in terror, Bhima breaks into Bhishma’s formation and begins to wreak havoc.
Seeing this outcome, Bhishma calls out to his warriors to attack Bhima. ‘The second son of Pandu has just routed the brothers of Duryodhana!’ he says. ‘He has punctured a hole in our formation. Attack him, O Heroes! And see to his death.’
Heeding his call is Bhagadatta, who races along the ground as if his horses are winged. The battle between him and Bhima is one-sided, and he soon succeeds in making Vrikodara lose consciousness once again.
Just as Bhagadatta is pondering a move to claim the life of his opponent, though, Ghatotkacha appears on the scene and begins working some magic.
Bhagadatta gets into a duel with Ghatotkacha as well. But Bhishma calls Bhagadatta back, saying that evening is fast approaching and that Ghatotkacha’s magic will become more powerful as the skies grow dark.
Fighting Ghatotkacha on Day 8
A similar pattern recurs on the eighth day of the war, with Ghatotkacha casting several magical spells to terrorize the army of the Kauravas. With the entire army fleeing, Bhishma turns to Bhagadatta to lead them back to parity.
With a hand placed on the warrior’s shoulder, he says, ‘In your presence, O Duryodhana, I appoint Bhagadatta to lead us back into battle against Ghatotkacha.
‘He is equal unto Purandara, and seated upon his great elephant Supratika, he will indeed win back for us our lost ground on this day.’
Bhagadatta obeys the grandsire, and leading the Kaurava forces, he marches back onto the battlefield where Bhimasena and Ghatotkacha are celebrating their victory.
Seeing him, Abhimanyu and the Kekayas come together, and a terrible fight erupts between the two sides, with the king of Vanga on top of Supratika appearing as if he is on the swiftest chariot in the world.
His elephant army resembles a moving mountain that can withstand all arrows that are shot at it while crushing everything in its path.
He fights and wins against Bhima, Abhimanyu and Ghatotkacha, thus turning the tide of the battle.
Supporting Drona on Day 12
On the morning of Day 12, Drona is engulfed by shame at the thought of not having been able to capture Yudhishthir. On this day, the Kaurava plan is to distract Arjuna with the Samshaptakas and leave Yudhishthir relatively unmarked.
Bhagadatta, at the head of his elephant army, on top of his beloved steed Supratika, is placed in the middle of Drona’s array.
In other words, Drona relies on Bhagadatta to make inroads into the Pandava formation so that Yudhishthir can be captured alive.
In the morning light, we are told, he looks resplendent like the sun itself, casting thoughts in the minds of onlookers that perhaps he is the true leader of the Kaurava army.
Bhagadatta Fights Bhima
One of the main duels that develop during this morning is one between Duryodhana and Bhimasena. The cousins do not resort to a mace fight; they stay on their chariots and display their archery skills instead.
After a seesawing battle that injures both of them quite badly, Bhima gains the ascendancy by breaking Duryodhana’s bow and later his standard as well. Karna comes to his friend’s aid, mounted on an elephant, but Bhima manages to gain a victory over him as well.
Arriving to hold up the breaking Kaurava ranks here is Bhagadatta, perched upon his beloved elephant, Supratika. The animal pounds on Vrikodara’s chariot and breaks it to pieces.
The Pandava is not overly troubled, though; he leaps onto the ground and slides under the body of the elephant to slip away from its field of vision. (This manoeuvre is part of a science of duelling called the Anjalikabedha).
From under the animal’s belly, taking care not to be crushed by its massive feet, Bhimasena begins to strike the flab and muscles with his bare arms, causing Supratika to shriek and trumpet in pain.
Bhagadatta Defeats Hiranyavarma
The king of the Dasarna tribes, Hiranyavarma (who earlier gives his daughter in marriage to Shikhandi in strange circumstances), now rushes against Bhagadatta on his own elephant, one that is smaller than Supratika but faster.
This battle does not last long, though for a while it looks as though two winged mountains are crashing against one another. Supratika rips open the flank of the other elephant and kills it outright.
Winning this battle seems to kick Bhagadatta into a higher level of fury suddenly, because he summons his entire elephant division to descend upon the chariots led by Yudhishthir.
Satyaki, Bhimasena, Yuyutsu, Dhrishtaketu and the Upapandavas all come forward to check the Pragjyotisha king, but such is the latter’s form today that he is unstoppable.
Like the invincible Virochana in the days of old tearing into the army of the gods, Bhagadatta assumes the nature of a fierce wind and blows the Pandava army to smithereens.
Arjuna Fights Bhagadatta
Noticing that Bhagadatta is getting close to the Pandava ranks, Arjuna temporarily suspends his battle against the Samshaptakas and returns to the place where Bhagadatta is fighting.
This sets up the climactic duel of the twelfth day, between Arjuna and Bhagadatta.
Once or twice Arjuna manages to get alongside the massive animal, and sees the opportunity to pierce its flank, and to bring down the rider with a well-aimed arrow or two.
But he chooses not to do so because it would be contrary to the spirit of a fair fight. When they face each other properly, Arjuna flexes himself to the full only to find that Bhagadatta on this day is akin to an unstoppable force.
Arjuna, however, is more than a match for Bhagadatta. With well-aimed shafts, he shatters them into three harmless fragments each, after which he launches a scathing attack on the elephant Supratika.
Slaying the warrior that protects it from its flank, he finds for himself an opening to cut off the armour that was casing the beast, and after stripping it bare thus, pierces its side with numerous arrows.
This angers Bhagadatta enough to make him hurl at Vasudeva a mighty dart made of iron, but Arjuna, smiling now, cuts it off in two.
Thus teetering on the edge of defeat, Bhagadatta gives out a yell of rage and picks up a weapon called the Vaishnavastra.
Krishna Protects Arjuna
Unfortunately for Bhagadatta, the Vaishnavastra is Krishna’s own weapon, and Krishna knows exactly how to neutralize it. As the missile courses through the air toward Arjuna, Krishna leaps in the way and receives the full brunt of it on his chest.
Upon impact, the Vaishnavastra turns into a garland of flowers around Krishna’s neck.
Arjuna is insulted by Krishna’s act, and asks why he had to protect him from Bhagadatta’s weapon. Krishna replies: ‘Bhagadatta has received the weapon from Naraka, O Partha. You do not have an arrow in your quiver that can neutralize it.
‘If I had not taken it on my chest, the Vaishnavastra would have killed you.’
‘Absorbing the power of weapons that fly at me makes me just another passive charioteer, not a warrior. So set aside your worry.’
The Vaishnavastra thus deadened, Arjuna now sets about once again dismantling Bhagadatta’s defences. He covers the king with clouds of whetted arrows designed to obfuscate, and simultaneously sends deadly shafts laden with poison at Supratika.
With each arrow piercing the tough hide like lightning bolts splitting a mountain, or like a snake penetrating an ant-hill, the beast buckles at the knees and collapses to the ground.
Bhagadatta urges it to climb back onto its feet, but paralysis has already claimed the poor animal’s limbs, and its trunk now falls limp against the dust as if it were a dead earthworm.
With a gentle groan, it eventually exhales its last breath, and the rest of the elephants in Bhagadatta’s army rend the air with terrible wails.
Arjuna now focuses his attention on the king, first breaking his armour with broad-headed arrows, and then using a crescent-shaped one to pierce the bare bosom, making straight for the heart.
As he follows the flight of this deadly missile, Arjuna adjusts his diadem.
As Bhagadatta hits the earth, a bolt of fear courses through the hearts of the surrounding Kaurava soldiers, even as the Pandavas erupt in joy. Arjuna circumambulates the body of his fallen foe in a mark of respect.
Futility of War
Bhagadatta’s story drives home the point of just how maddeningly unfair war can be on neutral parties.
The deaths of Bhishma, Drona and other characters are directly involved in the conflict are understandable, because we may say that they bore the consequences of their actions.
But with Bhagadatta, we know that all he tried to do was the best thing for his kingdom and for his people. He did not take sides in the Pandava-Kaurava tussle. In fact, all signs point to him being sympathetic toward the Pandavas.
But duty (and perhaps treaty obligations too) compelled him to fight on Duryodhana’s side in the war. Despite being a good king to his people and one of the great warriors of the world, he had to die for a cause that meant nothing to him.
Like him, the Kurukshetra war claims many victims that are innocent, and that are in no way connected to the Kuru quarrel.