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 52: Duryodhana Disappears. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
With Duryodhana hiding under the lake and the Pandavas surrounding it, Yudhishthir challenges his cousin to come out and fight.
Duryodhana replies: ‘O sons of Pritha, you are all possessed of friends and chariots and wealth. I, however, am alone, without even a car to carry me. This being the case, how can I venture to fight on foot all of you mounted on your vehicles?
‘In order to make this a fair proposition, I challenge you, Yudhishthir, that the Pandavas must fight me one at a time.
‘I do not fear any of you – not Vrikodara, not Arjuna, not the Madreyas, not Vasudeva even. I shall fight all of you, and like the sun destroying the light of many stars, I shall even defeat you.
‘Today I shall free myself of the debt that I owe Drona, Bhishma, Karna, and all my dead brothers. But I shall engage with you only one at a time.’
Yudhishthir, perhaps eager to draw Duryodhana out under any circumstances, gives his agreement. ‘I am glad that you have set your heart to battle. And I shall make the challenge even fairer than you wish, Brother.
‘Fight any one of us Pandavas, with a weapon of your choosing. All the rest of us will stand as spectators. I also grant you, O hero, that if you slay your opponent, I shall give you back the kingdom.’
This is foolishness of the highest order from Yudhishthir, and he rightly earns the wrath of Krishna.
The Anger of Krishna
‘What rash words have you spoken, O Yudhishthir,’ says Krishna, ‘that slaying one of the Pandavas will give Duryodhana back the throne of Hastinapur? If, indeed, the son of Dhritarashtra chooses you or Arjuna or Nakula or Sahadeva for battle with the mace, what will be the consequence?
‘In order to Bhimasena, the Kaurava has practiced day and night with the mace upon a statue of iron. How, then, will our purpose be achieved by this generosity of yours?
‘At this moment, I do not see anyone among us who is a match for Duryodhana other than Bhima. But even Vrikodara has not practiced with the mace as much as Duryodhana has.
‘For all the amount of strength and might that your brother possesses, the Dhartarashtra is more skilful. In a contest between strength and skill, O King, the latter always prevails. Have the last eighteen days – and the last thirteen years – taught you nothing?
But Bhima, stepping up with his weapon and feeling a lot more confident than Krishna, says, ‘Do not worry, O Yadushreshtha. However difficult it might be, I shall bring an end to this war today.
‘Without doubt I shall slay Suyodhana in this battle. It has been destined that I should be the one to land the fatal blow upon him. Let all of you stand as spectators while I win the kingdom that is rightfully ours and place it at the feet of the virtuous Yudhishthir.’
He holds up the mace in his hand. ‘This weapon of mine is heavier than that of Duryodhana by one and a half times. It is not always true that skill wins over strength, O Madhusudana.
‘I shall show you by defeating this wretch today, and returning the Pandavas and their wife Draupadi to the glory that they have experienced in the past.’
The Fight Begins
In the meantime, Duryodhana is ready with mace held over his shoulder, standing with his legs parted, sturdy as the mountain Kailasa with all its crests. He shows no alarm, no anxiety and no fear.
‘Call to your mind, O wretched one,’ says Bhima, advancing toward his foe, ‘all the wrongs that King Dhritarashtra and you have heaped upon us. Recollect what has happened in Varanavata.
‘Remember how Draupadi was dragged in her single garment to the midde of the assembly. It is due to your machinations that the son of Ganga, Bhishma, is lying on the battlefield on a bed of arrows.
‘Drona, Karna, Shalya and Shakuni have all been killed by us, only due to your greed! Today, I shall see to it that you follow all the other great Kshatriya bulls into the land of the Pitris.
‘You have no hope of sovereignty, O King. You have no hope of restoring your fallen pride. And you have no hope of escaping this evening with life.’
Duryodhana accepts this challenge with a wave of the arm. ‘What is the use of words, Bhimasena?’ he says. ‘Fight now with me! Today, I shall beat the desire for revenge out of your body and your mind.
‘Behold me with my mace, standing here to receive your advances. Only a fool expects to defeat me in a fight with the mace.’
While the two warriors are about to face each other, a short interruption occurs by the arrival of Balarama.
You will recall that just before the start of the Kurukshetra war, Balarama leaves on a pilgrimage. He chooses this moment to return – and he is welcomed by the Pandavas to come witness the final duel between Bhima and Duryodhana.
All the heroes allied to the Pandavas – Yuyudhana, the Upapandavas and Krishna, for instance – salute the son of Rohini. Bhimasena and Duryodhana also pay their respects.
Balarama looks at Krishna, then at the Pandavas. ‘I have been away for forty days now,’ he says. ‘I set out under the constellation of Pushya and have returned under Sravana.
‘In all this time I have spent many quiet moments on the banks of the Saraswati, in the company of wise men. I came back and heard of the untold destruction that has been unleashed onto the world from Kurukshetra.
‘And now I see that Bhima and Duryodhana have drawn their maces.’
All the kings assembled there enquire after his welfare. Clad in blue robes and possessed of fair complexion, Balarama accepts all the good wishes and sits down next to Krishna and Satyaki in order to witness the battle to end all battles.
Despite Bhimasena’s fearless posturing, once the battle begins, he struggles to break through the defenses of Duryodhana. In fact, the Kuru king gives a much better account of himself than the Pandava.
The strokes of their maces produce loud sounds like those of thunderbolts, and the darkening welkin looks illuminated with firefly-like objects, which represent the various celestial beings who have dotted the firmament out of a desire to watch the two cousins fighting.
During the course of this fight, which resembles the battle of old between Vritra and Vasava, Duryodhana manages to relieve Bhima of his weapon, and then strikes the Pandava full on the head.
But even with his head swimming in blood, Bhima manages to stay restrained and calm, not panicking, and rolls on the ground to retrieve his club.
Duryodhana now adopts a maneuver called the Kausika, marking the descent of his opponent’s mace and whirling around at just the right time to land a heavy blow on Bhima’s chest.
This stupefies the son of Pandu, and while he is thus dazed, the son of Dhritarashtra smites him twice more, once on the back and once on the side.
This triple-attack sends Bhima rolling into the dust, and his breastplate is shattered into pieces. As he pulls himself back on to his feet, now unarmoured, a deep sigh travels across the audience. The Pandavas begin to wonder whether their brother is going to win this duel after all.
There are stirrings of unrest even in the sky, with the celestials exchanging nervous glances.
Arjuna asks Krishna
Watching his brother struggle against Duryodhana, Arjuna asks Krishna a question. ‘Between these two, O Keshava,’ he says, ‘who in your opinion is the better fighter?’
Krishna replies, ‘The instruction received by the two of them has been of equal depth. Bhima, however, is possessed of greater might. On the other hand, Duryodhana is possessed of greater skill, and he has laboured for longer to acquire and polish it.
‘In a fair fight, there is no chance that Bhimasena will defeat the son of Dhritarashtra.
‘If he is to win this battle, and if the Pandavas are to reclaim their throne, he has to fight unfairly. There is no shame in unfairness, Partha. The Asuras were vanquished by the gods during the churning of the ocean by trickery.
‘We have all heard that Virochana was killed by Shakra with the aid of deception. The slayer of Vala deprived Vritra of his energy by an act of dishonesty. Therefore, let Bhimasena put forth his powers, aided by subterfuge.’
Arjuna Strikes his Thigh
Krishna further defends his recommendation. ‘If Bhima is to fight fairly, King Yudhishthir will never be given his kingdom back. It is all through the fault of your elder brother that we sit here, O Falguna.
‘After having won the great battle of Kurukshetra, while on the cusp of attaining the complete end to all hostilities, he once again went and placed himself and his brothers in the mouth of danger. Who but a fool would pledge the result of a war on the defeat and victory of one warrior!
‘In an old verse concerning battle strategy, Usanas has said that when the dying remnant of a hostile force flees the battlefield, they should be feared as much as a full regiment of troops because they have nothing to lose.
‘They are firmly resolved and have but one purpose, to kill their enemies by any means possible. In these situations, the scriptures prescribe utter ruthlessness, O Arjuna, whereas Yudhishthir acted out of feelings of mercy, and of foolish bravado.’
Arjuna hears these words in silence, and when he catches the passing glance of Bhimasena, strikes his thigh meaningfully with his hand.
Bhima understands the sign made by his younger brother, and begins to career round and round with his uplifted mace, staying out of Duryodhana’s reach and adopting different manoeuvres like the Yamaka and the Gomutraka.
(Alas, we are not given descriptions on what these look like.)
He gives Duryodhana an opportunity then to strike him, by opening himself up and stretching out his mace in an inviting posture. With a glint in the eye, the son of Dhritarashtra leaps in closer, and takes a swipe at the bare upper body of Bhima, who accepts the blow full on his arm so that he can land a crushing blow with the full weight of his mace upon Duryodhana’s thighs.
Duryodhana is in the process of carrying out a maneuver called the Avasthana when he feels the force of Bhima’s club, and before he realizes what has happened, he hears the bones break under his skin.
His knees buckle as if they had been cut off. As he falls to the ground and drops his weapon to the side, fierce and fiery winds blow in all directions, picking up dust motes and fallen leaves.
The Panchalas and Somakas erupt in joy at that moment, because they know that this signals victory for the sons of Pandu.
Krishna breathes a sigh of relief, even as the gods and Siddhas and Charanas and Gandharvas, who have been watching the battle, return to their respective abodes, still struck by wonder at how it all unraveled.
As the Pandavas and Panchalas vent out their anger at the fallen Duryodhana, Krishna suggests they all leave from there. ‘Duryodhana is already beaten, O Kings,’ he says, ‘and death will claim him at the right time. Let us go and attend to other matters.’
But Duryodhana rises from his supine position at that moment. He props himself up by the elbows and rests on his haunches. The half-raised body looks like a raised snake’s hood.
‘O slave of Kamsa,’ says Duryodhana, addressing Krishna, ‘it seems as if you have no shame, for you have forgotten that I have been struck below my waist, a move judged as unethical by the rules of mace fighting.
‘Do you think I did not see Arjuna send a signal on your behest to Vrikodara in the midst of our duel? Having caused the death of thousands of kings by unfair means, do you feel no abhorrence for yourself?
‘First you caused the grandsire, the son of Ganga – who was destroying the Pandava force on his own – to be defeated by Shikhandi, that eunuch.
‘With Dronacharya, you caused an elephant by name Ashwatthama to be slain before lying to the preceptor that his son had been killed. The dart that Karna had received from Indra for the express reason of killing Arjuna was baffled by you through Ghatotkacha.
‘Bhurishrava had his head chopped off by Satyaki, your disciple, after the warrior had renounced his arms. It was you who caused Aswasena the Naga to be killed when he came to the aid of Karna.
‘And indeed, when Vaikartana’s chariot wheel was buried in mud, you gave the signal to Arjuna to kill him regardless.
‘By adopting these crooked and unrighteous means, you have caused many kings who were observant of the duties of their order to be slain without mercy.
‘Only true Kshatriyas know the value of Dharma, O Madhava. One cannot expect you to follow the dictates of morality. Yet the whole world knows that this victory achieved by the Pandavas is built on a mirage of deceit.’
Krishna responds by once again listing Duryodhana’s many follies. The house of lac, the dice game, the disrobing of Draupadi, the practices of Jayadratha, and the killing of Abhimanyu are all mentioned.
‘All the unrighteous acts that you say we have perpetuated, Duryodhana,’ says the prince of Dwaraka, ‘are in reality consequences of your own sinful acts. Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Jayadratha and others have died not at the hands of the Pandavas. They have been sacrificed at the altar of your pride.’
But even to the last minute, Duryodhana is unrepentant. In his last words, he claims that it is he who had won the true battle.
‘I governed the wide earth with all her seas, and I stood over the heads of my foes. I lived a life of such comfort that even the gods became jealous of me.
‘Prosperity and pleasure of the highest kind has been given to me. I ruled over Hastinapur and Aryavarta during their most glorious years.
‘As for death, I have achieved the kind of death that Kshatriyas dream for. I will be taken to heaven, and for the rest of eternity, celestial pleasures will be mine.
‘As for you, O sons of Pandu, you are welcome to inherit this wasteland stricken with disease, drought and want. You celebrate as if this is the end of your troubles. On the contrary, your days of strife are ahead of you.
‘How will you bring together a world fractured by war? How will you soothe the burning hearts of millions of widows? How will you erase the dreadful memories with which the children of today will grow up?
‘Go, O Yudhishthir, and ascend that throne. You will find yourself gazing upon a kingdom that is burning, that will burn for years to come. Rule over hell, whereas I partake of the pleasures of heaven.’
A Hollow Victory
At these words of Duryodhana, a few rather strange things happen. A thick shower of fragrant flowers falls from the sky. Gandharvas play upon many charming musical instruments. Apsaras sing in chorus.
The Siddhas and Charanas emit loud cheers to the effect of: ‘Praise be to the king Duryodhana!’ Mild and delicious breezes blow on every side. The quarters become clear and the firmament takes on a hue of clear blue.
These signs are clearly unexpected, because they make it appear as if the gods are honouring Duryodhana on the occasion of his death. The man whose birth brought on all the ill omens of the world is commanding flower showers and celestial music at his death. How is this possible?
The Panchalas and Somakas fall silent, and Krishna senses that they are all thinking along the same lines. He clears his throat and deepens his voice.
‘When a foe of yours,’ he says, ‘is stronger than you – only because he had unfairly robbed you of your might – then there is no disgrace in fighting him with whatever contrivances necessary.
‘This is a moment of victory, O Kings. Let us not dampen it by foolish thoughts such as these. If Duryodhana thinks he has won, let him. History will remember the sons of Pandu as victors of this great battle.’
With these words, Krishna pulls out the Panchajanya and blows on it. The Panchalas and Somakas join in, and their flagging spirits are lifted.
They all leave the dying Duryodhana there by the lake, and set out for the battlefield to inform their soldiers that the war has come to an end.
The war has not quite ended, however. Before he dies, Duryodhana anoints Ashwatthama as the new commander to his forces, and the son of Drona carries out one last campaign to wipe out the surviving Panchala army.
We will see how in the next episode.
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