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 41: Krishna Almost Fights. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
‘How can we kill you?’
At the end of Day 9 of the Mahabharata war, all five Pandavas and Krishna visit Bhishma at his tent.
(We are not told how they gained such easy entrance into the enemy camp. One assumes there would be guards around to stop that sort of thing. Or maybe visitors are allowed if they vow to have come in peace.)
After pleasantries have been exchanged, Yudhishthir says: ‘Has a man that can defeat you in fair fight been born on this Earth, O Devavrata? I think not. We have come, therefore, to ask you directly: tell us the means by which we can vanquish you, so that we might gain the sovereignty of the three worlds with your blessing.’
Bhishma replies: ‘As long as I am alive, Yudhishthir, you will not gain victory. Indeed, I have never lost a battle in my life. After I am defeated, however, you will have your chance. So do not be bothered with emotions, O sons of Pritha. Smite me with all your power.
‘‘A warrior is invincible only when he is willing to fight, Yudhishthir, and when his weapons are raised. If he is made to relinquish his arms, then even the smallest car-warrior can kill him. If I am faced by a woman in battle, O Pandava, or one who has once been a female, or one who bears the name of a female, I am not going to fight her.’
Having received their answer, Krishna and the Pandavas return to their tents after paying their respects.
Early on Day 10, with Duryodhana once again complaining to Bhishma about his commitment to the cause, the grandsire takes an oath to either kill the Pandavas or die trying.
‘Listen to what I say, Duryodhana,’ he says calmly. ‘I have vowed to you on the eve of battle that I will kill ten thousand Kshatriyas per day, and so far, I have kept my promise. But today, for your sake, I will attempt to achieve an even greater feat.
‘Today I will seek out the Pandavas, and I will kill them all. If I am unable to do so, understand that I have given up my life attempting that mammoth task. I will do this today out of gratitude, O King, for the food you have given me all these years, and for the honour you bestowed upon me by making me leader of your army.’
Arjuna now propels Shikhandi toward Bhishma. ‘Today, O Prince, you have no cause for fear from the grandsire. He will not strike you, and I will prevent any of the other Kaurava heroes from defending him against your arrows.’
And taking Dhrishtadyumna and Abhimanyu along with him, Partha rides behind Shikhandin as the Panchala prince instructs his charioteer to lead him to Bhishma.
Shikhandi Meets Bhishma
With ten broad-headed arrows, Shikhandi pierces Bhishma in the chest.
The son of Ganga only looks up at his attacker with eyes of red wrath, as if intending to consume the prince with them. But he does not fight. In sight of everyone, he pulls back his drawing arm to a neutral position with a grunt of effort.
Shikhandi does not understand this, but Arjuna calls out to him and says, ‘Rush onward quickly, O Prince! I do not see anyone in this great army of Yudhishthir that is deserving of defeating this great maharatha save for you. Son of Drupada, this indeed is your destiny. Go embrace it!’
Thus urged, Shikhandi covers Bhishma with all diverse kinds of weapons, but the latter insists on shooting back only at Arjuna. With all his anger channeled toward the rest of the Pandava army, the grandsire lets loose on many soldiers that are fighting on foot.
But the sheer numbers begin to weigh on Bhishma, and the arrows of Shikhandi continue to descend upon him with alarming regularity. He tries to pull them out of his flesh and cast them away because they impede with his drawing of the bow, but there are so many that he starts to slow down.
Taking a cue from the leader of the Kaurava army who is no longer fighting according to the rules, the moral fibre of the war in general breaks down.
Chariot warriors are supposed to fight other chariot warriors only, elephants are supposed to fight with other elephants only and so on. But watching Bhishma tearing into footmen and archers alike, everyone else starts doing the same until the battleground resembles a slaughterhouse.
For the first nine days, Bhishma has killed around ten thousand soldiers per day. But on this tenth afternoon alone, armed with the celestial powers of Parashurama’s spell, he claims the lives of ten thousand elephants, five thousand infantrymen, one thousand elephant riders, ten thousand horses, and seven great chariot warriors.
He takes up a position between the two armies now, ostensibly at the head of the Kaurava army, but such is his sheer brilliance that none of the warriors of his own side dare to get too close to him.
Pointing his whip at the grandsire, Krishna says to Arjuna in a quiet voice, ‘Look at the son of Ganga, O Partha, who stands between the two forces, resolute and strong like the mountain Meru. As long as he stands on his two feet, there is no possibility of this war ever ending.’
Arjuna raises his Gandiva in response, and as its twang rends the air, his chariot speeds across the plain toward that of Bhishma. In front of him is Shikhandi, who begins to rain arrows at the fire-like vehicle.
Bhishma remains steadfast to his promise, responding to Shikhandi’s shafts with mere smiles, refusing to turn his bow toward the Panchala prince. Watching him weaken a little, Arjuna seizes the opportunity to shoot at the grandsire’s bow and break it.
Bhishma seethes in rage and hurls at his grandson an iron dart, which the latter breaks into fragments in mid-flight. Watching his weapon hit the dust and disappear, with Shikhandi’s arrows descending upon him relentlessly now, Bhishma begins to wonder whether this is the time he should give up his life.
He looks up at the skies for a sign, and he sees the sages of the world looking down upon him. ‘Withdraw from this battle, Son,’ they tell him. ‘Let the course of destiny resume unhindered.’
Bhishma nods at the voices that only he can hear, and instructs his charioteer to take him closer to Arjuna.
His chariot wheels are destroyed. His charioteer is beheaded. His horses are killed. Each new shaft that enters his body makes him tremble, partly in pain, partly in relief.
‘These arrows coursing toward me in a single straight line,’ he says out loud, to no one in particular, ‘whose touch resembles that of the thunderbolt, have been shot by Arjuna. They do not belong to Shikhandi.
‘Cutting through my armour and piercing my skin with such force, these shafts are not Shikhandi’s. Save for the heroic Gandiva-wielder, no one in the army of the Pandavas can cause me such strife, and if I surrender, it is to the prowess of Arjuna!’
‘A Pillow for my Head’
He steps onto the ground now and picks up a sword to smite those footmen who venture within range. With arrows sticking out of his body in all directions, covered in blood completely, the warrior waves his sword a couple of times, only to see that no one is attacking him.
For a moment he stands, watching Shikhandi, Arjuna, Bhima and Yudhishthir arrayed before him. Then he drops the sword and allows himself to fall.
His body does not touch the earth, though. He lies suspended on the bed of arrows, looking up at the sky. The sages wonder if this is the moment he will choose to embrace death, but he says:
‘The sun is in the southern solstice, and I intend to leave this earth when it enters the northern declension. I am still alive, O Sages! And I shall hold my breath until the right moment. Do not fret.’
Duhsasana flees to where Drona is fighting and blurts out the entire story. The preceptor swoons out of shock, and upon return to consciousness, sends out messengers on fleet horses to every part of his army to lay down arms.
The Pandavas too, at the behest of Yudhishthir, put aside their arms and congregate around the prone figure.
Bhishma welcomes them cheerfully. ‘Come, my children!’ he says. ‘Come, O Great Warriors. It has been a pleasure fighting you all these days. But this is how it must end. I have chosen to withdraw from this battle. I will renounce my life, too, at the moment the sun enters the northern solstice.’
He then makes a strange request. ‘My head is not supported, adequately. Can someone here please arrange for a pillow?’
Arjuna steps up, strings his bow. After saluting Bhishma, with his eyes tear-filled, he says, ‘I am your slave, Grandfather, now and forever. I shall do your bidding.’
He pulls three arrows from his quiver, holds them to the tip of his nose, and closes his eyes. Murmuring a prayer, he fits them to the Gandiva and shoots them into the ground. He then gently places the grandsire’s head over the arrows’ feathers.
Bhishma is pleased that Arjuna had divined his thoughts. ‘I am now being treated like a true Kshatriya, O Kings. Do not grieve over me, for every one among you is destined to lie on the battlefield in this very state, on your own bed of arrows.’
‘Water for my Throat’
After the night has passed away, early next morning, the Dhartarashtras and the Pandavas come to pay respects to Bhishma. For a short time before sunrise on the eleventh day, the cousins sit together without their armour or weapons, and speak to one another civilly of old times.
Bhishma, however, appears to be in trouble, constantly sighing and fidgeting. When someone asks him what the matter is, he says, ‘My throat is parched, and the arrows hurt me more than they should. I wish water could be brought to me.’
Once again the assembled kings command servants to bring jars of scented water and juice taken out of the best fruits, but the grandsire does not want them. He looks at Arjuna, who steps up again with the Gandiva in hand and bows.
‘My body is afflicted with great pain, Arjuna,’ says Bhishma. ‘You are a great bowman, the greatest in the world. I know for certain that you can remove this pain, and quench the burning thirst that I feel upon my tongue and in my throat.’
‘So be it,’ Arjuna replies, and takes out an arrow from his quiver. Converting it into the Parjanyastra with the right incantation, he places it on his bow and pierces the earth with it. From the hole left by the arrow rises a jet of water that is pure, cool, and scented like nectar.
After having a drink, Bhishma turns to eye Duryodhana and advises him to call off his army. ‘Abandon your wrath, O Dhartarashtra. Even now it is not too late to do the right thing. Call off the war. Make peace with your brothers.’
But Duryodhana refuses to listen. After the two sets of brothers finish paying homage to the grandsire, they return to their respective tents.
A Surprise Visitor
After all the princes have gone home, Bhishma gets a visit from Karna.
He breaks into a sob and places his hands on Bhishma’s feet. He introduces himself as the son of Radha. ‘I am the one king for whom you had nothing but hatred, sir,’ he says.
Bhishma’s eyes flutter open, and when he sees who has come to meet him, he embraces Karna with one arm. ‘No,’ he says, ‘you are not the son of Radha and Adiratha. I know you are Kunti’s eldest. The island-born sage told me this before the battle began.
‘Know that I bear you no malice, my son. Your birth occurred in an unvirtuous manner. You have been cast away sinfully. It is for this reason that your heart forever burns at the sight of any man with merit. If you are to achieve greatness, Karna, you must let go of this foe called envy.
‘Instead focus on your own good qualities. You are a great warrior. Your patronage of Brahmins in Anga has become legendary. In lightness of hand and in sureness of foot, you are among our best.
‘None of these qualities that you possess will forsake you if you acknowledge other men who are better blessed than you are. Soothe your heart. Convince it that looking inward is a thousand times more fruitful than outward.
‘And once you gain this power over yourself, Karna, you will be truly great. You will no longer need to fight this war to prove to yourself that you are superior to the Pandavas. Indeed, you are one of them!
‘You will tell Duryodhana, will you not, that this war is depleting Mother Earth of good men? Go back and caution him that his death is nigh; ask him to call off the battle. If you tell him, O King of Anga, he will listen.’
Deference to Duty
Karna listens to Bhishma’s words with folded arms and a bent head. When it is time for him to speak, his tone is measured, respectful. ‘No doubt it is as you say, Grandsire. This war that we fight on this field is a ferocious one.
‘Many thousands of men will lose their lives in it. Perhaps you and I will be two of them. But I cannot ask Duryodhana to retreat at this late hour. My personal beliefs aside, it is not what Duryodhana wants. And I have taken an oath to do everything in my power to fulfil all of his wishes, sir.
‘Like you have your vows, I have mine. My animosity toward the Pandavas – whether fuelled by envy or any other emotion – is impossible to be curtailed. Imagine what the world will say if we are to call off the battle now, O Grandsire. Who will be deemed victor, who the vanquished?
‘No doubt the person that suggests peace now will be called a coward by historians and writers of the future. You have achieved your glory. You have fought like a true Kshatriya ought, and like a true Kshatriya you lie here today, on a bed of arrows. Your path to heaven is secure.
‘What of the rest of us? Having attained your salvation, you advise us to forsake ours? A Kshatriya should look forward to die on the battlefield if that is his destiny.
‘I will march out against Arjuna, O Bhishma, and I will defeat him! This I am certain of. At last the universe will know which one among us is the more powerful warrior.’
When Bhishma realizes that Karna has managed to ignore all of his advice, he gives up and blesses the warrior with victory. Karna pays his respects to the older man and leaves.
On the next morning, the morning of Day 11, he enters the battlefield for the first time.
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