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 29: Kichaka is Killed. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
Duryodhana Invades Matsya
The killing of Kichaka by Bhimasena has an unfortunate consequence: the army of Matsya loses its most powerful commander, and the kingdom is left open for an opportunistic attack.
Susharma, the king of the Trigartas, brings such a proposal to Duryodhana and says, ‘With Kichaka and his brothers struck down by a fortuitous accident, O King, why don’t we use this opportunity to plunder the Matsya kingdom and rob it of its wealth – in gems, cattle and corn?’
Duryodhana gets up on his feet, convinced that this is the right course of action. He orders Duhsasana, ‘Let the Trigartas, led by Susharma, immediately fall upon the city of Virata and seize their immense wealth of kine. The Kaurava army will support them by marching in two divisions, and take corn and precious stones from that prosperous city.’
And so, Susharma sets out on the seventh day of the dark fortnight of the month, six days off from the end of the Pandavas’ year of hiding. They enter Matsya from the southeastern border, quietly seizing Virata’s cowsheds one by one.
Duryodhana also sets out on the eighth day at the head of a large Kaurava force, with all the warriors such as Drona, Karna, Kripa and Bhishma by his side.
Virata Marches Out
When herdsmen from the southeastern cattle-houses come fleeing to the palace of Virata with cries of help, the king calls for battle and appoints himself the leader of his army in the absence of Kichaka.
While he is putting on his coat of mail, he gets a thought that he could use the fighting skills of Kanka, Vallabha, Tantripala and Granthika as well. He claps his hands and says to his courtiers:
‘Arrange for chariots for the four men who came here from the court of King Yudhishthir. Cover them in armour, and give them weapons of their choice.’
Yudhishthir, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva thus ride out at the head of the entire Matsyan force to drive out the Trigartas. Susharma and Virata are locked in a long one-to-one battle, at the end of which the former gains ascendency over the latter.
But Bhima, at the behest of Yudhishthir, jumps into the fray and saves Virata’s life. At the same time, the other three Pandavas kill many thousands of Trigarta infantrymen, sending the whole army into disarray.
Virata Spares Susharma
In a fight against the Trigarta king, Bhima leaps out of his chariot, runs to Susharma, and drags him to the ground. He sends him rolling in the dust by Virata’s feet. ‘This man does not deserve to live, Your Majesty,’ he roars. ‘With your command I shall sever his head from his body.’
But Yudhishthir is right at Virata’s side. ‘Mercy to a vanquished foe is considered the highest of virtues, O King,’ he says. ‘Do not kill Susharma and orphan his innocent people. Let him live, but exact a suitable tribute from him.’
Bhima howls in frustration that Yudhishthir is again preventing him from handing out just punishment to erring men. But with Virata also asking him to let Susharma go, he snarls at the defeated king and says, ‘I will pardon you, but when you return to your kingdom, announce to your citizens that you have been licked by the Matsyan king, Virata. From now on, you are forever his slave.’
Susharma gets to his feet humbly and salutes Virata before returning to his kingdom with his battered army. The cows on this side of the city are thus rescued and brought back to the sheds.
Virata is overjoyed at the kind of support the four strangers provided him. He promises them a number of gifts as they make preparations to return to the palace. ‘Anything you desire in my kingdom is now yours, O Heroes,’ he says. ‘Only due to your prowess have I been crowned with victory today.’
The Pandavas accept Virata’s promise, and on the sunrise hour of the following morning, they proclaim the king victorious and start back to the capital.
Brihannala Turns Charioteer
Meanwhile, with Virata and the Matsyan army away to fight the Trigartas, the main city is attacked by the Kaurava army, and Duryodhana captures sixty thousand cows. The fear-stricken cowherds come to the palace and beg the prince, Uttara, for help.
‘You father, His Majesty Virata, has said that you will be the sole protector of the city in his absence, O Prince. And now the moment of reckoning is upon us. The wicked Duryodhana – along with his army – has captured all our cows and he is driving them away toward Hastinapur. Please save them!’
Uttara (not to be confused with the princess Uttara of the same name, whom Brihannala is teaching dance), surrounded by women in the inner chambers, indulges in a bit of boasting.
‘I would fight them off with such skill that they will wonder whether I am Arjuna in disguise!’ he says. ‘But I need a charioteer to man my horses, and without one I cannot meet the foe. Alas, all able-bodied men of the kingdom are away at the southeastern corner, driving out the Trigartas.’
At this speech, Brihannala takes Draupadi to one side and tells her that he wishes to ride Uttara’s chariot. ‘Tell him that I was once charioteer to Arjuna. Let us go out to meet the Kauravas so that we may rescue all the stolen cattle.’
Draupadi steps forward with due reticence and informs Uttara of the matter. The prince is disbelieving, but in the absence of anyone, he thinks that Brihannala ought to do.
The ladies dress both men in armour, and before long, a chariot is hurtling across the parched expanses of Matsyan land to the northern outskirts, where the Kaurava army is driving the cattle away.
Uttara Loses Courage
‘Take me to the Kauravas!’ says Uttara. ‘And Brihannala, today is the day you will not forget in your life, for I promise you; I will make your old master Arjuna proud with my courage.’
Brihannala’s response is to crack the whip harder on the horses and utter fierce directions to them so that they could gallop across the city. But as they near the Kaurava forces, arrayed in their large numbers along the northern edge of Matsya, Uttara’s heart sinks.
He sees Drona, Bhishma, Kripa, Ashwatthama, Karna, Duryodhana and the others attired in full battle armour, awaiting him. And here he is, the sole warrior, not yet fully a man.
‘Stop, Brihannala!’ he says, and the charioteer pauses in wonder. ‘I cannot fight these men on my own. These are maharathis! And I – I have not yet fought in a battle. I do not even have an army to support me; I just have a dancer for company. Turn back right now, and let us flee!’
‘You are a member of the Kshatriya clan, O Prince,’ says Brihannala. ‘How can you speak of running away from the battlefield? Let me drive you right up to the Kaurava heroes. Let us fight them off today, Uttara, and rescue the kine of your father.’
‘Let them take away the kine,’ Uttara replies. ‘Let them lay Matsya to ruin for all I care. I do not wish to fight these warriors, not today.’ And with these words, he jumps off the chariot and runs away.
A Reversal of Roles
‘O Prince!’ says Brihannala, his arm raised, before leaping to the ground himself and giving chase. In this act, his hair comes undone, and his dancers’ clothes flutter about in the wind.
The Kauravas laugh at this spectacle. ‘Look at the brave Uttara Kumara,’ says Duryodhana. ‘He is being cajoled into fighting by a eunuch.’ A frown enters his brow, then. ‘A eunuch that looks rather familiar, do you not agree, Grandsire?’
Bhishma nods. ‘Those neck muscles, those shoulders, that waist, the marks on those wrists – they remind me of Arjuna. But how can Arjuna be here in the Matsya kingdom, in the garb of a member of the third sex? It defies belief!’
While the Kauravas are thus speculating, Brihannala catches up to Uttara and holds him by the hair on his head. With a smile on his face, he drags him back to the chariot and says, ‘If you do not wish to fight, Prince, do me a favour and take the reins of the horses. I have learnt a bit of the science of arms in my time as Arjuna’s charioteer; let me put it to good use and save our cows.’
Now with the roles reversed, Brihannala instructs Uttara to drive them first to the Sami tree next to the cemetery, where the Pandavas hid their weapons a year ago.
The Corpse atop a Tree
Once they reach the tree, Brihannala says to Uttara, ‘The bows that you use cannot match my strength, nor can they withstand the stretch of my arms when I pull the string back.
‘Therefore, O Bhuminjaya, climb up to the highest branch of this tree, where lies a bundle of weapons left here by the great Pandavas. Bring it down so that I may pick up the Gandiva, the preferred bow of Arjuna, and return to battle to fight the Kauravas.’
But Uttara is reluctant to obey Brihannala’s order. ‘I have heard it said that there is a corpse atop this tree. How can I, a prince, touch it with my hands and defile myself? It is not right of you, Brihannala, to seek to pollute me thus by making me touch a dead body.’
‘You will neither be defiled nor polluted, Prince,’ says Brihannala, a touch irritated at the boy’s misplaced sanctimony. ‘There are only weapons on this tree. There is no corpse. Go now and bring them down. Let us make haste, because we have to get back before the cattle is stolen from our shores.’
After Uttara brings down the bundle of weapons, Brihannala unpacks it, giving the Matsyan prince a full commentary of each weapon that he takes out. At the end of it, he reveals himself as Arjuna.
Uttara is first disbelieving that this eunuch could be Arjuna, but after Arjuna repeats the ten names that he is known by and their meanings, he is convinced.
(For a more detailed post on the names of Arjuna, see: What are the different names of Arjuna?)
He steps forward and salutes Brihannala. ‘My name, O great warrior, is Bhuminjaya,’ he says, ‘and I am also called Uttara. It is indeed my great honour to have made your acquaintance, and I will be your charioteer in this upcoming battle with the Kauravas.’
Brihannala is Recognized
What follows is perhaps the most remarkable one-man-show in storytelling history. Watching Brihannala and Uttara return on the chariot, Drona is the first among the Kauravas to wonder if the person approaching is not Arjuna in disguise.
‘The rattle of the wheels reminds one of Falguna,’ he says. ‘The conch in the hands of that warrior resembles the Devadatta, and the bow – is that not the Gandiva? Who else can wield these weapons but Partha himself?’
Duryodhana is pleased that Arjuna has revealed himself before the time of incognito is up. ‘I shall leave it to the elders to decide whether or not the Pandavas should now be sent back to the forest for twelve more years,’ he says. ‘But for now, we will stand and fight.’
Bhishma performs a calculation and notes: ‘The wheel of time revolves with its many divisions – kalas and kashtas and muhurtas – with days and fortnights following the movement of the constellations and planets. Taking all the deviations into consideration, there is a two-month increase every five years. In thirteen years, there is an excess of five months and twelve nights.
‘Calculating it in that way, the thirteenth year of the Pandavas’ exile ended yesterday, and today is the thirteenth day of the sixth month, which means they are no longer required by the terms of agreement to remain in hiding.’
Bhishma, eager to perform his duty as Kuru’s regent, tells Duryodhana, ‘Take a fourth of the army and retreat to Hastinapur, O Prince. Let half of the army remain with us so that we may drive back the advances of Partha. And allow the remaining fourth of our force to be engaged in driving the cattle back to our city.’
But the plan proves to be quite ineffective, as Arjuna expertly maneuvers his chariot to seek out each of the Kuru elders in turn and defeating them in a series of single combats. He fights Kripa first and makes that whole section of the army flee in terror.
Then he fights Ashwatthama, Karna, Dronacharya and Bhishma one after the other, crippling each division of the Kaurava force in turn and making them retreat from the battlefield.
(This is another missed opportunity by Karna to use the Vasava dart. According to the story’s timeline, he holds it during this fight. But either he chooses not to use it or forgets about it.)
Then, after driving Duryodhana away as well, he rounds up the cattle and single-handedly guides them back to Matsya.
Duryodhana is obviously nonplussed at this, and he rages at Bhishma as they watch Arjuna reclaim the cattle. ‘How can one man win against the entire army of the Kauravas, Grandsire? If you and Dronacharya fight to your full might, it is impossible that Arjuna will be able to defeat you.
‘But alas, you are forever partial toward the sons of Pandu. It is my misfortune that you fight on my side but are mentally beholden to the enemy.’
‘Duryodhana,’ says Bhishma, ‘stop your posturing. It is indeed marvelous how powerful Arjuna has become in the last twelve years. He could easily have killed all of us today, but he didn’t because his mind is not a sinful one. He used this opportunity to give us a taste of what to expect if we are to fight him.
‘Let us not worry about the loss of cows today. We are clearly powerless. Let us retreat and think in peace. If this is a glimpse of the power the Pandavas possess, my advice to you is to return their kingdom to them and seek their friendship.’
With these words, Bhishma orders the Kaurava force to go back to Hastinapur, even as Arjuna ensures that all the stolen cows are returned to their cowsheds.
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- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered