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 42: Bhishma Falls. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
A list of topics that we will cover:
- A Boon for Duryodhana
- Arjuna Vows to Protect
- The Samshaptakas
- Bhagadatta’s Moment
- Arjuna Fights Bhagadatta
- The Four Forms of Vishnu
- Bhagadatta Dies
- Arjuna Protects Yudhishthir
- The Chakravyuha
- Further Reading
A Boon for Duryodhana
Two events of note happen on the morning of Day 11: Drona is appointed commander of the Kaurava forces, and Karna returns to the fold.
Drona tells Duryodhana, ‘You have given me great honour by appointing me the commander of the Kuru force next to the son of Ganga. I am indebted to you. Ask of me any boon that you desire.’
Duryodhana, after consultation with Duhsasana and Karna, replies, ‘Acharya, it is my wish that you seize Yudhishthir and bring him alive to me.’
Drona is surprised that Duryodhana has not asked him to kill Yudhishthir. When he asks his pupil why, Duryodhana replies:
‘This Pandava army is unlike a snake, O Preceptor. It is more like a scorpion, which has more sting in its tail than in its head. I would like, therefore, not to kill it but to tame it. If Yudhishthir dies, I have no doubt that Arjuna and Bhimasena will exterminate all of us in the blink of an eye.
‘But if I can persuade the eldest Pandava – naive that he is – to another game of dice, then I can cause them to return to the forest. The rest of his brothers will follow him mutely, because they are dutiful toward him. That way, my victory over them will be more enduring.’
Drona thinks about this for a moment, and then grants the boon with the following clarification. ‘As long as Arjuna does not protect Yudhishthir today,’ he says, ‘you can consider him already imprisoned. But if he fights by Yudhishthir’s side, not even Indra can capture the eldest Pandava.’
Arjuna Vows to Protect
But this message leaks out to the Pandavas, and when Yudhishthir hears of it from his spies, he calls for a meeting of his brothers and Krishna. He addresses Arjuna and says:
‘You have heard, Dhananjaya, about the intention of Drona. Let such measures be adopted, therefore, that his pledge will remain unfulfilled.’
Arjuna replies, ‘I cannot think of slaying my teacher, Brother, but equally, I cannot imagine giving you up either. The son of Dhritarashtra seeks to conquer us by taking you captive in this battle. Let me tell you that he will never bring to fruition this desire of his.
‘Drona will not succeed in seizing you as long as I live. Even if the wielder of the thunderbolt comes today at the head of an army of celestials and fights on Drona’s side, I promise you that they will not succeed in taking you away from us, Brother.’
Thus commences the battle, with Arjuna holding the fort on one side and Drona on the other. The Panchalas and the Srinjayas array themselves against Drona, while the rest of the Kauravas face Arjuna.
The battle on Day 11 goes along expected lines. Drona tries his best to capture Yudhishthir, but Arjuna is right by his brother’s side to protect him. In the evening, Drona offers his apology to Duryodhana for failing in his quest.
He also reiterates that for Yudhishthir to be captured, Arjuna should be engaged elsewhere.
Susharma, the ruler of the Trigarta army that has repeatedly clashed with and lost against Arjuna in the past, comes forward now and bows to Drona.
‘We are always humiliated by the wielder of the Gandiva, O Preceptor,’ he says. ‘Not only is he equipped with skill, but he possesses a diverse array of celestial weapons that we simply cannot match, even with our large numbers.
‘In spite of that, I shall challenge him tomorrow and lead him away to the southern edge of Kurukshetra. For the victory of King Duryodhana I am willing to take up this burden.’
Along with Susharma, the other five Trigarta brothers (Satyaratha, Satyavarma, Satyavrata, Satyeshu and Satyakarma) also take the vow that they will fight Arjuna to the death.
Thus they earn the name of Samshaptakas (‘soldiers who have vowed to conquer or die’).
On Day 12, the Samshaptakas lure Arjuna away to one edge of the battlefield. Drona gives himself the task of capturing Yudhishthir and bringing him back alive.
In addition, he assigns Bhagadatta and his massive elephant army the task of fighting against all the other Pandava warriors.
Bhagadatta rises to the occasion with aplomb, first defeating Bhimasena and then Hiranyavarma of the Dasarna tribe.
(This is the same Hiranyavarma who had given his daughter in marriage to Shikhandi before the prince had become a man. More on that in Episode 38: Amba and Shikhandi.)
While Bhagadatta is in his element fighting atop his elephant Supratika, Drona makes a beeline deep into the Pandava forces with one aim: capture Yudhishthir and bring him back alive for Duryodhana.
When news of Bhagadatta’s valour reaches Arjuna, for a moment his heart wavers: should he stay where he is and fight the Samshaptakas? Or should he go back and fight Bhagadatta? After asking Krishna’s advice on the matter, he uses the Brahmastra on the Samshaptakas, making them flee the battlefield.
Having bought some time thus, he returns to face Bhagadatta.
Arjuna Fights Bhagadatta
The encounter between Arjuna’s chariot and Bhagadatta’s elephant is fierce in the extreme. 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.
He pierces Krishna with many arrows made wholly of black iron, equipped with wings of gold. His bow seems to be perpetually bent in a circle, its string always stretched back to the ear.
Even when Partha breaks his bow in two, the king of the Pragjyotishas does not falter, hurling instead a volley of fourteen sharp lances at the two Krishnas.
Arjuna, however, does not allow them to find their target. 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. He then sends ten arrows at the king of the far east, each of which finds its mark.
Thus teetering on the edge of defeat, Bhagadatta gives out a yell of rage and picks up a weapon called the Vaishnava Astra.
The Four Forms of Vishnu
In desperation, Bhagadatta uses the Vaishnava weapon on Arjuna, but as the missile closes in on its target, Krishna places himself in its path and receives it on his chest.
Upon impact, the weapon turns into a garland of fragrant flowers and settles around the neck of the Dwaraka prince.
Krishna then goes on to explain to Arjuna the history of the Vaishnava Astra. ‘I am known to possess four forms, eternally engaged as I am to oversee the world. In one form, I spend all my time in ascetic austerities as Narayana.
‘The second form watches, and measures the good in the world against the bad. The third is this one you see here, the form of a man who takes constant action. My fourth form lies in sleep for a thousand years at a time. In this last form, when I awaken, I give boons to deserving devotees.
‘The last time I woke up, the Earth goddess, Bhudevi, asked me for a boon to equip her son Naraka with invincibility. Hearing her prayer, I gave unto her the Vaishnava Astra, to which even Indra and Rudra are vulnerable.
‘It is from Naraka that this king of the Pragjyotishas procured this weapon, and there is nothing in your arsenal, O Kaunteya, with which you could have fought it. If I had not broken my oath and taken it on my chest, you would have been killed.
‘Besides, I have not broken my promise until I take up arms myself. Absorbing the power of weapons that fly at me makes me just another passive charioteer, not a warrior. So set aside your worry.’
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.
The arrow finds its mark, and as Bhagadatta’s turban flops to the ground, he falls down from his seat on top of his dead elephant like a lotus petal leaving its stalk.
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.
Arjuna Protects Yudhishthir
With the Samshaptakas defeated (for now), and with his battle against Bhagadatta ending successfully, Arjuna now returns to Yudhishthir’s side, fighting as if the end of the yuga is near.
He descends upon Drona and the other chariot warriors like a thunderstorm, raining layers of arrows upon them.
The ape on his banner seems to be drawn in blazing golden lines, and each time the flag flutters, it sends shards of light into the enemy’s eyes.
Even as he beholds horses and elephants falling all around him, Arjuna keeps in mind the guidelines of fair fight, and refrains from striking those that have fallen down or those that are retreating. He shoots only at those who stand up to him and display the willingness to face him.
With Arjuna thus marshalling the Pandava forces, the Kuru army is pushed back all the way back to camp. And during this retreat, though the warriors refrain from attacking other warriors whose backs are turned, the common soldier is not given to such niceties.
Thousands of elephants and horses and footmen belonging to the Kauravas perish as the Pandava soldiers hunt them down with ferocious anger.
Thus the twelfth day of battle ends on a morose note for the Kauravas. Not only have they lost an atiratha in Bhagadatta, they have also failed in their goal of diverting Arjuna in order to capture Yudhishthir alive.
Duryodhana is in a salty mood on the thirteenth morning. He says to Drona: ‘I have heard before that you are ruthless in battle, O Preceptor, that once you set your sights upon an enemy, you bend destiny in your favour.
‘But yesterday I have seen you fail. Is it that the Pandavas are more powerful, sir? Or is it that you hesitate to exert yourself to the fullest?’
Drona smiles, not surprised at this because he has heard similar rebukes flying at the face of Bhishma before. ‘No army in the three worlds can come up against a force led by Arjuna and hope to win, Duryodhana,’ he says calmly.
‘That is why I asked you to keep him away. Even today, if we are to give a good account of ourselves, Arjuna must be kept busy. Out of sight!’
He then makes Duryodhana a promise that will end up reaping far-reaching consequences. ‘I will give you my word that I will slay today at least one atiratha that fights for the Pandavas,’ he says.
‘I will also form an array that is impenetrable by the very gods. But I repeat my entreaty, O King. Make it so that Arjuna will remain distracted for the whole day, not just part of it.’
Thus emerges the Chakravyuha, a complex swirling arrangement of infantry and cavalry that is impossible to penetrate. Only Arjuna, Krishna and Pradyumna know how to enter and exit this array.
On the thirteenth day of the war, the Samshaptakas give a better account of themselves and ensure that Arjuna and Krishna are kept away from battle for the whole day. That leaves Drona enough time and space to keep his promise to Duryodhana.
We will see exactly how in the next episode.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story
- 300+ Mahabharata Stories to Thrill, Delight and Enchant You
- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered