Mahabharata Episode 23: Duryodhana is Rescued

Duryodhana is Rescued - Featured Image - Picture of a female centaur, representing the Gandharvas

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 22: Adventures of Bhima. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

Duryodhana Arrives in Dwaita

Now we’re at a point in the story where the Pandavas have returned to the forest of Dwaita to spend their twelfth year of exile.

During this time, Shakuni advises Duryodhana that they should ride out and see how the Pandavas are suffering – for no reason other than spite. Just so they can point at their enemies and laugh.

‘We have a cattle-station next to the lake of Dwaitavana,’ Shakuni reminds Duryodhana. ‘We can tell your father that we wish to go there and inspect our cattle. And while we are there, we can visit the Pandavas and witness their suffering.’

Dhritarashtra is not convinced, but he reluctantly allows them to go. A large retinue of chariots, servants and soldiers therefore sets out, with Duryodhana at its head. Once they reach Dwaitavana, the Kauravas set up camp at a distance of four miles away from where the Pandavas are residing.

Duryodhana spends a few days examining his cattle, taking note of the number of ageing cows, calves that require taming, those that have not yet been weaned, and the number of new cows to be bought to keep up with demand for the following year.

After finishing that task, they begin to hunt around the area, finding hyenas, wild buffaloes, boars and deer. The courtiers that have accompanied them to the forest also indulge themselves by sporting and dancing.

Quarrel with Gandharvas

After a few days of this, Duryodhana comes to the lake and instructs his men to build tents along its bank. But when the men take up tools with the intention of beginning work, a large number of Gandharvas appear on the scene and ask them to go away.

‘We are the servants of Duryodhana,’ the workmen tell them. ‘He has commanded us to set up pleasure-houses on the bank of the lake.’

‘This lake does not belong to your arrogant master,’ the Gandharvas reply. ‘We came here first, and we desire to sport in this lake. Go of your own accord or we will drive you away.’

The men return to the main camp and report to Duryodhana what had happened. The prince, beside himself with rage, orders soldiers to march toward the lake and fight the Gandharvas. ‘Let them be taught a lesson,’ he says.

What follows is a fierce battle between the Gandharvas and the Kauravas. Though Karna, Shakuni and Duryodhana match the followers of Kubera for a while, their army is ultimately routed and they are taken captive.

Some of the survivors among Duryodhana’s men flee, crying for help, to the hermitage of Yudhishthir, and ask him for help.

Bhimasena sees the irony in being asked to rescue Duryodhana, and is on the verge of saying no. But Yudhishthir says, ‘This is not the time for cruel words, Brother,’ and instructs Arjuna to get ready for battle.

Yudhishthir’s Counsel

When news reaches the Pandavas that Duryodhana, along with his wives and entourage, has been taken prisoner by the Gandharvas, Bhimasena’s first reaction is to laugh. But Yudhishthir reprimands him sternly and says:

‘Vrikodara, it does not become you to take pleasure in the suffering of our kinsmen. Disputes and fights are common between men who share the same lineage. But when an outside force threatens one of us, O Bhima, we must all be together.

‘Besides, it is no longer Duryodhana alone that is held captive by these people. It is the honour of the Kuru house. What crime have the wives of our cousin committed so that they must be held as prisoners in the Gandharvas’ lair?

‘Also, even an ordinary Kshatriya does all that he can to protect a man who has come to him for refuge. You are so powerful that even the army of Kubera trembles at the mention of your name, Vrikodara. You are the foremost of all Kshatriyas. Must you tarnish the name of our order by refusing to go to the aid of one who has sought your help?

‘Remember that our vow is not complete yet, Bhima. This is still the twelfth year of exile. Only after we finish the thirteenth year of hiding are we deemed worthy of our lost kingdoms.

‘Only then will the Kauravas become our enemies. Now, in the current state, he is the king of the land and we the subjects. It is the duty of every able-bodied subject, is it not, to save the life of his king?’

Arjuna and Bhima show no signs of agreeing with Yudhishthir, but they obey him. All four Pandavas thus lead whatever is left of the Kuru army out to battle against the Gandharvas.

Defeating the Gandharvas

Arjuna tries to negotiate with the Gandharva army first, telling them that it is improper to imprison the ladies of the Kuru court without first defeating the men. But the Gandharvas merely laugh at the Pandava’s words.

Left with no choice, Arjuna signals the battle’s beginning by shooting a bunch of pointed arrows into the sky, which pierce the earth at the feet of the Gandharva footmen. The Gandharvas respond with a volley of arrows of their own, and the two armies charge at each other.

The skirmish progresses predictably. The Gandharvas are by no means pushovers, but the combined might of Arjuna and Bhima, aided by Nakula and Sahadeva, proves to be too strong for them.

Arjuna makes use of all his celestial weapons like the Agneya, Saumya, Indrajala, Saura, and Sthunakarna.

At the end, a fierce fight develops between Arjuna and Chitrasena the king of Gandharvas. (This is the same Chitrasena that taught Arjuna to dance when the latter was visiting Amaravati.) 

To begin with, the Gandharva king conceals himself with the power of his illusion and rains down weapons upon the Pandava. But Arjuna is easily able to ward them off. He uses the weapon called the Sabdaveda, which breaks Chitrasena’s magic and reveals him to the naked eye.

Chitrasena Frees Duryodhana

By this time, Chitrasena is also exhausted and ready to surrender. So he smiles at his old friend and says, ‘I accept my defeat at your hands, Arjuna, though I did not expect anything different.’

Arjuna cries out in pleasure at recognizing Chitrasena, and the two friends sit down in their respective chariots to enquire about each other’s welfare. Arjuna then asks Chitrasena if he could free Duryodhana from captivity.

‘I will, of course, my friend,’ Chitrasena replies. ‘You have won this battle fair and square. But I must warn you that Duryodhana and his men came here in order to mock you. I knew of their intentions and sent my army to teach them a lesson. Now that that object has been accomplished, he will be freed as per your wishes.’

All the Kauravas captured by the Gandharva people are thus freed at Chitrasena’s command. The celestial also revives all the people who lost their lives during this fruitless fight. And having blessed Arjuna, Bhima and the two twins, he ascends to heaven.

The Pandavas bring Duryodhana back to the hermitage, where Yudhishthir addresses him and says, ‘Go back to your capital, O son of the Kuru race. Do not be despondent or cheerless on account of this experience.’

And Duryodhana, having saluted his cousin and overwhelmed with shame and disgrace, sets out to return to Hastinapur.

Duryodhana’s Woe

On the way back home, Duryodhana stops in the middle of the forest and sits down under a large tree to think things over. He is understandably overcome by shame, and wonders how an entire army of Gandharvas was routed by just four Pandavas.

At this moment, Karna, who had fled from the battle, appears there. Seeing Duryodhana unharmed, he assumes that the Kaurava had won against the Gandharvas. He raises his arms in a congratulatory gesture.

‘You deserve a hero’s welcome back in Hastinapur, O Prince!’ he says. ‘Let be known far and wide that you led your forces against celestials and drove them back to their lands. Alas, I was not around to witness the feat, because I thought it prudent to retreat and save my life – so fiercely did the Gandharvas fight me.’

(This is an incident that Bhishma later refers to while mocking Karna’s bravado and calling him an artharatha – a half-ratha.)

Duryodhana stops Karna mid-speech with a wave of the hand. When he speaks, his voice is choked with tears. ‘It is not I that won against those celestials, Karna. Arjuna and Bhimasena led our troops, with Nakula and Sahadeva flanking them.

‘It is to their credit that I am alive now. I stepped on their throats, I danced with glee at their misfortunes, and yet they saved my life.’

Duryodhana then tells Karna that he wishes to renounce the kingdom.

Karna Supports Duryodhana

But Karna, ever the loyal pillar for his friend, tries to reason with Duryodhana.

‘The Pandavas live within the boundaries of your kingdom, O Prince,’ he says. ‘As such, they are citizens bound by duty to protect you whenever the need arises. Therefore, by fighting the Gandharvas, they were only discharging their duties.

‘There have been many examples of great kings that are protected by their valiant heroes in battle. Indeed, King Dhritarashtra is one such. That does not in any way diminish the glory of the king, nor does it heap shame upon him.

‘Any worthy ruler ought to depend on a few powerful heroes to defend his dominion. That is the natural order of things. Why should you then feel ashamed when your heroes come to your aid?

‘Also, remember that the Pandavas and their entire kingdom had been won by you in the game of dice. Until their exile is finished, they are your slaves. And it is a slave’s duty to ensure that his master does not fall in harm’s way.

‘You are apt to feel gratitude for them, as you would to any other servant, but what is there to feel regretful about? Why these tall statements about renouncing the kingdom?’

Shakuni Makes a Suggestion

Interestingly, at this point, Shakuni – who had also fled the battlefield – now makes an appearance and suggests that Duryodhana should consider mending his relationship with the Pandavas.

‘What you should do now,’ he says, ‘is express your gratitude toward the sons of Pandu. Invite them back to Hastinapur, and give them back their kingdom. Establish brotherly relations with them and live for the rest of your life under their command. That, I think, is the best course of action available to you.’

But Duryodhana says, ‘I am interested in nothing anymore, Uncle. Friendship, love, virtue, wealth, kingdom – these are all earthly concerns. I wish that all of you would leave me alone. I am going to forego food and perform austerities until the elements claim my life.’

Saying this, he casts away all his royal robes and sits down under a tree in the garb of an ascetic. His wives and kinsmen are worried at this, but are left with no choice but to allow the prince his space.

The Danavas Revive Duryodhana

 Now the Daityas and Danavas of the world come together to perform a sacrifice in order to restore Duryodhana’s confidence. The ceremony gives rise to a strange goddess with a wide-open mouth, and she gets sent to the forest where Duryodhana is staying.

‘Bring him here so that we might tell him about his destiny,’ the Danavas instruct the goddess.

In a twinkling of the eye, Duryodhana disappears from the spot where he is meditating and reappears in the nether regions amid scores of Asuras and Danavas. After the rousing cheers of welcome have abated, the chief steps forward and says the following words.

‘Thousands of Danavas have taken birth on Earth in this age to assist you in the battle against our enemies. They will possess all the great Kshatriyas when the time comes. Bhishma. Bhagadatta. Drona. Karna. Kripa.

‘They will all fight for you without kindness toward the Pandavas, because they will all bear the essence of the Danava mind.

‘If you are wary of the danger posed by Arjuna, O Prince, know that the powerful Narakasura has taken birth as Karna, and he has been equipped with the desire and the knowhow to slay the third Pandava.

‘There are also thousands of Danavas called the Samsaptakas who will come to your aid in time for the battle. Therefore, grieve not, because your victory is assured with all the strength at your disposal.

‘Cast aside, therefore, all these thoughts of killing yourself, and look ahead to the time when the entire world of men will bow to your command.’

Duryodhana Returns

Duryodhana wakes up in the morning from a deep sleep in the forest, and considers the dream a vision sent by well-meaning friends. He finds that his vigour has returned, and that he no longer feels that the Pandavas are unbeatable.

If all the Kuru elders fight for me without partiality toward the brothers of Yudhishthir, he thinks, I can easily defeat them. The Danavas are right. I must not despair. Not now.

And heading his entourage, flanked on either side by Karna and Shakuni (who are themselves feeling better after a night’s sleep), Duryodhana returns to Hastinapur.

Further Reading

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