The Drona Parva of the Mahabharata begins on the eleventh day of the Mahabharata war. It ends with the death of Drona on the fifteenth day.
And here it is! All the main events of the fifteenth day, ending with Drona’s death. Enjoy!
Battle at Night
Seven akshauhinis of the Kaurava army are killed on the fourteenth day by only three warriors – Arjuna, Satyaki and Bhimasena. All three penetrate Drona’s ‘impenetrable’ three-layered array, and all three safely exit it.
What’s more, Arjuna succeeds in killing the man he was seeking. In all ways, it is a disaster for the Kauravas.
Duryodhana is rightly aggrieved by this, and blames Drona for fighting half-heartedly. ‘Without realizing your bent of mind, Acharya,’ he says, ‘I made you commander to my forces. I could not understand that you still think of those sons of Kunti as your own disciples. How is such massive carnage possible if you fight to the utmost of your ability?’
Drona himself is seething by what has happened, and these words from Duryodhana sting him further. ‘King,’ he says, ‘I have told you before that Arjuna and Krishna are powerful beyond measure. I will fight, but I will also tell you that we will lose.
‘Despite knowing that nothing but death awaits me in this war, I have donned my armour. I have lead your forces. How else can I exhibit my loyalty?’
Then Drona says that they should march right out to battle the Pandavas – even though it is night. Duryodhana blows on his conch, and the two armies ready themselves for another round.
Ghatotkacha versus Ashwatthama
The main hero of the night battle on the fourteenth day is Ghatotkacha, who leads an akshauhini of Rakshasa soldiers into battle. As Rakshasa powers swell manifold by night, he becomes he chief tormentor of the Kauravas.
Standing against him and neutralizing his many illusions is Ashwatthama, the son of Drona. He calmly dismantles everything that the son of Bhima can throw at him, and even kills Anjanaparva, Ghatotkacha’s son, when he comes to support his father in the duel.
Angered by the death of his son, Ghatotkacha leads a division of his army in an all-out assault against Ashwatthama. He throws caution to the wind and employs all sorts of illusions: he rises to the skies, he assumes hideous forms, he conjures up scary images and shapes in the air that strike fear into the Kaurava soldiers… but Ashwatthama remains firm.
With Duryodhana wondering how Ghatotkacha can be held back, Ashwatthama assures his king: ‘Leave the Rakshasas to me, Prince, and lead your army to fight the human Pandava forces. I will see to the son of Bhima on my own.’
And true to his word, fighting single-handedly, he routs the entire akshauhini of Rakshasa troops with a smile on his face – earning the praise of all Siddhas and Charanas watching the battle.
Kripa versus Karna
As Duryodhana and Drona struggle in vain to gain an ascendancy over the Pandava forces on this night, Karna tries to console his friend with words that border on boastful.
He says, ‘Even if Purandara is to descend and fight alongside Partha, O King, I will first defeat the god of gods and then slay Arjuna. Of all the Pandavas, he is the strongest. So it is he who I intend to kill with this powerful Vasava dart. And once Arjuna is dead, the Pandava army is nothing more than a headless snake. The Earth will be yours once again to rule.’
Kripacharya is close at hand to hear Karna’s words, and he cannot resist a gentle barb. ‘If words were enough, Karna,’ he says, ‘then you would have been the foremost warrior of our age, not Arjuna. How many times have we seen you speak of tall things only to slink away on the battlefield?
‘Need I mention the time when Duryodhana was abducted by the Gandharvas? Have we forgotten that sunny afternoon in the city of Virata, where Arjuna beat us all on a single chariot?
‘You indulge a bit too much in boasts, O king of Anga. Kshatriyas gain eminence by virtue of their actions, not their words.’
This sets up an argument between the two, with Karna asserting that there is nothing wrong with a man of worth using both words and deeds to back up his work. Kripa’s position is that a man who talks a lot generally does not do much.
Ashwatthama versus Karna
As Karna and Kripa continue to exchange insults with each other, Ashwatthama suddenly flies into a rage and admonishes Karna in no uncertain times. After, Kripa is his maternal uncle. Also, there is truth in what the old man has said.
‘Kripacharya is merely stating the obvious, Vile One,’ he says, ‘when he extols the greatness of Arjuna. Where was your prowess when the son of Kunti plucked Jayadratha from our midst and killed him not more than two hours ago?
‘Like a fool drunk on pride, you continue to mouth inanities that you will destroy the man who has won over Mahadeva himself. All the gods and Asuras fighting together cannot defeat Arjuna – what makes you think that you can?’
Duryodhana wheels in between the two and calms Ashwatthama down. This little incident gives us an indication of the opinion that the Kuru top brass held on Karna. The fact that Bhishma would routinely insult Karna in public and receive no backlash – and the fact that Kripa now picks up an argument with him and is supported by Ashwatthama – tells us that most of the Kaurava atirathas did not care much for Karna.
The only man in the army who seems to want Karna is Duryodhana – and the only reason he does is because Karna is the man holding the Vasava dart – the one weapon that can kill Arjuna.
Sahadeva is Spared
The battle between Karna and Sahadeva begins with good signs for the son of Madri, who shoots eighteen arrows at the Anga king. But Karna retaliates with fury, shooting a hundred straight shafts at his brother, and then cutting off the latter’s bow with two iron-tipped ones.
Though Sahadeva battles valiantly, he is unable to match Karna in any meaningful way: he loses his weapons, his charioteer and then his chariot himself.
At the end, Karna touches the tip of his bow to Sahadeva’s chin and says, ‘You will do well to fight your equals. Over there, Arjuna is fighting resolutely with the Kauravas. Go and assist him if you want, or better still, go home.’
This is the first instance of Karna sparing the life of one of the Pandavas. In order to honour his promise to Kunti that he will not kill any of her sons but Arjuna, during the course of the battle he isolates and defeats each of the four Pandava brothers in turn, and spares their lives.
By doing this, Karna ironically commits the same act of sabotage against the Kuru army for which Duryodhana blames Bhishma and Drona. Despite his lofty words and speeches, at the end of the day, Karna prioritizes his promise to Kunti (which is allied to his own pride) over his duty and loyalty toward Duryodhana.
It may not be an exaggeration to say that by sparing the four Pandavas, Karna may have cost Duryodhana the war.
During a phase in the night battle, Karna and Drona fight together to drive back the Pandava army to the edge of the field. Seeing this, Yudhishthir exhorts Arjuna to hold back Karna.
When Arjuna asks Krishna to drive him to the Sutaputra, Krishna smiles and says, ‘Your duel with Karna will happen, Partha, but not today. The time for you to encounter the son of Radha has not yet come. Remember that he still holds the Vasava missile. I am certain that in the mood he is now, he is hoping that you would come challenge him.
‘Well, let Ghatotkacha ward him off for today, therefore. With his powers feeding off the night, supported by Satyaki, he will rescue the Pandava forces from being routed by Karna.’
Ghatotkacha is thus sent by Krishna with a mission to defeat Karna and to save the Pandavas from sinking. For his part, the Rakshasa is excited. ‘I am an equal match to Karna, and to Drona, and to any of the warriors that fight for Duryodhana. Today I will fight such a battle that it will be talked about until the end of time.
‘I shall not spare the brave or the timid, the weak or the strong. I shall either return after slaying Karna, or I shall not return at all.’
Ghatotkacha resorts to a number of optical illusions in his fight with Karna. He becomes invisible; he creates an impression of mountains and thunderstorms raining down from the sky; he builds images of gods such as Indra, Vayu and Varuna coursing through the battlefield on the Pandava side.
Though these do not perturb Karna, the soldiers on the Kaurava army are stricken with fear. ‘The gods themselves have come to fight for the Pandavas tonight,’ they cry. ‘What chance have we of winning?’
The soldiers wail in fear and run away from the rampaging Ghatotkacha. ‘Save us, O Karna!’ they yell. ‘This man has summoned all the forces of the universe to rally against us. If you don’t kill him, he will finish this war tonight!’
Karna tries his best to engage with Ghatotkacha, but the Rakshasa doubles down on his tricks to send the Kaurava soldiers into deeper abysses of terror. Before long the whole battlefield rings with fervent pleas from the Kaurava soldiers to Karna. ‘Whatever you do, O Karna,’ they say, ‘kill Ghatotkacha.’
Karna does give this some thought, and then uses his precious Vasava dart on Ghatotkacha. As the missile flies at him, the son of Bhima swells into the size of a giant so that when he falls to his death, he crushes a whole akshauhini of troops under his massive body.
Implications of Ghatotkacha’s Death
Everyone in the Pandava camp is devastated at the sight of Ghatotkacha falling to the ground lifeless. But Krishna reacts with a shout of joy and stands on his seat with whip in hand. Tying the horses and descending from the vehicle, he embraces Arjuna and congratulates him.
‘With the Vasava dart now wrenched away from Karna’s grasp, Arjuna,’ says Krishna, ‘and his kavacha kundalas long stripped away from him, now he is a mere mortal. He is as good as slain by you. Ghatotkacha had to die in order for you to live, just like Abhimanyu had to die in order for Yudhishthir to live.’
Arjuna asks Krishna now why Karna did not use the Vasava missile on him during the previous days of the war.
And Krishna replies, ‘I steered our vehicle such that our paths would cross only seldom with Karna’s, Arjuna. And when you did fight him, I clouded his mind and those of all the other Kauravas so that they forgot about the Vasava dart. Only when Karna fought Ghatotkacha did I free up his mind, in the hope that he would use it. Fortunately for you, he did.’
Yudhishthir grieves at the loss, however, and reacts with uncommon fury at Drona, whom he cites responsible for the deaths of both Abhimanyu and Ghatotkacha. But just as he is about to pick up his weapon and drive out to meet the acharya in battle, Vyasa appears and consoles him.
This anger of Yudhishthir is a portent that something in him has broken. A ruthless streak has taken birth even in the heart of stoic, calm Yudhishthir – a streak that he will put to good use in the killing of Drona.
The Fifteenth Morning
After the death of Ghatotkacha, Arjuna suggests that the two armies should rest right there on the battlefield until the sun came up. Both sides gratefully accept this idea, and in a short while the Kurukshetra looks like a painting, with all men and beasts sleeping together with their armours, holding on to their weapons.
As the sun rises on the fifteenth morning, Duryodhana has another of his tirades against Drona. ‘We should have hacked the Pandavas to death while they slept, Acharya, he says. We treat them with too much kindness!’
And Drona says, ‘Killing your enemy while he sleeps is the lowest and vilest act, O King. We shall never perform such an unholy act.’
(Note that it is this very ‘vile and low’ act that Drona’s son, Ashwatthama, commits at the very end of the war – ostensibly to avenge the way in which Drona is killed.)
Two things happen on the fifteenth morning: one, Dhrishtadyumna renews his oath of killing Drona, proclaiming publicly that he will kill the acharya before sundown. And two, goaded by Duryodhana, Drona takes an oath to fight more ruthlessly, and to use his celestial weapons liberally on soldiers who are not strong enough to receive them.
Both of these events lead directly to what follows on the fifteenth day.
Ashwatthama is Dead
With Drona rampaging on the Pandavas, Krishna suggests that they may have to follow unscrupulous paths to get at the acharya.
What happens is this: Bhimasena first kills an elephant named Ashwatthama. He then drives over to Drona and says, ‘Ashwatthama is dead! It is time for you to give up your weapons.’
Drona is momentarily flabbergasted, but he does not quite believe Bhimasena. He continues to fight.
Then a number of sages appear on the ground and encourage the Brahmin to relinquish his weapons. Drona flounders further, but he still shoots his arrows out into the world – almost in a half-hearted fashion – and when he sees Yudhishthir, he asks, ‘Is it true, Yudhishthir? Is Ashwatthama really dead?’
Yudhishthir replies, ‘Yes, Acharya. Ashwatthama is dead.’ And then he adds in a small voice, ‘Ashwatthama the elephant.’
In Sanskrit the actual words he uses are: ‘Ashwatthama hathah.’ (Ashwatthama is dead.) Pause. ‘Kunjaraha.’ (The elephant.)
Hearing this from the mouth of Yudhishthir is enough to convince Drona that Ashwatthama has truly been killed. With Bhimasena hurling insult after insult at him, he finally unstrings his bow and casts it away. ‘Karna!’ he calls out. ‘Kripa, Duryodhana, Shalya… fight with all your might. May victory be yours.’
He sits down in his chariot in a meditative pose, much like Bhurishrava, and descends into a place of calm and quiet amid the roaring din of the Kurukshetra.
Dhristadyumna Fulfills his Destiny
The Pandava plan is that after Drona relinquishes his weapons, he can be taken captive as a prisoner and held alive until the end of the war. Krishna wheels Arjuna’s chariot toward Drona with this intention.
But Dhrishtadyumna, who has taken an oath this very morning that he will kill Drona, swoops on a sword and ascends Drona’s chariot. Taking the Brahmin’s hair in his hands, he drags Drona’s body off to the ground, and with one swish of his weapon, separates the head from the body.
Drona does not emit a sound. It is as if the Panchala prince has hacked at a corpse.
Some people say that Drona’s soul had already left its body by the time Dhrishtadyumna got to it. If that is true, Dhrishtadyumna fulfills his destiny on the fifteenth day only in the emptiest of manners, and perhaps even he felt a little hollow deep in his heart while holding up Drona’s severed head for everyone to see.
(Interestingly, there are strong parallels between Dhristadyumna’s killing of Drona and Shikhandi’s victory over Bhishma. Like Dhrishtadyumna, it is Shikhandi’s destiny to kill Bhishma. And like Dhrishtadyumna, when he does fulfill his life’s purpose, he does so in a cowardly, frivolous way that is remembered for all the wrong reasons.)
This is perhaps the Mahabharata cautioning us that it is not merely about the destination, the manner of the journey also matters.
The Narayana Astra
The fifteenth day of the Mahabharata war ends with the humbling of Ashwatthama.
This is relevant in the final analysis because Ashwatthama today takes a vow in front of Duryodhana that come what may, he will kill all the Panchala and Somaka forces, and that he will not shy away from using morally questionable tactics to do so.
After all, have the Panchalas not committed the ultimate sin by killing his father after he has relinquished his weapons?
In the midst of his anger, Ashwatthama uses the Narayana Astra on the Pandava army. We’re told that this weapon is more powerful than the Pasupatastra and the Brahmastra.
Unbeknownst to him, however, Krishna knows how to neutralize the Narayana Astra. After Ashwatthama invokes it and after the sky fills with a thousand points of light, Krishna stands up in his seat on Arjuna’s chariot and calls out to his soldiers.
‘Drop your weapons, everyone!’ he says. ‘Remove from your hearts all desire to fight. Once your minds have been cleansed of the desire for violence, the Narayana Astra will disappear by itself. It can be defeated only by peace.’
Ashwatthama is flummoxed by this. All his energy leaves him at once, and he senses a great weariness descend upon him. He wonders out loud how it is that the Pandavas were able to quell the Narayana Astra, and in response, Vyasa appears and tells him that Krishna and Arjuna are actually Nara and Narayana fighting on behalf of dharma.
Having heard this discourse, Ashwatthama realizes that all his anger is ill-spent. He calls off the Kaurava army, and with this ends the fifteenth day of the Mahabharata war.
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