Mahabharata Episode 9: Invasion of Panchala

Invasion of Panchala - Featured Image - From chaos to order

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 8: Karna Arrives. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

Here’s what we will cover in this episode:

Guru Dakshina

After the dust has settled on the graduation ceremony, in which the Pandavas made a new enemy and Duryodhana a new friend, Dronacharya asks the Kuru princes for his fee.

‘Invade Panchala, my children,’ he says, ‘and bring its king Drupada before me alive and unharmed. That will be the most suitable dakshina for all that you have learnt under me.’  

The Kauravas try their luck first; indeed, Arjuna displays remarkable foresight in letting them go first, reasoning that they would not be able to subjugate Drupada on their own.

His guess turns out to be right; after a long battle, the Kaurava forces comprising Duryodhana, Karna, Yuyutsu and other such warriors are routed by the Panchala army.

(Note the presence of Karna here. We’re not told, however, whether he fights in this battle as Duryodhana’s ally or as Drona’s disciple.)

When their own turn comes, Arjuna asks Yudhishthir to stay away from battle, and entrusts Nakula and Sahadeva with the task of guarding each of his chariot-wheels.

With Bhimasena fighting on foot with mace in hand and commanding their infantrymen, Arjuna scythes through the Panchala defenses and defeats Drupada in a well-matched battle of bow and arrow.

Drona Offers Friendship

When the king is brought to Drona, the latter, quite remarkably (and perhaps foolishly), extends a hand of friendship. ‘I only wished to remind you of our friendship, Drupada,’ Drona tells him. ‘Now that I have conquered your kingdom with my forces, all of it – not just half, as you promised – is mine.

‘But we Brahmins are a generous race, and all I have need for is but half of your kingdom. Take the southern part of Panchala and rule over it as you always have, but the northern half will henceforth be mine.’

Drona thus becomes king to a part of Panchala called Ahichhatra. Despite this, he is always seen hovering around Hastinapur, deeply entwined in its affairs. He is present at all pivotal incidents of the story, and in the final war, he fights under the banner of Hastinapur, not Panchala.

This show of faux generosity maddens and humiliates Drupada. While feigning friendship and gratitude toward Drona, the king secretly craves revenge against his friend.

Later, he performs some austerities in order to procure a son that is destined to kill Drona. In the resulting ritual, out of the fire springs Dhrishtadyumna, accompanied by a celestial voice that proclaims him to be the fulfiller of Drupada’s wish.

In the same fire is also born Draupadi. And the divine voice announces: ‘She will cause the destruction of the Kuru race.’

Rivalry between Kuru and Panchala

There seems to be a long-standing rivalry between Kuru and Panchala. Even in the days of Vichitraveerya, it is instructive that Bhishma does not seek alliances with Panchala at all. Instead he travels all the way to Kosala to secure Amba, Ambika and Ambalika.

Later, when time comes to marry off Pandu and Dhritarashtra, once again Bhishma overlooks Panchala and favours Kunti, Madra and Gandhara.

One can look at this two ways: perhaps Panchala had no unwed royal maidens who came of age at the same time. But a more plausible reason is that Kuru and Panchala have always looked at one another as enemies.

The Mahabharata war, when one examines it objectively, is really a war between Kuru and Panchala and their respective allies. The Pandavas fight on the side of Panchala against their family members, but they have no army of their own. Of the seven akshauhinis that fight against the Kauravas, five (or six, according to some sources) belong to Panchala.

Recasting the Mahabharata story as the culmination of a long feud between Kuru and Panchala sheds new light on this little episode of Drona’s Guru Dakshina.

How? Let’s read on.

An Impossible Premise

First of all, Drona’s request for a Guru Dakshina from the Kuru princes rings hollow. Drona is not the usual Brahmin teacher who allows disciples to live at his house for a period of time and imparts knowledge to them.

Quite to the contrary, he is a resident tutor appointed by Bhishma, and in return for his services he is very well compensated – with wealth, renown and status.  

A Guru Dakshina is appropriate when the transfer of knowledge is ‘free’. At the end of his study, the student then pays the teacher whatever the teacher asks of him.

But in the case of the Kuru Princes and Drona, the arrangement is completely different. Drona’s lot is already immeasurably improved just by serving as preceptor to the princes. If anything, he is forever beholden to Bhishma for changing his life.

So the premise of Drona asking for Dakshina from the princes is unrealistic.

Even if we admit that this did happen, the possibility of Drona asking his wards to capture Drupada is vanishingly small. Drupada is the emperor of a large and powerful kingdom. Sending members of the royal family on a military quest to invade Panchala is akin to signing their death warrant.

Invasions of this sort did not happen without meticulous planning and strategy. Drona would not have the authority to send the Kuru princes out to invade Panchala without the approval of Bhishma.

A More Likely Scenario

So if the Kuru princes did not set out to invade Panchala on their own, what happened during this little phase?

It is possible that Drona himself led a division of the Kuru army out to fight Panchala on Bhishma’s orders. Whether the Kuru princes fought in this battle or not, we’re free to speculate, but it is not unreasonable to assume that they did.

Such a quest is not altogether illogical – with the coming of age of the princes, the Kuru army suddenly has a number of warriors (a hundred and five, to be exact) who can hold their own in battle and lead small groups of soldiers. From Bhishma’s perspective, it is a perfect opportunity to:

  • Gain an upper hand in the ongoing series of battles against Panchala
  • Test the fighting prowess of the Kuru princes without throwing them into a significant war
  • And test the leadership and battle ability of Drona himself, which are at this stage untested.

As it turns out, driven by his loyalty, his desire to prove himself, and his anger against Drupada, Drona gives a good account of himself. He wins the battle against the Panchalas and succeeds in annexing Ahichhatra to Kuru.

Does this change the story?

Not a lot. Drupada gets captured by Drona’s forces and becomes a tribute-paying vassal state to Kuru. This explains the two-pronged-nature of Drupada’s anger: not only does he want revenge against Drona, but he also wants Kuru to be destroyed.

That is why the sacrificial fire rewards him with two gifts: one who will kill Drona and another who will destroy Kuru.

The whole generosity angle of Drona returning half the kingdom to Drupada and keeping the other half is also hard to believe. As a subsidiary of Bhishma, Drona has no agency to take decisions of this sort. If it was decided that Drupada would rule Southern Panchala while giving up Northern Panchala to Kuru, it would have been Bhishma who made that decision. Not Drona.

And if Bhishma did make that decision, it would have had political and economic reasons behind it. Maybe Northern Panchala is more fertile, maybe it is the industrial zone of the Panchala kingdom that generated more wealth – and so on.

Also, while Drupada is allowed to rule Southern Panchala as an independent ruler, Bhishma would have had a usurious tribute treaty in place to squeeze him dry.

After this battle, therefore, Panchala is no longer a great kingdom. It is just a fangless tribute state. Drupada is king only in name.

The Rise of Drupada

Performing a sacrificial ritual in order to kill your arch enemies seems the kind of thing a powerless monarch will do. A person with any kind of real power would – one assumes – do something more productive with their time.

(Of course, we can take this further and theorize that Draupadi and Dhrishtadyumna are Drupada’s real children. They are merely assigned their destinies at this fateful ceremony. This line of thinking assumes no magic or divine intervention.)

Once he has possession of Draupadi and Dhrishtadyumna, though, Drupada begins to plot.

He has no direct options to speak of. He is not powerful enough to wage war against Kuru. He is not high enough in status to offer Draupadi to the Kuru house as bride.

But – he notices that there is internal tension brewing between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The Pandavas are the underdogs in this fight; Duryodhana has all the power because he is Dhritarashtra’s son. But Drupada also understands that Bhishma is partial toward the Pandavas.

So if he plays his cards just right and positions himself as a Pandava-ally – not a Kuru ally – he may be able to claw himself back into contention.

Draupadi as Prize

In order to achieve his goal, what must Drupada do?

  • He must bide his time until there is an inflection point in the Kaurava-Pandava quarrel. This occurs when the Pandavas escape from the house of wax and live in Varanavata as Brahmins.
  • Then he must design a competition such that only Yudhishthir can win it. And he must offer Draupadi as prize.
  • But since Yudhishthir has no unique skills of his own, it makes more sense to design a competition with Arjuna in mind, and then hope that Draupadi will be married to Yudhishthir after she is won by Arjuna.
  • Once Draupadi is married to Yudhishthir, hope that Bhishma’s sense of fairness compels him to divide Hastinapur into two parts and give one of them to the Pandavas.

Drupada’s best shot at regaining at least some of his lost glory is by engineering a situation in which Draupadi gets married to Yudhishthir. This is a diplomatic masterstroke because by building an alliance with the Pandavas, Drupada is gaining a backdoor entry to all of Hastinapur’s riches.

Panchala’s Return to Power

As it turns out, Drupada’s ploy works perfectly – up to a point:

  • He succeeds in designing a test that is so hard that only Arjuna can crack it.
  • The only other person that is able to complete the task is Karna, but he instructs Draupadi beforehand to reject the Sutaputra if he tries his hand. And Draupadi does this.
  • Arjuna wins Draupadi for himself, but of course, according to the social norms of the day, she gets passed up the family hierarchy to the oldest brother. She becomes Yudhishthir’s wife. (She also becomes wife to the other brothers, but that is by the by.)
  • Bhishma does act on his conscience and builds a city called Indraprastha for Yudhishthir to rule.
  • With Yudhishthir’s rise to the status of emperor, at the Rajasuya, it is Drupada who is one of the prime guests of honour – equal in status if not more feted than the likes of Bhishma and Duryodhana.

At this stage of the story, therefore, Drupada has played it excellently. He has used Draupadi to regain all of his lost wealth. He is now father-in-law to Yudhishthir the emperor. Panchala’s future is secure – unless, of course, Yudhishthir does something foolish.

Uncertainty

Drupada could not have foreseen the dice game. One can only imagine how badly he might have received news of it. But for twelve years he did enjoy pole position as king of Panchala, during Yudhishthir’s reign. And in those twelve years he must have built Panchala back to its former glory.

During the Pandavas’ exile years, we can only speculate what the nature of the Kuru-Panchala relationship was. Most likely it will have gone back to what it was before Drona’s invasion: an uncomfortable stalemate with a battle here and there.

The next big decision that Drupada needs to take is whether or not to support the Pandavas once they are back from their exile. He can choose to stay out of it now that Panchala is back on its two feet. But he still wishes to take revenge on Drona for that old slight, and of course, the prospect of actually destroying Kuru and establishing Panchala rule all over the world is mouth-watering.

We all know what he decides at that particular juncture.

Small but Significant

All of what I have written in this post is just a long way of saying this: the invasion of Panchala by Drona is often described as a small event in the Mahabharata. Almost a side show.

But in reality, it is such a significant episode that it carries the whole weight of the story’s future on its shoulders. It leads to the birth of Draupadi and Dhrishtadyumna. It brings Panchala back into the fore. It foreshadows the death of Drona in the Mahabharata war.

More than anything else, it lays the foundation for the destruction of the Kuru race – which happens mostly by infighting but with some outside help.

And it also brings about – rather tragically – the annihilation of Panchala itself.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!