Mahabharata Episode 49: Karna Kills Ghatotkacha

Karna Kills Ghatotkacha - Featured Image - Picture of a winged lion

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 48: Bhima Roars. 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:

Seven Akshauhinis

Duryodhana is distraught at the end of the day, watching over the carnage left behind on the battlefield by Arjuna. Seven akshauhinis, he thinks. Seven akshauhinis were slain today at the hands of those three men – Falguna, Satyaki and Bhimasena.

And none of the atirathas that fight for me could stop him from killing the Sindhu king. Alas, is this what I have been blessed with? After all these years as emperor, am I destined to taste defeat at the hands of the Pandavas?

He seeks out Dronacharya and says in a broken voice: ‘I came into battle, Acharya, placing that invincible warrior Bhishma at the head of my army. But Shikhandi defeated our grandsire.

‘Now, another disciple of yours has performed the impossible: he penetrated your formation all the way to the rear, and all by himself. And he exited it safely too, after having killed the man he was seeking.’

Drona repeats his earlier refrain that the Pandavas are too strong to defeat. But his pride is broken too. Almost in anger, he declares that the battle should continue into the night.

‘May the battle proceed into the night today,’ he says. ‘Even the Pandavas and the Somakas are angry enough to fight. Let us blow the conch summoning them to battle. If you wish to challenge them, I will be right by your side, and so will all your many maharathas.’

Entry of the Rakshasas

Ashwatthama challenges Satyaki to a duel, driven by great anger at the circumstances surrounding the death of Bhurishravas. Just as they are about to shoot the first arrow, though, a large vehicle rolls into the battlefield, measuring thirty nalwas (one nalwa, we are told, is four hundred cubits, and one cubit is forty five centimeters) in length.

It is fitted with strange dark contraptions that move on their own as if by magic. Its rattle resembles the rumble of a mass of heavy clouds, and pulling it are not horses or elephants but some strange beasts that look out of this world.

On the standard perched on top of this vehicle is the image of a vulture, with wings and feet outstretched, eyes pushed open wide, face frozen in the midst of an almighty shriek.

Such is the animation on the beast’s visage that everyone around the vehicle can actually hear the squalls emanating from its hideous mouth.

Standing on this hellish chariot with bow in one hand and mace in the other is Ghatotkacha, the son of Bhimasena, at the head of a full akshauhini of Rakshasa soldiers.

They have lances and clubs in their hands; some of them have turned up with uprooted trees mounted on their shoulders.

As Ghatotkacha advances toward Ashwatthama, the Kaurava forces scatter in all directions in pure fear, because all of them know that Rakshasa powers are strengthened after dark, and that their own Alambusha is no longer alive to hold back the son of Hidimba.

Ashwatthama Shines

In the battle against Ghatotkacha, Ashwatthama comes into his own and calmly dismantles all the illusory effects of the Rakshasa’s magic. He even kills Anjanaparva, the son of Ghatotkacha.

Watching his son fall to Ashwatthama thus, Ghatotkacha is beside himself with rage. He addresses the son of Kripi thus: ‘Wait, O Wretch! You shall not escape today with life. I shall kill you today like the son of Agni slaying Krauncha.’

Ashwatthama is amused at this bravado. ‘Go, son,’ he says, ‘and fight someone else. I do not cherish any grudge against you, but if you anger me further, I will be tempted to be ruthless.’

Ghatotkacha’s eyes become red as copper at these words. ‘Am I unfit to fight you, O Ashwatthama?’ he asks. ‘I am born of the loins of Bhimasena. I am the king of the Rakshasas, equal unto the ten-headed one of yore. Wait a second, arrogant one, and I shall show you your place.’

Ghatotkacha tries everything – elevating himself to the sky, enlarging his body with magic, creating one optical illusion after another – but fails to shake Ashwatthama. The son of Drona is unmovable this evening, fighting off the entire Rakshasa army on his own.

He then covers Ghatotkacha once again with a cloud of arrows, overwhelming the Rakshasa enough to make him lose consciousness, and as his chariot is driven off the field.

With thousands upon thousands of Rakshasas impelled to flee in the face of Ashwatthama’s wrath, all the Siddhas and Charanas and Nagas in attendance, along with the Apsaras, applaud the valour shown by the son of Drona on this fourteenth night.

Kurukshetra Lights Up

At this time, the night gets completely dark, and the warriors in the battle resort to fighting each other blind, relying on calling out the names of their friends and enemies. Needless to say, this is rather inefficient, and heroes on both sides end up killing a number of their own soldiers.

Noticing that the danger to their lives has doubled, footmen belonging to both armies retreat in fear, and they do not bother to take permission of their leaders to do so. Then, on the orders of King Duryodhana, the Kaurava heroes set aside their weapons and pick up lamps in their hands.

Many lamps filled with fragrant oils also light up the sky, and Sanjaya tells us that the celestial sages, the Gandharvas, the Vidyadharas, the Apsaras, the Nagas, the Yakshas, the Uragas and the Kinnaras also see it fit to obey Duryodhana’s command. They bring out lights of their own so brighten the battlefield.

On the ground, every chariot is equipped with five lamps, every elephant with three, and every horse with one. Many infantrymen (though not all; if everyone held lamps, who would fight?) exchange their weapons for fire torches too.

The way the Pandavas and the Kauravas align against one another reminds the celestials, says Sanjaya, of the age-old battle between gods and Asuras.

The rush of darts are like fierce winds; the chariots like heavy clouds; the neighs and grunts of elephants and steeds like thunder; arrows are showers; the blood of animals and men are the flood that results in the tempest that is the nocturnal encounter between the two armies.

Amidst all of this is Ashwatthama, the foremost of Brahmins, scorching everything in his path like the midday sun which, at the end of the season of rains, is eager to reassert its power.

Ghatotkacha’s Mission

There is a short spell during midnight when Karna and Drona team up to fight with great skill against the Pandavas. Yudhishthir asks Arjuna to ride out against Karna and engage him in a duel.

Arjuna is keen, but Krishna has a different suggestion.

‘Your battle with Karna will happen, O Arjuna,’ says Krishna, ‘but not today. I see that tiger among men course all over the battlefield like Indra amidst an assembly of celestials. Indeed, Yudhishthir is right.

‘Today Karna is excelling himself. Only two warriors on our side can match him when he is at his best. One of them is you, Partha, and the other is Ghatotkacha.

‘The time for you to encounter the Sutaputra in battle has not yet come. Remember that he still holds the Vasava dart, with which he hopes to kill you. In the terrible form that he assumes today, I have no doubt that he wishes you to face him so that he might use the weapon that Indra gave him.

‘Let Ghatotkacha ward him off today, therefore. The Rakshasa is ever-devoted to you, and he will do your every bidding. He is also well-versed with illusions and other forms of magic that are powerful at this time of the night.

‘Only a man with such command over the dark arts can face Karna today, O Arjuna. Let him therefore take up this mantle.’

They summon Ghatotkacha to their side, and send him out with instructions to neutralize the threat of Karna.

A Description of Ghatotkacha

Sanjaya now gives Dhritarashtra a description of Ghatotkacha, his chariot and his weapons.

‘Of blood-red eyes, O King,’ he says, ‘Ghatotkacha was of gigantic form. His face was the hue of copper, his belly low and sunken. The bristles of his body all stood on end, pointing outward like the quills of a porcupine.

‘His head was green. His ears were like arrows, and his cheekbones high. He had a large mouth, extending from ear to ear. His teeth were keen, with four of them high and pointed, protruding from under his lips.

‘His tongue was long, the colour of copper. His brows were thick, his nose was stout. His body was black, his neck red. Tall as a hill, Your Majesty, he was frightful indeed to behold. His hips were large and his navel deep.

‘Even though his frame was large, O King, the circumference of his body was not great. Possessed of great powers of illusion, he was decked in Angadas. On his head was a bright and beautiful golden diadem, looking like an arch.

‘His vehicle was decked with a hundred tinkling bells, and on his standard waved numerous blood-red banners. It measured the length of a nalwa, and it was covered with bear skins. The clatter of its eight wheels resembled the roar of the clouds.

‘His steeds were neither horses nor elephants, but looked like chimeras that had been birthed in the very depths of hell. Adorned with long manes and neighing repeatedly, those beasts – each the size of an elephant – carried that hero into battle.

‘He fought under a banner bearing the image of a carnivorous vulture with a blood-red body. The twang of his bow resembled the thunder of Indra, O King, and it measured a dozen cubits in length and one cubit in breadth.

‘And as he coursed through the battlefield toward the mighty Karna, all the soldiers of your army ran away in fright.’

Ghatotkacha Dies

The battle that takes place between Ghatotkacha and Karna is a fierce one. Ghatotkacha distinguishes himself by using a variety of illusions that scare the common soldiers of Duryodhana’s army.

Though Karna is unfazed by the Rakshasa’s magic, the morale of the forces around him is severely affected by it.

‘Fly, O Kauravas!’ the soldiers in Duryodhana’s army cry out. ‘The god of gods Indra himself is cutting us down from his place in the firmament. There is nothing we can do.’

Karna tries his best to arrest this chaos by engaging with Ghatotkacha, but the Rakshasa is able to manage his many illusions while staving off the attack of the king of Anga. The Kaurava soldiers implore Karna now to use his dart to kill Ghatotkacha.

‘The Dhartarashtras are at the point of being annihilated on this very night!’ they say. ‘Why do we need to speak of Arjuna and Krishna? In order to fight with Partha tomorrow, it is necessary to escape today’s battle alive. Therefore slay this terrible Rakshasa with that dart given to you by Indra. Save us, O Karna!’

Karna does give this a moment’s thought, but even he can see the wisdom behind the soldiers’ words. So he summons that dart which he has been saving for years in the hope of one day afflicting Arjuna, and when it appears in its hand, he murmurs a prayer for Shakra, the lord of the gods, and hurls it at Ghatotkacha.

As the missile flies toward the Rakshasa, the latter realizes that his time has come. Using every last remnant of his powers, he swells up in size until his head touches the sky, and his body becomes as large as the Vindhya Mountain.

When the dart strikes him and pierces through his heart (after which it blasts forth toward the heavens like a bolt of lightning), he falls down with a great thud on the fleeing Kaurava forces, crushing a whole akshauhiniof troops under his body.

Krishna’s Delight

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.

Arjuna is suitably perplexed at this behaviour. ‘O Madhava,’ he says, ‘you show great joy at a time scarcely fit for it. Indeed, this is an occasion of great sorrow for all of us, because Ghatotkacha is slain.

‘Our army is flying away in fear of Karna. In this moment of grief, you display elation. This lightness of heart appears to me a sign that is grave, O Krishna, like the drying up of the ocean.’

Krishna replies, ‘Great indeed is the joy I feel, O Dhananjaya. Now that Karna’s dart has been wrenched away from him he is as good as slain by you. By good luck his natural armour has been pried away from him.

‘By good luck has he been persuaded to use this great weapon on Ghatotkacha. If he had still had his kavacha kundalas, then even your Gandiva and my Sudarshana Chakra would have been ineffective against him.

‘For your good, Karna was deprived of his gifts, and now the gift of Indra has returned to heaven too. The son of Adiratha is no more an invincible warrior.’

Arjuna Calls for Rest

With this death of Ghatotkacha – and with Karna further weakened as a result – Arjuna calls for rest, and the two armies go to sleep right there on the battlefield.

‘All of you!’ he says. ‘You are worn out and half-blinded with sleep. You are enveloped in darkness and dust. Your limbs are tired. Your minds are scrambled.

‘So if it is agreeable to both the Kurus and the Pandavas, let us rest awhile right here, on the battlefield. Let us wait for the moon to appear, and then we shall resume battle on this hallowed land.’

At these words, the soldiers belonging to both sides drop their weapons. Even though the ground of Kurukshetra is hard and soaked in blood, the men are too tired to care. As they drift off into sleep, they bless Arjuna in their hearts.

And as the elephants and horses and human warriors drop on their sides, after having laid aside their weapons, a great stillness descends upon Kurukshetra, and the scene looks like a beautiful picture drawn by a skilled artist.

In our next episode, we will look into how Drona is killed on the fifteenth morning.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!