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 40: The Kurukshetra War Begins. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
Bhishma Kills Uttara
The first nine days of the battle under the leadership of Bhishma is attritional: not many decisive blows are traded between the two sides. In this episode, we will look at the main events of this phase.
On the very first day, Bhishma finds himself in a battle with Uttara (also called Bhuminjaya), the son of Virata who had helped Arjuna rescue Matsya from Kuru invaders a short while ago.
(These events are described in more detail in our Episode 68: Brihannala Defends Matsya.)
Needless to say, this is not much of a match for Bhishma, who ruthlessly beheads the young prince without much fuss. Then, a brother of Uttara’s called Sweta also arrives to battle Bhishma. And he also loses his life.
The first day ends, therefore, with Virata losing two of his sons and with the Pandavas sustaining heavy losses.
Drona Defeats Dhrishtadyumna
The main battle of Day 2 is between Drona and Dhrishtadyumna, the arch-enemies. But despite the prophecy aiding him, the son of Drupada does not distinguish himself in this fight.
Without exerting himself much, Drona manages to shatter Dhrishtadyumna’s chariot, forcing the prince to fight on foot. Dhrishtadyumna tries a mace, then a lance, and then a bow and arrow. But Drona smilingly shoots all of them down with his arrows.
To defend himself now, Dhrishtadyumna finds a fallen shield to bear the brunt of the preceptor’s onslaught. Drona, for his part, continues to shoot at his opponent, certain now that he would kill the Pandava commander in no time.
Just as the prince’s situation becomes dire, Bhimasena appears on the scene and engages Drona. This gives Dhrishtadyumna enough time to flee. Meanwhile, Duryodhana sends Srutayush, the king of the Kalingas, along with his division to fight Bhima.
Bhima Routs the Kalingas
After a short fight with a bow and arrow in which he is outclassed by Ketumata and his son Sakradeva, Bhima picks up a more comfortable weapon – a sword, not a mace – and begins to fight on foot. He kills Sakradeva first, and then Ketumata along with the elephant on which the king sits.
After killing the ruler of the Kalingas, Bhima sets about leaving an elephant graveyard in his wake, as he uses his sword to slice through the massive bodies of these beasts, cutting open their trunks, piercing their sides, sometimes climbing on top of them and driving the blade of his sword into their heads.He now fights chariot archers on foot too, first breaking their arrows in mid-flight by means of his sword and then advancing on them from the side to drag them out of their vehicles.
Now Bhima turns his fury onto the confused soldiers. Seven hundred horses he kills by means of his arrows, and two thousand Kalinga men meet their deaths at his hands.
The Kalingas are thus swatted away with great efficiency by Bhima. At the end of this battle, Satyaki embraces Bhima and says:
‘You alone have fought with the army of the Kalingas, O Bhima, and have routed them completely. What we thought was a massive force of elephants and chariots is now nothing but rubble. All thanks to you!’
On the morning of Day 5, Bhima chases after a few Kauravas and finds himself surrounded by a number of enemy forces. Despite being alone and without a chariot deep inside the Kaurava ranks, he does not allow fear to enter his heart.
He disappears within the sea of Kaurava soldiers, and when Dhrishtadyumna chances upon the empty chariot of Bhima, he fears the worst. ‘Alas,’ he says to Visoka, Bhima’s charioteer, ‘has the beloved son of Pritha left for the abode of Yama?’
Visoka tells him the truth, that Bhima had instructed him to wait and had waded into the enemy’s army by himself, and hearing that, Dhrishtadyumna’s heart is lightened a touch. But he resolves to go after his brother-in-law.
‘‘Whatever I have today is the Pandavas’ blessing,’ he tells Visoka. ‘If I now forsake Bhimasena and return empty-handed, what will the Kshatriyas say? What will my own conscience say? Wait for me here, O Visoka, and watch as I shatter this formation and go to the aid of that tiger among men.’
Following the trail of fallen elephants and soldiers, he catches up with Bhima. At this moment, sixteen chariots of great Kaurava warriors have surrounded the Pandava, and are raining arrows on him.
He is doing his best to defend himself with the mace, but Dhrishtadyumna notices that a few arrows are sneaking through every few seconds, and are wearing down the son of Kunti little by little.
Dhrishtadyumna then uses the weapon called the Pramohana, which affects the mental balance of one’s enemy. By casting it, he sends the Kaurava army into a state of chaos. Though Drona neutralizes it with a counter called the Pragnya Astra, the melee buys the two heroes enough time to flee together.
Iravan is the son of Arjuna by a Naga princess called Ulupi. He meets her during the course of his twelve-year exile during which he also takes two other wives: Chitrangada and Subhadra.
(Arjuna’s exile is described in more detail in Episode 14: Exile of Arjuna.)
On Day 8 of the Mahabharata war, Iravan brings his large cavalry force to bear upon the Kaurava army, decimating thousands of horses. Six brothers of Shakuni now ride out to meet the son of Arjuna.
Their names are Gaya, Gavaksha, Vrishava, Charmavata, Arjava, and Suka. They hold back the advance of Iravan’s army, and force him to emerge so that they could challenge him. They surround him on all sides and engage him in a battle.
Despite being outnumbered, Iravan manages to kill five of the Gandhara princes with Vrishava fleeing the field. Duryodhana sees this and sends Alambusha the Rakshasa to deal with Iravan.
In the ensuing battle where both warriors fight on foot, Iravan cuts off the limbs of Alambusha repeatedly, but each time he is reborn in the form of a youthful and unwounded man.
Iravan now summons his army of Nagas to support him. With all of them surrounding Alambusha, it looks like Iravan has assumed the form of Anantasesha himself, but the Rakshasa proves more than equal to the task, using a mantra that invokes the powers of Garuda to devour them all.
Watching his minions disappear into the illusory construct erected by Alambusha, Iravan is momentarily confounded. The Rakshasa pounces on this opportunity, and with two decisive swipes of the sword, beheads the Naga prince.
During the evening of Day 8, Bhimasena and Ghatotkacha team up to push the Kauravas back to the edge of the battlefield, with Duryodhana helplessly looking on.
When he comes to Bhishma for help, the grandsire appoints Bhagadatta to lead the counter-attack.
Bhagadatta is a king of whom we don’t read much during the rest of the Mahabharata. All we know is that he is the leader of the Pragjyotishas (a far-eastern city), and that he fights atop an elephant called Supratika.
(He is also considered an atiratha by Bhishma. To see more of Bhishma’s opinions, see Episode 37: Rathas and Atirathas.)
Bhagadatta obeys the grandsire, and leading the Kaurava forces, he marches back onto the battlefield where Bhimasena and Ghatotkacha are celebrating their victory.
Seeing him, Abhimanyu and the Kekayas come together, and a terrible fight erupts between the two sides, with the king of Vanga on top of Supratika appearing as if he is on the swiftest chariot in the world. His elephant army resembles a moving mountain that is impossible to stop.
Fighting with great courage and skill, Bhagadatta injures Bhimasena, then pushes back Abhimanyu and Ghatotkacha. Supratika – even though targeted with arrows and lances – assumes the form of Samvartaka, the fire of destruction.
Defeating everyone in his way, Bhagadatta thus manages to push the Pandavas back to the middle of the battlefield. He single-handedly ensures that the spoils are even on Day 8.
On Day 9, Bhishma – in response to Duryodhana’s needling – decides to put battle ethics to one side and target the army of the Pandavas instead of their warriors. His plan is to deprive the Pandavas of an army so that the battle will end.
Krishna, however, gets wind of this and becomes furious. He points his whip at the rampaging Bhishma and says to Arjuna, ‘The time has come, Partha. I have heard you say numerous times that you intend to defeat the grandsire on your own.
‘O Kaunteya, if you ever meant those words to come true, then this is the moment. See how the son of Ganga fights, having cast off all reservations, intent on destroying your entire army. If this goes on for even one more day, O Falguna, your king Yudhishthir will have no one to fight for him.’
But Arjuna finds that his ambivalence has returned. In the battle that follows, Krishna gets the feeling that Arjuna is not rising to the best of his ability. With a roar of anger – much of it directed at his friend – he leaps off the chariot, whip in hand.
He rushes toward Bhishma’s vehicle. At this sight the entire army of the Kauravas gasps as one, and they say among themselves, ‘Bhishma is as good as slain!’
Bhishma, for his part, raises his bow in respect and invites Krishna to attack him. ‘Take my life right this moment, O Madhava,’ he says. ‘Strike me as you please, for I am no more than your slave.’
Arjuna, though, runs after Krishna and drags him back to the chariot by his feet. ‘Do not give way to anger, O Krishna!’ he says. ‘Do not let it be said that the prince of Dwaraka has forsworn his oath. And to what purpose? Because his friend Arjuna could not live up to his duty? No, let me promise you that I will defeat Bhishma in this battle.’
At the end of Day 9, in the Pandava camp, the Vrishnis, the Srinjayas and the Pandavas sit down to deliberate upon the thorny matter of Bhishma.
After a long discussion, Yudhishthir wonders if he should ask Bhishma himself about they should kill him. ‘Bhishma had always told me that he will counsel me on what to do, O Madhusudana, and he had always admitted that he would never be able to fight for me.
‘However, perhaps on this day too, if I ask, he will give me advice on how to slay him.’ The irony of the situation is not lost on him. ‘We were orphans, Krishna,’ he says, ‘and were reared on his lap with love. And today, here we stand, plotting his demise. Is this the duty of a Kshatriya? If so, fie upon that word!’
Krishna likes this idea, and urges Yudhishthir to visit Bhishma. ‘That son of the ocean-bound will certainly receive you with due honour, O King,’ he says, ‘and if you ask him specifically any question pertaining to battle, he will answer truthfully. Let it be thus, then.’
So all five Pandavas accompanied by Krishna visit Bhishma’s tent that very evening. We will see more of how Bhishma is killed in the next episode.
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