The Mahabharata is a collection of hundred Parvas (or ‘sections’) that tell the story of a long-standing family feud between two sets of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – for control of the Kuru throne in Hastinapur.
The climactic event of the story is an eighteen-day war that happens between the two factions on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
It is commonly understood that the Pandavas are the protagonists of this tale and the Kauravas the antagonists – though many retellings have appeared over the years that flip this structure.
In this post, we will summarize the Rathatiratha Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
Rathas and Atirathas – 1
There appear to be two classes of warriors according to the Mahabharata: rathas and atirathas. The word maharatha is also used every now and then, but the same person classified as a maharatha is later referred to as an atiratha.
It appears that the two words are used synonymously as far as the Mahabharata is concerned.
On the night before the first day of battle, Duryodhana says to Bhishma: ‘I do have a desire of knowing who among our warriors can be counted as rathas and who as atirathas. Please tell me this.’
‘There are many thousands of rathas in your army, O Prince,’ says Bhishma, ‘but I will tell you of the principal ones. The hundred Kauravas, you and Duhsasana included, are the foremost of the rathas. All of you are skilled in striking, cutting and piercing.
‘All of you are accomplished drivers of chariots, and you can manage elephants while seated on their necks. You can handle maces, darts, swords and bucklers. You are accomplished in use of weapons, and you can bear easily the burdens of leadership.’
Beginning with Self
Bhishma continues: ‘I must begin, I suppose, with myself. It would not be right to classify myself, but you know me. You can place me in either group as per your wish. The chief of the Bhojas, Kritavarma, is an atiratha.
‘So is Shalya, the ruler of the Madra kingdom. He is strong enough to face any of the maharathas of the Pandava army. Bhurishrava, the son of Somadatta, is also an atiratha.’
‘Jayadratha, the king of the Saindhavas, in my view, is equal unto two rathas. Sudakshina, the ruler of the Kambojas, is also a ratha. So is King Nila of Mahishmati, whom Sahadeva encountered all those years ago.
‘Vinda and Anuvinda of Avanti are also rathas, who will fight for your sake like a couple of elephants. The five brothers of Trigarta are also rathas, among whom Satyartha is perhaps the strongest.’
Rathas and Atirathas – 2
Bhishma continues his classification of the Kaurava warriors.
‘Your son Lakshmana,’ continues Bhishma in his dialogue with Duryodhana, ‘and the son of Duhsasana are both two of our best rathas. King Dandadhara and King Vrihadvala, the latter of who rules over the Kosala kingdom, are both rathas.
‘Your maternal uncle Shakuni, the prince of Gandhara, is equal unto a single ratha, and there is no doubt that having been the prime cause of these hostilities, he will now fight to the fullest extent of his powers.
‘The mighty bowman Ashwatthama, the son of Drona, is acquainted with all modes of warfare, and he displays remarkable calm when faced with weapons. He is capable of being a maharatha.
‘Like Arjuna, he is able to shoot arrows from his bow with such speed that the shafts look as though they are proceeding in a single line, touching one another. He has the added advantage of being favoured by the knowledge of his father.
‘If he has one defect in him, O Prince, he is exceedingly fond of his life, and sometimes, even the most skilful of warriors loses to one who is more courageous.’
Rathas and Atirathas – 3
‘Drona, the son of Bharadwaja, the preceptor of all the Kuru princes, is also a maharatha. We must be wary of him because he loves Arjuna more than anything else in the world, and he might not find it within him to slay Partha if the opportunity arises.
‘But otherwise, he is the best of all our warriors.
‘Vrishasena, the son of Karna, is a maharatha as well. Jalasandha, the foremost king of the Madhu race, is a ratha.
‘Bahlika, Satyavan and Alambusha are all maharathas, capable of routing the entire Pandava army on their own, and capable of holding steadfastly against the warriors that the enemy has assembled.
‘The brave Bhagadatta, the ruler of Pragjyotisha, is a maharatha as well. I have heard stories of his long battle with Arjuna that was broken only when the king offered to the wielder of Gandiva his hand of friendship.
‘There is no doubt that he will fight with all his might, in the manner of the wind-god himself.’
Not surprisingly, Bhishma has some unkind words in store when it comes to the classification of Karna. ‘This vile braggart that you call a friend, the son of Surya, is neither a ratha nor an atiratha. Without sense, he gave away his natural coat of mail and earrings.
‘He has been cursed to be ineffective in battle by Parashurama. He is known to boast on the eve of every battle, and yet we have seen him retreat like a coward every single time. In my view, Karna, therefore, is only equal to half a ratha.’
This understandably brings forth a reaction from the son of Radha, who says, ‘O Grandsire, though I am innocent of committing any wrongdoings toward you, you continue to goad me with taunts such as these.
‘I bear them with dignity only for the sake of Duryodhana, who still believes in your magnanimity.
‘But in truth, sir, you are the biggest enemy of the Kurus. Right from the beginning, it is your actions that have sown the first seeds of dissatisfaction between Dhritarashtra and Pandu. It is your stupid steadfastness to an oath that has placed the Kuru kingdom at peril.
‘Alas, if you had been more decisive and stern, we might not be standing here, armoured, summoned by battle sirens. And now, while all of us have turned out to do our best for Duryodhana, you once again seek to disunite us by insulting me thus.’
‘It is said that Kshatriyas achieve prominence by their might, just as Brahmins do so by the study of the Vedas, Vaishyas by earning wealth, and Sudras by acquiring wisdom afforded by experience.
‘You, on the other hand, with a mind consumed by lust and wrath, have classified the army according to your own whims.’
Karna now turns to Duryodhana. ‘My friend, my king,’ he says, ‘be wary of the so called power of Bhishma. He has himself admitted to loving the Pandavas. Where is the possibility, then, of victory?
‘If he cannot be relied upon to fight with Arjuna, Bhimasena and the sons of Madri, of what use is his role as the commander of your forces? The leader of your army ought to be ruthless, O Duryodhana.
‘He must wish to scythe through the warriors that are arrayed on the other side, not hope for peace in the middle of a blood-soaked battlefield.
‘I can defeat the entire Pandava army on my own, Prince, but if I do that, the credit for our success will go to Bhishma, because you have appointed him the commander. So I desist from fighting in this war until Bhishma has fallen.
‘May the world witness my many deeds of valour only after this lowly man has been killed. On the other hand, if he is not defeated at all, victory will be yours, my friend. So you have nothing to worry either way.’
Bhishma laughs off this message of bravado from Karna, and even goes to the extent of inviting the king of Anga to do battle with Arjuna. ‘I have fought Parashurama in my time, O Sutaputra,’ he says.
‘I won the princesses of Kasi for my brother when all the other kings of Aryavarta were lined up against me. I can spot a hero when I see one, but equally I can tell when someone is all voice and no action.
‘I would like to see you fight Partha. You will not be able to escape from that duel alive, I assure you.’
But Karna does not rise to the bait. Taking his leave from the assembly, he tells Duryodhana again that he and Bhishma cannot ever fight on the same side.
After his departure, a crestfallen Duryodhana attempts to pick up the pieces, and asks Bhishma about the classification of rathasand atirathason the Pandava side.
Bhishma replies in the following manner.
Rathas and Atirathas – 4
‘Yudhishthir is a ratha,’ Bhishma says, ‘and he is perhaps the strongest of all the Kuru princes on horseback, with javelin in hand. He will glide along the field of battle like a blazing fire.
‘Bhimasena is equal unto eight rathas. With the mace he has no peer. Even with bow and arrow, there are very few that can match him.
‘He also has the strength of ten thousand elephants in his arms, which means he can fight from atop a chariot and on foot with equal effectiveness.
‘He is therefore the most versatile of all warriors – adept at using ranged weapons and those of close combat. Even with no weapon, he is mighty enough to strike fear into his opponents.
‘The sons of Madri are both rathas too. They are remarkably handsome, and their charm makes them natural leaders of vast hordes of men.
‘They will distinguish themselves as leaders of their respective divisions, but you will be mistaken to underestimate their prowess, Duryodhana, for they can fight as well as your best men.’
‘As for Gudakesha, who wields the Gandiva and is charioteered by none other than Krishna, there is no one among the two armies who can be regarded as his equal. No, not even Karna!
‘Let alone men, that is none among Devas, Asuras, Nagas, Rakshasas and Yakshas who can stand up to Arjuna with the wide range of celestial weapons he wields, and the skill and acumen he possesses.
‘He has the image of Hanuman on his banner, and his horses are white as snow, fleet as the wind. His two quivers of arrows are inexhaustible, they tell me. He bears missiles that have been given him by Indra, Rudra, Kubera, Yama and Varuna.
‘Who can be regarded as equal to that man who slew in battle a thousand Danavas in the city of Hiranyapura? Drona and I will do our best to curtain the advances of this warrior, but he is more skilful, quicker, and younger than both of us.’
In effect, therefore, Bhishma places Arjuna in a class of his own, above the labels of ratha and atiratha.
Rathas and Atirathas – 5
Bhishma continues his assessment of the Pandavas.
‘The five sons of Draupadi,’ continues Bhishma, ‘are all atirathas. Virata’s son, Uttara, is a ratha, whereas Abhimanyu is among the foremost of the atirathas, only marginally behind Arjuna and Vasudeva in his craft.
‘He is blessed with a great lightness of hand that enables him to shoot arrows in quick succession. But he is also equipped with deep knowledge of warfare and its many forms.
‘He will be driven by memories of the numerous sufferings of his father, and you will find no mercy in his soul.
‘Satyaki of the Vrishni race is also an atiratha. Uttamaujas and Yudhamanyu are both rathas. These chiefs own many thousands of elephants and chariots and horses.
‘They will fight without care for their own lives, out of desire to do right by the sons of Pandu. They will not back down from any challenge thrown to them by your warriors.
‘Virata and Drupada are both, in my view, atirathas. They are old now, but what they have lost in quickness of limb, they have made up with quickness of mind.
‘You will not be able to find two men smarter on a field of battle than these. The Pandavas will benefit immensely from the experience these two kings have garnered from having fought in countless battles.’
Rathas and Atirathas – 6
‘Shikhandi, the son of Drupada, is a ratha. Having relinquished the gender he was born with, he is intent to fight in this battle and earn great fame, O Duryodhana. And beware, for he is the man destined to defeat me.
‘All the Panchalas and the Prabhadrakas will align with the prince to further his cause.
‘And what of Dhrishtadyumna, the commander? In my opinion he is an atiratha. I have heard descriptions of him by witnesses that compare him to Rudra himself.
‘He will lead thousands and thousands of chariots into battle, and he will resemble Varuna who can control the flow of an ocean with a mere wave of the arm.
‘Ghatotkacha, who leads a band of Rakshasas that have come to fight for the enemy, is in my view an atiratha, not just for his power and valour but also for the skills of magic that he brings to the war.
‘He also has an insatiable lust for violence that cannot be matched by men, which also gives him an edge in the thick of battle.’
Condition with Shikhandi
After classifying the sons of Drupada and finishing the comparison between the two armies, Bhishma lets Duryodhana know that come what may, he will not be able to kill Shikhandi.
‘In accordance with the vow of Brahmacharya that I took during the marriage of my father Shantanu,’ says Bhishma, ‘I cannot hurt any person who is a woman or who was formerly a woman.’
Duryodhana is perplexed by this, because for all he knows, Shikhandi is a male warrior. ‘What is this about a woman, Grandsire?’ he asks.
‘The man you know as Shikhandi,’ replies Bhishma, ‘was once a woman. He was born as the daughter of Drupada, and she afterward changed herself into a man by means of ascetic practices. I shall therefore not fight him.’
Duryodhana wants to know the story, and Bhishma begins to narrate it.
At this juncture, the Rathatiratha Parva ends.