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 Samshaptaka Vadha Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
During the evening of Day 11, Drona offers his apology to Duryodhana for failing in his quest. ‘Arjuna is Yudhishthir’s talisman, O King,’ he says. ‘As long as the ambidextrous one guards his brother like he did today, we have no chance of succeeding in our mission.
‘I implore you again, therefore, to assign a portion of your army just to engage with Arjuna. Ask these brave warriors of yours to draw Falguna away to a remote part of the battlefield so that he will not be around when we mount our attack on Yudhishthir.’
Susharma, the ruler of the Trigarta army that has repeatedly clashed with and lost against Arjuna in the past, comes forward now and bows to Drona. ‘We are always humiliated by the wielder of the Gandiva, O Preceptor,’ he says.
‘Not only is he equipped with skill, but he possesses a diverse array of celestial weapons that we simply cannot match, even with our large numbers.
‘In spite of that, I shall challenge him tomorrow and lead him away to the southern edge of Kurukshetra. For the victory of King Duryodhana I am willing to take up this burden.’
Along with Susharma, the other five Trigarta brothers (Satyaratha, Satyavarma, Satyavrata, Satyeshu and Satyakarma) also take the vow that they will fight Arjuna to the death.
They take part in the requisite rites and declare that if Arjuna is not killed by the end of the day, or if they turn back in fear and flee under the onslaught of the Pandava’s weapons, they will be cast off to hell.
Hearing about this announcement from his spies, Arjuna readies himself in the Pandava camp. ‘I cannot turn down a challenge such as this, Brother,’ he tells Yudhishthir.
‘On my own I will destroy the Samshaptakas (meaning ‘soldiers who have vowed to conquer or die’), and lighten Duryodhana’s army. Certainly it is a good thing, is it not, if I respond to this challenge?’
Yudhishthir is worried because he knows the reason behind this battle. ‘Drona is only sending the Samshaptakas to you so that he can get to me, Arjuna,’ he says. ‘Knowing this, do what you think is proper.’
Arjuna then assigns Satyajit as the protector of Yudhishthir for that day. ‘As long as he lives, O King, the preceptor will be unable to reach you.
‘But if he gets defeated or killed, then you must waste no time in leaving the battlefield, no matter how many of our warriors surround you and promise to shield you.’
With this arrangement begins Day 12 of the Kurukshetra war.
Drona Cuts Loose
The first battle of the morning happens between Dhrishtadyumna and Durmukha, one of Duryodhana’s brothers.
The latter intercepts the prince of Panchala as he speeds toward Drona, since the Kauravas have already been warned that the one warrior the preceptor should be kept away from is Dhrishtadyumna.
While these two are locked in a fierce duel, Drona takes the opportunity to drive past them into the Pandava ranks, focused on his mission to capture and bring back Yudhishtir alive to the Kaurava camp.
Seeing him approach, Satyajit, another son of Drupada who has been assigned to protect Yudhishthir today, waylays the preceptor. He even manages to render Drona’s charioteer unconscious by means of five poison-laden arrows.
During this battle, Drona kills Satyajit.
Satanika, the brother of the Matsya king Virata, rushes toward that place in order to hold Drona back and rescue Yudhishthir.
He covers the preceptor with a large number of arrows, but Drona emerges from under it effortlessly, unscathed, and with an arrow whetted with stone, he kills Satanika as well.
Duryodhana versus Bhima
One of the main duels that develop during this morning is one between Duryodhana and Bhimasena. The cousins do not resort to a mace fight; they stay on their chariots and display their archery skills instead.
After a seesawing battle that injures both of them quite badly, Bhima gains the ascendancy by breaking Duryodhana’s bow and later his standard as well.
Karna comes to his friend’s aid, mounted on an elephant, but Bhima manages to gain a victory over him as well, causing both of them to flee.
Arriving to hold up the breaking Kaurava ranks here is Bhagadatta, perched upon his beloved elephant, Supratika. The animal pounds on Vrikodara’s chariot and breaks it to pieces.
The Pandava is not overly troubled, though; he leaps onto the ground and slides under the body of the elephant to slip away from its field of vision. (This manoeuvre is part of a science of duelling called the Anjalikabedha).
From under the animal’s belly, taking care not to be crushed by its massive feet, Bhimasena begins to strike the flab and muscles with his bare arms, causing Supratika to shriek and trumpet in pain.
Bhagadatta Fights with Valour
The elephant lifts Bhima by means of its trunk, and strikes him repeatedly against the ground. The son of Pandu is equal to the task, though, because he twists the trunk with his hands to set himself free, and once again gets under the body of the great creature.
Seeing him disappear under that mass of flesh, the Pandava division fighting alongside Bhima fear the worst for him. ‘We do not see Bhimasena anywhere,’ they murmur among themselves. ‘Has he been slain by that Pragjyotisha elephant?’
Yudhishthir hears of this news, and surrounds Bhagadatta from all sides with numerous chariots that belong to the Panchala regiment. The king of the Dasarna tribes, Hiranyavarma, now rushes against Bhagadatta on his own elephant.
This battle does not last long, though for a while it looks as though two winged mountains are crashing against one another. Supratika rips open the flank of the other elephant and kills it outright.
Winning this battle seems to kick Bhagadatta into a higher level of fury suddenly, because he summons his entire elephant division to descend upon the chariots led by Yudhishthir.
Satyaki, Bhimasena, Yuyutsu, Dhrishtaketu and the Upapandavas all come forward to check the Pragjyotisha king, but such is the latter’s form today that he is unstoppable.
Like the invincible Virochana in the days of old tearing into the army of the gods, Bhagadatta assumes the nature of a fierce wind and blows the Pandava army away.
Arjuna Fights Bhagadatta
Arjuna is away fighting the Samshaptakas while Bhagadatta is fighting the Pandava army. At Krishna’s urging, the chariot turns away from the Samshaptakas and toward Bhagadatta.
The encounter between Arjuna’s chariot and Bhagadatta’s elephant is fierce in the extreme. Once or twice Arjuna manages to get alongside the massive animal, and sees the opportunity to pierce its flank, and to bring down the rider with a well-aimed arrow or two.
But he chooses not to do so because it would be contrary to the spirit of a fair fight. When they face each other properly, Arjuna flexes himself to the full only to find that Bhagadatta on this day is akin to an unstoppable force.
He pierces Krishna with many arrows made wholly of black iron, equipped with wings of gold. His bow seems to be perpetually bent in a circle, its string always stretched back to the ear.
Even when Partha breaks his bow in two, the king of the Pragjyotishas does not falter, hurling instead a volley of fourteen sharp lances at the two Krishnas.
Arjuna, however, does not allow them to find their target. With well-aimed shafts, he shatters them into three harmless fragments each, after which he launches a scathing attack on the elephant Supratika.
Slaying the warrior that protects it from its flank, he finds for himself an opening to cut off the armour that was casing the beast, and after stripping it bare thus, pierces its side with numerous arrows.
This angers Bhagadatta enough to make him hurl at Vasudeva a mighty dart made of iron, but Arjuna, smiling now, cuts it off in two. He then sends ten arrows at the king of the far east, each of which finds its mark.
Thus teetering on the edge of defeat, Bhagadatta gives out a yell of rage and picks up a weapon called the Vaishnavastra.
In desperation, Bhagadatta uses the Vaishnava weapon on Arjuna, but as the missile closes in on its target, Krishna places himself in its path and receives it on his chest.
Upon impact, the weapon turns into a garland of fragrant flowers and settles around the neck of the Dwaraka prince.
The Anger of Arjuna
One would think this should make Arjuna grateful, but he instead flares up. ‘Why do you insist on breaking your oath, O Krishna?’ he says, clearly hurt that he was not trusted to deal with Bhagadatta himself.
‘If I sink in distress or if I have been felled to the earth by arrows of the foe or by self-inflicted moroseness, by all means help me. But I stand here with bow in hand, strong as ever.
‘Why do you not leave me, then, to fight the enemy on my own? Why do you give the world an opportunity to say that Arjuna is nothing without Krishna?’
This feels like a petty complaint, but Krishna receives it gracefully. ‘Listen, O Partha,’ he says, ‘to the history of the Vaishnavastra. I am known to possess four forms, eternally engaged as I am to oversee the world.’
‘In one form, I spend all my time in ascetic austerities as Narayana. The second form watches, and measures the good in the world against the bad.
‘The third is this one you see here, the form of a man who takes constant action. My fourth form lies in sleep for a thousand years at a time. In this last form, when I awaken, I give boons to deserving devotees.
‘The last time I woke up, the Earth goddess, Bhudevi, asked me for a boon to equip her son Naraka with invincibility. Hearing her prayer, I gave unto her the Vaishnavastra, to which even Indra and Rudra are vulnerable.
‘It is from Naraka that this king of the Pragjyotishas procured this weapon, and there is nothing in your arsenal, O Kaunteya, with which you could have fought it. If I had not broken my oath and taken it on my chest, you would have been killed.’
The Vaishnavastra thus neutralized, Arjuna now sets about once again dismantling Bhagadatta’s defences. He covers the king with clouds of whetted arrows designed to obfuscate, and simultaneously sends deadly shafts laden with poison at Supratika.
With each arrow piercing the tough hide like lightning bolts splitting a mountain, or like a snake penetrating an ant-hill, the beast buckles at the knees and collapses to the ground.
Bhagadatta urges it to climb back onto its feet, but paralysis has already claimed the poor animal’s limbs, and its trunk now falls limp against the dust as if it were a dead earthworm.
With a gentle groan, it eventually exhales its last breath, and the rest of the elephants in Bhagadatta’s army rend the air with terrible wails.
Arjuna now focuses his attention on the king, first breaking his armour with broad-headed arrows, and then using a crescent-shaped one to pierce the bare bosom, making straight for the heart.
As he follows the flight of this deadly missile, Arjuna adjusts his diadem.
The arrow finds its mark, and as Bhagadatta’s turban flops to the ground, he falls down from his seat on top of his dead elephant like a lotus petal leaving its stalk.
Bhima versus Drona
Meanwhile, Drona is still in hot pursuit of Yudhishthir. He is now waylaid by Bhima.
Watching his brother being assailed from all directions, Yudhishthir despatches many warriors to his aid. Nakula and Sahadeva, along with Satyaki at the head of a large division of car warriors, ride up to Bhimasena’s side.
They begin fighting with all the warriors arrayed with Drona. The preceptor, though, receives all of this with frightening calm, betraying no anxiety whatsoever, casting off fears of death, and shooting arrows in all directions in the manner of an automaton.
Great numbers of animals fall down into the dust, and their blood intermingles. A large number of kings, pierced through and through with arrows, lie down on the earth to ‘sleep’, their life sucked out of them by sheer exhaustion.
Darts crash into darts in mid-air; axes get raised against other axes, and swords clash in their thousands.
Here lies the severed arm of a hero, still grasping the sword. There another’s has been chopped off with fingers wound tight around a bow. Here one cries out loudly to another, perhaps a son, a nephew or friend.
Here lies the trunk of a spearman, headless, with armour intact, his weapon lying next to him, his legs still twitching with some last remnant of life.
As Drona thus closes in on Yudhishthir, Arjuna makes a dramatic reappearance.
As if he is the very sun that rises at the end of the yuga, Arjuna spreads over the battlefield of Kurukshetra even though he fights from just one chariot. He rides in from the southern side, having defeated (for now) the Samshaptakas.
He descends upon Drona and the other chariot warriors like a thunderstorm, raining layers of arrows upon them.
The ape on his banner seems to be drawn in blazing golden lines, and each time the flag flutters, it sends shards of light into the enemy’s eyes.
Even as he beholds horses and elephants falling all around him, Arjuna keeps in mind the guidelines of fair fight, and refrains from striking those that have fallen down or those that are retreating.
He shoots only at those who stand up to him and display the willingness to face him. With this battle in which the Pandavas secure victory, the twelfth day’s battle ends.
Thus also ends the Samshaptaka Vadha Parva.