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 Shalya Vadha Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
Ashwatthama the Great
All the prominent Kuru warriors (those of them left alive) gather around Duryodhana now and give him their allegiance once again. ‘You speak wisely, O King,’ they tell him.
‘We must fight by all means, but before we do so, let us elect one of our atirathas as the commander of the army.’
This happens at dawn of the eighteenth morning, as everyone is preparing to ride out into the battlefield. Duryodhana addresses Ashwatthama and asks him for advice.
Here we are given a short description of the son of Drona, which is interesting if not wholly relevant to the forward thrust of the story.
- He resembles the Destroyer himself. He is possessed of beautiful limbs, a well-covered head, a neck adorned with three lines like those on a conch shell.
- He is of sweet speech, and his eyes resemble the petals of a lotus in full bloom. His face holds the dignity of Mount Meru, and it looks like that of Nandi, the guardian of Shiva.
- In speed and might he is equal unto Garuda. In splendour he is the sun. In intelligence and charm he is superior to the moon.
- His body appears to be made of a number of golden lotuses, with well-made joints, well-formed thighs, beautiful fingers, and a well-shaped waist.
- He looks as though Brahma had created him with great care, after collecting one by one all the beautiful and good attributes found in the three worlds.
- He is possessed of every known auspicious mark. He is clever in every act. He is an ocean of learning. He knows, in all its details, the science of weapons consisting of the four padas and the ten angas.
- He also knows the four Vedas with all their branches, and the Akhyanas as the fifth.
- He has earned great ascetic merit by his very birth, having been begotten by a father and mother (Drona and Kripi) both of whom entered the world by divine means.
Shalya Becomes Leader
Approaching this illustrious Ashwatthama, Duryodhana asks, ‘You, our preceptor’s son, are our highest refuge today. Tell us, therefore, who is to become the supreme commander of our forces now, so that we might together vanquish the powerful Pandavas?’
And the son of Drona answers, ‘Let Shalya become the leader of our army. In prowess, energy, fame, beauty of person, and in every other accomplishment, he has no peer.
‘Mindful of the services rendered to him by us, he has chosen to fight on our side even against the sons of his own sister. Like Kartikeya assuming generalship of the forces of Indra, may Shalya lead us into battle and toward victory.’
Duryodhana then makes a formal offer to Shalya to assume leadership of the entire Kaurava army, and the latter agrees.
The Eighteenth Morning
‘Today, O King,’ says Shalya, ‘I will either slay the Pandavas or I shall myself be slain.
‘Today, may all the sons of Pandu, and Vasudeva, and Satyaki, and the sons of Draupadi, and Dhristadyumna and Shikhandi, and all the Prabhadrakas behold my powers with the bow and arrow.
‘May they witness the lightness of my hand, the energy of my weapons, and the strength of my arms. Surpassing Bhishma, Drona and Karna, O lord, I will do what is agreeable to you.’
When news of the investiture travels across the battlefield to the Pandava camp, Yudhishthir asks Krishna for advice on what must be done. The latter replies, ‘I know the prowess of Artayani, O Bharata.
‘He is an accomplished warrior, conversant with all modes of fighting and their many variations. In battle he is superior to Shikhandin, Bhimasena, Satyaki and Dhrishtadyumna.
‘On his day he might even match the skill and tenacity of Arjuna. But do not fear, O Pandava. Upon his slaughter will the destruction of the Dhartarashtra army be caused.
‘Like Vasava slaying the Asura Namuchi, our beloved Partha will slay that king of the Madras and bring the war to a close.’
Shalya is at the head of the array that is formed on the eighteenth morning, accompanied by the brave Madrakas and the invincible sons of Karna. On the left is Kritavarma, at the head of the Trigartas.
On the right is Kripacharya with the Sakas and the Yavanas. Ashwatthama takes charge of the rear, surrounded by a mighty Kamboja force. Right in the middle of this formation, as usual, is Duryodhana.
The relative strengths of the two armies, as of this morning, are as follows. The Kaurava force has 11,000 chariots, 10,700 elephants, 200,000 horses, and three million footmen.
On the side of the Pandavas, there are 6,000 chariots, 6,000 elephants, 10,000 horses and one million footmen.
During this time, many diverse portents come into view. The earth itself trembles, making a loud noise. Meteors, with keen points bright as those of lances equipped with handles, fall upon the earth from the firmament.
Deer and buffaloes and birds arrive and fill the air with their cries. The planets Venus and Mars, in conjunction with Mercury, appear at the rear of the Pandavas, in full sight of the Kaurava army.
Shalya takes on Yudhishthir, Bhimasena, the Upapandavas, Dhrishtadyumna, the sons of Madri, Satyaki, Shikhandin and the Prabhadrakas all at once.
The Somakas and Panchalas are seen falling in their thousands at the relentless shower of shafts that the Madra king releases into the air.
While the soldiers run away to take refuge by Yudhishthir’s side, Shalya roars like a bolt of thunder, and approaches the eldest Pandava with murder on his mind.
Bhima Fights Shalya
Bhima comes to support Yudhishthir, and challenges Shalya to a mace fight.
Bhima uses his mace to good effect, killing the Madra king’s all four horses. Suddenly rendered immobile, Shalya picks up a lance and throws it at his opponent.
It finds its mark, even slices through Bhima’s torso, but the latter pulls it out and uses it as a weapon on Shalya’s charioteer. With the driver and the steeds killed, Shalya picks up a mace and descends to the ground, intending to challenge the son of Vayu to single combat.
The soldiers of both armies are excited to see these two ace mace fighters go at each other. No one is able to predict who will win.
Cheers for both warriors are heard all around them, and as the two bulls roar at each other and move in sinuous circles, the tension in the air becomes so thick as to suffocate the breaths of onlookers.
An Even Battle
The mace of Shalya is wrapped around the head with a shining cloth of gold, and when he waves it, it looks like a sheet of fire. Bhima’s weapon, on the other hand, is silver-hued, so it appears like a streak of lightning.
Each time these clubs strike one another, they produce sparks and sounds that resemble the rays of the sun and rain-filled clouds respectively.
After a long and even battle, both Bhima and Shalya fall to the ground at the same time, and Kripa takes advantage of the moment to swoop in and rescue the Madra king in his chariot.
With the duel ending with no true winner in this fashion, a number of small fights once again erupt all over the field.
After this, Shalya gets locked in a battle with the whole of the Pandava army. Nakula and Sahadeva, Bhimasena and Satyaki, Yudhishthir and Shikhandi – no matter who he faces, the king of the Madras overcomes with his dense showers of arrows.
Thus afflicted, the common Pandava soldiers run away in fright, wailing for their heroes to come protect them.
Seeing that his army is being routed by the skill of one man, Yudhishthir seethes in rage. Summoning all his brothers, in the presence of Krishna he takes a vow.
‘Bhishma, Drona and Karna,’ he says, ‘have put forth their powers for the sake of Duryodhana, and you have all fought to make sure that all of them were defeated. Only my share of the spoils – the impetuous Shalya – is still alive.
‘I wish today to defeat and kill the Madraka emperor, so that our victory in this war will be assured.’
He then goes on to assign roles to his colleagues. ‘Nakula and Sahadeva, the sons of Madri,’ he says, ‘will be the protectors of my front wheels. The grandson of Sini will protect my right rear wheel, and Dhrishtadyumna my left.
‘Let the son of Pritha, Dhananjaya, guard my rear as I embark upon this quest today. And let Bhimasena fight in front of my chariot, clearing the path of my vehicle.’
The normally mild and soft-spoken Yudhishthir displays his fierce form now in his challenge with Shalya, sporting like a mighty wind eager to disperse all clouds from the sky.
Seeing him in this avatar, the Kaurava forces surrounding the Madra king are struck by fear, and they become fodder to the arrows of Arjuna, sped at them expertly from the rear of Yudhishthir’s chariot.
Dhrishtadyumna, Shikhandi, the Upapandavas and the grandson of Sini all come together to mount a combined assault on Shalya now, giving Yudhishthir an opportunity to attack.
While the king of Madra is otherwise engaged with these men, Yudhishthir, standing atop his stationary chariot devoid of horses and driver, takes up a dart whose handle is adorned with gold and gemstones.
Created by Tvashtri for the use of Isana, this dart resembles Kalaratri (death of the night), and it is a consumer of life force of all its foes. King Yudhishthir hurls it in Shalya’s direction with the words:
‘You are slain, O Madraka!’ But to everyone’s astonishment, the Kaurava hero catches the flying dart with his bare hands, and for a moment appears to have controlled it.
However, the dart has enough momentum behind it to pierce the unarmoured heart of Shalya. It passes through his body like a bolt of flame cuts through a slab of butter.
With blood spilling from his nostrils, eyes, ears and mouth, Shalya looks at that instant like the Krauncha mountain pierced by the weapon of Skanda.
He staggers this way and that for a few seconds, and then a great fatigue envelops him, and he falls to the ground.
Anger of the Madrakas
The Madrakas are consumed by rage and begin running toward Yudhishthir wildly. Duryodhana tries to stop them so that they might be arranged in an array and assigned to a leader, but the soldiers are already beyond reason.
Seventeen thousand of them rush toward Yudhishthir in a bid to avenge their king’s death.
Understandably, the heroes on the Pandava side encounter no difficulty in slaughtering this reckless force.
Yudhishthir, Satyaki, Bhimasena, the sons of Madri, Dhrishtadyumna and Shikhandi together annihilate the entire army of seventeen thousand as Duryodhana and the others look on, aghast.
Witnessing the Madra division thus being obliterated by the Pandavas, the army of Duryodhana turns around and flees, even as the main leaders consult one another on what to do in order to defend themselves against the Pandava wave.
With this ends the Shalya Vadha Parva