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 Gada Yuddha Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
When that fierce battle of that evening is about to commence, with all the Pandavas taking their seats to watch, Balarama arrives on the scene just in time to see his two disciples go toe to toe with each other.
He comes there on a chariot that bears the image of a Palmyra, carrying his weapon, the plough.
(One wonders if there has ever been a story in which Balarama has fought an enemy with his fabled plough and won. It might just be that one weapon in all of mythology to never have been used, for all the times it is mentioned.)
Seeing him, the Pandavas and Krishna welcome him with delight. Yudhishthir says, ‘Come, O King of Dwaraka, and witness the battle between your two disciples.’
Balarama looks at Krishna, then at the Pandavas. ‘I have been away for forty days now,’ he says. ‘I set out under the constellation of Pushya and have returned under Sravana.
‘In all this time I have spent many quiet moments on the banks of the Saraswati, in the company of wise men. I came back and heard of the untold destruction that has been unleashed onto the world from Kurukshetra.
‘And now I see that Bhima and Duryodhana have drawn their maces.’
A War of Words
Balarama returns just in time to see Duryodhana and Bhima face off against each other like two elephants swelling with might. Before they begin fighting in earnest, though, they throw at each other a few choice words.
Duryodhana is the one to begin. Addressing Yudhishthir, he says, ‘Protected by Srinjayas and Panchalas and the prince of Dwaraka, be seated, O King, and behold this terrible fight between me and your younger brother.’
He turns to Bhima and lets out a yell of eager joy. When he throws down the challenge, a collection of portents appear all around them; fierce winds begin to blow, a shower of dust falls from the sky, and all the points of the compass appear to be immersed in thick gloom.
Seeing these signs, Vrikodara assures Yudhishthir that their days of sustaining losses at the hands of Duryodhana are over. ‘This Suyodhana, Brother,’ he says, ‘is not strong enough with the mace to vanquish me.
‘I shall today bring out the anger that I have been cherishing deep within my heart all these years. Today I shall extract the dart of pain that has been sticking to your heart. Slaying this wretch with my mace, I will today place around your neck the garland of fame.
Bhima then turns to his arch enemy. ‘Recall to your evil mind all the machinations that you constructed in order to kill us at Varanavata. Remember how Draupadi was ill-treated when she was in her season, clad in just one piece of garment.
‘Remember the deprivation of King Yudhishthir brought about by the dice game. Look around you the bodies of great men, who have fought on your evil side just because they were bidden by duty.
‘The son of Ganga, the pot-born Drona, the Vaikartana Karna, and the great Shalya – they have all died. Now the time has come for you to pay the price.’
Duryodhana replies, with characteristic arrogance, ‘What is the need for all this bragging, Vrikodara? Step up to the arena and fight me. Let actions become our words. For a long time I have cherished this desire to defeat you in single combat.
‘Remember that Duryodhana is not to be scared by your mighty words. Until your mace defeats mine, remember that you are still my slave!’
The two leonine men thus approach one another with their uplifted weapons, and their fight begins.
The Fight Begins
Despite Bhimasena’s fearless posturing, once the battle begins, he struggles to break through the defences of Duryodhana. In fact, the Kuru king gives a much better account of himself than the Pandava.
The strokes of their maces produce loud sounds like those of thunderbolts, and the darkening welkin looks illuminated with firefly-like objects, which represent the various celestial beings who have dotted the firmament out of a desire to watch the two cousins fighting.
The two weapons resemble the bludgeon of Yama and the thunderbolt of Indra respectively.
Rushing forward with the intention of taking advantage of each other’s lapses, the two warriors lunge this way and that; they wave their weapons and engage in complex movements; they strike and retreat while watching everything around them with hawk-like eyes.
During the course of this fight, which resembles the battle of old between Vritra and Vasava, Duryodhana manages to relieve Bhima of his weapon, and then strikes the Pandava full on the head.
But even with his head swimming in blood, Bhima manages to stay restrained and calm, not panicking, and rolls on the ground to retrieve his club.
Duryodhana now adopts a manoeuvre called the Kausika, marking the descent of his opponent’s mace and whirling around at just the right time to land a heavy blow on Bhima’s chest.
This stupefies the son of Pandu, and while he is thus dazed, the son of Dhritarashtra smites him twice more, once on the back and once on the side.
This triple-attack sends Bhima rolling into the dust, and his breastplate is shattered into pieces. As he pulls himself back on to his feet, now unarmoured, a deep sigh travels across the audience.
And the Pandavas begin to wonder whether their brother is going to win this duel after all. There are stirrings of unrest even in the sky, with the celestials exchanging nervous glances.
Arjuna Asks Krishna
Watching his brother struggle against Duryodhana, Arjuna asks Krishna a question. ‘Between these two, O Keshava,’ he says, ‘who in your opinion is the better fighter?’
Krishna replies, ‘The instruction received by the two of them has been of equal depth. Bhima, however, is possessed of greater might. On the other hand, Duryodhana is possessed of greater skill, and he has laboured for longer to acquire and polish it.
‘In a fair fight, there is no chance that Bhimasena will defeat the son of Dhritarashtra.
‘If he is to win this battle, and if the Pandavas are to reclaim their throne, he has to fight unfairly. There is no shame in unfairness, Partha. The Asuras were vanquished by the gods during the churning of the ocean by trickery.
‘We have all heard that Virochana was killed by Shakra with the aid of deception. The slayer of Vala deprived Vritra of his energy by an act of dishonesty. Therefore, let Bhimasena put forth his powers, aided by subterfuge.
Arjuna hears these words in silence, and when he catches the passing glance of Bhimasena, strikes his thigh meaningfully with his hand.
Arjuna Strikes his Thigh
Bhima understands the sign made by his younger brother, and begins to career round and round with his uplifted mace, staying out of Duryodhana’s reach and adopting different manoeuvres like the Yamaka and the Gomutraka.
(Alas, we are not given descriptions on what these look like.)
He gives Duryodhana an opportunity, then, to strike him, by opening himself up and stretching out his mace in an inviting posture. With a glint in the eye, the son of Dhritarashtra leaps in closer, and takes a swipe at the bare upper body of Bhima.
Bhima accepts the blow full on his arm so that he can land a crushing blow with the full weight of his mace upon Duryodhana’s thighs.
Duryodhana is in the process of carrying out a manoeuvre called the Avasthana when he feels the force of Bhima’s club, and before he realizes what has happened, he hears the bones break under his skin, and his knees buckle as if they had been cut off.
As he falls to the ground and drops his weapon to the side, fierce and fiery winds blow in all directions, picking up dust motes and fallen leaves.
Large meteors are seen flashing down from the sky. The Yakshas, the Rakshasas and the Pisachas emit a series of mournful howls at the defeat of their hero, and at those terrible sounds, birds and animals of the earth scurry about in fear.
The horses and elephants that are yet alive on the battlefield of Kurukshetra utter loud cries.
There is a blare of conches, a peal of cymbals, a rattle of drums. A deep rumbling seems to emerge from deep within the earth, and shadows of headless beasts dance all around the standing Bhimasena.
Lakes and wells all over the world begin to vomit blood. Rivers of rapid currents flow in unnatural directions.
The Panchalas and Somakas erupt in joy at that moment, because they know that this signals victory for the sons of Pandu.
Krishna breathes a sigh of relief, even as the gods and Siddhas and Charanas and Gandharvas, who have been watching the battle, return to their respective abodes, still struck by wonder at just how the dictates of destiny were realized.
Bhima Announces Victory
After the immediate passions have subsided, Bhima comes to Yudhishthir and salutes him in the proper way, his heart brimming with joy. ‘The earth is today yours, O King,’ he says. ‘There are no brawls to disturb her.
‘All her thorns have been removed. Rule over her, O Monarch, and observe all the duties of your order. He who was the cause of every hostility of our lives has been struck down. All the wretches of the Kuru clan – Duhsasana, Vaikartana, Saubala – have been slain.
‘The earth, with all her mountains and forests and rivers and plains, is once again yours to rule. All your enemies have been vanquished, Brother. All that remains now is for you to scale the throne.’
The Panchalas and the Srinjayas surround the five Pandavas now, waving their garments in the air and uttering loud cheers. Some twang their bowstrings; others blow on their conches. Some sport and jump about; others emit deep laughs.
Many of them have words of praise for Bhimasena. ‘All these men regard your wonderful victory over Duryodhana as being equal unto that of Indra over Vritra, O Vrikodara. You have guided this boat of the Pandavas to the other shore in this sea of troubles.
‘You have quaffed the blood of Duhsasana like a lion sucks out the blood of a buffalo. Your fame has grown to great heights, O son of Pandu, and it will never diminish till the end of time.’
Krishna Advises Leaving
Meanwhile, Krishna is also less than pleased at the open ridicule to which Duryodhana is being subjected. He tells the assembled kings that it is time to leave. ‘Let us not crush a beaten foe, O Kings,’ he says. ‘Duryodhana’s army has been routed.
‘He has been defeated. There is no need to further pierce him with humiliation. What use is there of spending such bitter breath upon one who has now become nothing more than a piece of wood?
‘Mount your cars quickly, and let us leave this place. Duryodhana will receive the death he has always craved. We do not need to stand here and watch it claim him.’
As the Panchala and Somaka group are thus preparing to leave from there, Duryodhana rises one last time by propping himself up by the elbows, and then resting on his haunches.
The half-raised body, says the text, gives it the appearance of raised snake’s hood. Breathing heavily and casting angry glances at Krishna, the son of Dhritarashtra says the following words.
Duryodhana Insults Krishna
‘O Slave of Kamsa,’ says Duryodhana, addressing Krishna, ‘it seems as if you have no shame, for you have forgotten that I have been struck below my waist, a move judged as unethical by the rules of mace fighting.
‘Do you think I did not see Arjuna send a signal on your behest to Vrikodara in the midst of our duel? Having caused the death of thousands of kings by unfair means, do you feel no abhorrence for yourself?
‘First you caused the grandsire, the son of Ganga – who was destroying the Pandava force on his own – to be defeated by Shikhandi, that eunuch.
‘With Dronacharya, you caused an elephant by name Ashwatthama to be slain before lying to the preceptor that his son had been killed. The dart that Karna had received from Indra for the express reason of killing Arjuna was baffled by you through Ghatotkacha.
‘Bhurishrava had his head chopped off by Satyaki, your disciple, after the warrior had renounced his arms.
‘It was you who caused Aswasena the Naga to be killed when he came to the aid of Karna. And indeed, when Vaikartana’s chariot wheel was buried in mud, you gave the signal to Arjuna to kill him regardless.’
‘By adopting these crooked and unrighteous means, you have caused many kings who were observant of the duties of their order to be slain without mercy. Only true Kshatriyas know the value of Dharma, O Madhava.
‘One cannot expect you to follow the dictates of morality. Yet the whole world knows that this victory achieved by the Pandavas is built on a mirage of deceit.’
Krishna responds by once again listing Duryodhana’s many follies. The house of lac, the dice game, the disrobing of Draupadi, the practices of Jayadratha, and the killing of Abhimanyu are all mentioned.
‘All the unrighteous acts that you say we have perpetuated, Duryodhana,’ says the prince of Dwaraka, ‘are in reality consequences of your own sinful acts. Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Jayadratha and others have died not at the hands of the Pandavas.
‘They have been sacrificed at the altar of your pride, of your stubbornness, of your cruelty.’
But even to the last minute, Duryodhana is unrepentant. In his last words, he claims that it is he who had won the true battle. ‘I governed the wide earth with all her seas, and I stood over the heads of my foes.
‘I lived a life of such comfort that even the gods became jealous of me. Prosperity and pleasure of the highest kind has been given to me. I ruled over Hastinapur and Aryavarta during their most glorious years.’
A Good Death
‘As for death, I have achieved the kind of death that Kshatriyas dream for. I will be taken to heaven, and for the rest of eternity, celestial pleasures will be mine.
‘As for you, O sons of Pandu, you are welcome to inherit this wasteland stricken with disease, drought and want. You celebrate as if this is the end of your troubles. On the contrary, your days of strife are ahead of you.
‘How will you bring together a world fractured by war? How will you soothe the burning hearts of millions of widows? How will you erase the dreadful memories with which the children of today will grow up?
‘Go, O Yudhishthir, and ascend that throne. You will find yourself gazing upon a kingdom that is burning, that will burn for years to come. Rule over hell, whereas I partake of the pleasures of heaven, as I have always done.’
With these words, Duryodhana falls back to die.
At these words of Duryodhana, a few rather strange things happen. A thick shower of fragrant flowers falls from the sky. Gandharvas play upon many charming musical instruments. Apsaras sing in chorus.
The Siddhas and Charanas emit loud cheers to the effect of: ‘Praise be to the king Duryodhana!’ Mild and delicious breezes blow on every side. The quarters become clear and the firmament takes on a hue of clear blue.
These signs are clearly unexpected, because they make it appear as if the gods are honouring Duryodhana on the occasion of his death.
The man whose birth brought on all the ill omens of the world is commanding flower showers and celestial music at his death. How is this possible?
The Pandavas are struck by bemusement as they stand by, watching. Their minds suddenly ask the dreaded question:
Could Duryodhana have been right? Could it be that all the merit that we had accumulated through our lives has been wiped off due to the unrighteous acts we have committed over the last eighteen days?
A Hollow Victory
The Panchalas and Somakas also fall silent, and Krishna senses that they are all thinking along the same lines. He clears his throat and deepens his voice. ‘O Kings,’ he says, ‘Bhishma, Drona, Karna and Bhurishravas were the greatest of atirathas.
‘Even if you had put forth all your powers – considerable as they are – you would never have been able to slay them in fair fight. The same is true of Duryodhana; he would never have been killed in a duel which obeyed all the rules.
‘Even Yama with his bludgeon would not have been able to vanquish the son of Dhritarashtra.
‘But there is no shame in this, my friends. When one is faced with the prospect of fighting against an enemy that is stronger and commands a larger force, one is justified in employing whatever means necessary in order to win.
‘The gods themselves, in slaying the Asuras repeatedly, have trod the same path. The nature of Dharma is subtle and ever-changing, as the great Bhishma has always reminded us.
‘This is a moment of victory, O Kings. Let us not dampen it by foolish thoughts such as these. If Duryodhana thinks he has won, let him. History will remember the sons of Pandu as victors of this great battle.’
With these words, Krishna pulls out the Panchajanya and blows on it. The Panchalas and Somakas join in, and their flagging spirits are lifted.
They all leave the dying Duryodhana there by the lake, and set out for the battlefield to inform their soldiers that the war has come to an end.
Arjuna’s Chariot Burns
The Pandavas arrive at the tent of Duryodhana just as Yuyutsu is herding out the women and aged councillors present there toward Hastinapur. As all the princes and kings dismount from their chariots, Krishna addresses Arjuna and says:
‘Take down your Gandiva and your two inexhaustible quivers, Partha. I will descend after you do. Do obey my words, for they are for your own good.’
Arjuna does as he is told. After he has taken a few steps away from the chariot, Krishna descends with the reins in hand. No sooner has he gained some distance than the ape banner flying atop the chariot dissolves into dust.
The top of the vehicle, which has been burnt before by Drona and Karna with their celestial weapons, catches fire and turns into cinder. The entire chariot, along with the horses, yoke and shaft, is reduced to ashes.
Everyone looks on aghast at this wonder, and Arjuna asks Krishna what the meaning behind this is.
‘That car on which you have been fighting, Arjuna,’ replies the dark one, ‘has been consumed many times over already by various weapons. It is only because I have been sitting on it that it has not broken into pieces.
‘It has even consumed the power of the Brahmastra, if you remember. Now the time has come for it to attain its object, that of being destroyed in this great sacrifice.’
Krishna then goes to Yudhishthir. Placing his hand on the eldest Pandava’s shoulder, he says, ‘By good luck we have defeated all our enemies, O Dharmaraja. By good luck all five Pandavas have emerged from this battle alive.
‘Indeed, I remember that you asked me to protect Arjuna with all my power, and I have done so. The ambidextrous one lives, and he shall continue to serve you as long as you rule this land.’
Yudhishthir bows down to the Dwaraka prince. ‘It is not by luck, Krishna, not at all. It is because of your grace that victory has embraced us. Even the thunderbolt-wielding Purandara would have been unable to withstand the missiles of Drona and Karna.
‘Yet you have protected Partha from them. It is by your will that the Samsaptakas have been destroyed. It is on account of courage given by you that Arjuna never had to turn his back on any of these terrible encounters.’
Krishna accepts Yudhishthir’s gratitude with a smile. Then he tells everyone present that they ought to move out of the camp for the night.
‘Let us go to the sacred stream Oghavati, and there we shall spend the night. It is not auspicious for us to sleep here on the same evening that the battle has ended.’
The assembled kings do not understand the reason behind Krishna’s advice, but they do not protest.
With this, the Gada Yuddha Parva comes to a close.