The Drona Parva of the Mahabharata begins on the eleventh day of the Mahabharata war. It ends with the death of Drona on the fifteenth day.
And here it is! From Duryodhana’s boon to Arjuna’s resolve, from Bhagadatta’s valour to Abhimanyu’s death, we have it all. Enjoy!
Duryodhana Asks for a Boon
Soon after Drona is appointed the commander of the Kuru forces, and after Karna has rejoined the fray, Drona grants Duryodhana a boon in return for the honour and trust the king placed on him.
Duryodhana says, ‘Acharya, I wish that you bring Yudhishthir back alive to me by the end of today.’
Drona is surprised that Duryodhana has not asked him to kill Yudhishthir. ‘Slaying the king is like cutting off the head of a snake, my son,’ he says. ‘And yet you ask me to bring Yudhishthir back to you alive. Why?’
Duryodhana replies, ‘This Pandava army is unlike a snake, Acharya. It is more like a scorpion which has more sting in its tail than in its head. I don’t wish to kill this beast. I wish to tame it. If Yudhishthir dies, I have no doubt that Bhima and Arjuna will exterminate all of us in the blink of an eye. But if we capture him alive, we can control the others through him.’
In short, Duryodhana tells Drona that Yudhishthir is more valuable to the Kauravas alive than dead.
Drona thinks about this for a while, and grants Duryodhana the boon – but with a qualification. ‘As long as Arjuna does not protect Yudhishthir, I shall capture the king and bring him back alive to you.
In the Pandava camp, when they come to know of the promise that Drona has given Duryodhana, Arjuna vows to protect Yudhishthir at all costs. Thus begins Day 11 of the Mahabharata war.
This lineup drives home the point even to the casual observer how mismatched the two sides are. Many of the Kaurava heroes that we have heard of – Bhurishrava and Bhagadatta, to name a couple – are left ‘unmarked’, meaning they are free to launch damaging attacks on the Pandava army.
Not to mention that some of these duels are lopsided – for instance, Uttamaujas cannot be hoped to win against Kripacharya; if he can hold off the Kuru elder without incurring too many losses, he will have done well. The same could be said of the Shikhandi-Bhishma and Drona-Dhrishtadyumna battles.
Bhima Fights Shalya
Plenty of small battles take place on the eleventh day, and the tone of the battle has now become fiercer with Bhishma’s removal. But the one duel that draws plenty of interest is the mace fight between Bhima and Shalya.
How it begins is that Shalya and Abhimanyu are locked in a bow-and-arrow challenge, and as expected, Abhimanyu wins this. But Shalya picks up a mace and begins charging at Abhimanyu’s chariot, intent on shattering it and forcing the young man to fight on foot.
It is at this moment that Bhimasena arrives and challenges Shalya to a battle with the mace.
A small clearing is made on the battlefield for the two warriors, and soldiers stop fighting to watch how this unfolds. It is common knowledge among the three worlds that Balarama, Duryodhana, Bhimasena and Shalya are near-equals with the mace in hand. So it is impossible to predict who among these two will win.
Bhima’s technique relies on his brute strength; he does not mind taking blows from Shalya on his body – first on the right arm, then on the left, and then on the back. On the other hand, Shalya uses his skill to deflect and block many of Bhima’s attempted hits.
In any case, for a long time both warriors go at it without a clear winner emerging. Both of them fall to the ground in exhaustion at the same time, but just when Bhima is about to get up and make some decisive moves, Kritavarma appears and carries Shalya away on a chariot.
This gives moral victory to Bhimasena.
Toward the evening of Day 11, Drona succeeds in isolating Yudhishthir and goes for the kill. But Arjuna – even though he is surrounded by many Kaurava warriors – manages to swoop in and protect his elder brother from the clutches of their teacher.
Try as he might, therefore, Drona fails to capture Yudhishthir.
This becomes a source of great shame to Drona later in the Kaurava camp. He gives out an exasperated sigh and says, ‘Arjuna’s skill with the bow far, far outshines mine, O King. If we have any chance at all to capture Yudhishthir, Arjuna must be distracted completely. He must be out of sight!’
Hearing these words, Susharma, the king of the Trigartas (the man who played a role in the Virata Parva as well), steps forward and takes an oath along with his brothers.
‘For the victory of King Duryodhana I am willing to take an oath, Preceptor,’ says Susharma. ‘Along with my army and my brothers, I will challenge the Gandiva wielder tomorrow, and drag him away to the southern edge of Kurukshetra. We will fight Arjuna to the death! This will leave you free to capture Yudhishthir.’
Thus, the Trigartas led by Susharma come to be known as Samsaptakas (meaning ‘soldiers who have vowed to conquer or die’) from this moment.
The battle between Arjuna and the Samsaptakas will become an ongoing theme for the next few days of the Mahabharata war.
Bhagadatta Fights with Valour
The big hero of Day 12 of the war is Bhagadatta.
He is the ruler of a kingdom called Pragjyotisha, which lies in the far eastern region of Aryavarta, near Anga and Vanga. He fights atop an elephant called Supratika, and he leads a large elephant division that is near invincible in battle.
With Arjuna fighting the Samsaptakas on the southern edge of Kurukshetra, Bhagadatta takes it on himself to engage with the Pandava army on his own so that Drona can focus on defeating and capturing Yudhishthir.
Satyaki, Bhimasena, Yuyutsu, Dhrishtaketu and the Upapandavas all surround Bhagadatta in order to check him, but such is the latter’s form today that he is unstoppable. He assumes the nature of a fierce wind and blows the Pandava army away to smithereens.
When news of Bhagadatta’s valour reaches Arjuna, he begins to waver a little. With the rest of the Pandava army labouring to match Bhagadatta, Arjuna knows that Yudhishthir has suddenly become vulnerable to Drona’s attack. So he wonders if he should move away from the Samsaptakas and get back to Yudhishthir’s side.
But that would mean that he would need to break an age-old practice: never in his life has he retreated from a challenge, for any reason.
So Arjuna decides that he would make swift work of the Samsaptakas in order that he could go back in enough time to support the Pandava army against the raging Bhagadatta.
Just when Bhagadatta is about to secure a decisive victory on the Pandava army, Arjuna appears on the scene, having decapitated the Trigartas with some divine arrows shot skillfully from his Gandiva.
The battle between Arjuna and the Pragjyotisha king is a fierce one. Bhagadatta manages to injure Krishna with many iron-tipped arrows, and such is his speed that his bow seems forever bent into a semicircle. Even when Arjuna breaks his bow in two, Bhagadatta switches over to hurling lances at them.
Arjuna does not allow these spears to hit their target, however. With well-aimed shafts, he shatters them into three harmless fragments each. Then he focuses his attention on Supratika the elephant, first stripping it of armour and then piercing its bare sides with numerous arrows.
Bhagadatta happens to have a weapon called the Vaishnavastra with him. When Arjuna begins to work Supratika over, the Pragjyotisha king gives out a yell of rage and hurls the divine weapon at Arjuna, only for Krishna to intercept it. The missile turns into a garland of fragrant flowers and settles around Krishna’s neck.
Arjuna is a little peeved that he had to be rescued by Krishna, but he returns to the business of dismantling Supratika. The animal buckles at the knees and falls to the ground with a gentle groan.
That leaves Bhagadatta on his feet on the ground. Arjuna first breaks the king’s armour with a set of broad-headed arrows, and uses a crescent-tipped shaft to pierce his heart.
The Return of Arjuna
Bhima and Dhrishtadyumna try to arrest the forward momentum of the two Brahmins, but Drona is quite in his element this evening, seemingly everywhere at once, routing the Panchalas and Chedils all on his own. The twang of his bow resembles the roar of thunder, and his many arrows appear to be bolts of lightning descending upon their targets with merciless accuracy.
The balance of the battle appears to be shifting toward the Kauravas, and the Pandava army wonders whether Drona will actually keep his word to Duryodhana.
However, just when all seems lost, Arjuna appears on the scene, having killed Bhagadatta and also having routed the Gandharas afterward. He descends upon Drona and the other Kaurava chariots like a thunderstorm, raining thousands upon thousands of arrows in all directions.
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.
Such is his skill this evening that the Kauravas are left with no choice but to retreat. Yudhishthir remains safe.
‘I will kill one Maharatha!’
On the thirteenth morning, the mood in the Kaurava camp is a little forlorn. Despite the Samsaptakas keeping Arjuna away from the main fight for most of the day, despite the other-worldly efforts of Bhagadatta, Drona still failed to capture Yudhishthir.
Today, once again the plan is the same. The Samsaptakas prepare to drag Arjuna away to the southern tip of Kurukshetra, while Drona arranges the Kuru forces in an ever-revolving, constantly changing Chakravyuha. Since only Arjuna and Krishna among the participants of the war know how to penetrate this array, Drona hopes that it will ensnare at least one big warrior.
‘I will make you one promise today, Duryodhana,’ says Drona. ‘I shall kill one maharatha of the Pandava army before sundown!’
The chariot-wheel formation is guarded by Drona himself at the head, with Duryodhana stationed right in the middle of it, out of sight and out of danger, guarded by Karna, Duhsasana and Kripacharya.
Marshalling one of the inner rims of the wheel if Jayadratha of the Saindhavas. Flanked on one side by Ashwatthama and on the other by Shakuni, Shalya and Bhurishrava, he prepares for perhaps the most consequential day of the Mahabharata war.
Abhimanyu Enters the Chakravyuha
When he sees the constantly rotating maze that is swirling toward him across the Kurukshetra, Yudhishthir is filled with a sense of disquiet.
A slew of Pandava warriors approach the Chakravyuha and try to engage with it, but they’re beaten back in a trice by a rampaging Drona, who has his eye squarely set on Yudhishthir.
With Arjuna and Krishna away fighting the Samsaptakas, it falls on the shoulders of young Abhimanyu to break open this array.
Yudhishthir hesitates to place such a big responsibility on a youth, but he is left with no other choice. Now, Abhimanyu knows only to break into the formation, not how to leave it. So for the plan to work, after Abhimanyu penetrates the chariot-wheel, other supporting warriors should follow him in, and keep it from closing again.
So it is arranged that Bhimasena, Satyaki and Dhrishtadyumna – with their entire armies – will follow Abhimanyu and break open Drona’s Chakravyuha.
On any normal day, this is a decent plan: Bhimasena, Satyaki and Dhrishtadyumna together are more than powerful enough to play a supporting role to a rampaging Abhimanyu. But on this fatal day, Jayadratha is guarding the wheel’s inner rim, and he has the power of Shiva’s boon riding on his back.
When Abhimanyu’s charioteer ventures that the quest heaped upon him is a tough one, the young warrior laughs with an upraised arm. ‘Who is this Drona?’ he says. ‘Who are the Kauravas? Even if Indra himself faces me today atop the Airavata, O Sumitra, I will fight him gladly for the sake of my uncle Krishna and my father Arjuna.
‘I feel no anxiety today, just a sense of lightness. Lead me to my destiny, and let me embrace it!’
Jayadratha Holds Back the Pandavas
During the exile of the Pandavas, Jayadratha happens to insult Draupadi and earns a half-shaven head as punishment in the hands of Bhima and Arjuna. He is told to go back to the Sindhu capital and parade the streets, announcing that he was enslaved by the Pandavas.
In order to overcome this slight, Jayadratha pleases Lord Shiva with elaborate austerities and earns from him a boon that on one day in battle, he will prove to be superior to all the Pandavas combined, with the exception of Arjuna.
This is that day.
Faced with the challenge of fighting Nakula, Sahadeva, Bhima, Satyaki and Dhrishtadyumna, he ably defends the breach in the formation created by Abhimanyu. Even when he loses his bow once or twice, he picks up another one in the twinkling of an eye.
The Matsyas, the Panchalas, the Kaikeyas, the Srinjayas, the Somakas and the Pandavas exert themselves vigorously, all at once, but none of them can bear the wrath of the Saindhava king. He appears to be a mountain that has grown out of the ground, withstanding everything that they can shoot at him.
What this effectively means is that Abhimanyu is left alone deep inside the Chakra Vyuha, battling the Kaurava ranks on his own. Without reinforcements following the leader to keep the formation broken, it is as good as signing a suicide pact.
From this moment on, Abhimanyu’s death is just a matter of time.
Abhimanyu Fights to the Death
Even though trapped inside the Chakravyuha, Abhimanyu fights the battle of his life. With a combination of divine and earthly weapons, of speed and skill, he obliterates warrior after warrior as they come up to challenge him.
Among other things, he kills Lakshmana Kumara, the son of Duryodhana. He kills Vrishasena, the son of Karna. He kills Rukmaratha, the son of Shalya. For good measure, he follows that up by killing a hundred more princes of Madra who arrive to avenge Rukmaratha’s death.
He fights single-handedly against atirathas – Kripa, Drona, Karna, Ashwatthama, Brihadvala and Kritavarma – and picks them off one by one. He forces all of them and their forces to flee from his presence.
Worried that fair fighting will not get them far with the son of Subhadra, Drona hatches a plan whereby Karna cuts off Abhimanyu’s bowstring from the flank. Kritavarma kills his horses while Kripa accounts for the two rear guards of the young warrior’s chariot.
Forced onto his feet, Abhimanyu sees that the six atirathas that he had defeated shortly before are now racing toward him on their chariots with their bows raised. Undaunted, he picks up a sword and shield to defend himself. But Drona cuts off the sword at the hilt, and Karna breaks open the shield with a clutch of arrows.
Abhimanyu now picks up a fallen chariot wheel and begins to fight with it, wielding it as if it were the Sudarshana Chakra.
His final showdown is a mace-fight with one of the sons of Duhsasana. Both warriors fall to the ground in exhaustion after a long period of fighting, but the son of Duhsasana happens to be the first to recover. He goes over to where Abhimanyu is still on the ground, on the point of reaching for his weapon, and lands a heavy blow on his head.
A moment of deathly silence follows this, as the Kauravas process what has happened. The son of Arjuna is dead. The soldiers erupt in cheers, even as the Pandavas in the distance come to realize what has happened.
The thirteenth day of the Mahabharata thus ends with Abhimanyu’s death.
Arjuna Makes a Promise
When Arjuna, after a long day of fighting the Samsaptakas, returns to camp, he finds that no music is playing, and that his brothers are immersed in gloom. Without needing to be told, he guesses that Abhimanyu is no more.
He breaks down and extracts from Yudhishthir all the details of what had happened. He insults his brothers for not being skillful enough to accompany a mere boy into Drona’s array. ‘If I knew you were all so incompetent,’ he says, ‘I would have guarded my son myself!’
Wracked by grief and anger at the same time, he wonders how he would break the news to Uttara and to Subhadra. He then gathers himself and begins – in the true manner of a red-blooded warrior – plotting his revenge.
He decides that of all the people responsible for Abhimanyu’s death, Jayadratha is the chief culprit. (This is of course debatable. Logically speaking, the target of Arjuna’s rage should have been Drona. But for whatever reason, Jayadratha ends up copping it.)
‘By sundown tomorrow,’ he says, rousing himself, ‘I shall kill the Saidhava King. If I fail to do so, I shall consign myself to flames.’
Krishna accompanies this oath by blowing into his Panchajanya, but he is later troubled by the foolhardy nature of Arjuna’s decision. Instead of focusing on the war, the fourteenth day of battle now becomes a game of chasing down and killing Jayadratha.
On the other hand, the Kauravas come to know of this promise and quietly exult, because if they can keep Jayadratha safe, that will mean Arjuna will have to die. And victory will be near certain.
Implications of Abhimanyu’s Killing
Abhimanyu’s death is often derided as unfair. Three main points are made in support of this argument:
- Abhimanyu is a mere boy. This can be rejected right off hand. A battlefield is not a place where matters of age ought to be considered. If you opponent wears armour and is fighting against you, you fight against him. Especially if he is killing your men in the thousands every minute.
- Abhimanyu was shot at from behind. This has some merit. But we must remember that by this time, Abhimanyu was already lost inside the Chakravyuha, and was surrounded by Kaurava forces. In such a situation, one would expect challenges to arise from all directions – including from behind.
- Many warriors fought against Abhimanyu at once. The thinking behind this point is that according to the laws of fair fight, only one car warrior should engage with another car warrior at the same time. Since six atirathas ganged up on Abhimanyu, it can be called unjust.
However, that last point appears to be more of a soft rule. In the first twelve days of the Mahabharata war, on numerous occasions, many two-on-one and three-on-one battles take place. Especially if a single hero is showing remarkable strength and destroying all challenges, it is not unnatural that two or more people join forces to thwart him.
The bigger issue here is that Abhimanyu happens to be the favourite son of Arjuna. Due to this, Arjuna reacts with more anger than perhaps warranted at what has happened, and takes the vow to kill Jayadratha on the fourteenth day. In doing so, he exerts himself a lot more than usual, and the rules of fair fight are bent a little bit more.
Thus, on the thirteenth day, with the death of Abhimanyu, one can say that the Mahabharata war takes a decisive turn from Dharmic to Adharmic.
It begins a rapid slide into depravity so extreme that at the end, Ashwatthama and Kritavarma do not flinch at killing their enemies when they’re asleep – which is the absolute height of Adharma when it comes to battle.
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