The Shalya Parva of the Mahabharata begins on the eighteenth day of the Mahabharata war. It ends with the death of Duryodhana in a mace fight with Bhima.
Following on from the Karna Parva post, I have put together a dozen Mahabharata stories from the Shalya Parva, which will add to our growing repository of Mahabharata stories.
And here it is! Beginning with Shalya’s investiture as commander, ending with the death of Duryodhana. Enjoy!
Shalya Becomes Leader
At the end of the seventeenth day, Kripacharya gives Duryodhana a piece of advice.
‘Listen, O Bharata,’ says the old man, ‘to the twang of the Gandiva. Even with great warriors like Bhishma and Drona in our midst, we were unable to contain Arjuna. What hope do we have now? I urge you to at least now seek peace.
‘Yudhishthir is an ocean of compassion. If you ask him for forgiveness, and if you pledge allegiance to him, even now I think he will allow you to rule Hastinapur as though it is yours. Stop this bloodshed now. Spare the lives of those who still live.’
Duryodhana’s reply is along expected lines. ‘Grandsire,’ he says, ‘what you needed to say, you have said. But consider my situation. After all of these years serving as emperor of the entire region, will my Kshatriya Dharma allow me to rule as a small vassal state under the rule of the Pandavas?
‘If I adopt such a course, neither will I gain pleasure here on Earth nor will I achieve passage to heaven after my death. If, on the other hand, I continue to fight this war to the death, I shall die an emperor.’
The decision is thus made to continue the battle right to the very end, and on the next morning, Duryodhana asks Ashwatthama who the next commander of the Kuru force should be. Ashwatthama proposes the name of Shalya.
This is quite a reversal of fortunes for Shalya. On the seventeenth day he had been asked to drive Karna’s chariot, and today he is being installed as the commander-in-chief of the army. When Duryodhana asks the king of Madra if he will accept the honour, the latter says yes.
Shalya displays rare valour on the morning of the eighteenth day, taking on Yudhishthir, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva all at once while leaving Ashwatthama to deal with Arjuna.
He even gets into a one-on-one mace fight with Bhima which ends in a stalemate.
At one point during noon, Yudhishthir decides that enough is enough. He takes a vow that he will kill Shalya, citing the king of Madra as ‘his share of the war’s spoils.’ He assigns Arjuna to guard his rear, Dhristadyumna and Satyaki to protect his back wheels, Nakula and Sahadeva to man his front wheels, and Bhimasena to fight in front of him.
(So technically he is not going to kill Shalya on his own. What he means by his vow is that he intends to land the final blow.)
Faced with this mini-formation, Shalya still gives a great account of himself, warding Yudhishthir’s support ably and even killing the Pandava’s horses and charioteer.
But when Dhrishtadyumna, Satyaki, the Upapandavas and Shikhandi come together to mount a combined assault on him, Shalya is momentarily preoccupied in fighting them off. Yudhishthir seizes this moment to hurl a dart at the Madra king from atop his stationary chariot.
Shalya actually catches this dart with his bare hands, and for a moment appears to have controlled it, but there is enough momentum in the weapon to shatter his armour and pierce his heart.
With blood spilling from his nostrils, eyes, ears and mouth, Shalya falls to the ground and dies.
Soon after Shalya is killed, Duryodhana disappears from the battlefield. Ashwatthama, Kripa and Kritavarma set out in search of Duryodhana, fearing that the king may have been captured by the Pandavas.
They find him hiding underwater in a lake outside Kurukshetra. (We are not given details of how Duryodhana is able to hold his breath for so long.) Ashwatthama tries to rouse him with some encouraging words. ‘The Pandava forces are on the brink of annihilation, Prince,’ he says. ‘If we unite and fight, they cannot resist us.’
But Duryodhana is not very keen. ‘The sun has almost set for the day, O son of Drona,’ he says. ‘Let us rest for the night, and tomorrow we can mount a fresh attack on the enemy. Let us lie low for a few hours and try again.’
While this conversation is going on, a group of hunters – who had been instructed by Yudhishthir to find Duryodhana – pass by that way and hear the words. They hasten back to the Pandavas and report that Duryodhana is hiding under the lake.
With the five Pandavas and Krishna hurrying over to Duryodhana’s hiding place, Kripa, Kritavarma and Ashwatthama leave from there after instructing Duryodhana to stay where he is. (Why did they not take him with them? Maybe Duryodhana did not want to go.)
This sets up a final battle between Duryodhana and the Pandavas for the throne of Hastinapur.
An Act of Charity
When the Pandavas and Krishna arrive at the lake under which Duryodhana is hiding, Yudhishthir tries to lure him out with various instigations. But Duryodhana remains steadfast and replies that since he has no weapon to fight with, and since he is alone, the Pandavas will be violating the norms of justice if they fought him all at once.
‘Give me a weapon, Yudhishthir,’ he says, ‘and challenge me one at a time. You know it is improper to maim an unarmed warrior.’
Yudhishthir, much to Krishna’s anger, agrees to this condition. In fact, he goes a bit further and says, ‘You choose the weapon with which you will fight, and your opponent. If you win against any one of us, the kingdom is yours.’
(It is not clear why Yudhishthir agrees to this, except as a narrative device to heighten drama. Also, it is not clear why – when presented with this choice – Duryodhana does not choose the easier option of fighting against Sahadeva or Nakula.
Here’s a more believable set of events: Yudhishthir gives either the choice of weapon or choice of opponent to Duryodhana, with the leftover choice made by himself. For instance, if Duryodhana chooses a weapon, Yudhishthir chooses the opponent. If Duryodhana chooses the opponent, Yudhishthir chooses the weapon.)
As it turns out, Duryodhana picks the mace for a weapon, and he gives Yudhishthir the choice of whichever of his brothers to send into battle with him.
Not surprisingly, Yudhishthir picks Bhimasena.
Saraswati Changes Course
As the two mace-warriors are beginning their preparations, Balarama returns from his pilgrimage and expresses great sorrow at all the destruction that had happened during the eighteen days.
One of the stories he tells of his journey around the world concerns River Saraswati and how she changed her course.
The story goes that in the Krita age, a grand twelve-year sacrifice occurs in Naimisha, with all great sages of the three worlds attending. Passing their days in accordance with due rites and processes, at the end of the ritual, all the blessed ones set out together to visit the tirthas dotted across the land of Aryavarta.
So many sages set up hermitages on the bank of the Saraswati over the next few months, then, that they reach all the way up to Samantapanchaka.
The whole region takes on a divine hue, with the air constantly humming with chants from the Vedas, and smelling of freshly made ghee. Fires lit in honour of the gods seem to burn through days and nights, summers and winters.
The Saraswati thus becomes a river much sought after by sages all over the world. And though the shoreline is a long one, it is not infinite.
Once, the Valakhilyas, the Asmakuttas, the Dantolakhalinas and the Samprakshanas (all groups of ascetics) come to the river at the same time, intending to erect hermitages there. But seeing that there is no room anymore along the length of the shore, they turn eastward and start measuring out plots of land with their sacred threads.
Seeing this, Saraswati, forlorn at the sight of such great men being denied space, turns around in her course and travels eastward, toward the Naimisha. I must go where the sages go, she thinks, for I must do everything in my power to ensure that their long journies here do not become futile. If they cannot come to the river, the river must come to them.
During his travels, Balarama also visits a tirtha that belongs to Soma the moon god.
Here, Soma is said to have performed the Rajasuya many years ago. Atri himself was the Hotri at this ceremony, and upon the conclusion of all its rituals, there occurred a great battle between the gods and the Asuras.
It is during this time that Skanda (also called Kartikeya) becomes the commander of Indra’s forces.
Kartikeya is born of the seed of Agni (Vaisampayana says) in fusion with the divine river Ganga. However, so powerful and hot is this zygote that neither Agni nor Ganga can hold it for too long.
So the foetus is taken deep into the breast of the Himavat, with the fire god guarding the place in the form of a ram. During this time, the six Krittikas come to visit the boy, growing on a clump of heath, and they all profess a desire to nurse him.
Kartikeya assumes a six-headed form and sucks from the breasts of all six ladies, and thus becomes their adopted son. In his early childhood he is the favourite of all important celestials: Bhudevi, the Earth Goddess, is said to have placed him on her lap and played with him. Brihaspati, the chief preceptor of the gods, performs all necessary growth rituals and sees to his education.
The four Vedas and the science of arms, with its four divisions, encircle the boy. Shiva, because of his close association with Ganga, becomes the guardian and father figure of Kartikeya, while Parvati assumes the role of (yet another) mother.
One day, when Kartikeya approaches an assembly of gods in which Shiva, Parvati, Agni and Ganga are all present, the four of them wonder privately which one the boy will approach first. Sensing these thoughts with his powers, Kartikeys splits his form into four, and pays his respects to each of his parents at the same time.
These four forms are Skanda (who approaches Shiva), Vishakha (who goes to Parvati), Sakha (the ‘wind form’, who seeks out Agni) and Naigameya (of fiery splendour, who touches Ganga’s feet).
Impressed by this show of humility, strength and tact, the gods bestow upon Skanda the position of commander of Indra’s army.
Yet another story from Balarama’s travels: that of Vadarapachana and Sruchavati.
Sruchavati is a maiden of unrivalled beauty, a daughter of Sage Bharadwaja, who lives among ascetics and Siddhas on the Saraswati’s shore. She lives the life of a Brahmacharini.
Observing diverse kinds of vows, and practising the severest of penances, she prays to the gods with the intention of becoming the wife of Indra.
After many years of this, Indra becomes pleased with the woman’s unerring focus, and dons the form of Sage Vasishtha before visiting her. Sruchavati invites the rishi into her house and worships him with due ceremony.
‘O adorable one,’ she says, ‘O tiger among ascetics, tell me what your command is and I shall follow it. However, do know that I cannot give you my hand in marriage or union, because I have vowed this body and soul of mine for Sakra alone.’
Vasishtha smiles at the yogini and says, ‘Anything that you wish is possible with the help of penances, my girl. I know the reason behind your many austerities, and I have come to tell you that all your desires will come true.’
He takes out five jujubes (a type of berry-like fruit) and gives them to Sruchavati. ‘Boil these five after having taken your bath and having said your evening prayers.’ With these words, the sage leaves.
Sruchavati does as she is told. She places a vessel of water on the fire. Into it she drops the five fruits and waits for them to soften. But no matter how long she waits, the berries do not boil. Even as the fire begins to wane and the wood turns to cinder, with half the water in the vessel evaporating, the jujubes still remain hard.
Seeing the fire about to die, the desperate girl thrusts her own legs at it. Agni begins to eat into her flesh, but she feels no pain or heat. She is just conscious of a feeling of inner warmth, knowing that she is obeying Vasishtha, that the fruit will now have more time in which to cook.
This deep devotion pleases Indra, and he appears to Sruchavati in his celestial form. ‘I shall grant you your wish, O daughter of Bharadwaja. By your ascetic merit you have gained the very lord of the gods as your husband.’
Kuru Tills the Land
Toward the end of his pilgrimage, Balarama also learns of the history of Samantapanchaka, also known as Kurukshetra.
The sages that are present at the region tell him, ‘This Samantapanchaka is the eternal northern altar of Brahma, O Balarama. That foremost of royal sages, Kuru, tilled this land for many years, and it has therefore earned the name of Kurukshetra.’
(The word ‘Kurukshetra’ means ‘Kuru’s region’.)
The tale goes that Kuru foresees the ultimate destruction that is going to happen in his dynasty, so he sets about taking steps to ensure that his descendants would not be burned in the halls of heaven.
Taking a plough, he tills the great land of Samantapanchaka on his own, and such is his perseverance that he earns the sympathy of Indra.
‘Why do you till the land when you have thousands of servants at your disposal, O King?’ asks Indra.
‘I do so in the hope that the many people who will die on this land in the future will proceed to regions of great blessedness after having been cleansed of their sins,’ Kuru replies.
Indra finds the whole prospect ridiculous, and returns to heaven without indulging Kuru further. But the longer he waits, the more area the king covers with his plough, and in a few years, the lone tiller has furrowed almost the entire area surrounded by the four lakes.
Indra consults his advisors, and they all suggest that he might be better off granting Kuru’s request.
Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara give their approvals, and Indra returns to visit Kuru. ‘O King,’ he says, ‘you have pleased the very gods with your persistence. Those men who will fight a great battle here and give their lives will all attain heaven without having to perform sacrifices in our honour. You have your wish, so stop tilling the land now, O hero.’
And so it happens that the Mahabharata war comes to pass as a giant sacrifice in which the blood of thousands of people is shed as atonement for generations of sin.
Arjuna Strikes his Thigh
The interlude with Balarama’s narration of his voyage ends in due course, and we’re back at the lake with Duryodhana and Bhimasena preparing to fight.
The early exchanges are tough for Bhima, with Duryodhana easily landing several blows on the Pandava’s body. He even succeeds in breaking Bhima’s armour.
Worried for his brother’s safety, Arjuna asks Krishna, ‘Between these two, O Kesava, who is the better fighter with the mace?’
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.’
Thus encouraged by Krishna, Arjuna catches Bhima’s eye, and strikes meaningfully at his thigh. The implication is that Bhima should stop fighting Duryodhana with just means, and should attack him below the belt on the thigh.
Bhima catches the meaning behind Arjuna’s sign, and at the very next available opportunity during the duel, he strikes Duryodhana on the thigh with his mace, and amid mournful howls of vultures and jackals, causes the son of Dhritarashtra to fall to the ground.
Bhima indulges in some angry speeches directed at Duryodhana, and he even kicks him with his foot. But Yudhishthir is kinder. He laments that the Kuru race had to be destroyed by internal quarrels.
Balarama is outraged that Bhima has won against Duryodhana using unfair means, and he advances upon the Pandava with his plough raised, but Krishna is right at hand to pacify his older brother. Balarama utters some virtuous remarks, mounts his chariot, and drives off in the direction of Dwaraka.
Duryodhana now rises on his arms like a hooded serpent. He insults Krishna for all the unjust means that were used to kill Bhishma, Drona, Karna – and lastly himself. But Krishna, of course, responds by listing all of Duryodhana’s many flaws – the game of dice, the house of wax, the disrobing of Draupadi etc.
And at last Duryodhana turns to Yudhishthir and passes a scornful remark. ‘It is not you that has won this battle, Yudhishthir,’ he says. ‘It is I! 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.
As for death, I have achieved the kind of death that Kshatriyas dream for. I will be taken to heaven. 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.’
With these final words, Duryodhana falls back to a prostrate position. (He does not die, though, until he performs one last act. More on that later.)
A Hollow Victory
At the death 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. 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?
But Krishna soothes their minds. ‘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.
‘Also remember that the Pandavas were treated in ways that were unvirtuous. If Duryodhana had always been fair and just, then Yudhishthir would never have lost his kingdom in the first place.
‘So when a foe of yours is stronger than you – only because he had unfairly robbed you of your might – then there is no disgrace in fighting him with whatever contrivances necessary.
‘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
After the Pandavas arrive at Kurukshetra, Krishna turns around in his charioteer-seat and addresses Arjuna: ‘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.’
Thus begins the unwinding of Arjuna’s blessings. The chariot is the first to be taken away from him. Later, the Gandiva and his inexhaustible quivers also desert him, and he ends his life as a mere mortal, unable to protect the women of Dwaraka’s court from being kidnapped by robbers.
The Shalya Parva ends on this note.
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