The Mahabharata war, also called the Kurukshetra war, is the climactic event of the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. It is fought between two sets of cousins in the Kuru dynasty, the Pandavas (sons of Pandu) and the Kauravas (sons of Dhritarashtra).
Kingdoms like Panchala and Matsya side with the Pandavas. Krishna, the regent of Dwaraka, drives the chariot of Arjuna, the third Pandava, and signals his support for their cause.
The war is fought over eighteen days on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. It is won by the Pandavas at the end, but only after unfathomable destruction to lives and wealth on both sides.
(For the full summary of the war, see: 18 Days of the Mahabharata War: A Day-wise Summary.)
In this post, we will answer the question: What happens on Day 10 of the Mahabharata war?
‘How Can We Kill You?’
At the end of the ninth day, the five Pandavas and Krishna go to Bhishma’s tent.
When they arrive, the son of Ganga invites them as if they are esteemed guests of his, and asks after the welfare of each one in turn.
‘Tell me what I can do, my sons,’ he says, ‘to gladden your hearts. Even if it is the hardest task in the world, I will undertake it for your benefit.’
Yudhishthir takes the lead. ‘O Grandsire, this war has been going on for nine days now without a semblance of movement to either side. Both armies have been depleted to half their original sizes. How shall we obtain victory in this battle?
‘How do we defeat you, O Gangeya? You do not give your opponents even a minute chance to breach your defences. You appear to be everywhere at once on the battlefield, as if there are a hundred of you.
‘Your bow is forever drawn. Your aim never falters. No one is able to tell when you draw the arrow, when you set it to the bow, and when you release it.
‘You are as glorious as Surya himself, and the amount of destruction you are causing to our troops is unimaginable. Ours is the smaller force, O Bhishma; if you continue in this vein, we will be left deprived of an army in no time.’
Bhishma replies with a smile, ‘As long as I am alive, Yudhishthir, you will not gain victory. Indeed, I have never lost a battle in my life. After I am defeated, however, you will have your chance.
‘So do not be bothered with emotions, O sons of Pritha. Smite me with all your power. Do not hold back.’
‘But we have tried it all these days, Grandsire,’ says Yudhishthir, ‘and it has not worked. How can we breach that armour of yours that even the gods have deemed impenetrable?’
Now Bhishma gives them the crucial bit of advice. ‘A warrior is invincible only when he is willing to fight, Yudhishthir, and when his weapons are raised.
‘If he is made to relinquish his arms, then even the smallest car-warrior can kill him. If I am faced by a woman in battle, O Pandava, or one who has once been a female, or one who bears the name of a female, I am not going to fight her.’
Having received their answer, Krishna and the Pandavas return to their tents
Soon after returning to their camp, after a brief moment of hesitation, Arjuna begins to plan the destruction of his grandfather.
‘We shall use Shikhandi as our shield tomorrow,’ he says. ‘As soon as Bhishma sees the prince of Panchala, no doubt he will abstain from fighting, and his drawing hand will hesitate. I shall pounce upon that moment and strike him with my arrows.
‘I will hold in check all the other great bowmen with my shafts, and I will see to it that Shikhandi fights only with the grandsire tomorrow. If the only way to defeat that bull among men is by first disarming him, by the gods we shall do it!’
Krishna pats Arjuna on the shoulder in appreciation, and the rest of the Pandavas display an equal mixture of hope and reserve.
They spend some more time chalking out various details of the plan, and after it is all done, they retire to their respective tents, eager for the morning of the tenth day to arrive.
Shikhandi at the Forefront
The person at the foremost position of the Pandava army on the tenth morning is Shikhandi, and his chariot wheels are protected by Bhimasena and Arjuna.
The Upapandavas and Abhimanyu guard the prince of Panchala from behind, and are themselves supported by Satyaki and Chekitana.
Dhrishtadyumna fights today from the middle of the formation, next to Yudhishthir and the two sons of Madri. Virata and Drupada – aided by the five Kekayas and Dhrishtaketu – form the rear of the array.
On the Kaurava side, as always, Bhishma fights front and centre, protected by the Dhartarashtras on all sides. Right behind him is Ashwatthama, and behind him is Bhagadatta at the head of his elephant division.
Kripa and Kritavarma fight behind Bhagadatta, and behind them are Sudakshina (the ruler of the Kambojas), Jayatsena (of the Magadhas), Shakuni and Brihadvala.
Bhishma has a quick encounter with Shikhandi and retreats deep into the Kaurava ranks, where he meets Duryodhana.
Duryodhana says, pointing at Arjuna: ‘This son of Pandu, O Grandsire, is consuming my forces like Agni consumed the Khandava. Watch how many men he wounds with his numerous shafts, and how many men flee in abject fear.
‘Bhimasena has been killing my elephants by the hundreds every single day of the battle. Satyaki and Chekitana, not to mention the sons of Madri and the son of Subhadra – they all take great delight in routing my chariot warriors.
‘Save for you, O Bhishma, I have no other man capable of withstanding all these great heroes, and my soldiers have no other source of refuge. They look up to you now; go back to the head of your forces, O Gangeya, and lead us to battle.’
Bhishma is inwardly irritated at Duryodhana’s badgering, but he answers calmly.
‘Today I will seek out the Pandavas,’ he says, ‘and I will kill them all. If I am unable to do so, understand that I have given up my life attempting that mammoth task.
‘I will do this today out of gratitude, O King, for the food you have given me all these years, and for the honour you bestowed upon me by making me leader of your army.’
With these words, he rides out to the middle of the field once again and begins to slaughter men and animals in their thousands.
Bhishma’s Last Stand
Taking a cue from the leader of the Kaurava army who is no longer fighting according to the rules, the moral fibre of the war in general breaks down.
Chariot warriors are supposed to fight other chariot warriors only, elephants are supposed to fight with other elephants only and so on.
But watching Bhishma tearing into footmen and archers alike, everyone else starts doing the same until the battleground resembles a slaughterhouse filled with bloodthirsty madmen.
For the first nine days, Bhishma has killed around ten thousand soldiers per day. But on this tenth afternoon alone, armed with the celestial powers of Parashurama’s spell, he claims the lives of ten thousand elephants, five thousand infantrymen, one thousand elephant riders, ten thousand horses, and seven great chariot warriors that were part of the Panchala force.
He takes up a position between the two armies now, ostensibly at the head of the Kaurava army, but such is his sheer brilliance that none of the warriors of his own side dare to get too close to him.
Krishna Admires Bhishma
Pointing his whip at the grandsire, Krishna says to Arjuna in a quiet voice, ‘Look at the son of Ganga, O Partha, who stands between the two forces, resolute and strong like the mountain Meru.
‘As long as he stands on his two feet, there is no possibility of this war ever ending, O Falguna. This is the moment that we have been awaiting. You will do well to not let it pass.’
Arjuna raises his Gandiva in response, and as its twang rends the air, his chariot speeds across the plain toward that of Bhishma. In front of him is Shikhandi, who begins to rain arrows at the fire-like vehicle, which appears to absorb all the shafts that the Panchala prince shoots at it.
To everyone else at the battlefield Bhishma looks like the incarnation of the Samvartaka fire, which rises at the end of each epoch to devour everything in sight.
His bow and arrows constitute the flames of this great fire, the flight of his weapons constitute the breeze which feeds it with life. The rattle of his car wheels and the mass of dead bodies around him are the fuel that feeds his anger.
Toward this mighty conflagration do Arjuna and Shikhandi ride.
Bhishma remains steadfast to his promise, responding to Shikhandi’s shafts with mere smiles, refusing to turn his bow toward the Panchala prince. Watching him weaken a little, Arjuna seizes the opportunity to shoot at the grandsire’s bow and break it.
Bhishma seethes in rage and hurls at his grandson an iron dart, which the latter breaks into fragments in mid-flight.
Watching his weapon hit the dust and disappear, with Shikhandi’s arrows descending upon him with relentless regularity now, Bhishma begins to wonder whether this is the time he should give up his life.
I was given the boon by my father Shantanu, he thinks, that I shall not be defeated in battle, and that I can choose the moment of my death. Has that moment arrived?
He looks up at the skies for a sign, and he sees the sages of the world looking down upon him. ‘Withdraw from this battle, Son,’ they tell him. ‘Let the course of destiny resume unhindered.’
Bhishma nods at the voices that only he can hear, and instructs his charioteer to take him closer to Arjuna.
He watches the third Pandava raise his bow behind Shikhandi, and before he knows it, twenty five arrows are speeding at him through the thick late afternoon air.
His chariot wheels are destroyed. His charioteer is beheaded. His horses are killed. Each new shaft that enters his body makes him tremble, partly in pain, partly in relief.
‘These arrows coursing toward me in a single straight line,’ he says out loud, to no one in particular, ‘whose touch resembles that of the thunderbolt, have been shot by Arjuna. They do not belong to Shikhandi.
‘Cutting through my armour and piercing my skin with such force, these shafts are not Shikhandi’s. Save for the heroic Gandiva-wielder, no one in the army of the Pandavas can cause me such strife. If I surrender, it is to the prowess of Arjuna, not that of Shikhandi!’
He steps onto the ground now and picks up a sword to smite those footmen who venture within range.
With arrows sticking out of his body in all directions, covered in blood completely, the warrior waves his sword a couple of times, only to see that no one is attacking him.
For a moment he stands, watching Shikhandi, Arjuna, Bhima and Yudhishthir arrayed before him. Then he drops the sword and allows himself to fall.
His body does not touch the earth, though. He lies suspended on the bed of arrows, looking up at the sky.
The sages wonder if this is the moment he will choose to embrace death, but he says:
‘The sun is in the southern solstice, and I intend to leave this earth when it enters the northern declension. I am still alive, O Sages! And I shall hold my breath until the right moment. Do not fret.’
‘A Pillow for my head’
The fall of Bhishma brings about an air of general confusion to Kurukshetra, as if none of the people fighting in the battle had ever countenanced the possibility of the grandsire’s defeat.
Now that it has happened, for a good while, no one seems to know how to react, or whether or not battle should resume as before.
Duhsasana flees to where Drona is fighting and blurts out the entire story. The preceptor swoons out of shock, and upon return to consciousness, sends out messengers on fleet horses to every part of his army to lay down arms.
The Pandavas too, on the behest of Yudhishthir, put aside their armours and congregate around the prone figure.
Bhishma welcomes them cheerfully. ‘Come, my children!’ he says. ‘Come, O Great Warriors. It has been a pleasure fighting you all these days. But this is how it must end.
‘I have chosen to withdraw from this battle, for I can see that I am standing in the way of fate. I will renounce my life, too, at the moment the sun enters the northern solstice.’
He then makes a strange request. ‘My head is not supported, adequately. Can someone here please arrange for a pillow?’
Arjuna steps up, strings his bow. After saluting Bhishma, with his eyes tear-filled, he says, ‘I am your slave, Grandfather, now and forever. I shall do your bidding.’
He pulls three arrows from his quiver, holds them to the tip of his nose, and closes his eyes. Murmuring a prayer, he fits them to the Gandiva and shoots them into the ground. He then gently places the grandsire’s head over the arrows’ feathers.
‘Water for my Parched Throat’
Despite the pillow, Bhishma continues to sigh and fidget.
When someone asks him what the matter is, he says, ‘My throat is parched, and the arrows hurt me more than they should. I wish water could be brought to me.’
Once again the assembled kings command servants to bring jars of scented water and juice taken out of the best fruits, but the grandsire does not want them. He looks at Arjuna, who steps up again with the Gandiva in hand and bows.
‘My body is afflicted with great pain, Arjuna,’ says Bhishma. ‘You are a great bowman, the greatest in the world. I know for certain that you can remove this pain, and quench the burning thirst that I feel upon my tongue and in my throat.’
‘So be it,’ Arjuna replies, and takes out an arrow from his quiver. Converting it into the Parjanyastra with the right incantation, he places it on his bow and pierces the earth with it. From the hole left by the arrow arises a jet of water that is pure, cool, and scented like nectar.
The tenth day ends with Bhishma quenching his thirst with the water fountain created by Arjuna.
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