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 16 of the Mahabharata war?
Karna Becomes Commander
It is the night of the fifteenth day. Both armies have retreated to their respective camps. The Kaurava side is the more sombre one, understandably, because they have lost Drona.
And despite the anger of Ashwatthama, they were unable to fight back and claim the life of any significant Pandava warrior as revenge.
In the council of kings in his tent, Duryodhana throws open the floor for advice. The son of Drona says the following words:
‘Enthusiasm, opportunity, skill and policy – these are the four means declared by the learned to be capable of accomplishing all ends, O King. Those foremost of men on our side who have led us over the last fifteen days have been slain.
‘But that does not fill us with despair. We still have the means to win this war. If all these four elements are properly adopted by the remaining heroes in our army, victory will certainly be yours.
‘To this end, O Bharata, install Karna as our leader. Powerful as Yama himself, the king of Anga will annihilate the sons of Pandu and all their followers.’
Duryodhana looks around the room for voices of dissent, and when he sees nothing, he rises to his feet and summons Karna to the forefront.
He asks Karna to become the next commander of the Kuru forces.
Karna replies, ‘O son of Gandhari, I have said this before in your presence, and I will say it again. I will vanquish all the Pandavas along with their sons, and even Janardana.
‘I will become your General. Becalm yourself, for at this moment, the sons of Pritha are already to be considered slain.’
Duryodhana is delighted by these words, and he summons priests and servants into the room for performing the investiture ceremony. Karna is seated on a throne made of udumvara wood, overlaid with silken cloth, amid vessels filled with gems, jewels and flowers.
Brahmins chant verses from the Vedas as the Kshatriyas surround him with raised weapons. Amidst it all, the eldest Dhartarashtra blesses his long-time companion. ‘Vanquish the Parthas and Govinda, my friend,’ he says, ‘and grant us victory in this war.’
Makara for the Kauravas
The following morning, Karna arranges the Kaurava forces in the shape of a makara.
(The word is often used to mean a crocodile or an alligator, but precisely speaking, it is a mythical amphibious creature that has thick scaly skin, a serrated tail and the head of a bird.)
At the tip of the beak of this creature stands Karna, the new commander of the army. Shakuni and his son Uluka occupy the positions that denote the makara’s eyes.
Ashwatthama and the brothers of Duryodhana, along with their armies, make up the head and neck respectively.
In the middle of the formation, guarded on all four sides, is Duryodhana, supported by a large unit. At the left foot of the beast is Kritavarma, at the head of what is left of the Narayanas and the Gopalas.
The right foot is made up of Kripacharya surrounded by the Trigartas and the Southerners. The right hind-foot is guarded by Sushena, with a thousand cars and three hundred elephants.
At the tail are the two brothers Chitra and Chitrasena, each commanding a large force.
Watching this army standing across the battlefield from them, Yudhishthir is suddenly aware of a feeling of confidence. Addressing Arjuna, he says, ‘Look, O Partha, how the Dhartarasthra forces have dwindled in front of our very eyes.
‘It has lost its bravest warriors. Now those that remain are feeble; equal, I think, unto mere strands of straw. Only one great bowman remains standing in the enemy’s side, and that is the Sutaputra, O Falguna, who stands impetuously at the head of his army.
‘If you slay him today, then victory will be assuredly ours, and a thorn that has been planted in my heart twelve years ago will be removed. Knowing this, arrange our men in whatever shape you think fit, O Arjuna.’
The counter-array that the Pandavas use is in the shape of a crescent moon. The two corners of this array are taken up by Bhimasena (left) and Dhrishtadyumna (right).
In the middle are Yudhishthir and Arjuna fighting side by side, with Nakula and Sahadeva guarding the rear of their king’s chariot. Yudhamanyu and Uttamaujas, as always, are stationed at Arjuna’s wheels.
Fighting the Samshaptakas
Like a tempest agitating the vast deep, Arjuna wades into the Samsaptakas, cutting off with his broad-headed arrows the heads of thousands of warriors at a time.
As he speeds through the enemy force, the earth around him fills with heads that resemble lotus pods separated from their stalks.
With his sharp shafts he also cuts off the arms of his foes, well rounded, large and massive, holding weapons, smeared with sandal paste and perfume, with leather gloves casing their fingers.
The battle between the thousands of Samshaptakas on one side and Arjuna on the other resembles that between the Daityas and Indra.
Large throngs of chariots are blown to smithereens in the wake of Arjuna’s trail – poles, wheels and axles that have been strong and sturdy just moments before sparring with Partha are left as mere puffs of dust afterward.
Crowds of Siddhas, Charanas and Rishis gather in the heavens to watch this sight of one man obliterating an entire army, and they heap blessings on him.
The Samshaptakas Flee
Celestial kettle-drums accompany the Pandava’s triumphant roars, and floral showers fall upon the two Krishnas as they scythe through the Kaurava forces. An incorporeal voice then announces that nothing can match the splendour of these two in full flight.
‘Kesava and Arjuna,’ it says, ‘possess the beauty of the moon, the effulgence of fire, the force of the wind and the radiance of the sun. Stationed on the same chariot, these two heroes are invincible like Brahman and Isana.
‘These two foremost of creatures are none other than Nara and Narayana.’
Hearing these divine voices does nothing to help the flagging morale of the Kauravas, and the Samshaptakas turn on their heels to run for their lives. But Ashwatthama finds his Kshatriya spirit and rides out to challenge Arjuna.
‘If you regard me a worthy guest, O Partha,’ he says, raising his arm, ‘then give me today with all your heart the hospitality a true Kshatriya deserves from another.’
Hearing these words, the fleeing Samshaptakas regain their courage and remember their vow. They rally behind the son of Drona and mount a combined challenge against the third son of Pandu.
Arjuna Battles Ashwatthama
Krishna wheels the chariot over to where Ashwatthama is stationed.
And he says to the son of Drona, ‘The time has come, O hero, for those that are dependent on others to repay their obligation to their masters. Disputes between Brahmins are subtle and layered, their debates are nuanced.
‘But when Kshatriyas fight, it is with weapons, and there is always a winner and a loser. For obtaining the excellent rites of hospitality that you have asked for, stand now and fight with the son of Pandu.’
Thus develops a battle between Arjuna and Ashwatthama, While the two men are trading blows, the Samshaptakas surround Ashwatthama and attempt to support him in his quest to defeat Arjuna.
But the son of Kunti displays rare lightness of hand, on the one hand defending himself against the full brunt of Ashwatthama’s assault, and on the other shooting thousands of arrows at the Samshaptaka army.
So all around these two chariots – one belonging to Arjuna, the other to Ashwatthama – headless trunks and limbless bodies fall to the ground, accompanied by death cries of humans and beasts alike.
Ashwatthama is Defeated
For a long time Arjuna spars with Ashwatthama, and the battle does not tilt any one way. Krishna is not impressed by this.
‘Why do you tarry in this manner fighting your preceptor’s son, Partha?’ he asks. ‘If treated with indifference, even this man has the power to kill all of your kinsmen. So show no mercy toward him. Slay him right now!’
Arjuna is spurred on by these words, and he sets about cutting off the reins tethered to Ashwatthama’s horses.
And with the steeds running away from the battlefield due to fear, Arjuna continues to shoot arrows at them, piercing their sides with the intention of driving them away faster.
With Ashwatthama thus removed from the battlefield, the Kaunteya once again trains his attention on the Samshaptakas.
Karna versus Nakula
Nakula, meanwhile, gets checked by Karna, and the Pandava says, ‘After a long time the gods have favoured me, O Vaikartana. You are the root of all these evils, this hostility, this quarrel.
It is through your fault that the Kauravas are seeing their numbers dwindle thus. Killing you in battle today, I will regard myself as one who has achieved his life’s object. Come, O Radheya, and fight with me.’
Karna smiles at his younger brother’s bravado. ‘Strike me, O hero,’ he says, leaning on his bow. ‘I desire to witness your manliness. Only after having achieved something do you earn the right to boast, O son of Madri.
‘Those that are the best of warriors do not indulge in bragging; they allow their actions to speak for them.’
A long and fierce battle ensues then between the two, and they succeed in breaking each other’s bow. The Somakas come up to support Nakula, whereas some forces of Duryodhana arrive to fight alongside Karna.
Nakula is Spared
The two warriors alternate between fighting each other and the armies that are arrayed in front of them. But little by little, Karna inches ahead in the duel, and the number of arrows he shoots into the sky seems to rise every moment.
Nakula tries to flee from this encounter now, having lost his weapon again, but Karna chases him and places his bow around the neck of the Pandava.
‘The words you have uttered are futile, O Prince,’ he tells him. ‘Can you say them again now, while your life is at my mercy? Do not fight those who are superior to you, child. Run away to where Janardana and Falguna are fighting, for that is your place.’
Nakula is, needless to say, ashamed beyond reason for having lost to Karna. He goes to where Yudhishthir is fighting and licks his wounds.
The End of Day 16
Arjuna approaches Karna now and makes a bid to challenge him to a duel.
As the Gandiva bends into a semicircle with Arjuna seemingly dancing on top of his chariot, a number of heavy arrows fill the sky, and they fall with unerring aim upon the soldiers surrounding the son of Radha.
Like a tempest destroying the clouds, Arjuna scatters the thousands of men fighting for Duryodhana, severing their limbs, killing their horses, demolishing their chariots, and taking their lives.
At this time, Karna is fighting Satyaki. But when he sees Arjuna approach, he trains his attention toward the Pandava.
A number of Pandavas now rally around Satyaki to strengthen the attack on Karna. These include Shikhandi, the Upapandavas, Uttamaujas, Yuyutsu, Dhrishtadyumna and Yudhishthir.
With them circling Vaikartana from all sides, the latter still manages to hold his own, first defending himself and then arresting each warrior in turn.
Ultimately, the much-awaited encounter between Karna and Arjuna does come to pass.
But the sun is about to set, and the Kaurava troops, seeing that they have sustained heavy losses on this day, hasten to blow on their conches to call for the end of battle.
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