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 17 of the Mahabharata war?
Karna’s Analysis – 1
At the end of the sixteenth day, Karna gives Duryodhana some analysis on how his skills as warrior stack up against Arjuna’s.
‘The energy of my celestial weapons, O King,’ he says, ‘is equal to the energy of Arjuna’s. In the art of counteracting one’s foes, in lightness of hand, in range of arrows shot, in skill and marksmanship, I am as good as the ambidextrous one.
‘My bow, called Vijaya, is the foremost of its kind. It was crafted by none other than Vishwakarma, and it was used in battle by Indra to vanquish the Danavas.
‘Its twang sent shivers down the spines of thousands of Asuras down the ages. Indra gave this bow to the son of Bhrigu (Parashurama), and from him did I obtain it. It is as good as the Gandiva.
‘It is with this bow that Parashurama exterminated the race of Kshatriyas twenty one times, and with its help I will make the very earth tremble, O King!’
Having said this, Karna now turns his mind toward areas in which he is inferior to Arjuna.
Karna’s Analysis – 2
‘Listen, O King,’ Karna continues, ‘as I tell you of areas in which I consider myself inferior to Arjuna. The string of his bow is celestial in nature, and it cannot ever be broken by an arrow.
‘His quivers are said to be inexhaustible, which means that he can never be disarmed in the midst of battle.
‘His chariot is decked with gold, and it has been given him by none other than Agni. It is imperishable to all weapons, earthly or divine. His horses are manned by Krishna, who is the creator and protector of the universe.
‘Due to this, no warrior who has ever fought Arjuna has managed to cripple him by wounding his charioteer or by destroying his vehicle. The standard under which he fights, bearing the great ape Hanuman, is powerful enough to strike terror in the minds of any foe.
‘Despite all of this, I intend to fight him. But let a number of carts be assigned to follow me, O King, while I pursue victory with the diadem-decked.
‘Let these carts contain hundreds of quivers holding my long, winged shafts. Arrange for these carts to be drawn by the most excellent steeds, so that I might replace my horses with them in case they get injured.
‘And finally, let me be given a charioteer that is equal in might to that of Vasudeva.’
Karna asks for Shalya
Duryodhana looks around him at the assembled heroes. ‘Who among us can claim to be as skilled as Krishna?’ he asks.
‘The king of the Madras,’ replies Karna, ‘is said to be deeply acquainted with equine lore. There is also none among our live atirathas who can match him in strength or skill.
‘If he holds the reins of my chariot and leads me into battle against Arjuna, I will have risen to equal the son of Kunti in every way, and from there I shall cause his defeat and your eventual victory.’
Duryodhana takes this request to Shalya, and understandably, the latter is less than impressed by it. He finally agrees after much persuading on Duryodhana’s part, but only after placing a condition that will later prove to be decisive.
Shalya tells Duryodhana that he should be at complete liberty to say whatever he wishes to Karna during his stint as charioteer.
Karna Enters the Battlefield
As the chariots make their way to the edge of the battlefield, Duryodhana turns to Karna and tells him, ‘The ruler of the Madras, my friend, who is superior to Krishna and who is like Matali, the charioteer of Indra, will act as your driver today.
‘With you as the warrior and him holding the reins of your horses, I have no doubt that you will vanquish the third son of Kunti today.’
When Shalya approaches the chariot, Karna cheerfully greets him and asks him to ready the vehicle for his use. Having duly equipped that car with weapons and armour, the Madra king bows to the son of Adiratha and says:
‘Blessed be you, O king of Anga, and may you be graced with victory.’ And as the two heroes claim their respective spots, they look like Surya and Agni being seated on a cloud in the firmament.
Shalya Cautions Karna
As they make their way onto the field, Shalya cautions his ‘master’.
‘O Sutaputra,’ he says, taking care to use the same derogatory epithet that Duryodhana had tried so hard to banish. ‘Why do you think so low of the sons of Pandu, all of whom are endued with great merit?
‘They are all great bowmen; they display unbelievable skill with all weapons; they are invincible; they are good; they are men of many friends.
‘When you hear the twang of the Gandiva in battle, O Karna, resembling the peal of thunder, you will find then that these speeches of false courage will desert you.
‘When you see Nakula and Sahadeva and Yudhishthir and Bhimasena in their chariots, sending their arrows into the sky and forming a canopy with them, your words will die in your throat before they can find shape on your tongue.’
Thus, instead of encouraging Karna like a normal charioteer would, Shalya spends the entire day singing the Pandavas’ praises.
Yudhishthir fights Karna
Karna’s first battle of the day is with the Panchalas. Despite their best efforts, they are not able to block Karna’s path toward Yudhishthir.
When he comes face to face with the eldest son of Pandu, Karna challenges him to a duel.
‘Karna,’ says Yudhishthir, ‘Karna, Karna, of vain sight, O Sutaputra, listen to my words. You have always challenged the invincible Falguna in battle.
‘Obedient to the counsels of the son of Dhritarashtra, you have always spoken to oppose us. Mustering all your great prowess, show me today all your might, and all your hatred for us. I shall fight you, and free you of your desire to hold your bow.’
Karna just smiles in response, and receives on his chest ten iron-tipped shafts made with wings of gold released from Yudhishthir’s bow. Then he pierces the armour of Kunti’s son with great care, using ten arrows shaped like a calf’s tooth.
Then with ninety arrows he strips off the armour of his opponent, causing it to fall to the dust and leaving the body of the eldest Pandava vulnerable to further attacks.
Yudhishthir is Spared
Piercing him at various points and making him bleed, Karna chases a fleeing Yudhishthir. He catches up with him and places his hand over the king’s shoulder. Just as he is considering landing the final blow, he is reminded of his promise to Kunti.
‘How, indeed,’ he says, ‘were you born a Kshatriya when you think nothing of turning around and showing your back to your enemy? Endued with the force of Brahma, you are devoted to the study of Vedas, O Dharmaraja, not to the study of war.
‘Do not make the mistake of taking to the battlefield once again, because you might not find an enemy as merciful as me.’
With these words he lets Yudhishthir go, and as the latter’s chariot snakes its way into the Pandava ranks, the rest of the Pandava warriors – Shikhandin, Dhrishtadyumna, Satyaki and the Upapandavas – also follow their king, taking their divisions with them.
Watching the Pandavas thus retreat before the powerful Karna, the Kaurava soldiers emit loud cries of triumph.
Discord between Brothers
As afternoon approaches, Arjuna and Krishna come to Yudhishthir’s tent worried about his welfare. Yudhishthir makes the mistaken assumption that Arjuna has come to share with him the news that Karna has been killed.
Yudhishthir therefore prematurely congratulates Arjuna. And Arjuna hastens to correct his elder brother.
Yudhishthir is struck by a rare moment of anger. He says, ‘You have promised us all many times that you will kill Karna, O Falguna. But seventeen days have passed and Karna still lives.
‘Why do you still carry the divine bow Gandiva when you’re so unworthy of it? Give it to a more deserving warrior and let him carry your mantle!’
Arjuna, in turn, is hurt by his elder brother’s words. With his eyes blazing, he reaches for his sword.
At this moment, Krishna intervenes and places a kindly hand on his friend’s shoulder. ‘Do you really need, Partha,’ he says, ‘the ignominy of having raised a weapon on your own elder brother?
‘Whatever Dharmaraja says, he does so out of anger and pain, and out of love for you. Take his admonition as a blessing, and put aside your anger.’
Arjuna then reveals that he had taken an oath once that whoever suggests that he should give up the Gandiva will be killed by him. ‘How can I fulfil my oath now, Krishna,’ he asks, ‘without hurting my brother?’
Krishna tells Arjuna that he should insult Yudhishthir with words instead. ‘When an older person attracts verbal abuse from his younger brother, he is said to be as good as dead.’
Latching onto this idea, Arjuna launches into a litany of complaints against Yudhishthir.
Arjuna Insults Yudhishthir
Arjuna turns to Yudhishthir now and says these words: ‘Do not, O King, address me with such harsh words. I do not deserve to hear such things from you.
‘Bhimasena, however, who is battling with and killing all our enemies as we speak, might upbraid me as he wishes. In addition to killing thousands of great soldiers, he has also slain upwards of a thousand elephants and ten thousand Kamboja warriors.
‘The learned say that the strength of a Brahmin lies in his speech and the strength of a Kshatriya lies in his arms. If that diktat is true, O King, then Bhima is the best of us all. He has just today split the frontal lobes of eight hundred elephants.
‘I shall hear any words of reproach from him, but not from you, who has never shown any strength or skill as a fighter, and who has forever relied upon the protection of the rest of us.
‘Lying on Draupadi’s bed, you have insulted me even though I have resolved to kill the mightiest warriors for your sake. It is for your sake that Bhishma had to be killed by the guileless Shikhandi. I do not derive any happiness or pleasure from you, O King.
‘You did not listen to Sahadeva’s warning that the dice game ought to be avoided. You did not flinch before killing Dronacharya by uttering an untruth. Having embraced wicked deeds in this manner, how dare you now insult me with your barbs?’
After getting this far, Arjuna finds his hands shivering with contrition. He cannot believe that he has just said all these words against his brother. Drawing his sword once again, he looks at Krishna with bloodshot eyes, and the prince of Dwaraka smiles at him.
‘Easy with that weapon, Partha,’ he says. ‘Just speaking these words against Dharmaraja is affecting you thus; how deep would your sorrow have been had you killed him? And without you and Yudhishthir, can the rest of the Pandavas even hope to win this war?’
Yudhishthir also gets up to his feet and hugs his brother. ‘Forgive me, Arjuna,’ he says, ‘for the words I spoke to you earlier. And I receive all that you said to me as true.
‘I humbly accept that it is I who has led you all to this great sacrifice. Lay down that sword, O Jishnu, for what need is there of a weapon between brothers?’
Arjuna now makes further amends for his words by performing a rite in Yudhishthir’s honour, washing the older one’s feet and chanting some verses from the Vedas.
After this is done, Yudhishthir blesses Arjuna with victory in the upcoming battle with Karna.
Bhima versus Duhsasana
Meanwhile, a decisive fight breaks out now between Duhsasana and Bhimasena. The latter draws first blood in this challenge, breaking the bow of his opponent and killing his driver.
But the son of Dhritarashtra is equal to the task of defending himself, picking up a new weapon in the blink of an eye, and shooting a cloud of arrows at Bhima while holding the reins of his horses himself.
A bright shaft decked with gold and diamonds now leaves his bow, and pierces through the armour of Vrikodara, at which the latter staggers back and falls down on the terrace of his car, losing consciousness for a while.
But he is up presently, and hurls a fierce dart at Duhsasana. The weapon hits its target, and carries the Kaurava prince a length of ten bows away from his chariot.
Bhima descends from his own car and runs to where Duhsasana lies prostrate, and with his foot placed on the prince’s chest, looks around at Karna, Suyodhana, Kripa, Ashwatthama and Kritavarma, as if challenging them.
‘Today I am going to slay this wretched one,’ he says. ‘May the powerful warriors of the Kaurava army protect him if they can.’
Picking up a sword and slicing open the chest of his enemy, Bhima then pounds the heel of his foot down on Duhsasana’s throat, not paying attention to whether he is alive or dead.
Crazed with rage, he straddles the son of Dhritarashtra and drinks his warm lifeblood before chopping off his head with two swipes of his sword.
‘I regard my enemy’s blood,’ he declares, ‘to be tastier than my mother’s milk, or honey, or clarified butter, or even ambrosia or nectar that the gods drink!’
The Big Fight
Karna and Arjuna finally come face to face with one another. Their battle is punctuated by the following beats:
- Arjuna begins with shooting numerous earthly weapons, and works up toward the Agneyastra, which lights up all the cardinal points in the welkin and threatens to douse the entire battlefield in fire.
- Karna counters it ably, though, with the Varunastra, which summons rolling black clouds that bring with them rain to quench the hungry flames.
- A Naga named Aswasena appears on the scene now and reveals himself as one of the survivors of the Khandava fire. He becomes an arrow which Karna fits onto his bow and shoots at Arjuna.
- The arrow is superbly aimed, because it makes its way toward Arjuna’s head. Just as it is about to hit him, though, Krishna stamps down on his chariot and causes the wheel to sink into the mud – thus knocking off Arjuna’s crown instead.
- Krishna then leaps off the chariot to drag the vehicle’s wheel back onto firm ground.
- Aswasena ask Karna to shoot him again at Arjuna. But Karna refuses because it is improper for a warrior to shoot the same arrow twice at the same enemy.
The battle resumes. And after a while, Karna senses his chariot tilt to one side.
Karna’s Chariot Tilts
In the midst of his battle with Arjuna, Karna hears a quiet whisper from Kala, the personification of time. He glides into Karna’s ear and says, ‘It is time.’
No sooner does the son of Radha hear these words than he senses his chariot tilt to one side. Losing balance momentarily, Karna strives to remember the chant of the Brahmastra as taught him by Parashurama, but he forgets it.
‘We are told that Dharma protects those that are righteous,’ he says loudly, to the darkening sky at large. ‘But it is Dharma that is destroying me now, me who has been its most dutiful son.’
Even as arrow after arrow speeds through the air and strikes him at various parts of his body, Karna continues to ask fate these questions. ‘What more can one man do than I have done? What more can the universe expect of me? What more?’
Sensing Arjuna approach, and watching his wheel sunk into the earth, Karna raises his voice and appeals to his opponent. ‘You are the bravest warrior in the world, O Partha,’ he says.
‘And you have gained a reputation for being among the most righteous. Do not shoot at a man whose armour has been displaced, and whose chariot has broken.
‘Allow me a moment to bring my wheel out of the ground, and we can fight once again as equals. Recollect all that you have been taught by Dronacharya, O Falguna, and excuse me for just long enough so that I may ascend my chariot once again.’
Krishna then launches into a ruthless recounting of all of Karna’s misdeeds.
He reminds Arjuna of Draupadi’s disrobing. Of Shakuni and the game of dice. Of the house of wax. Of the way in which Abhimanyu was hunted down on the thirteenth day.
‘You are now speaking in the language of Dharma,’ says Krishna, ‘only because you think that you will appeal to Dhananjaya’s good side, O Sutaputra. But it will not help you. He will not spare you today.’
With Karna’s face reddening with shame, Krishna turns to Arjuna and commands him to draw his most powerful weapons. ‘This is your moment, Partha,’ he says.
‘A quiver full of arrows rests on your shoulder. Your foremost enemy stands in front of you. The Gandiva is in your hands. Victory is in our sight. Draw the bow. Pull the string. Let the arrow fly.’
Arjuna now sets upon his bow an Anjalika that resembles the thunderbolt of Indra. Resembling the Pinaka and the Narayana discus, it measures three cubits and six feet in length.
Seeing him preparing to release this arrow at Karna, the mobile and immobile creatures of the world huddle together in part anticipation, part fear.
With his eyes closed, Arjuna says, ‘Let this shaft of mine be endued with the power of Truth, and may that Truth slay Karna. May this accord me the victory that I deserve.’
Karna throws down his bow and adopts a stance of welcome, as if he can see a message of doom written on the Gandiva. The Anjalika cuts through the air and pierces him in the throat. The next moment, his trunk is separated from his head.
With this, the seventeenth day of the Mahabharata war comes to an end.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- Bhima: 10 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Krishna: 36 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered