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 18 of the Mahabharata war?
Shalya Becomes Leader
All the prominent Kuru warriors (those of them left alive) gather around Duryodhana now and give him their allegiance once again.
‘You are a wise man, O King,’ they tell him. ‘We must fight by all means, but before we do so, let us elect one of our atirathas as the commander of the army.’
Approaching the illustrious Ashwatthama, Duryodhana asks, ‘You, our preceptor’s son, are our highest refuge today. Tell us, therefore, who is to become the supreme commander of our forces now, so that we might together vanquish the powerful Pandavas?’
And the son of Drona answers, ‘Let Shalya become the leader of our army. In prowess, energy, fame, beauty of person, and in every other accomplishment, he has no peer.
‘Mindful of the services rendered to him by us, he has chosen to fight on our side even against the sons of his own sister. Like Kartikeya assuming generalship of the forces of Indra, may Shalya lead us into battle and toward victory.’
Duryodhana then makes a formal offer to Shalya to assume leadership of the entire Kaurava army, and the latter agrees.
The Eighteenth Morning
Shalya is at the head of the array that is formed on the eighteenth morning, accompanied by the brave Madrakas and the invincible sons of Karna. On the left is Kritavarma, at the head of the Trigartas.
On the right is Kripacharya with the Sakas and the Yavanas. Ashwatthama takes charge of the rear, surrounded by a mighty Kamboja force. Right in the middle of this formation, as usual, is Duryodhana.
The relative strengths of the two armies, as of this morning, are as follows:
The Kaurava force has 11,000 chariots, 10,700 elephants, 200,000 horses, and three million footmen. On the side of the Pandavas, there are 6,000 chariots, 6,000 elephants, 10,000 horses and one million footmen.
Bhima Fights Shalya
Shalya immediately gets into his groove and begins to exert himself on the Panchala army. Seeing this, Bhima uses his mace to good effect, killing the Madra king’s all four horses.
Suddenly rendered immobile, Shalya picks up a lance and throws it at his opponent. It finds its mark, even slices through Bhima’s torso, but the latter pulls it out and uses it as a weapon on Shalya’s charioteer.
With the driver and the steeds killed, Shalya picks up a mace and descends to the ground, intending to challenge the son of Vayu to single combat.
The mace of Shalya is wrapped around the head with a shining cloth of gold, and when he waves it, it looks like a sheet of fire. Bhima’s weapon, on the other hand, is silver-hued, so it appears like a streak of lightning.
Each time these clubs strike one another, they produce sparks and sounds that resemble the rays of the sun and rain-filled clouds respectively.
After a long and even battle, both Bhima and Shalya fall to the ground at the same time, and Kripa takes advantage of the moment to swoop in and rescue the Madra king in his chariot.
Yudhishthir Takes a Vow
As the day progresses, however, Shalya returns to torment the Panchala and Somaka forces.
Seeing that his army is being routed by the skill of one man, Yudhishthir seethes in rage. Summoning all his brothers, in the presence of Krishna he takes a vow.
‘Bhishma, Drona and Karna,’ he says, ‘have put forth their powers for the sake of Duryodhana, and you have all fought to make sure that all of them were defeated. Only my share of the spoils – the impetuous Shalya – is still alive.
‘I wish today to defeat and kill the Madraka emperor, so that our victory in this war will be assured.’
He then goes on to assign roles to his colleagues. ‘Nakula and Sahadeva, the sons of Madri,’ he says, ‘will be the protectors of my front wheels. The grandson of Sini will protect my right rear wheel, and Dhrishtadyumna my left.
‘Let the son of Pritha, Dhananjaya, guard my rear as I embark upon this quest today. And let Bhimasena fight in front of my chariot, clearing the path of my vehicle.’
Yudhishthir Fights Shalya
The normally mild and soft-spoken Yudhishthir displays his fierce form now in his challenge with Shalya, sporting like a mighty wind eager to disperse all clouds from the sky.
Seeing him in this avatar, the Kaurava forces surrounding the Madra king are struck by fear, and they become fodder to the arrows of Arjuna, sped at them expertly from the rear of Yudhishthir’s chariot.
But Shalya declares to his followers that he will hold Yudhishthir back, and true to his word, shoots hundreds of arrows at the first son of Kunti. In return, he receives three hundred shafts, each bending toward him in the air.
Four of these strike down his horses, and two of them destroy his standard. His bow is also broken in two by the arrows of Yudhishthir, at which Shalya throws it away in disgust and picks up another, stronger one.
Shalya Battles Valiantly
It is now Shalya’s turn to tilt the balance of the battle in his favour. With two keen-edged arrows, he strips Yudhishthir of his armour, and with four more he kills his opponent’s steeds.
One broad-headed shaft accounts for the Kaunteya’s bow, and with nine arrows, he pierces the arms of both Yudhishthir and Bhimasena.
After having temporarily incapacitated them both, Shalya turns his attention once again toward the troops fighting around the Pandavas’ chariots.
Dhrishtadyumna, Shikhandi, the Upapandavas and the grandson of Sini all come together to mount a combined assault on Shalya now, giving the two Pandavas and the soldiers a reprieve.
While the king of Madra is otherwise engaged with these men, Yudhishthir, standing atop his stationary chariot devoid of horses and driver, takes up a dart whose handle is adorned with gold and gemstones.
Created by Tvashtri for the use of Isana, this dart resembles Kalaratri (death of the night), and it is a consumer of life force of all its foes. King Yudhishthir hurls it in Shalya’s direction with the words:
‘You are slain, O Madraka!’ But to everyone’s astonishment, the Kaurava hero catches the flying dart with his bare hands, and for a moment appears to have controlled it.
However, the dart has enough momentum behind it to pierce the unarmoured heart of Shalya. It passes through his body like a bolt of flame cuts through a slab of butter.
With blood spilling from his nostrils, eyes, ears and mouth, Shalya looks at that instant like the Krauncha mountain pierced by the weapon of Skanda. He staggers this way and that for a few seconds, and then a great fatigue envelops him, and he falls to the ground.
The death of Shalya throws the entire Kuru army into a state of chaos.
Ashwatthama, Kripa and Kritavarma try to rally the forces, but they suddenly realize that Duryodhana is not among them. Fearing the worst, they ask the Kshatriyas fighting in the vicinity about the king’s whereabouts.
Some of them reply that Duryodhana had gone to Shakuni, but other wounded soldiers chastise these warriors, asking why they cared about the king more than they did for them.
The Pandavas have just finished dealing with the three thousand elephants, and now they are making way toward the chariot division of the Kuru army.
As soldiers straighten their backs and prepare for the onslaught, Ashwatthama and the other two heroes abandon the force and retreat deeper into the ranks, ostensibly in search of Duryodhana.
Sahadeva Kills Shakuni
Shakuni and his son Uluka together take on Sahadeva during the afternoon of Day 18. At first they overwhelm the Pandava together. But Sahadeva recovers and shoots a fatal arrow at Uluka, beheading him.
Seeing his son being killed in front of his eyes, Shakuni remembers for a moment the wise words of Vidura that he had never paid attention to.
Taking up a formidable scimitar, he throws it in Sahadeva’s direction, hoping that it would exact his revenge for him, but the son of Madri cuts it down mid-flight with a few arrows.
Then he takes up a sword and a mace, only to see both of them being broken into pieces by Sahadeva’s arrows.
Sensing that things are getting a little dire for him, the Gandhara king turns and attempts to flee from the field. Shakuni is not eager to fight, but Sahadeva overtakes him and forces him to do so.
In the ensuing battle, after having destroyed yet another lance that the Gandhara king hurls at him, the Madreya sends an iron-tipped arrow flying out of his bow that cuts off the trunk of Shakuni from the head.
All the Pandavas rejoice at the death of this man who was at the root of all the evil that has come to afflict the Kuru dynasty.
Duryodhana is Found
Meanwhile, Kripa, Kritavarma and Ashwatthama come to the lake where Duryodhana is hiding, and attempt to draw him out so that they may go back to the battlefield and fight again.
Ashwatthama, for his part, is particularly rambunctious. ‘Arise, O King,’ he says. ‘We can still vanquish the foe if you come out and fight. The forces of the Pandavas have also thinned. They will not be able to survive if we gather our army once again and fight.’
Duryodhana, though, is not keen. ‘The sun has almost set for today, O Drauna,’ he says. ‘By good fortune the three of you have escaped the Pandavas. Let us rest for the night, and tomorrow we can mount an attack afresh on the enemy.
‘Though your hearts are noble and your devotion to me is great, this is perhaps not the time to show our prowess. Let us lie low for a few hours and resume our battle tomorrow.’
While they are talking in this fashion, a group of hunters – who had been instructed by the Pandavas to search for Duryodhana – pass by that way and overhear the words.
Realizing that they had found the Kuru king, they hurry back to the battlefield and inform Yudhishthir of what they had seen.
The Pandavas Arrive
The five Pandavas, along with Dhrishtadyumna, Shikhandi, the Upapandavas, Satyaki Yudhamanyu and Uttamaujas follow the hunters and reach the lake where Duryodhana is hiding. Hearing them approach, the three Kaurava warriors move away from there.
Yudhishthir leads his small band of warriors to the lake, and they stand on its bank, looking around to see where Duryodhana is hiding. Then the eldest Pandava happens to look at the water’s surface, and sees that it has been solidified by magic.
Pointing it to Krishna, he says, ‘Look, Vasudeva, Duryodhana has frozen this lake with his powers of illusion. It is my presumption, therefore, that he is hiding under it.’
Krishna smiles in agreement, and with his own powers he shatters the spell that Duryodhana had cast on the water. This reveals him in full sight, and the Pandavas encircle him.
Bhima versus Duryodhana
Duryodhana now speaks with Yudhishthir and throws him a challenge: I will fight any one of your brothers in a one-to-one duel. If I win, give me my kingdom. If I lose, the kingdom is yours.
This is, of course, a ridiculous proposal because Yudhishthir has already won the war. But much to everyone surprise – and Krishna’s considerable anger – the eldest Pandava agrees to Duryodhana’s offer.
Thus, a mace-fight is arranged between Bhima and Duryodhana.
Bhima is confident that he will defeat Duryodhana. But alarmingly, Duryodhana is ready too with mace held over his shoulder, standing with his legs parted, sturdy as the mountain Kailasa with all its crests. He shows no anxiety or fear.
Arjuna Strikes his Thigh
As the battle progresses, it becomes apparent to watchers why Duryodhana was so sure of himself. Despite Bhima’s full exertions, he fails to land any significant blows on his opponent.
Arjuna’s brow creases in worry when he sees this. He asks Krishna who among Bhima and Duryodhana is the more powerful mace fighter.
And Krishna replies: ‘Unless Bhima uses underhanded methods, he cannot kill Duryodhana.’
Arjuna takes Krishna’s assessment as true. He then catches the eye of Bhima and strikes his thigh meaningfully, indicating that Bhima should aim to hit Duryodhana there.
Bhima catches the hint, and the next available opportunity, brings his weapon down with all its weight on top of Duryodhana’s thighs.
With a gut-wrenching howl, Duryodhana falls to the ground. The Pandavas declare themselves victors of the war.
Duryodhana rises one last time for a moment to deliver a pronouncement addressing Yudhishthir.
‘I governed the wide earth with all her seas,’ he says, ‘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, and for the rest of eternity, celestial pleasures will be mine.
As for you, O son 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, while I enjoy the pleasures of heaven!’
The End of Day 18
The eighteenth day ends on this note. A few important events that occur late in the evening:
- Sanjaya, the narrator of the war, is spared by the Pandavas and he goes to Dhritarashtra.
- Yuyutsu, Duryodhana’s half-brother who switched sides to fight for the Pandavas, leaves for Hastinapur to break news of the Pandavas’ victory to the Kuru household.
- Ashwatthama, Kripa and Kritavarma come back to discuss strategy with Duryodhana.
- Krishna takes the Pandavas and goes to the bank of the river Oghavati, where they spend the night.
With this, the war ‘officially’ comes to a close. But Ashwatthama is yet to make his last stand.
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