Mahabharata Episode 37: Rathas and Atirathas

Rathas and Atirathas - Featured Image - Picture of a warrior leaping into the air on horseback

In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes. This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.

(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 36: Dhrishtadyumna Leads. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

Here’s what we will cover in this episode:

Two Classes of Warriors

There appear to be two classes of warriors according to the Mahabharata: rathas and atirathas. The word maharathais also used every now and then, but the same person classified as a maharatha is later referred to as an atiratha.

So it seems that the words atiratha and maharatha are synonymous. An atiratha is considered to be as strong as eight rathas.

During the night before the first day of battle, Bhishma reinforces his pledge to Duryodhana that he will fight to the very best of his abilities.

‘I am well-versed in all mighty affairs, O Prince,’ he says, ‘and also in all kinds of battle formations prevalent in the three worlds today. I know how to make soldiers and volunteers play their parts well. I know when to press forward in attack and when to retreat.

‘Do not doubt that I will confound the Pandavas with my tactics. And if you think that I will not fight with all my heart because it is the sons of Pandu I face, then I must implore you to rest easy, my son. I am bound by Kshatriya honour to leave everything out on the field.’

Duryodhana replies, ‘I have no fear at all, O Grandsire, if even all the gods and Asuras would unite together against us, because you are our commander. Indeed, who can fight against you and win?

‘I do have a desire, though, of knowing who among our warriors can be counted as rathas and who as atirathas. Please tell me this.’

Thousands of Rathas

‘There are many thousands of rathas in your army, O Prince,’ says Bhishma, ‘but I will tell you of the principal ones. The hundred Kauravas, you and Duhsasana included, are the foremost of them. All of you are skilled in striking, cutting and piercing.

‘All of you are accomplished drivers of chariots, and you can manage elephants while seated on their necks. You can handle maces, darts, swords and bucklers. You are accomplished in use of weapons, and you can bear easily the burdens of leadership.

‘I must begin, I suppose, with myself. It would not be right to classify myself, but you know me. You can place me in either group as per your wish. The chief of the Bhojas, Kritavarma, is an atiratha.

‘So is Shalya, the ruler of the Madra kingdom. He is strong enough to face any of the maharathas of the Pandava army. Bhurishrava, the son of Somadatta, is also an atiratha.

‘Jayadratha, the king of the Saindhavas, in my view, is equal unto two rathas. Sudakshina, the ruler of the Kambojas, is also a ratha. So is King Nila of Mahishmati, whom Sahadeva encountered all those years ago.

‘Vinda and Anuvinda of Avanti are also rathas, who will fight for your sake like a couple of elephants. The five brothers of Trigarta are also rathas, among whom Satyartha is perhaps the strongest.’

Bhishma on Ashwatthama

‘The mighty bowman Ashwatthama,’ says Bhishma, ‘the son of Drona, is acquainted with all modes of warfare, and he displays remarkable calm when faced with weapons. He is capable of being a maharatha.

‘Like Arjuna, he is able to shoot arrows from his bow with such speed that the shafts look as though they are proceeding in a single line, touching one another. He has the added advantage of being favoured by the knowledge of his father.

‘If he has one defect in him, O Prince, he is exceedingly fond of his life, and sometimes, even the most skilful of warriors loses to one who is more desperate.’

Bhishma therefore classifies Ashwatthama as an atiratha based on skill, but by temperament he is more of a ratha.

We can take his to mean that we can expect Ashwatthama to match the best of warriors when he is in the right ‘mood’, but he is also capable of fighting well below his potential.

On Drona and Bhagadatta

‘Drona, the son of Bharadwaja, the preceptor of all the Kuru princes, is also a maharatha. We must be wary of him because he loves Arjuna more than anything else in the world, and he might not find it within him to slay Partha if the opportunity arises.

‘But otherwise, he is the best of all our warriors.

‘Vrishasena, the son of Karna, is a maharatha as well. Jalasandha, the foremost king of the Madhu race, is a ratha. Bahlika, Satyavan and Alambusha are all maharathas, capable of routing the entire Pandava army on their own.

‘The brave Bhagadatta, the ruler of Pragjyotisha, is a maharatha as well. I have heard stories of his long battle with Arjuna that was broken only when the king offered to the wielder of Gandiva his hand of friendship. There is no doubt that he will fight with all his might, in the manner of the wind-god himself.’

(Of the afore-mentioned atirathas, Vrishasena, Bahlika and Satyavan are not heard from much during the battle. But Drona, Alambusha and Bhagadatta distinguish themselves on various days.)

Karna the Half-ratha

Bhishma has long disliked Karna, ostensibly for the latter’s habit of self-aggrandizement. Secretly, it would not be a surprise if the grandsire held a grudge against Karna for his pivotal role in Draupadi’s disrobing.

Not surprisingly, he has some unkind words in store when it comes to classifying Karna. ‘This vile braggart that you call a friend, the son of Surya, is neither a ratha nor an atiratha.

Without sense, he gave away his natural coat of mail and earrings. He has been cursed to be ineffective in battle by Parashurama. He is known to boast on the eve of every battle, and yet we have seen him retreat like a coward every single time. In my view, Karna, therefore, is only equal to half a ratha.’

Karna Resigns

Angered by this slight, Karna says to Bhishma: ‘in truth, sir, you are the biggest enemy of the Kurus. Right from the beginning, it is your actions that have sown the first seeds of dissatisfaction between Dhritarashtra and Pandu.

‘It is your stupid steadfastness to an oath that has placed the Kuru kingdom at peril. Alas, if you had been more decisive and stern, we might not be standing here, armoured, summoned by battle sirens.

‘And now, while all of us have turned out to do our best for Duryodhana, you once again seek to disunite us by insulting me thus.’

Karna now turns to Duryodhana. ‘My friend, my king,’ he says, ‘be wary of the so called power of Bhishma. He has himself admitted to loving the Pandavas. Where is the possibility, then, of victory?

‘If he cannot be relied upon to fight with Arjuna, Bhimasena and the sons of Madri, of what use is his role as the commander of your forces?

‘The leader of your army ought to be ruthless, O Duryodhana. He must wish to scythe through the warriors that are arrayed on the other side, not hope for peace in the middle of a blood-soaked battlefield.

‘I can defeat the entire Pandava army on my own, Prince, but if I do that, the credit for our success will go to Bhishma, because you have appointed him the commander. So I desist from fighting in this war until Bhishma has fallen.

‘May the world witness my many deeds of valour only after this lowly man has been killed. On the other hand, if he is not defeated at all, victory will be yours, my friend. So you have nothing to worry either way.’

Karna, therefore, sits out the battle during the first ten days of the war when Bhishma is commander.

Thoughts on Karna’s Protest

Karna generally receives a lot of criticism for this decision, and it is well-deserved. If you’re intent on showing loyalty and gratitude toward your friend, you should rise above some petty arguments with Bhishma and get on with it.

But not enough is said, in my opinion, about Bhishma. In this particular case, it is clearly Bhishma who is the instigator. Karna is minding his own business when Bhishma needles him with an unnecessary barb.

By classifying the likes of Shakuni and Duhsasana as rathas and placing Karna on a rung below them, Bhishma is displaying unusually cattish behaviour. For all his claims of being the most experienced warrior and so on, he sabotages Duryodhana’s campaign right from the beginning.

It is so out of character, in fact, that we must consider whether Bhishma is doing this deliberately. If Bhishma’s intention is to bring the war to a peaceful conclusion by eliminating all of the Pandavas’ forces, then he is better served without Karna taking the field.

If Duryodhana is right and if Bhishma is truly partial to the Pandavas (Arjuna in particular), this is exactly what he would do: knowing Karna’s proclivity toward pride, he would push the right buttons and hope to safeguard Arjuna.

At the end, though, whether Bhishma does this deliberately or because he cannot help himself, he must take more of the blame than Karna for the latter’s sabbatical from the war.

A Class of his Own

While discussing the strengths of the Pandava army, Bhishma says Yudhishthir, Nakula and Sahadeva are rathas whereas Bhimasena is an atiratha.

Bhima is also, in the opinion of Bhishma, the best all-round hero participating in this battle.

‘With the mace he has no peer,’ he says. ‘Even with bow and arrow, there are very few that can match him. He also has the strength of ten thousand elephants in his arms, which means he can fight from atop a chariot and on foot with equal effectiveness.

‘He is therefore the most versatile of all warriors – adept at using ranged weapons and those of close combat. Even with no weapon, he is mighty enough to strike fear into his opponents.’

‘As for Gudakesha, who wields the Gandiva and is charioteered by none other than Krishna, there is no one among the two armies who can be regarded as his equal. No, not even Karna!

‘Let alone men, that is none among Devas, Asuras, Nagas, Rakshasas and Yakshas who can stand up to Arjuna with the wide range of celestial weapons he wields, and the skill and acumen he possesses.

‘He has the image of Hanuman on his banner, and his horses are white as snow, fleet as the wind. His two quivers of arrows are inexhaustible, they tell me. He bears missiles that have been given him by Indra, Rudra, Kubera, Yama and Varuna.

‘Who can be regarded as equal to that man who slew in battle a thousand Danavas in the city of Hiranyapura? Drona and I will do our best to curtain the advances of this warrior, but he is more skilful, quicker, and younger than both of us.’

In effect, therefore, Bhishma places Arjuna in a class of his own, above the labels of ratha and atiratha.

More Rathas and Atirathas

Bhishma then goes on to discuss some of the better-known heroes of the Pandava side and classifies them. Here’s a quick summary:

  • The five sons of Draupadi are all atirathas. (This is surprising because they do not get much of a mention during the battle.)
  • Abhimanyu is the foremost of all atirathas on the Pandava side, only marginally behind Krishna and Arjuna. (This is not surprising for the heroic deeds the boy performs.)
  • Satyaki is an atiratha, whereas Uttamaujas and Yudhamanyu (Arjuna’s chariot-guardians) are rathas.
  • Virata, Drupada, Kuntibhoja and Vasudeva (Krishna’s father) are considered atirathas by Bhishma. This also stretches belief a little bit because none of the four warriors do anything noteworthy during the battle.
  • Dhrishtaketu, the son of Shishupala, is surprisingly named an atiratha by Bhishma. One wonders then why he is not one of the leaders of the seven akshauhinis.
  • Ghatotkacha is considered an atiratha, whereas Shikhandi and Dhrishtadyumna are rathas.

We must remember here that these are merely Bhishma’s opinions. The warriors themselves may have something to say about these classifications. For instance, it is difficult to imagine someone like Dhrishtadyumna agreeing that he is only a ratha.

On Shikhandi

After classifying the sons of Drupada and finishing the comparison between the two armies, Bhishma lets Duryodhana know that come what may, he will not be able to kill Shikhandi.

‘Arjuna and Vasudeva and all the other lords of the earth, O Duryodhana,’ he says, ‘I will withstand. But I will not strike or slay the son of Drupada, Shikhandi, even if I see him rushing toward me with weapons upraised.

‘In accordance with the vow of Brahmacharya that I took during the marriage of my father Shantanu to Mother Satyavati, I cannot hurt any person who is a woman or who was formerly a woman.’

Duryodhana is perplexed by this, because for all he knows, Shikhandi is a male warrior. ‘What is this about a woman, Grandsire?’ he asks.

‘The man you know as Shikhandi,’ replies Bhishma, ‘was once a woman. He was born as the daughter of Drupada, and she afterward changed herself into a man by means of ascetic practices. I shall therefore not fight him.

He also expresses reservations about killing the Pandavas if the need arises. ‘I will also not be able to kill the Pandavas, O Bharata,’ he says. ‘They are as dear to me as you are, so I am afraid I cannot bring myself to use fatal weapons upon them.

But as I told you before, I will incapacitate them by eliminating their army so that they will be powerless to win against you in due course.’

Duryodhana now wonders why Bhishma cannot kill Shikhandi, and Bhishma narrates the strange but interesting story of Amba – which we will examine more closely in the next episode.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!