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 46: Arjuna Kills Jayadratha. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
Yudhishthir Makes a Request
A short while after Arjuna sets out by himself into the formation of Dronacharya, Yudhishthir hears some harsh notes on the Panchajanya, Krishna’s conch.
And he is immediately stricken with worry. Turning to Satyaki, he says:
‘O foremost among the Vrishnis, I do not see among my warriors anyone who is a greater well-wisher of the Pandavas than you are. Just as Keshava is ever the refuge of the sons of Kunti, so are you, who are equal unto him in powers. So I turn to you in my moment of distress.
‘Like a tempest agitating the very ocean, Falguna has taken it on himself to face the entire army of the Dhartarashtras on his own. Now we cannot see him. Out of sight! And now listen to the drums pounding in the distance. I am afraid that Arjuna is in trouble.
‘Arjuna has penetrated Drona’s multi-layered formation at sunrise. It is now past midday and we have not heard any news of those two heroes. On the other hand, I continue to hear angry notes on the Panchajanya, with utter silence from the Gandiva.’
Yudhishthir now requests Satyaki to go after Arjuna. He says:
‘I have heard that there are three atirathas in the Vrishni race, O Satyaki. One of them is Pradyumna, the son of Krishna, and the other is you. Now follow the trail of your leader’s chariot, O Varshneya, and bring me back news to gladden my heart.’
Satyaki Sets Out
Satyaki is reluctant to obey Yudhishthir, because before leaving on Jayadratha’s trail Arjuna had entrusted the task of protecting Yudhishthir to him. But Yudhishthir is adamant.
So Satyaki passes the responsibility of Yudhishthir’s safety to Bhimasena.
To Yudhishthir he says: ‘Let my chariot also be equipped with five times more weapons than I would need otherwise, King,’ he says, ‘for the Kambojas and the Mlechchas are like fierce snakes brimming with virulent poison. I will also have to encounter the Sakas, who are equal unto Sakra himself. Arrange for all this and I shall waste no more time in breaking forth.’
Satyaki’s chariot is prepared for his quest, and Daruka’s brother is assigned his charioteer. Before leaving, Satyaki passes some last-minute instructions to Bhimasena – and then sets out.
As Satyaki flies over the open plain toward the mouth of the Sakata formation, manned by Drona, Dhrishtadyumna rallies his forces for the Vrishni warrior’s support. ‘Come!’ he calls out. ‘Let us smite the army of the foe that Dronacharya leads, so that the mighty Yuyudhana can pass through easily.’
Passing on Drona
Drona comes to resist him at the mouth of the Sakata Vyuha.
Satyaki first trades a few volleys with him, but soon realizes that the acharya is strong enough to keep him from moving even an inch further all day if he wishes.
After fighting off a particularly thick cloud of arrows, he looks out beyond Drona’s shoulder at the vast expanse of land that he is yet to cover to reach Arjuna.
Perhaps divining his thoughts, Drona says, ‘Your teacher, Arjuna, like a coward, ran away from my challenge by passing me along the flank. I hope you choose to walk the path of a true Kshatriya, and fight me to the end.’
Satyaki immediately instructs his charioteer to make a deft pass from the acharya’s side. As he is passing, he joins his hands and says, ‘A disciple must always follow his teacher. I would lose too much time if I fight with you, O Acharya. So allow me to walk in Arjuna’s footsteps.’
As his vehicle bursts into the formation, the grandson of Sini tells his charioteer: ‘Drona will no doubt follow me. Let us speed through this region, O Suta! Ahead of us you see the Bahlikas and the Rukmarathas fighting side by side. Lead me there!’
After Satyaki successfully passes Drona, the king of the Bhojas challenges him, only to find himself utterly overpowered. He loses his horses and charioteer. He gets pierced through the heart with one of Satyaki’s shafts.
But he fights from atop a stationary vehicle with great purpose, managing to cut off the Vrishni king’s bow and even shatters his coat of armour with a few broad-headed arrows.
But Satyaki has had his chariot well-stocked with reinforcements. In no time at all he picks up another bow and claws himself back, this time covering Kritavarma with a thick round of arrows.
The latter sits down on his chariot for a moment to compose himself, and when he gets back on his feet, he takes to steering the horses of his vehicle with one hand while fighting Satyaki with the other.
This makes onlookers gasp in surprise, even as Yuyudhana laughs in disbelief. Choosing once again not to fight this battle because it can prove to be a long one, he rides past the Bhoja king.
Yuyudhana moves ever onward, joyous that that he has been able to pass both Drona and Kritavarma successfully. He tells his charioteer now:
‘Look at that elephant division that fights under the leadership of Rukmaratha. They are from the Trigarta kingdom, and they pledge allegiance to Duryodhana. They wait in their formation calm as a lake, waiting for me.
But I know that the moment I approach them, they will spring into action like waves of an ocean. So proceed carefully, O Suta, and lead me to them. I will have to fight and defeat this division in order to reach Arjuna.’
A fight develops now between Satyaki and Jalasandha (presumably the name of one of the Trigarta kings). The latter is perched upon an elephant. He takes advantage of his elevated vantage point to rain arrows upon the son of Sini, and breaks the bow of the Vrishni hero.
But Satyaki is not perturbed in the least, picking up another bow in the blink of an eye, and sending sixty arrows at the Trigarta, piercing him in the chest with some of them. And with another well-aimed one he cuts his bow in two.
With two arrows he severs the two arms of the Trigarta king. As the limbs fall from atop the elephant, Satyaki fits another sharp arrow to his bow and aims it at the enemy’s neck.
The headless and armless trunk of Jalasandha now falls to the ground, even as Yuyudhana demolishes the wooden structure on which he sat, mounted on the elephant’s back.
Then he pierces the beast all over its body with arrows, taking care not to kill it so that it might run amok among the Kaurava force.
At the death of Jalasandha, five sons of Dhritarashtra – Durmarshana, Duhsasana, Durmukha, Chitrasena and Vikarna – band together to stall the progress of Satyaki.
Durmarshana shoots twelve arrows at the Varshneya, while Duhsasana strikes him with ten, Vikarna with thirty, Durmukha with ten and Chitrasena with a couple.
Though outnumbered in this battle, Yuyudhana manages to not only defend himself but also injure a couple of his antagonists with his straight shafts.
The five Dhartarashtras thus give Drona the opportunity to catch up with Satyaki, and when the preceptor joins the battle, it suddenly assumes a fiercer tone.
At the same time, Duryodhana enters the fray as well, and a long, vicious duel breaks out between him and the prince of the Vrishnis. It appears as if Duryodhana is on the brink of defeat when Drona steps in and rescues his king.
(This interlude is at odds with the notion that Duryodhana is fighting Arjuna at the rear end of the formation. Or perhaps this battle is happening before Drona gifts Duryodhana the divine armour. If we assume this, about this time, Arjuna is fighting on foot deep within the Kaurava ranks, with Krishna tending to the horses’ wounds.)
In any case, this leads to a showdown between Satyaki and Drona, one that the former is not keen to take part in but is forced to. Drona brings his ruthless avatar to this battle, piercing the grandson of Sini on the forehead and stopping him in his tracks.
Satyaki responds by shooting thousands of short arrows at Drona, with the aim to confound more than wound. Unperturbed, the acharya brings down his opponent’s mast, and injures his charioteer as well.
Now Satyaki repeats the same feat that Kritavarma pulled off earlier, that of holding the reins of his chariot and also fighting Drona at the same time. While doing this, he kills the preceptor’s charioteer, causing the horses to run around in circles.
Drona is unable to aim from a constantly revolving vehicle, and Satyaki takes the opportunity to resume his journey deep into the Kaurava army. (One assumes that his charioteer has recovered by now.)
With Satyaki giving him the slip once again, after his steeds have been tamed by surrounding soldiers, Drona appoints one of them his driver and goes back to the front of his array in order to guard it.
Satyaki Finds Arjuna
The Shurasenas, the Kalingas and the Trigartas come together to check Satyaki, but the latter blows them away like a tornado, sweeping through entire swathes of people with each draw of his weapon.
When he spots Arjuna’s chariot he heaves a long sigh of relief, like a man who had been swimming in a shoreless sea suddenly feels land beneath his feet. He raises his arm and waves at his teacher.
Krishna points his whip and tells Arjuna, ‘Satyaki has come seeking you, Partha. He has fought his way through the entire Kaurava force, starting with Drona, Kritavarma, the Bhojas, and numerous tribes of Mlechchas and Trigartas – just to see you.
‘What a great feat he has performed today, killing so many thousands of men in a bid to stay abreast of your chariot.’
But Arjuna is less than pleased. ‘The arrival of Yuyudhana does not fill me with happiness today, Krishna,’ he says, ‘because I entrusted the safety of Yudhishthir to his hands. And I have my own task, to kill Jayadratha. But watch!
Bhurishrava, the son of Somadatta, is riding toward Satyaki as we speak. Now must I assist him in this fight or should I chase after the Saindhava king? As we stand here considering all these things, the sun is setting!’
Bhurishrava Fights Satyaki
Approaching Satyaki, Bhurishrava says, ‘It is indeed my great fortune that you have come within my range of vision, O Satwata. Let me send you to the abode of Yama and cast the eldest Pandava in shame.
‘By slaying you today I shall gladden the wives of all those men you have killed today, and indeed your leader Dhananjaya will watch me behead you with my arrows.’
Satyaki laughs at this announcement. ‘What is the need for talk between Kshatriyas that meet on the field of battle, O son of Somadatta? Words are as fruitless as the roar of autumnal clouds.
‘You will not succeed in terrifying me with the power of your mouth, so step forward and string your bow. Let your arrows fly at me, so that I may show you the sharpness of mine too.’
The two warriors – one of them fresh, the other tired from an entire day of fighting thousands of men – clash like two thunderbolts. Their battle is well-matched, and they succeed in breaking each other’s chariot.
Fighting on foot now, they pick up a sword and shield each, and display a diverse range of movements. In due course the swords fall off too, and the two warriors go at each other with bare arms.
Sometimes they twine their legs together, at other times they slap their armpits. They roll on the ground, they leap into the air, and they continue to strive to gain an advantage over each other. Watching them engaged thus, Krishna tells Arjuna:
‘Behold the king of the Rurus and the Vrishni sport together like two maddened elephants. Keep your Gandiva on the ready, Partha, for I foresee that your dear friend might need your help in short order.’
Bhurishrava Loses an Arm
As soon as Krishna speaks these words, Bhurishrava gains an advantage in the encounter, seizing Satyaki by the hair and striking him on the chest with his right foot. With the Vrishni prince on the ground and prostrate, Bhurishrava swoops down on him with sword in hand.
But as his right arm rises, a sharp arrow released from the Gandiva whizzes through the air and severs it just above the elbow.
The arm of Bhurishrava falls to the earth to the great surprise of everyone watching, and the fingers are still grasping tight around the handle of the sword. The Kuru warrior looks around, aghast, and finds Arjuna behind him with his bow held aloft.
With a cry of anguish he says, ‘What a cruel deed you have committed, O Partha, in shooting me from behind, when I am not looking. What will you tell Yudhishthir, that you slew Bhurishravas from behind when he was otherwise engaged with another foe?
‘Such an unrighteous act does not befit you, O son of Pandu. But what else can one expect from a warrior guided by the Dwaraka prince, who is forever looking for an unfair edge?
‘Why, O Partha, after having taken your birth as the brother of the righteous Yudhishthir, in the glorious line of Bhishma the just, have you chosen to perform such a sinful act?’
Arjuna’s reply is a ruthless one, emerging from a heart hardened by circumstances surrounding his own son’s death.
(A quick reminder to the reader here: Bhurishrava is the son of Somadatta, who himself is the son of Bahlika. Bahlika is an older brother of Shantanu. So Bhurishrava is an uncle of Arjuna’s.)
‘War is an act of an army fighting against an army, O King,’ he says. ‘Kshatriyas fight with their foes while counting on the strength of their fellow men. Did Duryodhana not challenge us while bragging about the power wielded by Bhishma, Drona and Kripacharya?
‘Protection of your own men is the supreme duty of any Kshatriya engaged in war. Even this has been pronounced in the scriptures. Why, then, should I not protect Satyaki, my disciple and kinsman who has laid down his life for my sake?
‘If I had calmly watched you behead the Varshneya, then it follows that I must calmly watch while Dronacharya attempts to subdue my king Yudhishthir as well. If I do that, then why am I here, venerable one?
‘Sin will attach itself to me without doubt if I stand by and witness my fellow warriors being slain by my enemy. As a fighter, my duty is to fight.
‘As for your claim that you were engaged with someone else while I shot you, then tell me, O King: is it possible in this great war for any warrior to be engaged with just one other man?
‘Satyaki has spent the entire day challenging and being challenged by scores of fighters at a time. Even I had to contend with a veritable ocean of men clad in armour wishing to take my life.
‘If I am wrong for having shot you when you were fighting someone else, then you are wrong too for doing the same thing to Satyaki, who was tired and was warding off the advances of many Kauravas at the moment you shot at him your first arrow.’
In making these justifications, Arjuna displays a rare hard edge to his own personality. The truth of the matter is that Arjuna is way over the line shooting Bhurishrava (a) from behind, (b) while he is on the ground, (c) while he is unarmed, and (d) while he is engaged in fighting someone else.
Bhurishrava perhaps notes this blurring of the lines, and in a gesture of protest (or despair), he lays down his arms and sits down cross-legged on the ground.
The soldiers around him break out in applause at the gesture, and a thousand mouths open to censure the behaviour of Arjuna and Krishna.
Krishna is unruffled by it all, but Partha takes the criticism to heart. ‘I have taken a vow that no one will be able to slay anyone of my kinsmen while within the range of the Gandiva, so my act of cutting off your arm, O Bhurishrava, was not an immoral one.
‘Which righteous man here, however, can explain to me the fairness in Abhimanyu’s death, who was slain by mounted warriors after his weapons and chariot have been broken?’
Bhurishrava touches the earth with his left hand in acknowledgement of having heard Arjuna’s words.
Seeing this, the third Pandava relents and speaks a few words of conciliation. ‘O brother of Sala,’ he says, ‘the love I have for you is equal to the love I bear in my heart for Yudhishthir, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva. May you repair to the region of the righteous souls, and sit next to Sibi the son of Usinara.’
Satyaki Kills Bhurishrava
With the fight seemingly reaching a peaceful end, Satyaki suddenly springs to his feet and grabs the hilt of the sword with which Bhurishrava had tried to kill him.
With the intention of beheading the Ruru king even though he is seated in the manner of an ascetic, Satyaki takes a few paces forward, even as murmurs grow louder and louder around him with each step.
‘Stop!’ says Krishna, his whip raised. ‘No!’ says Arjuna with the Gandiva held to the heavens. But with his mind clouded by fury, amid shouts of disapproval from everyone (Ashwatthama, Kripa, Karna, Vrishasena, Uttamaujas and Yudhamanyu), Satyaki holds the head of Bhurishrava by the hair, and with one mighty swing of his weapon-wielding arm, severs the neck clean from the torso.
As the trunk of Bhurishrava collapses to the ground, Satyaki turns on the dissenters. ‘You sinful Kauravas,’ he says, hissing in anger, ‘you wear this outward garment of righteousness and rebuke me for this act.
‘But where did your sense of virtue go when you slew in battle that child, that son of Subhadra, while he was destitute of arms? When the king of the Rurus challenged me, even then has our battle been destined to have just one victor.
‘Just because he chose to become an ascetic half-way through our fight does not mean that I should entertain thoughts of mercy toward him. He is my enemy. He challenged me to a duel. I killed him. Where is the unrighteousness?’
Despite this speech, no one around Satyaki – not even the warriors on his side – is moved to applaud him. As the head of Bhurishrava hits the ground next to his body, he looks like a horse that has been sacrificed at the altar during an Ashwamedha.
This killing of Bhurishrava dogs Satyaki right to the very end, when during the Mausala Parva, Kritavarma accuses him of wrongdoing citing the incident. That sparks a fight, which eventually leads to the destruction of the Vrishni race.
In a more immediate sense, we can see how the Pandavas on the fourteenth day are eager to use Abhimanyu’s death as an example for breaking more rules. If Arjuna’s act of severing Bhurishrava’s arm was questionable, Satyaki’s is downright despicable.
There is no bigger sin than killing a man who has renounced his weapons and is meditating. The severity of this crime is not in the same plane as, say, fighting from atop a chariot against a footman.
Still, it is instructive that neither Krishna nor Arjuna punish Satyaki in any way for this act. This means that though the Pandavas are shocked at Satyaki’s behaviour, they are keen to rationalize it rather than censure it.
(This is an important point because later, Dhrishtadyumna takes a leaf out of Satyaki’s book and delivers an almost identical act of violence toward Drona – and earns Bhima’s praise for it.)
We’re not quite done with recounting the events of the fourteenth day. After sending Satyaki on Arjuna’s trail, Yudhishthir finds himself worried about both of them. Now he requests Bhima to go after Satyaki, and to roar at the top of his lungs when he spots him.
Bhima obeys his elder brother, becoming the third warrior on the Pandava side to penetrate Drona’s three-layered arrangement.
We will see more about his journey in the next episode.
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