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Chapter 31

The Fight with the Gandharvas

Early in the Pāṇḍavas’ twelfth year of exile, a Brahmin who was journeying to Hastināpura stopped to see them. He spent a few days with them before continuing to the city, where Dhṛtarāṣṭra then received him. The old king was always anxious about the Pāṇḍavas and he wanted to hear about them from the Brahmin. When he heard how their bodies were emaciated by their spare diet and constant exposure to the elements, he felt pain. Dhṛtarāṣṭra was especially distressed to hear how Draupadī was now pale and thin. He lamented openly in the presence of his ministers.

Knowing himself to be the cause of the Pāṇḍavas’ suffering, Dhṛtarāṣṭra cried, “Alas, how is it that Yudhiṣṭhira, who has no enemy on earth, now lives in a lonely forest and sleeps on the bare ground? How is the ever-wrathful Bhīma able to tolerate the sight of Draupadī clad in barks and lying upon the earth? Surely he restrains himself only out of devotion to his elder brother. Arjuna, seeing Draupadī and the twins in such misery, must be breathing the hot sighs of an angry serpent. All those heroes and their wife should not be suffering such pain. Duryodhana’s cruel words at the dice game must burn them day and night, and I can imagine Bhīma’s anger increasing day by day like fire fed by ghee.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s anguish echoed around the assembly hall. Vidura and Bhīṣma both sat nearby, but they remained silent. The king continued, “Alas my sons, along with Śakuni and Karṇa, saw only the honey at the top of the tree but not the fall. By robbing the Pāṇḍavas they have acted sin-fully. I am also sinful for having allowed it. Surely the Kurus will soon be destroyed. Perhaps all these events have been ordained by all-powerful destiny. Nothing can overpower fate. Driven by his own unseen destiny, a man acts in ways he later regrets. Hence I am now left lamenting for the inevitable. After hearing that Arjuna has gone in his own body to heaven and received the celestial weapons, what can I expect for my sons?”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s voice trailed off into sobs. He raised his hand and dismissed the assembly. Śakuni left the hall and went immediately to speak to Duryodhana. He found him sitting with Karṇa. The three friends had enjoyed the past twelve years, free finally of the Pāṇḍavas. Although his father occupied the throne, Duryodhana was actually the ruler. He tended to all affairs of state. Dhṛtarāṣṭra spent most of his time alone, regretting his actions toward the Pāṇḍavas. Duryodhana had steadily increased his strength by forming diplomatic alliances all around the world. He was ready for the Pāṇḍavas to return from exile. That was, of course, if they ever came back.

The Kaurava prince folded his palms and bowed slightly as his uncle entered the room. After taking his seat, Śakuni said, “O ruler of men, having exiled the Pāṇḍavas by your own prowess you now enjoy this earth. Indeed, you have no rivals. The prosperity Yudhiṣṭhira once possessed is now yours. That great wealth which was formerly the cause of your grief is now your happiness. You have achieved everything by the force of intellect alone. All the world’s kings are subservient to you, and you are adored by countless Brahmins.”

Śakuni smiled slightly as he saw Duryodhana listening to his own praises with relish. Pressing his fingertips together he went on, “Why not pay a visit to the Pāṇḍavas, who have never accepted your rule? Surrounded by the Kurus even as Yamarāja is surrounded by the Rudras, go and scorch the Pāṇḍavas with the sight of your splendor. That prosperity which is seen by both friend and foe is real prosperity. Let the wives of the Kurus accompany you in their finest dress and look upon Draupadī clad in barks. What greater happiness could you experience?”

Karṇa voiced his approval with a laugh, but Duryodhana appeared pensive. “I am not sure. I don’t think Father will allow me to go to the Dwaitavana. My motives would be too obvious to him. Indeed, the old man is grieving for what we have accomplished, and he considers that they have become more powerful by their ascetic practices.”

As he thought of the Pāṇḍavas in the forest, Duryodhana smiled. It would certainly be enjoyable to see their poverty and suffering while displaying his own wealth. Gradually, his malice overshadowed his doubts.

“Nevertheless, your suggestion finds favor with me, O hero. What could be a greater delight than to see the Pāṇḍavas sunk in misery? Perhaps we can devise some means by which the king can be convinced to let us go. If Dharmarāja, Arjuna, and especially Bhīma, were to see me graced with their wealth, then the goal of my life would be attained.”

The three Kurus agreed that some feasible reason for their going had to be found. Pondering the problem, they each left for their own abodes. The next morning, Karṇa said to Duryodhana, “O King, I think I have found a plan that will work. I have learned that our cattle herds are now in the Dwaitavana. They need to be checked and counted, and it is always proper for this to be overseen by the kṣatriyas. If you tell your father that you wish to do this service, he will surely give his permission.”

As they were speaking, Śakuni arrived and said the same thought had occurred to him. They felt certain that this was the perfect pretext and they laughed together and shook each other’s hands. They decided to go that day to see the king.

Coming before Dhṛtarāṣṭra, they inquired about his welfare and in return he blessed them with affectionate words. As they sat together a cowherd, whom Duryodhana had instructed beforehand, came into the room and spoke to Dhṛtarāṣṭra about his cows. Taking the opportunity, Karṇa then said, “O King, the cattle are now in a charming woodland and the time for marking the calves has come. This is also an excellent season for your son to go hunting. Why not have him go to the Dwaitavana to check the cattle? Śakuni and I will accompany him there.”

The king looked doubtful. “O child, although hunting and seeing the cattle are both proper acts for rulers, I have a concern. The Pāṇḍavas are reported to be living somewhere in that region and thus I feel you should not go there. You have defeated them by deceitful means, and thus they are living exiled in the forest. Although Dharmarāja will never become angry, the same cannot be said for Bhīma. And Draupadī is effulgence herself; she is endowed with great ascetic merit and capable of consuming you by her curse. Full of pride and folly as you are, you will surely offend her and thus be reduced to ashes.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra continued, his heart burning as he again remembered Pāṇḍu’s sons and their chaste wife. “Perhaps the Pāṇḍavas themselves will consume you with the fire of their weapons. Or if from the force of numbers you seek to injure them, then that would be improper--and I know you can never succeed. The mighty-armed Arjuna has returned from heaven and now possesses all the celestial weapons. Even without those weapons he was capable of conquering the earth. Why then will he not now kill you all? I suggest that you order some trusted men to go there in your place. Leave well enough alone and do not disturb the Pāṇḍavas, who are like sleeping lions.”

Śakuni rubbed his chin. “O descendent of Bharata, the eldest Pāṇḍava is dedicated to virtue and cannot possibly harm us while he is fulfilling his vow in the forest. His brothers are obedient to him and will do likewise. Nor do we wish to see the Pāṇḍavas; we shall not even approach them. You need not fear any misconduct on our part.”

Although the king was hardly convinced by Śakuni’s words, being repeatedly requested he finally agreed to let Duryodhana go. The prince quickly assembled a large force of men. With all his brothers and thousands of women, they soon set off for the forest. Eight thousand chariots, thirty thousand elephants, nine thousand horses, and many thousands of infantry accompanied them. Carriages, shops, pavilions, traders, bards, and men trained in hunting followed them. As the procession moved off, it resounded like the deep roar of the winds during the monsoon season.

Arriving at the Dwaitavana, Duryodhana camped about four miles from the lake. His many attendants built him a house surrounded by fruit trees near a good water supply. Separate houses were constructed for Karṇa, Śakuni, and Duryodhana’s brothers.

Duryodhana then went to see the large herd of cattle. He examined their limbs and supervised their counting and marking by the herdsmen. When all the work was done, the Kuru prince wandered cheerfully throughout the region, enjoying himself with his friends and the women. His entourage roamed about the woodlands at pleasure, like the celestials enjoying themselves in the Nandana groves. The herdsmen, who were expert at singing and dancing, entertained their royal guests, who in turn distributed first-class food and drinks to the herdsmen.

After the entertainment, Duryodhana decided to go hunting. Attended by his followers he went about the forest killing hundreds of bison, buffaloes, boar, deer, bears and gavayas. The hunting afforded him the opportunity to see the delightful regions in the forest, which resounded with the sweet notes of peacocks and swarmed with bees intoxicated by the honey of fragrant flowers. As the prince went through the forest like Indra amid the gods, he gradually came to the Dwaitavana lake.

On the opposite shore of the lake Yudhiṣṭhira was performing the sacrifice known as Rajaṛṣi. Guided by the Brahmins he sat with Draupadī making offerings into the sacred fire. Duryodhana, desiring to display his opulence before the Pāṇḍavas, instructed his men to build pleasure houses along the lakeshore. They immediately went toward the lake and looked for a suitable site, but as they came close to the lakeside they heard a voice calling, “Stop! Who are you and why have you come to this place? Know me to be Citrasena, the Gandharva king. This lake and its surrounding woodlands belong to me.”

Duryodhana’s soldiers looked around and saw the Gandharva surrounded by other celestials and Apsarās. He was sporting in the lake and he told the soldiers to go back to wherever they had come from.

The soldiers returned to Duryodhana and gave their report. Duryodhana then detailed a number of his most powerful generals to drive the Gandharva and his followers away. The generals went before Citrasena and said, “The powerful son of Dhṛtarāṣṭra, King Duryodhana, has come here to sport. Therefore, you should leave this place immediately.”

But the Gandharvas simply laughed. Citrasena’s reply was harsh: “Your wicked-minded Duryodhana has little sense, or how could he command we who dwell in heaven? We are not his servants. You are fools to bring us such a message and to thus meet your own deaths. Go back to where you came from or find yourselves in Yamarāja’s abode today.”

The soldiers again returned to Duryodhana and told him that if he wished to use the lake, he would have to fight with the Gandharvas. Duryodhana’s anger rose. How dare anyone oppose him. He was the ruler of the earth. He would teach these Gandharvas a lesson. He barked out orders to his men. “Go and chastise these wretches who have so displeased me. Even if it were Indra sporting with the celestials I would not tolerate it.”

Knowing the Gandharvas to be formidable fighters, Duryodhana’s generals took thousands of heavily armed soldiers and returned to the lake. They filled the woods with their loud roars and crushed everything as they advanced.

The Gandharvas again forbade their approach, but the soldiers disregarded them and came onto the shores, their weapons uplifted. Enraged, Citrasena ordered his followers, “Punish these wicked wretches.”

Thousands of Gandharvas rushed at Duryodhana’s men. The soldiers panicked and fled. Karṇa alone stood his ground. He checked the Gandharvas with his arrows. Displaying his lightness of hand, he struck down the enemy by the hundreds, lopping off their heads and limbs. Gradually, he forced the Gandharva army back.

But they regrouped and came again in even larger numbers. The Suta’s son fought furiously and the earth was quickly covered with the bodies of slain Gandharvas.

Hearing the clamour of battle, Duryodhana, Dushashana and their other brothers raced to assist Karṇa. The clatter of their chariot wheels as they charged into battle resembled Garuḍa’s roars. A fearful fight ensued, and gradually the Gandharva warriors were overpowered. They retreated to Citrasena and the Kurus sent up a loud victory shout.

Seeing his army so afflicted, the Gandharva king mounted his chariot and rushed toward the Kurus. He knew all the methods of warfare and he fought with mystical weapons. The Kuru heroes were rendered senseless by Citrasena’s illusions. It appeared that every one of them was surrounded and attacked by Gandharvas. They cried in fear and fled panic-stricken from the fight. Only Duryodhana, Karṇa, Dushashana and Śakuni remained fighting, although they were all severely wounded.

The Gandharvas concentrated on Karṇa, surrounding him and raining down showers of weapons. With swords and axes they cut down his chariot and slew his horses and charioteer. Karṇa leapt down with a sword and shield in his hands and mounted Vikarṇa’s chariot. Urged on by Karṇa, Vikarṇa immediately fled from the battlefield in fear for his life.

Then only Duryodhana and his brothers remained. They hurled their weapons at the Gandharvas, but the celestials closed in on them. They smashed Duryodhana’s chariot and he fell stunned to the ground. Citrasena immediately jumped down and seized the prince with such force that it seemed as if he would kill him. The other Gandharvas took Duryodhana’s brothers prisoner, and others ran into their camp and seized their wives. Hundreds of Kurus were taken prisoner by the Gandharvas, who bound them with chains and herded them together.

Some of the Kuru soldiers had escaped. They ran around to the other side of the lake and approached Yudhiṣṭhira. Falling before him they implored him to help. “The Gandharvas have captured Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s mighty-armed son. His brothers and women are also being held prisoner. O son of Kuntī, please save them.”

Bhīma looked at his cousin Duryodhana’s crying followers and laughed. “What we would have had to achieve with great effort on the battlefield the Gandharvas have easily done for us. It is fortunate for us that there are still those in the world who would do us good. Plainly Duryodhana came here with evil intentions, but he has been overtaken by unforseen consequences. This is surely what he deserves for his sinful motivations. No doubt the evil-minded one wanted to gloat over us in our misery. Well, he deserves to suffer.”

Yudhiṣṭhira stopped Bhīma’s sarcastic words. “This is not the time for cruelty. O child, why do you speak so harshly to these Kurus who are frightened and have come seeking our protection? Can we let our family disputes come in the way of honor? Among ourselves we are five and they are a hundred, but when an enemy of the Kurus has come, we are a hundred and five brothers. The wretched-minded Gandharva knows we are living here, but disregarding us, he has insulted the ladies of our family.”

Yudhiṣṭhira looked around at his other brothers. “O foremost of men, arm yourselves for battle. Go at once and rescue Duryodhana and his brothers and wives.”

The Kuru soldiers had arrived in great war chariots. Yudhiṣṭhira pointed to the chariots and said, “Mount these golden chariots and rush upon the Gandharvas. Even an ordinary kṣatriya would try his best to protect one who seeks protection. What then shall I say to you, O Vṛkodara? Indeed, what could give us more happiness? The bestowal of a boon, the birth of a son and sovereignty are sources of joy, but the happiness of saving an enemy in distress is equal to all three. Dear Bhīma, your sworn enemy Duryodhana now depends upon you for his life. Could anything give you more pleasure than to protect him?”

Yudhiṣṭhira said that he would have gone himself, but he was bound by the vow of the sacrifice he was performing. Therefore, he was asking his brothers to go in his place and then to liberate the prisoners. Hearing Yudhiṣṭhira’s command, Arjuna vowed, “If the Gandharvas do not release the Kauravas, then the earth shall drink their blood.”

When they heard Arjuna’s vow, the Kuru soldiers were encouraged. They handed over their chariots; and the four brothers, after donning armor, mounted them. Headed by Bhīma they raced to the other side of the lake, appearing like four blazing fires. When the other Kurus saw them arrive ready for battle, they shouted in joy. Hearing their shouts, the Gandharvas, who were preparing to depart with their prisoners, turned and saw the Pāṇḍavas approaching.

The Gandharva warriors immediately took up their battle formation. A skirmish ensued as they released arrows at the Pāṇḍavas and the Pāṇḍavas countered the attack. Arjuna, hoping that they may be able to convince the Gandharvas without bloodshed, raised his bow and called out, “O Gandharvas, let go of my brother, the king Duryodhana.”

The Gandharvas laughed. “We obey only one person’s order. Under his rule we pass our days free from misery. O descendent of Bharata, we are always obedient to his command alone.”

Angered by their disregard, Arjuna answered, “Contact with others’ wives and fighting with ordinary men are not proper behaviors for celestials. At Dharmarāja’s command you should release the Kauravas and their women. Otherwise, I will have to rescue them by force.”

Arjuna could see that the Gandharvas were ignoring him. He immediately fired fierce arrows at them. The Gandharvas turned and swiftly responded with their own blazing shafts. They quickly surrounded the Pāṇḍavas, sending arrows, axes, maces and swords at them by the thousands. The brothers, facing the four directions, countered the weapons while simultaneously attacking the Gandharvas. An extraordinary battle took place, with thousands of Gandharvas fighting against the four humans. The Gandharvas tried to destroy the Pāṇḍavas’ chariots as they had destroyed the chariots of Karṇa and Duryodhana, but they were checked by the Pāṇḍavas arrows and could not get close enough to do any harm.

Arjuna was enraged. He began to invoke celestial weapons. He threw the Āgneyastra which slew thousands of Gandharvas. Bhīma’s forceful arrows killed innumerable other Gandharvas, while the sons of Mādrī, fighting with prowess, attacked and killed hundreds of others.

The Gandharvas rose up to the sky, taking with them their prisoners, but Arjuna released arrows by the tens of thousands and created a net over the Gandharvas. They then angrily attacked Arjuna by throwing down maces, darts and swords. Checking their weapons, Arjuna fired crescent-headed shafts which tore off the Gandharvas’ heads and limbs. They tried overcoming him with a fearful shower of celestial weapons, but Arjuna held off all those missiles with his arrows. By invoking various mystical weapons, Arjuna created havoc among his foes and they screamed in terror.

Citrasena could see that his followers were being routed by the Pāṇḍavas. He rushed at Arjuna with his mace held aloft. With swift arrows Arjuna cut his iron mace into seven pieces. The Gandharva king resorted to illusion and appeared to attack the Pāṇḍavas from all sides. Arjuna invoked the Shabdavedi weapon, which destroys illusion. Citrasena disappeared from sight, continuously raining down weapons of every description, but Arjuna attacked him with arrows capable of striking an unseen enemy.

Citrasena, who had fought the Pāṇḍavas only to protect his honor, then appeared in front of Arjuna and said, “Behold, it is only your friend fighting with you.”

Seeing Citrasena approaching in peace, Arjuna withdrew his weapons and his brothers did the same. The Gandharva king and Arjuna inquired after each other’s welfare, and Arjuna said, “O hero, what purpose do you serve by punishing the Kurus? Why do you persecute Duryodhana and his followers?”

Citrasena smiled. “O Dhanañjaya, I knew long ago the real purpose for Duryodhana’s coming here. He wanted to mock you in your adversity and flaunt his own wealth. Understanding this, Indra ordered me to capture the wretch and his followers and to bring them before him in chains. Allow us to carry them away.”

Arjuna shook his head. “If you want to please me, then let them go. Dharmarāja has commanded it. They are our kinsfolk.”

“The sinful Duryodhana is full of vanity. He does not deserve to be freed. He has deceived and wronged your brother and grievously offended your wife. O Arjuna, he came here to add insult to injury. Yudhiṣṭhira did not know his reason for coming. Therefore, let us explain it to him and see what he decides after that.”

Arjuna agreed and they all went to Yudhiṣṭhira to inform him of what had transpired. Yudhiṣṭhira said, “Dear sir, it is fortunate for us that although you possess great prowess you did not slay Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s wicked sons. Our family honor has thus been saved and it will be further saved if you release them. I am pleased to see you. Please tell me if there is anything I can do for you and then return in peace to your own abode.”

Citrasena was delighted at Yudhiṣṭhira’s words. “I am satisfied simply to see you, great one. We shall free the Kurus.”

The Gandharva brought his captives into the Pāṇḍavas’ presence. Indra then appeared and sprinkled celestial nectar on the Gandharvas who had been slain. They all regained their lives. Headed by Citrasena, they rose up to the skies and vanished.

In an affectionate voice, the ever-compassionate Yudhiṣṭhira said to Duryodhana, “O child, never again commit such a rash act. A rash man never becomes happy. O Kuru prince, be blessed with all your brothers. Go home now and do not be despondent.”

But Duryodhana was devastated. His heart was splitting in two. He had achieved the opposite of what he had intended. Instead of humiliating his enemies, he had himself been shamed. As he made his way back to the city, he moved as if he were unconscious and without will. He said nothing to anyone. Leaving the Pāṇḍavas to worship the sacred fire and the Brahmins, he hung his head.

The Kaurava prince could not stop thinking of his defeat. After he had gone about ten miles back through the forest, evening fell and he ordered his party to stop for the night. They set up camp on a grassy bank of a nearby river. Duryodhana entered his tent. Sitting on a bedstead as bright as fire, he looked like an eclipsed moon. Unable to sleep, he remained lost in painful thoughts.

Just before sunrise, Karṇa came to see him. Having fled far from the battlefield when defeated by the Gandharvas, he had not witnessed the Kauravas’ capture. When he returned no one had been able to tell him how his friend had been humiliated. He had therefore assumed that the prince had overpowered the Gandharvas by his own might.

Praising Duryodhana’s strength and prowess, Karṇa said, “O descendent of Kuru, it is indeed fortunate that you are alive and we have met again. By good luck you have defeated the Gandharvas, who possess great might as well as the powers of illusion. I was forced to flee for my life, my body mangled by arrows. It is a great wonder that I see you and your brothers and wives here safe after that superhuman battle. What man could have done what you did today?”

Karṇa’s words only increased Duryodhana’s grief. He replied in a choked voice, “O Radheya, you do not know what happened, so I am not angry with you. Although you think I overcame the Gandharvas, in fact my brothers and I were all defeated. After a furious battle we were taken prisoner and carried through the skies.”

Karṇa was amazed. Duryodhana related to him how the four Pāṇḍavas had come to rescue them on Yudhiṣṭhira’s order, and how the Gandharva king had revealed to Yudhiṣṭhira the Kurus’ real purpose in coming to Dwaitavana. “When I heard Citrasena speaking in the Pāṇḍavas’ presence, I felt like entering the earth. Alas what greater sorrow could be mine than to be bound by chains and offered as tribute to Yudhiṣṭhira in the sight of all our women? I have always persecuted those brothers. They are my enemies and will always be so. Yet it was they who released me from captivity. I am indebted to them for my life. I would have preferred to die in the battle than to suffer such a fate.”

Duryodhana began to cry and Karṇa tried to console him. After some time the prince managed to regain his composure. His voice was grave. “Listen, friend. I will now remain here and fast until death. Let all my brothers and other relatives return to the city. I have been insulted by my enemy. I can never return to Hastināpura. I, who was respected and feared by my enemies and who enhanced the respect of my friends, have now become a source of joy to my enemies and of grief to my friends. If I return to the city, what could I say to my father? What could I say to Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Kṛpa, Aśvatthāmā, Vidura, and the other Kuru chiefs?”

In his suffering Duryodhana realized his foolishness. What madness had driven him to come out to this forest? He recalled the many times Vidura had tried to counsel him. He had never paid even the slightest regard. Surely he was now reaping the results of his own stupidity. It was unbearable. Death was the only recourse.

Looking at Karṇa, his eyes filled with tears, he said, “Men like me, puffed up with vanity and insolence, are never blessed for any length of time even if they obtain prosperity and knowledge. Alas I have been wicked. Now I suffer. Leave me here to die. I can no longer continue to live. What man could be rescued by his enemies and then drag on in his miserable existence? Proud as I am, the enemy has laughed at me, finding me deprived of my prowess.”

Duryodhana asked Karṇa to bring Dushashana to him. When the prince arrived, Duryodhana said, “O descendent of Bharata, hear my words. I order you to be installed in my place as the earth’s ruler. Become the refuge of your friends and relatives and the terror of your enemies. Always bestow charity upon the Brahmins and cherish your gurus. As Viṣṇu protects the celestials, so you should protect your dependents.”

Duryodhana clasped his brother’s shoulders. “Go, dear brother, and rule this wide earth. I shall end my life here.”

Dushashana was grief-stricken. He lowered his face and said, “O brother, please give up your determination to die. It can never be. Do not accept such a path. How can I become king in your place? The earth may split, the heavens may fall, and the sun may lose its heat, but I can never rule the earth without you.”

Crying out, “Relent, relent,” again and again, Dushashana fell at his brother’s feet. “You alone shall be the king for one hundred years and I shall be your servant.”

Then Karṇa said, “O heroes, what will all this achieve? Weeping does not drive away grief. Summon your patience. Do not grieve and thus give more joy to your enemies.”

Resting his hand on Duryodhana’s shoulder, Karṇa continued, “The Pāṇḍavas only did their duty when they rescued you, for it is always the duty of subjects to do what is good for their king. Under your protection, the Pāṇḍavas happily reside in your dominion. They are dependent upon you, O King. It is not otherwise. Do not indulge in sorrow like an ordinary man. O Duryodhana, we are all suffering to hear you speak of dying. Be blessed. Rise up and return to your city! Console your relatives.”

Karṇa tried his best to convince his friend to change his mind. He pointed out that although he had subjugated and even enslaved the Pāṇḍavas, they had not resolved to die. It was not wonderful that they had rescued him. There were many instances where a mighty king had somehow been overpowered by his enemies and been rescued by his troops. The fortunes of war were unpredictable. Sometimes one gained victory and at other times he was defeated. A warrior had to learn how to tolerate life’s reverses if he wanted to ultimately gain success.

Karṇa, who was covered in wounds from the battle, laughed as he continued. “Therefore, O King, rise up. Do not become the butt of jokes for other kings by dying like this. Go forth and earn everlasting fame. Put this setback behind you. Victory will surely attend you.”

Although he was repeatedly beseeched by both Dushashana and Karṇa, Duryodhana did not rise up. He had decided to die.

Śakuni had entered the tent and heard Karṇa and Dushashana’s attempts to encourage Duryodhana. Seeing Duryodhana’s resolution, and knowing that he was incapable of tolerating any insult, he said, “O descendent of Kuru, you have heard Karṇa’s speech. It is full of wisdom. Why then are you foolishly throwing away the wealth which I won for you? This is childish and unnecessary. It seems you have never waited upon your elders and learned self-control. As an unfired earthen pot leaks when it is filled with water, so one without self-control is lost when grief or joy arises. This is no occasion for grief. The Pāṇḍavas have helped you. Now you should not indulge in grief--reward them instead.”

Śakuni had always recognized that the Pāṇḍavas were superior in strength. Thus he had advised Duryodhana to defeat them at dice rather than to face them in battle. He also recognized that the five heroes were devoted to virtue and truth. They posed no threat to the Kauravas at all. Whatever enmity and antagonism there was between the two families came only from the Kauravas. But it seemed as if there was no way to overcome the Pāṇḍavas. Perhaps it would be better to accept that fact with good grace rather than to be annihilated in some final confrontation.

Thinking in this way, Śakuni continued. “Your behavior makes no sense, O King. You owe it to the Pāṇḍavas to repay them for their favor. Do not undermine what they have done for you by lamenting. Rather, go to them with a cheerful heart and return their kingdom. You will thereby win both virtue and renown. Establish brotherly relations with the Pāṇḍavas and then you will be happy.”

Śakuni thought that now would be an opportunity for Duryodhana to display his nobility. By going to the Pāṇḍavas and offering them their kingdom in return for being saved, he would reverse the situation. Instead of appearing foolish, he would appear generous and upright. The Pāṇḍavas would also appear the recipients of his mercy.

Duryodhana bent down and lifted the weeping Dushashana. After hearing Karṇa and Śakuni speak, he was overwhelmed by shame. Despair overtook him completely. “I have nothing more to do with virtue, friendship, wealth, renown, sovereignty or enjoyment. Do not oppose me. Leave me--all of you. I am resolved to abandon my life! Go back to the city and, on my behalf, worship my gurus with respect.”

Karṇa said, “O king of kings, how can we leave you here? Your way is our way. We are all united in happiness and distress. Give up this resolve or we too shall die.”

Still, Duryodhana did not waver in his determination. He spread kusha grass on the ground, took off his royal garments and put on rags, purified himself by touching water, and sat down in a yogic posture. With a desire to attain heaven, he began to observe the Praya vow of fasting until death. He stopped speaking, and ceasing all other external activities, half-closed his eyes. Soon he was meditating.

In the nether regions, the Dānavas and Daityas became aware of Duryodhana’s resolve. The celestial beings, who had been defeated in a war with the gods, were depending upon Duryodhana to oppose the gods’ purpose on earth. Many of the demons had even incarnated upon earth as kings and warriors with the hope of overthrowing the pious kings who made sacrifices to the gods. Fearing that their party would not succeed without Duryodhana, the celestial demons began a fire sacrifice. They employed Brahmins to chant mantras which had the power to summon to their presence a man from another planet.

As the Brahmins offered ghee into the fire while reciting hymns from the Atharva Veda and the Upanishads, a strange, effulgent goddess rose from the fire and asked, “What shall I do?”

Pleased, the demons commanded her, “Bring Duryodhana, the son of Dhṛtarāṣṭra, here. He is engaged in a vow of fasting.”

“So be it,” she said, and vanished. She went immediately to the place where Duryodhana sat. Unseen, she took him in his subtle body and brought him before the demons in the nether region.

As if in a dream, Duryodhana found himself standing in an assembly of Dānavas. Their leader, his eyes wide with delight, said, “O king of kings, O perpetuator of the Bharata race, you are always surrounded by heroes and illustrious men. Why then have you undertaken such a rash vow? Suicide always leads to hell. One who kills himself is reviled on earth and he attains no auspicious destination. Intelligent men like you never engage in acts that go against their best interest. O King, give up your resolve to die! Such a resolve is destructive to morality, profit, happiness, fame, prowess and energy. If you commit suicide, you will enhance your enemy’s joy. Listen now as we tell you the truth of your position, your celestial origins, and your power. Then you may decide what you wish to do.”

The Dānava then described how Duryodhana had been born as a result of the demons’ austerities. They had obtained him as a boon from Śiva. His body was made of thunder and was virtually invincible. He was being supported by the kings who were themselves powerful Dānavas incarnated on earth. United in battle, he would doubtlessly destroy his enemies. Other great demons would, at the time of the battle, possess the hearts of Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Kṛpa, and others. Thus the Kuru chiefs would cast aside restraint and compassion and kill anyone who opposed them, even their brothers, sons, friends, fathers, disciples--even children and old men. Blinded by ignorance and wrath, they would show no mercy and would slay hundreds of thousands on the battlefield.

As Duryodhana listened in amazement, the Dānava continued, “O hero, you should not fear Arjuna. We have already decided how he will die. The soul of the powerful Naraka, who Viṣṇu himself slew, has taken birth as Karṇa. Remembering his former enmity, he will kill both Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna. Knowing this, the wielder of thunder, Indra, will try to divest Karṇa of his natural armor and earrings--both of which render him invincible. We have therefore also arranged that hundreds of thousands of mighty Daitya warriors, now present on earth in the form of the Samsaptakas, will fight Arjuna. If Karṇa does not slay Arjuna, these warriors will. Therefore, do not grieve. You will rule the earth without a rival. Go back and give up your vow. You are our refuge and we are there to assist you in every way.”

The Dānavas and Daityas came forward and embraced Duryodhana. They all spoke encouragingly and cheered his mind. Finally, they said, “Go and attain victory!” Then they commanded the goddess to return him to his body.

After being returned to his seat on the kusha grass, Duryodhana opened his eyes. He recalled his meeting with the Daityas as if it had been a dream. The prince was not certain if it had actually occurred, but it had changed his mind. Whether or not he had met the celestial beings was unimportant. He took their predictions seriously. Surely their words would come to pass and he would defeat the Pāṇḍavas. Karṇa and the Samsaptakas would kill Arjuna, and thousands of other kṣatriyas would assist him in the war to come.

While Duryodhana sat ruminating on the Dānavas’ words, Karṇa came before him. Duryodhana immediately decided not to tell anyone what had happened. Seeing that he had stopped his meditation, Karṇa said, “It is good to see that you are restored to your senses, O King. A dead man can never conquer his enemies. This is not the time to grieve. Why do you wish to die so ignominiously? O hero, rise up and kill your foes. Go out and attain victory and immortal fame. I swear that when the Pāṇḍavas emerge from exile, I will conquer them and bring them under your subjugation.”

To the delight of his brothers and Karṇa, Duryodhana replied, “So be it.” He stood up, still reflecting on the Dānavas’ speech. He then took his place at the head of his army and started back for Hastināpura, his mind set upon amassing his army for war.