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Chapter 37

The Kurus Attack Virata

The news of Kichaka’s death spread from country to country. Everyone was amazed to hear of his mysterious killing and the subsequent death of his one hundred followers. In Hastināpura, the spies dispatched by Duryodhana came to the court and reported everything they had seen and heard. After informing the Kurus that they had found no trace of the Pāṇḍavas, they then told them about Kichaka’s death. The Kurus were joyful to hear this news. Kichaka had been a thorn in their side, often attacking surrounding countries and defeating their armies. Many times the Kurus had been approached by tributary kings seeking protection from Kichaka. Now he and his generals were dead, apparently killed by invisible Gandharvas.

Duryodhana pondered the news. Less than two weeks remained of the Pāṇḍavas’ exile. Although he had sent out thousands of spies, none had managed to find them. The Pāṇḍavas had hidden themselves well--if they were even alive.

The prince summoned his courtiers and said, “You should arrange for one final search for the Pāṇḍavas. Have the best of our men scour every city and town. If those heroes still live, we face great danger. We are expecting them to emerge from exile surrounded by their forces. Let us discover them before this happens and send them back to the forest.”

Dushashana agreed. “We should certainly make a great effort to locate the Pāṇḍavas, but I doubt we will find them. We have already searched every city and town. Either they have perished or they have crossed the ocean. I think they are gone forever. I do not think we need fear them.”

When Dushashana sat down, Droṇa stood up and said, “Persons like the Pāṇḍavas never meet destruction. They are heroic, resourceful, intelligent, self-controlled, pious, grateful, and attached to observing vows. Yudhiṣṭhira is both virtuous and without enemies. He is their leader. Thus they are patiently waiting the day when they can return and overcome their misfortunes. This is my opinion. O Duryodhana, you will see the Pāṇḍavas at the end of their exile and not before. Do not waste your energy searching for them. Rather, you should prepare a welcome for them. Give them back their kingdom.”

Bhīṣma applauded Droṇa’s speech. The Kuru grandfather longed to again see Pāṇḍu’s sons. Their exile had passed slowly for him. His guilt at not having prevented Duryodhana from banishing them burned him day and night. The pain of remembering how Draupadī had been violated was especially acute. Bhīṣma felt helpless. Dhṛtarāṣṭra did not heed his advice, and the evil-minded Duryodhana was left to do as he pleased. Now the Pāṇḍavas would finally be returning. Surely they had suffered enough. Perhaps the king could now be convinced to return to them their kingdom. Like the full moon rising in the east, Bhīṣma, clad in white silks, rose from his seat to address the assembly.

“I fully agree with Droṇa. The virtuous Pāṇḍavas, guided by the Brahmins and walking always on a righteous path, will not perish. They who have as a friend the infallible and all-powerful Kṛṣṇa cannot be overcome by misfortune. The pure-souled Yudhiṣṭhira can consume his enemies with his glance alone. We should consider carefully how to deal with them now that their exile is ending. It is certainly a mean policy to search for them. I have another view. Listen carefully and I will speak for our good. A counselor should always speak the beneficial truth and never anything evil.”

Bhīṣma looked around the Kuru assembly hall. At its head sat Dhṛtarāṣṭra, flanked by Vidura, Droṇa, Kṛpa, Bāhlika, and himself. Duryodhana and his brothers sat to the king’s right, along with Karṇa and Śakuni. Other kings sat in the assembly and all gazed intently at him as he spoke. Although it was well known that he loved the Pāṇḍavas dearly, the assembled kings knew he would never be partial. His first thoughts were for the welfare of the entire Kuru race, and he dealt equally with everyone, desiring nothing but their good fortune. Placing his hand on his golden- hilted sword, Bhīṣma continued.

“As far as locating the Pāṇḍavas is concerned, I will tell you where to find them. Look for that place where there are no calamities or disasters. Where the pious Yudhiṣṭhira dwells, there will be an atmosphere of peace and security. The people will be inclined toward charity and will be liberal, humble and modest. There the people will be cheerfully performing their respective duties, attached to piety, truthfulness and purity. You will hear the Vedic hymns being chanted and see sacrifices being performed. Clouds will shower abundant rains and the earth will be bearing crops. There will be signs of wealth everywhere, and no one will be miserable. Indeed, that place where Yudhiṣṭhira lives will resemble the heavens. Knowing all this, O Kurus, consider what should be done. In my view, we should give up our petty attempts to find them just to send them again to the forest. Let us welcome them back and restore to them their father’s kingdom.”

Bhīṣma sat down, applauded by Droṇa, Vidura and Kṛpa, who himself rose from his seat and said, “What the aged Bhīṣma has said is undoubtedly correct and meant only for our good. His words are reasonable, truthful, and consistent with scripture. Returning the Pāṇḍavas’ kingdom is surely the wisest course of action.”

Looking across at Duryodhana and his brothers, Kṛpa said, “But if we are not to follow this course, then we had best prepare for war. When those powerful heroes return, they will be burning with energy and ascetic power. Therefore, consider now how to expand your own forces. Seek out your allies and make treaties with them. Build a vast, unassailable army. If you deny the Pāṇḍavas their rights, then we face the gravest possible danger.”

Duryodhana was pensive. Kṛpa was right. If he did not return the Pāṇḍavas’ kingdom, there would no doubt be a fight. But he had no intention of returning their kingdom. The fight was inevitable--unless they could be discovered first and sent back into exile. The Kaurava prince thought carefully. The report about Kichaka had intrigued him. Apparently he had been slain by the five Gandharva husbands of a single woman. The coincidence with Draupadī and the Pāṇḍavas was almost incredible, especially because there were only a handful of men who could have killed Kichaka in hand-to-hand combat: Balarāma, Śalya, Karṇa--and Bhīma. It could not have been the first three, because what reason would any of them have had for going to Virata and killing Kichaka in secret? He had been beaten to a pulp in the dead of night. That sounded suspiciously like Bhīma. And he would have had to do it in secret. It added up. Kichaka had violated a woman with five husbands and had been slain in a manner that bore Bhīma’s unmistakable stamp.

As Duryodhana pondered, Susharma, king of the Trigartas, took advantage of the silence and said, “O Kurus, if you desire to expand your forces, you can begin by bringing Virata under your subjection. Now he is without Kichaka and his followers should be little trouble. Let us go and take his wealth. Subjugating him, you shall increase both your treasury and your army by requisitioning his forces. I will bring my own army to assist you. Too many times have the Trigartas been overpowered by Kichaka. Now we shall avenge ourselves on the Matsyas.”

Duryodhana felt that the gods--or perhaps the Dānavas--had answered him. If he went to Virata, they might find the Pāṇḍavas. If they were not there, then there was no loss. He would still gain something by winning over that kingdom. The prince stood up and issued instructions. “Susharma has made an excellent suggestion. We should go to the Matsya kingdom immediately. Prepare our army to leave at once. As he has suggested, Susharma will accompany us with his own forces.”

Duryodhana ordered that they depart the next day. He told Susharma to go ahead with his army and begin by taking away Virata’s cattle. Duryodhana would follow with his forces and attack the city. As the other Kuru elders sat in silence, Dhṛtarāṣṭra gave his approval and preparations were begun.

After Kichaka’s death Virata’s citizens were afraid. Although Kichaka had been cruel, he had also been powerful enough to protect them. Now they had no protector. How long would it be before some aggressive monarch tried to conquer them? The king, desperate to replace his commander, considered Kaṅka, Vallabha, Tantripala and Granthika. It seemed to him that any of them could lead his army and protect the Matsyas.

It was not long before Virata was presented with an opportunity to test his ideas. One morning as he sat in court, a cowherd ran in and exclaimed, “The Trigartas are attacking us and stealing your cows, O King. Come quickly to rescue them.”

The king immediately issued orders for his army to assemble. He called for his armor and weapons and prepared to lead his army. His four sons surrounded him, also ready for battle. In a short time, hundreds of other powerful warrior chiefs assembled in the court. Outside the assembly hall, the vast Matsya army lined the streets, ready to march. Chariots, elephants, horses and infantry created a clamor that resembled the ocean’s roar.

Virata’s younger brother, Satanika, stood by the king’s side. The king said, “I have no doubt that Kaṅka, Vallabha, Tantripala and Granthika will fight. Give them armor and chariots adorned with flags. I do not think such men, endowed as they are with bodies like mountains and arms like elephants’ trunks, will not join the battle.”

Virata strode anxiously out of his hall to organize his army, while Satanika had chariots fetched for the Pāṇḍavas. Having the four of them brought before him, Satanika presented them with armor and weapons and ordered them to fight. Enlivened by the thought of a battle, the Pāṇḍavas selected suitable armor and put it on. They mounted chariots and rode out of the city behind the king.

The Matsya monarch charged into battle on a massive chariot surrounded by his sons and the Pāṇḍavas. In his burnished armor, adorned with a hundred suns and a hundred eyes, the king shone like the sun encircled by the major planets. Behind them came a thousand infuriated elephants. Eight thousand chariot fighters and sixty thousand horsemen followed them, holding their weapons aloft and sending out terrible war cries. The entire army seemed like a mass of clouds charged with lightning moving across the earth.

The Trigartas were still rounding up Virata’s huge herd as the Matsya army rushed upon them. Quickly abandoning the cows where they would not be harmed, the Trigarta warriors met the Matsya’s charge. A fierce battle ensued on the grazing grounds. As the enraged warriors slew one another, the battle resembled the one that had once taken place between the gods and the demons. A thick dust cloud rose up from the field, obscuring everything and screening the afternoon sun. Thick showers of arrows whistled through the air and warriors fell by the thousands. The screaming fighters hacked at one another with their swords and axes.

As the blood of slain fighters flowed into the dust on the field, the cloud subsided. Heads adorned with helmets and earrings were rolling on the earth. Well-muscled arms, their gloved hands still clutching weapons, lay on the ground like serpents. Shattered chariots and pieces of armor were strewn everywhere. Vultures descended and tore at the bodies of the dead fighters. Jackals surrounded the battlefield.

Susharma, mounted on a gold chariot, came before Virata and bellowed out a challenge. He immediately released a hundred powerful arrows that struck Virata’s armor and fell to the ground. Roaring like maddened bulls, the two kings circled one another with their weapons upraised. They discharged arrows like clouds pouring torrents of rain. Seeing him engaging with the Matsya king, Susharma’s two brothers came to his assistance. With well-aimed arrows, they killed Virata’s four horses and his charioteer. They then slew the warriors protecting his sides and rear. Susharma leapt from his chariot with his sword held high and rushed toward Virata. With his two brothers, he seized Virata and took him captive.

Yudhiṣṭhira saw Virata being led away on Susharma’s chariot. He quickly went over to Bhīma and called out, “The Matsya king has been captured and his army routed. We have lived peacefully in his kingdom this last year and are indebted to the king. Bhīma, free Virata and thus repay our debt. We shall then put the Trigartas to flight.”

Bhīma’s eyes glinted at the prospect of the fight. He had been awaiting Yudhiṣṭhira’s command before engaging in the battle. “So be it,” he replied. “Behold my prowess. I shall take hold of that huge tree over there like a mace and disperse the entire Trigarta army.”

Bhīma moved toward a huge sal tree nearby, but Yudhiṣṭhira checked him. “O child, do not be rash. If you uproot this tree and perform superhuman deeds, people will be amazed and say, ‘Surely this is Bhīma.’ Take some other weapon so that people will not recognize you. Go on your chariot and the twins will protect your wheels. Release the king.”

Bhīma urged on his charioteer and raced toward Susharma, who was heading away with the captive king. Nakula and Sahadeva rode on either side and carved through the Trigarta forces. Approaching Susharma, Bhīma yelled, “Wait! Turn and fight! Behold now a mighty feat of arms as I throw you down with all your followers.”

Bhīma let go a steady stream of arrows and Susharma turned to face him. When the Trigarta king saw the powerful Bhīma and the twins before him, it seemed to him that Yamarāja, flanked by Death and Time, had come to do battle. Along with his sons and generals he tried to withstand the Pāṇḍavas’ attack, but hundreds were being killed. Chariots were smashed and elephants slain. Horses with their riders fell like trees blown over in a storm. The Pāṇḍavas’ forceful arrows swept in clouds through Susharma’s ranks and created havoc. Bhīma leapt from his chariot and rushed about, whirling his mace, mowing the infantry down like a field of corn.

Witnessing the devastation, Susharma was astonished. It seemed that they would be annihilated by these three warriors. He pulled his bow back to his ear and sent long steel shafts at the roaring Pāṇḍavas. Bhīma struck the straight-flying arrows with his mace and the twins struck at them with their swords. Encouraged by the Pāṇḍavas’ prowess, the remainder of Virata’s army rallied and charged back into the fight. Yudhiṣṭhira rode into their midst, working a great bow. With sharpened arrows the eldest Pāṇḍava quickly dispatched a thousand Trigarta warriors to Death’s abode. Bhīma, back on his chariot and fighting alongside his brother, killed seven thousand. Nakula and Sahadeva, focusing their efforts on protecting their elder brothers, slew a further thousand brave Trigarta fighters.

Susharma began to retreat and Bhīma went after him swiftly. He killed Susharma’s four horses and brought him to a halt. Seeing his opportunity, Virata grabbed a mace and leapt from the chariot. The old Matsya king began fighting Susharma’s troops, wielding his mace and dancing about like a young man. Susharma jumped from his chariot and raced away. Bhīma called out to him, “Stop! It is not becoming of heroes to fly away. With such prowess why did you think of stealing Virata’s cows? Why are you now abandoning your followers?”

Susharma, provoked, again turned to face Bhīma. “Stand and fight!” he shouted, brandishing his iron club.

Bhīma leapt down and rushed toward the bellowing Susharma as a lion attacks a deer. Not caring for Susharma’s blows, Bhīma seized him by the hair and dashed him to the ground. Pulling him back up, he struck him several fierce blows. Susharma fell gasping to the ground. Bhīma placed his knee on his breast and dealt him powerful blows to the head. Susharma lost consciousness and Bhīma dragged him to his chariot. He took the insensible Trigarta king to Virata and said, “Behold this sinful man, whom I have captured. Surely he does not deserve to live.”

The king replied, “Release the wretch.”

Bhīma dragged Susharma to his feet and, as he returned to consciousness, snarled at him, “Although I should slay you for stealing the cows, I will release you. According to kṣatriya custom, you are now Virata’s slave. You must declare this wherever you go. Only if you agree to this condition will you be allowed to live. Go now and do not again perform such rash acts.”

Susharma bent his head low and climbed down from the chariot. He bowed to Virata and left, taking with him the remnants of his army.

The Matsyas cheered. They surrounded the Pāṇḍavas, still unaware of their identities, and praised them. Virata said, “Today I have been saved by you four heroes. All this kingdom’s wealth is as much yours as it is mine. I will bestow upon you richly adorned women and heaps of gems. Tell me what you wish to have and it is yours. Indeed, become the rulers of my kingdom. What more can I say?”

Yudhiṣṭhira said humbly, “O King, we are pleased with your words, but it is sufficient for us that you are freed from danger.”

“Come,” Virata said. “I will install you as king of the Matsyas. How can I rule in your majestic presence? It is due to you alone that I am even able to see my kingdom and my relatives today.”

Yudhiṣṭhira held up his hands in deference. “We are not able to rule Matsya. Pray forgive us. O King, you should continue to rule this prosperous kingdom in peace and happiness. Send emissaries into the capital to announce your victory. In keeping with the custom of the victorious, we must spend this night on the battlefield.”

Virata turned to his ministers and ordered them to carry news of their victory to the city. “Let damsels and courtesans, decked with ornaments and carrying musical instruments, come out of the city to entertain the troops,” the king said delightedly. The ministers left at once and the warriors prepared to spend the night on the field.