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Chapter 39

The Battle at Virata

In his chariot only a half a mile from the Kurus, Arjuna instructed the prince to halt while he established the enemies’ position. Bhuminjaya gazed in amazement at the army before them. “Who are these heroes who resemble mountains in the midst of a mighty ocean?” he asked.

“The one with the emblem of a golden waterpot on his flagstaff is Droṇa,” Arjuna replied. “I always worship him. You should circumambulate his chariot and I will strike him only if he first attacks me, for such is the duty of kṣatriyas.”

Arjuna pointed to each of the leading chariots. “The hero clad in a coat of tigerskin on the chariot drawn by red horses is Kṛpa. Today I will show him how light I can be in the use of weapons. By his side, the warrior whose flag bears the sign of a bow is Aśvatthāmā. He is my preceptor’s son. Thus he too is worthy of my respect. The one clad in golden mail, whose emblem is a serpent against a gold background, is Duryodhana. He always bears the Pāṇḍavas ill will. Immediately behind him is a hero, blazing like fire, with the emblem of a strong rope for binding elephants--that is the wicked-minded Karṇa. Be careful when you approach him for he always challenges me to fight.”

Arjuna pointed toward the chariot which stood just behind the four he had already named. “This great hero, whose flag is blue and emblazoned with a golden palmyra and five stars, and who is shielded by a white umbrella, is Śantanu’s son Bhīṣma, our grandfather. Always treated with regal honor by the Kauravas, he follows Duryodhana. You should approach him last for he will never harm me.”

After observing the army for some time, Arjuna told the prince to advance. As they moved off, he saw Duryodhana detach himself from the army and move toward the south, followed by half the troops. Arjuna ordered Bhuminjaya to follow him. “I will engage with Duryodhana, for if he is overpowered, then our purpose will be accomplished.” Arjuna then sent arrows toward his three elders, who faced him on the battlefield.

Kṛpa, observing Arjuna’s chariot change direction, immediately understood his intention. “Quickly move to intercept the Pāṇḍava,” he shouted. “What will we do with the Matsyas’ vast wealth if Duryodhana were to sink like a holed boat in the Pārtha water?”

Arjuna released hundreds of thousands of arrows, and they covered the Kuru forces like a swarm of locusts. The warriors could not see anything and they became confused. Being unable even to flee, they praised Arjuna’s prowess. The earth and sky resounded with the twang of the Gāṇḍīva and the blast of Arjuna’s conch shell. Virata’s son maneuvered the chariot dexterously and cut off Duryodhana, preventing him from escaping with the cows. As Arjuna closed upon Duryodhana, the cows began to run back toward the city. Duryodhana quickly came back to the side of the other Kuru leaders.

After saving the Matsya cows, Arjuna said, “Let us leave the cowardly Duryodhana for now. He has fled for his life. I know the wretched Karṇa desires to fight with me, even as one elephant fights with another. Seek him out, O prince, and I will curb his pride. He has grown insolent due to the protection Duryodhana has afforded him.”

The prince swung the chariot around and raced into the center of the battlefield, from where he could see all the leading Kurus. Four of Duryodhana’s brothers came forward and confronted Arjuna. They sent their arrows toward him in steady waves, but Bhuminjaya avoided the falling shafts by his skillful driving. At the same time, Arjuna shot his own blazing arrows, which covered the Kaurava chariots. The Pāṇḍava, remembering Bhīma’s vow to kill all of Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons, avoided slaying any of them.

Other mighty warriors rushed at Arjuna, roaring and releasing showers of weapons. One, a king named Shatruntapa, assailed him with such force that he checked the movement of his chariot. Arjuna disappeared beneath a hail of arrows as Shatruntapa fought with fury. Wounded by the assault, Arjuna blazed up in anger. He drew the Gāṇḍīva back to his ear and fired five deadly arrows that killed Shatruntapa’s four horses and his charioteer. With ten more straight-flying shafts, he tore off the king’s armor along with his arms and head. Shatruntapa fell to the earth like a mountain peak struck down by a thunderbolt.

Arjuna turned toward the other Kuru fighters who were closing in on him. He seemed to be dancing in his chariot as he released his gold-plumed arrows. Long lines of shafts were seen to fly from Arjuna in all directions. As he moved among the Kuru army he appeared like a forest fire consuming dry wood at the end of summer. The battlefield presented a dreadful scene, with the mangled bodies of warriors and animals strewn about. Elephants screamed and horses whinnied in terror. The roars of the fighters and the blasts of conchshells and trumpets added to the clamor. Above all these sounds rose Hanumān’s terrible cries from Arjuna’s standard.

As Arjuna’s chariot approached Karṇa, Arjuna was attacked by Karṇa’s brother. Arjuna at once killed his horses and with a crescent-tipped arrow beheaded the warrior right in front of Karṇa. Seeing his brother fall like a palm tree cut at its root, Karṇa was infuriated. He rushed at the Pāṇḍava with a great shout. With twelve arrows he wounded both Arjuna and Bhuminjaya, as well as all of his horses. Arjuna assailed Karṇa with full force, like Garuḍa falling upon a serpent. The other Kurus, seeing an encounter about to take place between the two heroes, stood back to watch.

Arjuna sent a thick shower of arrows toward Karṇa, but Karṇa baffled the shafts with his own. He counterattacked Arjuna with thousands of arrows. With his bright armor and flashing steel arrows, Karṇa seemed like a fire sending forth showers of sparks. Seeing Karṇa holding Arjuna off, the other Kuru fighters cheered him on. They clapped their hands and blew their conches. Arjuna could not tolerate hearing such praise and he fought with redoubled strength. Both combatants sent hundreds of thousands of arrows at each other. To those watching it seemed like the sun and moon were contending behind black clouds.

Karṇa repeatedly attempted to kill Arjuna’s horses and charioteer, but the Pāṇḍava checked Karṇa’s arrows with his own every time. The two fighters fired arrows with blinding speed, their hands hardly visible as they worked their bows. Karṇa sent a non-stop stream of shafts that resembled the sun’s rays shining on the earth. Gradually, however, Arjuna gained an edge over his opponent. While checking Karṇa’s arrows he began to pierce him all over his body. With fleet arrows he wounded Karṇa in the arms, thighs, breast and head. Without his natural coat of impenetrable armor, Karṇa was hurt badly by Arjuna’s attack. Finally he turned away from the fight and fled like one elephant defeated by another.

When Karṇa retreated, the other Kurus, headed by Duryodhana, came to attack Arjuna. Without flagging, Arjuna cheerfully met their attack. He displayed various celestial weapons and filled the entire sky with arrows. No part of the battlefield occupied by the Kurus was visible as Arjuna’s arrows rained down. It was impossible to even look at the Pāṇḍava in his anger. He seemed like the fire at the end of the cosmic manifestation. As Arjuna fought like a superhuman being, he created havoc among his foes. His arrows only fell where they were aimed and his bow was always bent into a circle. The Kuru army fell back in terror, the soldiers worshipping Arjuna in their minds. Horses and elephants that were not slain ran in all directions. Smashed chariots lay everywhere, with the bodies of their drivers and warriors lying prostrate nearby.

In the sky the gods, Gandharvas, Siddhas and ṛṣis assembled to watch Arjuna fight. The fragrance of their celestial garlands spread across the battlefield as if the trees had blossomed in spring. Their clothes, ornaments and shining conveyances lit up the region with a brilliant lustre. The sky was ablaze. It was beautiful to behold. In the midst of all the celestials stood Indra, looking with affection at his son.

Arjuna looked around at the routed army and saw Droṇa. Feeling affection for his teacher he ordered Virata’s son to drive the chariot toward him. “O prince, Droṇa is always worthy of my worship. In intelligence he resembles Shukra, the guru of the demons, and in his knowledge of morality he is no less than Bṛhaspati. He has studied all the Vedas and the science of archery resides within him. He is always ornamented by forgiveness, self-control, truthfulness and compassion. I desire to fight with him, so advance with caution.”

The prince urged on the horses and Arjuna blew his conch. Droṇa saw him coming and took out his own conch, giving it a mighty blast. The conches sounded together like a thousand trumpets. Droṇa’s red horses rose up and drew his chariot quickly forward. Seeing his preceptor approach, Arjuna was joyful. Placing his bow by his side he called out, “O gentle one, we have completed our term of exile in the forest and now wish to exact our revenge. You should not be angry with us. O irrepressible hero, I will not strike you unless you attack first.”

Droṇa smiled at his favorite disciple. Without replying he raised his gold-plated bow and discharged more than twenty shafts. Arjuna instantly raised his own bow and countered his arrows with astonishing speed. Droṇa covered Arjuna’s chariot on all sides with thousands of arrows. Bhuminjaya swiftly turned the chariot and dropped away from Droṇa as Arjuna dexterously cut down his arrows. Both fighters invoked celestial weapons and spread a network of arrows that amazed the watching Kuru soldiers. Other weapons began to appear on the battlefield as the two combatants chanted mantras sacred to various deities. Firebrands and blazing discuses were hurled from Droṇa’s bow, but Arjuna struck them all down. He sent an even greater number of long-shafted arrows toward his preceptor. Droṇa, smiling all the while, cut down all those arrows in mid-flight.

The Kurus cheered again and again as they witnessed the prowess of both guru and disciple, and they wondered at the harshness of a kṣatriya’s duty that impelled the two to fight one another.

Even as he fought with Droṇa, Arjuna kept up his attack on the Kuru army. His arrows descended on them like lightning bolts. As the fierce razor-headed shafts struck horses, elephants and soldiers, they made a sound resembling a hard downpour of hailstones. The battlefield was strewn with arms still clutching weapons and heads adorned with helmets. Golden armor and pieces of shattered chariots littered the ground. The screams of terrified soldiers filled the air as Arjuna maintained his assault.

Feeling affection for his disciple, Droṇa displayed only some of his power. He held off Arjuna’s attack on himself and sent a barrage of golden-feathered arrows back at him. His shafts traveled toward Arjuna in rows, their feathers touching. Arjuna responded by releasing so many arrows that Droṇa and his chariot became invisible. Those observing Arjuna could not discern any interval between his taking up arrows, placing them on his bow, and then firing them. Even Indra, watching from the heavens, was wonderstruck. Droṇa was totally enveloped in a thick mass of arrows that fell continuously upon him. Seeing this the Kurus cried out, “Alas!”

Aśvatthāmā was infuriated and he rushed at Arjuna, bellowing out a challenge. The Pāṇḍava turned toward him and offered Droṇa a chance to retreat. Aśvatthāmā, highly-skilled in battle, sent an arrow that cut Arjuna’s ever-twanging bowstring. The deities in the sky, beholding this superhuman feat, exclaimed, “Well done! Bravo!” Aśvatthāmā succeeded in wounding Arjuna with a number of sharp-pointed shafts decked with kanka feathers.

Arjuna laughed and restrung his bow. A furious fight ensued between the disciple and the son of Droṇa, which made the hairs of the heroes who were watching stand erect. It resembled a clash between two maddened elephants. They struck one another with burning arrows that looked like serpents hissing through the air. But Aśvatthāmā’s arrows quickly became exhausted as Arjuna fought on, his own supply being inexhaustible by the fire-god’s boon.

As Aśvatthāmā withdrew from the fight, Karṇa returned and twanged his bowstring with a crash like thunder. Arjuna gazed at him with coppery-red eyes. Hoping to kill him, he fired thousands of arrows in his direction. He then called out, “O Karṇa, the time has come for you to make good your boastful words. Many times have you vainly stated that there are none to equal you in battle. Fighting with me today you will know your own strength and will never again disregard others. Without ever considering piety, you have given vent to many harsh words. Try your best to make good those insults you offered me in the assembly. You cannot defeat me. Now reap the fruit of your insult to Draupadī. Only virtue restrained me that day from exacting a terrible vengeance. Today you will feel the force of my restrained anger, held in check these last thirteen years. Fight, O sinful one, and let all the Kurus watch as you perish.”

Karṇa sneered. “Prove yourself in battle, Pārtha. The world knows that your words exceed your deeds. As a result of your weakness and inability, the Kauravas have forced you to suffer. Do not bother to make excuses. Now we will all see your power when I strike you with my irresistible weapons. Even if Indra himself came to fight on your behalf, you would not escape.”

Arjuna was derisive. “You have always fled from me and thus you still live to utter these empty words. Even today when you saw your brother slain you fled. What power were you showing then?”

Bending the Gāṇḍīva into a semicircle, Arjuna quickly fired dozens of armor-piercing arrows that shone like fire. Karṇa delightedly received those shafts with his own, intercepting every one. Again a network of arrows spread out between the two fighters. Karṇa released searing shafts with unerring accuracy and pierced Arjuna’s arms and hands. Unable to tolerate the attack, Arjuna cut Karṇa’s bowstring with a crescent-headed arrow. Karṇa replied with a number of arrows that made Arjuna lose hold of the Gāṇḍīva. Quickly regaining his composure, Arjuna sent razor-headed shafts at Karṇa which cut his bow to pieces. Karṇa took up a fresh bow and released a fierce steel arrow resembling a lance, but Arjuna struck it down even as it left Karṇa’s bow.

Five or six powerful fighters came up to support Karṇa, but Arjuna slew them all. The Pāṇḍava drew his bow back to his ear and fired four steel shafts that killed Karṇa’s horses. With another powerful arrow he struck Karṇa on the breast, making a sound like an explosion. The arrow pierced Karṇa’s armor and penetrated into his body. He lost consciousness and fell sideways in his chariot, whereupon he was quickly taken onto another chariot by his charioteer and carried away.

Arjuna and Bhuminjaya scoffed at the defeated Karṇa. Arjuna then looked around and said, “Take me to the place where you see the emblem of the golden palmyra. There stands our grandfather, Śantanu’s son, looking like an immortal. He too desires to fight with me.”

Bhuminjaya was exhausted. Gasping for breath he replied, “I do not think I can continue guiding your horses. My mind is confounded and my limbs are weak. It seems as if the four quarters are melting from the power of the celestial weapons you and the Kurus have released. I am beside myself with the sight and the smell of flesh and blood. I have never before seen such a battle. The clamor has deafened me and I feel stupefied. The twang of the Gāṇḍīva, like repeated thunderclaps, and your lightning bolt arrows have rent my heart. I am consumed by fear. It appears as if the earth is shifting before my eyes and I am losing my vitality.”

Arjuna consoled the prince. “You are a prince in the Matsya line. It is your sacred duty to face the enemy in battle. Take heart, for you will find strength in the Supreme Power. The Lord is always pleased when we perform our prescribed duties with firmness and determination. Guide the horses for only a while longer. I wish to face the grandsire in battle.”

The prince felt heartened and he urged the steeds forward. As the chariot moved across the battlefield toward Bhīṣma’s chariot, Arjuna continued, “This battle will not last much longer. The Kuru army is reeling like a wheel under the force of my weapons. I will make a river flow toward the other world, with blood for its waters, chariots for its eddies, and elephants for its aquatics. The Kuru forest, with heads, arms and tall backs for its branches, will be cut down. I have obtained all the celestial weapons from the gods. Do not fear, O prince, for I will rout the Kurus and put them to flight.”

When Arjuna got within striking distance of Bhīṣma, he sent a hail of shafts at him. Bhīṣma patiently countered his arrows and four of Duryodhana’s brothers came forward to protect him. Dushashana launched a fierce attack on Arjuna. He wounded Bhuminjaya with a large dart and pierced Arjuna’s breast with another. Arjuna at once sent golden-winged arrows, which cut Dushashana’s bow to pieces and severely wounded him in the chest. Dushashana retreated, leaving his three brothers to fight with Arjuna. Each of them were similarly injured and had to retreat.

At Bhīṣma’s command, thousands of Kuru troops surrounded Arjuna and assailed him. The Pāṇḍava spun around in his chariot with his bow constantly drawn to a circle. Sometimes he shot with his left and sometimes his right arm. Blazing arrows went in all directions and the Kuru force was torn apart. Arjuna appeared in battle like the scorching mid-day sun with its unbearable rays. Kuru heroes leapt down from their cars and fled, throwing aside their weapons. Horsemen turned and drove their horses away in terror. The Kurus retreated with difficulty, falling over the bodies of men, elephants and horses.

Duryodhana, Karṇa, Kṛpa, Droṇa and Aśvatthāmā then rushed toward Arjuna together. They covered him with so many arrows that no part of his body was visible. Even amid that onslaught Arjuna maintained his calm and invoked the Aindrastra, summoning the fire-god’s invincible power. That weapon sent hundreds of thousands of flaming arrows and darts at the Kurus and drove them back. Arjuna then saw Bhīṣma standing before him on his chariot. Gaṅgā’s son was smiling. In his shining coat of mail, he shone like a white mountain at sunrise. He lifted his gold-plated bow and fired a dozen arrows, which struck the roaring monkey on Arjuna’s banner.

Pushing aside the affection he felt for the old Kuru leader, Arjuna sent a huge dart which broke down the white umbrella over his head. He quickly followed it with arrows that severed his flagstaff and killed the two warriors protecting his flanks. Arjuna wounded Bhīṣma’s horses and brought his chariot to a halt.

Bhīṣma became angry and he began to invoke divine weapons. A massive hail of arrows, darts and spears fell blazing from the sky. Arjuna instantly checked his attack with his own celestial missiles. He counter-attacked Bhīṣma with volumes of arrows that sped toward him. Bhīṣma received Arjuna’s assault like a hill receives a cloud. He dexterously cut down all the arrows as they flew, and they fell to pieces on the ground.

The battle between Arjuna and Bhīṣma raged fiercely for some time as the Kurus watched in amazement. It seemed as if Indra were contending with Bali, the Asura king. Neither side paused in the fight. Arjuna’s Gāṇḍīva had become a circle of fire and Bhīṣma danced on his chariot like a youth.

Finally, Arjuna succeeded in baffling Bhīṣma with a weapon that sent an uncountable number of golden-winged arrows in repeated waves. Bhīṣma fell back in his chariot and, seeing his opportunity, Arjuna severed his bow with a razor-faced arrow. Immediately after that he shot ten steel shafts with heads shaped liked calves’ teeth. Those deadly arrows pierced Bhīṣma’s breast. The Kuru chief was stunned and he stood leaning on the pole of his chariot for some time. Seeing him senseless, his charioteer turned the chariot and carried him away.

Most of the Kuru army had been overpowered and, if not slain, had fled. Only a few of their heroes still stood on the battlefield. Duryodhana, burning with anger and humiliation, brought his chariot before Arjuna. He threw a golden dart that struck Arjuna on the forehead. Blood gushed from his wound and the son of Kuntī looked like a mountain giving forth a stream of red lava. Arjuna struck Duryodhana with arrows that stung like poisonous snakes. The two cousins fought furiously, using all their martial skill.

Duryodhana’s brother Vikarṇa came to support him on an elephant. He drove the beast toward Arjuna’s chariot intending to crush him underfoot, but Arjuna bent the Gāṇḍīva into a full circle and fired an iron arrow that hit the elephant on the forehead. The arrow penetrated the elephant’s head up to the feathers and the beast fell screaming to the ground. Vikarṇa leapt clear and, terrified, ran a full eight hundred paces to his brother Vivingsati’s chariot.

Arjuna released a similar arrow that struck Duryodhana full on the chest. The Kaurava prince fell to his knees and vomited blood, his shining armor bent and pierced. Seeing himself standing alone against Arjuna, Duryodhana ordered his charioteer to retreat. Arjuna laughed and called after him, “Why do you flee, O hero? How are you renouncing your fame and glory? Why are your trumpets not blown in the same way as they were when you first left Hastināpura? Know me to be Yudhiṣṭhira’s obedient servant and Kuntī’s third son. Remembering the conduct of kings, turn back and show me your face, O mighty-armed one.”

Duryodhana and his brothers continued to flee. They completely abandoned their attempts to steal the Matsyas’ wealth. Remembering his promise to the Matsya ladies, Arjuna went around the battlefield and took the costly robes from the fallen Kuru warriors.

As they made their way back to the city Arjuna said, “You are the only person who is aware of my true identity. It may be wise to keep this information secret for a little while longer. You should tell your father that it was you who routed the Kurus.”

Arjuna wanted to wait for Yudhiṣṭhira to decide the exact moment for them to reveal their identities. Understanding this, Bhuminjaya replied, “I would not have had the power to achieve what you have achieved today, O Savyasācin, but I will not disclose your identity until you give me your permission.”

Arjuna had the prince take the chariot back to the cremation ground. When they arrived, Arjuna folded his palms toward Hanumān on his banner. The monkey flew up into the sky and vanished, and Arjuna hoisted the prince’s lion banner again. He replaced his weapons in the bundle high in the sami tree. Then, taking his place as the chariot driver, they headed back toward the city.