Kṛṣṇa Protects His Devotee
At sunrise the following morning, Bhīṣma went to Duryodhana and asked for the arrows. Hearing that Arjuna had taken them at Kṛṣṇa’s behest, Bhīṣma smiled. He was not surprised. Even if he had kept the arrows, Kṛṣṇa would no doubt have found some way to thwart him. While Kṛṣṇa rode on Arjuna’s chariot, the Kurus were doomed. How much longer could this fight go on? Would everyone have to die before it was over?
Donning his armor Bhīṣma said, “It seems the Yādava has made my promise false. I cannot invest another five arrows with the same power. Therefore, it will not be possible for me to slay the five brothers today. However, I will still exert myself on your behalf. Everything that lies within my power will be done. I will focus my attention on Arjuna. Even if I slay him alone, your purpose will be accomplished.”
As he prepared for the day’s fighting Bhīṣma thought of Kṛṣṇa’s promise not to take up arms in the battle. Well, today he would test that promise. If the Yadu hero made him forsake his vow, then he would force Kṛṣṇa to break His own. Either He would have to fight or He would see His beloved Arjuna slain.
Bhīṣma mounted his chariot and moved off to the head of the army. Shouting commands he arranged the Kauravas in the formation named Sarvabhadra. It resembled an eagle with outspread wings. With Kṛpa, Kṛtavarmā, Jayadratha and other kings, he stationed himself at the front and center of the troops. Other mighty heroes stood at the right and left wings, guarding the infantry in their separate divisions. Duryodhana stood in the middle, surrounded by his brothers and protected by Droṇa and his son. Alambusha and his Rākṣasas stood in the rear, along with tens of thousands of other soldiers.
Duryodhana looked at Bhīṣma at the front of his army. Amid the Kauravas, the old hero shone like the moon. The prince felt his hopes rise. With Bhīṣma exhibiting his full power, the Pāṇḍavas would doubtlessly be thrown into complete disarray. Still, they would try by any means to stop him. But there was only one person capable of that, at least according to the prophesy.
Duryodhana turned to Dushashana and called out, “Today the grandfather will slay our enemies in battle like a fire burning grass. Surely that which we have longed for all these years will now be achieved. Thus I consider it our highest duty to protect Bhīṣma. But for Śikhaṇḍī, he said, he will slay anyone who crosses his path in the battle. We should therefore ensure that he does not have to face Drupada’s son. We should not let Śikhaṇḍī kill him, like a wolf in a pack slaying a lone lion.”
On Duryodhana’s order, many powerful chariot warriors rode up to surround Bhīṣma. The army then moved off, shaking the earth.
On the other side of the field, the Pāṇḍava forces stood ready for battle. Cased in shining mail and arrayed in a counter-formation, they advanced toward their foe. Arjuna, riding alongside Dṛṣṭadyumna, said, “Today Bhīṣma, feeling that we deceived him, will be angry. Therefore let Śikhaṇḍī face him. I will protect your brother.”
Then the two armies clashed. Amid war cries and the blare of countless instruments, they met furiously. Above the soldiers hovered shrieking birds of prey. Jackals howled. All the points of the compass appeared as if ablaze, and showers of stones fell from the sky. The horses and other animals shed tears and stumbled as they ran. Despite these inauspicious omens, which portended a massacre, the warriors rushed into battle with full force. They drove remorselessly into one another, hacking, slicing and piercing. The chariot-warriors showered volleys of shafts that fell like grey clouds from the sky, while countless lances sped through the air like silver- and gold-winged serpents.
Breaking forward from the Pāṇḍava ranks, Abhimanyu displayed astonishing skill and power. Driven by tawny-colored horses he charged against Duryodhana and his division. He shot arrows at the prince and all his followers with such force and speed that they were stunned and unable to respond. Many heroic chariot fighters were slain by his unerring shafts. Chariots were smashed and elephants were brought down. Abhimanyu’s arrows flew like virulent serpents spitting fire. He scattered the Kaurava divisions like a wind scatters clouds. They could hardly look at him as he careered about the field, his bow drawn constantly to a circle. As Abhimanyu crushed them, the Kaurava warriors considered him another Arjuna. No one could detect any weakness in him. He even confounded Droṇa, Kṛpa and Aśvatthāmā, who all tried to check him. The Kauravas broke and fled in terror.
Seeing his troops’ distress, Duryodhana called for Alambusha and instructed him, “Singlehandedly, Subhadrā’s son is destroying my troops. I do not see any way to stop him other than through yourself, O prince of Rākṣasas. Go at once and slay him. In the meantime, Bhīṣma, Droṇa and I will slay Arjuna.”
Alambusha bowed to the command and uttered a deafening roar that shook the earth. Upon hearing the roar, warriors fell stunned to the ground. Abhimanyu, however, was delighted to see the Rākṣasa charge him. Grasping his tall bow, he urged his charioteer to approach him. He appeared to be dancing in his chariot as he released arrows at Alambusha and his followers.
The Rākṣasas began crushing the divisions supporting Abhimanyu. Alambusha moved with such speed and power that he quickly killed thousands of warriors. His arrows fell like poisonous showers and consumed the Pāṇḍava forces. Seeing the Rākṣasa’s prowess, Draupadī’s five sons rushed at him like five planets rushing at the sun. Yudhiṣṭhira’s son, Prativindya, pierced his armor with a number of keen arrows that screamed through the air. Shining, blood flowing from his wounds, the Rākṣasa was as beautiful as a dark cloud fringed with the sun’s red rays. The Pāṇḍavas’ sons continued to rain fierce shafts on Alambusha from all sides. Sorely afflicted and wounded, he became infuriated like a snake who had been carelessly kicked. Unable to gather his senses under the attack, he crouched down in his chariot and swooned for a few moments.
As the Rākṣasa regained consciousness, he rose to his feet and swelled with anger. He shot long arrows decked with buzzard feathers that broke apart his adversaries’ bows and standards. Every one of the five brothers standing against him was severely wounded. The frenzied Alambusha sent his deadly arrows with frightening force. The shafts slew the four horses drawing each of his opponents’ chariots, and killed the charioteers. He pierced the brothers again and again with arrows that resembled fiery meteors.
With his bow working non-stop, Alambusha rushed against his foes, intent on slaying them, but as he approached them he was checked by a volley of arrows from Abhimanyu. The Rākṣasa turned his attention to Subhadrā’s son, and a ferocious battle ensued between the two heroes. Their eyes red with rage, they gazed at each other for some moments. Both of them roared and clutched their bows as they circled each other on their cars. Suddenly, they both released arrows, their bows twanging like thunderclaps. The Rākṣasa employed his illusory powers and Abhimanyu countered with celestial weapons.
The sky between the two fighters was filled with clouds of arrows. Fire and smoke issued from them as they struck each other in mid-air and fell to the earth. Each seeking the weak point in the other, the two warriors pierced one another on the chest, arms and legs. Although hit with powerful shafts that stuck from their bodies like trees on a mountain, neither fighter flinched.
Abhimanyu then fired arrows that passed clean through the Rākṣasa’s body and entered the earth like red serpents going into a hole. Alambusha gasped in pain and turned his face away. By his mystic power he spread a cloak of darkness over the battlefield. No one could see anything in the gloom. Then Abhimanyu invoked the Sūrya-astra. As the effulgent weapon appeared, the battlefield was once again illuminated. Abhimanyu then covered his adversary with a network of golden arrows. Finding himself hard-pressed, the Rākṣasa employed many kinds of illusion. He made strange beings appear on the field. Blazing weapons of all sorts fell on Abhimanyu from all sides.
Unperturbed, Abhimanyu countered the illusions with his celestial missiles. Alambusha, his mystic powers neutralized by Kṛṣṇa’s nephew, was overwhelmed. He leapt down from his chariot and fled.
After defeating the Rākṣasa, Abhimanyu began crushing the Kaurava troops like an infuriated elephant crushes lotuses in a lake. Only Bhīṣma could check him. The Kuru grandfather was backed by many other powerful chariot fighters. Similarly, many Pāṇḍava warriors supported Abhimanyu and a general fight ensued.
Elsewhere on the battlefield, Duryodhana, Droṇa, Kṛpa, Susharma, and the Trigarta army encountered Arjuna. Both sides invoked their celestial weapons as they assailed one another to their full power. As they contended together Droṇa and Arjuna appeared like Śiva and Yamarāja. Forgetful of their relationship, they fought remorselessly.
Challenging Arjuna repeatedly, the Trigartas poured their arrows upon him from all sides. Although assailed by a thick shower of shafts, Arjuna exhibited his lightness of hand by countering them. Even the celestials cheered Arjuna’s skill.
Infuriated at being attacked by so many warriors at once, Arjuna invoked the Vāyu-astra. That irresistible weapon created a tempest that hurled warriors, chariots and elephants all around the field. Seeing the destruction that weapon wrought, Droṇa countered it with the Saila missile. The wind subsided and men and horses fell from the sky.
Arjuna, moving with blinding speed, fired innumerable arrows that sent the Trigarta division reeling. The chariot fighters ranging against Arjuna fell screaming from their shattered cars. Quickly, he was surrounded by Duryodhana, Kṛpa, Aśvatthāmā, Śalya, Bāhlika, and a number of other Kaurava maharathas. Bhagadatta and Srutayush, heading an elephant division, surrounded Bhīma, who was supporting his younger brother.
While numerous fighters held the two Pāṇḍavas at bay, Bhīṣma approached Yudhiṣṭhira. The Kuru chief knew that if he could capture Yudhiṣṭhira, the war would be over. He surrounded him with thousands of chariots and horsemen. The eldest Pāṇḍava, supported by Dṛṣṭadyumna, Sātyaki, Śikhaṇḍī and other heroes, fought off his attack.
Seeing himself surrounded by many elephants, Bhīma licked the corners of his mouth and smiled. He grasped his mace and leapt from his chariot with a roar. The elephant warriors closed in on him, goading their rocking beasts with their hooks. In the midst of the elephant division Bhīma resembled the sun amid dark clouds. Then like a tempest scattering clouds, he moved swiftly among his opponents. Struck by Bhīma’s flailing mace, the elephants shrieked.
The elephants gored Bhīma as he fought. The blood running from his wounds made him appear like a blossoming ashoka tree. Catching hold of the elephants’ tusks he wrenched them out and felled the screaming beasts with blows from his mace. Although the elephants were highly trained in crushing and killing, Bhīma was able to slaughter their entire division. The survivors ran frantically back through their own ranks, trampling soldiers and chariots as they fled.
In the meantime, Arjuna had repelled the warriors who surrounded him. The Kauravas had fled. Both Bhīma and Arjuna then came to support Yudhiṣṭhira, who was still under Bhīṣma’s attack. In his fury, Bhīṣma had alone crushed a huge detachment of Somakas. Although the Somakas were fierce fighters, they could not face Bhīṣma.
Virata, Drupada and Drupada’s two sons came before Bhīṣma and challenged him. They pierced him with arrows decked with gems. Śikhaṇḍī came forward and shouted out his challenge, firing a hundred shafts, but Bhīṣma did not respond. Turning from Śikhaṇḍī he attacked Drupada and Virata. Dṛṣṭadyumna brought his chariot to the fore and shot three arrows that penetrated Bhīṣma’s armor and pierced his chest. Bathed in blood he shone all the more on the battlefield. Without flinching, he struck Dṛṣṭadyumna with twenty-five arrows, then fired an arrow which cut Drupada’s bow.
At that time, Bhīma and Arjuna arrived and the battle raged on between the two sides. Both armies were fearless. Embracing a hero’s death, their minds fixed on heaven, they rushed at their foes with uplifted weapons. Many warriors fell to the ground and lay there laughing as they died. Horses dashed about wildly with their warriors hanging lifeless from the saddle. Chariot fighters fell from their cars with their armor smashed and their limbs severed. So many men were slain that it appeared as if a river
of blood flowed across the earth, carrying heads, arms, legs and torsos. Heroes were cheered by the sight and cowards became afraid.
As the carnage increased, the kings and kṣatriyas censured Duryodhana. “All this destruction has arisen through the folly of that prince and his blind father. Why did Dhṛtarāṣṭra, of crooked mind and intentions, infatuated by greed, harbor feelings of envy toward the sinless Pāṇḍavas?”
Hearing their cries, Duryodhana scowled. He looked at Bhīṣma and Droṇa, calling out, “Do not heed these shouts. Fight with determination and slay our enemies before they annihilate us. O Grandsire, why do you tarry?”
Bhīṣma turned to Duryodhana and raised his hand in silent assent. He gazed around the field. Some way off he could see Arjuna’s standard rising above the battle. He could hear Hanumān crying on the flag. Bhīṣma again thought of Kṛṣṇa. Soon the Yādava would see His dearest friend in danger. By His cunning He may have saved the Pāṇḍavas last night, but now He would need more than that to save Arjuna. Bhīṣma was filled with joy at the thought. Whatever Kṛṣṇa decided would doubtlessly be for his good, and the good of the world.
Bhīṣma ordered his charioteer to move toward Arjuna. Remembering his promise he slew every soldier he saw. Arjuna was fighting with Susharma and his army when Bhīṣma arrived. Like the Destroyer himself, he was slaughtering their warriors mercilessly. No one could stand before him for even a moment before being struck by his shafts. Faced with the impossible task of fighting Arjuna, many warriors fled in terror. Some left their horses, others their chariots, and some their elephants, to escape on foot in their panic. Others galloped away at full speed, not looking back. Although Susharma tried to rally his troops, they paid him no heed. Soon the king stood in the battle with only his own brother supporting him. Duryodhana saw his plight and came to assist him. With Bhīṣma, they assailed Arjuna with volleys of shafts.
The other Pāṇḍavas then rushed to Arjuna’s assistance. At the same time, other great fighters among the Kauravas came to Bhīṣma’s side. Soon a mighty battle between the best warriors on both sides ensued. Sātyaki and Kṛtavarmā, disregarding their long friendship, battled together. Droṇa fought Drupada, while Bhīma engaged with Bāhlika. Duryodhana and Śakuni, along with some of Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s other sons, fought Yudhiṣṭhira and the twins.
Bhīṣma slew the Pāṇḍava troops with a vengeance. It appeared that even Death personified could not approach him. Ten thousand chariot warriors from the races of the Cediś, Kashis and Karushas, all fearless and unretreating in battle, rushed at Bhīṣma, but he killed them all.
Now the Pāṇḍava army began to flee. Seeing this, Kṛṣṇa said, “O Pārtha, the hour which you have so ardently longed for has now arrived. Make good the words you spoke at Virata’s palace. Before the assembled kings you said, ‘I will slay any and all of Duryodhana’s fighters, headed by Bhīṣma and Droṇa.’ O grinder of foes, make true your words. Remembering the duties of your order, do not hesitate. Fight and slay Bhīṣma before he destroys our army.”
Arjuna stood in his chariot, his head hung down. He knew it was indeed time to try to kill his grandfather. Heavy with sadness, he looked at Kṛṣṇa and replied, “Burdensome is the duty of a kṣatriya in this world. Killing those who ought not to be slain, he strives for wealth and power. Yet, O Janārdana, I must do Your bidding. That is my highest duty. Then drive my horses toward that virtuous man of irresistible splendor. Today I will kill Bhīṣma.”
Kṛṣṇa took up the reins and the horses moved according to His will. The Pāṇḍava troops, seeing Arjuna rushing for an encounter with Bhīṣma, rallied.
Bhīṣma roared out his war cry and covered Arjuna’s chariot with a blanket of arrows. Kṛṣṇa dexterously drove the chariot out from under the attack and Arjuna fired a broad-headed shaft that split Bhīṣma’s bow in two. Bhīṣma immediately strung another, but before he could fit an arrow to it, Arjuna again destroyed it. Bhīṣma smiled and cheered Arjuna. “Well done, well done, O mighty-armed one.”
Evading Arjuna’s arrows, the Kuru chief took up another bow, then spun around to fire dozens of shafts at his foe. Again Kṛṣṇa baffled the attack by His expert chariot driving. None of Bhīṣma’s arrows found their mark, and they whistled past harmlessly. Bhīṣma increased the intensity of his assault, anticipating Kṛṣṇa’s moves and striking both Him and Arjuna with numerous shafts. Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna, mangled by Bhīṣma’s arrows, appeared beautiful, like a pair of heifers scratched by each other’s horns. Arjuna countered Bhīṣma’s attack, but found himself unable to strike his beloved grandfather with all his might.
Bhīṣma maintained a relentless assault on Arjuna. At the same time he attacked the surrounding Pāṇḍava troops. The twang of his bow made one continuous roaring sound. His shafts streaked in all directions. Passing through the bodies of warriors, horses and elephants and killing them, the fearful shafts then entered the earth.
Bhīṣma concentrated his attack on Arjuna’s chariot. He struck Kṛṣṇa with a number of shafts and the Yādava trembled in His seat as He guided the horses. Laughing loudly, Bhīṣma rained thousands of arrows on Arjuna. Still the Pāṇḍava resisted him only half-heartedly.
Kṛṣṇa looked astonished to see Bhīṣma’s prowess. It seemed like the Kuru warrior would consume the three worlds. Bhīṣma stood in battle like the Destroyer on the day of universal dissolution. Seeing him killing the foremost Pāṇḍava warriors, and that Arjuna was not fighting to his full power, Kṛṣṇa became thoughtful. Bhīṣma could kill the combined armies of the gods and Asuras if left unchecked. Unless Arjuna did something, then even he would succumb to Bhīṣma’s deadly shafts. Already he was sorely afflicted.
Kṛṣṇa reflected, “I will personally slay Bhīṣma. I cannot tolerate the slaughter of the Pāṇḍavas. Arjuna is not doing what he should do out of his respect for Bhīṣma. Therefore I will lighten the Pāṇḍavas’ load by killing that best of men in battle.”
Even as Kṛṣṇa thought in this way, Bhīṣma stepped up his attack. By employing celestial weapons, he fired so many arrows that all points of the compass around Arjuna were covered. Neither the sky, the earth, nor the sun could be seen. Yudhiṣṭhira’s troops were crushed and forced back by the irresistible wall of arrows. Jumping down from their cars, they fled in terror. Arjuna’s chariot was entirely shrouded. Neither he nor Kṛṣṇa were visible. Only his tall standard could be seen. Seeing him hard-pressed, Dṛṣṭadyumna blew his conch and came to his aid.
Kṛṣṇa whirled Arjuna’s chariot around and managed to evade Bhīṣma’s attack. Seeing Dṛṣṭadyumna coming up, He called out, “O hero of the Sinis, our men are retreating. The grandfather is slaying them like a lion killing deer. Behold! I will Myself kill that hero of fixed vows along with all his followers and the sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra. O Satvata chief, no one can escape Me when I am angry. With great joy I will secure the kingdom for Ajātaśatru.”
Kṛṣṇa threw down the reins and leapt from the chariot. Taking up a nearby chariot wheel, He raised it above His head as if it were His own favorite weapon, the Sudarśana chakra. He ran toward Bhīṣma as a lion might run at an elephant. The end of His yellow silk garment fluttered in the dusty air, resembling lightning dancing in a dark cloud. The wheel in His hand seemed to glow with His own effulgence, and it looked as beautiful as the primeval lotus from which Brahmā was born. Kṛṣṇa’s dark arm appeared like the stalk of the lotus, and His charming face, covered with beads of perspiration, was its filament.
Seeing Kṛṣṇa intent on Bhīṣma’s destruction, the Kurus felt their end was near. Kṛṣṇa looked like the all-destroying Samvartaka cloud, which appears at the end of the millenium.
Bhīṣma’s limbs trembled and his eyes flooded with tears. Here was the Lord of the universe, breaking His own promise to protect His devotee. The Kuru hero threw down his weapons and stretched out his arms. As Kṛṣṇa approached him he called out, “Come, come, my Lord. O Supreme Deity, Lord of all the gods, I bow to You. Seeing You forsake Your vow to save Your friend, and thus fulfilling my own desire, I am satisfied. Fell me from this chariot, O Keśava. Killed by You, O Janārdana, I will obtain great good fortune. My fame and dignity will be celebrated throughout the worlds.”
Arjuna was mortified to see Kṛṣṇa breaking His promise not to fight. It was his fault. If he had exerted himself against Bhīṣma, this would not have been necessary. Of course, Kṛṣṇa’s promise had been that He would not wield weapons in the war, and a wheel was hardly a weapon, but still, He would be condemned by foolish men for His apparent dishonesty.
Arjuna put down his bow and jumped from the chariot. His armor flashing in the late afternoon sun, he ran after Kṛṣṇa. Kṛṣṇa had covered almost half the distance to Bhīṣma. As He ran with the upraised wheel, His upper garment fell from His body into the mud. Gazing at Bhīṣma with eyes red with anger, He shouted, “You are the root of this great slaughter. A wise minister who treads the path of virtue should restrain a wicked king by any means. If that is not possible, then such a wretched monarch should be abandoned.”
Arjuna succeeding in reaching Kṛṣṇa. Hurling himself forward, he caught hold of Kṛṣṇa’s legs. But even with Arjuna hanging onto His thighs, Kṛṣṇa continued to run at Bhīṣma.
Bhīṣma bowed his head and replied to Kṛṣṇa as He came near. “You forever speak the truth, my Lord. I told Dhṛtarāṣṭra to abandon Duryodhana, even as the Bhojas abandoned Kaṁsa, but he did not listen. Surely destiny is all-powerful.”
Dragged by Kṛṣṇa, Arjuna dug his feet into the ground. After taking ten steps with the Pāṇḍava gripping Him tightly, Kṛṣṇa was at last brought to a stop. Arjuna released His legs and fell at His feet. “Quell Your anger, O Keśava. You are the Pāṇḍavas’ refuge, without doubt, but please do not violate Your promise. These were Your words, O Lord: ‘I will not take up arms.’ Do not falsify Your vow. I swear by my sons and brothers that I will make good my promise. You will see me fight as never before. O Kṛṣṇa, at Your command, I shall surely annihilate the Kurus, headed by Bhīṣma.”
Hearing Arjuna’s promise, Kṛṣṇa was pacified. He lowered the chariot wheel. As Bhīṣma looked on in wonder, both Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna turned and walked back to their chariot. Even as they were returning, the sun set and the day’s hostilities ended. Conches were blown on both sides and the two armies withdrew. The battle-weary warriors made their way to their camps, speaking of the wonderful incident between Kṛṣṇa and Bhīṣma. The Kuru chief himself thought only of Kṛṣṇa as he led his forces away for the night. The image of the Yādava hero running toward him with the upraised wheel would stay forever in his heart.