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Chapter 12

The Fall of Bhīṣma

As sunrise approached on the tenth day, the sounds of thousands of drums, cymbals, conches, and trumpets filled the air. Donning their armor and taking up their blood-stained weapons, the warriors came forward for battle. The Pāṇḍavas arranged for Śikhaṇḍī to ride in his chariot at the forefront of their formation. Bhīma and Arjuna protected his two flanks and behind him came Abhimanyu and Draupadī’s sons. Then, spreading out in a fan behind them, all the Pañchālas, headed by Dṛṣṭadyumna, Sātyaki and Chekitana, stood ready to fight. Other powerful rathas and maharathas protected the formation’s key points. With a joyful roar they rushed at the Kauravas.

Bhīṣma stood at the center of the Kaurava formation. Duryodhana ordered his best fighters to surround and protect him. He knew the Pāṇḍavas would target him. Until they checked Bhīṣma, their success would be uncertain. Duryodhana himself stayed close to his grandfather, carefully watching the Pāṇḍavas’ moves.

As the two armies clashed, the slaughter began. Knowing that it would likely be his last day, Bhīṣma made one final and supreme effort. If he were to fall, then he should go down fighting to the best of his ability. He let loose his arrows on the Pāṇḍava troops in incessant showers, and countless men, horses and elephants fell under his assault. It began to seem as if Bhīṣma was present everywhere as he wheeled about in the battle.

All five Pāṇḍavas went toward him, awed by his power. They honored him in their minds. With depressed hearts they gazed at him even as the gods had gazed at Vṛtrasura. He was consuming their forces like a fire swallowing a forest.

Standing between Bhīma and Arjuna, Śikhaṇḍī roared out his challenge and sent three arrows at Bhīṣma. They struck him on the chest, penetrating his armor. Bhīṣma felt his anger rise, but with a slight smile he called out, “O Śikhaṇḍī, I will never strike you in this fight. You are even now the same person the Creator made you before and are no match for me.”

Śikhaṇḍī was infuriated by Bhīṣma’s words. “You are the destroyer of kṣatriyas, O mighty-armed hero. I have heard of your fight with Paraśurāma and have seen for myself your prowess. Still, I will fight with you. Whether you fight back or not, I will slay you in battle. Know this for certain, O afflicter of foes. Take a good view of this world while you can, for you will not escape from me with your life.”

Śikhaṇḍī at once fired five more arrows that pierced Bhīṣma in the shoulder joint. Wincing, Bhīṣma turned away from Śikhaṇḍī and attacked the warriors surrounding him.

Arjuna came up next to Śikhaṇḍī and said, “Maintain your assault on the grandfather, mighty-armed hero. He will not be able to harm you. I will protect you from any other fighters who come to his aid. Today we must lay Bhīṣma low or face the derision of our own men.”

Śikhaṇḍī longed for Bhīṣma to fight with him. He sent clusters of swift arrows at the Kuru commander, striking him all over, but Bhīṣma did not respond. Moving back and around in a circle, Bhīṣma avoided Śikhaṇḍī and at the same time rained down his shafts on the Pāṇḍavas. He was supported by a huge division of elephant warriors and thousands of charioteers. Duryodhana personally marshaled his forces around Bhīṣma, ensuring that he was carefully guarded on all sides.

With a roar Arjuna charged into the fray. Shooting countless arrows he carved a path through the Kauravas. As he ranged about, leaving in his wake a trail of destruction, Duryodhana was alarmed and approached Bhīṣma. “O sire, behold how my troops are being routed by the enraged Arjuna. As a herdsman belabors his herd with a cudgel, so Arjuna belabors my troops with his Gāṇḍīva. O mighty hero, I see no other shelter than your illustrious self.”

Bhīṣma lowered his bow and looked at Duryodhana. “O best of men, hear my words. Before the battle began I vowed I would slaughter ten thousand men a day. I have kept my vow. Now I will make one final promise. Today, either I will kill the Pāṇḍavas or they will kill me. Thus I will liquidate the debt I owe you, arising from the food you gave me, by throwing off my mortal coil in the thick of battle.”

Without another word Bhīṣma moved off and began scattering arrows among the Pāṇḍava forces. Like the sun drawing moisture with its rays, he robbed the strength of all heroes who approached him. Having slain ten thousand swift-moving elephants and ten thousand chargers with their riders, as well as a full one hundred thousand infantry, he stood on the field like a smokeless fire. The Pāṇḍavas could not look at him.

Arjuna again enthused Śikhaṇḍī. “Go toward Bhīṣma, O hero. Do not fear. I will dislodge him from his chariot with my sharp arrows.”

Śikhaṇḍī again challenged Bhīṣma, followed by Dṛṣṭadyumna, Abhimanyu, Drupada, and Virata. Arjuna, Yudhiṣṭhira, and the twins flanked them and joined the charge. The Kuru warriors, however, checked their advance. There was a terrible encounter between the enraged warriors. Arrows, lances, darts, and maces flew threw the air, and the screams of the soldiers mixing with the clash of the weapons was intolerable.

With Śikhaṇḍī before him, Arjuna steadily approached Bhīṣma. Seeing him moving determinedly toward the grandfather, Dushashana came before him. He checked Arjuna with a volley of shafts. Dismissing fear from his mind, he withstood the Pāṇḍava like the shore resisting the ocean. The two fighters contended like Indra and Mayasura meeting in the celestial realm in the days of yore. Dushashana stopped Arjuna with twenty-five shafts, then struck Kṛṣṇa with three more. Incensed at seeing Kṛṣṇa attacked, Arjuna sped a hundred long shafts at Dushashana. Penetrating his armor they drank his blood and made him gasp with pain. Without delay he sent back three arrows that struck Arjuna on the forehead. As blood streamed down his face, Arjuna was as beautiful as Mount Meru with its towering crests stained with red oxides.

Laughing loudly, Arjuna cut Dushashana’s bow with three crescent-headed shafts fired simultaneously. He followed that at once with fifty more hammer-headed arrows that smashed the Kaurava’s chariot. Arjuna shot a hundred more spiked arrows toward Dushashana as his chariot fell apart around him. Without losing his composure, Dushashana resisted Arjuna’s attack by firing his own razor-headed shafts, which cut down Arjuna’s arrows in mid-air. All the warriors who saw this marvelous feat cheered Dushashana. The Kaurava prince felt encouraged and launched another twenty arrows at Arjuna. Struck by his shafts, Arjuna blazed up in fury. He sent so many arrows at Dushashana that the prince was forced to flee. With his body pierced all over, he ran three hundred paces and mounted Bhīṣma’s chariot.

With all their principal warriors at their head, both armies faced each other for a violent exchange of weapons. Bhīṣma was backed by Duryodhana, Droṇa, Kṛpa, Aśvatthāmā, and all the other Kuru heroes, while the five Pāṇḍavas, backed by Dṛṣṭadyumna, Śikhaṇḍī, Sātyaki, Abhimanyu, and the other Pāṇḍava fighters, all stood against them. They fought like the gods and Asuras.

Watching the fight, Droṇa spoke to his son, who was stationed by his side, “It seems, my dear Aśvatthāmā, that Arjuna will exert himself fully to destroy Bhīṣma. See how he targets the grandfather again and again, keeping Śikhaṇḍī by his side. I am seeing many evil omens. My arrows seem to fall from my quiver and will not fit themselves to my bow. I feel my enthusiasm wane. All around us I hear the cries of carnivorous birds and beasts. Even the earth seems to cry out in pain and the sun is dimmed. Though clad in bright armor, the kings on our side do not shine. All these signs indicate that our illustrious sire will soon fall.”

Droṇa urged his son to challenge Arjuna. “This is not the time when dependents should think of their own lives. Fixing your mind on heaven, dear son, confront the roaring Dhanañjaya. That diadem-decked hero is agitating our army like a storm tossing the ocean. Listen to the cries of men and the constant crack of his bowstring. Go quickly and exert yourself fully to check your godbrother before he destroys us all.”

Aśvatthāmā moved off at once, supported by Śalya, Kṛpa, and Bhagadatta, along with another six Kaurava maharathas. All ten warriors advanced in a body toward Arjuna. Bhīma challenged them when he saw their intention. All ten of them trained their weapons on the powerful Pāṇḍava, but he remained unmoved by their attack. He cheerfully assailed every one of them with his own arrows, each of which resembled one of Indra’s blazing lances. The Kaurava warriors found themselves completely engaged by Bhīma alone. With roars of delight he held them all at bay.

As other battles raged around him, Arjuna focused on Bhīṣma’s chariot. After beating back an attack from Susharma and his brother Citrasena, he rushed at Bhīṣma like an elephant rushing at another for the sake of a mate. Quickly, Bhagadatta placed his elephant in Arjuna’s way, but the Pāṇḍava sent it reeling with a volley of swift arrows. Then Śikhaṇḍī was again before Bhīṣma. He rained countless arrows on his chariot. Still Bhīṣma refused to fight with him. Instead, he bore his attack patiently while maintaining his assault on the soldiers supporting him. Bhīṣma resembled Rudra at the end of the creation. No one who came within range of his arrows escaped. Only Arjuna was able to withstand his attack and approach him, along with Śikhaṇḍī, who was still unharmed.

When only Arjuna and Śikhaṇḍī were left standing against Bhīṣma, Śikhaṇḍī pierced him in the chest with ten broad-headed arrows. Bhīṣma gazed at him as if to burn him by that look, but he did not attack. Urged on by Arjuna, Śikhaṇḍī attacked Bhīṣma more and more fiercely. Arjuna also shot his golden-winged arrows at the grandsire. Bhīṣma fought only Arjuna, disregarding Śikhaṇḍī’s arrows, which wounded him in every part of his body.

As Arjuna and Śikhaṇḍī bore down on Bhīṣma, Dushashana came again to protect him. Cheered by the Kauravas, he singledhandedly resisted the arrows of Bhīṣma’s two assailants. Other charioteers came up to support Arjuna, but Dushashana struck them down. Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s second son exhibited his prowess, allowing Duryodhana to marshal more troops for Bhīṣma’s protection.

Arjuna was infuriated. Losing all patience, he sent arrows that struck Dushashana like thunderbolts and tore off his armor, sending it crashing to the ground. The Kaurava fell from his chariot, then got up and ran. By then, a large force of Kaurava warriors had come to surround Bhīṣma. Numerous tribes of barbarians, clad in animal skins and clutching bludgeons and spears, rushed at Arjuna. Thousands of other soldiers galloped forward screaming their battle cries and hurling spiked lances. Not caring for their attack, Arjuna sent flaming arrows charged with mystic power. Sheets of fire-tipped shafts swept through the barbarian ranks. They fell by the thousands, making the ground impassable. Those that were not slain turned back and fled.

Arjuna again turned his attention to Bhīṣma, who was now supported by Duryodhana, Kṛpa, Śalya, and a number of Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s other sons. All those Kuru heroes trained their arrows on Arjuna.

The other four Pāṇḍavas attacked Bhīṣma’s protectors. Numerous Kaurava fighters were struck down by Pāṇḍu’s sons as they fired their searing shafts.

Bhīṣma and Arjuna contended like two lions. Neither could find any gap in their opponent’s defenses. Both invoked celestial weapons which the other neutralized. Each praised the other’s prowess as they fought.

Arjuna covered Bhīṣma’s chariot with arrows. Taking the opportunity, other Pāṇḍava fighters came forward to support Arjuna. Backed by innumerable chariots, Bhīma, the twins, Dṛṣṭadyumna, Sātyaki, Abhimanyu, Ghaṭotkaca, and other principal Pāṇḍava warriors pressed forward in the battle. Duryodhana and the best of the Kauravas’ warriors met them.

Coming out from underneath Arjuna’s attack, Bhīṣma assailed every one of the heroes who came toward him. With one razor-headed shaft he slew Satanika, Virata’s beloved brother. Bhīṣma rained down death- dealing shafts that destroyed Satanika’s entire division of chariot-warriors. At the same time he held off Arjuna’s attack as well as the attacks of other fighters. The Kuru commander seemed to be sporting as he battled against the hundreds of warriors. He danced on the terrace of his chariot as if he had regained his youth. Like the rising sun dispersing clouds, he dispersed the Pāṇḍava forces with his sun-like arrows.

Untouched by Bhīṣma’s attack, Śikhaṇḍī moved closer to his chariot. From time to time Bhīṣma threw a deriding glance at him, but he focused his energy on slaughtering the Pāṇḍava forces. He knew the Pāṇḍavas had decided to bring him down today, and they pressed in on him on all sides. Like clouds covering the sun, they surrounded the old Kuru fighter and threw their weapons at him. Spiked and razor-headed arrows, battle-axes, maces, mallets, lances, bludgeons, darts and javelins fell toward Bhīṣma, but Bhīṣma only smiled. His armor was shattered and he had been pierced many times. Oblivious to pain, he fought on, embracing a hero’s end. His chariot wheeling in the midst of his attackers, he spun around and fired arrows in all directions.

Sensing that it was now time to defeat Bhīṣma, Arjuna again placed Śikhaṇḍī in front of him and rushed forward. With a perfectly aimed arrow he cut apart Bhīṣma’s bow. As the maharathas of both armies engaged, Arjuna and Śikhaṇḍī came before Bhīṣma, both of them firing barbed arrows that pierced him deeply. Arjuna killed his horses and charioteer and brought his chariot to a halt. With a crescent-headed arrow he brought down his standard.

Bhīṣma took up another bow worked with gold and ivory, but Arjuna immediately shattered it. Without a second’s delay, Bhīṣma hurled a lance at Arjuna, but Arjuna fired five broad-headed arrows that broke the lance into six pieces. They fell to earth like forks of lightning.

Arjuna thwarted all of Bhīṣma’s weapons. Bhīṣma looked at Kṛṣṇa, who was expertly guiding Arjuna’s swift-footed horses. Bhīṣma knew it was the end, as fate had ordained. He could not win a battle when Kṛṣṇa was on the opposite side. Even though Kṛṣṇa was not fighting, His mere presence was sufficient to ensure the Pāṇḍavas’ invincibility. Bhīṣma lowered his weapons. All his skill and power would prove to no avail now. Bhīṣma began to think of death. In the heavens the assembled ṛṣis, along with the eight Vasus, addressed Bhīṣma. “We also desire that you stop fighting. Withdraw your heart from the battle. It is time.” Bhīṣma alone heard the heavenly voices.

Suddenly a cool, fragrant breeze began to blow. Celestial drums resounded and flowers fell from the sky. As Bhīṣma stood in thought, Śikhaṇḍī raised his bow and shot nine shafts that struck him full on the chest. At the same time, Arjuna fired twenty-five short, thick arrows that struck Bhīṣma with tremendous power. Arjuna quickly followed them with a hundred steel shafts. Stunned, Bhīṣma resolved to make one final assault on Arjuna. He would go down fighting. There could be no other way. Firing a volley of shafts, Bhīṣma thwarted the attacks of both Arjuna and Śikhaṇḍī. Arjuna quickly cut Bhīṣma’s bow. With hot tears pricking his eyes he fired thousands of straight shafts and pierced Bhīṣma’s mighty frame, like snakes enter the holes in mountains.

Although both Arjuna and Śikhaṇḍī shot their arrows at Bhīṣma simultaneously, the Kuru hero considered that only Arjuna’s shafts were capable of bringing him down. He called out to Dushashana, who had rushed to his side, “These arrows, O Bharata, resembling thunderbolts and coming at me in a straight line end-to-end, are Arjuna’s and not Śikhaṇḍī’s. I can distinguish between them because they have the touch like a Brahmin’s rod, or of Indra’s Vajra weapon. Even the gods could not resist them. Like furious snakes with protruding eyes, they are penetrating my vital organs. Only Arjuna is capable of bringing me down. Even the world’s monarchs united could not afflict me.”

With one last supreme effort, Bhīṣma raised a massive lance and hurled it at Arjuna with all his strength. Arjuna cut it into a hundred pieces. Bending the Gāṇḍīva to a full circle, he fired arrows twenty at a time in a continuous line. Seeing Śikhaṇḍī directly before him, Bhīṣma lowered his weapons and did not resist Arjuna’s attack. Arrows struck him in waves. There was no space thicker than two finger’s width on his body that was not pierced. Before the Kauravas’ shocked eyes, he fell headlong from his chariot. With his head pointed toward the east he lay fully supported by Arjuna’s arrows. No part of his body touched the earth.

The Kuru army was overwhelmed by sorrow. Cries of grief rippled across the field. From the sky a celestial voice resounded: “How can this hero, this illustrious son of Gaṅgā, leave his body when the sun is in its inauspicious southern course?”

Hearing that voice, Bhīṣma replied, “I am still living.” He had noted the course of the sun and, by his father’s boon, had decided to wait until it moved toward the north before dying. He knew the Vedic instructions that a yogī should leave his body only when the sun was in its northern track. Until then he would lie on the battlefield, as befitted a warrior, awaiting his final moment. Death would not take him until he desired it.

Duryodhana and his followers were utterly confused. They did not know what to do or where to go. They dropped their weapons and wailed. As the sun reached the western horizon, the Kauravas stood about the battlefield dispirited and afflicted by grief. No one could find the strength to move for some time.

On the side of the Pāṇḍavas conches were blown and soldiers cheered. Thousands of drums were beaten and trumpets and horns sounded. Word of Bhīṣma’s fall spread around the battlefield in moments. The warriors of both armies stopped fighting and stood wherever they were, their minds stunned by the impossible news. Some men wept aloud, others ran wildly around, and some swooned.

Assuming the forms of swans, celestial ṛṣis descended from the heavens and walked around the fallen Bhīṣma, who lay with his mind absorbed in yogic meditation. Seers, Siddhas and Cāraṇas praised Bhīṣma from the skies. As darkness fell, the earth seemed to cry out: “This one is the best of all Veda-knowing sages.”

Duryodhana breathed long and heavy sighs. He rode swiftly to Droṇa, who had been taken to a distance from Bhīṣma, and told him of his fall. Hearing the news, Droṇa fell from his chariot in a faint. When he returned to his senses he ordered the Kauravas to withdraw. Duryodhana, Droṇa, Kṛpa, and all the other Kuru leaders made their way sorrowfully toward where Bhīṣma lay.

Seeing Bhīṣma at last felled, Bhīma leapt from his chariot and danced on the battlefield. Arjuna, however, was sober. He asked Kṛṣṇa to drive his chariot over to the Kuru chief. Dismounting with bow in hand he went over to the fallen warrior and knelt by his side. “Please instruct me what I can do for you, O sire,” he asked, struggling to control his voice as his grief rose. “Command me at once and consider it done.”

Bhīṣma opened his eyes. He spoke with difficulty. “O Phālguna, see how my head is hanging down. Fetch me a suitable pillow, O hero. You alone are equal to this task.”

Understanding Bhīṣma’s desire, Arjuna lifted his bow and fired several arrows, charged by Vedic mantras. The arrows stuck in the ground beneath Bhīṣma’s head and formed a headrest. Bhīṣma smiled. His arms were pierced all over and resting on arrows, but he raised his right hand from the wrist to bless Arjuna. “O son of Pāṇḍu, you have properly understood my desire. This is the only fitting pillow for a warrior slain on the battlefield.”

Bhīṣma looked around. He was surrounded both by Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas. They stood with folded palms and gazed at his face. Duryodhana and his brothers were shamefaced. They had failed to protect their finest fighter and the leader of their forces. The old grandfather and Kuru guide had fallen. Remorse consumed Duryodhana’s heart. It was by his insistence only that this war had had to be fought and Bhīṣma be slain.

Seeing the Kauravas’ shame and sorrow, Bhīṣma reassured them. “I have attained the end which is always sought by heroes. This bed is to me no less than an excellent bed of the finest down and silk. Soon I will see my ever-living ancestors in the blissful realms of paradise. Why should I lament?”

As Bhīṣma spoke, a number of skilled physicians arrived carrying herbs and balms. Bhīṣma raised his head to speak, his rasping voice barely rising above a whisper. “O kings of the earth, after paying proper respects to these Brahmins who know mantras, and then rewarding them, please dismiss them. I have no more need of physicians. My end has come and I am ready for it. It is not my duty to allow myself to be treated by these physicians. I want to die from these arrows. Let me lie here until the sun reaches the point of the compass occupied by Vaishravana. Then I will depart for the higher regions.” Bhīṣma’s head fell back onto the arrows and he closed his eyes.

Duryodhana sent the Brahmins away. He stood for some time in silence, looking at the fallen hero. Then, sighing, he and his brothers and all the kings supporting the Kauravas circumambulated Bhīṣma three times. They slowly made their way back to camp, seeing nothing but desolation before them.

The Pāṇḍavas also offered respects to Bhīṣma before returning to their camp. As they went, Yudhiṣṭhira said to Kṛṣṇa , “O Janārdana, surely victory comes to a man through Your grace, and defeat overtakes him through Your wrath. You are our sole refuge. You assure Your devotees of Your protection. Nothing is wonderful for one who has taken shelter of You, O Madhava.”

Kṛṣṇa replied, “These words, O foremost of all the earth’s rulers, could only have fallen from your lips.”

Feeling sure that they would soon attain victory, the Pāṇḍavas rested for the night while the Kauravas lay tossing in grief.