Droṇa in Command
Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s pitiful voice echoed around his great chamber. “How has Bhīṣma fallen? He who had arrows for teeth, a bow for a mouth, a sword for a tongue--that chastiser of foes who spread terror and destruction among the enemy ranks as the sun destroys darkness, who was as invincible in battle as the mighty Indra, who could keep death itself under his control--how has he fallen? How did Śikhaṇḍī and Arjuna bring about his end?”
The king was inconsolable. Sañjaya was himself grieving, and he sat at Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s feet with his head bowed. Crying, the blind monarch continued. “After destroying the enemy troops for ten days, achieving the most difficult feats, he has now set like the sun. As a result of my evil councils, that scion of Bharata scattered an inexhaustible shower of arrows as Indra showers rain, killing in battle hundreds of thousands of warriors. He now lies on the bare ground like a great tree uprooted by the wind. How could he--whom even Paraśurāma could not master, that atiratha of boundless power--have been overcome in battle? O Sañjaya, surely nothing is wonderful in this world when I hear that Bhīṣma is fallen!”
The king asked Sañjaya to describe in detail how Bhīṣma had been brought down. Sañjaya had only told him the news of Bhīṣma’s defeat and not the details of how it had come about. Dhṛtarāṣṭra listened in horror as Sañjaya related the events leading up to Bhīṣma’s fall. Tears sprang from Sañjaya’s eyes as he envisioned the scene again. When Sañjaya finished his description, Dhṛtarāṣṭra again lamented.
“Surely my heart is made of stone since it does not shatter upon hearing this news. Truth, intelligence, and political wisdom existed immeasurably in the illustrious Bhīṣma. Who could have defeated him? Surely my sons are crying in grief now that he is gone. Like men desiring to cross the ocean, but who see their boat sunk, they must be plunged in woe. Our army must be like a panic-stricken herd of cattle deprived of its herdsman. When we have caused the death of our powerful father, the foremost of virtuous men, what use are our lives?”
Dhṛtarāṣṭra sat in silence in the darkened chamber. His personal servants stood nearby, their cāmaras hanging limply by their sides. The soft strains of mournful music could be heard, along with the Brahmins’ continuous chanting of Vedic prayers in the palace temple.
After some minutes, the king asked Sañjaya to repeat the details of the battle. “I desire to know of all the particulars of Bhīṣma’s final day. Who fought by his side and who at his rear? What did my sons do to protect that hero? What other fights took place as Bhīṣma faced the Pāṇḍavas? Without knowing every last detail I will not be able to rest, Sañjaya.”
Sañjaya described everything again. Dhṛtarāṣṭra listened with rapt attention. When Sañjaya finished, it was almost morning. The king had no desire to go to his bed. He said, “Clearly we cannot avoid death by any means. All-powerful Time ultimately consumes all in this world. O Sañjaya, please tell me what my sons did after Bhīṣma’s fall. Who did they select as their commander? How did they find the strength to continue?”
As the sunrise approached, Sañjaya told the king what had happened at the end of the tenth day. Then both men left to perform their ablutions, Dhṛtarāṣṭra being led away by his servants to his bath chamber. After their religious rituals and prayers, they returned to the hall and Sañjaya began to describe the events of the eleventh day.
After all the kings had left Bhīṣma, Karṇa quietly left his tent and rode across the battlefield. As the moon rose in the eastern sky, he picked his way on his red charger through the eerily lit scenes of destruction. Vultures flapped into the air and hyenas growled as he made his way toward the spot where Bhīṣma lay on his bed of arrows. It was easy to find; a hundred warriors surrounded him and had lit torches to keep the animals away.
Karṇa dismounted and fell at Bhīṣma’s feet. He spoke in a choked voice. “I am Radha’s son, O foremost of Kurus. I am he upon whom you always looked with enmity.”
Bhīṣma opened his eyes and turned toward Karṇa. Dismissing the guards, he told him to come closer. He spoke affectionately. “Come, dear son. You were always my opponent because you sought always to outdo me. If you had not come here, then all would not have fared well for you.”
Bhīṣma felt no anger toward Karṇa. He had reprimanded him only out of genuine concern for him. The old Kuru chief knew who Karṇa was and had always desired his welfare. He lifted his head slightly. “O mighty-armed one, you are the son of Kuntī--not Radha. Adhiratha is not your father--the mighty sun-god sired you, O hero. This I have heard from both Nārada and Vyasa. It cannot be false. O child, I bear you no malice. I spoke harshly only to check you. Seeing that you would abuse the Pāṇḍavas for no reason at all, I tried to curb a behavior that would lead only to your own grief.”
Karṇa knelt by Bhīṣma’s side, his eyes dim with tears at the sight of Bhīṣma’s condition. Despite their many arguments, he had always respected the grandfather. He could not deny Bhīṣma’s nobility and power, and he knew his words were never malicious, even if they were hard to accept.
Bhīṣma closed his eyes in pain, then continued. “O Karṇa, your birth was attended with sin. Thus your intellect has always been perverted through no fault of your own. For this reason I tried to correct you in the assembly of kṣatriyas. Yet your prowess and might are equal to those of Arjuna. You are devoted to the Brahmins, attached to the duties of your order, and are in no way inferior to a celestial. Today I relinquish any wrath I formerly felt for you. If you wish to do me good, then join with your brothers, the Pāṇḍavas. Let the hostilities cease with my fall. Along with Duryodhana, be reconciled with the Pāṇḍavas and let us see all the world’s kings freed from anxiety and danger.”
Karṇa’s head fell. “I know all this, O mighty-armed hero. I know I am Kuntī’s son. But she disowned me and I was raised by a charioteer. Having enjoyed Duryodhana’s wealth and friendship for so long, how can I disappoint his hopes? Setting at naught my wealth, sons, wife, and even my body and honor, I will strive for Duryodhana’s good. To serve his interests I have incited the Pāṇḍavas against me. The result is inevitable and cannot now be avoided. What man ventures to overcome destiny by his own endeavor?”
Karṇa looked around the moonlit field. It was littered with bodies. The next day he would fight. He had waited long. Each day hearing of the fight and how many of Duryodhana’s soldiers were being slaughtered, Karṇa had felt increasingly frustrated. He longed to show his friend his gratitude for everything he had done for him. Now his chance had come. Folding his palms, he said, “O Sire, I cannot renounce the hostility I feel for the Pāṇḍavas. Although I know them to be invincible, protected by Vasudeva’s powerful son, I will nevertheless fight against them. Please give me your permission. Please also forgive any cruel words I may have uttered against you.”
Bhīṣma looked into Karṇa’s face and saw his determination. “If you cannot give up your enmity for the Pāṇḍavas, then, O Karṇa, I grant you my permission. Fixing your mind on heaven, fight with them to the best of your power. Arjuna will deliver you to the blessed regions reserved for heroes who do not retreat. Casting off arrogance and depending on your own prowess, go forth and seek a warrior’s death. What can be more glorious for a kṣatriya? Go with my blessings. I forgive any harsh words you may have addressed to me.”
Bhīṣma again closed his eyes. Karṇa rose and mounted his horse. In a few moments he had vanished into the darkness, leaving Bhīṣma lying once more in yogic meditation.
Immediately after sunrise on the eleventh day, both the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas went to see Bhīṣma. After paying their obeisances, they stood by as maidservants smeared his forehead and temples with sandalwood paste. The servants also sprinkled him with unbroken paddy and placed fragrant garlands of forest flowers around his neck. Thousands of people came from the encampments to see Bhīṣma lying on his bed of arrows. They marveled at his fortitude and determination. Like a great ascetic who, having fasted for years, keeps his life force circling within his bones, the Kuru chief awaited his final moment.
Putting aside their armor and weapons, the soldiers of the two armies gathered around the fallen hero. Bhīṣma opened his eyes and looked around, moving his head slightly. He lifted his hand and said, “Please bring me water.”
Hearing Bhīṣma address them in a rasping voice, the Kauravas quickly fetched jars of cool water. They also brought food, which they set out before him.
Bhīṣma shook his head. “I will no longer accept articles of human enjoyment. I have passed away from the society of men and am lying here on an arrow bed only until the moment is right for me to die. Where is Arjuna?”
Arjuna stepped forward and stood with folded hands before Bhīṣma. “What would you have me do, O Grandsire?”
“My body is burning. I am pierced all over with your arrows and feeling extreme pain. My mouth is dry and I desire to drink water which only you can supply.”
Taking the Gāṇḍīva from his shoulder, Arjuna said, “Yes, I will bring you water.” He walked around Bhīṣma three times, then fixed a bright golden arrow to his bow. After chanting a number of Vedic aphorisms and empowering the arrow with the celestial Parjanya weapon, he fired it into the earth close to Bhīṣma’s head. At once a jet of pure, cool water gushed out. The nectar-like water rose up in a fountain and went directly into Bhīṣma’s mouth.
A gasp went up from the assembled kṣatriyas. They cheered and waved their garments. The Kauravas shivered in fear as they saw Arjuna’s skill.
After slaking his thirst, Bhīṣma said, “O mighty-armed hero, your act was not wonderful because you are the ancient sage Nara incarnate. You are the best of all archers and, along with Kṛṣṇa, can perform deeds that even the gods cannot accomplish. You possess every celestial weapon.”
Bhīṣma looked at Duryodhana. “O son of Dhṛtarāṣṭra, see here Arjuna’s prowess. None can defeat him in battle, even if they are assisted by the combined forces of the gods and Asuras. Therefore, let all enmity between you cease from today on. Let the war end with my fall. Give half the kingdom to Yudhiṣṭhira and live together in peace. This would be most beneficial to you and your dynasty. If through perverted understanding you do not heed my advice, you will soon regret your folly.”
Bhīṣma was finding it a strain to speak. His voice trailed off and he closed his eyes. Duryodhana said nothing. Kara stood by his side, and he looked balefully at Arjuna. It was clear that the battle would continue. The kings paid their respects to Bhīṣma once more and returned to their camps. Pulling on their armor, cleaned and polished after the previous day’s fight, they mounted their horses and chariots. They rode out solemnly toward the battlefield, followed by waves of infantry clad in mail and wielding spears and swords. Great elephants rocked about and trumpeted furiously. As the vast armies amassed, conches were blown and drums beaten.
In his tent Karṇa was attended by a number of servants. They fetched his effulgent armor, studded with hundreds of gems, and his bright helmet. With his mouth set in a firm line, Karṇa fitted his iguana-skin gloves and leather arm protectors. The servants loaded his chariot with thousands of oil-soaked arrows, with their heads of iron and steel. They also loaded onto the chariot fifty bows of the finest make, as well as swords, maces, axes, darts and lances.
Smeared with red sandal paste and garlanded with fresh flowers, Karṇa climbed aboard his chariot. All around him Brahmins performed Vedic rites to invoke auspiciousness. As he moved off, musicians beat kettledrums and blew trumpets. Standing on the broad terrace of his chariot, Karṇa said to his driver, “Take me at once to the place where Arjuna stands. Even if all-devouring Death protects him, he will not escape me. I will confront him in battle and either send him to the next world or go there myself, following Bhīṣma’s trail.”
Soon, Duryodhana joined Karṇa, and the two friends rode to the front of the Kuru forces. The other warriors were cheered by the sight, and they roared and twanged their bowstrings.
Seeing Karṇa shining like a smokeless fire, Duryodhana felt that his enemies were already slain. He smiled and said, “O foremost of men, in you I have found a suitable commander for my troops. Tell me now what you consider beneficial for our army. With Bhīṣma fallen, we have no leader. An army without a chief perishes like a rudderless boat on the high seas. Tell me who you feel should be commander-in-chief.”
Karṇa waved an arm toward the leading chariot fighters. “Practically any of these great warriors could head your army. They are all acquainted with martial science and possessed of undaunting prowess. Still, only one man can be our leader. We must be cautious not to depress those who are not chosen. Therefore, I feel we should select Droṇa. He is the oldest and most experienced. Indeed, he is the preceptor of many heroes fighting in this war. None will object to his command. As the gods, hoping to defeat the demons, made Kārttikeya their commander, so you should make Droṇa the chief of your army.”
Duryodhana agreed. He rode over to Droṇa. As the two men were worshipped and eulogized by bards and singers, Duryodhana said, “O great hero, among all this host of kings none can be as good a protector as you. You are a Brahmin and of noble birth. You know the Vedas, and your skill, power, and wisdom are unparalleled. Like Indra leading the celestials, become our commander-in-chief. Who can match you on the battlefield? Even Arjuna will not dare approach us with you at our head.”
Droṇa stood tall on his chariot, his great bow by his side. With his white hair and beard, and his silver armor, he shone like the moon on a clear night. Raising his hand in blessing, he replied, “I am versed in the Vedas and their six auxiliaries, and I know the science of weapons. I will therefore offer battle to Pāṇḍu’s sons. Conquering the Pañchāla and Somaka armies, I will range across the field striking terror into our enemies’ hearts. But, O monarch, I doubt I will be able to slay Dṛṣṭadyumna, for that hero was born to kill me.”
Not caring for the prophesy, Duryodhana arranged for the ceremony to install Droṇa as commander. Duryodhana himself could ensure that Dṛṣṭadyumna was kept away from Droṇa. In any event, it was hard to believe that the Pañchāla prince had the power to kill Droṇa. The two had already met on several occasions and Droṇa had proved more powerful every time. Perhaps the so-called prophesy would prove to be nothing more than a rumor.
With the investiture complete, the Kaurava troops sent up a shout and played their instruments in unison. With his head still wet from the sacred waters used in the ritual, Droṇa remounted his chariot and led the army into battle. Duryodhana rode by Droṇa’s side. As they proceeded toward the fight, Droṇa said, “O great King, I am honored by this office of commander-in-chief. I wish to repay you in some way. Please tell me what you desire and I will endeavor to accomplish it.”
Duryodhana thought for a moment and replied, “O preceptor, if you would give me a boon, then capture Yudhiṣṭhira and bring him to me.”
Droṇa looked surprised. “Fortunate is that eldest son of Kuntī that you desire his capture and not his death. Surely it is wonderful that not even you can feel malice toward him. Why, O monarch, do you not wish to kill him? Would not his death end this conflict and bring you victory? Could it be that, rather than killing the Pāṇḍavas, you wish to re-establish brotherly feelings among you?”
A sly grin played around Duryodhana’s mouth. “Yudhiṣṭhira’s death, O teacher, would not bring me victory. If he were killed, Arjuna would be so angry that he would utterly annihilate us. I have come to accept that even the immortals cannot slay all five brothers. Thus I see Yudhiṣṭhira’s capture as the means to secure my victory. With him under our control, the war will end. Again challenging him to dice, I will send all five brothers back to the woods. Thus will my victory be established.”
Droṇa gazed at the smiling Duryodhana for a moment. It was obvious he had experienced no change of heart. His mind was fixed. Still, Droṇa thought, he had a duty to perform. He took a deep breath. “If the heroic Arjuna does not protect Yudhiṣṭhira, then you may consider him captured; but if Arjuna stands before him, I will not be able to carry it out. Not even Indra with all the celestials could overpower Arjuna and capture Yudhiṣṭhira before his eyes. I may be his preceptor, but he is far younger in years and has acquired weapons known only to the best of the gods. You must somehow draw him away from Yudhiṣṭhira and then I will strive to take the king captive.”
Duryodhana cheered Droṇa. Knowing that he was partial to the Pāṇḍavas, the Kaurava leader broadcast Droṇa’s promise to all the other commanders. He wanted to ensure that Droṇa was held to his word. As the Kauravas heard of the plan, they shouted in joy. Surely victory would soon be theirs. Who could resist Droṇa?
The news of Duryodhana’s plan soon reached Yudhiṣṭhira. He called Arjuna to his side and said, “O foremost of men, you must now ensure that you are never far from me in the fight. Droṇa will be looking for his chance. The moment you are gone, he will charge toward me like a lion seeking its prey.”
Arjuna stood before his elder brother, clad from head to toe in his impenetrable armor. Lifting his Gāṇḍīva bow he replied, “I will not abandon you, O leader of men. Although I could never stand to see Droṇa killed, I will not allow him to take you captive as long as I live. The sky with all its stars may drop, the earth may shatter into fragments, but Droṇa will not capture you in my presence. Duryodhana’s plan is futile. Rest assured. O King, I am always endeavoring to keep my vows. Do not be afraid, therefore, of Droṇa.”
Arjuna mounted his chariot and took his place at the head of the army, along with Dṛṣṭadyumna and Abhimanyu. As they led their forces into battle, a deafening roar filled the four quarters. Surrounded by his other brothers, Yudhiṣṭhira followed close behind Arjuna, with the huge Pañchāla forces following him.