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Chapter 23

Karṇa in Command

In Duryodhana’s tent the monarchs and warriors sat in silence, gazing at Droṇa’s empty seat. Duryodhana himself was overcome by grief. He drew long breaths and stared at the ground. Some of his friends comforted him, citing Vedic verses about the eternality of the soul and the temporality of all things material. They also consoled Kṛpa, who was lamenting the death of his beloved friend and brother-in-law. Aśvatthāmā had gone to his tent, wanting to be alone.

After a while the kings departed, leaving Duryodhana alone with Karṇa, and Śakuni, and his brothers. They said little and sat remembering the miseries they had inflicted on the Pāṇḍavas, feeling deep regret. As the evening wore on, they lay down on costly couches. Tossing in anxiety, they could not rest. The night dragged on. Duryodhana thought again of the Dānavas. It seemed they had kept their promise to assist him. Droṇa had fought demonically, but still he had been brought down. What power did the Pāṇḍavas have on their side? Could nothing stop them?

As the sun at last approached the eastern sky, the Kauravas rose listlessly and went about their morning rituals. Coming together again with the other monarchs, they decided to install Karṇa as their commander. The installation ceremony was performed, and after giving charity to the Brahmins, they moved toward the battlefield for the sixteenth day.

Praised and blessed by the Brahmins, the Kuru army marched out, determined to avenge Droṇa. Karṇa rode at their head, clad in brilliant armor and shining like his celestial father on his resplendent chariot. As he left for the battle, Karṇa cheered the Kauravas with his roars and shouts, while bards and poets sang his glories. By his side rode Duryodhana, his remaining brothers behind him. They were flanked by Aśvatthāmā, Kṛpa, Kṛtavarmā and Śalya. Other powerful kings followed those heroes, leading their armies and forming them into an array shaped like a bird. All the warriors then put aside their previous reverses. Hoping for victory, they charged into battle with loud cries.

Seeing their foes approaching in a heroic mood, the Pāṇḍavas arranged their troops into a half-moon formation. The two armies converged, yelling out war cries and blowing their conches. Of the original six million warriors, less than one million remained. They all knew that the war would be over only when all of them were slain. Duryodhana would fight to the last and the Pāṇḍavas would not relinquish their claim to their kingdom. There were still invincible heroes on both sides who stood unflinching in battle. Thus it was certain the two armies would be annihilated, leaving the great heroes on either side to contend for the final victory.

Karṇa, fired by his position as the Kaurava commander-in-chief, began to slaughter the remaining Pāṇḍava forces. As he released his oil-soaked arrows in all directions, he seemed to his enemies to be like the blazing sun with its fierce rays. Indiscriminate about whom he attacked, he felled soldiers, horsemen, elephants, and chariot fighters alike. Bhīma, Nakula and Sātyaki rushed to check his progress. They rained weapons upon him and gradually forced him back. Other Kauravas came to Karṇa’s assistance and a fierce battle ensued between the heroes of both sides.

A terrible encounter took place between Bhīma and Aśvatthāmā which even the celestials watched with wonder. Finally, Bhīma overpowered Aśvatthāmā, who was carried unconscious from the battlefield. Bhīma was also wounded. He collapsed, exhausted, and was similarly borne away by his charioteer.

Karṇa, fighting his way free from his antagonists, careered again into the Pāṇḍava army. With innumerable arrows he crushed the troops, cutting through their ranks like fire through a dry forest. Pursued by a number of Pāṇḍava heroes, he ranged about causing carnage among their forces.

On another part of the field, Arjuna fought without mercy. Charging against the remaining Nārāyaṇas and the few surviving Samshaptakas, he ruthlessly cut them down with his unfailing shafts. The Kaurava forces under Arjuna’s attack appeared like the ocean tossed by a raging storm. Longing for his chance to encounter Karṇa for their final fight, he wasted no time in slaying his unretreating foes.

Karṇa, as he slaughtered the Pañchāla and Somaka warriors, was caught and challenged by Nakula. That fearless Pāṇḍava warrior hurled a number of deadly darts at Karṇa, who responded by cutting them to pieces with swift arrows. He shot blazing shafts at Nakula, who in turn cut them down with his own. After fighting intensely for some time, the two men stood back and glared at each other.

Nakula called out, “By good fortune have I had this opportunity to fight you today. You are the root of all the misery we have suffered, and you are also to blame for this great war. By your fault, so many great warriors now lie slain and the world is filled with widows and orphans. Take the consequences of your wickedness, O wretch. I am here to punish you.”

Karṇa sneered. “O brave one, first strike me and then speak. Only after achieving great feats in battle do heroes utter bold words. Let us see your prowess. I will surely destroy your vanity.”

Both warriors immediately pierced each other with winged arrows fired at blinding speed. They roared and circled one another. Both released countless arrows that the other countered. As they invoked celestial weapons, the sky was filled with shafts, casting a dark shadow over the battlefield. Gradually, Karṇa gained the upper hand. He slew Nakula’s charioteer and four horses. Nakula took up a sword and shield, but Karṇa quickly cut them to pieces. The Pāṇḍava then grasped his spiked mace and jumped down. Karṇa broke the mace with straight-flying shafts. Laughing, he rode over to his disarmed foe and struck him with his bow. Nakula burned with shame and grief as Karṇa rebuked him.

“O child, go to your elder brothers. You should not wage war with the powerful. Your strength lies only in words.”

Karṇa, remembering again his promise to Kuntī, did not attempt to kill Nakula, who then ran to Yudhiṣṭhira in humiliation. Climbing aboard his brother’s chariot, he shed hot tears of anger and sighed heavily. He thought of Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa. Soon the cruel-minded Karṇa would meet his end. He could display his power only for as long as those two great souls did not charge at him in anger.

Karṇa continued to assail the Pāṇḍava forces. Circling around the field with his bow constantly sending forth flaming shafts, he appeared like a wheel of fire. He came against the Sṛñjayas and slaughtered them by the tens of thousands. As Karṇa annihilated his foes, other battles took place. Kṛpa contended with Dṛṣṭadyumna, Kṛtavarmā with Sātyaki, and Bhīma battled Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons and slew another twenty. Yudhiṣṭhira met Śalya, and numerous other powerful heroes came together in a furious trial of arms. The celestials were awed by the encounters.

Arjuna single-handedly destroyed the Nārāyaṇa army, even though he was simultaneously surrounded by many powerful ratha and maharatha warriors. With crescent-tipped shafts he beheaded his foes and lopped off their limbs. Ranging about freely, he crushed the Kauravas with an endless stream of arrows from the Gāṇḍīva.

As the sun reached the western horizon, the battlefield presented a gruesome scene. Half of the warriors who had gone out to fight lay dead. The earth was strewn with carcasses and the wreckage of chariots and armor. Bodies lay burnt beyond all recognition. Flocks of vultures circled the field and jackals bayed. Seeing darkness enveloping the combatants, Karṇa ordered the Kaurava army to withdraw. He did not want another night battle. The soldiers pulled away from each other, praising their enemies’ prowess, and headed back to their camps.

Duryodhana sat in his tent sighing and squeezing his hands. Of his eleven akshauhini divisions, only one remained. It was almost inconceivable. So many supposedly invincible heroes had been slain. Warriors who had never before tasted defeat now lay embracing the earth like men clasping their lovers. Most of the damage had been done by Arjuna and Bhīma. How much longer could it go on? Those two haughty Pāṇḍavas had to be killed. He would take care of Bhīma, but why had Karṇa not yet killed Arjuna? Duryodhana looked at his friend.

Understanding Duryodhana’s mind, Karṇa said, “Arjuna is always alert, persevering, skillful and intelligent. Even when an opportunity arises to overpower him, Kṛṣṇa intervenes and saves him. Still, I will not be thwarted. Today he evaded me by various kinds of deceit, but tomorrow I will baffle all his attempts and slay him for sure.”

Duryodhana was heartened by Karṇa’s confidence. “So be it.” He dismissed the assembly and told everyone to meet at dawn to decide their strategy for killing Arjuna.

The next morning, Karṇa came alone to Duryodhana. The Kaurava chief waved him to a fine seat as his attendants put on his armor. Tying on his leather finger guards, he said, “Well, dear friend, are you ready to face Arjuna?”

Karṇa replied somberly. “Today I will fight an unforgettable battle with that famous hero. Either I will slay him or be slain by him. If I cannot kill him today, I will not return from the field. Even though I have been deprived of my Śakti weapon, I do not consider myself his inferior. I have received powerful celestial weapons from Paraśurāma and can match Arjuna in speed and lightness of hand. Today you will see me contend with Arjuna even as Indra fought with the Daityas. This whole earth, with its thorns removed, will soon be yours. There is no deed I cannot perform for you, O King, nor is there any man who can withstand me when I am angry. But I need something from you.”

Karṇa explained how the one area where Arjuna was superior was that he had Kṛṣṇa as his charioteer. “Kṛṣṇa guides his chariot with superb skill. I need one who can match Kṛṣṇa’s ability at driving a chariot. I can only think of Śalya for this task.”

Duryodhana looked up sharply. Śalya was one of the most powerful heroes still remaining among the Kauravas. It would be a shame to lose him. Neither would he take kindly to being asked to perform the lowly job of charioteer--especially for Karṇa. Moreover, Śalya was the Pāṇḍavas’ relative. Could he be trusted?

Seeing Duryodhana’s doubtful expression, Karṇa said, “Assisted by Śalya I see myself emerging victorious. He is famed throughout the world for his skill at handling chariots. There are none better than he at assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy. He has pledged himself to your cause, O King, because you satisfied him. As a man of unfailing virtue, he will do everything in his power to help me. Therefore, go to him and convince him to become my driver.”

Duryodhana looked thoughtful. This was perhaps his only chance to win the war. Without overcoming Arjuna, defeat was certain. He nodded. “I will convince the Madras monarch to accept the office of charioteer. Numerous chariots will be placed at your disposal, each equipped with every weapon. I will also make available hundreds of cartloads of arrows.”

Duryodhana knew that the battle with Arjuna would require a vast number of shafts to match his inexhaustible supply. He issued orders to his servants, then got up and left the tent. Seeing Śalya in his tent, he approached him in a servile mood. “O mighty hero, best of men, O you of invincible prowess, I come with a humble request. Karṇa has asked that you become his charioteer for today’s fight with Arjuna. There is no other who can match your abilities in driving chariots. Indeed, you are Kṛṣṇa’s equal. O best of chariot-warriors, I therefore beg your assistance. Out of the affection you bear me, kindly accept this post.”

Duryodhana continued to praise Śalya’s abilities, assuring him that there was no other warrior in the world who could ensure, by expert chariot driving, that Karṇa overcame Arjuna. The whole army was depending on him. If Arjuna was not checked soon, the Kauravas would shortly be annihilated.

Śalya looked at Duryodhana in horror. He stood up suddenly and paced the floor of his tent. “O son of Gāndhārī, you offend me with such a request. How do you reckon me to be less than Karṇa? Are you suspecting my loyalty and endeavor in the battle? I am capable of performing any feat that the suta’s son can do. Allot to me as my share any heroes you choose. After slaying them all, I will return to my own kingdom. If you wish me to fight alone against the Pāṇḍavas, I will do so. But this request is an insult. I should leave this war at once, having heard such words from you, but I will not abandon my duty out of passion or anger.”

Śalya was furious. As a kṣatriya, it was his duty to fight and not to drive chariots. Driving chariots was the duty of śūdras. It was ordained in scripture that śūdras should serve kṣatriyas, but never vice versa. Karṇa hailed from a family of śūdras, and he, Śalya, was the crowned monarch of a great country. Śalya glared at Duryodhana. “I do not know how I can continue fighting for you now. After receiving this insult I feel more like returning home.”

Śalya stormed out of his tent and Duryodhana ran after him. The prince stopped him and reached down to touch his feet. “Please do not misunderstand me and take offense. I did not in any way mean to infer that you are less than Karṇa. Nor do I doubt your sincerity. Nor indeed do I desire the King of Madras to degrade himself by performing some inferior duty. There is no question of any of these. O lord of the earth, I see you as being in every way Karṇa’s equal and more. Please let me explain my intentions.”

Duryodhana told Śalya that among all the warriors on the field no one could equal Kṛṣṇa. He was far superior to all, yet he had accepted the role of Arjuna’s charioteer. It was for this reason that Duryodhana had thought of Śalya, who was like a second Vāsudeva. Karṇa could contend equally with Arjuna in a trial of arms, but he needed a charioteer comparable to Kṛṣṇa. The prince said that both he and Karṇa could not think of anyone better than Śalya.

Hearing Duryodhana praise Kṛṣṇa, the Madras monarch was pacified. Like his nephews, the Pāṇḍavas, he loved Kṛṣṇa. He remembered his promise to Yudhiṣṭhira. It had surely been ordained by fate that he should drive Karṇa’s chariot for this battle. Making up his mind, Śalya said, “Your glorification of Devakī’s son has softened my heart. I will consider taking this role, but only on one condition: I must be allowed to speak whatever I please in Karṇa’s presence.”

Duryodhana breathed a sigh of relief. “So be it. Let us go to Karṇa.”

Further encouraging Śalya, Duryodhana recited an old history of how Mahadeva had once fought with the Dānavas and Daityas. At that time, Brahmā had served as his charioteer. There was no shame in a powerful hero taking the position when the need arose. When they reached Karṇa’s tent, Duryodhana said, “See here this mighty hero, O monarch. Can it be that he is born of a suta? In my view he is the offspring of some great deity. Surely he was begotten in a race of kṣatriyas and abandoned at birth. Look at his immense chest and his arms like tree trunks. See his handsome face, his regal stature and bearing. He resembles the sun in splendor. I cannot accept that he was born of a suta woman.”

Śalya greeted Karṇa and said, “I will become your charioteer for the great battle. However, I am doubtful about the outcome. Even if by some chance you manage to slay Arjuna, you will then see Keśava enter the fight, weapons in hand.”

Śalya turned to Duryodhana. “Without doubt Kṛṣṇa will annihilate your race with all its allies and followers. What, then, will be the use of killing Arjuna?”

Duryodhana seemed unconcerned. “O King, I am not afraid of Kṛṣṇa when I have both Karṇa and you on my side. How will Keśava overcome you in battle? Karṇa will surely slay Arjuna. Then you and he will be more than a match for Kṛṣṇa, even if He is supported by His followers. And if Karṇa should be slain, then we will depend on you alone.”

Śalya looked at Karṇa, who was carefully tying his armor. It was probably the last time he would ever do that, the king of Madras thought. “So be it, O Bharata ruler. I will drive Karṇa’s chariot.”

Karṇa thanked Śalya and they both embraced Duryodhana. Then they left the tent together to meet with the other warriors. After agreeing on a strategy, the Kauravas mounted their chariots and horses, roared and blew their conchshells, and Śalya took up the reins of Karṇa’s great chariot and drove it out at the head of the army. Ten thousand drums and as many trumpets sounded as the Kaurava forces moved off for battle. As they went toward the battlefield, Karṇa said, “Take me at once to the place where the Pāṇḍavas stand. If necessary, I will fight with all five brothers. Drive the horses quickly, O great hero, so that I may kill Arjuna, Bhīma, Yudhiṣṭhira, and the twins. Today the world will witness my incomparable prowess.”

Śalya laughed, “O son of a charioteer, why do you make light of the Pāṇḍavas? Those five heroes are unconquerable and have Kṛṣṇa as guide and protector. O Karṇa, when you see them creating a canopy in the sky with innumerable shafts, you will not speak such words. When you hear the twang of the Gāṇḍīva, you will surely regret your proud utterances.”

Karṇa, ignoring Śalya, exclaimed, “Drive on!” and his chariot thundered forward toward the Pāṇḍavas.

As the two armies closed, dreadful portents were seen. Cloudless thunder resounded from the sky, and a shower of stones fell. Fierce winds blew in the Kauravas’ faces. On their right they saw herds of animals moving past them, and jackals howled. Their horses shed tears and their standards trembled.

Paying no heed to the omens, the Kauravas rushed into the fight, driven by destiny. Seeing Karṇa blazing like a brilliant fire at their head, they felt victory to be theirs. They shouted out their war cries and waved their weapons in the air as they charged into battle.

Karṇa called out to the soldiers, “Any man who will show me the whereabouts of Arjuna will be richly rewarded. I will give gold, gems, and fine horses to he who points out the Pāṇḍava. Show me where Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa are fighting and I will award you whatever wealth they leave after I slay them.”

Hearing those words, Duryodhana cheered his friend. Cymbals clashed and thousands of drums were beaten.

Śalya laughed again. “O suta’s son, you are foolishly offering your wealth in charity as if you are Kuvera. Do not worry, you will find Arjuna easily. There is no need to give away your riches, especially to unworthy persons. Soon enough you will find him yourself. Your bragging is of no use. Never have I seen a fox overthrow a couple of lions. You are unable to see what should be done and what should not be done, and that is why it is obvious to me that your life is at its end. O Karṇa, it appears that you have no real friends to prevent you from hurling yourself into the fire. As your friend, I advise you to approach Arjuna with caution, backed by a large division of men. Do not rush against him alone, like a man trying to cross the ocean with only his two arms and a stone tied around his neck.”

Karṇa scowled at Śalya. “You are an enemy in the guise of a friend!” he barked. “I have no fear of Arjuna. Depending only on the strength of my arms, I will meet and overpower him. No man will shake me from this determination.”

Śalya again spoke derisively. “When keen-edged, kanka-feathered arrows strike you all over, you will repent your vanity. Like a child on his mother’s lap seeking to catch the sun, you wish to defeat Savyasācin. You are challenging Arjuna like a young deer challenging an angry lion. Do not, out of folly, strike a black cobra with your bare hand. Do not shout at Arjuna like a frog croaking at a great cloud pouring showers of rain. As a jackal living among hares considers himself powerful until he meets a tiger, so you roar out your own praises until you encounter Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa. Say whatever you will. Soon your mountain of pride will be broken by Arjuna’s thunderbolt-like shafts.”

Karṇa’s breath came in short, heavy rasps. He burned under Śalya’s tirade. Although the Madras monarch had come to Duryodhana’s side, it seemed his actual allegiance lay with the Pāṇḍavas.

Tightly clutching his bow, Karṇa responded harshly. “O King, only the meritorious can recognize the merits of others. Being bereft of all merits, you cannot see what is good and what is bad. I am fully aware of Arjuna’s prowess, and I know my own power as well. Thus I have challenged the Pāṇḍava knowing full well my ability to defeat him. His Gāṇḍīva, his ape banner, and his charioteer Kṛṣṇa may strike terror into the timid, but for me they are sources of joy. Today you will see me strike down both Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa with a single shaft. They will look like two pearls on a string. Today, everyone will see my birth, nobility and power. Do not mock me, O foolish one.”

Losing his temper, Karṇa rounded on Śalya, his angry voice booming out as his chariot moved across the field. “You are wicked-minded and of bad character. Because you are afraid, you praise the enemy. Or perhaps you praise them for some other reason. Whatever it is, after killing my foes, I will also kill you and all your relatives. Born in a sinful land, you are a mean wretch among the kṣatriyas. Do not try to frighten me with your empty words. I could slay a thousand Kṛṣṇas and hundreds of Arjunas. Hold your tongue, O you born in a sinful country.”

Karṇa continued to insult Śalya. He described Madras as a country populated by low-class and degraded people. Citing many popular sayings spoken by the Madrakas’ enemies, he abused Śalya and his homeland. He was not surprised that the Pāṇḍavas’ uncle should have spoken to discourage him, but he was not prepared to tolerate it. Raising his mace he said, “O king of Madras, if you speak again in such strains I will crush your skull. Only out of regard for Duryodhana have I not done so already. Drive on toward Arjuna. Either the world will hear that I have slain Dhanañjaya and Vāsudeva, or they will hear that the brave Karṇa was killed by them.”

Unruffled, Śalya reminded Karṇa of Arjuna’s feats of valor, including the occasion when he had overpowered all the Kurus, including Karṇa.

Karṇa snorted. “I will not be affected by your words, O man of evil intent. You cannot inspire me with fear. My only fear is the curse of the Brahmins.”

Karṇa knew he faced great peril due to a long-past mistake he had once committed. Realizing that it may well prove his undoing, he told Śalya how he had accidentally slain a Brahmin’s cow when out hunting many years ago. The Brahmin had cursed him, saying, “When you face your deadliest enemy, the earth will swallow your chariot wheel. You will then become afraid.”

After describing the incident Karṇa said, “Still, I will not turn back. Accepting the Brahmin’s curse, I will stand against Arjuna and cut him down with my arrows. Even the angry words of my own preceptor will not stop me today.”

Karṇa was thinking of Paraśurāma’s curse. He would forget the mantras for the brahmāstra at the time when he needed it most. Careless of both imprecations, Karṇa commanded Śalya to drive on. Everything lay in destiny’s hands. Victory or defeat were never certain for anyone. If fate decreed it, then despite impediments he would emerge victorious. If not, then despite his greatest endeavor and superior skills, he would lose the fight.

Karṇa and Śalya continued to trade insults as they approached the battlefield. Duryodhana heard their raised voices and went up to them, beseeching Śalya with folded palms not to discourage Karṇa and asking Karṇa to forgive him. Both men fell silent and sped on across the field, seeing the Pāṇḍava forces looming large in the distance.