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Chapter 25

Arjuna Encounters Karṇa

While Arjuna was seeing Yudhiṣṭhira, Bhīma was locked in ardent battle with the Kauravas. Not caring for his own safety, he went into their midst, releasing blazing shafts in all directions. Sātyaki, Śikhaṇḍī and Uttamaujas followed him, beating back their foes with a furious assault.

Dushashana, Śakuni and a force of mountain warriors charged Bhīma. The Pāṇḍava met them head on and struck them down on all sides. Uttamaujas then joined Bhīma and was attacked by Sushena, Karṇa’s eldest son. Using all his strength, Uttamaujas released an arrow that tore off Sushena’s head. Seeing this, Karṇa was overwhelmed with grief and stood stunned for a few moments. Then he looked for vengeance. He turned his attention to Uttamaujas and quickly slew his horses and charioteer. With a volley of shafts he shattered his chariot and cut his standard to pieces.

Uttamaujas, countering Karṇa’s arrows with shafts of his own, leapt from his broken chariot and ran over to Śikhaṇḍī’s chariot. Both men then contended with Kṛpa and Kṛtavarmā. Rushing ahead of them, Bhīma fell upon the Kaurava troops, spitting venom. They could hardly look at Bhīma as he flew about like the mighty Rudra dealing destruction at the end of creation. A cry of woe rose from the Kauravas. Torn asunder by the noble-minded Bhīma, they rushed pell-mell. Mangled by his arrows and crushed by his mace, they screamed and ran to Karṇa for protection.

After dispersing his enemies like a gale scatters clouds, Bhīma said to his charioteer, “O Vishoka, I am afraid for Yudhiṣṭhira’s life. Arjuna went to see him and has not returned, even though Karṇa is still releasing fearsome celestial weapons. We are surrounded by numerous Kaurava warriors, who are ready to tear out our lives at the first opportunity. All this weighs heavily on my mind. When will Arjuna return?”

Bhīma had no time to find out. Dushashana and his brothers were coming at him again, backed by thousands of chariot fighters. He asked, “O Vishoka, I have hurled a huge number of arrows and other weapons at my foes today. Tell me, how much stock still remains? Should I attack my foes with arrows and darts, or simply grind them to a pulp with my mace?”

Vishoka replied, “O hero, you have sixty thousand arrows left, as well as twenty thousand of both razor-headed and broad-pointed shafts. Therefore, attack your enemies without any restraint.”

Bhīma took up his bow and sent a hundred steel shafts at Dushashana and Śakuni, who charged toward him side by side, closely followed by Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s remaining sons. As Bhīma contended with the warriors, Vishoka said, “O hero, do you hear that sound? I think it is the Devadatta filling the four quarters with mighty blasts. Look south. The Kaurava forces are fleeing like animals who have seen a lion. There in the distance is Arjuna’s ape banner. Surely the gods have favored us today, for Dhanañjaya has come again to the battle.”

Bhīma paused and gazed south. Sure enough, there was Arjuna’s celestial banner. Relieved, he said, “For this most welcome news, O charioteer, I will grant you a dozen villages, twenty of the finest chariots, and a hundred servants. Surely Yudhiṣṭhira is well because Arjuna blows his victorious conch again and again. This marks the end of Karṇa’s career.”

With joy Bhīma resumed the fight with renewed power, spreading total confusion among the Kauravas.

After leaving the camp, Arjuna’s chariot sped toward the fight. As it neared the battlefield, he wondered how he might kill Karṇa. It was already mid-afternoon. Karṇa would not be slain without a battle. Arjuna knew he would have to encounter him soon. He could not afford to be distracted by other Kaurava heroes, but Duryodhana would surely try to place obstacles in his way. Arjuna could hear the cries of the warriors and the clash of weapons ahead. No doubt Karṇa was ranging among the Pāṇḍava troops like Mahadeva among the demons.

Seeing his friend pensive, Kṛṣṇa said, “O Pārtha, there is no man equal to you in prowess and vigor. I have seen many a hero, valiant like Indra, sent off to the highest regions after meeting you in battle. There is not a single warrior anywhere who can survive after encountering you in a fight. The son of Radha is not to be taken lightly, but I cannot see him emerging victorious from the impending contest. O hero, cut short that arrogant fool’s days. He only disdains the Pāṇḍavas. Slay him and strike at the root of all evils. Frustrate the desires of Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons and end this war. How can Karṇa live after meeting you with the Gāṇḍīva in hand?” As he drove the chariot toward the thick of battle, Kṛṣṇa continued to reassure Arjuna. He reminded him about the many all-but-invincible warriors who had already been defeated--Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Bhagadatta, and others. Hearing Kṛṣṇa’s assurances, Arjuna shook off his apprehension. He took out his conch shell and blew a blast that filled the four quarters. He then drew his bow to its full extent and twanged the string, sending forth a thunderous crash. Looking around the field at the startled soldiers he said, “My greatest assurance, O Govinda, is that I have You as my guide. With Your assistance all things are possible. With You at my elbow, I can defy the three worlds marshaled in a mighty array and launch them into eternity--what to speak of Karṇa? I will doubtlessly lead him to his life’s final goal. Duryodhana has accepted him as his protection, but I will shatter that hope; and he will recall his many wicked deeds toward us, especially his abuse of Draupadī. He is about to reap the results of that unforgivable sin.”

Thinking back to the dice game and to Abhimanyu’s killing, Arjuna felt his anger rise like a fire fed with oil. Just ahead of him he saw Bhīma completely encircled by Kaurava warriors. He was waging a fearful battle, sending out fiery shafts that tore into his foes.

Arjuna rode straight into the fight and beat back the Kauravas with waves of arrows. Not far off, he could see Karṇa’s tall standard and he made his way toward him. At once he was met by Kṛpa, Kṛtavarmā, and a number of Duryodhana’s brothers. Repelling their attacks, he moved steadily toward Karṇa. His long shafts flew from the Gāṇḍīva like lightning bolts, sending his aggressors reeling. Arrows shot at Arjuna fell uselessly from his impenetrable armor or were struck down mid-flight by Arjuna’s own shafts. Pursing his lips and narrowing his eyes at Karṇa in the distance, he relentlessly drove into the Kaurava forces.

Arjuna struck down numerous elephants Duryodhana had directed against him. Rows of charioteers rushed at the Pāṇḍava only to be felled by thousands of arrows shot in straight lines. He crushed his foes like a maddened elephant trampling a lake full of lotuses.

After destroying four divisions of troops, each containing ten thousand brave warriors, Arjuna looked across at Karṇa and said, “O Keśava, I see Karṇa not far off. Duryodhana himself is protecting him, along with a number of other maharathas. Drive my chariot straight at them, O Kṛṣṇa. I am not going to return today without slaying him. Go quickly, before he destroys our entire host.”

Kṛṣṇa urged on the horses and the great chariot thundered toward Karṇa. Seeing them approach, Śalya said, “Here at last comes Pāṇḍus mighty son, shooting snake-like arrows from the Gāṇḍīva with the force of a thunderbolt. It appears that he is making straight for you, O hero. Save our troops by killing him, if it lies in your power. You have badly hurt the virtuous king Yudhiṣṭhira and have afflicted all of the other Pāṇḍavas. Arjuna will be swelling with wrath and vengeance. You are the only archer in the world who can face him. It appears that a furious cobra is advancing toward you, its tongue quivering. All the Kauravas are looking to you for protection. O Karṇa, rescue them from the Arjuna ocean into which they are fast sinking.”

Śalya knew the time for the final battle between the two heroes had arrived. It was not time to discourage Karṇa. Śalya gazed at the dark-complexioned Kṛṣṇa as He skillfully drove Arjuna’s chariot through the Kauravas. He resembled a blackish cloud moving through the star-studded firmament. Behind Him Arjuna looked like a second black cloud, sending out streaks of brilliant lightning as he fired his arrows.

Karṇa was cheered. “O strong-armed one, it seems you have shaken off your fear of Arjuna. You are now speaking words that are agreeable to me. Today you will witness what I have learned from my martial teachers. I will soon slay these two warriors, along with the entire Pāṇḍava force. But even if I fail--and victory in battle is never certain--my fame will be preserved by my achieving a hero’s death.”

Karṇa roared and went over to Duryodhana. After saluting the Kaurava he said, “O King, I will now encounter Dhanañjaya. Close him in from all sides so that he cannot escape. Have the best of our fighters assail him with numerous weapons. A great task is upon me, and I will need whatever help you can muster.”

Duryodhana detailed Kṛpa, Aśvatthāmā, Dushashana, and his remaining brothers to support Karṇa. They rushed in a body at Arjuna, followed by thousands of elephants, chariots and horsemen.

Arjuna met his assailants with volleys of whistling arrows. Bhīma, blowing his conch and slapping his arms in joy, came to his side and targeted Duryodhana’s brothers with his deadly shafts. Little more than twenty princes remained, and they angrily attacked Bhīma with all their strength, desiring to avenge their brothers’ killings.

Dushashana, worked up to a fury, exhibited great prowess in the fight. He struck Bhīma with a dozen arrows with such force that the Pāṇḍava was stunned, momentarily losing his grip on his bow. Taking advantage of his lapse, Dushashana sent at him a shaft as brilliant as the sun worked with diamonds and other shining gems. As powerful as thunder, the arrow hit Bhīma on the chest and made him lose his senses. He dropped to his knees and held onto his standard pole for support.

Dushashana roared and blew his conch. His brothers all cheered and rained down shafts on the stricken Bhīma. They considered their mortal enemy slain. Within moments, however, Bhīma was again on his feet. He threw a dart at Dushashana, but the Kaurava cut it to pieces in mid-flight. Dushashana then struck Bhīma with another barbed arrow that cut him deeply.

Consumed by wrath, Bhīma thundered, “Strike me while you can, wretch. You have wounded me in this fight, but you will soon lay down your life. I will drink your life-blood. Feel now the force of my mace.”

Bhīma’s chariot hurtled toward Dushashana. He whirled his huge iron mace over his head and roared furiously. Dushashana threw a blazing dart at him, but Bhīma smashed it with his mace. In moments, he was upon Dushashana and he struck him a dreadful blow on his forehead. The prince was thrown twenty paces from his chariot. He thudded to the ground, his ornaments strewn, and lay stunned for some moments. Blood flowed from his head and his body shook.

Remembering his promise in the dice game, Bhīma leapt down from his chariot and approached his fallen foe. As Dushashana struggled to his feet, Bhīma struck him again and sent him flying. He dropped to the earth, gasping for breath. Bhīma stood over him and unsheathed his sword. Looking down at the semi-conscious prince, he remembered all the evils he had committed--in particular his unforgivable treatment of Draupadī, and of the Pāṇḍavas as they had left for the forest.

Bhīma seized his terrified foe by the arm and dragged him across the field. Dushashana tried to scramble free, kicking out frantically, but Bhīma twisted his arm till he screamed. The Pāṇḍava then brought his sword down in a flashing arc and cut off Dushashana’s arm. His voice rang out across the battlefield, “Here is the arm that seized Draupadī’s sanctified hair. Watch as I drink his blood.”

Dushashana writhed in agony as blood pumped from his shoulder. Bhīma kicked him onto his back and dropped onto him with his knees. The Pāṇḍava’s roars reverberated for miles, petrifying the warriors on both sides. He grasped the ivory hilt of his sword with both hands. Dushashana’s blood-smeared features contorted in terror. Bhīma smiled, relishing the long-awaited moment of revenge, then suddenly plunged his sword into Dushashana’s chest. As the Kaurava died screaming, Bhīma ripped him open and tore out his heart. He leaned down and, with cupped hands, drank his foaming blood as it flowed from his chest. Standing up again, he shouted, “The taste of this blood is sweeter than my mother’s milk, sweeter than honey, sweeter than pure water.” His face smeared with blood, Bhīma then looked down at Dushashana and said, “You are now safe since you are dead. There is nothing more I can do to you.”

All the Kauravas who saw Bhīma drinking Dushashana’s blood were horrified. Many of them fell to the earth out of fear. Others ran away, crying, “He is not human! Save us from Bhīma!”

Bhīma laughed. “O Dushashana, you were the root of the evils we suffered. Now let us hear you again joyfully defy us with the words, ‘O cow.’”

Turning toward Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa, Bhīma said, “O heroes, I have redeemed my pledge to kill Dushashana and drink his blood. Draupadī is avenged. Soon I will fulfill my other vow and crush Duryodhana. Then only will I know peace.”

Ten of Dushashana’s surviving brothers, shocked, rushed at Bhīma hoping to kill him. Bhīma quickly remounted his chariot and faced them with a smile. They hemmed him in and fired hundreds of barbed shafts at him. In swift succession Bhīma sent a gold-winged and razor-headed shaft at each prince, severing his head.

Karṇa’s mouth fell open. His weapons dropped to his side and he gazed at Bhīma with undisguised fear. Covered in blood and roaring, the Pāṇḍava seemed like a monstrous Rākṣasa. Surely he was possessed by an evil spirit of inestimable power.

Śalya, seeing Karṇa’s terrified expression, said, “Come, O hero, do not be depressed. This is the way of war. Death and destruction are its ever- present features. Do not be afraid. Duryodhana is grieving to see the death of Dushashana and his other brothers, and the rest of the Kauravas are fleeing. Duryodhana has given you the responsibility for this war. Exert yourself and bear the burden to the best of your ability.”

Urged on by Śalya, Karṇa caught hold of himself and shook off his confusion. It was true. There was no alternative now but to finish this fight. Arjuna was nearby. This was not the time to be confused.

Karṇa’s son, Vrishasena, having seen his father shaken and holding back in battle, blew his conch and confronted Arjuna. He fired a powerful volley of barbed arrows that covered both him and Kṛṣṇa. Fighting valiantly, he overpowered Nakula, who had come to Arjuna’s support, smashing his chariot. Bhīma shouted angrily to Arjuna, “I should kill this one immediately, but I will leave him for you. Dispatch him at once.”

As Karṇa looked on, Arjuna attacked Vrishasena. Blazing shafts sped toward the prince like hissing snakes breathing fire. Four of them slew his horses, while another dislodged his charioteer and threw him to the earth. As he tried to jump clear from his immobilized chariot, Arjuna sped a crescent-headed shaft at him that severed his head. The prince fell to the earth like a tree felled by lightning.

Karṇa cried out in agony. Grasping hold of his bow, he advanced toward Arjuna, who turned to meet him. The lustrous golden chariots of the two heroes, covered in tiger skins, looked like two suns meeting. Like Indra encountering Bali, they approached one another for combat while both armies looked on in awe. As they shot their arrows at one another, the other warriors roared with excitement--some praising Arjuna and others Karṇa. Both armies struck up martial music from thousands of drums and trumpets. Conches sounded and the battlefield was filled with a deafening din.

The celestials looked on from the canopy of the sky. Seeing the two god-like heroes raising their weapons and roaring, they could not decide which of them would emerge victorious. They were reminded of the ancient battle between Paraśurāma and Kartivirya. The Siddhas and Cāraṇas sounded their horns and showered flowers on the combatants. Indra blessed his son for victory, while Sūrya shone down on Karṇa, wishing him well.

As they closed on one another, the troops of both armies came to offer support. Dṛṣṭadyumna with all the Pāṇḍava forces surrounded Arjuna, while Duryodhana backed up Karṇa with the Kauravas. A fierce battle raged between the soldiers surrounding the two warriors, who circled one another, firing their first salvos.

Hanumān suddenly leapt from Arjuna’s banner and flew across to Karṇa’s banner, which was emblazoned with a jeweled elephant’s rope resembling Yamarāja’s noose. The enraged monkey tore at the rope with his nails and teeth, screaming fearfully all the while. The horses of both fighters reared and neighed angrily. Kṛṣṇa threw wrathful glances at Śalya, who returned them in a like manner.

Karṇa said, “O Śalya, my friend, the moment has arrived. Tell me truthfully--what will you do if I am slain by Pārtha?”

Śalya replied, “I will rush at Keśava and Dhanañjaya. What greater end is there for a kṣatriya than death at the edge of weapons?”

Arjuna asked Kṛṣṇa the same question and Kṛṣṇa said, “O Dhanañjaya, the sun may fall from the sky, the earth may shatter into a thousand fragments, fire may become cold, but Karṇa will not slay you. But if it should happen that you are slain, then know that the world’s end is near. Both Karṇa and Śalya will be sent to Yamarāja’s abode, along with the entire host of kṣatriyas.”

Arjuna smiled, “O Keśava, have no fear. Karṇa and Śalya are no match for me. As an elephant in the forest rends a tree, so I will crush Karṇa, his chariot, banners, horses, armor, bows and arrows. O Madhava, soon Karṇa’s wives will be widows. Surely they dreamt of coming evil last night. I cannot check my rage when I think of the cruel acts Karṇa has committed against us, especially how he abused Draupadī and the harsh language he used at that time. Today I will console Abhimanyu’s mother by repaying his enemies in their own coin. Today You too will be able to comfort Draupadī, from whose eyes fall large tears, remembering as she does the many woes she has suffered at the Kauravas’ hands.”

Both Arjuna and Karṇa then released shafts in volume. The sky was covered with flying arrows, creating a dark shadow over the battlefield. The two warriors countered each other’s attacks, like the east and west wind struggling with one another. As they struck down their opponent’s arrows, they seemed like the sun and moon emerging from clouds. Surrounded by their troops, they resembled Indra and Bali surrounded by the gods and Asuras. Their golden bows, constantly drawn to a circle, looked like the sun’s coronas and their arrows resembled sunbeams. Bent upon each other’s destruction, they stood like two suns risen for the destruction of the universe at the end of a yuga.

As they fought they simultaneously slew thousands of troops, elephants and horses. Other warriors contended together as the battle raged between the foremost heroes on both sides. Duryodhana, Kṛpa, Śakuni and Aśvatthāmā rained down arrows on Arjuna, trying to distract him and to give Karṇa the advantage, but Arjuna dexterously cut all their shafts and beat them back with his own. Forced to a distance by Arjuna’s searing arrows, Duryodhana and Aśvatthāmā came together to discuss their strategy.

Aśvatthāmā was still deeply affected by his father’s death and Vyāsadeva’s words. Climbing onto Duryodhana’s chariot he said, “O King, be pacified. There is no need to prolong this war. Enough men have died. Bhīṣma lies prostrate on the field and your own preceptor has been slain. Make peace with Yudhiṣṭhira, who always seeks the welfare of all beings. His brothers will accept his order. With the Pāṇḍavas as your allies, what can you not attain? How can anyone overpower Arjuna? What use is there in fighting him?”

Aśvatthāmā watched Karṇa and Arjuna fighting. Blazing arrows shot from the Gāṇḍīva and lit up the late afternoon sky. Arjuna’s chariot moved swiftly from side to side, baffling Karṇa’s attacks. Kṛṣṇa stood with the reins in His hands, His face covered with perspiration, as He shouted out commands to the horses and expertly maneuvered the chariot.

“In my view we should stop this war. Friendship with the Pāṇḍavas will surely be in your best interests. Stop this fight and let the remaining kings return home. O Monarch, I speak only as your friend and well-wisher. If you want, I can dissuade Karṇa from battle. Simply order me.”

Duryodhana thought for a while without replying. Finally, he shook his head. “O friend, you have had your say and I have considered your words. Now hear my thoughts on the matter. Even as the might of a storm is checked by Mount Meru, so will Arjuna’s prowess be checked by Karṇa. Let the fight continue. The Pāṇḍavas will never place confidence in me after the ills I have done them. You should not dissuade Karṇa. Arjuna is tired from his long day of fighting and will soon be overcome. O hero, go forward and fight our enemies. I am depending upon you as much as I am depending on Karṇa.”

Aśvatthāmā sighed. He slowly returned to his own chariot and rode back into the battle. Duryodhana was grief-stricken over his brothers’ deaths. He could hardly raise his weapons. He watched as Karṇa and Arjuna waged a fearful fight. It was so terrible that no other warriors would go near them. Anyone coming within the range of their arrows was instantly slain. Both men were lacerated by the other’s shafts, and blood flowed freely from their wounds. Kṛṣṇa and Śalya, with arrows protruding from their bodies, worked their horses and wheeled the chariots back and forth.

The Pāṇḍava troops shouted to Arjuna, “Kill Karṇa at once and dash Duryodhana’s hopes for the empire.” On the other side, the Kauravas encouraged Karṇa, “Quickly slay Arjuna and send the Pāṇḍavas back to the wilderness for good.”

Smiling and licking his lips, Arjuna sent hosts of arrows with various points--some shaped like half-moons, some like boar’s ears, and some like calf’s teeth. Karṇa responded with similar numbers of crescent and razor-headed shafts that cut down Arjuna’s arrows.

Suddenly invoking a powerful celestial weapon, Arjuna fired a shaft so brilliant that it lit up the sky in all directions. The heat from the missile ignited the dresses and chariots of the warriors nearby. It flew with a crackling sound resembling a forest of bamboos on fire. Karṇa, undaunted, at once released the Varuṇa weapon which immediately quenched Arjuna’s missile. Huge clouds appeared in the sky, sending torrents of rain that extinguished the fire Arjuna had created.

Arjuna applauded Karṇa and sent another celestial weapon against him, this one dispersing the clouds. He then disappeared from Karṇa’s view and invoked a weapon he had received from Indra. Thousands of glowing arrows adorned with vulture feathers flew from the Gāṇḍīva. They fell upon Karṇa’s chariot, covering him, Śalya, and his horses. Rolling his eyes in anger, Karṇa invoked the Bhārgava weapon, which cut off all the missiles emanating from the Gāṇḍīva. The power of the Bhārgava-astra spread out on the battlefield and afflicted the Pāṇḍava forces. Thousands fell dead, their bodies hacked to pieces.

Seeing Karṇa’s prowess, the Kauravas cheered and waved their weapons. Bhīma, infuriated, called out to Arjuna, “How have you allowed this irreligious scoundrel to kill so many of our men even before your eyes? The gods themselves were not able to vanquish you before now. How has Karṇa been able to show such power? O Savyasācin, think deeply on the ills meted out by this sinful man. Remember Draupadī’s suffering and Abhimanyu’s death. Do not be mild with this wretch. Slay him at once by any means possible.”

Kṛṣṇa also spoke urgently. “O brave warrior, you appear like one confounded. How are your weapons being baffled by Karṇa? Display the fierce energy which has been displayed yuga after yuga when you slew Rākṣasas and boon-proud Asuras. Take my razor-edged Sudarśanaa chakra and cut off Karṇa’s head without delay. You will thus restore to Yudhiṣṭhira this earth with all her towns, villages and wealth, and you will earn undying fame.”

Stirred to action, Arjuna gritted his teeth and glared at Karṇa. Taking out a shining golden shaft, he said, “Now, for the good of the world and with your permission, I will invoke the mighty Brahmā weapon.”

Kṛṣṇa replied, “So be it,” and Arjuna placed the arrow on his bow. Concentrating his mind, he invoked the brahmāstra and shot the arrow with all his strength. As the shaft blazed into the sky, thousands of other arrows came into being and launched themselves from the Gāṇḍīva. Resembling ferocious snakes with bared fangs, they soared across the battlefield toward Karṇa. Thousands upon thousands of gold-winged shafts spread out from Arjuna’s chariot and tore into the Kauravas. Darts, lances and battle-axes of frightening size and shape dropped onto Duryodhana’s troops.

Karṇa replied with another celestial weapon, which sent innumerable arrows back at Arjuna. They came down on him, hissing, like a downpour of rain. The shafts also flew out at the Pāṇḍava troops, killing them in large numbers.

Arjuna lost all patience. He struck Karṇa on the chest with a group of six powerful steel shafts, then twelve, then twenty, then fifty. At the same time, he slew four hundred elephants with their riders and one thousand horsemen and their horses. Then he slew eight thousand infantry.

The Kauravas called out to Karṇa, “O hero, save us! Check Pāṇḍu’s son! He is annihilating us.”

Exerting his utmost, Karṇa sent bloodsucking shafts in showers, completely covering Arjuna and simultaneously killing many Pañchālas and Pāṇḍava troops. Arjuna, invisible beneath the assault, whirled on the terrace of his chariot, striking down Karṇa’s shafts and shooting back another volley of fiery arrows.

As Arjuna and Karṇa attacked and counterattacked, exchanging all kinds of celestial weapons, Yudhiṣṭhira returned to the battlefield. His wounds tended and healed by mantras and herbs, he appeared again in brilliant golden armor like the full moon emerging from an eclipse. The Pāṇḍava forces cheered to see him as he stood by to witness the battle between Arjuna and Karṇa.

Arjuna fought in a frenzy, sending his shafts in immeasurable volumes. The Kauravas were unable to bear the force of his weapons and they fled in fear. Karṇa stood undaunted, resisting Arjuna’s attack with supreme skill. He pressed back all the troops supporting Arjuna, and the two men soon faced each other alone.

The Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas watched with astonishment from a distance as every kind of celestial missile was released and countered. Sometimes it seemed that Karṇa had the advantage; at other times Arjuna appeared to gain the upper hand. The warriors of both sides cheered and blew their conches, and from the sky the celestials applauded both warriors and beat their drums.

While that awful fight was raging, and the earth seemed to be oppressed by the weight of the weapons being fired, a Nāga named Aśvasena came to the battlefield. The celestial snake, son of Takṣakaḥ, bore Arjuna enmity for having slain his mother and brother in the Khandhava forest. Seeing his opportunity to gain revenge, he assumed the shape of an arrow and entered Karṇa’s quiver. With his mind fixed on Arjuna’s destruction, Aśvasena used his mystic power to inspire Karṇa with the thought of using the Nāgastra.

Karṇa saw that he could not overpower Arjuna by force of arms. It would take an inspired shot with a powerful celestial weapon. He then thought of the Nāgastra. If he could catch Arjuna off guard by cutting his bowstring and striking him at the same time with a cluster of shafts, he might just have time to kill him with the snake weapon before he recovered.

Following his plan, Karṇa fired shafts with blinding speed and temporarily stunned Arjuna, sundering his bowstring with a razor-headed arrow. He then took out a golden arrow from his quiver of celestial weapons. It seemed to jump into his hand and almost place itself on his bowstring. Karṇa took careful aim at Arjuna’s neck and drew his bow to its full. Unaware that Aśvasena had entered the arrow by yogic power, he shot it before Arjuna had a chance to restring his bow, calling out, “You are killed, O Pārtha.”

As the arrow was released the celestials cried out in sorrow. The shaft sped toward Arjuna with a terrible sound, seeming to divide the sky as a woman parts her hair in the middle. Kṛṣṇa saw the weapon approach and, leaning forward, pressed down the chariot with His foot. The horses were thrown to the ground and the chariot sank a cubit into the earth.

The snake arrow soared over Arjuna’s head and struck his diadem, sending it spinning off his head like the sun falling from the heavens. It fell to the earth smoking and shattered by the force of the Nāga weapon, which was enhanced by Aśvasena’s personal power. Its brilliant celestial gems lay scattered about the ground, resembling stars shining in the night sky.

Seeing that Kṛṣṇa had saved Arjuna from certain death, the gods cheered and showered Him with flowers. Arjuna, standing like a mountain bereft of its snowy summit, thanked and praised Kṛṣṇa, who told him what had happened. Arjuna quickly bound his loose hair with a white cloth and restrung the Gāṇḍīva to attack Karṇa.

Aśvasena, thwarted in his efforts to slay the Pāṇḍava, returned to Karṇa and said, “You did not know that I had entered your arrow. Know me to be Pārtha’s enemy. He killed my mother. Shoot me again and I will avenge her and achieve your desired end.”

Karṇa looked in surprise at that Nāga. With a shake of his head he replied, “I will never seek victory depending upon another’s strength, nor will I shoot the same arrow twice. I will slay Arjuna with my other weapons. Go now wherever you please.”

Aśvasena turned back toward Arjuna. Launching himself into the air, he again assumed the shape of an arrow. Arjuna was ready for him. He swiftly fired six crescent-headed shafts that cut Aśvasena to pieces and the Nāga fell to earth like a number of burning firebrands.

Kṛṣṇa jumped to the ground and with His own hands lifted Arjuna’s chariot out of the earth. He quickly remounted and urged on the horses, circling Karṇa as Arjuna aimed deadly shafts at his vital organs. Completely furious, Arjuna relentlessly assailed his foe from all sides as Kṛṣṇa drove the chariot. His arrows pierced Karṇa’s armor and broke it to pieces. Arjuna struck off his helmet and headdress, leaving the wounded Karṇa standing like a mountain sending forth streams of red lava.

Seeing his foe stupefied and inactive, his bow falling from his grasp, Arjuna honored the codes of warfare and stopped his attack. Kṛṣṇa said in surprise, “Why, O Pārtha, are you making such a mistake? The wise never spare their enemies no matter how weak they are. Learned men gain great merit by destroying wicked foes, even when those foes are distressed. Lose no time in killing him. When he recovers, he will again present you a difficult task.”

Responding to Kṛṣṇa’s urging, Arjuna fired arrows fitted with calf’s-tooth heads. They thudded into Karṇa’s powerful frame. With blood running from his numerous wounds, he resembled a blossoming ashoka tree. Quickly recovering his senses, Karṇa took up his bow and discharged volumes of shafts at Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa. Arjuna countered his arrows in mid-flight and continued to attack his unprotected enemy.

In his plight, Karṇa thought of again using the Bhārgava weapon, inspired with Brahmā’s power. No one could resist such a mighty weapon, and it had already destroyed numberless Pāṇḍava troops. Karṇa thought it would be the only way he could hope to distract Arjuna and gain the space he needed to deal with his wounds and put on new armor. He began to chant the sacred incantations to invoke the weapon but found he could not remember them. He tried repeatedly to recite the mantras he knew so well, but they would not come to his mind. Sadly, Karṇa recalled his teacher’s curse: “When your life depends on your most powerful weapon, you will not be able to summon it.”

Unable to invoke the Bhārgava-astra, Karṇa turned to repelling Arjuna’s shafts with ordinary arrows. As he stood releasing shafts by the hundreds, he saw a black shadowy figure appear near his chariot. Karṇa recognized it as Kala, Time personified, who said, “The earth is devouring your chariot wheel.”

Karṇa looked down and saw that his chariot was sinking into the earth. Despite Śalya’s strenuous efforts, it could not be pulled out. Karṇa lamented, rebuking virtue. “It is said that you, O virtue, always protect the virtuous. I have always carefully observed my duties. How am I now being destroyed? Why are all my efforts in this battle thwarted?”

As he gave vent to his anguish, Arjuna attacked him more vigorously. Cursing virtue again and again, Karṇa fought back desperately. Arjuna’s arrows pierced him deeply and he shook like a tall tree in a storm. Worked up to a frenzy, Karṇa released his arrows in a continuous stream. They flew off his bow like streaks of fire and struck down Arjuna’s shafts. Some of them penterated Arjuna’s defenses and pierced both him and Kṛṣṇa.

Seeing Karṇa still fighting furiously even though disadvantaged and badly wounded, Kṛṣṇa said, “Discharge more powerful weapons, Arjuna. See how Karṇa remains bent on victory, rendering your arrows useless and striking us with all his power.”

Arjuna recited mantras to invoke the Brahmā weapon, but as he did so Karṇa sent an arrow that cut apart his bowstring. In a moment, Arjuna restrung his bow, but Karṇa immediately cut it again. Arjuna strung it for a second time, and Karṇa again cut it. They repeated this twelve more times, Arjuna stringing his bow quickly and Karṇa cutting the string.

Marveling at Arjuna’s lightness of hand, Karṇa kept up his fierce assault. By the sheer force of his attack he temporarily stunned his opponent. Taking the opportunity, he leapt from his chariot and seized hold of the sunken wheel. He heaved at it with all his might. With his massive shoulders and heavily muscled arms, he resembled a sal tree with two huge trunks. Pulling with all his power, Karṇa shook the earth; it seemed to rise up with all its lands, mountains and seas. But the wheel would not come out.

Karṇa wept in frustration. Seeing Arjuna near him he called, “O Pārtha, wait for a moment while I extract my wheel. Do not cherish thoughts entertained only by cowards. Brave and pious persons never aim their arrows at those who are without weapons. You are the bravest and most pious of all warriors. Excuse me for a moment, standing helpless as I am. I will soon stand again for battle. Remembering virtue and the codes of warfare, hold off your attack until then.”

Hearing his agonized plea, Kṛṣṇa smiled and replied, “It is fortunate indeed that you remember virtue, O Karṇa. Men in distress almost always censure Providence, forgetting their own evil deeds. Where, O Karṇa, was your virtue when Draupadī was brought weeping into the Kuru assembly? Where was it when Yudhiṣṭhira was robbed of his kingdom? When he asked for it to be returned, after spending his promised thirteen years in exile, did your virtue suggest that it be returned? Was it virtue that conspired to set fire to the wax house in Vāraṇāvata? Did virtue urge you to laughingly say to Draupadī, “O lady, choose another husband”? Was it that same virtue that ordered Dushashana to strip her naked? When you and six other brave heroes surrounded the boy Abhimanyu, did virtue then enter your mind?”

Karṇa’s head fell and he made no reply. He struggled frantically to pull up his wheel, as Kṛṣṇa continued. “If it was virtue acting on all these occasions, then do not waste your time summoning it now. You wish us to practice piety today, but you will not escape with your life. After vanquishing you and all their other enemies, the virtuous Pāṇḍavas will regain their kingdom.”

Karṇa could not respond. He trembled with anger. His face was covered with perspiration as he wrestled with his wheel. Kṛṣṇa moved the chariot away and said, “O Arjuna, strike Karṇa down at once with a celestial weapon.”

Arjuna, reminded of Karṇa’s many sins, was furious. Heat seemed to emanate from his pores. He raised the Gāṇḍīva and invoked the Āgneyastra. Karṇa, unable to lift the chariot wheel, leapt back onto his chariot. Grasping his bow, he countered Arjuna’s weapon with the Varuṇastra. In desperation he continued fighting, firing his powerful arrows by the hundreds. He took up a huge steel arrow worked with gold and fitted with a long, barbed point. As he discharged it from his drawn bow, uttering mantras all the while, the four quarters were suddenly shrouded with darkness. Violent winds blew and the celestials uttered cries of lamentation. The Pāṇḍavas were gripped with apprehension and they prayed to Kṛṣṇa.

Karṇa’s arrow flew off his bow like a thunderbolt. It struck Arjuna full on the chest and he reeled. Pierced even through his impenetrable armor, he shook violently and dropped the Gāṇḍīva.

Karṇa again jumped down from his chariot and seized hold of the sunken wheel. He struggled furiously, but to no avail. As Karṇa roared in anger, Arjuna regained his senses and took out an anjalika arrow. Placing it upon his bow, he invested it with the celestial power of Indra’s Vajra weapon. Kṛṣṇa moved closer to Karṇa and said, “Arjuna, release this arrow at once and cut off your enemy’s head before he remounts his chariot.”

Arjuna drew the Gāṇḍīva back to his ear and took careful aim. All the warriors on the battlefield froze. The skies seemed to shake and the ṛṣis watching from the skies cried out, “All peace to the universe!”

As he aimed the arrow Arjuna said, “If I have ever practiced penance, if I have ever respected my elders and listened to their wise counsel, then let this arrow kill Karṇa.”

Arjuna let the arrow go and it flew from his bow shining like the sun. It lit up the field as it streaked toward Karṇa. The terrific shaft struck him as he still grappled with his chariot wheel. Catching him on his broad and powerful neck, it severed his head and threw it to the earth. As the handsome head fell to the ground, like the crimson setting sun going behind the western hills, his trunk collapsed, gushing streams of blood. Then, before everyone’s eyes, a bright light came out of Karṇa’s body and rose upward, entering the sun.

The Pāṇḍavas cheered, beat drums and sounded trumpets. Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa, filled with joy, blew their conches. They were surrounded by warriors who praised them and danced on the field in happiness. They gazed in wonder at Karṇa’s fallen body, which resembled an extinguished fire or a mountain struck down by the bolt of heaven.

Śalya slowly drove Karṇa’s chariot, bereft of its hero, away from the field. Seeing that sorrowful sight, the Kauravas fell about in grief, their hopes dashed. They fled in fear, looking back repeatedly at Arjuna’s blazing standard.

Duryodhana was overwhelmed with grief. Tears flowed from his eyes and he sighed again and again. He and the other Kuru chiefs went over to Karṇa and stood around him. The Pāṇḍavas joined them to offer their last respects to the fallen hero.

Bhīma roared like a thundercloud. He danced about slapping his arms in joy. Leaping high and circling in the air, he laughed and shouted out his battle cry. The Pāṇḍava troops embraced one another with tears in their eyes. Now the war was over. Duryodhana’s greatest hope had just been shattered.