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Chapter 26

Śalya Leads the Kauravas

Less than two hours remained until sunset. Yudhiṣṭhira decided to press home his advantage. Seeing his enemies disarrayed, he ordered his troops to attack. Inspired by Karṇa’s death, they fell upon the remaining Kauravas with loud shouts. The Kuru army lost all heart for the fight and ran in all directions like bulls with broken horns. They looked around in fear, expecting Arjuna or Bhīma to pursue them at any moment. It seemed to them that those two Pāṇḍavas were everywhere today.

Then Duryodhana pulled himself together and came forward for battle. Breathing hard, his face covered in tears, he said to his charioteer, “Take me into the fight. I will avenge my friend’s death. Kuntī’s son will no more be able to resist me than the ocean can go beyond its shore. Killing Arjuna and Govinda, the haughty Vṛkodara, and my other enemies, I will repay my debt to Karṇa.”

The Kauravas were rallied when they saw their leader riding into battle. Twenty-five thousand warriors came together to face the Pāṇḍava forces. Bhīma, observing the rules of fair combat, got down from his chariot to contend with the foot soldiers. Roaring out their battle cries and not fearing for their lives, they rushed upon Kuntī’s son with raised swords and maces.

Bhīma laughed. Whirling his great iron mace, Shaikya, he moved among the Kauravas like a hawk. Heads, arms and legs flew about as he destroyed the troops. Soon, almost all of the twenty-five thousand were slain and the remainder had fled. Encountering the remnant of Duryodhana’s brothers, he quickly dispatched all of them to Death’s abode, either by smashing them with his mace or severing their heads with razor-faced shafts.

In a rage Duryodhana rushed against the Pāṇḍavas, discharging fiery arrows on all sides. He was immediately surrounded by thousands of chariot fighters who sent great showers of arrows at him. Countering the attack, the Kaurava prince slew the chariot-warriors in large numbers. He quickly struck down hundreds of fighters and sent up a great roar. Seeing his troops fleeing in fear of Bhīma, he called out, “Where are you going, brave warriors? I see no place on earth, nor indeed the three worlds, where the Pāṇḍavas will not find and kill you if you flee. Their army is now quite small. If we stand together we will win. Follow your duties and fight. Death or glory are your only choices now. Slay your enemies, or be slain by them and thus attain heaven.”

Despite Duryodhana’s exhortations, his troops continued to flee. Śalya came up to the king and said, “O King, look at this dreadful scene. The earth is covered with the carcasses and mutilated limbs of slain warriors. Your warriors are falling over each other in fear. They can hardly move across the blood-soaked ground and are crying out for a protector. Retreat now, O Bharata hero. The sun is setting. Remember that you are the root of all these evils. Go back to your camp and give your men some respite.”

Duryodhana looked across at Śalya seated on Karṇa’s empty chariot. He was seized again with grief and he cried out, “O Karṇa! O my friend!”

The sun-god, shedding his dying rays on his fallen son’s body, went in grief to the western hills. Both armies withdrew from the fight, and the gods and ṛṣis returned to their abodes. As the warriors moved through the twilight, they looked upon Karṇa, who seemed to light up the field even in death. He looked like a mass of pure gold or like a fire quenched by the shower of Arjuna’s arrows. The earth seemed to send forth cries of ‘Alas!’ and ‘Oh!’

But Yudhiṣṭhira was happy. At last Karṇa had been slain. The Pāṇḍava king felt as if a great weight had been lifted from him. As he stood on the field surrounded by his brothers, Kṛṣṇa came before him and said, “By good fortune the suta’s son lies dead, while you and your heroic brothers are all well. Arjuna has fulfilled his promise and the earth has drunk Karṇa’s blood. That wretch of a man who laughed at Draupadī has received his reward. Surely your chaste queen will rejoice upon hearing this news. Soon she will sit by your side as you assume rulership over this prosperous earth.”

Yudhiṣṭhira tearfully embraced Kṛṣṇa. “O Keśava, it is no wonder that we have been successful with You as our support. O almighty one, the wise Ṛṣi Nārada has informed me of Your true identity, as well as that of my brother Arjuna. You two heroes are always engaged in maintaining virtue in the world.”

Yudhiṣṭhira climbed onto his chariot and rode back to camp. He saw Karṇa’s body lying on the field, lit up by a thousand oil lamps and surrounded by despondent Kaurava troops. The next morning they would perform his funeral rites, having left him for his final night on a hero’s bed. Yudhiṣṭhira looked at him again and again. He could hardly believe his eyes. He said, “By Your favor, dear Kṛṣṇa, we have achieved our object. Surely Duryodhana will now give up all hopes for victory and even life itself. For thirteen long years we have suffered and known only anxiety. Tonight we will sleep peacefully, freed of our burden.”

Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa went away from the battlefield like the sun and moon going down in the sky. They blew their conches, filling the four quarters with the tremendous blasts. Gandharvas, Cāraṇas and Siddhas offered them praise and worship as they headed back to their camp, following in Yudhiṣṭhira’s track like the gods follow Indra into Amarāvatī.

All the Kauravas left the field in despair. Kṛpa, Kṛtavarmā and Aśvatthāmā headed the troops as they returned to camp. Duryodhana was crying. No one could console him and he fell to the ground weeping. The other Kuru leaders entered the royal tent and sat silently around him. All of them shed tears as they watched the king give vent to his sorrow. He rolled about on the ground repeatedly crying out, “O Karṇa, my friend!”

Gradually, Duryodhana’s anger overcame his grief and he rose to his feet, his eyes coppery with rage. Taking his place on the throne, he wiped his face with his hands and said in a cold voice, “We cannot let this atrocity go unavenged. Karṇa, the best of warriors, was slain mercilessly by Arjuna as he stood helpless on the ground. How can we tolerate it? Selecting another commander for our forces, we will rush against the sinful Pāṇḍavas and wreak revenge. We have already almost destroyed their army, and they are weak from days of fighting. They have abandoned virtue and will thus lose all their power. Surely we will soon crush them. We owe it to Karṇa to either slay them to a man or to lay down our own lives, joining Karṇa in a hero’s unending sleep.”

Duryodhana trailed off as he thought of Karṇa laying on the battlefield. His head fell and he covered his face with his hands. He wept silently for some time. The anguished prince could not come to terms with his friend’s death. He had never dared think that Arjuna might one day slay Karṇa. From the day he had first seen him, he had lived with the expectation that Karṇa would be Arjuna’s destruction. That hope was now in ruins. Duryodhana gazed vacantly upwards, tears streaking down his dark face. Was Arjuna truly invincible? Perhaps. But the war could not be stopped now. Karṇa had to be avenged. It was that or death. No other choice was possible.

As Duryodhana gained control of himself, Kṛpa said gently, “O great king, consider carefully your best course now. Seventeen days of battle have passed and so many men have been killed. All your brothers are dead. We have still to see signs of weakness or laxity in Arjuna. He ranges about the field like a massive four-tusked elephant crushing our forces at will. Now he has killed Karṇa and, before that, Jayadratha, even though our whole army tried to protect him. Who is there among your troops who could face him, O Bharata? Who also could face the enraged Bhīma? He and Sātyaki are causing a carnage among our troops that makes our hairs stand on end.”

Kṛpa looked earnestly at the Kaurava prince, who sat looking straight ahead and saying nothing. Kṛpa began to cry, but he continued. “You have committed so many sins against the Pāṇḍavas for which we are all now reaping the fruits. You mustered this huge army just to achieve your ends. Now it has been destroyed. We are actually in danger. We are weaker than the Pāṇḍavas. Policy dictates that peace be sought by diplomacy. Yudhiṣṭhira is ever-merciful and will surely accept peace on mutually agreeable terms. You will not lose your position as king, for neither Yudhiṣṭhira nor Arjuna nor indeed Kṛṣṇa will disobey your father’s orders.”

Kṛpa implored Duryodhana to make peace. He wept to think of all the kings and warriors who had lost their lives for Duryodhana’s cause. His voice trembled as he concluded, “I counsel that we stop the hostilities, O hero. This is in your best interests. I do not say it out of fear or with any malicious motive. Do not disregard my words. If you act otherwise, you will recall what I have said when you yourself are on the verge of death.”

Duryodhana remained silent. Pale with grief, he screwed up his eyes and shook violently. He sobbed, unable to reply for some minutes. Finally he composed himself with difficulty and said, “You have doubtlessly spoken as a friend. Indeed, you have done for me everything a friend could do--going against my enemies and risking your life for my good. I know that your counsel is well-meant and beneficial, but it does not please me. Like medicine to a man on the brink of death, your words are quite unpalatable. In my opinion, Yudhiṣṭhira will not trust me even if I go to him and sue for peace. I have cheated him and inflicted him with all kinds of evil. So too have I pained Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa. Since hearing of Abhimanyu’s death, Keśava has passed His nights in sorrow. We have offended Him. How can He forgive us now? Peace is out of the question. The war will end only when the Kauravas or the Pāṇḍavas are dead. Things have already gone too far. The enmity is irreversible.”

Thinking of Draupadī, he continued, “The Pañchāla princess, I have heard, is practicing austere vows to bring about my destruction. She sleeps on the bare ground and accepts only one meal a day. Subhadrā, casting away all pride, serves her like a waiting maid. O Kṛpa, everything is on fire. It cannot be extinguished. How can I, having shone rays like the sun on the heads of all kings, walk behind Yudhiṣṭhira? I could never accept his sovereignty. After ruling this earth as its undisputed emperor, I cannot possibly face a miserable life of servitude.”

The Kaurava made it clear that battle was the only choice. If he was slain, then he would at least retain his fame and go to the higher regions. Withdrawing now would mark him a coward and lead to ignominy and degradation.

Duryodhana looked at Karṇa’s seat. Fighting back his grief, he concluded his speech in resolute tones. “No kṣatriya desires a death at home in bed. It must come in battle, or his fame diminishes and dies. I have performed many a sacrifice and followed my duties faithfully. I do not fear death. Let me fight and win glory or ascend the path trodden by heroes who never retreat in battle. That path has become crowded with joyful kings, hurrying along after throwing down their bodies in this war. How can I give up the fight after seeing such noble fighters give their all on my behalf? I could not enjoy the kingdom with their blood on my hands unless I had exerted myself fully to avenge them. I will attain victory or heaven. It cannot be otherwise.”

The warriors applauded Duryodhana’s valorous speech. Shaking off their despair, they resolved to fight to the finish. They decided to select a new commander in the morning, then rose from their seats and retired to their beds for the night.

After hearing of Bhīma’s systematic slaughter of her sons, and especially of his brutal killing of Dushashana, Gāndhārī was distraught. Since the war began she had absorbed herself in the practice of penance, praying that the hostilities might come to a quick end. Perhaps Duryodhana would come to his senses as he saw the futility of his cause. How was it possible for him to overpower the virtuous Pāṇḍavas aided by Kṛṣṇa? But Gāndhārī knew of his obstinacy. It was improbable that he would end the war until every man in his army lay dead.

Although the Kuru queen understood that her sons were dying due to their own sinfulness, as a mother she could not tolerate it. Each evening she would receive news of the day’s events and her heart would be wracked with pain. All the great Kuru heroes were being slaughtered one after another. When she heard that Bhīma had slain almost all of her sons, she felt she could take no more. She had to do something. Her long practice of asceticism had given her great mystic power. If she went to the battlefield, she could use that power to make her last surviving sons invincible. Simply by glancing at them she could make their bodies invulnerable. Deciding to leave at once, she ordered her servants to prepare a chariot.

Travelling swiftly during the seventeenth day of the war, she finally arrived on the field at sunset. When she entered the ladies tent she received the terrible news that all her sons were now dead, with the exception of Duryodhana alone. The old queen dropped to the ground in a swoon. Her servants quickly raised her and sat her upon a large couch, sprinkling her face with cool water. Coming back to her senses she wept for some time. Finally she composed herself and asked that Duryodhana be brought before her. At least she could save him. Maybe destiny would allow her to keep one son. Surely he was the cause of the war, but now that Karṇa was dead perhaps he would change. No doubt Śakuni would also soon be slain. It had been in their company that Duryodhana had hatched out all his evil schemes. Alone he might be a different person.

Within a short while the prince entered his mother’s tent and bowed before her, his face drawn and darkened by grief. She blessed him and spoke consolingly for some time. Then she said, “Dear son, I had hoped that this war might end before all my sons were killed. Alas, it seems that that hope will be thwarted. But still you live. Dear son, I wish to help you. By my ascetic power I can make your body invincible. Come before me tomorrow morning naked. I will then bestow my power upon you.”

Duryodhana went out of the tent feeling encouraged. It was surely providential that his mother had come. Perhaps he would at last be able to overpower his rampant foes. He headed quickly through the darkness back towards his quarters.

The following morning before sunrise, Duryodhana took his bath and went back to his mother’s tent. As he entered the outer section of the large tent, he took off his clothes and was about to go in when he saw Kṛṣṇa coming out. The Yādava had heard that Gāndhārī had arrived, and He had gone to pay His respects. Seeing Duryodhana standing naked before Him, He opened His eyes wide in surprise. “What is this, O hero? Why do I see you standing here without any clothes?”

Duryodhana explained that he was about to see his mother, and Kṛṣṇa replied, “Have you not learned any culture from your elders, O Bharata? How can any civilized man go naked before his own mother? I am surprised. At least cover your loins.”

Duryodhana looked down at his naked body in embarrassment. Kṛṣṇa was right. He could not stand naked before his mother. As Kṛṣṇa left the tent he wrapped a cloth around his loins and went in to see the queen. When she heard him enter, she asked him to stand immediately before her. Then she lifted the cloth that covered her eyes and looked straight at him. Duryodhana felt an energy suffusing him as his mother glanced over his body, but when Gāndhārī saw his cloth she was shocked. “Why, dear child, did you not follow my directions? I asked you to come naked. You have covered your loins and, although the rest of your body will be hard like iron, your loins and thighs will remain vulnerable to attack, for I did not see those parts.”

Gāndhārī had summoned all her power before glancing over her son. She felt unable to do it a second time. When Duryodhana told her what had happened--how he had met Kṛṣṇa as he came into the tent--the queen sighed. She slowly replaced the cloth over her eyes. Her last hope had been destroyed. Surely her son would die at Bhīma’s hands, as that Pāṇḍava had vowed so long ago in the Kuru assembly. Realizing that she could do nothing against all-powerful destiny, Gāndhārī finally smiled. It was Kṛṣṇa again. As long as He was protecting the Pāṇḍavas, the Kauravas’ cause was hopeless. The queen dismissed her son. She had best return to Hastināpura to be with her grief-stricken husband. The war would soon be over without a doubt.

As the sun rose on the eighteenth morning, the Kauravas, after cremating Karṇa and the other slain warriors, mounted their chariots and came together. Their grief had given way to the numbness born from seeing so much death and destruction. Almost mechanically they prepared for battle. Duryodhana looked around at the remaining fighters. Which of them should be the commander-in-chief for what would likely be the final day of the war? Kṛpa was the obvious choice, but he was clearly reluctant to continue the fight. The prince thought of Aśvatthāmā. As the preceptor’s son, he was another possibility. But when Duryodhana asked him, he replied, “I think you should choose Śalya. In birth, prowess, energy, fame, and every other accomplishment he is superior to us all. Renouncing his attachment for his kinsmen he has joined our side and fought relentlessly. Let him lead our troops, like Skanda leading the celestials.”

Applauding Aśvatthāmā’s words, the other warriors surrounded Śalya and shouted, “Victory! Victory!” Duryodhana got down from his chariot and approached him with folded hands, saying, “O hero, once again I come to seek your favor. Become our commander. With you at our head we will strike terror into our foes. There are none among us as brave or powerful as you. O foremost of kings, take command of these forces, even as Kārttikeya commands the armies of the gods.”

Śalya, having abandoned any hope of coming out of the battle alive, accepted Duryodhana’s proposal. Folding his palms he replied, “O mighty-armed king, I will face the Pāṇḍavas without fear. Forming a mighty array, I shall defeat their assembled armies. Let us lose no time in going forth again for battle.”

Duryodhana cheered Śalya and had him installed as commander, personally pouring the sanctified water over his head. The Kauravas sent up lion-like roars and beat thousands of drums. Inspired with new hope, they moved toward the battlefield, spreading out into an eagle-shaped formation at Śalya’s command. Ten thousand elephants, eleven thousand charioteers, the same number of horsemen, and five hundred thousand infantry remained of the original four million Kaurava warriors. They fanned out and marched resolutely toward the battlefield, all of them determined to fight to the death.

Yudhiṣṭhira heard the Kauravas’ joyous cries. Receiving the news that Śalya had been appointed commander, he said, “O Keśava, what do You think should be done? I depend fully on Your advice.”

Kṛṣṇa appeared thoughtful. “I know Śalya as the foremost fighter. O King, he should not be underestimated. Empowered by the post of commander, he will be no less powerful than Bhīṣma, Droṇa, or even Karṇa. Still, I think you can kill him. I do not see another who will be able to kill him. Go forth, O hero, and slay him like Śakra slew the demon Shambara. Now that you have crossed the fathomless Kaurava ocean, do not sink into the small pond of Śalya. Display in battle all your kṣatriya strength and your ascetic power. Śalya’s time has surely come.”

Yudhiṣṭhira mounted his chariot, thinking on Kṛṣṇa’s words. It must be as He had said. Yudhiṣṭhira recalled his promise to kill Śalya. It was fitting that the Madras monarch should meet his end at the hands of his dear friend and nephew. It would be a hard fight. Both were past masters at spear fighting, and they had already met for several fierce encounters. The next one would be their last.

With Dṛṣṭadyumna at their head, the Pāṇḍava troops marched out for battle. Soon the fight began. Seeing Yudhiṣṭhira’s white umbrella in the distance, Śalya urged his charioteer to make straight for him. He was soon confronted by a large body of chariot fighters, who showered him with arrows and lances. The Madras king stood his ground and responded with volleys of gold-winged shafts that struck down dozens of those warriors.

Karṇa’s two remaining sons, Satyasena and Citrasena, charged at Nakula like a pair of tigers attacking an elephant in the forest. They covered him with keen arrows and sundered his bow, but the Pāṇḍava quickly strung another bow and returned the attack. Laughing all the while, he killed Satyasena’s four horses and struck Citrasena on the chest with three whetted shafts.

Satyasena jumped aboard his brother’s chariot and the two princes stood side by side, shooting their arrows at Nakula. Unshaken, Nakula hurled a bright dart, steeped in oil and resembling a dreadful snake. It hit Satyasena and penetrated his heart. His brother roared in anger and increased his attack on Nakula, killing his horses and smashing his chariot.

Seeing his father careless and under attack, Nakula’s son Sutasoma came to his aid. He took him onto his own chariot and Nakula carried on fighting. After releasing a large number of shafts that baffled his opponent, the Pāṇḍava let go an arrow with a razor-sharp head shaped like a half moon. It struck Citrasena in the neck and severed his head, sending it flying to the ground. The prince dropped forward from his chariot and fell to the earth like a hewn tree.

Witnessing Nakula killing Karṇa’s two sons, the Kaurava soldiers retreated. Śalya rallied them. He stood fearlessly in battle, faced by numbers of Pāṇḍava warriors. Headed by Kṛpa and Kṛtavarmā, the Kauravas rushed at the Pāṇḍavas with loud cries. They were met by solid lines of troops led by Dṛṣṭadyumna and Sātyaki. The two armies clashed with a deafening clamor. The air was filled with smoke from fiery weapons released by powerful chariot-warriors, as well as with the stench of blood.

Fighting his way through the dense Pāṇḍava ranks, Śalya approached Yudhiṣṭhira. He assailed him with a downpour of arrows, but Yudhiṣṭhira checked them all with his own. As the leading warriors on both sides contended with one another, Yudhiṣṭhira and Śalya fought a violent duel. They exchanged arrows that collided in mid-air with showers of sparks. Appearing like Indra and Bali fighting for the sovereignty of the universe, the two mighty heroes shot blazing shafts off their bows that resembled thunderbolts.

Showing his intention to slay Śalya, Yudhiṣṭhira suddenly released a broad-headed arrow that cut down his enemy’s standard. Śalya, raging, replied with thousands of straight shafts that struck Yudhiṣṭhira on every part of his body. The arrows completely covered the Pāṇḍava king as well as his horses, chariot and driver. Yudhiṣṭhira’s brothers came to his assistance and rained down long, barbed arrows on Śalya. Backed by Kṛpa and Aśvatthāmā, the Madras king put up a savage fight. The Pāṇḍavas had never before seen him so ferocious. His arrows found the weak points of his assailants, who fell back from his chariot, stunned by the force of his attack.

Śalya resisted the combined assault of Yudhiṣṭhira, Sātyaki, Bhīma, and the two sons of his sister Mādrī. Duryodhana came to his support, with Kṛtavarmā by his side. For a long time an awful battle raged between the mighty heroes, who angrily sought each other’s destruction.

In the meantime, Arjuna had been surrounded by the remaining warriors of the Trigarta army. The Pāṇḍava slew them mercilessly, and they cried out in distress. Hearing their cries, Aśvatthāmā raced over to support them. After failing in his attempt to make Duryodhana stop the war, he had resolved to fight to the end. His father and almost all his friends had been slain. Even if peace were made, what was there left to live for anyway? Careless of Vyāsadeva’s cautionary words, Droṇa’s son attacked Arjuna with all his power. The two godbrothers, forgetting their former friendship, attacked one another like a couple of maddened bulls attempting to gore the other with their horns. The sky was filled with their arrows, and the battle between them was wonderful even to the celestials.

Gaining the upper hand, Arjuna slew his opponent’s four horses and charioteer. Aśvatthāmā stood fearlessly on his immobile chariot, continuing to resist Arjuna’s attack. Even as he fought with the Pāṇḍava, he rained his shafts on other Pāṇḍava soldiers and slew hundreds.

Suddenly Suratha, a powerful Pāṇḍava chariot-fighter, bore down upon Aśvatthāmā with a great shout. Aśvatthāmā jumped to the ground with his bow in hand. He placed a keen shaft on its string and drew it back to his ear. Shot with all his strength, the arrow went right through Suratha’s chest. It split his heart and emerged from his back, entering the earth.

Aśvatthāmā quickly ran over and got up onto his slain foe’s chariot. Many other Kaurava fighters, led by Śakuni and Uluka, raced to his assistance. A fierce battle then ensued between Arjuna and the Kaurava warriors, who were backed by thousands of troops.

Not far from Aśvatthāmā, Śalya continued to fight with frightful force. Inspired by thoughts of a glorious victory, or death and elevation to the celestial regions, he encountered all the great Pāṇḍava heroes. No one could shake him as he stood on his chariot blazing like the sun-god. His arrows went out in endless lines in all directions. Thousands of brave Pāṇḍava fighters lost their lives as they tried to approach him in battle.

Remembering his vow and Kṛṣṇa’s words, Yudhiṣṭhira pressed forward toward Śalya. The Madras monarch, standing near Yudhiṣṭhira, looked like the planet Saturn near the moon. Both men blew their conches, creating a roaring sound that shook the atmosphere. Gazing at each other with burning eyes, they yelled out their challenges and counter- challenges. They shrouded each other with waves of arrows. Wounded all over, they appeared like a kinshuka and a shalmali tree in full bloom.

The soldiers watching the battle could not decide who would win--whether Yudhiṣṭhira would gain the earth after slaying Śalya; or if Śalya, after killing the Pāṇḍava, would bestow the earth upon Duryodhana.

Śalya sent steel shafts that tore into Yudhiṣṭhira’s leather hand protectors and cut his bow in two. Yudhiṣṭhira spun round in his chariot and took up another bow, stringing it as he turned again to face his antagonist. He sent a number of swift arrows that killed Śalya’s four horses and his charioteer. The Pāṇḍava king then covered Śalya with hundreds of searing shafts that rocked him as he stood on his stationary chariot. Aśvatthāmā sped over to rescue the afflicted Madras king, taking him onto his own chariot.

In moments, Duryodhana, observing the fight, had another great chariot brought for Śalya. Mounting that chariot, Śalya charged at Yudhiṣṭhira, his chariot’s huge iron wheels resounding like thunder. Flanked by other warriors, he rushed forward into the flights of gold-winged arrows Yudhiṣṭhira was shooting. Bhīma, Sātyaki and the twins also challenged him and the Kaurava heroes backing him.

The fight between Yudhiṣṭhira and Śalya was like a contest between young tigers in the jungle fighting for a piece of meat. They circled and feinted with speed and grace. Elated with the pride of prowess, they wounded each other with their arrows. Śalya simultaneously attacked Yudhiṣṭhira and Bhīma, cutting off the armor of both men. With well-aimed arrows, he slew Yudhiṣṭhira’s four horses and killed his charioteer. Having stunned the king and his brother, he then began slaughtering the Pāṇḍava forces.

Bhīma, beside himself with rage, shot long shafts that killed Śalya’s horses and stopped him in his tracks. He sent another hundred razor-faced arrows that cut apart his armor. Śalya took up a burnished steel sword and a shield adorned with a thousand stars. Leaping down from his chariot, he rushed across the field toward Yudhiṣṭhira like a hawk swooping on its prey. Bhīma took careful aim and, with a broad-headed shaft, cut Śalya’s sword in two. With another twenty arrows he broke apart his shield. Overjoyed, he roared out his battle cry. The other Pāṇḍavas laughed and blew their milk-white conches.

Seeing Śalya without armor and on foot, deprived of his weapons, the Kauravas were filled with apprehension. Yudhiṣṭhira, remaining on his horseless chariot, took up a large golden dart. It had a handle worked with coral and was set with gems. The Pāṇḍava raised the effulgent dart and gazed angrily at Śalya, seeming to burn him with his glance. Uttering mantras and hurling the weapon with all his force, he cried out, “You are killed!”

The dart flew toward Śalya like a meteor dropping from the sky. Śalya cried out and tried to catch the dart as it fell upon him, but it slipped through his hands and struck him on the chest. It passed through him without obstruction and entered the earth. Blood shot out from Śalya’s mouth, nose and ears. His arms flew up and he fell to the earth like a mountain summit smashed by a thunderbolt. Like a dear wife rising to embrace her beloved spouse, the earth seemed to rise to meet him as he fell. That king, having enjoyed the earth for so long, finally fell into her embrace and died.

Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers sent up triumphant shouts, while the Kauravas cried out in anguish. Dispirited, they fled from the fight. The Pāṇḍava troops, seizing their advantage, rushed with raised weapons at their despondent foes.

Śalya’s younger brother charged Yudhiṣṭhira. He struck the Pāṇḍava with a cluster of barbed arrows that pierced him. Not minding the attack, Yudhiṣṭhira quickly raised his bow and responded with razor-faced shafts that cut apart his attacker’s bow. With one shaft he cut down his standard and with another arrow he severed his head from his body. Following the path taken by his elder brother, the handsome prince fell headlong from his chariot.

Duryodhana looked on in despair. All around him his troops were running in terror, leaving him alone to fight the Pāṇḍavas. Gripped by a wild rage, he fought in a frenzy to the limit of his power. His arrows flew like blazing comets in all directions. No one could approach him, and he single-handedly resisted all the great Pāṇḍava heroes.

Kṛtavarmā, Kṛpa and Aśvatthāmā, seeing now Duryodhana’s brave stand against their foes, came quickly to his support. The four Kaurava warriors checked the Pāṇḍava army like the shore resisting the ocean. In a last desperate attempt to win the day, they pressed toward Yudhiṣṭhira, who still stood upon his immobilized chariot. Seeing this, Bhīma, Sātyaki, Dṛṣṭadyumna, and Draupadī’s five sons surrounded the Pāṇḍava king. An exchange then took place between those warriors and the four Kauravas that filled the heavens with fiery arrows.

Śalya’s army, the Madrakas, rushed back into the fight with loud shouts. They cried out, “Where is Yudhiṣṭhira? Where are Dṛṣṭadyumna and Bhīma? We will slay them at once!” As those warriors charged into the fray, they were met by volleys of shafts discharged by the Pāṇḍavas. Cut to pieces, their chariots smashed and horses slain, they fell by the hundreds. As rows of brave fighters dropped to the ground, those following them stumbled and fell over their chariots. Horses screamed as their drivers pulled hard, trying to swerve clear of the melee. Fiery shafts rained relentlessly down. Well-muscled arms and heads graced with golden helmets dropped to the ground by the thousands.

Arjuna, having annihilated the remnants of the Trigarta army along with Śakuni’s mountain warriors, turned his arrows on the Madrakas. With his unfailing and irresistible shafts he soon slew two thousand elephants with their riders. The Madrakas uttered cries of terror as Arjuna rode into their midst. Ruthlessly cut down by the Pāṇḍava and his brothers, they took to their heels, only to find other Pāṇḍava heroes standing in front of them. They cried out to Duryodhana for protection.

Śakuni, hearing their piteous cries, came up to Duryodhana’s side and said, “Arjuna has killed my entire force of warriors. Now he is slaughtering the brave Madrakas. O King, rally our forces and go to their assistance at once.”

Duryodhana looked vacantly at his old uncle. His mind was sunk in dejection. Few of his forces remained. Those not slain were fleeing. He had shouted himself hoarse trying to bring them back to the fight. The war could surely not last much longer. Duryodhana looked around at the desolate scene. The Pāṇḍava troops were chasing his fleeing soldiers with shouts of joy. Only a handful of his bravest fighters--Kṛpa, Aśvatthāmā, Kṛtavarmā, about a dozen of his brothers--still survived, with less than twenty thousand troops to support them.

The prince said in a tearful voice, “O Uncle, I repeatedly hear Vidura’s words in my mind. Only out of ignorance did I ignore his wise counsel. Just see the course of destiny. Our once proud army has practically been annihilated. Bhīma and Arjuna have wrought havoc among our men. What should be done? I cannot return from this war defeated. Victory or death are my only choices. Keeping the duties of a kṣatriya uppermost in our minds, let us go forward into the fight one final time. Put forth all your power, O son of Suvala. Maybe we will yet gain the day.”

Ordering their charioteers to urge on their horses, the two Kauravas charged into the fray, roaring out their battle cries. But the Pāṇḍavas were ready. With victory in sight they stood firm against their desperate foes, releasing waves of deadly shafts that cut them down. Duryodhana looked on in horror as almost all of his remaining warriors were slaughtered.

Seeing the Kauravas practically defeated, Kṛṣṇa said, “O Dhanañjaya, this war is virtually over. Millions of warriors on both sides have been slain. Our forces are now superior to the Kauravas. All that is needed to secure our victory is Duryodhana’s death. Without killing him, there will be no end to these hostilities, for he will never admit defeat. O Pārtha, exert yourself to kill Duryodhana and end this ghastly conflict.”

Arjuna looked at Kṛṣṇa who, although wounded, shone with splendor as he held the horses’ reins. “O Madhava, you have spoken the truth. The evil-minded son of Dhṛtarāṣṭra will fight to the last man. It seems that none will escape death. Bhīma has slain all of Duryodhana’s brothers. Surely, in keeping with his promise, he will also kill Duryodhana himself. There stands Susharma, my old antagonist. His time has come. O Keśava, take my chariot toward that king.”

Arjuna pointed to Susharma, who stood releasing flaming shafts at the Pāṇḍava troops. Kṛṣṇa urged on his horses and in moments Arjuna stood before Susharma, who was supported by four Trigarta princes. They immediately attacked Arjuna in a body, striking him with hundreds of arrows. Moving with grace and skill, Arjuna assailed the princes like a hungry lion attacking deer. With razor-headed shafts he slew all four, then turned on Susharma. He struck the monarch on the chest with three powerful shafts, then killed his horses with four more. With another broad-faced arrow he cut down his standard. Then, with a long golden shaft inspired by mantras, he pierced Susharma through the heart.

As Susharma toppled from his chariot, Arjuna charged into the troops backing him. Nearby Bhīma was roaring and whirling his mace as he rushed against Duryodhana. The Kaurava resisted him valiantly, shooting thousands of arrows and holding him at bay. A short distance away, Sātyaki fought Kṛtavarmā while Dṛṣṭadyumna and the twins fought Kṛpa and Aśvatthāmā.

While those heroes engaged in combat, Sahadeva saw Śakuni assailing the Pāṇḍava army. Remembering his vow, the Pāṇḍava broke away from his fight with Kṛpa. He rushed toward Śakuni, shouting out a challenge. As Śakuni turned to face him, Sahadeva discharged fearful arrows that flew at the speed of the wind. He immediately cut Śakuni’s bow apart and broke his standard. Undaunted, Śakuni took up another bow and fought back with great energy, striking his antagonist with a volley of powerful shafts.

Sahadeva expertly warded off Śakuni’s attack and replied with sixty keen arrows that hit Śakuni on every part of his body. Sahadeva followed that with another eighty shafts that sent Śakuni spinning on the terrace of his chariot, his bow flying from his hand.

Uluka, seeing his father’s plight, rushed at Sahadeva, releasing dozens of barbed arrows. In a moment, Sahadeva spun round to face Uluka. He discharged a crescent-headed shaft that screamed through the air and beheaded Uluka. The huge-bodied warrior fell from his chariot, his head rolling away with staring eyes and earrings that gleamed from the dusty ground.

Śakuni cried out and tears sprung to his eyes. He remembered Vidura’s wise words. It had always been folly to nurture enmity with the Pāṇḍavas. The Suvala monarch, still under Sahadeva’s attack, reflected sorrowfully on his life as he fought back. His original anger with Bhīṣma for giving his sister to the blind Dhṛtarāṣṭra was long forgotten. After befriending Duryodhana, he had become implicated in more and more treachery, even though in his heart he knew it would one day have fearful consequences. Yet he had been driven by anger and attachment, always ignoring the truth, and hoping that by his cunning he could somehow destroy the Pāṇḍavas. Now he would face the results. The fire of the Pāṇḍavas’ anger had blazed up into a conflagration. His entire army--his own son--had been killed before his eyes.

Remembering his duty as a warrior, Śakuni gazed wrathfully at Sahadeva. Perhaps he could at least avenge his son’s death before dying himself. Śakuni raised his bow and placed a formidable looking shaft on its string but, before he could release it, Sahadeva cut apart his bow with three razor-faced arrows.

Roaring in anger, Śakuni picked up a scimitar and hurled it at his foe. Sahadeva immediately cut the spinning sword to pieces before it reached him. As Sahadeva countered the scimitar, Śakuni let go a dreadful mace that flew at him with a loud, rushing sound. Sahadeva struck the mace with a cluster of shafts that smashed it to pieces. Śakuni then hurled a dart at him, which the Pāṇḍava also checked.

Seeing his weapons falling uselessly to earth like the hopes of an impious man, Śakuni became afraid. Dispirited, he fled from the fight. Sahadeva, remembering his vow to slay Śakuni, gave chase. He shouted at him to turn back and fight, but Śakuni did not listen.

Racing up to Śakuni’s side, Sahadeva called, “Why are you abandoning your duty, O fool? Do you recall how you rejoiced in the Kuru assembly, O wicked man? You and the wretched Duryodhana are the only survivors of those who ridiculed us and insulted our queen. But not for long. Receive now the fruits of your evil acts. Stand and face me in battle. I will cut off your head like a man plucking a ripe fruit.”

Goaded by Sahadeva, Śakuni pulled up his chariot and turned to fight. He took up a lance adorned with gold and jewels, but it was cut to pieces even as he raised it over his shoulder. Sahadeva sent searing, razor-faced arrows that tore off Śakuni’s arms. Then, with an arrow as bright as fire, he cut off his head.

As Śakuni fell, blood spurting from his trunk, the Kauravas wailed. Duryodhana cried out and dropped his bow. All the other warriors around him threw down their weapons and ran. Only a handful of Kaurava soldiers survived, and they found themselves surrounded by the Pāṇḍava forces. Unable to escape, they stood to fight but were soon killed.

Seeing himself alone, Duryodhana turned and fled from the battlefield. Jumping from his chariot, he dashed into the surrounding woods and ran until he reached a large lake. Bewildered, and with a desire to save his life, he entered the water. As he sank into the lake, keeping his life airs circulating within himself by yoga practice, the Kaurava prince used his mystic power to solidify the water around his body.

After Duryodhana’s departure, only Kṛpa, Aśvatthāmā and Kṛtavarmā remained. With their leader gone, they too decided to flee. They raced from the battlefield. As they fled, they met Vyāsadeva. The ṛṣi told them where to find Duryodhana and then disappeared. The three warriors went to the lake and saw Duryodhana’s upper garment nearby. Realizing he had entered the lake, they fell to the ground wailing. “Alas, the king did not know that we survived. He has entered this lake in despair without knowing that all was not yet lost.”

They got to their feet slowly and returned to their chariots, deciding to make their way to the Kuru camp. Reaching the outpost they found the guards grieving. The three men carried on into the camp where they saw similar scenes. They heard the loud wails of the royal ladies in their tents, which sounded like the crying of flocks of ospreys. The ladies were being led out by their guards and placed on chariots, ready to return to the city. With their clothes and hair in disarray, their ornaments cast aside, they were a piteous sight. Many men were setting out for Hastināpura, unable to stay any longer in the desolate encampment. They rushed here and there in their haste to leave, fearful that the Pāṇḍavas might arrive at any moment to finish them off.

Unable to tolerate the mournful atmosphere, the three warriors returned to Duryodhana’s hiding place. Kṛpa stood by the edge of the lake and called aloud, “O King, rise up and face your enemies. Just see how your men have given way to grief in your absence. The Pāṇḍavas are ranging about the field looking for you. Their armies have been destroyed. Fight with them and gain control of the earth or, slain by them, rise to heaven. Why do you tarry here? Aśvatthāmā, Kṛtavarmā and I are here to help you. Surely you will win if you continue the fight.”

Duryodhana heard Kṛpa as he sat at the bottom of the lake. He called out, “By good fortune have you three heroes survived, O foremost of men. Just let me rest here for awhile and then I will surely wage war again. You are also tired and should rest. Refreshed and renewed, we may proceed toward the battle. O mighty-armed ones, you are all noble and your devotion to me is great, but it is not now the proper time to display your power. Let us rest tonight. In the morning I will join you for the fight. Do not doubt it.”

Aśvatthāmā replied, “Rise up, O King; may you fare well. We shall yet defeat the enemy. I swear by all my holy acts, by all my gifts, and by truth itself, that I will slay the remaining Pāṇḍavas. Indeed, if this night passes without my killing them, I will not again enjoy the pleasure of performing sacrifices, a pleasure enjoyed by all pious men. O King, I will not loosen my armor until they are killed. This is certain.”

As Aśvatthāmā called out to Duryodhana, a number of hunters arrived at the lake. Worn out with the day’s hunting, they wanted to slake their thirst. Seeing the three powerful kṣatriyas, they hid in the bushes and listened. They then understood that Duryodhana was hidden in the lake. Undetected by the three Kauravas, they listened as the warriors tried without success to convince Duryodhana to come out and resume the fight.

The hunters had observed the battle fought between the world’s kṣatriyas. They knew that the Pāṇḍavas would reward them richly if they told them of Duryodhana’s whereabouts. Getting up quietly, they slipped away and went toward the Pāṇḍavas’ camp to see Yudhiṣṭhira.