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Chapter 8

The Rākṣasas Show Their Power

Dhṛtarāṣṭra wept when he heard of his sons’ deaths. “O Sañjaya, I am afraid. I am amazed to hear of Bhīma’s god-like prowess. Hearing, too, of my sons’ humiliation, I am burning with anxiety. What will the outcome of this war be? I remember only Vidura’s prophecies. By the influence of destiny, it seems his words will prove true. The Pāṇḍava heroes are emerging successful, even though our forces, headed by Bhīṣma and Droṇa, appeared so invincible. What austerities have they performed? What knowledge did they cultivate? What boons have been bestowed upon them? Alas, my sons are doomed.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra began to wail. Sañjaya consoled him, but the king continued to weep for some time. Struggling to regain his composure, he clutched the arms of his golden throne and continued to speak.

“I am being chastised by destiny. Tell me, Sañjaya, why my sons are being killed while the Pāṇḍavas survive? I cannot see any end to this ocean of distress into which I am being plunged. I am like a man who desires to swim across the sea. No doubt Bhīma will slay all my sons. O Sañjaya, tell me what Duryodhana and his generals are doing as a result of the Pāṇḍavas’ victory.”

Sañjaya sat at the king’s feet with his eyes closed. He could see everything occurring on the battlefield in both camps. Visualizing the scene in Duryodhana’s tent, he said, “Listen carefully, O King, and I shall describe everything. What is the use of hoping to be victorious? You have already been told so many times about the Pāṇḍavas’ position. Those heroic men live only for Kṛṣṇa’s pleasure, and the universe itself depends on His will. Your sons are wicked and have perpetrated numerous ills upon their cousins. Now they are reaping the bitter fruits.”

Sañjaya then continued his description of the battle.

Duryodhana entered his tent with a heavy heart. Tens of thousands of his troops lay dead on the battlefield, and Bhīma had killed fourteen of his brothers. Tears of grief and frustration ran down his face as he took his seat among his counselors. Turning to Bhīṣma, he spoke in a voice laden with sorrow.

“O Grandsire, on my side I have you, Droṇa, Śalya, Kṛpa, Kṛtavarmā, Aśvatthāmā, and many other warriors incapable of being defeated. All of you are ready to lay down your lives for my sake. Our numbers are far superior to those of the Pāṇḍavas. In such circumstances, I cannot understand how we can be suffering at their hands. How is it, O hero, that we are being overcome? What is the secret of their success?”

Bhīṣma, laying his silver helmet by his side, turned and looked at Duryodhana. “O King, I will explain once again why we cannot defeat the Pāṇḍavas. For your own good you have repeatedly been counseled to seek peace with them. You have chosen to ignore these instructions. Therefore, you will have to suffer, as all your counselors predicted. I have cried myself hoarse trying to make you see sense. What more do you want me to say? However, because I desire your welfare and the welfare of your brothers, I will try one more time.”

Bhīṣma felt his compassion stir for the grieving Duryodhana, who sat weeping as he remembered his brothers, relatives and friends who had died for him. Although the prince had always scorned his well-wishers’ advice, Bhīṣma hoped that his misery would make him more receptive. The Kuru commander waited until he had the attention of all the kings present, then he spoke in a loud voice.

“O King, O lord of the earth, there was not, is not, and will never be any person who can slay the Pāṇḍavas while Kṛṣṇa protects them. I will describe to you an ancient history which I heard while I resided in heaven with my mother. Once, Brahmā was sitting in his assembly with the gods. At that time, the earth goddess Bhumi came to him crying. She said she was afflicted by the sinful acts of the demons and Dānavas, all of whom had taken birth on earth. Thus she sought the shelter of the unborn creator. ‘O my lord,’ she prayed, ‘all the mighty and wicked Daityas and Dānavas whom the gods slew in battle have now appeared on earth as kings and warriors. I can no longer bear the burden of such cruel men, who rape and plunder my resources for their own selfish pleasure.’

“Feeling compassion for Bhumi, Brahmā, accompanied by the gods, went at once to the limitless milk ocean, where the inconceivable Viṣṇu lies. After offering prayers to the Supreme Personality, he told Him of the earth’s plight. Brahmā then heard Viṣṇu speak to him from within his heart, where the Lord ever resides as the Supersoul of all beings. The Lord told him that He would soon appear on earth to destroy the demons. His personal servants would incarnate along with Him. All the gods should expand themselves by their mystic power and take birth on earth. Assisted by all of them, the Lord would execute His divine plan for the salvation of the earth.”

Bhīṣma paused and looked at Duryodhana. He knew the Kaurava cared little for histories. Although he was prepared to accept that Viṣṇu was a powerful being who acted for the gods’ good, Duryodhana could not accept Viṣṇu’s identity as the Supreme Lord. Duryodhana was not a religious man in that sense. Despite performing his religious duty as a kṣatriya, he had no concept of serving and pleasing a God who controlled everything. He believed in his own power. Now, in a moment of distress, where it was obvious that his own power was limited, Bhīṣma hoped to find his mind more open. He went on addressing the grieving prince.

“That eternal and indescribable Lord Viṣṇu has now appeared as Kṛṣṇa. Indeed, it is Kṛṣṇa who is the source of Viṣṇu. There is no difference between the two personalities. O Duryodhana, you have already heard that Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna are the two ancient ṛṣis, Nārāyaṇa and Nara. Know too that the many kings and kṣatriyas fighting with them are expansions of the gods. The Pāṇḍavas themselves are all former Indras from different ages. Through them Kṛṣṇa will execute His divine plan to kill the demons, who have amassed as your army, O King. Kṛṣṇa’s will is infallible. He is the supreme mystery, the supreme shelter, and the supreme glory. Do not disregard Him, thinking Him an ordinary man. You should worship that undeteriorating being of endless energies. The wise say that one who thinks Kṛṣṇa to be an ordinary man is a fool and a sinner.”

Bhīṣma stopped and Duryodhana sat in thought. It was hard to accept that Kṛṣṇa was the all-powerful Supreme Being. Certainly He was an extraordinarily powerful person, but God? Could any being lay claim to possessing such power? Some great force or power lay beyond everything, that was sure, but how could it be a person? And how could that person be Kṛṣṇa, who had sided with his foes? After all, was he, Duryodhana, the king of the Kurus, really such an irreligious person? Everyone condemned him as such, but he had always done his duty and tried to rule the people with justice. If there was a God, why should He be antagonistic toward him? But if Kṛṣṇa was God, it would certainly explain why the Pāṇḍavas proved so difficult to overpower. Why, though, was He favoring Pāṇḍu’s sons?

Duryodhana took a deep breath. “Tell me more about Kṛṣṇa,” he asked, his voice unusually subdued. “I always hear Him spoken of as the highest being. O Grandsire, I desire to know all about His position and His glory.”

Bhīṣma then described Kṛṣṇa’s opulence as he had heard of it from Nārada, Vyāsadeva, Mārkaṇḍeya and Paraśurāma. “All these wise sages accept Kṛṣṇa’s divinity. They consider Him the master and sustainer of all beings. He is everyone’s well-wisher and friend, but you do not see Him as such, O King. For this reason I consider you to be a Rākṣasa of wicked heart and mind. You are immersed in ignorance, absorbed only in thoughts of selfish happiness. Thus you cannot know Kṛṣṇa. He can only be known by those free from lust, greed and anger, and those who realize themselves to be His eternal servants. O King, try to see things in this way, for that alone will lead to everlasting happiness. Make peace and live happily with your cousins. You cannot win this war. Your enmity toward Kṛṣṇa and the Pāṇḍavas will result only in suffering and defeat.”

Hearing Bhīṣma speak at length about Kṛṣṇa, many of the kings surrounding Duryodhana began to regard the Yādava as the Supreme Person. Even Duryodhana began to wonder. Perhaps Kṛṣṇa was something more than just a man; maybe He was even higher than a celestial.

But it was too late to turn back from the fight now. Whoever Kṛṣṇa was, the Pāṇḍavas were Duryodhana’s enemies. He would give them nothing. If they wanted the kingdom, they would have to fight for it. Even if their army was comprised of expansions of the gods, his forces would be empowered by the Dānavas, whose power was equal to that of the gods.

Duryodhana dismissed the assembly and went to bed. Before laying down to sleep he bowed down to Kṛṣṇa. If the Yadu hero was actually the Supreme, then it would do no harm to offer Him some respect. Perhaps, the prince thought, his own fortunes might change. Lying on his milk-white silk sheets, Duryodhana then slept fitfully.

As the sun rose on the fifth day, the two armies again rushed at one another. The warriors slain the previous day had been allowed to lay on a hero’s bed for one night, then had been cremated at dawn, leaving the field clear for the day’s action.

Worked up with the fury of battle, the opposing troops again slaughtered one another. The killing did not end at any time throughout the day. Arjuna showed his incomparable prowess as he moved about the field. The Gāṇḍīva bow resembled flashes of lightning as he released innumerable arrows on all sides. Other great fighters, such as Abhimanyu, Bhīma, the twins, Sātyaki, and Yudhiṣṭhira, also created havoc among the Kauravas.

On the Kauravas’ side, Bhīṣma and the other powerful warriors continued their destruction of the Pāṇḍava army. Śikhaṇḍī faced Bhīṣma on a number of occasions, intent upon his destruction, but each time Bhīṣma turned away from the fight. Dṛṣṭadyumna also constantly sought an opportunity to slay Droṇa, but the Kuru preceptor held off his attack and drove Dṛṣṭadyumna back with his own irresistible assault. Drupada’s son wondered how he would ever fulfill his destiny, but he fearlessly challenged Droṇa again and again.

Bhīma also constantly watched for any opportunities to catch Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons. He was determined to kill them as quickly as possible. As he roved across the battlefield, he appeared like the god of death. He favored fighting with his mace, although he was equally accomplished with the bow and would frequently shower volleys of arrows on the Kurus.

The fifth, sixth and seventh days passed with many men being slaughtered, but none of the principal warriors fell on either side. In an attempt to limit the destruction Arjuna was causing among his troops, Duryodhana assigned Susharma and his army, the Samshaptakas, to engage him. Those warriors challenged Arjuna at the start of each day and the Pāṇḍava duly fought with them, killing thousands.

Despite their inferior numbers, the Pāṇḍava army slowly wore down the enemy. Duryodhana repeatedly harangued Bhīṣma and Droṇa, accusing them of partiality toward the Pāṇḍavas. Both of them tried again and again to convince Duryodhana to stop the war and to make peace, but Duryodhana was resolute. The fight would continue.

On the eighth day, Bhīma encountered and killed another seventeen of Duryodhana’s brothers. Although a large contingent of them had surrounded Bhīma and hurled their weapons at him, he cut them down relentlessly with his arrows. Standing on his chariot, it was clear that he intended to kill all of Duryodhana’s brothers there and then. Only when Droṇa came forward, showering him with arrows, were they able to stop him. By shooting so many arrows that Bhīma could no longer be seen, Droṇa allowed Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons to escape. Breaking free from Droṇa’s attack, Bhīma again ranged about the battlefield like a wolf amid a flock of sheep.

As Bhīma ravaged the Kaurava troops and the other Pāṇḍava heroes slew warriors in other parts of the battlefield, Arjuna’s son Iravan came to the battle. Born from the Nāga princess Ulūpī, Iravan was a powerful celestial fighter. He headed a division of warriors who rode upon many-hued horses which had been raised on the high tracts of the Himālayas. The horses were clad in steel mail and caparisoned in gold. The Nāga fighters riding them charged at the Kauravas with fearful cries, appearing amid the battle like a flock of swans on the bosom of the ocean.

The Nāga cavalry were met on Duryodhana’s side by the large division of horseback warriors from the hilly region of Gandhara led by Śakuni’s six younger brothers. Covered in armor and screaming battle cries, they rushed at Iravan and his troops and penetrated their forces, their minds fixed on victory or the attainment of heaven. Iravan laughed loudly, calling out to his followers, “Kill all these warriors by any means.”

The Nāgas displayed dazzling skills at riding and fighting. Their horses seemed to float in the air, and their weapons fell from all sides onto their enemies. The Gandhara fighters were crushed, leaving only Śakuni’s brothers to face the Nāgas. They threw lances at Iravan and pierced his armor. The lances stuck out from his chest, back and huge legs.

Undaunted, Iravan pulled out the lances and hurled them back at his roaring foes. He came down from his horse with blood streaming from his wounds. Taking out a fearsome saber, he ran at Suvala’s sons. The powerful Nāga appeared like a moving mountain covered with red oxides. As he whirled his saber and buckler, he covered himself on all sides. Although the Gandhara princes shot hundreds of arrows at him, they could find no gap in his defense. They surrounded Iravan and hurled their long lances. Beating down their spears, Iravan leapt up with his saber and cut off their arms and legs. Their mutilated limbs fell to the earth, along with their weapons, armor and shields. Iravan then swung his saber with deadly accuracy, severing his opponents’ heads.

Only one prince, Vrishaba, escaped. He ran to Duryodhana to report that the Gandhara forces had been annihilated. Duryodhana’s wrath flared. He called for Alambusha, a massive Rākṣasa of frightful appearance. Alambusha had joined with Duryodhana because he hated Bhīma, who had slain his brother Baka. As he came before Duryodhana, the Kaurava said, “Behold the destruction caused by Arjuna’s son. The master of illusions, Iravan, can only be checked by one of equal power. O hero, you are capable of going anywhere on the earth and in the sky. You can assume forms at will. Go and slay Iravan in battle, the son of your sworn enemy’s brother.”

Replying, “So be it,” the Rākṣasa uttered his terrible war cry and rushed at Iravan. By his mystic power he created a large division of demons, mounted upon chargers. The demon warriors held lances fitted with spiked ends and brandished bludgeons stained with blood.

Seeing Alambusha racing toward him, Iravan rallied his horsemen. Then the Nāgas and Rākṣasas clashed. Soon, both divisions were slain and Iravan and Alambusha faced one another alone just as Indra met Vṛtrasura in ancient times. As the Rākṣasa approached Iravan, the Nāga swung his saber and cut apart his enemy’s sword.

Alambusha rose up into the sky and confounded Iravan’s attack. Iravan, by his own powers, followed the Rākṣasa into the heavens. In their shining armor the fighters appeared like two planets colliding. Assailing the Rākṣasa with great force, Iravan cut off his limbs and mutilated his body, but Alambusha somehow evaded death. Rather, he immediately appeared in a new, youthful body. Iravan slashed at him again and again with his saber and battle-axe, but the Rākṣasa appeared in a new body each time. Alambusha roared discordantly, the sound filling the sky. He suddenly assumed a dreadful and prodigious form and tried to capture Iravan.

As thousands of warriors looked on from below, Iravan created his own illusions. He appeared in an enormous form resembling Ananta-sesha. He was surrounded by numerous other Nāgas in the forms of terrible-looking serpents. They closed on Alambusha, baring their fangs and spitting poison. The Rākṣasa, after reflecting for a moment, assumed the form of Garuḍa. Swooping about rapidly, he devoured his antagonists.

Iravan was confounded by Alambusha’s illusory powers. As the Nāga again assumed his own form, Alambusha rushed at him, swinging his great sword. With a powerful stroke he cut off Iravan’s head, graced with earrings and a diadem, and it fell down to the earth like the moon falling from the heavens.

Duryodhana and his followers cheered loudly and fought on with renewed vigor. The Pāṇḍava forces cried out in dismay. Elsewhere on the field, Arjuna battled the Samshaptakas, unaware of his son’s death.

But Ghaṭotkaca had seen Iravan’s death. Enraged, he sent up a huge roar. The earth with her mountains and lakes quaked as the terrifying cry echoed off the distant hills. The Kauravas trembled and perspired. Their limbs froze in fear and they gazed about to see what had caused that horrific sound. Depressed by the cry, they fled in all directions like a herd of deer frightened by a lion.

Ghaṭotkaca raised his blazing trident and advanced toward the Kauravas. He was backed by hordes of Rākṣasas who had all assumed fearful forms. As they rushed into battle, they dispersed the enemy troops like the wind blowing away dust and debris.

Duryodhana saw his forces fleeing in fear at the sight of the Rākṣasas. Shouting out a battle cry he stood firm to face them. He shook his bow and took out a number of long, razor-headed shafts. Behind him stood a large division of elephant fighters. They rushed at the Rākṣasas, yelling out their war cries again and again.

Ghaṭotkaca was furious. Screaming, he and his loyal followers met Duryodhana’s forces. Appearing as fiends, goblins and hideous demons, the mighty Rākṣasas attacked the elephants. With arrows, darts, sabers, lances, mallets and battle-axes, they slew the warriors who rode them, then lifted boulders and trees and killed the elephants. Crushing and butchering the entire division, the Rākṣasas roared in triumph.

Duryodhana was beside himself with anger. Heedless of his own life he rushed at Ghaṭotkaca and his troops. The powerful Kuru sped countless arrows at his foes. He killed dozens of them, and they fell screaming to the earth. Duryodhana exhibited astonishing prowess as he ranged about the field. His shafts flew like lightning and severely afflicted the Rākṣasas.

Ghaṭotkaca then personally attacked Duryodhana. Although Ghaṭotkaca rushed forward like Death incarnate, Duryodhana did not waver. The Rākṣasa approached him and began to rebuke him.

“O evil-minded one, today I will liquidate the debt I owe my fathers whom you exiled. You robbed such virtuous men and insulted their chaste wife. O man of perverse intelligence, wretch of your race, for these and many other insults I will now punish you. Stand and fight, if you have any courage.”

Biting his lips, Ghaṭotkaca released a shower of arrows at Duryodhana. The Kaurava seemed like a mountain under a storm in the rainy season, but he bore the arrows without flinching as if he were an elephant receiving a shower of flowers. He shot twenty-five shafts at the Rākṣasa in reply. His arrows fell like serpents falling upon the Gandhamādana mountain. Pierced and bleeding, Ghaṭotkaca resolved to kill Duryodhana. Forgetful of his father’s vow, he took up a mighty lance which was capable of penetrating rock. It blazed with a brilliant effulgence as Ghaṭotkaca raised it to destroy Duryodhana.

Seeing the Kaurava in danger, the leader of an elephant division, a king named Banga, urged his elephant forward. He came between Duryodhana and the Rākṣasa just as the lance was hurled. Struck by the blazing lance, the elephant was slain and the king leapt from its back.

Duryodhana seethed. His forces were being slain on all sides. Now Bhīma’s Rākṣasa son stood before him like an immovable mountain. How could he possibly overpower him? But keeping in mind his kṣatriya duty, the Kaurava prince stood firm. He let go a number of searing shafts that flew toward Ghaṭotkaca like a cluster of comets.

The Rākṣasa moved about swiftly and expertly evaded the arrows. He roared repeatedly, petrifying his enemies.

Hearing his roars, Bhīṣma became fearful for Duryodhana’s life. He went quickly to Droṇa and said, “It seems from his cries that Ghaṭotkaca is overpowering the king. No creature can conquer Bhīma’s son. Only you can help the king. Go at once and rescue him. May good betide you.”

Droṇa immediately turned toward the sound of Ghaṭotkaca’s roars. He was followed by Aśvatthāmā, Kṛpa, Bāhlika, Somadatta, Śalya, Bhurisrava, and other Kuru warriors. Reaching Duryodhana, Droṇa saw that he was hard-pressed. He quickly shot a volley of arrows at Ghaṭotkaca, while the other Kurus attacked the Rākṣasa army with arrows, darts and lances. The crack of bowstrings striking leather fences sounded like the crackling of burning bamboos in a forest fire. The Kurus hurled their lances at the Rākṣasas and they soared through the air like thousands of virulent serpents.

Seeing the Kuru force arriving, Ghaṭotkaca laughed and stood his ground. With another terrible yell he stretched his huge bow and released a crescent-headed shaft that destroyed Droṇa’s bow. With other arrows he pierced all the leading Kurus and broke their standards. So swift was his movement that the Kurus had hardly any opportunity to train their weapons upon him before they were struck by his arrows. The power of his shafts sent them reeling. Many of them sat down on the terraces of their chariots, stunned and wounded.

As the Kurus fell back under the fierce assault, Ghaṭotkaca focused his attention on Duryodhana. He rushed at him with his sword held high. Seeing this, the Kurus rallied and rained arrows on the roaring Rākṣasa. Sorely afflicted, Ghaṭotkaca rose into the sky like an eagle. His roars carried to Yudhiṣṭhira, who said to Bhīma, “Those are surely the roars of your son. I suspect he is under attack from many powerful foes. O foremost of men, go at once to his assistance.”

Bhīma obeyed his brother’s instruction and raced off toward Ghaṭotkaca, supported by other Pāṇḍava chariot-warriors and a large contingent of soldiers. As he approached his son, he shouted out his battle cry.

Hearing Bhīma’s cries, the Kurus turned pale with fear. As he rushed toward them, many fled. But the leading Kurus stood their ground. A violent battle ensued between them and the combined forces of Ghaṭotkaca and Bhīma.

Duryodhana rallied his troops and they returned to the fight only to be slaughtered by the charging Pāṇḍava warriors. The earth became thick with the mutilated bodies of fighters from both sides. The clash of weapons striking armor was deafening. A thick cloud of red dust filled the air and no one could see anything clearly. In that awful and confused encounter, friend struck friend, unable to distinguish him from foe. Gradually, the earth became covered with so much blood that the dust cloud subsided. Everything again became visible, revealing scenes of destruction everywhere.

Bhīma and Ghaṭotkaca swept about the field like whirlwinds, killing thousands of men. Duryodhana saw his forces overpowered. He ordered Bhagadatta, the king of Pragyotisha, to attack Bhīma and his son. The mighty warrior rode upon a great elephant no less powerful than Airāvata. Backed by a vast division of other elephant warriors, he advanced toward Bhīma, shouting out his challenge. Seeing him approach like a moving mountain, the Pāṇḍava fighters surrounded him and assailed his elephant with numerous shafts that thudded into its side.

Wounded by hundreds of arrows, the huge beast resembled a hill decorated with seams of red chalk. It screamed in fury and rushed at its foes, trampling entire chariots with their horses, charioteers and warriors. Despite its wounds, the elephant could not be checked.

The ruler of the Dasarhas, Kshatradeva, mounted upon another elephant, ran in fury at Bhagadatta. The two elephants collided, but Bhagadatta’s mount did not waver. Kshatradeva’s mount, however, stumbled backwards. In swift succession, Bhagadatta hurled at him fourteen lances decked with gems and fitted with long, barbed points. They pierced through the elephant’s armor and sent it reeling. Screaming in pain, the Dasarha monarch’s elephant turned and ran, crushing the army to which it belonged. Bhagadatta roared in joy and goaded on his own beast, which began to careen wildly about the field. The unstoppable elephant crushed divisions of soldiers as it ran here and there. The Pāṇḍavas were dispersed and they raced away in all directions, shouting in terror.

Ghaṭotkaca then challenged Bhagadatta with a roar of anger. Assuming an immense form, he hurled a blazing trident at the elephant. As it flew it emitted fire. Bhagadatta instantly shot a crescent-headed shaft that cut the trident down before it reached him. It fell in pieces to the earth like a couple of meteors fallen from heaven. Bhagadatta then threw a lance at the Rākṣasa that blazed as it flew.

Ghaṭotkaca leapt up and caught that lance. Yelling, he broke it across his thighs as the Pāṇḍavas cheered. Infuriated, Bhagadatta rushed at the Pāṇḍava warriors, backed by his elephant division, and a fierce fight ensued. Ghaṭotkaca kept Bhagadatta at bay while Bhīma and other warriors slaughtered the enemy troops.