Myths & Legends of India: The War-skills Battle

Another installment from Myths & Legends of India, as part of the Mahabharata.

The third extract from the Mahabharata deals with the main story of the epic. The five Pandava brothers – Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva – acknowledged Pandu, king of Hastinapura, as their father. (In fact, Pandu had been cursed to die if he had sexual intercourse, and he therefore encouraged his wives to seek other fathers for their children: Yudhishthira, Bhima and Arjuna were born of his first wife Kunti by the gods Dharma, Vayu and Indra respectfully, and Nakula and Sahadeva were born of his second wife, Madri, by the twin-gods, the Asvins.) Pandu’s (elder) half-brother Dhritarashtra had a hundred sons by Gandhari, known (after Dhritarashtra’s ancestor Prince Kuru) as the Kauravas. Dhritarashtra was blind, and therefore gave up the throne to Pandu whne their grandfather King Santanu died. Santanu had, in his old age, married Princess Satyavati, who had at first refused to marry him because any son they would have would be second in line for the succession. Santanu’s son by his first marriage, Bhishma, nobly gave up his clame to the throne so that his father could marry Satyavati.

Satyavati’s two sons by Santanu died without issue, leaving two widows. She then invited her illigitimate son Dvaipayana (also known as Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata) to lie with her daughters-in-law. At the sight of Dvaipayana, when he approached them, the elder one shut her eyes, and the younger one turned pale. That was why Dhritarashtra was born blind, and Pandu was pale (the name means ‘Pale’).

Dvaipayana was originally a weird-looking demi-god who had acquired special powers by living a life of asceticism in the forest: that was why he was able to father the father of the hundred Kauravas.

Pandu abdicated from the thrown while his five sons were still young; so Dhritarashtra succeeded to it after all, despite his blindness. When Pandu died, Dhritarashtra adopted the five Pandavas.

The following passage describes the martial education of the Kauravas and Pandavas by their tutor, Drona, who is appointed to that role by Bhishma. The war-skills competition at which the fruits of that education are displayed is full of the rivalry that will later lead to war. We are introduced too to Karna, another major character in the epic: son of Pandu’s wife Kunti by the sun-god Surya before she married Pandu (see p. 493). Despite being the Pandavas’ half-brother, he fights on the Kaurava side when war breaks out. Adhiratha, who appears at the end of the passage, is Karna’s adoptive (human) father.

The rejection of Drona by his former friend King Drupada establishes Drona’s embittered personality. The cruel treatment of the well-meaning challenger Ekalavya is a blot on Drona’s star pupil, Arjuna, as well as on Drona himself.

mahabharat-war-image

(indiafacts.com – the Mahabharata war images)

In Hastinapura, Drona,
Excellent son of Bharadvaja,
Lived secretly in the house
Of Gotama’s son Kripa.

Drona live incognito.
One day the Kuru princes
In a group left Hastinapura’s
Limits to play stick-ball.

They had a ball with them,
And, as they were playing,
It so happened that the ball
Fell in a well.

They looked at each other
In guilty helplessness,
And began wondering how
to retrieve the ball.

They saw near them a dark,
Emaciated Brahmin just
Before after his evening prayers
And performance of aginhotra.

They had given up all hopes,
But when they saw
That remarkable Brahmin, they
Quickly surrounded him.

Drona smiled to himself,
Seeing their helplessness.
Conscious of his powers,
He said:

‘You call yourselves Kshatriyas!
Shame on you!
A gallery of Bharata heroes
Defeated by a ball?

‘Look, with these grass-blades
I will bring up not only
The ball but also this ring
Which I fling in the well –
And all I want in exchange
Is a good dinner.’

Drona took off his ring and
Threw it in the waterless well.
Kunti’s son Yudhishthira
Said to Drona:

‘With Kripa’s permission,
Take from us some thing,
O Brahmin, that will last
You a lifetime.’

Drona smiled, ‘My mantras
Will transform this fistful
Of long grasses into weapons. Look –
They are unlike any other weapons.

‘One grass will prick the ball,
And another pierce the first grass,
The third pierce the second,
Till a grass-chain is formed –
And with this chain
I will recover the ball’

Drona performed the feat.
The princes were amazed,
And stood there with eye-
Opened wonder. They said:

‘This is the most extraordinary
Feat we have ever seen.
And now, best of the twice-born,
Retrieve the ring.’

Brilliant Drona
Lifted his bow, shot an arrow
Which hit the ring,
And whisked it up.

Taking it between his fingers
He showed it to the princes.
Awe-struck, they examined it,
And said:

‘O Brahmin, we bow to you,
Arms-expert without equal!
Who are you?
What can we do for you?’

These words pleased Drona
Immensely and,
Turning to the princes,
He said:

‘Go to mighty Bhishma,
Describe me to him,
Tell him what I did.
He will understand.’

They agreed and reported
(continued Vaisampayana)
Exactly what the Brahmin
Had said and done.

And Bhishma guessed
It could only be Drona,
And decided to engage him
As the tutor of the princes.

Bhishma, brilliant arms-expert,
Went to Drona, respectfully
Greeted him, escorted him
To the palace, and enquired
What brought Drona to the city
Of Hastinapura. Drona replied:

‘Eager to learn weapons-craft,
I went to the great rishi
Agnivesa, hoping to get
Some instruction from him.

‘He was my guru,
I served him a long time,
As a humble matted-hair
Brahmachari should.

‘The prince of Panchala,
Powerful Yajnasena, had come
There for the same purpose
That I had.

‘We became friends,
He wished me well.
I loved him.
Many years passed like this.

‘We studied together,
We were boyhood friends;
Whatever he spoke or did
Was pleasing to me.

‘And he spoke, O Bhishma,
Pleasing words – “Drona,
I am my father’s
Favorite son –

‘When my father installs me
King of the Panchalas,
You, my friend, will enjoy
My kingdom. I promise this.

‘My kingdom, my wealth,
My pleasures will be yours.:
When his discipleship was completed,
He left –
Taking my blessings with him.

I kept his words in my heart.
In course of time, in obedience
To my father and because
I wanted a son, I married Kripi,

‘Short-haired, luminous-minded
Daughter of Rishi Gautama –
Rigid-vowed Kripi, always
Engaged in agnihotra and tapas.

‘I had a son by her
Named Asvatthaman,
A tremendously powerful,
Sun-effulgent boy.

‘As Bharadvaja was pleased
Having me for son,
So I was pleased having
Asvatthaman.

‘One day Asvatthaman,
Seeing a rich man’s son
Drink milk, began to cry.
The four points of the sky
Started swirling around me.
I thought: Why should I ask

‘The owner of a few cows?
Let me seek the owner of many.
With this in mind, O Ganga’s son,
I scoured the country.

‘Though I traversed the length and breadth
Of the country, I could not find
One milch-cow! Some boys offered
Avatthaman pishtodaka,

‘Powdered rice mixed in water.
He drank it. “Milk! Milk”
He shouted, and danced in joy.
Poor child – how was he to know?

‘They grinned at him,
And he kept on dancing.
O Bhishma, that sight
I remember so vividly!

‘ “Shame on Drona!
Drona has no money!
Drona has no money!
His son drinks pishtodaka,

‘ “And thinks it is milk!
The little fool dances”
Oh, how those words –
They drove me mad!

‘I got a grip on myself,
And I began to think:
The Brahmins reject me,
And make fun of me. Let them! –

‘I will be no one’s servant,
No, not for the world’s wealth!
So I made up my mind,
And remembering my old friendship

‘With Drupada, thinking myself
Lucky, I went to him.
Accompanying me were my wife
And my beloved son.

‘I had heard that my friend
Was recently installed king.
His words of love and friendship
Were still in my heart.

‘With these words of love
In my heart, I went to him.
I said to him, “Drupada,
I am your friend Drona.”

‘I went to him in friend ship,
And he laughed at me!
He treated me, as if – as if
I were a low favor-seeker!
I went to him in high hopes,
And this is what he said, Bhishma –

‘ “Friend? –
You presume a great deal, Brahmin,
To make me suddenly your friend.
You think much of yourself.

‘ “Foolish man!
Do you think great kings
Can be friends with ill-starred
And moneyless people like you?

‘ “If we were equally favored,
We could have been friends.
Time, which corrodes everything,
Corrodes friendship too.

‘ “How long can friendship stay
Without getting corroded?
Merciless Time brings with it
All kinds of ill-feeling.

‘ “Forget this so-called friendship
That never existed.
I was friends with you, Brahmin,
With a special motive.

‘ “There is no friendship, Brahmin,
Between rich man and poor man,
Between educated and unlettered,
Between the hero and the coward.

‘ “You friends with me! –
Only equally brave
Or equally skilled
Intermarry and are friends;
The poor and the rich
Neither intermarry nor are friends.

‘ “Nor is there friendship
Between high-born and low-born.
King looks down on non-king,
Chariot-hero on non-chariot-hero.
And you have the presumption
To address me as friend!

‘ “Who are you?
I don’t remember you.
I never promised you anything.
If you like, Brahmin,
You can have food and shelter
For one night.”

‘With my wife and son, I left.
And I made a vow –
That vow I am determined
To fulfil without delay.

‘Bhishma, he insulted me!
I burnt with anger.
I have come to the Kurus
To find brilliant pupils.

‘And now you have brought me
Here, to Hastinapura.
I will do as you advise.
Tell me what you would like done.’

These were Drona’s words
(continued Vaisampayana),
And Bhishma made the following reply
To Bharadvaja’s son:

‘All the comforts of the Kuru palace
Are yours – enjoy them.
Only unstring your bow, and
Teach the princes archery.

‘Luxury, kingdom, power –
Whatever the Kurus have –
Is yours. You are their guru –
They are yours to command.

‘The deepest desire in your heart –
Consider that fulfilled.
O best among the twice-born,
We are fortunate to have you.’

*

Drona, best among men
(continued Vaisampayana,)
Stayed in the palace of the Kurus,
Honored by the princes.

After he had settled down,
Bhishma brought his grandsons,
The Kuru princes, to him
To be his pupils,

Gave him much wealth,
A well-built, attractive house
To live in, well stocked with
Rice, food and other amenities.

Drona joyfully accepted
The Kuru princes, sons
Of Dhritarashtra and Pandu,
As his pupils.

One day he called them
To his side when he was alone,
And said to them,
Stressing his words:

‘My young pupils, one wish
Above all I have in my heart –
Promise you will carry it out,
After my teaching is done.’

All remained silent
(said Vaisampayana),
Except Arjuna, who promised
To fulfil his tutors wish.

Drona clasped Arjuna, and
Smelt his head;
Tears came to his eyes,
They were tears of joy.

Drona taught hem the use
Of all kinds of weapons,
Some of them human,
Others superhuman.

And many other princes
Also flocked to Drona,
Best among the twice-born,
To learn the use of weapons.

The Vrishnis and Adhakas,
Princes from many lands,
The son of Suta and Radha, Karna,
Were pupils of Drona.

Arjuna’s rival in war-skills
Was Karna who, encouraged
To do so by Duryodhana,
Often made fun of the Pandavas.

Arjuna was a brilliant pupil.
He was eager to learn,
He did as Drona instructed,
He was strong persevering,

And devoted to his subject.
He excelled the others in skill.
Drona gave him the same instructions
To all the princes, but Arjuna

Succeeded in learning the most.
And Drona was soon convinced
That in the science of warfare
None would equal Indra’s son.

Drona’s lessons continued
For a long time. Sometimes,
He gave his pupils a long-necked
Pot called the Kumandalu
To fetch water in, his aim
Being to gain extra time

To train his son Asvatthaman
Specially in the use of weapons;
And to Asvatthaman he would give
A kumbha, a wide-mouthed pot.

But Arjuna came to know
of this and, with the help
Of his varuna-weapon (see pp. 239), he would fill
His kumandalu quickly,

And hurry back to his guru
Simultaneously with Asvatthaman.
In this way he learnt all
That Asvatthaman was taught.

Arjuna’s guru-puja pleased
Drona greatly; his devotion
To the subtleties of war-skills
Made him Drona’s favorite.

Drona noticed Arjuna’s devotion
And said to the cook,
‘Don’t serve Arjuna food in the dark.
Don’t tell him I told you.’

It so happened that one day,
While Arjuna was eating,
A gust of wind suddenly
Snuffed out the lamp.

But Kunti’s shining son Arjuna
Was so sure of himself that
He ate in the dark with perfect
Hand-to-mouth coordination.

He was so sure of himself
That he would practice
Shooting with his bow
In the darkness of night.

O Janamejaya, Drona heard the twang
Of his bow-string at night,
And came to him, embraced him,
And said:

‘You, my child, will with my help
Be the finest archer ever.
None in the world will equal you.
I promise you this.’

And Drona instructed Arjuna
On shooting from horseback,
From the backs of elephants,
From chariots, and on the ground.

Drona instructed Arjuna
To fight with mace, sword, lance,
Spear and dart; with other weapons;
Against groups of enemies.

Thousands of kings and princes,
Hearing of Drona’s skill,
Came to Hastinapura with
The purpose of learning from him.

Among them was Ekalavya
(continued Vaisampayana),
Son of Hiranyadhanus,
King of the Nishadas.

But Drona, prudent in dharma,
Refused to accept a Nishada
As his pupil. He was guided
By the interests of the Kauravas.

But foe-smiting Ekalavya
Bent his head at Drona’s feet,
And went to a forest where
He made a clay statue of Drona.

Worshipping the statue as his tutor,
Ekalavya started practicing
The use of weapons before it
Without fail, every day.

So deep was his yearning
For his goal and his guru,
That he soon became expert
In fitting, aiming and shooting arrows.

The Kuru and Pandu princes
One day, with Drona’s permission,
Set out in their chariots
On a hunting expedition.

Behind then, carrying equipment
For the hunt, came a servant,
Accompanied by a dog;
Both taking their time.

They made their way through
The forest with casual ease,
And it so happened that the dog
Came to where Ekalavya was.

The Nishada was black, his skin
Coated with dirt, his hair
Matted; he had a dark deerskin on.
The dog began barking at him.

With incredible swiftness,
Ekalavya aimed at the sound,
And shot seven arrows in succession
Into the dog’s mouth.

The dog ran howling back,
Arrows protruding from his mouth,
To the Pandavas; and they
Could hardly believe what they saw.

At first they were impressed
By the swiftness and precision
Of the bowman who shot seven arrows
In this manner – then ashamed.

Then they began looking for him,
The unknown marksman in the forest.
Soon enough they stumbled on him,
Practicing archery –

A fearful-looking man!
They did not who he was.
They asked:
‘Who are you? Whose son?’

‘The son of Hiranyadhanus,
King of the Nishadas,’
He said, ‘a pupil of Drona,
Struggling in the skills of warfare.’

Armed with this information,
They hurried to Hastinapura
And narrated to Drona
Their wonderful experience of archery.

Kunti’s son Arjuna brooded
On the prowess of Ekalavya,
And went privately to Drona,
Knowing Drona’s love for him,

And said, ‘You once embraced
Me, and joyfully told me
No pupil of yours would
Equal me in bow-skills.

‘And now there is one –
The son of the Nishada king –
A pupil of yours.
How can this be?’

Drona thought for some time;
Then, taking Arjuna, the
Ambidextrous vanquisher of all,
With him, went to Ekalavya.

He saw Ekalavya from a distance,
Hair matted, his body
Coated with dirt, wearing rags,
Incessantly twanging his bow-string,

Ekalavya saw Drona,
Came a few steps forward,
Touched both his feet and
Prostrated himself on the ground.

The son of the Nishada king
Did obeisance before Drona
As a pupil would before his guru.
He stood there, with joined palms.

Drona said, ‘If you are my pupil,
Where is my teacher-tribute?’
Ekalavya overjoyed,
Replied to Drona:

‘Command me, my lord,
All I have is yours.
Greatest among Brahma-knowers,
Ask from me anything.’

Drona said, ‘As Dakshina
Give me your right thumb.’
Ekalavya, faithful to
His promise, heard the fearful

Words, cut off his thumb
Cheerfully, and unhesitatingly
Handed it to Drona.
When he started shooting again,

Using the remaining fingers,
He found his skill gone,
His aim become imprecise,
His swiftness impaired.

Drona was pleased.
He showed Ekalavya the art
Of how to shoot arrows,
Using the middle and third fingers.

And Arjuna was pleased.
HIs anxiety disappeared.
None will equal Arjuna –
Drona’s words now had truth.

Two pupils of Drona
Excelled in mace-duel.
They were Bhima and Duryodhana,
Constant mutual rivals.

Asvatthaman excelled in all
The forms of war-skills;
Nakula and Sahadeva excelled
In wielding the sword.

Yudhishthira became the finest
Of chariot-warriors, Arjuna
The finest of them all
In all respects –

In intelligence, in use
Of weapons, in devotion
To his guru – he became
Even better than Yudhishthira.

Drona taught all equally.
Yet it was excellent Arjuna
Who became the atiratha,
A warrior fit to challenge
Sixty thousand of the enemy
Simultaneously.

Dhritarashtra’s ill-intentioned sons
Were jealous of Bhima’s
Extraordinary strength and
Arjuna’s manifold accomplishments.

Drona, intending to test
The skills of his pupils,
Had them assemble one day
With all their weapons.

He ordered a bird crafted
By a wood-worker to be placed
In a tall tree, as a target.
The princes were not told of this.

Drona shouted:
‘Quick!
String your arrows!
Aim at that bird!

‘At my signal, shoot
At the bird’s head.
I will signal
Each in turn.’

His first signal
Was to Yudhishthira:
‘Invincible child,
Aim! – ready!’

Yudhishthira, great
Foe-subduer, stood still,
Aiming at the bird,
As ordered by his Guru.

Suddenly Drona
Turned to Yudhishthira
Standing with strung bow
And asked:

‘You see that bird
On the tree-top?’
He replied, ‘Sir, I do.’
Drona asked:

‘What do you see? –
The tree, me,
Your brothers,
And the bird?’

‘Sir,’ replied Kunti’s son,
‘I see you, the tree,
My brothers and the bird.’
Reply matched question.

Drona looked away.
‘Make room,’ he said.
‘Your turn
Will come later.’

One by one he asked
Duryodhana and the other
Sons of Dhritarashtra
The same question;

Then Bhima and the other
Pandava brothers,
And the visiting pupils –
And got the same reply.

*

Smiling, Drona
Said to Arjuna:
‘Your turn now:
Look at the bird.

‘Shoot, my son,
When I give the signal.
Stand here.
Aim.’

Ambidextrous Arjuna
Pulled the string
To a half-circle, aimed,
And waited.

‘What do you see, Arjuna.’
Asked Drona,
‘-the bird, the tree,
and me?’

‘Sir,’ replied Arjuna,
‘I do not see you,
I do not see the tree,
I see only the bird.’

Invincible Drona,
Pleased,
Said to Pandu’s son,
Great-chariot-warrior:

‘What bird?
Describe it to me.’
‘I cannot,’ replied Arjuna,
‘I see only its head.’

‘Shoot!’ said Drona,
Horripilating
With happiness.
And Arjuna fired

The shaft that sliced
The vulture’s head;
The severed head
Fell on the ground.

Drona embraced Arjuna,
And thought to himself:
Drupada and his friends
Are as good as finished.

Some time after this,
Drona, son of Angiras,
Went with his pupils
To swim in the Ganga.

While he was swimming,
A crocodile (a messenger
Of Yama himself, it seemed)
Snapped at his thigh.

Though he could easily
Have freed himself, Drona
Shouted, ‘Save me!
I’m bitten by a crocodile!’

Arjuna heard him, and
Shot five sharp and deadly
Arrows underwater
At the crocodile.

The other boys stood there,
Petrified. Drona
Was pleased with Arjuna’s
Swift response, and

Judged him his best
Pupil. This was how
The crocodile, wounded
By Arjuna’s arrows, released

Drona, and died.
Then the son of Bharadvaja
Turned to Arjuna,
And said:

‘Mighty-armed son,
I give you this weapon
Called Brahmasira;
It is fierce, irresistible;
I give you also the power
To hurl and recall it –

‘But on one condition”
Do not use it against
A human foe. If you do so,
The three worlds may explode.

‘There is no weapon more powerful
Than this in the three worlds.
Cherish it with special care –
And listen to my warning.

‘Use it only against
A superhuman foe –
I have blessed it
So that it kills such a foe.’

Arjuna, with folded palms, promised
To honor the condition.
He accepted the weapon;
And his guru said to him:

‘No bowman, Arjuna,
Will ever equal you.
Be radiant, my son,
Be invincible.’

*

When Drona was convinced
Dhritarashtra’s and Pandu’s sons
Had achieved excellence in war-craft,
He said to Dhritarashtra,

In the presence of
Kripa, Somadatta, Vahlika,
Ganga’s son Bhishma,
Vyasa and Vidura:

‘Lord of the Kurus,
I have finished instructing
Your sons. Let them display
Their skill.’ The king was pleased.

‘Good Brahmin, I am grateful.
Tell me the place and time
I should order the skill-show,
And how it should be organized.

‘I am blind. I am envious
Of those who have sight.
They will see my sons’ prowess,
And I will not.

‘Vidura, do as he says.
Drona is our honored guru.
What could be greater than
Obeying the words of a guru?’

Vidura promised, and took leave
Of Dhritarashtra.
And Bharadvaja’s son Drona
Measured an area of land

That had wells and springs,
And was bushless and treeless.
There, eloquent0tongued Drona
Paid tribute to the gods

As laid down in the Sastras.
A vast concourse of people,
Summoned by proclamation, gathered
On an auspicious day.

A huge open-air theatre-hall
Was built by architects
On orders from the king; special
Seating arrangements were made

For ladies. Citizens vied
With each other for the honor
Of erecting platforms; the rich
Set up their own luxurious tents.

On the appointed day,
The king arrived in procession,
His ministers following,
Bhishma and Kripa leading.

In the large procession
Were Vahlika, Somadatta,
Bhurisravas and other Kurus,
Men of eminence and dignity.

The theatre-hall glittered
With a celestial radiance, light
Shown from gold-work, strings
Of pearls and vaidurya gems.

O ever-victorious Janamejaya!
Fortune-favored Gandhari
And Kunti, and other palace ladies,
In resplendent dresses,

Accompanied by their maids,
Joyfully climbed the platform
Like goddesses on Meru mountain.
Brahmins, Kshatriyas,

Ran from the city hoping
To reach in time the spot
Where the princes would display
Their varied war-skills.

And the noise of the trumpets,
The drums, the tumultuous
Shouts and cries made the crowd
Look like a tempestuous ocean.

White his robes
White his sacred thread
White his hair
White his beard
White the flower-
Garland on his body
White the sandal paste
Smeared on his body –
Drona appeared
Accompanied by his son
Like the Moon
Accompanied by Mars
In a cloudless sky.

When might Drona entered,
The mantra-chanting Brahmins
Started performing the auspicious
Ritual of commencement.

And Dhritarashtra offered gold,
Gems, and precious gifts
To Drona as dakshina,
The guru-offering.

Armed with bows, arrow-
Filled quivers, finger-shields,
The mighty chariot-heroes
Marched into the arena.

Yudhishthira led them.
In the priority of age,
They displayed marvelous skills
In the use of arms.

As the arrows whizzed above,
Some spectators ducked;
Others watched the spectacle
In fear and amazement.

Galloping by on horses
With expert ease, the princes
Shot arrows carved with
Their names at assigned targets.

So brilliant was the display,
The spectators thought they were
In the city of the Gandharvas.
They were dumbfounded.

Eyes expanding in surprise,
Hundreds of thousands of theme
Shouted Sadhu! Sadhu!
Excellent! Excellent!

First, bowman-ship;
Then chariot-maneuvering;
Then duel on horseback
And on elephant-back;

Then the impressive buckling
Of shields, the clash
Of sword on sword
As they circled each other.

The nimbleness!
The shining bodies!
The grace and energy!
The steady grip
On sword and shield!

Then entered wolf-waisted
Bhima and Duryodhana,
Intent on duel, looking
Like two mighty hills.

They girt their loins, they
Invoked their strength;
They roared like two
Furious, rutting elephants.

They circled the arena
With mighty maces,
Feinting and challenging
In the approved manner.

Vidura took it upon himself
To describe to Dhritarashtra,
Gandhari and Kunti
The feats of the contenders.

*

When Duryodhana and Bhima
Appeared in the arena,
The spectators split into two
Groups, cheering both heroes.

Some shouted:
‘Victory to the Kaurava prince!’
Others countered:
‘Victory to Bhima!’

Drona saw the assembly
Heave like a stormy ocean.
He turned to his dear son
Asvatthaman and said:

‘Stop them, my son.
They are both skilled and valiant:
Don’t let this occasion
Rouse passions in the people.’

Like wind-whirled waves
Of oceans at yuga-end,
They circled with waving clubs
(continued Vaisampayana).

Drona strode in, with
Hand uplifted ordered
The musicians to stop playing,
And roared like a cloud:

‘With me is Arjuna,
More dear to me than my son!
Look at him, lord of weapons,
Indra’s son, like Indra’s younger brother!’

Ordered by his guru,
Arjuna, star-blessed hero,
Armed with finger-shields,
Arrows, bow in hand,

Stepped forward in gold
Armor, saluted the crowd;
He shown like a cloud
Shot with sunset-light,
He dazzled with rainbow-
Iridescent lighting.

And a great shout of joy
Arose from the arena –
An ululation of conches,
A medley of instruments.

‘Kunti’s handsome son,
Pandu’s third son!’ they shouted.
‘Indra’s son, protector
Of the dynasty of Kuru!

‘Lord of the skilled in arms,
Lord of guardians of dharma,
Lord of the nobly behaved,
Reservoir of good manners!’

Kunti heard these loud cheers.
Her breast-milk gushed out,
Mingled with her tears,
And drenched her bosom.

The noise reached the ears
Of Dhritarashtra, lord of men,
And turning to Vidura,
He asked in joy:

‘This great shout, O Vidura,
Like an ocean in storm,
Reaching up to the sky –
What is its cause?’

‘Your majesty,’ Vidura replied,
‘Kunti’s and Pandu’s son
Arjuan has entered the arena –
So everyone shouts.’

‘Noble Vidura, I am blessed,’
Said Dhritarashtra,
‘to have such a fine flame
Sprung from Kunti’s sacred fuel.’

When the excitement subsided
(continued Vaisampayana),
Arjuna displayed before his guru
His expertise in arms.

From his agneya-weapon
Issued fire; from varuna,
Water; from vayavya, winds;
From the parjanya, clouds.

From the bhauma, land;
From the parvatya, mountains;
And with the antardhana,
He made them all disappear.

He was suddenly tall,
In the next instant, short;
Now in front of his chariot,
Now on it, now ono the ground.

Drona’s favorite pupil
Shot arrow after arrow,
Some soft-tipped, some sharp,
And some stubby.

He shot simultaneously
Five arrows into the jaws
Of a moving iron boar
As if they were one.

He shot twenty-one arrows
Straight into a cow-horn
Dangling from a swinging rope
(continued Vaisampayana).

He circled the arena
Successively showing his skill
In the wielding of sword,
Bow and club.

Great Bharata,
When the show of skills ended,
The music stopped,
The excitement subsided,

A tremendous slapping of arms
Was heard at the gate,
Like thunder-claps
Of colossal energy.

Are the hills toppling,
Or the earth tearing apart,
Is the sky reverberating
With massive storm-clouds?

Such were the thoughts
That entered the minds
Of the spectators as they turned
Their eyes towards the gate.

Around Drona stood
The five Pandava brothers,
Kunti’s and Madri’s sons, like the
Constellations around the moon.

Foe-chastising Duryodhana,
And his hundred brothers
And Asvatthaman stood up
Hastily as one man.

Duryodhana, club in hand,
Surrounded by a hundred brothers
With raised weapons, looed
Like Indra surrounded by gods
At the time of the fierce
Battle with the anti-gods.

*

Karna entered.
With wonder-widened eyes
They made way for him,
The great subjugator of cities.

He strode in like a walking cliff:
Natural coat-of-arms,
Face radiant with earrings,
A bow in one hand,
A sword across his lines.

Like that of lions, or bulls,
Or elephants, was his strength,
Like the sun his glory, the moon
His beauty, fire his radiance.

Because he was sun-born,
He was like a golden palm-tree.
He could kill lions,
His handsome, versatile hero.

He looked around him.
Casually he bowed
First to Drona
And then to Kripa.

The crowd of people stared
In hypnotized wonder.
Curious, they asked each other,
‘Who is he?’

Best among eloquent men,
Karna, son of the Sun,
Boomed in a cloud-roaring voice
(not knowing it was his brother):

‘Arjuna, whatever you have shown
This assembly, I will show too.
Look on them –
And be amazed!’

He had not even finished
When all the crowd stood up
As if stirred into movement
By a hidden machine.

Duryodhana was overjoyed.
Arjuna, your majesty,
Swallowed his anger
And humiliation.

With Drona’s permission,
Eager-for-battle Karna
Repeated all the feats
That Arjuna had shown earlier.

Then, O great Bharata,
Duryodhana and his brothers
Rose; joyfully embracing Karna,
Duryodhana said:

‘Puissant hero, I welcome you!
Deserved of courtesy, I
Am honored by your presence.
Command me what you will.’

Karna replied: ‘Your kindness is enough.
I came in friendship,
I seek only friendship.
My only other aim
Is to challenge Arjuna.’

Duryodhana said: ‘May you enjoy life!
May you help friends!
May your feet be placed
On the heads of your foes!’

This so shamed Arjuna
(continued Vaisampayana)
That he said to
Hill-high-among-the-Kurus Karna:

‘Karna,
Unwelcome trespasser,
Uninvited advice-giver –
Isn’t that what you are?’

Karna replied: ‘This arena is open to all,
It is not your private show.
There are kings stronger than you.
Kshatriya dharma depends on strength.

‘Why speak words, Arjuna?
Why use the weapon of cowards?
Speak in arrows!
Give me the chance
To slice your head off
In the presence of your guru.’

City-subduing Arjuna,
Embraced by his brothers,
With Drona’s permission
Advanced for the combat.

Duryodhana and his brothers
Embraced Karna.
Karna lifted his bow and arrows
In readiness.

Clouds obscured the sky.
Lightening flashed.
Indra’s bow
Scattered rainbow colors.
The clouds laughed.
Their teeth showed
Like white cranes flying.

Because Indra showed
His favors to Arjuna,
Surya scattered the clouds
Over his son Karna.

Arjuna was hidden
Behind the clouds,
Karna stood clear
In the light of the sun.

Dhritarashtra’s sons
Stood behind Karna;
Drona, Kripa and Bhishma
Stood behind Arjuna.

The assembly, including the ladies,
Split into two loyalties.
And Kunti, Bhoja’s daughter,
Fainted.

Wise-in-dharma Vidura
Revived her,
Sprinkling water scented
With sandal paste on her face.

She opened her eyes.
She saw her two armor-clad sons.
Fear possessed her.
She did nothing.

Kripa saw the two heroes
With bows uplifted;
Wise-in-virtue and learned
In combat-rules, he said:

‘This is Pandu’s son,
Kunti’s youngest son.
He is a Kuru.
He will meet you in duel.

‘Puissant challenger,
What is your lineage?
Who are your parents,
What royal house is proud of you?

‘After knowing this, Arjuna
Will fight – or not – as he pleases.
The son of a king never duels
With anyone less than a prince.’

Karna flushed with shame.
His face became a yellow lotus
Pelted and disfigured
By a heavy monsoon.

‘Sir,’ said Duryodhana,
‘The Sastras say three kinds
Can claim royalty – nobly born,
Heroes, and leaders of soldiers.

‘If, however, Arjuna
Will fight no one not a king,
I her and now
Install Karna king of Anga.’

When the shouting died down,
Gerate-chariot-hero Karna,
Hooded by an umbrella,
Yak-tail fans waving on both sides,

Was placed on a golden seat;
And mantra-learned Brahmins,
With rice-grains, flowers, pots and gold,
Installed him king of Anga.

Then, your majesty, Karna
Said to Duryodhana,
‘You have given me a kingdom,
What will I give you?

‘King, best among men,
You have only to ask.’
Duryodhana replied,
‘Be my friend.’

Karna replied,
‘I will be your friend.’
They embraced each other.
Both were happy.

*

Trembling and perspiring,
Learned on a stick, Adhiratha,
Karna’s father, in flapping robes,
Entered the arena.

Karna saw him,
Kept his bow aside
And dutifully lowered
His wet-with-anointed-water head.

The charioteer Adhiratha
Quickly covered his feet
With one end of his robe,
Addressed Karna as his son,

Embraced him till his tears
Wet Karma’s wet-with-anointed-water
Head. King-of-Anga-son
Honored charioteer-father.

The Pandavas saw Adhiratha,
And realized that Karna
Was a charioteer’s son.
Bhima mockingly said:

‘Charioteer’s offspring!
You are unfit even to die
By Arjuna’s hands. Throw away your sword!
Try a horsewhip instead!

‘King of Anga indeed!
What do you know of kingship?
What does a dog know of ghee
That’s meant for the ritual fire?’

Karna looked up at the sky,
At the sun in the sky.
He drew his breath in deeply.
His lips quivered.

Duryodhana stood up,
Like an enraged elephant
Out of the lake of his
Lotus-looking brothers.

To terrible-deeded Bhima
He said:
‘You presume too much,
Saying what you have said.

‘What makes a Kshatriya? –
Strength.
Even low-born people are worthy of combat.
Don’t you know
The sources of great heroes and great rivers
Are unknown?

‘Do you know
The lineage of the great god Karttikeya?
Is he Angni’s son,
Or the son of Kirtika, or the son of Rudra,
Or Ganga’s son?

‘I am told
That some born Kshatriya later became Brahmin.
I am told
Visvamitra and others achieved the ultimate
Brahman.

‘I hear
Drona, great arms-guru, was born in a water-pot.
I am told
Kripa, son of Gotama, was born in a clump of reeds.

‘And I know
How you were born. Tell me – could a deer
Produce
This tiger
Karna, sun-radiant, natural-armored, graced with
The auspicious marks?

‘Karna
Deserves not the kingship of Anga but of the world.
He is brave,
He is strong, he is skilled in war-weapons; he is my
Friend.

‘And if I
Have displeased anyone here with what I have done to
Karna,
Let him climb his chariot and bend his bow
With his feet.’

Loud cheers and shouts
From the crowd of spectators
Greeted Duryodhana’s speech.
The sun set suddenly.

Taking Karna by the hand,
Duryodhana guided him
Through the arena
Now lit with many lamps.

Drona, Bhishma and Kripa
Returned to their homes
Along with the Pandavas.
The arena emptied.

Your majesty, some said
It was Arjuna’s triumph,
Others said it was Karna’s,
Others Duryodhana’s.

And Kunti was happy
Because her son Karna
Had all the auspicious marks,
And because he was king of Anga.

And Duryodhana, your majesty,
Because he had Karna
On his side, no longer feared
Arjuna’s excellence in war-skills.

Karna cultivated Duryodhana
With sweet and friendly words.
Even Yudhishthira felt Karna
Had no rival in the world.

One thought on “Myths & Legends of India: The War-skills Battle

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