“Drona has to die today,” Dhristadyumna said at dawn on the fifteenth day, as he took up position at the head of the Panchala army.
I began the day on my chariot, leading our surviving force of elephants on a single-minded mission.
Thanks largely to Ghatotkacha and his band, one wing of the Kaurava army had been almost entirely destroyed. It was up to me now to do to their chariots what my son had done to the foot soldiers.
It went well in our part of the field – with Bhagadatta dead and the bulk of his elephant force destroyed by Arjuna, our own elephants had the space to range free, wrecking havoc among the Kaurava chariots. I had given the mahouts their orders: it wasn’t enough to defeat the warriors; the chariots had to be totally destroyed.
The messages that came from other parts of the field were, however, dire. Drona, backed by Karna and Ashwathama, had launched a ferocious assault on our position from the northern side – first Drupada, then Virat, had failed in their bid to halt him and fallen to his arrows.
The Kaurava forces had been decimated, but Drona’s mastery of war craft was unparalleled. Even with hugely reduced numbers, they were inflicting tremendous damage on our forces. Drona led brilliantly, grouping his forces tight, picking weak spots in our defenses as they opened up and gutting us with unexpected tactical moves and his own mastery of weapons.
In the distance I saw two chariots rushing in our direction, the distinctive white horses of the first and the royal white umbrella on the second identifying them as those of my brothers.
“Drona is invincible,” Krishna said as they drew near. “The only way to defeat him is to break his spirit, his will. We must announce that Ashwathama is dead… Drona should see us celebrating.”
Will Drona believe us, I wondered.
“No. Not unless Yudhishtira tells him his son is dead,” Krishna said.
“You want me to lie?” Yudhishtira was disturbed. “Thus far I have tried to do everything that is consistent with truth, with dharma… how can I now give up the principles of a lifetime?”
With a visible effort, Krishna fought down his anger. “This is war, Yudhishtira – not a game of dice. Too many people have died so you can have your chance to rule in Hastinapura… it’s a bit too late to stand on scruples.”
My brother looked unconvinced.
Krishna pointed at the massive bulk of an elephant I had killed just minutes earlier. “I say the name of that beast is Ashwathama,” he said. “I say Ashwathama is dead – where is the lie in that?”
At his urging we drove rapidly towards the northern part of the field, where Dhristadyumna was now locked in battle with Drona.
“Ashwathama is dead!” I proclaimed as we neared. The Panchala soldiers nearby picked up on the cry and soon, to the blare of trumpets, the entire force was celebrating wildly.
Yudhishtira threw a hand up in triumph. “Ashwathama is dead,” he proclaimed. “Ashwathama, the elephant…”
Krishna must have anticipated what my brother would do – with a triumphant blast on his conch, he drowned out my brother’s final words.
The next few moments rushed past in a confused blur. I saw Drona, his eyes fixed on Yudhishtira’s face, lower his bow. Dhristadyumna’s horses plunged forward; when the dust settled, I saw him standing on the deck of Drona’s chariot, holding the acharya by his tuft of hair.
His sword flashed. Drona’s head, severed clean at the neck, flew through the air and landed in the dust.
Showing no emotion whatever, Dhristadyumna vaulted back onto his chariot and drove away from the field, his bloodied sword held high.
Heralds signaled the fall of the Kaurava commander. As the fighting came to a halt, the rest of us drove off the field and in the direction of Yudhishtira’s lodge.
I was taken aback when Satyaki rushed up to Dhristadyumna. “Coward! For all your big talk, you couldn’t defeat him in battle – and then to cut his head off when he was laying down his arms… Drona… a Brahmin… an acharya…!”
“This is war,” Dhristadyumna said with unruffled calm. “I haven’t learnt to make all these fine distinctions about ‘honorable’ killing and dishonorable killing.”
“Even if he was an enemy, even if he had to die, he was a Brahmin,” Satyaki persisted. “He was an acharya, a guru… but then what would you, and that amoral brother of yours, know about honor, about ethics? You are a shame on all kshatriyas!”
“True.” Dhristadyumna’s laugh was suffused with scorn. “What do we Panchalas know? We need you to set us all an example, Satyaki – like you did when you killed Burisravas.
“How did that happen? You — an example for kshatriyas everywhere — were on your knees begging him to spare your life. And when Arjuna saved your life by cutting off Burisravas’ arm with an arrow, you showed the bravery you upbraid me for lacking when you chopped his head off from behind! And now,” Dhristadyumna snorted, “I get lessons in honor, in ethics, from this pillar of the Vrishnis!”
Satyaki’s hand flashed to his sword hilt.
Krishna interposed himself between him and Dhristadyumna – but just when I thought the tension would be defused, Arjuna added unnecessary fuel to the fire.
“I agree with Satyaki. Drona was our guru, our acharya – it is not the same as when Satyaki killed Burisravas.”
“He was a Brahmin, hence doubly sacred,” Yudhishtira chipped in.
Dhristadyumna had remained calm through Satyaki’s attacks, but this proved more than he could take.
“Brahmin! Acharya! Guru! What respect, what praise, for the man who ordered his generals to surround a 16 year old boy who was on his own – or have you forgotten how Abhimanyu was killed, Arjuna? Where was that famous Brahmanyam when he, this man you revere as your guru, ordered Karna to attack Abhimanyu from behind?!”
“Cowards will always find a way to justify their actions,” Satyaki muttered.
“Enough!” I roared. I had finally come to the end of my patience. To win this war we had killed our own flesh and blood; we had lied, we had cheated, we had broken every rule, violated every code – must we now add hypocrisy to the list of our sins?
“Have we lost our minds? We, all of us, wanted to see Drona dead – it didn’t matter to us that he was our acharya. We knew none of us could kill him in direct combat – isn’t that why Krishna asked us to lie, to pretend Ashwathama was dead? You lied,” I swung around to confront my brother. “Where was dharma then? Honor? Ethics? You wanted to win, you wanted the acharya dead, and for that you were prepared to lie, if necessary — or are you fooling yourself that by mumbling about an elephant your lie had somehow become the truth?
“So what were we thinking? That Drona would drop dead on his own when he heard his son was dead? We knew someone had to kill him — and the fact is, none of us had the courage to do what all of us wanted done — none except Dhristadyumna. And now that we have got what we wanted, you want to lessen your own guilt by rounding on him? What kind of men are we that we have sunk to this?”
It was rare for me to speak out in public, rarer still to speak at any length — but the accumulated hurts and griefs of the past two days finally proved too much for me to bear.
“This acharya of yours, Arjuna — what did he teach you? To cut down the arm of a warrior who was engaged with another? Oh, I forget — Satyaki is a friend, so anything you do, any rule you break, to save him is okay?
“And you, Satyaki? So you think it was a grievous crime to cut off Drona’s head? Would it have been better, would it have somehow been consonant with your notions of honor and ethics, if one of us had killed him with an arrow shot from a distance? Or were you waiting for Drona to die a natural death?!”
This was war, not some game we were playing. Dharma, honor, rules, ethics – nice notions all, every one of which had died the day Bhisma fell. Since then, the Kauravas had broken the rules repeatedly — and so had we. “If we are not prepared to face the consequences of a war we sought then let’s admit it now,” I told Yudhishtira. “Go to Duryodhana, tell him it is all over, and let’s head back into the forest!”
An inoffensive water pot stood in my way. I smashed it in with a single kick and stormed out into the night, not caring what my brother made of my words.