Bhimsen: The Epilogue

[Episode 71] [Archives]

They stood on top of a cliff and looked down at an ocean turned dark and deadly dangerous.

Like a glutton who even after a full meal picks at his plate in the hope of finding some overlooked morsel, the ocean that had swallowed an entire kingdom, castle and all, continued to throw up waves that combed the land, seeking odds and ends to devour.

They saw a dead bull lying where the waves had thrown it against a tree, breaking its back instantly; over there an overturned chariot, its shaft stuck deep into the mud; elsewhere, oddly, an earthen pot in pristine condition, its perfection an incongruous element of normalcy against the surrounding chaos.

They observed another oddity: in the midst of the ocean’s turbulence one spot alone seemed calm, the waters still. That, they guessed, marked where the towering castle had once stood, with its vaulted Dome of Victory thrusting proud into the heavens.

In spite of his iron self-control, Yudhishtira shivered internally as he looked down at that once proud kingdom reduced to an overturned chariot, a pot, a few decaying bodies the ravenous ocean had overlooked.

He shook his head, fighting to clear the cloud of grief. What was it the patriarch, Krishna Dwaipayana, had said when they had formally handed the throne of Hastinapura to Parikshit, grandson of Arjuna and beloved of them all, and set out on the mahaprasthana, the final journey that would lead them to heaven or to hell as their deeds deserved?

“Never look back,” the patriarch had advised them. “Not physically, and not in the mind – from this moment on you have no past. There is only the step ahead that you must take, and the next one, and the next.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Yudhishtira caught sight of Arjuna perched on a rock, his head in his hands, his shoulders shaking with the strength of his grief – a grief time had not been able to mitigate.

He had been present when the destruction had begun and yet, or maybe because of it, Arjuna had not been able to reconcile with the fact that his dearest friend was no more, that the kingdom that had been a second home to him had vanished as if it had been a figment of his imagination, that the gardens in which he had first seen Subhadra and wooed her was now buried deep beneath the pitch black waters of the unforgiving ocean.

They had greeted him with cries of relief when, in response to the urgent summons, Arjuna had first rushed to Dwaraka. The mightiest archer of the time was here, they consoled each other; Krishna’s dearest friend had come to their aid, and nothing bad could happen to them now.

Around them were the sights and sounds of impending doom: the roar of an ocean whipping itself into a consuming fury; the howls of the jackals that stalked the streets of Dwaraka in broad daylight; the screeching of the kites and vultures that circled overhead in such numbers as to turn the sky dark – birds of prey that had gorged on the flesh of Dwaraka’s men and, hungry still, hovered in search of more fodder.

These sights and sounds paralyzed them with a fear beyond imagining – but still they took heart:  Arjuna was here.

They rushed to him, the women of Dwaraka. The closest clutched at him; the others called out his name and reached their hands towards him, clamoring for his attention, pleading for his protection.

He knew many of them, women of Krishna’s personal household. He had on his numerous visits sported with them in Dwaraka’s gardens, even bedded some of the more attractive among them. Arjuna forced aside his own grief at the destruction of the Yadava and Vrishni clans and worked to calm their fears.

“We will go to Hastinapura,” he promised them. “No harm will come to you there.”

He organized them into a group and marched at their head down the broad streets of Dwaraka. There was no time to waste gathering provisions for the trek; there was no able-bodied male left to help him in that task. One young boy had survived the general carnage; Arjuna put him on a horse and sent him away to Hastinapura with a message for Bhima: “Come quick, brother — I need help!”

With the Gandiva in his hand, an arrow notched to bowstring and a full quiver at his back, Arjuna marched out of the towering main gate of the ‘Kingdom of Gates’, with its embellishments of brightly colored peacocks and dancing girls, and headed towards the forest.

He felt a lassitude in his limbs and a fog enveloping his mind, but put it down as a reaction to the strain of his desperate rush to Dwaraka. He marched on and behind him, now quiet from a mixture of relief and exhaustion, walked the women.

Without warning the Dasyus burst out of the trees, their roars met by shrieks of fear from the women. Arjuna calmly lifted the Gandiva – and experienced a moment of stark terror when the bow slid out of his suddenly nerveless hand and thudded to the ground at his feet.

He bent to pick it up and found that it was all he could to raise the bow: his strength seemed to have deserted him, and his skill. When he reached for a fresh arrow, he merely managed to knock the quiver off his back.

All these years, the Gandiva had been an extension of his hand, his will – now, it was all he could do to pick it up and when he finally managed, he looked at it as if he did not know what to do with this strange curved object in his hand.

Arjuna slumped to the ground in despair, his eyes unfocused and mind blank. Around him in a rising crescendo rose the screams of Krishna’s women as the Dasyus grabbed them, threw them over their shoulders and raced away in the direction of the forest.

He lay there through that darkest of nights, next to the bow and the arrows that he was no longer master of. He lay there in the grip of a terror unlike any he had ever known, trying without success to shut his ears to the horrific sounds coming from the forest – the triumphant roars of the Dasyus mixed with the despairing wails of women stripped successively of their modesty and their lives.

At some point in the night, another sound intruded on his consciousness: the growing roar of an ocean that had burst its natural boundaries and commenced its assault on Dwaraka, swallowing everything it found in its path and returning, with redoubled fury, for more.

He had never felt such grief, such an enveloping sense of despair, ever before – not even when on the morning after the war he had walked field of Kurukshetra, his eyes fixed on a ground where the blood of his children had mingled with that of his enemies. But then that day, he had a friend who walked beside him, reminding him that to fight was a kshatriya’s duty, that to kill and to die were inextricable parts of Life itself.

Today he no longer had that friend. No more could be rely on finding beside him a source of strength when he was weak; no longer could he take refuge in the encompassing wisdom that could make sense out of the seemingly senseless, and keep him grounded when the world as he knew it appeared to be shifting beneath his feet.

And so he cried through that long night: bitter tears for the friend he had lost, for the women who had trusted him and who had paid for their trust with their honor and their lives. And he cried for himself – the greatest warrior of his time, now reduced to the eunuch he had once pretended to be.

That was how Bhima had found him sometime the next afternoon: prone on the ground, the now useless bow and arrows inert beside him, his face ravaged with grief and his body devoid of strength to even stand up.

Bhima had lavished on Arjuna the attention a nurse bestows on a sick child; while his brother slept, he had wandered in the direction of Dwaraka and recoiled from the unbelievable destruction. The ocean in its mindless fury had destroyed the once proud kingdom brick by brick; it had swallowed large parts of Dwaraka and, even as he watched from his vantage point, was returning for more.

He recalled the one time he had visited Krishna’s kingdom. Duryodhana was already in residence, learning the arts of the mace from Balarama. Krishna had urged his brother to invite him too, and when the messenger had come to Hastinapura he had been overjoyed.

He had taken care to wake well before dawn each day. Meticulously he had set aside his ornaments, tied up his hair, stepped out of his robes and tied his loin cloth around his waist in that special fashion peculiar to wrestlers and adepts of hand to hand combat, and hurried to the arena.

Each day, he had hoped that his guru would impart the secrets that, Sukracharya had once told him, were known only to Balarama himself. He practiced religiously all that he was taught and yet, when time came for him to leave, he struggled not to show the disappointment he felt at having learnt very little that was new.

The only memory he retained from that time was of Dwaraka’s blinding wealth, its pomp and unrivalled splendor.

Bhima stood beside Yudhishtira, looking out over the waters that had swallowed Dwaraka whole, and thought: had Krishna known how it would all turn out? Had he, fed up of the growing corruption and decay of the kingdom he had carved out of nothingness, deliberately sent the Yadavas and the Vrishnis to their deaths?

From what they had been able to pierce together from the accounts of two or three survivors, Krishna had organized a massive ‘celebration’ on the shore of the ocean. He had provided limitless food and drink and when the revelry was at its rowdiest, had left them to it and walked away into the forest with his brother Balarama.

At some point in the celebration Satyaki, considerably the worse for drink, had chanced upon Kritavarma and charged him with cowardice, accusing him of his role in killing the sleeping Pandava children and others on the 18th night of Kurukshetra.

An enraged Kritavarma had in his turn taunted Satyaki, reminding him that he was on his knees before Burisravas and begging for his life when his friend Arjuna had cut off his enemy’s arm – and Satyaki had then, Kritavarma reminded him, jumped up and cut off the head of the helpless Burisravas.

The argument led to blows and then to a full-fledged battle with swords; in a trice, the Vrishnis had taken up for Satyaki and the Yadavas rushed to the defense of Kritavarma. None survived.

Even as they pieced the story together and tried to make sense of it all, a wandering rishi had come to court with news that Krishna and Balarama were dead. Krishna was meditating under a tree, the rishi told them, when a passing hunter mistook him for a deer and shot him dead; grief-stricken at the death of his brother and the destruction of his race, Balarama had slipped into a yogic trance and given up his life.

Enough, Bhima thought – we have lived through several lifetimes in this one, we have endured more grief than any one human could possibly bear.

Enough!

He felt his brother’s calming touch on his shoulder. “No more tears, Bhima – we have put all that behind us. Remember what Krishna once told us? Nothing ever dies – we merely change one form for another, one life for another. The time has come to give up this body, this life where we have known very many griefs and very few joys. Come!”

Yudhishtira glanced out at the ocean for one last time and then, turning abruptly, began walking down the hill.

Bhima followed. Arjuna pushed himself up from the rock he had slumped on, and walked after his brothers. Nakula sighed and glanced at his twin; with one mind, the twins walked in the direction their elders had taken.

Draupadi stood under the shade of a tree, watching them go and summoning up the strength, the will, to walk in their wake. Her heart still grieved for the one who was gone – Krishna, who had been her strength when she most needed it, the unfailing source of comfort at the darkest of times, the one who more than any other, more even than her husbands, had kept her faith alive when all had seemed lost: kingdom, pride, dignity, honor, all.

He was gone. What was left?

She turned her back on the ocean, and walked down the hill, picking up the trail.

For days without end they walked on in single file, stopping when the need for rest overwhelmed them, eating the berries and fruits they foraged during their trek and marching ahead again, their minds absent of thought, their hearts devoid of feeling, their weary feet plodding one step at a time through increasingly difficult terrain — until, one dawn, they saw looming ahead of them the snow-crowned peaks of the Himalayas.

The sight of Mount Meru in the distance seemed to give Yudhishtira renewed energy; picking up his pace, he hurried in that direction without a backward glance at his brothers and wife struggling along in his wake. And when he got to the foot of Meru he began to climb, his eyes fixed on the peak.

Once, when escaping from Varanavata, he had struggled to climb a little hill and had to be carried on Bhima’s shoulders. But not this time – this time he would climb the mountain on his own and, at its peak, find in himself the will to slip into yoga nidra, to attain salvation.

Behind him, Bhima trudged on mindlessly, ignoring the rocks that cut into his feet and the thorny bushes that impeded his progress, scouring his palms when he pushed them aside.

He was tempted to turn back, to see how Draupadi was faring – always, through the long years they had spent in the forest, it had been his self-imposed duty to smooth her path. With an effort of will he kept his eyes focused on the path ahead and on the form of his elder brother climbing rapidly up the slope.

Throughout his life, he had followed in that brother’s footsteps. Even when his instincts suggested a different path, he had brushed such thoughts aside, sublimated his will to that of his brother. Now, in the final moments of his life, he could do no less – Yudhishitra led, so he needs must follow to whatever end awaited them on the mountain top.

And then he heard it – a faint cry, the sound of a body falling, the clatter of displaced rocks as they bounced away down the mountainside.

“Brother, wait!” Bhima shouted. “Draupadi has fallen.”

Yudhishtira neither turned around, nor paused in his steady climb. “I am not surprised. She long ago lost the strength of mind to climb away from this world and into salvation.”

Bhima froze in his tracks. “What?! She, this princess, followed us to our hovel, she married us, she partook of our troubles when she could have gone back, led a life of ease in the home of her father…”

“She followed us out of self interest, out of ambition – she wanted to keep our desire for revenge alive, she wanted us to fight and win a kingdom for her,” Yudhishtira’s voice came faintly to Bhim as he marched relentlessly on. “And above all, she was wife to all five of us, but it was only Arjuna she loved – even when she sat beside me on the throne, it was on him that her eyes were fixed. Those who fall, do so as a result of their own deeds – keep your eyes fixed to the front and walk on…”

Bhima heard footsteps approaching behind him.

Arjuna. Draupadi’s beloved.

Moments later, Arjuna drew abreast. “Draupadi has fallen,” Bhima said.

Arjuna walked on as if he had not heard, his eyes fixed on the path ahead.

He saw Nakula passing him to the left.

“Draupadi has fallen.”

“We cannot turn back, we cannot wait for anyone,” he muttered, and walked on.

Bhima stood where he was, watching the forms of his brother’s vanishing in the mists up ahead. Any moment now, he thought, Sahadeva would come up to him, carrying Draupadi in his arms. To this youngest of the brothers Draupadi had been wife and mother both; she had reserved for him a special place in her affections – surely, Bhima thought, Sahadeva would not leave her lying where she had fallen.

He heard Sahadeva’s footsteps approach. Bhima listened for the sounds that would tell him his brother was staggering under a burden, and readied to take Draupadi from him – but the footsteps were strong, steady; moments later, Sahadeva drew abreast, then walked on ahead without even a glance in his direction.

Bhima craned his neck back and looked up at the tip of the mountain. Somewhere up there, salvation waited; somewhere down below, the wife he had loved above all else in this world lay where she had fallen, abandoned by all.

He made his choice. Abruptly, he turned and hurried down the path as fast as his tired limbs would take him. Ahead of him, half hidden by a thorny bush, he saw the crumpled form of Draupadi. He ran.

Dropping to the ground beside her, he lifted Draupadi’s head onto his lap. She opened her eyes and looked up at him – and then she looked away, scanning the area for… what?

A last sight of the one she loved above all others? Or of the one who, as eldest, had most claim on her affections? A final glimpse of the handsome Nakula, of Sahadeva whom she had loved as mother and beloved both?

She looked back at him, and Bhima cringed at the disappointment in her eyes. “I am here,” he told her. “I’ll be here for as long as you need me.”

Leaving her lying there, he ran around gathering the little grass and moss he could find amidst the rocks, and spread it out in the shade of a tree. Carefully lifting Draupadi up in his arms, he carried her to the bed he had made and laid her down, her head cradled in his lap.

She looked up at him for a long moment. Her lips moved, forming words he could not hear. He bent closer. “My children,” she whispered, in a voice grown raspy with fatigue.

Her eyes closed. Bhima sat there, his back against a tree, his beloved’s head in his lap, and thought back to the 36 years she had ruled as queen. At first, they had hoped for more children; each of the brothers had in his turn as her husband longed to be the one who would father a heir to the throne.

After a while, Draupadi just gave up. “I think grief has turned me barren,” she had told him once, when he attempted to console her. “God gave me five wonderful sons and I failed them – why would he give me more?”

Gently, taking infinite pains not to disturb Draupadi who slept on in his lap, Bhima eased into a more comfortable position and closed his eyes.

A memory returned to haunt him: the memory of a man who, bleeding and broken, wandered the earth far below where they sat.

That night, Arjuna’s fury had been terrible to behold – he had rushed into the blazing lodge and rushed out again with his Gandiva and his quiver. Without even waiting for Krishna, he had jumped into his chariot, whipped the horses, and driven away at furious speed.

By the time the rest salvaged some weapons from the inferno that was the Pandava camp and caught up with him, Arjuna had cornered Ashwathama and engaged him in a battle that raged ferociously even as they watched.

Fighting with a brilliance none had never before seen in him, Arjuna had systematically, ruthlessly cut down each of Ashwathama’s weapons – and as the murderer of Draupadi’s children stood there helpless, had proceeded to inflict the most gruesome wounds on him in the most deliberate fashion imaginable.

It was Krishna who stopped him then – Krishna and the grandsire Dwaipayana, who had rushed to our camp when he caught sight of the fire from across the river and who had followed us to the spot in Nakula’s chariot.

They had stripped Ashwathama of his most prized possession, the blazing Syamanthaka jewel he wore on a gold band tight on his forehead. When Krishna ripped it away from him, the circlet had snapped and cut a deep furrow across his brow.

While Krishna pacified his friend, Dwaipayana spoke to Ashwathama. He was forbidden to ever enter the gates of any kingdom ruled by kshatriyas; he was doomed, Dwaipayana said, to wander the earth, forlorn and friendless, his life a constant reminder of his ultimate treachery.

“You brothers have each committed many sins during the course of this war,” Dwaipayana had told the brothers then. “Enough – do not add the killing of yet another Brahmin to those crimes. Let him go.”

And so, somewhere down below he wandered still, the man who in the dead of night had set fire to the Pandava camp and, with sword in hand, mercilessly cut down every one of Draupadi’s children.

My work is not done yet, Bhima decided; it will not be over as long as Ashwathama remains alive.

Draupadi stirred; her eyes fluttered opened and she looked up at him.

“You are still here!”

I will be, Bhima said – for as long as you need me, I will be here.

He saw tears moisten her eyes, then. She glanced for one last time at the path ahead, seeking the forms of those who had gone on ahead. And then she caught his eyes again and, her voice a weary whisper, she said: “Next time, be born the eldest!”

Bhima sat there through the night, not moving, not thinking. When the first rays of dawn lit up the sky above the distant peak, he gently lifted Draupadi’s head off his lap, and stood up.

He looked down at her still form for one last time; he glanced upward at the path his brothers had taken.

And then he turned and walked back down the mountain.

He still had work to do.

Bhimsen: Episode 69

[Episode 68] [Archives]

The throne Dhritarashtra had formally vacated loomed ahead of us as we sat discussing arrangements for our brother’s formal coronation.

Yudhishtira had summoned us to the main hall of Hastinapura. He walked in while we were reviewing the list of friendly kings to invite, and perched on a small stool beneath the dais. Typical of my punctilious brother, I thought – though he was acknowledged the new king of Hastinapura, he would not occupy the throne till he had been officially crowned.

I was wrong.

“I’ve thought long and hard these last few days, and I’ve taken a decision,” Yudhishtira said. “I called you here because I wanted my brothers to be the first to know.”

We looked at each other, mystified by the portentous note. Life had just begun to settle into a routine of sorts. The four of us had busied ourselves with an exhaustive inventory of the treasury, the stocks of cattle and the state of the various trading and artisan communities — a review we were far from completing.

Arjuna and I had taken on an added responsibility – that of figuring out how to quickly augment our dangerously depleted army. As things stood we could hardly raise a single division, and that left us extremely vulnerable to inimical kings or even to random raiding parties.

War -- Grant Morrison

War -- Grant Morrison

“Hastinapura is a nation without a heartbeat,” Yudhishtira said, breaking in on my thoughts. “Wherever I go – inside the palace, on the streets – all I see are widows, all I hear is the heart-rending sound of their sorrow. The feeling of guilt, the feeling that all of this is my fault, that none of this would have happened if I had not insisted on my right to the throne, has been growing on me these last few days.

“I have therefore decided to give up the throne and retire to the forest, where I will spend the rest of my life in penance and prayer.”

He held up a hand to silence our protests.

“No, don’t say anything – my mind is made up, there is nothing further to discuss. I have decided that our brother Bhima should be crowned king. It is fitting – it was he who led us all along, he who won the war for us, he who destroyed our enemies, and kshatriya dharma says the kingdom belongs to the victorious warrior.

“Hastinapura today is a dangerously weakened kingdom. With Bhima on the throne and with Arjuna supporting him, no one will dare take advantage of this weakness…”

I was compelled to interrupt. “I don’t agree. Kshatriyas do not fight for themselves but for their king – and right from our days as children in the forest, there has been no doubt in our minds that you are our king. We fought this war to uphold your right to the throne.”

Yudhishtira made as if to speak. I held up my hand. “No, let me finish. From the time we were children, we have been brought up to perform different functions. Arjuna and I were brought up to wage war; Nakula and Sahadeva are masters in the arts of administration; and you alone among us have been trained to rule. You speak of dharma – but how does dharma permit you to abandon this kingdom and its people at the time of greatest distress? I agree we are weak – but you have Arjuna and me to look after our security. We need you to heal the wounds of war, to bring prosperity back to this kingdom.”

“My child, did I not tell you at the outset that my mind was made up? You more than anyone else know I do not make up my mind lightly – I have thought of all of this, I have agonized over what my dharma demands of me. Know this — to be effective a king has to focus on one thing alone, and that is the welfare of his subjects. If he is tormented, distracted by doubt as I am now, he can never make a good king.”

He paced around the room, agitated, while we looked at each other in silence, unsure what we could do, what we could say.

Abruptly, he stopped before me. “I know this has been sudden, that you need time to think. I will leave you now so you can discuss this with our brothers. When your mind is made up, come to me. I have to speak to our uncle Vidura, make sure he understands my decision and gets everything ready for your coronation.”

Yudhishtira turned and strode out of the room. Arjuna was the first to break the silence.

“He is right, brother – we need a strong king now and there is none stronger, more feared than you. You have no reason to worry – not when you have Nakula and Sahadeva to help you in the task of running the kingdom, and me beside you to make sure Hastinapura is strong again …”

“In any case,” Sahadeva cut in, “our brother said his mind is made up, that his decision is final – so what is the point of discussion? He believes you are the best person to rule, and I agree — Hastinapura needs a king and if it is not Yudhishtira, then who better than you?”

I looked across at Nakula, who as usual sat silent, listening to everyone but not venturing any opinion of his own. “And you – what do you think?”

Nakula smiled. “Where is the need for me to say anything? Did you think I would have a different opinion from Arjuna and Sahadeva? Anyway, it is not as if such things haven’t happened before — didn’t uncle Dhritarashtra step down in favor of our father? And when our father thought he was unable to govern, didn’t he give the crown back to Dhritarashtra and retire to the forest?”

“Listen, brother,” Arjuna said, “there is nothing left to discuss. Our minds are made up. You need time to absorb this, so we’ll leave you alone now.”

He came up to me and bent low to touch my feet. Nakula and Sahadeva followed. I hugged all three – an embrace that contained a world of doubt, of questions, and a surge of gratitude for their unquestioning support.

I sat in the empty assembly hall, listening to the sounds of their departing footsteps and gazing at the raised platform in front of me. In the center stood the throne of Hastinapura, flanked by the two giant tusks bound in gold and crusted with precious stones. To its left was the smaller, but equally grand, throne for the queen.

My eyes fixed on the much smaller seat to the right of the throne – a seat set on a lower level of the dais, one without arms and the glittering paraphernalia of royalty.

That was my seat – the one I would, after the coronation, have occupied as Yudhishtira’s heir. Now Arjuna would sit there, to my right, and I…

I walked over to the dais and climbed up to the throne. I looked all around to make sure I was truly alone, and then I sat on the throne of my ancestors – gingerly at first, and then more firmly, with a growing feeling of belonging.

All those years ago, when as a child I had first come to Hastinapura, the first thing I had seen when I entered this hall was uncle Dhritarashtra seated on this throne – an imposing, awe-inspiring figure. From now on, it would be me they would see on the legendary throne of the Kurus. Would I look majestic, I wondered, would I evoke awe in our friends and fear in the emissaries of our enemies?

I looked to my left and, in my mind’s eye, saw Draupadi seated there, her eyes on me as I sat in state, dispensing justice.

My doubts vanished. My mind was made up. I would rule – and with my brothers beside me, I would be a good king, fair and just.

I jumped down from the dais and walked towards my own chambers, my mind in a whirl. I had to go to Yudhishtira and tell him my decision, ask his advice, learn from him all that I possibly could in the little time I had before he left for the forest.

Nakula and Sahadeva would look after the details of the coronation – but what then?

Our wealth of cattle had been depleted by the war – with our soldiers engaged and with no able-bodied men to look after them, large numbers of cattle had wandered off into the forest, and more had been taken away by the small raiding parties that infested the surrounding forests. I must remember to order Arjuna to lead an expedition into those forests, clear them of the raiders – to have them running amok, unchecked, was too big a security risk for us to take.

There was so much to do. Nakula and Sahadeva needed to take stock — we could then figure out ways to consolidate our cattle, get the breeding process started again and oh yes, horses, elephants, we needed to replenish our paddocks and I’d have to find a way to free up Sahadeva’s time so he could visit some of the neighboring kingdoms, find talented artisans to set up silk industries, metal and wood work, all the things we had done in Indraprastha to turn it into a bustling kingdom we would have to do all over again here, and that reminds me there is the question of Indraprastha and Panchala to be decided, what were we going to do with those kingdoms and I wonder if Arjuna had thought of Matsya now that Virat and his son were dead and Uttara was living under our protection, we had to urgently appoint regents who would rule the various kingdoms of our allies under our authority and oh yes I have to send a messenger to Krishna so when he comes for the coronation we can discuss this problem and decide on the right person and I needed to take my brother’s opinion as well before he went off into the forest and out of my reach oh and while on my brother I wonder if we should do the Ashwamedha, in one sense it would mean that everyone accepts our sovereignty and I could rule without the constant threat of war hanging over us but then again there was the risk that if we embarked on the Yaga it could give other kings an excuse to gang up against us at a time when we were not particularly strong, I must ask Yudhishtira what he thinks of this…

I walked on in a trance, my mind whirling with thoughts of all that I had to think of and do, and almost missed the light tinkle of anklets that told me I was no longer alone.

Draupadi -- Grant Morrison's visualization

Draupadi -- Grant Morrison's visualization

Draupadi walked out of the shadows and bent low to touch my feet. She must have heard, I thought – while she was always careful to greet Yudhishtira in this fashion, she had never done this for me or any of my other brothers until now.

“So have you decided on the date of the coronation?” she asked.

“Yudhishtira has made some decisions, but I am yet to make up my mind,” I said, hiding my elation under an off-handedness I was far from feeling.

“I heard,” she said. “That is why I came.”

To my surprise I saw a glint of tears in the eyes she raised briefly to meet mine before she looked down again.

“All those years I slaved in the forest, and that year in Matsya when I hid in the disguise of a maid, I always consoled myself with the thought that my time would come.” Her voice throbbed with the weight of unshed tears. “I would remember Krishna’s promise that he would one day see me seated on the throne of Hastinapura, and I’d dream of the day my husbands would win a kingdom for me and finally, I would be the queen I was born to be…”

She sighed, a wealth of weariness, of helplessness in the sound. “Maybe it is my destiny to live always in the forest, to live always as a slave…”

“Live in the forest?!” I exclaimed in surprise. “But why..?”

“What then? Would you have me live here instead as serving maid to your queen, to do for Balandhara what I did for Sudeshna?! Is that what you wish for me – me, Panchali, daughter of Drupada, sister to Dhristadyumna, wife to the Pandavas?”

“Balandhara…? But… it is you who will rule here beside me, on the throne of Hastinapura …”

“Fat fool, they call you – and fat fool you are!” The scorn in her voice scoured me like a whip. “I was married first to Yudhishtira – it is he who has the first claim on me and if he goes into the forest, then I must go too, even if I am too young for vanaprastha, even if my mind and heart are not ready yet, not prepared yet to turn my back on life…”

Abruptly she turned and vanished into the shadows, leaving behind a long, shuddering sob that bounced off the walls and echoed down the corridor.

Sick at heart, unsure of what I must do, I hurried to my chambers. I needed to be alone… I needed to think… Balandhara my queen… Draupadi in the forest, wearing the deerskin and bark robes of vanaprastha… how had I overlooked this?

The maids had not yet lit the lamps. In the gloom, I saw two figures waiting for me – uncle Vidura and behind him a woman, her robe pulled over her head to cover her face.

“So your brother wants to go to the forest to do penance?”

It was mother.

“I heard he has decided on vanaprastha – uncle Vidura did his best to persuade him against it, but he seems to have made up his mind.”

I stood there, silent, waiting. She had clearly come for a purpose – and she would get around to telling me about it in her own way.

“The people of Hastinapura have lost everything, my child – and now they are about to suffer their biggest loss.

“Do you remember the day I brought you children here, to the gates of Hastinapura, for the very first time? The people thronged the streets in their thousands then, flowers in their hands, waiting for their first glimpse of the prince who was born to rule them.

“And they have been waiting ever since for the day Yudhishtira will be crowned their king, the day the rule of dharma, of righteousness, will be established in Hastinapura. They have lost everything they had – and now they will lose the one hope that has sustained them all these years…”

I felt the sudden sharp sting of tears, and ground my nails into my palms – a physical pain to take away the sudden sharp agony in my heart as I realized what she had come here to say.

“What do you want me to do, mother?”

“Your brother must become king. You are untrained in the shastras, in dharma shastra and rajya shastra – you are not fit to rule. It is not just me, child – your uncle also thinks as I do. Go to your brother and tell him that – tell him that under no circumstances will you sit on the throne.”

I took a deep breath, fighting back the haze that clouded my mind. And then I laughed – loudly, uproariously. I sank down on a seat and laughed still, slapping my thighs and drumming my feet on the floor.

“Mother,” I gasped, “don’t you know my brother yet? Don’t you know it is just his sense of humor at work, this notion of me – what is it you always called me, fat fool? – as king of Hastinapura? Did you think he was serious?! Don’t worry – Yudhishtira will sit on the throne, you have my word.”

Vidura smiled in sudden relief. “God bless you, child,” he said as he turned and walked away.

Mother eyes were shadowed with doubt, but then she too touched my head in benediction and walked out after my uncle.

Alone in the dark, I thought of that brief moment in the great hall of Hastinapura when I had sat on the throne of Hastinapura — that one fleeing moment when I was king.

And I laughed, loud and long.

I was Bhima, the mightiest warrior of my time. I would not cry.

Bhimsen: Episode 67

[Episode 66] [Archives]

Duryodhana leapt high. I bent at the knee, going low in a counter.

In a move I had never seen before, his left hand came off the mace. The right hand slid down the handle till his fingers held it by the tip, and then he flicked it at my face like a whip.

I blocked it with ease – and realized too late that the move was meant to distract, not hurt. Even as I moved to defend, Duryodhana lashed out with his leg, smashing his heel against my shoulder and sending me staggering backwards.

We had been fighting for a long time. Or maybe it just felt that way. Early into our bout, I realized that Duryodhana’s mace – his favorite one with the gold-plated handle and the wickedly sharp spikes along the head – was considerably lighter than mine. Whatever it lost in power, it more than made up in the speed with which he could wield the lighter weapon.

All those years ago, when we fought for the first time during the trial of strength, I had won by using my strength, hammering my mace repeatedly against his to tire his wrists and arms.

Thinking to repeat that tactic, I went at him hard from the moment Balarama finished his little speech. “Just in time to watch your two disciples in battle,” Krishna had said as Balarama’s chariot rolled into the glade.

Balarama always spoke of impartiality, of how the Pandavas and Kauravas were equally dear to him and how he wanted no part of our quarrels – but for all that, he had over the years favored Duryodhana, taking him under his wing and teaching him the tricks of the mace.

When war seemed inevitable, Balarama had gone off on an extended pilgrimage to avoid taking sides – but only after he made sure the bulk of the Dwaraka army would fight under the Kaurava flag.

I had listened to his little speech about fair play, about the rules of combat and about making him proud of us, with growing disbelief – did he think this was some contest got up for his amusement?

Duryodhana swung at me – a powerful, underarm swing aimed at the right side of my chest; as my mace met his in a block he disengaged, spun in reverse with startling speed, and swung at my left.

There was no time to bring my mace around. I smothered the impact by stepping into the blow and blocking the handle with my body — but even so it stung, driving the breath out of me and forcing me to one knee.

Duryodhana roared in triumph and charged, swinging; I parried and, still on my knee, spun around with a sweeping strike at his legs that forced him to jump back, giving me room to recover.

What had started off as a contest of speed and strength was slowly turning into a battle of skill and wits. My arms were beginning to feel the strain; I was gasping for breath and struggling with the sweat that poured down my face and into my eyes – and by the look of him, he was as drained as I was.

I sensed desperation in him as our battle dragged on. There was an increased frenzy to his attacks. He must have known his best chance was to finish me off quickly, before my strength and endurance began to wear him down.

I realized I had to change my tactics, find his weakness and figure out how to exploit it.

Duryodhana jumped high, as he had repeatedly done since our battle began, using his lighter mace and his agility to advantage. What made his tactic dangerous was that he kept changing the angle of attack – sometimes he jumped high and swung down at my head; at other times he feinted, forced me into a defensive posture, then waited till he was on the way down to attack me from an angle lower than I was prepared for.

With sudden clarity, I saw the flaw in his tactics – and what I had to do.

I breathed deep to center myself, and settled down to a calculated defense, blocking his attacks without launching any of my own, conserving my strength and waiting for my opportunity.

I had to make him think I was more tired than I was, that my reflexes were slowing down, that it was all I could do to defend — and that he had no reason to fear a sudden counterattack.

Duryodhana changed tack and launched a series of swift attacks, swinging the mace to the left and right with great dexterity and putting all his power into each strike. I countered with force; our maces struck sparks off each other.

Seemingly hard-pressed, I staggered back, letting one hand come off the handle and taking one of his strikes on my body.

Dimly, I heard my brothers yelling encouragement. I shut it all out – their shouts, my rage, the memories of all the insults Duryodhana had visited on us…

It was only a matter of time, I knew, before Duryodhana would go airborne again. This time, as he reached the apex of his jump he swung from the right, aiming for my shoulders and chest. I made as if to block, waited till he was committed and then pulled out of the feint.

To exploit the weakness I had spotted, I knew I had to take a serious blow – and this was it. I did the best I could to minimize the impact, but even so his mace landed on my side with a thud that drove the breath out of me. I bit down hard on the searing pain, spun around and using the momentum of my turn and the full strength of my arms, I smashed my mace against his momentarily unprotected ribs.

The crack of breaking bones as the head of my mace smacked into his side told me all I needed to know. Duryodhana crashed to the ground, the mace flying out of his hand.

Vaguely through the percussive pounding of blood in my head, I heard the voices:

“No.”

“Bhima, he is unarmed, you have won …”

“NO!”

Almost as if it had a will of my own, my mace rose high overhead. Duryodhana raised his legs in a desperate attempt to block. I adjusted and smashed the mace down against Duryodhana’s thigh, just below his waist.

“What have you done?!” Yudhishtira rushed up to me. “He was unarmed – to hit him then… it was wrong!”

I stared at my brother in disbelief, amazed –not for the first time – at a sense of wrong and right that he seemed able to switch on and off at will.

Just yesterday, he had danced with glee when Arjuna felled Karna.

Karna had voluntarily put down his weapons; Duryodhana had lost his in a battle that had not yet ended – that was right, this was wrong?!

I looked away and caught Balarama’s eye. His face contorted with rage, he was straining to get away from Krishna and Satyaki, who struggled to hold him back.

“Coward!” he screamed. “Duryodhana was the better fighter — you tricked him and then, when he was unarmed, defenseless and hurt you hit him! Your act was against dharma, against the laws of combat! Coward!”

Deep inside of me, something snapped. Duryodhana was finished – I knew that he would die of his wounds even if I didn’t lay another finger on him. But this – this was more than I had the fortitude to bear.

“Let him go!” I roared at Krishna. “I vowed to kill Duryodhana – and kill him I will, right here, right now. I know no kshatriya dharma greater than that!”

I raised my mace high overhead.

“Anyone who thinks to stop me can step forward now and try!”

I waited, mace poised, as Krishna and Satyaki let Balarama go and stepped back. He took a step towards me, then another, his eyes locked on mine.

And then he stopped.

I held his eyes with mine as my mace came down with all my strength, crashing into the side of Duryodhana’s head. Almost in continuation of that blow, I flung my mace away. I had no further use for it – my war was over.

For long moments I stood there, mentally and physically drained by the toughest battle I had ever fought in my life.

I felt their eyes… my brothers’, my kinsmen’s, my friends’… eyes that looked down on my dying enemy with pity… eyes that lacerated me with a scorn I had done nothing to deserve…

I walked over to where Visokan waited with the chariot, and painfully hauled myself in. On the deck, I saw my blood spattered mace.

“It is a good weapon,” Visokan said gently, as he held out a cloth for me to dry the sweat that poured off me in an unending stream. “What does it know of dharma and adharma? What does it care?”

He drove slowly towards the river. I threw away my robes – and felt the soothing, healing caress of a gentle breeze.  My ‘father’, Vaayu – where were you when I was all alone, when my enemies covered me with their arrows and my friends with their contempt?

As I dived into the river, I heard the sound of Visokan driving away.

I floated in the water, letting the gentle eddies rock me like a baby in its cradle, and thought back to what I once was – the little boy who, every evening, would come to the riverbank looking for his father… the boy who, on feeling that first gentle touch of breeze on skin, would pray with all his heart to become the strongest, the bravest, the best warrior of all time.

That prayer had come true. I had grown big and strong – there was in my world no warrior to equal me, no one who had ever bested me in combat. I had fulfilled my vows, every last one of them; my last remaining enemy lay breathing his last in the dust, the thigh he had slapped in a lascivious invitation to my wife a bloodied, broken mess.

I had become what I wanted to be, done all that I vowed to do — and yet, what did I have? A wife I shared with four others… two other wives whose faces I couldn’t remember… a son who had given up his life for those who had delighted in his dying, two other sons who I did not know… and brothers who could never appreciate the depth of feeling I had for them…

Evening gave way to the pitch black of night, matching the darkness that swamped my mind, my heart.

I sat there for a long, long time. At some point, I thought I smelt smoke…

The urgent clatter of horses’ hooves woke me from my reverie. I looked around for my robe as Visokan drove up at reckless speed.

He jumped down before the chariot had come to a halt and ran towards me, sobbing.

“They are dead… Ashwathama… he came in the night, like a thief… he set fire to our camp… he killed them all while they slept…”

He collapsed to the ground, sobs wracking his frame.

From the depths of a heart grown suddenly cold, a question welled up and lodged in my throat: who?

My brothers had gone off into the forest to celebrate the victory, with them went Krishna and Satyaki. Dhristadyumna broke away from the party – I want to celebrate with the first good night’s sleep I have had since this started, he told them.

Ashwathama came in the middle of the night. With him was Kritavarma, and Kripa – the guru of our race. They set the camp on fire – that must have been the smoke I sensed, and ignored… as our people woke to this conflagration and rushed out in panic, Ashwathama cut them down one by one in the dark.

Dhristadyumna… our children, Draupadi’s sons… Prativindhya, Suthasoma, Shrutakirti, Shatanika, Shrutakarma… my son Sarvadha, who had become inseparable from his cousins…

Young men… boys, really – the future of the Kuru race, for whom we had slaughtered our kin and won a kingdom…

All dead.

I looked down at hands that seemed suddenly drained of their strength.

The war was over, but the enemy still lived.

The enemy never dies…

Bhimsen: Episode 65

[Episode 64] [PDF Archive]

Sounds of unbridled revelry came to me as I lay in my bed late that night, trying without success to shut out thoughts of all that had happened that day.

Drums thumped and trumpets pealed; balladeers – with an enthusiasm fuelled in equal parts by sura and silver coins – sang incessantly of the greatest archer the world had ever seen. And from the lane outside came the sounds of soldiers celebrating the knowledge that their war was over, that they had escaped death.

Noise is good, I thought as I lay in the dark, staring into the blackness – it anaesthetizes the senses and inhibits thought.

The prevailing mood appeared to have seized even Visokan. When he asked me for the third time in less than an hour if I needed something, I snapped at him. “Go join in the celebrations, get yourself drunk,” I told him. “I don’t need you — I don’t need anyone around me tonight.”

He gave me a strange look, and wandered off into the night. Moments later Arjuna and Dhristadyumna rushed in, and it was hard to tell which was the more boisterous, the more drunk.

“Why are you here by yourself?” Arjuna demanded, grabbing an arm and trying to pull me to my feet. “Come join the fun – Yudhishtira is actually singing and dancing, you must see this!”

What could I say? “You killed our eldest brother today – what is there to celebrate in that?”

I bit down on the thought before it found voice.

The thought had first come to me when, after Visokan left me beside Dushasana’s body, I commandeered an elephant and from its back, surveyed the field.

Off in the distance, I could see the distinctive white horses of Arjuna’s chariot and the golden chestnut ones of Karna’s, whirling in and out of a swirling dust cloud.

Either way, I thought to myself as I guided the elephant in that direction, a brother will die today. Strangely, it didn’t really  matter which one it was — I knew I would feel equally devastated.

From my vantage point the duel seemed to be as much about Krishna and Shalya as it was about my brothers – the two demonstrated unbelievable skill, piloting their chariots in a dazzling series of moves and countermoves, each striving to gain some little advantage over the other.

Karna and Arjuna were evenly matched in strength and, as far as I could see, in skill. As I neared the combat zone, I saw Karna in a brilliant move fire a stream of arrows high up in the air. As they curved through the air and came down towards Arjuna, Karna fired a series of arrows in a straighter line, forcing Arjuna to defend at two levels – the ones coming down from above and the ones coming at him straight.

All those years ago, when we were still young boys learning the art and craft of war and Drona had called for a trial of strength, Arjuna had dazzled the spectators with a trick. At blinding speed, he had shot a stream of arrows high into the air; as they came down, he fired a series of white-painted arrows into their midst to conjure the effect of lightning flashes amidst rain.

What was the point, I thought at the time, of endless hours spent practicing such tricks? After each attempt he had to painstakingly gather up his arrows, re-pack his quiver, and then do it all over again — for what? To amuse people with nothing better to do? What I practiced with the mace, the bow and arrow and in the wrestling pit, had a point to it — the skills I was practicing to perfection were the ones I would some day use in actual combat…

Now I saw the point — the “tricks” that amused crowds at a martial arts exhibition were the very ones that, used in deadly combat as Karna was doing now, could force the enemy to confront different challenges.

As I urged my elephant closer to the scene of the duel, I saw Arjuna do something I had never seen before — firing continuously with his right hand and establishing a line of attack, he switched suddenly, seamlessly to his left and used what seemed to me some special arrows. These must be poison tipped, I thought; they were so thin, almost like needles, that he was able to notch five, six of these arrows onto the string at the same time and fire them simultaneously, multiplying the danger to the enemy.

Around them, the fighting had come to a standstill as everyone in the vicinity gathered to watch the duel of the master archers. With each side cheering on their champion and jeering the opponent, the atmosphere was incongruously festive.

Their battle must have been going on for a long time — Arjuna and Karna were both bathed in sweat and streaked with the dust raised by their chariots.

There was no way I could make a path for my elephant through the milling crowd. I jumped down, hoping to push a way through the crowd – and even as I straightened, a groan of despair went up from the Kaurava ranks.

Over the heads of the crowd, I saw the white horses standing stock still. Arjuna stood on the chariot deck, face grim, bowstring drawn taut. I could see the chestnut horses and the head of Shalya in the charioteer’s seat, but there was no sign of Karna.

Using my arms and lowered shoulders to smash a way through the crowd, I got to the front — and saw Karna down on one knee, desperately trying to lift the wheel of his chariot out of a rut it appeared to have gotten caught in. Shalya was furiously whipping his horses but strain as they would, the wheel refused to budge.

“I am unarmed,” I heard Karna say. “Wait till I free the wheel – kshatriya dharma demands that you allow me that…”

Arjuna looked confused; eyes fixed on Karna, he gradually lowered his bow.

Kshatriya dharma!” Krishna’s voice cut through the hubbub, dripping scorn in every syllable. “This from the man who sneaked behind a sixteen year old boy and cut his bow string from the back!

“Since when did Adhirata’s son, this suta putra, have the right to rank himself with kshatriyas and to invoke our dharma?!” Krishna demanded, turning to Arjuna.

“What are you waiting for? The sworn enemy of the Pandavas, the killer of your son, stands before you – do your duty!”

Just then, a passing cloud obscured the sun, throwing the scene in gloom.

His head tilted to one side and his eye fixed on Arjuna, Karna put his shoulder to the wheel and his hands on the hub, and strained mightily.

I saw despair in his eyes and took a hasty step forward, not quite knowing what it was I intended to do. Help Karna free the wheel of his chariot? Stop Arjuna from killing his eldest brother?

It was all too late – Arjuna’s bow flashed up, an arrow thudded into Karna’s shoulder and, as he turned under the impact, another burst through his breastplate. I saw the sudden gush of blood as the arrow drove deep; an instant later, Karna slumped backwards against the wheel, a third arrow impaling his throat.

A blast from Krishna’s conch was drowned by Arjuna’s triumphant roar; an instant later, Yudhishtira jumped down from his chariot and rushed forward. “Karna is dead,” he yelled, hands thrown up in triumph. “There he lies, the suta putra who caused this war.

“Where are the musicians, the singers?! Let them sing to my beloved brother, to the peerless archer, Arjuna, the equal of Indra himself!!”

Arjuna spotted me and rushed up, arms spread wide. “Brother,” he shouted as he folded me in a hug, “I did it – I’ve killed Karna like I promised I would!”

He danced away into Krishna’s embrace; Dhristadyumna, Nakula and Satyaki all ran forward to add to the acclaim.

The heralds had blown the end of combat. My brothers got in their chariots and drove towards our camp, in a hurry to celebrate; Dhristadyumna, Satyaki, Nakula and others raced to catch up. In their excitement, no one noticed me standing off to one side, eyes fixed on Karna’s lifeless form.

Around me, the dejected Kauravas gradually drifted away, leaving my brother’s body there for the chandalas.

I stood there, not moving, not thinking, not feeling – just waiting until, finally, I was all alone. And then I walked up to where Karna lay.

As gently as I could, I pulled out the arrows that had impaled his shoulder, his chest, his throat. Responding to the promptings of some inner need, I arranged him so he was comfortable — his legs stretched in front of him, the wheel of his chariot supporting his back. With my robe, I wiped the sweat and the blood off his face.

And then I bent low and touched his feet — seeking from him in death the blessings I had never been able to get in life. And even as I did, I cringed at the cowardice that made me glance hastily around to make sure I was alone, that no one had seen this act of mine.

Bhimsen: Episode 63

[Episode 62] [Web archives] [PDF of Bhim 1-62, courtesy Karun]

Krishna was waiting for me when I returned to my lodge that night. He needed to talk to me, he said.

In all these years of knowing him, Krishna was invariably punctilious in doing what he saw as his duty. Whenever he visited us, he made it a point to go first to see Yudhishtira and then, as inevitably, he would seek me out, touch my feet and ask after my well-being before going off to find his friend.

But never once had he sought me out for a private conversation, never once asked for my advice, my help, as he was doing now.

“You must talk to Yudhishtira,” he told me. “You are the only one who can. It is not good for him and Arjuna to quarrel.”

When Karna led the Kaurava troops out at dawn on that 16th day of the war with Shalya as his charioteer, I’d guessed there would be trouble.

My brother – ever since the day Visokan had told me who he really was, I often caught myself thinking of Karna as my brother and even feeling a momentary twinge of anger when others referred to him as the suta putra – had wanted this command; it was this desire that had led to his quarrel with Bhisma.

From the moment the heralds signaled the start of combat, Karna hit us with the force of a whirlwind. If Bhisma and Drona had deployed strategies and tactics based on the principles of war craft we had been taught since we were young, Karna’s tactics were more free-flowing, and considerably more dangerous.

He led the Kaurava troops in a series of raids, swinging from one end of the field to the other, catching us off balance and hitting us hard, causing immense losses to our foot soldiers and cavalry.

Nakula was the first among us to face the full force of his fury. Karna caught him at an unsupported moment in his defensive position on the right side of our formation and engaged him in combat. While his forces decimated the troops Nakula led, Karna toyed with my brother, destroying his weapons one by one, cutting his armor to shreds, wounding him in a dozen places and finally, in a supreme act of contempt, jumping onto Nakula’s chariot, grappling with him and throwing him out into the dust.

I spotted him as he was leaving the field to seek treatment for his many injuries. “That suta putra told me to tell mother Kunti that he remembered his promise, and would spare even the sons of Madri,” a bewildered Nakula told me. “What promise? What did he mean? And why did he let me go? When he jumped onto my chariot, I thought the end had come…”

I had no time to explain, even if I could – Ashwathama’s peculiar war cry rang out just then, and I turned to confront this challenge.

Drona’s son had a voice unlike any other – more the shrill neigh of a horse in rage than anything human. The story I heard was that when the startled wet nurses first heard his cry at birth, they gave him the name ‘Ashwathama’ – the one with a horse’s voice.

I looked to use the same tactics that had worked so well against Karna – with Visokan keeping a distance from Ashwathama’s chariot, I tried to use my remaining stock of larger arrows and my superior shoulder strength to hurt him, tire him out before closing with him.

Ashwathama’s skill as an archer was without parallel – and I was now finding out that he was considerably shrewder. Where Karna had felt insulted at being bested by me and repeatedly tried to close the distance, Ashwathama increased it and, staying just out of ideal range, effortlessly cut down the arrows I aimed at him.

My stock of special arrows was rapidly running out; the danger for me would come when they were all gone, and Ashwathama could close the distance and use his greater skill to good effect.

“Save one or two of those,” Visokan, as aware of the danger as I was, said over his shoulder. “Let him think they are all used up – when he looks to attack, you might get a chance to use them.”

It was a desperate ploy; I thought afterwards that only the skill of Visokan and the timely arrival of Satyaki saved me from humiliation or worse.

The prolonged combat had drained me; besides, I needed to replenish my stock of arrows. I signaled to Visokan to drive off the field, but we were cut off by a band of Duryodhana’s brothers attacking in formation.

For this I needed no strategies, no tactics – just the deep, burning anger that surged up within me whenever I caught sight of any of my cousins. The skill level of the younger ones in the group was rudimentary – in a few moments of furious combat, with Visokan weaving the chariot in and out of their ranks, six of them fell to a combination of my arrows and spears.

With only Chitrasena and Vikarna left standing, I vaulted out of my chariot, sword in hand. Chitrasena fancied himself as something of a swordsman – back when we all trained together, he loved to show off his skills.

It was with drawn sword that I met him. He was good, no question – fast on his feet and lightning quick at switching the angles of his attack. Against him I used my sword like a bludgeon; instead of merely deflecting his attacks, I repeatedly smashed my sword against his on the blocks, using my superior strength to drain him.

From the diminished power of his strikes and the time he took to bring his sword back in line after each thrust, I sensed that he was tiring fast. There is a trick that I had learnt during my time with the Nagas – they use it with spears, but I had practiced it with the sword whenever Arjuna and I trained together.

Instead of repelling his thrust, I caught Chitrasena’s sword on the blade of my own and rapidly twirled it around in quick circles. The pressure of holding on to the sword began to tell on Chitrasena’s already weakened wrists; I judged my moment and, when our swords were at the lowest point on the circle, suddenly disengaged and with a reverse sweep, cut deep into his neck.

Vikarna ran to where his brother lay in the dust, his life blood gushing out through the cut in his neck. I had no intention of killing this youngest of my cousins; I had never forgotten that when Duryodhana, Dushasana and others insulted Draupadi that day at Hastinapura, Vikarna was the only one in the Kaurava ranks to brave Duryodhana’s anger and to protest the wrong that was being done.

I was walking back to my chariot when his challenge stopped me in my tracks. “I don’t want to fight you,” I told him.

His answer was to rush at me with his sword raised high. I decided to finish this fast – it was the only thing I could do for him. I blocked his downward cut with my elbow against his forearm, knocking his sword out of line; before he could recover, I buried my sword in his chest all the way to the hilt.

Catching him as he fell, I lowered Vikarna gently to the ground and pulled my sword out. For a long moment I stood looking down at this most honorable of my cousins, wishing things had been different, wishing I could have befriended him, wishing his decency had prevailed with his own brothers…

I strode back to my chariot and ordered Visokan to drive me back to my lodge, wanting space, needing some time to myself. The last thing I expected was to find Krishna waiting for me.

“Yudhishtira and Arjuna had a huge quarrel today,” he told me.

Alarmed by the havoc Karna was creating, my brother had foolishly challenged him. Karna toyed with Yudhishtira, destroying his chariot and disarming him with ease. He then threw aside his own weapons and attacked Yudhishtira with his fists, battering him into submission. Yudhishtira fell; Karna stood over him, mocking, taunting, then left him lying there in the dust with a parting word and a kick.

My brother retreated to his lodge, and found Arjuna there.

“That set him off,” Krishna told me. “He called Arjuna all sorts of names, upbraided him bitterly for leaving you alone on the battlefield…”

Krishna had tried to pacify Yudhishtira, but that only goaded my brother more. “I’ve been listening to his boasts for thirteen years,” Yudhishtira said, “I’ve been hearing him talk endlessly about how he will deal with Karna – but now that the time has come, he hides here while Karna destroys our forces!

“Coward!,” he said. “If you can’t do it, give your Gandiva to Krishna – maybe, like that suta putra you are so afraid to face, driving a chariot is what suits you best!”

Seeing Arjuna’s hand tighten on the hilt of his sword, Krishna had hastily come between my brothers, looking to make peace. But Yudhishtira’s words had pushed Arjuna over the edge.

“This fellow – what has he ever done but live off the fruits of others?” Arjuna lashed out. “From the moment he saw her he wanted Draupadi, and he managed to trick mother into getting her married to all five of us!

“He talks of cowardice, this man who has always stayed a mile away from any actual fighting, hiding in the middle of our troops and letting others kill and die so he can be king. If Bhima calls me a coward, I’ll take it – but not this…”

Krishna had somehow managed to push Arjuna outside before either of them could say something irrevocable. “But now Arjuna has shut himself up in his lodge; he says if Yudhishtira wants a kingdom let him shed his own blood, win the war if he can.

“You are the only one they will listen to,” Krishna said.

As I walked over to Yudhishtira’s lodge, I couldn’t help thinking that our real problem was not the Kauravas but the bitterness each of us had accumulated over the years.

Bhimsen: Episode 62

[Episode 61] [Archives]

“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.