MBK: 2.9: Bhīṣma’s Vow

On the far southern side of the battlefield, Arjuna fought the Samshaptakas, headed by Susharma. These warriors were dauntless and had vowed never to retreat. They kept the Pāṇḍava fully engaged and away from Bhīṣma and the other leading Kurus.

Arjuna fought fairly. He would not use the weapons he had received from the gods, even though the celestial missiles were capable of annihilating his human foes. But even with conventional weapons Arjuna was formidable. The Samshaptakas rushed at him in waves, hurling darts, lances, clubs, axes and countless arrows, all of which Arjuna effortlessly countered with his own arrows from the Gāṇḍīva. He repeatedly struck his antagonists with clusters of shafts that tore through their armor. With every attack thousands fell, but they kept coming at him.

Late in the day a messenger reached Arjuna and informed him of Iravan’s death. He immediately cried out and sat down on his chariot. Seeing him overpowered by grief, Kṛṣṇa maneuvered the chariot away from the enemy. Arjuna buried his head in his hands and wept. After a few minutes he said, “Alas, O Lord, I am realizing how pious was Yudhiṣṭhira in seeking to avert this war by any means. Surely that great-minded soul saw clearly how this war would mean such a terrible destruction of men. Therefore he begged for only five small villages. But the mean-spirited Duryodhana refused. Now innumerable kṣatriyas are being slain for the sake of wealth. Seeing all these heroes lying prostrate on the earth, I can only reproach myself. Fie upon the duty of a kṣatriya! Fie upon the desire for kingdom and wealth! I cannot take any pleasure in this battle.”

Arjuna gazed with tearful eyes at the waiting Samshaptakas. There was now no question of abandoning the fight. It was clear that the war would end only when Duryodhana’s forces were annihilated, and him along with them. Arjuna’s grief turned to anger as he thought of Duryodhana’s obstinacy. Now Arjuna’s own dear son had perished thanks to Duryodhana.

Frowning and breathing heavily, Arjuna reached for his bow. “This is no time for a display of feminine sentiments. Drive the chariot toward Duryodhana, O Keśava. Let us cross over this impassable ocean of soldiers. By your grace, dear Lord, I will soon end this war.”

Kṛṣṇa urged the horses forward and the chariot raced across the field. From a distance Arjuna saw the banners of Duryodhana, Droṇa and Bhīṣma, who were fighting together supported by Kṛpa, Aśvatthāmā and Bhagadatta. As they saw Arjuna approach, they met him with volleys of arrows. Not tolerating their attack, Arjuna replied with arrows of his own. He began to range about the field firing his shafts on all sides. Each of them flew with unerring accuracy toward its target. Warriors fell from their chariots like ripe fruits falling from trees caught in a gale.

As the sun fell to the west, the battle raged on. The combatants fell upon each other like angry lions fighting for their prey. They dragged one another by the hair and hacked off each other’s limbs and heads. Striking with weapons, fists, feet and teeth, they fought in a frenzy, slaying both armies in droves.

Beautiful bows, their staves decked with gold and jewels, lay discarded on the field. Precious ornaments and arrows soaked in oil shone from the ground. Steel swords with ivory hilts and fine shields embossed with gold engravings fell from their owners’ lifeless hands. Lances, darts, battle-axes and maces, all ornately worked with gold and jewels, were scattered about. Men lay in unnatural positions, still clutching weapons. With wide, staring eyes, they appeared as if still living. Others lay butchered and twisted, their arms and legs akimbo and their mouths hanging open. The smell of blood and burning flesh filled the air.

Toward the end of the day, a fearful fight took place between Bhīma and Duryodhana. Having just single-handedly slain an entire division of ten thousand men, Bhīma heard Duryodhana challenging him. “Stand and fight with me, Bhīma, if you have any courage! So far you have killed only ordinary soldiers. Let us see now how you fare against a truly powerful warrior!”

Clasping his iron mace as if he might crush it, Bhīma laughed. “The hour I have so long anxiously awaited has arrived. Today I will kill you, if you do not abandon the fight out of fear. Today I will soothe the sorrows of Kuntī and Draupadī. Killing you in battle, I will avenge the woes we suffered in the forest. Inflated with pride you have disregarded us. Reap now the fruit of that folly. O man of wicked mind, you have despised even the sinless Kṛṣṇa, although He personally came to Hastināpura to seek peace. Filled with a sick joy you sent Uluka to us with your depraved messages. For all these acts I will dispatch you and your relations to Death’s abode.”

Bhīma lifted his bow and instantly fired thirty-six arrows resembling thunderbolts at Duryodhana. They killed Duryodhana’s horses, knocked his charioteer to the ground, and broke his bow. Bhīma swiftly followed the arrows with two more razor-headed shafts, which cut down Duryodhana’s standard and the white umbrella above his chariot. The Kaurava’s fine standard, emblazoned with a golden serpent and decked with gems, suddenly dropped to the ground and Bhīma roared in exultation.

Duryodhana reached for another bow, but Bhīma struck him with ten more arrows. The Kaurava reeled about on his chariot. Without his horses, he could not maneuver away from Bhīma’s attack. Seeing his plight, Jayadratha advanced and attacked Bhīma with a shower of arrows. At the same time, Kṛpa came up to Duryodhana and took him onto his own chariot.

As Kṛpa carried away the almost unconscious Duryodhana, many other Kaurava fighters attacked Bhīma, who was then joined by Abhimanyu. A ferocious battle ensued among all those heroes. Once again the sun set on scenes of widespread destruction all over the battlefield. The two armies withdrew for the night, praising each other for their respective feats of prowess.

* * *

Back in his tent, Duryodhana slowly came back to his senses. Smarting from the wounds inflicted by Bhīma and from the shame of losing the fight, he began to think of Karṇa. If Bhīṣma was not willing to slay the Pāṇḍavas, then he should stand down and allow Karṇa to fight. The Kaurava prince decided to speak with his friend, who was waiting in the camp for his opportunity to join the battle.

Seeing him entering his tent bloodied and covered with dust, Karṇa jumped up and embraced him. “How fares the Kurus? Are you gaining victory over your enemies and increasing your fame?”

Duryodhana shook his head. “No, my friend, things are not going our way. We are being routed by the warlike Pāṇḍavas, who cannot be slain even by the celestials. Day by day they are grinding down my forces. O Karṇa, I am weakening and our store of weapons has been reduced. I am now wondering if we will ever defeat the Pāṇḍavas.”

Karṇa’s face flushed and he clenched his fists. “Grieve not, O best of the Bharatas. I will do what is pleasing to you without delay. Let Bhīṣma be withdrawn from the battle. When that old hero lays down his weapons, I will come personally to slay the Pāṇḍavas. Bhīṣma will always treat Pāṇḍu’s sons leniently and is incapable of killing them. Order him to stand down, O King. I swear that I will then, before everyone’s eyes, bring down the mighty Pāṇḍavas in battle.”

Karṇa only wanted to say what pleased Duryodhana. He knew that he too could not kill all the Pāṇḍavas; he had promised Kuntī to spare all but Arjuna. At least he would fight with his full power, perhaps killing Arjuna and sending the other brothers fleeing. That would lead to the Kauravas’ victory without a doubt.

Duryodhana was heartened. “Your words fire me with new enthusiasm, O great hero. I will go to Bhīṣma. If the powerful warrior will not agree to slay the Pāṇḍavas tomorrow, then I will return. You will then be able to fight, for I will persuade Bhīṣma to retire.”

Duryodhana left Karṇa’s tent. Mounting his dark-colored horse, he made his way to Bhīṣma’s quarters. Seeing him so badly hurt, Bhīṣma had royal physicians cleanse his wounds. He then personally applied herbs, which quickly healed the prince. By the application of vishalyakarini, a herb taken from the Himālayan mountains, Bhīṣma removed Duryodhana’s pain. As he was treated, the Kaurava leader spoke anxiously with his commander.

“It seems we can do nothing to stop the Pāṇḍavas’ onslaught. O sire, they surge forward and break our lines. Penetrating, crushing, and slaughtering, the mighty warriors gain fame at our expense. Today they smashed apart our formation and routed our troops. I myself have been wounded by Bhīma and almost slain. O best of men, I do not accept that you are incapable of checking the Pāṇḍavas. Tomorrow you should exert your full power. By your grace, I desire to obtain victory and kill Pāṇḍu’s sons.”

Bhīṣma looked with pity upon Duryodhana. He still could not realize that his hope to destroy the Pāṇḍavas was futile. Equally futile was trying to explain that to him. He would have to learn the hard way. Bhīṣma thought of Kṛṣṇa. Whatever plans or maneuvers the Kurus attempted, no matter how skillful, Kṛṣṇa would doubtlessly thwart. Yet as the commander of the Kuru army, Bhīṣma knew it was his duty to do everything in his power to try to defeat the Pāṇḍavas. Duty was painful. At least it brought him into contact with Kṛṣṇa, and that could never be inauspicious under any circumstances.

Having finished his medical administrations, Bhīṣma took his seat by Duryodhana’s side. “I have fought to the utmost of my power each day.” The old Kuru held up his arms, which were scarred from countless strikes of the bowstring. “I have slain tens of thousands of warriors. Still, I cannot harm the Pāṇḍavas and their foremost fighters. They are protected by virtue and by the Lord of virtue himself. What can exertion achieve?”

Duryodhana folded his palms as he addressed Bhīṣma. “Relying on you, O slayer of foes, we are capable of vanquishing in battle even the celestials and Asuras combined. What then of the Pāṇḍavas? How can I believe that you cannot kill five men, even if they are supported by their relatives and allies?”

Tears flowed from Duryodhana’s eyes. “O son of Gaṅgā, O lord, you should be merciful to me. Slay the sons of Pāṇḍu like Indra slays the Dānavas. Make good your promise to me that you would slaughter the enemy armies. Exhibit your full power and kill the five brothers along with all their followers.”

Duryodhana paused and breathed deeply. He looked into Bhīṣma’s eyes. “Or, if out of compassion for them, O lord, or hatred for me, you do not wish to kill the Pāṇḍavas, then please step down and allow Karṇa to fight. That great hero, the very ornament of battle, has promised to kill Kuntī’s sons and all their allies.”

Bhīṣma felt the dagger of Duryodhana’s words pierce his heart. The prince’s suggestion that he was not trying his best only compounded the pain he already felt at having to fight in the first place. It seemed Duryodhana had no intelligence. Had he not seen how hard his warriors had been fighting? What more did he think Karṇa could achieve? Bhīṣma remained silent for a moment to control his anger. Breathing heavily and clutching the hilt of his sword, he finally said in a cool voice, “Why, O Duryodhana, are you stinging me with this insult? I am always endeavoring to the best of my ability to accomplish your good, even at the cost of my life. I say the Pāṇḍavas are invincible. Is it not sufficient evidence that Arjuna gratified Agni by withholding the celestial hosts at Khāṇḍava? Or that he and his brother rescued you from the enraged Gandharvas? Where was the suta’s son that time?”

Bhīṣma felt an increasing sense of frustration as he addressed Duryodhana. The prince thought only of himself. He cared nothing for others. Why could he not understand what was in his own best interests in this case? Surely he was blinded by envy and hatred for his cousins. Thus he embraced his own destruction, even as it unfolded before his eyes.

Mixed with his frustration, Bhīṣma felt compassion. “Surely a man on the brink of death loses his senses, O son of Gāndhārī. You cannot see the inevitable consequences of the enmity you have created with the Pāṇḍavas. Standing as they are with the immortal and infallible Keśava on the field, there can only be one outcome. This is your doing. Why do you rant? The time you have long anticipated has arrived. Now match your malice with acts of valor. Display your long-vaunted prowess in battle and end this conflict.”

Servants entered the tent to inform Bhīṣma and the prince that their meal was ready. Duryodhana dismissed them with a wave of his hand. He had no appetite. Since the battle had begun, he had hardly eaten, refusing even the wine which he normally enjoyed so much. His mind thought only of the Pāṇḍavas and how they might be slain. Sitting at Bhīṣma’s feet, he looked up at him imploringly. If the son of Gaṅgā became determined, then the Pāṇḍavas were as good as dead.

Bhīṣma drew a deep breath. “You should know, O monarch, that I will not at any time abandon you or the Kurus. Such is the duty of kṣatriyas and indeed my own determination. For your sake, O King, I will make a mighty effort to bring about the Pāṇḍavas’ death tomorrow. Breaking through the hostile ranks I will personally confront them in the thick of battle. Any who come to protect them will be at once killed. With the exception of Śikhaṇḍī, I will spare none.”

Bhīṣma reached down by his side and lifted up his large silver quiver, which was studded with precious stones. He extracted five shining arrows, gilded with gold and decked with gems. These arrows were fitted with long spiked heads and fletched with buzzard feathers. Bhīṣma spread out a silk cloth on the ground and carefully placed the five arrows upon it. As Duryodhana watched, he sat in meditation for a few moments, muttering Vedic mantras.

Finally he said, “I have imbued these five arrows with the full force of my ascetic powers. Even Indra would not escape them. With them, I will kill the five Pāṇḍavas tomorrow.”

Bhīṣma’s voice was flat and cheerless. Tears came to his eyes as he continued. “Sleep peacefully tonight, O King. In the morning I will come out and fight a terrible battle, the like of which has never been seen. The Pāṇḍavas will not escape. Only Kṛṣṇa can save them, but He has vowed not to take up weapons.”

A smile touched the corner of Bhīṣma’s mouth. Would Kṛṣṇa find some way to save His beloved servants? That would be wonderful indeed. But failing that, the Pāṇḍavas would be finished. His empowered arrows would not fail.

Duryodhana jumped to his feet beaming and slapping his arms. Then he became thoughtful. Like Bhīṣma, he also wondered if Kṛṣṇa might devise some means to thwart the plan. Looking down at the arrows lying before Bhīṣma, he said, “Let me keep these shafts tonight. I will guard them carefully and hand them over to you at the start of the battle.”

Bhīṣma nodded and Duryodhana took the arrows. He bowed before Bhīṣma and went to his own quarters, carefully placing the arrows by his bed. Now surely the Pāṇḍavas were doomed. Bhīṣma was famous everywhere as Devavrataḥ, one of unbreakable vows. Nothing would stop him from fulfilling his promise. Duryodhana lay down happily to rest. He could not wait for the next day’s battle.

* * *

Yudhiṣṭhira sat in his tent surrounded by his brothers. After eight days of fighting, it seemed his forces were gaining the upper hand. Although pleased, Yudhiṣṭhira was simultaneously saddened that so many men were being slaughtered. By the time the war ended, the earth would be full of widows. Yet what could be done? He had made every attempt to bring about peace. The stubborn Duryodhana and his blind father were to blame. Now they were suffering the results of their folly. They were so foolish that not even Kṛṣṇa could change their minds. Yudhiṣṭhira looked at Kṛṣṇa. The Yādava hero had assumed a pensive expression. As everyone settled into their seats around him, he began to speak.

“We are becoming successful in this fight. Bhīma and Arjuna are crushing the Kauravas, supported by all you men. In my view, our enemies will resort to every desperate means to reverse the situation. Even now I sense that they are devising some dangerous scheme.”

Kṛṣṇa looked at Arjuna, who sat apart from the others, his head bowed. He thought only of Iravan. The Nāga prince had fought only out of love for his father. Arjuna remembered the day long gone when he had conceived Iravan with Ulūpī. She had raised the boy among the Nāgas, but he had sometimes come to see Arjuna at Indraprastha. Tears fell from Arjuna’s eyes as he recalled the days he had spent with his son. Now that boy lay on a hero’s bed, another victim of Duryodhana’s greed. Arjuna sighed and looked through the tent opening into the dark night.

Kṛṣṇa moved toward His friend and placed an arm round his shoulder. “O Pārtha, holding fast to the duty of a kṣatriya, dismiss this grief. Your son has surely reached everlasting regions of bliss. Shake off your sorrow and fix your mind on the fight.”

Arjuna wiped his eyes and turned toward Kṛṣṇa. How fortunate he was that the Lord of all beings was personally present to keep him fixed in virtue. The duty of a warrior was certainly not easy.

Kṛṣṇa smiled comfortingly as He went on. “There is something you must do tonight, Arjuna. Do you recall the time when you saved Duryodhana from the Gandharvas--how he then promised to return the favor? I believe that time has now come. The Kaurava has in his possession five arrows meant for the death of you and your brothers. O Arjuna, go to him in friendship and ask for the arrows.”

Arjuna remembered that day in the forest when he had released Duryodhana and his brothers. The Kaurava had been consumed by shame, yet his kṣatriya honor had compelled him to admit he owed Arjuna a boon. Arjuna recalled how he had laughed and said he would claim it in the future. He had thought that day would never come, but it seemed that Kṛṣṇa thought differently.

Arjuna began to remove his armor. “O Janārdana, I will always follow Your determination. I will go at once to Duryodhana.”

Unarmed and alone, Arjuna mounted a white horse and rode across to the Kaurava camp. By the kṣatriya’s code of honor he knew he faced no danger. Many times after the day’s fighting, the soldiers of the two armies would meet together as friends. The Kaurava guards stood aside as they saw Arjuna arrive. He was quickly shown to Duryodhana’s quarters, where he found the prince about to sleep.

Duryodhana stood up in surprise as Arjuna was shown in. “Hail, O Pārtha,” he said, pointing to a seat near his bed. “You are welcome. Tell me, why you are here? Have you come to ask for the kingdom without a fight? If so, then I will give it to you at once.”

Arjuna knew that Duryodhana was being facetious. Arjuna would never beg for anything. If he were to take the kingdom now, it would only be at the end of the war, after his enemies were slain. But he obviously wanted something. Duryodhana looked at him curiously.

Arjuna continued to stand. “O hero, I have come here remembering that you offered me a boon. Do you recall that promise?”

Duryodhana shrank with shame as he thought back to that day. “Yes, of course I remember it well. What would you ask of me?”

“I believe you have here five arrows, O Bharata. I wish to have them.”

Duryodhana looked at him with shock, but without hesitation he reached down and picked up the arrows. Placing them across his outstretched hands, he offered them to Arjuna. “Take them at once, Pārtha, but pray tell me how you knew about them.”

Taking the arrows and thanking Duryodhana, Arjuna told him that Kṛṣṇa had informed him of their existence. He then took his leave and returned to Yudhiṣṭhira’s tent, leaving Duryodhana seated on his bed, wringing his hands. Kṛṣṇa again! Maybe the eulogies of Bhīṣma and Vidura were true. There was surely something extraordinary about that Yādava. It seemed He knew everything. Duryodhana lay down and gazed up at the empty expanse of the tent’s large roof. Was there any hope of victory? Perhaps. The arrows may be gone, but Bhīṣma had still decided to kill the Pāṇḍavas.