MBK: 1.5: The Martial Exhibition

Among Droṇa’s pupils, Bhīma and Duryodhana, deadly rivals, both became matchless in mace fighting. Yudhiṣṭhira was the greatest spearman and chariot fighter, Nakula and Sahadeva were the best swordsmen and Aśvatthāmā showed the greatest ability at mystical weapons. Arjuna, however, excelled everyone in all respects. He became an atiratha, a warrior capable of fighting sixty thousand other warriors simultaneously. This only increased the envy Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons felt toward him, as well as toward his brother, the mighty Bhīma.

One day, Droṇa decided to test his students’ abilities. He placed an artificial bird high in a tree. Calling together all the princes, he said to each of them, “Take your bows and aim for the bird’s eye. One by one I shall call you forward to shoot.”

The first to be called was Yudhiṣṭhira. When he had placed an arrow on his bow and aimed, Droṇa said, “O prince, tell me what you see.”

Yudhiṣṭhira replied that he saw his brothers, Droṇa, the tree and the bird. Droṇa asked him again and again what he saw and each time received the same reply. Droṇa then reproached him and told him to stand down without firing his arrow. “You will not be able to hit the mark,” he said with annoyance.

Duryodhana was the next to be called. When he was ready to fire Droṇa asked him the same question. The prince replied as Yudhiṣṭhira had replied, and again Droṇa told him to stand down. One by one the princes were called and each responded to Droṇa similarly and was not allowed to shoot at the bird.

Finally Arjuna was called. When he was prepared to shoot and was standing with his bow drawn in a semicircle, Droṇa said, “Tell me what you see. Can you see myself, your brothers and the tree?”

Arjuna replied, “I see only the bird. I cannot see you or my brothers, nor the tree.” Droṇa was pleased. He waited a moment and asked, “If you see the bird, then please describe it to me.”

Arjuna responded, “I see only the bird’s head. I cannot see its body.”

Droṇa felt his hair stand on end with delight. He said, “Shoot!”

Arjuna released his arrow and it struck the wooden bird in the eye, sending it tumbling to the ground. With tears of joy Droṇa embraced his disciple as Duryodhana and his brothers looked on in anger.

Some time after that Droṇa went with the princes to the Ganges to bathe. As he entered the water he was seized by a fierce crocodile. Although capable of freeing himself, Droṇa cried out, “O princes, quickly kill this beast and rescue me!”

The princes were confounded with sorrow at seeing their teacher held by the crocodile. They froze in fear--all except Arjuna. He instantly fired five arrows which struck the reptile under the water and cut it to pieces. Its mouth fell open and released Droṇa’s leg. Droṇa came to the river bank and took Arjuna aside. He said to him, “I wish to give you the greatest of weapons. Take from me the knowledge of the brahmāstra, the irresistible missile endowed with Brahmā’s power. This weapon should only be used against supernatural foes, for if released against others it may destroy the very world.” Droṇa then told Arjuna that no one would ever become superior to him with a bow. He was now invincible.

Seeing that the princes had become expert in arms and warfare, Droṇa went to Dhṛtarāṣṭra and said, “O King, your sons have completed their education. With your permission they may now display their proficiency. Let me therefore arrange an exhibition.”

Dhṛtarāṣṭra thanked Droṇa for instructing the princes and said, “I envy those who will be able to witness the prowess of my sons. I shall attend the display with Vidura who will be my eyes. With his assistance please make the preparations, O best of Brahmins.”

Droṇa and Vidura then went outside of the city and selected a large, flat piece of land. After sanctifying the spot with prayers and offerings to the gods, Droṇa had skilled architects construct a great stadium. It had a vast central area and platforms rising on all four sides. Wealthy merchants sponsored the installation of thousands of beautiful seats carved from wood and inlaid with ivory and pearls. Rows of golden thrones encrusted with coral and gems were built on the royal platform. The stadium’s sides reached up to the sky and were adorned with tall white flagstaffs bearing colored pennants that fluttered in the breeze.

On an auspicious day determined by the royal astrologers, the citizens entered the stadium eager to see the princes display their power. Bhīṣma and Vidura, leading Dhṛtarāṣṭra by the arm, walked at the head of the procession. They were immediately followed by Droṇa and Kṛpa, along with other members of the royal party such as Bāhlika, Somadatta and other kings visiting from surrounding kingdoms. The royal ladies came out of the city dressed in dazzling robes and ornaments, accompanied by numerous maids-in-waiting. The ladies ascended the royal platforms like goddesses ascending the holy Mount Meru.

Crowds of citizens of all four castes thronged into the stadium and marvelled at its beauty. Large sections were built of pure gold and were studded with priceless vaidurya gems. It was decorated with countless garlands of bright flowers and strings of pearls. The sound of people filling the stadium was like the surging ocean. Trumpets were blown and drums beaten, mixing with the blasts of thousands of conches and the excited talk of the people.

When everyone was seated, Droṇa entered the arena with his son Aśvatthāmā. He wore white robes and white garlands, and his body was smeared white with sandalwood paste. His hair and beard were also white, and with his powerful son he looked like the moon accompanied by Mars. The noise of the crowd subsided as Droṇa entered. Droṇa then had a large number of Brahmins perform auspicious rites in the arena. The mantras echoed around the stadium. Expert musicians simultaneously played their instruments, creating a sound that pleased and calmed the audience, who sat in expectation.

The princes then entered the arena, headed by Yudhiṣṭhira and striding like proud and mighty lions. They were clad in brilliant armors and equipped with every kind of weapon. Droṇa ordered them to show off their different skills. Beginning with Yudhiṣṭhira, the princes stepped forward one by one. They mounted swift horses and rode them expertly, wheeling about the arena and hitting both still and moving targets with arrows engraved with their respective names.

Thousands of arrows sped in all directions, and some of the citizens ducked in fear. Others were fearless, their eyes wide with wonder. Sounds of “Excellent! Well done!” resounded through the stadium. The princes’ weaponry skills, horseback riding and chariot driving were breathtaking. After displaying all these skills, they pulled out their gleaming blue swords and rushed, shouting, at one another. They thrust and parried, adroitly dodging each others’ attacks. The people saw with delight the grace, speed and strength of all the princes.

Droṇa then had Bhīma and Duryodhana step forward to display mace fighting. The two heroes glared at each other and bellowed like furious bulls. Holding aloft massive iron maces they circled, each with his gaze fixed on the other. As Vidura described the scene to Dhṛtarāṣṭra, and Kuntī to Gāndhārī, the two princes aimed terrific blows at each other. Their maces collided with thunderous crashes, sending showers of sparks into the air.

The crowd became divided. Some supported Bhīma while others supported Duryodhana. Shouts of “Behold the mighty Bhīma!” and “Just see the powerful Duryodhana!” filled the stadium. Droṇa realized that the fight was becoming too earnest, and he also saw that the people were becoming too excited. He told his son to step between the roaring rivals and stop them. Aśvatthāmā obeyed his father and, moving quickly forward, managed to separate the two princes.

When Bhīma and Duryodhana had stood down, still glaring at each other, Droṇa stepped into the middle of the arena. He stopped the musicians and spoke in a voice that resounded like thunder. “Behold now Arjuna’s abilities. He is dearer to me than my own son. This son of Indra is incomparable at every kind of martial skill.”

As Droṇa spoke Arjuna entered the arena. Clad in golden armor, with a large golden quiver of arrows on his back, the lustrous prince appeared like a cloud reflecting the rays of the evening sun and illumined by a rainbow and flashes of lightning. The invincible prince walked with the gait of a lion, and as he glanced about the arena, he terrified all those upon whom his eyes fell.

A cry of joy went up from the audience. People blew conches and played musical instruments. “This handsome youth is Kuntī’s third son, and he is the best of all virtuous men and the most powerful,” some people said. “He is the son of the mighty Indra and the best protector of the Kuru race,” others added. All kinds of praises were heard from the crowd. Hearing these, Kuntī felt milk flow from her breasts and, along with her tears, it drenched her bosom.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra asked Vidura why the people were shouting so joyously. When Vidura told him that it was because Arjuna had appeared, Dhṛtarāṣṭra said, “How blessed I am by Kuntī’s three sons. They are like three sacrificial fires and Kuntī is like the sacred fuel.”

But Dhṛtarāṣṭra burned secretly within himself. Why had the people not cheered his own sons in this way? Was not Duryodhana Arjuna’s equal? If only he could see what was happening.

Vidura described the scene to the blind king. Arjuna displayed one celestial weapon after another. With the Āgneya weapon he produced fire; with the Varuṇa weapon he produced volumes of water; with the Vāyavya weapon he caused a great wind to blow; and with the Parjanya weapon he created a huge downpour of rain. Arjuna created land with the Bhouma weapon and with the Parvatya weapon he made a hill appear in the arena. Then, by invoking the antardhāna weapon, he made all those things disappear.

As the citizens gasped, the prince displayed all kinds of mystical powers. One moment he appeared as tall as a massive palm tree and in the next he became as small as a thumb. In an instant he went from standing on his chariot to standing on the ground a distance from his chariot. Droṇa had a mechanical iron boar run swiftly across the arena and Arjuna shot five arrows into its mouth as if they were one shaft. He shot twenty arrows into the hollow of a cow’s horn swinging on a rope around a pole. After showing his skill with a bow, Arjuna took out his sword and mace, demonstrating many dexterous moves with them both.

The exhibition was almost over. The music had stopped and the crowd’s excitement had cooled. Suddenly they heard at the stadium gate the sound of someone slapping his arms with great force and roaring like an enraged elephant. Obviously some hugely powerful man had arrived. The people looked around for the source of the sounds. “Are the mountains cracking asunder? Is the earth itself splitting apart?” Others thought that some jealous god had come there wishing to display his might.

Droṇa jumped up and stood surrounded by the five Pāṇḍavas, resembling the moon surrounded by bright stars. Duryodhana stood with his hundred brothers like Indra with the celestials. Everyone looked toward the gate. Coming toward them was a warrior who looked like the blazing sun. He had a brilliant coat-of-mail which was a natural part of his body, and was adorned with earrings that shone like fire. The earth resounded with his steps and he seemed like a moving hill. The crowd was motionless. They stared at the new arrival. Who was this?

The handsome youth strode straight up to Droṇa. He bowed somewhat indifferently at his feet, then offered his respects to Kṛpa. Turning again to Droṇa, he spoke in a voice that could be heard in every part of the stadium. “I am Karṇa. With your permission, O Brahmin, I shall show skills equal to those of Arjuna. Indeed, I shall excel all the feats displayed by Kuntī’s son. Watch them and be amazed.”

The crowd stood up together as if lifted by some instrument. They roared and cheered. Arjuna felt abashed and angry. He clenched and unclenched his fists, which were covered with iguana-skin finger protectors. His eyes seemed on fire as he glared at Karṇa.

Droṇa nodded his assent and Karṇa moved to the center of the arena. At once he began to show his skills. He matched every feat Arjuna had displayed and the crowd shouted their approval. When he had finished, Duryodhana went over and warmly embraced him. Here was someone who could stand against that haughty Arjuna. The Pāṇḍava prince had been the center of attention for too long. Here was his equal. Duryodhana laughingly said to Karṇa, “You are welcome, O mighty hero. By good fortune you have come here today. Tell me, what can I do for your pleasure? I and the Kuru kingdom are at your command.”

Duryodhana had seen Arjuna’s anger. He smiled at the Pāṇḍava as Karṇa replied, “By your words I already consider my desire fulfilled. I only wish for your undying friendship. But I have one request: please allow me to engage in single combat with Arjuna.”

Arjuna stiffened and grasped his bow. The minute he had seen the obviously arrogant Karṇa he had felt an intense rivalry. Maybe he would get the chance to end it immediately.

Duryodhana laughed. “Enjoy with me the good things of life, O hero,” he replied. “Together we shall reside in happiness.”

Arjuna had heard enough. He interrupted Duryodhana in a thunderous voice. “O Karṇa, the path belonging to the unwelcome intruder or the uninvited speaker shall now be yours.”

Karṇa smoldered like a glowing ember. “O Pārtha, this arena is not meant for you alone. It is open to all heroes, including those superior to you. Why do you argue with words alone? Those who are strong do not waste words. Speak with your arrows and I shall sever your head before your guru’s eyes.”

Arjuna turned to Droṇa who nodded slightly. Fixing his gaze on Karṇa, the Pāṇḍava advanced for combat. Duryodhana embraced Karṇa who went before Arjuna, his weapons at the ready. Suddenly the sky was filled with heavy clouds and bright flashes of lightning. Indra’s great rainbow appeared overhead. The clouds above Karṇa, however, dispersed, and the sun shone brightly, lighting up his form. Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons stood behind Karṇa, while Droṇa, Kṛpa and Bhīṣma stood behind Arjuna.

In the terraces the crowd became divided. The royal ladies also could not choose between the two heroes. As they faced each other, Kuntī was filled with horror and fainted. Vidura was surprised to see this and raised her gently, sprinkling her face with cool water. He asked her what was wrong, but Kuntī said nothing. She sat holding her head. How could she tell anyone the secret she had kept hidden for so long? Seized by fear she looked at the arena and, feeling helpless, prayed silently.

Just as the two warriors were about to duel, Kṛpa, who knew all the rules of combat, stepped forward and asked, “This son of Pāṇḍu is the child of Kuntī and a descendent of the royal Kuru race. Let us hear from his opponent what is his lineage and race. Once he knows this, Pārtha may decide whether or not to fight.” Kṛpa looked at Karṇa. Duels were fought only among equals.

Karṇa blushed and said nothing. It was clear that he was not from a royal line. Seeing his discomfiture, Duryodhana spoke out. “Nobility does not depend only upon birth. Those who are heroes and leaders of soldiers may also claim nobility, even if not born in royal lines. But if Arjuna will duel only with another king, then I shall immediately give Karṇa a kingdom.”

Without delay Duryodhana arranged for a ceremony right there in the arena. He sent someone to fetch sanctified water and sprinkled it upon Karṇa’s head. “You shall become the king of Aṅga.” The crowd cheered as Brahmins chanted the appropriate mantras and offered Karṇa rice, flowers and holy water. Karṇa sat upon a golden seat and was fanned with yak-tail whisks. He was deeply moved by Duryodhana’s gesture of friendship and said in a choked voice, “What can I ever do to repay you, O King? I shall always be at your command.”

Duryodhana replied, “Your friendship alone is all that I desire.”

The two men embraced each other, and the citizens became even more excited. Then, just as the duel between Karṇa and Arjuna seemed about to commence, another man suddenly ran into the arena. He was trembling with age and supported himself on a staff. Perspiring and with his cloth hanging loosely from his body, he moved quickly toward Karṇa. At once Karṇa got down from his seat and placed his head, still wet from the coronation, at the man’s feet. He stood up and said to the inquisitive Duryodhana, “This is my father, Adhiratha.”

Adhiratha had been present in the crowd and wanted to congratulate his son upon his coronation. He was a charioteer and was instantly recognized as such by both his dress and his name. He embraced his son tightly and shed tears of happiness.

Seeing all this Bhīma jeered, “O son of a charioteer, you do not deserve death at Arjuna’s hands. You had best take up the whip and guide a chariot. Indeed, you no more deserve the kingship of Aṅga than a dog deserves the sacrificial offerings of ghee meant for the gods.”

Karṇa looked down in embarrassment. Duryodhana rose up in anger from the midst of his brothers, like an infuriated elephant rising out of a lake full of lotuses. “O Bhīma, you should not speak such words. How can someone like this be of inferior birth. A hero’s first quality is his strength and prowess. We have all seen Karṇa’s power today.”

Duryodhana then named different gods and heroes whose births had been unusual. Droṇa himself was said to be born from a pot, Kṛpa from a piece of heath and the great god Kārttikeya from a clump of reeds. Even the Pāṇḍavas’ birth was mysterious. “Can a deer bring forth a lion? Look at this man, his natural coat of armor and his marks of auspiciousness. I do not consider him to be a charioteer at all.”

Duryodhana gazed defiantly at the Pāṇḍavas. “If anyone dislikes my having crowned Karṇa, then let him step forward and bend his bow in combat.”

The crowd was roused by Duryodhana’s heroic speech. They cheered and sat expectantly. Now there would surely be a great duel between two mighty heroes. But during Duryodhana’s speech the sun had set. The dispute would have to be settled another day. Duryodhana took Karṇa by the hand and led him out of the arena, which was now lit by countless lamps. The Pāṇḍavas also left, along with Droṇa, Kṛpa and Bhīṣma. Then the citizens returned to their homes. Some of them named Arjuna and some Karṇa, while others pointed to Duryodhana, as the victor of the day.

Kuntī thanked the Lord within herself. As she watched Karṇa leave the arena her mind went back to the day of his birth. She had only wanted to test Durvāsā’s boon. She had no idea the mantra would prove so powerful. Kuntī remembered how she had been lying on her couch watching the brilliant sun rise over the Ganges. What if she could call the sun-god to her? The mantra had come to mind and almost at once the blazing Sūrya was standing before her. Kuntī had been amazed, then horrified when he told her that he could not leave without giving her a child. “I am yet a maiden,” she protested. “What will everyone say?” Sūrya smiled. By his power she would conceive a son and still remain a maiden.

And so it had happened. The god left and in due course the boy was born. Kuntī had marvelled at the baby’s natural golden armor and earrings, the same armor and earrings she had seen on Karṇa as he marched into the arena. She recalled how that armor had shone in the morning sun as the boy floated away in his basket on the river. Kuntī wept again as she recalled how she could not tell anyone she had given birth and how, blinded by tears, she had pushed the baby out into the flowing river. Adhiratha must have found the basket and raised her son. As Karṇa strode off with Duryodhana, Kuntī led Gāndhārī back to the palace.