MBK: 2.22: The Nārāyaṇa Weapon

As the Kauravas fled, the Pāṇḍavas came together to discuss their next move. Arjuna was furious with Dṛṣṭadyumna. He smoldered as he spoke to Yudhiṣṭhira. “Drupada’s son has committed a barbaric act. You too, O King, are stained by sin. The preceptor trusted you to speak truth, but you deceived him by uttering a lie garbed as truth. You will bear the shame of this act forever, like that borne by Rāma for killing Vāli. Alas, I too am guilty in that I stood by and suffered my teacher to be cheated and killed by his own disciples. Longing for sovereignty, we have killed our own guru by foul means. I think it better for me to die than to live on after being a party to such sin.”

Arjuna lamented at length, but no one replied. Kṛṣṇa looked at him with compassion. Arjuna’s love for Droṇa was legendary. Unmanned by grief, he fell to his knees and wept.

Seeing his younger brother in the grip of sorrow, Bhīma reproached him. “It is strange indeed that today you preach morality like a ṛṣi living in the woods. Have you forgotten why we entered this war in the first place? Impelled by kṣatriya duty, we have come to punish Duryodhana and his followers. Do you not recall how they abused the sinless Draupadī in our preceptor’s presence? Have you forgotten how we were exiled to the forest even as Droṇa stood by and watched? For years we kept alive the flame of animosity so that we could mete out the proper consequences to our foes. Now that we are doing so, you lament in the name of virtue. If Droṇa’s killing lacked virtue, then why did you swear you would hurl your blazing weapons upon the Kauravas, headed by Droṇa himself?”

Bhīma’s voice rose in anger. Arjuna looked at him in silence. He was never offended by his older brother’s words. Controlling his emotions with difficulty, he listened as Bhīma went on. “Dear brother, you are rending our hearts with your piteous lamentations and reprovals. At a time when praise is in order, you are issuing stern judgments. Surely it is fortunate for our enemies that you are now bent upon forbearance. For myself, however, I see Droṇa’s death as fitting and just. Now we should waste no time in crushing the remaining Kauravas, headed as they will be by the now vengeful Aśvatthāmā.”

Arjuna clenched his teeth and said nothing. Dṛṣṭadyumna stood nearby, unrepentant. Arjuna glanced at him with reddened eyes and the Pañchāla prince addressed him in conciliatory tones.

“O Bhibatsu, I do not feel I have committed any sin. Although a Brahmin, Droṇa transgressed the duties of his order and thus became punishable by all virtuous kings. By using his brahma power, he slew countless ordinary soldiers with celestial weapons. In this way, he acted deceitfully and as a result has himself been slain by deceit. No other course was possible. You should not censure me for killing him; it was for that purpose that I took my birth from fire. I have slain the ruthless warrior by whatever means I could. Otherwise, he would have destroyed us all.”

Bhīma made sounds of approval as Dṛṣṭadyumna continued. “By killing Droṇa I am freed from my debt to my father and my kinsmen. It would have been sinful of me to have spared him. O Pārtha, you felled your aged grandsire. If that was not sinful, then why is my act condemned? Droṇa was a sinful wretch, given to serving sinful men. You should not censure me, Arjuna, but since you do, I forgive you from the love I bear for you and because you are Draupadī’s husband. Be peaceful. Yudhiṣṭhira acted rightly and so did I. Between us we have slain one whose business was injuring his own disciples. Now fight and victory will soon be yours.”

Arjuna fumed as Dṛṣṭadyumna insulted his teacher, but seeing both Yudhiṣṭhira and Kṛṣṇa remaining silent, he controlled himself. He only glanced at Dṛṣṭadyumna, muttering, “Fie! Fie!” under his breath.

Sātyaki, who had been seated on his chariot near Arjuna, suddenly leapt to his feet. Unable to tolerate Dṛṣṭadyumna’s words he exclaimed, “Is there no one who will dispatch this sinful, low, and cursed wretch? O mean-minded one, how do you dare utter such words? It is a wonder that your head did not shatter into fragments when you were on the point of slaying your preceptor. You deserve the condemnation of all pious men. Having obtained you--the disgrace of their race--seven generations before and seven after you have sunk into hell, deprived of their glory. You accuse Arjuna of killing Bhīṣma, but was it not your own wicked brother Śikhaṇḍī who caused his death? Surely there are no men more sinful than the Pañchālas.”

Sātyaki raised his mace as he continued to censure Dṛṣṭadyumna. “If you again speak such words, I will knock off your head with my mace. Simply by looking at you, O killer of a Brahmin, one has to look at the sun to purify himself. If you have any prowess, then stand before me with your weapons raised. I cannot stand to hear you abuse both my teacher and my teacher’s teacher.”

Dṛṣṭadyumna laughed. “O son of Madhu’s race, I forgive you for these words, although you are the most sinful of men. Really, no one should show forgiveness toward someone as wicked as you because forgiveness only leads people like you to think I have no power. Have you forgotten how you, O one who loves justice, slew Bhurisrava, even after he had defeated you and desisted from the fight? Hold your tongue. You should not say anything more to me. If you insist on uttering such words, I will dispatch you to Death’s abode.”

Dṛṣṭadyumna also reminded Sātyaki of all the deceitful acts committed by the Kauravas. Even on the battlefield it had been Droṇa who had arranged for Abhimanyu to be slain by unfair means. In war it is inevitable that the rules are sometimes broken. Still, righteousness ultimately decides the victory. “Therefore, fight on against the Kauravas, O Vṛṣṇi hero. There is no doubt that they should be vanquished and slain by any means at our disposal.”

Sātyaki trembled with fury. His eyes bloodshot, he seized his mace and leapt down from his chariot. He rushed at Dṛṣṭadyumna. “I will waste no more words on you. You will now be crushed by my mace.”

At a signal from Kṛṣṇa, Bhīma jumped from his chariot and stood between the two maddened warriors. He grabbed hold of Sātyaki, who dragged him a few steps, roaring in fury. Sahadeva also sprang from his chariot and said, “O foremost of men, we have no better friends than you two. Your races are as dear to us as our own. You are dear friends to each other. Remember the duties of friends toward friends and exercise forgiveness. This is no time to quarrel among ourselves.”

Dṛṣṭadyumna laughed. “Bhīma, release Sini’s grandson. Let him encounter me like the wind encounters the mountains. I will soon quell his desire for battle. Then I will destroy the remaining Kauravas. Or Arjuna can perform this feat. Let me cut off this one’s head with my arrows. He takes me to be Bhurisrava with his arm lopped off. Leave him. Either I will slay him or he will slay me.”

Sātyaki swelled in Bhīma’s arms and bellowed. He struggled to break free, but Bhīma held him fast. Like the moon spreading its cooling rays at night, Kṛṣṇa then spoke consoling words to the two antagonists. Yudhiṣṭhira also pacified them, and he and Kṛṣṇa managed at last to allay their anger. As they both calmed down and remounted their chariots, the Pāṇḍavas suddenly heard the sound of joyous roaring from the Kauravas. They looked at each other in surprise. How were their enemies so enthused? After Droṇa’s death their entire army had broken and fled.

Hearing the approaching sound, Arjuna smiled and said, “Doubtlessly, Aśvatthāmā has rallied our foes. He who upon his birth neighed like the celestial horse Ucchaishravas, and who has arms like elephant trunks and a face like a tiger, will soon come upon us in a rage. He will not tolerate his father’s heinous killing. Dṛṣṭadyumna now faces great danger. Let us prepare ourselves for the fight.”

The Pāṇḍavas saw the billowing clouds of dust rising as the Kauravas charged them once again. Forgetting their own disagreements, the warriors quickly moved into position, ready to receive the attack. They could see Aśvatthāmā’s golden standard with its lion’s-tail emblem waving at the head of the advancing Kaurava forces. Bhīma and the twins deployed a large contingent of chariot fighters to surround and attack him before he reached Dṛṣṭadyumna.

* * *

As the Kauravas raced back to battle, intent on avenging Droṇa’s death, the sun fell toward the west. Aśvatthāmā, having sworn to Duryodhana that he would annihilate both Dṛṣṭadyumna and the Pañchāla army, thought of the Nārāyaṇa weapon. Coming to within a half mile of the Pāṇḍavas, he placed the celestial arrow on his bow and recited the sacred incantations to invoke the missile. A deep roar came from the sky as Droṇa’s son summoned the weapon. Tens of thousands of fiery arrows appeared on the battlefield and flew toward the Pāṇḍava army like sun rays. Countless red-hot iron balls fell from the sky like lustrous meteors. Razor-edged discuses, axes, flaming spears, and spiked maces filled the air. The Kauravas could not perceive their foes as the hail of missiles fell toward them.

The Pāṇḍavas became anxious. It seemed that blazing missiles were springing into existence on every part of the battlefield. Wherever their warriors were stationed a shower of weapons fell from the sky. The Pāṇḍava army was enveloped in a mass of arrows and darts. The troops fell by the thousands, cut to pieces by the relentless assault. The Pāṇḍava heroes tried to resist the attack, but the harder they tried, the worse it became. The more it was resisted, the more force the Nārāyaṇa-astra seemed to have. Seeing his army being scorched, Yudhiṣṭhira shouted the order to retreat. His panic-stricken voice rose above the din of the falling missiles striking his soldiers’ armor and shields. “Flee for your lives! Do not look back. This weapon cannot be repelled. Surely this is the result of killing our sinless preceptor. I and my brothers will enter blazing fire. O warriors, go back to your homes.”

Kṛṣṇa told Yudhiṣṭhira to remain calm. He knew how to resist the weapon. Standing on Arjuna’s chariot He called, “All you kṣatriyas, quickly throw aside your weapons and come down from your chariots and elephants. Lie flat on the ground without weapons. Do not attempt to fight this weapon, for that will only increase its power. If you even think of contending with the weapon, you will be slain.”

Hearing Kṛṣṇa’s words, the warriors cast aside their weapons and threw themselves to the ground. The missiles generated by the Nārāyaṇa weapon passed harmlessly over their heads.

Bhīma saw the soldiers dropping their weapons and he shouted, “No one should lay aside his arms. Do not fear this weapon hurled by Aśvatthāmā. I will personally check its power with my swift-flying arrows. Striking Droṇa’s son with countless shafts, I will send him along the path taken by his father. O Arjuna, how can you lay aside the Gāṇḍīva and lose your fame and glory? Stand and fight. I will bear the brunt of this weapon on my broad chest. Today you will all behold my prowess.”

Arjuna called back, “Bhīma, my vow is that I will not use the Gāṇḍīva against Brahmins, cows, and any weapon of the holy Lord Nārāyaṇa. Against all these will I lay it aside. You too should stand down, O hero. This all-devouring weapon cannot be checked by the force of arms.”

Bhīma paid no heed to Arjuna and rushed at the Kauravas. Oblivious to the thick shower of missiles filling the air, he stood on his chariot releasing fierce steel arrows at Aśvatthāmā. Droṇa’s son smiled and resisted Bhīma’s attack, cutting down all his shafts as they came toward him. As all the Pāṇḍava warriors lay down on the field, the Nārāyaṇa-astra concentrated its full force on Bhīma. He became completely shrouded by blazing missiles, appearing like a sacrificial fire suddenly sprung up on the field. No one could even look at him, so brilliant was his glowing effulgence beneath the attack of the Nārāyaṇa-astra. Seeing his brother’s plight, Arjuna invoked the Varuṇa weapon. The watery weapon covered Bhīma, affording him protection from the ever-increasing power of the Nārāyaṇa weapon. But Arjuna knew it would not be long before his impetuous brother was overpowered.

Kṛṣṇa suddenly jumped down from His chariot and ran toward Bhīma, telling Arjuna to come with Him. The two heroes plunged fearlessly into the mass of fire surrounding Bhīma. They seized hold of him and dragged him from his chariot. Bhīma roared in anger as Arjuna tore his weapons from his grasp. In an urgent voice Kṛṣṇa said, “O son of Pāṇḍu, what do you think you are doing? If it were possible to check this weapon, we would all be fighting. Be still and do not act so foolishly.”

Reluctantly, Bhīma assented to Kṛṣṇa’s instructions. He lay still with his weapons put aside. The Nārāyaṇa-astra receded. Its numerous missiles went into the sky and soon vanished. When the battlefield was again clear of the missiles, the Pāṇḍavas got to their feet and took up their weapons. Saved from a grave danger by Kṛṣṇa’s advice, they mounted their chariots and horses and roared out their battle cries.

Duryodhana was annoyed to see that his foes had escaped. He approached Aśvatthāmā and said, “Quickly send that weapon again, for the Pāṇḍavas have rallied and will attack with all their power.”

Aśvatthāmā shook his head. “The Nārāyaṇa weapon can be used only once by any man. If invoked again, it will slay the person using it. Kṛṣṇa knew the secret of countering this weapon and it has thus been baffled.”

Duryodhana cursed. “Then use whatever weapons you possess. Your power is equal to that of Mahadeva himself. O son of Droṇa, slay these murderers of their preceptor without delay.”

Aśvatthāmā rushed into battle, seeking out Dṛṣṭadyumna. He assailed him with thousands of barbed arrows. Enraged, he bore down on his adversary with frightening force. He slew his charioteer and four horses and smashed his chariot. Dṛṣṭadyumna came down to the ground and warded off Aśvatthāmā’s attack with his sword and shield.

Sātyaki was near at hand and saw Dṛṣṭadyumna’s predicament. Remembering his duty as a kṣatriya, he came quickly to his comrade’s assistance. He enveloped Aśvatthāmā in a network of arrows which killed his horses and charioteer. Droṇa’s son then leapt from his chariot, still afflicted by Sātyaki’s shafts. Kṛpa came to his aid and took him onto his own chariot. Kṛpa and Karṇa then attacked Sātyaki and Dṛṣṭadyumna, as many other Pāṇḍava and Kaurava heroes rushed into the fray.

Mounting a fresh chariot, Aśvatthāmā came again toward Dṛṣṭadyumna. Once again Sātyaki came before him and Aśvatthāmā called out to the Vrishni warrior, “O grandson of Sini, I know the partiality you bear for this killer of his own teacher, but you shall not save him today. I swear by my life that I will slay all the Pañchālas, headed by this sinful wretch. You too shall fall a victim to my arrows if you try to protect him, as will all the Pāṇḍavas and their entire army. I will not be stopped.”

Aśvatthāmā pierced Sātyaki with a volley of barbed arrows. As Sātyaki reeled, Aśvatthāmā took up a long shaft that glowed with a brilliant effulgence. In an instant he released it with all his power. It penetrated Sātyaki’s armor and dug deeply into his shoulder. Stunned, the Vrishni fighter squatted on the terrace of his chariot, and his charioteer took him away from the battle to recover.

Aśvatthāmā turned his attention to Dṛṣṭadyumna, launching a vicious attack on the Pañchāla prince. Releasing his mantra-inspired shafts with all his power, he pierced every part of his body. Dṛṣṭadyumna was overpowered by the sheer ferocity of Aśvatthāmā’s attack, and he leaned on his standard pole for support. A number of Pāṇḍava heroes rushed to his rescue. Headed by Bhīma and Arjuna, they surrounded Aśvatthāmā, shooting arrows at him from all sides. Aśvatthāmā countered their arrows with astounding speed and skill. He struck all of his assailants with his own shafts and roared out his dreadful war cry.

Not caring for his own life, Aśvatthāmā fought in a frenzy. The thought of his father’s death drove him on as he forced back his attackers. No one had ever seen him fight so fiercely. While holding the principal Pāṇḍava warriors in check, he simultaneously slew a large number of Pañchāla soldiers with his celestial weapons. Kings and princes of various domains came against Droṇa’s son, but they were all quickly slain.

The Pañchālas turned and fled as Aśvatthāmā wrought an awful carnage among them. But he killed them even as they ran in fear, their weapons cast aside. Arjuna shouted, “O son of Droṇa, stop killing ordinary soldiers. Here I am, ready to destroy your pride. Exhibit the full limit of your prowess, manliness and knowledge, and also of your partiality for Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons and hatred for us. Dṛṣṭadyumna and I will crush you. He has already slain your father and now stands ready to kill you as well.”

Aśvatthāmā writhed at Arjuna’s harsh words. Their old friendship from the days in Droṇa’s school was obviously forgotten. Now they were fighting to the death. Glaring at the Pāṇḍava, Aśvatthāmā thought of the Āgneya weapon. He placed a golden shaft upon his bow, muttered the incantations with concentration, then let it go with a cry. At once a thick shower of arrows fell from the sky. A dense gloom enveloped the battlefield, and fiery meteors dropped down. Fierce winds blew in every direction, lashing the warriors with stones. The terrifying cries of Rākṣasas and Piśācas resounded from the darkness, and jackals howled from all sides.

Afflicted by the celestial weapon, the Pāṇḍava forces shrieked in fear and pain. They were struck by blazing arrows that came at them from all directions. Aśvatthāmā’s skill at the secret mystical sciences endowed the Āgneya weapon with menacing power. Men, horses and elephants were slaughtered and burned to ashes as if caught in the final conflagration that burns the worlds. But Agni, remembering the incident at Khāṇḍavaprastha, had his fiery weapon pass harmlessly over Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa.

Seeing the fire-god’s irresistible energy summoned for the Pāṇḍavas’ destruction, Arjuna composed his mind and thought of the brahmāstra. Invoking the most powerful of all weapons, he at once dissipated the dense darkness. As Brahmā’s weapon neutralized Agni’s, the sky cleared and a cool breeze blew. Tens of thousands of warriors lay on the battlefield, their bodies burned beyond recognition.

Aśvatthāmā was amazed to see his weapon checked and Arjuna emerging unscathed. How had he survived the Āgneya weapon, which had killed tens of thousands of other warriors? Both Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa had been right in the path of the weapon, but both were unharmed. Aśvatthāmā felt hopeless. First the Nārāyaṇa-astra, and now the Āgneya weapon--both had been foiled by Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa. How could he contend with such foes? They were invincible. Throwing down his bow in despair, Aśvatthāmā jumped from his chariot and ran from the battlefield. He cried out, “Everything is illusion!” and sped away from the fight, entering a copse of trees. His grief for his father overwhelmed him. He felt as if he would never be able to avenge him. Even his most powerful weapons were ineffectual against the Pāṇḍavas. What was the use of fighting them?

As Aśvatthāmā was running, he met Vyāsadeva, who was approaching the battlefield. Droṇa’s son stopped and bowed before the ṛṣi. He asked him why his weapons were useless against Arjuna. Vyāsadeva explained that Kṛṣṇa was the Supreme Lord. He was Nārāyaṇa, or Viṣṇu; indeed, the immortal Nārāyaṇa was simply a part of Kṛṣṇa. There was no living being anywhere who could overpower Kṛṣṇa or anyone He protected. Even Śiva considered himself Kṛṣṇa’s servant. He too had once been bested by Him in a fight.

Hearing Vyāsadeva’s descriptions, Aśvatthāmā thought better of Kṛṣṇa. If Vyāsadeva’s words were true, then it was no surprise that his weapons had been baffled. As long as Arjuna had Kṛṣṇa on his chariot, there would be little point in further encounters with him. Dispirited and sorrowful, Aśvatthāmā realized that all-powerful destiny was ultimately in control. In the face of fate, man could do nothing except execute his duty and leave the results to destiny. From Vyāsadeva’s words, it seemed as though the Kauravas would be defeated. But who could know ahead of time what destiny would finally decree?

Bowing again to the sage, Aśvatthāmā turned back toward the battlefield. It was still his duty to fight for Duryodhana and, especially, to honor his slain father; his enemies had to be punished. He could not leave the battle now.

As Aśvatthāmā returned, the sun was setting. The two armies retreated, exhausted after fighting for almost two days and a night. Despondent at Droṇa’s death, the Kauravas returned sorrowfully to their camp, while the Pāṇḍavas returned to the sounds of trumpets, drums and conchshells.

When they reached their encampment, the Pāṇḍavas saw that Vyāsadeva had arrived. Arjuna got down from his chariot and went over to the sage. Bowing and touching his feet, he said, “O all-opulent one, I have seen something today which inspired me with great wonder. As I released arrows toward my foes, I saw before me a male being, shining like fire. He held a blazing trident and whichever way he turned, my enemies were burned and destroyed. Although he never hurled his trident, nor any other weapon, his energy alone seemed to annihilate my foes. Who is this personality, O great sage?”

Placing his hand on Arjuna’s head, who still knelt before him, Vyāsadeva replied, “O son of Kuntī, you have seen Shankara, the great destroyer of the worlds. Out of his love and respect for Kṛṣṇa, he walks before your chariot, scorching your enemies with his irresistible energy. Even the powerful universal protectors could not stand before him. Go forth and fight with confidence, O Dhanañjaya. Defeat is not for one who has Janārdana by his side.”

After assuring the Pāṇḍavas that the war would soon be over, Vyāsadeva left. Worn out from the fight, the warriors went straight to their tents to rest for the night.