MBK: 2.7: Bhīṣma Wreaks Havoc

On the third day, the Kurus formed their troops into the Garuḍa vyuha, shaped like the divine eagle with outspread wings. On the neck of the eagle stood Bhīṣma, and its two eyes were Droṇa and Kṛtavarmā. At its head stood Aśvatthāmā and Kṛpa, backed by the Matsya, Kekaya and Vatadhana armies. Other armies made up its two wings and back. Duryodhana, with all his followers, were its center and tail.

In opposition to the Kurus, the Pāṇḍavas countered with a formation in the shape of a crescent, its points toward the enemy. Bhīma stood at the right point, surrounded by many kings. Dṛṣṭadyumna and the immense Pañchāla army formed its middle. Behind was Yudhiṣṭhira, protected by Sātyaki and numerous other chariot fighters. Arjuna stood at the left point with Ghaṭotkaca and his awful Rākṣasa troops.

Once again the two armies closed to the sound of countless drums and conchshells. They resembled two clouds merging in the heavens. As soon as they met, the great slaughter began again.

Urged on by Kṛṣṇa, Arjuna displayed his full prowess. He seemed like the Destroyer himself at the end of creation. Many heroes, hoping to win glory and with death as their goal, came before Arjuna as he let loose his shafts. They fell by the thousands. Arjuna carved a path through the Kauravas.

Fearing that Arjuna might destroy his entire force in one day, Duryodhana commanded his generals to surround the Pāṇḍava. Coming upon him from all sides, they hurled their bright lances, darts, clubs, maces, pikes, battleaxes, mallets and arrows. Smiling in the midst of the downpour of weapons, Arjuna quickly checked them with his arrows. At the same time, he maintained his attack on his assailants. In the sky the celestials were astonished by his extraordinary lightness of hand and they praised him loudly.

As Arjuna engaged with the Kuru chiefs, other Pāṇḍava heroes also attacked the Kauravas. Yudhiṣṭhira and the twins fought furiously, driving back the Kuru forces with their incessant showers of arrows. Bhīma and Ghaṭotkaca, father and son, performed terrible feats of valor.

Clenching his teeth in fury, Duryodhana challenged Bhīma. The Pāṇḍava at once fired an iron arrow at him. Struck on the chest, Duryodhana collapsed on the floor of his chariot. His charioteer quickly carried him away and all the troops supporting him broke and fled.

As Bhīma, Ghaṭotkaca, Yudhiṣṭhira, and the twins fought together, Abhimanyu joined them. At the same time, Arjuna continued his attack on the kings surrounding him. Thus the Pāṇḍava warriors assailed the Kauravas like a tempest tearing into a forest. Although both Bhīṣma and Droṇa tried to rally their fleeing forces, they were unsuccessful.

Duryodhana returned to his senses and again stood in his chariot. Seeing the commotion, he called out to his panic-stricken soldiers, “Where will you go, foolish men, leaving behind your fame? Do not act like eunuchs. The fight has hardly begun. While I am still standing, and while Bhīṣma and Droṇa are our leaders, how will we not gain victory? Turn back and fight!”

The warriors stopped, shamed. Desiring to exhibit their prowess, they turned back toward the Pāṇḍavas. Rallied, the huge Kaurava army resembled the sea surging at the full moon’s tide. As they again rushed toward the foe, Duryodhana rode over to Bhīṣma. “O Grandfather, O descendent of Bharata, please hear my words.”

Bhīṣma lowered his bow and looked across at the agitated prince. It was obvious that Duryodhana was angry and trying to control the harshness in his voice. “O scion of the Kuru race, I do not consider the Pāṇḍavas to be a match for you. When you are fighting, backed by Droṇa, Kṛpa, Aśvatthāmā, and so many other maharathas, how is it possible that my troops are flying from the battle? Surely you are favoring the Pāṇḍavas. Therefore, you forgive them for this slaughter of our men. O King, you should have told me before the battle began that you would not fight the Pāṇḍavas. I could then have consulted with Karṇa and decided what needed to be done. O best of men, if I do not deserve to have you abandon me, then fight to the utmost of your power.”

Bhīṣma laughed angrily in return. “O King, have I not told you on so many occasions that the Pāṇḍavas are invincible? I will nevertheless do whatever I am capable of doing. See now my power in battle. In the sight of all I will chastise the Pāṇḍavas with their troops and kinsmen.”

Duryodhana clenched his fist and smiled. He ordered drums and conches to be sounded. As the sun began its descent toward the west, Bhīṣma advanced toward the Pāṇḍavas, flanked by the best of the Kauravas.

Seeing the Kauravas returning back to the battle, roaring and beating their drums, the Pāṇḍavas cheered and blew their conches in reply. The fight continued. Warriors on both sides again fell like ripe ears of corn in a field. The brave shouts of thousands of fighters merged together and sounded like a roaring sea. Cries of “Stand your ground!” “Strike!” “Turn back!” “On your guard!” and “Here I am!” were heard everywhere, and the stench of blood filled the air.

The warriors could hardly traverse the battlefield, it was so thick with corpses. Strewn with colored armor, turbans and ornaments, the field appeared as beautiful as the autumn sky at night. Though mortally wounded, warriors were seen to rush upon their enemies with pride. Others who lay dying called out to their loved ones, “O Father, O Brother, O Uncle, do not abandon me.” In some places, headless trunks ran about wildly, blood spurting from their severed necks.

In accord with his promise to Duryodhana, Bhīṣma wrought a terrible havoc on the battlefield. His bow was constantly drawn to a circle. Virulent arrows sped in all directions and cut down warriors by the thousands. The blazing shafts never missed their aim. The old Kuru chief trained his weapons on all the principal Pāṇḍava heroes, calling them by name as he fired. His chariot made wondrous motions as it careened about. It seemed as if he was everywhere at once, and he left a trail of destruction in his wake. Everyone who saw him considered that he had somehow multiplied himself a thousandfold by the power of illusion. None could look at him. All that they could see was an endless stream of arrows leaving his bow.

The Pāṇḍavas and their allies gave way to lamentation. Any kṣatriya brave enough to encounter Bhīṣma was immediately dispatched to Death’s abode. Whoever came near him was seen at that moment to fall to the ground. With a single long arrow he pierced three or four men seated on the back of an elephant. With another shaft he slew the elephant itself. Horsemen and infantry were swept away like leaves blown by a gale.

The Pāṇḍava army trembled and gave way, fleeing in all directions. They were so completely routed that no two persons were seen together. With cries of “Oh” and “Alas,” they scattered in fear. Many men with dishevelled hair and clothes were seen running away in terror, throwing aside their weapons and armor. Even the Pāṇḍava chiefs were confounded by Bhīṣma’s prowess.

Seeing their confusion, Kṛṣṇa halted Arjuna’s chariot and said, “O foremost of men, strike Bhīṣma alone. He alone is dispersing your army. Take action or everything will be lost. O hero, formerly in the assembly of kings you said, ‘I will kill all the Kaurava warriors, headed by Bhīṣma and Droṇa.’ O Bhibatsu, O son of Kuntī, chastiser of foes, make good your words. Stand before Bhīṣma. He appears today like the Destroyer himself with his mouth opened wide to consume all beings.”

Arjuna looked around at the annihilation. Even though it was his own army being destroyed, he was nevertheless filled with an admiration and joy. Bhīṣma’s power in battle was incomparable.

But he had a duty to perform. Bhīṣma had sided with Duryodhana. Thinking of the Kaurava prince again incited Arjuna’s anger. “Plunge through this sea of hostile troops, O Keśava, and take my chariot to Bhīṣma. Today I will throw down that invincible warrior.”

Kṛṣṇa at once urged on the silver-white horses, and the brilliant chariot sped unobstructed toward Bhīṣma. Seeing Arjuna coming to face Bhīṣma, the rest of the Pāṇḍava army was heartened and rallied back to the fight.

Bhīṣma saw Arjuna approach and he roared like a lion. He immediately covered him with countless shafts. In a moment Arjuna’s chariot with its standard and charioteer became invisible beneath a curtain of arrows. Kṛṣṇa fearlessly and patiently maneuvered the chariot out from under the arrows. As he emerged, Arjuna fired four straight-flying shafts from the Gāṇḍīva and cut apart Bhīṣma’s bow. Bhīṣma, angry, took up another bow and strung it in an instant. Without delay, Arjuna cut the new bow to pieces with razor-headed arrows. Bhīṣma praised him, calling out, “O Pārtha, O son of Pāṇḍu, well done, well done! I am pleased with you for this wonderful feat. Now fight your hardest with me.”

Bhīṣma whirled around in his chariot and appeared with yet another bow. He shot large numbers of shafts at Arjuna, but Kṛṣṇa, by His expert driving, baffled them all. The chariot went around in swift circles with Arjuna moving about to keep his arrows aimed at Bhīṣma. Both Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa were wounded, and they both resembled angry bulls scratched by one another’s horns. Laughing loudly, Bhīṣma again covered his foe with arrows on all sides. Even Kṛṣṇa was astonished by his skill and power.

Seeing Arjuna’s chariot swamped, Dṛṣṭadyumna rushed to his aid, accompanied by a large number of troops. He released volleys of powerful shafts, which distracted him from his attack on Arjuna. At the same time, the twins hurled their weapons at him. Arjuna, freed from Bhīṣma’s assault, sent countless arrows back at him and at the kings supporting him. Other Kuru fighters rode up to assist Bhīṣma and gradually the fight between all the warriors became a general conflagration.

As the two armies clashed, the sun pursued its course to the western hills. Once again the conches blew and the soldiers lowered their weapons. Slowly they withdrew from the field. Both sides had suffered heavy losses, but the Pāṇḍavas had been particularly afflicted by Bhīṣma’s prowess. As Rākṣasas and carnivorous beasts and birds descended on the battlefield, the troops rested for the third night, exhausted from the day’s fighting.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra was cheered by the report of the third day of battle. It seemed that even Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa together could not check Bhīṣma when he fought with fury. And there was also the mighty Droṇa, who was perhaps even more powerful than Bhīṣma. What to speak of Kṛpa, Aśvatthāmā, and the other maharathas. Even if the Pāṇḍavas somehow managed to overpower Bhīṣma, there was still Karṇa waiting on the sidelines to come into the battle. And he would not have been fighting, so his strength would be fresh. Things looked promising for the Kauravas. The old king looked forward with hope to the fourth day.

* * *

On the fourth morning, Arjuna arranged the Pāṇḍava forces in a vyuha shaped like an alligator. From a distance it looked like a mass of clouds. On the other side the Kauravas arranged a counter-array and moved toward their foe. As the two armies came together, the earth shook.

The chief chariot fighters of the two sides clashed, while the infantry fought hand-to-hand on the ground. Once again a great din arose. The Pāṇḍavas had been cheered by Kṛṣṇa after their battering at Bhīṣma’s hands, and they fought with renewed vigor. Arjuna fought with Bhīṣma and kept him at bay, while Dṛṣṭadyumna and other great fighters slaughtered many enemy kings and their forces.

Thinking of his vow to slay Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons, Bhīma began to search them out. As he ranged across the earth, causing destruction, he came across Duryodhana’s chariot. Drawing up his own chariot at a distance, he smiled as he saw Duryodhana’s many brothers surround their king. Here was his chance to finish them all.

Duryodhana saw Bhīma facing him. The two enemies glared at one another for a moment. Then Bhīma took up his mace, roared and raced toward Duryodhana.

With a wave of his gloved hand, Duryodhana ordered a large division of elephants to charge the advancing Bhīma. Licking his lips and whirling his iron mace, Shaikya, Bhīma leapt from his chariot. He ran straight at the company of elephants with his mace held high. Careering about, he smashed the elephants and brought them down one after another. The elephant warriors could not approach this circling firebrand. Even his terrible shouts made the huge beasts stop in their tracks and tremble.

Behind Bhīma came Abhimanyu and Draupadī’s sons, as well as Dṛṣṭadyumna and the twins. They all fired razor-headed arrows, which beheaded the fighters on the elephants. The riders appeared like trees on a mountain with their tops cut off.

The leader of the elephant division, Maghadaraja, goaded his mount toward Abhimanyu. The immense beast resembled Airāvata, Indra’s elephant carrier. Unperturbed, Abhimanyu shot a long iron arrow which hit the elephant between the eyes, penetrating up to its feathers. As the beast fell like a mountain toppling, Abhimanyu fired another arrow which took off the head of its royal rider.

Bhīma continued annihilating the elephants with mace blows. He felled them with a single stroke and they dropped down with their heads broken open. Others had their tusks, backs and legs broken. They fell vomiting blood and screaming. Bhīma moved among them like Śiva wielding his Pinaka weapon. The Pāṇḍava looked exactly like that mighty god dancing his wild dance of destruction at the end of the cosmic age. His mace, stained with blood and fat, whizzed through the air with a roar like the ocean.

Like clouds driven in a tempest, the elephant forces broke and fled. Surrounded by the carcasses of the hundreds that were slain, Bhīma looked like Rudra standing in the middle of a cremation ground. He roared repeatedly, his red eyes looking about for more enemies.

Duryodhana foamed at the mouth. He screamed out to his troops, “Kill Bhīma!”

All the forces supporting Duryodhana turned and rushed toward Bhīma, who smiled grimly as they charged. The advancing army came like a tidal wave toward him, but Bhīma stood firm to meet them. The other Pāṇḍava warriors flanking Bhīma blew their conches and roared along with him. All of them joyfully met the charging Kauravas with volleys of weapons. They were like the seashore resisting the surging sea. Bhīma alone checked the leading Kauravas by ranging about with his mace. He again created confusion among his foes. They looked on him as if he were the immovable Mount Meru. None of their weapons affected him at all. Most were knocked to the ground by his mace. Those that struck him he shrugged off.

Headed by Bhīma, the Pāṇḍava forces crushed the Kaurava army like an elephant crushing a cluster of reeds. With one blow from his mace Bhīma would destroy a chariot along with its charioteer and the warrior fighting on its terrace. As he roved about like a tornado, the Kaurava soldiers turned their eyes away from him in utter horror.

Surrounded by many of his brothers, Duryodhana roared out a challenge. With a grim smile the Pāṇḍava glared at him. Seeing the prince and his brothers mounted on chariots, Bhīma quickly signalled to his charioteer to bring over his own chariot. Jumping aboard he rushed at his foes. As Bhīma approached them, Duryodhana and his brother Nandaka fired arrows at him, wounding both Bhīma and Vishoka, his charioteer. They cut Bhīma’s bow apart and it fell in pieces to the floor of his chariot.

Unable to tolerate their attack, Bhīma took up another bow, as tall as a man. Releasing an arrow fitted with a horseshoe head, he cut apart Duryodhana’s buffalo-horn bow. Excited to the highest pitch of his anger, Duryodhana took hold of another bow from the many lying in his chariot. He instantly fired at Bhīma a long hammer-headed arrow that resembled a bludgeon. It blazed through the air and struck Bhīma full on the chest. Rendered senseless by the blow, Bhīma fell to his knees for some moments.

The Pāṇḍava forces supporting Bhīma poured upon Duryodhana a relentless shower of arrows. As the Kaurava warded off the attack, Bhīma regained his senses and sent up a shout. He quickly pierced Duryodhana with eight swift shafts. As Duryodhana’s brothers converged on him, he licked the corners of his mouth like a hungry wolf. Fourteen of Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons surrounded him at once and hurled countless arrows and other weapons at his chariot.

Laughing amid their furious assault, Bhīma swiftly fixed razor-headed shafts onto his bow. Sending the arrows to all sides with deadly accuracy, he cut off his opponents’ heads one after another. Duryodhana looked on helplessly as his brothers were slain like a herd of deer killed by a lion. Their beautiful helmeted heads, adorned with golden earrings, rolled in the mud. In a short time, all fourteen were killed and the rest of the brothers had turned and fled.

Bhīṣma came up to Duryodhana to support him and he shouted commands to the army. “Bhīma is wantonly slaying the king’s sons, although they are accomplished in arms and courageous. Quickly fight with the son of Pāṇḍu before he annihilates all our princes.”

The battle soon became general as the warriors of both sides came together, matching their prowess and their weapons. As evening approached another great carnage was wrought among the Kauravas by Ghaṭotkaca and his Rākṣasa followers, whose strength increased with the onset of night.

Seeing his troops receiving the worst of the fight, Bhīṣma blew his conch and ordered the army to withdraw. As the afflicted Kaurava forces left the battlefield, the victorious Pāṇḍavas cheered. Ashamed and dispirited, the Kauravas went back to their encampment. On their side, the Pāṇḍavas, cheerful despite their wounds, returned to their camp with Bhīma and Ghaṭotkaca at their head. They praised and worshipped their two heroes, who had caused such destruction among the Kauravas.