100 minus 10

“If this is how we fight we’ll end up losing Pitamaha. You are being too lenient on the Pandavas”, howled Duryodhana.

“You are wasting your breath dearest nephew. It is clear which side the Pitamaha wants to see win this war”, said the cunning Shakuni.

“You had Yudhishtir in your sights today. You could easily have killed him. At least captured him. That would have ended the war immediately”, continued Duryodhana.

“Why? You are again being very naïve my dear Suyodhana. Bheeshma would never harm any Pandava let alone kill him. If Karna were in the battle today the Pandava camp would be cremating Yudhishtir’s body tonight. There is a reason the Pitamaha did not want Karna to fight alongside as long as he himself was the commander-in-chief”, said Shakuni adding fuel to the raging fire inside Duryodhana.

Bheeshma thought for a moment. The real reason he kept Karna out of the battlefield was not because Karna was a fearless warrior and general, or because Bheeshma thought less of Karna’s birth. Bheeshma knew very well the real identity of Duryodhana’s best friend.

Bheeshma’s role in the war was first and foremost commander-in-chief. He was the supreme general. His job was to manage and lead eleven diverse and disjointed armies – some of them at war with each other before Kurukshetra. His role was to keep them united and focused while laying out battle strategies. Administering these armies itself was a herculean task.

Bheeshma’s plan was simple. If they prolonged the war enough the higher Kaurava numbers would eventually prevail. All they had to do was protect their generals and commanders. The Kaurava army was more than one-and-a-half times the size of that of the Pandavas. Conventional warfare was enough to defeat them without resorting to special weapons. He needed to keep it simple. Having Drona and Kripa gave him confidence without having to worry about rebellion in the ranks.

Karna on the battlefield would have fiercely complicated things. Duryodhana would have put his entire faith in Karna. He would have gone to Karna whenever the chips were down. He would push Karna to override the Pitamaha’s plans, as all he wanted was to either kill Yudhishtir or capture him alive. Karna would have to say yes, as he was extremely loyal to the evil prince and owed him everything – his name, fame and recognition.

On the other hand Karna himself had been culpable of overriding commanders during earlier battles. Several times he had taken things into his own hands much to the displeasure of other generals. When goaded, he was reckless and uncontrollable. He was driven by his hatred towards the society and his antipathy towards the Kuru royals and their instructor – Drona. He always held a personal grudge against the world. His actions in war would reflect that attitude. His rage usually got the better of his judgment. He would go berserk breaking all rules and conventions of righteous warfare. Duryodhana would love that. He would encourage Karna more and more, much to the detriment of the power structure required in a war this huge. The lower cadres and soldiers would be confused as to whom to be loyal to. It would dispirit the army and result in mutiny. Karna would have created a second power center – leading to catastrophic consequences.

That, more than anything else was the real reason Bheeshma mandated that Karna be kept out as long as he himself was the chief commander. He cared less about someone’s birth as long as they were a worthy warrior and capable of inflicting severe damage on the enemy. But insubordination and disobedience he would not put up with.

“I’ve had enough Pitamaha. I respect you and I know you are the greatest warrior of our times. But you are getting old. Maybe your love for the Pandavas is clouding your judgment. Maybe the physical stress of the battle is making you weak. Tomorrow I shall unleash my own brothers on the Pandavas. I will send ten Kauravas to take care of at least one Pandava”, boasted Duryodhana before storming out of the tent.

Bheeshma still did not say a word. His face was as peaceful as it was when butchering hundreds in the enemy. He turned towards the Kauravas’ uncle.

Shakuni threw a wicked smile at the Pitamaha before limping his way out of the tent.

Bheeshma called his servant and his charioteer into the chamber. He told his charioteer to ride close to Bhimasena on the morrow. Then he instructed his servant to prepare 10 special funeral pyres for the next day.

He knew the mightiest Pandava would kill Duryodhana’s brothers. There was no way to stop him.

Drona’s Fears

The mood in the Kaurava camp was solemn at the end of the day. Clearly the day belonged to the enemy. A single man accounted for a full legion. Did they underestimate Bhimasena’s power? A cool evening breeze wafted through both camps. In the distance, funeral pyres raged higher and higher. The cries of hundreds of women grieving their fallen husbands rent the air. Drona entered Bheeshma’s tent. The look on both the ageing warriors faces betrayed their thoughts. The other old horse – Kripa, soon joined them. For several minutes they did not speak a word. They sat in silent contemplation. A myriad of thoughts flashed through the oldest man’s mind. He assessed himself. Did he have enough in him to go the distance? His mind was willing. But would his body endure the relentless bombardment from the best archer the world had ever seen?

As if reading his thoughts Drona said, “Pitamaha, we need to provide extra protection for you”

Bheeshma smiled. “Are you afraid your favorite student will kill me in battle?”

“I am more wary of his charioteer”

“Acharya, I know what is to happen of me. This is a battle of right against the wrong. There can only be one victor in the end”

“You can end this without firing another arrow. Must a million widows pay the price for one man’s ego?”

“If I wanted to end this war it wouldn’t even have started my dear Drona. Truth and virtue must defeat evil. Death is the only proper culmination. But do not despair. Winter always gives rise to spring. The cycle of life continues”

Drona realized it was futile trying to convince Bheeshma to give up arms and beat some sense into Duryodhana. Drona was a warrior. But he did not want to die. He loved life. He loved his position in the Kuru kingdom. He loved the respect. Above all he loved his son dearly. But he knew his days were numbered. Because in the enemy camp was one man whose sole purpose in life was to kill him. Drupada – Drona’s one time friend turned enemy – had raised Drishtadyumna with only one goal: Kill Drona. With each passing day, that day when Drishtadyumna would snuff the last breath out of him was drawing nearer.

Drona disliked Duryodhana from the beginning. More so after he made friends with Karna. Drona was very proud of his own brahmin birth. He genuinely believed only the most fortunate are born as such. He believed a brahmin’s ultimate goal was to teach and teach he did. He was the best weapons expert in the entire world. He also believed weapons instructions were to be imparted only to those born of the highest order. Anyone not born a Kshatriya had no business learning about warfare and weaponry. He abhorred Karna because of his skill with archery. Drona’s ego would never admit that the skill of his favorite student was somehow inferior to that of the son of a charioteer. He made sure Karna was always reminded of his lower birth. He knew that as long as Karna was around, Duryodhana would not give up. The only way to stop Karna from getting into battle was to keep Bheeshma alive. But the longer the war progressed, the shorter the chances of Bheeshma’s ultimate survival. With Bheeshma’s life was tied his own. If Bheeshma died in battle he was next. Drona’s only chance of making it alive out of this war was to make the Pitamaha surrender – which he would never do.

Drona left the tent decidedly dejected. He turned to say something to Kripa but he was already gone…

How Bheeshma Was Defeated

The hills on the horizon begin to disappear into the blackness of the night as a lonely chariot rode towards the Pitamaha’s tent. The 6-foot figure stepped off and announced itself at the entrance. Still in armor, Shikhandi entered Bheeshma’s tent. Her expression conveyed deep contempt for the old man. A servant is nursing Bheeshma’s wounds from the day.

“It has taken you nine days for this meeting”, said the old warrior wincing in pain as the servant dabs more medicinal paste to his ribcage.

“I never wanted to speak to you. I never wanted to even see you”

“And yet here you are in my tent”

Shikhandi was not going to be drawn into a philosophical discussion with him. Krishna had warned him about Bheeshma’s skill with words. “Be wary. He speaks less but speaks wisely. Do not let him dictate the conversation. Your words should hit him like a shockwave” said the wily charioteer of Arjuna before sending Shikhandi off on his greatest mission.

“I am not going to let you lecture me old man” steamed Shikhandi, taking Bheeshma by surprise.

Sensing a storm brewing Bheeshma waved his hand dismissively to send the servant away.

“I have endured your injustices all my life. Not any more”

“I am old. I am neither the king nor the kingmaker. How could I ever have caused you any harm?”

“Oh how easily you forget. You played this card all your life Bheeshma Pitamaha,” said Shikhandi, uttering the word Pitamaha disdainfully. “You always made everyone think you were powerless. Yet if there was one person that could have changed the course of history it was you”

Bheeshma was not used to having someone verbally attack him. There was only one other time it happened. A very long time ago. Memories of that encounter quickly flashed in his mind. The young and incredibly beautiful Kashi princess spitting venom at him like a vengeful cobra. His thoughts were rudely interrupted by the ongoing tirade by this other woman.

“I was born a woman in a man’s body. All I wanted was respect. But you and your ilk would always cast us down. Scorn us. When was the last time you treated a woman with respect Bheeshma? Because of you I spent the best of my years away from my family. My own father disowned me. I was always made a laughing stock. The only person in this entire world that understood me was my sister. Draupadi rightly saw me as a woman. She was sensitive to who I was. And what did you do to her?”

Bheeshma was taken aback at this accusation. He loved Draupadi dearly. He would not let any harm befall her. “What are you talking about Shikhandi? I would never want to see Draupadi hurt”

“In addition to being insensitive are you blind? Do you know what you turned her into? She used to be a vivacious little child, full of life. Always giving. Never caring for the world. She was exactly what I ever wanted to be. I knew my physical form would always be misfit in this world. At some point I accepted it. I rejoiced that she got in her life all that I never could. But in the matter of a few minutes you and your Hastinapura throne turned her into a stone. Have you looked into her eyes the last twelve years Bheeshma? They are dead. The day Dusshasana dragged her in full view of the court, my little innocent sister died. In place of her is now a demon – a bloodthirsty witch wanting nothing but the complete annihilation of the Kauravas. If there was one person that could stop it from happening it was you. And you sat there without saying a word. You wanted this to happen to her didn’t you? Your vow of celibacy is just a hoax. You wanted to see Draupadi disrobed so your eyes could feast on her.”

Bheeshma sunk into his seat. His entire life began to unravel in front of his eyes. He closed his ears with both his hands. Tears swelled in his elderly eyes. “Enough! Child! Say no more! Today I realize I have failed myself. For all my life I have lived and upheld the path of righteousness. All my life I have served the Hastinapura throne and nothing else…”

“Ha! Lies and more lies. That is what you said all your life. Others might respect you but I know your dark side old fox”

The words stung Bheeshma worse than Arjuna’s arrows during the day. He had always stood by his duty to the throne of Hastinapura. He never wanted any power for himself. He made a vow to his stepmother that he would never seek nor crave the throne. He never wavered from that vow. Not once did the thought of grabbing power cross his mind. Now this young daughter of Drupada was turning his world upside down with these allegations.

“You always wanted to rule Hastinapura. You always saw yourself as the rightful heir. But your lustful father’s love for a fisherwoman put paid to those plans. You have been conspiring against the very throne you vowed to protect ever since. You knew Chitrangada and Vichitravirya were unfit to be kings. You knew Vichitravirya would die childless. You knew the throne would be empty. If you really cared for the sovereignty you would have given up your vow of celibacy and let your own bloodline rule. Instead you let two weak princesses decide the destiny of this kingdom. You knew Ambika and Ambalika were feeble didn’t you? You never wanted to protect the royalty. You wanted revenge. You wanted the complete and utter downfall of the Kuru kingdom.”

Bheeshma was left completely speechless at this harangue. His emotions got the better of him for the first time ever in his celebrated life. Cancerous doubts crept into his mind. Before he could recollect his thoughts Shikhandi lowered his voice menacingly to drive the final nail.

“Do you remember Amba?”

Shikhandi could have driven a dagger through Bheeshma’s spleen and it would hurt less. Gone was the swagger of the most feared warrior the world had ever seen. In its place was a shriveled old man clutching for a lifeline. The world knew Amba had cursed Bheeshma after he devastated her life. But nobody dared speak about it since. Now, this six foot muscled woman standing tall over a shrinking warrior uttered the one two-syllable name that had been Bheeshma’s worse nightmare over the years. Several times he had woken up startled in the middle of the night accursing himself at her death. He genuinely felt sorry for the woman. Defeating the king of Salva in a war was part of his plans for expanding the kingdom.  Abducting Amba was part of the duty to which he pledged his life – the Hastinapura throne. How the two became interrelated he could not foretell. How the two events conspired now to leave him a nervous wreck was the masterstroke of one man – that dark skinned genius who sent Shikhandi here tonight.

Towering over Bheeshma whose head sank into his palms Shikhandi continued in a chilling tone, “You kidnapped her remember?” and added with a vicious snigger, “You perhaps lusted for her too”.

The events of that time flashed in Bheeshma’s mind. The Kashi king’s refusal to invite Vichitravirya because he was a fisherwoman’s child, an enraged Bheeshma gatecrashing the princesses’ Swayamvara, defeating all the princes there including the Salva king, abducting the princesses and bringing them to Hastinapura.

“You made a grave mistake prince,” said Amba.

Bheeshma looked at her the first time. He was stunned at her striking beauty.

“This is not a mistake princess. Your kingdom insulted the Hastinapura throne by not inviting our king to your Swayamvara. It is the Kshatriya dharma that I am following”

“Does Kshatriya dharma allow you to abduct someone whose heart is not with her?”

Confused by this reply Bheeshma stopped the chariot and asked, “I do not understand my dear princess. Your heart is not with you?”

“I have always loved and imagined Salva king as my husband and lord”

“In that case it is a grave mistake to have abducted you. A Kshatriya prince must return anything stolen to its rightful owner. You are free to go wherever you want”

Saying this the young prince arranged a chariot and a small army legion to go with Amba.

A few days later Amba returned saying the Salva king had spurned her, as he felt insulted to take back what he lost in a battle.

“You have only one course of action now prince. You defeated my prince in battle. So you are my lord. You must marry me. That is your Kshatriya duty”

“I am sorry Amba. But I am an avowed celibate. There is nothing in this world that will make me break my oath”

“Your one impetuous action has resulted in turning my life upside down. You have lain waste my entire womanhood. You are not an illiterate to not realize that the sequence of love, marriage, childbearing and subsequent motherhood is the most important realization of being a woman. Today I curse you. You ended the life of a woman. A woman will end your life”

The events of those times distressed Bheeshma to no effect. He had avoided dealing with it all these years. But today, after nine days of exhaustive battles, those words of Amba reverberated in his ears.

“You have done enough damage to this kingdom. Why don’t you just die?” said Shikhandi with finality in her male voice.

Through his misty eyes Bheeshma saw the woman leave the tent and leave behind a grievous gash in his soul.

The chariot rode in to the Pandava camp a few minutes later.

One look at Shikhandi and Krishna knew the war was won.