Bhishma’s End – Part II

… Read Part I here

Arjuna’s first arrow shot up towards the heavens and landed at Bhishma’s feet.

He closed his eyes and thought about his grand uncle. Arjuna’s entire association with the Pitamahan flashed in his mind. His childhood playing in Bhishma’s arms. Bhishma’s valor in the various battles. His fabled stories of taking on colossal armies and annihilating them. His limitless knowledge of weaponry and battle strategy. His sage advice on policy and statecraft.

And then came the more recent interactions – Bhishma’s inability to stop the gambling event. His utter failure in preventing Draupadi’s disrobement. His silence when the Pandavas were sent to exile. His detachment when Duryodhana refused to hand over their kingdom. Finally, his complete powerlessness in averting this bloodshed.

Arjuna’s eyes turned moist at the string of thoughts that burst through. He then collected himself. He took a few deep breaths. Krishna turned around, placed a hand on his shoulder and smiled. Arjuna opened his eyes. Looked in the direction of Bhishma. Krishna knew at that moment – one of the greatest men in history would fall today.

One other person knew – and he relayed it to an old, blind man standing near the window of his palatial stateroom. Dhritarashtra quietly walked towards the center of that room. He slumped into the large seat. He laid back and thought of all the possibilities. Deep inside, he knew Bhishma Pitamaha would not be leading the Kaurava side on the morrow. But he brushed those thoughts aside. Shikhandi cannot kill him. Nor can Arjuna. Bhishma controls his own death. Today he will kill Shikhandi – which will result in the Pandavas losing heart. If they cannot defeat Bhishma the Pandava army would be crushed. With only the five brothers, Krishna and a few other generals remaining, his son Duryodhana will become the undisputed king of Hastinapura. The Pandavas would likely go away into the forests and quietly disappear. Duryodhana and his bloodline would continue to rule the kingdom. All will be well.

Several miles away a savage battle raged between Dronacharya and the little circular formation housing Arjuna and Shikhandi. The formation moved briskly and violently. It killed everything that came in sight. Every single person in that battalion was a mercenary hand-picked by Krishna. Arjuna and Sahadeva vanquished every squadron that came in the way. As the formation moved forward it also moved sideways. Krishna skillfully piloted the horses to the left and to the right. At once he stopped and made the chariot go backwards. Sahadeva matched Arjuna’s every move on the other flank. Shikhandi himself was turning out to be a handful. The two brothers acted like blades of a fan while the formation circled around. Lesser warriors stopped fighting and witnessed the wondrous chakra wipe out everything in its path. Such was the impact of the formation that by midafternoon Dronacharya decided to abandon his original plan of killing Shikhandi and went to form a protective band around Bhishma. They attempted to veer Arjuna’s formation away from the center of Kaurava army where Bhishma was being safeguarded.

Every single soldier in Shalya’s little company was killed; his own charioteer mortally wounded. He had to flee the battlefield to avoid being a sitting duck. Dusshasana’s legion suffered the same fate. His chariot was shattered to pieces by Shikhandi’s barrage. Kritavarma’s division fled at the sheer force of Arjuna’s storm. Dronacharya remained the only hurdle between Arjuna and Bhishma. Arjuna sounded an alert that brought the companies of Drushtadyumna, Satyaki and Virata to tackle Drona, while the formation moved in for the kill.

Bhishma fired his arrows to disperse the approaching orb of an army. But the company was so well trained that nothing could pierce their armor. As they approached his chariot the front of the circle opened and surrounded him. Before anyone could figure out what was going on he was gobbled up and became part of the spinning circle. He turned away from the center to avoid facing Shikhandi. He started killing the company from within. He knew the only way out was to open up the ring that was fast closing around him. He killed several cavalrymen as a small gap opened. As his charioteer rushed to escape, Shikhandi broke away from the center and blocked his way. He aimed at the Pitamaha’s chest and fired an arrow. It just ricocheted after hitting his armor.

Bhishma’s charioteer then quickly turned to the right. The chariot brushed Shikhandi’s whose left wheel came loose. Shikhandi then quickly jumped into Arjuna’s chariot. A fierce battle raged on as Bhishma’s charioteer expertly guided his horses to avoid coming face to face with Arjuna and Shikhandi. But the walls around them started to close in. Arjuna blew his conch. The inside layer of the circle turned around and faced the lone old warrior while the outside layer continued to face outward to ward off the rest of the Kaurava army. As the ring closed in, the ability of Bhishma’s chariot to maneuver became limited.

The time had come. Shadows grew long. Horses were tired. Soldiers smelled blood and were ready for the kill. Bhishma could not escape any longer. He came face to face with his nemesis. Shikhandi and Arjuna in a single chariot. He closed his eyes for a moment. He focused his entire prana at his core. He opened his eyes and loosened the grip on his bow. It felt alien to him – giving up his bow in the middle of a battle. As he let go, an arrow went past his armor and pierced his chest right above the ribs. Another went through his left arm and pinned him to the chariot wall. As he fell, his entire body became covered with arrows, each more incisive than the previous. He knew whose quiver they were coming from.

Blood trickled from each wound. The charioteer watched aghast as the Pitamaha slumped to the floor of the chariot. Sahadeva blew his conch signaling the fall of an Atirathi. The fighting stopped. Everyone looked in the direction of Bhishma’s chariot. The swirling circle stopped. Dronacharya hung his head in sorrow; he knew what it meant. Duryodhana sank into his chariot.

Away from the battlefield, the expert charioteer with the gift of divine vision uttered these words to his master: “Thus ends the Bhishma parva, o king”

Bhishma’s End – Part I

Duryodhana prepared for his day with his morning yoga and pranayama. But something about this morning didn’t seem right. There was a sense of foreboding in the air even though everything around him seemed normal. The soldiers sharpened their swords, knives and spears. The charioteers checked every bolt, every cog of their rides. The hundreds of cooks prepared meals for the day. Water boys made sure their canteens were leak free. Everything seemed normal. But he wasn’t at peace with the daylight breaking through the blackness of the night.

During his hour long meditation he constantly saw dark images. Images of sullen, wistful soldiers returning to the Kaurava camp haunted him. The most disturbing vision was of a grand chariot returning empty from the battlefield. He couldn’t place whom the chariot belonged to. But he knew it was someone important, and it was from the Kaurava side. He proceeded to the battlefield with that fear suppressed deep inside him.

As soon as he surveyed the Pandava line up, he knew what his visions meant. Up in front were the Maharathis and Atirathis: Yudhishtira, Bheema, Drishtadyumna, Satyaki, Virata, the Upa-Pandavas. Where is Arjuna? He lifted his chin up to search for the Hanuman flag. His eyes scanned for the five spotless white horses. It was then that he noticed the concentric circles of foot soldiers, cavalry and single horse chariots at front-center of the formation. At the center of that mini formation was Pandavas’ hero. But the small chariot next to Arjuna’s was the one that Duryodhana couldn’t make out. He asked his charioteer about the identity of that warrior. The answer sent a shiver down his spine. He knew instantly whom the chariot in his visions belonged to.

He instructed his charioteer to pull up next to Dronacharya.

“Acharya, we have to protect Bhishma Pitamaha today. The Pandavas have brought in Shikhandi. Their sinister plan cannot succeed”

“I saw this coming Duryodhana. I am surprised it took them this long. However, our goal shouldn’t be to only protect Bhishma. While ensuring he lives, we must attack and kill Shikhandi. This is desperation on the Pandava side. If we kill Shikhandi they cannot touch Bhishma and victory is ours”

“How I miss my friend Karna today. He would have slain Shikhandi before lunch”

Dronacharya ignored the insult and calmly reminded the prince of Hastinapura to focus on protecting Bhishma while he devised a plan to mortally wound Shikhandi – knowing fully well that he couldn’t slay him while Arjuna and Krishna were on the battlefield.

On the other side, flanked by Arjuna and Sahadeva, Shikhandi stood proud in his chariot. He had waited for this day all his life. He already did as instructed by Krishna by going to Bhishma’s camp last night and ruffling his continence. He could see defeat in Bhishma’s eyes at the mention of Amba’s name. He had the purposeful look of a possessed man this morning. His guidance was clear and simple. Wherever Bhishma goes, front up and face him. Remind the grand old man of his single blunder – the unkindest fault in an otherwise celebrated life.

Shikhandi was a warrior in his own right. He could kill a hundred people with his bare hands. He had the physical strength of Bheema. He was adept at archery and sword fighting. On the third day of Kurukshetra he destroyed Duryodhana’s battalion and made the Kaurava prince run for his life. Two days ago his small army of foot soldiers took on Shalya and decimated the Madra army.

But today, his only assignment was to make sure Arjuna gets a clear shot at the oldest warrior on the field. With that bedeviled look, he pushed forward as the battle conches blew.

 

Today will be a day to remember.

 

Continued here