The Seeds Of Revenge

The entire family was present. All but their precious princess. They slumped in their seats, defeated and distressed.

King Suvalu sat on the grand armchair, at the center, his head sunk into his right palm. His eyes were moist with shame. His other hand sat limp on his left thigh, seemingly drained of life. His hunched-over posture indicating abject failure. To his left sat Vasumathi, his queen. Her face was ashen. But her eyes were dry. She had an unflappable disposition as she watched her sons intently. Within a few feet on four different couches sat her four older sons, appearing crushed and conquered. She lifted her head up to look at her youngest.

Shakuni stood by the large window to the north, gazing blankly at the mountains. He stared expressionless, remembering the events of the day. Less than 24 hours ago he was talking to the emissary from Hastinapura, respectfully rejecting their proposal to marry Gandhari to Dhritarashtra. He went over the conversation minute by minute. At no point did he suspect that their retribution would be this swift. He had underestimated them. Mahabala’s uncongenial exit suggested that yesterday’s episode was far from over. Yet Shakuni miscalculated that they had come prepared.

His discussions with his father and the military chief Supratapa after Mahabala left yesterday only centered on being watchful and vigilant. They sent some spies out yesterday to determine the Kuru dynasty’s intent. Maybe this time they would send a senior ambassador to renegotiate, maybe one of their ministers, to try and convince Suvalu to agree to the espousal. Supratapa went a step further and had a meeting with generals and satraps just to be on the lookout. But nobody, not even the soothsayers anticipated this.

Sometime during the early hours of the morning a small company of Hastinapura’s elite warriors invaded Gandhara. Before the military could be alerted, they entered the royal palace, disabled the guards, immobilized the entire royal family, drugged the princess and took her away. The entire operation lasted less than an hour. Some of the guards were incapacitated by the sheer spectacle of the elite force’s operational excellence. It seemed there was absolutely nothing the well trained Gandhara guards could do.

The entire episode kept playing in Shakuni’s head over and over again, when he heard his oldest brother mumble, “How could they do this to us? We are their allies”

Another got a bit belligerent. “Let’s round up our army, gather all our partners and invade them. Let’s bring our sister and our pride back”

“Are you out of your mind? Have you not seen their capability? 9 chariots, 27 cavalry and 45 foot-soldiers did this to us. A small company. What chance do we stand against their mighty army?” sounded out a third.

“It is true. We have to figure out a way to save our dignity in this incident. We must accept our fate, and that of our beloved princess. We are lucky to be left alive”, said the king, finally finding some voice.

“I would rather prefer dying fighting them than reconcile. This cannot go unpunished. An eye for an eye. Let’s find out how many of our able men were martyred and I’ll vow to kill double that”, said the bellicose one.

“Son, they didn’t come here to kill anyone. Not a drop of blood was spilt during their incursion. They came here to abduct your sister. The only other thing they took was her pet goat.”

“You mean none of our guards are hurt? How is that possible? I know our men put up some fight.”

The eldest son spoke, “No. Father is right. They did not come here to hurt even a single person. Two assailants entered my chamber to disarm. I found my dagger and attempted to stab one of them. He escaped and we got into a minor scuffle. He tried to punch me in the face. The other invader quickly disabled me, turned to the first one and barked, ‘Don’t forget our instructions. These people are family. We aren’t supposed to harm them. No bloodshed.”

Shakuni instantly turned his attention to his brother.

“Did he say that we are family and we shouldn’t be harmed?”

“Yes, For a moment I thought it was very noble of even the lowly soldier to have such belief and self control. If they hadn’t abducted our sister I would even have commended them on their dignity”

Shakuni looked at his mother. The same thought ran through their heads.

Virtue can be a weakness. All it needs is the right set of conditions and someone astute enough to exploit them.

Vasumathi lowered her eyes and let a deep breath out.

Shakuni returned to gaze into the wilderness. This time his mind started racing.

The Gandhara Flashback – II

Continued from here

“I was hoping your father would come and see me. But you’ll do fine. We have a goat ready to marry your sister”

Shakuni felt a gush of blood to his head. Anger surged and his fist tightened. With utmost control he stopped his left arm from reaching the scabbard. If this was anyone else their head would be on the ground, cut off from the rest of the body.

Drawing from his limited amount of poise Shakuni said, “Welcome to Gandhara! We are honored to have a representative of Hastinapura amidst us today. Our nation is blessed to have a visitor from the land of dharma. As you may have guessed, I am Shakuni, son of Suvalu. To whom do I owe the pleasure of today’s company?”

The visitor was curt as he was ungracious.

“I don’t feel the need to reveal my identity to a barbaric tribesman but since I come from a highly refined civilization I feel it’s a necessary nicety. My name is Mahabala, a courtier in the glorious Hastinapura empire. It is your good fortune to be meeting with me. Our regime has learned that you have a princess of exquisite beauty ready to be betrothed. Even though we were snubbed in your search for a deserving suitor, your sister’s enchanted grace and acclaimed virtue has made us forgive this affront.

Your princess cannot find a better spouse than Dritarashtra, our young prince and future king of the magnificent Hastinapura. However, our research has revealed that your sister has a flaw in her fate, which will result in the death of her husband. We are willing to sidestep that blemish by marrying her first to a goat and then sacrificing it at the altar of goddess Kali. Having thus fulfilled her destiny, she can marry Dritarashtra and become the queen of the unconquerable Hastinapura. This is not a request. This is the command of none other than the mighty Devavrata, whom you all know as the great Bheeshma.”

Dizzy from all the information he had to process, and livid at this arrogant and condescending diatribe, Shakuni took a moment to collect himself. For a moment he hoped this was a dream and his attendant would wake him up. Seeing this was real, he felt his throat parched and searched for words.

Where should he start? The fact that Hastinapura sent a menial aide on a marriage proposal? That they would send the proposal for a prince who was congenitally blind? For his astonishingly beautiful sister? That they thought they could ‘command’ the mighty Gandhara kingdom? That his sister had a flaw in her horoscope? That they would even consider marrying her to a goat? The audacity! He would be well within his rights to chop this abject servant’s head off and send it back on a gold platter.

He finally found words.

“O respectable Mahabala! We welcome you to our wonderful land. We have heard many great things about your glorious country. I hope our accommodations have been fulfilling and befitting a man of your stature.”

Rapidly switching to the purpose at hand, Shakuni continued.

“As for your proposal, I have to respectfully decline, even before it reaches the ears of our wise king”

“As you are well aware, my sister Gandhari, who we named after our land, is our pride as well as our honor. She was named thus because everything that applies to our nation applies to her: She is pure and noble. She is simple and humble. She is proud and sublime. She is also astonishingly beautiful. I’ve extolled all her qualities so you can assess the kind of princes she will attract to her Swayamvara.”

“I bear no disrespect to you or your magnificent land. Unfortunately, both your current princes have a congenital flaw that, for no fault of theirs, automatically disqualifies from being prospective suitors. We have had the tradition of ruling out any prince with a birth defect. We cannot allow the apple of our eye to be married to a man that cannot even see. He may have the strength of a thousand elephants. His sense of smell and hearing may be the most elevated amongst humans. But we mountain folk believe a human is complete only when they have all their five senses in working order.”

“As for your suggestion that she has an astrological fault in her stars, I have to respectfully refute. Our prophets and priests have done extensive research on all of us and not one has an imperfection”, concluded Shakuni, looking Mahabala directly in the eye, to leave no doubt in the visitor’s mind as to Gandhara’s intention.

“Then I must take leave of you. I have a long road ahead to reach home” said Mahabala, leaving abruptly.

Something about his demeanor made Shakuni very uncomfortable. His turned to his rider and asked him to go directly to the king’s palace. He also turned to an attendant and commanded that the military chief meet them at the palace.

The Gandhara Flashback – I

The Gandhara landscape was unmatched in beauty. The kingdom that stretched from Takshasila to Purushapura was a traveler’s delight, with its snow capped mountains, rivers and valleys, breathtaking fields of endless greenery.

The people were simple yet proud, humble yet valiant. Naturally protected to the north and west by mountains and having cultivated crucial alliances to the east, king Suvalu and his family were happy and content rulers of this vast mountain kingdom.

Their pride was his beautiful daughter – who they named Gandhari after the land. In addition to her physical beauty she made her name as a virtuous woman, abiding by the customs and rules set in her kingdom. She was the cynosure of all eyes – specially her brother Shakuni. He pampered and indulged her ceaselessly and showered boundless love on his little kid sister.

When she came of age, king Suvalu and his sons scoured the entire area for a suitor worthy of her beauty and honor. They spent limitless hours shortlisting the invitees for her Swayamvara. Shakuni – who was deemed highly astute – was tasked with digging the dirt on all the prospective contenders. Shakuni had a flair for assessing people. Within a short time he could read the other person’s mind, their strengths and more importantly, their frailties. Discovering their weaknesses early on gave him an advantage in any relationship. He used that prowess to his advantage and cultivated many friends and followers. Mindful of the destructive nature of such a gift, he vowed that his loyalty was to his father and his kingdom and that he would always put them first.

Late one afternoon a servant came in with news of a visitor just outside the southeastern city gates requesting presence with the king. The servant couldn’t answer where the visitor came from or what his purpose was. Shakuni asked him what flag his chariot bore. The servant answered didn’t have any. It seemed odd because without the flag of recognition it was hard to pass through the bandit-ridden valleys. The servant did say that the visitor was highly tanned, implying he may have come from a tropical clime. Shakuni decided to go meet this visitor himself on the morrow.

The visitor’s villa is a quarantined mansion just outside the city gates. Whenever unknown foreigners come along they are placed in the estate with strict instructions to observe them and their health. They are asked to perform their ablutions in specially commissioned chambers filled with medicinal aromas and waters so as to keep any foreign viruses and infections out.

The next morning when Shakuni headed to the visitor chambers he was told that the visitor refused to obey the quarantine requests. Additionally he had brought his own waters which he used to wash himself. He also brought his own food and refused to consume any local offerings. The non-compliance angered Shakuni. But he did not let it get to him. He brushed it off thinking they must have different rules in their culture. The visitor’s dietary habits may have forced him to ingest his own food, he thought.

But with some portent he announced himself and was asked to come in to the visitor’s chamber. As soon as he saw the man’s coat of arms he knew where he had come from. The insignia on his vest left no doubt. Two elephants with their forelegs raised, two swords intertwined in the center, the dharma chakra in the background and a diamond crown at the top. This man was from Hastinapura – the land of elephants.

Shakuni’s heart raced. His joy knew no bounds. He had only heard about this wondrous land and its noble kings. The Bharata race was the most celebrated royalty in the entire region. It had long been an ambition of his to embark on a pilgrimage to what he thought was the the land of dharma. He had heard about the mighty Bhishma and his vow. Shakuni wanted to meet the caretaker of the Hastinapura throne and seek his counsel. In his delight he advanced to embrace the visitor, to welcome him to this small mountainous land.

But the visitor’s first words stung him like scorpions on a hot dry desert night.

Continued here

The Suta Putra

A visibly shaken and angry Karna took the reins himself and started riding towards his home. He had just learned that the Pitamaha forbade him from taking part in the war as long as he was the commander.

Karna always harbored negative feelings towards Bheeshma. He secretly thought he could prevail over the grand old man in a duel. He – Karna, the king of Anga – came from the most humble of backgrounds. He didn’t have extended formal training spare those few years with the mighty Parashuraama. He was self-taught. He mastered every weapon known to man. The old guard at Hastinapura was intimidated by his achievements and constantly sought to demoralize and impede him. He was a bitter man as he rode into the chill of the night.

But something seemed off. He knew he was wrong. He slowed his chariot down, closed his eyes and focussed. He sought the counsel of his inner voice. He then made the decision to turn around to head towards the old man’s mansion. He announced himself at the front door and was ushered in.

“Would you like some soma, Anga Raj?”, asked Bheeshma pouring himself some from the decanter.

“I am a very disturbed man tonight, Pitamaha. And I have come to resolve it with you”

Bheeshma looked up, picked another chalice, poured some into it and gestured the servant to leave them alone.

The PItamaha walked up to Karna’s chair, gave him the drink and put his arm on Karna’s shoulder. Karna felt affection from Bheeshma, for the first time ever.

“My dear Radheya. I have always admired you, even though I never approved of you.

I know who you are Karna. I know everything about you. I had sworn to protect this throne – you think I did not do my homework? I have had my spies on you – ever since we saw you at the archery competition – all those years ago.

I found out who you were born to, where your foster parents found you, how you were raised, who you trained with, why you chose to compete. Every little thing. I knew you were a Kunti Putra long before she realized you were her child”, said the grand old man of the Kuru dynasty, carefully avoiding the word “abandoned”

He continued, as Karna listened in amazement, “I also know why you are here tonight, although I didn’t need any secret agent to tell me.

Karna, you are a brilliant warrior, valiant to your last breath with unparalleled skill with bow and sword alike. Duryodhana trusts you more than he trusts himself. There is only one reason he refused to give the Pandavas their fair share – you. He believes that with you on his side, they can be defeated in this war.

When I called him into my chamber tonight and told him you cannot be on the same battlefield as I, I knew exactly what I was talking about. I had to make it sound like I didn’t want you because you were a Suta Putra. Duryodhana wouldn’t understand otherwise.

Listen my child. This is a war of right versus wrong. I will not put you on a spot about which side is right. As far as I am concerned, I am the commander of this army and need to give us the best chance of winning”, said Bheeshma.

His voice quickly went from mellow to stern as he assumed the role of a chief speaking to his ward.

“On the battlefield, I am the leader. Unquestioned, unopposed and absolute. There cannot be any questions in the minds of the thousands of soldiers, captains and generals. I demand their unadulterated and unconditional loyalty. That is the first step to success in a battle. This is war, not a game of hide and seek. You follow me to your death. Otherwise you don’t belong here. I need my people to be devoted, bound and faithful. There is no room for wavering under my command.

With you on the battlefield, the situation changes. You will agree that you are willing to bend rules according to your convenience, even going against rules of engagement to get your way. Take the Virata attack a few months ago. The rulebook says it is wrong to attack a kingdom from two sides. Yet, in your blind fragility to pursue and find the Pandavas you did exactly that, even defying my explicit orders.

If that happens at Kurukshetra – and it will, Duryodhana and his henchmen will rather follow you than me. There will be a mental rift in the soldiers’ minds which will lead to frailty and instability and eventually, mutiny. I will not let insurrection be the cause for our defeat. I will fight till I die, and take as many enemy warriors with me. But I will not let historians write that my army fell due to insubordination. I am a proud and glorious Kshatriya. I will not let your pitiful friend and his wretched uncle taint my august legacy”

Karna sat there bewildered. This man was not only old and scholarly. His military genius was unmatched. He could counsel like a sage and yet galvanize like a champion.

Seeing Karna’s assured look, the Pitamaha gently said, “Go home now, my dear Kunti Putra. Your time will come. Your valor will be spoken about for eons. You will have your place in history. Come see me again when I am on my death bed. You will need my blessings”

The Chauffeur Strategy

Preparations started as soon as the war became imminent. How to garner support and amass armies, which kingdom would guarantee support and who was a fence-sitter. How to get the provincial lords to switch sides. Messengers were being sent around the empire. Old promises were being asked to be kept. There were assurances for loyalty and threats for the infidels.

Meanwhile, Krishna sat in his chamber meditating. He wasn’t worried about the military preparations. He knew that this war would be won not by the might of the sword but by the power of the mind. The Kauravas would have strength in numbers. They were mighty and smaller kingdoms would be bullied into supporting them. Fence sitters would see that the Pandavas were really weak, out of touch with power and physical strength for the past 12 years. Hence their chances of defeating the Kauravas were slim to none.

Krishna saw that Arjuna could annihilate any army. But he was up against generals he had never come across. Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Kripa, Ashwatthama and Duroyodhana himself. Each of them could match the Pandava hero weapon for weapon and strategy for strategy. All the Kauravas would have to do is wear the five brothers down. Their superior numbers would take care of the rest. Krishna had to devise plans that would put the Kauravas at a disadvantage at every step. Every design had to work to the detriment of them. Every warrior must start his battle with a handicap.

He knew who would be the commanders-in-chief on either side. He knew all the backup plans on either side. He knew who would ally with the Kauravas. He knew his side would be heavily outnumbered. He had specific plans for the defeat and eventual death of all the Kaurava warriors. He calculated exactly how many days the war would take. He knew how long each warrior would last. He knew what the formations would be and how to counter them. He knew who had what weapons and how to defuse them. He knew Karna had the Shakti weapon meant for Arjuna and knew exactly whom to sacrifice for that weapon.

As he laid out his plans in his mind, there was one thing missing – the charioteers. In an evenly matched battle, it’s not the fighters or warriors but the charioteers that make the difference. A charioteer is the engineer of the warrior. He is familiar with every nut and bolt of his car. He can recognize the smallest squeak. He has magical fingers with which he controls the reins. One unbalanced pull and you’ve put a horse at risk, endangering his occupant. He must also have the vision of a hawk. He must sense the mood of his hero and decide which target to pick at that moment. When on song, the warrior can bulldoze his way into the opposition. When he gets tired it’s the charioteer that expertly drives him away from the powerful. He must also know his horses. He should be able to communicate with them through his reins. They need to know exactly what he wants them to do.

Krishna knew Arjuna so well that they were practically one person. He knew Arjuna’s every emotion, every thought. He could read his mind. He knew Arjuna’s capabilities, his strengths and weaknesses. He also knew the opposition well enough to protect or expose Arjuna as the need arose. On top of it all he was an expert charioteer with a love for horses. His five stallions were the best. He picked them when they were ponies for this specific purpose. He personally oversaw their growth and ensured they were the most protected steeds in his kingdom.

He knew only one such person on the Kaurava side that could match him. With his extra large eyes giving him a more detailed picture of the world around him, Sanjaya was an able opponent to Krishna. His experience was unlimited. Additionally he knew all about wars and weapons and strategy – which made him very dangerous in a sticky situation. He also had a calm head that would soothe the nerves of his warrior. If Karna made him his charioteer, he could wreak havoc on the Pandava army. He would be Karna’s Krishna and negate Arjuna’s advantage. Sanjaya could be a game changer for the Kauravas. He was noble. He couldn’t be bought or made to switch sides. He was loyal to the Kaurava clan and would lay his life down if Duryodhana asked him to. Krishna needed to neutralize him. He needed to keep him out of the battlefield. And he knew exactly how.

There was a blind man in a palace jittery and impatient to know the daily proceedings on the battlefield. And there was a man with an astounding vision who could relay it to him.