The Jayadratha Conundrum

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Word quickly rippled through both camps that Arjuna had vowed to kill Jayadratha on the morrow, failing which he would give up his weapons.

When Dronacharya first heard this, he was surprised. He didn’t believe his best pupil would make a pledge that rash. Secondly, why Jayadratha? The main architects of Abhimanyu’s death were the eight men that surrounded him and killed him mercilessly, breaking all rules, and attacking a young warrior from all sides, killing his charioteer and destroying his vehicle. The more Drona thought about it, the more he detected Krishna’s brilliant mind behind this proclamation.

Jayadratha was a relatively small fish for Arjuna. Arjuna could kill him in his sleep. Arjuna doesn’t have to use any of his prized weapons against him. There were many a weapon in Arjuna’s arsenal which, when used once, would be rendered useless. Krishna knew that the emotion of a lost child would drive Arjuna to rage. If he had learned that it was a pack consisting of Karna, Duryodhana and Drona who killed Abhimanyu, he would go after them with a vengeance. But it would be impossible to kill them all at the same time, even for Arjuna. There was still thousands of units of army still standing on the Kaurava side, protecting, and hiding these warriors. Using his precious weapons against them on these days would prove futile. They would be more effective, and likely hit their targets when interference was much less. Eliminating the lesser combatants, and killing off the multitude of armies would isolate the heavyweights, and they can be easily hunted down and butchered.

Drona admired Krishna’s game plan. For someone who made people believe he was a mere milkman, he was an astute commander, with advanced understanding on war games. For someone who said he wouldn’t pick up a weapon and only hold the reins to Arjuna’s chariot, he was virtually running the war entirely according to his plan.

Much like Krishna, Drona summoned the Kaurava astrologer as well to his camp that night. He, being a brahmin himself, had read the calendar. He knew about the celestial event the next day. He knew it was going to be a solar eclipse. They were discussing the exact time of the event when the guard announced that Duryodhana was arriving, with his brother-in-law in tow. Before he could send the scholar away, the Kaurava prince entered the chamber, ecstatic and in an obvious celebratory mood.

“I am sure you heard by now, acharya! All we need to do is ensure Jayadratha is protected and we have won this war. I have already made arrangements. Tonight, Jayadratha will quietly slip away and disappear into the darkness. I have instructed him to go and hide in Indraprastha. That is the last place they expect him to go. The Pandavas have spies along the routes to Hastinapura, and the Sindhu capital. But not Indraprastha. He will be safe there. And anyways, all he needs to do is hide his face to Arjuna until sunset tomorrow.”

“So the son-in-law of the mighty Kaurava king Dhritarashtra, the brother-in-law of the powerful Duryodhana, will disgracefully flee the battlefield in the middle of the night, like a lowly thief running away with his stolen wares. That is the legacy you want to leave behind for your future generations. That is how you want Draupadi to remember you. So be it”, said the wily acharya looking at the two brothers in law.

His words stung both of them. But they hurt Jayadratha more. The thought that the beautiful Draupadi, who may become his one day, would think of him as a coward, disturbed him. But he also knew that staying on the battlefield would mean certain death.

Drona read his mind and proceeded, “I have taught Arjuna everything he knows. I know his every move. Remember, it was my idea to isolate him from the Chakravyuha today to kill Abhimanyu. And we executed that plan to perfection. What makes you think we cannot protect him tomorrow? I have a plan in mind, which is why I called our astrologer over, to figure out exactly how many hours of sunlight we have tomorrow, and to give me an estimate of when sunset will happen tomorrow”

He looked at his scholar, who nodded, and did not contradict his statement.

“There is only one condition. Jayadratha has to stay alongside and behind me all day until sunset, and must not utter a word in anger. Arjuna may guess that Jayadratha is by me and attack my army. But he cannot defeat me. As long as Jayadratha keeps his head down, he is safe. At sunset, he is free to go his own way. Until then, he will be my shadow”

Duryodhana looked at Jayadratha, only half convinced. But Jayadratha made up his mind. For the sake of the woman he craved, he was going to risk death than retreat like a coward. “I will stay with you”, he concluded decisively.

Drona nodded and repeated, “Remember, no matter what, do not let your position be known. No emotional outbursts, no overt celebrations, and no blowing of the conch until I say it is sunset”

As they trudged off, Drona looked at his scholar with a blank expression. The astrologer looked back into the acharya’s eyes. He wanted to say something, but decided not to. He picked up his parchments and left, with the sound knowledge that the war would end soon.

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The Vow To Kill

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As they approached the Pandava camp, Arjuna noticed that the mood was sombre. He looked at the faces, and could tell something was wrong. Soldiers were avoiding his gaze. Some of them sat crestfallen, looking lost. He knew something was amiss, something terrible had happened. His first thought was the Yudhishtira was hurt or captured. But he brushed that aside. If anything happened to Yudhistira, he would have known on the battlefield. Was Bheema hurt? There was no way. Bheema could defeat the entire Kaurava army by himself. Second to Arjuna, Bheema was an archer par excellence. With his phenomenal physical strength, it was impossible to even get near his mighty brother. Nakula or Sahadeva? No! Bheema promised to Kunti that he would protect the twins, even if he had to die in the process. So there was no way they could be in any danger. His thoughts turned to several other warriors, Drishtadyumna, Satyaki, Drishtaketu, Virata, Drupada. But for some reason none of those names seemed to fit the mood. And for some reason, he didn’t think of the first name that should have come to his mind.

He entered the main pavilion, with Krishna following closely behind. The first face he saw was that of Nakula, his little brother. His eyes were red, obviously from crying. His shoulders were slouched over, like a man defeated. He looked up at Arjuna, and without a word, streams of tears flowed down incessantly, hastening down the throat and disappearing into armor. Arjuna stopped in his tracks, and looked around, noting all the faces that he expected to see. He was used to this scene at the end of the day. All the Maharathis and Atirathis gathered right after the day, for a quick headcount, before briefly leaving to freshen up. They then reconvened for dinner, and spoke to strategy. Every day, one young voice would regale them with his heroics, of how he defeated the greatest of warriors on the other side, how they escaped certain death at his young hands.

As soon as he realized who was missing, Arjuna’s walk of pride disappeared. He dropped to his knees, in the middle of the pathway, letting go of his Gandeeva. He bent over and hid his face in his palms, as anguish gushed forth from his heart into his mouth, sobbing like a child. He was uncontrollable, as he felt like ripping his armor off and bawling. He hunched over and wept inconsolably, muttering incoherent words. After a short while he lifted his head, looked up, and let out a deafening scream.

Everyone let him be for a few moments, allowing him to gather his composure. After he settled down, he picked himself up and stumbled to the nearest seat. He swallowed hard, and looked up, sorrow, anger and desolation swirling in his head. He turned to Yudhishtira, because he knew he would get the right answer, “who did it?”

Yudhishtira was stumped. He wasn’t sure who exactly killed Abhimanyu, because according to many accounts, several Kaurava warriors surrounded and attacked him. But nobody had a clear version of who they were, and how they executed the plan. All he knew was that he and the rest of the Pandavas attempted to surround and protect Abhimanyu but Jayadratha blocked them at every stage. According to him, Jayadratha was the main cause for their inability to protect their prodigious scion. That was the first name that came to him when Arjuna asked the question.

“Brother, we tried our hardest to protect our favorite nephew. But Jayadratha…”

Arjuna jumped up from his seat as soon as he heard the name, picking up his bow and holding it high over his head with his left hand. He pulled the string hard with his right thumb and index finger, and let go. The resulting twang made a resonating sound, bringing everyone’s attention to him.

“I, Arjuna, the greatest warrior in this world, proclaim at this time, that before sunset tomorrow, I will sever Jayadratha’s head from his body, and failing to do so, will cease fighting. Let this be known to the Kaurava camp. Tomorrow Jayadratha will breathe his last”

The proclamation stunned everyone in the room, except one. Yudhishtira and Drishtadyumna exchanged glances, both thinking what would happen if Arjuna failed to kill their brother in law. But they decided not to say a word at this time. Nobody else had anything to say, as they all sat pensive. Arjuna slowly lowered his Gandeeva and walked out, preferring to be left alone at this hour of grief.

The one person that wasn’t surprised looked out and smiled. He immediately went over to the adjacent tent and sent for three scholars who studied weather patterns and geographical rotations. He was told earlier by the three that there was a major celestial event coming up on the 14th day of the war, which could lead the generals and their armies to superstition, and hence act in ways contrary to normal wartime behavior. He knew it was new moon the next day, and from the astrological studies he learnt, it can get in the way of the sun from time to time. He wanted to know precisely at what time this event would happen, and how could take advantage of it.

He calculated mentally that there were probably about five days of war remaining. And tomorrow, Arjuna would begin his annihilation of the Kauravas.

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Arjuna’s Resolve

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Duryodhana approached the lifeless body of Abhimanyu watchfully. He was used to ruses and deceit, so he wanted to make sure this young man was not pulling one on him. Dronacharya saw that and assured the Kaurava prince that Abhimanyu was indeed dead, and that honorable men do not resort to such traps.

Soon word spread across the battlefield, through conches and drumbeats. Although the soldiers weren’t sure who was killed, it was fairly certain one of the heavyweights perished today. Bheema and Yudhishtira instantly knew what the beats meant. Yudhishtira’s heart bled and he was overcome with anguish. How could he face his brother? He was to protect Abhimanyu. Abhimanyu was supposed to the future king, the future emperor of Hastinapura and Indraprastha. Now, his body was lying somewhere in the battlefield, among thousands of slain men. What would he tell Arjuna and Krishna? His charioteer sensed his grief and took him away from the action, towards the Pandava camp.

The skies turned dark red as the blood thirsty battlefield began to devour the simmering sun into its belly for the night. Arjuna, having engaged in a fierce battle with Susarma and the Samsaptakas, was bewildered. When did these warriors become so powerful? Or were his own powers on the wane? Under any other circumstances, a couple of hours would be enough to finish them off. But today, they seemed to have this verve that he was unable to kill even a single warrior. He laid waste to their army, butchering virtually every division, but the warriors themselves seemed to find new ways to escape and fight back. Their taunts and insults made it even bothersome.

As the battles drew close for the day and it was evident that he would live through the night, Susarma increased his volley of verbal barbs. He mentioned Draupadi several times, enraging the Pandava. Krishna kept Arjuna’s temper in check all throughout. At one point, when it became overwhelming and Arjuna picked up his most powerful weapons, intending to wipe out the entire area. Krishna, mindful that that weapon would be put to better use on more powerful warriors like Karna, decided to switch strategy. He knew who sent Susarma and company. He knew what was going to happen on the other side of the battlefield. And he knew he needed to switch Arjuna’s attention away from the Samsaptakas. The man who blocked his cousins from protecting his nephew must be eliminated on the morrow. He swung into action.

“Arjuna, we need to find out how these Samsaptakas survived today, who is their driving force. They are acting at someone else’s behest. Any other day they would have fled in fear at your mere sight. But today, they challenged you in the middle of the day, and Susarma is mentioning Draupadi again and again. Something doesn’t add up. I want to find out more”. He then turned his attention to Susarma

“Susarma, you know very well that you cannot defeat Arjuna today, or any other day. As long as he is able, and I am by his side, nobody can touch him. You have already been defeated by him before, even during this war. Yet you challenged him today, thinking you can take him on. You have clearly been misled into believing you can defeat the greatest archer on earth. Why don’t you reveal your secrets and Arjuna will spare you in this war, not just today but later as well”

Susarma thought for a while. Although taken by surprise, he was honored to be addressed by SriKrishna himself, to begin with. He looked around and pondered at the offer. His army was decimated. His kinsmen were all but dead. Even though his warriors were alive, there was nothing to fight for. Arjuna had systematically dismantled his entire force. His pride, and the prize promised by Jayadratha were the only motivations at this point. He knew that after tonight, he and his men will have to suffer the ignominy of serving under someone else’s command. Since it was reduced to a small band of fighters, he would be assigned to some second level general like Uluka or one of Dusshasana’s sons, instead of a more desirable Karna or Ashwatthama. A touch of regret came over him. He wished he hadn’t listened to Jayadratha. Yet he was defiant. He wanted to incite Arjuna one last time and force him into making a mistake.

“O Vaasudeva, I and my Trigartha brothers know the powers of Partha very well. We have no pretense about where we stand. But we have sworn to frustrate him as much as we can. We seek revenge for all the defeats we suffered at his hands. We are prepared to die in the process. Arjuna after all is human. And every human has weaknesses. Your cousin’s weakness is his beautiful wife. Duryodhana can have his kingdom and the entire lands of Indraprastha. After this war, most of those lands will be barren, because most able-bodied men will be dead. What use is such land to us? The likes of Jayadratha and I, we care more about beauty. When the Pandavas are defeated, he and I will take Draupadi and share her. She is used to being shared anyways. At least this time it is only two and not five”

Krishna smiled. He had been waiting to get Jayadratha’s name out of Susarma all afternoon. Hearing that name, Arjuna went berserk. Jayadratha had, on several occasions, indicated he lusted after Draupadi. He insulted her for having five husbands, adding that she can take another – him – without question. Arjuna had wanted to cut Jayadratha’s throat multiple times in the past. But the simple fact that he was the husband of their only sister let him spare the brother-in-law. With this latest episode, he crossed all barriers. Jayadratha had now wagered the Pandava pride and attempted to sell her to these Trigartas.

At that moment, Arjuna resolved. Jayadratha had to die, and die soon

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The Immortal

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Abhimanyu writhed as the arrows pierced his body armor and disabled him. The pain shot through his legs, traveling rapidly through the veins, and affected his ability to aim. His next arrow, which he meant for Duryodhana’s flag post, missed its target. But the power and skill of this young man was such that the arrow hit and downed the flag post of Brihadbala, who was right behind Duryodhana in the secondary circle. Brihadbala, a direct descendant of Rama, seethed in anger at this insult.

The flag of a warrior was his signature, his pride. Men poured their heart and soul into designing their flag. A powerful flag was a statement. A mighty flag drover fear into opponents hearts. Many times, a superhero warrior won wars by just turning up with his flagged chariot, without having to draw a weapon.

Brihadbala forgot all about rules, and raced towards the wounded Abhimanyu, going past Duryodhana and wanting to finish off this brash Pandava youngster. He realized his mistake as soon as his chariot went past the Kaurava’s. The arrow cut his reins, separating his horses from their payload, and Brihadbala tumbled down, out of balance. But he quickly got up on his feet, grabbed his sword, and charged at Abhimanyu.

Abhimanyu assessed his situation. Both his legs were shot, but he could still move. After the initial shock, his mind quickly recovered and focused. He knew he had limited mobility. He had to use his supreme archery skills to keep the enemy at bay. He had all his weapons close by. He also looked at his chariot, and made a mental assessment of all the pieces he could use as weapons. He saw the approaching Brihadbala, sword in hand. He picked up his bow and drew the arrow back, aiming to cut the sword in two. But before he could release his arrow, his bow was broken. Dusshasana, shooting from behind Abhimanyu’s back and taking advantage of his immobility, wickedly laughed as he hurled a spear, leaving Abhimanyu’s weapon of choice ineffective.

This was a well planned, and well-orchestrated attack. Although Duryodhana personally wanted to kill Abhimanyu, he knew that a single assassin would sign his own death warrant. Arjuna would effect such a vengeance on the killer that half the Kaurava army would be demoralized just thinking about it. Duryodhana wanted every one to have equal part in killing this kid, so that Arjuna’s wrath could be dispersed, and hence contained.

Abhimanyu moved slowly and painfully. His feet felt like they were tied to a rock. But his abilities weren’t diminished. He swung around, turning his back to the marauding Brihadbala, picked up a spear from his chariot, and in a single swoop heaved it at his attacker. The spear twirled its way in the air and cracked through Brihadbala’s armor, ripping his ribs apart. He gasped for air and stumbled. Not wanting to waste another weapon on this dying man, Abhimanyu left him alone, to the horror of the enemies surrounding him.

Dusshasana decided it was time to end this. The longer this child was alive, the more damage he would cause. He rushed towards him, bow and arrow aimed at Abhimanyu’s chest. Abhimanyu watched intently, his eyes concentrating on every movement of Dusshasana. When the arrow released, he cut it down with his sword, inches from his body. He picked up the flag staff from broken his chariot and hurled it into Dusshasana’s chariot wheels. His left wheel shattered, Dusshasana tumbled off the chariot, losing his balance. He fell within a few feet of Abhimanyu. Abhimanyu smiled and tightened his grip on his sword. He saw fear in Dusshasana’s eyes. He picked up his sword in his right hand, and a spear in his left hand. But he didn’t act. “I won’t kill you, uncle. Your death is pre-ordained in someone else’s hands”

Shalya quickly rode up and rescued Dusshasana, mounting him onto his own chariot and driving away to safety. Shalya knew if he stayed around, he would certainly die. So he ran away.

Kritavarma, who all this while had been only taunting Abhimanyu without attacking him, moved slowly towards him. He felt guilty of being part of this conspiracy. But he had to fulfill his duty. He didn’t want to kill Abhimanyu; only disable him further. If he can drive a few arrows into Abhimanyu’s armor and disappear, he can look his Yadava clan in the eye. But before he could act, Abhimanyu had picked up Dusshasana’s mace and swung it at his chariot. Kritavarma barely avoided being smashed in the skull. The mace broke his bow and smashed his flagstaff, causing the horses to lose control and run wildly away.

Karna and Duryodhana decided to attack together. With more of their original warriors running away or disabled, the band of attackers ran the risk of dispersing, leaving Abhimanyu alive. But at this point, leaving him alive was not an option. They knew they broke the rules. If they left him alive, he would come back tomorrow, or the day after, and annihilate them. He had to die.

The two friends released several arrows in Abhimanyu’s direction, who expertly dodged or smashed them, all the while standing in a single spot. His concentration and skills amazed everyone around him. Soldiers stopped fighting and watched this spectacle. Other generals, mounted on elephants and horses, put down their weapons and gaped at this drama. Deep inside, several of them rooted for this young warrior, who refused to give up, and was fighting till his last breath.

Abhimanyu picked up his mace and swung it hard in Duryodhana’s direction. The mace smashed his chariot’s box, and all his weapons fell out, including his own mace. Helpless, Duryodhana instructed his charioteer to charge at Abhimanyu. Abhimanyu picked up the broken axle of his own chariot and slung at Duryodhana’s chariot. His wheel broke, and the chariot tilted on its side, riding on its axle. The charioteer immediately swung away from the fight, knowing if he got any closer Duryodhana would probably die at Abhimanyu’s hands

Karna, Drona and Kripacharya couldn’t believe their eyes. Karna instructed Shalya’s brother Rukmartha to attack Abhimanyu from the front. He circled around, looked at both Drona and Krupa and told them to wait for his signal. As Rukmartha approached, Abhimanyu, now short of weapons, picked up the wheel of his own chariot. He picked it up with both hands and began twirling it around above his head, like a chakra. Seeing the opportunity, Karna, Kripa and Drona shot their arrows, releasing them in quick succession.

Abhimanyu released the wheel. It spun viciously and cracked Rukmartha’s skull. But right at that moment, three arrows stuck him from three of the greatest warriors on that field. And then three more.

The six arrows slit his chest plate and armor, piercing through his skin and drilling deep gashes in his body. As he fell back, three more arrows were released. This time, the arrows went deeper, cutting through his ribs and coming out on the other side. Think crimson fluid dripped from the arrow tips, as this boy faced warrior fell to the ground.

He landed on his back with a thud. His body went into a shock. He legs shuddered for a few moments before he lost sensation in them. His right hand, which gripped his dagger as he was falling, loosened. His vision became cloudy. He saw the clear blue sky. He remembered Virata, and his first encounter with Uttara. He felt nothing but her soft skin on his cheek. He heard nothing but her sweet voice by the creek.

And then her beautiful face filled in, as he closed his eyes

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