After respectfully consigning the mortal remains of Dronacharya to sacred flames, the Kaurava think tank huddled in a tent. Duryodhana decided who the next commander should be. But the question was about how to make him succeed.
There was an atmosphere of gloom in the room, as Kripacharya was the only remaining elder, and he began to feel the absence of his two contemporaries. He felt angry at the way Dronacharya was killed, but realized in his own philosophical way that the acharya paid for his actions. He was decidedly sad, and his sorrow cast a shadow on the proceedings.
Dusshasana was the first to speak out, and when he did, he betrayed his disrespect to elders, and contempt towards situations.
“Now that we have Karna at the helm, we can finish this silly war in a couple of days. Arjuna can be defeated tomorrow, and the rest of them will fold immediately. The day after, we attack their camp and take their women. Draupadi will be happy to to see us again”, he concluded with a perverse smile.
Kripacharya heard it, didn’t care to glance towards the petulant Kaurava, but turned towards Karna. His response to this rhetoric would define his leadership, Kripa thought. And Karna did not disappoint him.
The newly crowned commander was not irritated, nor roused. He calmly said, “It would be at our own peril to underestimate Arjuna, my dear friend. As much as I detest him, he is an archer par excellence. His skill is supreme, and his stamina is unmatched”
“Arjuna has practiced archery from when he was a child. He grew up with weapons around him. He has had the best instructor in the world. He has had the best training facilities, the best diet, and the best environment. What better than to be born a prince in the great Kuru kingdom?”
“Even then, he went above and beyond, and trained hard. He breathed archery. He practiced ambidexterity and became an expert. He practiced in the dark, trusting his auditory faculties. He is truly a challenging and worthy adversary”
Karna’s delivery ensured the plaudits were not praise, but cold, hard facts, as though he was sizing up his opponent, and not awed by him. It was as though he was calculating, carefully, how to counter the Pandava.
“If there is anyone on this battlefield that can disable or kill him, it is me”, said Karna calmly, again careful not to sound pompous.
“I haven’t had nearly as much good fortune as Arjuna, but I match him in every way. Through hard work, superior ability, and unflagging determination, I have made myself worthy of leading this massive army. I can proudly say we now have a realistic chance to winning, given that we don’t have certain weaknesses that plagued the previous commanders. However, we must plan it precisely”
Again, he made sure his tone was very stoic, and his lament about Bhishma and Drona was factual, and not a complaint.
It was an artful censure of the past fifteen days.
He continued without stopping, “Surrounding and protecting Arjuna are a host of celebrated warriors, each equal to an army on his own. Abhimanyu, Drupada, Virata did well to serve and protect the Pandava hero”
As an afterthought, betraying his scorn he added, “Even that giant creature-son of Bhima last night”
Only Shakuni noticed the slight tremble in Karna’s voice when speaking of Ghatotkacha. After all, they would be having an entirely different conversation today, if Karna hadn’t pulled out his ace weapon last night.
“Even without the glorious champions that we have felled, getting close to Arjuna is next to impossible. The other four brothers and his brother-in-law know how prized he is to us. They will lay their life down for him. They will form that impenetrable barrier.”
He wanted to continue but Duryodhana was the first to break the monologue. He too surprised Kripacharya with his restraint, “My dear Radheya, the next couple of days will make or break this war for us. We have lost two of our commanders while their chief still lives and fights”
But he didn’t hold his control for long. Conveniently forgetting that both sides flouted the rules of engagement, he soldiered on, “Both Pitamaha and Acharya were victims of stratagems. It angers me to no end that they used devilry to cull our army last night. The uncivilized wretches of Ghatotkacha’s army shouldn’t even have been allowed in this war.”
“However, we let them. We engaged them, and we killed them, fair and square. But now it is time to throw all rules aside, and finish them off. Why even face them in the battle? Why not secretly attack their camps during the night, when they’re sleeping? Who remembers how we achieved victory? The only thing people will remember is Duryodhana was the king of Hastinapura. People will forget the means soon, and only remember the ends.”
Ashwatthama winced at that cowardly suggestion, but did not say a word. He looked silently at Kripacharya, whose eyes turned moist.
Karna turned quietly towards his best friend, careful enough to not betray any emotion, “We wouldn’t need to do that as long as I am alive, Duryodhana! I am more than enough for all of Pandava armies. I have within my arsenal weapons of limitless destruction. I don’t use them because they are prohibited. But if we are pushed to the brink, that is exactly what we will do. Any one of them will wipe out the Pandavas, no matter where they hide”
“There is only one thing different between me and Arjuna. And that is the only thing that works to his advantage. If we take that away, nothing can stop me”
Everyone exchanged glances. They knew what, or whom Karna was talking about. But they also knew the answer: There was no match to the divine lord.
“A capable charioteer”, announced Karna.
Kripa, Ashwatthama, and even Shakuni exchanged puzzled looks. If they had to pick one character of Krishna that set him apart, it would certainly not be his riding skills.
“Krishna is a master of the horses. He can wield those wild steeds like a virtuoso playing an instrument. It’s as if he has a direct line with the horses’ minds. They listen to him, they read his mind, and he theirs. He has such a tremendous awareness of their needs, that I have not seen a single arrow even graze one of them. Spies tell me he has used the same four horses since the first day. They are neither hurt, nor exhausted. They seem to have new life infused into them every morning. It is some sort of sorcery that the Yadava wields.”
“What it does to Arjuna is free his mind completely of the worries of mobility, fear of sneak attacks, or being stalled in the middle of the battlefield due to injury or death of his charioteer. He has only one job – battle”
“We need our own Krishna; someone who has such expertise with charioteering that I don’t need to worry about where I am going, or who will attack me. There is only one such savvy person amongst us – Shalya. Horses and horse-breeding has been his passion. He has trained some of the best charioteers in the world today. I can’t think of anyone better than him to ride me the next couple of days. He is the perfect match to Krishna”
Shalya, who had silently been watching the goings on, rose up in anger, and violently pushed his chair back.
“I am the king of Madra! I command an army all by myself. I have killed many warriors myself in this war, including Uttara Kumara. I have saved many of you from certain death in the past fifteen days. I should have been next in line for commander. Instead, this is how you repay me? By making me a chariot to a Sutaputra? Nobody here has an army still standing as big as mine, nobody here has the experience of being a commander in chief, except me. This is an outrage and an insult!”
He threw his chalice of Soma to the ground, and stormed out of the tent.
He walked into his tent, enraged and exasperated.