The new commander took charge. He called all the satraps and generals early in the morning to assemble in front of his tent. This was unusual. Both Bhishma and Dronacharya sent instructions the night before via couriers.
Karna set up a high chair with his tent as the background. He stood on one side of the chair. Dusshasana stood on the other. The slimy Shakuni stood behind. Seated in the ornate chair was Duryodhana, with his right hand on his mace, and the left on the armrest. He sat tall and proud. Anyone looking at the assembly knew that this was their show: the wicked quartet.
The audience sat in a semi circle in front of them, so the quartet could see and read their faces. When he addressed the crowd, Karna was all business.
“These fifteen days, you and your armies have been bound by archaic rules and old fashioned customs. You also have had the freedom to pick your battles, and do as you please. That changes today. We are here for one reason and one reason only, to win this war”
“I don’t want any excuses. I don’t see friend or relative on the other side. I only see an opponent, an enemy. And that is how you and your armies will fight from today. I will hold each of you responsible for our failures. I will drive the strategy. I will choose who battles whom. I want their army decimated within the next two days”
“Remember, first and foremost you are warriors. You are Kshatriyas of the highest order, born to fight, to defend your honor and your king. He sits here, demanding that allegiance. You shall give your blood to him, as I will”
He continued authoritatively, “If I have to kill my son to win this war, I will do so without a second thought. Make no mistake, if any of you come between me and securing victory for my king, I shan’t spare you either”
“There is one other thing I want to be clear on. Capturing and killing the enemy is your paramount duty. If you have to break rules in order to achieve that, you will do it. There cannot be an ounce of ambiguity in your minds. Show no mercy. To me, a horse on the other side is as much an enemy as the soldier riding it. A chariot is just a vehicle driven by the enemy. If I have to break the vehicle to kill the enemy, you will do it. If the horse needs to be sacrificed, you will do it. Mercy is not why we are here. We want victory and nothing else”
The generals did not exchange glances or looks, but most of them had the same perplexing thoughts on their minds. This assembly unnerved them all, specially the satraps. Bhishma and Drona trusted the satraps and left it to them to manage their armies. The night before, the commanders informed them of the next day’s formation, and they left it at that. There was no stirring speeches, no display of authority or power.
The humility of the previous commanders allowed the generals and commanders some autonomy. They were instructed to follow the rules, uphold dharma, but fight till the last. Righteousness was the theme. It was understood right from the start that animals shall not be targeted directly. Every effort shall be made to avoid hurting the vehicles, whether they be elephants or chariots.
There was also no blame assigned to the generals. If there was a failure, it was seen as a consequence of the war and not a reason to blame. Accountability was expected and given voluntarily, rather than demanded and extracted. They all knew what this would do to their armies. They did better without pressure, when left free. Under duress, and in conflict with their conscientious self, they would begin to falter.
In their minds, the assembly of satraps and generals knew this new order would not work. This would only bring about a swift end to the war. And it wouldn’t be the end Karna was advocating.
There was a similar meeting on the other side as well, but only between two men: the most powerful on the planet, and the most astute.
“It is day sixteen, O Kaunteya. The war will not not last many more days. The Kauravas are now desperate. Their army is dwindling. They will begin resorting to immoral tactics. We must be wary”
“I am surprised that you are warning us to be careful, Madhava! We have you and dharma on our side. Nothing bad can happen to us”
“Don’t be naive Bhima. I cannot stop someone’s mind from thinking evil. That is not my job. I can only mitigate dangers that might result from evil thinking. You cannot sit idle thinking dharma is on your side. This war is as much about attacking and defeating adharma, as it is about preserving dharma. The past fortnight we have done enough preservation. The time has now come for assault”
“Karna is now the commander of the Kaurava army. He has two options: capture Yudhishtira or kill Arjuna. He knows that capturing Yudhishtira is an easier option, but will not end the war. You and Arjuna will retrieve your brother in no time. His only viable option is to kill your younger brother. To that effect, he will stop at nothing. He will attack me, my horses, my chariot, anything he can get his arrows on. He will be a man possessed”
“So why not attack and kill him today? Surely my younger brother has the weapons in his repertoire to finish him off quickly”
Krishna smiled, “My dear cousin! Every death in this war has a reason, a manner, a time, and a place. We only control the manner and the place. The time is decided by death itself. The reason, well that is for future generations to interpret. If we win this war, we will have rightfully killed the Kauravas. If they win, we will be the villains”
He smiled again and put a hand on Bhimasena’s shoulder.
“Today, you will be the most important member of this contingent. You will be the protector and the destroyer. You made some promises before this war. It is time to make those pledges come true”
“Imagine this: A lion sights a herd of antelope. After a chase, he has to choose between four to go for the kill: a strong one, a wily one, a skilled one, and a weak wicked one. He knows he must conserve his energy for later. Which one will he choose?”
Bhima’s jaw tightened. A surge of anger rushed through his veins as he recalled the dreadful shaming he and his family was subjected to, on that day fourteen years ago. He remembered the scene like it happened yesterday. His face flushed red with rage. He knew instantly who today’s victim was going to be.
Krishna smiled, as ever, and spoke softly, “Remember Bhimasena, while Arjuna is undoubtedly the master, your archery skills are unrivaled. You will need them today. Karna will go after Arjuna and you will thwart his attempts. Show him today that to get to Arjuna, he has to go through you. Defeat him, dispirit him, disgrace him. He is to be shown no mercy just because you want Arjuna to kill him”
Before they parted, Krishna looked straight at Bhima, and said something nobody ever heard him say.
“He defiled my sister, Bhima. I want him dead by sundown today”