News of Karna’s death percolated into the Kaurava camp. While there was a general sense of sadness, nobody seemed too surprised. By the seventeenth day, it had become fairly apparent that it was only a matter of time before Yudhishtira and his brothers would prevail in this war. Arjuna had wiped out all but a few of the eleven akshauhinis of Kaurava army. Two commanders were killed and the third lay on his death bed, awaiting an auspicious time to let go of his life.
Duryodhana was nowhere to be found, having gone into depressed hiding. As the leading warriors assembled in the camp, Kritavarma and Kripacharya looked to Shakuni to provide guidance on whom to nominate as the new commander. There was a war to be fought on the morrow, and they needed an able hand.
Kripa suggested Ashwatthama. Dronacharya’s son was powerful as he was astute. Ashwatthama also had extensive knowledge of weapons and weaponry, having learnt from his own father. Kripacharya also believed that Ashwatthama was not weighed down by any emotional attachment to the Pandavas, unlike the ones that perished so far. Bhishma and Drona loved the Pandavas excessively, and Karna hated them equally. He thought perhaps Ashwatthama would bring about a balance, and lead impartially.
As soon as his name was proposed, Ashwatthama stood up. His tall stature and broad shoulders towered over the rest of the warriors. He looked around and spoke firmly.
“I am honored that this body has found me worthy of undertaking such a privilege. Leading this Kuru army is indeed an honor. We have lost three of our best. The three that we all believed would lead us to glory in this war. Three of the most respected leaders this sacred land has ever borne. Stepping into their shoes would be a celebration for me”
Hopes arose among the various satraps as Ashwatthama began. Many of them knew his destructive capability, and others knew he had secret weapons that he could invoke, weapons of total annihilation. Those that knew his secret weapon also knew his one weakness – when pushed to the brink, his anger would get the better of him, and he would not hesitate to put the life of common folk in danger, in order to survive or seek revenge. That one indiscretion made him extremely flammable. While such a lapse of judgement would ensure victory for the Kauravas, nobody would survive the catastrophic effects of his usage of the weapons, not even his own army. It would devastate the land for generations to come. Bharatavarsha as a notion would cease to exist.
Among those that knew this secret, was Shakuni. He salivated at the thought of Ashwatthama becoming the commander. His own revenge would be best served under Drona’s son. And the most wonderful outcome of this: nobody would suspect him. He would go down in history as a victim of Ashwatthama’s mistake.
He smiled and rose from his seat. He walked to the table at the center of the room, picked up a two chalices and poured copious amounts of Soma into them. He handed one over to Ashwatthama and spoke, out of turn.
“This is such a welcome development, For seventeen days we have fought this war. Even with our superior numbers and strength, we have been kept at bay by these wretched Pandavas. One after the other, our commanders have been killed or incapacitated, not so much because of Pandavas’ excellence but because of that devious Yadava, who has employed every ruse under the sun to cheat. The rules of engagement have been broken every time our commander fell, from using Shikhandi agsainst Bheeshma to lying about Ashwatthama himself, to killing an unarmed warrior. But in Ashwatthama we have a leader who will not fall to such cunning, because as you know, he is a chiranjeevi, an immortal. He commands his own death. And tomorrow, he will command the death of the Pandavas”
He raised his chalice and cried out loud, “All hail our new commander!”
But Shakuni, in a moment of lapse, underestimated Ashwatthama’s intelligence. His sudden burst of ebullience alerted the acharya’s astute son, and he remembered his father’s sage words, “Son, praise must always be examined. Coming from a humble man, it is earnest, and you must be authentic in your thanks. But when a slick and devious person begins to praise and back you, you are doing something wrong. Peel yourself away from that situation, and contemplate your actions”
He made an instant decision. He took a long gulp of the Soma and spoke.
“But, I must respectfully decline the honor. There are more deserving and more capable warriors in this tent tonight that can lead the Kaurava army with better ability, intelligence, and stability”
Sitting right across was the Madra king Shalya, who looked up at Ashwatthama at the same time, his face betraying an admiration to the decision just made by the young man, who gave up a position coveted by many.
The moment was perfect. Their eyes met, and for a moment Ashwatthama saw his father in Shalya, the same sage like composure, and the same paternal admiration. He spoke.
“I cannot think of any other warrior than the wise and elderly Shalya. He has the stature, the experience, and the knowhow to lead this army. I pledge my allegiance to him, and propose his name to be the commander in chief of this army starting sunrise on the morrow”
The abrupt turn of events threw Shakuni off for a few moments, as his scheme came crashing down. He did not dislike the choice of Shalya. He also realized that picking anyone from the second rung of leaders, like Shalya was, only delayed the inevitable. He turned, faced his new commander, smiled and nodded.
As Shalya rose and started to detail his plans for the next day, the old man in long beard sat back and inhaled deep on his pipe. As the medicated smoke filled his lungs, he closed his eyes, and appeared lost in deep contemplation.
Kripa knew, that by this time tomorrow, these tents would be empty with melancholy, and that he would be packing his belongings and heading away, from the battlefield, into a reclusive life until death.