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.

Bhishma’s End – Part II

… Read Part I here

Arjuna’s first arrow shot up towards the heavens and landed at Bhishma’s feet.

He closed his eyes and thought about his grand uncle. Arjuna’s entire association with the Pitamahan flashed in his mind. His childhood playing in Bhishma’s arms. Bhishma’s valor in the various battles. His fabled stories of taking on colossal armies and annihilating them. His limitless knowledge of weaponry and battle strategy. His sage advice on policy and statecraft.

And then came the more recent interactions – Bhishma’s inability to stop the gambling event. His utter failure in preventing Draupadi’s disrobement. His silence when the Pandavas were sent to exile. His detachment when Duryodhana refused to hand over their kingdom. Finally, his complete powerlessness in averting this bloodshed.

Arjuna’s eyes turned moist at the string of thoughts that burst through. He then collected himself. He took a few deep breaths. Krishna turned around, placed a hand on his shoulder and smiled. Arjuna opened his eyes. Looked in the direction of Bhishma. Krishna knew at that moment – one of the greatest men in history would fall today.

One other person knew – and he relayed it to an old, blind man standing near the window of his palatial stateroom. Dhritarashtra quietly walked towards the center of that room. He slumped into the large seat. He laid back and thought of all the possibilities. Deep inside, he knew Bhishma Pitamaha would not be leading the Kaurava side on the morrow. But he brushed those thoughts aside. Shikhandi cannot kill him. Nor can Arjuna. Bhishma controls his own death. Today he will kill Shikhandi – which will result in the Pandavas losing heart. If they cannot defeat Bhishma the Pandava army would be crushed. With only the five brothers, Krishna and a few other generals remaining, his son Duryodhana will become the undisputed king of Hastinapura. The Pandavas would likely go away into the forests and quietly disappear. Duryodhana and his bloodline would continue to rule the kingdom. All will be well.

Several miles away a savage battle raged between Dronacharya and the little circular formation housing Arjuna and Shikhandi. The formation moved briskly and violently. It killed everything that came in sight. Every single person in that battalion was a mercenary hand-picked by Krishna. Arjuna and Sahadeva vanquished every squadron that came in the way. As the formation moved forward it also moved sideways. Krishna skillfully piloted the horses to the left and to the right. At once he stopped and made the chariot go backwards. Sahadeva matched Arjuna’s every move on the other flank. Shikhandi himself was turning out to be a handful. The two brothers acted like blades of a fan while the formation circled around. Lesser warriors stopped fighting and witnessed the wondrous chakra wipe out everything in its path. Such was the impact of the formation that by midafternoon Dronacharya decided to abandon his original plan of killing Shikhandi and went to form a protective band around Bhishma. They attempted to veer Arjuna’s formation away from the center of Kaurava army where Bhishma was being safeguarded.

Every single soldier in Shalya’s little company was killed; his own charioteer mortally wounded. He had to flee the battlefield to avoid being a sitting duck. Dusshasana’s legion suffered the same fate. His chariot was shattered to pieces by Shikhandi’s barrage. Kritavarma’s division fled at the sheer force of Arjuna’s storm. Dronacharya remained the only hurdle between Arjuna and Bhishma. Arjuna sounded an alert that brought the companies of Drushtadyumna, Satyaki and Virata to tackle Drona, while the formation moved in for the kill.

Bhishma fired his arrows to disperse the approaching orb of an army. But the company was so well trained that nothing could pierce their armor. As they approached his chariot the front of the circle opened and surrounded him. Before anyone could figure out what was going on he was gobbled up and became part of the spinning circle. He turned away from the center to avoid facing Shikhandi. He started killing the company from within. He knew the only way out was to open up the ring that was fast closing around him. He killed several cavalrymen as a small gap opened. As his charioteer rushed to escape, Shikhandi broke away from the center and blocked his way. He aimed at the Pitamaha’s chest and fired an arrow. It just ricocheted after hitting his armor.

Bhishma’s charioteer then quickly turned to the right. The chariot brushed Shikhandi’s whose left wheel came loose. Shikhandi then quickly jumped into Arjuna’s chariot. A fierce battle raged on as Bhishma’s charioteer expertly guided his horses to avoid coming face to face with Arjuna and Shikhandi. But the walls around them started to close in. Arjuna blew his conch. The inside layer of the circle turned around and faced the lone old warrior while the outside layer continued to face outward to ward off the rest of the Kaurava army. As the ring closed in, the ability of Bhishma’s chariot to maneuver became limited.

The time had come. Shadows grew long. Horses were tired. Soldiers smelled blood and were ready for the kill. Bhishma could not escape any longer. He came face to face with his nemesis. Shikhandi and Arjuna in a single chariot. He closed his eyes for a moment. He focused his entire prana at his core. He opened his eyes and loosened the grip on his bow. It felt alien to him – giving up his bow in the middle of a battle. As he let go, an arrow went past his armor and pierced his chest right above the ribs. Another went through his left arm and pinned him to the chariot wall. As he fell, his entire body became covered with arrows, each more incisive than the previous. He knew whose quiver they were coming from.

Blood trickled from each wound. The charioteer watched aghast as the Pitamaha slumped to the floor of the chariot. Sahadeva blew his conch signaling the fall of an Atirathi. The fighting stopped. Everyone looked in the direction of Bhishma’s chariot. The swirling circle stopped. Dronacharya hung his head in sorrow; he knew what it meant. Duryodhana sank into his chariot.

Away from the battlefield, the expert charioteer with the gift of divine vision uttered these words to his master: “Thus ends the Bhishma parva, o king”

Bhishma’s End – Part I

Duryodhana prepared for his day with his morning yoga and pranayama. But something about this morning didn’t seem right. There was a sense of foreboding in the air even though everything around him seemed normal. The soldiers sharpened their swords, knives and spears. The charioteers checked every bolt, every cog of their rides. The hundreds of cooks prepared meals for the day. Water boys made sure their canteens were leak free. Everything seemed normal. But he wasn’t at peace with the daylight breaking through the blackness of the night.

During his hour long meditation he constantly saw dark images. Images of sullen, wistful soldiers returning to the Kaurava camp haunted him. The most disturbing vision was of a grand chariot returning empty from the battlefield. He couldn’t place whom the chariot belonged to. But he knew it was someone important, and it was from the Kaurava side. He proceeded to the battlefield with that fear suppressed deep inside him.

As soon as he surveyed the Pandava line up, he knew what his visions meant. Up in front were the Maharathis and Atirathis: Yudhishtira, Bheema, Drishtadyumna, Satyaki, Virata, the Upa-Pandavas. Where is Arjuna? He lifted his chin up to search for the Hanuman flag. His eyes scanned for the five spotless white horses. It was then that he noticed the concentric circles of foot soldiers, cavalry and single horse chariots at front-center of the formation. At the center of that mini formation was Pandavas’ hero. But the small chariot next to Arjuna’s was the one that Duryodhana couldn’t make out. He asked his charioteer about the identity of that warrior. The answer sent a shiver down his spine. He knew instantly whom the chariot in his visions belonged to.

He instructed his charioteer to pull up next to Dronacharya.

“Acharya, we have to protect Bhishma Pitamaha today. The Pandavas have brought in Shikhandi. Their sinister plan cannot succeed”

“I saw this coming Duryodhana. I am surprised it took them this long. However, our goal shouldn’t be to only protect Bhishma. While ensuring he lives, we must attack and kill Shikhandi. This is desperation on the Pandava side. If we kill Shikhandi they cannot touch Bhishma and victory is ours”

“How I miss my friend Karna today. He would have slain Shikhandi before lunch”

Dronacharya ignored the insult and calmly reminded the prince of Hastinapura to focus on protecting Bhishma while he devised a plan to mortally wound Shikhandi – knowing fully well that he couldn’t slay him while Arjuna and Krishna were on the battlefield.

On the other side, flanked by Arjuna and Sahadeva, Shikhandi stood proud in his chariot. He had waited for this day all his life. He already did as instructed by Krishna by going to Bhishma’s camp last night and ruffling his continence. He could see defeat in Bhishma’s eyes at the mention of Amba’s name. He had the purposeful look of a possessed man this morning. His guidance was clear and simple. Wherever Bhishma goes, front up and face him. Remind the grand old man of his single blunder – the unkindest fault in an otherwise celebrated life.

Shikhandi was a warrior in his own right. He could kill a hundred people with his bare hands. He had the physical strength of Bheema. He was adept at archery and sword fighting. On the third day of Kurukshetra he destroyed Duryodhana’s battalion and made the Kaurava prince run for his life. Two days ago his small army of foot soldiers took on Shalya and decimated the Madra army.

But today, his only assignment was to make sure Arjuna gets a clear shot at the oldest warrior on the field. With that bedeviled look, he pushed forward as the battle conches blew.


Today will be a day to remember.


Continued here

Another Dark Masterstroke

Three more nights!

Both camps have been set up. The 18 units of armed forces are ready. Final preparations for the generals and commanders are underway. Food, water and medical supplies are being transported. Thousands of funeral pyres are being arranged in anticipation of unprecedented casualties. There’s an unspoken gloom in the air.

Krishna is pacing uneasily around in his tent. He just returned from Karna’s house. Although he knew Karna would never agree to switching sides, there was something about him that worried Krishna – something resolute, something sinister. He knew Karna’s anger issues resulting from abandonment and a life-long contempt for the royalty that was never bestowed upon him. But today was different. While speaking of the Pandavas, he seemed to have this unshakable belief that he was going to kill them all. Krishna knew if there was one warrior that could kill all the Pandavas, it was Karna. And he seemed destined to do it.

He needed to act fast. He needed to play his cards right. He needed to make the right move.

Nobody could touch Arjuna. After all, he was being charioteered by Krishna himself. But he feared for the others. If any of the other brothers died, the war was lost. They needed to be protected. They needed to be shielded. They needed to be pardoned.

He called his charioteer. As they drove out of the war camp, he motioned towards Hastinapura. On entering the city, they quietly turned towards Kunti’s home.

“What brings you here at this late hour Krishna?”, a surprised Kunti asked.

“How well do you remember your past?”

“Well enough to block it out of my mind”, said Kunti, disquieted by Krishna’s sudden recall of her teenage mistake.

“It’s now time to make a decision aunty. The abandoned one is angry. He has vowed to kill each and every one of your children”

“You spoke to him?”

“I have done everything in my power to stop this war. Contrary to what everyone believes, I don’t want this war. I can find a thousand ways for the Pandavas to get their kingdom back, and war is the last. But it is upon us. Speaking to the abandoned one was my last option. I was hoping to make him switch sides. I even offered to make him the king of Hastinapura instead of Yudhishtira.”

“He is the son of Kunti, Krishna. I would be dishonored if he accepted your offer”

“Be that as it may, there is a real danger to your children’s lives. I have it in my power to protect Arjuna. I am with him every second of the war. But the other four, I’m afraid I cannot physically protect them. If Yudhishtira dies, this war is over.”

“Are you suggesting my sons are incapable of protecting themselves?”

“I am saying nobody can stop Karna. Nobody! Not even Arjuna”

Kunti thought for a few moments. Now she understood why Krishna was here at this hour. She looked at Krishna and said “Ask your charioteer to wait at the back entrance”

Krishna watched as the chariot raced into the darkness. He sat down and ordered a pitcher of Soma.

An hour later, he heard the familiar sounds of his horses’ hoofs. The old lady alighted from the chariot, walked up the stairs, looked up and smiled at Krishna.

A few minutes later as the chariot sped towards the Pandava camp, Krishna sat back and smiled, triumphant at yet another masterstroke. The war was won even before an arrow was released.

Other Posts

Why I Left Shri Raam

Draupadi’s Reasoning

How Bheeshma Was Defeated

Why I Left Shri Raam

The sun that rose on Ayodhya that morning seemed less vibrant. Clouds obscured the first rays to fall on the paddy fields surrounding the city. Some farmers and farm workers already were working in the fields. Residents were putting out lanterns as visibility improved. In the distance stood the magnificent palace – the most revered real estate in the history of mankind.

The palace folk were up and about early – sweeping floors, watering plants and tying garlands. The kitchen was bustling with activity. Bhagwan Shri Raam was an early riser and needed his sumptuous breakfast before he headed out to the court. Attendants were hurrying in and out of rooms trying to get the day off to an energetic start.

Prince Lakshmana woke up, finished his ablutions and headed out towards elder brother Raam’s chamber. Before heading out into the city to listen to grievances he always took the blessings of his brother and sister-in-law. This morning was no different. But as he entered the chamber he could sense something was amiss. His brother had a broody disposition this morning. His sister-in-law was nowhere to be seen. He bent down to touch his brother’s feet and asked about the whereabouts of his second mother. Raam mumbled something about the garden and looked away. Lakshmana thought they probably had the first ever husband-wife tiff.

The garden was a vast land full of gorgeous pathways, marvelous stone sculptures, colorful yet fragrant flowers and provided a commanding view of the beautiful city of Ayodhya. There under a pavilion stood Sita staring at the sun struggling to rise above those ominous dark clouds. Lakshmana approached her and touched her feet. Startled, she looked down to see who it was. A few tears from her cheeks gushed down and fell on Lakshmana’s hand.

“Maata – what is the matter? You are not in your chamber this morning. You are staring into the oblivion and crying. Did anyone say anything to you? Did anyone insult my brother? Please tell me” said Lakshmana in a pleading tone, clearly concerned with the happenings of this strange morning.

She did not respond immediately. But when she spoke her voice was soft but confident. She gently placed her palm on Lakshmana’s head and said, “My dear Lakshmana. I am going to ask you to do something. You will not disapprove or protest. Do I have your word?”

Lakshmana sensed a storm brewing. But he never countered his sister-in-law and he vowed he never will. He nodded in agreement.

“I will explain to you why I am doing this. You are like a son to me – my first child. All these years in the forest you have protected me. You have fought battles and wars. You have put your life in danger to ensure my safety. You disagreed and protested against – of all the people – your brother when he asked me to prove my chastity on my return from Lanka. You probably cannot fathom the ignominy I suffered at that time. As a woman I felt outraged. I could have asked your brother to prove the same. But I let it go. But now, something has happened and I need to take action.”

A thousand thoughts spun in Lakshmana’s head. A full lifetime worth memories flashed in his mind. The scheduled coronation ceremony, the shocking promise being extracted, the terrible life in the forest, the war with Ravana and then finally the thunderbolt jolt of his brother asking her to prove her purity. What was going on? What happened? What was she going to ask him to do?

Sita carried on in a strangely unemotional monotone, “Last night your brother came back from one of his incognito jaunts very disturbed. I have seen him concerned about the affairs of the state before. But this was much more than that. He said that people were talking about me. He overheard a husband berate his wife saying he is not Bhagwan Raam to take her back after she spent an evening away from home. I understand your brother’s burden. But then he said something that broke it for me. He said, ‘how can I face my subjects now?’ I have nothing against your brother. He sees himself as the perfect king. He probably finds it disgraceful to rule a kingdom where the queen has lost respect. As king and emperor he is within his rights to feel that way. The entire population of this great land looks up to him and he needs to deliver. I have done within my power as a wife. But now it’s time for me to be a woman and exercise my rights. I want you to get the chariot ready. Wait for me at the front of the palace. You will be my charioteer and we will head east. I will be out there in a few minutes.”

Lakshmana did not have many words to respond. By the time he collected his wits his beloved sister-in-law had disappeared from sight. He did not know why she wanted him to ready the vehicle. He did not know where they were going. But just as ever, he did as told.

Wearing no jewelry and only in simple garbs of a saint the queen of Ayodhya arrived at the front gate. Nobody followed her, certainly not her king. She boarded the chariot and asked her driver to start moving. They rode for several hours. She did not speak a word during the time. As the sun began its reluctant descent into the western sky she asked Lakshmana to stop the chariot. As she alighted, she took one last look at her dear son.

“Saumitri, It is now time for you to go back to your brother. He needs you. Whatever I said this morning, it’s because future generations must learn that what I am doing is my decision. I want people to know I am not a weakling that took every insult, every abuse lying down. I have decided to live life on my terms, in the wild – among animals that treat me better. I would prefer to be a survivor among animals than among humans. Take care of your brother”

As she disappeared into the woods Lakshmana felt he was dying a thousand deaths. He was overcome with pain, anguish and shame. He fell to his knees, looked up at the darkening skies and let out a tormented cry. He did not know how long he cried. He got up, got on the chariot and rode lifelessly back to his capital.

Krishna’s Ire

Towards mid-day Krishna and Arjuna arrive at a tent, closely followed by Yudhishtir. Arjuna appeared flustered. Krishna calm as usual. Yudhishtir seemed angry as he stomped off into the tent.

“I demand an explanation as to what happened out there today. How did a thousand soldiers die in three hours?  Where is your focus Arjuna? I need answers now!”

Krishna had settled down on a chair with nothing but a smile on his lips. He looked mischievously at his friend. He had known Arjuna for a long time. Today was just not his day. Bheeshma and Drona clearly had the upper hand in their duels with him. He could not muster enough strength to parry the onslaught by his two mentors. They made him look like a novice – killing hundreds of soldiers in the legions led by the Pandavas. It was a coordinated and well-planned attack. They knew their strength lied in hunting in packs. A single warrior was incapable of taking on Arjuna by himself.

“I just couldn’t match their wizardry. It was like they knew me inside out. They knew my strategies and my plans. They had an answer to everything I was throwing at them. I even…”

“Enough! I don’t want excuses. For four and a half days we’ve been fighting this war. We haven’t made a dent in their forces. They keep coming from nowhere. You do realize our army is smaller than theirs don’t you? A couple of days like this and we’ll be dead meat. We went into this war hoping you will finish them off in a couple of days. You are supposed to be the best archer in the world, the best general. Your weapons knowledge is supposedly  unmatched. There is not a soul in this planet that can stand up to you – or so you’ll have us believe. But you cannot even hurt two men three times your age? What good are you?”

A swell of anger overcame Arjuna. He could take defeat. But he couldn’t take insults. He was already agitated at the morning’s defeats. He was angry because right behind Bheeshma and Drona’s chariots was Dusshasana’s – whose unkind words about Arjuna’s lack of skills still echoed in his ears. He was not in a mood to listen to another scornful examination of his abilities. But his eldest brother wasn’t going to stop.

“Fourteen years! For fourteen years we have suffered. For fourteen years we have gone through hardships and misfortune. What for? All in anticipation that one day this hero of men would rise above all and punish those that are responsible for our misery. This lion of an archer was to deliver us from our wretchedness. And today he says he couldn’t match the valor of two old men? Why don’t we just call off the war? Just go away and live in our abjection. I will tell my wife that her hotshot husband is really worthless!”

Arjuna could not take it anymore. He turned around to face his brother. He was seething inside. The third man in the room quickly realized the situation was about to worsen. He rose from his seat and turned in the direction of the eldest of Pandavas – cutting in between Arjuna and Yudhishtir.

“The ‘my wife’ you talk about Yudhishtir – do you forget who won her in the Swayamvara? Hundreds of princes were there – you saw with your own eyes. The most boastful archer of all – Karna – was also there. Most of them couldn’t even see the fish machine directly. Your brother here, the one you called incapable – hit the eyeball of a rotating fish whilst looking at its reflection in water.”

With unwavering smile he continued, “When your entire capital city was a jungle, this inept brother of yours mowed it down with nothing but arrows and turned it into the beautiful Indraprastha. When it rained day and night, this incompetent brother of yours stopped it from dousing that forest. Why go that far back? A few weeks ago when the entire Kaurava army attacked Virata, this ineffective brother of yours rescued them single-handedly. You question the ability of this man?”

“Of course you would support your dear friend Madhava. You guys are thick as thieves. Maybe you can inject some of that verve back in him when you drive his chariot. Why can’t you talk him into being the fearless warrior that you make him to be? Or have you gone soft as well in this war?”

“Stop it you insolent fool!”

Both the brothers took a couple of steps back at this outburst. They had never seen Krishna lose his temper. Yudhishtir suddenly became aware of who he was talking to. Fear replaced contempt.

“For years now these brothers have suffered because of you. You practically stole Arjuna’s wife because of your lust for her. Do you not remember who won her? You knew exactly what your mother would say when you took Arjuna’s bride home. Yet you chose those words because her beauty entranced you. Your devious ways won’t fool me Dharmaraja. You always wanted her for yourself ever since you laid eyes on her at the Swayamvara. But you just did not have the skill to win her. And you blame Arjuna for lack of craft?”

Arjuna watched in horror as Krishna’s face turned red in anger. He worried for the safety of his brother. Shockingly for him, Krishna said the same words that were mere thoughts in his own mind a few moments ago.

“When your wife came running into Virata’s court pleading you to stop Keechaka what did you do? You hid your face in your palms like a coward. Who took care of that? Your other brother did!”

“Let’s talk about this war. What is the reason for this war? Why did it come to this pass? Who is really behind this situation? In drunken stupor you shamefully wagered your wealth, your kingdom, your brothers, yourself and even your wife. Where did your dharma go then? The moment you lost yourself you lost all rights on your wife. And yet you gambled dear Draupadi. Tell me this Yudhishtir: recount for me one instance, just one instance where you stood up for your mother, your brothers or your wife. Yet you disgracefully accuse Arjuna for the death of some soldiers. Don’t you know the cost of war? You are not a nitwit to not realize a war like this will have its ups and downs. Or are you? Even the womenfolk in our camp are not complaining. If there was anyone dishonorable among all here it is you. And yet these brothers are fighting this war for you, killing people they do not need to. You are the one that should be ashamed of yourself.”

Without waiting for a reaction from Yudhishtir Krishna beckoned Arjuna to follow him out of the tent.

As soon as he boarded the chariot he turned to his friend and smiled. The warrior was still in a daze.

“Partha, I knew what was going through your mind when your brother was denouncing you in there. At that time if you said these words it would destroy the tender fabric of relationship you brothers have. This was the only way to protect your kinship while berating Yudhishtir. Forgive me for lambasting your elder in there. But I need you to focus on the war and not what your brother thinks of you. Now lets go mow some Kauravas down”

Arjuna is more thankful than befuddled at the amazing ways of his friend, philosopher, guide and driver.


Karna Gets Upset

The Kaurava camp on the East end of the field is clearly much larger than the other one. There are hundreds of tents. Bheeshma’s tent is the most prominent – very large with multiple chambers and surrounded by guards. A few tents down is another large one. But this one was strangely unguarded. The tent is dark outside – to protect the identity of any spies that came in or went out. Although well lit inside, it did not have any sentries. Occupying the tent was Duryodhana – in deep meditation.

Duryodhana appeared strong and powerful and in trance. He looked calm and peaceful. His face radiated an energy not seen in normal people. His breathing was deep and steady. His well-built pectoral muscles rose and fell with each long breath. He sat cross-legged on a raised platform, facing east. There was something captivating about this eldest of Kauravas.

A few minutes later a shrouded figure entered the tent from the rear entrance. The figure did not make a sound as it stood behind Duryodhana. The Kaurava prince opened his eyes and exhaled.

“Finally after 4 days of war you remembered your friend!” he said, getting off the podium and turning around.

The figure took it’s hood off, revealing yet another tall and strong warrior. It was Karna. If Duryodhana was captivating, Karna was hypnotic. His face radiated like a thousand suns. His eyes were bright and incisive. He had a tattoo of the rising sun in between his eyebrows. He was taller than Duryodhana. It seemed like Karna had a natural armor built into his chest. He did not wear anything to cover his upper body. But his shoulders and chest looked like a thick protective plate.

When he spoke, his voice was mesmeric.

“You know that I am not supposed to be around the camp my friend,” he said in his intense voice.

“I know about Pitamaha’s stipulation. But who has the gall to tell him you were in my chambers?”

“The walls have ears my Kuru prince”

“I don’t care about spies Anga’s king. They can tell Bheeshma Pitamaha what they want. He knows I trust you more than anyone else – including him. I would gladly defy him and win the war”

“Suyodhana – you speak ill of your Chief Commander. This cannot be good for our morale. You have to remember – the commanders and generals only give out orders. They have to be carried out by the foot soldiers. If they are clueless or demoralized they become easy prey. Specially when dealing with the Pandavas”

“Have you come here to praise my enemy my friend?”

“You are my friend – my lord. I want the Pandavas dead as much as you do. But it is my duty as your friend and counsel to tell you never to underestimate an enemy. Pandavas are powerful. You have to win them with cunning and deceit. Conventional warfare will only weaken them a little bit. But each of the Pandavas is capable of defeating a large army single-handedly.”

“Then tell me Karna. How can we defeat these 5 brothers? I am not unaware of their power. I am well educated in the matters of the state. I fought several wars and resoundingly won them. The Hastinapura kingdom has reigned supreme for generations now. There is not a kingdom we haven’t conquered – by war or by stealth. We have even prevailed on Yudhishtira’s Indraprastha by defeating him in the game of chance. But for some reason I do not feel good about this war. Omens do not bode well this time. So how can we win this one time?”

“I see that one thought is bothering you my friend. But like I said before, this war cannot be won by orthodox methods. Following rules will only lead us to defeat. Our army is larger than theirs. But your teachers, your uncles, and most importantly your Commander-in-Chief have publicly announced that we are fighting against dharma – indicating that we are at fault. Do you realize what that does to the morale of the army? Unless our army believes they are fighting a righteous war they will not win. It is just impossible. But we cannot do much about it now. The damage has been done. The only way now is to throw all honesty aside and resort to trickery. Let me ask you one question. Who do you think is the most feared warrior on the Pandava side?”

“Why that is an easy question. Bhimasena undoubtedly. As you may have heard he has killed 10 of my brothers in gruesome fashion. Some of my brothers’ body parts haven’t been recovered. They say after killing the last one he threw the body to wolves in the forest. If we can kill Bhimasena we would have broken their back”

“Forgive me for disagreeing with you my friend. The Pandavas did not enter this war on the back of Bhimasena’s power. The only reason they went to war with us is because of Arjuna. They believe Arjuna can annihilate our armies. They are not wrong by the way. After me, Arjuna is the best archer in this world. There is not an archer in the current Kaurava army that can stand up to him – not even your very own dear granduncle. Arjuna has in his armory weapons that can wreak unparalleled destruction. He has also obtained special weapons training during his travels before the fourteen-year banishment and even during that period. Bheeshma doesn’t stand a chance when Arjuna is in his element. There is just one and only one person that can stop him. And that is me. I have acquired a special weapon called the Shakti with only one purpose in mind – to kill Arjuna. I don’t mean to wish for Bheeshma’s death but I cannot wait to use that weapon on Arjuna. I want to see the look on the Pandavas’ faces when that weapons strikes him and he explodes into a thousand pieces.”

Duryodhana’s face lights up when he hears of this. He immediately embraces Karna. He turns and walks to the window.

“That should right all the wrongs that have happened to my family. Let me tell you something that I have never said before. Everyone thinks I am evil. They all think I have usurped Yudhishtira’s kingdom by sleight. They think I do not know the cost of this war. They could not be more wrong Karna. I am not the devil. I only wanted justice for my father. Several years ago a mistake happened in this kingdom. The first born in the family was not made the king. Both the brothers were born with congenital defects. If my father was blind uncle Pandu was frail. There was no way he could run the kingdom by himself. He rode on the crutches called Bheeshma, Kripa and Vidura.  He was completely incapable of being the king. You have only seen my father at the court – blind and unable to see right from wrong. But I have seen what he is physically capable of. He is the strongest man you can find Karna. He can crush your bones with one hand. I have seen him blast holes through the walls when he is angry. My father was clearly the more capable among the two. So why did they rob him of his position? I have seen him cry in his solitude because he was never considered the king of Hastinapura. He has spoken to me of the countless insults he bore because he could not see. Apparently even uncle Pandu would taunt him. Can you imagine living in the shadow of a much weaker person all your life? It consumed my father. I could see the pain in his heart. It was my duty to make it right. That is all I am doing”

Karna sat down in one of the large seats. He could easily relate to Duryodhana’s story. His own life had a parallel. Duryodhana continued “And then that evil woman – my aunt Kunti”

Karna suddenly felt a prick in his heart. Every time he heard the name Kunti something overcame him. He could not explain it. It was as if he knew her very well – yet did not. He had heard her speak only once. Her voice sounded very familiar. It was the same voice that subconsciously calmed him down whenever he was agitated. Her voice came through as a lullaby to him. If there was one thing that stopped Karna from attacking any of the Pandavas it was that they were Kunti’s sons. For some incomprehensible reason he felt guilty at the thought of hurting her sons. Hearing Duryodhana speak ill of her made his stomach queasy. He coughed. Duryodhana turned to look towards his friend. He tried to interpret the strange expression on his friend’s face but could not. He carried on nevertheless.

“That woman. How can she claim to be a Kshatriya queen? She did not have any of the children through her husband. All her three children were born through others. Even her stepchildren were not born through her husband. She knew uncle Pandu was feeble and impotent. She found someone else to bear her children. What kind of a woman does that? You know what we call such women?”

Before Duryodhana could complete his sentence Karna stood up. A bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face. His face reddened with a slight hint of anger. Strange emotions swelled in his heart. He felt like throttling the person in front of him. He started pacing around the room. He could not explain this feeling to himself, nor his friend. He got agitated. He felt claustrophobic in this chamber of his friend and savior. He wanted fresh air.

Duryodhana noticed this sudden change in disposition in his friend. “What is wrong my dear Karna?”

“I think we should leave the women out of our discussions. They are of no use to us in this war. We need to focus on weakening the Pandavas first – especially Arjuna. Arjuna has one weakness in this war – his young son Abhimanyu. If we can capture or kill Abhimanyu it would cripple Arjuna. Do not forget Abhimanyu is also Krishna’s nephew. If something were to happen to Abhimanyu both the warrior and his ace charioteer would break. I would strike my Shakti right at that moment. Who knows? Maybe we can kill Krishna too”

Duryodhana smacked his lips at this idea. He hated Krishna. He knew Krishna could turn this war around in an instant. Apart from being a highly astute person he also knew hypnosis and magic. Killing them both would end this war in an instant.

“So what would you have me do my friend? How can we kill Abhimanyu?”

“Abhimanyu is a fearless warrior. They only way to kill him would be to surround him with several of our best warriors and down him. Again, there is nobody in the Kaurava army that is on the field today that can kill the young prince. I am the only one that can account for him. We will wait for our time Suyodhana. It will come”

As the first light began to appear on the horizon Karna took leave of his friend and made his way into the shadows of the woods. He boarded his chariot at the edge of the forest. As the chariot sped off towards Hastinapura he felt disturbed. The unkind words Duryodhana had for Kunti still reverberated in his ears. He did not like those words. He gripped his sword as the words echoed in his head. To his amazement he realizes that had it been someone else in place of Duryodhana, he would not have hesitated to use that sword. That thought alarmed him more than anything else. He needed answers. He made a mental note to speak to the one person he knew would answer all his questions. As soon as he arrived at his palace he sent for his trusted messenger. He instructed the messenger to go to the Pandava camp and ask Krishna to meet him at the north end of the river after sunset.

Draupadi’s Reasoning

News of the slaying of ten Kaurava brothers had reached the Pandava camp before Bhimasena did. He marched into the tent and gestured everyone to leave. His face looked like that of a lion which just finished a sumptuous meal – smeared in the blood of its prey. He carried with him the femur bone of the last Kaurava brother he killed. The last drops of blood still dripped from the flesh clinging to the bone. He held it aloft like a trophy and proclaimed, “This is for you my queen”

Draupadi was sitting on the edge of her bed. She wore simple clothes. She wore no jewelry. Even while sitting she seemed a tall woman. Her hair was so long it almost touched the ground when she sat. But it was unkempt. It looked like it hadn’t been washed in years. She lifted her head when Bhimasena spoke. She looked stunning even in such simple clothes. She was dark complexioned with well defined facial features but her face betrayed the pain and suffering she had endured for the past fourteen years. Her anguish showed in the question she asked the second of Kunti’s sons: “Did you finally kill Dusshasana? Have you finally brought respite to my hair? Tell me O Bhimasena. Is the one non-Pandava that dared touch me finally dead?”

His silence answered her question.

“They call you the mightiest Pandava. They call you son of the wind because nothing can stop your fury. They say you can single-handedly down trees and buildings. You have slain the mightiest people in the world with your bare hands. Yet you come in here empty handed. That bone in your hand does not mean anything to me if it does not belong to that evil brother of Duryodhana.”

Bhimasena’s pride vanishes in the matter of seconds. He had strutted in proudly expecting a congratulatory reception.

“Bhimasena, of all my husbands you were the one that protected my pride. During the gambling match you were the one that stood up for me. You proclaimed you would break Duryodhana’s thigh and drink Dusshasana’s blood. You were the one that killed Keechaka in that dance chamber that night. But here you are, boasting the death of a weak prince. You should be ashamed of yourself. This bone you show me is that of a dog – an opponent unworthy of you. The smile will return on my face only when you kill that scum Dusshasana.”

The words stung Bhimasena. He realizes that nothing could satisfy this bloodthirsty woman.

“What have you become O beautiful daughter of Drupada? Do you realize this war is being fought because of you? Even if I hate the Kauravas, even if I completely disagree with Yudhishtir about letting the Kauravas give us just five villages, I would still not fight this war if I had a choice. Do you know how destructive a war is? You women folk sit in your grand palaces served upon by your fawning attendants. It’s not a choice for us warriors. We have to go kill people or be killed. We kill people we do not even know. These ten brothers I killed today, I do not remember ever seeing them, ever talking to them. They are my cousins. They share the same blood that I do. They were royals. Yet, now they lie disfigured and mangled up on a piece of land soaked with blood. We could have avoided this. But you! You wanted death and destruction. Your are only obsessed with the extinction of the Kuru dynasty. Even before the war started you went up to your brother Krishna and told him to jeopardize his peacemaking. Maybe if you were willing to forget and forgive…”

Draupadi’s countenance changes instantly on hearing those two words. She stands up and walks towards the window, facing away from her husband. Tears roll down her beautiful face. She looks blankly into the azure sky as if trying to remember something. She turns back to address her accuser calmly.

“Forget and forgive. Kunti’s son! Do you know what you just said?”

She grabs her tresses and flips them to the front. Then she asks him a direct question.

“You have been with many women in your life. How many have you grabbed by their hair?”

Bhimasena is stunned into silence.

“Do you know why women take care of their hair more than any other part of their body? The hair represents life. Strands of hair fall off and regrow. It depicts the resilience of life, as we know it. It embodies the circle of life – of death and rebirth. Grabbing a person – man or woman – by hair is not just an insult to that person’s external beauty. It’s an insult to life. It shows you have no respect for the human race. More so when you do it to a woman. The female of any species – human or animal – is the key to the continuation of that species. Dusshasana is not a moor to be ignorant of that. Moreover he grabbed me at my most private moment. In our culture we value women. We worship them. By barging into my quarters and seizing me, Duryodhana’s pet brother showed contempt to women – the life bearers. If I forgive him, future generations will think it is fine to be irreverent towards us. Disrespect for the female will end up destroying life on earth. If our descendants have to honor women like our ancestors did, the person that did this to me has to die. I am not unaware of the perils of war my dear Bhimasena. I know this war will consume every person here. I might lose my own children. Maybe even one of you. But I am willing to offer that sacrifice for the benefit of women for generations to come. Let this be a lesson to anyone insulting womanhood that the result is horrifying death. There can be forgiveness for mistakes, not for contempt”

Bhimasena is aghast at the end of this articulation. All this time he was under the impression Draupadi wanted revenge for the treatment meted out to her. This line of reasoning leaves him awestruck. He is unable to utter a word. He turns back and slowly walks towards his waiting chariot, leaving behind sobs of despair in the tent.