Mahabharat Episode 44: Arjuna vs Karna – A Battle between Archrivals
The first half of the Kurukshetra war passes with Arjuna avoiding to go all out and kill his opponents. Krishna becomes impatient and issues him an ultimatum which leads to an epic battle between archrivals Arjuna and Karna.
What happened so far : Arjuna gets cold feet right before going into action as the Kurukshetra war begins. Kauravas seem to be winning the battle and Krishna explains to Arjuna how hesitation is the biggest sin.
Krishna Issues an Ultimatum
On the ninth day, Krishna says to Arjuna, “This is it – if you are not going to fight, I am going to fight.” Earlier, he gave the Kauravas his word that he will not fight. If he fights now, forever he will be seen as a man who did not keep his word. Still, Krishna says, “It does not matter what people think of me. Anyway, they already think I am a Ranchor, a coward, a thief, all kinds of things. Let them think one more thing.” He takes his Sudarshana Chakra and says, “I will finish the war today.” Then Arjuna says, “Don’t do this. Your name will be tainted forever. I will fight.”
As days passed, towards the eleventh or twelfth day, the armies became almost equal in number, because on the Kaurava side, the losses were much bigger. By the sixteenth day, the Pandava army seemed to be larger than the Kaurava army. But then, certain people went berserk, and they decimated both the armies quite drastically. Duryodhana became desperate. Karna took charge of the Kaurava army. Karna knows they are going to lose the overall battle. But for him, the only thing that really matters is to have the glory of ending a man’s life who is believed to be the greatest kshatriya ever – Arjuna.
Karna – All for Glory
Karna lives for glory, and he is willing to die for it. He only wants to kill Arjuna. He does not mind if he loses the battle; he knows Krishna will not let the Kauravas win. He knows that if the worst comes to the worst, Krishna will enter the battle himself and see that it is won by the Pandavas. By now, Karna knows that the Pandavas are his own brothers. Still, he wants glory. So one by one, he attacks the Pandava brothers. He defeats Yudhishthira, disarms him, and comes close to him.
When Yudhishthira stands in front of Karna unarmed, terrified, and ready to die, Karna pokes him on the chest with the tip of his bow and says, “I don’t think men like you should be fighting on a battlefield when I am here. It is best you go back to your wife. But maybe you can’t go back to your wife; maybe it is another brother’s time,” he taunts Yudhishthira. Then Karna defeats Bhima and taunts him, too. He says, “With all this muscle, what are you going to do? Like a bull, you have grown. If I want, I will take off your head. But what is the use of taking off the head of a child? Go.” To Nakula and Sahadeva, he does the same thing, because he promised that he will not kill them. He keeps his promise, but he wants to have the glory of defeating them.
Karna’s and Indra’s Barter
When Indra came and asked him for his kavacha or armor, Karna gave it to him – in spite of the sun-god’s warning not to do that. At that time, Indra was pleased with Karna’s sense of sacrifice. Because he promised it, even though he knew that it would be sure death if he removed his kavacha, Karna gave it away. At that time, Karna asked, “Give me your Shakti astra for the kavacha and kundala, so men will say, “Indra gave Karna his own ayudha in return for what he took from him. The Shakti will not save my life – that is doomed anyway. But I feel strange love for you, and I want to protect your reputation.
“Knowing fully well I am going into the battle; you are asking for my armor. This is the most dastardly thing. As the king of gods, you will lose your reputation. At least give me your Shakti astra so that people in the future will feel that Indra did some exchange. It will save your reputation.” The man is always strutting with a certain glory about himself. Then Indra says to Karna, “Win or lose the war – it’s a small matter. Today you have won immortal fame with the arms you gave me. I name you Vaikarthana for cutting your kavacha from your flesh. And men will say ever after that the greatest of all givers of arms was not Indra but Karna. As long as the world lives, Karna, your fame shall live in it,” and that is all Karna wanted. Both of them got what they wanted.
Ghatotkacha’s Occult Powers
Now the battle is on. Karna is without the kavacha, but he got the Shakti astra. With this one astra, he can kill Arjuna; he is saving it for Arjuna. He will end Arjuna, and then he will be quite powerless without the astra, and he will be killed by someone. Ghatotkacha, Bhima’s son, is let loose. The nighttime rule was broken and fighting started at night. When they were fighting in the day, Ghatotkacha was just one more warrior. But in the night, his occult powers come to full flowering, and he is creating havoc. Ghatotkacha’s occult powers are such that the Kaurava army does not even know which way to turn and fight, which direction to face, because illusory armies are all over the place, even in the sky.
It is a free run for the Pandavas; the situation turns into indiscriminate slaughter. Duryodhana looks at this and says, “This night, the Kaurava army will end.” He tells Karna, “Use the Shakti; kill this giant.” Karna hesitates because he is saving the Shakti astra for Arjuna. If he uses it up, his dream of killing Arjuna will be over. He hesitates. Suddenly, Duryodhana looks at him suspiciously and says, “What is the matter?” He always lives in this fear that maybe someone’s loyalty has shifted.
Karna Kills Ghatotkacha
He questions Karna’s loyalty. Karna says, “I have not come here to win the war; I have not come here to rule; I have not come here to get a kingdom. I have come here to die for you. I am not doing anything less than what I should do. If you insist, I will use the Shakti,” and he uses the Shakti to bring down Ghatotkacha. Suddenly, all the occult powers are gone, and it is a normal battle once again.
Once Krishna comes to know Karna used up the Shakti, he tells Arjuna, “Tomorrow morning, you must get Karna. That’s it. He is finished.” So next day morning, they get Karna in a way that is not usually approved. But by then, nothing is approved or disapproved. Everyone is doing whatever they want. Karna is carrying the bondage of curses in his life. Parashurama had cursed him, “When you really need it, you will forget the mantras.” And the brahmin whose cow was killed had cursed him, “When you are fighting a battle, in a moment of life or death, your chariot wheels will sink. And when you are helpless and unprotected as my cow was when you killed it, just like that, you will die.”
Arjuna Defeats Karna
So Karna is fighting Arjuna; a lot of drama happens. Then Karna’s wheel goes down. He comes down from the chariot and tries to get the wheel out. According to normal battle rules, in a situation like that, the opponents do not shoot at him; they wait for him to get back on the chariot. Karna says, “I am sure you are kshatriya enough not to shoot at me when I am down.” Of course, Arjuna also thinks he is warrior enough to not shoot, and he waits. Krishna asks, “What are you waiting for?” “No, let him release his chariot wheel.” Krishna’s patience is running out. He says, “Kill him.” Arjuna protests, “But he is unarmed.” “It does not matter – kill him.” Karna is trying to get his chariot wheel out. Krishna says, “Break the chariot.” So Arjuna breaks the chariot.
Then Karna knows that they are going to fight even when he is down. So he picks up his bow. Krishna says, “Break his bow.” Arjuna breaks it. Krishna says, “When he is standing totally unarmed, just take off his head.” Arjuna takes off his head. So Karna goes down. A great man and a great tragedy and a great mistake, all his life. Not evil, just a big mistake he is. With him gone, Duryodhana loses heart. Karna was always his assurance.
The Last Battle
Duryodhana makes Shalya the commander. Shalya fights bravely, but Yudhishthira kills him on that day. Once that is done, the Pandava army is on a rampage, and the Kauravas are completely decimated. In the process, Pandava soldiers also die in big numbers. Ashwatthama eliminates a large part of the Pandava army. Eighteen days of war are over. The five Pandavas are alive, Drishtadhyumna is alive, the Pandava children are alive. Otherwise, everyone who is significant is dead.
All the Kauravas are dead except Duryodhana. Ashwatthama and Kripacharya are alive; most of the foot soldiers are either dead, or they left the battlefield. Seeing this indiscriminate, non-stop killing, seeing themselves killing indiscriminately, many of them lost heart or lost their mind – whichever way, they ran away.
To be continued..
Editor’s Note : A version of this article was originally published in the Forest Flower magazine, January 2019. To subscribe online, click here.