Mahabharata: The Myth of the Death of Bhisma, Drona, Karna, Duryodhana


The Kuru-war, supposed to be a ‘Dharma-Yuddha,’ gradually degenerated into one with ‘Victory-at-any-cost’ becoming the chief protagonist, and ‘Dharma’ the main victim! The rules of ‘fair‘ warfare framed at the beginning of the war, were thrown to the winds as the war rolled on through its bloodiest phases. Abhimanyu was killed by seven maharatha’s in of one of the most cowardly acts! It is said the four pillars of the Kaurava side – Bhisma, Drona, Karna and Duryodhana were also killed unethically. The Pandavas and Krishna have earned much ill reputation for these killings. Traditionally accepted facts, nay ‘interpretation of text’ hazes our judgement so much that we seldom feel the urge to take a firsthand plunge into the ‘text’ itself to see what is the ‘fact in the text’ if not the ‘fact of history’! However, a close reading of the ‘text’ relating to the death of Bhisma, Drona, Karna and Duryodhana reveals different shades of the accepted myths!

Bhisma’s ‘Bed of Arrows’

On the tenth day of the war Arjuna killed grandpa Bhisma using Shikhandi as a shield, goes the story. Bhisma would not shoot at Shikhandi, because he had been a woman! He himself revealed to the Pandavas the way of killing him. He had ‘Ichhamrityu’, so lived another six months on his bed of arrows waiting for ‘Uttarayana’. 

In the ‘text’, Arjuna was fighting and piercing Bhisma (Section CXIX of Bhishma Parva), ‘placing Sikhandin before him.’ In the very next Section (CXX of Bhishma Parva) Sanjaya reported -‘Thus all the Pandavas, placing Sikhandin before them pierced Bhishma in that battle repeatedly surrounding him on all sides’. Again, we find in Dhritarashtra’s lament in the Adi Parva – ‘When I heard that Arjuna, having placed Sikhandin before himself in his chariot, had wounded Bhishma of infinite courage and invincible in battle, then, O Sanjaya, I had no hope of successes’. 

Does the phrase ‘placing Sikhandin before him’ mean Arjuna used Shikhandi as a shield? If so, then how could all the Pandavas place the same person before them? Why should we take the phrase literally in Arjuna’s case but rhetoricaly in the case of the other Pandavas? In a battlefield, was it really possible for Arjuna to use Shikhandi as a personal shield? With Drona, Kritavarman, Jayadratha, Bhurisravas, Sala, Salya, and Bhagadatta all nearby and attacking Arjuna, wouldn’t it have been ‘harikiri’ of honour for Arjuna? Could Arjuna put his own fame and honour at stake thus?

The description of war shows Bhisma showed no leniency to Arjuna that day! He was ‘licking the corners of his mouth.’ Arjuna and Bhisma were fighting face to face. Arjuna gradually cut off all the bows of Bhishma. After that, Bhishma ‘no longer desired to battle with Arjuna’. Undoubtedly, the battle was with Arjuna. Bhisma addressed Duhshashana with a smile and said, ‘these arrows coursing towards me in one continuous line, whose touch resembleth that of heaven’s bolt, have been shot by Arjuna’. Duhshashana was protecting Bhisma that day. If Arjuna had really been doing any act of cowardice or unfair war, Duhshashana would have commented upon the matter at that very instance! 

When Bhisma ‘fell down’ from his chariot – ‘There was not in Bhishma’s body space of even two fingers’ breadth that was not pierced with arrows.’ 

On the tenth day Krishna planned an all-out attack on Bhisma under the Shikhandin Division, which had so long been storing energy. That day, Sikhandin Division led the attack and Arjuna protected Sikhandi himself. That is what the phrase ‘placing Sikhandin before him’ actually means! In the latter part of that day’s war, Arjuna ‘stationed at the head of his troops, broke the centre of the Kuru army’. So, at first, Shikhandi took the lead, but later it was Arjuna. Under tremendous attack from Arjuna, the Kaurava warriors of different nation ‘abandoned Bhishma’. 

Vyasa, out of respect for Bhisma, did not use the word ‘death’ and left the matter ambiguous. Latter poets taking this literally, interpolated the story of Bhisma pierced with arrows all over his body living for another six months on the bed of arrows! 

There is no mention of Arjuna’s ‘unethical’ fight in Sanjaya’s report that follows immediately. He only mentioned (Section CXXIV) that Bhisma ‘had become silent’. When Karna went to meet Bhisma that evening, neither he nor Bhisma made any references to Arjuna’s ‘cowardly’ act! Bhisma lived for that night only. His immense pain is evident when he spoke to Karna. His ‘eyes were covered with film’ and he could only ‘slowly raise his eyelids.’ He could not have lived for another six months in that condition. Biology won’t permit that, nor any logical stretch of imagination! Vyasa could never have created such an inappropriate myth!

The fourth Section of Bhisma Parva clearly mentions the manner of Bhisma’s death. Sanjaya said to Dhritarashtra -‘Having afflicted the Pancalas and the Pandavas endued with great activity, and slain thousands of warriors, he was at last slain by Arjuna!’ at first Arjuna only wounded Bhisma (evident in Dhritarashtra’s lamentation!). His love for his grandfather did not permit him (despite Krishna’s discourse on duty!) a downright slaughter! Arjuna could never do the ignominious act of beheading Bhisma! Bhisma died that night after giving Karna his due recognition. There is no reason to believe otherwise!

Drona’s Yogic-Death

After Bhisma’s death, Drona became the supreme general of the Kaurava army. 
When he was exterminating the warriors, (Section CXCII of Drona Parva) ‘the Rishis Viswamitra, and Jamadagni, and Bharadwaja, and Gautama, and Vasishtha, and Kasyapa, and Atri, and the Srikatas, the Prisnis, Garga, the Valkhilyas, the Marichis, the descendants of Bhrigu and Angiras, and diverse other sages of subtle forms’ met him. This meeting could not have taken place in the battlefield! The delegation of the Rishis must have come during a recess of war! They rebuked him on four counts: 

1) He was fighting unrighteously. 
2) It did not befit him to perpetrate such exceedingly cruel deeds. 
3) A ‘film of error’ shrouded him and he should adhere now to the eternal path.
4) He burnt men that were unacquainted with weapons with superior Brahma weapon. 

Following this severe admonition, Drona became exceedingly cheerless in battle. He had lost the support of the Rishis! Next day, Krishna had launched a massive propaganda-war and spread the rumour of Aswatthama’s death! The story goes, Krishna, feeling Drona would annihilate their army, advised Yudhishthira -‘falsehood is better than truth.’ Bhima slew a mighty elephant named Aswatthaman, belonging to Indravarman, the chief of the Malavas, and then told Drona, that his son had been slain! Drona enquired Yudhishthira about the veracity of the rumour. Yudhishthira distinctly said that Aswatthaman was dead, ‘adding indistinctly the word elephant (after the name)’ and at this untruthfulness, Yudhishthira’s car that had stayed at a ‘height of four fingers’ breadth from the surface of the earth’ touched the earth! ‘Hearing those words from Yudhishthira, Drona could not fight as before.’ Nevertheless, he was still fighting. It was now Bhima’s turn to chastise Drona (Section CXCIII)! Bhima, holding the car of Drona, called his Guru ‘wretched amongst Brahmanas’, and exterminator of the Kshatriya order. In a rare inspiration of eloquent rhetorical flow, Bhima called him self-centric and avaricious. Bhima, in fact, gave a forceful voice to the opinion of the Kshatriyas and Rishis about Drona. Drona’s arrows became exhausted (Section CXCII). ‘Seeing the exhaustion of his arrows and afflicted with grief on account of his son’s death’, he could not fight as before. Fighting became as impossible to him as quitting! 

Drona finally decided to quit battle but exhorted the Kauravas to fight carefully. He still wanted the battle to continue under Karna’s leadership. Drona now ‘devoted himself to Yoga and assured all creatures, dispelling their fears’. His body was mangled with arrows and bathed in blood. After he had laid aside his weapons, and left his body by Yoga, Dhrishtadumna pounced on Drona’s chariot and began to drag Drona’s lifeless head and lopped off the head with his sword. Arjuna tried to prevent him in vain.

The entire story is too full of inherent contradictions and absurdities! Why should Bhima stoop to such pretentious low at the cost of unnecessarily undertaking an extra labour of killing a horse, when he could easily lie without killing one? How could Drona become a sage or a devotee of Vishnu all of a sudden? We have never seen him doing high-level Yoga before! Certainly never as an ascetic-Yogi! To achieve tranquil state, and that too in the midst of an ongoing battle, needs a capability that was beyond Drona’s mettle! 

Besides, in the din and bustle of a terrible war, Yudhishthira’s dramatic overtone and undertone is as absurd as his car suddenly becoming some sort of an aeroplane. The entire description is rhetorical! What the poet wants to drive home is that, a war’s greatest toll is Truth! Even a person like Yudhishthira is bound to yield to the real-politick of war! Moreover, Yudhishthira and Bhima’s lies had hardly any effect on Drona! He continued to fight. He did not lay aside weapons; those were exhausted!

Yudhishthira might have some reservations to the tactics of Propaganda-war, which is indeed a sort of ‘lying’ to the layman! Such ‘lying’ was perhaps too bitter a pill for his saintly self-image to swallow. His final relenting confirms that his reservations were actually motivated by his desire to carefully protect and preserve his ‘dharma-incarnate’ self-image! Besides, such moralistic reservations in a game of slaughter only betray his lack of real-politick acumen and inferior knowledge in warfare!’ 

The question is how Drona was actually killed. The Parva counting (Adi Parva), mentions Drona’s death as one of ‘surprising interest!’ Dhritarashtra’s lamentation inAdi Parva – ‘When I heard that Dhristadyumna, transgressing the laws of battle, slew Drona while alone in his chariot and resolved on death, then, O Sanjaya, I had no hope of success’ – suits our logic! Here there is no mention of Drona performing Yoga! ‘Resolved on death’ might also mean a ‘do or die’ attitude! It is probable that when Drona’s weapons were exhausted, Dhristadyumna killed him unarmed! Had anything else happened Arjuna could not have said (Section CCI of Drona Parva) to Aswatthaman, ‘Prishata’s son, that slayer of Drona, will quell thy pride today’. When Arjuna could say so there cannot be denying Dhristadyumna indeed slayed Drona.

Karna’s Chariot Wheel

The Karna-Arjuna duel is the climax of the Kuru-war. Once when Karna darted a ‘Snake-arrow’, (Section XC of Karna Parva), Krishna ‘put forth his strength and thus pressed down with his feet that car into the earth, whereat the steeds, bending down their knees, laid themselves down upon the earth when the car itself had sank into it’. It is an interesting story, but without logic! Bankim Chandra humourously observed in his ‘Krishnacharitra’, ‘The same result would have been obtained had Arjuna put down his head.’ Actually, Arjuna’s chariot was stuck in the earth. The Krishna-lover poets would not allow the failure of Krishna’s ‘divine will’ in anticipating the sinking of Arjuna’s chariot! Hence, the stories of Krishna pressing down the car! We may even ask – why was it necessary to sink the car into the earth for bending the knees of the horses? Krishna could have done so by command and whip!

Arjuna was narrowly saved from the ‘Snake-arrow’. Karna’s shaft swept off his crown the famous Kirita! Krishna then raised up the car with the might of his arms. The Naga Aswasena and Karna attacked Arjuna when his chariot wheel was stuck in mud. At that time, Karna pierced Krishna with ten shafts. Karna was attacking not only an unarmed Krishna, but also one who was probably outside the chariot! 

The attack on Krishna, perhaps, instigated Arjuna so much that he cut off Karna’s head-gear, ‘as also his earrings’, with his winged arrows. Arjuna also cut off the bright armour of Karna in many fragments. This is what Arjuna did to Karna. He cut off Karna’s armour into fragments. Perhaps, it is this fact that left Karna-admirer poets musing if there was something wrong with Karna’s armour and earrings! Otherwise how could have they been destroyed in such a violent manner! They mused that Karna must have lost his ‘original’ armour and earrings, which Surya/Durvasa gave him! Indra’s stealing of Krana’s armour followed as a logical story, Indra being known as Arjuna’s father! 

In the course of this duel Karna was so hit that he cast aside his bow ‘and stood inactive, stupefied, and reeling, his grasp loosened and himself in great anguish’. However, Arjuna being virtuous did not wish to slay his enemy at that opportune moment. A fierce fight that it was, Karna then pierced Arjuna with ten shafts and Krishna with half a dozen. ‘Then Dhananjaya desired to shoot a mighty and terrible arrow, made wholly of iron, resembling the poison of snake or fire in energy, and whose whiz resembling the peal of Indra’s thunder, and which was inspired with the force of a high (celestial) weapon.’

This was the climactic moment. If we skip a bit and read now the following lines from Section XCI, we get a fine continuity of narrative -‘Partha took out from his quiver an excellent Anjalika weapon that resembled the thunder of Indra or the rod of fire and that was possessed of the effulgence of the thousand-rayed Sun.. With that weapon, Arjuna struck off his enemy’s head like Indra striking off the head of Vritra with his thunder’.

However, the latter poets would not have Karna fall so soon. Like in Hindi cinema, lengthy dialogues should precede the fall of a mighty tragic hero! The latter poets appropriated facts about Arjuna and attributed them on Karna. Arjuna’s chariot wheel was stuck, we have seen, now Karna’s too must be stuck! All of a sudden ‘the earth also began to devour the left wheel of his car….Karna’s car began to reel, having sunk deep into the earth,’ and compelled Karna to repeatedly rail at ‘righteousness’.

However, this narrative is so full of incongruity that its interpolatory nature is easily discernible. We find that even if Karna’s chariot stuck to the ground, fighting was no problem for him. Had he any real problem, he could not have pierced Krishna and Arjuna. At one time Karna seemed to get the better of Arjuna. It was a face-to-face fight. Neither Krishna nor Arjuna ever thought of turning their back, even if Karna was gaining the upper hand. Here we find Krishna as the true embodiment of Gita!

The incongruity is evident in the repetition of narrative. The swallowing up of one of the wheels of Karna’s car is mentioned again. Karna now quickly alighted from his vehicle and ‘seized his sunken wheel with his two arms and endeavoured to lift it up with a great effort. Drawn up with force by Karna, the earth …rose up to a height of four fingers’ breadth, with her seven islands and her hills and waters and forests’. Absurd to the power infinitum! Earth lifted by one standing on the earth itself! The laws of Physics must have been different those days! Most importantly, the episode echoes Krishna’s action in lifting up Arjuna’s earth-stuck chariot-wheel, and surpasses it in absurdity! 

Next follows a lengthy set of dialogues (Section XCI). We find ‘Karna hung down his head in shame and gave no answer’. Nevertheless, he continued to fight again! Lengthy dialogues between Krishna and Arjuna are entirely improbable in a climactic battle like that! The narrator could not foresee that the Hindi Film Industry would be heavily inspired at this! The Krishna-admiring poets perhaps had some benevolent purpose – establishing Krishna’s superiority in verbal warfare to justify his godhood! Karna even hit Arjuna such that he began ‘to reel’, and his bow Gandiva dropped from his hand. What did Karna do now? ‘Availing himself of that opportunity, the mighty car-warrior Vrisha, desirous of extricating his car-wheel that had been swallowed up by the earth, jumped down from his vehicle. Seizing the wheel with his two arms he endeavoured to drag it up’, but failed in his efforts.

Why didn’t Karna kill Arjuna now? Why was Karna so obsessed with the car-wheel? What was his purpose? If his purpose was to kill Arjuna, that was almost achieved now! What better result could he have gained, by raising the car? If we defend Karna that this was his nobility not to hit a swooning foe, then we may also ask why he did not wait for Arjuna to recover sense and then kill him at that instance. Besides, even if his chariot had become static, Krishna and Arjuna were not taking advantage of the situation. Krishna had kept his chariot static so that Arjuna fought face to face! 

We may also be skeptical about nobility in battle! A warrior can never slay another warrior without gaining upper hand at a particular moment! Competition of nobility will always keep a fight inconclusive! Actually, Karna’s nobility, here, in not killing a swooning Arjuna is a clear echo of Arjuna’s! The Karna-admirer poets attempt to restore the balance thus! 

We are told that when Karna was busy lifting the chariot-wheel, Krishna instigated Arjuna to cut off Karna’s head before he succeeded in getting upon his car. This tarnishes Krishna’s image no doubt, but the next incident shows how farcical this narrative is! ‘Applauding those words of the lord Vasudeva, and while the wheel of his enemy was still sunk, the mighty car-warrior Arjuna took up a razor-headed arrow of blazing effulgence and struck the standard (of Karna).’ If Arjuna were really bent on killing Karna like a coward, why would he strike the standard? Did he have time for so much luxury? Was he such an idiot as to waste a precious moment? He could have dealt with the standard later after attending to the more urgent business of Karna’s head!

The next series of events clearly reveal how poorly conceived were the narrative of Arjuna’s ‘unethical’ warfare! Immediately after Arjuna cut off Karna’s head, ‘Beholding the heroic Karna thrown down stretched on the earth, pierced with arrows and bathed in blood, the king of the Madras, went away on that car deprived of its standard’. 

If the car was really stuck to the ground, how could Shalya go away with it? Who raised it from the ground then? Earlier, Arjuna destroyed Karna’s side and back guards! Raising the car was also not possible for Shalya, because even Karna failed to do it, and there is no reason to believe Shalya was mightier than Karna! Also notable is the phrase ‘thrown down’, which clearly indicates that Karna was on the chariot! That Shalya had been silent throughout the Arjuna-Karna war gave latter poets the opportunity to interpolate the story of Shalya’s tacit support for the Pandavas!

In Section XCII we find in Sanjaya’s report, ‘beholding the troops crushed with arrows in that encounter between Karna and Arjuna, Shalya proceeded, filled with wrath, on that car divested of equipment’. No hope for Arjuna-haters! Karna’s chariot was never stuck to the earth! Shalya was also not favouring the Pandavas as evident from the phrase ‘filled with wrath’. Nowhere later, we find the Pandavas congratulating Shalya!

Let us find some other clues. Shalya, immediately after Karna’s death, reported to Duryodhana – ‘Never before, O Bharata, has a battle been fought like that between Karna and Arjuna today. Karna had powerfully assailed the two Krishnas today and all others who are thy foes. Destiny, however, has certainly flowed, controlled by Partha’. No mention of Karna’s chariot sticking to the ground or Arjuna’s cowardice act! Perhaps, Shalya’s blaming Destiny gave latter poets the opportunity to invent and interpolate the story of the Brahmana’s or Parashurama’s curse to Karna. No mention of ‘adharma-yuddha’ in Sanjaya’s next report too! Sanjaya only told Dhritarashtra (Section XCIII) of ‘Karna’s fall’ and ‘slaughter of the Suta’s son’, and ‘the fall of the Suta’s son’.

When Yudhishthira went to see Karna’s corpse with his own eyes, (Section XCIX) he beheld Karna ‘pierced all over with arrows ….Karna with his son slain and mangled with shafts sped from Gandiva’. Even Gandhari pointed out at Karna’s wife lamenting thus (Section XXI of Stri Parva) – “Without doubt, thy preceptors curse hath pursued thee! When the wheel of thy car was swallowed up by the Earth, the cruel Dhananjaya, cut off thy head with an arrow!’ Regarding this we can say, Vyasa does not use direct narrative here, but allows the play of ‘subjective reality’ for better imitation of reality. He narrates a ‘dialogue within dialogue’. It is only too natural for Karna’s wife to believe that Karna have been slain in ‘Adharma Yuddha.’ We must remember that along with the physical war, a parallel war of propaganda, as always, was also going on. It is obvious for the Kuru-side to spread the rumour that Karna could not be killed in fair battle, the intention being to rejuvenate the drooping spirit of the Kaurava warriors! Besides, even Karna’s wife did not say that Arjuna killed Karna while he was trying to pull up the wheel!

Dhritarashtra too never lamentated of any unfair battle (Adi Parva) -‘When I heard that the infinitely brave Karna, invincible in battle, was slain by Arjuna in that war of brothers mysterious even to the gods, then, O Sanjaya, I had no hope of success’. In the Adi Parva counting too, the mention is – ‘Then Arjuna slew the great Karna in single combat’. Sanjaya reported (Section IV of Karna Parva) – ‘Having afflicted the Pancalas and the Pandavas endued with great activity, and slain thousands of warriors, he was at last slain by Arjuna!” Vaishampayana narrated – ‘Vaikartana … hath been slain with his sons and brothers’, and further – ‘even so hath Arjuna, O king, in single combat, slain, with all his kinsmen, that foremost of smiters, viz., Karna.’! 

How was Karna actually killed then? The violent destruction of Karna’s ‘armour, ornaments, robes, and weapons’ have been mentioned again and again ‘The Karna-conflagration was extinguished by the Partha-cloud in the battle….Karna, along with his sons, was quieted by Partha’s energy’. Karna was ‘slain and pierced with gold-winged shafts’ and ‘his armour had been cut off with arrows!’ Karna, indeed, ‘fell in single combat’ as Arjuna struck off his head. There is no reason to believe otherwise!

The Kuru King’s Broken Thighs

In the climactic Bhima-Duryodhana mace duel, Duryodhana was fighting like a cornered cat (Section LVII of Shalya Parva)! Sometimes he was prevailing over Bhima, sometimes Bhima! Once, Bhima struck Duryodhana on one of his flanks. ‘Stupefied at that blow, the latter fell down on the earth, supporting himself on his knees’. We see that Bhima did not further strike Duryodhana at that opportune moment! He gave time to Duryodhana to rise. Rising up Duryodhana then struck Bhimasena on the forehead. The latter, however, moved not an inch but stood immovable like a mountain. Bhima also struck his adversary with great force. ‘Struck by Bhimasena, thy son fell down … Beholding thy son prostrated on the earth, the Pandavas became exceedingly glad and uttered loud cries. Recovering his consciousness, thy son then rose, like an elephant from a lake’. We see yet again that Bhima did not kill Duryodhana at that opportune moment, but gave time to Duryodhana to recover his senses!

Next, it is Duryodhana’s turn. With great skill, he struck Bhimasena who was standing before him. ‘At this, the son of Pandu, with weakened limbs, fell down on the earth’. But Duryodhana won’t give Bhima respite. When Bhima had fallen to the ground, Duryodhana yet struck him and destroyed his mail! As the narrative would have us believe, Krishna unethically intervenes soon after this (Section LVIII of Shalya Parva)! He said – ‘If he were to fight fairly, Bhimasena will never succeed in winning the victory’, and recommended deception’. ‘Having heard those words of the high-souled Keshava, Dhananjaya struck his own left thigh before the eyes of Bhimasena’. 

Nothing can tarnish the image of Krishna and Arjuna more than this! The battle, however, continued. Once, Duryodhana blew Bhima so vehemently that he was completely stupefied. Nevertheless, Bhima sustained himself, summoning all his patience. Duryodhana thinking him to be unmoved and ready to return the blow did not hit him further. Bhima knew that had he fallen to the ground or showed any sign of trouble, Duryodhana would not spare him! 

Next, comes the climax! ‘Having rested for a little while, the valiant Bhimasena rushed furiously….. (Duryodhana) desiring to baffle his blow, set his heart on the manoeuvre called Avasthana. He, therefore, desired to jump upwards …. for beguilingVrikodara. Bhimasena fully understood the intentions of his adversary. Rushing, therefore, at him, with a loud leonine roar, he fiercely hurled his mace at the thighs of the Kuru king as the latter had jumped up for baffling the first aim. That mace, endued with the force of the thunder and hurled by Bhima of terrible feats, fractured the two handsome thighs of Duryodhana. That tiger among men… after his thighs had been broken by Bhimasena, fell down, causing the earth to echo with his fall’. 

There is a limit to human capacity in spot jump. No one can rise higher than his own height by a spot jump. Why did Duryodhana try to do such a foolish thing, when Bhima was about to strike him with his mace? So long he tried to avoid Bhima’s blows by simply moving away, now, why did he foolishly desire to fly in the air? Even if we admit that jumping upwards is a strategy of mace warfare, then why should we blame Bhima? Supposing he was trying to hit Duryodhana on the body, Duryodhana’s thighs would naturally be available to him then within the range of his mace! Jumping up is an instinctive or reflexive response when someone is trying to hit the lower part of the body. We find Bhima only ‘rushed furiously.’ Why would Duryodhana jump up then? 

Bhima, kicked the head of Duryodhana with his left foot. To all standards, this was inhuman, but then Bhima is Bhima! Balaram cried ‘fie on Bhima’ as ‘in such a fair fight a blow hath been struck below the navel! The mighty Baladeva then, uplifting his plough, rushed towards Bhimasena’! Why is striking below the navel unfair in battle, if it is not wrong to hit the head? It might be so in sports, but then they were not fighting a fake free-style wrestling for the T.V! If killing the foe and winning is everything in battle, why this pretension of sportsmanship! Besides, what was Balarama himself doing? He himself, armed, was going to hit an unarmed Bhima! He was also silent when Duryodhana broke a swooning Bhima’s mail! Why didn’t he cry ‘fie’ then?

Why would smashing thighs become ‘unfair’ all of a sudden? When Bhima promised (Section LXX of Sava Parva) – ‘Let not Vrikodara attain to the regions, obtained by his ancestors, if he doth not break that thigh of thine in the great Conflict’, following Duryodhana’s obscene hint to Draupadi, no one cried foul that it was an unethical vow! When Bhima told Uluka (Section CLXIV of Udyoga Parva), ‘I swear in the name of Truth, slaying Dussasana in battle … I shall smash thy (Duryodhana) own thighs’, nobody cried foul! Again, when sage Maitreya cursed Duryodhana (Section X of Vana Parva) ‘In the great war … the mighty Bhima shall smash that thigh of thine with a stroke of his mace’, none of the Kauravas and Drona, Kripa etc. felt it was an unfair sanction of foul-play! When Sanjaya reminded Dhritarashtra of Bhima’s vow (Section XLIX of Vana Parva) ‘Beholding Duryodhana showing both his thighs unto Draupadi, Bhima said with quivering lips, ‘wretch! Those thighs of thine will I smash with my fierce descending mace’, Dhritarashtra did not cry foul play! 

That smashing thighs was common in mace-fight (and particularly in Bhima’s style of warfare!) is evident from what Bhima did to the Yakshas of Kuvera (Section CLIV ofVana Parva) – ‘And on its shores they beheld the high-souled and vehement Bhima, as also the slaughtered Yakshas of large eyes, with their bodies, eyes, arms and thighs smashed, and heads crushed’. Kuvera, nor anybody else, cried foul at that!

The poets would have us believe that Duryodhana was still alive. However, close examination of the text reveals just the opposite! In the very next Section (61) Dhritarashtra asked Sanjaya, ‘Beholding Duryodhana struck down in battle by Bhimasena, what, O Sanjaya, did the Pandavas and the Srinjayas do?’ Sanjaya responded -, ‘Beholding Duryodhana slain by Bhimasena in battle, O king, like a wild elephant slain by a lion, the Pandavas with Krishna became filled with delight’

So, Duryodhana was slain at the very spot. There is no question of Duryodhana lying with broken knees. The Pandavas would certainly not have left him there in that condition and considered them victorious. With Duryodhana living, Yudhishthira could never have said ‘King Suyodhana hath been struck down! The earth hath been conquered by us.’ Again, if it was that Duryodhana’s thighs were only broken, how could he die? Can broken thighs kill a spirited person like Duryodhana?

The warriors who congratulated Bhima said – ‘All these men regard this slaughter of the foe by thee to be like that of Vritra by Indra himself! This feat that thou hast achieved is incapable of being achieved by any other warriors’. No one would have said this, had Duryodhana been still alive or had Bhima really done anything wrong. Even Janamejaya said (Section LXIII) – ‘When Duryodhana was struck down, when in consequence of the battle the empire of Pandu’s son became perfectly foeless.’

Yudhishthira sent Krishna to Hastinapur to console Gandhari ‘who had lost all her sons in the war (Section LXII).’’ Could Yudhishthira say this with Duryodhana still alive? When Krishna consoled Gandhari, she did not blame Bhima. When Krishna told Dhritarashtra – ‘Having caused this slaughter of even foes that wronged him so, he (Yudhishthira) is burning day and night, and hath not succeeded in obtaining peace of mind’, nor did Dhritarashtra say anything about Bhima’s ‘wrong-doing’.

So, in the very next Section (64) Dhritarashtra’s query ‘Kicked at the head, his thighs broken, prostrated on the ground, exceedingly proud, what, O Sanjaya, did my son then say?’ is clearly interpolated. Dhritarashtra could not have said this. He had just then been informed of his son’s death! 

Ashvatthama, Kripa and Kritavarma came to meet Duryodhana and found him prostrate on the ground (Section LXV)… writhing on the bare ground and covered with blood … (and)..weltering in agony and bathed in profuse streams of blood….Around him were many terrible creatures and carnivorous animals’. As this part of the narrative would have us believe Duryodhana installed Ashvatthama as the general. When the three left, ‘Duryodhana, profusely covered with blood, began to pass there that night so frightful to all creatures’. If Duryodhana was alive, how could the three leave him there in that condition? What type of loyalty was that? How could they have left him dying there amidst carnivorous animals? 

In this very Section we find Duryodhana saying – ‘I am not ignorant of the glory of Krishna of immeasurable energy. He hath not caused me to fall off from the proper observance of Kshatriya duties’. It is the same Duryodhana who had just sometime before indicted Krishna in the harshest possible language at his ‘foul-play’! It is clear that the history of Duryodhana’s fall had been written and re-written many a times! Sometimes in favour of the Pandavas and sometimes in favour of the Kauravas!

So, how did Duryodhana die? The Parva counting (Adi Parva) mentions – ‘then the fracture of Duryodhana’s thighs in battle by Bhima with (a terrific hurl of) his mace.’ Bhima might indeed have broken Duryodhana’s thighs in normal warfare, or perhaps Duryodhana himself had invited that fatal ‘accident’ by adopting the wrong strategy of jumping up! Bhima killed him then, as he did to the Yakshshas of Kuvera. Ashwathama could kill the sleeping Panchalas because they were sleeping complacent of victory at Duryodhana’s death! How could they sleep so peacefully if Duryodhana was still alive?

The Why of the Myth

The imageries of the moment of death of all the four great warriors have frozen so deeply in the psyche and culture over the ages, that all our ‘proofs’ whatever they might be, despite their force of Truth are helpless before a common acceptance! The appeal of the imageries is conscious and subconscious as well, and therein lays their power! The imageries are very powerful allegories and commentaries on the life, living and deed of the great Four! They also have didactic value and archetypal appeal! Another reason for the power of the imageries is their appeal to the ‘martyr’-self in man! Man has a natural inclination for martyrdom – be it real achievement or rationalization of powerlessness! The four imageries provide four powerful archetypes of martyrdom! 

Bhisma lying on a bed of arrows penetrated by deadly Shafts is imagery dramatic in its irony, and ironic in its dramatic evocation of simultaneous symbolic meaning of sleep or rest and death (a Vyasa-Shakespeare connection?)! Wasn’t Bhisma sleeping while living? Wasn’t Bhisma dead while sleeping? Weren’t the harmful lots surrounding him throughout his life the penetrating and painful shafts? Having sacrificed his legal rights to the throne in the Yajna-fire of his father’s lust, could he sleep that night while Shantanu gamed with Satyavati? Could he sleep on the nights when Chitrangada and Bichitrabirya suspected him of having illicit relationship with Satyabati? Could he sleep on the nights of Chitrangada and Bichitrabirya’s death? Could he sleep on the nights when Vyasa entered his brother’s wives thereby ending the royal Puru-blood forever? Could he rest peacefully, having been marginalized from the policy-making bodies of Hastinapur owing to the machinations of the powerful Bharadwaja-Gautama ministers? He certainly felt like lying on a bed of arrows! Endless shafts penetrated him, as he stood static! Pandu’s renouncing the throne and death, the Kuru-Pandava rivalry, Jarasandha’s threat, the Panchala threat – the shafts came in endless numbers eating into his vitality! Bhisma’s life is so active yet passive! It is indeed ironical that arrows of death emancipated him from the arrows of life! Whom else does the ‘bed of arrow’ befit?

Drona sat on his chariot, his eyes closed, his weapons exhausted! He had a Brahmana body but Khsatriya mind! As Dhristadumna pointed out to him rightly, he never ever performed the six duties of Brahmanas – ‘assisting at sacrifices, teaching, giving away, performance of sacrifices, receiving of gifts, and study’. Drona in his illusions and delusions was as static in his life as he was at the time of his death! He had a static soul in the chariot of his body! He could not have high moral authority having used his disciples for his own selfish gains! He had no contribution to the Vedic culture! All through his life he had been sitting in a pretentious posture. In his case too, stasis at the time of death ends the stasis of his life!

It is said Karna’s chariot wheel stuck to the ground at the time of his death! Weren’t his wheels stuck in his life too? He was one whom even Bhisma certified (Section CXXIV of Bhisma Parva) – ‘equal to Phalguni himself or the high-souled Krishna ….. equal to a child of the celestials and certainly much superior to men’. But was his chariot ever on the right track? Could he realize his potential, or rather, allow himself his full potential? 

In the Rig-Veda, the chariot wheel is a symbol of the sun. The Sun rides a chariot driven by seven horses. Karna, the Sun, is both the chariot and the chariot wheel! The wheel stuck in earth is Karna-sun being eclipsed! Kunti’s other name ‘Pritha’ also means earth. The Karna-sun-wheel is stuck in Pritha-fate! Karna trying to lift the wheel is Karna trying to lift his own fate from the mud! His inherent goodness was of no good to do that!

Karna had a vision too parochial; his ‘Bharat’ was a small domain with rigid geographical and mental boundaries, and united by a common orthodox Vedic religion! His ‘Bharat’ consisted only of The Kauravas, Pancalas, Salwas, Matsyas, Naimishas, Koshalas, Kasapaundras, Kalingas (north), Magadhas, and the Cedis (Section XL of Karna Parva). His hatred is straight – ‘the Easterners follow the practices of the Shudras; the Southerners are fallen; the Vahikas are thieves; the Saurashtras are bastards’. His ‘Bharat’ accommodated diverse nations but in a system of hierarchy. It is not unity in diversity! His ‘Bharat’ excluded The Karashakas, Mahishakas, Kalingas, Keralas, Karkotakas, Virakas, Prasthalas, Madras, Gandharas, Arattas, Khasas, Vasatis, Sindhus, Bahliks, arattas and the Sauviras. His ‘Bharat’ was a nation supported with strong patriarchal pillars! Woman could not be equal to men in matters of personal liberty. His strong castigation of women practicing free-sex, drinking liquor, and having abortion brings out this point. Karna could see only one hand clapping! Karna’s religion was orthodox, ritualistic and superstitious. Undoubtedly, his chariot-wheel had long been clogged! Standing in stark contrast to his chariot and opposing it is Krishna-Arjuna’s chariot which is ever-dynamic, ever progressive, ever battling against odds!

The death of Bhisma-Drona-Karna has a common link – the chariot! The chariot symbolizes progress and battle for progress. Bhisma fell from it, Drona died sitting on it, and Karna died standing outside of it! The vision of Renaissance conceived by Vyasa-Krishna-Arjuna was too fast a chariot for Bhisma! Perhaps, he sympathized with it, but could not accommodate himself with it! Drona closed his eyes and became static on it in a delusive attempt to separate himself from the New Age dynamics! The powerful Bhardwaja community was his extended self and was clogged in orthodoxy! Karna being stuck could not move on or be in the chariot. He had to descend and stand beside it! All three had their own chariot, their own ‘dharma’, yet their ‘dharma’ proved inadequate for their survival or survival of the ideology they represented! In a war of chariots, every chariot symbolizes war between ‘Swadharmas’ on different relative planes!

Duryodhana is the most tragic of them all. He lost the chariot! He had to be on foot. A self-serving interest had long bereft him of a chariot. The imagery of his broken thighs has great significance. Thigh represents the main support of a body. Duryodhana could not be the support of a new age religio-cultural and socio-political synthesis! He is thus imagined with a broken thigh. Again, the imagery is meaningful at another level. In the Purusha-sukta (RV- 10.90.12) Thigh is Vaishya, the economical forces of the nation. 

Does Duryodhana with broken thigh signify his state devoid of the support of the Vaishya? A war of the scale of Kuru-war needed huge money. Where did the Pandavas get so much resource? The Panchalas, the Matsyas and Krishna were certainly the main resource-providers. But is that all? Why did many other states join the Pandava side? Can ‘Dharma-Yuddha’ ideology be a sufficient motive? Just like Buddhism got the patronage of Vaishya community, it is my belief that the Pandavas got the Vaishya patronage, courtesy Krishna. One reason is very prominent. The Hastinapur-Dwarka-Magadha golden triangle connected to the ancient silk route via Hastinapur, the Arabian countries and south East Asian countries via Lothal or Dwarka, and opened up new vistas in trade and commerce! The Vaishya community supported Krishna’s vision of a ‘modern’ Bharata! They had their own motives, but that served Krishna well!

The state of being of the characters at the time of their death, also throw light on their nature! Bhisma took no escape route; he was keen to die! Drona tried to use ‘sattwa’ as an escape route. Karna took shelter of sentimentality – ‘tamas’. Duryodhana wanted to escape to the ‘oceanic state’, so he hid in water. 

Bhisma, Drona, and Karna share another common thing. The common blood! They have Bharadwaja-Angira blood and therefore Puru-blood running through their veins! We know Ashwathama and Kripa survived. If that indicates Bharadwaja-Gautama survival despite Vashishtha-Bhrigu-Kanva victory, the myths might well be the creation of Puru-vamshi affiliated poets! One evidence of this is the myth of Kripa’s (a gautama!) immortality! Kripa’s myth strains our imagination as he is said to have been the Acharya of even Janmejaya’s son! Another evidence is the myth of Ashwathama’s immortality and also his new avatar as the next Vyasa! The composition of Mahabharata was not always in Vashishtha or Bhrigu hand! If the composition period extends up to the Gupta period or even later, it is natural some powerful Bharadwaja-Gautama-Angira poets contributed to the corpus! The myths might also be a device of the Shaivites in their war with Vaishnavites! Or, as Bankim Chandra speculated, they might even be the creation of Krishna-devotees to drive home the point that Krishna being the supreme personality of Godhead is above human morality! Whatever the motive or motives, nothing but the literary motive is our chief concern here!

Author: –  Indrajit Bandyopadhyay

Originally published 06-Jun-2010

Post Author: Mahabharata World

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