Abhinav Agarwal
The Incredible Savagery of War, to Restore & Uphold Dharma
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Mahabharata, Vol. 6. Translated by Bibek Debroy

The sixth installment of Bibek Debroy’s translation of the unabridged Mahabharata, based on the Critical Edition by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, features perhaps the fiercest fighting in the 18-day war, as well as a descent into an all-out, no-holds barred bloodfest with no rules left unbroken. Many warriors ganging up against one. Beheading unarmed warriors who had given up their arms, twice. Fighting at night. The wanton killing of warriors retreating. The killing of warriors who had laid down their arms. Abuses, insults. Much more, and much worse takes place in these three days of the 18-day war that this book covers. Specifically, this book covers days thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen of the war, and contains six sub-Parvas (Upa Parvas): Abhimanyu-Vadha Parva (67), Pratijnya Parva (68), Jayadratha-Vadha Parva (69, and at 210 pages, also the longest in this book), Ghatotakacha-Vadha Parva (70, and 120 pages long), Drona-Vadha Parva (71), and Narayana-Astra Moksha Parva (72).

I used to think that the 18-day war of Kurukshetra was a very sanitized affair, an impression only made stronger after watching B.R. Chopra’s television epic on the epic. And I must admit here that I am a big fan of BR Chopra’s TV series. However, I watched silk-clothed warriors aim arrows that killed soldiers from afar and who returned to their camps with nary a drop of blood or gore or signs of grievous injury on them. Several retellings of the epic also did little to dispel the myth that the 18-day war was an antiseptic carnage.

Therefore, it was with some delight, to use such a word for a war that allegedly claimed the lives of a billion people, that I read this – Bibek Debroy‘s sixth volume in the unabridged translation of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata. While the first ten days of the war do contain their share of accounts of the carnage wrought by the war, it is only in the sixth volume that we get to see some of the horrors of war described, not only in gruesome detail, but also which bring out the utter despair that war wreaks on those actually fighting.

This volume also completes the Drona Parva – the seventh Parva in the 18 Parva classification – that had begun in Vol. 5. Contrary to apprehensions I had of reading an account of only three days of the war that stretched to over 500 pages, this is actually a very engaging read, and in several respects, a much more eventful period than the first ten days of the war, where nothing of note except the slaying of Bhishma happens (unless one counts the Bhagavad Gita, which happens before the actual fighting starts). This book contains four major episodes around which the narration revolves. The first is, of course, the death of Abhimanyu. The second is Jayadratha’s death at the hands of Arjuna. The third is the death of Ghatotakacha, Bhima’s son, at the hands of Karna. This itself is notable for three reasons. The first is the fact that Ghatotakacha is killed during the night, when the battle continues into the night of the thirteenth day, with no cessation of war at sunset, as was the custom. The second is the fact that Karna had to use his “shakti” weapon on Ghatotakacha – and not Arjuna as he had been saving it for. The third noteworthy point is Krishna’s uninhibited exultation at Ghatotkacha’s death, much to the dismay of Arjuna. What mattered was the end, the means not so much. The preservation of dharma required resorting to adharma. The final major episode is the death of the Kaurava army’s commander Drona – which itself is a gruesome cocktail of lies, deceit, betrayal, and naked savagery. What follows, and ends the book, is the invocation of the Narayana Astra by Ashwatthama, followed by the firing of the Agneya weapon, which results in the destruction of an entire Akshouni of the Pandava army.

The fourteenth day saw several battles being fought between the warriors of the Kaurava and Pandava armies, but the central battle among those was that of Arjuna’s quest to get to and kill Jayadratha. Towards the end of the day, as the sun was about to set, Arjuna finally accomplished his mission and fulfilled his vow. But, as opposed to the previous thirteen days, this time there was no cessation of hostilities at sunset. “After the sun had set, a battle commenced between Drona and Somakas and it made the body hair stand up.” [Jayadratha-Vadha Parva, Ch 121 – Drona Parva]

Darkness covered the earth and nothing could be seen. The dust raised by the soldiers covered everything. Men, horses, and elephants were immersed in blood. The earth’s dust could no longer be seen and we were full of lassitude. … The dust that arose from the earth settled down because of the blood.

While it not made clear whether the decision to continue the battle into the night was deliberate or the result of neither commander signalling the end of the day’s war, what is clear that once the battle had continued past sunset, there was no turning back. After Duryodhana had complained to Drona for the umpteenth time, an exasperated Drona responded, “The angry Kurus and Srinjayas will fight, even during the night.

An unintended consequence, and the Mahabharata teaches us nothing if not the fact that actions can have unintended consequences, of this decision was that the rakshasa army became even more powerful at night. Though Ghatotkacha, Bhima’s rakshasa son, had been fighting for several days, the continuation of the battle into the night made him a much more formidable enemy than ever before. If Ghatotkacha, a rakshasa, had been fearsome sight before, he was terror personified at night. The description of his chariot gives us enough hints as to the fear he would have evoked in the Kuru army.

He was on an extremely large and terrible chariot that was made completely out of iron and covered with the skins of bears. It was drawn by mounts that looked like elephants. But those were neither horses, nor elephants. It had eight distorted wheels. A king of vultures was perched on the top of the standard. It dilated its eyes and shrieked.” [Ghatotkacha-Vadha Parva, Ch 131 – Drona Parva]

In the midst of the darkness that had engulfed the battleground, “The great battle continued on the basis of guessing and signs.” Soon enough, Duryodhana asked the soldiers to “Take up flaming lamps” and “In a short while, properly arranged, those lamps lit up the entire army.” Not to be left behind, “the Parthas quickly instructed all their soldiers and the large number of foot soldiers to also light lamps. Seven lamps were placed on each elephant. Ten lamps were placed on each chariot. There were two lamps on the back of each horse. There were other lamps on the flanks, the standards and the rear.

By midnight, however, the soldiers were exhausted. They had been fighting for a day and a half, and now,

The maharathas were blind with sleep. They were exhausted from fighting and did not know what efforts they should make in the battle. … Your soldiers, and those of the enemy, no longer possessed any more weapons or arrows. … They did not abandon their own divisions. … But other people were blind with sleep. They discarded their weapons and lay down. … Some kings were blind with sleep and lost all sense of movement.

Rules of war had already begun to fray, and after being under stress for almost two weeks, they were ready to break completely. As soldiers lay down, exhausted from fighting and from lack of sleep, “other warriors seized the chance to send them to Yama’s eternal abode.”  In daze of exhaustion and sleepiness, “In their sleep and dreaming and unconsciousness, others killed those on their own side as well as the enemy.

And thus a temporary ceasefire was called, on the battlefield itself. The soldiers slept where they were. “Some were on the backs of horses. Others were on the seats of chariots. Some lay down on the backs of elephants. Others lay down on the ground. Everyone there slept…” Till the moon rose. When the fighting resumed.

Even this temporary ceasefire made Duryodhana unhappy. He went to Drona, complaining, “In the battle, one should not have shown mercy to the exhausted ones, while they were resting… We showed them mercy only because we wished to bring you pleasure.

Soon enough the night had given way to dawn, and “the battle commenced again.” With no respite for the soldiers. “The sun’s energy made them hungry and thirsty. Many of them had lost all sensation in their limbs.

Victory, even without waiting for the end of the war, will prove to be a truly hollow victory for the Pandavas. This sixth volume makes that much starkly clear. It also becomes clear after reading this sixth volume why Krishna had made so many efforts to avoid a war. Why so many peace missions were sent, and why even an offer of five villages was made as a way to buy peace.

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Book classification as per Penguin:
Published by: Penguin Books India
Published: 24 Nov 2012
Imprint: Penguin
ISBN13: 9780143100188, 0143100181
Book Format: Demy
Extent: 560pp
Rights: World
Category: Non-Fiction, Translation, Religion, Epic
Binding: Paperback
Language: English


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