Krupacharya had withdrawn from the war, having been disfigured by Arjuna’s divine arrows, and there was no great warrior left in the Kaurava army except Duryodhana himself. It was already night, but the fighting hadn’t stopped. As the opposing armies fought in the dark, they killed blindly. Darkness had obliterated the distinction between the enemy and the ally. So fierce was the fighting and so many fighters fell that a river of blood arose in the battlefield. Duryodhana was unaware of it; he was hiding under a slain elephant’s body. Well past midnight when the victorious Pandava army retired to their camp, he emerged from the hiding, and saw the river of blood. He was desperate; he knew that he had to escape from the battlefield that very night under the cover of darkness in order to have time and energy to plan out some war strategy. But in front of him there was this barrier: the deep river of blood. He would need some support to cross it.
As he stood gazing at the river with desperation, he blamed himself and his destiny for the misery he had brought upon himself and his family and friends. Then he saw a corpse floating towards him, its face upwards. This gave him hope; he could use it as a raft to cross the river. He saw that it was the body of his brother Dussasana. He wept miserably remembering how great a warrior he was and what all he had done for him. He hoped that in his death too his brother would be a support for him, and he would be able to cross the river. But the moment he sat on the body, it sank.
Then he saw the body of Karna, which in the river of blood glowed like the rising sun. He held it tight and wept bitterly as he recounted his friend’s greatness as a warrior, his concern for the poor, and his magnanimity and sacrificing nature. He had pleased Krishna, who was Narayana himself, with his daana (“giving”) – Narayana, who would never be pleased no matter how much one gave him, as Sarala put it. He recalled how, for his sake, he had abandoned his own brothers, and chosen to fight them. He believed that he would come to his rescue even now, as he had always done while alive, and help him cross the river. But when he sat on the body, it sank.
He then saw the body of guru Dronacharya. He recalled with gratitude that it was because of his training that the Kauravas and the Pandavas had become so great warriors. Drona was an archer who even gods were afraid of fighting. And he was not just a great archer; he was a learned person too, well versed in the shastras. Duryodhana recalled how very fond Drona was of Arjuna, how it was the same Arjuna who gave him endless trouble in the battlefield, and how the ungrateful Pandavas killed him, their own guru. He believed that the body of his guru would save him now, but when he sat on it, it sank into the depths of the river of blood.
Then he saw his uncle Sakuni’s body. He was his minister who knew the past and the future. He recalled the many acts of Sakuni to harm the Pandavas for his sake: feeding poisonous sweets to Bhima, constructing a palace of inflammable material to have them burnt alive, defeating Yudhishthira in the game of dice using unfair means and usurping their kingdom, and humiliating Draupadi in the Kaurava court in the full view of the assembly, among others. He thought he could trust this body to ferry him across the river. He sat on the body and at once it sank.
As time passed he grew desperate. Then he saw a body floating by with its face downward. There were ornaments all over it, and in the darkness of the night this body shone like the rising moon. He thought it might be the body of some virtuous person, and might save him. And as he sat on it, it did not sink, and he crossed the river.
He was wondering which mahatma’s (“great soul”) body it was, which had brought him to safety. It had supported him, and his two heavy maces, which the bodies of the mighty warriors such as Dussasana, Karna, Drona, Salya, Bhurishrava, and Sakuni had failed to do. He was full of gratitude towards this unknown person. And as he turned the body to see its face, he found it was the body of his son Lakshmana Kumar. Who else could have come to his rescue? It is said that the son saves the father’s soul from hell but for Duryodhana it turned out to be that his dead son saved him from a veritable hell on earth.
Earlier that night, as Lakshmana Kumar was fighting valiantly, Duryodhana had asked him to leave the battlefield and save himself. The young man was surprised; what his father was asking him to do was totally unacceptable. He pleaded with him not to lose heart, gather his forces, and meet the enemy’s challenge. But his father was insistent; he did not want him to die. He was the only young survivor of the Kaurava family, and he must not die, his father told him. So he left the battlefield, but on the way in that darkness he perished as he got hit by Bhima’s mace accidentally. Unknown to his father, unknown to Bhima, and the other Pandavas.
Duryodhana was inconsolable. He reproached himself bitterly for being the cause of his death. He recalled how he was a virtuous, gentle and kindhearted person, who was admired and liked by the people of Hastinapura. He recalled how every single day he would do something to alleviate the suffering of the needy. He recalled how he and his mother had pleaded with him not to let Krishna go back from the Kaurava court humiliated, and how they had both insisted that he gave at least two villages to the Pandavas. He recalled how he had rejected their plea, how he had vowed not to give an inch of kingdom to the Pandavas without fight, and how terrible the consequences of that decision had been for him. “I will give the Pandavas half of the kingdom now, “ he told the lifeless body, “get up, my son, let’s go home, your mother is waiting”, he implored. It was the love of the father speaking in all its purity; otherwise in his scheme of things, there was no room for sharing the kingdom with the Pandavas.
This said, it must be noted that there was no seeking of revenge in his sorrowful words, and no expression of hatred for the enemy, as though these were inappropriate for that grave and somber occasion. As though the dear dead deserved homage uncontaminated by violence. So different from the way the Pandavas had responded to Abhimanyu’s death. As they mourned the death of the valiant youth, they vowed revenge; they clamoured for the killer’s blood.
It was getting late. The unfortunate father tore off part of his own clothes, and placed his son’s body on it. “In births after births may you never get a father like me, and may I always get a son like you”, saying so, he covered the body with earth, and hurried off.
Forget about the “terrible-silence-between-two-rolls-of-thunders” approach, or the “relief-preceding-the climax” approach. In the war narrative there must be some space for mourning and for reflection, and for paying homage, and expressing gratitude to the dead in the battlefield. One can imagine Sarala executing this idea in a highly dramatic and poignant way in the episode of the river of blood. For the poet a time for all this is between two disastrous phases of the war – an interruption caused by the fall of a great warrior and a noble soul. For Duryodhana this was an occasion not just to mourn over his dear son, but also to pay his tribute to all those great warriors who had died fighting for him. This would be the last time he would remember them all. This was also the time for reflection, for revaluation of what he had done, for remembering the advice that he had not accepted, for realizing how his obstinacy had brought his family and friends their destruction. This was the time for him to own up responsibility.