According to Sarala Mahabharata, in the Kurukshetra War, there were five of them: Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Salya and Aswasthama – in this order. It was his greatest misfortune that the Kaurava king, Duryodhana, had these very eminent men as his commanders-in-chief. Salya was undoubtedly a very great warrior but the other four belonged to a different class altogether: the class of the invincible. Each one of them had infallible divine weapons. And Bhishma had an incomparable protection – it was “given” in a sense by his mother, not willfully though, and it was something he certainly would never have asked for. This said, protection it indeed was in a fight: he would die only when he chose to die. Drona could be killed only when he had no weapons in his hand. That would be when he was engaged in worship, having food, was asleep or engaged in sex, the last of which was only a technical matter because his wife had passed away a long time ago while giving birth to Aswasthama. But then killing was adharma precisely in these situations. Although Karna had someone equal to him in the enemy side, namely, Arjuna, he had Indra’s infallible weapon with him and he had decided to use it against Arjuna. As for Aswasthama, he was immortal because of the Creator god, Brahma’s boon. These illustrious men were well-educated, well-versed in the shastras and had a keen sense of discrimination. Bhishma, Drona and Karna had tried to live virtuous lives. The same however cannot be said for Aswasthama; he was far too ambitious and jealous, and had too little self-control for a life of dharma. One would expect that if an army had such warriors in its midst, then nothing could deny it victory. But one after the other these great warriors fell and the Kaurava army was wiped out.
Come to think of it, the Kauravas had lost even before the war started. As the Kaurava warriors met to work out strategies for the War, the great Bhurishrava told Duryodhana that he and many like him had come to fight for him, not because they would or could bring him victory. They were there to die, looking at Krishna on Arjuna’s chariot, which would bring them moksa (freedom from the cycle of life and death). Responding to this, Bhishma assured king Duryodhana that he would kill the Pandavas. But on the battlefield Duryodhana saw a Bhishma he surely would not have expected to see. Before the war started, Yudhisthira had gone to the Kaurava side of the battlefield and most humbly paid his respects to Bhishma, Drona. Karna and Aswasthama, among others and sought their blessings for victory and they all blessed him for it. In our puranic literature, Duryodhana alone had this unique and entirely unenviable experience of witnessing the invincible among his warriors blessing his enemy for victory. Let us not argue that in the deafening noise of the battlefield he did not hear what the eldest Pandava was saying to his maharathis (great warriors) and what each of them was saying to him In Sarala Mahabharata there is clear evidence that he was not unaware of all this. The poet does not tell us how he took it, what he felt.
But there was more. After receiving his blessings, Yudhisthira asked Bhishma how he could be defeated, being invincible, so that his blessing would materialize and he asked the same question to Drona as well. Both told him that they could be defeated only when they were without weapons, and each hinted at how this could happen in the battlefield in his case. Yudhisthira didn’t ask Karna the same question. He couldn’t have, because he was his elder brother. He simply pleaded with him to come to his side, fight along with his own brothers and rule the kingdom after the War, but Karna said he could not abandon Duryodhana. We don’t know why Yudhisthira didn’t ask Aswasthama how he could be defeated – may be because unlike Bhishma, who was his grandfather, and Drona, who was his guru, he had no special or particularly affectionate relationship with him which would give him the right to ask such a question. Duryodhana knew what all Bhishma and Drona had told Yudhisthira and he knew about Karna what everyone knew, namely that he was Kunti’s eldest son.
But about Karna what he did not know, neither did anyone in his army, was that he had given word to Kunti on the eve of the war that he would not kill any Pandava other than Arjuna – she had five sons before the War and would also have five sons after the War. From one point of view there was nothing new about it for Duryodhana. Karna had always told him that he would kill Arjuna. He had never said anything about the other Pandavas. If Duryodhana had assumed that this did not mean that he would not kill any other Pandava in a conclusive war against the Pandavas, he was not unjustified. But sometimes such assumptions do not amount to much. Duryodhana knew only half the truth. And knowing half of the truth could sometimes turn out to be very damaging and hurtful; when the other half surfaces one would feel like being stabbed in the back.
The less said about Salya, may be the better. He came to join the Pandavas’ army but by mistake, for which he should be held fully responsible, he joined the Kauravas’. He never wanted the Kauravas to win and this was no secret to anyone. Still he fought with all his might when he became the Commander-in-Chief. In Sarala Mahabharata his was a strange end. During those seventeen days of the War, barring Karna, he was the only warrior on the Kaurava side who was in an excellent position to imprison Yudhisthira. On the seventeenth day he defeated him, disarmed him and was dragging him by his hair. Out of pain the virtuous nephew cried out “mamu jalila jalila”, the utterance which turned out to be fatal for the uncle. One meaning of it is that Yudhisthira was experiencing searing pain, as though he was burning all over, and the other is that he was screaming, as though for everyone’s attention, that his uncle was burning. The virtuous man’s words, whether deliberate or not, could make things happen. And destiny chose the second meaning to materialize. As he uttered “mamu jalila jalila” (Uncle (is) burning, burning), uncle Salya started burning and was soon consumed by fire.
This is the end of Salya’s story, sad and somewhat rather comical but not un-heroic. this is the story of a man who was consumed by the feeling of guilt for fighting against the Pandavas, who had tried to make amends when he was Karna’s charioteer and his treacherous tormentor and who had tried to redeem himself by fighting honestly on that day when the words of his virtuous nephew reduced him to ashes. Like Bhishma’s, Drona’s and Karna’s, his is also the story of a Commander-in-Chief who fought valiantly for one side but most piously wished for the other to win.
Unlike in Vyasa Mahabharata, in Sarala’s version, Bhishma had not constrained himself not to kill a Pandava. He wanted the Pandavas to win but he himself was not going to spare them on the battlefield. In fact he had declared his intention to kill them. One day he shot an infallible divine arrow at Arjuna, which he did not know how to neutralize, but midway it inexplicably disappeared. Neither Bhishma’s nor any mortal’s eye saw what had happened. But Bhishma, knew Krishna – the bhakta knew Bhagawan and he knew that destroying his arrow was the avatara’s doing. He had created five special arrows with which to kill the Pandavas on the ninth day of the War, but in Sarala Mahabharata whoever proposes, Krishna disposes. Thus on the night before the ninth day, Bhishma found himself obliged, ignoring details, to destroy those weapons himself.
The Pandavas knew that they had to bring Shikhandi to Bhishma’s presence. As the Commander-in-Chief of the Kaurava army, he made no special efforts to avoid this to happen. One could say in his defence that he really couldn’t have done much. The Commander-in-Chief couldn’t have hidden himself as Jayadratha did later. He would have fallen very low in his own eyes. Besides, if not on the tenth day, on the eleventh, the twelfth or some other day he would have run into Shikhandi, if merely by accident. Making this happen would have become the sole aim of the Pandavas, he knew; so avoiding meeting Shikhandi would have become increasingly difficult. Besides, the Commander-in-Chief of that great army could not surely afford to design a long-term strategy for avoiding a particular warrior – and a comparatively insignificant one at that – on the battlefield!
Now granted that he had promised not to fight against a woman (anyway, there was nothing special in it as it was part of the ethics of war those days). However in Sarala Mahabharata everyone knew that prince Shikhandi had become a man and would remain a man till his death. In Sarala’s version Bhishma seemed to have felt a sense of guilt or at least some strong uneasiness bordering on guilt, about the way he had treated her when she was Amba in her earlier birth and wanted to compensate her, as it were, in her present birth. It appears that he secretly wanted to be her target. So despite her having become a man, he wanted to look upon her as a woman. He almost wanted an excuse, as it were, so that Amba could have her revenge.
From one point of view, this attitude is unimpeachable for Bhishma, the wise and virtuous person. There is something spiritually elevating about a person feeling guilty about being the cause of another’s misery, or being even thought of by the sufferer as such and willing to make amends. But Bhishma was not merely a private person; he was also the leader of the Kaurava army in the final war that had started. He was surely aware that the morale of the Kaurava army would plummet to the lowest depths in the event of his fall. He was also thought of as invincible and as the one who death could not visit without his wish. He should not have, almost by design, demoralized those he was leading in the battlefield. He had no justification for treating Shikhandi as a woman because he knew she had become a man. He chose to put the personal factor above duty as the leader of the Kaurava army, a role and a responsibility he had voluntarily accepted. One might wonder whether he was fair to those who had trusted him and whether he hadn’t betrayed them.
In Vyasa Mahabharata Drona was unwilling to kill the Pandava brothers, but his declared goal as the Commander-in-Chief was to imprison Yudhisthira. Sarala’s Drona was no different. This stand is unintelligible with respect to the logic of the war, but entirely understandable from a personal point of view. He was the teacher and the preceptor of the Kauravas, the Pandavas, and Aswasthama, Karna, Dhristadyumna and Shikhandi. Perhaps he thought that if he had to join the war, at least he would choose not to harm his virtuous students himself. He was aware – who was not! – that Dhristadyumna was born to kill him, but he had no ill feelings about him at all on that account.
Imprisoning Yudhisthira was a formidable task, and soon the guru realized that Arjuna’s absence from the battlefield was absolutely necessary to weaken the protective cover around Yudhisthira. So Duryodhana successfully arranged Arjuna’s absence from the battlefield for one day and on that day the Kaurava warriors succeeded to separate Abhimanyu from the rest of the Pandavas, but subsequent to this, there was no attempt to imprison Yudhisthira. The great warriors remained focused on Abhimanyu and forgot their main goal. Killing Abhimanyu became not just the goal, but the sole obsession. This is not understandable given the fact that Drona was a great strategist and a highly composed person. In his army was Jayadrath who enjoyed Shiva’s boon that he would be able to defeat the Pandavas except Arjuna. He was the one who cut off contact between the Pandavas and Abhimanyu. Drona did not exploit the situation that day to defeat Yudhisthira. There would always be a nagging doubt about whether the guru was ever sincere in imprisoning the eldest Pandava. The best one could say for Drona is that he lost his focus overtaken by the unpredictable things that happened in the battlefield that day. Abhimanyu was not someone who had figured in his plans and strategies for that day.
But he imprisoned Yudhisthira in a different way. Not willingly. Not even aware that he was doing so. When he wanted to know whether his son had died, he sought Yudhisthira. He was certain that his ever truthful pupil would never tell a lie – that too for mere victory in the War. When he asked Yudhisthira whether what he heard about his son having died was true, his question was like an arrow that could fetter the target. It did; when Yudhisthira compromised with the truth, his chariot which had moved without touching the ground touched it. He was no more above the ordinary mortal in moral stature. In Swargarohana Parva, Sarala Mahabharata says that that was the virtuous man’s only moral failure.
It was a strange act on the part of the Commander-in-Chief. There were obviously other ways to find out whether his son had died. It would have meant a little waiting perhaps, which would have been painful, but it would have been well worth it. What was hanging in the balance was the fate of the Kaurava army. He was not just a father, but the Commander-in-Chief of a mighty army, which had many fathers fighting, none of them having the luxury of retiring from the War on hearing about his beloved son’s death. It is very unfortunate for an army when its supreme commander enters the battlefield with such a pledge. In a war, in which one’s son was participating, it was by no means unlikely that he might be killed. The decision to abandon the army one was leading on hearing about a warrior’s death on the battlefield was surely unfair to the army. Besides, the father who went to a war with such a decision jeopardized his son’s life, particularly when the enemy knew about it. Didn’t Drona do precisely that when he told the Pandavas that he would give up weapons on learning that his son was dead?
Incidentally, he knew that his son was immortal. In Sarala Mahabharata, Aswasthama had practised tapas to attain immortality, following his doting father’s advice. He had pleased god Brahma himself with his tapas and had obtained that boon from him. Why then was his father worried about his life? He had told Yudhisthira in the Kurukshetra battlefield that he would give up his weapons if he learnt that his son was no more. Why did he think in such terms? Why was he insecure, knowing that his son was blessed with this boon from Brahma himself? Sarala Mahabharatasays nothing about it.
Was it because he knew that his son was extremely ambitious, haughty, irresponsible and lacked self-control? A knowledgeable person, he knew that there were asuras and asuris who had been almost identically blessed by Brahma and Shiva but they had all perished because of their adharma. As Holika screamed in pain when fire was consuming her, her fond brother must have wondered how Brahma’s boon turned out to be so ineffectual. The indulgent father knew the limitations of Paramapita Brahma’s boons and he knew his son’s weaknesses. Was this why he was so insecure about his son’s life?
Was this really the reason why Drona had more trust in Yudhisthira’s words than in Brahma’s boon? The celebrated text says nothing about it. It doesn’t even provide a weak clue. It leaves the answer to the hearer’s or the reader’s understanding and imagination. One gets the uneasy feeling that having joined a war which he wanted his enemy to win the venerable guru was looking for an excuse to opt out of it by sacrificing himself!
As for Karna, everyone knew that he was the eldest of Kunti’s sons but was fighting against them. No one doubted his commitment to the Kaurava side. Shortly before the War his mother Kunti had asked him for a dana. The mother is also a guru. Karna gave her the dana: he would not kill any of the Pandavas except Arjuna. As the desired daksina, he gave his mother two infallible divine weapons, which disempowered him with respect to Arjuna. There is no evidence in Sarala’s narrative that Karna told about this to Duryodhana. The Pandavas of course knew it all, as did Vidura, the former because at Krishna’s advice they had sent their mother to Karna for those specific dana and daksina. In case Karna did not agree to join them, his own brothers, she should ask these from him, they had specifically told her. When she went to meet Karna, she had taken Vidura with him. Karna’s not sharing these bits of significant information with Duryodhana was unfair to him, to say the least.
The death of any Pandava would have been disastrous for the Pandavas. Killing of Yudhisthira would have meant the death of the one who was to be the king and the death of Bhima would have weakened the Pandavas greatly. The killing of Nakula and Sahadeva would have been no less disastrous. Sahadeva was the one who knew the past and the future, and this knowledge helped the Pandavas a great deal during the War. In Sarala’s version, as in the canonical, Karna could have killed any of them, but he did not, because of his word to his mother. His lack of will to kill any of them was unintelligible to whoever was witness to the engagements of Karna with them. He didn’t imprison any of them either, which he was in a position to do. He must have feared that the imprisoned Pandava or the Pandavas would be put to death by Duryodhana, a situation he could not afford to arise – he had given word to his mother that after the War five of her children would remain alive. As a devoted son he did his duty to his mother, as a dani’s (giver of dana), he performed his duty to the receiver of the dana but as the Commander-in-Chief didn’t he betray the King and the army he was leading?
As for Aswasthama, he left the battlefield in deep sorrow, disgust and frustration after failing to destroy the Pandavas by the divine arrow called narayanastra(weapon of Narayana). When he heard that his father had been killed by low deceit, he completely lost his sense of discrimination and used that arrow against the Pandavas. He failed because of Krishna’s intervention – Narayana knew how to neutralize narayanaastra. Aswasthama never had any great motivation to fight in this War as he had never looked upon the Pandavas as his enemy. His father’s killing in that entirely unethical manner gave him a reason to fight. We might recall that Yudhisthira had sought his blessings and like his father, he too had blessed him for victory. Till his father’s death he was in the War because his father was in the War. Of course once in the War, the ambitious Aswasthama wanted to lead the Kaurava army and told Duryodhana that if he made him the leader, he would bring him victory. But Duryodhana refused him that exalted status. He had no respect for him as a warrior. Having chosen the dharma of a ksatriya, he should not have tried to protect himself with the boon of immortality. This Duryodhana considered a disgrace for a warrior.
When he heard that Duryodhan was mortally wounded and was awaiting death, he rushed to see him. He had learnt that he too had been unfairly hit. He was filled with righteous anger, which could be particularly dangerous because it would lead one to act under the illusion that even the most unacceptable act of his would have moral justification. Aswasthama requested Duryodhana to make him the Commander-in-Chief. He said he would kill the Pandavas if he had that status. Duryodhana agreed. There was no army for him to lead, but that did not matter to Aswsthama. A warrior like him needed no army.
He went to the Pandava camp that night. He expected the Pandavas to be there but only their five sons were there. This he did not know. In the camp, he killed his father’s killer, Dhristadyumna, the Pandavas’ Commander-in-Chief, like one would an animal, and then killed Shikhandi, and then the sleeping sons of the Pandavas, mistaking them to be the Pandavas. When in the morning Duryodhana found that the severed heads Aswasthama had brought him were the heads of Draupadi’s children, he condemned him for destroying his clan, regretted his decision to make him the Commander-in-Chief and dismissed him from his presence. His fifth and last Commander-in-Chief had the motivation to kill the Pandavas but ended up in hurting Duryodhana at the time of his death. Duryodhana was the most unfortunate in him.
In contrast, the Pandavas lost their Commander-in-chief only after the War, as mentioned above. None of the Pandavas were handicapped by ethical considerations in the battlefield. They incapacitated Bhishma, killed Drona and Karna when they were without weapons, in blatant violation of the ethics of all wars including that War, and killed Duryodhana in a totally impermissible manner. True, Yudhistira and Arjuna had both strong hesitations before the killing of Drona and Karna; the former did not want to tell a lie to his guru and the latter did not want to kill Karna when he was unarmed, but they had no repentance later. Bhima had no regrets over the adharmic way he killed Duryodhana. He had no regrets over the brutal dismemberment of Dussasana. Yudhisthira, defeated and wounded by Karna, condemned, in the harshest of language, both Arjuna and Krishna for their inability to kill him. If Draupadi brayed for Dussasana’s blood, Kunti brayed for Duryodhana’s blood. Kunti’s language upset even Bhima. The enemy had to be crushed and the War had to be won. Under Krishna’s guidance the Pandavas practised the dharma of war, which calls for placing the war duties over personal considerations. Once in a war, the logic of the war demands that yuddha (war) dharma must supersede sadharana (ordinary, day-to-day) dharma. Rejection of yuddha dharma by the eventual victor for sadharana dharma is hardly to come by not just in Mahabharata but in the entire gamut of puranic literature as well.
To see war in perspective, it is not really commended as a sensible and desirable solution to social or political problems in any version of Mahabharata, certainly not in Sarala’s. Sarala Mahabharata upholds tyaga (sacrifice) as the best solution although admittedly an extremely difficult one. It requires courage and conviction of a spiritual nature. One has to willingly give up one’s legitimate rights and ego for the cause of peace. Pandu, the father of the Pandavas, embodied this attitude. He abdicated in favour of his elder brother Dhritarastra when he found him unhappy about his not being the king despite being the eldest prince in the family. He happily left the palace to live in the forest with his wives, Kunti and Madri. Not just that. He volunteered to protect the kingdom from the forest on his brother’s behalf because he was blind. But the tyaga option must be chosen before the war, not during the war. For war not be inevitable, there must be an alternative in the form of a Pandu.