After Bhishma withdrew, obeying Krishna, the divine arrows he had shot to kill Arjuna, he asked the avatara, still on his chariot, why he did not kill him. He had deliberately used those arrows, he told him, knowing that he would have to intervene openly in order save Arjuna. That had happened. With his sudarshana chakra Krishna had rushed to Bhishma’s chariot in everyone’s view. He had broken his promise to his elder brother, Balarama, that he would not hold any weapon in the Mahabharata War. This happened on the ninth day of the war. Bhishma had won his personal battle against the avatara; he had told him before the war that he would not be able to keep his word to Balarama.
But the Kuru elder was extremely disappointed. He told Krishna that he was longing to die in his hands which would have given him mukti and a place in Vaikuntha and that he had attacked Arjuna with those divine arrows, hoping that he would kill him. “O Merciful One, why did you deny me your mercy?”, a downcast and dejected Bhishma asked Krishna. “I will take you to Vaikuntha, have no worry, O the wisest of men”, said Krishna. Then he told him that he wanted him to do something for him. But what could he, a worthless, despicable, miserable man, who had never offered him bhakti, do for Narayana Himself, said Bhishma. “The Pandavas are dear to me,” said Krishna, “O mahatma, do not be hostile to them”. “In that case, come with the Pandavas to my place tonight. I will tell you the secret of my death.”, said Bhishma.
Krishna did not ask him about the secret of his death. Narayana had done that only once. Unable to kill them, He had asked Madhu and Kaitabha how they would be killed. That was aeons and aeons ago. And in Sarala Mahabharata, Krishna was not going to be the sole receiver of that crucial secret from Bhishma. In Sarala’s conception, he is the Causer and the Doer, but at the laukika level, he would have humans believe that they are the deciders and the doers of things. Such is his maya.
Anyway, with that assurance, Krishna had returned to Arjuna’s chariot. The fight resumed. Bhishma was unstoppable; he was death incarnate.
The conches blew as the sun set; the fight came to an end for that day. Krishna told the Pandavas that Bhishma had told him in confidence that he should go to his place along with the Pandavas and that he would tell them the secret of his death. “Let us go, Sahadeva”, he said. Sahadeva told him that Bhishma had not been honest to him; he was not going to tell them anything. “Let Arjuna go to Duryodhana and ask him for his jewelled crown.” said the bhuta bhavishya jnata(knower of the past and the future). But that was a special crown, said Krishna. He was wearing that crown during his coronation as the king of Hastinapura; why would he give it to Arjuna, he asked.
He was promise-bound to him, said Arjuna. Gandharva Chitrasena had once defeated him, tied him up in his chariot and was going to punish him when at Yudhisthira’s bidding he had fought with the gandharva and had freed him. At that time, in gratitude, Duryodhana had insisted that he asked something from him. Whatever he wanted, he would give him, the grateful king had said. Arjuna hadn’t asked him for anything then. Falling at his feet, Arjuna had told him that when the need would arrive, he would request him to lend him his bejewelled crown and he had agreed. Duryodhana being a man of honour, said Arjuna, would not deny it to him now – Sarala had nicely created an open space in his narrative to be filled later and the context for it had emerged.
Krishna, Arjuna and Sahadeva went to Duryodhana’s camp. He was in the august assembly of his commanders. Arjuna paid his respects to him. Duryodhana was extremely happy to see him and embraced him most fondly. He enquired after his and his brothers’ welfare. Arjuna told him that he had come to ask him for something. Most happily, Duryodhana promised him that he would give him whatever he wanted. All he wanted, said Arjuna, was his jewelled crown. He just wanted it for that night and promised him that he would return it to him before sunrise.
Drona, Shalya, Aswasthama, Kripacharya, Karna, Dussasana and the king’s brothers laughed derisively. What a thing to ask for! And why must Duryodhana oblige! Sakuni told them that Duryodhana had given Arjuna his word and he, the greatest of the kings, and a man of virtue, would honour it. One earned disgrace and brought dishonour to one’s lineage by going back on one’s words, said Sakuni. Then a grateful Duryodhana told the assembly how when Chitrasena had tied him up in his chariot, Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Bhurishrava and the other celebrated warriors, were all there. They had all abandoned him. It was then that Arjuna had challenged the gandharva and freed him. One who forgot the good done him perished in narka, he said. If Arjuna chose to ask for his head instead of the crown, he would readily cut it off for him – “have no doubt,” he told the assembly.
But Arjuna needed only that special crown for the remaining part of that night. Duryodhana gave it to him. They must go to Bhishma’s camp in the last phase of the night, said Sahadeva to Krishna and Arjuna.
They did and saw that Bhishma was engaged in puja in his puja room. They stood outside. Arjuna stood at the door and Krishna and Sahadeva a little behind him. From the inside, if Bhishma looked at the door, he would see only Arjuna. Krishna put a thread into his nose and sneezed. Bhishma looked out and his eyes fell on the bejewelled crown. He uttered a blessing: “May you live long!” and returned to his puja. Krishna sneezed again. This time Bhishma did not look out, knowing who was there and uttered another blessing: “May my years be added to your life! May you live long!” When Krishna sneezed again, Bhishma said, “May you defeat your enemies!”
Krishna went inside along with Arjuna and Sahadeva. “O the Lord of Maya (Cosmic Illusion), did you orchestrate this?”, Bhishma asked Krishna, “seeing the crown, I thought it was Duryodhana at the door and I uttered the blessings that were appropriate for him.” “You are a true kshatriya; you are wise, virtuous and without blemish”, O Bhishma”, said Krishna, “your words will not go in vain”. “But how can we ever win, O the incomparable warrior,” asked Arjuna of Bhishma, “when you are our adversary?”
“My child, let me tell you about what had happened long ago”, said the venerable Kuru elder and then he told him part of his story beginning with his mother Ganga marrying his father Santanu by mistake, her deserting his father and her parting words in anger, which, although unintended to be a boon, turned out to be so for him: he would die only when he would choose to (ichha mrityu) to why, although he was going to marry princess Amba, he suddenly and unexpectedly chose to remain unmarried throughout life, how Amba had committed ritual suicide so that in her next birth she would be the cause of his death, how out of the same sacrificial fire from which Draupadi was born, she too had emerged as Shikhandi, to fulfil her wish in her previous birth. “O Arjuna”, said Bhishma, “let Shikhandi face me in the battlefield today and you remain behind her. The moment I see her, my energy will desert me, as will my will to fight. I will become extremely feeble and vulnerable.” He did not say anything more. He didn’t need to. Arjuna knew what to do.
In Jagannatha Das Mahabharata, the narrative is slightly different. On the ninth day of the war, Bhishma had told Krishna that he would not fight the Pandavas any longer and that he must come with the Pandavas to him that night and he would tell them the secret of his fall. Here the Jagannatha Das narrative adds a little story.
That night the informer of the Pandavas told them in the presence of Krishna that Bhishma had five deadly arrows with him with which he would kill the Pandavas on the following day. Duryodhana had gone to meet him after the fight had stopped for the day and Bhishma had shown him the arrows. “None would be able to protect the Pandavas tomorrow: neither Hari nor Brahma, Shankara or Indra: boila suna durjyodhana/ e astre pandabe nidhana// rakhi na paribe shrihari/ brahma, shankara, bajradhari ((Bhishma) said /listen, Duryodhana The Pandavas would die by these arrows// Sri Hari will not be able to protect them/ (Neither would) Brahma, Shankar, the wielder of vajra//), Bhishma had told Duryodhana. The Pandavas were shocked, as was Krishna.
Krishna told the Pandavas that Bhishma had told him that that night he would tell them the secret of his death. Sahadeva told him that he was not going to do that. Arjuna should go to Duryodhana and ask him for his bejewelled crown. The rest of the story is the same as in Sarala Mahabharata. Except that when he asked him for those deadly arrows, which do not figure in the Sarala version, Bhishma gave those to Arjuna.
What could be the significance of the story of the five infallible arrows? Does it merely introduce an element of the spectacular to the narrative? Was it this feature of the story that had inspired Radhanath Ray, the great nineteenth century Odia poet, to write his celebrated poem “Bana Harana (Stealing of the Arrows)”, based on it? Or maybe it serves the narrative by providing a context for Sahadeva’s scepticism that despite his assurance to Krishna, he was not going to help the Pandavas the following day!