Sahadeva was not the one who volunteered to tell anyone what would happen, in Sarala Mahabharata as well. He knew the past and the future but would tell only when asked. And he was constrained to tell, be it pleasant or unpleasant. It was his fate. He would die if he didn’t. But was he also constrained such that he would not say things on his own about the future when not asked? It seems at least his brothers didn’t think so. At different times, Bhima, Arjuna and Yudhisthira had each condemned him for having kept quiet in critical moments and not warning them about what was going to happen. When he fell to his death in the snowy Himalayas, Yudhisthira told Bhima that he was a sinner, who had kept quiet when his speaking would have helped. And at that point in the narrative Yudhisthira’s voice was the voice of Dharma.
It was the last phase of the night. The Pandavas had just heard that Drona was going to use the formation named chakra vyuha for his army on the following day. How to penetrate it and how to emerge from it was not known to even gods and demons, as the poet says and as for humans, apart from Drona and Arjuna, no one knew. Abhimanyu knew but only partially; he knew only how to enter the formation. Knew, of course, the source of all knowledge, Krishna, but there was no telling what form his leelawould take.
As the Pandavas were worrying, Krishna took Sahadeva aside and told him what was troubling him in the extreme. He had had a frightful dream that night – he had seen a young warrior rushing towards him and attacking him with Vaishnava chakra. He told the Pandava that he had made up his mind to leave the battlefield that day and hide himself in the sea.
“You are the lord of all the worlds”, said Sahadeva, “what can harm you and what is beyond your control, O the Wielder of Sudarshana Chakra. Listen to what the dream means. Listen to what you yourself had designed. You had wished to take avatara in the mortal world and you wanted the Aadi Devi (the primordial mother goddess) to be born immediately after your birth. Then you asked Draupadi and Aadi also to be born in the world of the humans. Aadi Devi was born as Yashoda’s daughter and she played the role you had asked her to play. She gave you protection and soon after her birth she left for her heavenly abode. Aadi and Draupadi stayed on with you. You gave word to Aadi that he would return to the land of the gods on the completion of his fourteenth year. Today he completes his fourteenth year. If you don’t send him to swarga today itself, he would create havoc – he will spare none; neither Arjuna nor Hari, as he had told you.”
Krishna told Sahadeva that so long as Arjuna was there in the battlefield, no one would be able to kill Abhimanyu. “There is a way, my Lord”, said Sahadeva, “to separate Arjuna from Abhimanyu today”. He told him how the mlechas (asura-like people) had organized their army in a configuration known as jalandhara vyuha but he didn’t say why they had done so. Those demon-like people were known as great and ruthless fighters and also as those who used much deceit and sorcery while fighting. Krishna should take Arjuna away from the Kurukshetra battlefields to fight them. He would be engaged there for the whole day. Sahadeva told the avatara that they, the remaining four Pandava brothers, would have Abhimanyu lead them that day. He would enter the chakra vyuha and they would follow him. But Jayadratha, blessed by Bhagawan Shiva to defeat them four Pandavas, would stop them from following Abhimanyu into the formation. Abhimanyu would be trapped inside and the Kauravas would kill him. Immensely relieved, Krishna blew his conch.
Soon after, Krishna and Arjuna went to Yudhisthira. They told him details about Drona’s formation of the Kaurava army that day and told him who all would be at the seven entrances of the chakravyuha: Drona himself would be at the first entrance, then Jayadratha, then in the third, Karna, then Shalya, then Kripacharya, then Bhurishrava and the kauravas would be there at the seventh and the last entrance. The chief of the Pandava army, Dhristadyumna, told them about his strategy; Arjuna would penetrate into the chakravyuha, and the four Pandavas would follow him. He himself would engage Drona, Shikhani would Jayadratha, Abhimanyu, Karna, Uttara, Shalya, Drupada, Kripacharya, and Satyaki would fight Bhurishrava. The Kauravas would suffer immeasurable loss, said Dhristadyumna.
Krishna told Yudhisthira that Mayasura, the king of Melaksa, who Duryodhana had done a great deal to please, had assembled a huge army near the river Saraswati. He had arranged them in a very intricate formation called ‘Jalandhara” and he would probably attack Varunavanta, where the Pandavas lived, once the Pandavas went to the war that day. Those cruel, ruthless mlechascould do anything: destroy villages and kill ruthlessly. They would rob the people and rape their women. No heinous act was beyond them.
Incidentally, there is nothing that the poet says that suggests that Duryodhana was involved in all this. He even had no idea that Mayasura had organized his massive army for a war. There was no talk about it in the Kaurava army. At the same time, poet Sarala says nothing to indicate that Mayasura was planning to attack Varunavanta, taking advantage of the Pandavas’ being engaged in the Kurukshetra War. But then why at all he had formed jalandhara vyuha, the poet does not say anything about that. In any case, it suits the narrative purpose – Krishna had to separate Abhimanyu from Arjuna that day.
Returning to the Pandavas’ camp, everyone was extremely worried. No one had heard of that formation. Arjuna fell at the avatara’s feet and beseeched him to take him to Mayasura’s vyuha. Krishna told Yudhisthira that he must not worry. Along with Arjuna, he himself would fight the asuras and destroy them. They wouldn’t take long and would return to destroy Drona’s chakra vyuha. Till their return, they must not try to enter the vyuha because it was beyond them to do so and engage the Kaurava army in small battles outside the vyuha. They must also not worry if Arjuna and he got late in joining them; they would enter the vyuha even after sunset. He again expressly warned all the great warriors of the Pandava side not to try to enter Drona’s vyuha.
Krishna drove Arjuna to the banks of the river Saraswati. There Arjuna saw the huge army of the asura king spread across a very vast area (fifteen jojanas, about three hundred kilo meters and more). The army chiefs were terrible looking and aggression was their mood and they were heavily armed with various kinds of weapons.
Arjuna was unfazed. He could easily destroy them, he told Krishna. But he had a moral problem: the asuras had done him no harm, they were not his enemies and they had no issues with him. Therefore, if he killed them, he would commit grievous sin, he told Hari. He was however curious to see the jalandhara vyuha, he told Krishna. He hadn’t seen it before, neither had he heard of it. His guru had never mentioned it. Krishna told him that he would drive him to the formation. As he would drive his chariot into it, Arjuna should keep shooting arrows at the asuras ceaselessly. When they reached the vyuha, the asuras attacked them. Arjuna showered arrows on them in retaliation. Starting a battle without due justification would be a great sin but countering an attack would not be – it was an act of self-protection.
The episode describes a terrible fight in which asuras used asuric (associated with demons) magical powers and Arjuna had to use divine arrows to counter them. Krishna asked Arjuna not to feel inhibited about using unethical means in fighting because the asuras were using it. In a war, one side could not afford to stick to the established, time-honoured code of war when the adversary was violating it relentlessly. Then it so happened that Krishna, Arjuna and Hanuman got separated. This story need not detain us. Taking advantage of that, the asuras tied up Arjuna, who stayed trapped in the vyuha. When Krishna did not see Arjuna, he attacked the asuras. When he was about to kill an asura chief named Jatasura, he beseeched him to spare him. He would take him to where Arjuna was in the formation. He then led him to a deserted, deep well and told him that Arjuna was there in that well. Krishna jumped into the well and thus he was trapped.
Such details as how they were freed from their respective traps and how they then destroyed the vyuha and routed the asuras is of no concern to us for the present. Only this much is what we need to know now: the fierce engagement ended the moment Krishna knew that Abhimanyu had been killed. The asuras, who the divine weapons of Arjuna had killed and yet failed to kill since they had lived again to fight, were not seen again. The vyuha, which had proved immensely difficult to penetrate, almost melted away.
The sun had set and by the time they reached the battlefield of Kurukshetra, it was dark. There lay the mutilated body of Abhimanyu, waiting for them, in a manner of speaking. As he had promised him, the avatara had freed Aadi from his mortal bondage of fourteen years. He had returned to his divine abode, assumed his divine form and at god Indra’s bidding, was already fighting the demon named Udekabandha.