An uninvited warrior threatens to eclipse Arjuna's brilliance.
The sage Vaisampayana is telling the history of the Pandavas to their great-grandson, King Janamejaya. As the Mahabharata continues, the Pandavas will display their military prowess.
O BHARATA, SEEING THAT the sons of Dhrtarastra and of Pandu had acquired proficiency in the use of weapons, Drona spoke thus to Dhrtarastra, ruler of the people, in the presence of Krpa, Bhisma, Vidura, Somadatta, Vyasadeva, and the wise Bahlika: "O king, your boys have fully assimilated the military science, and now, noble Kuru, with your approval they should demonstrate to you what they have learned."
With a jubilant mind, the king said: "Drona, you are a great teacher and have done a great job! Whenever you think is the best time, and in whatever place you like, just order me so that things may be arranged exactly as you want.
"Today I must sadly envy those men who have good eyes and who will thus be able to see my children perform heroic feats to demonstrate their skill in weapons. Vidura, do exactly as the learned guru commands, for no other pleasure will be like this, my righteous brother."
Taking permission from the king, Drona went outside followed by Vidura. That very learned Drona proceeded to locate and measure an area of flat, fertile land, without trees or bushes and gently sloping to the north. On that land, on the holy day of a venerable star, he made an offering to the Supreme. The purpose of this was announced throughout the city, O eloquent king. On the site of the proposed arena, skilled workmen then constructed, exactly according to scriptural codes, a large palatial grandstand for the king and his associates, who were equipped with all kinds of weapons. And the workmen made proper facilities for the ladies. The countryfolk arranged large, high platforms for themselves, and the wealthy families arranged for private palanquins.
When the day arrived, the king placed Bhisma and the noble professor Krpa in the front of his entourage and traveled with his ministers to his viewing palace, which was built of gold, shaded by a canopy of interlaced pearls, and adorned with precious gems. Then the king's wife, Gandhari, the glorious Kunti, and all the women of the king's family, along with their fully bedecked attendants, joyfully went up to the viewing platform like the wives of the gods ascending holy Mount Meru.
The members of the four social orders, headed by the brahmanas and ksatriyas, quickly came out of the city, eager to see the Kuru princes demonstrate their skill in arms. With the thrilling music of bands and the excited roar of the crowd, that assembly of people heaved and resounded like a great tossing sea. Then the great teacher, garbed in white array, with white hair, white moustache, white garland, a white silk thread round his chest, and white tilaka marking his body,* entered the very center of the stadium with his son, like the moon attended by Mars entering brightly into the cloudless sky. Drona, that most excellent of mighty men, then made an offering unto God, suitable for the moment, and commanded the brahmanas learned in mantra to chant the auspicious hymns. The brahmanas chanted the holy hymns of the day, blessing the moment, and then special men entered the arena carrying varieties of weapons and gear.
* Tilaka markings, made of a special clay, indicate that the body is a temple of God.
Next, the young men, the mighty young bulls of the Bharata race, entered the arena, their armor fixed tightly about them, their belts tightened for action, and their quivers bound tightly to their bodies. The princes came in order of age, with Yudhisthira in the lead. They first proceeded to the center of the field, offered a respectful greeting to their teacher, Drona, and then proceeded to formally honor in the traditional way both Drona and Krpa. When the two great professors conferred their blessings, all the princes were filled with joy, and they next offered respectful greetings to their mystical weapons, which were adorned with flowers previously offered to the Deity. The Kaurava princes honored their weapons with sacred flowers mixed with red sandalwood. They themselves were anointed with red sandalwood paste, they wore red garlands, they used red flags, and their eyes were red with the fire of determination.
With Drona's permission, those fierce fighters took their weapons in hand. First they took up their bows, crafted of refined gold. With various styles and facial expressions, the princes strung their bows, fixed arrows upon them, and twanged their bowstrings, making a wonderful sound to honor all the people gathered there.
The Young Men Show Their Skills
Those great adolescent heroes then exhibited the most amazing weapons. Some people in the crowd ducked their heads in fear of being struck by a flying arrow, and other people boldly stared at the exhibition, struck with utter astonishment. Riding by on horses, the princes pierced the targets with volleys of arrows beautifully marked with the archer's name and released with agility and speed. Observing the strength of the boys in wielding their bows and arrows, the crowd was amazed, as if seeing a magical Gandharva mansion in the sky. Wide-eyed with wonder, hundreds and thousands of spectators would suddenly cry out, "Sadhu! Sadhu!"(*) as the stunning events unfolded. And the mighty princes went on exhibiting their skills with bows, on chariots, on elephant-back, horseback, and in hand-to-hand combat.
* "Excellent! Excellent!"
The combatants then grabbed their swords and shields and, moving all over the field, displayed the ways of swordsmanship just as they had been taught. As the princes competed with sword and shield, the experienced spectators studied their tactics, daring, steadiness, agility, and firmness of grip.
Then Duryodhana and Bhima, ever enlivened for combat, came down together, clubs in hand, their weapons like two big mountains with a single peak. Tightening their belts, those two heavy-armed warriors were brazenly determined to show their masculine strength. As they faced one another, their strength only increased, like that of two maddened bull elephants fighting for a willing female. Flawless clubs working away, the two mighty men, maddened like lusty bulls, circled each other, each keeping the other to the left. The great-minded Vidura described to Dhrtarastra all the deeds of the young princes, while Kunti narrated to Gandhari.
With the Kuru prince in the arena against Bhima, the best of strong men, the crowd split into two factions, taking sides according to their affection.
"Go, hero!" "Go, Kuru king!" "Come on, Bhima!" cheered the people, and their sudden roaring and shouting at each new blow resounded throughout the arena. Seeing the stadium shaking like a stormy sea, the wise Drona said to his dear son Asvatthama, "Both Bhima and Duryodhana are highly trained and very powerful. Stop them before a riot breaks out in the stadium."
Thus the son of the guru stopped the two warriors as wild as the fire of cosmic annihilation and as mighty as the ocean who stood with upraised clubs.
Drona then entered the playing field of the arena. Stopping the music, he spoke out in a voice as deep and resonant as the rumbling of great clouds.
"He who is dearer to me than my own son, he who is first among those who wield all weapons, he who is born from Indra and equal in splendor to Lord Visnu Himself may you behold now Arjuna, son of Prtha!"
Blessed by the words of his guru, Arjuna came before the crowd in the full vigor of his youth, carrying his deadly bow, his arm and finger guards tightly fastened, and his quiver full. Garbed in golden armor, Arjuna appeared like a sunset raincloud, flashing with sunrays, rainbow, and lightning. There was a great commotion throughout the arena, conchshells trumpeted, and the bands burst into music from every side of the stadium.
"There is the son of Kunti. That beautiful young man is the middle son of Pandu. He's actually the son of Indra himself. He will protect the Kuru kingdom. He's the best of all in his knowledge of weapons. He's the most religious of all the warriors. You may talk of noble men, but his knowledge of noble conduct is a transcendental ocean, for he is the dearest friend of Lord Krsna Himself, the Personality of Godhead, who slew evil Kamsa. Lord Krsna holds Arjuna as dear as His very self. Thus whatever Arjuna promises he will certainly do, for the Lord is ever with him."
When Arjuna's mother, Kunti, heard these unique praises voiced by the spectators, loving tears ran down her chest and mixed with the milk that flowed from her breasts as she gazed upon her son. The great sound of the crowd filled Dhrtarastra's ears, and that leader of men then joyfully said to Vidura, "O Ksatta, what is that mighty sound which makes the arena shake like a stormy sea? It has arisen suddenly from the stadium and pierces the very heavens."
Sri Vidura said, "Maharaja, it is because of Arjuna, the beloved son of Pandu and Kunti. He has come down onto the field with his golden armor, and the crowd has gone wild."
King Dhrtarastra said, "I am fortunate. I am blessed. I am protected, O learned one, by these fiery warriors, the sons of Pandu, who have arisen from the sacred kindling wood of that great lady Kunti."
When the uproarious arena somehow settled, Arjuna, the awesome warrior, then displayed the military skill acquired from his teacher. With the weapon of the god of fire he created fire; by the sea-lord's arm he created water; by the weapon of the wind-god he let loose the wind; and by the weapon of the lord of the rain he released the clouds. By the weapon of earth he entered the earth; by the science of mountains he spread hills before everyone's sight; and by the weapon of internal placement he went within and vanished from view.
One moment he expanded his body upwards, and at the next moment he shrank it down. In an instant he went to the front of his chariot, a second later he was sitting on the chariot seat, and at the next moment he was again standing on the ground. With varieties of arrows, that teacher's favorite, endowed with consummate skill, pierced targets that were delicate, impenetrable, barely visible, and in all ways troublesome. An iron boar was made to move about the field, and Arjuna shot fire arrows into its mouth in such rapid succession that the arrows appeared to the crowd to be one continuous shaft. Then the heroic prince buried twenty-one arrows into a hollow cow's horn as it swung about on a rope. In this and similar ways, with a huge sword, with a bow, and with a club, that military master showed the audience wonderful feats.
Karna, The Uninvited Guest
After the demonstration by Arjuna, the program was nearly finished. The crowd began filing out, and the musicians put down their instruments, when suddenly from the area of the main gate came a mighty slapping of arms that resembled the clashing of thunderbolts. So mighty and awesome was the sound that people began to wonder, "Are the hills exploding? Or is the earth breaking asunder? Or has the sky filled up with thundering clouds?"
These were the spontaneous thoughts of the stadium crowd, O king, as everyone turned and stared at the main gate of the arena. Surrounded by the five sons of Pandu, Drona stood up brilliantly like the glowing moon surrounded by the bright hand-constellation. Deadly Duryodhana rose to his feet, and his hundred strong brothers and Asvathama at once surrounded him. Club in hand, Duryodhana stood at the ready, and his brothers raised their clubs and stood with him. The eldest son of Dhrtarastra shone like Indra surrounded by the hosts of gods, ready to shatter the cities of the wicked.
Wide-eyed with wonder, the people gave way as into that broad stadium strode Karna, conqueror of cities, his face dazzling with the jeweled earrings and his body shielded by the mighty armor that were both with him at his birth. Girded tightly with sword and bow, he moved like a proud-pacing mountain.
Destined for wide fame, handsome with large, wide eyes, Karna was born from the virgin Kunti, begotten by the sharp-rayed light-maker, the mighty Sun. Invested with the Sun's own virile strength, Karna would lay low the hosts of his enemies. He fought and lived with the power and courage of the lion, the bull, and the elephant, and in brilliance, beauty, and luster he shone as bright as the sun and the moon. He was tall and straight like a golden palm tree, and his youthful body was built as solid as that of a lion. This strong-armed warrior, the handsome child of the sun, clearly had innumerable qualifications. He looked all about the arena and then offered his obeisances to Drona and Krpa, but without much real respect. Not a single person in that vast assembly moved, nor for a single moment did they take their eyes off Karna.
"Who is he?" they frantically asked one another, as suspense and curiosity filled the air.
Then Karna himself spoke out in an eloquent voice as deep and grave as the rumbling of clouds. He addressed himself to Arjuna, not knowing that he spoke to his own brother, [for the mother of both was Kunti. Nor did Karna know the identity of his own father.]
The child of the sun called out to the earthborn son of Indra, "Son of Prtha, whatever deeds you have performed here today, I shall perform better than you, and before everyone's eyes. So steady your mind, and don't be overwhelmed by what you are about to see."
Before Karna could even finish his words, the entire audience rose to its feet as if shot up by a machine. At that moment, O tiger of men, joy came to Duryodhana, and for an instant shame and anger pierced mighty Arjuna. Then with Drona's official permission, the mighty Karna, who ever loved a fight, performed all that Arjuna had done. Seeing all this, O Bharata, Duryodhana and his brothers joyfully embraced Karna. Duryodhana said to him, "You are most welcome here, mighty-armed one. It is our good fortune that you have come, for I see that you are a true gentleman. I myself and the entire Kuru kingdom are at your full disposal, to enjoy as you wish."
Karna said, "I need nothing else but your friendship, sir, and if I must accept some other boon, O Bharata, then I would fight a duel with that son of Kunti named Arjuna."
Duryodhana said, "Enjoy with me all that princes enjoy! Do good to your friends, O tamer of the enemy, and put your foot on the head of those who wish us ill."
Feeling deeply insulted, Arjuna called out to Karna, who stood fixed like a mountain in the midst of that assembly of royal cousins, "Those who enter though not invited, and those who speak their whim though not requested, attain the worlds reserved for their kind. Slain now by me, Karna, you will attain those very worlds."
Karna said, "This arena is open for all. What is your complaint, Arjuna? Among the royal order, leadership goes to the strongest men, for justice depends on power. Why these insults uttered by weaklings to comfort themselves? Speak with arrows, Bharata, for today with arrows, before the eyes of your guru, I shall take off your head."
With Drona's consent, and quickly embraced by his brothers, Arjuna, conqueror of hostile cities, went toward Karna for combat. And Karna, embraced by Duryodhana and his brothers, took up his bow and arrows and stood ready for battle. Thereupon the sky was suddenly covered by thundering clouds that flashed with lightning, and there were profusions of rainbows and formations of shrieking cranes. Seeing Lord Indra affectionately sending his signs to encourage his son Arjuna and forecast his victory, the Sun vanquished the clouds that came too near his child Karna. Thus Arjuna could be seen covered by the shadow of Indra's clouds, whereas Karna was fully exposed, bathed in the rays of the Sun.
The sons of Dhrtarastra stayed on Karna's side of the field, and Drona, Krpa, and Bhisma stayed on the side of Arjuna. Two factions also arose among the ladies in the crowd. Only Kuntidevi, the daughter of King Kuntibhoja, understood that a fight to the death between blood brothers was about to take place, for Arjuna and Karna were both her beloved sons. Thus she became faint with anxiety. Seeing her in utter confusion, Vidura, the knower of all justice, tried to bring her to her senses by sprinkling her with water mixed with sandalwood. Kunti came back to her senses, and seeing her two sons fit with armor, she went through such agony that she could not follow anything that was happening.
Krpa, son of Saradvan, was an expert in the customs and rules of dual combat, for he knew all of the sacred law. Thus he said to the two warriors who stood with their large bows raised for action, "This man here is the beloved son of Pandu, and the youngest child of Prtha. He is a Kuru prince, and he will make battle with you, sir. And you, mighty-armed one, must now tell us the names of your mother and father and your royal line. Who are those leaders of men to whom you bring glory? As soon as we learn this, the son of Prtha will set his bow against you, or perhaps he will not."
When Karna was thus addressed, his face bent down in shame, like a withered lotus flooded by the monsoon waters.
Duryodhana said, "Professor, our religious scriptures conclude that a man becomes a king in three ways: by birth in a royal family, by acts of heroism, and by leading an army. If Arjuna does not wish to fight with a non-king, then I hereby install this man as king of the land of Anga."
That very moment, learned brahmanas ceremonially anointed mighty Karna with sacred grains and flowers, bathed him with water from golden pitchers, installed him on a golden seat, and endowed that maharathawarrior with riches, for he was now the new ruler of Anga. He then received the paraphernalia of kingship, such as the royal umbrella and yak-tail fan, and he was honored with cries of victory. He then said to Duryodhana, "What could I give you or do for you that would equal your gift of a kingdom? Say it, and I shall certainly do it."
"I desire everlasting friendship with you," replied Duryodhana. Thus addressed, Karna replied, "It shall be so!" The two warriors happily embraced and felt the greatest joy.
Hridayananda Dasa Goswami led the team of devotee-scholars who completed the translation and commentary of the Srimad-Bhagavatam begun by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Fluent in several languages, Hridayananda Dasa Goswami has extensively taught Krsna consciousness in India, Europe, the United States, and Latin America. He is now doing graduate work in Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Harvard University.