Duryodhan’s Friend -
Dusk is falling on Kurukshetra. For the last 18 days, the battlefield has seen such mindless carnage and cruelty. Millions have been killed, and for millions more even death did not show clemency. They have been brutally scarred and handicapped for life. Orphans have forgotten to cry, widows have become numb with grief, and families have lost count of their dead children.A forlorn man, donned in shattered armour, is staring at the scene. It is indeed a colourful sight that meets his eyes. Thousands of flags, banners, chariots, weapons, horses, and elephants lay still across the vast battlefield. This was once his army, a vast legion of infantry, cavalry and chariots. Eighteen days back he commanded an army of 2.5 million soldiers(11 Akshauhini) from all across Bharatvarsh, with his grandfather Bheeshma at its helm. Arjuna decimated his army, and Bheem showed no mercy to his brothers. He butchered Dushashan with barbaric passion, cutting his body into halves, drinking his blood, and then dancing around the corpse with that blood smeared over his face.
Duryodhan shudders at the memory -- but he still could have forgiven that. However, he cannot forgive the way Karna was killed. His Karna, whom he loves more than anyone else --- more than his brothers, children or wives. He clearly remembers the day Karna entered the arena in Hastinapur, abuzz with Arjun's name. The Pandava had just overwhelmed the Hastinapur audience with a display of unbelievable archery. He summoned the fire, and the wind and the storm with his divine weapons. Then, he suddenly invoked the Antardhanastra and vanished from the arena. The stunned audience broke into a spontaneous applause. Drona, the mentor of the princes, was about to declare Arjun as the greatest archer of all time, when everyone's eyes turned to the entrance of the arena. A radiant warrior stood at the gates, glowing like the morning sun. The thunderous hum of his bowstring interrupted Drona's announcement.
Karna, the son of the charioteer Adhirath, was donned in a golden armour, which almost looked like a part of his body. He held the bow high in his hand, while the quiver rested against his sinewy shoulders. A dark rage and a darker smile lit up his handsome face, as he confronted Drona and his favourite pupil. Without waiting for an invitation Karna started to demonstrate his resplendent skills before the royalty, brahmins and the common people of Hastinapur. He set the entire stadium ablaze with his Agnyastra, and great flames threatened to engulf everything and everyone. "But look --- the sky is covered with dark clouds, Karna has summoned the Varunastra.” The roar was deafening, and no one knew whether it was Karna's bowstring or the thunder he had invoked, which produced the sound. A torrential rain poured down on Hastinapur and quenched the fire. The spectators had hardly started to breathe again , when a massive mountain emerged out of the heavens and descended upon the ground like grim death. The frightened audience did not dare to look up. Was Karna trying to bury everyone alive? But, suddenly a hurricane sprung up, and a swirling wind of sand and dust blew away the mountain. Karna had outclassed Arjun beyond a doubt. A golden sun was bathing Hastinapur and her new found hero - Karna.
Having stamped his supremacy on the contest, Karna challenged Arjun to a duel. A Brahmin clad in saffron clothes now arose in the royal stands. Kripacharaya --- the supreme mentor of the house of the Kurus. He addressed Karna directly.
"Well, we can all see that you are a gifted archer. But before Arjun can accept your challenge we would like to know about your identity and lineage. Who are your parents, young man?"
Before Karna could respond Duryodhan sprang up like a cobra. His voice was quivering with a rare emotion.
"Kulguru, surely even you and Pitamaha Bheesma would find it difficult to rival the splendid archery we just witnessed. We should accept this young man among our ranks.”
Kripa replied in a firm voice. "Duryodhan, there are certain rules we cannot bend. We need to determine the origin and the parentage of this man, before we can allow him to duel with a prince of this ancient house. Only a prince or a king has the permission to contest Arjun in this competition.”
"In that case, my Lord, let us first ascertain the origin of the Pandavas. We never got a trustworthy account of their births or childhood.” Duryodhan growled back.
A hush had fallen over the crowd, who was watching the intriguing drama unfold before their eyes. Duryodhan stepped forward and embraced the stranger. Then, his baritone voice boomed over the grounds.
"It is indeed unfortunate that Hastinapur refuses to reward and recognise such a rare talent as Karna. The elders of this state are set to determine eligibility based on pedigree rather than merit. I do not know the identity of this man, but I am convinced that he deserves to rule the entire world. However, since Kripacharya insists, I make Karna the king of Anga. His coronation would take place at this precise moment."
Karna felt a overwhelming love for Duryodhan. His voice shook as he addressed the Kuru prince. "My friend, you have put me in a great debt, one I would never be able to repay. In return I offer you my life, friendship and my archery, a skill I have acquired from Guru Parashuram".
Priests chanted mantras and sprinkled holy water on Karna. The Lord of Anga stood by the Kaurava prince, their arms linked and heads held high. The crowd was on in its feet hailing Duryodhan and Karna. The Pandavas sulked silently. The day had started out brilliantly for them, but then Karna snatched away all their thunder and glory. Amidst the uproar, Adhirath, the man who had raised Karna entered the arena.
As Karna bent down to touch his feet, Bheem laughed out scathingly. "Arjun!" He exclaimed. "This man is a son of a chariot driver. He does not deserve to die in your hands. Duryodhan, you gifted him a kingdom. Instead you should have handed him the reins of your chariot horses. I believe that the people of Anga would never tolerate this affront.”
Duryodhan turned towards Bheem. Earlier in the competition the two Kshatriyas had been locked in a fierce mace battle. Drona had intervened before Duryodhan could drive home his slight advantage. Duryodhan spoke with trembling rage. "At least we saw who Karna's father is. The same cannot be said about you and your brothers. And yet, you claim a stake on the throne of Hastinapur. It is evident that Karna commands weapons and skills much superior to those of Arjun. You are deriding a man because of his humble origin, although you make no attempt to explain your own questionable pedigree. Karna has challenged Arjun, I challenge all five of you to establish your supremacy over us.”
The audience stared at the two friends in a revered silence. It seemed that an enraged elephant was standing with a mighty lion, eyeing a pack of jackals disdainfully. The crisis was averted on that day. The setting sun came to the rescue, since Kripa deemed that it was unlawful to continue the competition beyond sunset. However, he foresaw that one day the Pandavas and the Kauravas were going to clash in a deadly and decisive battle. Karna and Duryodhan left the grounds together in great ceremony. Yudhisthir, the eldest of the Pandavas, realised that the enemy they had just made was matchless and invincible.
Karna - The Kaurava General
Duryodhan makes his way through the corpses and chariots. Jackals, vultures and wild dogs are having a feast. The fearsome cacophony of the scavengers and the noisome stench from the decaying bodies have turned the place into a living hell. Some of the soldiers are gravely wounded, but they are still breathing. The wolves are eating them alive. But, Duryodhan is past caring. He is carrying his mace over his broad shoulders. His entire body is bleeding from the wounds he has received over the last eighteen days. He desperately needs some rest before he can face his enemies for one last time. The ache in his body is nothing compared to the one he feels in his heart. He has lost so much and so many, and yet he weeps for only one person - Karna.
Duryodhan made Karna the chief commander of his army after the fall of Drona. It was the 16th day of the battle. Karna was his last hope to wrench victory from the Pandavas. Duryodhan had, by then, realised that with Krishna at his chariot wheels Arjun was a formidable force to reckon with. He had trained hard during his thirteen years of exile. He had mastered practically every weapon on heaven and earth. His aim was unerring, his defence was impregnable, and his chariot flew like the wind. The Kaurava forces heavily depended on Karna to tilt the scale back in their favour.
Karna did not disappoint them. He struck terror into the hearts of Yudisthir and his men with the roar of his Vijaydhanush, a deadly bow carved out by Viswakarma and gifted to him by his Guru Parashuram. Karna scattered the Pandava army at will. Nakul accosted him and fought impressively for sometime. But soon, Karna cut down his bow, smashed his chariot and killed his horses. Then, to everyone's amazement he spared Nakul's life. The Pandava army looked helpless in face of Karna's relentless charge. Arjun retaliated and brought the battle back to an even keel. The two Kshatriyas rained death on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The massacre continued unabated until sunset.
Finally, the sun set over Kurukshetra, and retreat conches were blown signalling the end of the day's fighting. After the armies had retired for the night, Duryodhan and Karna held a council of war.
Karna spoke to Duryodhan earnestly, "Arjun and I are very evenly matched, but he has a distinct advantage. He has got a master charioteer controlling his wonderful Gandharva horses. The speed and sleight with which Krishna manoeuvres the chariot make it impossible for anyone to aim at Arjun. I need someone similar to drive my horses, or otherwise the deadliest of my weapons would fail to find the mark.”
The two friends looked thoughtful. There was only one such person in the Kaurava army, who is suitable for this job. Shalya - the king of Madra, uncle of Nakul and Sahadev. Duryodhan had allured Shalya to his side by what he considered was a stroke of masterful diplomacy. "But would he be reliable, or even willing?" They wondered. It was well past midnight when Shalya received the king and the commander of the Kaurava army in his tent. After some persuasion he agreed. "I would take up your reins Karna, but on one condition. While I drive your chariot, I should have complete freedom to say anything I wish." Karna was mildly surprised, but he acceded. As the friends left his tent, Shalya sighed deeply. Karna and Duryodhan did not know that Shalya hardly needed any persuasion for this post. He was, in fact, waiting for the invitation. He was Yudisthir's implant in Duryodhan's army. He had promised the Pandava king to dampen Karna's confidence during his duel with Arjun.
The scavengers of death pervaded the field of Kurukshetra. Their howls and screeches were terrible to hear, as they tore open the dead bodies and devoured the flesh with their sharp, wicked teeth. Karna rested his head on the pillow. Sleep eluded the Kaurava general. Everyday, after dusk another battle stirred inside of Karna. The face of a beautiful woman clad in white floated before his sleepless eyes. Kunti --- Arjun's mother. Mother of his hated enemies. A couple of months back, Karna was offering his morning prayers to the Sun God. A pale light illuminated the banks of the Ganges. In the distance trumpets and cries of elephants, horses and soldiers could be heard. War preparations were in full swing in the city of Hastinapur. However, the riverside was desolate in the early morning. Karna's prayer was interrupted, as he heard footsteps approaching the river bank. He turned around to see a woman standing in the shadow of a nearby tree. She looked worn out, and her elegant face marked by many lines of age was glistening with sweat. Karna looked closely -- Kunti, mother of his arch rival. He had never seen her up close, but he recognised her right away. He stepped forward, folded his palms in reverence, and waited for the queen to speak. Karna held Kunti's gaze, and it seemed that a lifetime passed between the two. Kunti's stare was blank, and yet, it was fraught with the fathomless grief and guilt she had suppressed for so many years.
Finally, Kunti spoke. "Karna, my son. Do you even know that you are fighting against your own brothers?"
"Yes I am aware,” Karna replied curtly.
"Oh come with me Karna! Join your brothers. The kingdom, crown and the throne would be all yours!"
"Suddenly so generous mother? You abandoned me as a new born on this very Ganges.”
"Yes I did. I was unmarried, scared of social embarrassment. Won't you understand my plight?"
"I can still understand that, but what I fail to comprehend is why you have come to me now, after so many years ?"
Kunti's voice was desperate. "You cannot possibly be on Duryodhan' side in this battle. Take your rightful place. You are not a Sutaputra. You are a Khsatriya, born to me and Suryadev.”
"And, yet you remained silent when your sons were deriding my ignoble birth so many years back at Hastinapur. On that day, I believe, you were also sitting in the royal benches basking in Arjun's glory. Do you remember the man who came to my defence? Duryodhan, whom you ask me to abandon today. You think I would leave him for a crown or a kingdom? Of course, how would a woman who had once unflinchingly abandoned her newborn understand such deep and profound friendship. Anyway, I know why you came. You are least bothered about me. You are only anxious for the safety of your precious five sons. I won't disappoint you altogether, since you came such a long way from the palace. I am a son of a charioteer. That won't change in my lifetime. You are the mother of five, great warriors, which won't change either. I would spare the lives of Yudisthir, Bheem, Nakul and Sahadev. Between Arjun and me, only one shall survive. At the end of the battle you would still have five living sons."
The Kaurava Senapati tossed and turned in his bed. He had kept his promise. He had done no serious harm to four of the Pandavas. Tomorrow would be his final battle with Arjun, and his final opportunity to discharge Duryodhan's debt. Duryodhan - his one friend in a life, where he had only known insult and humiliation. Finally, Karna fell off to sleep.
The Duel Starts
Duryodhan has reached the edge of the battlefield. He is trying to figure his way to the Dwaipayan lake, where he can find safe refuge at least for sometime. His enormous frame, with the mace resting on one shoulder, looks resplendent in the crimson twilight. Suddenly, a hand lightly taps on his shoulder. Instinctively, he grips his mace tightly and swings around in one sharp but graceful movement. Sanjay - Dhritarashtra's trusted charioteer. For the last eighteen days he has tirelessly brought news from Kurukshetra to the blind king in Hastinapur. Duryodhan clasps Sanjay with both of his hands. "Tell father, that my army has been erased. I am still alive, and have taken shelter inside the Dwaipayan lake. There, I shall wait for my enemies. " Sanjay looks at the prince with great sorrow. He realises that this is perhaps his last meeting with Duryodhan. The Pandavas are unlikely to show him any mercy. "Run Sanjay, Run!" Duryodhan's voice is urgent and tearful. He knows how much Sanjay loves him.
As the rajsarathi disappears in the gathering darkness, the Kuru prince strides towards the lake. He looks towards where once his camp used to be. Eighteen days back, that place bustled with elephants, horses, chariots and more than two million soldiers. Then, Duryodhan remembers the last time he saw Karna, just before he led the Kaurava army into the battle on the morning of the seventeenth day of the war. The two friends had embraced warmly. Karna spoke gently, but the determination in his voice was unmistakable. "Today, either I kill Arjun, or he kills me. The battle would be over today, one way or the other."
"I have no doubts, my friend, that victory will be yours,” Duryodhan whispered.
"I promise that so long I am wielding my bow and commanding your army, death or defeat cannot wander even close to you.”
Duryodhan watched as Karna boarded his chariot, and Shalya drove the horses towards Kurukshetra. Shalya did not forget the promise he had made to Yudishtir a few days before the war began. Shalya had initially marched with his troops from Madra to join the Pandava camp. However, on his way Duryodhan wooed him to his side. Shalya went down to Yudisthir to inform him about his change of mind. Yudisthir did not mind too much, but he had an assignment for Shalya.
"I understand that your troops would stride along with Duryodhan's army. But, perhaps you would not deprive me of your blessings?" Yudisthir pleaded humbly.
"Of course, I sincerely hope that you win this battle.” Shalya sounded a bit embarrassed.
Yudisthir quickly pressed on. "In that case, my Lord, I have a small favour to ask from you.” There was a flicker of shame in Yudisthir's voice as he spoke these words. "I am sure, you would be asked to become Karna's charioteer, when he duels with Arjun. You would then be in a position of distinct advantage to shake his confidence, and disrupt his focus.”
Shalya was taken aback by Yudisthir's cowardly request. But, he replied in consent, "I will do my best, Yudisthir, to deter your worst enemy".
"Look Karna, here comes Bheem and Arjun! Are you sure you want to confront them? I agree that you are an accomplished warrior, but your skills are nowhere near Arjun's,” Shalya quipped as he brought Karna's chariot near the enemy's front line.
"There is no need for that, Lord of Madra.” Karana said quietly. "I realise that you are doing Yudisthir's bidding. But, you cannot stop me from destroying my enemies today.” Shalya kept up the steady flow of discouragement, hoping to provoke Karna into an act of rashness, but the son of Suryadev was impassive and indomitable. He burned like the midday sun in the middle of the battlefield. Kurukshetra, which had seen the valour of Bheesma and the dexterity of Arjun, had not yet witnessed a warrior like Karna. He severed the heads of his enemies with the same ease with which the farmer reaps his harvest. "The Pandava army would soon evaporate, if Karna continues to battle like this,” Yudisthir thought in dismay. He decided to accost Karna himself.
Briefly, Yudisthir put up a credible fight. He contained Karna, and a couple of his arrows penetrated his formidable rival’s armour. But suddenly Karna elevated his archery to a different height. He killed the men protecting Yudisthir's flanks with two sharp arrows. Satyaki, Dhristadumna and other Pandava Khsatriyas rushed to their king's help. They formed a protective ring around Yudisthir. Karna did not look even slightly perturbed. He pushed them back with an outrageous display of archery. Then, he unleashed a volley of arrows towards Yudisthir, which in a matter of seconds cut down his banner, severed his bow, smashed his quiver, destroyed the chariot, and killed his sarathi and the horses. Yudisthir fell on the ground with an ungraceful thud. He was about to show a clean pair of heels, when Karna ran up to him and gently touched his shoulders. "No need to run Yudisthir. I do not kill unworthy adversaries. Go back to your camp, where you can hide behind your brothers.” Yudisthir's humiliation was complete, although his life was spared.
As the day wore on, Arjun began to wrest away the advantage that Karna had built. Karna's son Vrishasen attempted to stop Arjun. The youthful warrior demonstrated great courage and skill. Then, Arjun laughed out loudly, "Karna, I am going to kill your son in front of you. Fend him, if you can.” Before Karna could rush to his son's assistance, Arjun's arrows had hewed off the boy's limbs and sliced his head. The Pandavas screamed in joy at the gory sight.
The two armies watched in awe, as Arjun and Karna approached each other. Arjun's chariot was drawn by four beautiful horses, with the dark Krishna commanding the reins, while Shalya guided Karna's carriage through the heart of the Pandava army. Even the devtas and the apsaras thronged the sky to witness the epic duel between Arjun and Karna. The apsaras stared at the two great warriors with undisguised admiration. The chariots stopped as they came within the range of their rivals' weapons. Krishna blew a deep note on his famous conch, the Panchayanya. Arjun's Devadatta resonated with his sarathi's blast, and it seemed that the combined sound invoked the wrath of ocean and thunder simultaneously. Within moments, the ground began to shake and horses, elephants and wild beasts cried out in alarm. The hum of Karna's Vijaydhanush was causing the heaven and earth to tremble in unison. Indeed, the fiercest battle mankind had ever witnessed thus far was about to commence at the cusp of the two ages, Dwapar and Kali.
As the duel advanced, Karna and Arjun transformed into a blur inside their fleeting chariots. No one could discern when they fetched the arrows from the quiver, pulled their bowstrings, fixed the target, and unleashed the weapons. Krishna and Shalya manoeuvred the chariots with unbelievable speed and dexterity. "Look! Arjun has invoked the Agneyastra. The entire Kaurava regiment has gone up in flames. Surely, there is no escape for them, anymore.” But Karna easily doused the fire with his Varunastra. Now, great dark clouds covered the sky, threatening to drown the entire Pandava army. A hurricane then gripped the battlefield. Arjun's Vayevyastra blew away the darkness instantly. Arjun followed it up with a more powerful weapon, which he had received from Indra. Thousands of spears, arrows, tridents, and terrible weapons of different sizes and shapes streamed from the Gandiv, and surrounded Karna from all sides. Karna stood unfazed, chanting the mantra to summon Bhargavastra. Within seconds Karna's weapon tamed Arjun's fury, and in turn killed thousands of Pandava soldiers. "Brahmastra! Arjun, Brahmastra,” shouted Krishna in panic. Arjun's Brahmastra collided with Karna's in midair, and the resulting explosion consumed columns of soldiers, turning them into cinders almost instantly. "What would stop Karna?" Krishna wondered anxiously.
Karna - Magnificent
Duryodhan reaches the Dwaipayan Lake. The water looks cool and inviting. He walks down the sloping bank, holds the mace against his chest and dives in. Along with many weapons of war, he is also a master of sorcery. He swims to the bottom of the lake, and finally rests on a bed of weed and aquatic plants. His sorcery makes the lake still, and the water fortress will provide him with refuge, at least for sometime. His fatigued and bleeding body finds some solace and relief, as he closes his eyes and puts the heavy mace next to him. He can clearly remember Shalya’s voice, which had described to him the duel between Arjun and Karna.
As the duel progressed, both Karna and Arjun lifted their archery to a level hitherto unwitnessed on Kurukshetra. Arjun impeccably executed his vast knowledge of weaponry and warfare, which he had gleaned from mentors on heaven and earth. He killed or drove back all the chariots and warriors, who tried to assist or defend Karna. But, Karna did not require any assistance. He blocked Arjun's missiles with great aplomb, and demolished the Pandava troops simultaneously. The battle was on a fine balance, when suddenly Karna severed Arjun's bowstring. The Pandavas gasped in shock and bewilderment, as no one thus far had been able to break through Arjun's defence. The Kaurava army surged forward triumphantly. They scented victory. Now, Karna unleashed total mayhem on Yudisthir's army. Krishna yelped in pain, as hundreds of arrows wounded him and the horses he commanded. Every time Arjun retied his bowstring, Karna sliced it in half with effortless ease. Defeat and death glared at Yudisthir's men.
Karna's dominance seemed almost complete, when Gandiv's hum again rose above the din of the battlefield. "Arjun has mended his bow,” the Pandava soldiers cried in relief. Arjun fought with renewed fury and energy, and Karna's advance was stalled. Arjun's arrow flew in an uncanny trajectory and decapitated Rajkumar Sabhapati, the Kshatriya who was courageously guarding Karna's flank. Arjun pressed on his newly gained advantage, and now, Karna found it hard to stem his rival's ferocious counter attack. Deadly and mysterious weapons streamed from the Gandiv, covering the earth, sun and the Kaurava warriors. The soldiers could not even figure out the route to escape from the battlefield. The helpless men chanted Karna's name. Karna realised that there was only one way to end this duel. Nagastra -- the infallible weapon he had carefully preserved inside a sandalwood box for this critical moment. As soon as Karna fixed his target and pulled the bowstring, Arjun's demise seemed inevitable. Nagastra hissed like a serpent, as it glided through the air aiming straight for Arjun's throat. Krishna jumped up from the reins and pressed the chariot hard with his toe. The horses bent down on their knees, consequently the chariot lost height, enabling Arjun to elude death by a whisker. The weapon smashed into Arjun's crown, a priceless jewelled piece he had received from Indra, shattering it into thousands of fragments. Krishna's brilliant reflexes had just saved Arjun's life. Karna had spent off the most potent weapon in his repository.
"Arjun, what are doing? Focus on the war! Finish Karna off, otherwise he would kill us all,” Bheem and Krishna goaded Arjun on. Arjun fought more fiercely, and hurled the most powerful weapons in his arsenal. The narrow brush with death seemed to have breathed a greater sense of urgency into his battle. In one display of extraordinary archery, he sent a fullisade of arrows, which went clean through Karna's defence and destroyed his armour. Karna stood in his chariot covered in blood and writhing in pain. Oh! How he wished that he still possessed the impregnable magical armour he was born with. Indra, Arjun's father, had begged it away from him during his morning prayer, a time when Karna cannot turn away a mendicant. In return, he had received Indra's powerful shakti, which he had been compelled to waste on Bheem's son Ghatotkach. Hence, going into the duel against Arjun, Karna had lost both his innate protection and the bargain he had received in its exchange. But, Karna had no time to dwell upon his losses and misfortunes. He was finding it difficult to stand his ground against Arjun.
But the battle was not over yet. Karna launched a ferocious counter attack, and seemed to be regaining the edge. But, he increasingly found it hard to remember and summon the divine weapons, which he had acquired from his Guru Parashuram. The curse was finally on Karna. Karna had feared that Parashuram might deny him entry into his school, because of his ignoble origin. Karna hid his identity, and introduced himself as a Brahmin to his Guru. He turned out to be one of the finest pupils of Parashuram. One day Parashuram was asleep, resting his head on Karna's lap. A terrible insect got onto Karna's body and began sucking his blood. The pain should have been intolerable, but Karna did not budge, lest he would disturb his Guru's sleep. Parashuram woke up, and was shocked by the bloody sight. Then, his face twisted in a loathsome rage. "You lied to me. No Brahmin can bear so much pain. You must be a khsatriya. I curse you Karna, that when you would have the greatest need of the weapons I taught you, they will desert you. You would not remember the means to use them.”
But, Arjun was still not being able to overcome Karna. Even without the aid of his best weapons, Karna's archery was sublime. Then, suddenly Karna's wheel got mired in the mud. This was the result of another imprecation that Karna had to suffer, when he had unwittingly killed a Brahmin’s cow. "The earth would engulf your chariot wheels, when you would be confronted by your deadliest adversary." The Brahmin had cursed. For the first time death laid its fearful hand on Karna's heart. The Kaurava general threw his arms in despair, but still refused to give up. Arjun invoked the Indrastra. Karna cut it into pieces. Karna struck Krishna with three and Arjun with seven sharp arrows. Arjun chanted for his Brahmastra. Karna responded with lighting speed, rendering his rival's weapon into ashes. Arjun's massive range of divine weaponry appeared utterly ineffectual in face of Karna's onslaught. Then, once again, Karna's unerring marksmanship sheared off Arjun's bowstring. In spite of his stranded chariot, and in spite of the curses Karna still held a firm upper hand in the duel. He had recovered from the jaws of death, and again looked invincible.
Suddenly, the earth consumed more than half of Karna's chariot wheel. The chariot was now tilted at a precarious angle, making it impossible for Karna to retain his balance. "Arjun!” Karna cried out. "As you can see, my chariot wheel has gone into the ground. I hear that you are a noble warrior. Allow me a brief respite, I need to free my wheels, before I can continue fighting with you.” Krishna laughed out scornfully. "Oh! What immense fortune Karna, that today you have been reminded of nobility. You and your friend Duryodhan had known nothing but mendacities throughout your lives. There is no point in appealing to Arjun's nobility today. You would not be shown any clemency.” Karna looked at Krishna in disbelief. He remembered the day, a few months back, when Krishna had offered him the crown, kingdom, throne and Draupadi, or at least one-sixth of her.
Krishna was visiting Hastinapur as Yudisthir's emissary to broker peace between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. However, he did precious little to allay the belligerence. He spurned the royal hospitality, turned down Duryodhan's dinner invitation, and further fanned the flames of hostility, while addressing the court at Hastinapur. After his supposed peace mission had failed, he took Karna aside. "The Pandavas are your brothers. Abandon Duryodhan, and join them, Karna. Yudisthir would make you the king. You would rule the world. You are a man known for his valour, charity and righteousness. Why should you spend your life in Duryodhan's servitude?" After a pause he added, "Draupadi would become your wife. Every sixth year, she would be exclusively yours.” Krishna waited to see a flicker of greed or lust in Karna's eyes. But none came! "Draupadi,” Karna thought in amazement. The five brothers had divided her up to slake their lust. Then, they gambled her away. Now, Krishna was using her as a bait, to allure Karna away from Duryodhan. "Duryodhan retrieved me from squalor and dishonour. You ask me to dispense with him when he requires me the most, just for a kingdom, or a woman?" Karna was not impressed by Krishna's insincere blandishments and indecent proposals. He, however, found it interesting as how the Pandavas always ignored or taunted him in public, while their well wishers had the uncanny knack of turning up at his door secretly with disgraceful proposals. Indra and Kunti, Arjun's parents, and Krishna had all approached him privately to create a schism in his loyalty towards Duryodhan. On that count, they failed miserably, although they had been able to enervate him considerably, even before the battle had started.
Karna raised his bow in disgust. He now fought like ten men. The Varunastra, Agneyastra and the Vayevyastra that flowed from the Vijaydhanush were unstoppable. A heavy wooden arrow hit Arjun square on his chest. The Gandiv slipped from Arjun's hand, as he tottered and collapsed within the chariot. Karna leaped out of his immobile carriage. He expected Arjun to recover within seconds. He heaved the wheel with all his might. Every vein on Karna's body stood up under the great strain and outlined his chiseled physique like snakes. But, the wheel did not stir as much by a finger. Against Karna's enormous strength, it remained stubbornly fixed to the ground. Meanwhile, on the other side, Arjun had woken up. The warrior code stayed his hand from shooting at Karna. Krishna spoke to him sternly. "What are you waiting for?" "He is not in his chariot, neither is he armed." Arjun replied. "Surely, you are not waiting for him to regain his chariot and weapons. You must have realised by now that this rival has skills much superior to yours." Krishna usually did not have to say much to provoke the Pandavas into an act of crime or cowardice. Arjun summoned the insuperable Anjalikastra. As he pulled his bowstring, the earth began to shake and animals cried out in alarm. The deadly missile spun viciously through the air and beheaded Karna almost instantly. Karna's headless body fell on the ground amidst great roars of desperation and celebration.
A brilliant light escaped from Karna's body, and became one with the magnificent sunset that filtered through the clouds on Kurukshetra. The Pandavas blasted on their conches, Bheem danced in his chariot. The Kaurava army fled in all directions. They knew that the battle was lost. Duryodhan received the news of Karna's death from Shalya. He wailed in unbearable anguish. As he retreated from the battlefield, there was only one name on his lips -- "Karna, Karna.” Kurukshetra, which had seen endless killings, witnessed the most tragic scene it would ever experience.
Duryodhan waits motionless at the bottom of the lake. He is aware that it won't be long before the Panadavas hunt him out. He needs to give his injured and jaded body some time to recuperate, before he confronts his enemies for one last time. From the darkness above, someone calls out to him. It is Aswathama, one of the last three remaining warriors of his vast legion. "Duryodhan, come out of the water! Do not think that you are without an army. Kripacharya, Kritavarma and I still stand steadfastly in your service. You can surely lead us to victory against the coward Pandavas." Duryodhan feels assured to hear the voice of his childhood friend. He answers back, "Aswathama, I feel fortunate to find you, Kripa and Kritavarma alive.
However, I need rest, before I can ride into the battle. Let us wait for sunrise, until then stay safe from the Pandavas.” The three warriors leave their king alone, and hurry towards a nearby forest to take cover for the night.
Yudisthir's camp is restless. They are at the brink of victory. They still have two thousand chariots, two hundred elephants, and a few thousand of their cavalry and infantry left. Yudisthir does not want to wait until sunrise. The throne of Hastinapur, the cause of so much of grief and bloodshed, has never been any closer to him. The Pandavas set off to drive Duryodhan out of his hiding place.
Yudisthir sees a group of men approaching his chariot. "Stop, the chariot,” the Pandava commands his charioteer. "They are probably bringing us some news of Duryodhan.” The Nishads, ancient forest dwellers of Bhaaratvarsha, bow their heads in obeisance to Yudisthir. "My Lord, Duryodhan is hiding inside the Dwaipayan Lake. He is armed, but alone and badly injured. You should be able to take him in without much resistance.” Yudishthir rewards the informers generously. Hundreds of chariot wheels rumble across towards the Dwaipayan Lake. Victory is nigh.
"Duryodhan, you sent your friends, generals and all your soldiers to death. Thereafter, you fled from the battlefield like a coward. This is not becoming of you. Come out and fight with us.” Yudisthir cries out in a scathing voice. The Pandavas have surrounded the Dwaipayan Lake.
"I would never try to escape death. But, I needed some respite to allay my fatigue and wounds. I believe it is still dark. Why don't you rest as well, and then we can settle this battle once and for all.” Duryodhan’s voice carries clearly through the water.
"Duryodhan, we are well rested. Either beat us in the battle and claim your kingdom, or embrace death and heaven." Yudisthir's unkind words sting Duryodhan like sharp barbs.
"I can single handedly defeat your army. I am myself a force stronger than the Narayni Sena. But, what do I do with a kingdom, any more? I have lost everyone, my brothers, friends and my beloved Karna. Hastinapur is all yours Yudisthir, I would find peace in the forest.”
"Your words do not stir any pity in our hearts, Duryodhan. You have wittingly and decidedly trudged into this mire, with your friends and soldiers in the tow. Do you think we have besieged you to benefit from your charity? We would finish you off in no time, and reclaim our kingdom.”
Duryodhan is not used to such harsh words. He picks up his mace, swims with powerful strokes towards the shore, and finally breaks through the surface of the water. The Pandavas are standing in a circle at the edge of the lake. Duryodhan confronts them like a mighty elephant, without a trace of trepidation on his face. Then, he speaks in a snarl. "I do not have an armour or a chariot. It would be impossible for me to stave you off, if you attack me together. Come and fight with me one by one, and we would see who is the superior warrior."
Yudisthir suddenly feels a gush of magnanimity. His accomplishments during the war have been generally limited to hiding behind Arjun, Bheem and Satyaki. But now that victory seems almost certain, he decides to be generous. He addresses Duryodhan charitably. "Select your weapon, and choose your rival. If you can vanquish any one of us, the entire kingdom would be yours.” The Pandavas and Krishna gaze at Yudisthir in shock and disbelief. However the noble Duryodhan does not seize upon the opportunity. "I would fight with my mace. I am the greatest mace fighter after my Guru Balaram. I do not care whom I duel with. In a fair mace-fight, none of you would be able to match me.” Bheem roars his challenge. "I have killed all your brothers with these hands of mine. Now, it shall be your turn. Oh! How I have waited for this hour.”
Krishna is beside himself with anger. "Yudisthir, you must be out of your mind to let Duryodhan challenge the Pandavas to a mace-fight. It is not an empty boast, when he asserts that he is the greatest mace wielder of the modern time. While Bheem may possess a slender advantage in terms of physical strength, Duryodhan has trained long and hard in the last thirteen years. He would have flattened you or Arjun in a matter of seconds. Bheem would also struggle to compete with his prodigious skills. But then, I forget that you are a compulsive gambler. You unhesitatingly put at stake the victory, which your brothers had earned at the cost of so many lives. Perhaps, the Pandavas were never meant to rule a kingdom."
It is believed that if a soldier dies on the hallowed battlefield of Kurukshetra, he gains heaven instantly. The Pandavas and Duryodhan trot towards Kurukshetra, the field which has witnessed the mindless massacre over the last eighteen days. Duryodhan is donned in new armour and crown, as he strides gracefully alongside the Pandavas. They arrive at a spot, which they deem fit for the final duel. Battle is about to commence, when a tall figure with flowing silvery hair looms in the distance. As the huge frame draws nearer, everyone gasps in disbelief. Balaram, Krishna's elder brother, is approaching the grounds, a massive plough held firmly in his sinewy arms.
Balaram is one of the very few who have remained neutral in this internecine battle. He warned both Arjun and Duryodhan against the dire consequences of a combat of this magnitude. Before the war started, Arjun and Duryodhan came to Dwarika, seeking the support of Krishna and Balaram. Krishna granted his army, the Narayani Sena to Duryodhan, while he himself agreed to become Arjun's charioteer. However, Balaram refrained from taking sides. The noble Yadav candidly condemned Krishna for further stoking the hostilities between the Kauravas and the Pandavas.
While the entire Bhaaratvarsha braced itself for the bloody conflict, Balaram went out on a pilgrimage. During the past month he deliberately kept himself detached from the gory news of the battle. But, when he heard from the monk Narad that Duryodhan and Bheem were about to accost each other in a final face off, he decided to preside over the duel. Duryodhan and Bheem are both his students. Balaram has avowed many times that Duryodhan, his favourite pupil, is invincible with the mace.
Bheem and Duryodhan pay respect to their Guru. The Pandavas, Satyaki , Dhristadumna, Krishna, Balaram and a few other kings form a ring around the arena. Soon the duel begins. Great sparks of fire emanate from the friction, as the two massive mounds of metal clash in the air. The two masters exhibit complex techniques of aggression and defence. Each blow that they exchange can easily kill hundreds of soldiers instantly. Both possess unearthly strength, and unlimited stamina. The battle is on an even keel for sometime. Then, gradually Duryodhan begins to pull ahead. Duryodhan's mace combines the flourish of an artist's brush and the venom of a cobra. He evades Bheem's brutal attacks with the grace of a dancer, and pounces on his opponent with the speed of a cheetah. Krishna and the Pandavas watch the battle with growing anxiety.
The warriors rest for a while. The battle resumes, and Duryodhan firmly retains his edge. He delivers a tremendous strike on Bheem's chest. Immediately, another blow falls on Bheem's head. Bheema's body is covered in blood and sweat. He is gasping for breath, helplessly immobile with pain. However, Bheem recovers, and for the first time breaks through Duryodhan's defence. Duryodhan loses his balance, and falls on the ground. His counter attack is ferocious; Bheem finds it impossible to block his deadly strikes. Duryodhan tears apart Bheem's armour. Bheem yelps out in wretched agony. Duryodhan's sleight and celerity are beyond imagination. He circles his enemy in a blur. Defeat and demise seem certain for Bheem. It is only his superhuman strength that still keeps him in the fight.
Krishna realises that it is impossible to defeat Duryodhan without breaking the rules of the battle. "Ask Bheem to hit Duryodhan below his naval,” Krishna whispers to Arjun. "But that's against the laws of the combat. It is illegal to hit below the waist in a mace-fight.” Arjun protests. "Then of course, Bheem's death is assured. Duryodhan is literally toying with him right now. There is no way Duryodhan can be stopped or beaten through honest means," Krishna replies with some asperity. Arjun and Krishna indicate to Bheem that he needs to aim for Duryodhan's lower limbs. Bheem has little conscience in the matter of acting dishonourably in the battlefield.
After a brief recess the duel recommences. Bheem hurls his mace at Duryodhan, who eschews it deftly. Bheem is dealt with another powerful hit on his chest, but he absorbs the shock stolidly. Duryodhan suspects that Bheem may be setting up a trap. He retreats quickly to a defensive position. Next, Bheem charges at Duryodhan like a bull. Duryodhan leaps in the air to avoid the sudden attack. Bheem sees his opportunity. He applies all his strength into the blow that ruptures Duryodhan's manhood and smashes his lower limbs. Blood and semen spurts out, as the prince of Hastinapur collapses on the battlefield. Bheem, who is known for violating his enemies' corpses, stamps his foot on Duryodhan's head. His shrill cry of cowardice sends a shiver down everyone's spine.
Balaram is livid with rage. He advances to hew off Bheem"s head. Krishna intervenes and tries to allay Balaram's anger. But, Balaram is disconsolate as he dolefully looks at the broken body of his favourite pupil. His eyes fill with tears, and he blesses his beloved Duryodhan for one final time. He directs one last glare of disgust towards the Pandavas, before striding off the battlefield. Krishna heaves a sigh of relief. His righteous brother, Balaram, has always been an impediment on his path to political ascendancy. The kings and the other warriors converge on Bheem, showering him with praise and gratitude for killing their most dreaded enemy. Duryodhan writhes in unbearable agony. Now that Balaram is out of the way, Krishna basks in Bheem's heinous victory. He addresses the crowd, which has gathered around Duryodhan's fallen body. "It is our great fortune that the reprehensible life of this enemy has finally come to an end. He is no longer worthy of our sympathy or wrath. He should die alone, among the wild beasts. Let our celebrations begin.”
Duryodhan lifts his head with great difficulty. He whispers between spasms of pain. "Krishna, son of Kangsha"s slave, you are the cause of the deaths of all my great warriors. You could have never won this battle fairly. You instigated the Pandavas to adopt ignoble and treacherous means to kill my generals. You provoked Bheem to hit below my waist. Anyway, I am past caring. I ruled over this earth like a true king amidst my friends and well wishers. As soon as Karna left this world, I had no purpose for living on. Now, Pandavas can erect their kingdom over these countless corpses. I am waiting to meet Karna in heaven.” As soon as Duryodhan falls silent the heavens open up. Scented water and flowers are showered on the Kaurava king. The devtas recognise that Duryodhan is indeed the bravest and the greatest of all Khastriyas. The Pandavas hang their heads in shame.
The king of the Kurus, the lord of eighteen akshaunis, lies alone in his deathbed. His body twitches in anguish, but his spirit is unbroken. He can hear the approaching footsteps of vultures and wolves. However, a sense of happiness suffuses all over him. He would soon be reunited with his Karna. Thus, ends the life of a resplendent emperor, and the tale of a magnificent friendship.
You asked me to write about Karna and Duryodhan. The story of Karna and Duryodhan is a story of profound trust and unconditional love. They were not always necessarily in the right, but their friendship transcended the boundaries of right and wrong. Hope you would enjoy reading it - Indeed a tribute to our friendship.