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The First Arjuna-Karna Battle — Draupadi’s Swyamvara Part 2

Imagine an epic duel — two of the greatest archers of the era locked horns! Everyone had waited for this duel for years, wondering who would win. Many will continue to debate even after 5000 years.

They fought violently to vanquish each other. Such extreme was their speed, that their actions were invisible to ordinary eyes. And then one of them stops and asks another —

O great warrior! Are you the personification of the knowledge of war? Are you great Ram? Indra? Or Vishnu?

What do you make out of it? Who won the war? Ah! Did I mention, one of them won the greatest Swyamvara of the era using his superior archery skill and the other… Did you miss our previous episode?

In our previous part, we started our discussion on Draupadi’s swayamvara, and bust the famous myth that Draupadi stopped Karna from participating in the swayamvara. In this part we shall discuss the battle that ensued between the assembled Kings and two Pandava brothers. Unfortunately, popular TV shows, and most fictional adaptations, do not depict this battle honestly or in detail,   and as you go through it, my assertions from the previous part of this story would become clear. In a way, it would also provide more evidence and proper closure to this story. So let us get on with the story — 

Arjuna wins Swyamvara, Karna fails

Neelakantha Chaturdhara, in his famous recitation, explains in shloka 19 and 20 of chapter 178  — 

 And that bow which Rukma, Sunitha, Vakra, Radha’s son, Duryodhana, Salya, and many other kings accomplished in the science and practice of arms, could not even with great exertion, string, Arjuna, the son of Indra, that foremost of all persons endued with energy and like unto the younger brother of Indra (Vishnu) in might, strung in the twinkling of an eye. And taking up the five arrows, he shot the mark and caused it to fall down on the ground through the hole in the machine above which it had been placed. 

— Adi Parva, Chapter 178, Shloka 19,20 (Kisari Mohan Ganguli)

This is explained in both Gita Press version and Kisrai Mohan Ganguli.

And rest is history. Through the hole in the machine, he suddenly pierced the target, and it fell down on the ground.

सज्यं च चक्रे निमिषान्तरेण; शरांश्च जग्राह दशार्धसङ्ख्यान् |
विव्याध लक्ष्यं निपपात तच्च; छिद्रेण भूमौ सहसातिविद्धम् ||१६||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 179, Shloka 16 (BORI)

The Crowd cheers

As the crowd cheered, a great uproar was heard sky high, and so were the rain of celestial flowers that were showered down. While musicians played lovely songs, people showed their appreciation by waving their upper garments — 

ततोऽन्तरिक्षे च बभूव नादः; समाजमध्ये च महान्निनादः |
पुष्पाणि दिव्यानि ववर्ष देवः; पार्थस्य मूर्ध्नि द्विषतां निहन्तुः ||१७||
चेलावेधांस्ततश्चक्रुर्हाहाकारांश्च सर्वशः |
न्यपतंश्चात्र नभसः समन्तात्पुष्पवृष्टयः ||१८||
शताङ्गानि च तूर्याणि वादकाश्चाप्यवादयन् |
सूतमागधसङ्घाश्च अस्तुवंस्तत्र सुस्वनाः ||१९||

Adi Parva, Chapter 179, Shloka 18-19

Drupad is concerned, Draupadi is happy

Now, here is something  really interesting. Drupad, who was obviously happy, wished to help this unknown winner of Swyamvara with his army should the need arise. 

तं दृष्ट्वा द्रुपदः प्रीतो बभूवारिनिषूदनः |
सहसैन्यश्च पार्थस्य साहाय्यार्थमियेष सः ||२०||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 179, Shloka

Further, Seeing that destroyer of enemies, Drupada was extremely happy and wished to help Partha with his army, should the need arise.

— Bibek Debroy Translation

Had he sensed the brewing trouble? And we find an interesting contrast in the behavior of Yudhisthir. He knew,  his two brothers are more than sufficient for whatever may come their way. And they certainly don’t need more help, forget an army — 

तस्मिंस्तु शब्दे महति प्रवृत्ते; युधिष्ठिरो धर्मभृतां वरिष्ठः |
आवासमेवोपजगाम शीघ्रं; सार्धं यमाभ्यां पुरुषोत्तमाभ्याम् ||२१||
विद्धं तु लक्ष्यं प्रसमीक्ष्य कृष्णा; पार्थं च शक्रप्रतिमं निरीक्ष्य |
आदाय शुक्लं वरमाल्यदाम; जगाम कुन्तीसुतमुत्स्मयन्ती ||२२||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 179, Shloka 21 & 22

‘When the uproar reached its peak, Yudhishthira, foremost among those who tread the path of dharma, swiftly left the assembly and went home, accompanied by the twins, supreme among men. On seeing the target shot and on seeing Partha, the equal of Shakra, Krishna was happy.

Draupadi, who was extremely happy, reached Partha and garlanded him. And then he left the arena with his wife to be. Mark here, garland was a mere formality and they would be wed later.

Failed kings were furious

But Drupad had  gauged the mood of kings and royalty rightly. Their humiliating failure, where an almost nobody succeeded, filled them  with rage — 

नयमतिक्रम्य तृणीकृत्य च सङ्गतान् |
दातुमिच्छति विप्राय द्रौपदीं योषितां वराम् ||२||
निहन्मैनं दुरात्मानं योऽयमस्मान्न मन्यते |
न ह्यर्हत्येष सत्कारं नापि वृद्धक्रमं गुणैः ||३||
हन्मैनं सह पुत्रेण दुराचारं नृपद्विषम् |
अयं हि सर्वानाहूय सत्कृत्य च नराधिपान् ||४||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 180, Shloka 2-4

The kings said, “We are assembled here and he passes us over like straw. He wishes to give Droupadi, supreme among women, to a Brahmana. This evil-hearted one does not respect us. Let us kill him.

— Bibek Debroy

Here kings first desire to Kill Drupad for allowing Brahmana in the swyamvara.  Then they gloat about themselves and speak about Shastras as an expert in shloka 5 and 6 of chapter 180.

अस्मिन्राजसमावाये देवानामिव संनये |
किमयं सदृशं कञ्चिन्नृपतिं नैव दृष्टवान् ||५||
न च विप्रेष्वधीकारो विद्यते वरणं प्रति |
स्वयंवरः क्षत्रियाणामितीयं प्रथिता श्रुतिः ||६||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 189, Shloka 5,6

In this assembly of kings, which is like a conclave of the gods, can he not find a single king who is his equal? The sacred texts clearly say that a swayamvara is for Kshatriyas; Brahmanas have no right in the choice of a husband.

— Bibek Debroy

So far their frustration is understandable. But then soon manifests a story that shows how frustration can make someone ruthless and brutal in seventh shloka of chapter 180 of Adi Parva.

अथ वा यदि कन्येयं नेह कञ्चिद्बुभूषति |
अग्नावेनां परिक्षिप्य याम राष्ट्राणि पार्थिवाः ||७||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 180, Shloka 7

O kings! If this lady does not wish one of us as her husband, let us throw her into the fire and return to our kingdoms.

— Bibek Debroy

They wanted to burn Draupadi alive! Her fault? They failed at Swyamvara! But their rage still  made an exception in Shloka 8th and 9th of Adi Parva — 

ब्राह्मणो यदि वा बाल्याल्लोभाद्वा कृतवानिदम् |
विप्रियं पार्थिवेन्द्राणां नैष वध्यः कथञ्चन ||८||
ब्राह्मणार्थं हि नो राज्यं जीवितं च वसूनि च |
पुत्रपौत्रं च यच्चान्यदस्माकं विद्यते धनम् ||९||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 180, Shloka 8 & 9

Though that Brahmana has done injury to kings out of his impertinence and greed, he should not still be killed. After all, our kingdoms, lives, riches, sons, grandsons and all our other wealth exist for the sake of Brahmanas. But something must be done to prevent insult and to protect our own dharma, so that other svayamvaras do not end like this one.”

— Bibek Debroy

Why? Call it old mental conditioning that couldn’t bring them to kill a Brahmin outright. And few people who would stop reading right here might reach on a wrongful conclusion that the kings didn’t really fight to kill Arjuna. Wrongful because the battle had not started yet. Lets move further, and things will clarify itself.

Having determined their course of action as per their skewed understanding of Dharma, they rushed at Drupada with diverse weapons to kill him. The frightened Drupad sought protection from Bhima and Arjuna, who were disguised as Brahmana brothers. The two brothers advanced to repulse them. And here, forgetting their resolve of not to kill Brahmana —

Thereupon, all the kings, their fingers clad in armour and with their weapons raised, violently rushed towards the Kuru princes, Arjuna and Bhimasena. Maybe they violently tried to restrain them and not kill them. We shall see.

— Bibek Debroy

But first let us see an interesting narration in first four shlokas of chapter 181 of Adi Parva —

अजिनानि विधुन्वन्तः करकांश्च द्विजर्षभाः |
ऊचुस्तं भीर्न कर्तव्या वयं योत्स्यामहे परान् ||१||
तानेवं वदतो विप्रानर्जुनः प्रहसन्निव |
उवाच प्रेक्षका भूत्वा यूयं तिष्ठत पार्श्वतः ||२||
अहमेनानजिह्माग्रैः शतशो विकिरञ्शरैः |
वारयिष्यामि सङ्क्रुद्धान्मन्त्रैराशीविषानिव ||३||
इति तद्धनुरादाय शुल्कावाप्तं महारथः |
भ्रात्रा भीमेन सहितस्तस्थौ गिरिरिवाचलः ||४||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 181, Shloka 1-4

“Do not be frightened. We will fight with the enemies.” Arjuna smilingly told those Brahmanas, “Stand aside as spectators. I will repulse those kings, like poisonous snakes, with mantras, with showers of hundreds of sharp-pointed arrows.” Having said this, the maharatha took up the bow he had obtained as dowry and accompanied by his brother Bhima stood there like an immovable mountain.

— Bibek Debroy

We must note Arjuna, disguised as a Brahman, wasn’t carrying his own weapons of any sort, but protected his would be wife and her father using a bow he had just acquired and not well versed with it. Those acquainted with weapons or any device would know your best performance comes from a machine you have used rather than the new one.

At this point, they conveniently changed their definition of Dharma and make their intentions amply clear, that too before the battle started. 

ऊचुश्च वाचः परुषास्ते राजानो जिघांसवः |
आहवे हि द्विजस्यापि वधो दृष्टो युयुत्सतः ||६||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 181, Shloka 6

Eager to fight, those kings then said, “It is permissible to kill a Brahmana who is willing to fight.

— Bibek Debroy

This is an important point for those who may carry an erroneous opinion that the Kings didn’t want to kill Brahmans. They were determined to kill Brahmans, even before the battle started. Now no one can say, I spared him because he was a Brahmana. 

Want more proof? Read the next shloka.

The War Begun!

ततो वैकर्तनः कर्णो जगामार्जुनमोजसा |
युद्धार्थी वाशिताहेतोर्गजः प्रतिगजं यथा ||७||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 181, Shloka 7

Then the mighty Vaikartana Karna rushed at Arjuna, eager to fight, like an elephant rushes at a rival over a female elephant. Shalya, king of the Madras, rushed at Bhimasena.

— Bibek Debroy

Rival over a female elephant — Draupadi? What do you make out of it?

While Karna was engaged with Arjuna, and Shalya logged horns with Bhima, the other Kings had different targets  — other innocent Brahmanas. This is as per shloka 9th —

भीमसेनं ययौ शल्यो मद्राणामीश्वरो बली |
दुर्योधनादयस्त्वन्ये ब्राह्मणैः सह सङ्गताः ||८||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 181, Shloka 8

Duryodhana and the others rushed at the Brahmanas, but they fought with them lightly and carelessly.

— Bibek Debroy

Naturally, they fought lightly and carelessly. And why not? After they were fighting ordinary Brhamans who were caught unaware in a fight that was not theirs.  They may even have thought, what can those poor Brahmans do? after all, they weren’t really fighting either Bhima or Arjuna. So let us shift our attention to the major fights and find out how careless these fights were. 

Jump to shloka 9 and 10 of chapter 181, where the war begins — 

ततोऽर्जुनः प्रत्यविध्यदापतन्तं त्रिभिः शरैः |
कर्णं वैकर्तनं धीमान्विकृष्य बलवद्धनुः ||९||
तेषां शराणां वेगेन शितानां तिग्मतेजसाम् |
विमुह्यमानो राधेयो यत्नात्तमनुधावति ||१०||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 181, Shloka 9-10

‘Seeing Vaikartana Karna rush towards him, the wise Arjuna stretched his mighty bow and pierced him with three arrows. The impact of these sharp arrows stunned Radheya, and he approached with greater circumspection. Then those two invincible warriors fought violently, each eager to vanquish the other. Such was the speed that they became invisible.

— Bibek Debroy

Shloka says, Karna moved with difficulty towards Arjuna — यत्नात्तमनुधावति.  Not careless, not… not to kill. And the battle continued till the fourteenth shloka — 

अर्जुनेन प्रयुक्तांस्तान्बाणान्वेगवतस्तदा |
प्रतिहत्य ननादोच्चैः सैन्यास्तमभिपूजयन् ||१४||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 181, Shloka 14

Seeing the valour in Arjuna’s arms, unparalleled on earth, Vaikartana Karna fought even more vigorously. Repulsing Arjuna’s swift arrows, Karna shouted out aloud and the warriors applauded his feat.

— Bibek Debroy

Now Karna must be winning. Why else the warriors applauded his feat? What was Karna’s feat? He repulsed Arjuna’s arrows. He didn’t stun him, the way Arjuna had. Yet, warrior applauded him. Isn’t that natural? Say there is an India-Pakistan cricket match going on and India is winning. And at that point a Pakistani Batsman drives the ball to boundary. What do you think Pakistani team supporters would do? Applaud, right? For whom? Well, since you got the point, let’s not keep Karna waiting.

After such a great feat worth applauding, that is,  repulsing Arjuna’s arrows.

तुष्यामि ते विप्रमुख्य भुजवीर्यस्य संयुगे |
अविषादस्य चैवास्य शस्त्रास्त्रविनयस्य च ||१५||
किं त्वं साक्षाद्धनुर्वेदो रामो वा विप्रसत्तम |
अथ साक्षाद्धरिहयः साक्षाद्वा विष्णुरच्युतः ||१६||
आत्मप्रच्छादनार्थं वै बाहुवीर्यमुपाश्रितः |
विप्ररूपं विधायेदं ततो मां प्रतियुध्यसे ||१७||
न हि मामाहवे क्रुद्धमन्यः साक्षाच्छचीपतेः |
पुमान्योधयितुं शक्तः पाण्डवाद्वा किरीटिनः ||१८||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 181, Shloka 15-18

‘Karna said,

“O foremost among Brahmanas! I am pleased with the strength of your arms, which do not tire in battle, and with your persistent control over weapons. O supreme among Brahmanas! Are you Rama, the personification of the knowledge of weapons?  Or are you Harihaya (Indra) himself? Or are you Achyuta Vishnu himself? Have you assumed the form of a Brahmana to disguise yourself and are now fighting strongly with me for self-preservation, mustering the strength of your arms? When I am angry in the field of battle, no one except Shachi’s husband and Pandava Kiriti can withstand me.” 

— Adi parva, chapter 181, shlokas 15-18

Would a warrior ever compare another inferior adversary with the personification of the knowledge of weapons? With Parshurama? With Indra? With Vishnu?  I doubt, specifically when Karna has used quite abusive words later  in Kurukshetra after defeating Yudhishthir, Bhima, Nakula and Sahdeva. Again,  here he also acknowledges that Arjuna can withstand him anytime. 

Now Arjuna’s reply, too, is an interesting contrast in next two shloka — 

तमेवंवादिनं तत्र फल्गुनः प्रत्यभाषत |
नास्मि कर्ण धनुर्वेदो नास्मि रामः प्रतापवान् ||१९||
ब्राह्मणोऽस्मि युधां श्रेष्ठः सर्वशस्त्रभृतां वरः ||१९||
ब्राह्मे पौरंदरे चास्त्रे निष्ठितो गुरुशासनात् |
स्थितोऽस्म्यद्य रणे जेतुं त्वां वीराविचलो भव ||२०||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 181, Shloka 20-21

“O Karna! I am not the science of weapons personified. Nor am I the powerful Rama. I am only a Brahmana, chief among warriors and supreme among those who have the knowledge of weapons. Through my preceptor’s grace, I have become skilled in the use of brahma and paurandara weapons.”

— Bibek Debroy

He is humble and gives the credit of his skills to his guru’s grace.

Here few critics try to suggest that Arjuna’s suggestion that he is only a Brahamana is a lie to protect himself.

Now lie, it was. But the lie was to maintain the disguise against those who had tried to burn him with his mother and brothers alive. Arjuna couldn’t have forsaken his disguise before consulting his other brothers.

We must also see that the Brahamana disguise doesn’t offer him any protection. Kings were prepared to kill a Brahmana and Karna had attacked him knowing a Brahmana.

But if you still have any lingering doubt about this fact or the result of the battle, the last line of previous shloka should  clear all doubts.

Arjuna says — स्थितोऽस्म्यद्य रणे जेतुं त्वां वीराविचलो भव

 O warrior! Wait for a bit. I stand here today, to vanquish you in battle.” 

— Bibek Debroy, Adi Parva, Chapter 181, Shloka 20

Arjuna isn’t looking for a protection. He is ready to vanquish Karna in battle. So what was Karna’s reaction? Well, Shloka 21 mentions.

एवमुक्तस्तु राधेयो युद्धात्कर्णो न्यवर्तत |
ब्रह्मं तेजस्तदाजय्यं मन्यमानो महारथः ||२१||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 181, Shloka 21

At these words, Radheya Karna withdrew from the battle, because the maharatha thought that Brahmana strength was invincible.

— Bibek Debroy

But if you still feel, maybe Karna spared the Arjuna, be with me for a little more time. But first let’s move to the other battle of the day, one between Bhima and Shalya which concluded in shloka 24 — 

ततो भीमः समुत्क्षिप्य बाहुभ्यां शल्यमाहवे |
न्यवधीद्बलिनां श्रेष्ठो जहसुर्ब्राह्मणास्ततः ||२४||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 181, Shloka 24

Then the immensely powerful Bhima raised Shalya up with his arms and hurled him down on the ground. The Brahmanas began to laugh. Bhimasena, bull among men, surprised everyone. But though he hurled the powerful one on the ground, he did not kill him.

— Bibek Debroy

After the two epic battles were over, the conclusion mentioned in shloka 26-30 leaves no room for any doubt about who won Karna or Arjuna  — 

पातिते भीमसेनेन शल्ये कर्णे च शङ्किते |
शङ्किताः सर्वराजानः परिवव्रुर्वृकोदरम् ||२६||
ऊचुश्च सहितास्तत्र साध्विमे ब्राह्मणर्षभाः |
विज्ञायन्तां क्वजन्मानः क्वनिवासास्तथैव च ||२७||
को हि राधासुतं कर्मं शक्तो योधयितुं रणे |
अन्यत्र रामाद्द्रोणाद्वा कृपाद्वापि शरद्वतः ||२८||
कृष्णाद्वा देवकीपुत्रात्फल्गुनाद्वा परन्तपात् |
को वा दुर्योधनं शक्तः प्रतियोधयितुं रणे ||२९||
तथैव मद्रराजानं शल्यं बलवतां वरम् |
बलदेवादृते वीरात्पाण्डवाद्वा वृकोदरात् ||३०||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 181, Shloka 26-30

When Shalya was thus hurled down by Bhima and Karna scared away, all the other kings were frightened and surrounded Vrikodara. They said, “These bulls among Brahmanas are supreme. Let us find out in what lineage they were born and where they live. Who can fight with Radheya Karna in battle except Rama, Drona, Sharadvata Kripa, Devaki’s son Krishna and Phalguni, the scorcher of enemies?

— Bibek Debroy

Then they decided.

क्रियतामवहारोऽस्माद्युद्धाद्ब्राह्मणसंयुतात् |
अथैनानुपलभ्येह पुनर्योत्स्यामहे वयम् ||३१||

— Adi Parva, Chapter 181, Shloka 31

Therefore, let us desist from this fight against the Brahmanas. Let us find out who they are and then we will happily fight with them again.”

— Bibek Debroy

Let us take  a re-look at the highlights of this  battle once again — 

  1. First King didn’t want to kill Brahmans, Some even fought carelessly.
  2. But seeing Arjuna’s fight, they changed their stance and suggested —  “It is permissible to kill a Brahmana who is willing to fight.”
  3. Karna-Arjuna fought violently, each trying to vanquish other.
  4. Arjuna was fighting with a borrowed bow and not his own. Yet Arjuna stuns Karna and Karna finds it difficult to move forward.
  5. The best feat of Karna worth applauding was repulsing the swift arrows of Arjuna.
  6. Karna feels amazed at Arjunas, skills and felt compelled to compare him with Parshurma, Indra, Vishnu and personification of the knowledge of war.
  7. He admits Arjunas skill as one who could withstand him.
  8. Arjuna maintains his disguise — not out of fear but as part of their long strategy.
  9. He asks Karna to keep fighting. Arjuna was sure of his victory.
  10. Karna withdraws scared.
  11. Shalya and Duryodhana were vanquished by Bhima 
  12. Other kings desisted further fight, seeing Shalya hurled down and Karna scared away, and not sure about their identity desisted from fighting.

Thus completes the epic saga of Draupadi’s swaymavara. Stay tuned as we continue to discuss more Mahabharata story from the authentic sources and busting the myths on our way.

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References

  1. BORI Mahabharata, Adi Parva Chapter 179-181
  2. Mahabahrata Translation by Kisari Mohan Ganguli | Buy book here
  3. Gita Press Mahabharata
  4. BORI translation by Bibek Debroy Volume 1

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