New Books: Arjun’s Chariot

 Untold Tales from the Mahabharata by Uday Shankar is a collection of period stories, written in simple and peppered with dialogues, thereby making this an enjoyable read. Following exceprts adapoted from the book 

by Uday Shankar

Arjun and Duryodhan pay a visit to Krishna just before the war. Both men enter at the same time and maintain a stony silence, avoiding eye contact. As Krishna is resting, Arjun sits near his feet while the irrepressible Duryodhan takes a seat at the head of the bed, near the pillow. Krishna is in deep slumber, blissfully unaware of the presence of his visitors. After some time, he wakes up, and his gaze falls on Arjun.

‘What brings you here?’ asks Krishna.

Even before Arjun can answer, Duryodhan speaks up and says that he was there before Arjun. Krishna just smiles, greets the cousins and asks them the reason for the unannounced visit.

While Arjun remains silent, Duryodhan speaks up. ‘O Dwarkadhish, in a few days, we will go to war against the Pandavas and I wanted a favour from you. I would like to requisition the services of your army – the Narayani Sena – in our fight against the enemy.’

Krishna makes it clear that he would not be participating in the war as a combatant nor will he use his weapons against either party. However, he obliges Duryodhan and reassures him that the Yadava army will fight alongside the Kauravas. With one visitor’s request dealt with, Krishna turns to Arjun, who says:

‘Vasudev, I neither want your army nor do I want you to fight on our side. Your very presence is enough for us. So I request you to be my sarathy1 in the ensuing war.’ Krishna agrees immediately, and Duryodhan can hardly suppress his smile as he walks out of the chambers, a relieved man.

At Kurukshetra, Arjun stands regally atop his chariot driven by Krishna, facing the mighty Kauravas amongst whose ranks are invincible warriors like Bhishma, Dronacharya, Kripacharya, Karna and Ashwathama. His chariot, Nandighosha, is no ordinary vehicle. Made of solid gold, the chariot is drawn by four horses – Saibya, Sugriva, Meghapushpa and Balahaka.2 Much like the fire which knows no boundaries and spreads in all directions, the chariot is capable of moving anywhere across the three dimensions – Bhumi,Akash and Patal – and is a permanent fixture on the battlefield. Seasoned warriors are transfixed at the sight of the chariot with its awesome aura and  commanding presence. How Arjun came to acquire the chariot is a story that has its origins deep in the heart of Khandav Van.

Krishna and Arjun are wandering through the Khandav Van, situated along the banks of the Yamuna river, looking in awe upon its sheer vastness, which was teeming with flora and fauna. ‘This certainly is a place where the mind is at peace. The tranquillity is irresistible, so much so that given a choice, I would like to spend more time here doing tapasya,’ Arjun tells Krishna. Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of a sickly looking man. Arjun, moved by the plight of the emaciated man, asks him the reason for his frail health. The man reveals himself as Agni, the god of fire.

‘O Dhananjay, my stomach is yearning for food, as it is in my nature to burn and consume. This Khandav Van is full of animals, birds and venomous reptiles. I have been trying to feast on them for quite some time. Every time I try to burn the forest, Indra7 intervenes and orders the clouds to open up. As a result, primordial floods douse the flames, leaving me hungrier than ever. You must help me Arjun, as I am sinking with little or no signs of recovery.’

‘Why is Indra doing this?’ Arjun enquires.

‘There is good enough reason for his intervention,’ Agni responds. Takshak, the serpent king, is a good friend of Indra’s and enjoys his protection. He has made the forest his home and refuses to leave.

Arjun reassures him. ‘O Agnidev. You ask for my help but fighting Indra is not a trifling matter. He has an array of celestial weapons and it would take an extraordinary effort on my part to defeat him. However, do not worry. I will help you. With Krishna by my side, I am confident of facing him despite his power and arsenal.’

‘I agree with you that Indra is a fearsome adversary but my friend Varuna, the god of rain, will help you, as will I,’ Agni replies.

Agni then calls upon Varuna, who appears before Arjun and presents him with a divine bow along with a quiver full of arrows. The bow is strong enough to withstand the speed with which Arjun releases his arrows. Known as the Gandiva, the bow is destined to play an invaluable role in the impending Kurukshetra war. Finally, Agni presents Arjun with an incandescent chariot, Nandighosha, which is destined to play a stellar role in the Kurukshetra war.

With Krishna and Arjun armed with such fine weaponry by his side, Agni began to devour the Khandav Van. Word reaches Indra, who is livid at the affront. Using his thunderbolt, the Vajrayudha, the lord of the heavens strikes the clouds and unleashes his wrath in the form of torrential rain, which begins to pound the earth. The downpour is enough to inundate the entire Khandav Van but Arjun is undeterred. The skilled marksman shoots several arrows into the sky, which come together in an ‘umbrella’ formation. Acting as a roof suspended in mid-air, the arrows prevent the rain from flooding the forest. Arjun has a counter for every arrow shot at him by Indra. With Indra’s strike almost neutralised, Agni now has a free run and consumes the forest, thus satisfying his appetite. In the ensuing battle, Takshak’s wife is killed, while Takshak himself barely manages to escape along with his son Ashwasena, who later vows to avenge his mother’s death and kill Arjun in the battle of Kurukshetra. Indra is now running out of choices on how to counter Arjun’s attack. Just then, a divine voice from the heavens beckons Indra.

‘O Lord of the Heavens! Krishna and Arjun are Nar and Narayan in human form. However hard you may try, you cannot defeat this combination.’ Indra realises his mistake and a truce is called.

Arjun’s chariot has acquitted itself well in its maiden test, long before the Kurukshetra war. But Krishna is well aware that its strength and calibre needs to be reinforced if it has to stay formidable and last the course in the days to come. So he works on a plan to add more power to the rath.

Much later, Arjun sets out on a pilgrimage to Rameshwaram. After having a bath in the sacred waters of Dhanushkodi, Arjun explores the tranquil surroundings and its breathtaking view. As he is doing so, his keen sight picks up a monkey meditating at a distance. Curiosity gets the better of him and he approaches the primate. He notices that the monkey is extraordinarily seated in a meditative pose, uttering the name ‘Ram’ as though in a chant. Somewhat bemused, Arjun asks his name.

‘I am Hanuman, a humble servant of Ram. I was involved in building a bridge across the ocean along with members of the Vanar8 army. On this very bridge which is made of stones, Ram marched to Lanka and vanquished Ravan,’ replies Hanuman.

Arrogance writ large on his face, Arjun asks, ‘Why didn’t Ram build a bridge with his arrows instead of using stones?’

‘O Traveller,’ replies Hanuman. ‘A bridge made of arrows wouldn’t have withstood the weight of the Vanar army. It would have caved in. As such, stones were the only choice. As you can see, they have admirably passed the test of time.’

‘Listen, O Monkey. Age seems to have caught up with you. It is clear to me that your master Ram, about whom you talk so highly, did not have the necessary skills to build a sturdy bridge made of arrows. If I was there, I would have built a bridge in no time – and it would have been strong enough to carry the entire army.’

Hanuman laughs derisively. ‘I can tell you sitting here that the bridge of arrows you are talking about cannot bear the weight of my left foot, let alone the army. Arrow bridge! Ha!’

The riposte infuriates Arjun and he challenges Hanuman. ‘I will build an arrow bridge right now and you walk on it. If it breaks, I will end my life by jumping into a fire.’ Arjun deploys his astras9 and in a matter of minutes, an arrow bridge is formed over the ocean. Hanuman takes flight, much to Arjun’s astonishment, and lands on the bridge, which promptly breaks into pieces and disappears into the ocean without a trace.

Shocked at the turn of events, the distraught Arjun folds his hands before Hanuman, ‘O, Great Soul. You are certainly no ordinary monkey! You seem to have divine powers. I humbly accept defeat. I keep my word to you and end my life.’ Saying this, Arjun draws out an arrow and releases it into the earth, producing fire. Just as he is about to jump into it, Krishna appears before him.

‘Arjun, in my previous avatar, I was Ram in Tretayug and Pavanputr Hanuman, my foremost devotee, served me with utmost faith. He also played a key role in the fall of Lanka. He is a chiranjeevi10 and has a role to play in the Dwaparyug as well. You will certainly need his help and his blessings in facing all that awaits you in the future.’

Arjun folds his hands and requests Hanuman to be present on the flag of his chariot. Hanuman agrees. And so it was that during the Kurukshetra war, the flag on Arjun’s chariot was imbued with Hanuman’s divine presence, to stop the impact of the lethal weapons Arjun would face. The flag thus came to be known as the Kapidhwaj.

Though invisible to others, Hanuman assures Arjun that he will sit on top of the chariot and seamlessly merge into the flag along with his powers in the impending war of Kurukshetra. With the invincible Hanuman on top of the chariot, Krishna ensures that the already formidable vehicle is further reinforced, giving Arjun a distinct advantage over his enemies and opponents in the battle to follow.

Finally, the war comes to an end. The rank and file of the Kuru army is decimated. Great warriors like Bhishma, Dronacharya, Kripacharya and Karna have all fallen. There is nobody left except Dhritarashtra and his wife Gandhari to bemoan the loss of their hundred sons.

Krishna steers the chariot to a secluded place and asks Arjun to get down as quickly as possible. Arjun disembarks and stands at a distance. Then Krishna requests Hanuman to appear before him and leave the flag. The moment Hanuman disengages himself from the flag, a loud explosion reduces the chariot to ashes.

A startled Arjun asks Krishna, ‘Vasudev, how did this happen? This chariot, which survived such brutal assaults over so many years, has met such a fiery end! I don’t understand.’

‘Arjun, during the war,the Kauravas used a number of astras, one more powerful than the other. Sitting on top of the chariot, Hanuman took the brunt of the attack and neutralised most of them. Karna’s celestial astras would have ripped through your armour; Hanuman saw to it that no harm would come to you or the chariot by stopping them. Again, when Karna aimed the deadly Nagastra11 at you, the chariot under my feet sank a few inches into the earth and saved you from certain death. My presence as the charioteer lent stability to the rath and prevented it from falling on more than one occasion. In the absence of Hanuman, the power of the astras would have consumed the chariot long before its time.’

Though Krishna, Pandavas and Kauravas are synonymous with the Mahabharata epic, Arjun’s chariot plays a decisive role in ensuring victory for the Pandavas. The chariot delivers on all fronts and in the end, the charred remains bear testimony to the fact that the vehicle fulfilled the purpose for which it was created and admirably so. 

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Copyright © Uday Shankar HC

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