Uday Shankar’s Untold Tales from the Mahabharata is a collection of period stories, written in a simple manner and interspersed with dialogue, which makes for an enjoyable read. Suite of excerpts adapted from the book
by Uday Shankar
Arjun and Duryodhan visit Krishna just before the war. The two men enter at the same time and keep a marble silence, avoiding eye contact. As Krishna rests, Arjun sits near his feet while the irrepressible Duryodhan takes a seat at the head of the bed, near the pillow. Krishna is in a deep sleep, blissfully oblivious to the presence of his visitors. After a while, he wakes up and his gaze falls on Arjun.
‘What brings you?’ asks Krishna.
Before Arjun can even respond, Duryodhan speaks up and says he was there before Arjun. Krishna just smiles, greets the cousins and asks them the reason for the unexpected visit.
While Arjun remains silent, Duryodhan speaks. ‘O Dwarkadhish, in a few days we will go to war with the Pandavas and I wanted a favor from you. I would like to requisition the services of your army – the Narayani Sena – in our fight against the enemy.
Krishna clarifies that he will not participate in the war as a fighter and that he will not use his weapons against either side. However, he obliges Duryodhan and reassures him that the Yadava army will fight alongside the Kauravas. After a visitor’s request is processed, Krishna turns to Arjun, who says:
“Vasudev, I don’t want your army and I don’t want you to fight alongside us. Your mere presence is enough for us. So I ask you to be my sarathy1 in the ensuing war. Krishna immediately agrees, and Duryodhan can barely suppress his smile as he comes out of the rooms, a relieved man.
In Kurukshetra, Arjun stands royally on top of his chariot driven by Krishna, facing the mighty Kauravas among whom are invincible warriors like Bhishma, Dronacharya, Kripacharya, Karna and Ashwathama. His chariot, Nandighosha, is no ordinary vehicle. Crafted of solid gold, the chariot is pulled by four horses – Saibya, Sugriva, Meghapushpa, and Balahaka. 2 Much like fire that knows no boundaries and spreads in all directions, the chariot is capable of moving anywhere. where in all three dimensions – Bhumi, Akash and Patal – and is a permanent fixture on the battlefield. Seasoned warriors are mesmerized at the sight of the chariot with its awe-inspiring aura and towering presence. How Arjun came to acquire the chariot is a story that has its roots deep in Khandav Van’s heart.
Krishna and Arjun roam the Khandav Van, located along the banks of the Yamuna River, admiring its vastness, which was teeming with flora and fauna. “It is certainly a place where the mind is at peace. The tranquility is overwhelming, so much so that if I had a choice, I would like to spend more time here making tapasya, ”Arjun told Krishna. Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of a sick man. Arjun, moved by the fate of the emaciated man, asks him the reason for his frail health. Man reveals himself as Agni, the god of fire.
“O Dhananjay, my stomach craves food, for it is in my nature to burn and consume. This Khandav Van is full of poisonous animals, birds and reptiles. I’ve been trying to feast on it for some time. Whenever I try to burn the forest down, Indra7 steps in and orders the clouds to open. As a result, the primordial floods extinguish 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 inquires.
“There are good reasons for his intervention,” Agni replies. Takshak, the serpent king, is a good friend of Indra and enjoys her 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 no small feat. He possesses an array of heavenly weapons and it would take me extraordinary effort to defeat him. However, don’t worry. I’ll help you. With Krishna by my side, I am confident that I can face him despite his power and his arsenal. ‘
“I agree with you that Indra is a formidable opponent, but my friend Varuna, the rain god, will help you and so will I,” Agni replies.
Agni then appeals to Varuna, who appears before Arjun and presents him with a divine bow and a quiver full of arrows. The bow is strong enough to withstand the speed with which Arjun releases his arrows. Known as Gandiva, the bow is destined to play an invaluable role in Kurukshetra’s looming 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 beautiful weapons by his side, Agni began to devour the Khandav Van. The news reaches Indra, who is furious at the affront. Using his thunderbolt, the Vajrayudha, the Lord of Heaven strikes the clouds and unleashes his anger in the form of torrential rain, which begins to pound the earth. The downpour is enough to flood all of Khandav Van, but Arjun is not discouraged. The sniper shoots several arrows in the sky, which come together in an “umbrella” formation. Acting like a roof suspended in the air, the arrows prevent rain from flooding the forest. Arjun has a counter for each arrow shot at him by Indra. With Indra’s strike nearly neutralized, Agni now has a free run and consumes the forest, satisfying his appetite. In the ensuing battle, Takshak’s wife is killed, while Takshak himself barely manages to escape with his son Ashwasena, who later swears to avenge his mother’s death and kill Arjun during the battle of Kurukshetra. Indra now runs out of options on how to counter Arjun’s attack. At that moment, a divine voice from heaven beckons to Indra.
“O Lord of the heavens! Krishna and Arjun are Nar and Narayan in human form. No matter how hard you try, you can’t beat this combination. ‘ Indra realizes his mistake and a truce is called.
Arjun’s chariot did well on its first test, long before the Kurukshetra War. But Krishna is well aware that his strength and caliber must be enhanced if he is to remain formidable and hold the course in the days to come. So he’s working on a plan to add more power to the rath.
Much later, Arjun undertakes a pilgrimage to Rameshwaram. After taking a bath in the sacred waters of Dhanushkodi, Arjun explores the tranquil surroundings and its breathtaking view. In doing so, its keen eyesight catches a meditating monkey from a distance. Curiosity wins and he approaches the primate. He notices that the monkey is sitting extraordinarily in a meditative pose, pronouncing the name “Ram” as if in a song. Somewhat puzzled, Arjun asks for his name.
“I am Hanuman, a humble servant of Ram. I participated in the construction of a bridge over the ocean with members of the Vanar8 army. On this same bridge which is made of stones, Ram walked on Lanka and defeated Ravan, ”Hanuman replies.
With arrogance written big on his face, Arjun asks, “Why didn’t Ram build a bridge with his arrows instead of using stones?”
“O Traveler,” Hanuman replies. – A bridge made of arrows would not have withstood the weight of the Vanar army. He would have collapsed. As such, stones were the only choice. As you can see, they have stood the test of time admirably.
“Listen, oh monkey. Age seems to have caught up with you. It is clear to me that your master Ram, whom you speak of so loudly, did not have the skills to build a strong bridge made of arrows. If I had been 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 support the weight of my left foot, let alone the army.” Bridge of arrows! Ha!’
The retaliation infuriates Arjun and he challenges Hanuman. “I am going to build an arrow bridge now and you will walk on it.” If it breaks, I’ll end my life jumping into a fire. Arjun deploys his astras9 and in a few minutes, an arrow bridge forms over the ocean. Hanuman takes flight, much to Arjun’s astonishment, and lands on the bridge, which quickly shatters into pieces and disappears into the ocean without a trace.
Shocked by this turn of events, distraught Arjun folds his hands in front of Hanuman, ‘O, Great Soul. You are certainly not an ordinary monkey! You seem to have divine powers. I humbly accept defeat. I keep my word and end my life. Saying this, Arjun shoots an arrow and releases it into the earth, producing fire. Just as he is about to jump in, Krishna appears in front of him.
‘Arjun, in my previous avatar I was Ram in Tretayug and Pavanputr Hanuman, my greatest devotee, served me with the greatest faith. He also played a key role in the fall of Lanka. He is a chiranjeevi10 and he also has a role to play in the Dwaparyug. You will certainly need His help and blessings to deal with whatever awaits you in the future. ‘
Arjun crosses his hands and asks Hanuman to be present on the flag of his chariot. Hanuman agrees. And so it was during the Kurukshetra War, the flag on Arjun’s chariot was imbued with the divine presence of Hanuman, to stop the impact of deadly weapons that Arjun would face. The flag thus became known as the Kapidhwaj.
While invisible to others, Hanuman assures Arjun that he will sit atop the chariot and seamlessly blend into the flag with his powers in Kurukshetra’s looming war. With the invincible Hanuman atop the chariot, Krishna ensures that the already formidable vehicle is further strengthened, giving Arjun a distinct advantage over his enemies and adversaries in the battle ahead.
Finally, the war ends. The base of the Kuru army is decimated. Great warriors like Bhishma, Dronacharya, Kripacharya and Karna have all fallen. There is no one left except Dhritarashtra and his wife Gandhari to mourn the loss of their hundred sons.
Krishna directs the chariot to a secluded place and asks Arjun to get off as quickly as possible. Arjun disembarks and stands at a distance. Then Krishna asks Hanuman to appear before him and leave the flag. As Hanuman emerges from the flag, a loud explosion reduces the tank to ashes.
A surprised Arjun asks Krishna, “Vasudev, how did this happen? This tank, which has survived such brutal assaults for so many years, has met such a fiery end! I do not understand.’
‘Arjun, during the war the Kauravas used a number of astras, one more powerful than the other. Sitting on top of the tank, Hanuman suffered the brunt of the attack and neutralized most of them. The celestial astras of Karna would have torn your armor; Hanuman made sure that no harm came to you or the chariot by stopping them. Once again, when Karna pointed the mortal Nagastra11 at you, the chariot under my feet sank a few inches into the earth and saved you from certain death. My presence as a charioteer brought stability to the rath and prevented it from falling more than once. In Hanuman’s absence, the power of the astras would have consumed the chariot long before its time.
Although Krishna, Pandavas and Kauravas are synonymous with the epic Mahabharata, Arjun’s chariot plays a decisive role in securing the victory of the Pandavas. The tank delivers on all fronts and in the end, the charred remains testify to the fact that the vehicle served the purpose for which it was created and admirably.
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