I’m back! I kept thinking I had already finished this, and I think that is just because I already wrote my Karna post, and like Duryodhana, I felt like once he died, why go on?
The Mahabharat is a very very long and complex narrative. And it ends with a very long and complex war. The war lasted 18 days. Each day is described in great detail, as the heroes on both sides confronted each other. There is a build to the battle, as the smaller heroes, and older heroes, are slowly defeated, the confrontation between Karna and Arjun comes closer and closer. Once Arjun defeats Karna, the war is over. It goes on for one more day, but the spirit of the Kauravas’ was broken.
There is also a build towards Karna being given the status he deserves. While Dhrishtadyumna, Draupadi’s brother, is the commander of the Pandava side, the Kaurava side goes through multiple commanders. Starting with Bhishma, who refused to allow Karna to fight out of prejudice against Karna’s perceived low-caste origins. After Bhishma was defeated, Karna was allowed to fight but still not made the supreme commander until the 16th day.
During those 18 days, the laws of warfare became less and less important as well, again building to the defeat of Karna by Arjun. The unspoken meaning is that, by fair means, neither could ever defeat the other. Or perhaps, Karna would be triumphant over Arjun. There could only be a winner in a battle between them once Arjun had learned to disregard the rules of battle. But then, he would only learn that lesson when his enemies did it first.
That’s how these debates always happen, who broke the rules first? But once the rule is broken, somehow no one knows how to put it back together, and it just stays broken. For Arjun, what broke him was the death of his son, Abhimanyu.
Abhimanyu was the son of Arjun and Subhadra (Krishna’s sister). He was the most beloved and talented of all of the Pandavas children. Draupadi was said to love him more than her own children. He was one of the few of this second generation to have his own adventures and achievements before the battle of Kurukshetra itself. According to some versions, during that final year while his father was in disguise in hiding, he traveled looking for him. He found him in the court of Virat, and secretly fell in love with the princess Uttara. When the Kauravas arranged a proxy war with Virat, Abhimanyu lead the forces that protected the kingdom. And then was married to Uttara.
At the time of the Kurukshetra war, Abhimanyu was only 16. Just married, just on the brink of adulthood and grand deeds and a great life. And then he died.
There is a logic for it, one that the narrative gives, Abhimanyu was the son of the moon God who loved him so much, he agreed to send him to earth but only for 16 years and then he wanted him back. It’s the same logic grieving parents have used all over the world and all through time, “my child is so wonderful, God most have wanted him/her back”. It gives some kind of reason for this terrible thing, and some hope that there is something out there that is taking care of your child, and loves it as much as you did. But it doesn’t make the pain of losing your child any less in the moment that it happens.
Abhimanyu stands in for all those young men who die in wars, who die too young. During the battle, the Kauravas launched an attack in the Chakravyuha formation. Abhimanyu was confident he could break it. His father, Arjun, was the only other person who knew the secret, but Arjun was fighting far away in a corner of the battlefield and not able to help. Abhimanyu begged to be allowed to go in, to fight as he knew he could. His uncles, who were also his commanding officers, reluctantly agreed. But they would go with him, to support him and protect him. Arjun rushed into the Chakravyuha and was able to enter it, as he thought. But he was separated from his uncles, they were surrounded and cut off from him. He fought bravely but only then, once he was inside, did he realize he didn’t know the way out. He had the knowledge, but it was only half knowledge. He fought on, because there was nothing else to do. His lost his weapons, but they kept attacking him (breaking the rules of warfare). He grabbed up a chariot wheel to defend himself, and was pierced by many arrows. Finally, he found a mace from a fallen enemy and kept fighting. And then he was knocked unconscious, exhausted. And then hit in the back of the head, and killed.
This is what war is, these young men with only half knowledge of the world rushing into danger they do not understand until they are trapped within it. And the older man around them, their commanding officers, cannot truly protect them. Instead, they are left to mourn, to carry the burden of having sent the best and the brightest, the hope for the future, into something they cannot survive. Arjun was grief-stricken after the death of Abhimanyu. He fought and fought the next day, like a demon, for vengeance. And when he faced Karna 4 days later, Karna turned away to fix a chariot wheel and Krishna reminded him of the death of Abhimanyu and told him to attack then, kill Karna as Karna had helped kill his son.
Abhimanyu was an innocent, drawn into the fight of his elders. And there were other innocents on the side of this war. Gandhari, the great mother, who had 100 sons and saw them all die. Gandhari has a terrible life. As a young woman, she is married off to a blind man and then blindfolds herself, either as a gesture of devotion to her husband or as a gesture of passive rebellion (depending on how you interpret it). She was promised that, although she may have a blind husband, at least she will have many sons. But for years after marriage, no sons appear. She becomes pregnant, but the pregnancy does not end, it just goes on and on. She learns that Kunti, her sister-in-law, has given birth and in anger she pounds on her stomach and gives birth to a grey mass. She is heartbroken again, but her wise man takes it and divides it into 100 pots, which eventually grow and give birth to her many many children.
Gandhari loved her children, but she also loved their cousins the Pandavas. She was farsighted enough not to try to find blame on either side, her blessing to her sons before battle was “may the side of righteousness win”. But she could still grieve. Once she learned that, in one day, all of her sons were killed, she peaked through her blindfold and her gaze fell on Yudhishtra’s (her Pandava nephew who brought her the news) toe. Her grief and anger turned his toe black.
And yet, when she learned that the Pandavas had also lost all their sons in battle, she embraced and comforted them. 15 years after the battle, Gandhari left with Kunti to wander and seek absolution. She did not blame Kunti or the Pandavas for what occurred, and she was willing to take her own responsibility for blinding herself (literally) to what her son was doing.
Gandhari was blind, but she could see more clearly than anyone else. She restrained her anger until she confronted Krishna. Everyone else believed in the war as inevitable, about the inheritance dispute between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, about their personality conflicts. But Gandhari saw that nothing is inevitable, that there is always the moment when things can change.
Krishna is the one who can see the possibilities, the multiple endings for this story. He chooses who wins and who loses, he chooses when to start the battle, and he makes everyone else think it was their choice. But not Gandhari. She loses her 100 sons, and then she asks to see Krishna. And she faces him and curses him, curses him that he will see the death of all his family as punishment for what he did to her family. And Krishna accepts her curse.
It is the triumph of the passive character. All along Krishna has been positioning others to take the actions he wishes them to take. And Gandhari has been sitting back and refusing to join in the actions, refusing to take a side. But she is the only one to see the bigger picture, her eyes are closed and so she can see.
That’s how I think of the Mahabharat battle. A 16 year old boy who rushes in without knowing the way out and dies. And an old woman who silently watches all her children die, and then turns and curses the one man responsible and makes him feel shame for what he did. Krishna, God on Earth, who is defeated by a grieving mother.
And then the battle is over, and it is time to look at what happens after.