One day, Drona decided to test his students’ abilities. He placed an artificial bird high in a tree. Calling together all the princes, he said to each of them, “Take your bows and aim for the bird’s eye. One by one I shall call you forward to shoot.”
The first to be called was Yudhistira. When he had placed an arrow on his bow and aimed, Drona said, “O prince, tell me what you see.”
Yudhistira replied that he saw his brothers, Drona, the tree and the bird. Drona asked him again and again what he saw and each time received the same reply. Drona then reproached him and told him to stand down without firing his arrow. “You will not be able to hit the mark,” he said with annoyance.
Duryodhana was the next to be called. When he was ready to fire Drona asked him the same question. The prince replied as Yudhistira had replied, and again Drona told him to stand down. One by one the princes were called and each responded to Drona similarly and was not allowed to shoot at the bird.
Finally Arjuna was called. When he was prepared to shoot and was standing with his bow drawn in a semicircle, Drona said, “Tell me what you see. Can you see myself, your brothers and the tree?”
Arjuna replied, “I see only the bird. I cannot see you or my brothers, nor the tree.” Drona was pleased. He waited a moment and asked, “If you see the bird, then please describe it to me.”
Arjuna responded, “I see only the bird’s head. I cannot see its body.”
Drona felt his hair stand on end with delight. He said, “Shoot!”
Arjuna released his arrow and it struck the wooden bird in the eye, sending it tumbling to the ground. With tears of joy Drona embraced his disciple as Duryodhana and his brothers looked on in anger.
Some time after that Drona went with the princes to the Ganges to bathe. As he entered the water he was seized by a fierce crocodile. Although capable of freeing himself, Drona cried out, “O princes, quickly kill this beast and rescue me!”
The princes were confounded with sorrow at seeing their teacher held by the crocodile. They froze in fear––all except Arjuna. He instantly fired five arrows which struck the reptile under the water and cut it to pieces. Its mouth fell open and released Drona’s leg. Drona came to the river bank and took Arjuna aside. He said to him, “I wish to give you the greatest of weapons. Take from me the knowledge of the brahmästra, the irresistible missile endowed with Brahmä’s power. This weapon should only be used against supernatural foes, for if released against others it may destroy the very world.” Drona then told Arjuna that no one would ever become superior to him with a bow. He was now invincible.
Seeing that the princes had become expert in arms and warfare, Drona went to Dhritarashtra and said, “O King, your sons have completed their education. With your permission they may now display their proficiency. Let me therefore arrange an exhibition.”
On an auspicious day determined by the royal astrologers, the citizens entered the stadium eager to see the princes display their power. Bhisma and Vidura, leading Dhritarashtra by the arm, walked at the head of the procession. They were immediately followed by Drona and Kåpa, along with other members of the royal party Crowds of citizens of all four castes thronged into the stadium and marvelled at its beauty. When everyone was seated, Drona entered the arena with his son Ashvatthama. The noise of the crowd subsided as Drona entered.
The princes then entered the arena, headed by Yudhistira and striding like proud and mighty lions. They were clad in brilliant armors and equipped with every kind of weapon. Drona ordered them to show off their different skills. Beginning with Yudhistira, the princes stepped forward one by one. They mounted swift horses and rode them expertly, wheeling about the arena and hitting both still and moving targets with arrows engraved with their respective names.
Thousands of arrows sped in all directions, and some of the citizens ducked in fear. Others were fearless, their eyes wide with wonder. Sounds of “Excellent! Well done!” resounded through the stadium. The princes’ weaponry skills, horseback riding and chariot driving were breathtaking. After displaying all these skills, they pulled out their gleaming blue swords and rushed, shouting, at one another. They thrust and parried, adroitly dodging each others’ attacks. The people saw with delight the grace, speed and strength of all the princes.
Drona then had Bheema and Duryodhana step forward to display mace fighting. The two heroes glared at each other and bellowed like furious bulls. Holding aloft massive iron maces they circled, each with his gaze fixed on the other. As Vidura described the scene to Dhritarashtra, and Kunti to Gändhäré, the two princes aimed terrific blows at each other. Their maces collided with thunderous crashes, sending showers of sparks into the air.
The crowd became divided. Some supported Bheema while others supported Duryodhana. Shouts of “Behold the mighty Bheema!” and “Just see the powerful Duryodhana!” filled the stadium. Drona realized that the fight was becoming too earnest, and he also saw that the people were becoming too excited. He told his son to step between the roaring rivals and stop them. Ashvatthama obeyed his father and, moving quickly forward, managed to separate the two princes.
When Bheema and Duryodhana had stood down, still glaring at each other, Drona stepped into the middle of the arena. He stopped the musicians and spoke in a voice that resounded like thunder. “Behold now Arjuna’s abilities. He is dearer to me than my own son. This son of Indra is incomparable at every kind of martial skill.”
As Drona spoke Arjuna entered the arena. Clad in golden armor, with a large golden quiver of arrows on his back, the lustrous prince appeared like a cloud reflecting the rays of the evening sun and illumined by a rainbow and flashes of lightning. The invincible prince walked with the gait of a lion, and as he glanced about the arena, he terrified all those upon whom his eyes fell.
A cry of joy went up from the audience. People blew conches and played musical instruments. “This handsome youth is Kunti’s third son, and he is the best of all virtuous men and the most powerful,” some people said. “He is the son of the mighty Indra and the best protector of the Kuru race,” others added. All kinds of praises were heard from the crowd. Hearing these, Kunti felt milk flow from her breasts and, along with her tears, it drenched her bosom.
Dhritarashtra asked Vidura why the people were shouting so joyously. When Vidura told him that it was because Arjuna had appeared, Dhritarashtra said, “How blessed I am by Kunti’s three sons. They are like three sacrificial fires and Kunti is like the sacred fuel.”
But Dhritarashtra burned secretly within himself. Why had the people not cheered his own sons in this way? Was not Duryodhana Arjuna’s equal? If only he could see what was happening.
Vidura described the scene to the blind king. Arjuna displayed one celestial weapon after another. With the Ägneya weapon he produced fire; with the Varuëa weapon he produced volumes of water; with the Väyavya weapon he caused a great wind to blow; and with the Parjanya weapon he created a huge downpour of rain. Arjuna created land with the Bhouma weapon and with the Parvatya weapon he made a hill appear in the arena. Then, by invoking the antardhäna weapon, he made all those things disappear.
As the citizens gasped, the prince displayed all kinds of mystical powers. One moment he appeared as tall as a massive palm tree and in the next he became as small as a thumb. In an instant he went from standing on his chariot to standing on the ground a distance from his chariot. Drona had a mechanical iron boar run swiftly across the arena and Arjuna shot five arrows into its mouth as if they were one shaft. He shot twenty arrows into the hollow of a cow’s horn swinging on a rope around a pole. After showing his skill with a bow, Arjuna took out his sword and mace, demonstrating many dexterous moves with them both.
The exhibition was almost over. The music had stopped and the crowd’s excitement had cooled. Suddenly they heard at the stadium gate the sound of someone slapping his arms with great force and roaring like an enraged elephant. Obviously some hugely powerful man had arrived. The people looked around for the source of the sounds. “Are the mountains cracking asunder? Is the earth itself splitting apart?” Others thought that some jealous god had come there wishing to display his might.
Drona jumped up and stood surrounded by the five Pandavas, resembling the moon surrounded by bright stars. Duryodhana stood with his hundred brothers like Indra with the celestials. Everyone looked toward the gate. Coming toward them was a warrior who looked like the blazing sun. He had a brilliant coat-of-mail which was a natural part of his body, and was adorned with earrings that shone like fire. The earth resounded with his steps and he seemed like a moving hill. The crowd was motionless. They stared at the new arrival. Who was this?
The handsome youth strode straight up to Drona. He bowed somewhat indifferently at his feet, then offered his respects to Kåpa. Turning again to Drona, he spoke in a voice that could be heard in every part of the stadium. “I am Karna. With your permission, O Brahmin, I shall show skills equal to those of Arjuna. Indeed, I shall excel all the feats displayed by Kunti’s son. Watch them and be amazed.”
The crowd stood up together as if lifted by some instrument. They roared and cheered. Arjuna felt abashed and angry. He clenched and unclenched his fists, which were covered with iguana-skin finger protectors. His eyes seemed on fire as he glared at Karna.
Drona nodded his assent and Karna moved to the center of the arena. At once he began to show his skills. He matched every feat Arjuna had displayed and the crowd shouted their approval. When he had finished, Duryodhana went over and warmly embraced him. Here was someone who could stand against that haughty Arjuna. The Pandava prince had been the center of attention for too long. Here was his equal. Duryodhana laughingly said to Karna, “You are welcome, O mighty hero. By good fortune you have come here today. Tell me, what can I do for your pleasure? I and the Kuru kingdom are at your command.”
Duryodhana had seen Arjuna’s anger. He smiled at the Pandava as Karna replied, “By your words I already consider my desire fulfilled. I only wish for your undying friendship. But I have one request: please allow me to engage in single combat with Arjuna.”
Arjuna stiffened and grasped his bow. The minute he had seen the obviously arrogant Karna he had felt an intense rivalry. Maybe he would get the chance to end it immediately.
Duryodhana laughed. “Enjoy with me the good things of life, O hero,” he replied. “Together we shall reside in happiness.”
Arjuna had heard enough. He interrupted Duryodhana in a thunderous voice. “O Karna, the path belonging to the unwelcome intruder or the uninvited speaker shall now be yours.”
Karna smoldered like a glowing ember. “O Pärtha, this arena is not meant for you alone. It is open to all heroes, including those superior to you. Why do you argue with words alone? Those who are strong do not waste words. Speak with your arrows and I shall sever your head before your guru’s eyes.”
Arjuna turned to Drona who nodded slightly. Fixing his gaze on Karna, the Pandava advanced for combat. Duryodhana embraced Karna who went before Arjuna, his weapons at the ready. Suddenly the sky was filled with heavy clouds and bright flashes of lightning. Indra’s great rainbow appeared overhead. The clouds above Karna, however, dispersed, and the sun shone brightly, lighting up his form. Dhritarashtra’s sons stood behind Karna, while Drona, Kåpa and Bhisma stood behind Arjuna.
In the terraces the crowd became divided. The royal ladies also could not choose between the two heroes. As they faced each other, Kunti was filled with horror and fainted. Vidura was surprised to see this and raised her gently, sprinkling her face with cool water. He asked her what was wrong, but Kunti said nothing. She sat holding her head. How could she tell anyone the secret she had kept hidden for so long? Seized by fear she looked at the arena and, feeling helpless, prayed silently.
Just as the two warriors were about to duel, Kåpa, who knew all the rules of combat, stepped forward and asked, “This son of Päëòu is the child of Kunti and a descendent of the royal Kuru race. Let us hear from his opponent what is his lineage and race. Once he knows this, Pärtha may decide whether or not to fight.” Kåpa looked at Karna. Duels were fought only among equals.
Karna blushed and said nothing. It was clear that he was not from a royal line. Seeing his discomfiture, Duryodhana spoke out. “Nobility does not depend only upon birth. Those who are heroes and leaders of soldiers may also claim nobility, even if not born in royal lines. But if Arjuna will duel only with another king, then I shall immediately give Karna a kingdom.”
Without delay Duryodhana arranged for a ceremony right there in the arena. He sent someone to fetch sanctified water and sprinkled it upon Karna’s head. “You shall become the king of Aìga.” The crowd cheered as Brahmins chanted the appropriate mantras and offered Karna rice, flowers and holy water. Karna sat upon a golden seat and was fanned with yak-tail whisks. He was deeply moved by Duryodhana’s gesture of friendship and said in a choked voice, “What can I ever do to repay you, O King? I shall always be at your command.”
Duryodhana replied, “Your friendship alone is all that I desire.”
The two men embraced each other, and the citizens became even more excited. Then, just as the duel between Karna and Arjuna seemed about to commence, another man suddenly ran into the arena. He was trembling with age and supported himself on a staff. Perspiring and with his cloth hanging loosely from his body, he moved quickly toward Karna. At once Karna got down from his seat and placed his head, still wet from the coronation, at the man’s feet. He stood up and said to the inquisitive Duryodhana, “This is my father, Adhiratha.”
Adhiratha had been present in the crowd and wanted to congratulate his son upon his coronation. He was a charioteer and was instantly recognized as such by both his dress and his name. He embraced his son tightly and shed tears of happiness.
Seeing all this Bheema jeered, “O son of a charioteer, you do not deserve death at Arjuna’s hands. You had best take up the whip and guide a chariot. Indeed, you no more deserve the kingship of Aìga than a dog deserves the sacrificial offerings of ghee meant for the gods.”
Karna looked down in embarrassment. Duryodhana rose up in anger from the midst of his brothers, like an infuriated elephant rising out of a lake full of lotuses. “O Bheema, you should not speak such words. How can someone like this be of inferior birth. A hero’s first quality is his strength and prowess. We have all seen Karna’s power today.”
Duryodhana then named different gods and heroes whose births had been unusual. Drona himself was said to be born from a pot, Kåpa from a piece of heath and the great god Kärttikeya from a clump of reeds. Even the Pandavas’ birth was mysterious. “Can a deer bring forth a lion? Look at this man, his natural coat of armor and his marks of auspiciousness. I do not consider him to be a charioteer at all.”
Duryodhana gazed defiantly at the Pandavas. “If anyone dislikes my having crowned Karna, then let him step forward and bend his bow in combat.”
The crowd was roused by Duryodhana’s heroic speech. They cheered and sat expectantly. Now there would surely be a great duel between two mighty heroes. But during Duryodhana’s speech the sun had set. The dispute would have to be settled another day. Duryodhana took Karna by the hand and led him out of the arena, which was now lit by countless lamps. The Pandavas also left, along with Drona, Kåpa and Bhisma. Then the citizens returned to their homes. Some of them named Arjuna and some Karna, while others pointed to Duryodhana, as the victor of the day.
[Adopted from Mahabharata – by HG Krishna Dharma Prabhu]