Chapter fourteen from 'The Legs of the Tortoise' written by Maggi Lidchi-Grassi; published by Writer's Workshop.
Fifteenth day of the War of Kurukshetra; a glimpse of an epic commonly known as Mahabharata today. (Through the eyes of Arjuna)
had not long to wait for Ashwatthama's answer. We were moving out in our
formations when the animals started breaking line. There was a restlessness in
all of us. At first I thought it was the nerves of utter weariness or just the
turmoil that Kuta warfare brings about. Gold and ivory goads kept flashing in
the sun; gajarohas had to use their toe spurs to keep the elephants from
veering. Birds of prey began to pass us on the left. The sacrificial fire had
gone out this morning, but there was no need of omens to tell me that the world
had gone awry. Even Krishna(who
volunteered as Arjuna's charioteer)had
his work cut to keep the horses' heads turned to the enemy. A pack of jackals
ran past us. Our fighting in the night had deprived them of their prey. Krishna
used his whip. They ran away. I wondered whether it was a dream such as may
rise when you have had no sleep.
I feel that I am dreaming, that we are in a nightmare." He did not turn is
head. He did not answer. The feeling of the nightmare grew. There was a
numbness in my fingers which I had never felt when I held Gandiva(Arjuna's bow) There was
loathing of the jackals and the rats that scampered past. I shall wake up, I
thought, and find myself inside my tent with Krishna laughing at my side. I
willed myself to wake but only made the dream grow worse. A dimness fell upon
the air, twilight at midday. Sahadeva had not warned of an eclipse. The sky
darkened into blackness. This was the worst omen of all. I searched for a
shloka for averting evil. I could remember nothing. Krishna turned his head at
last and the grimness of his face froze me completely.
the men can understand . . ." His words were carried off by whistling
winds that blew dust in my eyes. His face had told me nothing would avail.
I shouted, "What is happening?" The chariot rocked and lurched. I grabbed the standard mast, I who had no use for it in Indra's chariot. "The earth is trembling," I shouted. Just then it heaved as though an elephant rose under it, and I fell sprawling. All around us horses bolted, scraping past us or colliding to fall with broken legs. Dreadful cries came from their lacerated chests. Wheel hubs spun off and axles snapped, as chariots hurled into each other. Krishna gave our horses their heads so that the stream of elephants would not trample us. There was no choice. We raced along like waves borne by the tide. The animals and elements had taken over. There was no room for mind and reason. We galloped into darkness with the howling of the wind and of the men, rising together. Was the sun, at last, protesting? Above the howling Krishna shouted. I could not hear him and holding to the standard mast I leaned as far forward as he leant back. He shouted once again and louder but still I could not hear. The earth had turned into a stormy sea. My stomach rose and settled, rose and settled. I saw the word that Krishna's lips were forming:
"Narayanastra, Naraaaayanastra." Krishna's face had told me that no one knew the mantras nor the counter-astra, so I saved my breath; there was little enough of it. I tried to climb up beside Krishna. The elephant that moved the earth fell to its knees and we keeled over. My head had hit the chariot hood against the crest of gold. And if it had not stopped me I would have fallen out just as our horses ran into another cloud of darkness. "Hold faaaaast," I heard from Krishna. And then with joltings and with grinding and with crashing the horses slowed but swerved and turned around, a tide drawn by a crazy moon. They galloped back faster than they had galloped forward. The rivers had begun to turn in their directions.
Krishna looked behind us and as he did I felt great heat as though the sun itself shrouded in black had come towards us. I turned my head and saw a glow.
"Surrender. We must surrender to the astra." Krishna made me take the reins. "When I say so, stop the horses." He jumped onto my seat and blew his Panchajanya (Krishna's conch). Over and over again he blew it until it split the darkness. The heat was growing fiercer and when I looked I saw that there were discs like many golden chakras slowly spinning at us, slowly, slowly spinning.
"Surrender. Surrender. Throw down your arms. Offer yourselves to Vishnu. Prostrate before him," Krishna's voice became enormous. The word spread quickly. Every tongue beat words against its palate.
no resistance !"
your arms down !"
!" Nakula behind us jumped down from his chariot and stretched full length
upon the ground. Horses swerved to right and left of him. Seeing this Satyaki
did the same, his head protected by his hands.
your hands away !" bellowed Krishna. "Surrender everything. Be
fearless. Do not protect yourselves. Vishnu's astra is our blessing."
your hearts to it. Surrender fear." I could hear the voice of Sahadeva.
! Surrender !"
pushed me off the chariot and as I fell I saw the discs accelerating, you could
hear their whisper slicing the commotion. Where the men tried to escape they
dipped and made great screaming torches of them. They passed over the bodies of
the prone. These entities like golden locusts covered the horizon. They came
dipping, dipping, soundlessly and now the cry went up from ten thousand
down your arms! Surrender! It is Lord Vishnu. It is the Lord himself." The
voices became glad, hope stole into us, a joyful chorus murmured mantras of
Namo Bhagvate Naraayanaaya . . .
Namo Bhagvate Naraayanaaya . . .
bow down to you, my Lord;
bow down to you, my Lord."
our whole remaining army lay prone upon the earth, arms stretched before, palms
joined, chanting praises of Lord Vishnu's lotus feet and hands. His thousand
faces slowly lifted and spun into the sky. As they passed over us we felt no
fire, only a soothing warmth, a gentle breeze, both at a time; a blessing that
stole the stiffness from our souls and bodies.
learnt that day what no weapons teacher tells you. The ultimate weapon is
surrender. It is love.
Krishna stood upon the battlefield, his hands shading his eyes. He looked to
where a flight of discs began to dip and blaze. There was a lone and wildly
dancing figure waving arms and shouting. It was Bheema. Krishna started running
and without thinking I ran too.
will not bow to you," Bheema shouted at the discs and shook his fists. I
began to feel the heat again. Bheema glowed and bellowed. I jumped on him and
threw him down. He was burning like a furnace. Still he shouted, "I put my
foot upon your head, Ashwatthama ! I put my foot . . ." I ground his head
down. He spat out grit, "I put my foot . . ." I sat upon his head.
His mouth was open like that of a hippopotamus and full of sand. In desperation
I stuck my foot in it and felt his teeth.
shouted, "Eldest needs you." I felt the muscles tense and then go
limp. "Chant Lord Vishnu's mantra." I looked up at the sky. The discs
were hovering, poised. I surrendered Bheema, I surrendered everything.
Namo Bhagvate Naraayanaaya . . .
Namo Bhagvate Naraayanaaya . . .
There was fragrance in the air that wiped out the stench of fifteen days of death. Death showed its secret face to us. It glowed with love. We saw a promise of creation. This thing (Narayanastra- A celestial weapon invocated from the Kaurava's side by Ashwatthama towards the Pandavas) that had been sent to shrivel us gave life, new faith, new hope. From the corner of my eye I saw the metal of the chariots curled like withered leaves. I looked down at my arms but they were whole.
Narayana is life. Narayana is life disguised in astras. He is the only healer. Everything is Narayana. Bow down to Narayana. I felt a heaving. Bheema must be weeping. I took my weight off him. He laughed with wonder.
I had seen Krishna once again. I stretched myself in full prostration to him. The mind was stilled, the heart was glowing. That evening when the mind came back I mused:
"You spoke of action once as though it were the greatest good. Today surrender saved us. Had we surrendered long ago would there have been no war?"
"No. You saw it for yourself. Because Greatfather's formidable surrender was to a dying dharma."
"What of Eldest's surrender at the dice game?"
"Surrender to a dying dharma only feeds a dying dharma. It is not surrender to the Absolute." And then he looked at me and closed his eyes and smiled.
"Discrimination. I said discrimination, Arjuna. That is the most important thing. It is the only thing."
I have often thought of Krishna's words and what they meant and how our conversation ended in the first starlight. I knew discrimination was a thing I did not have.
"That is one reason, Krishna, for us to stay together always. You are my discrimination."
Men cannot live in truth for very long. Our sense of wonder fades like stars and moon by day. The knowledge that I did not have discrimination, brought me closer to its edge than I had ever been before. Discrimination is an astra that surrenders doubt; it is the arrow's head that sunders darkness. "Krishna, when this dark war is over . . . that has brought me so much light, you must let me be your charioteer. I do not want to part from you."
"We still have time together," Krishna said, "before the Lord of Time may scatter us across this earth."
"Your words are like a knife," I said.
"That is because, as you have truly confessed, you have not discrimination." When Krishna saw he could not make me smile he sat up sharply and took me by the shoulders half rocking, half shaking me in that way he had. He said, "To be without discrimination is one thing, to be without a memory as well is worse. How many times have I told you who we are. We are Nara and Narayana; we are the indissoluble." It was true that he had told me. We were sitting on a carpet woven of silk and silver threads. I still remember its design of trees and deer and birds, just discernible in the starlight, "We came to do something together and we are doing it. The rest is like this," he pointed to the silver thread. "It is not essential. Yes, I am your discrimination. You are my chakra. I told you on the first day of the war. There is no difference, there is no space between us." He brought his thumb and forefinger together tight to show me and placed them beneath my eyes, then he shook me gently once again. "Never forget it. If you took away all the rest, this still would be. I know what we are here for. You forget. Forgetting is the suffering. Ignorance is pain."
"Krishna, in all my life . . ." I did not know what I would say. "In all my life, with all the battering of this war, in spite of all the burning astras and fighting all night long, here alone I have felt the promise of my life and its fulfillment."
In my mind I lived out several lives with Krishna. In one we were in Dwarka swimming in the sea and gathering great pink shells and in the evening we would sit reminiscing on the terrace of his marble palace with cups of wine. In another, we returned to Indraprastha and built it up again. The wild horses came to us from the forest when we cleared it. With its acacia trees we wrought our chariots. Our gold-smiths thickly crusted them with designs that Maya gave them. Maya! Maya and the Mayasabha. And now we stood within its radiance which sparked eternity in us. Nowhere in my mind did I return to Hastina.
"Make me one present, Krishna. Give me the gift of not forgetting I have seen the Lord." Krishna considered me.
"We are poised upon the cusp of a yuga that does forget, the Kali Yuga." His eyes shifted from mine and looked into that future. "Now we forget and know we have forgotten, but our children's children will not know they have forgotten. They will not believe. They will lose the mantras that call the gods; they will say there are no gods. The Yavanas will come and try to prove it. We have lost the age of sharing with the being in all things. The Kshatriyas have destroyed it with their sole belief in power. The universe is the breath of Brahma and he is breathing out. Change cannot be avoided, nothing can be dodged. But it will lead to something else." I sensed the shadow of destruction; Krishna dispelled it : "We are here and I promise you many days together. I also promise you . . . now listen carefully, Arjuna, I promise you that any time you need me, call and I shall come. We shall hear each other's call."
I promise you that any time you need me, call and I shall come. We shall hear each other's call.