ALL those who have heard the story of the Mahabharata know about Ghatotkacha, Bhimasena's famous son by his asura wife. There are two young men among the Mahabharata figures who embody all the qualities of heroism, fortitude, strength, courage, and amiability. They are Arjuna's son, Abhimanyu, and Bhima's son, Ghatotkacha. Both of them gave up their lives on the Kurukshetra battlefield.
Towards the latter part of the Mahabharata fight, the hatred roused on both sides did not find satisfaction in battle conducted during the daytime and close at nightfall. On the fourteenth day, when the sunset, they did not cease fighting but went on with it in torchlight.
The Kurukshetra field presented a strange sight, the like of which had not been seen before in Bharatadesa. The generals and soldiers on both sides were engaged in battle, with thousands of torches burning and using signals specially devised for nighttime.
Ghatotkacha and his troops of asuras who are strongest at night, found darkness an additional advantage and violently attacked Duryodhana's army. Duryodhana's heart sank within him when he saw thousands of his men destroyed by Ghatotkacha and his demon army moving in the air and attacking in weird and unexpected ways.
"Kill this fellow at once, Karna, for otherwise, soon our whole army will cease to be. Finish him without further delay." Thus begged all the perplexed Kauravas of Karna.
Karna was himself angry and bewildered, having just been wounded by one of the asura's arrows. He had with him no doubt the spear of unerring effect which Indra had given to him. But it could be used only once, and he had carefully husbanded it for exclusive use on Arjuna with whom a decisive encounter he knew was inevitable.
But in the confusion and wrath of that eerie midnight melee, Karna, impelled by a sudden urge, hurled the missile at the young giant. Thus was Arjuna saved, but at great cost. Bhima's beloved son, Ghatotkacha, who from mid-air was showering his deadly arrows on the Kaurava army, dropped dead, plunging the Pandavas in grief.
The battle did not stop. Drona spread fear and destruction in the Pandava army by his relentless attacks. "O Arjuna," said Krishna, "there is none that can defeat this Drona, fighting according to the strict rules of war. We cannot cope with him unless dharma is discarded. We have no other way open. There is but one thing that will make him desist from fighting. If he hears that Aswatthama is dead, Drona will lose all interest in life and throw down his weapons. Someone must therefore tell Drona that Aswatthama has been slain."
Arjuna shrank in horror at the proposal, as he could not bring himself to tell a lie. Those who were nearby with him also rejected the idea, for no one was minded to be a party to deceit.
Yudhishthira stood for a while reflecting deeply. "I shall bear the burden of this sin," he said and resolved the deadlock!
It was strange. But when the ocean was churned at the beginning of the world and the dread poison rose threatening to consume the gods, did not Rudra come forward to swallow it and save them? To save the friend who had wholly depended on him, Rama was driven to bear the sin of killing Vali, in disregard of the rules of fairplay. So also, now did Yudhishthira decide to bear the shame of it, for there was no other way.
Bhima lifted his iron mace and brought it down on the head of a huge elephant called Aswatthama and it fell dead. After killing the elephant Aswatthama, Bhimasena went near the division commanded by Drona and roared so that all might hear.
"I have killed Aswatthama!" Bhimasena who, until then, had never done or even contemplated an ignoble act, was, as he uttered these words, greatly ashamed.
They knocked against his very heart, but could they be true? Drona heard these words as he was in the act of discharging a Brahmastra. "Yudhishthira, is it true my son has been slain?" Dronacharya asked addressing Dharmaputra.
The acharya thought that Yudhishthira would not utter an untruth, even for the kingship of the three worlds.
When Drona asked thus, Krishna was terribly perturbed. "If Yudhishthira fails us now and shrinks from uttering an untruth, we are lost. Drona's Brahmastra is of unquenchable potency and the Pandavas will be destroyed," he said.
And Yudhishthira himself stood trembling in horror of what he was about to do, but within him also was the desire to win. "Let it be my sin," he said to himself and hardened his heart, and said aloud: "Yes, it is true that Aswatthama has been killed."
But, as he was saying it, he felt again the disgrace of it and added in a low and tremulous voice, "Aswatthama, the elephant" words which were however drowned in the din and were not heard by Drona.
"O king, thus was a great sin committed," said Sanjaya to the blind Dhritarashtra, while relating the events of the battle to him.
When the words of untruth came out of Yudhishthira's mouth, the wheels of his chariot, which until then always stood and moved four inches above the ground and never touched it at once came down and touched the earth.
Yudhishthira, who till then had stood apart from the world so full of untruth, suddenly became of the earth, earthy. He too desired victory and slipped into the way of untruth and so his chariot came down to the common road of mankind.
When Drona heard that his beloved son had been slain, all his attachment to life snapped. And desire vanished as if it had never been there. When the veteran was in that mood, Bhimasena loudly spoke indicting him in harsh words:
"You brahmanas, abandoning the legitimate functions of your varna and taking to the Kshatriya profession of arms, have brought ruin to princes. If you brahmanas had not gone astray from the duties belonging to you by birth, the princes would not have been led to this destruction. You teach that non-killing is the highest dharma and that the brahmana is the supporter and nourisher of that dharma. Yet, you have rejected that wisdom which is yours by birth, and shamelessly undertaken the profession of killing. It was our misfortune that you descended to this sinful life."
These taunts of Bhimasena caused excruciating pain to Drona who had already lost the will to live. He threw his weapons away and sat down in yoga on the floor of his chariot and was soon in a trance.
At this moment Dhrishtadyumna with drawn sword, came and climbed in to the chariot and heedless of cries of horror and deprecation from all around he fulfilled his destiny as the slayer of Drona by sweeping off the old warrior's head. And the soul of the son of Bharadwaja issued out in a visible blaze of fight and mounted heavenwards.
The Mahabharata is a great and wonderful story. The sorrows of human life are painted with sublime beauty and rolled out in a grand panorama. Behind the story of errors and sorrows the poet enables us to have a vision of the Transcendent Reality. Thus it is that the Mahabharata, though a story, has come to be a book of dharma. This book, in style and substance, is altogether different from tales and romances. In modern novels, dramas and pictures, exciting scenes are enacted, the hero passes through dangers and difficulties and finally marries a woman whom he loves. Or else everything seems to go on happily but suddenly things go wrong and terrible misfortune happens and the curtain drops. This is the art scheme of ordinary sensational stories. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are quite a different kind of artistic creation. When we read them, our inner being is seized and cleansed, so to say, by being passed alternately through joys and sorrows, and we are finally lifted above both and taken to the Transcendent and Real.